Saturday, June 29, 2013

Poe's True Following

by Jeanne Matthews
Author of the Dinah Pelerin Mysteries

Everyone who leaves a comment this weekend will be entered in a drawing for a free copy of Jeanne's new book, HER BOYFRIEND'S BONES.

Edgar Allan Poe invented the mystery genre before the word “detective” was coined.  His brainy sleuth Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin was the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot and everyone who writes detective fiction today owes a debt to Poe’s creative genius. The writers who blog as “Poe’s Deadly Daughters” pay homage to his legacy on a daily basis.

I hadn’t thought consciously about the man for years until I tuned in to an episode of the TV show, “The Following.” 

The plot involves an English lit professor who is obsessed with Poe. As a “tribute” to his hero, he has murdered dozens of women. Captured and sent to prison, he escaped and launched a cult of copycat serial killers. Call me cozy, but psychotic serial killers aren’t my cup of tea. Personal taste aside, I still think “The Following” exploits the element of horror in Poe’s work while ignoring the craft and complexity. It’s true that whenever a woman appears in one of his stories or poems, she tends to be dead. Reading his biography, it’s not hard to see why. Poe experienced a lot of bad luck in his life – persistent poverty, melancholy, alcoholism, and more than a few scathing reviews of both his work and his character. But when it came to the ladies, he was positively snakebit.

His mother Eliza, an itinerant actress, died of consumption at the age of 24 and his father, who had deserted Eliza and their three children, died a few weeks later. Two-year-old Edgar was taken in and raised by the Allan family, but the love of a foster mother couldn’t compensate for the loss of his birth mother. He spent his entire life searching for a substitute. 

At the age of twelve, he attached himself to Jane Stanard, the beautiful mother of a school friend, but she soon went mad and died. His childhood sweetheart Elmira Royster comforted him for a time, but while he was away at school she married another man. Resilient to a fault, he transferred his affections to his cousin Virginia. He married her when he was 27 and she was 13, although he maintained publicly that she was much older.

He idolized little Virginia, but it wasn’t long before “a wind blew out of a cloud” and chilled his young bride, as recounted in the poem “Annabelle Lee.”  While Virginia lay dying of tuberculosis, Poe drowned his sorrow in drink. His spirits rebounded miraculously when he met the “ardent, sensitive, and impulsive” Fanny Osgood.  The two conducted a clandestine love affair until Fanny, too, felt a chill and betook herself to a warmer clime for her health’s sake. With Fanny gone and Virginia coughing her life away, poor lonely Edgar again sought solace, this time in the arms of an author named Elizabeth Ellet. Things were looking up in the romance department until Fanny got wind of the affair and in a jealous snit, tipped Virginia to her husband’s infidelity. If Virginia was saddened by the news, she didn’t suffer for long.  She died at the age of 20.

 Poe continued to write, but his stories didn’t earn enough to keep his creditors at bay.  “Murders in the Rue Morgue” fetched all of $56.  “The Purloined Letter” paid $12 and “The Tell-Tale Heart” $10.  His gambling debts mounted and his drinking grew heavier. He despaired of finding a woman who wouldn’t abandon him, but then along came Sarah Helen Whitman, a writer and poet who awoke in him “an ecstatic happiness and wild, inexplicable sentiment.”  More importantly, this one appeared physically sturdy and mentally sound, not the type to sink into madness or succumb to a chill wind. Unfortunately, her mother didn’t cotton to Poe and Sarah decided that his drinking habit was more than she could handle. She very sensibly declined his offer of marriage.  

Heartbroken once more, he found consolation in the sympathetic company of Mrs. Annie Richmond.  He wrote to her, “My love for you has given me new life.” But Annie had no intention of leaving her wealthy husband for a poverty-stricken drunk and Edgar’s hopes of a lasting relationship were dashed. At the end of his romantic rope, he learned that Elmira Royster’s husband had died and, hope renewed, he hastened back to her and proposed. But Elmira couldn’t put up with his drinking either and sent him packing. 

The most interesting writers aren’t always the most agreeable people. Sad to say, Poe doesn’t sound as if he would have made a very pleasant companion for any woman. It would no doubt astound him to realize how thoroughly his influence has permeated the culture and how many deadly daughters and sons his pioneering stories have spawned.

Everyone who leaves a comment this weekend will be entered in a drawing for a free copy of Jeanne's new book, HER BOYFRIEND'S BONES. 
Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press, including Bones of Contention, Bet Your Bones, and Bonereapers.  The newest release, Her Boyfriend’s Bones, is set in Greece on the Aegean island of Samos.  For more information about Jeanne’s books, visit her website.    

Friday, June 28, 2013

Souvenirs Redux

by Sheila Connolly

By strange coincidence, I was gifted with a highly unlikely souvenir this week, and I'm still trying to fit it into my worldview of collecting mementos.

The backstory:  a Philadelphia friend and former colleague was the model for one of the characters in my Museum Mystery series.  She was going to be a background character, except she's kind of shoved herself into the foreground and plays an increasingly important role in the ongoing stories.  Disclaimer:  I didn't originally tell the real person about it (the character was always one of the good guys, not an evil killer), but now she knows and she's tickled pink by the whole idea, especially since I told her I'd add a love interest for her in a coming book (in both the books and in real life she's divorced).

I initially included her because she has a long and intimate association with Philadelphia history, through a string of ancestors whose name she still bears.  That led to her involvement at the historical society where I worked, when she was on the board (as were her father and grandfather before her). She (the character) was the perfect go-to individual for anything to do with who's who in Philadelphia, going back a couple of centuries.  Since my protagonist is not a native Philadelphia, she needs just such a resource person on hand.

Anyway, to jump to the present…  The National Museum of Korea, in Seoul, recently mounted an exhibit they called Art Across America, and a lovely 18th-century portrait of one of those (real) ancestors and his family became the emblem for the exhibit.  Now, my husband has spent time in Seoul, over several years, and he has visited that museum on various occasions.  He will attest that Koreans are fascinated by all things American.

My friend, intrigued by all the hoopla that her ancestral family had occasioned in far-off Korea, decided to go see the exhibition in place.  She brought back souvenirs.  She shared a couple of those souvenirs with me.  The prize of the collection was…a towel with the iconic portrait on it.

No, not a tidy tea-towel such as you might find in an English palace (I think I have some of those squirreled away somewhere—the English do like their tea, and their bone china must be dried properly, of course).  This, in contrast, is a fuzzy if thin plush towel, made in Korea.

What do you do with a commemorative towel?  What were the Koreans thinking?

You can't dry the dishes with it, can you?  Isn't it kind of insulting to swab off your pots and pans with an historical figure?  If you do, is it some kind of obscure implied insult to our culture? Or major ambivalence?

If you are Korean, do you hang it on a wall, where it will sag, fade, and collect dust?  Do you frame this towel? Or do you store it carefully with all your other commemorative towels, and then on important family gatherings, take out the towels and pass them around for group admiration?

I'm baffled.  As I said before, I treasure many, often obscure souvenirs, that evoke strong memories in me.  But I have never envisioned cherishing a towel. 

Released June 2013

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Watching Yesterday’s TV Series with Today’s Eye

Elizabeth Zelvin

I got an iPad for Christmas last year, the new one with the brilliant Retina display, and to get the most out of it, I let go my longstanding resistance to Netflix. As a result, I’m doing less reading and a lot more TV watching. I’m enjoying a few current series, including Sherlock and Inspector Lewis on the mystery front as well as Nashville (right up my other alley as a singer-songwriter and filmed in locations I visited while attending Killer Nashville) and Downton Abbey (which I’d been hearing about on DorothyL since it started). But most of my viewing consists of crime shows: some I’d enjoyed and wanted to revisit and some that I’d missed for one reason or another.

There’s no better way to observe how rapidly the new technology has changed the way we live than to watch TV shows from the 1990s and even the early 2000s. Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren must have been one of the first shows to feature gritty forensics. Yet in the early episodes, she’s still using a phone with a rotary dial. In Inspector Morse, the plot frequently hinges on someone’s not being able to get to a phone, while in Inspector Lewis, Lewis and his sidekick, Sergeant Hathaway, are always excusing themselves in the midst of inspecting the crime scene or interviewing a witness to take a call on their cell phones.

I do watch the occasional old movie, and the farther back they go, the funnier some of the outmoded visions of technology are to the postmodern eye. In The Desk Set (1957), Spencer Tracy’s room-sized “electronic brain,” ie computer, was pitted against Katharine Hepburn’s retentive memory for facts. In Sabrina (1954) with Humphrey Bogart as a millionaire tycoon and Sabrina as the chauffeur’s daughter who undergoes a Pygmalion-like transformation by studying at a cooking school in Paris, the scene meant to show how mega-rich Bogart is has him sitting in the back of his chauffeur-driven limo talking on a phone with a curly black cord and a black refrigerator-handle receiver. Note that in 2013, “millionaire” is not even a synonym for “rich” any more. But technology is not the only thing that’s changed. I’ve changed too. In some cases, maybe it’s my memory that’s at fault. I loved the PBS show Cadfael, based on Ellis Peters’s wonderful historical novels about a twelfth-century monk, a former crusader turned herbalist and detective. I read and loved the books, too, and I remember them as relatively sunny, considering they took place during a civil war in the Middle Ages. In my memory, every one of those stories had a happy ending, with Cadfael helping at least one pair of lovers to find love and safety. On watching all fifteen episodes again, I found all but the first few disturbingly grim and dark.

Worst of all, as a mystery writer, I can no longer watch a detective story with the innocence and wonder that I used to bring to mysteries. I’ve just seen the first episode of The Closer, another favorite on DorothyL that I’d missed. Kyra Sedgwick’s acting is as wonderful as everyone said it is. But the twisty puzzle that has all her colleagues baffled? I figured it out in the first five minutes.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Age Bias in Fiction

by Sandra Parshall

I just finished a mystery by a male author whose books I like enough to buy (something I'm doing less and less often these days, as I try to thin out rather than increase my overwhelming book collection). Although I enjoyed it overall, I am bemused by the way he refers to his lead character’s mother.

Several times, the first-person protagonist notes that his mom is "almost sixty-seven" or "going on sixty-seven" -- and it's clear from the context and tone that he means she is OLD -- really, really old. In one scene the protagonist decides he doesn't need to hold his mother's arm to steady her as she walks because "her body was in decent shape for somebody going on sixty-seven." She has "memory problems" -- and if he means she suffers from Alzheimer’s disease,  that's realistic. Alzheimer's, while primarily a disease of advanced old age, can occur not only in the 60s but even earlier. It is not, however, a normal part of aging. The mom in the book, in any case, doesn’t appear to suffer from this devastating brain disease. As far as I can tell, she is “forgetful” because that serves the plot.

Her friends of the same age are also presented as women of greatly advanced age whose primary interest is bingo.

I mention this book not to single out the author for a thrashing (as I said, I enjoy his writing), but because it's just the latest novel in which I've seen "older women" portrayed this way. In one mystery written by a woman, the protagonist was trying to persuade her mother, seemingly healthy and independent at age 60, to move to an assisted living community where she could spend what remained of her days in a stress-free environment. A number of younger writers present older people of both genders as doddering, helpless wrecks or as comic relief characters who attend wakes and funerals for entertainment and openly leer at sexy members of the opposite gender.

I care because I am a woman of a certain age, and also because I hate the proliferation of a harmful stereotype.

I know plenty of women in their late 60s and older who lead active, challenging lives. Many swim, run in marathons, play tennis and golf – and a lot of them regularly turn out novels with complex plots and intriguing characters. Call them old women to their faces and you might get knee-capped for it. Younger writers attend conferences where authors in their 60s and 70s are a strong presence. Can't they see that these people are mentally sharp, quite articulate and entertaining, and aren’t causing traffic jams in the hallways with their walkers?

Why hasn’t the popular concept of an “older person” caught up with reality? Why are people over 60 still presented in fiction all too often as childlike and unable to fend for themselves or, even worse, as objects of fun?

Some writers, to be sure, not only avoid the stereotype but vigorously write against it. Daniel Friedman, who looks like a teenager but is undoubtedly a bit older, writes about an unforgettable 90-year-old retired male cop named Buck in Don’t Ever Get Old (Edgar nominee for Best First Novel). Buck has serious health problems, but that doesn’t stop him from setting out on a wild and dangerous adventure. Booklist praised the character for possessing “not an ounce of codger cuteness.” Another of my favorite older sleuths is the forever-92 poet Victoria Trumball in the Martha’s Vineyard mysteries by Cynthia Riggs.

How do you feel about the way older people are portrayed in fiction? Can you name more writers who create realistic, convincing older characters?

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Flood into Art, Part 1

Sharon Wildwind

If Calgary as made it to your local newscast in the past five days, you are aware that southern Alberta has experienced a week of flooding.

On June 21st both rivers that run through the middle of Calgary reached unprecedented flood levels. 75,000 city residents, who lived in 27 neighborhoods bordering the rivers, were mandatorily evacuated. Because of the city’s prompt action, there was one fatality.

At the outset, let me say that our family is safe. We live 6 blocks from the mandatory evacuation areas, and have weathered the past five days in good shape.

As of June 24th
  • 7 neighborhoods are still under partial evacuation orders and another four remain completely closed due to high water.
  • 24,000 households will be without electricity for the foreseeable future. This includes the entire downtown area, where 3,099 high rise buildings, including a brand-new 58-story The Bow office building, must be individually inspected for damage to their electrical, heating, ventilation, plumbing, and gas systems before they can be reopened and clean-up begun.
  • Thousands of homes have river water and/or sewage in their basements and first floors.
  • Historic sites — the 19th century sandstone City Hall; the original Fort Calgary built by the Northwest Mounted Police; the Calgary Stampede Grounds; the Calgary Flames’ Saddledome; and the city’s original French neighborhood (the Village of Rouleauville, now called Mission) — are severely damaged.

As I monitored various local sites and Twitter feeds for updates, I came across a press release from an electric company that manages eleven hydroelectric dams on the flooded rivers. At first I thought the dams’ descriptions might make a poem. They were

Shut down for repairs.
Inflow decreasing slowly and reservoir levels stable.
Inflow and reservoir levels decreasing slowly.
Inflow and reservoir levels steady.
Storing all inflow.
All dams are holding.

I realized those same phrases often describe out head space as writers.

In the best of times both our inflow and our productivity are steady. Then comes times when the productivity is good, but we have a nagging feeling that our creative juices, our inflow, are drying up. That feeling gets stronger; we realize it’s not just our inflow, but our ability to cope, our reservoirs, that are depleted. Sometime the system gets blocked: inflow is being stored, nothing is coming out. At the worst of times, we have to go down for repairs.
Here's my mood spinner. Make one for yourself.
I turned the electric company’s phrases into a mood spinner. Then I thought it would be fun if you could do your own spinner. I’ve put a .pdf of the basic design on my web site. It’s available for download, so that you can add your own thoughts, decorate it, and add some color. Go here to get the download.

As we're saying to one another here, stay safe.

Quote for the week from Calgary Transit.
Photo © Calgary Transit. Shows the downtown City Hall C-train station. The C-train is Calgary's light rapid transit system.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Attention Deficit and the Effect on Reading and Writing

by Julia Buckley

When I was a student I had a great attention span.  I sat through eight years of Catholic grade school--one teacher per year, the same basic class for eight years--and listened to what was mainly lecture for the whole day. I started first grade in 1971, and there wasn't much buzz in the world of education about hands-on learning, literature circles, group work or varied learning styles (or if there was, it didn't reach my educators).  So it was lots of listening, reading and writing, and I did fine in that environment. I read many books outside of school, too (the library was one of our favorite haunts), but I read them one and a time, and I didn't skim.  I was a linear reader, starting with the prologue or first chapter, and ending at the end.  No jumping ahead, no reading the ending first. I followed the rules.

In high school and college I followed a similar model.  It was only in my adulthood that I realized, as time became a more and more precious commodity and the sudden reality of the Internet offered more and more ways to divide that time, that I had to make choices.  These choices are endless, and they look like this:

1. Which books to read?  What's at the top of the TBR list?
2. Which books to write?  How much time is allotted for writing versus reading?
3. Which books will make me interrupt other books because I'm excited to read them? How many books can I read at the same time?
4. Which books, because of their vastness (GAME OF THRONES, I'm looking at you), will I find myself skimming because I just can't wait that many hours to find some of the answers I'm seeking from this text?
5. How much time can I conceivably spend on Facebook without it being a waste of my life force?
6. How much time, realistically, can be spent on promotion of my own books that might not pay off in any way?
7. How much time will I have left AFTER I grade papers and do lesson planning for my paying job?
8. How much leisure reading is allowable, and when does it become a vice that I must sneak in behind closed doors?
9. How much time is there for blogging, tweeting, web-siting?  Is it worth it, or is it an exercise in vanity--a cry into outer space?
10. How many times will I interrupt the thing I'm doing NOW because I thought of another thing I also need to do, and I figure I should do it while I'm thinking of it?

In answer to number ten: a lot of times.  In fact, today I noticed that I had four different windows open on my laptop and I kept jumping back and forth between them, just as my mind jumps back and forth.  Gone are the days of my linear thinking, and scientists theorize that this new hop-scotching thinking will eventually re-wire our brains.

My activity looked like this: I was working on a new book, but then remembered that there was a photo I wanted to e-mail someone.  I did so, then returned to the book, only to remember that I had wanted to Google "Jeanette Walls" because I am reading and admiring THE GLASS CASTLE.  I read about Walls and saw that she was writing a new book, so I clicked on the article telling me about that.  Then I read that Walls was married to another writer, so I clicked on the link telling me what he wrote.  Oops. Back to my
book. But then my son told me he wanted to buy a new television with his graduation money (it's always about the newest technology) and he wanted me to look at the link he sent me.  So I did.  Then I took a break to read some of THE GLASS CASTLE.  Back to the writing, which involved Googling a bunch of different things that I needed to know for the book, including some details about towns bombed during WWII and which German beers are most delicious.

I can understand why, at some point, they say we'll need to download information from external drives into our brains, which can only hold so much information.  There are days that mine feels like it's overflowing.

In any case, I am reading several books at once, and I'm managing to keep them separate in my mind.

Do you have an attention-deficit or non-linear life dilemma?  Are we the victims of our technological advances?  Do you still read the way you read twenty years ago?  If not, which way is better?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Writer's Conferences

Today, my mind is on writer’s conferences. Actually, my mind has been filled with thoughts of conferences for the past year and a half as I, and my other co-chairs, have been in the throes of planning one. Yes, it's just like herding cats...though cats are more cooperative!
This weekend I am running around at the Hilton in Pasadena for the California Crime Writers Conference, a biennial writer’s conference sponsored by Sisters in Crime Los Angeles and the Southern California Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. (By the way, don’t show up at the door hoping to get in. We are sold out! No room at the inn.) Being Vice President of SinC-LA automatically makes me a co-chair, and being President of SoCalMWA is an added bonus.

I can remember the first writer’s conference I attended. I wasn’t even writing mysteries yet. I was still a hopeful historical novelist, trying to get an agent. That was way back in 1993. It was held in San Diego and it was there I began learning about networking. Prior to that, I was a solitary writer, working away on my computer without really communicating with a soul about my writing. My son was three and I juggled my time with him, writing, and working on the weekends when his dad could be with him at home. I thought it would be a good place to not only learn a few things about the craft of writing, but the business of writing as well. And I knew I would be able to sit down and pitch my work to an agent or an editor. Those were heady days when all was new and I was just getting my writing legs. As it turned out, I did get my first agent from this conference and I’ve been on a learning curve ever since.

My first agent, Kimberley Cameron

I remember, at that first conference, that we were divided up into genres, and there were always a sparse few at the historical fiction table. We were the conference nerds, but that was okay. I spent all of my school years as some kind of nerd, too: a drama nerd, a literature nerd, an art nerd. But that was all right. It was good to talk and commiserate. I was learning a lot and quickly. From writing query letters to better researching techniques.

I went to this San Diego conference for years until I changed over to writing mysteries and got my publishing contract in 2007. If you do the math, you will see that there is fourteen years between that first conference and a contract. That’s a lot of time to write, a lot of manuscripts, and a LOT of rejections. And depression. Was this career choice really going to work? Would it be worth the time, effort, and money?

SJ Rozan speaking at 2011's CCWC
The first thing I really got from these conferences was inspiration. They served as giant pep rallys to encourage me and let me know that I was not alone! There were many others in the same boat as me. We weren’t in competition with one another, but cohorts in the same battle. I was able to connect with other medievalists online (which has continued to be a valuable resource) and other writers. Later, when I joined the mystery community and signed up for Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, I found a true home and concrete information I could take to the bank. In fact, it wasn’t long after I switched to writing mysteries that I got that contract.

For the writer starting out, I do recommend writer’s conferences. If you write mysteries, may I recommend ours in Southern California? You’ve got some time to plan. It won’t be rolling around again till 2015, but you’d better be ready to sign up by mid 2014. We sold out this time. Next year we might sell out even quicker.  

And if you're at the conference this weekend, stop me before I whiz by and say hello!

Friday, June 21, 2013


by Sheila Connolly

From the French verb for "to remember," souvenirs are mementos that we bring back from our travels (near or far) to jog our memories about a place and a time.

I am a souveniraholic (there, a new word).  I bring home items from everywhere I go.  Some I acquire from cheesy stores on main streets or in airports, ignoring the "Made in Malaysia" stickers on the bottom.  I keep ticket stubs, not just for tax purposes.  I buy postcards, but only if I can't take a better picture (museums often frown on taking your own in their galleries, although with the ubiquitous cellphones these days it's hard to stop anyone). I even gather keychains, with the net result that my so-called key ring has only two keys on it (house and car), but at last count, five souvenir items.  Oh, and a small LED flashlight someone sent me unsolicited in the mail—very useful.

Seashells from Sydney
Other items I acquire in a more authentic if slightly peculiar way.  I gather things like sugar wrappers (in several languages).  I collect seashells compulsively. I bring back rocks, which may be correlated with the ever-increasing weight of my suitcase.  Most of the time I can remember where the rock came from—a white one from Les Baux in Provence (which I visited mainly in homage to writer Mary Stewart), a small piece of carved stone from the ruins of Tintern Abbey in Wales, immortalized by William Wordsworth (if you're ever in the neighborhood you must see it, because it's
My bit of Tintern Abbey
extraordinarily moving), bits of slate from the crumbling roofs of the houses where my Irish grandparents were born.  Quartz pebbles I pulled out of the red soil in Australia. A small medieval arabesque that had fallen off the medieval church in Malmesbury in England.  The list goes on.  (No, I did not make off with a piece of Stonehenge. Nor do I travel with a hammer and chisel.) Looking around my work area, I realize there are quite a few rocks—and some of them I can't even remember collecting.  I also collect shards of eighteenth century tombstones, particularly those with something inscribed by a long-dead hand.

All of these are squirreled away in various boxes and drawers and on shelves throughout my house.  I visit them periodically—and, yes, they do evoke memories.  I'd like to use the term "touchstone" but that has other, unrelated meanings.  Or I'd opt for talisman, but that too has other baggage, mainly pertaining to some mystical properties of protecting the bearer. 

This most recent trip was notably free of pebbles (largely because my suitcase started out too heavy), although there were plenty of opportunities to harvest them.  Well, there might be a little piece of Carrara tucked into a pocket.  But mostly I acquired things quite legitimately.  I also found I was looking at them differently:  I dubbed my haul "loot."

I know, loot implies I seized it without paying, because I had the power and the opportunity, and that's not quite right.  But I felt as though I was sacking the country, bringing home those things that captured my fancy or meant something to me.  That has little to do with monetary value, and much more to do with items that bring back with particularly clarity a memory, a sense of time and place.  Now and in the future, I will hold something, and I will smile at what it evokes.  I will remember exactly when and where I acquired it, and it will take me back there.

On an oddly related note, last month I published an e book (Relatively Dead) that includes a paranormal element that involves touch.  Pictures are wonderful and I take more than my fair share of them, but having something you can hold in your hand, that has a physical reality, no matter how small, is a different experience. With all the amazing advances in film and computer-generated images made in the recent past, it's harder and harder to believe your eyes and trust a picture.  If you hold something in your hand, it's real.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Mantras for A Writer

Elizabeth Zelvin

Although I’m a lifelong writer who first dreamed of getting published at the age of seven, my first novel didn’t come out until my sixty-fourth birthday. In the five years since then, my path as a writer has had many twists and turns. In fact, nothing has turned out as I expected. Besides all the things I didn’t anticipate and can’t control—the new technology and the paradigm shift in the publishing industry—I’ve discovered that the learning curve continues. I’ve come to rely on several mantras to get me through. Some I worked out for myself, some came from the community of mystery writers, and I borrowed a couple from certain spiritual traditions because they happened to fit.

Just keep telling the story.
I’m an into-the-mist writer rather than an outliner, which means I write much of the first draft of a novel in a state of terror that I won’t make it all the way to the end. The cure for this is to turn off my internal censor and keep writing. I can’t remember which well-known writer I once heard say, “I can revise a page of bad writing. I can’t revise a blank page.” As my mantra suggests, the same is true of plotting.

Talent, persistence, and luck. I heard this early on, and I’ve found it to be true. As it happens, by the time I turned sixty, I felt reasonably secure about my talent, although I hungered for validation until my first novel came out. (My credits already included two poetry books and a lot of professional material.) If you feel insecure about your talent, the cure is to keep writing, take workshops and join critique groups to hone your craft, and work on your self-esteem with therapy, life coaching, or whatever you think will help.

The B version of this mantra is “Persistence, persistence, persistence.” Persistence is the only one of these three factors that’s entirely within your control. Not that it’s easy! You can persist in your craft by continuing to revise your work and write forward, creating new material while you’re trying to get what you’ve already written published. Persisting in the quest for publication means tolerating a lot of rejection. Before my first novel was published, I’d queried 125 agents and thirty-five publishers and rewritten the manuscript more than once. I still haven’t found a home for my most recent manuscript, a historical novel (the sequel to two successfully published short stories), after two years of revising and querying more than 115 agents and thirty publishers. Will I give up on it? Maybe, but not today.

Luck is the factor we can’t do anything about. All we can do is recognize it when it flies by us, grab its coattails, and hang on.

Don’t send out a first draft that hasn’t been revised and critiqued.
People told me this from the day I joined Sisters in Crime’s Guppies chapter in 2002 with the completed first draft of Death Will Get You Sober burning a hole in my computer. It might not have taken six years for the book to get published if I had been able to hear it. I was so excited, I couldn’t wait. In retrospect, my manuscript was not yet publishable. Nowadays, when self-publishing has become a viable option, I hope that writers are still taking to heart the principle that the first draft is almost certainly not the best possible version of their work.

Don’t quit five minutes before the miracle.
I said this every day for “five minutes” that lasted five long years. I was on the brink of giving up when I got not one but two miracles. One, I met someone who got an editor to read my manuscript, which had been sitting on his desk for two and a half years.Two, when he left his job after I’d rewritten the whole book at his request, he gave it to a legendary editor, and she liked it—the first time I’d gotten two positive responses in a row in my whole quest.

Nothing is wasted.
I don’t throw old material out. You never know. Besides the learning inherent in writing stuff that doesn’t work, it’s never too late to recycle unused material. It broke my heart when my editor rejected a novel set in a New Age community, including one of those characters who magically appears at the writer’s fingertips: in this case, a Tibetan monk who might or might not be able to levitate (and no, it’s not a paranormal story, although the community is known as Woo-Woo Farm). Five years later, this story, monk and all, appeared as an e-novella, Death Will Save Your Life. Trust me, it’s all the better for my having cut 50,000 words.

I’m writing the best I can at any time.
This is true for all of us. “Potboilers” are a myth—with the possible exception of a few bestselling authors who reach a level of success at which their name sells the books and they stop trying to improve their craft or come up with something fresh each time.

More will be revealed.
Certain as we may be that we’ll never get beyond the level of writing or degree of success we’ve reached, surprises are in store for us. Nobody can predict the future. I’m still spotting ways to improve the writing in Death Will Get You Sober that I couldn’t see even a year ago. And thanks to e-books, which didn’t exist (more or less) when the hardcover came out, I’ve had a chance to make those improvements in the new e-edition.

This piece first appeared in First Draft, the newsletter of the Guppies chapter of Sisters in Crime.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Writers on writing

by Sandra Parshall

Writers were talking and writing about writers and writing for two millennia before internet blogs came along to add to the chatter. Like most writers, I’m always searching for a bit of condensed wisdom that will light my way to The End, but sometimes I get a laugh instead -- or my jaw drops in disbelief that any great writer could have said that. For your edification or your outrage, as the case may be, here’s a selection drawn from Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and similar tomes.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626): “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested. . . .Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.”

Novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873): “The pen is mightier than the sword.” (Bulwer-Lytton also produced the immortal line “It was a dark and stormy night.”)

The always Kafkaesque Franz Kafka (1883-1924): “Writing is a sweet, wonderful reward, but its price? During the night the answer was transparently clear to me: it is the reward for service to the devil . . . descent to the dark powers . . .”

Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957): "Death in particular seems to provide the minds of the Anglo-Saxon race with a greater fund of innocent amusement than any other single subject."
George Orwell (1903-1950): “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

Agatha Christie (1890-1976): "It's no good starting out [to write a novel] by thinking one is a heaven-born genius–-some people are, but very few. No, one is a tradesman--a tradesman in a good honest trade. You must learn the technical skills, and then, within that trade, you can apply your own creative ideas, but you must submit to the discipline of form."

Raymond Chandler (1888-1959): [Asked if he would write his autobiography] "Who cares how a writer got his first bicycle?"

Norman Mailer (1923-2007): “America is a cruel soil for talent. It stunts it, blights it, uproots it, or overheats it with cheap fertilizer. And our literary gardeners, our publishers, editors, reviewers and general flunkeys, are drunks, cowards, respectables, prose couturiers, fashion-mongers, old maids, time servers and part-time pimps on the Avenue of President Madison. The audiences are not much better–they seem to consist in nine parts of the tense, tasteless victims of a mass-media culture, incapable of confronting a book unless it is successful.”

Sports columnist Red Smith (1905-1982): “[Writing is] easy. You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”
Argentina’s Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986): “Writing is nothing more than a guided dream.”

The very French writer Andre Maurois (1885-1967), who was born with the name
Émile Salomon Wilhelm Herzog: “The need to express one’s self in writing springs from a maladjustment of life, or from an inner conflict which the adolescent (or the grown man) cannot resolve in action.”

Lord Byron (1788-1824): “I do think . . . the mighty stir made about scribbling and scribes, by themselves and others, a sign of effeminacy, degeneracy, and weakness. Who would write, who had any thing better to do?”

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881): “An author who speaks about his own books is almost as bad as a mother who talks about her own children.”

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961): “If he wrote it he could get rid of it. He had gotten rid of many things by writing them.” (From the short story “Fathers and Sons”)

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940): “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.”

P. D. James (1920-): "Crime fiction today [2009] is more realistic in its treatment of murder, more aware of scientific advances in the detection of crime, more sensitive to the environment in which it is set, more sexually explicit and closer than it has ever been to mainstream fiction."
William Faulkner (1897-1962): “A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others.”

Literary critic Wilson Mizner: “When you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.”

Voltaire (1694-1778), attributed: “Originality is nothing but judicious imitation. The most original writers borrowed one from another. The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbors, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all. “

Philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662): “The last thing one settles in writing a book is what one should put in first.”

Mark Twain (1835-1910): “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

Georges Simenon (1903-1989), Belgian author of almost 200 novels: “Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness.”

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784): “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”

Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989): “Your business as a writer is not to illustrate virtue but to show how a fellow may move toward it or away from it.”

Literary critic Logan Pearsall Smith (1865-1946): “Fine writers should split hairs together, and sit side by side, like friendly apes, to pick the fleas from each other’s furs.”

Hollywood bombshell Mae West (1892-1980), in her autobiography: “Let Shakespeare do it his way, I’ll do it mine. We’ll see who comes out better.”

Lillian Hellman (1905-1984): “They’re fancy talkers about themselves, writers. If I had to give young writers advice, I would say don’t listen to writers talking about writing or themselves.”

Do you have a favorite quote that I’ve overlooked?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Flashbacks, back story, and dream sequences

Sharon Wildwind

Another writer and I recently had one of those lazy summer afternoon, coffee shop patio discussions. We ended up talking about how the misuse of flashbacks, back story, and dream sequences drive us crazy. Then we tried to figure out why we were both going crazy.

Often those kinds of scenes appear to be inserted for the writer’s convenience. A scene that could take place today, tomorrow, or next week will not feel urgent to the reader.

This is especially true if the dream is a one-off. Why is this night, of all nights, does the rational, logical detective conveniently have a dream that provides a clue? If the character was into dreams: kept a dream journal, had fragments of dreams scattered through the story, maybe was reading a book on dream therapy, then the single dream that unravels the mystery wouldn’t seem so out of place.

In critique groups if we’ve read a flashback or back story that didn’t work for us, and asked the writer the reason for the scene, the most common response is, “The reader needs to know this information in order to understand the character/story.”

Really? Readers get by nicely on a paucity of information. Imagine we’re meeting for coffee. You arrive and say, “My neighbor has gone missing.”

I don’t know a thing about your neighbor, not their name, gender, age, circumstances, life history, etc, but I guarantee you that my response will be shock, horror, fear, etc.

I am immediately engaged in their story because I’m reacting to what’s happening at this moment. Someone is missing. Bad things happen to people. I am fearful for another human being. I am a little fearful for myself. If it happened to them, could it happen to me?

If my response is, “Start at the beginning. Tell me everything,” you and I both know—or we should know—that I’m not asking you about when you moved next door to her forty years ago, her disastrous first marriage, her career as a bookkeeper, her cruise up the Inland Passage, or that she raises prize-winning roses. I want the story that begins when her daughter came to visit yesterday afternoon, found the front door unlocked and her mom gone.

By sprinkling in a few judicious facts — that she’s not confused, but she does take it into her head to have adventures; that this has happened before; and that a suitcase and some clothes appear to be missing, or that she is confused; it’s never happened before; and everything, even her purse, is still in the house — you set the context for whether I’m going to be calmer or more fearful at the end of your story. I still won’t either know or care about the first marriage, bookkeeping career, cruise, or roses, and that’s okay.

A good scene needs a goal, motivation, tension, and disaster. I admit that a lot of writers manage to work some or all of those elements into flashbacks and back stories, but good scenes also propel the story forward by changing a character’s circumstances. Very often characters come out of flashbacks, back stories, and dreams unchanged. What the writer expects is that the reader instead of the character will have changed.

Here are the three points my friend and I agreed made a good use of flashbacks, back stories, and dream sequences
  • Provide context, a few judicious facts, and see if that will suffice.
  • Especially for dreams, don’t use them as one-offs.
  • Focus on what dilemmas come out of them and which choice the character makes to resolve the dilemma. What is it about the past that is finally being resolved in this scene? Perhaps the character’s circumstances was changed in the past and, now, today, another change happens. Make that new change a defining moment in the story.

Quote for the week:
Show me a character whose life arouses my curiosity, and my flesh begins crawling with suspense.
~Fawn M. Brodie (1915 – 1981), biographer and history professor

Monday, June 17, 2013

GPS Versus GPS: (Global Positioning System Versus Gypsy Pride Syndrome)

A family travel tale by Julia Buckley
Like Sheila, I recently went on a trip--not to beautiful Northern Italy, but to undeniably lovely Northern Indiana--Kokomo, to be precise--to attend my niece's wedding.  Our route led us through golden fields, past stately grain silos and ancient barns, and through towns with bizarre claims to fame such as "largest praying mantis statue" and "smallest chapel."  (I tried to get a picture of the tiny chapel, but my sons, groggy from hours in the car, responded to this idea with great hostility).

Because I don't know this area well, I asked if I could follow my father, who is a full-blooded Hungarian and a gypsy at heart. (That's his car in the photo above). Nothing makes him happier than the open road.  When my siblings and I were young, we always climbed into our car after Sunday church with some trepidation, because we never knew if Dad was going to take us captive children on a "family drive" which often had us going miles away from home to find some adventure--cows in a pasture, or a narrow dirt lane (Let's see where it leads!), or some wooded path to explore on foot.

A country cemetery.
 This trip was no different, because my dad had said, "Sure, you can follow us, but we just want to stop at Corky's on the way."  Corky (aka Dorothy) was an old friend and colleague of my father's; she used to babysit us when she was young, and we all attended her wedding to LaVerne Koehn.  So today, "on the way" to my niece's wedding, we were going to sidetrack to visit Corky and LaVerne.

A barn in Corky's town.

Dutiful, we followed my father off of Route 65 and into a tiny, sleepy town with beautifully landscaped lawns.    We drove down a street and then off of it again, and then down that same street.  Then it dawned on me; my father was lost.  He would never say "lost."  He would call it "briefly uncertain."  My father never feels lost, a state which I find myself envying regularly.  We pulled up next to him and said, "What's up?"

He was studying a map.  "I'm a little turned around," he said.  

"Why don't you call her?" I said.

My father looked put out, but he did so.  LaVerne, who probably would have sided with my father about holding out for directional inspiration, said that it was easier for him to come and escort us rather than telling us the way over the phone.  So, two minutes later, LaVerne appeared in his car, and we two other cars trailed after him until we reached their sweet little house.

A church in Corky's town.

Corky, looking the same to me, even after thirty years, came out to greet us.  Leaning on a car in front of the house was my sister, another family traveler, who routinely makes the fourteen-hour drive down from Virginia for family events.  She seemed upset that my father had not found his way.

"Dad," she said.  "Where's the GPS system I gave you for Christmas?"

My father shrugged.  "In the trunk."

She made a noise that suggested aggravation.  "Dad.  How is it going to help you in the trunk?"

My father shrugged again.  "I have GPS," he said, pointing at his forehead.

A lovely grape arbor in--you guessed it--Corky's town.

My sister sighed noisily and we all went inside, where Corky had said out a freshly-made streusel-topped coffee cake, a giant glass jar full of chocolate-chip cookies, a giant glass pitcher of lemonade, and creme puffs.  "Help yourselves," she said.  

But first we toured her lovely back yard, a true child's paradise with a big playhouse and a sandbox and endless fun games.  Her three grandchildren ran around enjoying themselves, and we enjoyed her grandchildren.

My sons with the littlest grandchild--a boy named Liam.

But the scuffle over the GPS wasn't over.  Dad and LaVerne were consulting a map to find the best way to Kokomo (and the fastest, since we were a bit behind).  My sister, confident in technology, waved the map away.  "I'll go first," she said.  "I have GPS, and you can all just follow me."

My father sent her a significant glare.  "NO, we will not, because LaVerne just told me several shortcuts that your GPS doesn't know.  So we'll go with the local information."

LaVerne and Dad

Now it was my sister's turn to shrug.  She knew well enough that you don't tell a gypsy-hearted traveler how to get where he's going, and you certainly don't tell him to let a computer do it for him.

So we followed my father once again, and his instincts were pretty good.  But later, on the way to the restaurant, he forced me to follow him through a U-turn because he somehow passed the desired street.

Being only half-gypsy myself, I might still be tempted to buy a GPS--but my dad would say that takes all the fun out of the ride.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

10 tip-offs that you're into crime fiction

by Colby Marshall
Author of the McKenzie McClendon novels

I was recently on an anniversary trip with my husband, and while we were taking a romantic river  walk, we stopped to look out onto the water.  As we leaned our heads together in the moonlight, I whispered to him, "What is we saw a dead body in the water right now?"
Luckily, he's used to this sort of thing with me being a thriller writer and all, but this got me to thinking that mystery and thriller writers and readers are definitely an eccentric bunch.  Therefore, I give you the Top Ten Ways to Know You're a Mystery/Thriller Reader or Writer:
10.) You assume the power company representative who knocks on your door to tell you he will be trimming limbs too close to the power line is a government agent/serial killer/robber casing your house.  In fact, you often won't answer the door in case that is so.
9.)  You have an escape plan to get away from a killer chasing you in your house.
8.) When you read a book, you automatically distrust any character who gains your trust too much.
7.) Every time you start to crank your car, you subconsciously hold your breath in case you hear that little sound that means turning the ignition has set off a bomb (as if you could do something about it).
6.) Having a panic room built into your home does not seem like paranoia.
5.) You see a really large spiral staircase and feel the need to mention that it would be very easy for a killer to use said staircase to plan a death that looks like an accident.
4.) You eye the car in your rearview mirror every time you turn to make sure he's not tailing you.
3.) You've arranged a code word with your spouse/kids to signal that text messages are really coming from you.
2.) When you go out of town, you leave three lights on so the robbers will think someone's still home.
    1.)  More than once, you've contemplated the fastest way you could get dressed to run away from a killer if you are in the shower/in bed/in the bathroom should an intruder/a mysterious fire/a nemesis out for revenge happen upon your house.  
What habits do you have that show your mystery reader or writer colors?
Writer by day, ballroom dancer and choreographer by night, Colby has a tendency to turn every hobby she has into a job, thus ensuring that she is aperpetual workaholic.  In addition to her 9,502 regular jobs, she is also a contributing columnist for M Food and Culture magazine and is a proud member of International Thriller Writers and Sisters in Crime.  She is actively involved in local theaters as a choreographer and sometimes indulges her prima donna side by taking the stage as an actress.  She lives in Georgia with her family, two mutts, and an array of cats that, if she were a bit older, would qualify her immediately for crazy cat lady status.  Her debut thriller, Chain of Command is about a reporter who discovers the simultaneous assassinations of the President and Vice President may have been a plot to rocket the very first woman—the Speaker of the House—into the presidency.  Chain of Command is now available, and the second book in her McKenzie McClendon series, The Trade, is due for publication by Stairway Press this month. You can learn more about Colby and her books at  

Friday, June 14, 2013

Time Out

by Sheila Connolly

Sharon's post earlier this week put my recent adventures abroad in a new perspective for me.

View from Capitignano in Tuscany
The backstory:  I just returned from a two-week trip to Italy, planned by two of my college classmates and announced at our reunion last June.  Space was limited to forty (no spouses or partners), and since there were more people who wanted to go than spaces, the organizers held a lottery, and I was one of the lucky winners.  I put my name in the day it was originally announced, without even thinking about it.  I'd been to Italy once before, decades ago, and had never planned to go back, but when the gods drop a gift in your lap, you don't quibble about the wrapping paper.

It was fabulous, and I'm sure I'll be telling you more in coming days, but I was struck by how well the trip fulfilled many of Sharon's suggestions.

--we spent ten days without seeing a television set or a newspaper.  I assume someone would have told us if something major had blown up (especially if it interfered with air travel), but otherwise we were cut off from current events.  Ah, peace.

--there was no time to read.  Of course we all brought books (both print and digital), and we had access to plenty more, but somehow reading never fit into the schedule.  We were busy from dawn to after the late dinners, and then we fell into bed and slept. No need to lull ourselves to sleep with words—by ten most nights we had to fight to keep our eyes open.

--no marketing.  Ah, bliss. (Well, I might have to admit that the group I was with was the perfect demographic target for my kind of book, but I didn't run around flogging the books to anyone who would listen.) I had a book published on June 4th, Monument to the Dead, and the extent of my promotion for that was a newsletter to my fewer than 1,000 subscribers.  Period.  No social networks, no guest blogs.  I could get email on my phone, but no way was I going to try to respond to blogs and posts on a two-inch screen.  It was a clean break.

--Exercise.  Sound of hysterical laughter.  In northern Italy, it seems that everything is on a hill.  Uphill.  We walked, and walked, and walked.  Through towns clinging to mountainsides, through fields with Roman ruins, into the center of a mountain of marble in Carrara.  In Florence we saw at least three museums (all in different parts of the city, of course), and then took off on our own to shop or, in my case, to hunt down the perfect gelato.  We did not sit in a café and admire the passing crowd; we were the passing crowd.

--Eating?  Amazing.  And healthy.  Lots of very fresh tomatoes, and olive oil from trees only feet from where we ate.  Incredible seafood, from the sea we could see as we sat at our tables.  Wine from grapes right down the hill. The aforesaid gelato—I tried nine flavors, sometimes two in a day.  But in small, intense portions.

--No planning.  One of the most appealing things about this whole idea was that I didn't have to organize it, past getting myself to Italy on time.  I didn't have to hunt down places to stay, rent a car, make decisions about which museums or towns to see, or where and when to eat.  It was a great relief to let someone else worry about all that stuff.

--One thing Sharon didn't mention:  Talking.  We writers are often solitary
Monterosso in Liguria--the view
from my patio
people, and there are days when my main companions are my cats (yes, I talk to them).  On this trip I was thrown into a group of forty interesting, accomplished women, some of whom I knew to some degree, others I recalled only by name.  Many I hadn't seen for forty years, so there was a lot of catching up to do.  And we did, at meals, in vans as we sped (as much as you can speed on Italian mountain roads with scary hairpin turns) from one incredible site to the next. Smaller subgroups shifted and mingled.  We sang, we toasted our tireless coordinators, both of whom deserve a medal for putting all this together.

--And one more thing:  the views.  We humans seem to define certain views as beautiful, and I'll agree—misty mountains receding into the distance, terra-cotta colored towns scattered in lush greenery, peeks of the sea.  All lovely.  Does it change your perspective to be surrounded by beauty like this? 

Did I write anything?  Nope, nothing beyond a brief email to family.  Did I miss it?  Not really, because it was important to be in the moment. Will I be using the experience in a book?  Of course.

I think it fits Sharon's definition of a break.  Is my brain detoxified?  I think so, if I can get past the jetlag.  What day is this?