Wednesday, August 31, 2011

White Heat in the frozen north

by Sandra Parshall

M.J. McGrath’s first mystery,White Heat, set in the Arctic Circle and featuring Inuit hunter and guide Edie Kiglatuk, was a bestseller in the UK and was published in the US in August. Edie is a strong, independent woman who feels compelled to investigate fatal hunting accidents that Inuit elders would prefer she forget about. In the process, she uncovers a high-level threat to the starkly beautiful land she loves.

As Melanie McGrath, the author has produced critically acclaimed, bestselling non-fiction (Silvertown and The Long Exile) and won the John Llewelyn-Rhys/Mail on Sunday award for Best New British and Commonwealth Writer under 35, for her first book, Motel Nirvana. She writes for the British national press and is a regular broadcaster on radio. Melanie lives and works in London. Visit her website at

Q. Why did you choose Arctic Canada as a setting for White Heat? How did you become familiar enough with it to write about it?

A. I spent quite some time travelling in Arctic Canada and Alaska. I tried wherever possible to stay with local families because I prefer it that way! One of the places I visited was Ellesmere Island, the most northerly land mass in the world, and the setting for White Heat. While I was up there, I stayed with an Inuit family who took me dog sledding, hunting and snowmobiling out on the sea ice, but I also ate meals, watched TV and played computer games at home with them, so I really got to know them as individuals and picked up a lot of detail about their daily lives.

Q. What kind of person is Edie? What are her greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses? What – or who – inspired the character?

A. My initial inspiration for Edie was an Inuit woman polar bear hunter I met up in the High Arctic, but Edie is very much her own person. She's very, very tough, and not without her problems, but she's vulnerable and caring too. The only way to really get to know her is to read the book!

Q. Was she fully fleshed out in your mind before you began writing the novel, or did she develop along with the story?

A. You come to a story with the idea of a character but then they kind of take over and develop whether you like it or not!

Q. Edie is a tracker and hunter. Do you have any similar experience, or did you have to research the kind of life she lives?

A. I did go tracking with Inuit up on Ellesmere Island. We were looking for musk-ox, and found one, who was not quite as thrilled to see us as I was to see him! He was just readying himself to charge us when we backed off.

But I've had other experiences hunting and tracking too. A few years ago, I wrote and presented a documentary for the Discovery Channel in which I learned how to track and hunt from the San people in Nambia in southern Africa. I am in total awe of the knowledge many indigenous people have of their environments.

Q. In the book, Edie comes up against a native Council of Elders who are reluctant to investigate a suspicious death because it might reduce desperately needed income from tourism. Do you believe this desire to downplay or hide anything negative is a common attitude in that part of the world?

A. People are people, whatever part of the world they're in.

Q. When you decided to turn to fiction writing, why did you choose mystery? Are you an avid reader of the genre? Who are some of your favorite crime fiction writers?

A. I'm not a good sleeper so I read a lot. I'm naturally drawn to mysteries but I read all kinds of stuff. I like character-led stories, whatever the genre. As for crime fiction writers, can I tell you who my favorites are when I've read them all?

Q. What has been the most challenging aspect of mystery writing for you?

A. Keeping it all in my head without my brain exploding.

Q. Will Edie be solving crimes in future mysteries?

A. The girl just can't help herself, so the answer is definitely yes. The second Edie mystery will be out next year.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Anything Worth Doing . . .

Sharon Wildwind

… is worth doing badly.

For a while last winter, my world had been ice-covered for so long that I was desperate for green. Every seed went from my kitchen cutting board into soil. Squash sprouted. So did tomato seeds. Lemons did less well.

I’ve sprouted uncounted avocado seeds. You’ve known the drill since grade school: shove three or four toothpicks around the seed, suspend it half-way in a glass jar of water, discard the resulting vine when the water becomes mold-encrusted. But could I grow an avocado tree to maturity indoors?

Why not? The seed was certainly big enough to have potential, so I popped it into a pot. When I told my coworker from El Salvador that I was growing an avocado tree in my living room, she laughed. “Do you know how big an avocado tree is?” No, actually, I didn’t.

The seed sprouted, but the tree languished from too little light. Spring arrived and the days got longer and brighter. The tree grew. Grew. Grew some more. Dropped leaves all over my carpet. I cut it back. It twisted and kept growing. I changed plant food. It really started growing, but by now the long trunk was bare and with all the leaves clustered at the top. Not a world-class tree growing effort, buy hey, it was healthy and I’d developed a fondness for seeing it every morning.

I’d become more involved in the process more than the product, which is a good quality for a writer to cultivate, especially a writer in her mid-career.

All writers start out with a taste for adventure. Instead of asking ourselves if we can discover the source of the Nile, we ask can I write a story? Can I finish it? Can I get it published? Can I make the next story bigger, better, faster, more publishable?

That’s when our sense of adventure may take a wrong turn. When writing becomes about meeting the next deadline, making the next sale, doing the next thing our publisher expects us to do, we remove ourselves — or are sometimes forcibly removed — from a sense that we have the freedom to do trial-and-error.

Stick to what you know. Stick to what sells. This isn’t the kind of book your readers have come to expect. Changing genres would be suicide. No one will understand what you’re trying to do. I have only so much time for writing, so I’d better use it wisely and stick to writing what will result in the next sale.

Did you notice the change in pronouns. You becomes I. No more experimenting. No more doing things badly just for the sake of trying something new. Time to throw out that mold-encrusted vine, sterilize the jar, and stay ferociously focused on my career path. What fun is that?

What are three things that you would love to try, but are afraid that you will be terrible at them? Go ahead and do them anyway. Steal minutes here and there from your serious career path to play around. Make a mess. Experiment. Make mistakes. Drop a few leaves on the carpet. Twist and grow. There is, in truth, no such thing as doing badly. There is only doing the unfamiliar long enough that it becomes a part of your life, like the avocado has become part of our living room. The more artistic adventures you have, the better your art becomes.

As for the avocado tree, I realized about the middle of summer that something wonderful was happening. Mama avocado was having a baby. Baby is now two-and-a-half feet tall, green, and growing straight and true. It’s going to be interesting to see if I can keep both of them alive over the long, cold, dark winter. I certainly intend to try, even if I do it badly.
Quote for the week:
Always keep some of your creative energy for play. Today’s playground could well turn into future sales.
~Barbara Hambly, science fiction, mystery, and fantasy writer

Monday, August 29, 2011

Oh Mother, Where Art Thou?

by Julia Buckley
Yesterday I watched HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON with my youngest son. This Paramount picture came out in 2010 to much acclaim, and I can see why: splendid animation, a neat story, a wonderful dragon who reminded me a lot of my cat, and talented voiceover actors. But I ended up with the same complaint about it that I have about a vast number of movies like this: there was no mother.

Yes, the mother was CONVENIENTLY DEAD, as are many mothers in the patriarchal scripts of Hollywood. Even more troubling to me is that the most common movie offenders in this vein are movies for kids. Don't believe me? Let me list them for you:

1. Bambi (yes, mother is there, but not for long).

2. Snow White . This poor girl has no parents, but does live with AN EVIL QUEEN who wants her dead.

3. Cinderella (just a father and an EVIL STEPMOTHER. Mother figures are bad, says the subtext).

4. Beauty and the Beast. It's just Belle and her good ol' Dad, and then of course her beast boyfriend.

5. The Little Mermaid. In both the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale and the Disney movie, a mother is significantly missing; Ariel's conflicts are with her father, Triton, and an EVIL SEA WITCH named Ursula.

6. Finding Nemo. No Mom. The movie is about Nemo's father trying to reunite with his son.

7. Ice Age. Mom dies in the first minute. The rest of the movie is about three male animals trying to reunite a male child with his father.

8. Pinocchio. All a little wooden boy needs are his father/creator, Geppetto, and his conscience, Jiminy Cricket. All of the main characters are male except for the Blue Fairy.

9. The Lion King. Yes, there is a mother here--she just barely has any significance in the story. The tale is about a father and son. Read the summary of the film on Wikipedia to see how influential the mother is in this movie.

10. Pocahontas. Mother is dead. She is present only in a necklace that Powhatan, the chief, gives to his daughter. Where does Pocahontas go for motherly advice? To a tree called Grandmother Willow.

11. Tarzan. Tarzan has no parents at all, but does have a gorilla mother. Jane has only a father, a non-threatening absent-minded sort of fellow.

12. Aladdin. Aladdin has no parents at all, and Jasmine, his love interest, is the daughter of the Sultan. There is no mother; instead Jasmine has a male tiger as a companion.

13. Pirates of the Caribbean. Jack Sparrow, the pirate, has only a father (played by Keith Richards). Elizabeth Swann's mother is dead, and her father is her sole (and protective) influence. Will Turner's mother is never seen, but there is much talk of his pirate father, with whom he is eventually reuinted.

14. Star Trek (the new JJ Abrams film). This one is the worst recent offender. There is a mother, who gives birth to James Kirk in the first scene. But her SOLE PURPOSE in the film seems to be that moment of giving birth to a hero, after which WE NEVER SEE HER ON SCREEN AGAIN, despite the fact that Kirk has some important moments which are attended by father figures. The message seems to be: in giving birth to James T. Kirk, the mother has done her job and now has no more significance in the story.

These are just a few off the top of my head. I'm sure you could name many more. Am I framing this criticism through a feminist lens? You bet I am. And I am more and more disenchanted with Hollywood for continuing to downplay the important role of women and of mothers simply because they don't know what to do with them in their scripts.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Accidental Beekeeper

by Jeri Westerson

Last year it was all an accident.

Years ago, one of my hobbies was making decorative birdhouses, the kind you put on shelves in your house just to perk up a room. In fact, I used to sell them in one of the wineries where I worked in the mid-nineties. (If you ever bought one in a southern California winery, Mount Palomar, look on the bottom to see if I signed it!) I know, can you imagine me, the gal who writes "medieval noir" as a crafty person? Get over your stereotypes! Anyway, I had a few extra birdhouses that I put outside to add interest to our backyard landscape. But last year, a swarm of bees moved in.

My husband and I are inquisitive sorts and we found this really fascinating. We began wondering how to keep the bees around. I consulted my bee expert who happens to be one of my critique partners, Bobbie Gosnell. She runs a B&B (notice all the “Bs” in this article? Funny, isn’t it?), writes mysteries, and also keeps bees. She gave us some handy tips, and my hubby was off to the garage to build a bee box. Too wary and not equipped with body protection in the way of proper beekeeper clothing, he didn’t molest them and instead left the new box by the birdhouse, which they were quickly busting apart with honeycombs. When the birdhouse proved too small for them, they didn’t pop in next door to the handy dandy bee box made just for them. They left. That stung. Bummer, we thought. Looking inside of the birdhouse, we examined the amazingly detailed honeycombs, spaced perfectly apart, and harvested only a tiny bit of what remained of the honey.

But we left the bee box where it was, stuffing those honeycombs inside so it would smell like a hive, hoping it might entice other bees to show up.

A year later a happy swarm did show. (A little note on terms. A bee swarm is not what you think. It’s simply a collection of bees looking for a place to live after their hive gets too crowded. A queen might lead them or they may have to make a new queen by feeding a female larva an overabundance of royal jelly, a honey bee secretion that comes from their heads, full of enzymes that cause a sterile female worker larvae to develop ovaries. A Queen Bee can produce half a million eggs in her three year lifespan. That’s pretty darned interesting, wouldn’t you agree? And kind of creepy.)
They began making their own honeycombs right away and it wasn't until my husband started reading more that he decided to build a super or another bee box that went on top of the first. That way, you leave all the honey in the box below for the bees and you can harvest the honey on top for yourself.

Honey is interesting to us in another way. Years ago when I started writing my medieval mysteries, I wondered aloud to my homebrewing husband (he makes homebrewed beer) if he wouldn’t make me some mead. Mead is an ancient alcoholic drink made of honey, water, and yeast. Sometimes called honey wine, it is really a brewed drink, which puts it in beer-making territory. It’s actually the oldest alcoholic drink there is. Paintings in Egyptian tombs depict beekeeping and mead-making. And in the Middle Ages (ah, you knew that was going to show up) it was a quite popular celebratory drink. Although honey was a valuable commodity. Since sugar was expensive and hard to come by (it came from Arab traders and was sold in hard-packed conical loaves) one raised bees to have something sweet around, not to mention the beeswax which could be sold to churches and monasteries for candles. Even today, real candles in Catholic churches must be of a high percentage of beeswax (originally, it was because beeswax burned with less smoke in such unventilated places). So though mead is far older it gets associated with the medieval and Renaissance periods. I wanted a bit of mead to sip while I wrote my medieval mysteries and he thought he’d give it a shot.

As a consequence, he has become an excellent mead maker, even wins awards at county fairs (and I take full credit for that! We also serve his mead at my book launches. It’s a real hit.)

He had to remove the lid of the old bee box in order to attach the super to the top, so armed in his protective gear (and me hiding by the house with the garden hose in my hand in case I had to hose him down) he lifted the lid where some honeycomb stuck to it. We scraped that off, drained the honey out of it, and managed to get a half a jar’s worth of honey just out of a few pieces of honeycomb. Those are some productive creatures!

The super has a porthole where we can peer in and see what they are up to. But I usually give them a wide berth. You can go up to them with no consequences generally, especially when most are gone during the day or they are settling down at night. They’ve got it good, our bees, some 40,000 of them. They get to have a whole box full of honey for themselves, they are sheltered from the heat of the day under a grape arbor, and they’ve got fruit trees, plants, and flowers all around them all year round here in southern California. But we get a lot of enjoyment out of them just watching them work. Yes, hubby’s been stung several times now, but next year we should see the fruits of their labors and have ourselves some homegrown honey.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Time to Write

by Sheila Connolly

I had two deadlines converging on August first -- one set of heavy-duty edits, and the first draft of the next Orchard Mystery. I submitted both of them to my editor on time, and now I'm feeling kind of lost.

I don't mind pressure. I was always one of those students who knew exactly how much time I needed to study or write a paper, and I've never missed a deadline. I know there are people who think I'm crazy to take on writing three series concurrently, but I've proven to my editor that I can handle it. It's also something of a relief to have a fixed schedule going forward, so there will be no more logjams like the August one. I hope.

I think it's healthy to step back from writing now and then--to let the voices in your head subside. Of course, we writers are always thinking about what comes next, but it's wise to let your subconscious take over for a while. As a result, this month I've been doing all sorts of catch-up projects that I've been putting off for years--in a couple of cases, even a decade (like recaning a set of chairs--I finished one and a half seats years ago, but there are four of them, and the naked ones sit in the dining room mocking me). Next I may end up sorting my entire collection of print photographs--and I've had a digital camera for a decade now.

You know what? The busywork is simply not enough. I may give myself wise counsel about taking a break, but the next book is demanding to be written. My protagonist keeps popping into my head, and I find myself wondering how she would would do in this or that situation. I guess break time is over.

But I know I have to be careful with this one, because it's set in Ireland--in a particular town, population 210 or so. Most of us probably have an internal image of Ireland: lots of green fields; friendly people crowded into pubs, happily singing as they lift a pint of foaming Guinness; rainbows and leprechauns. Of course I've been there--I wouldn't dream of writing a book based solely on some Bord Fáilte (the national tourist board) PR person's idea of what sells in America. But based on what I've seen, a lot of the PR is true: the friendly people who are happy to chat with strangers, the lovely countryside, the slower pace of life in general. Heck, even the rainbows are real (what do you expect with all that rain?). Not the leprechauns, though. I think. I think I may have seen one, but he disappeared before I could investigate.

I don't want to write a travelogue. My protagonist, Maura Donovan, is a young woman from the Boston area. She was raised by a hardworking, Irish-born grandmother, but she has never bought into the whole Ould Country thing, and goes to Ireland reluctantly to fulfill her grandmother's wish. She's fully prepared not to like the place. And that's going to make writing about her an interesting balancing act.

In a way the story arc will conform to a genre canon--most likely from the romance side of the fence, substituting a country for that guy with the muscles and the sensitive mouth who shows up in Chapter 2 and gets the girl in Chapter 30. But romance is the last thing Maura is looking for. She has a chip on her shoulder about life in general, and no idea what she wants. But she can and will change, and it's Ireland and the people she meets that will make those changes happen. Not all at once, of course, but at least by the end of the first book she will be warming to the country, just a bit. Not exactly a commitment, but she's opened the door a crack.

I still have to wrestle with readers' expectations. As I said, most people feel they know Ireland. Do I want to shatter their illusions? But what if those illusions are actually the reality? Will others claim that I'm taking the easy road and trotting out all the trite platitudes? I can see the reviewers' comments now: "reads like a tourist guide."

What's more, Ireland has been through some trying times in the last decade, and I have to take into account that what was written about the place in 2000, in the midst of the Celtic Tiger, may no longer be true. And that makes it even more challenging to write about. If I say that the Irish people have shrugged it off and gone on about their business, would readers believe me? Yet it's only the last installment of centuries of hardships that the Irish have endured.

Still, it's time for me to jump in and try, because Maura is insisting on it. Funny story: when I sent my agent a first draft of the opening chapters, she didn't like Maura; she thought she was too angry, which made her unappealing. I dialed down the anger, but I held on to the distrust: Maura doesn't expect life to hand her any gifts, based on her experience. But she'll come around Ireland will do that to do, because there is some sort of magic there. Really.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Staying Power of Classic Mysteries

Elizabeth Zelvin

While many admirable mysteries are being written today—and a fair number of the people writing them are friends of mine—few of them have the staying power of some of the classic mysteries, whether from the Golden Age of Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie or the equally beloved reign of Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey in the Fifties. Not only do I get great pleasure out of re-reading those I can get my hands on, but I remember memorable lines from some of these authors’ books for decades after the last time I saw them in print.

In Dorothy L. Sayers’s Strong Poison, Lord Peter Wimsey first sees Harriet Vane during her trial for murder and saves her from the gallows after a mistrial gives him time to find the real killer. I don’t have to google or open the book to recall Harriet’s goodbye when he takes his leave after visiting her in prison:

“I am always at home,” the prisoner said gravely.

Harriet is down on men and uncomfortable with gratitude and dependence, so she leads Lord Peter a dance for several books after finally accepting his proposal at the end of Gaudy Night (with dignity and in Latin). I don’t have to look it up to tell you that Harriet says at one point, If I ever marry you, it will be for the pleasure of hearing you talk piffle.” Another scene that remains vivid for me, though I can’t quote it verbatim, is the one in which the unknown, malicious villain destroys the exquisite chess set that Peter has given Harriet. She’s devastated, and Peter tells her her reaction is precious to him because she says, “You gave them to me, and they were beautiful,” rather than, “They were beautiful, and you gave them to me,” valuing the giving above the gift itself. I believe the evolution of Lord Peter’s and Harriet’s relationship and the deepening of their characterizations to sustain it mark the beginning of the character-driven mystery novel. And it’s character, along with language, not puzzle or plot, that makes me savor, revisit, and never forget a book I’ve read.

I did have to google the exact wording of a line from Agatha Christie that I remembered as referring to moldy bread as “practically penicillin.” The passage, from Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, was even more delicious, so to speak, than I remembered:

“I didn’t get to that pudding in time. It had boiled dry. I think it’s really all right—just a little scorched, perhaps. In case it tasted rather nasty, I thought I would open a bottle of those raspberries I put up last summer. They seem to have a bit of mould on top but they say nowadays that that doesn’t matter. It’s really rather good for you—practically penicillin.”

Then there’s Ngaio Marsh’s Troy, her detective Roderick Alleyn’s wife, taking a river cruise in A Clutch of Constables. Troy’s impulsive decision to take this trip, sparked by an appealing ad, has made me believe in the romance of such voyages ever since I first read the passage in which she tells herself, “For five days, I step out of time.” What an evocative and unforgettable line!

Among Josephine Tey’s wonderful books, my favorite is Brat Farrar, about an appealing foundling who undertakes an impersonation and ends up falling in love with a family and finding his sense of belonging in their home and way of life. Given enough time on a desert island with nothing to read, I could probably reconstruct the whole book from memory.

This is not to deny that some current writers and their characters achieve that kind of power over our imaginations. I’ve never forgotten how moving it is when Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder speaks up in an AA meeting and says, “I’m an alcoholic” for the first time in Eight Million Ways to Die (1982). Granted, the topic of recovery is of particular interest to me as an alcoholism treatment professional and author of my own mystery series featuring a recovering alcoholic protagonist. But Block’s series, and that scene in particular, made me care so much about Scudder that I was thrilled when Block finally wrote his love letter to AA almost thirty years later, in this year’s A Drop of the Hard Stuff, set at the end of Scudder’s first year of sobriety.

Which of the mysteries you’re reading now have that kind of power over your imagination? What scenes or lines will you never forget, even ten or twenty years after the last reading?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Characters I'm (very) tired of

by Sandra Parshall
The TSTL (Too Stupid To Live) heroine seems to be vanishing from crime fiction at last, but she’s being replaced by somebody equally obnoxious: the “kick-ass” heroine – foul-mouthed, hard-drinking, and thoroughly unpleasant.

Both types are on my list of characters I never want to see in a book again. Along with...

Speaking of drinking, I’ve had my fill of alcoholic cops of both genders. A police detective who can’t make it through 24 hours without getting soused doesn’t inspire my trust, admiration, or patience. Active alcoholics should not be on the job, and in most real police departments they wouldn’t be. In fiction, they drink, pass out, make critical mistakes, and somehow rarely suffer for it. Female fictional cops who drink too much may wake up in strange men’s beds with no idea how they got there. When the protagonist is an alcoholic, the drinking becomes the story. I’d rather read about the crime-solving.

I’m also tired of depressed cops. Maybe I’ve been reading too many Scandinavian mysteries, but I’ve reached the point where I can’t get through a book about a detective who is constantly questioning whether life is worth living. If I saw one of these people on a window ledge, I’d be on the street below yelling, “Jump! Jump!” Get it over with already and spare the rest of us.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the depressed cop is the wacky sidekick, seen most often in amateur sleuth and PI novels. Sometimes they’re family members or friends rather than active participants in the crime-solving. Maybe such a character is meant to give a little color to an otherwise bland protagonist – a Kramer to the book’s Seinfeld. That approach carries a big risk: the wild and crazy secondary character may grab the reader’s attention and eclipse the protagonist. I’d rather see a little more effort put into making the lead character riveting.

Then there’s the badgering mother, so common in mysteries about female cops and amateur sleuths. The badgering mother’s only goal in life is to make her daughter “settle down” – which translates to: Give me a grandchild! The daughter is doing valuable work and is good at it? Who cares! If she hasn’t popped out a baby yet, she’s worthless in the eyes of her mother. What puzzles me is that most of these mothers, in books being published now, are part of the generation most profoundly affected by the women’s liberation movement. From the way the characters are portrayed, you’d never guess Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem ever existed.

I often see “older” characters presented in a way that makes me wonder why the author hates everyone over fifty. An old man leers at and makes lewd remarks about young girls, a middle-aged woman in a robe invites a young policeman into her house and her robe “accidentally” falls open, revealing a naked body that is, of course, wrinkled and disgusting. Divorced women are bitter, lead empty lives, and can’t let two minutes pass without ranting against the gold-digging little tramps their husbands left them for. Many of these sad souls spend their time peering through the curtains at their neighbors. Yes, these people exist in real life, but they feel awfully stale on the page.

I could go on, but I’d rather hear from you. What kind of character sets your teeth on edge and makes you want to throw the book at the wall?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sweet Memory Peas

Sharon Wildwind

When I was no older than four my grandmother kept chickens. Her house, like many in the south, was built several feet off the ground. A green, painted, wooden lattice surrounded the crawl space and also provided containment for her half-dozen chickens.

I remembered this yesterday evening because I shelled peas.

One of my uncles occasionally did “favors” for burdened people in the small town. While he didn’t expect payment, they sometimes gave him a loaf of bread, a lawn-mowing, or garden produce, like a mess of peas. He’d haul the slat-sided basket out of his car trunk, set it on the concrete steps by the back porch, and announce, “So-and-so gave me a mess of peas.”

My grandmother would eye the peas and perhaps run her hand through them to see if she was going to keep them. From a distance of half a century I can only guess what criteria she used. Who they came from? The color? The heft of the pods in her hand? How much room she had in her ice box or how much time she had to shell them? Who knows, but if she decided they weren’t keepers, she’d phone what the called “the old folk’s club,” and announce to the secretary. “I got given a basket of peas that I can’t use. Send Joshua around to pick them up and take them any old people who can use them.”

If she decided to keep them, there would be a pea shelling that evening after supper.

Pea shelling happened after supper because that was the only time cool enough to do anything. This was before air-conditioning.

They also happened on the back porch because Lord forbid that neighbors see you shelling peas. I have no clue why this was proscribed, but apparently in our family, food conservation, like the washing of undies, and occasional missing Mass on Sunday to go fishing was no one else's business.

Like crawfish peeling they happened on the screened porch that ran the length of the kitchen. Unlike crawfish peeling, which required layers of newspaper covering the work table, hammers, and pecan picks doubling as crawfish picks, pea shelling required only large brown paper bags with the top folded down to keep them open, a bushel basket of peas, and several bowls. Pea shelling also required copious amounts of sweet tea, but since this was the south in summer, all back porch activities required copious amounts of sweet tea. I suspect in some places, they still do.

Peas with any sign of mildew or worm damage were discarded, unshelled, into one of the brown paper bags.

The older son — my uncle who’d brought the peas home — was pea snipper. He used a toenail clipper, thankfully kept only for shelling peas, to snip a cut two-thirds of the way through pod at the attachment end. He’d pass the clipped pea pod to his younger brother — my other uncle — who was pea stringer.

He grasped the cut end of the pod and pull the string off, just like he was opening a zipper. The discarded string went into the paper bag with the rejected pods. The clipped and stringed pod was tossed into a large bowl from which the shellers drew their lap stock. Since the two men working in tandem could snip-and-string the entire bushel before the shellers were anywhere close to finishing, they were took their ease while the rest of us worked.

My grandmother, mother, aunt, cousin, and myself were the shellers. Strong well-formed thumbnails were an advantage because they could pop shells open. Since I had nails with neither good configuration or strength, I was given a butter knife to be inserted into the open end of the shell and twisted to pop the pod open. My ragged, bitten fingernail status was no barrier to running my finger down the pod to send peas cascading into a Pyrex bowl on my lap. I always asked for, and got, the blue one.

Most peas were shelled as background to gossip, often carried on in French because children were present. Occasionally a pod would be held out for silent assessment by the pea team.

The tisk-tisk pods came in two varieties: the under-achievers either held no peas or miniscule, premature green dots; these were tossed into the pea shell bag. The over-achievers were crammed to bursting, sometimes literally, with peas grown so big that they pushed up against one-another, turning round peas into flattened spheres. Both were accompanied by a guttural clacking in the back of the throat that said, “Clearly not up to standard.”

Rarely a pod would be held up for mutual admiration. Perfect color, perfect number of peas in the pod, well spaced, perfectly rounded peas. A 9.92 score in the pea Olympics. The fortunate sheller who found one was allowed to eat it. The theory being, I suppose, that such perfection shouldn’t be lost by dumping it in a bowl with lesser competitors. And we were each allowed to eat the last pod that we shelled, so we always set aside the biggest, fattest pod for that final treat.

What does all this have to do with chickens? When I sat shelling peas yesterday evening, I suddenly remembered my grandmother scattering the contents of the pea pod bag on the ground, and chickens running out from under the house to feast. I hadn't thought about, even remembered, my grandmother's chickens in decades.

What does it have to do with writing? I’ll let this week’s quote answer that.

Memories are hunting horns whose sound dies on the wind.
~Guillaume Apollinaire, (1880 – 1918), French poet, playwright, short story writer, novelist, and art critic

The Pea Pod Fairy says when a good memory comes along, grab it quick and write it down before it dies on the wind.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Taking Mothering Too Far?

by Julia Buckley
My friend Lydia (the same one with the birthday clusters theory), once told me, during a philosophical discussion about death, that she would, if given the choice, "haunt a few people." She said this not with any vengefulness, but with more of a cheerful tone. If haunting is a possibility, she's going to go for it. :)

I explored this idea further in a story called "Motherly Intuition," which appears in Anne Frasier's just-released Halloween Anthology, Deadly Treats. In the story, a young woman named Daphne, still grieving the recent loss of her mother, is annoyed to find a voice in her head that is not her own. She consults a psychiatrist, who fears schizophrenia, but Daphne comes to realize that she is somehow talking with her mother, and although she is thrilled about this new avenue of communication, she also realizes that--even as a disembodied thought--her mother has retained the power to annoy her.

Still, Daphne is glad that her mother is watching over her when danger comes calling on Halloween night . . . .

Anne Frasier has put together a fun group of tales, a delicious variety of mystery, suspense and horror, many of them darkly funny. Anne herself claims Halloween as her favorite holiday, and she wanted to make this book for people who love All Hallows Eve and its traditions as much as she does.

So here I offer you the first taste of fall (unless your stores are already putting Halloween stuff on the shelves) in the form of some fun holiday reading.

Bill Cameron, who has been interviewed on this blog, contributed a terrific short story about his retired Portland detective Skin Kadish. Other contributors include Crimespace creator Daniel Hatadi, Editor Anne Frasier, Theresa Weir, Heather Dearly, Patricia Abbott, Pat Dennis, David Housewright, Stephen Blackmoore, Mark Hull, Leandra Logan, Marilyn Victor, Lance Zarimba, L.K.Rigel, Jason Evans, Paula L. Fleming, Shirley Damsgaard, Paul D. Brazill, and Michael Allan Mallory.

As they say in the ad world, Get your copy today!!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Canada Calling: Canadian Publishers

Ever considered publishing in Canada? Given below is a list of the major mystery publishers in Canada and their current status about if they are accepting submissions.

Most of the publishers listed below have on-line submission guidelines. Most also DO NOT accept e-mail queries or submissions. This means you must send your query by snail mail, and include a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) which brings up those pesky International Reply Coupons.

Unless you live in one of the 10 Canadian provinces or 3 Territories, Canada is another country. A Canadian publisher can not mail an SASE back to you using the stamps of any other country, so they require that International Reply Coupons be included in any query.

If you’ve ever tried to buy International Reply Coupons (IRCs) you will know that they are expensive and hard to find. If getting IRCs is a problem, contact the publisher personally to see if they would accept you sending them Canadian stamps, which can be purchased over the Internet at face value, or if you live near the Canadian border, you can pop across the border and buy them in person.

There are three kinds of Canadian postage. One is intended for use only inside of Canada and will not work to go to another country. You can tell these stamps because they have the letter “C” on them instead of a dollar amount.

The second kind is for letters mailed inside of Canada to go to the U. S. Buy stamps to use on letters going from Canada to the U.S.

The third kind is for letters mailed inside of Canada to go to any other country expect the U.S. Buy stamps to use on letters going from Canada to any country except the U.S.

Keep in mind that Canadian postal rates will increase on 2012 January 1. Current rate calculator for mailing a letter/package inside Canada to other countries. 2012 January 1 increases for mailing a letter/package inside Canada to other countries.

Now that we have those pesky details out of the way, here is a list of publishers. Some are not currently accepting submissions, but their web sites say check back from time to time, as this may change. Publishers have been arranged alphabetically.

ChiZine Publications
Location: Toronto, Ontario

Seeking 60K-100K manuscripts. See on-line submission guidelines. They are a dark fiction genre publisher. This includes science fiction, fantasy, horror, magic realism, industrial thrillers, etc. Interested in pushing the boundaries with the unusual, the outré, and the transgressive.

Location: Toronto, Ontario

Publishes both adult and young adult mysteries. See on-line submission requirements.

ECW Press
Location, Toronto, Ontario

Publishes only Canadian authors. See on-line submission guidelines. Send query and sample by snail mail.

EDGE Publishing and Tesseract Books
Location: Calgary, Alberta

Seeking novel-length science fiction and fantasy submissions of all types. See on-line submission guidelines. Send query letter and synopsis by snail mail.

Insomniac Press
Location: Toronto, Ontario

Special interests: gay and lesbian books, noir mysteries. See on-line submission requirements. Send snail mail or e-mail query first.

McArthur & Company Publishing Ltd.
Location: Toronto, Ontario

Currently not accepting unsolicited mystery manuscripts. If you have an agent, go through him/her.

OnSpec Magazine
Location: Edmonton, Alberta

See on-line submission guides. Seeking original, unpublished speculative fiction (SF) and poetry -- fantasy, horror, ghost stories, fairy stories, magic realism, etc. Send your short stories (max. 6000 words), short short stories (under 1000 words) or poetry (max. 100 lines) by snail mail.

RendezVous Crime
Location: Toronto, Ontario

Unfortunately, they are not accepting submissions at this time, but keep an eye on this site. Lots of Canadian mystery writers publish here.

Ravenstone Books
Location: Winnipeg, Manitoba

Publishes only Canadian citizens or landed immigrants, but will accept submissions from Canadians living outside of Canada. See on-line submission guidelines. Wants query first by snail mail. Interested in hard-boiled, police procedural, private eye, suspense, and thriller. At this time not considering cozies or "special knowledge" manuscripts.

NeWest Publishing
Location: Edmonton, Alberta

Not accepting mystery submissions at this time, but writers are encouraged to check back for updates.

Friday, August 19, 2011

They Just Keep Going

by Sheila Connolly

I own six vacuum cleaners.

This is not because I'm a neat freak (I'm not), or because I live with three cats who shed a lot.  It's because the blasted things will not die (hmm, zombie vacuum cleaners?).

It all began innocently enough.  When my husband and I were married (35 years ago this month!), we were broke, so we bought a reconditioned Electrolux cannister model, because that's what my family always used.  Guess what:  it's still going.

When my grandmother died, somehow I inherited her vacuum.  Now, she was a neat freak, but she lived in a studio apartment in New York, so it didn't see a lot of hard wear.  Guess what:  it's still going.

Yes, that's the one
My mother, based on her mother's example, also had an Electrolux.  I remember when she proudly upgraded, ca. 1962, to a fancier model--with what she called a Rug Beater attachment.  I remember when she proudly upgraded, ca. 1962, to a fancier model--with what she called a Rug Beater attachment (she demoted her earlier one to the basement). Forty years later, the belt broke. I went straight to the Internet and found a replacement part in minutes. What was interesting was that when I disassembled the head, the brush roller was wooden. Fancy that!

When my mother passed on, I inherited both of her vacuum cleaners. Now I was up to four, all in working order. I nearly celebrated when a cord crumbled (from age, of course) on one model, and I could officially retire its predecessor to cannibalize the cord from that. The replacement was easy, and the decorded one is still around, having given its all to provide spare parts.

The other two are shop vacs. When we moved into our home in Pennsylvania, we knew that it would required a lot of renovation, and we needed something heavy duty, so we bought a hulking big model--a sixteen gallon wet-dry vac (Sears, but only because I don't think Electrolux makes one). Guess what: it's still working (although it makes a shriek like a dying dinosaur when you turn it on, and it lost a roller foot years ago so you have to drag it around). We ended up with a second one when my stepfather passed away a decade ago. It's still going too (also minus a roller--in sympathy?).

Six vacuums, and I can't seem to get rid of any of them. I'm haunted by undead vacuums. But there's something endearing about an appliance that is so well made that it simply will not stop working. Obviously the marketplace recognizes this, because vendors are happy to supply all and any parts. But even that must be a slow business, because apart from bags, I've bought a grand total of two replacement parts in forty years. Those things are indestructible, and I respect that.

But technology has changed, and I'll admit to coveting a Dyson with that cool and colorful ball and its own little tornado. The problem is, I don't need it. I'm stuck back in the technology that was born in the 19th century, because it still works. And in this era of throwaway appliances, that's something of a miracle.

What's your oldest working appliance?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Current Crop of Clichés

Elizabeth Zelvin

I wish I could say that every writer knows how important it is to keep his or her language fresh. In theory, none of them would deny it. Yet all too often, I find myself reading the same tired old phrases and misapplied words. Leafing through a recent read, I found “a knee-jerk reaction,” “a vibrant industry,” “the spitting image,” “short and sweet,” “like he’d seen a ghost.” It’s one thing to use such expressions in dialogue, another in narrative. But that is not actually my beef today. I would like to complain about the fact that in addition to the old clichés, we now have an abundance of new clichés to guard against. Where did they come from? How did they spread so fast? And why, oh why do so many writers insist on using them?

When, for example, did “night and day” (or “day and night”) become “24/7”? When did “back in the old days” or “way back when” become “back in the day”? How did a simple “never” turn into a facetious “not anytime soon”? Actually, that one charmed me the first time I saw it, in Rosemary Harris’s first mystery. When her wisecracking suburban protagonist meets a hostile and suspicious female police detective, she says, “We were not going shopping together anytime soon.” But all too soon, I saw the same expression everywhere. Note to self: if “anytime soon” (or “back in the day” or “24/7”) should inadvertently trickle from your fingertips, delete asap!

I know where “thirtysomething” (and its derivatives, “twentysomething” and “fortysomething,” if not “fiftysomething”) came from: it was the title of a TV series that debuted in 1987. The term entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1993, where it was qualified as “specifically applied to members of the ‘baby boom’ generation entering their thirties in the mid-1980s; also attributed as an adjective phrase (hence, characteristic of the tastes and lifestyle of this group).” But the baby boomers are now “the new thirty,” ie in their sixties, and I’ve seen manuscript after manuscript in which “thirtysomething” appears simply to denote a character in his or her thirties. Published books, “not so much”—another overused phrase that has emerged in the last couple of years.

Have you read advertising copy for clothing lately? When did “pants” or “pair of pants” become “pant”? Men can buy “The North Face Men’s Outbound Pant” at Zappo’s—for one-legged mountain climbers, no doubt. “The Polo Ralph Lauren Hudson “Preston” Pant” at Bloomingdale’s—for one-legged polo players, maybe? On the other hand, at Eastern Mountain Sports, some of whose customers really are going climbing, they can still find “North Face Men’s Outbound Pants.” My one consolation with this one is that, as far as I know, nobody but advertisers and maybe retailers is using “pant” as a noun.

The most recent shift in usage that I’ve noticed, this one more in the spoken than the written word, is “iconic” for a variety of perfectly good adjectives with a number of different meanings: “classic,” “typical,” “best known,” “original,” and “household word.” Where did that one come from? You will probably be able to visualize the item I have in mind, whether I say “an iconic Coke bottle” or “a wasp-waisted Coke bottle”—but one is neo-cliché, while the other, I hope, is prose.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Bears

by Kathleen George
Author of Hideout

I was on a mini book tour—Cape May, Brooklyn, Provincetown—and when I hit Provincetown I walked around for a few days puzzled at signs that said things like “Bears Welcome Here.” 

One night it poured. Through our window my husband and I could see a party next door, men shoulder to shoulder under, oh, fifty umbrellas in the torrential rain. We hopped over puddles and two buildings away to a restaurant (Pepe’s) for dinner. From our table we had an even better view of the partying men and what appeared to be a large martini bar. It was still pouring. I asked our waiter, “Is that another restaurant next door or a house?”

“A house,” he said. “Those are bears.”

“Does that mean large men?” I asked, for there were certainly a good number of large, very large, men about.

He said, “Large and hairy. Supposed to be hairy.”

That’s when I realized that the two men who rented the place above us were bears. We heard them crashing around and lumbering down the steps. Oh, and the two guys looking for the JP in order to get married on our deck, they were large, too. And going up and down Commercial Street I could see many bears. Every once in a while a medium-sized man edged in on the group and I thought I could sense his wanting to be bigger.

I learned more as the week progressed. My friend Betty explained that it was Bear Week in Provincetown. There were other designated weeks. Family week, etc. I learned that bears are amazing. They’ve formed an organization and they keep up a clear set of postings and they sponsor events in Provincetown and other places.

“Provincetown loves the bears,” Betty told me. “The store owners and the gallery owners are always happy to see Bear Week. For one thing they are the nicest and happiest people you will ever see.” This seemed true on simple observation. I’d seen a lot of happy large men walking down the street holding hands. Often they were muscular but also often they were overweight. I was reminded that dieting sucks. “They’re cheerful, they tip well, and they like to hold hands.”

So the town was filled with good spirits and good will. “Why are they so especially happy?” I asked my husband. “Do you think it’s that they eat whatever they want?” Me, always back to food.

My husband answered me after a thoughtful pause. “They’ve done what all people need to do. They’ve organized. They’ve identified themselves and made a community that makes them feel good, that gives them support and makes them belong.”

Of course. I gravitate to writers. I even married one. That’s the club I most want to belong to. I am never so happy as when I am with a group of writers. Art colonies are great for this reason—that immediate understanding of each other. I also love my lunches with writer friends who happen to be writing crime fiction. We are always eager to see each other and everybody has a lot to say. One of our number burst into a restaurant one day and announced happily, “I had a great morning. I just killed someone with a rake.” The other people in the restaurant looked up, alarmed. But we ignored them and burbled along, feeling happy for our friend who’d had such a good morning.

What is your other “family?” What is your “Okay to be big, hairy, and gay?”

To learn more about Bear Week, go to:

Kathleen George is the editor of Pittsburgh Noir and the author of Taken, Fallen, Afterimage, The Odds (Edgar finalist, best novel), and Hideout, just released. For more information about Kathleen and her work, visit her website at

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Difficult Scenes

Sharon Wildwind

I had a great time this past weekend. A group of talented people, some of whom I’ve known for a quarter of a century, organized a cross-genre convention called When Words Collide. The convention brought together romance, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mystery writers so that we could share what was alike and different about our different geners.

These are the notes from the panel I went to about writing difficult scenes. Usually I like to credit who said what, but the room was packed. I sat on the floor, in the back of the room, where I heard the speakers, but couldn’t see who spoke when. So I’ll give everybody credit for everything.

The panelists were Susan McGregor (editor, speculative writer, and writing teacher); Jennifer Kennedy (science fiction and fantasy writer, and storyteller); Barb Galler-Smith (historical fantasy writer and editor); Lynda Williams (fantasy writer and editor); and Lauren Hawkeye (writer and theater enthusiast).

What makes a scene difficult for a writer is any emotionally-charged material. Sometimes the material is related to an emotional loss the writer has previously experienced, or a story that scares a writer so much she may become physically sick.

Very often a writer worries about how someone she loves, especially a parent or other family member, will react to reading the scene. The counter point is that writing difficult scenes are times when the writer grows both personally, and in her craft.

Common uncomfortable scenes include
~Sexual material, erotica, sexual politics, rape, alternative sexual lifestyles, or soft porn
~Loss of a character’s innocence: some writers have a hard time emotionally damaging characters they love.
~Violence particularly towards women and children. One of the hardest things a writer can try to accomplish is to make historical violence both accurate and tolerable to a modern reader.
~Moral dilemmas, especially those where heroic characters show their dark sides, and make choices that are unfair, immoral, or unjust.
~The death of a character.

The writer needs to know what frightens her and why she’s frightened. There is a huge difference between writing as therapy and writing a work to sell. A writer can’t force her way through the first by concentrating on the second. If a writer has had a horrific experience, she must take whatever time and help she needs to heal before she tries to give voice to that experience in a commercial manuscript.

Be honest about the scene being gratuitous. If it does not advance the plot or change the character in a major way, why include it? These are not the kind of scenes to use as fillers.

Know your characters; know that this scene must happen; know that there is no stopping the scene; and know that this is a scene where you can’t pull any punches. Writing around a scene, and thinking you will come back and “fill it in” later is a bad idea. Delaying a difficult scene makes it harder to come back later to write it, and harder to go on with the rest of the story. There have been situations where a writer gave up on a story rather than face a difficult scene.

Write something to fill the scene, even if it is an outline or a draft. Some writers use stereotypes to get themselves through the first draft. Good writers go back later and write beyond the stereotypes to full, rounded characters.

Other writers start by technically setting up the scene: the lighting, time of day, which character stands where, etc. Once the characters are in place, the author gets out of the way and lets the characters have their way. She writes one word at a time.

If you’re having trouble understanding what the character feels, start with a small event in your life. Think about the time you thought your credit card had been stolen. What emotions did you have? Extrapolate those emotions to a larger scale. Instead of a credit card, how would you feel if you thought your child had been stolen?

Pick other people’s brains, either in person, or by reading what people who have been through the same difficult situation have written. You have to write from your head, heart, instinct, and baser passions, like lust. Readers and writers share all of these parts, so you have to include all of the parts in your writing.

Forget thinking, “Is it all right if I write a scene like this?” or “What will so-and-so think when he reads this scene?” Just do it. Get it out on paper. Readers are whole people with complex motivations and reactions. As writers, we don’t know what will be motivating them when they read this scene. They might be at a place where they need to express anger and your scene may help them do that. They may also be at a place where they need to close the book and go away for a while. Don’t try to second-guess a reader.

Know your audience. Intentionally mismatching material and projected audiences is a power trip. You want to engage your audience where they are, and then take them one step further. For example, if your readers are likely to be uncomfortable with a homosexual relationship, just a mention of the relationship may be all they can tolerate. You can not force them to go two, five, or ten steps further than where they are today by being graphic and upping their discomfort.

If readers lose hope, writers lose readers. No matter how bad a situation gets, there must always be a glimmer of hope that the character will survive, or if the character is to die, a glimmer that the people around them will grieve and survive.

Allow difficult scenes to end a chapter. Do not attempt to bring the reader in for a gentle landing. Give the reader the luxury of closing the book at this point, so that they can go away for a while to think, cry, throw the book across the room, or decompress.

When they do come back, humor, lightness, or comfort may be needed for a few pages. Shakespeare frequently used people like gravediggers or doormen as relief characters. Aim for a balance that gives the reader a chance to pause and grab his breath. Your goal should be to make the reader want to come back to the story after a break.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Farewell, Summer Reading . . .

by Julia Buckley

I start work again this week, which is probably a good thing--in my summer laziness I've stopped accomplishing as much as I should and I've actually gained weight--but one thing I'll miss is the chance to read more books.

This summer I've read some terrific titles and become absorbed in wonderfully labrynthine plots. Here were some of the highlights:

Cradle in the Grave: This was my first exposure to Britain's Sophie Hannah, whose book has been released in America and which is a fascinating mystery surrounding the stories of three different women who have been accused of killing babies--in two cases their own children, and in one case a child of a friend.

Hannah's writing is intelligent, gripping, and ultimately impossible to put down.

The Janus Stone: This is the second in Elly Griffith's series, and it was just as compelling and well-written as the first, THE CROSSING PLACES. I'm a Griffiths fan!

Bossy Pants. Tina Fey's biography is far from a mystery, but it made me laugh out loud on several occasions and ended up being a reading highlight of my summer.

I Think I Love You: This second novel by Allison Pearson, the author of the bestselling I Don't Know How She Does It, was a nostalgic look back at the 70s and the pop reign of David Cassidy. But it's also about girlhood, friendship, families, and growing up. I loved it.

The Redbreast. This was my first taste of Norwegian Jo Nesbo's writing--an article in TIME likened him to Stieg Larrson, so I thought he was worth a read. It took me a while to get into this story, but once I did I was hooked--although it has many disturbing parallels to the actual brutality that just occurred in Norway. (Nesbo wrote a moving article about the unprecedented violence in his country after the terrorist attack).

Hell is Empty. As I mentioned before on this blog, there is no one in the mystery world right now who is quite as stylish and elegant as Craig Johnson, and this book, with its layers of literary allusion and Native American legend, was both spiritual and suspenseful. You can read my essay comparing Johnson to Ross MacDonald on this blog, here or read one of my interviews with Johnson here.

The Man in the Rockefeller Suit. Mark Seal's non-fiction look at a real-life con man was fascinating and sometimes unbelievable. It seems destined to be made into a movie in the style of Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can. (I interviewed Seal about the book here).

I read quite a few more great books this summer, even though I was lazier than usual and wasted far too much time playing Lexulous on Facebook. But these were the first that sprang to mind as good reading recommendations.

What great books did you read this summer?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Dark Heroes and the Moral Code

by guest Misa Ramirez/Melissa Bourbon

I’m a mystery writer.  My Lola Cruz Mysteries with St. Martin’s Minotaur are soft-boiled.  My new Magical Dressmaking Mysteries with NAL (Pleating for Mercy was just released on August 2nd) are cozies. 

I also have an upcoming romantic suspense based on the haunting Mexican legend of la Llorona.  It's much darker than my other books. 

Shifting from writing smart, sexy, sassy mysteries to small town cozies to darker romantic suspenses sometimes makes me feel as though I have multiple personality disorder!  There's never a dull writing day, that's for sure. 

When I began to think about a darker story, I automatically focused on the dark hero.  The damaged heroine.  And I got into Dexter. 

I should note here that I'm a teacher, as well (Southern Methodist University with the creative writing CAPE program and Savvy Authors).  One thing I love about teaching is that it forces me to continue my own learning in new and unexpected ways.  Discovering a new (to me) television show and realizing it can teach me something about characterization, is thrilling.  I went through this with Supernatural (love love love those Winchester boys).  I went through it with Lost (rife with conflict, those plane crash victims were).  I’m going through it with Breaking Bad (Walter White is one heck of a conflicted cancer victim).  And I’m going through it with Dexter.

If you haven’t seen Dexter, here’s the lowdown:

Dexter Morgan is a forensic scientist. He studies blood spatter. This television series is based on a series of novels by Jeff Lindsay, although, in the vein (no pun intended!) of True Blood, the series has taken on a life of its own.   My observations are based on the TV series, not the books.

The further into the shows I watched, the more I wondered: Is Dexter a Villain or a Dark Hero?

My take on Dexter is that he walks a thin line between being a dark hero and a villain.  This line is blurry and complicated; he is fascinating, which makes him an excellent case study.   One could probably write a dissertation on the subject, in fact.  The bottom line?  He's a layered character who does horrible things for all the right reasons.

The show has been great food for thought when it comes to crafting my own characters (for any of my different series), developing their layers and depths and figuring out how to build conflict into my stories (particularly in the romantic suspenses like A Deadly Curse which are, by nature, dark).

When I develop a character, good or bad, I craft his/her moral code.  Even the darkest hero and the villain have a moral code.  It may be twisted or skewed, but it exists and in his/her mind and actions are justified because of the code.  I’ve always written this way, but the point was driven home as I watched the end of season one in Dexter.  We began to see flashbacks to Dexter’s adoptive father and the code he helped Dexter establish.  Harry’s Code.  It’s the guiding force in Dexter’s life, informing all of his decisions.  It’s his moral compass. 

Dexter is an anomaly within humanity in that he doesn’t feel anything. He says he has a hole inside him where those feeling should go. If he could feel something, he’d care about his sister, also a cop.

Harry, Dexter’s father, steps in to help Dexter adapt to the world he lives in. He teaches him how to survive, kill effectively and efficiently, how to never get caught, and, on an emotional level, how to interact with the people around him so that he can fit in.

We all have our own moral code, we just don’t recognize it or live by it as intentionally as Dexter.  But when crafting a character, knowing his/her code can help you stay authentic to him/her.  As I am writing the third book in the Lola Cruz Mystery series, Bare Naked Lola, the mystery takes Lola to a nudist resort.  The big question (one I haven’t answered yet) is, “Will she or won’t she?”  Go naked, I mean.  See, Lola lives by a code of striving for gender equality, seeking justice, being true to her sexy, sassy, smart, kick-ass self, preserving her family’s culture within her life, and respecting herself and her family.  She’s also a good Catholic girl.  A few of these elements conflict when I try to answer the question of whether or not Lola’ll take it all off in order to solve a case. (You’ll have to stay tuned to find out the answer!)

Harlow Cassidy, the sleuth in Pleating for Mercy, has her own moral code, as well.  It revolves around the idea of justice, preserving the safe, small town Texas town she grew up in, and keeping family close and safe.  She's not an ends justifies the means kind of woman, but she is a go-getter, willing to put herself on the line if it's the right thing to do.

Just like in Dexter, people can make a choice to go against their code.  There are consequences to those decisions, and in a book, that’s exactly what you want.  If Lola doesn’t go nude, she upholds parts of her code, but sacrifices other elements.  If she does, she may solve the mystery, but will she respect the decision knowing what she did and how she compromised?  Does the end justify the means? 

In A Deadly Curse, someone is killing women and making it look like the drownings of la Llorona, a 500 year old mythic woman (think Madea).   The killer lives by his own code and sees what he does as justified.  Skewed, yes, but authentic.

Now, Dexter’s backstory is important in framing who he is (as is the case for any dark hero...or any hero, for that matter). Dexter witnessed his mother being killed, which is the catalyst for his emotional emptiness. This also drives his bloodlust and desire to hurt those who are hurting others (as he does with a dog who constantly yaps and irritates his adoptive mother to the point that she can't sleep), thereby achieving a warped sense of justice. With Harry’s guidance, he develops the “Code”--to only kill those who “deserve” it (those who are killers themselves). The God Complex here is obviously huge, and the whole premise is layered with moral dilemmas.

Things get more complicated for Dexter as he continues to ‘role play’ his emotional attachment to the few people he pretends to care about (his sister, a girlfriend, and her / his children). The other fundamental conflict, or course, is that he works in law enforcement, yet he breaks the law--in a big way--every time he kills.  His secrets are close to being discovered more than once.

But from the beginning, we witness a process of humanization in Dexter because we understand why he is bereft of emotions, where that hole in him stems from, and when he begins to question his own code, we see his deeper moral dilemma. This character truly straddles the line between villain (because how do we ever condone a killer and this God complex?) and dark hero (because we see the good in his intentions). When he begins to recognize ‘real’ feelings within himself, the ambiguity of his ‘hero’ status deepens right along with his moral conflicts.

This is a fascinating, albeit violent and graphic, show (I cover my eyes... A LOT!). Despite the gruesomeness and violence, I love it, as I also love Breaking Bad, because this character is so fundamentally conflicted. The conflicts manifest in very unexpected ways. Watching both of these shows makes me really question and think about moral coded and values, applying what I know to my own characters and their development. 

A great character, dark or not, will force us to look more closely at ourselves, to examine what we think and feel, and any character who can make us do that is well worth watching or reading about, and will, ultimately, help us as we build our own conflicted, real characters--no matter how light or dark the book.

What do you think of Dexter (if you’ve seen the show and know the character)? Do you think he’s a villain or a dark hero?

Melissa Bourbon, who sometimes answers to her Latina-by-marriage name Misa Ramirez, gave up teaching middle and high school kids in Northern California to write full-time amidst horses and Longhorns in North Texas. She fantasizes about spending summers writing in quaint, cozy locales, has a love/hate relationship with yoga and chocolate, is devoted to her family, and can’t believe she’s lucky enough to be living the life of her dreams.

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And at Books on the House, a website bringing books and readers together!