Friday, February 29, 2008

Who's your publisher???

By Lonnie Cruse

When writing a mystery novel and having it published was just a far away dream for me, I was, of course, an avid reader. Still am. But I rarely, if ever, checked the spine to see who published the books I was buying. I looked for my favorite writers' names first. Failing to find that, I looked at the cover to see if it caught my attention. I have no idea who came up with the saying: DON'T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER, but it sure wasn't me. A beautiful cover will suck me into a book quicker than anything. Where was I? Publishers? Right.

Who's your publisher?" is a question that rarely interests readers who aren't also writers. Readers just care about the book, or rather the quality of the story inside. Are they familiar with the author, and therefore fairly certain money spent on that particular book won't go to waste? And if the author is someone the reader isn't familiar with, is the cover attractive? Does the synopsis on the inside flap sound interesting? Does a "flip-through" or a perusal of the first chapter cause the reader to want to take a chance on the book? These are the questions readers need answers to. Who published the book is generally of little or no interest. But to writers, it seems to be of utmost importance. Why is that?

When I joined Sisters In Crime, the Internet Chapter, I began looking at the signature lines of each author to see who published their books. Then I'd go check out the publisher to see if that publisher was interested in the kind of books I wrote and if there was even a whisper of a prayer that the publisher in question would be interested in publishing me. So who publishes other authors is of the utmost importance to new authors.

Experienced authors ask the same question. Sometimes it's to warn fellow authors off a publisher with a poor to bad reputation in the business. Or to congratulate an author on snagging a well-known publisher. And yes, who publishes an author can be used as a measure of respect for that author, just as what day job you hold is often used as a measure. Whether you mop floors for a living or do brain surgery.

At the Love Is Murder conference, I chatted with various authors about the subject of publishing. There is nothing easy about getting published OR staying published. If you choose a small publisher, you will probably be published much sooner, but you will not get as much respect from your peers, you will have much more difficulty getting your books into book stores, and getting attention by snagging spots on panels at conferences, etc. If a larger publisher chooses you, you will get far more respect, but you may not be given as much time or opportunity to grow a fan base, and you might be dropped if your series doesn't continue to sell well.

If you are a younger writer, you have a longer career ahead of you and therefore can afford to take more time about getting your work published. If you are of a, ahem, "mature age" you will be in far more of a hurry to find someone/anyone to publish you before you become too feeble to hold a copy of your own book in your hands. And you'll likely be trying to decide how much longer it will be worth your while to spend time writing, editing, getting published, promoting your work, and wearing yourself out in the process.

Do I have a point here? Um, no, not really. Just some random thoughts inspired by the discussions I've recently had with other authors. Whichever path you choose, there are NO guarantees in this business. And no easy way. So you write the best book you can and cross your fingers, praying that if you write it, they will read it. And that you will still be young enough to remember your name when you are asked to sign it.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Bewildering Experience of Getting Reviewed

Elizabeth Zelvin

About two months before publication, the debut author undergoes an experience that is fraught with anticipation and terror: the moment when the advance reviews come out. Booksellers and especially librarians base their buying decisions on the opinions of the Big Four: Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal, and Kirkus. To make it worse, these arbiters of literary taste read, not the finished book with every comma in its most perfect place, but uncorrected proofs with all the errors that the writer and a bevy of editors didn’t catch till galleys.

I went through a rollercoaster ride through ecstasy and despair during this process. Only when all the early opinions were in could I see that every negative was balanced or, even better, overruled by one or more positives. One reviewer said I had “outstanding storytelling ability,” another commented snarkily that I “know more about dependence and codependence than about storytelling.” One praised my “good surprise ending,” another, who obviously guessed whodunit, found the solution disappointing.

On the good side, my prose was “deft” and “smooth,” my characters “well-developed.” Library Journal called it “a remarkable and strongly recommended first novel,” and another early reviewer, Crimespree, said I was “an author to keep your eye on.” That helped relieve my doubts about myself as a writer. And then I got two terrific accolades: a private compliment, a very enthusiastic one, from a revered hardboiled writer, and, at the other end of the crime fiction spectrum, an Agatha nomination for my short story, "Death Will Clean Your Closet." After that, I felt a lot better.

I recently heard an eminent editor say, “Enjoy the good reviews, ignore the bad ones.” I like that. It also helps to realize that authors have been having the same experience for more than a hundred years. In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the heroine, Jo, is a writer, and I assume Jo’s experiences are based on Alcott’s own. The following passage, first published in 1870, shows how little has changed from her time to ours.

Having copied her novel for the fourth time, read it to all her confidential friends, and submitted it with fear and trembling to three publishers, she at last disposed of it, on condition that she would cut it down one third, and omit all the parts which she particularly admired….Well, it was printed, and she got three hundred dollars for it; likewise plenty of praise and blame, both so much greater than she expected that she was thrown into a state of bewilderment, from which it took her some time to recover.

“You said, mother, that criticism would help me; but how can it, when it’s so contradictory that I don’t know whether I’ve written a promising book or broken all the ten commandments?” cried poor Jo, turning over a heap of notices, the perusal of which filled her with pride and joy one minute, wrath and dire dismay the next. “This man says, ‘An exquisite book, full of truth, beauty, and earnestness,’” …continued the perplexed authoress. “The next, ‘…full of morbid fancies…and unnatural characters.’….Another says, ‘It’s one of the best American novels which has appeared for years’ (I know better than that); and the next asserts that ‘though it is original, and written with great force and feeling, it is a dangerous book.”…Some make fun of it, some over-praise, and nearly all insist that I had a deep theory to expound, when I only wrote it for the pleasure and the money.”

…it was a hard time for sensitive, high-spirited Jo, who meant so well, and had apparently done so ill….

“Not being a genius, like Keats, it won’t kill me,” she said stoutly; “and I’ve got the joke on my side…for all the parts that were taken straight out of real life are denounced as impossible and absurd, and the scenes I made up out of my own silly head are pronounced ‘charmingly natural, tender, and true.’ So I’ll comfort myself with that; and when I’m ready, I’ll up again and take another.”

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Congratulations to Liz Zelvin!

Lonnie, Julia, Sandy, Sharon and Darlene are proud to announce that our blog sister, Elizabeth Zelvin, has been nominated for an Agatha Award for her short story, "Death Will Clean Your Closet." Congratulations, Liz!

Realism? Who needs it?

Sandra Parshall

“That one error ruined the whole book for me.”

“I was enjoying the book until the protagonist did that. It was so unrealistic.”

This kind of declaration is pretty common from mystery readers. They want realism, they want factual accuracy, they want to be able to believe the story.

Yet all crime fiction – including police procedurals – is inherently unrealistic. If we took it as a reflection of real life, we’d have to believe that legions of hairdressers, cooks, booksellers, and antique dealers are out there every day, solving murders the cops are too dumb to figure out. We’d have to believe that every homicide detective routinely has a life-or-death confrontation with a killer before he can make an arrest. We’d have to believe that private detectives spend virtually all their time on murder cases (again because the cops can’t solve them).

Let’s get real. My hairdresser is a smart lady, but I doubt she’ll ever bring in a killer. Private detectives spend most of their time on tasks that would read like drudgery if they were dramatized, and they’d be in plenty of trouble with the cops if they interfered in murder investigations. As for homicide detectives, theirs is a reasonably safe line of work – most will go through their entire careers without firing their guns in the line of duty or being attacked by a suspect.

Some of the most popular crime novels being published these days are praised for their gritty realism, which might give the impression that the events described could happen in real life. Michael Connolly’s Harry Bosch does things no real cop could get away with, but he’s still on the job and still having those perilous armed confrontations with crazed killers. Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon is the Jessica Fletcher of the national park system – if this woman shows up at your campsite, I’d strongly advise you to pack your gear and head home before it’s too late. John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport novels – I love them, but realistic? Please. Any crime novel that has the familiar, dramatically satisfying elements readers want will fail the plausibility test at some level.

So where does the insistence on “realism” come from? If readers can accept, say, a wedding planner as a crack detective, why do they scorn a book that has inaccurate forensic details? If a hairdresser can solve murders, why does it matter if the cops accept a piece of evidence from her with no proof of where it came from? Why is research even necessary for crime fiction writers? Why can’t we simply make it all up?

Maybe readers – and I include myself among them – want all the supporting details to be accurate so we can accept the central fallacy, which is the amateur sleuth’s involvement in a murder investigation or the pro’s flaunting of regulations or laws. Maybe if the story seems anchored in real life, suspension of disbelief will be easier.

I’m still not sure this is fair. I’m not sure fiction has to be anything more than an entertaining fantasy. But fair or not, readers demand the illusion of reality even when the basic premise of a crime novel is totally unbelievable. An author can push the unreality quite a distance, but beyond a certain point the reader refuses to follow – and that point may be different for every reader.
The writer has to aim for a level of plausibility that will appeal to the largest number of readers.

I know what my breaking point is. Can you define yours? How much will you swallow before you refuse to take another bite? What books have disappointed you with unrealistic details?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Brave New Story

Sharon Wildwind

This week instead of ending with a quote, I’d like to begin with one.

“If I could have a book at a publisher right now, to be printed today and in the stores tomorrow, it would be about a vampire detective who must battle terrorist to retrieve some stolen ancient relics that disappeared during a greenhouse-related weather incident. Perhaps it could only be more timely if it all could be blamed on [an American presidential candidate].”
~Gary Warren Niebuhr, librarian, Milwaulkee, Wisconsin

When I read that quote last month, a shock passed through my body. It wasn’t the plot that stunned me. I thought the premise sounded cool. It was the phrase “to be printed today and in the stores tomorrow.”

The traditional wisdom given to new writers has been, “It will take three to five years from the day you sit down to begin a book until it is published. We have no idea what the fiction fad will be in five years, so write what’s in your heart. Write what you know best. Write it well and worry about publishing later.”

It is possible to write a good book in a very short time. Say three days. You may already know about the International Three-Day Novel Contest, held every September for thirty years. Writers who enter are allowed to come to the contest with notes and an outline, but not a single written word of the actual story. Beginning at one minute past midnight on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, and running until midnight on the Monday of that weekend, the writers write. The winner is published. And yes, it is possible to turn out a good book in three days. I had two friends who won the contest several years ago.

Technology now over-exists—if over-exists isn’t a word, I’m inventing it on the spot—to do just the opposite. We are ripe, as advertisements for dramatic nineteen-fifties B-movies claimed, for stories ripped from the pages of today’s newspapers. If I can invent a word on the spot, why couldn’t I invent a story as well?

Suppose that when I turned on my computer every morning, Google delivered to me a list of Internet postings related to search words I’d previously selected. I’d scan the news stories, blog postings, and other relevant material and, for several hours each morning, I’d translate real-life material into fiction. It might be a short story, or the next chapter of a serialized novel.

It wouldn’t have to be just words. I could insert links in my story to the non-fiction sources I used, or set up a side-bar that contained related videos, a chat room, a blog, a character web site, and so on, so that you could get the full multi-media, participatory experience.

Around noon, I’d publish. You might download what I’d written to your Kindle or have a subscription so that when you came home from work in the evening, you’d have an e-mail that would say something like, “Click here” to read Episode 27.

I might even let you vote. Do you want Tyrone to be a bad guy or a good guy? Should Melanie take the job offer or not? Is the cryptic message on Mrs. Osgood’s voice mail a clue or a red herring? Vote now and influence the way tomorrow’s episode runs.

What about if you didn’t like the way the story was running? Could you and a few of your friends break away and form a rival stream, taking the story in a totally different direction? If I were a smart writer, I wouldn’t try to stop you. Instead, I’d charge you a licensing fee to use my characters and give you my blessings to sharecrop. I might even set up writing workshops so you would understand my world, and how to write for it.

While thinking about all of this, the unanswered question I came up with was does “story” have to gel? Or brew? Or stew? Or rise? Or whatever word you choose to mean you put the raw facts in one end, and they sit there for a while so that the ingredients can interact with one another, like they do in bread or beer or wine or cheese or any of those foods that take a while to form.

The very first time I made bread, I was impatient. I’d produced a bread-like dough that nicely filled a single bread pan. What was this nonsense about kneading it, letting it rise, punching it down, letting it rise again, shaping it, and giving it a final rising? Four hours to make bread? Don’t be ridiculous. It looked ready to go, so I put it in the oven.

The problem was that the recipe was for four loaves, not one, and what I got out of the oven was a two-pound loaf. It was so dense that when I put it out for the birds to eat, their puny beaks couldn’t break off a single crumb. Four years later, when I moved from that house, most of the loaf was still in the backyard, now rounded into a mound and covered with moss. For all I know, it's still there today.

So yes, flash fiction is possible. But is it a good idea?

Oh, if you’re interested in learning more about the Three-Day Novel contest, or perhaps entering it this year, applications will be taken some time in the spring. The web site for the contest is

Monday, February 25, 2008

Reflections of a Convalescent

by Julia Buckley
I got socked with a cold last Thursday, or possibly a flu disguised as a cold. It was one of those things that my children absorbed in that special germ factory known as grade school, and then brought home to me.

Because of it, I didn't grade essays and I didn't write blogs; therefore I'll just share a quick list, now, of things I thought of while I convalesced.

1) Neither children nor animals care if you are sick. A sad reality, perhaps, but I suppose it makes sense if you're a child or an animal. You have to be fed, and preferably entertained, as well.

2) Sickness is perhaps the only time you will have a really good reason to just sit around and read a book (I'm reading Phyllis A. Whitney's GUIDE TO FICTION WRITING). However, it's also the time you're most likely to fall asleep over that book, no matter how good it is. A real Catch-22.

3) Even when you're sick, you can be in a good mood. I was heartened by many things this weekend, one of which was a great quote from the book I mentioned in #2. Phyllis A. Whitney advised me that "Good fortune and unexpected opportunities are always coming along. Perhaps opportunity is like a train on an endless track. Now and then it makes a stop at your station, often without fanfare, and without warning."

4) A great pick-me-up when you're a bit down in the mouth is an escape to the movies. Not only did the boys take me (and my cough drops and my big box of Lotioned Kleenex) to see VANTAGE POINT, a nice little escape into Thrillerville, but we also got to watch the Oscars this evening and hear some lovely acceptance speeches that are all about believing in your dreams.

5) Even when the germs are bad (and they are BAD this year), it's a blessing to know that colds and flus go away, and health will return. I know I'll feel pretty good when this pops up on Monday morning, and I'm grateful.

6) Another advantage of illness is that someone else sometimes steps forward to make the dinner. My husband made spaghetti with homemade meatballs and it was delicious. I think I may ask him to become the permanent chef. :)

One last note; I managed to finish a fun interview with Sean Chercover this weekend, and it's viewable at Mysterious Musings.

Now have a good week, all of you, and keep those germs at bay. If you succumb, however, I can recommend the Buckley's Cough Syrup. I tried it based on their commercial, and guess what? It really worked.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

What freaks out a CSI?

Elizabeth Becka (Guest blogger)

Our guest is the author of Trace Evidence and the just-released sequel, Unknown Means, both featuring crime scene investigator Evelyn James. When she isn’t writing thrillers, Elizabeth Becka is a real-life forensic specialist with the Cape Coral, Florida, Police Department. She previously worked as a crime scene investigator in Cleveland, the setting of her novels. Visit her web site at

Everybody’s afraid of something.

My heroine is a forensic scientist with the coroner’s office who investigates, of course, homicides. (Coroner = victims are dead.) But as part of her ‘other duties as assigned,’ she also investigates suicides, traffic deaths and industrial accidents. One such industrial accident has occurred in the salt mine which exists (I swear I am not making this up) 1800 feet below the surface of Cleveland, Ohio. Under Lake Erie, to be precise.

There’s just one problem. My heroine is claustrophobic.

So am I.

The only thing that ever scared me about working at the coroner’s office was the cooler—the large refrigerated room where the deceased, on gurneys, were stored. I hated the cooler. I couldn’t care less that it was full of dead bodies, that didn’t bother me a bit. What bothered me was that there were no windows. (I hated the cooler at my first job at an ice cream store too, and the most dangerous item there was a bag of Spanish peanuts…of course, the only dangerous thing in the coroner’s office cooler is possible exposure to TB.)

I rarely needed to go into the cooler, but occasionally it became necessary and I did it. I even shut the door behind me, because otherwise the refrigeration would flow into the hallway, wasting energy and taxpayer dollars.

There were only two things I ever refused to do at the coroner’s office: clean out the crypts, and ride the freight elevator without a light in it.

I didn’t like the freight elevator to begin with. It was one of those barbaric contraptions with the inner wall composed of grating that you had to pull shut after closing the outer door so that you could see the wall move when the elevator went up or down. At least you could have seen the wall move if you kept your eyes open, which I didn’t. It had one light bulb in the ceiling, which would occasionally burn out.

The deep freeze, a 20 x 10 room kept at minus 70 and used for storing old biological samples and bodies who weren’t going anywhere soon, had two light bulbs. The rear one had burnt out years before and had not been replaced, since the maintenance staff did not want to spend any more time in there than the rest of us, and the front one would burn out regularly too. I would go into the deep freeze armed with just a flashlight. But the perfectly empty freight elevator, no.

Please don’t point out that not having a light bulb scarcely made a difference if I kept my eyes closed anyway. It did, and you know it.

This isn’t quite as wimpy as it sounds, since most staff would consider saying no to my boss far more perilous than a silly dark freight elevator, but even she knew that you could only yank a dog’s chain so many times before it turns and bites, and did not push me.

The other thing I refused to do had nothing to do with claustrophobia. It was to clean out the old crypts (the small door and sliding tray system seen on TV, long since discontinued and used only for storage by the time I arrived there). That was out of the question because I had been traumatized about such crypts when I was a child, from the mere preview of a horror movie that made much use of surprises behind those doors. It appeared to be an utterly terrifying movie, at least to a small child, but in reality it must have been truly lousy since it doesn’t even show up in the Internet Movie Database. Doesn’t matter. The damage had been done. I would help clean out the crypts. Just not by myself.

The point is, a vital part of any suspense tale is facing something frightening, and much more so when it’s something the character finds personally frightening.

So readers are enjoying the subplot about the salt mine. It’s an interesting piece of industrial engineering, and it’s an odd role reversal: We’re used to seeing Evelyn walk up to a decomposed body without batting an eye while everyone around her is freaking out. Now Evelyn is, inwardly, freaking out, but to everyone else it’s just another day at work. 1800 feet down with a single elevator for egress? Sure, what’s odd about that? We’re actually under the lake? Yes, but there’s 1700 feet of stone between us and the water. There, that should make you feel better.


Everyone’s afraid of something.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Moderating panels, sometimes a scary job . . . or not . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

Appearing on a panel is no longer as scary for me as it was in the beginning, when my first book was published. With five books in print, now I simply show up with my latest book to display, some water to drink, set them far enough apart so as not to spill one on the other, settle into my seat, and prepare to answer the questions the moderator has prepared. And I bite my lower lip from time to time to prevent myself from hogging the panel.

Moderating a panel, on the other hand is still VERY scary for me. The moderator is in charge of keeping the panel running smoothly, asking the appropriate questions from time to time to keep the conversation flowing, making sure none of the panelists hog the panel (preventing the others from having their equal time) and making sure there is water for everyone but that they don't spill it on the other panelists. (The mention of water is mostly to tickle my Poe sister, Julia's fancy. She spilled water on me at Love Is Murder last year. But, in all fairness, she managed not to let that happen this year when we sat side by side.)

My first experience at moderating a panel came about at the Cape Fear Crime Festival in 2004. All three of us panelists showed up, the moderator did not. I believe she canceled shortly before the conference and somehow the ball was dropped about letting the panelists know. We sat and twiddled our thumbs as the clock ticked away our valuable minutes. When it became obvious she wasn't going to make it, I volunteered and the others were happy to have me take on the job. NO preparation time, but no time for me to panic either, and I knew the other panelists well, so I was able to come up with some reasonably intelligent questions on the spot.

Next I was asked to moderate a panel on promotion at Love Is Murder last year. I knew J. A. Konrath and Luisa Buehler and was very familiar with the excellent promotional techniques of each. The other two, Deb Baker and Sandy Balzo I'd not met but was able to get a sense of their promotional tactics through email. When it came time for the panel, it was standing room only and I was in a panic, but having researched the panelists ahead of time made it fairly easy. I asked a couple of questions, and off the panelists went, each giving excellent promotional tips. The audience was delighted with the information they received, as was I. We can all use tips on how best to market our books!

My most recent moderating assignment was again at Love Is Murder, this February. I was assigned to moderate the panel on Movie Options featuring Barry Eisler, Kent Krueger, Tim Broderick, Paul Guyot, and David Montgomery. I know nothing about movie options but have always dreamed of being offered one since my first book came out, so yeah, I was a bit nervous about moderating this panel. Particularly since it was all guys, all far more famous than I'm likely to be in this lifetime. Did I mention they are all good looking? Sigh.

Nervousness exploded into panic when I sent out my first email asking what they wanted to discuss on the panel and a couple of them responded by saying they didn't have movie options and had no idea why they were assigned to this panel. EEEEK! BUT their answers were humorous (like Paul saying he'd be happy to show up and make fun of Barry's hair) so I figured we'd be probably be okay. I researched each of them, asked a couple more questions, and crossed my fingers.

The day of the panel arrived. I read their bios to the audience, asked the first question of Barry who DID have a movie option, and next thing I knew, we were off to the races. The guys began asking each other questions, which covered my worry about coming up with enough intelligent questions for them. And the answers were terrific. My question about the on-going writer's strike followed by their thoughtful answers filled up the remaining time. All in all, I'm very happy how the panel went, and I think the panelists were too, as each had ample time to talk about his work.

My point here is this: appearing on a panel at a conference or convention is MUCH easier than moderating same. The moderator has to ask enough questions to keep the panel going along smoothly AND keep it on track of the assigned subject. And probably the most important moderator job is to keep any one panelist from hogging the panel so that everyone gets equal time. Not always easy. But if you research your panelists carefully, chat via email with them about how they would like the panel to go, most of the time the panel will run smoothly, the audience will love it, and, with any luck, the moderator's main job will be to stand aside and look pretty while the panelists give the information the audience came to hear.

If you are asked to moderate a panel instead of appearing as a panelist, don't panic. Do your research, consult the panelists, and have fun. And remember, the biggest complaints about panels is usually about moderators who either hog the panel themselves or allow one of the panelists to hog it. Let the panelists know you are in control, but let them do the majority of the talking.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Why Men Are Different from Women

Elizabeth Zelvin

Peggy Ehrhart, whose debut mystery, Sweet Man Is Gone, will be out this summer from Five Star, wrote in a recent issue of First Draft, the Sisters in Crime Guppies newsletter, that she attributes male writers’ more confrontational approach to literary critique to evolution. In prehistoric society, she points out, men had to attack and rout rivals to achieve dominance in the gene pool, while women insured survival of the species by bearing and nurturing their young.

It’s a good explanation, but not the only way to arrive at the conclusion that men and women differ on the score of competitiveness vs cooperation, or, let’s say, autonomy vs connection. (And if you don’t agree that men critique more caustically than women overall, please join the discussion by leaving a comment.) Feminist psychologists first figured out about thirty years ago that what had hitherto been considered the norm for human personality development, as conceptualized by such influential thinkers as Freud and Erik Erikson, was in fact a description of male development. Women, they observed, develop quite differently, and they proceeded to back up this novel idea by studying thousands of growing girls (conspicuously absent from most previous studies) over the next three decades.

To put it simply, boys have to separate from their mothers in order to claim their identity as males. Girls don’t: they find out who they are by realizing they are “same as” rather than “different from” mom. So boys develop psychologically through a process of separation, while girls grow through an evolving gift for connection. That’s why boys have baseball card collections and girls have best friends. It’s why you can put a random group of women in a van on a three hour trip—say, to a mystery conference—and by the time they arrive they will know all about each other’s past and current love life, hormonal idiosyncrasies, and relationship with their mothers. Would an analogous group of men embark on such a conversation? No way.

I majored in English in college. But when I took Psychology 101, I learned about the Oedipus complex—or more accurately, the Oedipal crisis—that had to be resolved for a child to develop normally. Anyone who’s raised a son knows this must be true: little boys between three and five go through a phase of pushing dad away from mom. (I remember my own son at five saying, “No kissing! I’m the cop!”) But things got fuzzy as soon as someone, usually a woman, said, “But what about the girls?” The professor mumbled something about a comparable Electra complex. But it failed to convince. Thanks to some brilliant theoreticians (the best known is Carol Gilligan) of what’s called relational psychology, we now know why. Girls don’t have an identity crisis at the Oedipal age. They have one at puberty, at the age of eleven or twelve, when they have to separate a little from their female friends and (for the most part) turn to boys, so that—back to evolution and survival of the species—they can mate and reproduce.

This fundamental difference at the core of personality may account for men’s preference overall for the novel of action—the thriller—and women’s for the novel of relationship—the traditional mystery. Of course there are exceptions. And of course we acquire to some degree the traits of the other gender, because we need both autonomy and connection to function in human society. But if you’ve ever wondered what it is that causes exasperated women to say, “Men!” and equally exasperated men to say, “Women!”—there is a reason.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A Conversation with Martha Grimes

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Martha Grimes is the author of 21 novels featuring British police detective Richard Jury, many of them bestsellers, as well as several novels about the 12-year-old American amateur sleuth Emma Graham. In 1999, she published Biting the Moon, which introduced the teenage heroine Andi Oliver and focused on animal rights. The author donated two-thirds of her royalties from the book to animal rights organizations. Andi returns in Grimes’s new book, Dakota, and this time she takes a job at a pig farming facility and exposes the truth about “the dark art of modern livestock management” while trying to elude a dangerous stalker who has been on her trail for more than a year. Of the public’s response to the animal rights cause, Grimes has said, “I do not believe that people are indifferent to the welfare of animals. Possibly, the exact opposite is true – people are so affected by stories, pictures, accounts of animal abuse that they simply do not want to know.”

Q. What was it like to return to Andi after being away from her for several years?
Did you have to get to know her all over again now that she’s older, or had she been aging in the back of your mind all along?

A. I was never "away" from Andi. Less than two years [in Andi’s life] have gone by since Biting the Moon, and her age has always been in question.

Q. You are so passionate about animal rights that I have to wonder whether describing the abuse in Dakota was an emotional ordeal.

A. Yes, it was an ordeal to research and write Dakota.

Q. Are you afraid that some readers will avoid the book because you’re unsparing in your descriptions of factory farming?

A. I'm sure some people will avoid the book. Or be sorry they hadn't.

Q. Do you have to make a mental adjustment when you switch from British characters to American?

A. No, it's pretty automatic to go from British to American.

Q. What type of character do you find the most fun to write about? Which is the most challenging?

A. The most difficult characters to write about are the villains. That's why I really like The Old Wine Shades, because the villain is the most interesting person in it. It might be my favorite Jury book. When it comes to pure laughs, I'd say (1) the Crippses, and (2) the bunch sitting around the table in the J & H.

Q. Did you collect rejection letters in the beginning, or did publication come easily to you?

A. Yes, of course I got rejection slips. Probably fifteen or twenty publishers turned down The Man with a Load of Mischief. I had no agent until the 12th or 13th Jury book. (I should have kept it that way, too. See Foul Matter.) It would be even harder for someone starting out today because it's just as hard to nail down an agent--and they probably should be--as to get a publisher. Agents pretty much rule these days. I did an "over-the-transom" thing with my book and got lucky. But there's only one rule to follow and that's to keep sending your book out after looking at Writer's Market to see what publishers will still accept unsolicited manuscripts. You can also get information there about agents.

Q. Does a magic moment arrive when you decide it’s time to sit down and get started on a new book, or do you schedule a day to begin?

A. Believe me, there is no "magic moment" to usher in the writing of a book. Nor do I schedule a time to begin. Usually I just start writing another book when the last one is finished.

Q. You have said in interviews that you don’t outline before you start a book and may not even know who the killer is. Does this method lead to a lot of rewriting? Do you have to adjust the timing of clues, for example, or the timing of character revelations?

A. This doesn't cause as much re-writing as one would expect. And I don't know that clues are ever sprinkled about and so must be re-sprinkled. Clues come quite naturally as a result of what a character is saying or doing.. If I can't keep track of characters, should I even be writing?

Q. Did you have a real-life feline model for the cat Cyril?

A. Years ago, I had a friend with a cat named Cyril, who served in looks and temperament as my model.. No cat, however, could do what Cyril does.

Q. Did you purposely make Melrose Plant’s Aunt Agatha annoying or did she just turn out that way?

A. Yes, I made her what she is on purpose. Agatha is to Melrose what Racer is to Jury. The way that M. and J. react to Agatha and Racer says a lot about M. and J.

Q. You could live anywhere you choose, and you’ve chosen the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Washington, DC. What is it about life in Washington that appeals to you?

A. Nothing about D. C. especially appeals to me. The area just happens to be where my family lives. I've probably been at this address for a long time out of lack of momentum. I have now bought a house in Bethesda, so I'm trying to work up the energy to move. I find it interesting when people say "You could live anywhere you like." But if you could go anywhere, there's really no place to go, is there?

Q. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

A. Here's the best advice for aspiring writers: Raymond Chandler said that you don't need to write unless you want to; i.e., if you're not inspired then don't do it. But he added, of course, you have to set aside time for writing--2, 3, 4 hours. But you don't have to write during that time. The only thing is, you can't do anything else during that time--you can't clean or pay bills or anything. You can walk around or roll on the floor, but you can't put the time to "good use." I think this is wonderful advice. And, boy, I bet there'd be writing done. It's somewhat the same as Flannery O'Connor's comment that she sat down at her desk for four hours and if nothing came to her, nothing got written. But she sat there for four hours.

This of course is the sort of thing that makes aspiring writers a lot less aspiring. This is indeed the cutting edge. If you can't stand doing this sort of thing, forget about writing.

(Ellen Taylor would have other suggestions. See The Horse You Came in On.)

Visit the author’s web site at

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Bye-Bye Miss American Pie

Sharon Wildwind

Looks pretty innocent, don’t they? Four plain cardboard boxes that resemble small coffins.In a sense, that’s what they are.

I’m going to bury the past. Going to shred the past is more accurate. Those four boxes are on their way out to a commercial shredder; those four boxes contain 20 years of writing.

This past week I went through every folder in my sacred writing space. Isn’t that a nice term? I found it in a magazine article about creating a work space. Going through mounds of old paper was anything but sacred. It required old clothes, a vacuum cleaner, and lots of band-aids. Did you know that old papers seem to give you worse paper cuts than new ones? Or maybe they sensed what was in store for them and were having a bit of revenge.

In any case, I’ve tossed the contents of four filing drawers and six plastic file boxes. Okay, I know someone out there is having heart palpitations. Their fingers are scrambling to get inside those four boxes and save me from myself, just in case I’ve thrown out good writing that should be saved.

Relax, take a deep breath, and have a cup of tea. No useful writing has been or will be destroyed. What you’re looking at are duplicates, in one case 16 copies of the same chapter, written over and over again until I was satisfied with it.

But what about historical value, you wail? What about the PhD thesis waiting to be written about your work long after you’re gone? Wouldn’t those 16 copies be a gold-mine for that graduate student, a marker of how you tweaked a comma here, substituted a word there, and finally created your deathless prose?

In a word, no.

First, the possibility that I’ll ever the subject of a PhD thesis–other than perhaps by one of my great-nieces, writing about the odd people in her family–approaches zero. Second, I have electronic copies. Granted, much of them are in out-dated disc formats, for which I no longer have a reader, but finding a reader and working out how to recover material from late 20th century technology will be the graduate student’s problem . . .assuming there is a graduate student. Third, and most important, take a look behind the boxes.

This is one small part of my living room cum atelier cum writing studio. This is where it happens and I needed to clean out the dead space to make way for the living. More books on the craft of writing, more space to store the copies of books I’d already written, more work space, more creative space.

Once in a while we, as writers, need to pay attention to what a wonderful, energetic business we are engaged in. Our work isn’t about old files; it’s about new ideas. We don’t preserve for posterity, we create for the future. And if a bunch of old papers was holding me back, which it was, then those old papers are going to be much better off being recycled into something else. Maybe some of them will eventually come back to me as clean sheets of paper, ready for another trip through the printer.

At least I figure that's the way to bet.

Writing quote for the week.

You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget that errand. ~Woodrow Wilson, U.S. president and supporter of the League of Nations

Monday, February 18, 2008

The President's Day Mystery

by Julia Buckley

My son spent the last month learning about George Washington. He was assigned this famous man, the father of our country, for a class biography project; Graham was to take on the persona of Washington and tell the class about "his" life.

He began by reading a biography of the first president. Then we talked about it, and Graham gave me bits of information which I meticulously copied onto thirteen notecards so that he wouldn't forget anything he wanted to say. After that he was home free, and it was just a matter of waiting until Wednesday, which was speech day.

On Wednesday morning we gathered Graham's wig, collar and suit coat. We packed his lunch and grabbed his backpack; he had school in half an hour, and I was a bit late for work. I said, "Have you got your cards?"

He shrugged. "They're on the table."

Except they weren't. Not on the table, the sideboard, the dresser or desk. Not by the computer or the television, or the drawers we checked in desperation. They had utterly, completely disappeared, and the clock was ticking. Graham started to turn pale. My husband was ranting and raving. And I realized there was only one thing I could do: I started making new cards, flipping quickly through the Washington biography that we had combed so painstakingly:

Farm boy, loved to hunt and fish. Wanted to be in the army. Got a job as a surveyor, during which time he learned much about the land and met many Native Americans. Fought in the French and Indian War. Was eventually elected to represent America in their bid for Independence. Led the American army against the Redcoats; failed in many battles, but eventually decided to use the land against the British, who were used only to their regimented marching and knew nothing of the forests and fields of New England. When Cornwallis eventually surrendered, Washington's men wanted to make him king; instead he was elected the first president of the United States.

This time when I wrote it, there were seventeen notecards. Graham wasn't late for school, and he even remembered to take out a dollar bill at the end of his speech and show his classmates his portrait.

Mother, however, was late for work, and found that "I lost my George Washington cards" was not a very sympathetic excuse.

Meanwhile the mystery of the lost cards was never solved--we still have not found them one week later, and not one of us recalls moving them from the table where they waited for Graham's speech day.

Is there anything more frustrating than a lost object? For the obsessive mind, it's a recipe for insanity. Hopefully, though, in the grand scheme of things, I've earned some mother points for coming through in a time of stress.

In any case, Happy President's Day to all. :)

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Canada Calling: Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg is a Canadian writer and magazine editor who has had a love of the written word from a very early age. He has been an avid reader for nearly 50 years and an editor and writer for just over 10. It was following the publication of his first short story in Storyteller magazine that they asked him to be one of the readers for their slush-pile.

Storyteller gets a wide assortment of genres and story types and they like to have at least three readers go through the stories, each having a different genre preference in their personal reading. Mike was brought in as the Fantasy/Horror reader but now shares a love of the Mystery with the other readers/editors.

And, as he says, “Warning, I tend to ramble on a bit when asked about writing.”

PDD: What is the allure of short stories?

MS: Well, that is a common question I get from readers and writers alike. For me it’s as simple as reading time constraints and ‘loving a variety of genres’. I have always been a voracious reader and will read everything from a novel to the label on the cereal box. And the beauty of Short stories is . . . when you are stuck on a bus going to and from the office, sitting in a dentist or doctor’s office waiting room and none of the out-dated magazines interest you, what do you do? Well, I reach into my briefcase and pull out the latest issue of Storyteller or an anthology of short stories and lose myself in another world for a few minutes. Unlike a novel, short stories allow you to read a complete story in, well, a short time. They allow you to explore a variety of genres, writers and publications… what’s not to love.

PDD: What can a writer do with a short story that’s not possible in a novel?

MS: First off, polish their craft. A lot of beginning writers jump feet-first into the novel. And a lot of them soon find themselves floundering. Or they finish their masterpiece only to have it rejected over and over. There are things that a writer needs to learn if they wish to be published: write tight and have a strong beginning, middle and end to every story. They need to learn how to properly use Point of View, dialogue, setting, pacing, all those things that hook a reader, draw them in and carry them through your story to a satisfying conclusion.

There is no place better to both learn and hone these skills than a short story. Think about it. In a novel you have many characters, plots, sub-plots, etc. But in a short story you keep it simple, tight and basic. You have only a couple characters. One plot and maybe – that’s a big maybe – one sub-plot. Short stories allow you to learn how to focus on creating that perfect story.

And as a bonus, you get the chance to develop your voice as a writer, explore and mix genres (which more and more editors are looking for) and build a name for yourself so that when you do write that great novel you have a publishing history you can show your editor. Promotional budgets are near non-existent for new writers these days and if you approach the publisher with a series of short story publications you show them you have a ready fan base they (and you) can build on you sell the new novel. And if you are fortunate enough to win an award for one or more of those short stories you pretty much guarantee an editor/publisher will at least look at your novel manuscript.

PDD: What are some of the challenges that short story publishers face today?

MS: One of the biggies would have to be money. Plain and simple. If you are in the publication business, especially with magazines, it is all too sadly about cost and revenue. It is not cheap to put out a magazine and unless you have one monster of an advertizing budget or a ton of ads in your magazine, you do not make money. I’ll tell you now, it was nothing but the love of short stories and a desire to promote Canadian writers that kept Storyteller afloat those first few years. And even today we are happy to just stay in the black. For us it has always been, and always will be all about promoting good Canadian fiction.
Another challenge is distribution of the magazine. Again, unless you have a ton of revenue in ads you won’t be making anything. For every issue of ANY magazine sold off the rack, there will be 3 or 4 that are never sold. And unless you pay extra to have them returned to you, they are trashed. That is a lot of paper and printing costs that are lost for every magazine.

And then there are the stories themselves. For every magazine that publishes short fiction it is a challenge at times to fill your quota. Now, I’m not saying that we don’t get enough well-written stories; it’s more a matter of getting in enough that suit your particular publication. Each publication has its own type or style of fiction they prefer. In mystery that can be anything from cozy to P.I. Though more and more are expanding on that and accepting a wider variety. Things like mixing genres is starting to become popular . . . something to keep in mind.

Here at Storyteller we can get anywhere from 300 to 600 submissions per issue. It sounds like a lot, but even that number gets whittled down quickly and does not promise an easy issue. There are a few reasons for this.

One, we receive a lot of submissions from new writers who are just learning their craft. And the majority of these are probably the first story they have ever written. They just aren’t there yet. We encourage newer writers to join critiquing groups so that others can help them polish their stories and writing craft.

If the story is close, but not quite there, we often make comments on the manuscript as a way of encouraging them. Many of our writers started off with a few rejection slips before they managed that perfect little story. And, many of our writers have gone on to become published and award-winning novelists. In fact, we work hard on supporting our writers and on making this happen as often as we can.

Another reason for rejection can be a simple fact of not following our guidelines. They’re there for a reason. Read them. Follow them.

Let your story sell itself. No fancy paper. No scented paper. No weird fonts or colours. Keep it simple. Can you imagine how much of a strain it is on these old eyes if everyone used fancy fonts or the wrong sized fonts or coloured paper or ink. Oh, the agony. You mess with those simple things with ANY publication and you are guaranteeing your piece is rejected. For those who watch shows like American Idol, you know what I mean. A person comes in wearing a costume you might as well turn the volume down because you know they are going to suck as a singer. Same with a manuscript. Don’t dress it up. Let the quality of writing and story telling sell the piece.

PDD: Would you care to make a prediction about what the short story market will look like five years down the road?

MS: I like to think that it will be about the same or better. The magazines may change but there are always those whose love of the Short Story will make sure the markets are always there.

PDD: You say on the Storyteller web site, “While we specialize in variety, there are some things we don’t publish. We stay away from the extremes of genre.” What is an extreme of genre?

MS: Good question. First, a few of the things we tend to steer clear of. YA, Young Adult. The vast majority of our readers are adults 35+. They don’t want YA so we stay clear of it. And as for the ‘Extreme’ issue. Well, how to explain this. Lets take horror. We all enjoy a good ghost story or a slightly macabre tale now and then. But a lot of people just aren’t into the gory hack-and-slash.

Science Fiction: have your mystery aboard a starship or on the moon but keep away from techie details about the ships star-drive engines or artificial gravity on the moon. And for fantasy, have a bit of magic but keep the fairies and elves to a minimum. If you like to write that deeply into a genre, there are magazines and anthologies that look for it. It all comes down to knowing your market.

PDD: Your Magazine sponsors the Great Canadian Short Story Contest each year. Does that mean if a writer doesn’t live in Canada, he or she can’t submit to the contest?

MS: In a word, no. The whole idea of this contest is to promote Canada and Canadian fiction. We do ask for stories that take place in Canada and reflect the unique culture here. I mean, where else would a show like Little Mosque on the Prairie have been given the chance let alone done so well. Or shows like This Hour has 22 Minutes or Rick Mercer’s The Mercer Report. That is Canadian humour at its best.

We have also had amazing stories of what life was like for older immigrants in their first year in Canada. Historical mysteries and scientific achievments like Canada’s Avro Arrow also do well.

If a writer still isn’t sure about Canadian writing, I suggest going to the web site and ordering a copy of one of the Great Canadian Short Story Contest back issues to get a better feel for it. Oh, and the story has to take place in, on, over or under Canada. Coast to coast to coast that’s a lot of land and a whole lot of stories.

PDD: Tell us a little about your own writing.

MS: Well, my first published short story was in Storyteller. It was called “What The Cat Dragged In” and was a bit of a Fantasy/SciFi story set in this world about a dimension-hopping cat that would leave the most interesting catches on the back stoop for his owner to find. It was inspired by my sister’s cat who used to leave partially eaten mice and chipmunks on her back stoop most mornings. With just enough left that you had to wonder what it used to be when it was alive.
I have also written mystery, horror, and psychological thrillers. My stories have appeared in both magazines and anthologies here in Canada, the US and in Europe. My first few short stories were rejected up to about 16 times before being accepted. That rejection rate is now down to about 3. So, you see, even us old dogs can learn. :-)

To learn more about Storyteller magazine, including author submission guidelines, go to www. We look forward to hearing from you.
Next month, Canada Calling visits true crime writer Nate Hendley.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Blogging? Whose idea was this anyway?

By Lonnie Cruse

Whose idea was it to create weblogs or blogs, as they are called? I haven't a clue. But they are all over the Internet and often competing with each other for readers. And let me tell you, it is NOT easy coming up with ideas to post about that other people will be willing to take some of their valuable time to read, whether it's a personal blog and you have to think of something relatively sensible to say every single day of the week or a group blog like this where you only have to be relatively sensible once a week, BUT you can't repeat what the other bloggers already said. Finding guest bloggers, people to interview and post about? Same degree of difficulty. So why do bloggers blog?

A. Because we like to write and/or talk to anyone who will listen.

B. Because we like to connect with readers and other writers and share thoughts/ideas.

C. Because we like to write about other things besides our characters and plots.

D. Because we think we have something of value to say.

E. Because we have more time than sense.

F. I ran out of becauses

Keeping up a weblog is a big responsibility and it takes a lot of time. Time that probably should be spent writing. But, you know what? It's a lot of fun, coming up with ideas, pictures to match, posting them, and reading comments from our readers. Some days it's frustrating when the blog site is on the fritz and you lose an entire post you've tried to save or some other disaster strikes. And recently a "robot" targeted PDD as a spam site and we had to deal with typing in little letters that appeared in a box every time we tried to post, just to prove WE were real people, until we complained to Blogger and they did the "Oops, sorry," dance. But I know all of us here at PDD enjoy sharing our thoughts with you, finding interesting guests for you to meet, and just plain hanging out here. Sort of like a virtual coffee clatch. Virtual cinnamon roll, anyone?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Psychopathology in Mysteries: Past and Current Trends

Elizabeth Zelvin

As a mental health professional in my “other hat,” I have a tendency to diagnose the protagonists, victims, witnesses, and murderers in the mysteries I read. Sometimes these characters’ psychopathology is intentional on the author’s part, with a greater or lesser degree of accuracy or at least probability. Sometimes it’s not.

I recently was asked, in a series of questions and answers for a fellow writer’s crime fiction blog, to name my “guilty pleasures” as a reader. I confessed that one of my favorite comfort read characters (or rereads many times over) is Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver. These mysteries from the 1940s and 1950s are classic cozies. They are totally predictable and tremendously soothing. (I do love a happy ending!) They are also incisively written and astute about character as long as you accept some stereotypical assumptions about men and women that most of us in the 21st century no longer buy into. Admitting how much I like Miss Silver was embarrassing only because the guy asking the question was a hardboiled crime novelist. Some over-easy traditional mystery writers reread Patricia Wentworth too.

Anyhow, it got me thinking about the Wentworth canon. I have 42 or 43 of her books: all the Miss Silvers and quite a few of her many other novels, which are just like them except for the decorous but highly intelligent sleuth’s absence, some even featuring other characters—police and villains—from the Miss Silver books. Having read so many of them, I’m struck by how many of the plots revolve around amnesia. In the mid-20th century, amnesia was a tried and true plot device that many mystery writers turned to. Manning Coles’s Tommy Hambledon, for example, was a British intelligence agent who lost his memory in Germany for long enough to join the Nazi Party and participate actively in the rise of Hitler. Luckily, he recovered his memory in time to save the day for England. Writers have also made use of alcoholic blackouts, another form of amnesia. In David Carkeet’s 1980 mystery Double Negative, if I remember correctly, the hero hid a key piece of evidence during a blackout and had to get drunk again to remember where he’d put it: a condition I know now is called state-dependent learning.

Amnesia still crops up from time to time. Annette Meyers’s most recent Smith and Wetzon mystery, Hedging, comes to mind. But amnesia is no longer “in.” I suspect the reason is it’s more widely understood that retrograde amnesia doesn’t usually work quite the way most mystery writers use it.

Blackouts, another kind of amnesia, are still common in crime fiction. So are other symptoms of alcoholism. Sometimes the characters are aware they’re dealing with this serious and painful form of illness. Sometimes neither characters nor author get it. As a longstanding alcoholism treatment professional, I have a bias against what I call “cute alcoholism,” when excessive drinking is presented as comical or charming. Nowadays, we find more and more characters in recovery or at least intermittently trying to get sober. But compulsive hard drinking and cute alcoholism still appear in mystery fiction.

For a while, in the 1980s and 1990s, incest, pedophilia, and dissociative identity disorder (formerly called multiple personality disorder) became popular with novelists. In one of P.D. James’s books, one character with a history of sexual abuse in childhood hides her sexuality in obesity and overeating, while another, who had run away, is found under another identity—not a subterfuge, but to those familiar with DID, clearly another personality. One of Colin Dexter’s best Inspector Morse books turns on the fact that a character who is not what she seems has alters. I’ve also read mysteries by proponents (or by authors who believe proponents) of “false memory syndrome.” Professionally and personally, I’ve met too many people with dissociative issues due to childhood trauma and sexual abuse to have much sympathy for this point of view. It’s made for some interesting stories. But by now, it has been used so often that I can see it coming hundreds of pages before the denouement. Or is that because I’m professionally familiar with the symptoms?

Nowadays, serial killers are in fashion. I’m not very fond of them myself. But readers seem to love them. And some wonderful writers bring them to life. Besides Hannibal Lecter and Dexter, Lawrence Block and Jan Burke have created some convincing sociopaths as foils for Matt Scudder and Irene Kelly. Many sociopaths, by the way, never kill anyone: they just go through life hiding utter lack of empathy behind devastating charm. I’ve had quite a few clients myself who were immensely likeable, so that I had to keep reminding myself that the charm was an integral part of the sociopathy. I’m fascinated by how easily people are fooled. Will I ever write about such a character? You never know. In the meantime, the serial killer trend has to reach saturation point some time. So what kind of twisted souls—or mental illness, depending on your frame of reference—will mystery writers turn the spotlight on next?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Beverly Connor's Tales of Two Heroines

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Beverly Connor is the author of the Lindsay Chamberlain archaeology mysteries from Cumberland House and the Diane Fallon forensic anthropology series from NAL Obsidian. An archaeologist by training, Beverly has worked in South Carolina and Georgia, doing fieldwork and analyzing artifacts. Her latest book, Dead Hunt, is fifth in the Diane Fallon series and was published in early February.

Q. Tell us a little about your new book, Dead Hunt.

A. Diane has put a black widow killer, Clymene O’Riley, in prison for life. So she is surprised when Clymene wants Diane to visit her in prison. Diane is further surprised to discover what Clymene wants from Diane—to make sure one of her guards isn’t killed by someone like herself. Diane agrees and suddenly finds
herself the prime suspect in a bloody murder. She also finds herself in the path of an angry killer who wants her dead. Not even her haven at the RiverTrail Museum of Natural History is safe as a scandal over possession of stolen Egyptian artifacts threatens the museum and the job she loves. Dead Hunt was a lot of fun to write. It pits Diane against a clever killer.

Q. Did a real person provide the inspiration for Clymene O’Riley?

A. No. Real people don’t often provide inspiration for any of my characters. One of the things I enjoy about writing is making up characters and their back stories.

Q. What is the difference between Lindsay Chamberlain’s work and Diane Fallon's? How do the two characters differ in personality, temperament, interests?

A. Lindsay Chamberlain is foremost an archaeologist. Although she is also a forensic anthropologist, that was never her full time career. Currently she is a professor at the University of Georgia. Lindsay is younger than Diane, more optimistic, I think, and more of an academician. Lindsay has lived a relatively sheltered life. Her father is a professor of Shakespeare and her mother raises Arabian horses. Consequently, Lindsay loves horses and is an expert horsewoman. Lindsay is kind, but does not suffer academic fools. She is a terror in faculty meetings and at conferences. Her investigative style is derived from her archaeology mind set. She’s accustomed to looking at incomplete data and figuring out what happened, whether it is an archaeological dig or a crime scene.

Diane Fallon was a full time forensic anthropologist working in the field of human rights investigation. She abruptly stopped and made a career change when her adopted daughter and several friends were massacred by a man she and her team were investigating. This has made Diane not quite the optimistic person that Lindsay is. Diane took a job as director of a museum of natural history—something completely different from dealing with mass murderers. A former lover convinced Diane to get back into forensic anthropology to help him discover who killed his friends (One Grave Too Many). That inspired her to put in a forensic anthropology lab as well as a crime scene unit attached to the museum. Diane’s method of solving crimes is more about analyzing evidence and interviewing suspects. Diane loves caves and is an expert caver and rock climber. (Lindsay hates caves ever since she was trapped in one.) Diane tries to bring out the best in the people around her.

Lindsay Chamberlain novels tend to be more academic mysteries and usually take place on an archaeological dig somewhere in the southeastern United States. Diane Fallon novels tend to be more crime scene mysteries that take place in the general area of north Georgia and are a little harder edged. Both are a lot of fun to write.

Q. Did you always plan to write, or was this an interest that developed after you began working as an archaeologist?

A. Writing was an interest that developed over time. I always made up stories in my head, but never really thought of becoming a writer until later in life. Which worked out well for me—it was after working as an archaeologist that I had more interesting things to write about.

Q. Are you writing full-time now, or do you still work as an archaeologist? Do you think the skills required in that work equipped you to write mysteries?

A. I write full time now. I always liked to read mysteries and one thing I noticed was that archeologists are really very much like detectives. Both detectives and archaeologists do the same thing. They uncover the true story of a site or a crime scene working from biased and incomplete data—they only have what is left behind to construct what happened.

Q. What kind of reactions to your books have you had from other archaeologists?

A. I have received very kind reactions from archaeologists from all over. That was very gratifying to me. When the very first Lindsay Chamberlain mystery came out (A Rumor of Bones) one archaeologist wrote that it was like every site he had ever worked on. I always try to make the archaeology accurate as well as the forensics.

Q. Has it been difficult to come up with plausible storylines that involve an archaeologist or anthropologist in present-day murder cases? Do you consciously place any limits on your imagination when you’re plotting a book, and do you ever discard a story idea or plot twist because you don't believe it would be realistic for your character?

A. So far I’ve been lucky in coming up with plausible storylines and haven’t had to discard anything yet. The archaeology is as accurate as I can make it. If I change anything, like a date, for plot purposes, I put it in an author’s note. I’m also as accurate as I can be with the forensics, too. Other than that, I don’t place any limits on my imagination. Skeleton Crew’s plot (one of the Lindsay mysteries) was close to going over the top and it was one of the most fun to write. Sometimes I’m tempted to do something in “fantastic archaeology” with Lindsay, but so far have resisted the temptation. Lindsay wouldn’t like it.

Q. Do you still have to do research for your novels, or do you write about what you already know?

A. Each book takes about six months of research. For the Lindsay Chamberlain books I soon realized that she couldn’t be on a Mississippian archaeological dig (Native American sites in the southeastern United States from about A.D. 800 to 1500 A.D. — the kind of digs I worked on) for all the books. So, I branched out to historical sites as well as underwater archaeology. For Skeleton Crew Lindsay was excavating a Spanish galleon off the coast of Georgia inside a cofferdam. She did some underwater archaeology. I have never done anything like that. I had to research every aspect of that book and it was my favorite. Because I was an archaeologist and not a forensic anthropologist (though I did work with burials), nor was I a crime scene specialist, I also have to do a lot of research for the Diane Fallon novels.

Q. What aspect of writing craft has been most difficult for you to master? What aspect do you enjoy the most?

A. I think the most difficult is writing dialog. I don’t have a good ear for dialog and am always trying to improve. The most fun is the plotting and the research. I love just making up stories.

Q. What led you to publishing the Lindsay Chamberlain series with Cumberland House, a relatively small regional publisher? Can you contrast the small publisher/big publisher experiences for us - the pros and cons of each? Do you think small publishers are a good way for writers to get started in today’s difficult market?

A. Cumberland House offered me a very nice contract. That’s why I went with them for the Lindsay series. The big difference between a small publisher and a big one is the ability of the large publisher to get my books into a larger market—more bookstores. Big publishers simply have a wider distribution system and print more books. The average print run for a small publisher is five to seven thousand copies. Keeping in mind that there are perhaps 10,000 bookstores in the U.S. alone, you can see that the small publisher’s print run cannot compare with the impact of thirty, fifty, or a hundred thousand copies printed by a large publisher.

With the small publisher I had a larger chunk of the in-house publicity budget than I do with the bigger house.

Are small presses a good way for writers to get started? They can be. Often small presses specialize, and if you have something that fits their niche it is a good way to go. You can develop a good regional readership in a small house that can expand to a national and worldwide readership. But small houses can be just as difficult to get published in as large houses. One of the main things to look for with any small or mid-size house is the distribution system—can they get your books in the stores?

Q. What’s next for you after Dead Hunt? Can you give us a hint of what you’re working on now?

A. In the next Diane Fallon mystery she has lost the crime lab. With new elections and a change in mayors, Diane was replaced as director of the crime lab. She still has her job at the museum and her own osteology lab, and she is enjoying the free time she now has. Unfortunately, the newly elected mayor is murdered and she is again drawn into solving crimes—there goes her free time. I’m also working on the sixth Lindsay Chamberlain, Kill Site. Lindsay is working on a PaleoIndian dig and discovers that she had a double who disappeared years ago and people in the small town near the site aren’t sure that Lindsay isn’t really the missing woman. This of course makes her life much more complicated, especially with the trouble she is having on the dig.

Q. In parting, what advice do you have for aspiring writers?

A. Keep writing. And if getting published is one of your goals, never give up trying, ever. You, of course, have to write a good story. Read as many books on writing and publishing as you can. Go to a writers conference to meet people in the industry and have your manuscript read. Listen to good advice. Keep going and don’t give up. In the end, the race often goes to the writer who perseveres.

Visit the author's web site at

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Year of the Parrot

I’m a boar, a fire boar to be exact, so last year was my year according to Chinese calendar, and I gladly celebrated the Year of the Pig all year long.

This year, I have a problem. It’s the Year of the Rat. I don’t like rats. I don’t mean I can take them or leave them. I mean I have a visceral, hysterical, sick-at-my-stomach reaction when I hear the word. If I’m going to survive the next twelve months, I’m have to come up with a different symbol.

Welcome to my Year of the Parrot. Anyone born under the sign of the parrot loves to talk and can curse in several languages. They eat crackers in bed. They stand on one foot and scratch themselves in embarrassing places in front of company. They can often be found perched on curtain rods, talking to themselves under their breath. Somehow this strikes me as a perfect sign for writers.

Alright, so I’m not taking today’s blog terrible seriously. We are snapping back from a record cold spell, even for Calgary. A week ago today, we bottomed out at 37 below, with a wind-chill of 52 below. For those of you who prefer your degrees in Fahrenheit, that’s 34 below, with a wind-chill of 61 below. The photo below is from my bedroom window on the night the temperature went to 52 below.

Yes, it does get that cold. Yes it is possible to go outside without freezing solid. No, I have no idea why human bodies don’t turn into instant popsicles. It must have something to do with wearing three layers of clothes, wool socks, winter boots, a coat, a toque, a silk ski mask, two woolen scarves, and thick gloves.

Other than the days I worked my day job and was forced to dress like the Michelin Tire Man before I set foot outside, I stayed home. I painted Valentine’s Day cards, read a screamingly funny paranormal mystery, stared at my yearly writing objectives—they stared back. We are currently in negotiations.—and tried my hand at making goat’s milk cheese.

As creative people, I think we need unexpected breaks, days when we can slow life down and pay attention, even to silly things such as inventing the Year of the Parrot. There comes a time when we have to, as my husband calls it, “Top up tanks.” So the cold snap is mostly over, the goat’s milk cheese turned out well, and we are a week into the Year of the Parrot. Wishing you all a wonderful year.

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot. Story Circle Network was kind enough to interview me last month. The podcast web site is in case you're in to that sort of thing.
Writing quote for the week. It’s another two-for-one week, because when-else would I have a chance to use quotes related to parrots?

The narrator is a 60-year-old parrot. Having been raised by Carmelite nuns, she is incorruptible (Down these mean streets a bird must waddle who is not herself mean). As the Carmelites are a silent order, Polly Phonic can’t talk but her calligraphy is to die for. ~Karen Affinbeck, mystery writer

Apart from the predictable difficulties of trying to fence in a room filled with curious monkeys, the rehearsal went well.
~Donna Andrews; We’ll Always Have Parrots

Monday, February 11, 2008

In Memory of Phyllis A. Whitney

by Julia Buckley
I never met Phyllis A. Whitney; I never imagined that I would. She was a star to me. I grew up with her books lying around my house, and it was her books that I got in three-packs at Christmastime (oh, happy winter holidays!) and which I took on vacations and which I grabbed on rainy afternoons. She wrote adventures, and I read them.

I’m sure she was underestimated by some because of her genre, romantic suspense, but Whitney was a queen of fiction, keeping steely control over her diction even as her creative mind wove wonderful webs of intrigue. Two of my personal favorites were Black Amber and The Turquoise Mask; Lost Island made me attempt, at about twelve years old, to try to write my own romantic suspense novel (which was, naturally, dreadful). Whitney’s writing inspired reading, but it inspired writing, as well. She made the difficult look easy and exciting.

In her 1982 book Guide to Fiction Writing, Whitney not only shared the fact that she received many rejection slips at the beginning of her career, but that one shouldn’t let writing be an intimidating thing: “It’s easy. We need only to write one page at a time. For all the months of writing that lie ahead, that’s all that’s required of us—one page, and then another. It’s astonishing how they pile up.”

Her tone is that of a comforting guide, a Yoda of fiction who calms her younger charges by telling them that nothing is worth getting all upset over, and that a good book is worth the time one invests. Certainly Whitney’s books were worth it, time and again.

Sadly, all of that experience and good advice is rated very low in the scheme of things. You can find Whitney’s old books starting at about a penny a piece on, but to me her words are invaluable, as is her legacy.

Phyllis A. Whitney lived to be 104 years old; she was quoted as saying that writing kept her perpetually young. In her life she was an inspiration, and in her peaceful death she has joined many other greats of fiction who shall remain alive in the hearts of their readers.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Middle-aged Beginner

June Shaw (Guest blogger)

Sandy Parshall asked if I’d write on this topic. I assume she wasn’t saying I’m middle-aged. Probably she was thinking about the Middles Ages. She surely didn’t mean I’m getting older because I have eight grandchildren and finally sold a book.

Maybe she was talking about me. I’m proud to say I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since ninth grade—and now I am one!

Back then, my English I teacher wanted me to
practice writing a paragraph because he was sending me to the literary rally. He said to write about a splinter.

I ambled to my desk, deciding the man was definitely boring. I wrote a grammatically-correct paragraph describing a sliver of wood and carried it to his desk.

He skimmed it. “June, this is boring.”

“Yes, but you told me to write it.”

“No. Like this.” And then he wrote, “Ouch!” He said, “Take it from the splinter’s point of view. Somebody just sat on it.”

Wow! My inspiration. All of my creative writing instructions.

I placed first in that rally but don’t remember what our paragraphs were about. I’ve always recalled the splinter that came to life. Before then, I’d thought all good writers were old dead men from Europe. Besides, I hadn’t been exposed to humorous writing.

Once I realized writers could create any thing or person and make it do or say anything, I decided one day I’d do that. I’d be a writer.

I didn’t try until I was a young widow with five children.

I was busy throughout high school, married my older school sweetheart soon afterward, and had five children in six years. “Good Catholic or sex fiend?” people asked.

“Both,” I’d reply.

Once my mind kicked in after my husband’s death, I knew I needed to do something to bring home money. What would I like to do? Write. That thought came, along with images of the talking splinter. Yes, I still wanted to be a writer.

But my silly children wanted to eat and wear shoes. And I hadn’t read novels in years. The main thing I’d been reading was backs of cereal boxes, but I seldom had time for a whole one.

I never considered writing novels back then. I had to earn money and do it soon. Re-enrolling in our local university, I completed a degree and started teaching young teens. My own kids started becoming young teens, too, and they drove the younger ones to practices, giving me a pinch of free time. That maimed splinter emerged in my mind. The time had come—I’d be a writer!

I had no idea what to write.

Gradually I wrote and later sold a few essays and stories. Along the way I read and tried writing novels. The first two or three (okay, maybe four) didn’t sell, but I don’t think you’re supposed to sell those first ones. They’re practice, like athletes practicing for the pros. There’s a learning curve. Of course I still hope one day I’ll be an important enough author that editors ask to see everything I’ve ever written. That happened to my idol, Janet Evanovitch. Some people have compared my style to hers. I’m deeply flattered.

Finally I sold an e-book, a romantic suspense. I liked it. But e-books didn’t sell well except for erotica, which I wasn’t writing. I decided to work harder until I could sell a book that my family and friends could hold in their hands.

I did it! Creating and selling that hardcover book took forever—but it happened! Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and others gave Relative Danger great reviews. Deadly Ink nominated it for their new David Award for Best Mystery of the Year. Oh my gosh, it wasn’t just some of my own gown kids liking my book. Harlequin bought reprint rights. At Relative Danger is available in paperback. And my publisher just bought its sequel. I’ve started the third book in the series. What fun!

Now instead of being confined to my house with kids, I travel and write off the trips. Somebody has got to cruise Alaska (in August—and I’m from south Louisiana). I asked people on board where would be a good place to find a body. Got one! It’ll be in my third Cealie Gunther book. (Don’t ask where her name came from. She is who she is. I tried to change her, but she is so stubborn.) I get to fly to Dallas and Washington, D.C. and lots of other places to speak about writing (me!) and sign my books. And people interview me for newspapers and newsletters and blogs. And people give me money for my writing. How cool is that!

My best friends asked if I’d still talk to them after I became rich and famous. I laughed and said, “I don’t know. You’d better talk to me now.”

I love being with my friends and large family. They’re extremely proud of me. All of them cheer me on—and tell my younger grandkids they have to wait until they’re teens to read my current book since it’s PG13. I keep the little ones whenever I want to play. And my mom lives with me now since she’s almost blind from macular degeneration. She loves to dance (check her dancing at, and I dance with her, and we read my book to her, skipping some parts.

Life is good. Different. Interesting.

So Sandy, does reaching middle years mean a woman slows down? This gal is just getting started! I loved meeting you and some other terrific ladies from Poe’s Deadly Daughters at Malice Domestic. Y’all have a great blog. Thanks so much for inviting me here.

Visit the author’s web site:

Friday, February 8, 2008

Getting caught up in a good book . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

Last week I was cooking for company and listening to BONES TO PICK by Carolyn Haines. Unfortunately, my MP3 player ran out of battery before I ran out of mashed potatoes to mash or green beans to stir. As the cooking tasks progressed, I found myself wondering what was going on with the characters. What would Tinkie do about her angry husband? What would Sarah Booth do about the men in her life? And more to the point, WHO is the killer? I had to re-charge and still haven't found time to listen to the rest of the book. Grrrr.

I can remember reading a book as a child (stop me if I've told this story before. No? Great!) while my step-mother was driving us somewhere. She turned a corner just as the character in the book fell out of a canoe. I jumped and prepared to swim for it until reality reasserted itself.

I adore getting lost in a good book. Hating to put it down to stir the soup or turn out the lights and go to sleep. I wonder what the characters are getting up to while I'm not looking. And I adore that about writing, wondering what my characters are getting themselves into while I'm busy, away from my laptop. For me, those books generally have to be of a cozy nature with a smidge of humor. However, I will read a thriller or suspense if it keeps my interest and doesn't try to see how many more grey hairs it can give me. Or how much torture can be inflicted on the lead character without killing her/him.

What sort of books have to be pried from your stiff hands before you'll stop reading for the day? Do you ever embarrass yourself by laughing out loud when reading in a public place? (I, for one, can not allow myself to read a Bill Crider or Donna Andrews book anywhere in public. Too embarrassing when I start giggling and snorting.) When you close the book, do you ever feel like you are waking up from a dream? And then do you want to go back to that world right away? In other words, what floats your boat in the book world?