Saturday, February 28, 2015

Using Real People as Characters in Historical Fiction


by Larry Karp

For my first mystery novel, set in present-day New York City, I tried to jump-start the narrative by using real people I knew for some of the characters. As I progressed through the first draft, though, it occurred to me that some of the characters were developing very nicely, but others were not. 

 Without exception, the static characters were the ones based in persons from the real world, and the blocks occurred because my perceptions of the real people censored their fictional counterparts. Fictional Muriel picked up the hammer to brain Sammy, but then stopped cold and just stood there - because Real Muriel would never do a thing like that. On the other hand, Alice, created from scratch, didn't hesitate to crease Sammy's skull. Also, as I was delighted to see, the characters' actions were unfailingly consistent with, and true to, their overall personalities and behaviors. Apparently, my subconscious had no trouble turning a tabula rasa into a organically-developed character, but pre-existing conditions were clearly a problem.

My worst situation involved a murder victim-to-be whom I'd grounded deeply in a real person I despised. But before long, I realized that this character's behavior was every bit as destructive to my story as his real-world behavior was to my life. Serves me right, I thought. Leave him where he belongs. So, rather than putting a fictional hit man on him, I took matters into my own hands and sentenced him to exile from my fictional world. Much more satisfying, much better for the story.

Many fine writers don't seem to have this hangup, but for me, real and fictional worlds need to be kept separate; each person's uniqueness and individuality has to be respected. It seems wrong to try to wrench people out of their own developing life stories to inhabit tales of someone else's making.

After four mysteries populated by fully-fictional characters, I decided to write an historical-mystery trilogy based upon real-life events unexplained by history. These three stories would involve such people as Irving Berlin, Scott Joplin, John Stark (Joplin's first publisher), and Sanford Brunson Campbell ("The Ragtime Kid"). The idea of trying to explore holes in history via compatible fiction was intriguing, but the notion of creating fiction involving real persons was daunting. I gave some thought to replacing these people with fictional constructs, but couldn't get the story off the ground. It belonged to the historical persons and no one else.

But once I'd read pertinent personal histories to the point of constant repetition, I felt free to fill in the innumerable blanks from imagination. The book was closed, so to speak, on Berlin, Joplin, and the others; they were no longer of this world. In extending their lives through imagination, I didn't feel I was placing their fictional existence at odds with any real-life stories still under development. If they'd still been alive, well, that would have been another story.

Friday, February 20, 2015

How Now Purple Cow--A Bogey Man Mystery


by Marja McGraw


It seems that something unexpected usually inspires a story for me. I won’t go into titles, for the most part, in the interest of space.

In my Sandi Webster series, stories were inspired by (get this) the Red Light District in Old Los Angeles, something that actually happened to me in another book, meeting an elderly female private investigator, a photo of a vintage, abandoned house in Nevada, and an admiration for Humphrey Bogart. Another was inspired by what used to be an ostrich ranch in Arizona. An ostrich ranch? It became a llama ranch in short order and included ghostly sightings and a house with character.

Back to the admiration for Humphrey Bogart, a book titled, The Bogey Man was so well received that I started another series involving a Bogart look-alike who wanted nothing more than to become a private investigator. In his case, not all of his dreams came true, but he, his wife and young son went on to become involved in crimes, although against his better judgment.

Chris Cross, known as the Bogey Man, started a forties-themed restaurant with his wife, Pamela. Right off the bat they discovered a body in a basement. That was the beginning of an interesting life. In one book, some Church Ladies tried his patience and skills when they wanted him to find a missing friend. Some Church Ladies in my own life inspired that one. Chris’s eccentric mother came to town and more adventures followed. Yes, I know a few eccentric people, and I should probably include myself in that category.

However, let me tell you that I never expected ceramic purple cows and a dream to inspire a story, but that’s exactly what happened. Many years ago my grandmother gave me some old ceramic figurines, including two purple cows. There should have been three, but apparently the bull was broken somewhere along the way. They were begging to be included in a book. I can’t explain it, but the idea simply wouldn’t let go of my imagination.

How could a writer use purple cows in a mystery? Well, if you add a dream about two close friends being spies, all kinds of doors can open.

After doing a lot of research about spies and spying, I found that only a minimal part of that research would fit the story. However, it gave me a feel for what things were like during the Cold War and what agents were up against. Maybe I’ve watched too much television, but it all seemed to fit together in a neat little story package.


Purple cows and elderly spies were a natural. Oh, and they needed just a little humor to pull it all together. If you include the young son and two Labrador retrievers in the mix, you’ve got some unusual puzzle pieces to fit together.

                                  ~~~

What could purple cows and elderly spies possibly have to do with each other?

When young Mikey Cross discovers ceramic purple cows, a ring, and investigative notes left by a mystery writer popular in the 1950s, his parents’ and grandparents’ lives are turned upside down.

Pamela and Chris Cross become involved in vintage intrigue with trepidation and more than a little angst when they find out there’s an elderly assassin on the prowl and the situation isn’t quite as vintage as they thought.

The dead just may come back as the living when it’s least expected.

~~~

I’ve tried to write all of my books so they can be read in any order. The only thing you might miss by reading them haphazardly would be the growth of the characters. That’s livable.

I enjoy being entertained when I read, and that’s what I’ve tried to do for readers of my books. I hope I can make you laugh, or at least chuckle, and in addition I hope the puzzles keep you guessing.

Hmm. I did write one book where the killer was fairly easy to spot. Ah, yes, there was an unexpected twist at the end. Always keep the reader guessing.

So, if you’re inspired as a reader, you might try How Now Purple Cow to see how purple cows and elderly spies fit together.


Jean, thank you so much for inviting me in today. I had a wonderful time talking about inspired stories.
_____________


Marja McGraw was born and raised in Southern California. She worked in both civil and criminal law, state transportation, and most recently for a city building department.  A resident and employee in California, Nevada, Oregon, Alaska and Arizona, she wrote a weekly column for a small town newspaper in Northern Nevada, and conducted a Writers’ Support Group in Northern Arizona. A past member of Sisters in Crime (SinC), she was also the Editor for the SinC-Internet Newsletter for a year and a half.

Marja has appeared on KOLO-TV in Reno, Nevada, and KLBC in Laughlin, Nevada, and various radio talk shows. She says that each of her mysteries contains a little humor, a little romance and a little murder! She and her husband now live in Arizona, where life is good.


Friday, February 13, 2015

How I Motivate My Characters




by John Gilstrap
New York Times bestselling author

Someone asked me recently about how I motivate my characters. The person told me that he’d read an article somewhere about writing biographies for your characters, or maybe interviewing them to find out why they do what they do.

I had no idea how to respond. Interview my characters? I can’t imagine doing that. For a moment, I resented how lazy my characters are. They just sit there on their butts until I give them instructions. Then I realized that their lazy silence was actually a comfort. As long as they don’t speak to me on their own, I can assure my friends and family that I don’t share the psychoses that said characters occasionally exhibit.

Kidding aside, character motivation is a key element of storytelling—perhaps the key element. But it’s not something that I think much about. I personally find plot development to be far more daunting than characterization.

For me, plot equals character which equals motivation which equals drama. The various elements of storytelling are so interwoven and interdependent that I don’t know how to break them into their component parts. When a character’s child is stolen, the motivations are inevitably cast. The kidnapped child is motivated to survive and/or get away. The parent is motivated to get him back. The kidnapper is motivated to see his plan through to the end. Maybe it would be more nuanced for me if I wrote love stories; but as a thriller writer the whole motivation thing has never been a problem.

Sometimes I think the best advice we can give to struggling new writers is to think less and imagine more. Given the set of circumstances you’ve conjured, put yourself in your character’s position and start pretending. It was easy when we were kids, after all, before we attended creative writing classes and people started putting labels on the things that came naturally. When I was a boy and I played with my friends, the non-sports games were always of the role play variety, and nearly always involved imagined gunplay. (I cleared the neighborhood of marauding Apaches when I was very young, and then kept the Nazi threat at bay as I approached adolescence.) But here’s the thing: I became the character I was pretending to be. My bike was a motorcycle, and the pine cones were hand grenades.

When I started writing stories in elementary school, that reality transference continued. The reality of the imagined world trumped the reality of my actual surroundings. It still happens to me when I’m really in the zone—it’s the great thrill of writing. I don’t have to think about motivating my characters because all I have to do is report on what I’m seeing, hearing and feeling through their senses.

Being a big fan of Inside the Actor’s Studio, I’ve often thought that the Method, as described by the guests on that show, has a lot in common with my writing process. Once I create a premise that feels real, I don the emotional garb of the character from whose head I’m writing, and I embark on a great pretend.

(Excerpted from Mysterious Writers, Poisoned Pen Press, where you can read John Gilstrap's interview and learn more about him.)


Friday, February 6, 2015

Writing Historical Mysteries


by Carola Dunn
Bestselling author

I have been writing historical  novels for thirty years. If you count the 1960s as  historical--opinions differ!--I have had more than fifty published. Of these, thirty-two are Regencies.. The other eighteen are mysteries, the seventeen titles of my Daisy Dalrymple series, set in the 1920s, [including] Manna from Hades, the first of a new series of Cornish mysteries set in the 1960s.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to setting a mystery in the past. On the one hand, you don't have to worry about the latest advances in forensic science and technology overtaking the publication of your books. However, obviously, it takes more efforts to find out the methods used to solve crimes in the past.

Where the 1920s are concerned, it's easy to find countless mysteries written at that time which have more or less accurate information about detective techniques. For information about English police techniques, straight from the horses' mouths, the memoirs of Scotland Yard detectives are available, e.g. G.W. Cornish of Scotland Yard, as well as Mostly Murder by the great forensic pathologist Sir Sidney Smith.

The more distant from the present the period you choose to write about, the less accurate information is available. Of course, you don't have to go far back to find that the science of forensics didn't exist. Those responsible for detecting criminals were not expected to provide anything we would call real proof. A book well worth hunting out is Clues! (UK: Written in Blood) A History of Forensic Detection by Colin Watson.

In twenty-first century America, guilty verdicts are quite often proved incorrect when genetic evidence is considered. You can imagine how frequent miscarriages of justice were in the past.

Luckily, the less information is available, the more leeway for the fiction writer.

Creating an impression of the spirit of the times is, in my opinion, the most important job for any historical fiction writer mystery or other. If you're writing about Ancient Rome, your characters have to take slavery for granted; in mid-nineteenth century America, they should not. Religion reigned supreme in medieval Europe, even kings seeking the blessing of the papacy. To the upper classes of eighteen century England and France, manners and etiquette were of enormous importance, even in dire circumstances.

The class system was an unavoidable aspect of nineteenth century England that can't be ignored, however little you like it. America in the nineteenth century boasted a feeling of boundless opportunity--unless you were a slave. The Depression era depressed not only economic life but people's spirits and expectations. Wherever and whenever until quite recently, and still now in many parts of the globe, women were subservient.

All these aspects of society influenced the way people thought and behave and have to be a major part of your setting. They will change the motives for and kinds of crimes that are committed. Just consider one example: blackmail. These days, you couldn't blackmail someone for living "in sin." Too many people do it openly!

Friday, January 30, 2015

Ten Commandments for Writers


by James Scott Bell

1. Thou Shalt write a certain number of words every week.

This is the first, and greatest commandment. If you write to a quota and hold yourself to it, sooner than you think you'll have a full length novel. (I used to advocate a daily quota, but I changed it to weekly because inevitably you miss days or life intrudes and you run yourself down. I also take one day off a week.) So set a weekly quota, divide it by days, and if you miss one day make it up on the others.

2. Thou Shalt write passionate first drafts.

Don't edit yourself heavily during your first drafts. The writing of it is partly an act of discovering your story, even if you outline. Your plot and characters may want to make twists and turns you didn't plan. Let them go! Follow along and then move on. At 20K words I "step back" to see if I have  solid foundation, shore it up if I don't, then move on to the end.

3. Thou Shalt make trouble for thy Lead.

The engine of a good story is fueled by the threat to the Lead character.  Keep turning up the heat. Make things harder. Simple three act structure: Get your Lead up a tree, throw things at him, get him down.

4. Thou Shalt put a stronger opposing force in the Lead's Way.

The opposition character must be stronger than the Lead. More power, more experiences, more resources. Otherwise, the reader won't worry. You want them to worry. Hitchcock always said the strength of his movies came from the strength and cunning of the villains. But note the opposition doesn't have to be a "bad guy." Think of Tommy Lee Jones in "The Fugitive."

5. Thous Shalt get the story running from the first paragraph.

Start with a character, in a situation of a change or threat or challenge, and grip the reader from the start. This is the opening "disturbance" and that's what readers respond to immediately. It doesn't have to be something "big." Anything that sends a ripple through the "ordinary world." 

6. Thou Shalt create surprises.

Avoid the predictable! Always make a list of several avenues your scenes and story might take, then choose something that makes sense but also surprises the reader.

7. Thou Shalt make everything contribute to the story.

Don't go off on tangents that don't have anything to do with the characters and what they want in the story. Stay as direct as a laser beam.

8. Thou Shalt cut out all the dull parts.

Be ruthless in revision. Cut out anything that slows the story down. No trouble, tension or conflict is dull. At the very least, something tense inside a character.

9. Thou Shalt develop Rhino skin.

Don't take rejection or criticism personally. Learn from criticism and move on. Perseverance is the golden key to a writing career.

10. Thou Shalt never stop learning, growing and writing for the rest of thy life.

Writing is growth. We learn about ourselves, we discover more about life, we use our creativity, we gain insights. At the same time, we study. Brain. Read surgeons keep up on the  journals, why should writers think they don't need to stay up on the craft? If I learn just one thing that helps me as a writer, it's worth it. 

______________

James Scott Bell is a bestselling suspense author. The former trial lawyer was the fiction columnist for Writer's Digest Books and an adjunct professor of writing at Pepperdine University. His books on the craft of writing are among the most popular today.

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers, where you can read Bell's interesting interview.)

Saturday, January 24, 2015

What is a Story? An Etude in the Key of C



by John M. Daniel

I took [the letter] up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up.

It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming.  ~Huck                                                                                                                                                          

Rust Hills summed it up thus: Something happens to someone.” That’s it. Plot (something happens) and character (to someone).Okay, but what happens? Change. Or someone is, at the end of the story, a different person from the one who she or he was at the beginning.

How does that come about? It could be because of chance (a trolley runs over his foot, so he will never be able to tap dance again) but more often, and more interestingly, it’s because the character has made a choice.

The choice arises from a conflict. Remember: no conflict, no story. Conflict resolution, which comes in many forms, is what results in choice, and therefore in change. By the way, the conflict is often the outcome of a crisis of conscience, and results in a shift in the balance of power.

Yes, the choice itself has a consequence. The change, yes, we talked about that. But maybe a greater change. The moral center of gravity may have shifted. To make our story important, make that choice consequential. Write about what matters: the human condition. Write about love and death.

This critical moment of change, this catharsis, for reasons as old as the creative process, and even the procreative process, usually happens at the climax of the story.

If you don’t believe me, ask Huck Finn.

So as we write our stories, let us remember all of these ingredients listed here in alphabetical order:

Catharsis, Center of Gravity, Chance, Character, Change, Choice, Climax, Condition (human), Conflict, Conscience, Consequence, Creative Process, Crisis, Critical Moment . . . and I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few.  

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers, Medallion Books. Read his interview to learn more about John M. Daniel. The book is available in print, ebook and audiobook editions.)



Saturday, January 17, 2015

Inspiration, Setting, and Reader Enjoyment are Integrally Linked


by M. M. Gornell

My initial inspiration for writing came from--and has been reinforced throughout my life--by all the great mystery authors who have led the way. My earliest memories are of falling in immediate love with Agatha Christie--her style, her plots, her murder methods, her protagonists, her characters, her locations.Christie was my rock star! These days, I am continually inspired and re-energized by the work of P.D. James. (I am an admitted and unashamed anglophile.)

Along with characters, a key ingredient for my enjoyment of a book is being "taken away." For example, with P.D., I just love being transported to her wonderful locations in Britain. And seeing London and environs through the eyes of her protagonist, Adam Dagleish, is marvelous.

For each of my own novels, my inspiration and first kernel of an idea has come from a location that has reached out, grabbed me and wouldn't let go. That sounds a big silly, and it's not the whole story, but truly, so far, I've been inspired to start a story because a location said, "Me, me!" Write about me." From the location, I've then wondered who would have lived there, or come that way. What is their story? In the case of my first published novel, Uncle Sy's Secret--during my many dog walks, a particular place along the Snoqualmie Valley Trail kept calling out, "What a perfect spot for a murder." And in the case of another my books, Lies of Convenience," a near collapsed quonset hut near Route 66 never failed to tug at me. Indeed, Route 66 is my current writing impetus, and I think will hold my imagination for a long time to come. So many stories along the way.

Consequently, I hope my readers are taken away for a few hours into an interesting world that captures and captivates--either because it's so different from theirs, or because they identify with the characters and location. Especially with Route 66 and the desert, I'm hoping that through my characters' senses, the "feels" of the place comes through and grabs them like it did me.

In my mind, story inspiration and reader enjoyment are tied together by setting. Wonderful locations drew me to mystery fiction, and they now inspire me as an author. And creating that "sense of place"--through all the senses--is one of my writing goals. From my writing aspirations comes my most cherished hope--that when readers close  my books, there's a smile on their faces, and thoughts, questions, ideas beyond who the murderer was remain--but most of all--they feel a sense of regret the adventure is over and they have to leave the world of my novel.

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers where you can read Madeline Gornell's interview and learn more about her.)

Friday, January 9, 2015

Advice for Novice Writers

by Alan Orloff
(bestselling author)

Things move slowly in the publishing world. Be prepared to wait. A Lot. For your critique group to go through your manuscript. For your queries to be answered (if you’re lucky). For your partial and full manuscripts to be read. For editors to weight your submissions. For your book to wend it way through the production process as it heads toward the bookstore shelf. Best advice: have some other projects to work on while you wait.

Getting help really helps. Critique groups can help you with your writing. An agent can help polish your submission and will know where to send it. An editor can help massage your manuscript into its optimal form. Ignore these helps at your own peril. Getting published really is a village effort (so make sure you have plenty of food on hand.)

You need a thick skin. Rejections are the norm—don’t let them “spin you out.” Otherwise, you’ll never get any writing done. Persistence and perseverance are key. When it comes to reviews, read them if you want, but remember writing is subjective and a lot of those online reviewers have axes to grind. 

My conclusion? Reviewers who write good reviews are sophisticated, discerning, and intelligent, while the bad reviews are written by illiterate trolls.

Your book doesn’t “belong” to only you anymore. While you were writing your manuscript, it was your baby. You could feed it what you wanted, dress it how you wanted, play with it whenever you wanted. Now, you have to share and listen to other people’s “baby raising” advice. Once you sign a contract, your book gets slotted into a release date and is tossed onto the production conveyor belt. Flap copy, cover design, titles, internal and external sales pitches, editing, publicity, sales. It’s all done on schedule, without emotion and (mostly) without you. Get used to it.

Online promotion takes a lot more time than you think. Website, blog, Facebook, Google, Twitter, list serves, Yahoo groups, and a kajillion other social sites lure in you and won’t let you escape.These connections are valuable, but you need to exercises discipline or you’ll look up and four hours will have elapsed with nothing to show for your “writing” time except a few Mafia war hits.

Other writers are extremely generous. I’ve found other writers (published, unpublished, bloggers, Twitters, etc.) to be very helpful with their advice, comments, and time. The sense of community among writers is unbelievably amazing.


Take time to enjoy every bumpy, thrilling, uncertain, joyous main-biting, wonderful, anxious minute. No sense getting stressed about stuff you can’t control (and that encompasses a lot). Getting your first book published is a very exciting time—but sure to stop and smell the ARCs.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Indie Publishing: The Good, Bad and the Ugly



by Cheryl Kaye Tardif
(International bestselling author)

In 2003 I began my career as a published novelist. Previous to this I had published smaller works—in magazines, newspapers and one anthology. I decided to go the indie route because I was tired of trying to get published and only collecting rejection letters. It was the best decision I ever made.

In 2003 my novel, Whale Song, was released and it saw moderate success, along with two other titles, and I was able to hone my skills as an avid book marketer. I made the book signing circuit to bookstores in both British Columbia and Alberta, Canada. And I began marketing online as well.

In 2006 Whale Song was picked up by a small Canadian publisher. It was re-released in 2007. It sold well and surpassed 5,000 copies in sales, making Whale Song a national bestseller. It also made various Amazon bestseller lists: .com, .ca and co-UK, making it an international bestselling book. However, the publisher began experiencing financial difficulties, along with other problems, and I pulled out. This was definitely the “bad” period in my career.

In 2010 Amazon opened KDP to Canadian authors and I went back to my roots—indie publishing. For me it’s probably the best fit. I am by nature very independent and a strong marketer. Plus I’m an “idea person.” Even my former publisher saw this in me and often called me a “guru” or “marketing genius.” While I don’t consider myself a genius, I do know that I’m a risk-taker.

In 2012 I had nine ebooks published—most have made numerous bestsellers’ lists—and eight trade paperbacks. I’m also published in another anthology, What Fears Become. And I’ve moved from bestselling author to publisher, a move that has surprised me, yet is so rewarding that it’s hard to explain. My company, Imajin Books, isn’t like most publishers. We think ahead and out of the box.

I’m still technically indie published as I’ve published all my own titles now, but Imajin authors are traditionally published. We pay them advances and regular royalties. And we pay them more than most publishers. In many ways we treat our authors as though they’re indie published. They have more say in their books, titled, covers and trailers. We think of them as partners, even though they’ve put no money up front for publication of their titles. Like I said, I’m a risk taker.

During my career I’ve seen the good, bad and the ugly. But now I see a wide window of opportunity. Those who go the indie route will be successful if they have what it takes—marketing know-how and determination. What an exciting time to be in publishing! Especially if you’re an idea person like me.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Yes, But is it Art?


by Jeffrey Deaver 
(International bestselling author)

Writers love to fight.

About style, about politics, about editors, about publishers, about whether a comma must appear before "that" or "which." (It's the latter, by the way.)

About using words like "former" and "latter."

But nobody's more involved in the conflict than thriller and mystery writers. Fantasy and science fiction writers seem to get a pass on the question, but we crime writers are constantly disparaged as hacks, as sell-outs, as writers of "that stuff." Why don't we write real books?

Well, I thought I'd weigh in on the subject. And I decided that the best way to do so was to give you some guiding principles that I keep in mind in writing my thrillers.

Principle one: It's valid to accept that there is a difference between literary fiction and genre, or popular, commercial, fiction. In fact, it's helpful to understand that difference; I'll even go so far as to say that it's vital to make sure the difference exists.

What is that difference? I define it in terms not of style or subject matter or length but of the author's purpose. Literary works of fiction have as their goal to rearrange perceptions, to challenge readers intellectually, politically and morally, to make them question assumptions, to educate, to explain the world.

Genre works of fiction exist to entertain, to amuse, to thrill, to divert. Of course these goals are not--and should not--be exclusive. The best literary fiction seeks to achieve what I described above but has elements that make for a good thriller--sharp dialog, conscientious plotting, conflict, concrete imagery, a dynamic story. The best genre fiction has elements of the literary--psychological, political and social insight, depth of character, a distinctive and unique style.

Principal two: It's invalid to judge a written work based solely on that difference.

Being a recovering attorney I will now cleverly prove this principle through irrefutable logic. Recently watching the University of North Carolina Tarheels, my team, lose to Maryland--a travesty I'll get over eventually--I had the following meal: a turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread, cheddar cheese and mustard, accompanied by a Chimay Belgian ale. Okay, when the game went into overtime, two Chimay ales. I had, if you will, a genre meal.

Two days later I took a date to a darkly lit, upscale restaurant in Chapel Hill and had lobster bisque with truffle foam, coq au vin (pheasant not chicken, an interesting variation) and a 2002 Vosne-Rominee red wine. A literary meal, again if you will.

Which was better? Neither of course. Each was exactly what I wanted at the time and served its purpose perfectly. In the first instance, I had a delightful meal watching an exciting sports event (involving corrupt and incompetent referees, by the way.) In the second my friend and I had a subtle culinary experience that lasted several hours in a delightful restaurant.

Each was appropriate to the circumstance. There are times when I grab a Saul Bellow novel--Bellow a Nobel laureate--or a book of poems by Richard Wilbur or Wallace Stevens. There are times when I read Michael Connolly or Ian Rankin or Agatha Christie.

To disparage a literary work simply because  its goal is to entertain is intellectually dishonest and, in fact, obscures.

Principal Three: There is only one valid criterion by which to evaluate a work o fiction, and it's this: does the writer successfully achieve his or her goal, whatever that goal may be?

Was my sandwich during the game the best I could make, or did I use tasteless Kraft cheese and Wonderbread?

In the writing of one of my thrillers, do I work hard to find original themes, do I keep the plot moving quickly, do I use sharp dialog that reflects actual speech, do I spend months creating twists that will surprise and delight the reader? Or do I rely on cliches, retreads of set-pieces from bad made-for-TV movies and dull prose?

The worth of a work of fiction, and our sole criterion for criticism, lies not in the author's goal but in the skill of execution.

And if I may expand on the topic a bit: What is the key to successful execution of one's work? Which brings us to:

Principal four: Whether you are a literary or genre author, or a critic or a writer of nonfiction, you write not for yourself but for your audience. Short-order cook or chef at a three-Michelinstar restaurant, it's all about the customers.

Works of fiction fail not because they are not "literary" but because their creators lose touch with their readers' needs and expectations.

I know . . . already I can hear the rumblings of sell-out. But understand, I'm not speaking of lowering the bar, pandering to simple-minds and the base side of popular culture (No Wonderbread is our motto.) Readers, like diners, deserve quality, in all endeavors.

And what do we authors get out of the deal? Our pleasure must come not from ego or self-indulgence but from the joy in meeting the challenge of writing a work of fiction that moves another human being--whether it involves helping someone see the world differently or enlivening a tedious airplane journey.

That's what this magical process is all about.

(Excerpted from Mysterious Writers, Poisoned Pen Press.)

Saturday, December 20, 2014

"About Joe Pickett"


by C.J. Box, bestselling Wyoming mystery author

After graduating from college in Denver, my first job was a news reporter in a place called Saratoga (population 2,200) in my home state of Wyoming. My job interview took place in a fishing boat on the North Platte River. I loved the place, and the outdoor lifestyle. To make ends meet, I wrote freelance, filled in here and there, and sometimes helped out local outfitters when they needed a guide on the river.

I remember taking a fisherman out in the late afternoon in a boat. As we neared a remote inlet where large trout hung out, I had the distinct Deliverance-like feeling of being watched from above. I looked up on the same high bank and there he was: the game warden in his red shirt and stained Stetson. He waved. I waved.

The next fall, when I was doing a story for my small weekly on a poaching arrest he had made, I visited the game warden's tiny state-owned home and interviewed him while his children swirled around his desk and his wife looked in from the kitchen. Here was a man who was in charge of enforcing the law in a district that stretched 1,500 square miles. He did it without a real office, or a staff, or a supervisor. Virtually alone, he went out into that rough country every day with only his Labrador as his partner and backup.

Years later, when I sat down to construct the tale of murdered outfitters, endangered species and what can happen in a small town when huge outside forces blow into it (Open Season), I kept that game warden in mind. At the time, I didn't dare envision a series of novels where other issues could be explored.

The character of Joe Pickett is, in a way, the antithesis of many modern literary protagonists. He's happily married with a growing family of daughters. He does not arrive with excess emotional baggage or a dark past that haunts him. He words hard and tries, sincerely, to "do the right thing." He doesn't talk much. He's human, and real, which means he sometimes screws up.

Game wardens are unique because they can legitimately be involved in just about every major event or situation that involves the outdoors and the rough edges of the rural New West. They're trained and armed law enforcement officers. While reaching Open Season and Savage Run, I've ridden on patrol with game wardens to try to get it right. I think I have been embraced by the game wardens themselves (as well as their long-suffering wives). I received a vote of confidence when I was told about a message to game wardens addressed to "Joe Picketts."

Real-world experiences provide the background for Joe Pickett novels. While working on ranches and exploration survey crews, I learned first-hand about the beauty, cruelty, and balance of the natural world. Journalism proved to me that stories, and words, really matter. The growth of my own (and my wife's) international company showed me that one  can succeed in business without being a thug. Through it all, I read and wrote and thought about that game warden.

The land itself--the environment--plays a major role in Open Season and Savage Run, and all the Joe Pickett novels [which followed]. That's because the land in the Rocky Mountain West dominates day-to-day existence. The fight over that land provides the conflict and the stories.This fight has economic, ideological, historical, and theological overtones. It's a serious fight. With Open Season, I was asked by both environmentalists and developer, rancher and industry types what side I was really on, because the strong issues in the novel were presented in a balanced way. They all assumed I was on their side.

Meanwhile, Joe Pickett will try to do the right thing. Wish him luck.

(Excerpted from Mysterious Writers: The Many Facets of Mystery Writing, Poisoned Pen Press.)

Friday, December 12, 2014

'Them Old Greek Writing Blues"

by Paul Johnston. bestselling Scottish author

I've spent much of the last twenty years in Greece. I even lived on one of those 'idyllic' Greek islands for seven years - that's if 'idyllic' means very noisy in the summer and seriously dull in the winter. (No, I don't regret moving to Athens.) I must have written at least half of my published novels in Greece, as well as three deservedly unpublished ones. (I should add that I've published three novels set in Greece, with a half-Greek private eye, but those I wrote in my homeland of Scotland, if you're still with me.) So what's it like writing fiction in Greece?

Well, as anyone who lives in California will agree, writing in a warm climate is definitely easier than trying to think and type while shivering. But there we run into the first problem. John Fowles, a very fine novelist who also wrote one of the best Greece-based novels in The Magus, rightly said that the landscape and light in Greece are very unforgiving to artists (let's leave aside the issue of whether crime writers are artists…). I guess what he meant was that the hills and coastline, the olive trees and the sea, are so beautiful that they make everything else seem imperfect - and that's before you take in the Parthenon etc). You need inner strength to be a writer in Greece, and I didn't have enough of that as an apprentice and earlier on in my career.

Another issue is the people. Don't get me wrong, I love the Greeks, and I'm not just saying that because my wife is one. They're very down-to-earth, very curious and very keen to offer their honest opinion. But none of those qualities is particularly helpful when you're struggling with a first draft, nervous about your characters or trying to be smart with your storyline. Good old British reserve seems more appropriate, but then you run the risk of insulting the Greeks with their Mediterranean sensibilities. Cultural differences, don't you just love 'em?

Then there's the small matter of Greek history. No matter how imaginative you might like to think you are, you'll never come up with a story to beat those the Greeks acted out. I mean, they're still making films about Helen of Troy, Leonidas and his doomed three hundred, and that well-known sociopath Alexander the Great. To paraphrase Shelley, look upon my ancestors' deeds and despair…

And another thing. How's a writer to compare with the Greek literary tradition? Can you inspire people better than Homer, make them weep longer than Sophocles or laugh louder than Aristophanes? I think not, brave scribe. On the other hand, you might just be able to hold their interest better than Plato - but that's down to the modern world's short attention span, not your superior dialogue.

So, all in all, Greece manages to make the modern day writer feel completely insignificant and utterly insecure. Then again, that's what writers feel wherever they are.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Getting a Late Start by June Shaw


A new friend asked the silliest question: "Why did you wait so long to start writing novels?"

My desire to become a writer surfaced when I was in ninth grade. Before then I thought good writers were old dead European men. I couldn't relate. My English teacher told me he was sending me to a literary rally. I knew grammar well, which most of the test would include, but we'd also write a paragraph. He told me to practice. I should write about a splinter.


A splinter? I slunk back to my  desk. This would be the dullest paragraph anyone ever created. I described a silver of wood, checked for grammar and punctuation, and carried it to his desk.


He skimmed it. "June, this is boring."

"I know, but you told me to write it."
"Yes, but do it like this." He wrote Ouch! and said I should write from the splinter's point of view. Somebody just sat on it.

Wow, that was it! My education. My inspiration. I was so excited to realize an author could create people and things and make them do or say anything. What my teacher actually did was introduce me to modern creative writing that included humor.


I'd never read things like that before. None of my teachers ever had us do creative writing. I can't recall the topic of the paragraph we had to write about at the rally, but I did place first and I never forgot that splinter.


Over time I'd often think of that splinter and want to write, but instead ran with my five children to their activities. My husband died when they were five to eleven years old.  Once my head began to clear, I knew I wanted to write. I became a
teacher who taught English. Over time I sold essays and stories. My one-act plays did sell and I finally read novels and learned to write them. My first novel, Relative Danger, features a spunky young grandma and her hunky sometimes ex-lover. Is she me? I'm often asked. She's who I want to be.

When Killer Cousins, the second book in the series, came out, both books received great reviews and much praise. I was thrilled. My third book takes place on a cruise ship. 


I'm in my second adulthood and having great fun! Thanks for letting me share. I love my characters. Quirky and unique, they are people I want to spend much time with and I want
my readers to do the same. 

Friday, November 28, 2014

Why Noir?


by Roger Smith, South African bestselling author

Why does noir crime fiction resurface during times of uncertainty, when societies seem to have lost their moral compasses? Perhaps when reassuring parables with happy endings don’t ring true, tougher-minded readers reach for books that are, at heart, dystopian and dark, charting the inevitably downward course of doomed losers who are driven to their fate by their own demons.

In noir the protagonists aren’t outsiders called in to restore order, but rather people directly connected to the crime: victims and perpetrators. So noir isn't about private detectives (or their frequent surrogates, reporters) where a hero—or anti-hero—may emerge battered and bruised and even more cynical, but restores some kind of moral balance (and restores the reader’s faith in society). And no way is it police procedural, where the workings of law-enforcement—even if they are flawed—trump over lawlessness.

In noir, if there are cops (or other representatives of the establishment), which are "bent," they're serving their own outlaw agenda. And unlike traditional mysteries, capers and procedures, where the story is all about the crime, noir is all about the characters.

What I have always admired about noir fiction is the unflinching way the best of it deals with tough social issues, so  when I started writing crime novels set in South Africa--one of the most violent and corrupt countries in the world—I found noir to be the most accurate prism through which to view this society in turmoil.

Apartheid is over, but a crime epidemic, poverty and the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS on the planet present new challenges. The ex-commissioner of police was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for corruption. One in three South African women will be raped in their lifetime. Teenage girls are sold into slave marriages in the name of tradition and men believe that raping our virgins—often children—will cure them of AIDS. Noir country, for sure.

American noir, too, has always questioned its society (from James M. Cain to James Ellroy) and it’s unsurprising that this dark brand of fiction is the engine-room of radical new crime writing emerging from the U.S. Younger writers like Frank Bill (Crimes in Southern Indiana) and Keith Rawson (The Chaos We Know), have both recently published anthologies that paint a bleak picture of the heartland of post-9/11 America: stories of unemployment, disintegrating families and rural meth labs.


So, what better time than now—as protests against the established order sweep the globe—for a resurgence of this brand of existential,  deeply pessimistic crime fiction?

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers.)

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Letting Go by Bestselling Author Nancy Pickard


How is it that we can sit down to write knowing only where our scene is set and who is supposed to be in it, and then before we know it characters say things we didn't even know they thought, and they do things we didn't know they could do, and things happen that totally surprise us?

How can that be? There's no logical explanation for it that I know of, or for the sense that we get of being in a trance when that happens. There we are, sitting down at our computer or notebook, and suddenly we look up and our senses come flooding back on us, and we realize we've been writing for two hours without even thinking about it. When writers talk about things like this, other people find it eerie. It is eerie, but it's wonderful to experience.

I think it happens because we have given ourselves over completely to our writing, a phenomenon that can't happen unless we let go.
But let go of what? Of our inhibitions, our fears, our need to control every syllable that goes on the page, and of such mundane things as telephone calls, email, and all the other distractions that take us out of the zone and pull us back into the world.

By practicing a lot small acts of letting go, a writer can build up her muscles for bigger ones. Every time she lets go in her writing, to whatever degree she can do it, the rewards can range from nice to incredible I started practicing it from the very beginning of my writing career, when I did "free writing" every day for ten minutes, setting a timer and writing nonstop, without editing or censoring, about any subject that popped into my mind.

Writer Cecil Murphey tells what happens when he lets go--"I was working on a book, and I must have gone into a zone because       the ringing telephone startled me. I felt as if I had been working in another  dimension. At least an hour had elapsed and it seemed like minutes. When that happens--and it's not an everyday occurrence--the writing feels effortless, and words easily fill the screen."
Letting go comes with risk and sacrifice. It may be "just" the risk of sacrificing your fear or getting more "out there" in what you write or letting yourself write a scene of violence or sex, or sweetness, or whatever it is that scares you to do. There are endless ways of letting go.

In my opinion, writers need to develop some tolerance for free falling, because that's how letting go feels--like Tarzan or Jane letting go of one vine without knowing for sure they can reach the next one. When--if--they do, there's a rush of exhilaration and pride, along with the knowledge that they've got to keep doing it in order to get better at it, so they can fly through the jungle with confidence.

Publishing--it's a jungle out there, right? Writers who can let go and allow themselves to become the high flyers they have the talent to be are more likely to navigate it successfully.

(Excerpted from Mysterious Writers, published by Poisoned Pen Press. Available in ebook and large print editions.)

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Book That Nearly Died


Writing Advice for Fledgling Authors
by Jackie King

The best advice I can give to fledgling writers is never give up! Don’t believe anyone who tries to discourage you, no matter how important that editor or agent may be. Don’t listen to the doubting thoughts inside your own head. You can be a selling writer if you follow these three rules:

     1)    Write every day it’s humanly possible.
    2)    Finish the novel you start.
    3)    Submit what you write.

I forget to follow my own advice sometimes and get into trouble. This happened with my 2nd Grace Cassidy mystery, THE CORPSE WHO WALKED IN THE DOOR. Because of this lapse, the book almost didn’t make it to publication.

I started off okay. Starting is much easier than finishing. You just sit at your computer and ask yourself: “What if…”

What if the entire, odious family of Wilbur Wimberly shows up for a reunion at the B&B? This bunch of folk were sure to be so hateful that one of them might kill another.

And…

What if to complicate things, Grace’s awful boss had an identical twin? Only instead of being abhorrent, this man turns out to be so charming that Grace is attracted to him?

And…

What if when things were rocking along fairly well, her cat Trouble finds a body in the bathtub?

And so on.

As usual, I started the book with a great deal of enthusiasm. Writing first chapters are usually fun. The panic hits about midway when I begin to wonder when the heck this thing will be finished. Will I be able to connect all of the dots? Do the red herrings work? And worst of all: what made me think that I could write a mystery? Self-doubt attacks every writer. Ignore it.

I set my face to slog through to the end, when life dealt a blow I didn’t expect. Suddenly my energy disappeared. I’d always been a gal who could push herself even when bone-tired. Finish the draft and then go back and polish until I was satisfied that I’d done my best, no matter how tired I became. So I tried to forge through the malaise, but my body just wouldn’t cooperate. I could write for about 20 minutes, then exhaustion seeped into my entire body. It seemed as if my bones had dissolved. I had to crawl into my bed and rest for a good-long while.

Had age finally caught up with me? Did I have some awful disease that the doctors couldn’t pinpoint? I went to my internist and demanded that he find out the problem. “It’s more than my age!” I said.

He began ordering tests. One was a sleep test. This insomniac had to spend the night with wires fastened over most of her body and a space-travel sort of mask strapped to her face. It was horrible, and it was inconclusive. I had to do the whole thing over again. I so wanted to quit. But I didn’t.

With a lot of determination or maybe just plain stubbornness, I learned to sleep in that *#!% mask.

The doctors also implanted a pacemaker for my heart problem . These two procedures gave me back my life.

These issues delayed me, but didn’t stop me from finishing and publishing my 2nd Grace Cassidy mystery.

THE CORPSE WHO WALKED IN THE DOOR
The Story:

The family reunion from hell is bound to end in murder. At least that’s what Grace Cassidy, inn-sitter, figured when her boss’ screams announced the arrival of his identical twin. This guy was supposed to have drown 7 years earlier, and no one in the family was happy to see him. When he turned up dead in Grace’s bathtub, she is the one who had to find out who killed him.

The Corpse Who Walked in the Door
Available on Amazon

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Women of Mystery Reviews


by J.A. Jance

An editor from New York once told me, and not tongue in cheek: "Original paperback mysteries are where anyone who wants to get published can get published."

Not only was I being published in original paperback, I was giving this woman a ride to a writer's conference. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you. I was not amused.

Once I was published, it was what is often disparagingly dubbed "genre fiction." I soon learned an additional ugly truth: getting mysteries reviewed in the main stream media was and is a tough sell, and it's even more so if you happen to be female. When Sisters in Crime was started, one of its main goals was to monitor reviewing media and try to make sure that women mystery writers get a fair shake. 

Time has passed and the situation is somewhat better than when I started writing. Even so, it's still not a done deal. I've been on the New York Times bestseller list numerous times, but I've only been reviewed by them ONCE--and that was back when I was still in original paperback. In other words, I've been writing for the better part of thirty years, but the Times doesn't exactly come calling on a regular basis. 

As for being taken by the Groves of Academe, it used to be that I would say,"'Forget it." But that's  no longer true. The University of Arizona Library has a special collection called, "Women of Mystery." The collection is devoted to the works of contemporary female writers in the U.S. They are collecting books. They are collecting papers. Some day when some scholar wants to devote some time to study the works of female mystery writers of the 20th and early 21st centuries, they'll have a place to go--my alma mater.

If you qualify and think you should be on the list, contact Carla Stouffle at the University of Arizona Library at stofflec@u.library.arizona.edu. Carla is a lifelong mystery fan and champion of women mystery writers.

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers, Medallion Books)

Saturday, November 1, 2014

J.A. Jance Interview


Bestselling novelist J.A. Jance knew from an early age that she wanted to become a writer after her teacher introduced her to Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz series. But, because of her gender, she was denied creative writing courses, and was forced to learn to write on her own. Determined and resourceful during her difficult life, she eventually made it to the bestseller list.

Judy, how did the J.P. Beaumont, Johanna Brady and Ali Reynolds series come about?

The first Beaumont book was published in 1985. When I wrote it I thought I was writing a one-time book. I was new to Seattle but the character was a Seattle native. I had to do a lot of research to write  that book, and writing from a male first person viewpoint was challenging. After writing nine Beaumont books in a row I was growing tired of the character.

My editor suggested that I come up with some other character so I could alternate. When I wrote the first Johanna Brady novel, Desert Heat, I knew that I was writing a series, but I could use my experiences of being a single parent and living in the Arizona desert, and working in a non-traditional job to create her character. 

Ali Reynolds grew out of seeing a longtime female newscaster pushed out of her job due to age factors.

What in your background prepared you to write grisly crime novels?

I have the dubious honor of spending sixty days of my life during the early seventies being stalked by a serial killer, someone who is still in prison. During that time I wore a loaded weapon and was fully prepared to use it. I used some of what I learned from that experience to create the background for Hour of the Hunter, Kiss of the Bees, and Day of the Dead.

Who influenced your own writing?

I started out reading Nancy Drew by Carolyn Keene. I later read John D. McDonald and Mickey Spillane. Those were the people who showed me it was possible to write a series of books for adults.

What’s your writing schedule like and do you aim for a daily amount of words?

Since I’m on a two-book a year schedule, I write every day. I don’t have a set amount of words. I’m also a wife, mother and grandmother. I like having a life.

What are the basic ingredients in a bestselling novel, and how long did it take you to reach the list?

Characters and plots. As for when did I make the list, it was probably fifteen or twenty years ago, but making the list is entirely arbitrary and decisions are made far away from the author’s effort. I don’t think the books I wrote before making ‘the list’ were of any lesser quality than the ones that have.

When did you begin donating your bookstore earnings to charities?

Very early on. I don’t remember exactly. I’ve been involved with the YMCA, the Humane Society, the Relay for Life and ALS research.

Advice for fledgling writers?

When I bought my first computer in 1983, the guy who installed my word processing program fixed it so that every time I booted up the computer these were the words that flashed across the screen: A writer is someone who has written TODAY! Those were the words I clung to when I was a pre-published writer and still resonates with me.Today I am a writer.


(Next week: Judy Jance talks about mystery women's difficult climb to review status.)