Saturday, April 30, 2016

A Visit with Bill Kirton

Bill Kirton began his career as an English actor, playwright and broadcast script writer. He now balances his police procedural novels with promotional work for North Sea oil companies at his home in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Bill,  Tell us about your books.

 My efforts have been going into writing three books for students in a series of ‘Brilliant’ books published by Pearson. They’re called Brilliant Study Skills, Brilliant Essays and Brilliant Dissertations. The titles (I hope) are self-explanatory. But the latest novel to appear was The Figurehead. It’s a historical crime novel set in Aberdeen in 1840. It came about because a friend said to me one day ‘You should write a book about a figurehead carver. I had no idea why he said that but, since my PhD was on the theatre of Victor Hugo and I love the whole revolutionary period of the 1830s and 1840s, I did some research and found I loved it. Readers of crime are very sophisticated and know all about DNA and other arcane forensic processes, so it’s good to set a crime novel at a time before we enjoyed such refinements.

My research involved lots of reading of contemporary newspapers and so on, but also I wanted to know how it felt to carve a figurehead so I joined a woodcarving class and that became a hobby of mine. I also signed on as part of the crew of the beautiful Norwegian square rigger Christian Radich and sailed from Oslo to Leith for the Tall Ships Festival. That was a very special experience.

The book itself proved to be interesting in terms of the characters. My carver, John Grant, is the amateur detective, driven by sheer curiosity really. But in the course of the story, Helen, the daughter of his patron, shoved herself to the fore and became at least as important as John. I suppose it helped that there was obviously some chemistry between them. But now, as I begin researching the sequel, I’m finding that Helen will probably become the central character and John may have to be satisfied with being her helper.

When did you know you were a writer? Did you receive any encouragement along the way?

I think there’s a difference between when I knew I was a writer and when I heard other people say I was. I knew it from very early days–probably when I was around 11 years old, because I used to enjoy writing things–mainly funny stories but also playlets (awful, awful things–I found one a few years back and while I suppose it was OK for someone of that age, it definitely didn’t show any early promise).

As for encouragement, I don’t remember that with specific reference to writing, but Dad was a great reader and my brothers, sisters and I were all encouraged to do all sorts of things. But I was in my mid-twenties when I was invited to the newly opened Northcott Theatre in Exeter because a BBC producer, on the strength of some scripts I’d sent him, had told the director, the late Tony Church, that I was a playwright. Tony showed me round the place and we met one of his production team. Tony introduced me with the words ‘This is Bill Kirton. He’s a writer.’ I’d never heard it said before and I haven’t forgotten the pleasure it gave me.

What attracted you to mystery writing (police procedurals) and which author most influenced your own writing?

It seems as if all my answers are indirect because I didn’t really have this mystical thing which whispered to me ‘you must write a police procedural’. It was much more prosaic than that. I’d written mainly stage and radio plays and the occasional short story and one day I read of a novel-writing competition. So I started writing a novel. And that in itself was interesting because, like most other people, I thought ‘Wow, a novel. That’s long. Quite an undertaking.’ But I soon realised the perhaps obvious truth–that you don’t ‘write a novel’, you write a few sentences, some paragraphs and, at the end of each day, the pile of pages is that much bigger.

And, if you’re enjoying it, you eventually see that it’s actually looking quite a substantial heap, so you’re determined to finish it. I did finish that one. It was a spoof crime novel and, in fact, I’m reworking it at present in the hope that a publisher might like it.

Having done that, I was ready to write another and that one (which eventually became The Darkness was triggered by a chance remark made by a waiter at a local restaurant. He had an English West Country accent. I said ‘You’re a long way from home’ and he told me he’d chosen to come as far away from his home as possible because his wife and two daughters had been killed by a drunk driver who’d spent just six months of his sentence in jail and was then released. ‘Two months for each life’, as the waiter said. It affected me very deeply and I retained it. It eventually grew into my second novel, which was a stand-alone thriller. My then agent sent it to Piatkus, an independent publisher in London, who said ‘we like it but we’re not doing thrillers at the moment. Has he got any police procedurals?’
I wrote parodies of poetry for the school magazine and a couple of articles for the university newspaper but I think the first piece I got paid for was a radio play ‘An Old Man and Some People’ which was broadcast on Radio 3 and Radio 4 by the BBC in 1971, so I was 32. I’ve had several more broadcast since but, strangely, I think that was probably my best one.

Do you write full-time or do you have a "day job?"

I write full-time because writing is also my day-job. I used to be a lecturer in the French department of Aberdeen University, but I also did some TV and radio work. This led to me writing scripts for safety programmes and documentaries and then on into brochures, promotional and educational material and more or less all types of commercial documents and programmes. I live in Aberdeen, remember, so the oil industry always needed scripts and press releases. I was getting so much of that to do that I eventually took early retirement to concentrate on my writing.

This balancing of writing fiction and hard commercial fact is interesting. I’m always aware that the commercial work is what earns the money but I’m always happier when I’m writing what I call my own stuff. The commercial material has its own rewards. Most companies want to say the same things about themselves (i.e. how brilliant, safe and environmentally responsible they are), so there’s a challenge in finding new ways of saying it.

The worst part of it is when the management of a company (and this has happened with the biggest oil majors as well as smaller outfits), can’t be bothered to give a specific briefing about what they want and instead, hand you a bunch of technical manuals or their last dozen brochures and say ‘It’s 
I didn’t have but I immediately set about writing one, Material Evidence, which featured DCI Jack Carston. I actually invented a town for the setting. It’s called Cairnburgh and it’s not far from Aberdeen. My thinking was that I didn’t want to set it in Aberdeen in case I wanted to say nasty things about the police. As it happened, the year after it was published, some events in the Grampian force exceeded any fictional plots I could have imagined.

It was published in hardback, followed the next year by Rough Justice, also in hardback, and they’ve both now been published in paperback in the USA as part of the Bloody Brits series. I rewrote The Darkness to turn it into a Carston novel. It was published in December 2008, and there are two others completed and ready for final edits.

What's your writing schedule like? Would you rather write than watch a football game or other sporting event?

I work from about 8.30 am until 6 pm, with maybe fifteen minutes for lunch, and the time rarely drags. If I’m really into it, I go back for more in the evening, too.

Watching football is my relaxation from writing and, when it’s a good game, no, I’d rather watch the game. Because I’m basically lazy. But I do love writing. When I’m into a novel, I’m completely absorbed by it. I have no notion of the passage of time, or of self or surroundings or anything. It’s a great privilege to be able to lose oneself so completely in an activity.

What are the best and worst aspects of writing? And how long does a book take to finish?

The best part of writing is the loss of self in the process, the feeling of a reality (albeit fictional) unfolding as I write, the way the characters do what they want and often surprise me and the occasional feeling that a particular sentence–-even a simple, un-poetic one–-has exactly the right words and rhythms in it.

Another best part is when a reader tells me they’ve enjoyed one of my books and I know that they mean it. Often, it’s just a polite thing to say, of course, but sometimes their enthusiasm shows that they really have read it and thought about it. That’s very special.

The ‘How long’ question is hard. The idea for a book appears and disappears, then I remember it and think about how to treat it. The time all that takes is difficult to assess because it depends on so many variables. But when I’m ready to start writing, the process is fairly regular and I reckon an 80-90,000 word novel takes about six months. After that, it’ll get lots of tinkering, but the bulk of the work’s over in that time frame.

How do you feel about the current publishing market? Is it in the doldrums in the UK as well?

I know that, as a writer, I should be able to quote statistics and examples to show the state of publishing today, but I can’t. Not because I’m not interested but because I have no control over it all and I prefer to focus on my own writing and making sure it’s as good as I can make it. But I can’t help but know that publishing is in a pretty poor state. Scotland has been lucky in a way–no, not lucky, canny. Canongate, for example, in Edinburgh, published Barack Obama’s early works, and there’s a strong literary community in Scotland which is producing all sorts of interesting and powerful poetry, plays and novels.

But the market dictates to all, and it’s rather depressing to see best sellers chosen because they bear a celebrity name rather than the name of a real writer.

Are ebooks well accepted in the British Isles and do they sell well? Are there many publishers in Scotland who produce books in multi format?

I’m fascinated to know what’ll happen with e-books.You read a lot about them but I don’t think I know anyone yet who has a reader or who downloads e-serials. The arguments in favour of them are clear but equally the book as object is still doggedly admired and needed. Somehow, a book has a notion of permanence, endurance, whereas words on a screen are ephemeral, when you ‘turn the page’ they disappear. The big publishers are recognising the need to produce multi-format books, but the smaller ones either don’t have the expertise or perhaps the desire to branch out in that direction.

I also think that, for readers, the directness of the experience of reading a book in the conventional format is qualitatively different from reading from a screen. I don’t know what it is but, for example, when I edit, I often miss things on screen which I pick up when I print something out. I think for readers there’s an intimacy about ‘curling up with a good book’ that’s very special and can’t be replicated with an electronic version. I hope I’m wrong there and that the e-book will become as personal an object as a paperback, because I think e-publishing has helped to keep a decent market, especially for genre fiction.

Which American genres and authors are popular in Scotland? And which Scottish authors are bestsellers?

American crime writers are very popular here. I rarely look at the romance, fantasy or sci-fi shelves, so I’m not sure how well the USA is represented there. But crime, boosted even more perhaps by the popularity of TV series such as CSI and The Wire, has a strong presence on the shelves. As for authors, I think the ones we go for are the ones who are bestsellers for you, too–Lee Childs (who’s British, I know, but he writes distinctly American thrillers), Elmore Leonard, Jeffrey Deaver, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, Ed McBain–well, you can fill in all the other names for yourself.

I think the same’s true for bestselling Scots too. Ian Rankin is obviously the top man, Val McDermid the top woman, and then there are many, many others writing good crime. One who deserves particular mention is Denise Mina. Her novels are full of compassion, humour, pain and the reality of life in today’s Glasgow.

Why do you write?

The simple answer is that I write because I can. I love words, what they do, how they sound, how they fit together. I consider myself lucky to have received, in my genetic make-up, an ability with words. That’s not a boast. In fact, I always quote something an artist friend of mine once said. We sometimes sat at meetings together and, by way of doodling, he’d draw wonderful pencil sketches of the people round the table. One day, I looked at one and said ‘Vic, I don’t know how you can do that.’ His reply was ‘Bill, I don’t know how you can’t.’ It’s such a simple way of saying that having a specific talent isn’t a cause for self-congratulation; it’s something that comes as naturally as breathing. And we’re lucky to have been dealt such a hand.

Anything else you'd like to discuss?

Not really. I think I’ve talked enough, don’t you? There are more ramblings on my website: Thanks for letting me blether on like this.

Bill’s website:

His blogsite:

Saturday, April 16, 2016

A Visit with John Locke

John Locke is the author of How I Sold One Million eBooks in Five Months, which includes more than a dozen thrillers and westerns selling for 99 cents.

John, why, after all your business successes, did you decide to write full time?

Actually, I’m still a part-time writer, with a full-time job that keeps me busy most days. But I’ve wanted to write books since I was in high school. I’m stopping to do a mental calculation. Could that have possibly been 43 years ago? Wow. I wanted to try my hand at writing all these years, but never got around to it because life kept getting in the way.

I know you write thrillers, but why westerns?

I had to pause just now to smile. Why westerns? Let me tell you something. Westerns are magic. When you read a western, you’re viewing the world in microcosm, because there’s a fixed time and setting, generally, with endless possibilities. The whole dynamic of a man and woman optimistically venturing into an untamed land with little more than a horse, gun, wagon, meager supplies…and a whole lot of courage—is the very definition of heroism. Courage is at the core of every western. And every good western offers adventure, heart, and a classic confrontation between good and evil.

How much research do you conduct before you begin a novel?

I do a lot of research, but try hard not to let it get in the way of a good tale. For example, my westerns take place in Dodge City, in 1860, and I describe a rough-and-tumble, bustling city in need of taming. Now I certainly know the first house in Dodge City wasn’t built till 1871, and it was a sod house. Why not set my story in 1876, when Dodge was exactly the way I describe? Because the other factual elements work for 1860, such as the terrible Kansas drought and the railroad and the stage coach lines and the trails and Indians and so forth. I could have invented a town or made my characters travel farther, but Dodge symbolizes everything I wanted in a western town, and it has name recognition.

My readers delight in the small things I point out that almost no one ever thinks about, like why Indians of the time were terrible at shooting rifles, or how dangerous it could be for a town woman to use an outhouse in the middle of the night, because where else would a bad guy lurk? But I don’t try to impress readers with the facts I uncover. I make the facts a part of my characters’ everyday life.

In your book, Don’t Poke the Bear, you talk about jail holes dug in the ground to house prisoners in Dodge.  Did they actually exist or are your plots based purely on your imagination?

This is an example of the details I uncover and weave into my stories. It is true that almost no towns had jails in 1860. When a town did have a jail back then, it was literally a hole dug in the ground. But in Kansas in those days, it was very difficult to dig deep holes because the ground was often hard, and it was a rare settler who owned a decent pick and shovel that wasn’t damaged!

Do you feel that bringing back “adult Westerns” of the 1980s is going to revive the genre?

I’ve never read any adult westerns of the 1980’s, so I can’t say. My westerns are certainly adult, but they’re intended to be more fun than adult. They’re outrageous, and meant to be read with a smile. My goal is not to change westerns or revive them, but to breathe some new life into a genre that is uniquely American. My thriller readers know I have a soft spot in my heart for my westerns, and many don’t understand it. But I love them, and they make me happy in a way my other work doesn’t.

Wish List Why are women's legs on most of your book covers?

This was my publisher, Claudia Jackson's, idea. When I told her 75% of my readers were women, she said we should use women's legs on the next cover, because women are naturally drawn to other women's legs. I thought it was a clever idea, like a brand, so we decided to do all the covers that way. Now, when people see women's legs on a book cover, they know it's a John Locke book. I get publicly criticized for it sometimes, but my readers know it's all in fun. Also, we put a little number on the cover of every book so readers will know which number in the series that particular book is. It's sort of like a "Where's Waldo" but not hard to find! In Vegas Moon and A Girl Like You it's part of the boot. In Now and Then it's in an open coconut!

What’s the most important promotional activity a writer can conduct to make the public aware of his or her book?

Writing a personal blog in your unique voice, and getting it read by your target audience. I explain exactly how to do this in my new marketing book for authors titled, How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months.”

Do you feel that ebooks are going to eventually eliminate brick and mortar bookstores?
ebooks can be created by tens of thousands of excellent authors and distributed instantaneously throughout the world for a one-time cost of a few hundred dollars.

If writers follow your success plan to the letter, what’s the most they should charge for their ebooks?

They should charge whatever price makes the most economic sense. For me, it’s 99 cents. Here’s why: Follow the Stone has sold 60,000 downloads in five months, earning me $21,000. If I had charged twice as much I’d have to sell 30,000 downloads to break even. Let’s go all out and say 40,000 readers would pay twice the price. I’d earn $28,000 instead of $21,000. Did I come out ahead? In my opinion, no. Because in that example 20,000 readers chose NOT to buy my book at the higher price. Those 20,000 readers won’t be buying my second, third, and fourth books, nor will they spread the word to their friends.

Which social media outlets do you feel are the most important to further an indie writer’s career and how much time should he/she spend networking on the Internet?

I’m a Twitter guy. Facebook is probably good, but I prefer the Twitter experience. I don’t know the other outlets. If an indie writer is working social media effectively, he or she can tie a dollar figure to every hour spent at the keyboard. Let’s assume that dollar figure is $50 an hour. If I paid you $50 an hour to work at your keyboard, how many hours would you devote? The key is to learn what each hour of your time is worth. You can’t base it on what it’s worth this week. You need to compute it over the lifetime of the sales. Maybe in the past hour I met someone on Twitter who invited me to do an interview, and that interview resulted in twenty sales. And those twenty people each told three friends who told three friends. And then they all bought my other nine books. What was that hour worth to me? If I did the math correctly, it’s around $910. Maybe I worked another four hours today and generated nothing. Was it a good five hours of work?

Saturday, April 2, 2016

by Leighton Gage

If you come to visit us in Brazil, you’ll occasionally see a stand where the offerings look like this:

Literatura de Cordel (lit. “cord literature”) derives its name from the way the wares are often displayed, i.e. hung by a cord, usually with the aid of clothespins.

Such stands are less common in the southern part of the country, but are a feature in many of the fairs and markets of the northeast, principally in the States of Pernambuco, Paraiba and Ceará.

These little booklets are the last survivors of a form of popular literature with which an inhabitant of eighteenth-century Madrid, or nineteenth-century England, would have been quite familiar, but that you’d be hard-put to find elsewhere in the modern world. They contain stories and ballads and are generally produced in black-and-white, illustrated with woodcuts.

Down through the years, the content has taken-on a distinctly Brazilian flavor.

Many of the books deal with the folklore, legends and history of the northeast, subjects like Lampião and his band.

I've previously written about him under the title The Bandit King. And, if you like, you can read that post by going here:

One of the classics of cord literature, The Arrival of Lampião in Hell, by José Pacheco, is much-prized by collectors.

And a satire on the Brazil’s former president, The Arrival of Lula in Hell has enjoyed a good deal of success.

As to the art, two of the more talented woodcutters are Adir Botelho and José Francisco Borges.

This is Botelho:

And this is a work from Borges, who has had expositions at both the Louvre and the Smithsonian:

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Writing Life

by Carolyn Hart

When I was eleven, I decided to be a reporter when I grew up. I had no idea I would end up devoting my life to murder.

I worked on school newspapers and majored in journalism at the University of Oklahoma, back in the days of hot type, pica poles, and Speed Graphics. In j-school, I wore a trench coat, smoked Chesterfields (successfully discarded many years ago) and was sure I would be the next Maggie Higgins. But, as the adage informs, Man proposes, God disposes.

I met a young law student, we married, and I worked on a local newspaper, then for public information at the university. After we started our family, I quit work and stayed home. This was before the days when young women were expected to work full-time, have a family, and bake cookies for the school sale and climb the Matterhorn in their leisure moments.

I missed writing. I didn’t want to go back to reporting because of the long hours. That’s when I first thought about writing fiction. In The Writer magazine, I saw an announcement of a contest for a mystery for girls aged 8 to 12. I adored Nancy Drew and I decided to give it a try. THE SECRET OF THE CELLARS won the contest and was published in 1964. I’ve written children’s mysteries, young adult suspense novels, and dozens adult mystery or suspense novels. I also write the GHOST AT WORK series. The late Bailey Ruth Raeburn, an impetuous redheaded ghost returns to earth to help someone in trouble. She moves a body, investigates a murder, saves a marriage, prevents a suicide, and - in a fiery finale - rescues a child who knows too much. I have never had more fun writing a book.

So many books. All of them mysteries.

"Why mysteries?"

"When will you write a real book?"

"Why do you want to write about murder?"

When asked these questions at a book talk, I know immediately that the questioners don’t read mysteries. Murder is never the point of the mystery. Mysteries are about the messes people make of their lives and how they cope.

Mysteries captured my heart when I read my first Nancy Drew. I was thrilled by the challenges posed for Nancy Drew and for Frank and Joe Hardy, absorbed by the puzzles, and inspired by their courage and devotion to justice. Nancy’s snazzy roadster, amazing independence, and handsome Ned were also a plus. As for serious Frank and fun-loving Joe, who wouldn’t want to spend time with them? I always think of Max Darling, Annie’s handsome blond husband, as Joe Hardy all grown up and sexy as hell.

Suspense, a puzzle, and courage, these are the hallmarks of the mystery. However, the mystery offers even more to adult readers.

There are two kinds of mysteries, the crime novel and the traditional mystery.

The crime novel features Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade or Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski. The crime novel is the story of an honorable man or woman who tries to remain uncorrupted in a corrupt world. It is the story of the protagonist and not of the murders that are solved. These books are about the quest for honor.

My own particular love is the traditional mystery. These books are sometimes dismissed by devotees of the crime novel as unrealistic, "cozy" little stories of drawing room crimes in little villages.

Agatha Christie, whose books have now sold in excess of two billion, understood reality. There may not be a body in the drawing room, but there will always be pain and passion, heartbreak and violence, despair and fury, whether in a village or a metropolis. Christie knew life as most readers live it, ordinary, unremarkable, and fraught with emotion.

Christie once compared the mystery to the medieval morality play. In the play, tradesfair audiences saw graphic representations of what happens to lives dominated by lust, gluttony, sloth, and all the deadly sins. This is what today’s mysteries offer in a more sophisticated guise.

The sleuth in the traditional mystery explores the relationships between the victim and those around the victim. In trying to solve the crime, Annie Darling or my new sleuth, the late Bailey Ruth Raeburn, search out the reasons for murder by exploring the relationships between the victim and those around the victim. The detective wants to know what caused the turmoil in these lives. Readers extrapolate the lessons observed in fiction for their own use, for their own lives. If this, Dear Reader, is how you treat others . . .

Thankfully, everyday dramas do not usually end in murder, but violent emotions caused by fractured relationships corrode the lives of all involved, often forever. This is what the traditional mystery is all about. The traditional mystery focuses on the intimate, destructive, frightening secrets hidden beneath the seemingly placid surface. Readers know the jealous mother, the miserly uncle, the impossible boss, the belittling friend, the woman who confuses sex with love, the selfish sister.

What could be more humdrum than everyday life as most of us live it? Aren’t those seemingly lighthearted, civilized tales of murder nonsense?

No. They probe personal passions. Nothing can be more powerful than jealousy, anger, hatred, lust, and fear.

It is how these emotions destroy lives that fascinates the readers and writers of traditional mysteries. The crime of murder is a dramatic exaggeration of the misery created by lives that succumb to sin.

I’ve spent a lifetime with murder, even though I can never read accounts of true crime. I find them too harrowing because behind the violent acts I always see the heartbreak of failed humans. In the books, I am trying to understand what created the passions that destroy and offering homage to the detective who wants to bring peace and understanding.

Even though by now the body count in my many books is horrific, I am grateful for my life with murder. It has put me in the best of company. Mystery readers are good people. Every time they read a mystery they are reaffirming their commitment to goodness. They believe in justice, decency, and goodness.

Every day we see proof that evil often triumphs. Yet we yearn to live in a good, just, and decent world. There is a world where goodness triumphs, where justice is served, where decency is celebrated, the world of the mystery.

(Article orginally published in the Washington Post)

Saturday, March 19, 2016

It's a Mystery to Me

by D. R. Ransdell

I’d been thinking about starting a novel when Andy Veracruz sprang into my head. He was at his usual gig at the restaurant where he was the band leader of the mariachi group, and as usual, he noticed more than he should have. In this case, it was his boss’s wife, who waltzed into the restaurant with her lover. Andy wished he’d closed his eyes because he didn’t want to have to tell his boss that his wife was sleeping around, and yet he didn’t want to keep quiet about it either.
Thus started Mariachi Murder, with Andy in a predicament about how much to say about the alluring Yiolanda. Although I didn’t set out to start writing this book on a certain day, once I got the initial image I couldn’t help myself. I sat down and wrote about a thousand words. That night I regrouped. The next day I wrote another thousand words, and so on and so forth.

But in my mind I clearly knew what I was doing. That is, I wasn’t quite sure of the plot or exactly how Andy would reach the conclusion, but I knew whodunit before I began. I also knew I wanted to write a murder mystery. I knew I would need several dead bodies. These conventions were clear to me. After all, I’d followed Lawrence Block’s sound writing advice: if you want to write a mystery novel, read 500 first. I think I’d gotten up to 321 before I lost track of my notes and switched everything in my life over to a word processor.

Thus my novel followed a discernible pattern. I had a protagonist who became an amateur sleuth because he had trouble on his hands. I had dead bodies here and there. I had clues. But in the meantime, while I was trying to find a publisher for Andy’s book, I was planning a trip to Thailand with a girlfriend. And that kicked my imagination into high gear.

I’d been to Asia once by that time, to Japan., and it was a wonderful experience. I loved the temples and the funny handwriting. I laughed at my misadventures such as arriving at a subway station where every single thing was written in kanji instead of Roman letters.           

I figured that a trip to Thailand would include some of the same kind of adventures. After all, I didn’t know much about Thailand’s history, culture , or language. I didn’t know what the food was like. I didn’t know what I wanted to go see. But right from the beginning I vowed to turn my trip into some kind of novel.

When I arrived in Bangkok, I started drafting. I used my varied experiences for plot lines, for humor, for inspiration. I thought I was merely writing an adventure story with a hint of romance. The funny thing is that without trying to, I wound up writing a mystery.

Thai Twist is no murder mystery. I don’t even categorize it as a mystery per se. But it’s the story of two sisters traveling in Thailand. They’re given a mission: to take a gift to a neighbor’s long-lost relative. That sets them on a trail of discovery that made use of my own best adventures. It was also a mystery that carried through from one end of the book to another.

I’ve been told by publishers that mystery readers are mystery readers and romance readers are romance readers and that’s that. However, I disagree. I think there’s often a lot of crossover between genres. And I think that in my own writing, no matter how much I might want to write a romance or an adventure or anything else, I’ll wind up wrapping a mystery inside of it. At the same time, anytime I write a murder mystery, there will be shades of romance and adventure. Otherwise, the result just wouldn’t be one of my stories.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

A Fat Manuscript is a Dead Manuscript

by Lois Winston

Whether you're writing mysteries or another genre, your manuscript needs a great story, great characters and great writing. The quality of the writing determines the difference between an acceptance and rejection. As a literary agent and author, I see too many submissions where the writer needs to place her manuscript on a diet.

Before you submit your manuscript, make sure it's not bloated with excess wordage that drags down the pacing and bores the very people you want to impress. Your writing must be crisp as well as succinct to catch an editor's or agent's eyes.

The Bloated Manuscript Diet:

1. Reread your manuscript. Is every scene essential to the plot, or goals, motivations or conflicts of your characters? Does each scene advance the plot or does it tell the reader something she needs to know about the characters? If not, the scene is filler, and you need to get rid of it. Each scene must serve a purpose. No purpose? No scene.

2. Repeat #1 for all dialogue. If the dialogue is nothing but chit chat, ditch it.

3. Do a search of "ly" words. Whenever possible, substitute a more active, descriptive word to replace an existing verb and the adverb that modifies it.

4. Instead of using many verbs to describe a noun, use one all-encompassing adjective or a more descriptive noun.

5. Say it once, then move on. It's not necessary to repeat an idea or image in different words in the next sentence, next paragraph or next page.

6. Identify needless words and eliminate them. Every writer has at least one or two pet words that need to be eliminated.

7. Avoid a laundry list of descriptions by substituting more descriptive nouns and adjectives.

8. Do a search for "was." Whenever it's linked with an "ing" verb, omit the "was" and change the tense of the verb.

9. Choose  more descriptive verbs and omit the additional words that enhance the verb.

10. Omit extraneous tag lines. If it's obvious which character is speaking, omit the tag.

11. Show, don't tell. Whenever possible, you want to "show" your story through dialogue and active narrative, rather than "telling" the story.

12. Let your characters' words convey their emotions, not the tag line. Also, keep to the unobtrusive "said" in tags. You can't grimace, laugh or sigh dialogue. The character can grimace, laugh or sigh before or afterward, but not while speaking.

13. Avoid non-specific things like "it" and "thing."

14. Describe body movements only when they are essential to the scene. Don't break up dialogue every other sentence with having your characters shrug, giggle, smirk, glance, nod or drum their fingers.

15. Don't fill dialogue with interjections. We might have the bad habit of filling our speech with "well" and "like" but having a character constantly adding those words makes for lousy dialogue.

(Excerpted from THE MYSTERY WRITERS,  now in print, ebook and audiobooks editions, which includes Lois Winston's interview.)

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Programs and Signings: A Beer, a Muffin and a Book

by Lesley Diehl

What do libraries and bars have in common? I like both and they like me. I do signings and programs in them. Both places have interesting people so, if you don't sell a book, at least you have some cracking good conversations with the folks there.

Friends of the library--not all libraries have them, but once you find libraries that do, you've uncovered the mother lode. Libraries have local authors and often the friends group arranges author programs. And they usually provide food after the program. 

I did a book launch for my novel set in rural Floria, in the local library. I wanted to do something different so I made up baskets themed around my protagonist's  journey in the book and that of other characters. I think this works best with a humorous story, which mine was. One basket was the "Clara Gets Out of Jail." It included bath salts, fancy soap, a loofah sponge, a bath pillow, a very classy champagne glass and a split of champagne.

Wouldn't you want this when you got out of the lock-up? I had my attendees drop their names in a cowboy hat, and we pulled winners of the baskets out after my short program. Many of the baskets held some kind of beverage (the one for guys had a beer glass and a bottle of beer and was fashioned around one of my male characters). I spent the money making them as I went to yard sales and the dollar stores for the items.

Another great place where I signed is a nearby restaurant featuring local microbrews. Since one of my books features a microbrewer accused of murder, it was a perfect setting for people to grab a brew and snack on food I've provided. I don't do programs there, just signings. The protagonist of my Florida book is a bartender at a country club, so I'm now moving on to golf and country clubs for book events. My signing at  restaurants, bars, country clubs, breweries and golf courses sell my books as well as promote the businesses. They seem to love having me there, and I certainly enjoy several hours of chatting with their patrons.

Who cares if I sell a book? Well, I do, but I never feel cheated if I don't because I've spent an enjoyable evening with some entertaining people. I usually give the business a complimentary copy of they book and they often display it somewhere on the premises. One brewery bought a dozen of my books to sell.

My philosophy is if a reader complains it's impossible to hold a drink in one hand, a muffin in the other and buy one of your books, offer to hold the muffin.

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers where you can read former psychology professor Lesley Diehl's interview as well as writing advice from sixty other writers.)  

Saturday, February 20, 2016

A Conversation with Vincent Zandri

Vincent Zandri is not only a bestselling and award-winning novelist and essayist, he travels the world as a photojournalist. His novel, As Catch Can was called "brilliant" by the New York Post as well as  "The most arresting first crime novel to break into print this season" by the Boston Herald. The novel was recently republished as The Innocent.
Vincent, why the large cross with neon letters on your website?

The Big Cross. That’s from a piece I did for RT (Russia Today satellite news network) about New York state going broke. Eleven months ago, the governor warned the public that in two or three week’s time the state would be bankrupt. I had just flown in from an assignment in Moscow and Italy, and promptly drove down to the local mission in Albany, and took that shot. I liked it so much I put it up on my website. Very noir, especially at night. BTW: the mission was built by my dad, a local Albany contractor. So he was probably responsible for purchasing and installing that big illuminated cross! He probably picked it out!

Tell us about your noir novel, The Innocent.

The Innocent came about when I was working on a nonfiction biography about New York State’s first black maximum security prison warden by the name of David Harris. Story goes that he was personally investigated for failure to properly do his job when a cop killer managed to escape. He was eventually exonerated but that kind of thing sticks with you and can make you bitter. No one likes to be falsely accused of anything! While the non-fiction didn’t sell, I came up with the idea of a prison warden who not only is blamed for the prison break of a cop killer but who is also brought up on charges of murder one when said cop killer shows up murdered. I wanted it to be a paranoid thriller in the vein of Hitchcock, and I hope I succeeded. It was originally published by Delacorte Press under the title As Catch Can, and numerous foreign translations were sold also. For some reason, Delacorte couldn’t really make it do anything even after laying a ton of money on me. But now that it’s been re-released, it’s an Amazon Hard-Boiled bestseller in hard-boiled fiction, which really pleases me.

How did the transition from journalism to fiction come about?

The transition is never ending in that every day I work on journalism assignments and write fiction. These days, having signed two more contracts for two more books with StoneGate Ink (a new noir imprint from StoneHouse Ink), it’s getting harder and harder to balance my time. I’m also an obsessed marketer of my work! But I learned long ago not to place all your eggs--golden, rotten, or otherwise—into the same basket. I did that once before and was out of work for more than a year. I don’t ever expect to give up journalism, but if my books continue to sell as well as they have, I will be able to choose only the stories I want to write. Stories that really interest me.

How do you support your novel writing habit?

Lately, it’s been lots of journalism and some pretty good royalties from my releases this year alone: Moonlight Falls, and The Remains, which has been a bestseller for months in both hard-boiled and romantic-suspense fiction. But while I was building my career backup my dad was pretty generous about helping me out. I used to work for him, and he knows how hard this business can be. There’s been some movie interest in my Moonlight Falls novel, so fingers crossed there.

Do you outline your novels or have a vague idea of what you’re going to write when you sit down at the computer?

I try and think about the story in my head for a good long time before I begin to write. I used to begin the story long before it was meant to be written and it would result in the worst frustrations. Nowadays, I might take a month or more to make notes and think about my characters. Only when that’s completed will I draw up a prelim outline that’s loose enough to allow the story to form organically. When I finish the first draft, which I usually do by hand, that will serve as my formal outline. I’ll let that sit for a while before going back to it. At any one time, I might be working on three different novels. In this the day and age of Kindles and EBooks, readers want and expect more work from their favorite authors than they used to. So I plan on putting out two books per year for the rest of my life. Plus a bunch of digital shorts, like my noir short, Pathological.

You’ve traveled to  China, Russia, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, England, Africa and a lot of other interesting places. Which country do you most enjoy writing about and why?

The country I enjoy the most is Italy. I spend a month there every year just working, thinking, eating and drinking. But the country I most loved to photograph and write about is Africa. I was on an assignment there for RT last year and I wrote about 10 pieces and took hundreds of photos. I was stationed on a hospital ship off the coast of Benin, West Africa, during the peak time of piracy. I spent time in the surgery and off-ship in the bush. It was an incredible experience not to mention dangerous. You feel pretty vulnerable when the Land Cruiser you’re driving over a dirt road is suddenly flagged down by a soldier standing in the middle of the road waving an AK-47 at you. They demand papers but what they really want is money. You give them money and the first thought that crosses your mind is, “If he kills me, no way anyone is going to find my body.” I actually had to bribe my way out of the country. My idea of fun!

How difficult was it to acquire an agent?

Curiously, I’ve never had any trouble luring agents to my cause. And I’ve had a bunch of them, from Suzanne Gluck at WMA to my present one, Janet Benrey. What’s difficult is finding an agent who wants to remain in the business. And, frankly, a lot of them are sort of crazy. My first big agent, Jimmy Vines, is missing in action, on the lam, or some such thing. Following him, I signed with a string of agents who for one reason or another up and quit the business just like that. Their actions literally cost me years and tons of sales. But agents looking for a new line of work seems to be one of the growing trends in the business. In fact, I’ve been in and out of this commercial fiction thing for more than ten years now, and not a single person I started out with---agent, editor, chief editor, publicist, etc.—is still working in the publishing business. Well, that’s not entirely true, since Jacob Hoye, the editor who first bought me (and Harlan Coben by the way), heads up MTV’s Pop Culture books division. But hey, I don’t write pop culture, whatever that is.

Advice to aspiring writers?

Finish school, learn to live on little while living large. Travel, gain experiences, pay attention to what people say and how they say it. Read all the greats from Hemingway to Robert B. Parker to the great Charlie Huston. Then write as much as you can and rewrite some more. Don’t be dismayed when the people you graduated high school and college with are pulling ahead financially. You will catch up eventually so long as you stick to your guns. This is a business about persevering as much as it is about writing well. Oh, and don’t get married. For the first ten years of your working life, the writing will be both spouse and mistress. Hope this helps! If anyone has more questions, feel free to email me at                 

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers, where you can also read Vincent's article, "Renewing my Writing Vows" as well as interviews and articles by more than fifty writers.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Nancy Pickard Revisited

Winner of the Agatha, Anthony, Barry, Shamus, and Macavity awards, and 4-time Edgar finalist, Nancy Pickard's latest novel, Virgin of the Plains was the Kansas Reads selection for 2009.

Nancy, what happened to your first novel?

It was, thank the publishing gods, rejected by nine wise publishers. It got me an agent, though, so I love it anyway. It was my apprentice novel and no longer exists in any form. Heh.

What was the turning point in your career?

Funny, I've never thought about it like that in terms of my novels, only my short stories. I'm thinking of three turning points:
1. When I moved from original paperback at Avon to hardcover at Scribner, with the wonderful Susanne Kirk as my editor.
2. When Linda Marrow became my editor, first at Pocket and now at Ballantine. We're writing/editing soul mates. I'm very lucky.
3. And for short stories, when I heard a writer say that every short story needs an epiphany. Having not been classically trained as a fiction writer, I'd never heard that before. After that, my stories sold.

Sue Grafton said your nonfiction book, Seven Steps on the Writer’s Path, written with psychologist Lynn Lott, is “fresh, insightful, candid, funny, supportive, encouraging and wise." How did the book come about?

I had met many writers--especially new ones--who seemed lost and alone, sad and confused, bewildered and overwhelmed by the highs and lows of the writer's life. I felt for them, and I wanted to talk to them and let them know we all feel crazy sometimes, and then give them some ideas about how to cope with the emotional roller-coaster.

Why have you written such a variety of mystery subgenres, from cozies to private eye stories, humorous mysteries to psychological suspense?

Two reasons. One, I get bored if I do the same exact thing over and over. Two, in my life I have loved all kinds of books in the mystery world, so I am influenced by all of those kinds of novels and I like to play around with their tropes and charms and quirks.

Tell us about The Virgin of Small Plains, your multi-award winning novel. Why did you set it in Kansas?

I set it here because one day I was hit with the need to write about Kansas forever and always. It's as simple and was as career-altering, as that. I was born on the Missouri side of Kansas City, and moved to this side when I married a Kansas cattle rancher. (Hence, my two books set in the Flint Hills cattle country--Bum Steer and Virgin.) I'm still here and feel completely Kansan now. I love this state, political warts, and all.

Your work has won or been nominated for nearly every existing mystery award. Which means the most to you and have the awards translated into higher book sales?

The awards have helped a lot, I think. As for which awards mean the most, they're the ones that reinforce me after I've tried something new, as for The Whole Truth and for The Virgin of Small Plains. When you disappear for a while to take some chances with your writing, it's reassuring to come back and find that readers appreciate it. The same is true for awards for short stories. For instance, when the first and only fable I've ever written was picked for a Year's Best anthology of Fantasy and Horror stories I was thrilled by the confirmation--from people who really know the genres--that I'd done an okay job of it.

How important are organizations such as Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America to a writer’s career?

I think they're wonderful and I encourage participation. They make you feel part of something larger. They let you give back to the genre that supports you. They're not for everybody, I suppose, but for writers who like to hang out with other writers, they're pretty great.

How did the Jenny Cain series come about?

One day I was in the Asian section of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and I saw an antique Chinese bed with gauzy curtains and a little alcove with seats in it. I thought, "What a great place to find a dead body." Seriously. That's how it started. Not exactly profound, lol.
On a violently stormy night, in this land of dramatic contrasts, the favorite son of the county’s wealthiest landowners is shot and killed and his young wife disappears. They leave behind a 3-year-old daughter to be raised by her grandparents and uncles. The obvious suspect is quickly caught, convicted, and sent to prison, leaving behind a wife and 7-year-old son. Twenty-three years later, he is released pending a new trial, and returns to the scene of the crimes he may not have committed. The secrets about that night of dramatic change for a family, a town, and a county, are revealed both to his son and to the daughter of the victims, as these two children of tragedy struggle to uncover dangerous truths about their families.

What is your writing schedule like?

I'm a binge writer. When I'm really going at it, it's all I do. I ignore everything else. At other times, I may do nothing writerly at all. Or I may catch up with all of the things I've neglected. Like interviews. :)

Advice to today’s novice writers?

Yes. One, be patient with yourself and your writing. Doctors aren't built in a day, neither are lawyers, neither are plumbers, neither are teachers or truck drivers, and neither are writers. It takes a long time to get good enough to be published. Give yourself that time and try to enjoy it! Two, please please please give yourself time before you start worrying about getting an agent, etc. Write first. Write second. Write third. Finish the manuscript. Rewrite it. Rewrite it. Rewrite it. Maybe send it out, or maybe start the next one. Time. It takes time Give yourself that time and please don't be so hard on yourself if things don't happen fast for you. Third, care first and always about the writing. The writing. The writing. ::steps off soapbox:: Oh, and read Annie Lamott's fabulous book about writing, Bird By Bird.

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

Nancy's blog site is now closed and her website is being redone in preparation for her next Kansas novel, The Scent of Rain and Lightning, which is slated to appear in April, 2010. But if you're curious, she says to visit: and

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.