Saturday, October 10, 2015

Written in Blood, a Conversation With Diane Fanning

Diane Fanning is a true crime writer and crime novelist, whose book, Written in Blood, was an Edgar nominee featured on the TV program, 20/20. Her research led to the release of an innocent woman from prison who had been convicted of murder.

Diane, why did you decide to correspond with serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells? And how long was it before he confessed to you in a letter that he had murdered 10-year-old Joel Kirkpatrick, whose mother had been convicted of killing her son?

I sent my first letter to Tommy Lynn Sells after I acquired an agent and a contract to write about his crimes. In my first letter, I told him I was writing a book and requested a visit with him. At the time, he had been transferred from Death Row to the Bexar County Jail in connection with the murder of Mary Bea Perez. After that visit, at the end of September 2001, the correspondence continued.

I interviewed him face-to-face nearly twenty times at the jail and on Death Row before June 2002, when he wrote the first letter that indicated his possible involvement in the murder of Joel Kirkpatrick. He made additional remarks in another letter two weeks later. I visited him on Death Row that July and he provided additional information.

What did you say to Sells that prompted the confession? And did you believe the boy’s mother was innocent all along?

At the end of May, I stumbled across an ABC Prime time show about the Joel Kirkpatrick case. I heard Julie and her family and friends claiming innocence. I was highly skeptical. And then, the show presented comments from the prosecuting attorney. It was what he said that made me doubt Julie’s guilt.

Among other things, he said they knew there was no intruder because they found no stranger fingerprints at the scene and because an attacker would come with a weapon, not use a knife found in the kitchen. I knew the things the prosecutor was saying were not true. Many killers leave no fingerprints; many use a weapon found in the home—including Tommy Lynn Sells. It was after listening to the state’s attorney that I tended to believe that someone like Sells could have committed that crime.

I wrote to Sells about the ridiculousness of the prosecutor’s statements. I did not name the attorney, I did not name the victim, the city or the time frame or mention Julie Rea Harper. Sells wrote back asking if the murder occurred on the 13th of October, two days before he killed Stephanie Mahaney. It did.

That was the first moment that I thought that Sells might be involved. However, at that point in time, I only doubted Julie’s guilt and suspected the possibility of Sells’ involvement. I was not certain of either.

Three months after the release of the book in July 2003, Bill Clutter, an investigator for the Innocence Project at the University of Illinois at Springfield, found corroborating evidence—three witnesses who had seen Sells in the small town of Lawrenceville on the weekend of Joel’s murder. Revelations of botched crime scene processing—no one dusted for fingerprints, for example—along with overlooked and untested evidence and other information were then revealed. After learning more, I became totally convinced of Julie’s innocence and nearly certain of Sells’ responsibility for the murder of Joel.

When and why did you become interested in writing crime fiction?

I have been an avid reader of crime fiction for decades and have been interested in writing it since before I wrote my first true crime. My first success at obtaining a book contract was in non-fiction but I maintained my interest in fiction. At the time, I had a full time job as the Executive Director of a non-profit organization and struggled to handle just one genre. Once I was able to leave my day job, I had the time to also write my first love: crime fiction.

You majored in chemistry in college so why didn’t you become a chemist instead of a crime writer? Have your chemistry studies served you well when writing your crime series?

 I was a science major because that was what I was supposed to do. My real love was writing and I pursued that instead. Initially, I wrote commercials for radio, television and magazines along with free lance articles and personal essays.

A science background is definitely useful in writing about the increasing complexities of forensic investigation.

Tell us about the Lucinda Pierce crime novel series.

 Lucinda Pierce is a homicide detective in Virginia. She bears facial scars from a domestic violence incident that are a reflection of the childhood emotional scars that drove her into law enforcement. She feels isolated from the world because of her physical and psychological injuries but is fighting to overcome those obstacles in her life.

She is tough, but not invincible; demanding but empathetic—a strong female protagonist with flaws and feelings.

There are now four books in the series: The Trophy Exchange, Punish the Dead, Mistaken Identity, and Twisted Reason. You can read the first chapter of each of these books on the Reading Room page on my website.

For whom do you write?

Primarily, I write for my readers. But if you mean who are my publishers, the answer is that my true crime is through St. Martin’s Press, my fiction through Severn House.

Do you outline your novels as you do your true crime books?

 When I was seeking my first contract to write true crime, I had to do an outline within my proposal to the publisher. However, once I’d started writing the book, I essentially ignored the outline. I do not outline any of my books from start to finish. I do sometimes outline short portions of the book while the writing is in progress when I feel a need to arrange and solidify my thoughts.

How did you acquire an agent and how long did it take to find the right one?

I spent two years unsuccessfully looking for an agent. When I found the right one, at the right time with the right material, I had an agent within 24 hours of submission.

Advice to aspiring writers?

Read like a maniac. You can learn something new from every genre, no matter what you are writing. And keep writing—practice makes us all better at what we do. Most important of all, never, never, never give up. Approach each rejection as a challenge to overcome—the right material at the right time to the right person can happen if you write with passion and commitment.

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers where you can also read Diane Fanning's article, "Split Personality.")

Saturday, October 3, 2015

We Can All be Writers

by Jacqueline Seewald

I began writing short stories and poetry when I was in grade school. My mother bought me a typewriter when I was eleven, and by the time I was twelve, I had mastered the skill of touch-typing. That was when I started to submit work competitively.

As an adult, I wasn't particularly interested in learning to use a computer. I suppose I had become somewhat set in my ways, fearful of technology and resistant to change. But my two sons would not accept that. Insisting that my writing would greatly improve if I learned to use the word processing application of their Appleworks program, they refused to accept my cop-outs. At the time, we had purchased an Apple computer for them at their request. It proved to be indestructible.

The boys collected a tremendous number of programs both educational and recreational for their machine. But it was Appleworks that proved most useful for me. For the first time, I could really edit my writing with ease. And the boys were correct, my work did improve dramatically. I was a high school English teacher who also taught writing courses at Rutgers University, yet it was my children who acted as my teachers. And what terrific instructors they were!

Eventually, I obtained my MLS degree. I worked as an academic librarian and then as an educational media specialist (school librarian). I became thoroughly acquainted with PC's and doing Dialog searches for both teachers and students. As the Internet became available, I took courses to further my knowledge. But the Internet was not easily accessible at that time, and there was so much to learn regarding computer protocols and languages. The Internet was a vast ocean, a sea of difficult to obtain treasures.

It wasn't until the introduction of the World Wide Web that things changed. But change they did, and dramatically! I would compare this information explosion to the invention of Guttenberg's printing press. The average person could now have access to knowledge much more quickly and easily. Suddenly, there were search engines that could accept natural speech as search terms. Because of this intellectual revolution, we can all access knowledge with great convenience. Writers of non-fiction and fiction alike are able to benefit.

The word processing program I now use, Microsoft Word, makes it so much easier to improve the quality of writing. With Internet access available at a reasonable price, almost anyone can have use of the web. And those that truly cannot afford it can use it at most public libraries free of charge.

Today I can access all sort of writing markets via the net. I can also contact editors by using e-mail. This has become so much a part of my life that I use it everyday. My writing, which at one time was limited to print publication, now has a much more extensive audience.

When my husband, convinced me to take an early retirement so that I could start writing full-time, (and also spend more time with him, since he was already retired) I insisted on only one thing. The condition for me leaving my job was that we immediately buy a new computer with Internet capability for our home. My husband, who was not computer literate at the time, agreed, but with some reservation and reluctance.

"Pick out whatever you like," he said, "but don't expect that I'll ever be interested in using it."

I wouldn't accept his pronouncement. I kept cajoling him until he finally sat down with me and learned the basics. Having been a math teacher, he actually took to it easily. Since he follows the stock market, we used Yahoo as a search engine. He was soon into trading online.

The fact of the matter is that we reached a point where we needed a second computer in our house. My husband who claimed he would never have any interest or reason to use a computer or the Internet is totally addicted. He reads newspapers from around the country and the world each morning on the net and communicates with various people through e-mail and message boards.

Through writer's listservs, I can communicate with other writers and discuss common problems. There is no doubt in my mind that the Internet has the capacity to enrich all our lives and will continue to do so. As I grow older, I am more aware that retirement and aging often bring increased isolation. But because of the Internet, it doesn't have to be so. Even the homebound and the disabled now have access to communication. Modern technology has brought us a boundless sea of information and the ability to readily communicate with others. I for one feel greatly appreciative. Because of the information revolution and the easy availability of computers, anyone and everyone can be a reader and writer. We can communicate with people everywhere in the world. The computer has become an invaluable tool for writers and a true equalizer.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Remembering Leighton Gage


Leighton Gage wrote the Chief Inspector Mario Silva series, crime novels set in Brazil. His work has been praised by the New York Times, Booklist, Library Journal, Kirkus and a variety of other publications as well as by numerous online reviewers. He was interviewed following the release of his novel, Every Bitter Thing, released in December of 2010 by Soho Crime.

When asked what had taken him to various parts of the world during periods of upheaval?  And was he a working journalist, he said:

No, it wasn't journalism. It was curiosity - and wanderlust. My maternal grandfather was a Yankee sea captain, like his father and grandfather before him, and when I was a little kid, he used to sit on my bed and regale me with stories about the places he’d been and the things he’d seen, He introduced me to a poem from Kipling, a stanza of which became my mantra:                                                                                                                                    


It's like a book, I think, this bloomin' world,
 Which you can read and care for just so long,                         
 But presently you feel that you will die
 Unless you get the page you're readi'n' done,
 An' turn another likely not so good;
 But what you're after is to turn 'em all                                            

That was some sixty years ago. I have spent the years since trying to turn all of the pages.

Why did you decide to settle in Brazil and set your novels there?

I’m a Brazil nut. I went there first in the mid-seventies. I was supposed to stay in São Paulo for two years. But, in a sense, I never left. I fell in love with the country. And then, somewhat later, I fell (even more deeply) in love with a girl. She became my wife. She and I have been together, now, for thirty-three years. She is the great love of my life, my constant companion, my soulmate. Oh, we go away every once in a while. Two years in Australia in the eighties. Nine months last year in Paris. But we always go back. It’s our base, our anchor. The language we speak at home is Portuguese. I know Brazil better than any other place and, believe me, I know a lot of places. So, when I sat down to write a crime novel, it just came naturally.

Briefly tell us about your Chief Inspector Mario Silvia crime series.

Mario is a federal cop. In Brazil, there’s no DEA, no ATF, no Secret Service, no Customs and Immigration Service, no Department of Homeland Security. And most police departments don’t have internal affairs departments. All of those functions, and more, are within the purview of the Brazilian Federal Police. And their mandate is national. So Silva and his colleagues get to travel all over the country and deal with every conceivable kind of crime. That gives me an opportunity to make each one of the books very different. Example: Blood of the Wicked, the first in the series, deals with issues like liberation theology, and the land wars, the battles between the haves and have-nots. Dying Gasp, the third, deals with the sexual exploitation of minors in Brazil’s northeast, while book four, A Vine in the Blood, involves a serial killer and is a more conventional mystery.

What prompted you to begin writing? And for whom do you write?

Don’t we all want to write books? I always did. It just took me a half-century or so to sit down and get to it.

In the beginning, I thought I was writing for a male audience. Then I toured the first book. And discovered what I should have known all along. Most mystery fans are women. Discovering that had an effect on what I write. I’ve toned down the graphic violence, and I’m introducing an element of romance.

As to why I write, remember what Samuel Johnson said? “Anyone who writes for anything except money is a fool.”

Yeah, that’s what I thought too. I wish it were true. But with the pittances we writers earn, I gotta admit, I do it for glory.

Tell us about your novel, Every Bitter Thing.

Every Bitter Thing begins with the murder, in Brasilia, of the son of the Foreign Minister of Venezuela.

It’s a high-profile crime, with diplomatic overtones. Chief Inspector Mario Silva of the Brazilian Federal Police is under considerable political pressure to bring the case to a speedy conclusion. And, initially, because there is an obvious suspect with a strong motive, that seems likely to happen.

But then it’s discovered that similar murders committed with exactly the same (somewhat unusual) M.O. have been committed in other cities in the country. And it turns out that the solution of the mystery isn’t simple.

I might add that all four of the big trades (PW, Kirkus, LJ and Booklist) have chosen to review it and all four responded most favorably. (Yeah. Even Kirkus.)

And Glenn Harper thinks it’s my best one yet. Here’s what he had to say:

What’s your writing schedule like?

I get up in the morning, check my emails, do an hour on an exercise bike and get down to it. I write until about two, have lunch with my wife and take a nap. After the nap, I write some more and knock off at about seven PM. We dine very late, often as late as ten, and seldom go to bed before one or two in the morning. I don’t write on weekends, except for the blog I do with five other writers who set their stories outside the United States.

Do family members serve as first readers or sounding boards during a work in progress?

Never. I believe that good books aren’t written. They’re re-written, and re-written and re-written. So I don’t like to plague anyone with my scribbling until an editor gets through with me.

How difficult was it to find an agent?

Probably the toughest thing I’ve done in this business. In comparison, writing the first book was easy. I shudder to think how much tougher it must be now that the bottom has dropped out of the market. But, ya know, I truly think there’s an agent out there for everyone. You just have to find her (him). And that may mean you’re going to have to query a couple of hundred people. Seriously. A couple of hundred. If you’re a new writer, and you hit the jackpot within the first dozen or so, consider yourself blessed.

Advice to fledgling crime novelists?

I’ve read the advice of the other authors to whom you’ve asked this question. All of them are right – in part. You do have to read at lot, write a lot, persist, persevere and be committed. But, if I was sitting down with an aspiring writer, just the two of us, I wouldn’t presume to answer the question without knowing:

(a) Whom I’m talking to and

(b) What kind of a writer they want to be.

And those are questions, Dear Fledgling Crime Novelist, that only you can answer. Early on, in this interview, I inserted a quote from Kipling.

Rudyard, as most of us know, was the poet of empire, a man of the world, a social lion, who traveled everywhere, met everyone. He was widely-read in his lifetime. He was the youngest recipient (ever) of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Contrast him with Emily Dickinson. Emily the introvert, the recluse, the woman who led a solitary life, never made close friends, hardly ever traveled at all, never married, lived out most of her life in one small town.

If I was sitting down with Emily, and she told me she wanted to write an international thriller, my advice to her would be to steer away from it. Kipling might have been able to do it, probably could have. But Emily? I doubt it. I’d suggest she stick to cozies.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Coffee Shop Writing: You Want Fries With Your Fiction?

by Tim Hallinan

I always feel a pang of envy when I see the photo of some successful writer's workspace, with the mahogany desk, the rows of books, the immaculate, plumb-straight stack of manuscript pages, the professorial rack of pipes (for men, anyway). This is a space that exudes calm reflection and decisive creativity, a place where good ideas just hover in the corners, waiting to be noticed, a place that says serious work is done here.

And God knows I've tried to make one. I bought the desk, the swivel chair, and reams of extra-heavy paper to make the manuscript look thicker in those pitiful early stages. I put my books up. I put other people's books up. I put up books I've never read, never wanted to read, and will probably never read. And then I sat down to Create.

And, ten minutes later, found myself waxing the dining room table, or vacuuming the living room, or pouring Drano down some perfectly good drain and waiting thirty minutes for nothing to happen. Self-discovery dawned: I can't work at home. The first time a word is slow to show up, I've got a sponge in my hand.

So now I work in coffee shops. And since I write my Asia series in Asia, that means that the coffee shops in which Poke Rafferty and his family come into being are mainly in Bangkok and in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

I'm writing these words in K-Coffee, an immaculate little coffee house on Street 214 in Phnom Penh. It's off the beaten track, which means it's not full of bored expatriates who think it's perfectly appropriate to come over to my table, look over my shoulder, read for a minute or two, and then say, “So, whatcha doing?”

(By the way what is it with people who think that writing is infinitely interruptible? Almost the only drawback to working in public is the stream of doofuses who figure that the poor lonely guy pounding away at that keyboard would much rather hear a stupid question or two? Or who settle in with the most dreaded phrase of all, “I could write a book if I just had the time,” and then tell you at great length about the book they haven't got the time to write, although they seem to have all day to talk about it.)

Sorry about that. Writing in Asian coffee shops has the following things to recommend it:

1. They're in Asia, which is where I generally want to be,
2. Many, many of the people in the shop speak no English, which makes it much more likely that I'll finish a paragraph – this one, for example – without interruption.
3. The help in Asian coffee shops is actually helpful. They don't, for one thing, think of themselves as baristas. They think of themselves as people who work in a coffee shop. And they don't feel compelled to estimate a customer's Hipness Index before deciding whether to trust him or her with that cup of organic, free-trade, shade-grown French roast.
4. They serve coffee, as opposed to organic, free-trade, shade-grown French roast or caramel-whip frappes with essence of raspberry that's been strained through the Unicorn Tapestries or something.
5. They serve Vietnamese coffee, which is stronger than lye and will dissolve the most stubborn writer's block. It's a sort of creative Drano.
6. I can always find a face. I hate describing faces. If I want an Asian face in an Asian coffee shop, all I have to do is look around the room: A hard-looking fifty, unrealistically black hair pasted back above ears like parentheses, a head set directly onto the shoulders without enough neck to make room for a Windsor knot, and the kind of eyes that make you wonder whether you could stand to look at what they've seen. That's the guy at the next table. I didn't even have to think him up.

What's not good about writing in Asian coffee shops is Asian pop music, which tends to be sparkly and fey, so unremittingly upbeat that it makes me suicidal. That's where the iPod comes in. Mine contains almost 6,000 songs, arranged in about 20 playlists. So my writer's workspace is a small table in an Asian coffee shop full of people who don't speak English, and an iPod with the world's best ear buds.

Eat your heart out, James Patterson.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Not-So-Lonely Long Distance Writer

by Scottish Author Gillian Philip

When I used to fantasise about being a professional writer, I thought it would be easy in one respect. Look at that JD Salinger, I thought. It’s fabulous, you don’t have to go anywhere or even show your face. You get to sit in your ivory garret all day, staring into space and communing with your muse. Occasionally a polite letter might appear from one’s editor, asking how one’s manuscript is coming along – but hesitantly, tentatively, lest the muse be put to flight.

Erm, not quite. There are times when the Highlands feel an awfully long way from even the Scottish Central Belt, let alone London. And these days – indeed for a long time now – life as a recluse hasn’t been an option for any writer who wants to sell books to more than their mother and their best pal. A gregarious nature is a positive advantage, and so is a Railcard.

Publishers these days expect you to promote your books. More books are being published than ever before, and it isn’t just getting published that’s fiercely competitive – it’s staying published. In other words: selling your books and making your publisher a profit. And when you’re competing for marketing funds with every other author on a list, there’s no point being complacent. You have to be willing, and you can’t be shy. No publisher is going to look kindly on an author who won’t contribute to selling the book they were so keen to see published.

Anyway, it’s fun. I didn’t know what a sociable creature I was till I started promoting my books. For a children’s author this can be particularly rewarding, because once a school audience gets over its usual shyness, students of all ages are terrific at not only asking hard questions, but also telling you their own reading loves and writing ambitions. I’ve watched a workshop class scribble out page after page of story, and thought: How do you make all those words appear? Any tips you can give me, guys...?

Living far from the centre, though, getting gigs can be difficult. Local schools are fantastic, and there’s a healthy population of independent bookshops in the north, as well as some fine literary festivals. But obviously, a school in the south of England isn’t going to want to pay a writer’s Easyjet fare when there are plenty of authors in Surrey.

This is where the Internet has been such a boon to writers. Not only is a personal author website a must, there are wonderful sites like the Scottish Book Trust or ContactAnAuthor that carry writer databases: shop windows and time-savers all rolled into one.

The net is also home to the book blogs. They’re run by enthusiasts with a fine and critical eye, and they give space and reviews to writers who might never see their work mentioned in the ever-shrinking review pages of the traditional press.

And there’s one other huge advantage the Internet has given to writers: pals. It’s home to any number of writers’ groups: invaluable for those ‘water cooler moments’ when you can’t bear the sight of your manuscript any more, you’ve just had another rejection/deadline reminder from your editor, and you’re propping up your eyelids with broken biros. Maybe writing was a lonely business in the past, but that no longer has to be true.

In fact it can be so sociable, you have to be careful to get some actual writing done. Because before you can publicise that literary masterpiece, you do still have to write it...

Sunday, September 6, 2015

A Conversation with Writing Coach Mark David Gerson

A professional writing coach who has traveled from Canada to Hawaii and points in between, New Mexican-based writer Mark David Gerson helps other writers unleash their "creative fire."

When and why did you decide to become a writing coach?

Like many things in my life, I didn't set out to be a writing coach. It just sort of happened. My first clients were individuals who were unable to attend the writing classes, seminars and workshops I'd been offering since 1993. Those early sessions were private, one-time, one-on-one workshops -- often over the phone. Then, students and workshop participants began to ask to work with me on an ongoing basis -- to give them the individualized help over time that them that is rarely possible in a group setting.

As inspiring people to access, experience and express their passion (I also do life-coach work) is my passion, it’s been gratifying to have helped so many writers over the years to unleash their creative fire, overcome writer's block, navigate through particular projects and live out their potential.

What does it mean to move through creative blocks and deepen creativity?

It’s about recognizing that we are all natural storytellers and that we all have the power, passion and potential to express those stories on the page in ways that will touch and transform others. And as we go deeper to the place within us where those stories reside, we are able to live more fulfilled, more creative lives.

You’ve done a lot of traveling to teach. Is that from choice or necessity?

For the most part, I’ve taught where I’ve lived -- and I’ve lived in a lot of places! So I’ve taught in Toronto and in various places in Canada’s Atlantic provinces, as well as in Arizona and New Mexico, and on two Hawaiian islands. However, I’ve also traveled extensively in the U.S., which has allowed me to work with groups and individuals in many other wonderful places as well, including Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Connecticut and South Dakota.

Your book, The Voice of the Muse: Answering the Call to Write has been acclaimed for its unique blend of inspiration and instruction designed to help overcome writer's block and unleash creative potential. What does that entail?

The Voice of the Muse: Answering the Call to Write is a distillation of all I have learned about writing through my 16 years of teaching and coaching. It combines inspirational vignettes with practical tools and powerful exercises to get you writing and keep you writing, whatever your genre or level of experience. And I’m proud to say that it has just won its first award, an IPPY through the Independent Publishers Book Awards.

As a companion to the The Voice of the Muse book, I’ve also recorded The Voice of the Muse Companion, a two-CD compilation of guided meditations for writers, also designed to inspire and instruct and to help create the mood and inner space that frees up creativity.

You’ve contributed to five other nonfiction books, including Terra Cotta: Artful Deceivers. What is that about?

I’ve contributed to five books over the years. In some cases, like Authors Access: 28 Success Secrets for Authors and Publishers!, Today’s Brilliance: Inspirational Luminaries Share Words of Wisdom and Terra Cotta: Artful Deceivers, I was commissioned to write an essay for an anthology. Chronicles of Canada included an existing essay of mine in their collection.

What's the most important mistake that fledgling writers make when writing a first book?

I’d say the biggest mistake writers can make -- fledgling or seasoned -- is in assuming that they’re smarter than their story and that they’re in control of the creative process. Creativity is alchemy. It’s taking an unlikely mix of ingredients and letting those ingredients run wild on the page, at least in the initial drafts. It’s a journey of discovery -- of characters, of story, of self. When we try to squeeze our words and stories into a straitjacket, we risk squeezing the life, art and magic out of them.

Would you advise anyone to get into the publishing business in today’s unstable conditions?

First, conditions have never been stable in the publishing industry. Second, if your primary purpose in writing is to make a buck, I’m probably the wrong person to talk to. Not that I haven’t made money from my writing. It’s just that my primary focus -- in my own work and in my writing/teaching -- is about following my passion, and the story, wherever it leads. Sometimes, it leads to fame and fortune. Sometimes it doesn’t. It always leads to something life-affirming and personally transformational and, as such, it’s always worth doing.

Are writers born or can you actually teach someone to write?

In the sense that we’re all innately creative, anyone can write. We may need to pick up skills, craft and technique along the way, but those can be learned. What I teach you is not how to write but how to access, trust and get onto the page the stories that we all carry within us as the natural storytellers we are.

Is writing really a catharsis and do you encourage those with little creativity to continue to write although they have little chance of publication?

Based on some of my other answers, you’ve probably already figured out that I’m going to disagree with the basis of your question. Everyone is creative. That doesn’t mean that everyone will win a Pulitzer Prize or even get published. But writing, as I’ve said, is powerfully transformational. It’s personal alchemy. I would never discourage anyone from setting words to the page in as heartful a manner as possible. Because the personal benefits are always wondrous.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Pitfalls of First-Person POV

by Chris Roerden

Whether you Twitter or talk, you’re communicating from your first-person point of view. So first-person is the most natural, easiest POV for writing fiction. But new writers underestimate its limitations. The “I” narrating your novel is not you, the author, and cannot know what’s in other characters’ heads.

Caution: slippery

Here’s a sentence I wrote to illustrate the error of a narrator’s presuming to know another’s intentions or feelings:

I tried to take my luggage, but she kept a firm grip, needing to keep her hands busy.

An “I” narrator knows her own thoughts and needs, no one else’s, and uses her five senses to perceive the signs revealed by others--their words, actions, body language. Based on behaviors shown, your narrator can speculate:

I tried to take my luggage, but she kept a firm grip, maybe needing to keep her hands busy.

Notice “maybe”--which is how June Shaw wrote this line in Killer Cousins, p. 26. It effectively maintains Cealie’s POV while she (1) observes the firm grip, then (2) interprets her cousin’s need. Shaw uses the technique again on p. 44:

Her hands swept around in jittery motions. . . . Probably now, after a meal, she wanted a cigarette.

More limitations

First-person POV means not withholding information from readers that the narrator discovers in the course of events. Nor can she see through walls, notice what’s behind her, or say A shadow crossed my face or The lines in my forehead deepened. Readers see only what the first-person narrator sees.

If you describe your protagonist-narrator, try to avoid the clichéd reflection-in-a-mirror device.

Moreover, the protagonist-narrator cannot experience scenes she’s not present for. That means she, and the reader, learn what happens from another character’s retelling of them, second-hand--a technique that steals a scene’s dramatic power and cancels the intimacy of a first-person POV.

First-person writing also tends to ramble, to rely on internal thoughts when dialogue could occur, and to rehash the same thoughts. In first-person more than any other POV, your main character should be so interesting, quirky, and insightful that readers will want to see the world through her eyes for an entire novel.

If your fiction reveals first-person weaknesses, fix them or select a more versatile POV--exemplified along with hundreds of solutions in Don't Murder Your Mystery (Agatha Award winner) and its all-genre version, Don't Sabotage Your Submission.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Has Your Writing Gone to the Dogs?

by Sue Owens Wright

How do you know when your life has gone totally to the dogs? It could be when you’re published in most of the wag mags, and your third dog lover’s mystery is about to be published. Another clue might be when you’re nominated eight times for a Mighty Maxwell, the coveted medallion awarded annually by the Dog Writers Association of America for the best writing about dogs, and you actually win a couple of those swell dog tags to wear around your neck. You also could be going to the dogs when you’re invited to Basset Hound Waddles, Slobberfests, and Droolapaloozas to autograph your books and to talk about them on TV and radio. For me, it’s all of the above.

At writers’ conferences I’ve attended over the years, I’ve heard the oft-repeated phrase: “Write what you know.” I never really understood what that meant. What those writing instructors should have told their students to do was write about what’s close to the heart. I believe the same advice applies to anyone who seeks fulfillment in life: Follow your heart.

Edith Wharton once wrote, “My little dog—a heartbeat at my feet.” There’s nothing closer to my heart than my dogs. Turns out that my best chance for literary success lay right at my feet all along. It was only when I began writing about what I have adored my entire life—dogs—that my work started gaining some recognition.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that I was born on January 2, the day of the year when Sirius, the dog star in the constellation Canis Major, appears in the east and orbits across the northern hemisphere. Whenever I have felt a little lost on my life’s course, I like to think I’m being watched over by that bright blue eye of the dog leaping up in the night sky.

I keep a New Yorker cartoon by George Booth displayed near my computer. It shows a writer seated at his desk. Arms folded across his chest, he puffs on a pipe as he stares at the blank page in his typewriter. Clearly, he’s suffering from writer’s block. Surrounding him in his makeshift workspace on the back porch are a dozen or so dogs of various breeds. Through the open door, where his wife is standing and looking exasperated, you can see many more dogs inside the house and others running up and down the stairs. She declares in the caption, ”Write about dogs!” 

That cartoon has become my mantra. While I may not have that many dogs, you still have to move one to get the best seat in the house. Whenever I’ve been in doubt about which path I’m meant to follow—and like my bassets, I’ve strayed far afield now and then—Booth’s cartoon reminds me. My dogs continue to provide me with endless inspiration and inexhaustible material for my books and articles.

Siriusly, my life has gone completely to the dogs, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Birth of a Novel

by L.C. Hayden
I like to travel. So when I decided to start a new series, I knew my protagonist would not be the stay-at-home type—or even the stay in one place type. Each novel would find my character in a different city. Since I’m the author, I would naturally have to visit those places in order to capture the atmosphere that is so unique to each area. How convenient. I like this idea.
Next, I had to decide: should my character be male or female? I have another series, the award-winning Harry Bronson Mystery Series. I didn’t want my new character to be similar to Bronson. That concept became the major influencing factor as far as selecting gender. This new series would have a female protagonist.

I focused on Aimee Brent’s job selection. Aimee needed a profession that would naturally lead her to mayhem. Since Bronson is a retired detective, I immediately ruled out policemen, detectives, F.B.I. agents, or any other similar job. I also wanted her to have a vocation that would be easy to research or even better, have one that I knew a bit about.

I received my Bachelor’s Degree in journalism. That would work. Aimee, the reporter, would make an excellent journalist. Not only do I have a concept of what the job requires, Aimee would often find that in order to follow her leads, she would have to travel, and I, of course, would have to visit that state park or city or country in order to correctly write about it.

There you go: a new character is born at age 25. Now that I had my protagonist, I could focus on the plot. I wanted a complex character that at one point would be strong, but the next, weak.  Consequently, I gave Aimee a deep, dark secret that she keeps buried deep within her heart.

Aimee is unaware of all of the dark details from her past because she blocked them a long time ago. Now, her current major assignment, an important murder case, causes her to face her fears. She wants to succeed as a journalist. She wants to be the one who helps solve the major murder case she is currently covering. But because she travels into the unknown, the steps she takes only brings her closer to the killer.

Thus the premise for ILL Conceived is born. The story begins when Grandma Louise hears a scream in the middle of the night. When no one else does, the police dismiss it as an old woman’s ravings. Aimee Brent, an ambitious, dedicated reporter for the North Shore Carrier, the Lake Tahoe newspaper, sets out to prove Grandma Louise right. In so doing, Aimee is forced to face her past, a past filled with so much darkness that it threatens her very existence and leads her down a twisted, dangerous road from which she may never return.

For more details about Aimee or about me, please visit my website at and like my author page on Facebook. 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

A Conversation with Lee Goldberg

Television script writer and author of the Monk series, Lee Goldberg gives us his honest and candid insights into the publishing and broadcast industries as well as his own industrious climb up the ladder to success.

Lee, when did you realize you were a writer?

I've always known. When I was ten or eleven, I was already pecking novels out on my Mom's old typewriters. The first one was a futuristic tale about a cop born in an underwater sperm bank. I don't know why the bank was underwater, or how deposits were made, but I thought it was very cool. I followed that up with a series of books about gentleman thief Brian Lockwood, aka "The Perfect Sinner,” a thinly disguised rip-off of Simon Templar, aka "The Saint." I sold these stories for a dime to my friends and even managed to make a dollar or two. In fact, I think my royalties per book were better then than they are now.

I continued writing novels all through my teenage years. I still have most of those novels today in boxes in my garage (some were destroyed in flooding a few years back).

By the time I was 17, I was writing articles for The Contra Costa Times and other Bay Area newspapers and applying to colleges. I didn't get a book published, but my detective stories got me into UCLA's School of Communications. My grades weren't wonderful, so I knew I had to kick ass on my application essay. I wrote it first person as a hard-boiled detective story. The committee, at first, had doubts that I actually wrote it myself--until they reviewed articles I'd written for the Times, including one that used the same device as my essay. Once I got into UCLA, I put myself through school as a freelance writer...for American Film, Los Angeles Times Syndicate, UPI, Newsweek. Anybody who would pay me. I had a girlfriend at Playgirl and she got me a gig writing sexually explicit Letters-to-the-Editor at Playgirl for $25 each.

Did you sell your first book while a student at UCLA? If so, how did that come about?

I had a journalism advisor at UCLA who wrote spy novels. We became friends and talked a lot about mysteries, thrillers, plotting, etc. One day in the early 80s his publisher came to him and asked him if he’d write a “men’s action adventure series,” sort of the male equivalent of the Harlequin romance. He said he wasn’t desperate enough, hungry enough, or stupid enough to do it. . .but he knew someone who was: Me. So I wrote an outline and some sample chapters and they bought it. The book was called .357 Vigilante I wrote it as “Ian Ludlow” so I'd be on the shelf next to Robert Ludlum and had plenty of Letter-to-the-Editor-of-Playgirl quality sex in it.

The West Coast Review of Books called my literary debut "as stunning as the report of a .357 Magnum, a dynamic premiere effort," singling the book out as "The Best New Paperback Series" of the year. I ended up writing four books in the series. Naturally, the publisher promptly went bankrupt and I never saw a dime in royalties.

But New World Pictures bought the movie rights to .357 Vigilante and hired me to write the screenplay. I didn’t know anything about writing scripts. . .luckily, I had a good friend who did, William Rabkin. We worked together on the UCLA Daily Bruin. So the two of us teamed up. The movie never got made, but we had so much fun that we were writing partners for over 20 years. . .and remain best friends to this day. (He writes the novels based on the TV series "PSYCH").

Why were you selected to write the Mr. Monk books?

I was already writing for the TV series "Monk" when Andy Breckman, the series creator and executive producer, was approached about doing original Monk novels. He immediately recommended me for the job, since I was already familiar with the character and he'd read my original Diagnosis Murder novels. He knew he could trust me to capture the character, and the tone of the series, and do a good job with the books.

Part of the fun of doing these books for me is the chance to explore aspects of Monk's character that haven't been dealt with yet on the TV series or, as is the case with MR. Monk Goes to Hawaii and MR. Monk Goes to Germany, go to places and do things that the TV series can't for various logistical and production reasons.

I believe there's one thing that stops the Monk episodes and the books
from becoming a slapstick cartoon, that prevents his character from becoming Maxwell Smart or Inspector Clouseau. It's this: amidst all the comedic situations that arise from his OCD, there's always something emotionally true about the stories...something that reveals Monk's essential sadness and grounds the character in reality. Maybe not our reality, but a reality just the same.

The hardest thing for me with the books isn't the mystery or the's coming up with that emotional center, the heart-felt conflict that gives some shading to the broad humor. I always try to find something in the story that will put Monk and Natalie's relationship to the test, that will reveal something about who they are, and that will bring them closer together (or give them a deeper understanding of one another). I don't consciously think of a theme, but one seems to reveal itself to me along the way...and then I try not to belabor it or pay attention to it...I prefer to let it emerge on its own as a strand within scenes or in lines of dialogue.

What was really great is that it has come full circle--I was able to adapt one of my Monk books into an episode of the show. My novel Mr. Monk Goes to the Firehouse became the episode "Mr. Monk Can't See a Thing."

Which form do you prefer, novels or scriptwriting? And why?

They are entirely different experiences. Television is very much a group effort and what you are writing is a blueprint that lots of other people are going to use as the basis for their creative work, whether it’s the actor, the director, the production designer. And when you write a script it’s not locked in stone. It’s going to change. It’s going to change because everybody has notes. It’s going to change because production concerns force rewrites. It’s going to change because of actors and directors. It’s in fluid motion all the time.

A book is entirely my own and unaffected by production concerns or actors. I’m the actors, the director, the production designer. . .it’s entirely mine. It’s not a blueprint. It is the finished product and it won’t change much once I am done with it. It’s not a group effort--I plot it myself and I write it by myself. It’s entirely in my head and I live it for months.

Creatively speaking, there’s a big difference between writing prose and writing a script. In a book, you are seducing the reader. You are bringing them into your imagination and holding them there for as long as they’re reading the book. You construct everything. You construct the sets, the wardrobe, the world. You’re God. You can even read a character’s thoughts. In a script, everything that happens and everything the characters do has to be revealed through action and dialogue.

In a script, you could introduce a scene like this:


It’s a cheap Chinese restaurant with very few customers. There’s an aquarium with live lobsters, fish, etc. in the window. Monk is disgusted by what he sees...

But in a book, you have to describe the restaurant in detail. You have to tell us everything that’s going on. You have to set the scene for the reader. It’s an entirely different skill. That’s why some novelists are terrible screen writers and why some screen writers can’t write a book. They can’t jump back and forth.

The only thing that TV and books have in common is that both are mediums for sharing books, you tell stories, in TV you show them. That simple distinction is a difficult one for many writers to overcome when moving into one field from the other.

If books paid me as well as screenwriting, I might stick with books only because I could do it all at home and not have to answer to a lot of other people. On the other hand, I love being in a writers room plotting with a dozen other writers on an episodic TV series. . .it is so much fun.

What’s your next project?

I am writing an action movie, a co-production between a German studio and a Chinese studio, that will be shot in English in Berlin and Shanghai. And I've got a new Monk book, Mr. Monk in Trouble, coming out in December and am hard at work on the one that follows that...

How has the publishing downturn affected you personally? And what’s the best way, in your opinion, for the industry to pull itself out of its current slump?

I wrote a 100 pages and an outline on a new, standalone novel. But the days when a publisher would buy a book, even from an author they know well, based on a proposal has passed. So my agent is holding on to it...and suggesting that maybe I should just finish the book. On the other hand, the market is so tight, I could end up writing the book and not finding a home for it. I have to give serious thought to whether I want to complete it or not...or wait until the publishing industry recovers and is buying manuscripts again in a big way. For now, I am happy writing my successful Monk novels.

I don't know how the industry can recover. There are so many factors that are simply outside the industry's control. You can't make people buy books if they don't have the money to spend.

How important are writer organizations and online social networking? And do you prefer promoting your books online or in person?

I think you can get way too bogged down in self-promotion and forget what's really important: THE WRITING. Word of mouth is the best promotion of all. I believe the best advertising you can do is to buy 50 copies of your book and send them, with a personal cover letter, to key reviewers, bloggers, fans, booksellers and other opinion-makers to get them talking. A successful author once told me that the biggest mistake she ever made was hiring a publicist--that she should have spent that money on books and postage.

You shouldn't join writers organizations with the intention of promoting yourself and your work. You should do it because you want to interact with fellow writers, for the support, the camaraderie, gleaning knowledge about the craft and industry, etc. Yes, you will make contacts, and you might introduce more people to you and your work...but going into it with the mercenary intent to promote yourself always leads to disaster. That said, I think writers organizations are terrific on so many levels...not just what they can bring you personally and professionally, but what they can do for writers in general. For instance, the MWA, SFWA, and RWA have done so much to generate attention and respect for their genres...and to educate people about writing and how to avoid predatory publishing practices.

You shouldn't attend conferences with the obvious intent to promote your books, either. The best promotion you can do is to be yourself, be engaging, and write good books. That will sell you better than handing out leaflets, bookmarks, and incessant huckstering. In fact, you can self-promote yourself out of sales by doing that.

That's not to say you shouldn't sent out mailings to your mailing list or let people know you have a book out...but it's very easy to cross the line into being annoying and counter-productive. I know, because I have been guilty of it myself.

Advice to fledgling novelists and scriptwriters?

For novelists, write a lot. Read a lot. Don't EVER pay to be published. Don't EVER pay an agent to read your work. As for my advice on breaking into television…you can find it all in my book Successful Television Writing, which I wrote with William Rabkin.

Everybody’s story of breaking in is unique. Most of those stories, however, share one common element. You have to put yourself in the right place to get your lucky break. And it’s easier than you think.

The first thing you have to do is learn your craft. Take classes,
preferably taught by people who have had some success as TV writers.
There’s no point taking a class from someone who isn’t an experienced
TV writer themselves.

You’d think that would be common sense, but you’d be astonished how many TV courses are taught by people who don’t know the first thing about writing for television. Even more surprising is how many desperate people shell out money to take courses from instructors who should be taking TV writing courses themselves.

There’s another reason to take a TV writing course besides learning the basics of the craft. If you’re the least bit likable, you’ll make a few friends among the other classmates. This is good, because you’ll have other people you can show your work to. This is also good because somebody in the class may sell his or her first script before you do. . . and suddenly you’ll have a friend in the business.

Many of my writer/producer friends today are writers I knew back when I was in college, when we were all dreaming of breaking into TV someday.

A writer we hired on staff on the first season of Missing was in a Santa Monica screenwriters group. . .and was the first member of her class to get a paying writing gig. Now her friends in the class suddenly had a friend on a network TV show who could share her knowledge, give them practical advice and even recommend them to her new agent and the writer/producers she was working with.

Another route is to try and get a job as a writer/producer’s assistant on an hour-long drama. Not only will you get a meager salary, but you will see how a show works from the inside. You’ll read lots of scripts and revisions and, simply by observation, get a graduate course in TV writing. More important, you’ll establish relationships with the writers on the show and the freelancers who come through the door. Many of today’s top TV producers were writer/producer assistants once.

All of the assistants we’ve had have gone on to become working TV writers themselves… and not because we gave them a script assignment or recommended them for one. We didn’t do either.

But the one thing you simply have to do is write a spec episodic teleplay. There are lots of books out there--including mine--that will tell you how to do that.

Thank you, Lee.

Lee Goldberg's website is

Friday, July 24, 2015

A Visit with Margaret Coel

Tony Hillerman's heir apparent, award-winning and bestselling author, Margaret Coel, writes about the Arapaho people of Colorado and Wyoming's Wind River Reservation. Her latest release, The Spider's Web, is the 15th book in her series.

Margaret, you’ve said that the Arapahos are your dream people. Why are you so fascinated with them?

The Arapahos lived on the plains of Colorado in what they call “the old time.” I’m a 4th generation Coloradan who grew up on the stories of our area, including stories about the native peoples. Something about them just drew me in, and the more I researched and got to know them, the more fascinated I became. My first book was a non-fiction book, titled Chief Left Hand, which is a biography of one of their leading men in the 19th century and a history of the people in Colorado. That was the book that took me into their world. It was published in 1981 by The University of Oklahoma Press and has never gone out of print.

How were you able to research the crimes and customs of the tribe? Have they allowed you to interview them or have you researched them mainly in libraries and newspaper articles?

All of the above. I do a lot of research in newspaper articles, and I spent 5 years in library archives researching the Arapahos. I visit the Wind River Reservation every year, and have for the past 30 years, and I visit with my friends.

How did your protagonists, Father John O’Malley and Vicky Holden come about? Were they based on real people?

They were the kind of sleuths I needed for my novels. Amateurs, yet the kind of people that those in trouble would turn to and would trust. Father John is an outsider, like me. I wanted a character who would come to know the Arapahos and appreciate their history and culture, as I did. My thought was that the reader could come along on his journey. As for Vicky I wanted to write from a woman’s point of view, and I wanted a strong Arapaho voice in the stories. No, they are not based on real people, but I’m told one of the ongoing games on the rez is trying to figure out who they really are!

What is the most interesting fact that you learned about the Arapaho tribe?

They were traders, called the “businessmen of the plains,” in the early days. They were very sharp business people, and still are. They are also very spiritual.

Why did you leave Father O’Malley in Rome to write Blood Memory, a departure from your Arapaho series?

I thought he should go to Romewhile I write Blood Memory, and then I would have a tax-deductible excuse to visit Rome as well.

Were Tony Hillerman’s books your inspiration to write your own series?

Oh, yes, and so was Tony Hillerman. He really created the market for mysteries set among native tribes. Peope who read all of his books—and loved them—started looking around for similar mysteries in different locations. And there mine were!

What’s your writing schedule like? 

I write 6 days a week—this is a real job. Usually I write for 4 or 5 hours, then spend a couple hours on the “business” part of the writing business—dealing with editors, agents, publicist, requests for interviews and speeches. The type of thing I am now doing. Then I also do a lot of research and reading for each book.

How many books did you publish before you acquired an agent? And was acquiring an agent difficult?

With the mystery novels, I acquired an agent right away. The agent liked the manuscript of The Eagle Catcher, my first novel, and sold it to Berkley Publishing, still my publisher. I signed a 3-book contract, and I was off and running.

Which of your nonfiction books or novels was the most difficult to write? Which is your favorite? And why?

I wouldn’t say my non-fiction book, Chief Left Hand, was difficult, but it required a tremendous amount of research and documentation, as well as travel to the places I wrote about. So it took a chunk out of my life. But it was a terrific experience, and it allows me to write the mystery novels. As for my favorite book, it is always the book I am in the midst of writing. It fills up my head and consumes my life. When it is done, I send it on its way into the world and hunker down with my next “favorite” book.

Advice for aspiring writers?

One important word: Persistence. You have to keep at it no matter what. Keep writing and honing your craft. Keep getting better and better. Keep searching for the readers out there who are waiting for your stories.

Thank you, Margaret, for taking part in the series.

Margaret's website:
She's also on Facebook and invites everyone to join her there:

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Sixteen Steps To Plotting A Thriller

International bestselling thriller novelist Rick Mofina says that writing has been a livelong affliction. One of the world's leading crime writers, Rick's work is what James Patterson has termed "tense, realistic and scary in all the right places." He graciously agreed to share his 16 steps to plotting a successful thriller novel:

1. A problem befalls the protagonist that will change/threaten her/his life.

2. Define the stakes. Establish a deadline. The clock is ticking.

3. Who is your protagonist? Give readers what they need to know to empathize.

4. Who/what is your antagonist? Give readers what they need to understand or fear.

5. Action = Character. Conflict = Tension. Tension = Drama. Time is slipping by.

6. Hooks compel readers to turn pages. Otherwise, what's the point?

7. Hope emerges. A resolution is in sight. Or is it?

8. Protagonist’s credibility. Use what you know personally to build a solid frame.

9. Story plausibility. Use what you know personally to reinforce that frame.

10. Make readers feel the story, smell it, taste it, live it.

11. Dialogue and details must reveal character, drive the story.

12. The clock is ticking. Urgency is critical.

13. Things just got a whole lot worse. The reader sweats it out with the protagonist.

14. Time is up. The antagonist will triumph.

15. All hope appears to be gone but the protagonist battles on against the odds.

16. The protagonist defeats the antagonist in a life-changing resolution of the problem.

© RickMofina

(Excerpted from Mysterious Writers, Poisoned Pen Press, where you can read Rick's interview as well as 74 other authors.)

Friday, July 10, 2015

10 Tips for Attending Book Fairs

by Austin Camacho

The side of book marketing that I enjoy the most is the face-to-face contact with readers, and bookstores aren’t the only place to have that fun experience. As we move into the warmer weather, small press and even self-published authors will have more chances to display and sell our work at book fairs and other events.

But it’s one thing when you’re the star of a book signing at Borders or the speaker at the Rotary Club breakfast. It is a very different thing when you’re one of many authors greeting the same potential buyers. When you are invited to attend a book fair, please remember that you are there as part of a community of writers, not a crowd of competitors. Also, remember that you are a guest there. For that reason:

1. Be on time - Often traffic flow can make getting set up in a narrow hall or at a street fair challenging if people don’t abide by the organizer’s set up schedule.

2. Respect your hosts - Every little rule established by the show hosts has a reason. Follow the rules and if you have questions ask them respectfully. You are much more likely to get what you need, and you won’t put them in a bad mood that could affect the rest of us.

3. Don’t pitch to authors - Don’t practice your sales technique on me. I’m not there to talk about your book; I’m there to talk about mine.

4. Don’t ask for trades - It is not my intent to leave the book fair with the same number of books I arrived with, and if I say yes to you I’d feel funny saying no to others. Besides, if I wanted your book I’d offer you money like everyone else.

5. Don’t steal buyers - If someone is already talking to me it is rude to start talking to them about your book. Odds are they don’t want to offend anyone and so they’ll leave with neither book.

6. Stay in your zone - Similarly, don’t stand in front of my table or booth. You have a space assigned to you. When people wander into that area, speak to them. Not before. Absolutely not after.

7. Don’t chase people down - If she was interested in your book she wouldn’t have walked away. If you make her angry she’ll think we’re all like that and will be afraid to speak to anyone.

8. Don’t whine - If you don’t think the organizers advertised enough, or if you don’t like the weather, the venue, the patrons or the rules, keep it to yourself. The rest of us are trying to remain cheerful and positive, because that’s what attracts potential book buyers.

9. Focus on your book - No one wants to hear about your heart transplant, unless perhaps your book is about surviving a heart transplant. Likewise no one cares that you’re a war hero - unless you wrote a war book.

10. Share - your ideas, your thoughts, your lemonade and most of all your enthusiasm. Positive mental attitude is contagious and if you help create a cheerful and pleasant atmosphere, we may even recommend your book to the lady who doesn’t like ours.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Mysteries Don't Need Murders

by Gerrie Ferris Finger

Every mystery writer who has stood at a podium for long gets asked about murder: Why must there be a murder in a mystery? Why is murder so fascinating? Could you actually murder someone?

No, there doesn’t have to be a murder in a mystery, but it’s the best source of conflict I, and most mystery writers, can think of. That accounts for the fact that murder often appears in books not classified as mysteries. I figured out a long time ago that murder mysteries aren’t about murder, per se, and that a murder mystery must possess a plotline that stands alone with or without the murder.

Characters must drive the story and be people with whom readers identify and believe in. Their story (plot) needs to be dynamic, have conflict, and a puzzle they eventually solve. From the pen of a good writer, crime plays an important role in these elements regardless of genre. At the heart of the story, actions are created by a set of circumstances that drive reactions that lead to the inevitable resolution. Different subgenres require different resolutions. The cozy mystery requires at least a satisfactory resolution while a romantic suspense needs a happy ending.

On the other hand, a noir murder mystery lends itself to unresolved conflict and even the death of the hero.

It’s axiomatic that readers must identify with the hero or antihero in a murder mystery (and to a lesser degree develop opinions on secondary characters)—again depending on the genre. In that the reader may see himself as a beaten down hero trying to resolve his own personality issues, or in the traditional mystery she can see herself as the copy hero out to save the world from evil. In these vehicles, readers will naturally wonder how they would react in the situations, given their own personal peculiarities.

Yet readers play a guessing game with the unknown evil-doers and the heroes. They play every angle to figure out who did it, but are pleased when they don’t. In my novel, The End Game, I got this reaction quite often: “I never guessed. Well, I considered everyone, but I overlooked the obvious one. I was shocked.”

In the end, for readers to feel fulfilled, everything must be revealed. And reveal styles change. In the modern mystery, the clues are scattered so that the denouncement isn’t a la Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. In those stories everyone gathers in his old brownstone where he lays out the conclusion and how he got  to it.

So there you have it; the reason the murder mystery isn’t about murder after all. You could say it’s about how readers process their lives through the most traumatic thing that can happen to characters they’ve come to know, and with whom they identify, understand, sympathize, love and or hate.

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers: Interviews and Advice, where you can read Gerrie’s interview as well as many others, including Sue Grafton, Lawrence Block. James Scott Bell,  J.A. Jance, and Julie Garwood.)

You can visit Gerrie Ferris Finger’s website at and her blog site at

Friday, June 26, 2015

Writing a Mystery Series

by Patricia Gligor

When I decided to write my first novel, Mixed Messages, I had no intention of writing a series. The book was supposed to be a mystery/suspense standalone. But, as I was writing it, I realized there was more to the story and I needed to finish what I’d started. So, I wrote Unfinished Business and, by the time I’d finished that book,  I’d become so attached to my characters there was no way I was letting them go. I had to know what would happen to them as time went by and I wanted to watch them change and grow. The only way to do that was to write a series. I now think of my Malone mystery series as Family Drama mysteries because my books are about more than the mystery. They’re about the lives of the characters I’ve come to know and care about.

With each book, new situations and characters crop up that propel me forward and, in a series, there are always loose ends that need to be tied up. Sometimes, I deliberately plant something in a book which will lead to the next one but, other times, the subject for the next book is a surprise to me. For example, in Unfinished Business, the casual reference to a news story about a little girl who had gone missing led me to write Desperate Deeds where my main character’s young son, Davey, goes missing too. When I wrote about the news story, I had no idea that would happen. 
So, how did Mistaken Identity, my fourth Malone mystery, come about? Well, I decided that, with all the problems and stress I gave Ann in the first three books, she deserved to get away from Cincinnati for a while and to have a peaceful, relaxing vacation on Fripp Island in South Carolina. So, that’s what I gave her. Well, sort of.

About the book: Ann feels like she’s in Paradise as she digs her toes into the soft, white sand and gazes out at the ocean. She’s looked forward to this trip to South Carolina for a long time and all she wants to do is bask in the sun, resting and relaxing.

She and her two young children are enjoying their time on Fripp Island with Ann’s sister, Marnie, and Marnie’s elderly friend and former neighbor, Clara Brunner, a long time resident with a vast knowledge of the island and the people who live there. At the fourth of July fireworks, Clara introduces them to newlyweds Jenny and Mark Hall and their families.

But Ann’s plans for a peaceful vacation are shattered the next morning. When she goes for a solitary walk on the beach, she discovers the body of a young woman with the chain of a gold locket twisted around her neck and she immediately recognizes the locket as the one Jenny Hall was wearing the night before.

Shocked and saddened, Ann is determined to try to find the killer and to see them brought to justice. She convinces Marnie and Clara to join her in conducting an investigation but, in the process, she places her own life in jeopardy.

Mistaken Identity is now available at


Patricia Gligor is a Cincinnati native. She enjoys reading mystery/suspense novels, touring and photographing old houses and traveling. She has worked as an administrative assistant, the sole proprietor of a resume writing service and the manager of a sporting goods department but her passion has always been writing fiction. Ms. Gligor writes the Malone Mystery series. The first three books, Mixed Messages, Unfinished Business, and Desperate Deeds take place in Cincinnati but in Mistaken Identity, the fourth book, her characters are vacationing on Fripp Island in South Carolina.

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