Thursday, May 31, 2007

Remembering Books

Elizabeth Zelvin

One of the reasons I love being part of the mystery community is the sense of belonging that I get as a reader. It’s not just about mysteries. As a member of DorothyL, an e-list that’s nicely balanced among mystery-loving readers, writers, librarians, and booksellers et al., I marvel at how often these kindred spirits love the same books, all kinds of books, that I do. Even the vigilant moderators have been known to relax the mystery-only rule if the book or author is universally beloved, like Lois McMaster Bujold, whose A Civil Campaign (a perfect cross between comedy of manners and galactic space opera) just might be my favorite book. I remember one extended discussion on DorothyL in which quite a number of DLers admitted they’d go to bed with Bujold’s protagonist Miles Vorkosigan, a brilliant and charismatic charmer who was born with brittle bones and is very, very short.

The kindred spirit phenomenon is most evident among the bookish when the conversation turns to childhood reading. It was on DorothyL once again that I discovered I wasn’t the only kid who loved a book called The Lion’s Paw. It was about some orphaned kids who sailed to the then remote Sanibel Island in the Florida Keys to find a rare shell that would make their fortunes. It’s not in print, but you can buy it through Amazon, which reminded me of the author’s name (Robb White) and displayed a review by a reader who said, “Now that I can collect the books I loved as a child, I look forward to obtaining a copy to read again!” Yep—kindred spirit.

As a mystery reader, I’m a series lover. When a new book in a favorite series comes out, I can hardly wait to read what’s new among the protagonist’s family and friends and what hot water the protag has gotten into this time. The first series I ever fell in love with long predated my introduction to mysteries. I took Elswyth Thane’s six Williamsburg novels out of the library over and over and over again. To this day, I could probably draw the family tree of the intertwined Day, Sprague, and Campion families from the Revolutionary War to World War II. The publication of the long-awaited seventh book signaled what was probably my first moment of awareness of the New York Times bestseller list. Evidently I was not alone.

When I discovered Amazon, I found the Williamsburg novels in a library edition. I was delighted to meet Thane’s characters again. The only problem was that I remember the books too well. The publisher had bowdlerized a few details for the library audience, and it irritated me like, er, a thorn in a lion’s paw. In This Was Tomorrow, set mostly in London in World War II, the American Stephen Sprague falls in love with his British cousin Evadne, who is innocent and passionate and given to Causes. There’s a scene (I didn't have to look this up--I remember it perfectly) in which Stephen offers Evadne her first drink of champagne, and she defies the repressed Hermione (who has drawn her into the Oxford Group and is jealous and controlling) to drink it. In the original, Evadne snatches the glass and stutters, “Give me that champagne!” The library edition renders it, “Give me that wine!” Lead balloon. I guess the publishers agreed with Thane that champagne represents all that is daring and sinful—too daring and sinful for libraries.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A Chat with Vicki Delany

Sandra Parshall

Vicki Delany is the author of two psychological suspense novels and the upcoming first book in a police procedural series. Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and raised mostly in Ontario, she traveled to South Africa in her twenties, married a man she met there and had three daughters. After eleven years, Vicki returned to Canada, where she still lives. Her stay in Africa, she says, gave her “an insight into to the politics of power and oppression that few Canadians get to experience.”

Would you tell us about your path to publication? How long were writing before you published your first book?

Several years at least. When I look back now, I can see that my first efforts weren't really good enough, so I'm not surprised that they were rejected. But then I began taking advice, and criticism, and got Scare the Light Away to the point where Poisoned Pen Press were kind enough to accept it.

Have you found readers in the U.S. receptive to your Canadian settings and characters?

Generally when I meet American readers they seem to enjoy the Canadian elements. Either because they like reading about people in different countries, or because they have some sort of link with Canada and love to read books that reinforce that link.

What attracted you to the World War II era as a background and setting for fiction?

My books Scare the Light Away and Burden of Memory are both contemporary stories with flashbacks to World War II. I think that the war years were so tramautic for almost everyone who lived through them, particularly, of course, in places where the bombs were actually falling and shots being fired, that it is easy to imagine that some of the drama, the consequences, of that time can effect families and individuals all these years later. And old secrets are the life-blood of suspense novels. My new novel, In the Shadow of the Glacier, due out in September, is strictly a contemporary setting - some of the drama in that book is influenced by things that happened during the Vietnam War, but there are no flashbacks or remembrances. Glacier, incidently, is the first in a series featuring Constable Molly Smith and Seargant John Winters of the (fictional) Trafalgar City Police.

You lived in South Africa for a number of years. Do you plan to use your experiences there in your fiction?

I would like to, very much. For one thing, I haven't been back to South Africa for more than twenty years, and I'd love to. I thought a bit about having a back story during the Boer War (in which Canadians were involved), but that seems to have been abandoned.
Perhaps some day I'll resurrect the idea.

What attracts you to psychological suspense, as opposed to straight mystery?

I like family dynamics - families are a gold mine for crime writers! Although I hasten to add that there is nothing in my own family that might cause me to think so! I like books that are character driven as much as, or more than, plot driven. For In the Shadow of the Glacier I wanted to write a traditional police procedural, but it has some elements of psychological suspense as well. The setting is a very small town and the police have to deal with their own families, and their own relationships, which may (or may not) have some involvement with the crime they are investigating.

Do you work full-time? How do you fit writing and promotion into your life?

I was fortunate enough to reitre at the end of March. Up until then I had been working full time as a systems analyst at a major bank. And it was tough finding the time for my writing. What suffered was the promotion end of the business. But this year I'm planning to really get out there any promote the books. I'm going to Murder in the Grove in June, to Bouchercon in September, and plan to take In the Shadow of the Glacier on a book tour down the west coast in October/November. I'm spending the summer in the interior of British Columbia, close to where the Constable Molly Smith books are set, and I'll really enjoy writing the next book when I'm right there. I even have a lunch date coming up with the police detective kind enough to help me with In the Shadow of the Glacer.

What aspects of your writing have you consciously tried to improve?

Characters and setting have always been inportant to me, more than plot.
But now that I'm doing a police procedural series, the plot has to be tight and focused. I'm working very hard on that

What writers have influenced you? What qualities attract you in another author's work?

The book about writing that I enjoyed the most was On Writing, by Stephen King. The books I most like to read are the standard British police procedurals -- Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson, the (sadly) late Jill McGown. Books with real depth of character combined with an intricate plot.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

In On Writing, Stephen King says that if you want to be a writer you have to do two things - you have to write and you have to read. Sounds simple but that's about it. There's no point in thinking about how one day you'll start that book. You have to sit down and write it. And if you want to know what people want to read, then you have to read as well.

Learn more about the author and her work at

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Ramp It Up

Sharon Wildwind

Recently one of the mystery lists I belong to had a lively discussion about not writing. About how life sometimes brings writing to a screeching hault. At one time or another, I’ve stopped writing temporarily for all of the usual reasons: a move, an illness, a family crisis, too hard a day job, ran out of energy, had to make Christmas presents, computer was down, even because the sun was shining when it should be raining or vice versa.

Going from not writing back to writing is darn hard to do flat-footed. It’s like an athlete trying to clear the high jump from a standing stone still position. She needs to take a running leap at the high bar if she wants to get over it.

One thing I found helps is to set aside a writing time every day for a week. Day 1: 5 minutes; day 2: 7 minutes; day 3: 10 minutes, then increase by 5 minutes a day until, by day 7, you’re up to 30 minutes. The important thing is to convince yourself that this isn’t a “I’ll write if I get the chance or if I’m inspired” time. It’s a commitment to put everything else in the world aside for somewhere between 5 and 30 minutes.

Gather your favorite writing tools. Even treat yourself to a new tool, like a spiffy notebook or a wonderful gel pen. Turn off the phone and the TV, get a babysitter or send the kids to the library. Music is optional, depending on whether you work best with music or in silence, but stay away from commercial radio stations. Do not sort your buttons by size and color. Do not decide the walls need washing. Do not Google your five best friends from high school to see if you can find them. In short, stop the world and sit there, with your eyes closed, breathing rhythmically. Somewhere out there is a writing fairy calling to you, but you must be very, very still in order to hear her or his voice.

When you feel like it, pick up your pen or pencil or rest your fingers on the key board. Write something, even if it, “I’m sitting here in the stillness and this is a really stupid idea and I should be picking up the dog at the vet. Is my five minutes up yet? I don’t want to do this any more.” Just write, one word after another. Spelling, punctuation and grammar do not count. Plotting and character development and raising the stakes and goal, motivation, and conflict and all of those other things writers stew about do not count. All you’re doing here is practicing putting one word after the other. You’re the high jumper taking a running jump at the bar.

Ever watch a high jumper practice? They don’t go over the bar every time. Many times they start the run and pull up short because the approach doesn’t feel right. They know they aren’t ready to jump yet, so they veer off, circle back and take another run at the thing.

It’s okay if you go through the entire week without writing a single word. By day seven, if you’re sitting in the stillness for 30 minutes without writing, you can be pretty sure that it’s not the right time in your life to be putting words on paper. If this happens, give yourself permission to not be a writer. At one time in my life, I thought I might be a bagpiper. As it turned out, I wasn’t. But I had a great time finding that out. I met some wonderful people and I learned to appreciate pipe music in all of its glory from the simplest airs to laments and piobrachs. The journey was the fun part, and that’s the way it should be with writing, too.

Monday, May 28, 2007

In Tribute to All Soldiers

by Julia Buckley
My sister was in the Navy for twenty years; she recently retired. At one point she was on a plane bound for Iraq, but because the plane developed engine trouble, her unit was held back and another was sent instead. I considered her a hero for even being on the plane; so you can imagine my admiration for the people who are there now--young people being put in harm's way for the sake of their nation.

I don't understand war and I never will, but I do understand courage and devotion. I remember reading THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE, in which the young protagonist wonders if he will be brave in battle. None of us knows that for sure about ourselves, I suppose, but those young soldiers know it: they have to be brave every day, and their battles are more complex than the Civil War deaths--confusions of smoke and musket fire.

Stephen Crane never actually fought in a war, although he covered war as a journalist. But Wilfred Owen fought, and his assessment of war, after being a soldier, was that it wasn't what it had been proclaimed to be. In one of the most famous war poems ever written, Dulce Et Decorum Est, Owen exposed the truth about war from the inside. Owen was killed in France on November 4, 1918, one week before the Armistice.

I've heard that many soldiers in Iraq have turned to writing, as well, as a way of expressing all that they have been through. The NEA recently asked former soldiers to tell their stories, and the result was Operation Homecoming.

These are stories worth reading, because they reflect the experiences of people who were asked to be a nation's heroes. For those who have fallen, it will fall on others to tell their stories.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Aspirational Characters

Mary Jane Maffini (Guest Blogger)

Mary Jane Maffini is a Canadian mystery writer, and a charter member of The Ladies Killing Circle.

Thank heavens Poe’s Daughters offered me this opportunity to be a guest blogger. I have been grappling with a problem, so why not confide in the people who read the blog? I have to get it off my chest somehow. You see, I’m being pressured by some would-be walk-on characters. They whisper sweet nothings into my ear. They are very seductive and they give new meaning to the word persistent.

You’d think I would have learned by now. There are already too many minor characters clomping around in my books. With all the inhabitants in three mystery series and a bunch of short stories, it’s like trying to organize Christmas dinner for your seven hundred best buddies.

Darn. Here comes one now. This guy’s a real pest. I’ve been trying to shake him for days. Give me a minute. I’ll get rid of him.


“Now listen, I keep telling you, I am not accepting new characters. Unless you’re willing to be murdered or arrested for bumping off someone. Or I suppose you could be a suspect with a sleazy reason to kill.”
“Come on, lady. I’m worth more than that.”
“Perhaps you can pump gas or something, if you’ll promise to stop bugging me. Here’s a deal: I may need somebody to deliver pizza in the book I’m working on now. Unfortunately, the hours are a bit irregular.”
“Pizza? Do I look like I would deliver pizza?”
“You don’t look like anything. You’re nothing more than an idle distraction. Speaking of pizza, you could be just a bit of indigestion.”
“You can do better than that. Give me a description. I’d like a fauxhawk, yeah, yeah, that’s good. Sandy or dark blond. I should be tall and fit. Kind of a cool skater look, but no hat. And I wouldn’t mind a Celtic tattoo. Those suckers are chick magnets.”
“Excuse me while I roll my eyes. I am not giving you a description, let alone a pointy hairdo and a tattoo. You do not get to decide that. If readers know what you look like, they’ll expect you to have a story purpose. You ever heard of relevance? There’s a finite amount of that stuff going around, you know.”
“And I’d have a flirty look in my eye. Some chicks find that relevant. How do you spell relevant anyway?”
“Look, you just get out of the delivery vehicle, say an orange Dodge Neon with a sign on top. You ring the bell. You hand over the pizza. You collect the cash, maybe a tip. You drive off. End of your story. Absolutely no flirty looks.”
“Chillax! It’s all good. But I do need a name.”
“No name. Absolutely. No. Name.”
“But names are like job security.”
“My point exactly.”
“Lady, I just need that first break. Having a name could make a major difference.”
“How about Figment? We could call you Figgy for short.”
“Whoa. Mean lady. Jayden maybe.”
“Get real. No no don’t get real! Once I give you a name, you have to have a bigger role. I bet you know that. You obviously have aspirations.”
“You got it. How about I drive a cool car to deliver the pizza. Maybe a classic Mustang? Sweet.”
“That won’t be happening. Now get out of my head. I have deadlines. I have a blog to write. It’s my first and I’m a bit nervous about it.”
“I could help with that. You want to write about cars? My dad used to take me to the shows.”
“You don’t have a dad. You’re a figment.”
“Sure I do. Hey! I could drive a classic Mustang Convertible, say a 1990. Cherry red. Or what about a ‘Vette’? Come back! Don’t go fold the laundry! You’re supposed to be writing. Okay! I’ll deliver the pizza. Whatever. I’ll drive the Neon, if it makes you happy. Just let me in. I need that first break. Helloooo…?”


All right, I’m back. So, you see my problem? These guys just wear you down. One time a burglar named Bunny Mayhew sweet-talked his way into a small role in one of my Camilla MacPhee mysteries. Now he thinks he’ll be pivotal in Law and Disorder, slotted for Fall 2008. Pivotal! Sheesh.

Anyway, if you come across my first Charlotte Adams book Organize Your Corpses, which is just off the press in May 2007, and if you like Charlotte, a professional organizer with a disastrous personal life, a passion for chocolate, rescued miniature dachshunds, and great shoes, you may want to read the second: Toying with Death (May 2008). You see, there’s Jayden, this cute guy with sandy fauxhawk who drives a Neon and delivers pizza to the sleuth and her sidekicks, of which there are already quite enough. But this guy has aspirations, although no tattoo as of today. Don’t pay too much attention to him. He’s not pivotal. There’ll be a lot of other stuff going on, including an out-of-control collection of plush toys. So far, they don’t have names.

Want to meet some other aspirational characters? Check out my books at

Friday, May 25, 2007


By Lonnie Cruse

After the 9/11 tragedy the discussion on various writer’s lists centered around how difficult it suddenly was just to write. Some writers worked through their horror by writing, others couldn’t put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. I've always found myself in the “writing it out in order to get it out” camp. I’ve been studying a lot about journaling lately in preparation for a workshop I taught at the library in Harrisburg, Illinois. (Have Workshops, Will Travel!)

I hadn’t realized until recently that scrapbookers often journal their photo pages, but that’s a terrific idea. My hubby has long complained about the pictures his mother didn’t at least label with names and dates, and about the ones I don’t either. Journaling about photos does leave a terrific record for our progeny. And it doesn’t have to be novel length, just a short paragraph/history about the photo.

Even though I don’t journal our photos, I did buy a blank record book many years ago, right after my dear father-in-law passed away. I jotted down as many as I could of the wonderful family stories he used to tell, like the time his uncle pounded on the front door, bellowing for help. The family raced to the door and found him on the porch, holding tightly onto the snake inside his overalls that had somehow slid up into them as he walked home through a field of tall grass, most likely when he climbed through a fence. Okay, all together now: EEEWWWWW!!!

After I’d written down all the wonderful stories I could remember about my in-laws, I included stories about my parents and then moved to stories about hubby and I, and our sons as they grew up. It’s been a joy over the years to see our oldest son read that book and laugh out loud. Wouldn’t your children and grandchildren like to hear stories you remember about those who have passed on?

Journaling can serve other purposes as well. Now, as with most things, I don’t jump in half-hearted. I’ve got probably half-a-dozen journals, for various uses. The two smallest with the cute dogs on the front are for our grandsons. When they come over for one of our “adventures” I try to note what we’ve done together so they will remember when they’re grown and we’re gone. Some things, of course, are unforgettable. Our youngest recently told his dad that he likes to come to Grandpa’s because “Grandpa always hurts himself.” Lest you think that’s a joke or the kid is really mean, (he isn’t, trust me) here’s what he meant. Our most recent adventure was in the creek that runs alongside our house. Grandpa scraped and bruised the underside of his arm practically from elbow to shoulder, “teaching” the boys to swing on a grape vine out over a grassy area. Watching a guy in his sixties imitating Tarzan. . . well, you probably hadda be there. Sigh, but I digress.

One of my favorite journals is my writer’s journal where I jot down quick ideas for novels, short stories, blog posts, newsletter articles, etc. I use it for notes about characters I want to create, notes from classes I take on the Internet (just finished one from Writers Univ) my assignments, things like that. It’s not real in-depth, mostly quickly jotted notes, maybe slices of things I’ve experienced or heard from others, but it’s a huge help to my writing. If I have a problem area in a manuscript, journaling about it can often show me the answer.

I have a personal journal for life lessons and spiritual growth, and I go there when life is a bit dim and I need to “write it out.” Because that’s one of the beauties of journaling, being able to write out whatever’s sitting like a giant cement gremlin on my chest. Seeing a problem on paper can help me step back and separate the individual tree the forest had blocked. And I can tell if I’ve actually been learning anything over several months or just stagnating.

There are a bazillion websites on the Internet about journaling, so anyone interested in the subject can find whatever you need. One thing I recommend is getting a journal you will really use, particularly one where the pages lay flat. Much easier to write in. And buy a journal that is attractive, but not so attractive that you are reluctant to “mess it up” or one so plain you get bored with it. And you don’t have to journal page after page, nor journal every day. Short snippets are fine, unless you need more. It doesn’t take a lot of time, and I think you’ll find you enjoy it. It is a good idea to keep it handy so you don’t forget about writing in it.

If you have personal or writerly issues to work out and you aren’t currently journaling, why not give it a try? See if it helps. And if you have children or grandchildren, by all means, keep a journal for them and for yourselves. The funny things they say and do often slip away, and jotting a few notes will help you remember. And it will give them a gift from you one day that none other could ever compare.

That reminds me, there was another episode involving a grandson and a tree just last week. Excuse me while I take a few minutes to jot that down in his little journal.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Interview with Jeremiah Healy

Interviewer: Elizabeth Zelvin

Let’s start with the question you posed in the flier you handed out at the workshop on thrillers that you moderated at the recent MWA Symposium during Edgars Week 2007 in New York. Your question: “What does a guy who has been a sheriff’s officer, Military Police lieutenant, trial attorney, and law professor—affectionately known to his students as the Prince of (expletive-deleted) Darkness—do for excitement?"

For excitement: kayaking, distance swimming, scuba diving, fly-casting, sailing, tennis, jogging, and walking late at night through Boston Common (think NYC's Central Park) simulating a limp to see if any bad guys would jump a person with an obvious disability.

What prompted you to become a fiction writer?

As a trial attorney and law professor, I became frustrated by the (thankfully, relatively few) ways in which the formal judicial system, civil or criminal, does NOT handle certain types of cases well (the battered spouse in the otherwise financially secure family, a reporter’s privilege not to reveal confidential sources, etc.). By writing fiction, and especially crime fiction, I could explore those “fall through the cracks” kinds of cases.

At what point did you stop juggling your law and writing careers and become a full time writer?

In 1995. It was not so much that writing crime novels conflicted with teaching law students, as that the promotional obligations to the publisher(s) became difficult to balance with the administrative conferences I was (reasonably) expected to attend as a tenured professor.

You have written 18 novels and more than 60 short stories. What are your work habits? Do you have a routine or any rituals? Or are you just one of those guys who only needs three hours of sleep?

Actually, I prefer a LOT of sleep. I've found that, in terms of creative writing, I'm best off writing almost every day in the morning, having lunch alone, and then going out into the "real" world to play tennis, work-out, even just ride the subway: ANYthing that is NOT sitting alone in a little room creating a fantasy world via the keyboard.

You have two ongoing series, the John Francis Cuddy PI novels and the Mairead O’Clare legal thriller series that you write as Terry Devane. We can assume the pace at which you write those books is dictated by your contracts. But you’ve also written stand-alones and all those short stories. How do you decide what to write next?

When I first considered becoming a FULL time writer, I asked friends who had been one for years their thoughts, given the glory of hindsight, on what they might have done differently. Lawrence Block told me: "I wish I'd written next the next book I wanted to write, rather than play to the money." I think that's great advice.

Do you have a favorite protagonist (Cuddy or O’Clare), subgenre (PI or legal thriller), or format (novel or short story)? Or do you love all your literary children equally?

Well, I'd say I love them all, but if they WERE children, and the oxygen mask on the plane dropped down, which "child" would I help first? Cuddy, because he's been such a big part of my writing life.

You’ve been honored many times as a writer, including 16 wins or nominations for the Shamus Award. Does one of those awards or honors stand out as particularly meaningful to you?

Two. I won the Shamus Award for Best Hardcover Private Eye Novel of 1986, and that kind of launched me. Also, being honored as the American Guest of Honour [stet] at Al Navis's Bouchercon in Toronto during October, 2004, is the other.

You have written very frankly about your prostate cancer in a way that comes across as a deep commitment to helping other men get the information they need for diagnosis and effective treatment, not just on a medical level but in terms of practical advice and plain speaking about what it’s like to make this journey and how to get through it whole. What has it been like for you to make these experiences public?

I've always believed that if life gives you lemons, make lemonade. I couldn't pay back the men who'd counseled me through my prostate cancer experience, but I could pay it forward to others by doing that article and some speeches about it.

What’s up next for Jeremiah Healy—and Terry Devane?

Right now, I'm working on a thriller involving murders in a large but disintegrating (fictional) Boston law firm.

What are your goals or dreams for the future? What’s still out there that you’ve never done?

While I've had some of my fiction optioned for film, I'd love to see one of my novels actually adapted to the big or small screen, and I'd also love to have one of my original screenplays optioned for Hollywood.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Telling it Like it Isn’t

Sharon Wildwind

Right off—this is not a whine about other writers making more money than I do. Nor is it gender bashing about the guys getting all the breaks. What it is, is a comment on the discrepancy between how popular culture presents mystery publishing and what I see from my own back yard.

In the past week, I read two articles in national publications: Biggest Mystery: How a Book Becomes a Bestseller—New York Times/2007 May 13 and Maiden Mysteries: nine first-timers vie for the attention of whodunit fans—Publishers Weekly/2007 April 23.

The articles were interesting, in some places true, and in other places so far from the reality that mystery writers confront every day, that they appeared to have been written by a visiting alien species from another planet.

Visiting Alien Myth #1: writers get rich.

Taking the New York Times article first, the part about lack of market research was true. Also true was the small profit margins, the incredibly long publishing cycles—the average mystery takes between 18 months and 3 years from the day of sale to the day the book hits the market—, and the tingly feeling in the back of your spine about whether a book will sell.

After that, the article degenerated into a never-never land of multiple zeros. $40,000 advance. Sold more than 133,000 copies. Paperback selling 329,000 copies to date. Four million copies. Bought for less than $250,000. Sold only 240,000 copies so far. Publishing houses are paying high six and even seven figures.

The reality is less generous. I have three published books (one non-fiction and two mysteries), with a third mystery due out in October 2007. My advances for all four books, spread out over a seven-year period, equal roughly what I made working six weeks at my part-time day job. Combined royalties added an another five weeks pay. In seven years, my total writing income averaged 1.5 weeks of part-time pay per year. There are tons more writers in my situation than the ones who make high six or seven figures.

The Times article goes on to say that 70% of book titles published each year end up in the red, and most large publishing houses depend on that one multi-million dollar success to keep their business afloat. That’s why they’re willing to gamble big bucks on potential big winners.

Visiting Alien Myth #2: publishers make decisions based on a good grasp of the market.

Auto manufacturers know their customer profile. MacDonalds publishes, literally, shelves of binders about the MacCustomer. Ask publishers about who the reading public is and why people buy the books they do and you’re likely to get a shrug of the shoulders.

Quoted from the Times article: “Information about readers is often anecdotal because publishers argue that market research would be too expensive, or too difficult to pull off because one book is so different from the next.”


A further quote: “An exception is the consumer research gathered by the Romance Writers of America, a writers’ association that publishes a regular market study of romance readers. It reports survey information on, for example, demographics, what respondents are reading, where they are getting the books and how often, and what kind of covers attract them. Romance authors and publicists use the information to create promotional campaigns.”

Sisters in Crime recently published its 2006 survey of the gender of mystery authors whose books were reviewed by 53 national and local newspapers and national magazines. This survey was done by volunteers reading their local newspapers or other publications to which they had access and counting the numbers of reviews. It wasn’t rocket science, but it was well done and incredibly helpful. If you’re interested, you can find the results at

Bottom line: it’s writers who ferret out the down-and-dirty market research.
How many books sold make a good personal appearance?—10, with 30 sales for one appearance being close to phenomenal.
How many personal appearances and books signings should you do for each book?—At least 40. What’s the absolutely worst time to schedule a signing?—Sunday afternoon, when it’s raining, and/or when professional sports teams are playing in the same city.

That the mystery community shares such information among writers makes it one of the nicest places to be as a writer.

Visiting Alien Myth #3: men and women are equally represented in the market place.

The Publishers’ Weekly article was a “let’s celebrate nine hot new writers” piece. Despite the title of Maiden Mysteries, seven of the nine writers featured were male, two were female. Okay, okay, so they were using Maiden to refer to being new, not to being female, but that ratio was still a disappointment.

In an accompanying article, mention was made of The Class of 2007, thirteen authors, all being published in 2007, who banded together, to help each other make it through the first year as published authors. Again, ten of those authors were men and three were women. It’s going to be interesting to see if the Class of 2008 is going to be any different.

Yes, there are sub-genres, hard-boiled noir being one, where more men than women write, and sub-genres, such as young adult mysteries, where women outnumber men. I spend so much time in the Sisters in Crime on-line community—yes, SinC has both female and male members— that it comes as a real shock to go through any compiled mystery list, count the number of men versus women represented, and see men come out on top almost every time. The discrepancy is often two-to-one or three-to-one. My first reaction is inevitably that I must have counted wrong. Unfortunately, I haven’t.

But, we say by way of apology, women will read male authors, but most men won’t read a female author. Why the heck not? We're playing way beyond the women-write-cats-and-tea-parties mythology at one end of the scale and women-should-write-like-men at the other end. Besides 70% of all books are purchased by women and that figure reaches close to 100% when you're talking about the books-as-gifts frenzy that strikes booksellers just before Christmas. I'm looking forward to parity, a 50% equal share of shelf space, reviews, and interviews. Until then, I guess I'll just continue to follow the popular media and compare it to my real life. You know what, I'm betting my real life view makes more sense, every time.

Writing quote for the week:

I wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it.
~Elwood P. Dowd from the movie “Harvey”

Monday, May 21, 2007

Mysteries as Social Conscience

by Julia Buckley

I think one of the great things about mysteries--especially the really great mysteries--is that they give a writer the opportunity to point out flaws in the world, or in humanity, without preaching about it. It can be woven into the story as a part of a detective's growing perception, a cop's disillusionment, an amateur sleuth's enlightenment.

It can also provide a reader with knowledge. I just finished Barbara D'Amato's Death of a Thousand Cuts, and I think it functioned just this way, giving the reader (me) new perceptions not only about autism, but about the theories of Sigmund Freud and the world of psychology. What D'Amato does, brilliantly, is set up a crime that seems almost impossible to solve: a noted psychiatrist is murdered--horribly, vengefully--at a "reunion" of many of his former patients, in the house where he once incarcerated them. While the public knew him as a benevolent, great man, the detectives, Folkestone and Park, find more and more people who thought he was just the opposite; who thought him, in fact, a monster.

Therefore, Folkestone is presented with a terrible dilemma. Half of her suspects are autistic, the other half noted people in the psychiatric profession--former doctors and aides who worked at Hawthorne House (the institution in question). The autistic characters are practically impossible to interview. Some do not speak at all, others speak unintelligibly, and still others speak logically, but without the affect that a detective needs in order to gauge the nuances of emotion. In this setting D'Amato is able to subtly comment on society's perception of things it doesn't understand--like autism. Even her detectives struggle with their reactions to the autistic former patients and how to deal with them.

In addition, D'Amato sets her story in a very real Chicago during a very hot summer, and along with making this setting authentic for the reader (including the presence of a powerful but flawed mayor), she shows how politics affect every investigation in the Chicago police department.

At the root of the story is the idea that Freud was not only wrong, but that those who followed him may have actually damaged their patients by treating what was not treatable with psychoanalysis. In the case of the autistic patients in Hawthorne House, their affliction is known in the present to be biological, but in the past, in the years that they stayed there, it was considered psychological, and Schermerhorn, the murdered psychiatrist, attributed the ailment to cold parenting--placing special blame on the mothers who already felt great distress about their inability to help their children.

With great sensitivity, D'Amato traces the lives of all of the families affected by the Hawthorne House years--their pain and sadness, and the realities of living with autism. In doing so she makes some strong statements about Freud, the responsibilities of psychiatrists, parents, and anyone with authority over a child.

The novel is written with a smoothness that makes one forget they're reading a book at all. I think some writers become too heavy-handed with their message, but D'Amato's book simply makes me think.

And that should be the goal of any mystery.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Between Annette and Marty

Annette and Marty Meyers Guest Bloggers)

Annette Meyers is the author of the popular Smith and Wetzon mystery series. Martin Meyers started his writing career with the Patrick Hardy series in the 1970s. Together, as Maan Meyers, they have written a series of historical mysteries, known collectively as The Dutchman, set in 17th, 18th, and 19th century New York. Annette is a former president of Sisters in Crime.

Marty: So. What’s the topic?
Annette: How we write.
Marty: Okay. Separately or together?
Annette: Separately. Everyone knows how we write together.
Marty: Yeah, with celestial joy.
Annette: More like two great egos fighting for supremacy. But really, writing for me is looking for, or happening upon, something that tweaks my interest.
Marty: I didn’t know that. For me, it’s the money.
Annette: What a joke.
Marty: I have two approaches: A story, a plot, a hook. The other is a character who I fall in love with. Excuse me. -With whom I fall in love.- The best is a combination of both.
Annette: That’s three approaches. And it’s a character that, not who or whom.
Marty: Picky, picky, picky. To me that character is already a human being at that point. Who. Since my first training was as an actor, I don’t know if I work the way everybody else does. For me, if I have the character and know what the story is about, I let the characters loose and let them talk. And act.
Annette: But you sit down and write every day, even when you have no idea what you’re going to work on. You look at a blank scene. I have to have what I call that divine inspiration to get started.
Marty: It’s important to know the time of day you’re most productive. That’s the time you should write. Also, I have to have no distractions. Answering the phone is forbidden. Stopping to eat is okay.
Annette: But you write with music playing from a CD or the radio. I can’t tolerate any noise at all when I’m writing. But I can answer the telephone. I must. It’s obsessive. But whoever is calling me is not going to get my full attention. Of course there are some people who call, ask if you’re writing, you say yes and they keep on talking.
Marty: You haven’t been paying attention –
Annette: I’m writing.
Marty: Very funny. You haven’t been paying attention. It depends upon the project. When I wrote “Snake Rag,” I needed music in my head. What I’m working on now does not.
Annette: So you’re working on something new?
Marty: Actually, I’m working on five things that are new. When I figure out which one is the most interesting, or important, all my energy will go into that one. I take that back. The first book I ever had published and which led to a five book series for Popular Library in the seventies starred an accidental P.I. named Patrick Hardy. That’s the idea I’m working on over all the others. It occurred to me that I’d like to know what Pat Hardy is doing today when he’s all these years older. What about you?
Annette: I’m working on the copyedit of a short story called “Not Just the Facts” that I wrote for the anthology Sisters on the Case, celebrating the 20th anniversary of Sisters in Crime and featuring stories by the current and former presidents. It’s due out from NAL’s new mystery imprint Obsidian in October.
Timer goes off.
Marty: Time to stop.
Annette: You’re going to work?
Marty: No. Lunch.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Interview with author Luisa Buehler

By Lonnie Cruse

Luisa Buehler is energetic and fun to meet up with at conferences or book signings. We ran into each other at an antique store in the Sturgis, Ky. area a while back and wound up dancing in the aisle to the 50's music piped throughout the store. If the owner was keeping an eye on us via hidden cameras, I'm sure he was reaching for the phone to dial 911. Not to mention my daughter-in-law and her mother, who were with me.

LC: I love your book covers, particularly the first. How did you come up with the story for ROSARY BRIDE?

LB: That story was easy--I lived it for four at Rosary College (now Dominican) in River Forest, IL. When you attend an all girls school you either talk about boys or ghosts! We had endless conversations about the 'haunted' areas of the college.

LC: You write a series, how are you keeping it fresh, and how many do you plan in the series?

LB: I hope I do keep it fresh. I try to keep the characters growing, developing more depth. Sometimes they exhibit less than charming habits but then no one's perfect and they shouldn't be in fiction either. As to how many in the series, I just turned in number five and I have at least two more ideas and loose, very loose outlines in my head.

LC: You're scheduled to do a program on gardening, potting and plotting, would you tell us a bit about that? And, boy howdy, do I wish I could attend!

LB: The program is a light-hearted look at how to kill characters with garden variety plants: lethal larkspur, murderous monkshood and the every popular, fatal foxglove! I use some plant poison mixed in a facial cream in The Station Master and mistaken identity between parsley and a toxic cousin in The Lion Tamer. I'm a long time gardener and when my son was a toddler I'd plop him down near me and let him browse through the flowers--until I found out some of them were toxic. I researched what was dangerous if ingested by a child or in the case of Jimson weed, inhaled by a small child. I kept a close eye on him in my garden for the next few years, but by the time he was seven I relaxed my guard--we all know kids won't eat anything green from that point on!

LC: How did you find your publisher?

LB: Sheer luck -- or maybe I was in the right place at the right time. I attended a friend's book launch party and she was there. He introduced me to her and said, "You've got to read her book, it's fabulous!" He'd never read my manuscript, he hates cozies! We struck up a conversation, I asked if I could send her three chapters, she asked for the entire manuscript. Three months later she called.

LC: Great story! Most authors would kill for such an introduction, if you'll pardon the cliche'. What authors do you read?

LB: Carolyn Hart, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Margaret Maron, Nevada Barr, Margaret Coel, Barb D'Amato, M.C. Beaton, Kent Kruger and for my darker taste, Jeffery Deaver and Stephen King.

LC: Some of my faves as well. What is your typical writing day like, or do you have a "typical" day?

LB: Since I have a 'day job' I have to structure my time. I usually get up at 5am and write for 2 1/2 hours before I get ready for work. I have an old school desk (center drawer and hutch) set up on the landing outside the bedrooms. Out there I don't bother my sleeping family. If I have an early meeting I still try to write something every day. I am not a night person so I use my evenings to answer emails and do research.

LC: What sends you running to the computer or reaching for a notebook to jot thoughts or ideas?

LB: Any time I hear or read something with a twist or odd sense to it, I'm either writing it down or recording it. I carry a small tape recorder in my car and I have one next to my bed for all those 'great' two a.m. ideas. The idea for The Station Master came from a two inch article in the local chamber flyer on how Lisle moved the old depot to the historic park. From that I leaped to a dead body in an abandoned train station trunk. Go figure!

LC: Knowing you, I have no problem believing that! We discussed this at Love Is Murder. Would you tell us how you promote your books?

LB: Promotion is always the stumbling block for writers--it's counter intuitive to what we do. I start a postcard campaign to everyone I've every known (almost) two months before the new book comes out. I try to garner names and addresses at speaking events by having a free drawing at the end of the talk. I start calling the bookstores three months before pub date to set up signings on the weekends. At about the same time I send postcards or booklets (first chapter) to librarians (about 500) and at five months before the book is out my publisher and I send out about 50 advanced reading copies to reviewers. After the book comes out you have about three months to promote the heck out of it. After that it's back to general promoting of the series by any methods, internet or print, of keeping your series in front of readers. The goal is that eventually readers are storming the book stores asking for the books. Ah, would that it were so!

LC: Yes, indeedy! You often do signings with other authors. How does that work for you?

LB: In a book fair venue it works well. Everyone is more or less standing or sitting (after 6 hours) smiling and chatting with readers walking up and down the aisles. Sort of like 'quick pitch' selling. You need to have your 30 second promo platform in top form and your 5 second 'grabber' polished to perfection. "My amateur sleuth, Grace Marsden, is obsessive compulsive-so think Monk in a skirt solving cold cases."

At a smaller event like a bookstore it is a little more difficult. Set up space is at a premium and authors can be jammed into an area that may not be in a well traveled aisle. At events like that I usually take my bookmarks and a few books in hand and wander over to the mystery section to look for unsuspecting readers!

LC: Hehe, good plan. Anything else you'd like our readers to know about you?

LB: I want to thank readers, especially any of you who have read my books but every reader who thrills at the opening pages of a new book and savors the journey.

The new Grace Marsden, The Lighthouse Keeper: A Beckoning Death, will be out October 2007. I invite you to visit my website at or email direct at if you have any questions or just want to chat.

Thank you Lonnie for the opportunity to visit with you and your friends.

Thanks for stopping by, Luisa! See you at the Schaumburg Library Author Fest on June 23. Meet me in the mystery aisle and we'll dance to Chubby Checker.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Thinker Crowd

Elizabeth Zelvin

Somebody once said that writers are people who haven’t forgotten their childhood. I’ve never been quite sure what that meant or if it was necessarily true. Certainly, many fine writers have evoked the sense of wonder and the magical thinking associated with childhood, as well as its pain and powerlessness. I’ve read many books that portray kids—and groups of kids—as living in a world of their own that adults don’t even know exists, much less influence. For example, Lord of the Flies succeeded because the archetypal view of kids as pack animals in whom cruelty and the desire to scapegoat lie just beneath the surface must have struck a chord in many. In adolescence too, we have certain archetypes. A friend recently explained the popularity of Buffy the Vampire Slayer by saying the show’s simple premise was, “High school is hell.”

My problem with this is that high school wasn’t hell for me. Nor was it because of clothes or dates or popularity or stuff. I did have a crowd, a group of friends. But I’ve never seen anything like “the Thinker crowd” in a book or movie about teens. There were about 200 of us in a large high school in one of the outer boroughs of New York City. We were the intellectuals and radicals, the kids who ran the school newspaper and literary magazine, the kids who signed petitions and wouldn’t say “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. The boys wore black turtlenecks and blue denim work shirts, and I paid so little attention to fashion that I can’t even remember what the girls wore. We didn’t drink at our parties, and the only dancing we did was Israeli folk dancing. More often, we sat on the floor and sang folk songs. We brought our guitars to parties as a matter of course. Manhattan was our Mecca: we spent Saturday afternoons at the Museum of Modern Art (then gloriously free) and our Sunday afternoons hanging out in Washington Square Park. The musicians we came to hear played for the sheer love of it. They didn’t even pass a hat.

The “Thinker” that gave us our name was an illicit little journal we put out on topics of general interest, like nuclear weapons, the Chinese communes and Israeli kibbutzim, and the works of Aldous Huxley. The red diaper babies among us, kids whose fathers had fought romantically in the Spanish Civil War, gave it its tone. Looking back, I’m not convinced I understood half of what we said. But I had a great time thinking I did. We also had “Thinker parties” at which a topic would be chosen and hotly debated. This was the Fifties. We didn’t even do drugs. We called ourselves beatniks—the term “hippie” hadn’t been invented yet. And we lived in New York City, where the driving age was 18 and most graduated high school at 16 or 17. We knew a lot about politics and culture and nothing about sex and cars.

We had a Thinker party along with the formal 30th reunion of my class’s graduation. (The official reunion was fun too, since the “other crowd,” the conventional ones who ran for student government and joined fraternities and sororities, had turned into perfectly nice people.) About three dozen of us from the Thinker crowd showed up. We still had plenty to say to each other. We all agreed that the good time we’d had in high school was remarkable. Like me, many remembered the quality of friendships within the group and the relative absence of sexual rivalry, competitiveness, and malice. That was a number of years ago, and we’re beginning to hear about deaths. There were two this year, one a guy that everybody liked—genuine, decent, highly intelligent—the other a woman considered “a character”—intense, quirky, brilliant. I had seen neither in many years, but I remember them vividly. I won’t forget any of us.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Book Lust

Sandra Parshall

At a recent book signing, I met a couple who live in a four-room apartment with 8,000 books.

I cannot tell you how deeply I envy them. Our home is bigger than theirs, and we don’t have 8,000 books. I’ll bet we don’t have more than 3,000. But it’s not from lack of trying -- or buying, I should say. I can’t go into a bookstore without wanting to own every volume in it. What in this world is more wondrous, magical, intriguing, alluring than a book? An entire world contained between two covers!

It’s not the content alone that I love. I enjoy the feel of a book in my hands, I admire a sturdy spine, I appreciate an attractive cover and an elegant design. I’m a type junky and always check to see whether the book includes a note about the type. I’m disappointed when I don’t find that information. (My favorite typeface, at least for the moment, is Sabon, which is used in Stephen Booth’s British editions.)

Once I own a book, I never want to let it go. When we moved, about 15 years ago, from one Washington, DC suburb to another, we decided it was a good time to thin our book collection. We went through them all and filled box after box to donate to the Arlington County Central Library’s used book room. As soon as they were gone, I began to suffer the most agonizing remorse. How could I have them go? How could I live without them? For a long time after we moved to the county next door, I made regular trips to the Arlington Library, where -- yes -- I gradually bought back a fair number of the books we had donated. They’re mine. They belong at home with me, not with strangers.

I’m constantly adding new ones, but that doesn’t mean I’ll dump the old ones to make room. We have a Modern Library edition of The Grapes of Wrath with a $1.65 price on the cover. We have one of the early editions of To Kill a Mockingbird, which I consider the greatest American novel ever written. We have a 1910 edition of David Balfour by Robert Louis Stevenson and a copy of Middlemarch that is so old the pages have turned dark brown and I'm almost afraid to handle it.

I’ll admit that I never look inside most books after I’ve read them. I just like to see them on the shelf. A few, though, call me back again and again. Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass still enthrall me after many readings, and make me homesick for a romantic, idealized East Africa that I’ve never seen and which, in truth, probably never existed. It doesn’t have to be real; I can go there anytime I want to by opening a book. I also reread passages from Thomas H. Cook’s psychological suspense novels when I feel as if I’ve forgotten how to write (a dismayingly frequent occurrence). Cook shows me the way. Dinesen’s memoirs, plus To Kill a Mockingbird and one or two of Cook’s novels, are the books I never want to be without.

Occasionally I get the notion that I should reduce the glut of books in our house. But how to do it with minimal trauma? I could try the method I once heard Donna Andrews describe. She has plastic bins in her garage where she places books she’s decided to give away. This gets them out of the house proper without the agony of a sudden, final parting. They’re still there in the garage if she changes her mind. When she’s used to the idea of parting with them, they’re finally donated. Yes, I could try this approach. But I know myself too well. Regardless of where I donated books, if they remained accessible to me I might try to get them back before long, even if I had to pay for them.

But enough about my passion for books. Let’s talk about yours.

How many books do you own?

How many have you bought in the last year?

What is the oldest book you own?

What is the one book you will never part with?

Which book do you reread (in part or in full) most often?

How many books do you own but have never read?

How many books do you give away in an average year?

Do you ask friends and family to buy you books as gifts? Do they -- or do they insist on giving you “something more personal”? (And don’t you just hate that?)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Time Travel

Sharon Wildwind

Come with me for a short foray into time travel. Thirty-seven years ago today I climbed on a plane to go to Vietnam. I was a lot younger then.

Friday, May 15, 1970/Travis Air Force Base, California

Waiting is so hard.

The terminal building is a large grey warehouse of corrugated iron; combat boots make hollow sounds on the concrete floor. Inside men in fatigues or summer uniforms wait everywhere, sleep on grey wooden benches, read paperback books with the cover folded back, or wander and smoke cigarettes. I’ve been down here three times only to be told I’m not yet manifested on a plane.

Sue and I are afraid. We have heard stories that the Viet Cong rape women prisoners, that they never take women prisoners alive, that in Tet of ’68 nurses were issued a suicide capsule. Since no U.S. service women has ever been captured, our imaginations, fed by boredom and anxiety, are overworked. We are afraid of being captured, raped, tortured. We are afraid of our plane crashing and never getting there. Most of all, we are afraid of somehow not measuring up.

A lot of the Army is like this, proving you are as tough or tougher than the guys. It is the kind of thing that worried us about going to basic. We had seen movies and heard stories about being awakened at 0430 and having to run 5 miles and do physical calisthenics for any infractions of rules. In the end it wasn’t like that at all. It was “Yes, Ma’am” and “No, Ma’am” from the enlisted men and the sergeants. Sometimes we were a little disappointed, as if they didn’t think we could pass the rigorous tests, so they never gave them to us. We wanted to be tested. We still want to be tested.

After supper, we take a walk along the fence that protects the airstrip. The sun is going down. A med-evac plane has just landed and casualties are being loaded from the plane onto a bus. We stand with our fingers interlocked with the mesh fence, our faces pressed up against the metal links. I wonder where the casualties have been, who they are, if I know the nurses are who cared for them. I am so tired of waiting, so keyed up that I want to jump the fence and do something—adjust I.V.s, check dressings, take vital signs—anything to be a part of what is happening. I look at Sue’s face and know she feels the same way. We have been preparing for this for a long time. We want to be a part of this war.

About 9 P.M. I make one more visit to the manifest desk. The rather bored Specialist verifies my name and serial number on a clipboard. “Two A.M. Saturday morning.” My mouth goes dry. I’m really going to Viet Nam! I go back to the Officers’ Quarters and say goodbye to Sue. I wish we could travel together, but she still isn’t manifested on a plane. We know we will probably never see each other again.

I try to sleep, but am too excited. Finally I get up, dress and fuel myself with several cans of Coke. I call a military taxi to take me and my duffel bag over to the terminal about midnight. My duffel bag contains everything I can cram into one long green cloth tube; what’s in there has to last me a year. Six sets of fatigues, two pairs of combat boots, a couple of summer dresses, underclothes, tennis shoes, a robe, extra shampoo and toothpaste, my diary, a small camera, a tape recorder, my address book and some stationery. The bag has my name stenciled on the side and it’s locked with a padlock. I wear the key around my neck beside my dog tags.

The night is dark and warm. A hot breeze blows across the runways and large orange lights illuminate the terminal. I hear a ghetto blaster from the barracks down the road from the terminal; the building is just too far away to make out the song. Inside the terminal, I’m the only woman in the building except for a black specialist checking names at the embarkation desk and a woman in a Red Cross uniform on the far side of the terminal who’s serving coffee, juice and cookies.

When it comes down to this hot California night, when my duffel bag disappears along the sterile aluminum chute, when I have a ticket in my hand and my name on a manifest list, I am terrified. I should be working in a hospital in New Orleans or Atlanta, surrounded by civilians and peace. Why have I gotten myself into this twilight zone of barn-like terminals, blaring intercoms, people with drawn and scared faces? I don’t belong here.

Yes, I do. When I saw those men carried off the plane yesterday, I knew I had to be here, to do what I am about to do. I can’t let them go to this war alone. It wouldn’t be honourable. When I was in high school I read Starship Trooper by Robert Heinlein. In that world people who had done a tour of voluntary service could vote and people who hadn’t, couldn’t. I think that’s the way it should be. We have to do something to earn the right to be citizens.

It’s more than that, a lot more personal. Viet Nam has been so much with me for the past five years. I saw the fear of this war on the faces of the boys in university every time an exam paper was handed back, felt it on the Halloween night when I was at a party and Johnson announced the mining of Haiphong harbor. This war had run through the past decade of our lives. My brother can be drafted. I don’t want him to be here in this terminal. I can’t let those boys from university, from that Halloween party do this alone. And yet, it is only discipline that brings me to the ramp of the plane where a black sergeant looks over his clipboard.

“Name, rank and serial number?”

“Grant, Sharon M, First Lieutenant.” I have memorized my serial number so I can rattle it off in short bursts: three numbers, two numbers, four numbers.

He salutes and I board the plane.

©Sharon Grant Wildwind, Dreams That Blister Sleep: A Nurse in Vietnam, River Books, 1999.
Writing Quote for the Week

Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another. ~ Toni Morrison, writer

Monday, May 14, 2007

Mystery and Metaphor

by Julia Buckley

It's been a crazy week; I spent lots of it doing paperwork, and in the breaks I tried like a madwoman to clean my house for my son's Communion reception. There wasn't a lot of time to prepare my blog, but I thought it might be fun to share a mystery in the form of a poem by Sylvia Plath. This one has been a favorite of mine since high school, but it's especially poignant for mothers.


by Sylvia Plath

I'm a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf's big with its yeasty rising.
Money's new minted in this fat purse.
I'm a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I've eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there's no getting off.

The last line is my favorite.

I'm curious to know if there are other poems out there which are also mysteries; Browning's "My Last Duchess" comes to mind--but what others? Share your ideas with Poe's Deadly Daughters!


Saturday, May 12, 2007

Hey, It's Different for Me

Reed Farrel Coleman (Guest Blogger)

I envy readers. No, I really do. When I see the sheer joy my wife gets out of reading, I confess to being more than a touch jealous. Between traditional reading and books on tape and CD, she goes through two to three books a week! Not me. For one thing, I may be a quick writer, but I’m a slow reader. Second, reading is no longer just about pleasure for me. For me, reading is part dissection and part analysis. It’s difficult to lose myself in a book the way I once did. An occupational hazard, I suppose.

I remember Orson Welles once being asked, by Merv Griffin of all people, if he enjoyed movies. “No,” he said. “I know too much about the process to be taken in.” It is no coincidence that Welles was an accomplished magician. Magicians don’t say wow, they ask how. The joy of the trick is lost on them. Writers ask how too.

When I wrote Lee Child to compliment him on One Shot, his email reply was very telling and much along the lines of Welles’ view. Although this isn’t quite an exact quote, it’s very close. “I take that as high praise,” he wrote, “from someone who knows how the man behind the curtain works the machinery.” When writers read, they are always looking behind the curtain for the Wizard of Oz.

There’s yet another factor that robs me of some of the joy of reading. As a New York based author and someone who’s held high office in Mystery Writers of America, I’ve had the great good fortune of meeting and developing relationships with a broad range of authors. Some incredibly famous. Some relatively unknown. Many, like me, in that murky mythical land of the midlist. The odd thing about my good fortune is that I often get to know the writer before I have the opportunity to know his or her work. So when I pick a book off my bedside stack, it can be a perilous activity. There can be a personal price to pay if I like an author more than his or her work. I have been lucky in that I have yet to come to blows or lose a friend over this issue, but I’d be lying if I said there haven’t been some pretty awkward moments on panels and at conventions.

It doesn’t end there. These days, I am frequently asked to blurb books—though I’m not quite sure why—judge books for awards, and to act as a first reader for some of my colleagues. Blurbs are a very touchy subject in the business and there’s a broad spectrum of opinion on the issue. In fact, blurbing probably deserves its own dedicated blog. I will say that people have been very generous to me with their praise, so that when I read to blurb, I read with both a critical eye and open heart. However, a judge and or a first reader needs, for obvious reasons, to leave his heart out of the equation. I would be doing a disservice as a judge and first reader to give anything but my most critical assessment. As you might imagine, these sorts of activities don’t exactly add to my reading pleasure.

There is still the rare occasion when I lose myself in a book and enjoy the act of reading the way I did before choosing the life of a writer. In the last two years, it’s happened three times. The books were Die A Little by Megan Abbott, Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell, and Miami Purity by Vicki Hendricks. Although Megan and I have subsequently become good friends, we were only casual acquaintances when I first read the book. I’m also now an occasional first reader for her. I think Vicki and I have met in passing at a Bouchercon and I’ve never met Daniel. But I was so impressed by Miami Purity that I sent an unsolicited blurb to her new publisher and I sent an embarrassingly gushing fan letter—my first real fan letter—to Daniel Woodrell.

So, yeah, reading is different for me and I’m really kind of jealous of the freedom enjoyed by the casual reader or mystery fan. And those rare occasions when I can get in touch with that unbridled joy are marvelous, but they are few and far between. On balance, I wouldn’t give up my writing to regain my innocence as a reader. There are many days, however, when I struggling with a single paragraph or sentence, that it does seem like a deal I might be willing to make.

Reed Farrel Coleman's The James Deans won the Shamus, Barry, and Anthony Awards for Best Paperback Original. His new book, Soul Patch, is in bookstores now.

Friday, May 11, 2007


By Lonnie Cruse

Morning all. Author Shane Gericke (pronounced Yurkey) and I did an interview recently while he was recovering from shoulder surgery (nightmare for a writer, of course.) I think you'll enjoy getting to know him. His website is at:

LC: Good morning, Shane. Please, tell us a bit about your books.

SG: I have two: BLOWN AWAY, my 2006 debut, and CUT TO THE BONE, which launches worldwide in June, 2o07. Both are about Emily Marie Thompson, who at age 40 abandoned her safe existence as an office manager to become a suburban cop. She’d hoped catching bad guys would free her from the unspeakable tragedies in her life that had looped themselves around her neck and dragged her into the mud of perpetual gloom. Her instincts were right—at long last, her life was sorting itself out, she was leaving the tragedy behind, and she was coming into her own as a cop and a person. Then came the jackals: ferocious serial killers out for blood and vengeance. My story is simple: Emily battles evil without losing herself back to the mud. How she accomplishes that, and interacts with the fascinating folks she meets along the way, provide the drive and sparkle of the stories. And oh, yes, there’s a truckload of shoot-em-ups and blow-em-aparts. Can’t write a thriller without thrills!

LC: Wow, I do love thrills! What inspired you to write this book and/or these characters?

SG: Cops are fascinating, and I like strong women. So I put them together to create a cops-and-robbers series with a worthy female protagonist. But one that wasn’t one of the two female-cop stereotypes I hate most: hard-drinking, jaded, profane and violent (Mike Hammer in a dress) or cutesy-wootsie cop-gal who’s forever leaving her gun in the cookie jar because eek it might go off (Stephanie Plum). I wanted to write women cops as I know them: tough when it counts, vulnerable when appropriate, standing shoulder to shoulder with colleagues and friends, neither two steps behind nor a step ahead. I wanted lipstick and steel, so I created Emily. And her male and female friends, who do so much to shape her life.

LC: Sounds like my kinda gal! Is this a series, or do you write stand-alones?

SG: A series, thanks to my good fortune in finding Kensington Publishing, who saw what I was trying to do and said, “Go for it.”

LC: How did you sell your first manuscript?

SG: By scouring the countryside for a literary agent. It’s almost impossible to get into a big house without one. I found Bill Contardi, who’s been in the game a long time and is highly respected in New York publishing. He’d just come aboard Brandt & Hochman—the firm representing Scott Turow, among other literary worthies—to build the “blood-thrill” side of the agency. Bill picked me up, went through my manuscript, and set me loose on New York publishers.

LC: Wow, you found the right agent! How did you find your publisher?

SG: That was Bill’s department. As agents do, he sent the manuscript to a select group of editors. Michaela Hamilton at Kensington was the first to say "yes." As a first-time thriller writer, I was, well, thrilled to latch on to such a big outfit. Working with Michaela was, and is, a bonus. Her edits are a master’s class in writing, and I learned a ton. I was in the newspaper business for a quarter century, but that does not a thriller writer make.

LC: Two very different kinds of writing, I imagine. What sends you running to the computer to write (aside from a need to make money?)

SG: Fear—that if this doesn’t work out I’ll have to work at a mini-mart. Seriously, I’m happy when I write and unhappy when I don’t. That’s the motivation. I was a newspaper editor for 25 years and my dad was a cop for 30, so both are in my blood. The great clash of good and evil is fun to explore, and writing lets me do it without getting hurt or killed like a real cop.

LC: What writers do you love to read?

SG: John Sandford is my favorite, followed closely by Lee Child, Gayle Lynds, James Rollins, Eric Larsen and anything that appears in The Atlantic Monthly magazine. And there’s a new writer to keep your eye on: Robert Fate. He pens a terrific young-female P.I. series called BABY SHARK. It’s set in 1950s honky-tonk Texas, and his writing is some of the crispest and freshest I’ve seen.

LC: Your BLOWN AWAY just won Best Debut Mystery of 2006 by Romantic Times Book Reviews. No. 1 in the nation for your very first novel! And it became a national bestseller, too. How has that changed your life? Larger hat size? Writing faster? More respect at home?

SG: My hat size has always been too big. Otherwise, I’d never have abandoned a perfectly good paycheck for the vagaries of cop fiction. As for home, I’ve always gotten the utmost respect: my wife Jerrle is the one who pushed me to leave newspapering and follow my dreams of becoming the next Lee Child. She meant it, too—she knew that my leaving the Chicago Sun-Times, where I was a senior financial editor, would instantly cut our income 50 percent. So I could literally have not taken this step with her encouragement and backing. Now as before, I work seven days a week. Sometimes just a few hours, sometimes all day and half the night. Each day is a mixture of writing, book promotion, keeping in touch with industry friends (I hate the term networking. It’s so cold. I think of it as hanging out with people I like and swapping useful information) and keeping my desk somewhat cleared of its perpetual mess. How much I do of what depends on how close I am to my manuscript deadline, how many stops are on the upcoming “road trip” of book promotion, and whether my butt can stand another two minutes in the ^%^^&$#%$ chair.

LC: Ahhh, the chair. Makes all the difference to how long we can sit and write. Where did you get that wonderful picture on your home page?

SG: By accident. I’d gotten a new digital camera and was taking photos in a local coffeehouse. Someone volunteered to take my photo, and placed me in front of a bright picture window. Instant backlight, just like in the movies. The result made me look scary and mysterious, and I knew that would be the one for the home page. In art as in life, it’s better to be lucky than good.

LC: What else would you like our readers to know about you?

SG: I was born in a manger, no crib for a bed … uh, wait, wrong guy. Well, let’s see. I was named after the cowboy movie “Shane.” It came out in 1950, I came out in ’56, and my folks liked the possibilities. “Gericke” is pronounced YER-key. Back in Ye Olde Country (Germany) there was a U in there: Guericke. That provided the YER sound. At Ellis Island, someone “Americanized” it by whacking the U, making it unpronounceable. Thank you, Immigration! What else? I like to read all sorts of things, including the backs of cereal boxes. I like to mow the grass because I get my best ideas when I sweat like a fiend. I like guns and shooting. I like Scotch, neither stirred nor shaken. I like to paint (canvas, not houses), but never get the time. I like breakfast out, supper in, the former to read my three daily newspapers, the latter because we’re both good cooks. I do a fair amount of housework, as I have a home office. Doing a little every day keeps our weekends free for friends and other good stuff. I don’t have kids, but would like a pack of beagles someday. At age 11, I was held at knifepoint in a state park toilet and told I would die. The fates and other people intervened before I literally went down the one-seater. Yay! The experience gave, and gives, tremendous insight into the minds of crime victims and other survivors. That really helps the writing sing. To paraphrase whoever said it, That which doesn’t kill you makes your writing stronger. BLOWN AWAY is available in Turkish and Slovak (out as we speak in those countries), and later this year, in Polish and Chinese. Who knew my little cop tale would have so many fans in languages I can’t read? I love foreign editions—and especially the crazy cover art that comes with.

LC: Thanks, Shane!

SG: Thank you for thinking of me, Lonnie. It’s an honor to meet your readers.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

It's Hard to Write a Mystery

Elizabeth Zelvin

I wrote a poem the other day. I’m well qualified to do this. I have been writing poetry for 30 years. I’ve had two books published, I Am the Daughter (1981) and Gifts and Secrets: Poems of the Therapeutic Relationship (1999). I turned to writing mysteries a year or two after the second book came out, putting the poetry on the back burner. I never sat down to write poetry on a regular basis, the way novelists have to do if they want to produce a completed manuscript. I waited for the poems to come to me. Here’s how my creative process worked, from a poem called “Night Poem” that appeared in Gifts and Secrets. As you’ll notice, besides being about writing, it’s a love poem.

it’s like The Red Shoes only instead of dancing
I keep getting up to write poems
a dozen times between 3 and 6 AM
I curl back around you in the dark
and pull the blankets up
but then a line tugs at my mind
and I go stumbling through the hall
groping for light and pen
each time I lie back down
the images pop up like frogs
clamoring to be made princes
and you grumble and roll over
as I shuffle into my slippers once again
and go kiss the page

That’s pretty much how it worked this time, except that it happened in the daytime, so I didn’t lose any sleep over it. (I have a light-up LED pen on my bedside table nowadays, anyhow.) If I have a muse inside my head, that’s how it gets my attention: it tugs. I rushed to the computer, the images already forming in my mind. In 20 minutes, the thing was done. I felt as I imagine a hen might when she’s laid an egg. There it was, a whole poem. I didn’t need to change a word, and I was ready to cluck with satisfaction.

Writing a mystery, on the other hand, is a messy process. It takes time—lots of time. No way can it come out all at once. It involves reams of scribbles and cryptic notes in Word files. If you’re an “into the mist” writer like me, the plot dribbles out bit by bit onto many post-its. I also carry a digital recorder, especially when I run, so many of my pearls of prose get recorded in jerky syllables with panting in between and the slap of running shoes on the track in the background. My protagonist’s voice frequently starts talking in my head, but there’s no guarantee that I’ll use what he says on any one occasion. The good news is that after writing three full-length mysteries and a short story about him, I’m finally convinced I don’t have to worry about his having nothing more to say. The bad news is that I’m never finished.

Then there’s the story. Many of my poems are stories, too. But they’re short stories. Very, very short. Furthermore, as I have said to audiences at many readings over the years, everything in my poems is true. As my husband once said to an enthusiastic fan who burbled about how wonderful it must be to live with a poet, “Yeah, well, now you know I snore and get kicked out of bed for it.” A novelist can’t get away with that kind of candor. Instead, we say, “Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” And that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. We make it up. Yet we have to get it right—“it” being anything from forensics and police procedure to beekeeping or quilting or whatever occupation our fictional protagonist happens to take up. For mystery writers, “they do it on CSI” is on a par with “the dog ate my homework.”

Above all, our fictional characters must ring true. One of the characters in my mystery has a few traits in common with my husband. It would have been fun to make this character a bit of a curmudgeon. But my husband, whom I love dearly, is a bit of a curmudgeon. So my character had to be sweet. In fact, I had to work hard not to make him so sweet he was too good to be true.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Teapot and the Orphan

Sandra Parshall

Of course I’m thrilled that my 2006 book, The Heat of the Moon, won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel at the Malice Domestic conference on May 5. I waited a long time to see it published, I feel both happy and relieved that reviewers and readers have received it well, and I’ll cherish the award (which comes in the shape of a teapot) forever.

I’m a little torn, though. While my first book is getting so much attention a year after publication, my second, Disturbing the Dead, is waiting on the sidelines like a neglected orphan. It’s had good reviews, for which I’m grateful, and readers who have already read The Heat of the Moon and liked it have bought the second book. The Agatha nomination and now the award have made a whole new set of readers aware of the first, though, and I feel almost as if I’m launching it again. I thought I would spend this year talking about and promoting DTD, and I was geared up for that, but lately I’ve talked mostly about THOTM.

Terrible problem to have, right? I’m not complaining! I’m just remarking on a situation I’d never imagined, much less planned for. When someone buys a copy of the first book, I thrust a copy of the second forward. “This is the sequel. It’s new! It’s a great story! You’ll love it!” (Maybe I don’t sound desperate, but that’s the way I feel.) If they smile and say they’ll read the first before considering the second, I make sure they have a bookmark or promotional card with quotes from the reviews of Disturbing the Dead. Don’t forget my new baby, I plead silently. I have a feeling that if DTD were getting all the attention, I’d be begging people not to forget the book that came first.

I’m still relatively new to book promotion and perhaps too attached to my books to be businesslike about selling them. I want everybody to love them equally. I don’t want anyone to favor one over the other. If I have the good fortune to publish a dozen novels, will I drive myself nuts trying to nurture all of them at once? Or will I eventually learn to promote one at a time and let the rest wait in the shadows? I’ve asked more experienced writers a million questions about every other aspect of the business -- okay, I’m a pest, I admit it -- but this is one subject that’s never come up. I’d like to hear how other writers feel about it.

I have to find a place for the Agatha teapot, where it will be safe from the paws and tails of our two curious cats. I’ll give THOTM a kiss on the cover and say, Well done, kid. But I’ll give DTD a reassuring pat and whisper, Hang in there, I haven’t forgotten you.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Anything for Art

Sharon Wildwind

Last week, I wrote about cleaning out my stash of old writing and art supplies, which is why this week I’m contemplating painting watercolors while sitting in my bath tub au natural.

One of the things I discovered in my stash were some very old paints. I read up on watercolors, which led me to experiment; experimentation led me to three conclusions:
a. Watercolors can be messy, even in experienced hands.
b. Mine are not experienced hands.
c. I’m willing to do anything in order to achieve great art.

Except—truth to tell—I’m not willing to do anything for art. At least, not any more.

Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within was one of the first books, and one of the most influential, I read about being a writer. She wrote about writing in cafes, flotation tanks, and laundromats. I thought, if she could do that, I could write absolutely anywhere.

I’m not talking about writing in the requisite doctor’s offices, malls, and airports. Sooner or later, all writers write in those places. I’m talking about writing in places that were exotic, strange, or just plain idiotic.

Such as six feet underground, in a survival snow trench the exact dimensions of a grave, in January, in the Yukon.

Such as in abandoned tunnels running like catacombs underneath a university campus.

Such as in the parking lot of a police station, fifteen minutes after a beat cop had been killed two blocks away from that same station. The killer still roamed the neighborhood and policemen, dressed in bullet-proof vests and carrying high-powered weapons were pouring out the door.

Such as wandering through any open corridor I could find in a legislature building—the jurisdiction shall remain nameless—taking photographs and making notes in my journal about potential ways to enter or leave the building undetected. Just in case this blog is being monitored, I later destroyed every one of those photographs and notes.

Right: the author, embarking on a non-writing flight.

I admit that I did not write while flying in the open cockpit of a Stearman Kadet, but that was only because the pilot wouldn’t let me take anything with me on the flight. Even my button-down pockets had to be emptied out.

The world has changed in so many ways that having the audacity to write in truly strange places has either become either life-threatening, or is guaranteed to lead to long interviews with people who have absolutely no sense of the absurd. All that’s left in those surrealistic situations we all find ourselves in occasionally is to observe carefully, take mental notes, and write it out once I’m back behind the safety of a locked door.

It just isn’t the same, somehow.

Writing quotes for the week:

There are only two rules for keeping a journal: 1. Write everything. 2. Erase nothing. ~Natalie Goldberg, writer and teacher

Writing begets writing. Keep the hand moving. ~Natalie Goldberg, writer and teacher

Monday, May 7, 2007

Congratulations, Sandra!

Many congratulations to our own Sandra Parshall, Deadly Daughter Extraordinaire, who has won an Agatha for Best First Mystery at this year's Malice Domestic. We are so proud of you, Sandy!

Sandy's mystery, of course, was the wonderfully moody and suspenseful The Heat of the Moon, and if you haven't read it you must do yourself a favor and get a copy today. Then, once you're addicted, you can get a copy of Sandra's new novel, Disturbing the Dead.

We Deadly Daughters are most proud to be blogging with this award winning mystery writer!

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Fact to Fiction to Fact

Lou Allain (guest blogger)
Lou with her two pals. Friday, aka Strudel, age six, is an apricot mini-poodle. Shogun, originally Hogan, then Logan, is border collie, saved by a British Columbia collie rescue association. He's two.“Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life,” Oscar said, but I’m not sure I agree. Life came first, after all. As a writer with five books in my Belle Palmer series set in the Nickel Capital, a standalone in a Michigan university, and a forthcoming series set where I now live, in the quiet fishing-tourist village of Sooke on Vancouver Island, I’ve seen that cycle evolve many times.

I took the image of the Lady of the Lake handing Arthur his Excalibur and froze her hand sticking through the ice for Northern Winters Are Murder, then leaned on the residential school scandal for Blackflies Are Murder. Bush Poodles Are Murder included a scam man similar to a local figure who bilked seniors out of a few million dollars. Just as he left jail, the book appeared. So much for art imitating life.

But the process turned, and turned again. When I was writing Murder, Eh? three years ago, I was addicted to CourtTV and fascinated by the trial of a prominent rabbi in New Jersey, who hired a hitman to murder his wife, then hired the same man as a private investigator. Sounds wildly improbable, but the nefarious plan almost worked. The hitman, supposedly ex-Mossad, probably merely delusional, decided when flattered by a nubile female reporter, that if he spilled the beans on the charismatic rabbi (who had so far skated free), he’d be pardoned and enjoy the spoils of the tabloid sales. The reporter contacted the police, who set a wire, and now both men, and a more feeble minded accomplice who actually struck the woman, are spending life sentences in jail. The rabbi still pleads his innocence. Sometimes I believe the silver-haired and golden-tongued devil.

I confess to using the concept of this crime as well as the brilliant conversion of a former Molson brewery in Barrie to a thriving grow-op (the criminals roasted coffee in their alleged business, which hid the smell of pot in the copper vats). I’d passed the old plant en route to Toronto many times and laughed when I read about the bust.

About nine months before Murder, Eh? appeared, fiction would turn to fact in Sudbury. The wife of a prominent businessman and devoted mother of two teenaged girls disappeared in the dead of winter. In the initial search, her empty van was found nearby their upscale home. Due to the heavy snowfall and severe weather conditions, searches were difficult. Eventually, all water courses in the area were combed. As the months passed, hope faded that she would be found alive.

Fast forward to March and the fifth book, Memories are Murder. This time I arranged a killing in the dense bush about forty miles south of town in an area called Burwash, site of a former prison, from which no one ever escaped. Now the plots start linking. Guess whose body turned up in that very area, just across Highway 69, only a few hundred yards from the main highway to Toronto? Rabbit hunters discovered the mutilated corpse of the missing wife and mother, wrapped in a rug and dumped in the bush months before. And like the rabbi, the husband, first to suspect, had an unbreakable alibi. Rumours in the coffee shops abound about his mistress, his wife’s supposed lover, and the scenario that a relative of his flew in from a distant country, did the deed, and flew out again. A small community of around 100,000, Sudbury has only three or four murders a year, mostly alcohol or drug-related. To this date, the murder is unsolved, and unless someone talks to the tabloids, the perfect crime has been committed.

In my new community, where the rain forest meets the sea, a young girl went missing a few years ago. Heartbreaking pictures of her still curl and fade in store windows and a descanso with flowers and toys stands across from the bus stop from which she vanished. Her classmates have had the same dream about her body lying near a creek beside a woodland pool. In my next book, half completed and tentatively titled And on the Surface Die, a teenager is murdered on a deserted beach, and later another goes missing. By the time it’s published in 2008, will the girl have been found, or will she remain a ghostly mystery swirling in the fog while the lighthouses blow their eerie horns?

Lou Allin’s website is and she welcomes mail at