Saturday, February 6, 2016

LIfe's Too Short to Ignore Your Dreams

by Margaret Koch

I wanted to be writer--to call myself a pro, not just write memoirs for friends and family. I wanted to entertain people with fast-paced mysteries--tales of courage and humor, romance, intriguing puzzles and derring-do. My words would dance, leap and shine, sucking readers in until all they could do was turn the page and gasp, then pant for air and relax. They would sigh and smile when the book was done, satisfied. 

I was a psychologist, with a successful practice. I'd heard plenty about life's adventures, but I couldn't use those stories, nor did I want to write research-style--with lots of colons and multi-syllabic words documenting minutia. The joke about research writing is that many colons are needed because material is over-digested, then expelled. And much of it should be flushed. I would write no self-help books, either. I had no life-fixing thoughts I cared to share. So I had no experience with that glittering mix of excitement I wanted in my books. And I was overly mature. An unkind person might even say I was old. There I was, a fast-aging wannabe, totally ignorant of what I was getting into. 


I hitched up my brain and dove headfirst into the buzzsaw of writing and publishing. No guts, no glory. During the next five years, as I wrote and published my mystery-thriller series novels, this is what I learned--in simple form, no colons.

1. The business is brutal, as are most businesses allied to the arts. If you want respect and due consideration, get over it. You're likely better at the gates, unacknowledged, Unless you are struck by lightning you'll be dismissed. It's a business. They don't trust wannabees, especially old ones writing a series. You might be spectacular, but the first lesson is "Get over yourself." Start young, if possible.

2. A single book traditionally published will take at least two years to get to a reader--too slow, if you've started late. Your life will slip away while publishing proceeds at a snail's pace. By the time you're offered a contract, your brain will have departed. You can't do a series of one, anyway.

3. There's another way. The e-book revolution arrived. The odds of success increase with each e-book you publish, if you turn out a quality product. And it's fast. But e-book publishing is like diving into a stormy maelstrom where many good writers perish unknown.
I'm selling enough to know that I'm valued to readers. People thank me. I like my reviews. I like royalty checks. I believe that I'm a good writer. That's heady.

4. Writing fiction requires courage. You're exposed. You cannot worry about what people will think. You'll be praised, ignored and critiqued. You'll be emotionally tossed from highs to lows. Do it anyway. Life's too short to ignore dreams.

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers where you can read Margaret Koch's interview as well as that of 51 others. The 390-book is available in ebook, print and audio editions.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Confessions of a Pack Rat

by Tim Maleeney

When I was a kid I collected everything--baseball cards, comics, bottle caps, key chains, action figures, coins, stamps, electrical circuits plastic tubing and even pieces of wood in case I had to build a rocket ship or teleportation device.  Boxes and bins filled my room, the closets, and the bookshelves, along with hundreds of books (which were probably the second thing I started collecting, after stuff animals).

Some of those collections were put on display, many were played with,  but there was something magical about having a collection just in case. Nothing was more exciting than playing a game which suddenly called for a contraption that could only be made with fifty bottle caps and ten yards of old string, knowing you had those essential ingredients somewhere in your closet, in the blue box with the Batman sticker.

Years later my desk and the walls of my office look a lot like my childhood shelves, with scraps of paper, scribbled notes, photographs, and file folders everywhere. Some of the information is new, dug up at the library or printed from my computer, but many items were found years ago and have only recently been pulled from a drawer or taken from a bulletin board to become part of my next novel.

[One of] my books, which has the unlikely title Greasing the Pinata, was called by Library Journal "a cracking good mystery!" When I look at some of the disparate elements that comprise the plot, they include a missing U.S. senator, a trip to Burning Man, a bipolar drug lord, a clergyman-turned hitman, a female assassin reared by the Hong Kong Triads, a trip across Mexico, and a financial scam that begins in corporate boardrooms and ends somewhere in the heart of the environmental movement. (Those are just a few of the major players or setting because I forgot to mention San Francisco, the box jellyfish, the  magic act and the castle on the beach.)

So the questions are how these seemingly unrelated items ended up in the same book, and  how  do they work seamlessly in a story that Publishers Weekly said "smoothly mixes wry humor with a serious plot? Did I know I was going to use them all when I started writing? Absolutely not. But more important I didn't realize I was going to use any of that information when I first discovered it--I just collected it as I went along, putting each experience, article or thought into its own bin to retrieve later, just like those bits of plastic and electrical circuits from my youth. As a writer, you never know when you'll have to build a time machine.

I used to travel for work to places like Hong Kong and Mexico, and though I wasn't writing then, I did collect those experiences, along with some snapshots, stories and memories that came in handy when I decided to set my novel there. A file folder stuffed with articles about deadly sea creatures came in handy when I decided a box jellyfish should make an appearance. And a box of magic tricks I performed as a child, which I've since taken from the attic and given to my daughter, provided the inspiration for one of the more memorable scenes in the novel.

I see my daughters collecting things, both of them already interested in writing their own stories even as they are learning to read, and though I occasionally step on a bottle cap, it always makes me smile. 

(Excerpted from The Mysterious Writers where you can read not only Tim Maleeney's interview but those of 75 others. Available in ebook and large print.)

Friday, January 22, 2016

Going for the Blogosphere!

by Robert W. Walker

While an author needs be cautious with BSP-–Blatant SELF-Promotion-–as it can be as off-putting as SPAM, there are professional techniques. For instance, learn what is acceptable or not when on a given site/chat group. Below are acceptable forms of BSP-ing every author should look into:

Sig line: We all know to beef up emails with a signature line—always a good idea, but many folks on various groups are terribly put off by our doing a full-blown commercial for our books on their “space”. This said there are legit ways to gain attention for a forthcoming book.

Set up a blog from your series/main character’s point of view or your own perspective. Many authors are doing this these days. Setting up a blog is easy at Google spot easy to navigate.

Set up a Group-a-Blog! Yes, a group of us Chicago mystery and suspense writers are an example at Acme Authors(http.//’s great as you’re only responsible for content one day per week. We began as Chicago authors but recently have added on, and we have frequent interviews and guests. A group-a-blog that involves many authors also means a built in support group!

Set up a website most assuredly! An author needs an online address to promote herself, set up free advice, contests, and giveaways as I have at It is so important that people can find you and your books—public figure that you are.

Join the web Bandwagon! How many times this week did you hear the word Twitter? Check out and join as with other seriously large social groups online like, www.myspace,com,, of which allow you to “network” online, building connections so that “your web” grows larger said the spider to the fly.

Cross pollinate! Once you’re part of a huge social network, lure readers to your work via your various addresses while being your wonderful self (if they like you, they buy your book!). Humor and interesting content is how you Pied Piper people to your blog and website. I’m on and in addition to all of the above. You tell people at the various bandwagon sites in quick bites where they can find the whole meal deal at your site and your blog. You suggest, cajole, urge folks over without a smell of leftover Spam by providing a url, which allows Dick and Jane to decide and not you for them. Meanwhile, you can also duplicate your blog efforts (articles) to play on some of these bandwagon sites (cut and paste your original blog, and it does double or triple-duty at myspace, facebook, crimespace blogs. It’s how we got through college—making one research paper do double duty in more than one class/venue! You can also catch my articles on writing at Does it keep me busy? Yes. Does it pull me away from my next book project? Yes. Is it worth it? By all means.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Marketing Two Books at Once

by Betty Webb

In December, 2008, when Poisoned Pen Press released my kinda-cozy “The Anteater of Death,” the first book in the Gunn Zoo series, I had a choice to make. I could tour the brick-and-mortar stores and never mention my earlier 2008 release, the dark “Desert Cut,” or not bring up that fifth novel in the Lena Jones series at all. After all, I’d already conducted a brick-and-mortar tour on “Cut”.

But the bookstores ordered more Lena Jones books for me to sign on the “Anteater” tour, so I realized that I had to come up with a way to discuss two very, very different types of books in the same talk. The answer came when the store managers asked me why I was switching from dark material to light, and was that switch going to be permanent. As I began explaining, I thought, “Gee, this is exactly the kind of stuff audiences might be interested in.”

My explanation? Researching writing the socially conscious Lena Jones books -- Desert Cut in particular -- is so time intensive and emotionally grueling, that I needed a break. Such as writing something funny. But where could I go for laughs? Then I realized that in my four years as a volunteer at the Phoenix Zoo, I’d seen some pretty funny things, and that a mystery set in a zoo and with a zookeeper protagonist would provide the comic relief I was looking for. I picked one of my favorite animals, Lucy, a Giant Anteater, and framed her for murder. Only the clue-sniffing actions of her fond keeper -- the intrepid Theodora “Teddy” Bentley -- keeps Lucy from being shipped off to a different zoo.

So I pepper my in-store talks with funny stories about zoo life; a giraffe kicking a pesky ostrich ten feet into the air, a cowardly bear, and the sex lives of Mexican gray wolves (they’re not as monogamous as some people believe). When people ask about my Lena Jones material (and there are always some), I address those issues: abuse of eminent domain in “Desert Noir,” polygamy in “Desert Wives,” publishing scams in “Desert Shadows,” Arizona history in “Desert Run,” and a horrendous type of child abuse -- performed on millions of little girls -- in “Desert Cut.” This extreme duality makes for some pretty peculiar talks, but it works. I’d thought that the two different series would appeal to different readers, but to my surprise, many readers buy both.

My promotional material reflects the duality of the two series. Side A of the full color brochure for “The Anteater of Death” flyer talks about the anteater (cover, plot line, reviews, short bio, etc.). Side B lists the entire Lena Jones series, the five books and their plots (and covers), and some of the more widely-read reviews (New York Times, Chicago Tribune, etc.). I designed my two-sided, full color book marks the same way, although I was only able to fit in two Lena Jones books; I chose the best-selling books (“Desert Wives” and “Desert Cut”). And, of course, my web site address appears on everything.

The promotional material worked even better than I’d hoped. Seems like every day I get an email from a flyer reader who’s decided to read their way through my list. The only drawback is that they want me to write faster. And -- God help me -- tour more often.

Friday, January 1, 2016

A Visit with Alafair Burke

Alafair Burke "is a terrific web spinner" who "knows when and how to drop clues to keep readers at her mercy," according to Entertainment Weekly. Her two series feature  NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher and Portland Deputy District Attorney Samantha Kincaid. A former prosecutor in the Portland, Oregon, DA's office, she currently teaches criminal law and procedure at Hofstra Law School  in New York.

How did NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher come into being as well as Portland Prosecutor Samantha Kincaid?

I was a prosecutor in Portland, Oregon, for several years. After leaving to move to New York, I missed my office. I missed Portland and my friends. And as a long-time mystery reader, I had always wanted to write a crime novel. I thought I’d finally learned enough about the world to give it a try, so I started with Samantha Kincaid, who is a prosecutor in the very office where I served.

By the time I was working on my fourth novel, I’d been living in New York for a few years. I thought the anonymity that comes only in a city this big was exciting territory for me as a writer. I was also ready to write a faster paced book with an investigator, instead of a lawyer, at the center. I had a story I wanted to tell that involved Internet dating, and I thought a young New York City detective was the perfect narrator. I actually meant for that book (Dead Connection) to be a standalone, but I knew when I wrote the final chapter that I’d still be hearing more from Ellie.

I love your Duffer Awards. What prompted them?

The only thing I love more than reading books is talking about them. Sometimes I think I only write so I’ll have a work-related reason to talk all day about mystery novels.

I’m traveling less this year for book tour, so I wanted to do some fun things online that would involve interaction with readers I might not get to see in person. A couple of months ago, I gave out some so-called “Duffer Awards” in my newsletter, and my readers thought it was a big hit. I thought it would be fun to let readers vote on a new award every day for a month. And since I don’t like real competitions like smartest sleuth, where feelings can be hurt, I decided that the awards had to be for silly stuff like Best Hat and Most Likely to be Institutionalized. I hope crime fiction readers will stop by every day to cast a vote on each category. And to sweeten the pot, anyone who posts a comment is entered to win signed books and gift certificates to booksellers. The more comments, the more chances for loot!

The awards are at As I type this, Michael Connelly’s Mickey Haller appears to be locking in a win for Most Likely to Marry His Ex-Wife (over Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone).

How do you manage to write two crime series while serving as a Professor of Law at Hofstra University? What’s your writing schedule like?

I honestly don’t know how anything gets done. I Facebook, Tweet, and eat constantly, yet at the end of the year, I usually have a book and a couple of law review articles on my computer. I do try to write every day, and very rarely miss two days in a row. That continuity makes a big difference. Even if I only write a couple of paragraphs on a busy day, I can jump in the next day, fully aware of where I am in the story, how my characters’ voices sound, and how they feel in that moment.

Tell us about your latest release.

I’m very excited about Long Gone. It’s my first stand-alone thriller. I guess I said that about the first Ellie Hatcher book, too, but this time, I think I really mean it. And it’s the first time I’ve written about a character who is outside the criminal justice system.

After a layoff and months of struggling, Alice Humphrey finally lands what she thinks is her dream job managing a new art gallery in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. Everything seems perfect until the morning Alice arrives at work to find the gallery gone—the space stripped bare as if it had never existed— with the man who hired her dead on the floor. Overnight, Alice’s dream job has vanished, and she finds herself at the center of police attention with nothing to prove her innocence. There’s also a missing girl from New Jersey, a rogue FBI agent, and Alice’s nightmare family running around the pages, but I promise it’s all one story.

This is a higher concept book than my series novels, and sometimes those don’t end as successfully as they start. I’m very proud of how all the threads come together here, though.

How much of an influence on your own writing was your father, James Lee Burke?

With a father who was writing and mother who was a librarian, we were a family that not only told stories, but thought it was perfectly natural to write them down. My mother would take me to the library every Saturday for a new stack of books. The rhythms of story telling and character creation become ingrained when you read all the time.

Advice to fledgling crime writers?

Read. Read a lot. But don’t try to copy anyone. Figure out what you can offer the genre. And then write every single day – without starting over – until you finish. Once you have a beginning, middle, and end, it is much easier to make adjustments than you’d ever believe. The hard part is getting it done.

How, in your opinion, is the ebook revolution affecting major publishing practices?

I’m a bit like the ostrich in the sand on this one. Or a kid with fingers in ears saying, “La, la, la, I’m not listening to you.” I try to focus on the books and appreciating the readers I have instead of figuring out the business. That said, my sense is that publishers were more panicked two years ago than they are now. They still believe that writers need a conduit between them and retailers (whether electronic or paper). In my case, they are really pushing the idea of growing my readership through e-books. For example, they’re currently offering Angel’s Tip for $1.99. (See how I worked in that plug. Wily, huh?)

What has brought you the most pleasure and satisfaction?

Knowing that someone is reading your work is a grand high. When I hear from readers who say they stayed up all night because they couldn’t put down one of my books, I still want to scream out loud.

Any publishing regrets?

I don’t believe in regrets. Maybe my very first book would have been better if I’d cut back on some detail, but debut novels are detailed for a reason. New writers share some of the same habits. I like to think that every book I’ve written has been better than the rest. As someone who cares more about the longevity of my publishing career than dollars and cents, that makes me pretty content.

Thank you, Alafair.

You can visit Alafair at her website:
At Twitter:
and at: (where Duffer voting is taking place)

Saturday, December 26, 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, December 18, 2015

Two Heads Are Better Than One

by Lee Lofland

Citizens are rarely allowed to see the private lives of police officers. From the public’s point of view, cops are sometimes seen as uncaring, gruff individuals with little or no sense of humor. Nothing is further from the truth. Many police officers I worked with thought of themselves as the ultimate practical jokers.

After all, what could be funnier than squirting a thick cloud of pepper spray under a locked restroom door, while your partner is in there with his uniform pants around his ankles? Taking and hiding a fellow officer’s patrol car, after he left his keys in the ignition and was in foot-pursuit of a fleeing suspect, was another favorite trick. Watching him frantically search for the missing vehicle, at the same time he was wondering how to explain the loss to his supervisor, was hilarious to the pranksters. There were times, however, when the last laugh was on the comedians.

In the South, winters can be extremely harsh. Bitter winds can pierce the uniforms of cops like rifle-fire. As patrol deputies, we thought of every excuse available to hang around the office on those nights of unforgiving temperatures. Graveyard shifts were the worst for the cold and for boredom. To pass the time, we dreamed up some of the wildest practical jokes imaginable. Our victims were fellow officers, dispatchers, and the jail staff.

One particular night, a couple of the guys borrowed a department-store mannequin and smuggled it upstairs inside the county jail. There they dressed the mannequin as an inmate, in orange, jail-issue coveralls. The plan was for two of the deputies to make their way down the steps, while pretending to fight with the dummy. The scuffle was to end at the office of an elderly graveyard-shift dispatcher. This granny was the queen of all jokesters. Her most famous prank was baking homemade Christmas cookies laced with a very strong laxative. The mannequin idea was supposed to scare her into sending out an officer-needs-assistance call; we all expected a good laugh when she realized the joke was on her.

The officers began the descent down the stairwell, yelling and screaming as they neared the dispatcher’s station. When they rounded the corner and were in full view of the poor woman, the “fight” became more intense. The dispatcher stood to see what was causing the disturbance and, as they expected, she was terrified. Just as she reached for the microphone to call for assistance, the head fell off the mannequin. The dispatcher watched in horror as it tumbled down the steps and rolled to a stop at her feet. Thinking the deputies had decapitated the poor inmate; she promptly fainted and struck her head on the concrete floor. An ambulance had to be called, an accident report had to be completed, and the sheriff had to be notified—at 3:00 a.m. The dispatcher was fine, but when the sheriff arrived, real heads rolled.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Louise Penny Revisited

New York Times bestselling author Louise Penny lives and writes in a small village near Montreal, not far from the U.S. border. She's the multiple recipient of the Agatha Award as well as other honors for her work.

Louise, you've had a long career as a journalist and radio host in your native Canada. When and why did you decide that you would rather write novels?

Well, I've wanted to write since I was a child, and tried every decade of my life. But the sad fact was, I had nothing to say. I was way too callow and self-absorbed. And while I feigned interest in others, I really wasn't listening. These are not promising traits for a writer.

There's a wonderful line from Auden's elegy to Yeats in which he writes, 'Mad Ierland hurt him into poetry.' How searing, how true must that have been? And I feel the same was true of me. Not poetry, of course, but writing. I was finally buffeted and bruised and hurt enough by life that I started to empathize with and feel the pain of others. I understood loss and sorrow and aching loneliness. What it felt like to make dreadful mistakes. And what it felt like to be forgiven. And to forgive. And to love with all my heart. How friendship really felt.

And then I was ready to write.

Your work has taken you from Toronto to Thunder Bay to Winnipeg, Quebec City and Montreal. Have any of those cities served as a backdrop for your books?

My books are actually set, for the most part, in the fictional village of Three Pines, which is south of Montreal, near the border with Vermont. It's the area of Quebec I live in, called the Eastern Townships. However, Chief Inspector Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie live in Montreal, so I'm able to use my familiarity with that gorgeous city. 

I know that you’re a fellow dog lover. Have canines inhabited your novels?

Yes! I love writing about dogs, and have given almost every character, including Clara and the Gamaches, dogs. Clara has a Golden Retriever, like us - and the Gamaches have a German Shepherd. Both are adoption dogs. 

What did you find the most difficult when you made the transition from journalism to fiction?

There were actually a lot of challenges. In radio journalism I was used to a story being half a page long. Just the facts. No plot, no character development. Few adjectives. I was convinced that when I set out to write my novel it would be a page and a half long. What I found quite easy, though, was dialogue, since when I wrote for radio I wrote for the spoken word. And I had 20 years of listening closely to how people talk.

Did marrying later in life influence your work in any way?

Certainly finding love influenced it. My books are about murder and the terror that comes from a crime of such violation, but mostly they're about love. My husband is the first and only man I have loved. With all my heart. I know how Reine-Marie loves Gamache, and he her, because of how I feel. And Michael has also served as an inspiration for Gamache - a mature man, who is happy and content. Not because he's never known sorrow, but because he knows exactly how terrible the world can be, and chooses to stand in the light anyway.

What’s the best part of mystery writing and the worst? And what's your writing schedule like?

One of the great things about a career hosting a daily live radio show is I learned discipline. And perseverance. Two qualities I think are more important even than creativity. I write from January through until the book is finished...generally eight months for a first draft and re-writes. Though I am thinking of a book, and making notes, for about a year before I actually start writing.

Everyday I write at least 1,000 words. Even if they're stinkers...I can always take them out afterward. But I know myself. I can be very, very lazy. So I can't afford to even think about flagging!

In terms of mystery writing, there are so many great things beginning I think with the community of writers, editors, booksellers, bloggers like Jean and of course, readers. It is unbelievably supportive. What a relief not to be around people who smile to your face but stick a knife in when your back is turned.

And the people who read mysteries are the best! Genuinely interested in other cultures, in emotions. They're smart and thoughtful.

There really isn't a downside to writing mysteries--not that I've seen.Though the slight thorn might be when people - some other writers and some readers-look down on the books as 'simply genre' and don't see the depth and power of a well-written mystery. It saddens me a bit, and sometimes it angers me. But mostly I don't notice.

How did you celebrate your first New York bestseller?

First, I shrieked! My publisher and editor called on a conference call from New York to tell me. But Andy Martin, the great publisher at Minotaur, started by saying, 'Do you know why we're calling?'

I, of course, immediately presumed the book, A Rule Against Murder, which had just come out, was such a failure they were about to fire me. And it took two to do it.

When he said, 'You've made the New York Times Bestseller list!' I think there was a moment of silence - then a scream. Poor Michael, in another room, came running. Wow. I will never, ever forget that feeling. Then Michael took me out - we were in Quebec City researching an upcoming book-to a wonderful restaurant for dinner.

Advice to fledgling writers?

Believe in yourself. Never give up. Make sure your 'critic' isn't trying to write the first draft. And a bit of advice I got from an editor who turned down my first book. He said, 'New writers commonly make three mistakes, and you've made all three. The book is too long, too many characters and too many ideas.' I decided he was right. I'd tried to put everything I'd ever learned or thought into that first book. Every character I'd wanted to write showed up. And as a result, it was WAY too long.

But mostly, never forget what a privilege it is to write. I once heard a writer, after she'd won a huge award (not a mystery writer) say that writing is the hardest thing you can do. And I thought, Good Lord, has the woman never waited tables for minimum wages, serving people who sneer at her? Does she realize there are coal miners, daycare workers, teachers, firefighters, doctors who sit by sick children.

Writing is a blessing and a gift, and if you forget it you might win awards, but lose yourself.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Writing Historical Mysteries

by Carola Dunn

I have been writing historical novels for over thirty years. If you count the 1960s as historical--opinions differ!--I have had more than 50 published. Of these, 32 are Regencies. The other eighteen are mysteries, the 17 titles of my Daisy Dalrymple series, set in the 1920s, and 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 book. However, obviously, it takes more effort 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 time 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 18th century England and France, manners and etiquette were of enormous importance, even in dire circumstances. The class system was an unavoidable aspect of 19th century England that can't be ignored however little you like it. America in the 19th 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 behaved 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!

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Michael Orenhuff Talks About His Pot Thief Series

Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson wrote of Michael Orenhuff's mystery: "The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras has all the components of a great read – an intricate plot, quirky characters, crackling dialog, and a surprise ending. What’s more, Orenduff successfully captures the essence of New Mexico through humor, romance, and even a little philosophical musing. New Mexico’s rich history, people, food, and landscape come alive on its pages. . ." 

Mike, you’ve had some great reviews, but how did you manage the one from Governor Bill Richardson?

I served as president of New Mexico State University back in the nineties when he was one of our Congressional Representatives. He was very supportive of higher education, and I worked with him (mostly his staff) on several projects, including one for Hispanic-serving institutions that tied NMSU with the University of Puerto Rico and some other universities in a federal project. So when I retired and started writing books, I asked him for the review and he graciously consented. And it didn’t hurt that my books attract attention for the state.

Tell us about your award-winning Pot Thief Mystery series.

The protagonist was a “pot hunter” in his early days, digging up and selling ancient pottery. When that practice was outlawed, he was rebranded as a pot thief, but he rationalizes what he does. Unfortunately, his clandestine excavations often tie him to a murder which he must solve to clear himself. He’s somewhat clueless but often gets inspiration and assistance from his sidekick Susannah who acquired her mystery solving skills by reading murder mysteries.

How important is humor in a mystery series?

I think every mystery, no matter how noir, must have some humor if for no other reason than to break the tension. In my books, even the tension is funny. At least I hope it is.

Your series has been described as a “thinking man’s mystery.” How would you describe it?

The protagonist is part thief, part social critic who finds popular culture unfathomable. He cherishes the naïve belief that reason works.

What else have you written besides A Partially Truth-Functional Modal Calculus and Are Modal Contexts Referentially Opaque?

Dozens of other such papers. Were you to be stranded on an island with them as the only printed material, the chances are you would burn them for cooking fires rather than read them.

Why does someone with your advanced education decide to write mystery novels?

Because writing fiction is fun.

What are you working on now? And is there some project in the back of your mind you’d like to write about?

I also write plays. I have written two comedies, but now I am trying my hand at a serious play.

Who most influenced your own work?

Michael Bond, Lawrence Saunders, and Lawrence Block.

Advice to fledgling writers?

I wish I had some sage advice to pass along, but I don’t. One learns the craft of writing like one learns most skill – long hours of practice. Write, write, write. Take a break and read – you’ll see things in what you read that you wouldn’t have noticed before you started writing. Then repeat the cycle for a few years, always getting people to read your work and give you feedback. At some point you will look at your early attempts and shudder. That means you are making progress.

Friday, November 20, 2015

A Visit with D. P. Lyle, MD

Macavity Award winner D. P. Lyle not only writes crime thrillers and nonfiction forensics, he's a practicing cardiologist. He has also served as medical consultant for a number of television programs. His series protagonist, crime scene and evidence analyst Dub Walker, is a consultant to the FBI’s Behavioral Assessment Unit and a former homicide investigator.

Doug, you have a long list of unsolved murders on your medical and forensics blog site. Why do you find those particular cases most interesting?

I think everyone is interested when a bad guy gets away with his crime. Maybe they want to know what clever ruse he used to fool the police. Maybe they want to know how the system failed.

Regardless, I think we get uncomfortable when crimes go unsolved because we would like to think that the criminal justice system works. It makes us feel safer. So when someone like Jack the Ripper and the Zodiac killer are never identified, we squirm a bit. But then part of us likes to believe that sooner or later the perpetrator will be brought to justice. Remember that both the Green River Killer and the BTK killer remained in the shadows for many decades before they were finally captured.

Were you fascinated at a young age with murder? And why do you think people are intrigued with the crime?

As a child I was too involved in sports such as football and baseball to be concerned with murders. I didn’t even pay much attention to the news then. It was only later as an adult that my interest in these grew. I think everyone is fascinated with criminal activity and I think it has always been that way. The fascination with the Lindbergh kidnapping, the original Crime of the Century. The continued fascination with Jack the Ripper. And more recently, the national frenzy that accompanied the O.J. Simpson trial and the trial of Scott Peterson. It’s like a soap opera only real.

What’s your background in medicine and forensics and why did you decide to offer medical advice to writers?

I’ve practiced cardiology for over 30 years in California and so medicine has been my life for most of my life. I started medical school 42 years ago. Wow, has it really been that long? Regardless, I’ve always been intrigued with medicine and science and becoming fascinated with forensic science seems a natural follow-up. When I started writing fiction, I realized that forensic science would be a large part of the stories I was writing. It was also a large part of the stories I was reading. I began attending writers conferences as part of the learning process and once writers discover that you are a physician they began asking questions about how poisons work and what gunshot wounds look like and what happens when someone’s head is hit with a crowbar and things like that. I began a column for MWA in which I answered questions for writers and then I set up my website to do the same. From that I published two books of the best questions I have received. They are Murder & Mayhem and Forensics & Fiction and I just signed the contract for a third book in the series.

My reason for doing it is that I enjoy it and it also helps writers get their stories right. I think that knowledge is only worth something if it’s passed on. Otherwise it’s just stagnant information. But if it is passed to someone who can use it to bring the story to life then the information itself takes on a certain life. At least that’s the way I feel about it.

How did you come to work with the script writers for Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Peacemakers, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, and 1-800MISSING?

I met screenwriters such as Lee Goldberg, Matt Witten, Paul Guyot, and others and began working with them on the stories they were constructing. It’s no different than what I do for the novelists I help. Screenwriters and novelists have incredible imaginations and I’m always fascinated with how they construct stories and with the wild questions they ask. I’ve said many times that I learn as much from the questions as I hope they learn from my answers. I should also add one more show to the above list and I think it’s a show that’s going to do well. It’s called The Glades and is coming to A&E in July.

Which came first: nonfiction forensics books or novels? How did one genre evolve into the other?

I began writing novels first. I wrote my first a dozen or so years ago. It was 138,000 words of garbage and my agent told me so. I then wrote two more novels, my Samantha Cody series. After that came my four nonfiction books and then I went back to novel writing for the current Dub Walker series.

What are the most common questions you receive from writers?

The most common deal with poisons. Everyone is looking for a poison that can’t be traced. It doesn’t exist. If it’s looked for diligently enough it will be found. The key is to make the murder look like something other than what it was and hopefully keep the medical examiner and the forensic toxicologist out of the picture. Other questions deal with various traumas such as gunshot wounds and injuries from blunt objects. And then of course in the last couple years there have received many questions about vampires, zombies, and werewolves.

Tell us about your Dub Walker series. How did that come about?

It was a long evolution. The novel I mentioned earlier, the hundred and 138,000 word one? Stress Fracture is basically that novel after 23 rewrites along with four changes in title, three changes in location, and one change in protagonist. The only thing that remained the same was the bad guy and the basic storyline. It was a story I couldn't let go of, and as I became better at the craft, it became a better story. It is now around 85,000 words and moves very fast. The second in the series is titled Hot Lights, Cold Steel and deals with robotic surgery and it will be out in 2011. Just last week I finished the first draft of the third in the series, which at this time is titled Run To Ground.

What’s your writing schedule like? Are you still a practicing cardiologist?

Yes I still practice. I have no set writing schedule. Sometimes I write in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon, and sometimes late at night. It all depends on where my head is at. I always have a fiction and a nonfiction project going at the same time so that if I reach an impasse or get bored with one I can move to the other for a while. Right now I spend between 2 to 12 hours a day working on something related to writing. Either actually writing, editing, answering questions, working on various conferences, or creating posts for my blog. I also teach online courses at DeSales University in their Masters of Criminal Justice program. I’m starting a toxicology class in September.

Best advice you can give aspiring writers?

Write, write, write. And then write some more. And read. Read not only books in the genre that you write but also in other genres. You can learn from any good writer. I always advise people to outline their stories. Some writers do and others don’t so at the end of the day do what works for you but I find it helpful if you know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there. Lastly, write the story fast. Get the story down on paper from beginning to end and then go back and fix it. Writing is an art and a craft and I think too often we let the craft get in the way of the art. Tell the story the way you want to tell it, which is the art, and then go back and fix it, which is the craft.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I think writers are an unusual and inquisitive lot. Never be afraid to ask questions about whatever you need to know to construct a believable story. Most people like to talk about what they know. If you need to know about stamp collecting, find someone who does that and ask them about it. Nine times out of 10 the person will bend over backwards to tell you what you need to know. You want to talk to someone at a police station or the FBI or someone in any field? Never underestimate the power of the word novelist. Some people tend to shy away from newspaper reporters but almost never from a fiction writer. They want to help you. They want to be a part of a world that they see as glamorous (If they only knew how unglamorous writing really is). And they want to share what they know with you. Just ask.

His blog is The Writer's Forensics Blog

Friday, November 6, 2015

A Conversation with Marja McGraw

A native southern Californian, Marja McGraw has worked in both criminal and civil law enforcement. As a divorced, single parent she lived in a number of locations, including Wasilla, Alaska, and northern Nevada, where she worked for the Department of Transportation. In Oregon, she worked for the Jackson County sheriff and owned her own antique store/tea room. She's the author of the Sandi Webster and The Bogey Man mystery series.

Marja, why do you write mysteries?

Games and puzzles have always fascinated me, and a good mystery embodies both of those and a bit more. Half the fun of reading a mystery is trying to figure out who did it, and why – basically figuring out the puzzle. Writing mysteries gives me the chance to create the games and puzzles. I have the opportunity to develop the one who committed the crime, and the challenge is to make the solution and the cause make sense, while keeping the characters interesting.

The simpler answer is that I love reading a good mystery, and I hope I can entertain someone else with my books.

In what capacity did you work in criminal and civil law enforcement? And have you incorporated that experience into your novels?

I was a Deputy Clerk with the Los Angeles County Marshal (now part of the Sheriff’s Office), which equated to clerical with some legal expertise. At that time there weren’t any female deputies, so when there was a need for one, we clerks had to take care of business. Our jobs were many faceted. I was also a legal secretary. I worked for a female attorney, and there were occasions when we used our feminine attributes to elicit information from various sources. You’d be surprised how well the fluttering eyelashes and short skirts worked on some people. (I was younger then.) I was also a clerk with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon until I opened my own business, a Tea Room/Antique Store.

As far as incorporating my experiences, I have just enough knowledge to make me dangerous, so I’m careful when researching. I also have friends who are police officers and retired police officers, and a few of them are homicide detectives, so I have resources to fall back on.

You’ve moved around a lot. What were you doing in Wasilla, Alaska, and are you acquainted with Wasilla’s best known resident?

I have done some moving around, and loved almost every minute of it. After some of the curves that life threw at me, I moved to Wasilla in the late 1990s and stayed with friends, but I didn’t know Sarah Palin. I lived there for less than a year, and because of the cold I really didn’t get out much, other than to go to work and return home. With the wind chill it was extremely cold. Some people just aren’t cut out for Alaska, and I’m one of them. Give me a warm day in the desert anytime.

How important is humor and romance in mystery novels?

For me, it’s very important. There’s so much drama in the world today that I enjoy reading something to lighten things up. Consequently, I try to write something that will brighten someone’s day. Realistically, there’s nothing funny about murder, but I’ve learned that you can find humor in the people and situations revolving around the crime.

While I’m not a romance writer, I believe that some romance is required because of the interactions between people. In the Sandi Webster series, she has a romance with her partner, but it’s not the main focus of the stories. The main thrust is the mystery, and the characters themselves. In the Bogey Man series, you have a husband and wife team. Since they’re married, it’s likely that they’d share some romance, especially since they’re practically newlyweds.

How have your novels evolved since you began writing mysteries? And how do you categorize your mysteries?

Since we each grow throughout our lives, I try to let my characters change, too. I don’t want them to stagnate. I think that each story is better than the last one for just that reason. I guess that as my characters grow and change, so do I and so does my writing.

For me, it’s difficult to categorize my books. On the one hand, the Sandi Webster stories are soft-boiled P.I. On the other hand, they’re something like a cozy but with more action. The Bogey Mysteries are most certainly amateur P.I. stories. Overall, I have to say they’re simply mysteries, lighter with a little humor.

Who most influenced your own work? And, who in your opinion, has been the most influential mystery novelist?

Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) has probably influenced my work the most; not because my books are like her story, but because she made the characters so real to me. I’ve had several readers say they wish they could know someone like my characters in real life. That’s high praise to me, and it tells me that Ms. Lee caused me to honestly look at the people I create and it’s made me try to keep them real, to a point – after all, this is fiction.

Most influential mystery novelist? I can’t pin it down to just one. Over the years I think authors like Edgar Allen Poe, Raymond Chandler, Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney, and more contemporary writers such as Mary Higgins Clark and Tony Hillerman have had a tremendous influence. I believe that each of us takes something different away from every book that we read and enjoy, and that no one author can be deemed the most influential.

Briefly tell us about your protagonists, Chris and Pamela Cross.

They’re amateur investigators who run a 1940s-themed restaurant and who were inadvertently involved in a crime at one time and earned a reputation for solving murders. Chris and Pamela have a seven-year-old son who would love nothing more than to solve a mystery with them. In addition, they have two yellow Labrador retrievers who have a penchant for finding bodies. This isn’t your typical, run-of-the-mill household, and yet in many ways it is.

Because of his resemblance to Bogart, Chris tends to walk the walk and talk the talk, wishing he could be a private eye like Bogey was in the movies.

Advice to aspiring mystery writers.

I can’t help it. When asked this, my first piece of advice is always the same; grow a thick skin. Not everyone is going to like what you write. However, be open to listening because sometimes you find a little pearl of wisdom hiding somewhere in the middle of the comments.

Remember that by becoming a writer, you’ve started a business. Leave emotions aside and handle your marketing and promoting as you would any out-of-the-ordinary business. Easier said than done, but still…
Strive to improve with every sentence you write, and when you feel you’ve done your very best work, persist. I’ve commented in the past that dreamers live forever. So do writers, so put your best foot forward and create something that will long be remembered.

Thank you, Marja, for taking part in the series.
Thank you, Jean, for allowing me to visit Mysteries Writers this week. I appreciate your time and effort. This is a fun place to be.

You can visit Marja at her website:

And her blog site:

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Award-Winning Crime Novelist Bruce DeSilva Revisited

A journalist for more than 40 years, Bruce DeSilva retired to write crime novels. He served as the writing coach at the Associated Press and was responsible for training the wire service's reporters and editors worldwide. He also directed an elite AP department devoted to investigative reporting and other special projects. Earlier in his career, he worked as an investigative reporter and an editor at The Hartford Courant and The Providence Journal. Stories that he edited have won virtually every major journalism prize including the Polk Award, the Livingston, ASNE, and the Batten Medal. He also edited two Pulitzer finalists and helped edit a Pulitzer winner.

(The following interview was excerpted from The Mystery Writers, where you can read Bruce DeSilva's article, "A Writer's Unique Voice." Interviews and advice from 59 other mystery/crime novelists are also included.)

Bruce, Rogue Island has received rave reviews, including Publishers Weekly’s listing as one of the ten best debut novels of 2010. How long did the project take from concept to release?

The reviews were something of a surprise, not so much because they were all raves, but because there were so many of them – The Washington Post, Kirkus Reviews, The Associated Press, Library Journal, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, Booklist, and a whole bunch more. The Dallas Morning News review was perhaps the most extravagant, saying the novel “raised the bar for all books of its kind.” It’s usually hard for a first-time novelist to get noticed, so I’m very grateful. Reviews help sell books, of course, but they have also given me confidence as I work on Cliff Walk, the second book in the series.

Writing Rogue Island took six months or fifteen years, depending on how you count. Way back in 1994, when I was working for a newspaper in New England, I got a note from a reader praising “a nice little story” I’d written and suggesting that it could be “the outline for a novel.” The note was from literary novelist Evan Hunter, who also wrote great crime novels under the pen name Ed McBain. I taped the note to my home computer and started writing; but I was only a few chapters into the book when life intervened in the form of a demanding new job, a new marriage, and a child. In this busy new life, there was no time for novel writing; but each time I replaced my computer, I peeled the note from Hunter off the old one and taped it to the new one, hoping I’d return to the book someday. A couple of years ago, I finally did. Writing nights after work and on weekends, I finished the novel in six months. It was published about a year later.

What prompted you to write about Rhode Island’s seedier side?

I began my writing career as a reporter for The Providence Journal. I arrived in the middle of a New England-wide war between organized crime factions, the most powerful of them run out of a little vending machine office on Federal Hill in Providence, so I knew right away that this would be an interesting place to cover. Rhode Island, as one of my colleagues there liked to say, was “a theme park for investigative reporters.” I ended up staying for 13 years before moving on to bigger things, but journalism was never quite as much fun anywhere else. One reviewer called my portrayal of the state “jaundiced but affectionate,” and I think that’s exactly right. Rhode Island has a history of corruption that goes all the way back to a colonial governor dining with Captain Kidd, but it also has a history of integrity and decency that goes all the way back to its founder, Roger Williams. Those two threads are woven throughout the state’s history and are still present today. The tension between them is one of the things that make it such an interesting place. But that’s not all. Most crime novels are set in big, anonymous cities. There are also some very good ones set in rural areas. But Providence, where most of the action in Rogue Island takes place, is something different. It’s a claustrophobic little city where everybody on the street knows your name and where it’s very hard to keep a secret. But it’s still big enough to be both cosmopolitan and rife with urban problems. I strove to make the city and the state not just the setting for the book but something more akin to a main character. I never considered setting my story anywhere else.

Was Rogue Island’s plot based on stories you‘ve covered as a journalist?

Some of the minor incidents in the book are based on fact. For example, during the mayoralty of colorful and notorious Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr., city highway department employees really did steal manhole covers and sell them for scrap for a few dollars apiece. But the central plot of the book, the investigation of an arson spree that burned down much of the city’s Mount Hope neighborhood, is entirely made up.

Briefly tell us about your writing background.

I spent 13 years writing for The Providence Journal, where I specialized in investigative reporting, and 13 years working at The Hartford Courant, most of them as the writing coach. Then I moved on to The Associated Press’s national headquarters in New York. There, I ran the news service’s elite team of national enterprise writers for eleven years and served as the writing coach for another three. I retired from journalism in 2009 to write crime novels, and I also continue to review them for the AP.

What’s the most important ingredient in a crime novel?

If I must pick one thing, it’s the characters. If I start reading a book and don’t care deeply about the people in it after a few chapters, I toss it aside and read something else. Rogue Island is definitely a character-driven novel. But hey, everything matters—the plot, the quality of the prose, and don’t forget the setting. As one of my crime-writer friends, Thomas H. Cook, once said, “If you want to understand the importance of place in a novel, just imagine Heart of Darkness without the river.” For a book to be good, all of these elements must be handled well and fit together seamlessly.

Whose work influenced your own? Your most read novelist?

I discovered crime fiction by reading Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett in my teens, and they remain major influences. I reread their work every year or two. As for current crime novelists, I’m a great admirer of Daniel Woodrell and Thomas H. Cook, two brilliant writers who succeed at everything except making the best-seller lists. I find Dennis Lehane’s best work astounding. Laura Lippman, James Lee Burke, Kate Atkinson, and Ken Bruen often take my breath away. I love Ace Atkins’ remarkable historical crime novels and James Ellroy’s staccato, high-on-amphetamines prose. To name a few. But the fact is, I’m influenced by everything I read including the bad stuff that teaches me what NOT to do. That said, the opening passage of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row is my favorite in all of English.

How difficult was it to acquire an agent, and how did you find the right one?

It’s not easy for a first-time novelist to find an agent, but I was lucky. Otto Penzler, the dean of America’s crime fiction editors and the proprietor of Manhattan’s famous Mysterious Bookshop is a friend of mine. He read my manuscript, loved it, and recommended me to LJK Literary Management. There, Susanna Einstein, one of the top agents in the business, agreed to represent me. Otto calls himself “the godfather” of my first book.

For whom do you write?

It’s perilous for a writer to think too much about trends in public taste because it can be so fleeting. Right now, someone out there is working on a vampire novel that will be completed just as teenage girls everywhere lose interest in the subject. So I write for myself, telling the stories I want to tell in the way I want to tell them. The late Robert B. Parker, one of the most successful crime novelists of our time, once told me this: “You write what you can.”

How important is humor in crime/noir novels?

Some crime novelists, such as James Ellroy, write great books that are unrelentingly grim. Others, such as Tim Dorsey, write slapstick-noir novels that keep you laughing from beginning to end. Most crime writers, including me, fall somewhere in between, tempering dark stories with flashes of humor. Some writers try to accomplish this with a wise-cracking protagonist, but a smart mouth is not enough. Humor shouldn’t be tacked on. It should serve the story. Parker’s Spenser has a smart mouth, but his put-downs reveal character, showing us his attitudes toward pretentiousness, authority, and women. In Rogue Island, I tried something different. Each line of humor in this dark story is there to reveal the character’s world view. But a writer must beware of anything that falls flat. The trouble with humor is that it has to be funny.

Advice to aspiring crime writers?

A. Don’t quit your day job. For every best-selling author like Harlan Coben or Chelsea Cain, there are hundreds of writers whose books sell only a few thousand copies—or don’t get published at all. I know, I know. I said I quit MY job to write crime novels; but I worked in journalism long enough to have a decent pension; and my wife, an award-winning poet and college professor, makes more than enough to support our family.

B. Don’t even think about trying to write a crime novel without first reading at least a thousand of them. Each time you find something you admire, study it to figure out what the writer did. Read books the way teenage boys of my generation tinkered with cars, taking them apart and putting them back together again to see how they worked.

C. Don’t procrastinate. Put your butt in the chair and write. Ignore your e-mail, stay off Facebook and Twitter, forget that your favorite sports team is on TV, and don’t ever use writer’s block as an excuse. I spent 40 years working as a journalist. Journalists aren’t allowed to have writer’s block. They get paid to write every day, whether they feel like it or not. They know that writer’s block is for sissies.

D. Don't allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the thought of writing an entire book. It's not nearly as a momentous a task as you might think. If you write just 800 good words a day, which is damned little, you can finish an 80,000-word crime novel in as little as 100 days.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Becoming an Archaeologist

by Radine Trees Nehring

I dreamed of being an archaeologist.

Daddy insisted on secretarial school. (This was back in the dark ages.) The dream died.

Fast forward thirty-five years. My husband and I chucked city jobs in Tulsa, Oklahoma and moved to the hills of northern Arkansas. I discovered I was meant to be an Ozarks-dweller and began writing about the area I loved, eventually deciding to try my hand at mystery writing. The Something to Die For series was born.

Three books into the series, the Hot Springs National Park curator (A Treasure to Die For) mentioned she had been cataloging artifacts for Dr. Caven Clark, staff archaeologist at Arkansas's Buffalo National River.

Archaeologist? I knew the Buffalo as a three-county-long wild river offering canoeing, fishing, and hiking amid spectacular scenery, but...archeology?
I picked up the phone and called Dr. Clark. YES! He was willing to help me.

All of my books include Arkansas history, descriptions of real locations, and a touch of social consciousness. (Instruction given with a spoonful of sugar?) After repeated discovery trips to the Buffalo, after exploring bluff shelters with Caven Clark, after many questions and interviews, I now know the Buffalo National River area once rivaled the canyons of Arizona and New Mexico for archaeological wealth. Ten thousand or more years ago Paleo Indians hunted and camped along the river. Centuries passed, and families began accompanying their hunters. They spent more and more of the year here, learning to scratch soil and scatter seed gathered from wild food plants. They lived in dry bluff shelters and caves along the Buffalo.

The word dry is important because, just as in the American Southwest, even fiber objects like woven garments, nets, sandals, and cradle boards survived inside the dry shelters. More commonly preserved throughout were chipped stone hunting points and tools, as well as pottery. (Pottery making began about 500 BCE.) A cultural heritage was being saved.

Then Europeans came, beginning with Spaniards during the 16th century. By the early 1800s, white settlers were moving into valleys near the river. Children and adults enjoyed exploring the world around them, often picking up curious-looking objects they found in caves and shelters or dug up in their fields. Our cultural heritage began vanishing.

Laws have been passed to make archaeological looting a crime, but looting along the Buffalo and elsewhere is now big business. The park service hasn't the staff to protect 36,000 acres.

You see where I am going with this. Radine was on her way to creating a mystery novel about archaeological looting. Challenging? Yes. Fun? You bet! After one hike I sat in a well-known Buffalo destination, the Indian Rock House, imagining (as does Catherine King in my novel) what living there might have been like several thousand years ago. Then I returned to my office to dream like an archaeologist, and write A River to Die For.

I never worked as a secretary but, by golly, I have brushed the life of an archaeologist. I was right, it would have been a great career. But now I am a writer, I have the best of many worlds!

Let's see. What would I like to experience next?

Friday, October 16, 2015

Dysfunctional Family Circa 1740

by Beverle Graves Myers

I was on my second book in the Tito Amato Baroque Mystery series when I realized I was really writing a family saga. I’ve never been a fan of the lone wolf detective who moves through life avoiding all ties. I prefer stories that feature sprawling, messy families. Steven Saylor’s Gordianus the Finder mysteries and Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series are particular favorites. Since we tend to write what we like to read, each of my Tito novels presents my sleuth with an intriguing murder to solve, plus two important sub-plots. One has to do with family and personal relationships, the other a challenge to his singing career. Guess which bits turned out to be the most fun to create?

Tito is an amateur sleuth in an era that had little formal law enforcement. As a young boy, he was castrated to preserve his beautiful soprano voice and sent away from Venice to Naples to train for the opera stage. We first meet Tito in Interrupted Aria as he returns to Venice to make his professional debut. Besides feuding singers and a lecherous theater owner, Tito must reconnect with his troubled family. Some introductions are in order:

Alessandro: Tito’s older brother, a rough-and-ready merchant seaman who has no use for the opera. He remembers Tito as the little boy who used to follow him and his friends around Venice making a general pest of himself. He barely recognizes the elegant, polished young man who returns from the Naples conservatory. Despite his discomfort at having a singing eunuch in the family, Alessandro makes an effort to bond with Tito.

Annetta: Tito’s sister, just one year older, his closest confidant and staunchest supporter. Annetta eventually marries Englishman Augustus Rumbolt, who becomes Tito’s friend and sleuthing sidekick.

Grisella: Tito’s younger sister, just thirteen on his return. Highly emotional and a constant troublemaker, Grisella suffers from what we would call Tourette’s Syndrome. She shares Tito’s talent for singing, but not his high-minded ideals. I think of her as the fictitious love-child of Sarah Bernhardt and Rasputin.

Isidore Amato: Tito’s father, a cold loveless man, a widower since Tito’s mother died at Grisella’s birth. He is the organ master at the Ospedale Mendicanti, a girls’ school and orphanage. Isidore holds the secret to Tito’s most pressing personal question: Why did his father allow the surgery that made him into a castrato singer so many years ago?

Liya Del’Vecchio: A Jewess from the Venetian ghetto who makes masks and headdresses for the theater. The beautiful but opinionated Liya becomes the love of Tito’s life. His physical condition is only one of the barriers they must overcome.

Throughout the series, Tito’s loved ones become part and parcel of the mysteries he is called on to solve. Because he is an amateur sleuth, his reason for investigating a crime often hinges on his family’s involvement. Sometimes they provide assistance or turn up surprising clues. Often, one of them hampers his efforts though outright duplicity or misplaced concern. Besides providing plot points, Tito’s family helps to fill out his personality and bring him to life on the page. Tito would not be the man he is without Grisella, Alessandro, and the others making his life difficult.

Learn more about Tito and the rest of the Amato clan at my website

I also blog about Tito’s back story and other goodies at

(Excerpted from Mysterious Writers, where you can read Beverle's advice to fledgling writers.)

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.")