Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Dark and Stormy Nights

Sharon Wildwind

It has not been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon.

Without going into the mucky details, let’s just say that the Wildwind establishment started last week with three long-term, expensive, emotionally-draining family issues barreling towards resolution all at once. During the week we picked up two shorter-term, slightly less expensive, and a whole lot more emotionally-draining mini-crises.

Let me assure you that things are going as well as can be expected. There is a good possibility we will clear away the muck by the end of February, and, for now, I grateful for a whole lot of things.

I’m grateful we had cooked food in the freezer because we sure don’t have the energy or time to do a lot of meal planning right now.

I’m grateful that I keep a journal because it is such a relief to pour observations into in throughout the day.

I’m grateful that all of these issues are self-limiting and we will find our way through them.

I’m grateful for the group of writers that I spent last Wednesday evening with in a coffee shop because they not only got me out of myself but gave me some goals to aim for after the dust settles.

I’m grateful that I actually remembered that this morning was Tuesday, and I apologize for the slight delay in posting this blog.


Quote for the week:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

~Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

Monday, January 30, 2012

A Room With a View

by Julia Buckley

My writer friend recently made herself an office in her home. She chose one of the smallest rooms available, but the view out of its window allows one to see into the house where Ernest Hemingway grew up. From her creative space, she can see into his.

Sure, a writer can write anywhere. It shouldn't matter where she does it. Yet I found myself feeling envious of her writer's space--clean and white, with book-lined walls and creative little writery toys on the desk--and a view of Hemingway's house!

A writer needs a lot of things: talent, determination, a work ethic, and a willingness to spend time alone. But it never hurts to have an extra little something: classical music, maybe, or a burning candle, or--just maybe--the knowledge that you live next door to the home of one of the greatest American writers.

What else sparks a writer's creativity? In my case, it's playing Lexulous or Words with Friends (on Facebook). Something about that scrabble-like game really stimulates my brain.

I have another friend who says a little prayer to her muse before she begins writing.

How about you, writers of all sorts? What makes you feel creative?

(pictured: Hemingway's childhood home).

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Guest Blogger Nancy Bilyeau

I'd like to introduce guest blogger Nancy Bilyeau. Nancy is a longtime magazine editor and writer who has worked on the staffs of "Rolling Stone," "Entertainment Weekly," "Ladies' Home Journal" and "InStyle." Born in Chicago, she earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan and has lived in Canada as well as the United States. "The Crown," her first novel, took five years to research and write. It was sold in auction to Touchstone/Simon & Schuster and seven foreign publishers. She now lives in New York City with her husband and two children.

Why I Love to Write Genre Fiction

by Nancy Bilyeau

In 2006, in my first online fiction workshop, I submitted two chapters from the historical thriller I’d begun writing. My fellow students critiqued my work; I critiqued theirs. The instructor, “T,” weighed in as well.

At the very end of the workshop, “T” sent me this email: “I'd love to see you produce some more material that seems a little ‘closer’ to you personally, closer to the bone. I mean, you're writing crime thrillers and historical novels, but how about trying to write a story that was closer in spirit to your own time, your own place, your own experience? I'm just saying, Please don't be afraid to write your fiction out of your own sense of character and personal concerns: these genres feel a little uncomfortable to me, and perhaps you haven't really discovered what your subject matter as a fiction writer is. All Best, T.”

This is not the sort of email a budding novelist wants to get.

I kept working on my historical thriller. This was what I wanted to do. I took more classes, determined to improve my craft. “T” had made genre sound like a dirty word but if I belonged in the genre sandbox, so be it. I enrolled in the mystery-writing workshop run by Gotham Writer’s Workshop and taught by a terrific guy named Gregory Fallis. Greg had been a medic in the military, a counselor in a women’s prison, and a private detective. Yes, the man had lived. To my tremendous relief, he didn’t look down on my Tudor England mystery thriller, set mostly in a Dominican priory outside London. In fact, he liked it. A lot. I worked on my chapters and read Greg’s assignments, novelists ranging from Dorothy Sayers to Walter Mosley.

I was working fulltime as a magazine editor and raising two young children, and when things got particularly crazy for a stretch my novel went into the proverbial drawer. Home sick with a fever in the autumn of 2009, I was seized by a sudden desire to go back to my thriller, only half written. Perhaps it was the 102-degree temperature talking, but I staggered to the computer and enrolled in the very next Gotham Writer’s Workshop course. It was “Advanced Fiction,” taught by a man named Russell Rowland. After I’d put through payment, I looked him up—Russell had a MA in creative writing and had written two highly respected modern novels, In Open Spaces and The Watershed Years.

“Oh, no,” I moaned, my head sinking into clammy hands. “He’s going to hate me.”

He didn’t. Russell was a supportive teacher from the start: astute and no-nonsense but never, ever patronizing. What’s more, in this class I found a group of fellow writers who gave me valuable feedback. This was when my book truly came together. I pushed through the middle and then, exhilarated, raced to the end. I finished the novel on my birthday, June 16th, 2010, and signed with a literary agent the July 4th weekend. My debut novel was sold in an auction at the end of the month to Touchstone/Simon&Schuster and through the next year to seven foreign countries.

And yet recently I thought of “T” once more.

The memory was triggered by a Wall Street Journal article written by screenwriter and novelist Derek Haas, who has crafted the scripts for “2 Fast 2 Furious,” “Wanted,” and “3:10 to Yuma.”

The article began this way: “I'm sometimes asked to speak to a class of film or literature students at a university. Inevitably, a 22-year-old hipster with designer-chic black glasses and a permanent pout will raise his hand and ask, ‘What does it feel like to sell out?’ I smile. I tell the students, ‘Sell out? Are you kidding me? I sold in!’ "

Haas’s story resonated with me—of always wanting to write thrillers but facing “an upturned nose and haughty eye,” as he put it. “Write what you know,” he was told over and over. Come up with stories of “deep, dark emotional conflict.”

What my teacher—and the “write what you know” proponents Derek Haas faced—could never accept is that crafting a thriller is not a default mechanism for those of stunted gifts. Some of us want to write those sorts of books and scripts. I have always been enthralled by works of psychological suspense: Henry James’ The Innocents, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. One of the oddest aspects of “T’s” criticism was that only in modern stories could I infuse my work with “personal concerns.” I think Robert Graves, Mary Renault, Margaret Atwood, Caleb Carr, Ken Follett, and Patrick O’Brian have found ways to create complex and relatable characters—people churning with concerns--in historical settings!

Less than three weeks ago, my novel went on sale. I received good reviews in “O: The Oprah Magazine,” “Parade,” and “Entertainment Weekly.” As of today, “The Crown” is number one on amazon’s list of “hot historical mystery/thrillers.”

You know what, “T”? This writer has found her subject matter.

Friday, January 27, 2012


by Sheila Connolly

I'm in the throes of completing the first (unnamed) book in my new (unnamed) Irish series, coming in just over a year. I've been to Ireland more than once—four times, in fact. The last trip, with my husband, was supposed to be a research trip, but the research was somewhat sidetracked by a broken ankle (it won't surprise you that I managed to include a visit to the emergency room in the new book, but it's justified because that's where the autopsies for County Cork are performed).

But no tourist can investigate crime in a foreign country (although I did once visit a local station of the Garda Siochána (the Irish police, called "guards" rather than police, in Avoca, which is where the PBS series Ballykissangel was filmed, if anyone remembers that). For an understanding about how crime is regarded, and how the police/gardaí and courts actually operate, I have to rely on public reports.

In the past year or so I have become a news junkie, checking CNN headlines frequently through the day. News is condensed to current shorts bits, and I have the option of learning more or passing by. I shouldn't have been surprised to find that RTE (Raidió Teilifís Éireann, the public service broadcaster for Ireland) offers a similar website, which provides news (both international and local), business reports, sports info and more for Ireland. Now I'm hooked on that too. It's interesting to see which headlines they pick up and how their coverage compares to that of CNN.

Since I'm writing a book that includes more than one murder, naturally I gravitate toward reports of murders in Ireland, and how they are investigated and prosecuted; I'm trying to understand the terminology so I can get it right. (Which is probably absurd, since as far as I can tell, no one in Ireland reads cozies, so no one is likely to write to me and complain that I got the chain of command or who investigates which aspect of a crime wrong.)

It's interesting reading. Bear in mind that Ireland is physically about the size of New Jersey, and the total population of the country in 2011 was 4.7 million. The US national crime rate for 2010 was 4.8 per 100,000 people; the Irish crime rate for that year was 1.25 per 100,000, roughly one-quarter that of the US.

So I think it's safe to say that there's a difference in attitude toward homicide, and I think it's reflected in the language used in news releases. There is a kind of innocence about the individual reports, a courtesy of language. It's sometimes possible to follow a case over time, although a surprising number of cases reported took place well in the past. Just this month, a man already serving a sentence for the attempted murder of a friend was given a life sentence when the friend died, two years after the attack. The report on that one closes with "this case has made legal history and this is the first conviction of its kind."

A number of "political" murders continue to occur, or at least reach the final stages of prosecution. A member of one or another dissident group (yes, the IRA lives on, in various splinter groups) may be told to bring a target to a site for a "punishment shooting." One such suspect who confessed,"named the others involved and his life is now in danger."

The gardaí are persistent about following up on unsolved cased, and there are often reports of an arrest being made years after the crime. Often someone who had disappeared years earlier is found. In both old and new cases, a pathologist "attends the scene" and a post mortem is conducted. The scene is "technically examined" or "forensically examined" (presumably by their equivalent of Crime Scene Investigators). The gardaí often "appeal for information" from the public.

Charges of murder are not brought lightly in Ireland: in the case of one murder (which I'm saving for a book!), over a thousand people in the (rural) area of the murder were interviewed, and it took five years to declare the death suspicious—and they still haven't made an arrest.

I'm not saying that Ireland is crime-free. There are gangs, there are drug dealers, and criminals are not all confined to the big cities. I don't want to paint a picture of a bucolic place where everyone loves everyone else, because that would be false. But I want to believe that in a small country, where most people could play the "six degrees of separation" with almost anyone else, murder is a crime taken more seriously than we do here. So if I have murders in my book, I'd better have a good reason—and make sure they're solved.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Literary Thong

Elizabeth Zelvin

My short story, “Death Will Tank Your Fish,” appears along with twenty-one others in the anthology, Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices. The contributors are all members of the New York/Tristate chapter of Sisters in Crime (one of them, Ken Wishnia, a Mister Sister). Quite a few of us were present at a chapter meeting at which the speaker was a highly motivated PR person who encouraged us to come up with fresh ideas for promoting our work. She was pleased to hear that the anthology’s publisher, L&L Dreamspell, had linked the book to Café Press, which sells promotional materials with any logo or slogan you like. But her face didn’t really light up until she heard about the thong with the row of pizzas across the minuscule front that the site was offering along with more conventional items such as mugs and T-shirts. Then she started talking big. “Contact The New Yorker!” she said. “It’s exactly the kind of story they’d like for Talk of the Town.” In fact, she offered to pitch it for us.

The thong with the row of pizzas seems to have disappeared—sold out, perhaps?—but an equally skimpy thong that displays the book cover (including the pizzas) is still available.
It has a little less pizzazz, but maybe it will still sell books. The product blurb enthuses:

Panty-minimalists love our casual thong that covers sweet spots without covering your assets; putting an end to panty-lines. This under-goodie is "outta sight" in low-rise pants. Toss these message panties onstage at your favorite rock star or share a surprise message with someone special ... later.

What does this have to do with mysteries? Not much. Few of this anthology’s authors, if any, are of an age or figure to be seen or photographed in such a garment. But evidently, little as it has to do with writing, this is what you have to do to get attention for your book in twenty-two-dozen, as a friend of mine calls the new year.

Seems like the way to sell a book these days has to do with anything but writing or being a writer. The week I’m writing this, the top ten New York Times bestsellers in fiction include two by Stieg Larsson (the guy whose untimely demise worked PR miracles, selling better than ever since the movies are coming out), one by James Patterson, known for what he calls “team writing,” one by Tom Clancy with Mark Greaney (evidently another veteran bestseller who doesn’t write his own books any more), Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, a fine first novel that deserves its success, but I suspect this spurt is due to the movie...and the top ten nonfiction authors include a TV anchor (with co-author), “a father [who] recounts his 3-year-old son’s encounter with Jesus and the angels” (with co-author), a star quarterback (with co-author), a, hmm, conservative radio host (with co-author), a Nobel Prize winning economist, and a comic actress (no co-author acknowledged, but do you really think Tina Fey wrote her own book?).

So what I want to know is this: If I bring the pizza panties to, oh, let’s say a Keith Urban concert (country, not rock, but I do think he’s sexy) and lob them at the stage...do you think he’ll buy the book?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

How do you spell "change"?

Sandra Parshall

I think Benjamin Franklin and Noah Webster would approve of Twitterese and online language in general. Both were enthusiastic proponents of a flexible language and believed that words, when written, should look the way they sound. I doubt that either man would be moaning about internet-fostered illiteracy and young people who prefer phonetics (ur) to standard words (your).

The greatest strength of the English language, especially the variety spoken in the U.S., has always been its elasticity. English readily absorbs useful foreign words, sometimes changing the pronunciation and spelling. Old words acquire new meanings, and every year we create and rapidly begin to use words that never existed before. At the same time, English is a hodgepodge of archaic spellings, some with more than one definition and a different pronunciation for each definition.

When a language contains such spellings and pronunciations as borough, cough, tough, slough, through, and dough, it’s amazing that any child learns to speak, read, and write it fluently, and even more astounding that anyone can learn it as a second language. We have words with different spellings and meanings but identical pronunciations, such as borough and burrow, through and threw. We have words like ghost and aghast, with inexplicable silent letters. And can you tell me the difference between learned and learned? You can speak English all your life and still trip up when writing it.

Benjamin Franklin recognized the problem as early as 1768, when he published “A Scheme for a New Alphabet and Reformed Mode of Spelling.” He proposed several new vowels and wanted to abolish some troublesome consonants. His views didn’t have much impact on practices, though.

Noah Webster shared Franklin’s views, and he was in an ideal position to take direct action: he
That wild and crazy guy, Noah Webster
compiled the English-speaking world’s most widely used spelling guides and dictionary, and if he thought a spelling should be changed, he changed it. He created American versions of such words as centre, theatre, honour, colour and programme. His ideas about the language scandalized social conservatives, who called him radical and mad. But you will notice that center, theater, honor, color and program are today’s standard spellings in American usage.

Standardized spelling, however, is an obstacle to innovation. Since the printing press was invented in the 1440s, language conservatives have been trying to make us toe the line and ignore the allure of simplification and clarity in spelling. Even as we continually add new words to the language, many of them spawned by the technology industry and communications media, publishers demand standardized spelling and adherence to “house style” and writers run spell-check and comb through their manuscripts for slip-ups. Nothing, we’re told, will make a worse impression on an editor or agent than a misspelled word. Use “threw” when you should have used “through” and you’re toast.

But the people are the ones who shape their language, and in this time of rapid change English can't remain static. In the current issue of Wired magazine, writer and Oberlin College associate professor Anne Trubek states, “Consistent spelling was a great way to ensure clarity in the print era. But with new technologies, the way that we write and read (and search and data-mine) is changing, and so must spelling.” Note that she uses past tense in referring to the print era.

I’m all for letting the language evolve on the street and the internet, in everyday use. Why should we let scholars who are heavily invested in the past and staid tradition restrict the flexibility that has always been the hallmark, the inherent value, and the greatest charm of English?

What do you think?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Blog Break

Sharon Wildwind

Sorry, guys and gals. I am in the middle of planning a funeral for a family member. Sometimes the writing world just has to give way to real life.

See you next week.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Mistaken Identity: The Police and Me

by Julia Buckley
I have nothing but admiration for police officers, and I had a recent encounter with one which encouraged that respect. While driving home from work about two months ago, I waited in a school zone for some kiddies to get through the crosswalk. The driver in front of me waited, too, but she didn't see the police officer strolling from her spot at the school back to her car across the street.

The driver began moving, nearly colliding with the officer, and naturally the officer looked displeased. The driver kept moving, oblivious, because she was TEXTING. All of this I witnessed, including the fact that the police officer tried to get a look at the license plate before the car disappeared.

A few blocks later, I looked in my rearview mirror and saw flashing red and blue lights. It took me a moment to realize that I was being pulled over; this hadn't happened since I was in my twenties and was detained for a non-working brake light.

I pulled to the side and opened my window, curious, trying to figure out what law I had broken (I tend to drive, if anything, too slowly).

The woman who appeared at my window was the officer who had almost been hit. "Hello, Officer," I said.

"Hello. May I see your license and proof of insurance, please?"

I wanted to make sure I followed protocol. "My license is in the back seat. May I reach back there for it?" I asked.

"Sure." She didn't tell me why she'd pulled me over, which had me nervous. I reached into the back and found that, when I had tossed my things into the back seat and slammed the door, I had caught the handle of my purse in it. I tugged away, my face growing red, trying to get that darn driver's license. I thought the officer smiled a little.

When I finally managed to provide it, as well as my insurance card, she looked at them and asked, "And do you have your cell phone with you?"

"No. I don't have a cell phone," I said. This is the truth; I am one of the last of the phone-free people.

She nodded. "Okay, it's not you, then. Someone almost hit me a few blocks back, she had a blue minivan and the first three license numbers were the same as yours."

"I saw her," I said. "I was right behind her."

She returned my things and told me to have a good day, then returned to her car, made a U-turn, and sped away. And I really hope she caught that careless driver.

When my son and his friend were struck by a car two years ago, the woman at the wheel was texting. She had no driver's license with her and no insurance, and, according to some student witnesses, even tried to drive away while the boys still sat dazed in the street (one of the students chased her down--he is now in the military, and America is lucky to have him).

One of my greatest regrets is that I did not attend her traffic court hearing; my younger son was sick with a fever, and I counted on the fact that the family of the other boy would attend and fill me in on the results--except that they didn't go, either, since there was a terrible blizzard that day.

My son and his friend, miraculously, had walked away with only scrapes and bruises, and one lost shoe. I called the courthouse months later and found that the woman had been given a 200-dollar fine, which she did not pay. She still had her license, although they were considering taking that away from her.

It infuriates me when people text and drive, but I am grateful for diligent police officers and watchful young people who try to do the right thing in bad situations.

Picture: Wikipedia

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Canada Calling: All Bets Are Off

Here’s the disclaimer. This weekend we’re not talking about every Canadian mystery writer. This is a summary from the 2011 Crime Writers of Canada Catalog. You may have a favorite Canadian writer whose name doesn’t show up here, and you’re darned certain that they published a book in 2011. Likely they did, but they chose not to submit it to the CWC catalog.

But what we do have here is a good representation of about 60 Canadian writers who each had one or more books come out last year. What the numbers show more than anything else is that all bets are off. A traditional Canadian publishing picture no longer exists. The change has already happened.

Saskatoon writer Gail Bowen comes out the winner in the numbers game. In 2011 every one of her twelve Joanne Kilbourn mysteries republished, several of them in multiple formats, plus she had a new Orca Rapid Reads, The Shadow Killer.

In case you’re not familiar with Rapid Reads, this line of books debuted about two years ago. Selling for $9.99 each, they hope to encourage reading among people learning English as a second language, learning how to read or improve their reading, students who aren’t sure about this whole reading thing, and people who want a quick, entertaining read. In addition to Bowen, four other authors in the catalog published in the Rapid Reads series.

The numbers runner up is the Nova Scotia writer, James T. Barrett. He who published all of his seven stand-alone thrillers in e-Book format in 2011 and has an eighth one due out this month.

Bronze medal for number of books published goes to Cheryl Kaye Tardif. She publishes under both her own name and as Cherish D’Angelo. Her total was 5 stand-alones plus a collection of short stories. Most of these came out from Imajin Books as either trade paperbacks, e-books, or combined releases.

Joan Hall Hovey had three stand alones, combinations of trade paperbacks and e-books releases. Vicki Delany had two books, from two different publishers, in multiple formats. Anne Emery published two books in her Father Brennan Burke series, both with the same publisher. A large U.S. publisher published two of Don Gutteridge historical mysteries, set in the 1830s in Upper Canada (think Toronto). Ian Hamilton, published the first and second books in his Ava Lee series with the same publisher, both in trade paperback format.

This means that eight writers accounted for thirty-seven books brought to the market (or back into the market) in a single year. This is a hint of what publishing will look like as more and more writers are able to bring their back lists on line, literally on line, and authors are able to publish a book as soon as it’s finished instead of waiting the traditional 18 months to 2 years for the book to be processed through traditional publishing.

What about the other 54 writers in the catalog, the ones who had one book published in 2011?

Only 11 authors published with large publishers (located in both the US and Canada); 33 published with small publishers (again spread out in both countries), and 6 either self-published or published strictly e-books. If the range of publishers makes you dizzy, wait until you see the price spreads.


Price range was $29.99 to $0.99, with the largest grouping being between $2.99 and $9.99 per book.


Had hardly any price range at all—$24.99 to $29.99—with no significant price point standing out. What you’re looking at here is traditional publishing at it’s most inflexible.


Ranged in price from $6.99 to $18.99, with the largest grouping being $8.50 to $9.99 price spread when the books were priced in U.S. dollars, and $13.50 to $18.95 for the Canadian prices.

Trade paperbacks

Remember that this is supposed to be the coming paper format, with the smaller mass market paperbacks dying out. The trade range was $13.99 to $26.99, with the largest grouping $22.95 to $24.95, or almost the same price as hardbacks. How long do you think paperbacks at this price will continue to appeal to buyers?

The bottom line is that Canadian mystery writers are going for any and all ways that they can get their books into readers’ hands quickly, regardless of format and regardless of the price range. It means that choices for readers are opening up. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if these trends meant more cool Canadian crime stories in everyone’s hands?

Here’s the list of authors featured in the 2011 Cool Canadian Crime Catalogue. Visit the web site for descriptions, publishers, etc. for all of these authors. Then print the list off and take it with you to the bookstore and the library. Or do a little Internet shopping. Let these authors send a little Canadian coolness your way.

British Columbia

Amber Harvey

Chevy Stevens

David Russell

Debra Purdy Kong

Grant McKenzie

Kay Stewart

Phyllis Smallman

Roberta Rich

Robin Spano


Cherish D’Angelo

Cheryl Kaye Tardif

Eileen Shuh

Garry Ryan

Gordon Cope

Susan Calder

Wayne Arthurson


Brenda Chapman

Gail Bowen


C.C. Benison


Adrian de Hoog

Alison Bruce

Barbara Fradkin

D. J. McIntosh

David A. Gibb

Don Gutteridge

Donna McDougall

Elizabeth J. Duncan

Eric Wright

Gloria Ferris

Ian Hamilton

J.I. Kendall

Janet Bolin

Jayne E. Self

Jill Downie

John Moss

Joy Fielding

Julie Madeleine

Kim Moritsugu

Mary Jane Maffini

Melodie Campbell

Michael Boughn

Michael J. McCann

R.J. Harlick

Rick Blechta

Rick Mofina

Sheila Dalton

Sherry Isaac

Stephen Douglass

Thomas Rendell Curran

Vicki Delany


Robert Landori

New Brunswick

Joan Hall Hovey

Nova Scotia

Alex MacLean

Ann Emery

James T. Barrett

Joe Beaton

Nadine LaPierre

Pamela Callow

Prince Edward Island

Hilary MacLeod


Alan Bradley

Gordon W. Dale

Richard A. Thompson

Sheila McGraw

Friday, January 20, 2012

Changing Times

by Sheila Connolly

This week I was invited to give a talk to a library group in the middle of the state. It's in an area I love, and it came with dinner. Since it's not much more than an hour away, I said yes.

This was not a group of writers, but a group of mystery readers from a local library. They were uniformly enthusiastic (the event was sold out, with a waiting list). There was no fixed topic, so I spoke about how I became a writer--and about publishing.

Over the past year I've come to realize that I stand with one foot in the old and one in the new. I'm a dinosaur, a member of the last wave to come up through the ranks in a traditional way. I labored in obscurity for years, kept writing, kept submitting to agents (by snail mail!), until I finally connected with a good agency (that had already rejected me more than once) that made that first sale for me and has been doing right by me ever since.

But someone who is hit with that "I want to write!" lightning bolt now will have a very different experience.

And then I realize this was not the first time I have straddling the line.

I attended a Wellesley College, then and now a respected women's college. When I entered in 1968, nothing much had changed since the 1950s. We had to wear skirts when we went into the Village a few blocks away, and to dinner in the dorm. We had to sign out if we expected to return late, and we needed our parents' permission if we were going to be away overnight. When someone came to our dorm to see us, they had to be announced by the front desk, and there was a code: a visitor was female, and a male was a caller. Men were not allowed above the first floor, except between two and four on Sunday afternoons, and when you had a gentleman caller, you were expected to leave your door open and keep three feet on the floor. Weekly tea was served, with the housemother pouring, and house-baked goodies. It sounds practically Victorian, doesn't it?

By the time I graduated in 1972, there were no rules. I lived in two co-ed dorms (the women far outnumbered the men, though). We'd been through the student strikes, and the college had ultimately thrown up its hands and said we could take a pass/fail grade in courses because everything was so chaotic. Nobody signed out, and boyfriends stayed over regularly. Those four years spanned the end of an era and the beginning of a new one.

And that's where we are in publishing. The rules are shattered, like a glass fish tank, and agents and editors are flapping around in the puddles trying to figure out what to do next. The big publishers are working hard to pretend that the old model still works. The agents are more flexible and are opening up their own small publishing divisions to produce ebooks. And a lot of writers are saying to themselves, "Why do I need either an agent or a Big Six publisher? I can just clean up my manuscript and reformat it to make it available online, all by myself." And they do, in increasing numbers. Bookstores are scrabbling to redefine themselves—at least, those that manage to stay open at all.

So here I am again, with one foot in each camp. I came up the traditional way, but my agent has her own small publishing company. And I reserve the right to pull out those early rejected novels, blow the dust off, and publish them myself if I choose (with a healthy dose of editing!). It's scary, but it's a really interesting to be a writer. And like most of the writers and publishers I know, I'm not sure where things will end up.

But as long as people want to read, whether on paper or on a digital screen, I'll keep writing.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

PD James Kills Jane Austen

Elizabeth Zelvin

Celebrated mystery novelist PD James’s new Jane Austen pastiche, Death Comes to Pemberley, is the first book I downloaded to the Kindle I got for Xmas that wasn’t either my own work or in the public domain. It’s only the latest of a big enough bevy of novels to be called a subgenre—some mysteries and some I’d call historical chick lit—featuring either Jane Austen herself or her characters, most often Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice, their fictional lives extended through marriage and parenthood.

The novel started well enough that I began to make notes for a possible blog post. James’s meticulous use of language and majestic pace, so out of sync with most of today’s crime fiction, serve her well as she sets her scene in Austen’s universe. She replicates Austen’s lightly ironic tone.

“The town has an assembly room...but...the chief entertainment takes place in private houses where the boredom of dinner parties and whist tables, always with the same company, is relieved by gossip.”

When social events are threatened due to the war with France, it is finally concluded that “Paris would rejoice exceedingly and take new heart were that benighted city to learn that the Pemberley ball had been cancelled.”

Unlike many of the authors who have borrowed Austen and her characters, James avoids anachronism in both language and content, beyond a few delicate references to marital love and pregnancy, on which Austen would have remained silent or even more euphemistic. It could even be argued that the lack of onstage drama—for example, there is no confrontation between Wickham, who plays a major role, and either Darcy or Elizabeth—is justified because overt confrontation would be out of character for Austen.

Unfortunately, the promise of Austenian delights is not fulfilled, nor is the hope of a good mystery. I’ve already seen one online review that perpetrated more of a spoiler than I think fair. However, I must say that there is no puzzle and no detection, that certain characters are introduced only for the sake of unwarranted revelations at the end about their role in the crime, and that James is self-indulgent in slipping in her own critique of Pride and Prejudice.

When Darcy’s sister Georgiana has a suitor, Elizabeth reflects:

Surely they were in love, or perhaps on the verge of love, that enchanting period of mutual discovery, expectation, and hope. It was an enchantment she had never known. It still surprised her that between Darcy’s first insulting proposal and his second successful and penitent request for her love, they had only been together in private for less than half an hour....If this were fiction, could even the most brilliant novelist contrive to make credible so short a period in which pride had been subdued and prejudice overcome?

James also drags in references to characters from Persuasion and Emma, who by coincidence are only two or three degrees of separation from the Darcys.

James commits almost every literary crime that new writers are cautioned against: endless backstory, telling rather than showing both character and action, lack of conflict and suspense, and avoidance of dramatic scenes or interaction between the characters in favor of tedious exposition and narrative musings. Yet within a month of its appearance, Death Comes to Pemberley had already been on the New York Times bestseller list for three weeks and will no doubt remain there for some time to come. Like me, an awful lot of readers were seduced by the combined names of Jane Austen and P.D. James and will no doubt be equally disappointed. Or will they even notice?


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A New Voice: Coco Ihle

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

My guest today is Coco Ihle, whose first novel, She Had to Know, was published in 2011. In an interview, Coco talked about her writing life and the personal story that inspired her novel.
Q: Would you tell us a bit about your book? 

A: She Had to Know is about long lost sisters, Arran Hart and Sheena Buchanan, who were separated in early childhood by the divorce of their parents. Arran, who was put up for adoption, discovers her adoption documents after her adoptive parents die, and sets out to find her sister.

Sheena was raised by her paternal grandparents, who were instructed by her often absent father, John Buchanan, never to mention her mother or Arran. Not wanting to rile him by asking questions, Sheena decides not to rock the boat by searching for Arran. After John and his housekeeper mysteriously die, Sheena begins looking for Arran, hoping she will understand why Sheena didn’t begin her search earlier. Later, Sheena’s life is threatened and the reunited sisters try to balance getting acquainted with a race against the menace of a murderer who also appears to be searching for an ancient treasure buried deep in the bowels of Wraithmoor castle. 

Q: What inspired you to write the book?  What—or—who inspired you to create your protagonist?

A: Two things. The idea of the two sisters searching for one another is actually my own story. I spent over fifty years searching for my sister and found her in 1994. During those years, I’d dreamed of writing a book about it, but when I found her, that cemented my desire. I “interviewed” her to see how much our experiences paralleled and what aspects were different. So, in my book, I have two protagonists who are not exactly me or my sister. They took on a life of their own as I created them, but there are characteristics of each of us in both women.

The other thing that inspired me to write this book was the discovery of my Scottish heritage. I traversed the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland to reconnect with my past, and my son and I bought kilts and bagpipes for the St. Andrews Pipes and Drums band we had joined. Each time we went, we stayed in castles, manor homes, historical places, and collected brochures along the way. I now have shelves of books on Scotland and tons of memories, too.

Q: Aside from your personal experiences and those of your sister, what sort of research did you do for the book?

A: Funny you should ask. I did a tremendous amount of research for the Scottish part of my book, but when it came time to find someone to check the Scottish dialect, I turned to a friend. Dr. Ian Peden is from Sanquar, Scotland, which is near the setting for my story. He is also a world renowned neurosurgeon. When I told him I had written a book and asked for his help, he enthusiastically agreed,  assuming I wanted answers for medical questions. After he answered my one medical question, he got a twinkle in his eye and said, “Yer only askin’ me tae speak, aren’t ye?”
Q: What is the most enjoyable aspect of writing for you?

A: Research, I’d say, at least for this book. I love to read about Scotland and the whole of Britain. It was fun developing my characters, too. I dwelt in their world for long periods of time and loved it. Who wouldn’t enjoy living in a castle?!

Q: Is there a particular aspect of writing craft that you enjoy?

A: I’d say the fun of setting the mood. Years ago, I sold bottled water in Florida, before it was popular to drink bottled water. It was kind of like selling snow to a polar bear, so we sales people were instructed to use phrases that conjured pictures—piping hot or ice cold, for example. I found that training useful when trying to create mood in my book. Descriptions like “…antique escritoire, its wood gleaming from centuries of polish.” Or description of a Scottish character, “The dimples in her cheeks deepened as she exhibited tea-stained teeth.” Or, “Massive stone pillars stood like monoliths. Between them, intricate wrought iron gates shadowed black lace patterns on the lawn as the sun cast its late afternoon beams through the ancient ironwork.” I also think the use of Scottish dialect for certain characters enhanced the mood.

Q: How long have you been writing? Is this your first completed book, or do you have some unpublished novels stuck in a closet, as so many writers do?

A: I started writing fiction late in my life. In 1999, and I quickly realized I didn’t know what I was doing. After studying several books on “how to write” and taking seminars, I started She Had to Know. It wasn’t very good, but I kept writing and re-writing. My plan was, this book would be the first in a series and my subject matter had a chronology I had to follow, so I had to get the first book presentable. Many, many re-writes later…

Q: What is your writing routine? Do you fit it in around a day job and family obligations?

A: My first few drafts were written when I was married and had a full time job. I arose early in the morning to get in a couple hours of writing before work and sometimes I wrote in the evenings. Twice a month, I traveled an hour and a half to my writer’s group meetings and always was fired up on my return home, so spent late nights making corrections. This went on for several years. I was blessed to have an understanding husband who was also quite busy.

I retired when I moved to Florida so I finished up on the book and while my agent was shopping it, I wrote a short memoir called "Every Difficulty Along the Way" about my search for my family. The Florida Writers Association had a short story contest, the winners of which would have their stories in the FWA’s first anthology called From Our Family to Yours. My story was one that was selected and that book was published in 2009. So, I actually became published as a short story writer before my book, She Had to Know, came out in April 2011. I also wrote non-fiction articles as a staff writer for an international dance magazine up until recently, when I wasn’t working on the next book in the Arran Hart and Sheena Buchanan series.

Q: How has publication changed your life? Has anything about becoming a published writer surprised you—or disappointed you?

A: Well, now I have no life! (smile) When I started writing, an author went on book tours and signings and met with people and exchanged ideas with them. Now, with the onslaught of the social network boom, I’m more isolated than before. I can’t say I like that. I’m a people person and I really like to interact with readers in person. A good thing about the internet, though, is I’m able to reach a larger demographic than I could have physically.

My sister, who was not terribly fond of reading, largely because of the time element, read my book and loved it. She has now become a reader and has even tried her hand at some writing. She has so many wonderful stories to share and I get great satisfaction in encouraging her.
On a personal note, I’m proud that I persevered through all the years of trials and tribulations to accomplish my goal of writing this book. My friends and many readers have said they are proud of me, too, and that makes me immensely happy.

For more information, visit Coco's website at http://www.cocoihle.com.