Saturday, December 26, 2015

How I Motivate My Characters

by John Gilstrap
New York Times bestselling author

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 18, 2015

Two Heads Are Better Than One

by Lee Lofland

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 4, 2015

Writing Historical Mysteries

by Carola Dunn

I have been writing historical novels for over thirty years. If you count the 1960s as historical--opinions differ!--I have had more than 50 published. Of these, 32 are Regencies. The other eighteen are mysteries, the 17 titles of my Daisy Dalrymple series, set in the 1920s, and Manna from Hades, the first of a new series of Cornish mysteries set in the 1960s.

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

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

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

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

Luckily, the less information is available, the more leeway for the fiction writer. Creating an impression of the spirit of the times is, in my opinion, the most important job for any historical fiction writer, mystery or other. If you're writing about Ancient Rome, your characters have to take slavery for granted; in mid-nineteenth century America, they should not. Religion reigned supreme in medieval Europe, even kings seeking the blessing of the papacy. To the upper classes of 18th century England and France, manners and etiquette were of enormous importance, even in dire circumstances. The class system was an unavoidable aspect of 19th century England that can't be ignored however little you like it. America in the 19th century boasted a feeling of boundless opportunity--unless you were a slave. The Depression era depressed not only economic life but people's spirits and expectations. Wherever and whenever until quite recently, and still now in many parts of the globe, women were subservient.

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

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Michael Orenhuff Talks About His Pot Thief Series

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

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

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

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

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

How important is humor in a mystery series?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because writing fiction is fun.

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

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

Who most influenced your own work?

Michael Bond, Lawrence Saunders, and Lawrence Block.

Advice to fledgling writers?

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

Friday, November 20, 2015

A Visit with D. P. Lyle, MD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the most common questions you receive from writers?

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

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

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

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

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

Best advice you can give aspiring writers?

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

Anything else you’d like to add?

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

His blog is The Writer's Forensics Blog

Friday, November 6, 2015

A Conversation with Marja McGraw

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

Marja, why do you write mysteries?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How important is humor and romance in mystery novels?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advice to aspiring mystery writers.

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

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

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

You can visit Marja at her website:

And her blog site:

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Award-Winning Crime Novelist Bruce DeSilva Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Briefly tell us about your writing background.

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

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

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

Whose work influenced your own? Your most read novelist?

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

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

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

For whom do you write?

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

How important is humor in crime/noir novels?

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

Advice to aspiring crime writers?

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Becoming an Archaeologist

by Radine Trees Nehring

I dreamed of being an archaeologist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 16, 2015

Dysfunctional Family Circa 1740

by Beverle Graves Myers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Written in Blood, a Conversation With Diane Fanning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell us about the Lucinda Pierce crime novel series.

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

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

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

For whom do you write?

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

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

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

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

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

Advice to aspiring writers?

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

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

Saturday, October 3, 2015

We Can All be Writers

by Jacqueline Seewald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Remembering Leighton Gage


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell us about your novel, Every Bitter Thing.

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your writing schedule like?

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

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

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

How difficult was it to find an agent?

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

Advice to fledgling crime novelists?

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

(a) Whom I’m talking to and

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Coffee Shop Writing: You Want Fries With Your Fiction?

by Tim Hallinan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eat your heart out, James Patterson.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Not-So-Lonely Long Distance Writer

by Scottish Author Gillian Philip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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