Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Brand versus Platform

Sharon Wildwind

What’s the difference between a brand and a platform? I should ask what’s the difference between a brand, a platform, and a platform because there are now two common definitions for platform and one looks very different from the other.

The original meaning I learned for platform was that it was where real life met writing. We’re all interested in something; some of us may even be obsessed. In a nice way, of course. Platforms come out of our work, our causes, our hobbies, and our personal interests. 

A platform connection is vital because selling ourselves as a writer no longer works. I live in a big city. So do hundreds of other writers. If I called  a newspaper, a radio or television station, the people won’t be interested that I have a new book. I stand a better chance of being noticed if I can offer a story with a platform connected to it.

I’m interested in local history and have unearthed a fascinating story about a hotel loaned to the Red Cross during World War I to use as a convalescent hospital. The Red Cross minutes, photos, and other material is in a local archive. The 100th anniversary of the 1914 declaration of war rolls around in eighteen months, and I bet I can get a couple of nibbles if I say, “I know a great story about a convalescent hospital in Calgary during the war.” That’s marketing using my platform.

A brand is the thread that runs through everything we write. Discovering my brand was fun. The woman who helped me find it suggested using pop culture to identify what my filters trapped. What movies did I like? Why? What photographs always caught my attention? What newspaper articles? What pop songs? What cliches appealed to me, even though I knew they were cliches and would never use them in writing? What quotes inspired me, and why? Who were my heroes and heroines? Out of that we built a list of values. Those values became my brand.

Platform (the second version) has also come to mean where in the vast social media world are we going to put our time and effort.  The public speaker and author, Michael Hyatt, wrote a great explanation of that kind of platform. His question: Do You Have a Personal Platform Plan for 2013? His idea is that we should think of ourselves as a country who is sending our ambassadors to other countries.

All ambassadors need a place to call home. We own and control our media homes because we spend the most time and energy making home look and feel right. We also need to establish embassies: places where we have a consistent presence. These are places of outreach and can be used to drive traffic back to our home base. Finally, we need to visit outposts: places where show up infrequently, possibly for outreach but for exploration as well.

Dividing my social media sites into three lists—home, embassies, and outposts—helped me identify where I wanted to spend the most time and energy, and not feel guilty if I visited my outposts only three or four times a month.

Remember how characters should have both public and private stakes? So should writers. Platforms are our public stakes, the way we connect to non writers. Brands are our private stakes. They're at the heart of what we mean when we write the kind of story we'd like to read.

We're good at raising stakes for our characters. How about we raise a few for ourselves as well? Is it time to take another look at our platforms and brands?

Quote for the week:

Creativity is the power to connect the seemingly unconnected.
~William Plomer (1903 – 1973), South African and British novelist, poet, and literary editor

Monday, April 29, 2013

Television Worth The Binge

by Julia Buckley

Entertainment Weekly did a feature last week about the tv shows worthy of watching all at once--episode after episode--because they are addictive and provide a quality experience (and probably the same level of discussion that a good book would provide).

Since the world is now full of DVDs with complete series on them, and since many people can easily download these series on Netflix or Hulu, the idea of spending a weekend or more slamming one's way through an entire series has become a whole new form of entertainment.  (Although it's not necessarily  new: on one snowy New Year's Day back in the 80s, my husband and I stumbled across a DALLAS marathon on some tv station and ended up watching about ten episodes).

In any case, I decided to recommend my own top three, in case anyone out there might be looking for a new series to discover.  So here they are:


This, while it was on, was called "the best show nobody is watching" by one critic, and it remains the freshest, cleverest show I've ever seen on television. All three seasons are available on DVD, but thanks to the demand of fans, the show is coming back with a fourth season on May 4 on Netflix.  Before you watch Season Four, it would make sense to watch Seasons 1-3 to find out what the fuss is about.  The show has an unparalleled ensemble cast with greats such as Ron Howard (who narrates), Jason Bateman, Jessica Walter, David Cross, Will Arnett, Alia Shawkat, Tony Hale, Michael Cera, Portia de Rossi, and Jeffrey Tambor.  Here's a quick taste of what makes this show about a dysfunctional family so funny:


If you have an aversion to swearing, sex and violence, then you might find this HBO show shocking, but it's those three things that make DEADWOOD seem so raw, authentic, and powerful. Set in 1870s Deadwood, South Dakota, it powerfully captures the paradoxical notions of lawlessness and community.  Here's Wikipedia's summation: " The series charts Deadwood's growth from camp to town, incorporating themes ranging from the formation of communities to western capitalism. The show features a large ensemble cast, and many historical figures appear as characters on the show—such as Seth BullockAl SwearengenWild Bill HickokSol StarCalamity JaneWyatt EarpGeorge CrookE. B. FarnumCharlie UtterJack McCall and George Hearst. The plot lines involving these characters include historical truths as well as substantial fictional elements. Milch used actual diaries and newspapers from 1870s Deadwood residents as reference points for characters, events, and the look and feel of the show. Some of the characters are fully fictional, although they may have been based on actual persons."

If I were able to give my own best actor awards, I would give ALL of them to the great Robin Weigert, who plays Calamity Jane as an "unkempt, foul-mooded, foul-mouthed drunkard" (to quote Wikipedia again) and steals absolutely every scene that she is in.  Here's a taste of DEADWOOD, to the tune of a Johnny Cash song:


Everyone who has watched it knows why I'm recommending this AMC series.  Initially I didn't want to watch it at all.  The premise--that a high school science teacher who found out he had lung cancer would start to make and sell meth in order to provide for his family when he dies--was not at all my cup of tea.  But more and more people assured me I should watch it, so I did.  And by the time I was three episodes into it, I couldn't stop--it was full-fledged tv show addiction.

Between the bleak New Mexico setting and the amazing character chemistry between Bryan Cranston's Walter White and Aaron Paul's Jesse Pinkman, this show is drama at its most powerful--and literary.  Again and again I saw Shakespearean parallels to this story of a good man gone bad--most notably to MACBETH, who starts the play as a good and honorable man, and ends as a fiend.

Here's a taste of the powerful performances in this show:

Okay, these are my top three recommendations. Which have you watched? Do any of these recommendations make you want to binge on one of these shows?

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Plot Is in the Characters

by Kay Kendall
Author of Desolation Row

I don’t give a fig how a car works. Or electricity. 
Or a computer. They all might as well be black boxes, as far as I’m concerned, inside which mysterious things happen. Poof! The car turns on. Poof! Electricity powers the air conditioner. Poof! The computer recalls everything you type into it. 

What I do care about is how people work. Why they do the things they do. I discovered this passion one teenaged summer when my boyfriend dumped me and I drooped into churlishness. After a week my mother tired of my moping around the house and suggested I work at one of her charities. 

I ended up volunteering at the county’s psychiatric clinic, helping with rudimentary clerical tasks. As I typed up forms and patients’ reports, I was shocked to see so much pain appear on the pages. But later I was gratified to see the clinic’s psychiatric social worker help some of those patients whose woes I’d typed up. Sometimes they left our office with springier steps. I fancied I could see their anxieties and depression lift, if only a little.

That same summer my favorite cousin began exhibiting behavioral problems. Merle was super bright but troubled. I never saw him act out or be mean to someone, but I began to hear stories.  I wanted to help him but didn’t have the skills. Ah-hah, I thought! I’d study psychology in college and become a psychiatric social worker so I could fix him.

Please note that I never aspired to be a psychologist or a psychiatrist. Perhaps that was because I’d only seen a psychiatric social worker in action and therefore could imagine being one. But also note the date was 1962, the year before Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique.  And eight years before I became an ardent feminist. 

When I entered college in 1963, most courses I took fascinated me, including for a short time even geology and astronomy, subjects taken only to fulfill liberal arts distribution requirements. Psychology, however, was a letdown, a huge bore. 

I wanted to learn about people. All we studied were rats. While two friends in my class did manage to cope with rodentia behavior, I couldn’t.  These women went on to earn their doctorates in psychology and help countless people. For me, however, the gap between the actions of rats and people was too great a leap. I never took another course after Psych 1.

I toyed with various majors, but English literature was my mainstay. Fiction encompassed everything about humanity, and I’d always been a ferocious reader. Writing was a joy. After getting a graduate degree in history—real crimes that happened in the past, I now say—I fell back on writing and developed a solid career as a corporate communicator. 

I never felt I’d found my niche, however. My heart did not sing.

When I began writing fiction a decade ago, I finally responded to an inner compulsion. What I had to explore is why people do the things they do. Character development and plot are almost synonymous to me. It’s like attending another high school reunion and seeing old friends again after ten years. I’m reading the newest chapters in their lives. People are walking, ongoing stories. Curiosity drives me to learn everything I can and then fictionalize it—showing their behavior and uncovering their motives.

The mystery comes in when good people do bad things. Anne Perry was the first mystery author I noticed whose killers weren’t thoroughly evil, but I didn’t know what to make of this. And then the film Heavenly Creatures came out in 1994, exposing her secret. As a teenager she had helped murder a friend’s mother. Maybe Anne Perry has been trying to fathom her motives ever since? No wonder the killers she devised—especially in the first half of her career—are complicated, unfathomable people, jolted into acting horribly in bad situations. 

Each of us is a mysterious black box. Inside are so many factors all jumbled up—memories, desires, hurts. How can other people ever hope to understand us? How can we hope to understand ourselves?

Yet still we try. We must try. I was never able to decode what caused my cousin Merle to derail. I did solve part of the puzzle but was helpless to alter his sad trajectory. Alas, after living for twenty years in a hospital for the criminally insane, he wandered off into a field while on furlough and simply lay down and died. He was forty.

As a mystery author, though, I can put characters into extreme peril and see if they’ll sort out their own complicated lives as well as the sometimes vile things that others do. Solving the puzzles of people living only on pages (or in E files) is a full-time job. After I figure out one set of interconnecting lives, then I go on to develop another set, another, and another. This is a job I relish. You can call me a contented Sisyphus.

Kay Kendall’s debut mystery, Desolation Row, is set in 1968 and features 22-year-old Austin Starr, homesick Texas bride of a Vietnam War draft protester. When her husband is accused of murdering a fellow draft resister, the black sheep son of a U.S. Senator, Austin must prove her husband’s innocence. Learn more about Kay and her writing at http://www.kaykendalauthor.com.

Friday, April 26, 2013


by Sheila Connolly

April carries the weight of everyone's least favorite deadline:  Tax Day.  April 15th strikes fear into the hearts of many, and inspires annual surges of loathing.  Yes, I mailed my federal taxes on April 15th; I managed to send my state taxes electronically on the 14th (for the first time), yay me.

We as writers face deadlines all the time.  Admittedly I have more than many do, since I write three series, by choice.  Actually I was pleased when that arrangement was formalized, because it meant that I knew what my forward schedule would be for years, rather than book to book. Same due date for drafts, same month of publication, for each series, stretching out to 2015 at least.  It's good to know what's coming.

Of course, there are other writing-related things that have to be fit into the intervals, like conferences and research trips.  Yes, I do research for all my series.  It's such a burden to have to sit in pubs in Ireland or tour museums in Philadelphia or visit harvest festivals in western Massachusetts.  Poor me (not!).

There are studies that suggest that many people work better and think smarter when under pressure (i.e., with a looming deadline). I've always felt that way.  Even in high school, I had a well-calibrated sense of how long it would take me to accomplish something, and how long I could defer it before starting.  No, I wasn't the kind who pulled an all-nighter right before a major paper was due, but I know I needed a certain sense of urgency to spur me.  Apparently I'm not alone.

Which doesn't explain the high school honors history course I took, where we were all assigned one research paper due in the spring. A couple of days before the paper was due, our teacher asked the class, "who has started the paper?"  Nobody raised his or her hand.  Defeated, he cancelled it.  I'm still not sure what went wrong.  We were all smart, hardworking, college-bound kids, but maybe we had no idea what went into researching a topic (remember, this was before the Internet).  But I never waited that long to start anything again.

When you're working on something creative, there's always the lurking question, what if I run dry at the wrong time?  What if I can't figure out how to end this thing and it just sputters to a halt?  Is it better or worse to submit a product that you know isn't your best, that still needs some fixing, rather than missing that all-important deadline?  If you've got a good editor, he or she is going to notice, and it's not fair to rely on the editor to remedy your mistakes, when you know you're in the wrong.

But if you miss that first deadline, is it the beginning of the end?  Will you start getting sloppy after that?  Ah, what the heck, it's just a date.  What's a few more days? Or weeks?  But then you run the risk of being labeled undependable by your publisher, and we all know that there are a lot of eager writers waiting to grab any slot that opens up. 

Me, I need the structure.  I like being able to look out at my coming year and know what's coming, and when.  I'm not a hare, I'm a tortoise, slow and steady.

And very busy!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Those Golden Age Detectives

Elizabeth Zelvin

In the Golden Age of detective fiction, several British mystery writers, all women, reigned more or less co-supreme: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and, writing a bit later, New Zealand-born Ngaio Marsh.

Let’s take Christie first and get her out of the way, because her mysteries differ from those of the others in several respects. For one thing, the world she portrays is rather middlebrow. Hercule Poirot, one of her enduring detectives, is an eccentric Belgian, played for laughs, who stands outside the parade of English society. He has no personal life and no genuine emotions apart from a mild compassion for some of the victims of the crimes he solves and an occasional burst of vanity. The other, that unlikely sleuth, Miss Marple, is a middle-class resident of a village in which society consists of such stock characters as the vicar, the doctor and the squire—hardly elevated enough to be invited to dinner, say, at Downton Abbey, unless no other company is expected.

In Christie’s mysteries, the puzzle is all. If her plots seem clich├ęd to today’s readers, it’s because the twists that were fresh and original in her work have spawned so many imitators. I doubt that anyone would call her stories character driven. The Poirot and Miss Marple series have no arc; their characters are unchanging and eternal.

On the other hand, Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey, Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion, and Marsh’s Detective Chief Inspector (later Superintendent and Chief Superintendent) Roderick Alleyn have a lot in common. Lord Peter is the brother of the Duke of Devon; Campion is the pseudonymous scion of a family of unnamed but elevated rank, perhaps a ducal younger son himself. Alleyn is the younger brother of a rather stuffy baronet, Sir George. All of them mingle freely with characters across a broad spectrum of society. None of them are snobs in the conventional sense. Yet inherent in the value system and lifestyle of all three is the peculiarly English concept of being “a gentleman.”

At its best, being a gentleman implies unassailable integrity, and that, certainly, is common to all three sleuths. A sense of chivalry and/or noblesse oblige (without hairsplitting over the difference) is deeply ingrained in them by their upbringing. They solve crimes to right wrongs—as well as, in the case of Campion and Lord Peter, because it’s fun.

However, these sleuthing gentlemen take for granted an entitlement based on class. As today’s viewers of Downton Abbey are constantly reminded, traditional British class structure took some direct hits during World War I and crumbled gently thereafter during the decades in which our detectives operated. But gentlemen still knew who they were and recognized the boundaries between their class and others’. In Downton Abbey, Bates was Lord Grantham’s batman in the War, as Bunter was Lord Peter’s. In civilian life, the lords expect to be dressed, groomed, and waited on, and the intelligent and loyal far-more-than-valets cheerfully provide these services. Campion’s “man,” the cheerfully irreverent Cockney ex-burglar Lugg, is similarly both servant and sidekick. Instead of a devoted lifelong servant, Alleyn has Detective Sergeant (later Inspector) Fox.

Class distinctions carry over from the detectives’ private life to their investigations. When a murder is committed, the gentleman sleuths interview the gentry, while Fox, Lugg, and Bunter make themselves at home in the servants’ hall, chatting up the cook, the butler, and the whole roster down to the youngest tweeny, speaking the vernacular over cozy cups of tea.

In spite of these iconic characteristics, all three of these great detectives demonstrate personal growth in the course of the series—Lord Peter the most, as he evolves from silly-ass-about-town in the early books to a character of such depth, complexity, and sensitivity that it is widely believed that his creator, Sayers herself, fell in love with him.

All find partners outside the rigid social boundaries of birth. Alleyn marries Troy, an acclaimed artist; Lord Peter, a mystery writer, a doctor’s daughter he first meets when she is on trial for murder; and Campion, Lady Amanda Fitton, an aristocrat, to be sure, but one who is happiest messing about with airplanes as an aeronautics expert. Their marriages draw all three sleuths into a growing maturity that lifts their investigations far above the realm of mere puzzle.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Mystery Times Two... or Three

By Sandra Parshall

More and more mystery authors are producing two or even three series simultaneously, and I have to admit they make me feel like a slug. I admire their hard work and dedication to their writing careers, but I always wonder why they do it and whether it interferes with their personal lives. So I posed those two questions to a few friends who are on the fast track with multiple series.

Deb Baker began with the Gertie Johnson series set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, then added the Gretchen Birch Dolls to Die For series. She now writes the Queen Bee Mysteries as Hannah Reed. Don’t be surprised if she brings out yet another new series sometime soon. 

Why do you do it? Is your imagination overflowing with ideas that demand outlets, are you just a workaholic, or do you have another reason?

At the beginning, I couldn’t sell a thing and had multiple books circulating. Finally, a publisher offered a three book contract for one of them, and three weeks later another publisher made an offer for three books in another. How could I say no? That decision produced a long period of high stress accompanied by an insidious fear that I couldn’t do it. But somehow I managed. As my writing experience grew and my characters developed, the stories came faster and faster. It now takes me between 3 and 4 months to produce a novel, if I can stay focused.

How does the work load affect your life -- and do you ever wish you had more free time?

I love my work, so it’s all play for me! My family and friends are important, so I make time for them. But I never feel the need to go on vacation to escape my desk. Instead, I’m lucky enough to have arranged a life I don’t need to run from.

Clea Simon writes the Dulcie Schwatrz series for Poisoned Pen Press and the Pru Marlowe Pet Noir series for Severn. Both feature cats prominently.

Why do you do it?  

I began doing concurrent series by accident. I had one ms. out circulating (Shades of Grey - YEARS before the S&M erotica of the same name - my first Dulcie Schwartz feline mystery) and then I finished another (Dogs Don't Lie, my first Pru Marlowe pet noir), because that's what you do while you're waiting for something to sell. Then both sold, and both publishers wanted the books to be the start of a series. I love them both, so I said, sure. At the time, the scheduling seemed reasonable. I do try to keep notes for both series current, because sometimes I'll have a Pru thought while I'm working on Dulcie and vice versa. It's a little difficult to switch between the voices -- I get caught up in whichever I'm working on -- but it does keep life interesting.
How does the work load affect your life -- and do you ever wish you had more free time?

RIght now, I have no life. I have one ms. due May 31 and one due on June 1. I have one ms. fully drafted and another nearly drafted, so I'll switch off and revise one, then revise the other, but it's a little too close for comfort. 

I should have been working on these books much earlier, but I was both waiting for contracts to be renewed and also dealing with some family issues, and so... I put them off. So, well, I guess I had my free time! Once these are in, I'll be able to relax. At least until the edits come back.

Sheila Connolly began her career by writing the work-for-hire Glassblower Mysteries for Berkley under the pseudonym Sarah Atwell. The first in the series was nominated for an Agatha Award. Now she divides her time between the Orchard Series, the Museum Series, and a new series set in Ireland. 

Why do you do it?

Multiple reasons. (1) When I first started writing, I had to justify to myself (and probably to my husband, although he didn't voice it) that I was taking the whole writing thing seriously and working hard at it. (2) I wanted to explore different approaches within the genre, which is how I ended up with one series set in rural Massachusetts, one in center city Philadelphia, and one in another country altogether. (3) I think I must be a workaholic, because I feel guilty every time I do something that isn't writing related, like house repairs or gardening. But then, I find most (not all!) aspects of writing fun, so I'm not exactly suffering. 

I have to say, I did not start out with any plan in mind, because I had no clue how long it would take to write a book, much less how time-consuming all the secondary stuff would be. The multiple series kind of came organically, once I figured out my own pacing.

I should add that after the Sarah Atwell series, all mine are ones that I chose and developed. I'm sure Berkley would be happy to have me write another one of their pre-fab series, but I'm not interested.

How does the work load affect your life -- and do you ever wish you had more free time?

Not really, because it's kind of a seamless life. Genealogy has long been my primary hobby, and at times my professional occupation, and in all of my books I get to indulge that (although not so much for my own family tree). I love to travel, and I've found a way to visit all my favorite places--and make it tax-deductible! I love being my own boss and keeping my own hours, but in fact that may take up more time than any full-time job outside the home did, since I'm at my desk by eight most days, and I work weekends. But I do it because I love it--and when it all comes together, it's better than sex, drugs and rock and roll. Occasionally.

Lorraine Bartlett/Lorna Barrett began with the Jeff Resnick series, 
written as L.L. Bartlett. She now writes the Booktown Mysteries as Lorna Barrett and the Victoria Square Mysteries under her own name.


Why do you do it?

I have tons of ideas for new stories/series, and I am most definitely a workaholic. (On my last vacation in January, I wrote 46,000 words spread over four different projects (and in 3 weeks). Three of those projects are already for sale as e titles.)

How does the work load affect your life -- and do you ever wish you had more free time?

What’s free time?


Leslie Budewitz, a Montana attorney, won an Agatha Award for Books, Crooks, and Counselors, a guide for authors who write about crime and the law. Her first love is fiction, though, and although her first mystery in the       Food Lovers Village series won’t be out until August, she’s already under contract to write the Seattle Spice Shop Mysteries (coming in 2014).

Why do you do it? 

Ever since I was a small girl, my dream has been to write fiction. Now that I have the opportunity, I want to make the most of it. I have always been a very “placed” writer, aware of how strongly setting influences our perspective and experiences. Writing two series allows me to explore that more deeply.

How does your heavy writing schedule affect your life? Do you ever wish you had more free time?

I can write two series only because my day job is winding down and I’d rather write than find another. My conversation does seem to revolve around writing, though! And I’m hoping for a garden fairy to show up soon and plant a few veggies. Truth be told, I’m a better, happier person when I spend a good deal of my time with people who only exist because I made them up. With two series going, I should be really happy –so far, so good!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Patterns and Self-Protection

Sharon Wildwind

Crystallography is the study of how atoms are arranged in solid materials. Scientists identified seventeen possible two-dimensional arrangement patterns, eleven of them in lines and six in circles. Ruth B. McDowell, an American quilter realized these patterns were the same ones quilters used, but most quilters had limited themselves to only a few of their possible choices.

This past week I worked through a couple of her books, drawing a lot of patterns and coloring them in muted colors. As long as the patterns were pretty unidirectional I was okay, but when elements had to be reversed or placed upside down, I had a terrible time. I know I’m a little dyslexic with numbers, but patterns? I’m the pattern-recognition queen, so I was at a loss as to what was going on.

Here’s Pattern #1 (P1). Because it’s only one placement repeated over and over, I didn’t have a problem with it, though where most people would draw the first design from the instructions, I would be equally likely to draw the second.

The scientist's version on the left; my left-handed version on the right.

Pattern #2 (P2) was a little harder, but after several false starts, I managed.
Ditto to the previous drawings.
Pattern #4 (P4) was a complete disaster. (For those of you who like consistency and order, P3 is a circular pattern and I’m no where ready to tackle the circle ones yet.) 

You’re probably already ahead of me on where the problem lay. I’m left handed!

Ms. McDowell starts with a sample block pattern with a hand imposed over it. Tell most people to imagine a  hand over a pattern and they’ll visualize the first figure in the line. I tend to visualize the second one. Because I can do simultaneous translation of right-handed instructions into left-hand, I was also tending to mentally reverse the pattern, so it looked like the third figure in the line.

1) What most people see in their mind. 2) What I see. 3) A reversed left-handed pattern.

What I was supposed to draw on top.
What I kept drawing on the bottom.
When those patterns included elements that had to be flipped or reversed, my brain couldn't keep up with the changes. It took me a full day to work out the difference between the right-hand orientation for P4 (top) and the left-hand orientation (bottom) my brain kept handing me.

No doubt the scientists who came up with the seventeen patterns would tell me that the world isn’t put together with left-handed arrangements of atoms. Maybe their’s isn’t. Mine is. If you’re a mystery writer, so is yours.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever voluntarily, not because it was for work or school
  • Fired a handgun just to see what it feels like?
  • Done a ride-along with police officers or other first responders?
  • Toured a new building and been more interested in places to hide bodies than in the nifty pro-ecology features?
  • Read an autopsy report?
  • Taken a field trip to the medical examiners office or a forensics lab?

Ordinary—I’ll refraining from saying normal—people don’t seek out these things as a matter of course. Because as mystery writers we have a far greater familiarity with what human beings do to one another, we have a greater need to pay attention to healthy, life-affirming activities. Art is one of my anodynes. It finally dawned on me that my need for pattern and low-key colors in the past few days is my reaction to what’s been happening out there in the world.

The point is we have to be as diligent in protecting ourselves as we do in researching our books.

Physical activity and sports are good ideas. So are meditation, dance, music, and good friends. I’ve learned some things recently about singing bowls and walking labyrinths, and I’m interested in trying both, though maybe not at the same time.

One further comment about pattern-recognition queens. I hope you saw the first episode of The Bletchley Circle on PBS last night. Four women who worked as code breakers at Bletchley Park during World War II reunite in 1952 London to track down a serial killer. There are two more episodes, one on April 28 and the last on May 5. Well done, well worth watching.
Quote for the week
Let’s be careful out there.
~ Sergeant Phil Esterhaus, Hill Street Precinct, played by the late Michael Conrad (1925 - 1983)

Monday, April 22, 2013


by Julia Buckley

My son is a senior in high school; many senior students (about 500 of them) have signed up to play a game they call Assassins. Each student must pay five dollars to play; they they are given a name of another senior student, whom they must "assassinate" by squirting them with a squirt gun.  They are not allowed to do it in the school building, so they are relegated to stalking one another on the grounds, or even at one another's houses.  If a student is squirted, then she or he must give up the name of his or her target to his or her assassin, who then moves on to "kill" again.

This is a macabre game, yes. But the winning student gets a whole lot of money, which, hopefully, he or she will use for college tuition.

But what I didn't realize about Assassins is how scary it feels. I'm reminded of the old childhood days of playing Hide and Seek, and feeling, while I hid in a dark closet, the tension of being stalked.

For the same reason, my son's eyes darted nervously around today while he helped me carry in groceries.  He's still "alive" and has not spotted a possible stalker in the last few weeks.  This does not make him lessen his vigilance--not after he witnessed the assassination of his best friend.

I usually pick the two of them up after school. On Friday I was sitting in my car waiting.  My glasses were off (I don't need them for reading), so I was pretty blind to my surroundings.  Then I heard running feet, and two bodies slammed into the side of my car.  Alarmed, I reached for my glasses as the back doors were wrenched open.

Then I heard a girl's voice say, "Got you, Mike!"  and Mike moaned in humiliation.

I turned to see a young woman with a tuft of blonde hair--a la Pink--saying, "Sorry about that.  Could you give me the name of your target, please?"

Mike looked surly, but he named someone.  She wrote it down in a notebook and said, "Thank you!"  Then she disappeared and walked down the sidewalk.

"Well, that's it; I'm dead," Mike said.

"I'm so sorry," I told him.  And I was.  I felt somehow responsible, as though I should have parked closer or had the doors open for them.  Anything to prevent Mike from losing his "at large" status.  And while I think young men today are fairly accepting of equality of the sexes, I think he felt pretty humiliated to be assassinated by a cute (and fairly small) girl.

"I can't believe this," he said as we went home.  "This is a real weekend-ruiner."

"It's a bummer," my son agreed.

And now he's getting more nervous.  There are still weeks and weeks before graduation, but someone out there has his name. And just as he hasn't really pursued his own target, his person hasn't really pursued him.. Yet.

I'm not sure what I think of this game, and I don't know how long it's been a senior tradition.

But we've all learned that a faux assassination plot creates real tension.

(pictured: my younger son assassinating a pumpkin in 2009).

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Networking in Person

We hear so much about social networking that we almost forgot that there is also the real thing. You know, actually meeting people face to face. I belong to two organizations particularly good for that. One is Sisters in Crime and the other is Mystery Writers of America. I've been attending a lot of events for both organizations for years, and volunteering where I could (because that is an excellent way to get to know other members, to network in what can often be a clique-ish group.) Consequently, a couple of years ago I was elected president for Sisters in Crime Orange County, became vice president last year for Sisters in Crime Los Angeles, and was elected president this year for the Southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America. I'm not saying you have to be on the board of these chapters to get anywhere, but these groups offer multiple chances to network with fellow authors and learn a thing or two about what readers want. 

If you're serious about making a career in writing mysteries then networking is essential. After all, you are going to run into these people again and again at conferences and other author events. I've helped up-and-comers and veterans have helped me. In fact, I can't think of a more welcoming group than people who write about ways to kill.

But you will have lots of chances to meet and greet readers, librarians, and booksellers as well. This is networking, too, in case you missed it. And there's no better way to hand sell books than to get in good with librarians and booksellers.

I can't tell you how many times newbie authors shrug off libraries. People only borrow books from libraries, they say. That's a lost sale! But nothing could be further from the truth. Remember, libraries have to BUY the books in their stacks. And if they have a lot of branches, it would be wonderfully swell if they bought at least one book for each branch. That's a good chunk of sales right there. And if you have several formats of your book--large print, foreign language, audio--that's even MORE sales. And let's face it. My books come out in hardcover at a $26 price point. Readers who aren't familiar with my work may not feel comfortable plunking down that much money, so they try it at the library first. Hopefully, they might like it enough to buy the other books in the series.

If you're invited to an author luncheon sort of event, don't just sit aloof at the head table and chat only with your bookseller or the organizers. Get out of your seat before festivities begin and work the group! This is like a wedding--your wedding--and you should be going to each table and chatting up the people at the table. These are your guests. Enjoy yourself. If you enjoy yourself, your audience will. And a happy audience likes to give your books a chance.

You just never know when or where a good networking opportunity will present itself; in the grocery line, at a swap meet, on vacation--anywhere you find yourself. I'm not saying to hard sell, but if the opportunity arises when someone asks what you do, have that bookmark ready to give away.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Boston Bombing

by Sheila Connolly

Poor Kim Jong-un.  You almost have to feel sorry for him.  His sabre-rattling was going so well; he had thousands of North Koreans parading around, waving their guns and dragging missiles around the country.  The rest of the world was sitting on the edge of their seats, biting their nails, wondering "Will he?  Won't he?" actually send a nuclear warhead somewhere.

And then along come one or two guys with a couple of pressure cookers and
some buckshot and nails, and suddenly North Korea has fallen off the map, and Boston is front and center on every news outlet in the country.  Explosive devices made of stuff that you or I could buy on any street or in any mall in Middle America.  My husband tells me you can cook up gunpowder with no exotic ingredients and no high-tech equipment, in your garage (I haven't tried it). See, it doesn't take nuclear warheads to terrify people.  The bloody deaths or maiming of some children and innocent bystanders is more than enough to make the point.

And whoever made and planted those bombs hasn't even bothered to come forward [as of the time of this writing—it's a very fluid situation].  Can't you see him (most likely it's a him, right?) sitting back and watching the wall-to-wall news coverage and gloating?  I did that! Is it a good thing or a bad thing if that feeling of personal satisfaction is enough for the perpetrator, without any grand political agenda or terrorist affiliation? 

This is not a political blog, but we are all mystery writers here, so we all choose to deal with death and fear and threats on some level.  None of us writes violent stories filled with explosions and assault weapons and stacks of bodies (and I'll confess I find it harder and harder even to read those as I grow older).  We write softer, gentler mysteries.  Yes, someone dies, but the plot revolves around finding out who killed that person, and why the killer believed that person had to die.  There are seldom convincing reasons for the killing, because killing another person is inherently wrong.

Our stories most often involve ordinary people, usually women, thrust into an investigation because finding a killer is the right thing to do.  Often one of the main characters is a law enforcement official of some sort, and that matters too, because that person carries the weight of our whole societal structure.  He or she is appointed or volunteers to keep us safe, and to pursue and root out the evil that hides within our culture.

Violence is never far from American society. Witness the heated arguments about gun control.  Private citizens may never in their lives fire an assault weapon, but they want to be able to, just in case.  In case of what?  Do they truly believe that chaos is just around the corner, and having a serious weapon will protect them?  If the entire citizenry of Boston had been carrying during the Marathon, would it have made a difference? (More likely a lot more innocent people would have been injured by terrified citizens shooting wildly.) The sad thing is, we don't feel safe, even in our own homes.  And the Marathon Bombing just reinforces that.

I have no solutions.  I write murder mysteries because killing is wrong, and I believe that it is important to show that justice can be served, even if it's only by one person at a time.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

What Agents Do

Elizabeth Zelvin

With more and more aspiring writers skipping the lengthy and discouraging quest for an agent to deal directly with small presses that permit it or self-publish e-books and sometimes print on demand paperbacks as well, I thought it might be useful to review the many things that agents do in addition to placing manuscripts with the Big Six (or is it Big Five now?) traditional publishers. I’m not saying that every agent accomplishes or even offers all of these. But I suspect that many authors who think finding an agent is more trouble than it’s worth don’t realize quite how much they’re missing.

An agent is an expert on publishable writing who believes in you and your work. We all know about the periodic self-doubt that assails even the most successful authors. Praise from your mother and your three best friends is no substitute for an agent who loves your manuscript.

Many agents will work with you to make sure your mansucript is publishable—as good as it can possibly be—to give you the best possible chance with the editors to whom they’ll submit it.

An agent negotiates the contract so you don’t have to. Even if you’ve found your publisher without an agent, you may want one to make sure the contract doesn’t give away rights to your characters, get a bigger advance, maybe include more free author copies than originally offered, better percentages on sales, a shorter contract term, a clear mechanism for reversion of rights to you, and protect subsidiary rights.

Assuming you haven’t given away all the subsidiary rights, including e-books, trade and mass market paperbacks, audio books, foreign editions, and movie and television options, an agent can help you exercise them advantageously. Without an agent, you may have no idea how to market any of these or not even think about these opportunities to make more money from your work, except for formatting your book as an e-book and putting it on Amazon. An experienced agent knows whom to approach and how to dicker with them.

An agent acts as a buffer in the business relationship between you and your publisher. Ideally, your relationship with your editor is all about what you’ve written and how the editor can help you make it better. You may have some disagreements along the way—say, a plot twist or character that the editor wants you to change or delete. Those are the battles you want to devote your energy to. In the meantime, your agent may be working on getting you more visibility in the publisher’s promotions, finding out why your statement and royalty check haven’t arrived, or, if necessary, prodding the contracts department to disgorge that crucial reversion of rights letter.

Agents know a lot that authors don’t. It’s a full time job for them to keep their fingers on the pulse of the publishing market. In a time when things are changing constantly and everybody—publishers, authors, booksellers, marketers, libraries, agents, and the reading public—is guessing, sometimes wildly, about what’s going to happen next and how to stay in the game, it’s no small thing to have an agent in your corner.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Mysterious Weather

 by Sandra Parshall

It was a dark and stormy night.

Laugh, if you must, at this classic example of bad writing, but I sort of like it. For me, nothing creates atmosphere as effectively as weather. I’ve  considered weather and seasons in fiction before, and now that I’m preparing to moderate a Malice Domestic panel on the topic, this seems like a good time to revisit a few points.

I always appreciate a writer who knows how to use the natural world to enhance a novel, and I’m disappointed when a writer’s story seems to take place in a hermetically sealed chamber, with no mention of what might be going on outside. Characters who never experience weather are not living in a world I recognize.

The first question I ask myself when I begin planning a book is, What season is it? I need to know the temperature, the appearance, the feel of the world my characters will move through. When I say that I want to make my characters sweat or shiver, I mean it literally.

Maybe I’m hyper-aware of weather because I’ve lived for many years in the Washington, DC, area, where residents are obsessed with what Mother Nature is up to at all times. In summer it’s the tropical heat, the humidity, the violent thunderstorms that leave tens of thousands without electricity — or, alternatively, the drought that leaves dead lawns and gardens in its wake. 

In winter, we’re terrified that it might start snowing at any moment. If a single flake wafts from the heavens in one of the outer suburbs, all the schools close and half a million federal workers claim liberal leave and head for home to hunker down. Everybody knows that once our streets are covered with snow, they’re going to stay that way for a while. A few inches of white stuff can trap people in their homes for days as they wait for a plow to rescue them. People who spent the first forty years of their lives in Maine somehow forget how to drive in snow when they move to Washington. Adding to the anxiety is the baffling inability of the District and suburban counties to clear the streets in a timely manner. Several years ago, when we had back-to-back blizzards that dumped three FEET of snow on us… well, there’s a reason the event became known as Snowmageddon.

Having grown up in the south, I’ve never seen any necessity for winter, and I despise snow only slightly less than ice storms. When I wanted to create a menacing atmosphere in my second book, Disturbing the Dead, snow was the obvious weather choice. The book begins in a snowstorm, as Deputy Tom Bridger and his men are collecting the scattered bones of a missing woman on a southwestern Virginia mountaintop. Snow is ever-present in the book, cold on the skin and slippery underfoot, wrapping this little world in a veil of white. But my characters are not wimpy Washingtonians. They’re mountain people, and for them life goes on despite the weather — until it’s brought to an end by a bullet or knife.

My first published novel, The Heat of the Moon, takes place in the Washington area during a typically blistering summer. The story begins with a thunderstorm, and a long-ago storm plays a key role in the plot, but as the story goes on drought sets in. Although I don’t make a big point of the weather in that book, the increasingly parched landscape and the shriveling leaves on the trees and vegetation along the roads mirror my character Rachel’s desperation and the absence of emotional nourishment in the home she shares with her sister and their manipulative mother. 

Summer also seemed a good choice of season for Broken Places, which brims with hot emotions, and I liked the melancholy of autumn, when so much of the world fades and dies, for Under the Dog Star

In my latest book, Bleeding Through, early spring's winds and volatile weather, which can make us doubt that summer will ever come, mirror the turmoil of the characters' lives.

Some writers are brilliant in their use of weather to create atmosphere. Edna Buchanan makes me feel the stifling heat and humidity of Miami (the only place outside of India that may be worse in summer than Washington). Giles Blunt’s Ontario in winter chills me to the bone. Julia Spencer-Fleming is also adept at building tension and a sense of danger with the use of weather, and I would read Dana Stabenow’s Alaska mysteries and James Lee Burke’s Louisiana mysteries for the weather alone. In Breathtaker, Alice Blanchard created a serial killer who struck only during tornados and used the storms to cover his crimes.

Often, when a book has good characters and a good plot but still seems to lack something, I realize that the missing ingredient is sensory perception of the natural world. So bring on the dark and stormy night, the raging wind and the withering heat. I want to know whether the characters are sunburned or frostbitten, drenched or parched, I want to hear autumn leaves crunching under their feet and see the summer butterflies flitting from flower to flower nearby. Only then will the characters, and the world they inhabit, come alive for me.


The four authors I’ll be working with on the Malice Domestic panel all know how to use the seasons and weather effectively. If you haven’t read them yet, give these books a try: A Broth of Betrayal and A Spoonful of Murder by Connie Archer: A Tine to Live, a Tine to Die (out in June) by Edith Maxwell; Murder by Vegetable by Barbara Graham; Revenge of the Crafty Corpse by Lois Winston. And I hope we'll see you in the audience at Malice.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Red Ink and Invisible Powder

Sharon Wildwind

In Nursing Arts, my classmates and I learned to take temperatures, make beds, fill hot water bottles, dispense medications, and perform other hands-on skills. The class was held in a ward-classroom of eight beds. At the beginning of one class our instructor had us press our hands onto a red ink pad. We went about making beds, taking each other’s temperatures and dispensing M & Ms into paper cups to simulate pouring medications.

Within twenty minutes red fingerprints covered the ward. We spent the rest of the class cleaning. The lesson was a visual reminder of how fast and far we would spread bacteria if we didn’t wash our hands well and often enough.

I was reminded of that class this past week when I went looking for an update on the chemical Bisphenol A (BPA). I had one simple question: was it safe to shred receipts, which are coated BPA powder? The answer was not simple.

BPA has at least three strikes against it.

Strike #1: BPA has been in a lot of things: food and beverage containers, water bottles, baby bottles, and baby toys like teething rings. Though some restrictions have been placed on its use, there is still a lot of it around. It is on one very important thing: thermal-paper receipts, those aggravating bits of paper that clutter our purses or fanny pack.

Strike #2: Since thermal papers coatings are a powder BPA rubs off on everything the receipt touches, and it stays there until that object rubs against something else.

Strike #3: Some research indicates that BPA is perhaps more toxic at low-levels than at higher levels.

Come run errands with me.

I start at the bank to get cash from the automatic teller. I also get a paper receipt, which is likely coated with BPA powder. The money has a high probability of being contaminated with bacteria, cocaine, and more BPA powder. Cocaine and bacteria aren’t absorbed through unbroken skin, so unless I have a cut, rash, or chapped hands those two contaminants sit on my skin until I wash my hands. BPA is absorbed through unbroken, healthy skin. As I head for my car, BPA on my hands heads for my blood stream.
Since I’ve stuffed receipts into my purse for ages, everything in there—comb, keys, wallet, cell phone, hand lotion, make-up and so on—is BPA contaminated. Open my car door, now it’s on the door. Touch the steering wheel, now it’s on the steering wheel. Rub my eye, it reaches the blood stream faster through mucous membranes.

At the grocery store, I wipe the cart handle with anti-bacterial wipes the store provides. Great for removing bacteria, but the alcohol plus the rubbing action likely drives BPA through my skin faster.

Do my shopping, go through the checkout, collect another receipt and start the process over.

Or maybe I ask the cashier to put the receipt in the bag with my groceries where it rubs against the bag itself and the cans, jars, and bottles inside, depositing powder. Hopefully my fruits, vegetables, bread, etc. are in bags, but then again, with the desire to be more eco-friendly, I don’t always bother putting fresh food in plastic bags any more. After all, are my apples really going to suffer riding around loose in a cloth shopping bag until I get home? I didn’t think so until today.

When I reach home maybe I leave my receipts in my purse. Maybe I put them in the box where we collect bits of paper needed to balance our check book. Eventually, after doing the balancing act, receipts go into the shredder—must be conscious of identity theft— giving me an opportunity to breathe aerosolized BPA powder and throughly contaminating my shredder.

Off go those clear plastic bags of shredded paper to the recycling center to begin their journey into other kinds of paper, including more cash register receipts and toilet paper, which currently has about a 50% chance of being containing BPA powder and the cycle begins again.

Sometimes it seems that when we solve one problem, we create two in its place.

If you can live with the idea, stop getting receipts. If you can’t live with that idea—I can’t—here are some cleaning tips gleaned from the Internet.

Clean the most highly-contaminated objects and areas, those places where you’ve previously housed receipts: purses, backpacks, glove compartments, cloth grocery bags, boxes where you store household records, shredder, etc. Wash them or at least rinse them with soap and water, using paper towels which are then disposed. Wash or wipe everything that’s been in those areas, like everything in your purse.

To prevent future recontamination, bring a plastic bag with you. Ask the clerk to put the receipt in that bag and close it tightly. If you’re doing self-check out, touch the receipt as little as possible as you put it in the bag.

Never crumple a receipt and throw it away. Apparently crumpling releases the most powder onto your hands.

Wash your hands as soon as you can after handling receipts. At a minimum, wash your hands when you get home. Consider using liquid soap in a dispenser. Rubbing BPA-contaminated hands on bar soap transfers the powder to the soap.

Never shred or recycle receipts. I know, I know. Identity theft and the ecology. I’m not keen on either receipts being out there with my credit card number on them or BPA leaching into landfills, but is that worse than aerosolizing BPA in my office or it ending up in my recycled papers? I honestly don’t know.

Above all, have hope. Someone clever will come up with a solution to all of this.

Quote for the week

Action and reaction, ebb and flow, trial and error, change - this is the rhythm of living. Out of our overconfidence, fear; out of our fear, clear vision, fresh hope. And out of hope, progress.
~ Bruce Barton, (1886 – 1967), author, ad executive—he created Betty Crocker—and member of the U. S. House of Representatives

Monday, April 15, 2013

Dog Stories: Good and Evil

Perhaps it is appropriate to discuss this right after Kate George's post about the deaths of animals in fiction--but the stories I'm discussing are true, and one of them will infuriate you.

Last night I finally watched MARLEY AND ME.  I had avoided this movie for a long time because I didn't want to watch the ending, which I knew simply from the movie buzz was going to be sad.  My husband and I enjoyed the movie, though, and the irresistible cuteness of all of the Labradors who played Marley over the years.  By the end, even my fairly stoic husband was in tears, to the point that he had to remove his glasses and sop up the moisture with several tissues.  Why?  Because all people love dogs, right?  And this movie (along with the book by John Grogan, detailing the life he shared with his real dog, Marley) highlights the bonds people form with their animals.

While we watched, our gaze occasionally strayed to our Beagle, who slept in his basket next to the television.  He occasionally let out a huge sigh, sometimes sliding his snout over the side of his bed until he resembled a crocodile.  Aside from some aging front legs that cause him to limp now and then, he's a pretty happy pup.  It was a very dog-friendly evening.

I woke today to see the headline that 30 dogs have gone missing since November in the region of Twin Falls, Idaho, and five dogs have been found brutally murdered in the same area.  I fear for the missing dogs, and worry over what may have befallen them.  I wondered at the sort of person that could perpetuate this sort of sadism.  If the person (or people) are caught, I wondered, would they face felony charges for such venal crimes--perhaps a multitude of them?

Probably not. I was distressed to learn that Idaho makes animal killing a felony only if someone has two prior  offenses.  So even the murder of many dogs--what seems to be a cruel and ritualistic murder perpetrated by at least one twisted mind--would not necessarily send the killer to jail.  Might the killer be aware of this?  Or does someone who commits acts like these really not contemplate potential consequences at all?

I hope that Twin Falls is using significant resources to find and prosecute this murderer, and that they will look at this case as justification for more extreme laws against animal cruelty.

Why is it so important for us to know these dog stories, good and bad? Dogs are fun to read about in fiction, but it's even more pleasant, perhaps, to read about real dogs who have good lives. So, rather than leave you with the sad story above, I'll reference a third non-fiction account of dogs, written by one of the best animal tale writers of all time: James Herriott.

In his compilation of stories called Dog Stories, Herriott reflected on dogs he knew over a lifetime in private practice. Herriott understood, as a Dalesman and a veterinarian, that if animals are put here for our pleasure, then we have the obligation to be loving and compassionate caretakers.

If only everyone could embrace that philosophy.

If you wrote a book about a dog, who would be the star of your story?