Saturday, December 27, 2014

Yes, But is it Art?

by Jeffrey Deaver 
(International bestselling author)

Writers love to fight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That's what this magical process is all about.

(Excerpted from Mysterious Writers, Poisoned Pen Press.)

Saturday, December 20, 2014

"About Joe Pickett"

by C.J. Box, bestselling Wyoming mystery author

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 12, 2014

'Them Old Greek Writing Blues"

by Paul Johnston. bestselling Scottish author

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Getting a Late Start by June Shaw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 28, 2014

Why Noir?

by Roger Smith, South African bestselling author

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers.)

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Letting Go by Bestselling Author Nancy Pickard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Book That Nearly Died

Writing Advice for Fledgling Authors
by Jackie King

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

And so on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Story:

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

The Corpse Who Walked in the Door
Available on Amazon

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Women of Mystery Reviews

by J.A. Jance

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers, Medallion Books)

Friday, October 24, 2014

The House that Nagged

by Marja McGraw

Sometimes a story is practically handed to you. What’s the old saying? Never look a gift horse in the mouth? Such was the case with What Are the Odds?

I have friends who bought a house in the desert that had been empty for quite some time. The house had a history that included murder. A house with a history can be compelling to a mystery writer. To make it even more interesting, it’s an unusual place. It has three levels and separate sets of stairs throughout the home.

I saw the house before it was renovated, and had a confrontation with a rattlesnake and black widows. Oh, so many black widows. My husband was there during a tarantula migration. A box fell and knocked a hole in the garage wall, and there was a hidden staircase behind that wall. It seemed like every time we visited or talked on the phone, something new and odd had happened. There’s a barn and stalls and, well, so many unusual things. I wish I’d taken a picture of the hidden staircase, but it didn’t happen. The book cover shows the real house, and would you believe, there’s a bullet hole in the front scre
en door? I had to include a fake hole because the branches I shot the photo around covered the real one.

Do I have your attention yet? No? Read on.

One of the neighbors thought the house was haunted, but I have to disagree. Now that it’s been renovated, it’s as homey as any house can be. Nothing other-worldly happened to anyone. The neighbor was rather high-strung to begin with, so she had her own ideas.

The house begged to be in a story. Most of what you read in the book that has to do with the house is true. However, all of the characters and the crimes are fictional. Believe it or not, there’s humor in the story, too.

The house called my name and wouldn’t stop nagging. This strange building was, after all, in the desert and not something I’d expected to come into contact with on an average day.

Research was easy because the place was in disrepair and I got to watch or help with some of the little things that needed to be done. The big things were left to others. All I had to do in this case was observe the house and what was going on around me.

The only problem I ran into while writing the story was trying to fit fiction into reality instead of the reverse.

If you’re a fledgling writer, or an old hand at it, observe everything out of the ordinary. Write notes to yourself so you don’t forget even small details. You can build a story around almost anything if you put your mind and imagination to it.

I’ve filled you in on some of the background I used for the story. Hopefully you’d like to know how I put it to work. Here’s a summary of the story:

What are the odds of buying a house with a history to turn into a bed and breakfast, and discovering it’s the house that just keeps giving - and giving, and giving? Sandi Webster’s parents, Livvie and Frank, are about to find out.

Sandi and her partner, Pete Goldberg, have finally taken the leap and married. It’s an interesting wedding, and things don’t go quite as planned – neither does the honeymoon. Instead of going on a trip, they drive out to her parents’ recently purchased house in the Arizona desert to help begin renovations, where they discover there’s more to the home than meets the eye.

Stanley Hawks and his new wife, Felicity, go along for the ride and Stanley has to face some of his worst fears. The desert hides all kinds of critters and bugs, and they aren’t necessarily cute little lady bugs.

A triple murder and suicide occurred in the house about twenty years earlier. Upon Sandi’s arrival a blonde woman starts dogging her steps. Who is she and why can’t Sandi, a private investigator, identify her? How does the intruder disappear so easily, and what does she want? Why doesn’t anyone else see the blonde?

Sandi doesn’t believe in ghosts. Will she be proven wrong? There are plenty of questions with answers just waiting to be found.

Thank you for having me in today, Jean. This book was a lot of fun to write and I love talking about it.


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

Marja has appeared on KOLO-TV in Reno, Nevada, and KLBC in Laughlin, Nevada, and various radio talk shows. She says that each of her mysteries contains a little humor, a little romance and A Little Murder! Books include both the Sandi Webster Mysteries and The Bogey Man Mysteries. 

She and her husband now live in Arizona, where life is good.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Writing a Book as Well as for TV

by John McFctridge

The TV program, "The Bridge,"  like my novels, is set in Toronto and  covers a lot of the same ground--cops and criminals. There are differences; my books follow members of the homicide squad (different cops in each book are main characters, and then they show up as minor characters in other books) and involve police procedure while also following the criminals (usually organized crime and drug dealers) and "The Bridge" is about a uniformed beat cop who is reluctantly elected leader of the police union and fights political corruption in the police brass and at city hall. "The Bridge" also has some police procedure.

There are similarities and differences in writing a book and a TV series.

When I write a book I begin with characters I think are interesting. In Everyone Knows This is Nowhere, I started with Sharon MacDonald, a single mother in her early forties (her daughter is twenty), an ex-stripper now running marijuana grow-ops in Toronto. She meets Ray, a mysterious guy who claims he has a lot of marijuana he'd like to sell wholesale but doesn't know where to start in Toronto. This gets Sharon and Ray involved with some of her old acquaintances in organized crime and brings in the police.

When I started the book, I only had a vague idea of where these characters would take me. But a TV show, I quickly discovered, is quite different. Every episode has to be outlined in advance of the writing and all the ideas approved by the "show-run"--in this case an excellent writer named Alan DiFiore, who wrote many episodes of a great Canadian show called "Da Vinci's Inquest," among others.

Every member of the story department is present and contributes to the episode outlines. Once every episode (in our case the two-hour pilot was aired as the first two episodes, so we were working on the next eleven), everyone contributes to the script outline and writing the scripts.

For a TV series, I think this is a great approach. It allows for character development over the whole season while at the same time each episode has its own story arc. With a TV series such as "The Sopranos," "The Wire," "Weeds," "Mad Men" and so on, taking on the season-long characters (and even story), TV series are becoming more like novels. The writing process is quite a bit different, but the basics--character, plot, theme--are the same.


Canadian novelist and television script writer, John McFetridge, lives in Toronto and writes about organized crime. He also writes for the TV series, "The Bridge." His article was excerpted from Mysterious Writers published by Poisoned Pen Press.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Process of Plotting

by Marilyn Meredith 

Because I write two series, a lot of what I need to do about plotting is already done. My main characters are all set, whatever story I’m going to write will affect them in some way.

Usually when I’m going to write a new book, I start going through my files and see if I’ve saved a news story or jotted down something from a Sisters in Crime meeting, or perhaps a story told at a mystery conference that will trigger an idea for me. What I’m looking for is some sort of interesting crime that I can build on and change that will work for a mountain community—a Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery—or a beach community—a Rocky Bluff P.D. mystery.

Once I’ve decided on that and how the story might go, mostly in my mind, it’s then a matter of figuring out who will be killed and why and who might have done it. (Always more than one person.) Thinking about motives and opportunity come next. To make it interesting, the key suspects should all have motives and opportunity so that the solving of the mystery is more of a puzzle for both the sleuth and the reader to figure out.

At this point I’ll be taking down notes, coming up with names for people and what they look like, who they are in the town. What relationship, if any, they might have with my ongoing characters.

Deciding on what time of year the story will take place is also important, because weather often plays an important part in the plot. (Raging Water is right after the first of the year, winter time, and a big storm with unrelenting rain plays havoc with everything that goes on in the story.)

Once I have most of these elements in place, I usually begin writing even though I may not know exactly where I’m going or how I’m going to get there. As I’m writing, more ideas pop into my head. I usually write these ideas down in a notebook so I don’t forget to incorporate them in the right places.

I also keep a simple calendar of days and keep notes on what happens on each day as the week progresses. I do this for two reasons, to make sure that all the action that happens could actually take place in that time period, and so I don’t leave out a day.

As the story progresses, I begin to see how things might work out and what will put my heroine or hero in jeopardy for that big climatic ending scene.

And that’s how I go about plotting.

Marilyn Meredith is the author of over thirty published novels, including the award winning Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery series. She's a member of EPIC, three chapters of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and is on the board of the Public Safety Writers of America. You can visit her website at and follow her blog at

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Fixing the Publishing Industry is No Mystery

by L.J. Sellers

Jean asked if I was worried about the downturn in the publishing industry and what I think can be done about it. The fix isn’t a mystery at all. Three basic steps would change the industry’s business model to improve sales and cut costs.

1. Move away from the hardback fiction book. Publishers could simply not print hardbacks and let libraries and collectors laminate their own copies of trade paperbacks, or they could print very limited hardback runs with the bulk of the first printing done in trade or mass market paperback. Then the first run of each novel could be bigger and priced to reach the whole market. Publishers win by reducing their print costs and minimizing the number of returns. Readers win by getting a book they can afford when it first comes out, and writers win by reaching as wide a market as they can on the first publication. And if publishers produced an e-book version at the same time, it would open the market even further. And writers who didn’t hit the big numbers would never be stuck with a book that is only available in hardback—which is a spendy version that’s hard to sell at book fairs and special events, and limits sales even further.

2. Change distribution to a nonreturnable basis. This seems like such a no brainer. Approximately, 25 % of all books printed are returned and shredded. This is an unsustainable waste of time and resources. Once the new policy was in place, bookstores would have to be conservative about how many books they ordered at one time, but it would simplify the bookkeeping for everyone involved—especially authors who often have their royalties held back against returns.

3. Print only as many copies as are necessary to fill orders. Yes, there is a discount in volume, but if, in the long run, the model isn’t making money, it only makes sense to pay a slightly higher per-unit printing cost and have fewer returns. Money (and trees) would be saved from not printing, shipping, processing, and shredding books that never sale.

If all that happened, bookstores would have fewer returns to process and they could make money by remaindering books on their own premises. They could offer discounts and buy one/get one free deals to keep product moving. Publishers could cut their printing (and shredding) costs and spend more money on promotion for more authors, not just the bestsellers. This would take the pressure off each novel to perform to a certain standard and allow more novels to come to the market through traditional publishers.

Of course, this advice is aimed at the major publishers, which still control the bulk of the market. Many smaller publishers have employed these ideas. But they can’t work on a large scale unless they’re widely adopted. As long as the hardback book carries a certain prestige, publishers (and authors) who are in paper versions only will remain at a disadvantage.

(Reprinted from an earlier post, but still relevant.)

Bestselling author L.J. Sellers writes the Detective Jackson mystery/thriller series, which has twice won the Readers Favorite Award, as well as the Agent Dallas series and standalone thrillers. Her novels have received high praise, and she's one of the highest-rated crime fiction authors on Amazon.
L.J. resides in Eugene, Oregon, the setting for many of her novels. She's also a Grand Neal Award-winning journalist who founded Housing Help, a charity dedicated to preventing families from becoming homeless. L.J. enjoys standup comedy, cycling, social networking, and attending mystery conferences. To learn more about her, visit her website:

Friday, September 19, 2014

Hallie Ephron Revisited

Bestselling author Hallie Ephron not only writes suspense novels, but how-to-books, including Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock 'Em Dead with Style, nominated for Edgar and Anthony awards. She was also the recipient of the Salt Lake Libraries Readers Choice and David awards and is the Ellen Nehr Award winning crime fiction reviewer for the Boston Globe.

Hallie, how did your early environment influence your career as a journalist and novelist?

I grew up in family of writers (my parents wrote plays and movies; my sisters Nora, Delia, and Amy are all well published) in a house that was wall to wall books. The pressure to become a writer was tough to resist. I tried for three decades and then succumbed.

Did you ever consider following in your parent's careers as a screenwriter?

Dialogue isn't my strong suit, and that's what screenplays are. So it was not the natural place for me to begin.

Where did you work as a journalist and did the experience serve you well when you began writing novels?

I never thought of myself as a journalist. I wrote essays and feature articles for magazines and now I review crime fiction for the Boston Globe. Reviewing books--and more importantly reading lots of them--has helped me see why some books work and others don't. So it's really helped me as a teacher, and also as a critic of my own work.

Tell us about your psychological suspense novel, Never Tell a Lie. How did the story come about?

I got the idea when I was at a yard sale near my house. It was a big Victorian house, one where my daughter used to play with the children of a former owner. I was dying to find out how the interior had been transformed. I drilled the poor homeowner with questions until finally she said, “Why don’t you go inside and have a look around?” I didn't wait for her to change her mind. As I wandered on, through the upstairs, I thought: What if a woman goes to a yard sale. Somehow she manages to talk her way into the house. She goes inside and…she never comes out.

The idea made the hair on my neck stand up. I knew right away that my next novel would start with that yard sale. I knew that the woman running the yard sale would be nine months pregnant, and the woman who comes to the yard sale and disappears would be nine months pregnant, too.

When did you decide to write how-to writing books and what do they encompass?

I didn't actually decide... I was teaching a class for writers and the acquiring editor for Writer Digest Books sat in on a bit of my class. Afterward, she asked if I'd like to write a book about mystery writing. I jumped at the opportunity. I started my career as a teacher, and this gave me a chance to combine teaching and writing.

How do you select books to review for the Boston Globe? And do you always try to find something good to write in each review or do you just cut to the chase?

I pick from the 80 or so titles sent to me each month. Yes, I try to find books I like. If I don't like a book I stop reading and go on to the next one in the pile. But if I review I book I don't like, I say so--but I try not to be flip or clever about it, just as specific as I can.

What’s the best way to acquire an agent and are they necessary to sell fledgling books?

Yes, they are essential if you want to be published by a mainstream press. Agents have become the arbiters of taste. The process is well documented--in Writers Digest Guide to Literary Agents it's all laid out plus detailed information about each agent and how to contact them. Just follow the rules about querying. And be patient. And revise, revise, revise if you are fortunate to get comments back.

Advice to aspiring writers?

Keep at it. Perseverance pays. Grow a rhinoceros hide so you don't take criticism personally, but hear it and use it to make the work better.

What do you stress most in your fiction courses at writers’ conferences?

Not to send a work out too early--I see so many authors jump the gun and send out manuscripts that still need work.

Which writer, past or present, would you like to have lunch with?

P. D. James. That's easy.

Thanks for taking part in the series.

Hallie Ephron's website:
Her blog:

Saturday, August 30, 2014

What a Character!

by Jinx Schwartz

How many times have we heard that phrase, what exactly does it mean, and how does it apply to my writing?

For starters, I have a lot of characters in my life. Not the ones in my books, but living, breathing characters, the kind defined by Webster as a person with many eccentricities. 

I admit that my lifestyle fairly screams for character encounters. We live half the year in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, where cruisers abound from all over the world and and all walks of life. One thing they have in common is that they’re adventurous types who have chosen a life way outside the box. I can pick up enough material from one potluck on the beach (which happens at the drop of a hat) to fuel many a book. When in port, a walk down the dock or a beer at a local watering hole and I have new best friends from, well, everywhere. Tuning into the daily ham radio nets, with boaters checking in from all over Mexico and the Pacific Coast, with the tale of the day, has me jotting notes for future plots, or idiosyncratic scenarios.

And then there is the other half of my life, living smack dab on the Arizona/Mexico border. Not only do we make the headlines frequently, the city of Bisbee has been named by a national organization as one of the quirkiest places to live in the United States. And they are right. My gardener packs a .380 in his boot, my Zumba instructor is a retired, gay, exotic dancer; and my nearest neighbor is a Rottweiler who lives alone. Her owner shows up with food and water once a day and I give her lots of treats, but otherwise, she has the house and yard to herself most of the time. Rosa is an equal opportunity barker; she targets illegal crossers and border patrol agents with equal hostility. She’s the best dog I never owned.

Even my more normal friends, (you notice I used the word more) are great book fodder. When one of them was banned from the Kremlin because she set off the radiation detectors (she recently had a nuclear stress test), I filed that away, et voila, and it became part of a plot point in Just Deserts, fourth in my Hetta Coffey mystery series.

And then there is Hetta Coffey. She’s a woman with a yacht and she’s not afraid to use it. Okay, so she isn’t real, but boy, sometimes it doesn’t feel that way. Many of my readers actually think I am Hetta, or that Hetta is me. Since almost everyone says I am a real character, maybe we are one.

The plot thickens . . .

* * * * * * *
Jinx Schwartz was reared in the jungles of Haiti and Thailand, with return trips to Texas. She followed in her father’s steel-toed footsteps into construction and engineering in the hope of building dams. Finding all the good rivers taken, she traveled the world, and like the protagonist in her mystery series, Hetta Coffey, Jinx was a woman with a yacht and not afraid to use it when she met her husband, “Mad Dog” Schwartz. After their marriage they sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge and headed for Mexico. 

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers, where you can read her amusing interview and learn more about her.)

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Loren Estleman

Loren Estleman is one of the most talented writers I’ve ever known. As a young writer of both mysteries and western novels, his work often created bidding wars among competing publishers. Although his novels have been evenly divided between both genres since he began publishing in 1976, Loren’s cops have paid off much better than his cowboys.

“For me,” he said, “a good mystery places story and character ahead of all else, yet never loses sight of the simple truth that in order to be a mystery, a question must be asked. It needn’t be a whodunit, and might be something as simple and maddening as why the murdered man had three left shoes in his closet and no mates. If the writer has done his job well, the reader will forget the question as the story draws him in. But there had damn well better be a mystery involved if he’s going to call it one.”

Loren wrote six Amos Walker mysteries for Houghton Mifflin and nearly a dozen Double D Westerns before he was discovered by other New York publishing houses. His novels had been selling moderately well while critics raved about them. It wasn’t long before sales caught up with the reviews.

His biggest project was an in-depth look at the shootout at the O.K. Coral, a novel titled Bloody Season, which he wrote “without the blinders of folk-heroism.” He said, “If some cherished myths fell along the wayside, that’s secondary to my intention to examine the late Victorian morals at odds with a wilderness on the defensive.” Three major publishers expressed interest in the book before it was begun, with Bantam the winner in the bidding war. The novel was released in hardcover in 1988.

Loren had never been west of his home state of Michigan until he traveled to Santa Fe to accept a Spur Award from Western Writers of America. He had always been fascinated in the westward expansion, particularly the era he called “the death of the West, the period between the closing of the frontier and the beginning of World War I, when progress for good or ill was making its way westward.” He said there was then no place where a man could go to prove himself, or redeem himself, because the East had taken over the West.“There’s sadness and pathos to that period and locale that moves me to this day.”

Shy as a child and an avid reader, he remembered devouring the works of London, Poe, Chandler, and western authors O’Rouke, Short, and Shirreffs. He wrote his first short story after he was expelled from his high school band. A gangster yarn called “Mad Man Wade,” it returned with a printed rejection slip from Argosy magazine. Loren said he was “crushed, disappointed, and mad,” but he sat down and wrote another story. For years Argosy was the first magazine he submitted stories to “before it folded. I just wanted to crack it,” he said, “because that was the place to start.”

He worked as a news reporter for twelve years while writing his first novels. Eventually working as a police reporter in Detroit, he said, “I covered a lot of murder trials and manslaughters, and [the defendants] never quite looked like murderers. I’m not sure what one is supposed to look like, which is why the killers that I use in my mysteries, and sometimes in my westerns, tend to look like the guys you see mowing the grass down the street. They’re ordinary people, and we’re all potential murderers. That’s the theme in my writing that I work with.”

(Excerpted from my book, Maverick Writers)

Saturday, August 2, 2014

A writer's unique voice

by Bruce DeSilva

Every writer speaks to you in a voice. When you read, you hear the writer talking to you. You may think you're reading with your eyes, but in a sense, you read with your ears. The writer's voice has everything to do with whether you enjoy the story, stick with it to the end, or ever want to read something else by that writer.

A few years ago, I asked Robert B. Parker, one of the most successful crime novelists of all time, why his books were so popular. He said, 'for the same reason people like certain songs. They love the way the language sounds.'

A lot of writers, even professionals, have trouble with voice, however. Why? We are bombarded with bad examples. We read a lot of poorly written stuff every day, and that can make us think that's the way writing is supposed to be.

We sometimes misunderstand our audience. No matter how many thousands of readers you may have, you must always speak to them one at a time. Never write as though you are speaking to a crowd. Reading, after all, is a solitary act.

The voices of the best writers are unique. You should be able to identify a passage written by Elmore Leonard or Laura Lippman, even if the name of the author is concealed.

How can you find your unique voice as a writer? For some of you, it's just a matter of sounding like yourself in print. You already have a voice. You just need to use it.

For others, finding your voice requires experimentation. It may sound counterintuitive, but I suggest that you begin by imitating writers you admire.

When I was starting out, I went through my Hemingway period. And my Raymond Chandler period. And my Hunter Thompson period.

Through this experimentation I was learning craft--the techniques these writers used to fashion their sentences and paragraphs. As my technical abilities grew, my own voice was able to emerge.

You've probably heard that you should write like you speak. Don't. Very few of us speak well enough to do that. Writing should feel like a good conversation but there are differences between written and spoken language. The most important ones are feedback.

If I say something to you, your reaction tells me whether I'm boring you or if you don't understand. In written language, I don't get that kind of feedback. so I have to provide it myself by reading my work out loud. Anything that doesn't sound good isn't good. No exceptions.

A journalist for over 40 years, Edgar winning author Bruce DeSilva retired to write crime novels. He also served as a writing coach for the Associated Press and was responsible for training the wire service reporters and editors worldwide. The multi-award-winning writer also directed the elite AP department devoted to investigative reporting and other special projects.

You can read his interview in the book, The Mystery Writers, now in print, ebook and audiobook editions.