Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Westlake writes, "Gentle comedy is the hardest to make work." This a good assessment of Thurber, whose jokes are not always obvious, but become funnier the more one thinks about them, the more his dialogues roll around in the back of one's mind. "Mr. Preble Gets Rid of His Wife," seems to be much more an indictment of marriage than of murder, and "The Catbird Seat" continues the theme of the henpecked man, although both men get their revenge in the end, despite their mild-mannered reputations. In "The Macbeth Murder Mystery" a misguided woman decides that the solution to Macbeth was all wrong, that Macbeth didn't do it, and that she, a rather dubious sleuth, has it all figured out.
Added to the wonderful stories are Thurber's famous cartoons. Westlake writes, in the foreword, that a critic once called Thurber, whose cartoons famously appeared in The New Yorker, a "Fifth Rate Artist." Harold Ross defended him, saying "You're wrong. Thurber is a third-rate artist." Thurber's art, though, has an undeniable charm, and is even more impressive when one considers that toward the end of his life Thurber was almost totally blind, and had to create his cartoons on huge sheets of paper that were later photographed and shrunk down to size. Thurber once joked about this, saying he intended to title his autobiography Long Time, No See.
The cartoons, the vignettes and the stories all capture Thurber's sense of irony (and his capable use of parody) as well as his appreciation of crime fiction. Donald Westlake summed it up the best: "Thurber on Crime. There's nothing in the world quite like it."
Sunday, September 27, 2009
by Felicia Donovan
I was born in the Fall, thus I claim it to be "my season." This colorful rite of passage embodies everything beautiful about New England. It is a gift wrapped in orange, red and gold to be slowly unwrapped each day.
For many of us blessed to spend our Falls in New England, the season often kicks off with a bumpy ride on a teetering golf cart deep into the apple orchards. We are given careful instructions by our driver on the proper way to pick apples. "Twist the stem, never pull it. Place it gently into the bag to prevent bruising." As soon as the driver leaves, we eagerly twist off a few samples to make sure they are plenty ripe. Sometime later, laden with heavy bags and sticky hands, another cart returns us to the farm stand where we eagerly devour hot apple donuts made right before our eyes. Our appetites satisfied, we stroll into the blueberry fields where my young friends and I let our imaginations run wild. We are in the middle of a fairy forest with hidden doors and wild creatures.
The next weekend finds us at a Pumpkin Festival along an estuarine center. I watch scarecrows being built and go on a scavenger hunt. A bearded man carves a giant pumpkin into a gargoyle. His t-shirt reads "Real pumpkin carvers have guts." I stuff myself with pumpkin muffins.
The leaves have already begun to burst into color though we know we are nowhere near "peak" yet. "Reaching peak" is a concept as nebulous as trying to predict the winning lottery ticket. Meteorologists pore over weather patterns and temperature trends, but Mother Nature makes her own schedule. One good rain storm can wipe "peak" out nearly overnight, as can abrupt temperature swings. New Englanders don't worry about such things. We know peak by the waves of color on the landscape. We know peak by the bright red maple leaf floating down the river. We know peak by the moments that take our breath away.
Friday, September 25, 2009
Our guest today is Elizabeth Zelvin, a New York City psychotherapist whose new mystery, DEATH WILL HELP YOU LEAVE HIM, features recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler and his friends. Also out in October: Liz's story, "Death Will Trim Your Tree," in the holiday crime anthology, THE GIFT OF MURDER, to benefit Toys for Tots. Another short story was nominated for an Agatha award. The first book in the series, DEATH WILL GET YOU SOBER, is up for an Anthony award for cover design. Liz's author website is www.elizabethzelvin.com. She blogs on Poe's Deadly Daughters, and today she shares with us a funny, powerful story of a writer's progress:
===== ===== ===== =====
“Where do you get your ideas?” is one of those questions that most authors wish readers wouldn’t ask (along with “I’ve got a great idea for a best seller; will you write it?” and “Why don’t you go on Oprah?”). But in fact, stories do have to come from somewhere.
Since I started hanging out online and in person with other mystery writers, I’ve been pleased to find that, like me, they experience characters springing to life and talking in their heads, ideas that come tapping on the inside of their skulls demanding to be let out, and lines bubbling up from deep within and streaming out onto the page or screen.
The source of these experiences is what in my profession, ie the shrink trade, we call the unconscious. Nineteenth-century poets called it the Muse. In spiritual or religious parlance, it’s being a channel for a Higher Power. And we all know a perfectly good word for it: inspiration.
Whatever you call it, what it casts up still has to come from somewhere. The raw material consists of our own experience (“Write what you know,” we’re told), the experience of others, whether it’s stories we’ve heard or headlines “ripped from the news” (“Use everything,” we’re told), or the stuff of our dreams, our reading, and our fantasies constantly reshuffled like bright bits of color in a kaleidoscope (“Use your imagination”).
An old friend recently unearthed and sent me a short story of mine that was published in our high school literary journal fifty years ago. I read it with interest, especially since I had no recollection whatever of writing it. It was about a college boy who dies after getting what seems to be just a bad cold, told from the point of view of his roommate.
Write what you know? I didn’t know anything when I was in high school, although as a bit of a smart-aleck with a high IQ, I thought I knew a lot. It had a horrible, pretentious title: “Finitude.” (I suspect high school kids in general don’t have much sense of humor. It took decades of increasing maturity to come up with the novel and short story titles of my current mystery series: Death Will Help You Leave Him, Death Will Get You Sober, “Death Will Tie Your Kangaroo Down,” “Death Will Clean Your Closet,” “Death Will Trim Your Tree.”) It wasn’t a badly written story overall, though I used one word incorrectly, “balmy” for “barmy,” and one sentence made me cringe when I reread it: “He was in labor with a novel.” (After an additional half a century of writing, I’ve learned that one of the greatest tools of revision is embarrassment: If it makes you cringe, delete it, preferably before anyone else sees it.)
So why did I choose to write this particular story? I wasn’t a guy or the girlfriend of a guy. I wasn’t in college yet, and I had certainly never been to the kind of drunken party I described. I had never lost a friend or family member. My parents were so protective that I’d never even been to a funeral. None of the characters seemed to be based on anyone I knew. (They might have been better differentiated and more interesting if they had.) What on earth could have brought this story into being? I read all the way down to the last paragraph before I found the clue I needed.
“In the hall, I met a friend of Sam’s and mine. She looked at me mutely, her eyes begging like those of an anguished puppy. It was the hardest thing I had ever done, but I put my hand briefly on her arm and nodded reassuringly.”
Okay, two sentences that made me cringe. I’m sorry I didn’t delete the “anguished puppy.” But that moment in the story rang truer than the rest, and a vague recollection stirred. That minor character was me, and the reassuring hand and nod were real. Our “crowd” in high school had a charismatic leader, a big, paternal teddy bear of a guy who played guitar and sang as well as Pete Seeger. He was a year ahead of us, so it must have been in my junior year that his older brother died, of leukemia if I remember correctly.
As I said, I had not yet learned to deal with death. I must have met him in the hall in school right after it happened. I didn’t know what to say. He must have needed comfort, but true to his role in his circle of friends, he tried to comfort me. And I, just old enough at fifteen to recognize the authenticity of that moment, made it the germ of my story.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
The nonfiction critical works presented the biggest challenge, because our county library system didn’t carry two of them. My local librarian was able to jump on WorldCAT (which I could have done from home if only I were that clever) and tell me that these two books were available at our two largest local university libraries. That would be one book at each library, not one library with both books available (life is never that easy). Good news, I graduated from both these universities, and rumor was I had alumni privileges to check out books.
I verified this fact by phone first. One university library said, “Come right in.” The other said, “Stop at the registrar’s office first and get an alumni identification card.” Rats.
Visiting your old university stomping grounds could be a pleasant trip down memory lane for some people. Not me.
The first university is within city limits, which makes it the picky parking university. Back in my day, it had a free-for-all parking situation on the city street running alongside the campus and issued parking privileges on-campus only to those who paid for them. Now the university appears to own that street, and they installed meters. (If you want to know how I feel about metered parking, read my debut novel, For Better, For Murder, to get the gist.) The day I visited, I had only twenties in my wallet. The helpful information guard said I could park in one zone with my flashers on for fifteen minutes, which meant I had to hustle.
In the library, I approached their information desk and showed the Dewey decimal classification to the girl. She said, “Oh, follow the yellow lines on the floor to the elevators, then go down in the stacks on the mezzanine level.” I remembered the yellow lines and the subterranean stacks, but not much else after twenty-three years. When I craned my neck looking for the yellow lines, she took pity on me and led me to the elevators.
The stacks were as lonely and creepy as ever. All the lights are motion sensitive, and I was the only motion…sound…presence. I like to be alone, but not quite that alone. It took me a while to find the right aisle, call number, etc. Then I panicked because it looked like the book might be on the top shelf—well out of any normal human being’s reach. But, no, it was on the bottom shelf.
I grabbed the book, pleased to see it was relatively short, and took off for the elevators, my flip-flops slapping the gleaming floor.
I turned a corner and almost smacked right into another woman. My heart skipped a beat. I gasped then laughed. She apologized for scaring me.
The girl at the checkout desk asked for my alumni ID card and gave me a little talk about the need for one when I failed to produce—so much for calling ahead to get their requirements—then let me check out the book for four weeks without any kind of ID whatsoever.
Now I was off to my second institution of higher learning, the one I attended only at night. It looks different in the daylight—and after fourteen years. But the parking is still free and plentiful.
First I got in queue at the registrar’s office with the incoming students to obtain my alumni ID card. Their parents all smiled at me, undoubtedly because they recognized a woman of their own age group. I got the card. Nice picture; just doesn’t look much like me.
Then I walked over to the library, and the circulation desk attendant directed me to the dark, claustrophobic (my closet’s bigger and I’m not bragging) elevator and the third floor. I turned right as I exited the elevator. (Yes, I’m right-handed.) Shoulda turned left. I found the book…eventually.
Of course, the library’s computer didn’t recognize an ID card issued fifteen minutes prior, but another girl fixed me right up. So fast I wondered if I’d really needed that ID card after all.
By now I was re-thinking my choice of footwear. My bad knee ached, causing a slight limp. Plus, I needed a restroom. I decided that urge could wait until I got home.
Did I mention I was now almost as far from my home as one can get without leaving the county? Or that, in fact, almost every road in the county was under construction, causing motorists delays?
You may wonder why I’m going to all this trouble. I wondered, too. I don’t go to this much trouble for much of anything, including presidential elections. Here’s why I am this time.
First, I said I would do it, which means I have to do it. One is only as good as one’s word, right? Second, this time I’m one vote amongst, what, 1,400 instead of one vote amongst millions (with no electoral college involved as far as I know). Finally, in theory, these Anthony award-nominated works should come from our genre’s best and brightest writers, people I can learn something from. These authors can tell me about their cleverness at Bouchercon or show me through their work. I’m a “show me” learner. Always have been.
Now if only I can only reach the top of the library’s reserve list for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
I came across a folder of rejection letters from 2005, the year I went in search of an agent. I’d almost forgotten about this painful compilation of letters, but I pulled it out and began to sift through the form letters, the brief comments, and the manuscript requests. I signed with Jessica Faust of Book Ends that year and I am just as grateful to her for taking a chance on me today, as I was the day she offered representation.
Thousands of folks have spent months and months crafting a novel, short story collection, or poem in hopes of being published. Most of the aspiring writers I’ve spoken to aren’t focused on what they can earn from said publication. They simply want their work to “make it.” To be chosen.
I thought I’d pass on some inspiration. Here are a few famous writers who were rejected many times before finally being accepted by an agent and/or publisher:
1. Beatrix Potter had to self-publish because no one would accept her Tale of Peter Rabbit.
2. Dr. Seuss’ writing was called “too different” so he was rejected by many publishers.
3. Mr. Rudyard Kipling was told that he didn’t have a good grasp of the English language.
4. One of my favorite books, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time was passed over 29 times.
5. In the 1960’s, Mary Higgins Clark was told that the heroine of one of her books was “boring.”
6. An editor told H.G. Wells that his book read like “an endless nightmare.”
7. Not one of Emily Dickinson’s poems was published while she lived.
8. Jack London’s work was labeled as depressing.
9. What about Orwell’s Animal Farm? He was told that animal stories don’t sell in the States.
10. And poor William Faulkner received the rejection, “My God! I can’t publish this!”
There, you see! If these writers had been influenced by their rejection letters they might have faded into obscurity. Hang in there! Keep writing and keep submitting.
Anyone have a juicy rejection letter line or phrase you’d care to share?
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Monday, September 21, 2009
Recently my guy and I drove to Leadville, Colorado, which, at 10,200 feet, is the highest incorporated town in the United States. The census from a year ago shows that in the previous seven years the population declined from 2,821 to 2,743.
It was once a real boomtown. More than once. First came the rush to find gold in the west, but after that panned out (literally), Alvinius Woods and William Stevens discovered an abundance of lead carbonate with an extremely high silver content. The second rush, for silver, put Leadville on the map, and in 1893 the estimated population was 60,000.
The town is rich in history. The Unsinkable Molly Brown played by Kathy Bates in Titanic? She lived in Leadville. Charles Dow and Edward Jones of the Dow Jones Industrial Average? Financial writers from Leadville. Houdini, John Phillip Sousa, Oscar Wilde and Jack Dempsey all appeared at the Tabor Opera House. Three prospectors named Jesse James and Bob and Charley Ford made a lucrative living robbing the local stagecoaches.
Historian Ann Parker has set her Silver Rush mystery series in Leadville during the height of the silver boom. Ann is meticulous about getting the details right, and Silver Lies, Iron Ties and Leaden Skies are all excellent reads. I'm tapping my foot, waiting for the next one.
I lived in Leadville from 1972 to 1977. Molybdenum fueled the local mining boom then. The Climax mine is the largest underground mine in the world, but demand for the mineral slackened, and it closed in 1995.
I hadn't been back for 33 years, but my memories were strong. I wondered how reality would shape up against them. Trying to go home again is futile, right?
Thank God for that last.
Because the familiar places were also depressingly older and dirtier and rattier. No growth means no upgrades and little maintenance. And, of course, the saw about how you can't go home again is really about how we outgrow our pasts. I'd expected to touch base with my home crafting roots, since Leadville was where I got up early and baked sourdough bread before school, where I learned to knit and where I read all about pioneer skills. Instead, there surfaced only-child memories of shyness and feeling out of place, moving and being the new kid yet again, pets gone so long I'd forgotten to miss them, and a myriad of other tiny blows to what I normally think of as a well-adjusted psyche.
What do you do with those blows? If you're a writer, you document them. I knew my homecoming wasn't particularly unique -- but it was emotional. Emotional and universal? Well, take note! At some point it will be exactly how a character feels, exactly what a story needs.
Now Leadville survives largely on tourism. Things like hiking, biking, camping, skiing, and white-water rafting. The town also mines its own history with museums and walking tours. I hadn't realized extreme sports were part of the recreational menu, but when we got there the Leadville 100 had just finished.
The Leadville 100 is an ultramarathon trail run. One hundred miles, in thirty hours. That's like four marathons in just over a day -- at altitudes ranging from 9,200 to 12,620 feet. About 500 people from all over the world enter. About half finish. The male record is held by Matt Carpenter, who finished in 15:42:00 in 2005. Ann Trason finished with a time of 18:06:24 in 1994.
The very concept of this event, which still takes effort for me to even get my head around, has sparked ideas for a new character. Ideas I really like.
I'm glad I made the trip "home," and I'm glad I made some new memories to blend with the old ones: playing the highest golf course in the U.S., a two-mile hike almost straight up, getting snowed on in July sitting by Windsor Lake, incredible but possibly certifiable athletes.
And a bittersweet undertone I think I can live with.
Friday, September 18, 2009
By Deborah Sharp
I thought I'd seen all kinds of reviews. But this one really sets my teeth on edge!
Not really. I am completely charmed by the take that Lois Hirt, registered dental hygienist, had on my first book. I just tossed in a tooth phrase above to curry favor with a woman who writes a column for her fellow hygienists called ''Dental Tidbits to Nibble On.''
Lois mines modern fiction for mentions of teeth (she'll extend to gums, tongues, and lips, too). And then she writes about them. She extracted 33 mentions from my own Mama Does Time , everything from the ''toothy grin'' of a taxidermed alligator head, to a lowlife who ''picked his teeth with a pinky nail.''
I had no idea so many oral issues were implanted in my plot. Clearly, I have a thing about teeth. Maybe I should have been a dental hygienist instead of a mystery writer.
I met Lois, who practices in Beverly Hills, Calif., at the Malice Domestic mystery fan conference in the spring. We exchanged cards and she gave me a sample column: In Earthquake Games, Lois reports, the main character deals with a teething baby; the author of Chocolat inlays several mentions in her Five Quarters of the Orange, including ''smiles like piano keyboards.'' Carol Higgins Clark, in Fleeced, likens a character whose horrible life choices would be immediately evident to ''going to a dentist with bad teeth.''
Lois is strictly old-school. Her hard-copy columns are printed and mailed; she doesn't have a website or blog. But she should. Because Lois has a message behind her method (notice: I didn't say madness) of picking through plot: ''I am always happy when someone mentions a dentist or hygienist or something dental because I hope it will inspire someone to call one’s dental office to set up an appointment,'' she wrote me in an email.
And I completely agree. So, here are a few more dental tidbits from the 33 Lois pulled from the jaws of my first Mace Bauer Mystery:
"I think Martinez was still picking pieces of my own head out of his incisors.'' (pg. 47, Mace's love interest isn't showing her love).
''He flashed a real smile this time. I returned it, hoping chocolate wasn't coating my teeth.'' (pg. 224, a warm moment with a hot fudge sundae at the Dairy Queen.)
"I whirled around and saw acres of teeth in a mile of jaws.'' (pg. 308, Mace encounters an alligator up close).
How about you? Any toothsome passages to quote?
PS: Remember Lois Hirt's motto: If you see someone without a smile ... send them to your favorite hygienist.
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
By Jeri Westerson
I spend a lot of time thinking about medieval knights...and what it means to be one. A strange occupation for a middle-aged woman in the 21st century but what are ya gonna do? Of course, the reason I spend so much time on this particular notion is that the protagonist, dare I say hero, of my medieval mystery series is an ex-knight turned detective named Crispin Guest.
As a knight no more, Crispin is nevertheless compelled by his knightly vows and lives by his chivalric code, even on the mean streets of London. All this angst gets thrown together with a dark mystery which is my own little subgenre I call “medieval noir”. My latest novel in the series is SERPENT IN THE THORNS, to be released on September 29th.
So what is chivalry? “Chivalry” is an eleventh century term, French for horseman. A chevalier is French for knight, a cheval is a horse. The term eventually came to mean more than a collection of horsemen, representing a code of knightly virtues of which one’s personal honor is foremost.
A man with a sword was a powerful entity. He changed the face of Europe and the Middle East. Borders fell and rose by this parade of horsemen. An armored knight--a knight in full harness astride a powerful horse trained for battle--is a breathtaking sight. And it is little wonder that such a symbol became the fantasy ideal, not only back then in songs and poems, but of romance novels today. It is also little wonder a knight came to symbolize the very essence of power and masculinity. If you have never seen a joust, you are the poorer for it.
Incidentally, I have. Seen a joust, that is. Now, let me confess something here. I'm a sucker for a guy in uniform. But I'm even more of a sucker for a guy in armor. It's a sickness, I know. The last joust I saw was at the local rodeo (of all places) here in southern California. There are many re-enactors of medieval battles and jousts around, but these fellows used to be professionals, fighting every weekend at Medieval Times dinner theatre. At this particular event, the lists were set up, the "medieval" flag girls in their metal bras rode out, the Star-Spangled Banner was sung, and then it was "play ball!"...er..."knights at the ready!"
These were not Nerf lances. These were real wooden lances and these knights were astride Clydesdales and Belgians--big horses. Riding toward each other. With weapons! This was the Joust a Plaissance, "for the fun of it," but it still means business. The blunted lance aims toward the other knight. The object of the game is to break your lance on the other guy or even unhorse him. A system of points is rewarded for the most broken lances. So you aren’t trying to kill the other fellow. This kind of joust was just good practice for the battlefield and a good way to cool down all that testosterone so skirmishes wouldn’t break out where they weren’t supposed to. Many a knight made a good living doing the joust circuit.
For the Joust a Plaissance, lance tips sport a coronel, a fancy little bit at the front that distributes the shock and prevents sharp points from piercing the armor. I can't imagine what it feels like to receive the shock of a lance on these shields or on your breast plate even with all the padding in the world, but I have fired rifles with a kick and it might be a bit like that, only more so.
Needless to say, it was very exciting. Kids, don't try this at home. I turned rather excitedly to my husband with stars glittering in my eyes. “Would you ever try jousting?”
He just laughed at me. "Even when I was younger and in better shape I wouldn't have done this,” he said. “I'm not crazy."
Well there's one fantasy squashed!
We’ve all come a long way, baby, but it’s fun to peek back over our shoulders at what once was, romanticize it just a tad, and throw in a clever mystery too boot.
Are you man enough to solve a medieval mystery? Crispin is.
You can certainly find out more about Crispin on his blog in his own words. Read it at http://www.crispinguest.com/. And you can find out more about SERPENT IN THE THORNS on Jeri’s website http://www.jeriwesterson.com/.
Monday, September 14, 2009
Those of us who write about murder, madness and mayhem, have a duty, I believe, to write honest fiction, fiction at its core which reflects reality. So, if you haven’t read Dave Cullen’s new book Columbine, I urge you to do so. Cullen was a member of the press who covered the story in its immediate aftermath. With the passing of time, he hopes this book will correct some of the “media blunders during the initial coverage.” It’s fascinating to note that many of these have passed into common acceptance, despite their erroneous nature.
Myth 1: Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were loners. Outcasts. Kids are the margin of their high school’s society.
Truth: The Secret Service studied every attack at schools over a 26-year period, 41 attackers and 37 incidents, and found that while some of the perpetrators were loners, fully 2/3s were not. Dylan and Eric dated, had friends, even went to school events regularly. Yes, they might have been bullied on occasion, more to the point, both boys boasted about bullying others.
Myth 2: You can tell a potential troublemaker by his disciplinary record and academic performance.
Truth: Dylan had been a good student until he and Eric started working on what was to be “Judgment Day” at their high school Then his grades dropped precipitously. Conversely, Eric ended the fall semester with glowing comments about his positive attitude and cooperation. His grades had never been better than before the attack.
Myth 3: Video games encouraged the boys to be violent.
Truth: While it is true that Eric hacked into Doom so he could create increasingly violent characters, a better determinant of potential violent behavior is an examination of the content of written assignments. Fully 1/3 of the attackers studied by the Secret Service exhibited violence in their written assignments. (In other words, English teachers had the best insight as to who was at risk!) Steven Kazmierczak, the University of Illinois grad student who killed five at Northern Illinois University, wrote a paper called “No Crazies With Guns,” an analysis of whether the mentally ill should have access to weapons.
Myth 4: Melodramatic outbursts such as, “I hate you!!!!” are signs of impending violence.
Truth: According to Cullen, “Perpetrators are just as likely to remain calm. No correlation has been established between emotional intensity and the actual danger it foretells.” However, the more specific the threat—as to time, place, manner of violence and rationale—the more seriously it should be taken.
Myth 5: Plans for violence are often kept secret.
Truth: The FBI discovered that once a young person committed to a violent act, there was “leakage.” The plans would be announced in various ways “no matter what the subject matter, the conversation, the assignment or the joke.” For example, both Klebold and Harris hinted about their plans to other kids, even involving others to help procure weapons. Dylan wrote page after page of specific murder plans in Eric’s yearbook. In a video production class, they made movies showing their contempt for others.
Myth 6: Killers just “snap.”
Truth: Non-violent people don’t react by “snapping.” Steven Kazmierczak made a three-hour drive from one campus to the other before shooting five people. Harris and Klebold planned every aspect of their killing spree. Luckily, they weren't very good at making bombs or they would have killed as many as 2,000 people.
Myth 7: No one could have predicted this happening.
Truth: The local sheriff’s department had been contacted no less than 15 times by one family about threats Eric Harris made. Other students called Steven Kazmierczak “Crazy Steve.” Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, had been declared mentally ill and ordered to seek treatment.
Myth 8: There’s no discernable pattern to predicting who may become a school killer.
Truth: The FBI has created a list of 28 criteria divided into four areas: behavior, family situation, school dynamics and social pressures. Substance abuse shows a high correlation to these risk factors, and the key seems to a majority of items from ALL four areas. Among these are access to guns, treatment for mental illness, and a recent loss. The most common “loss” is a break up with a girl friend, but it can be any sort of personal sense of “failure” such as a public embarrassment.
I’m curious. Are any of the “truths” revealed above surprises to you?
In the movie Stranger than Fiction, Will Farrell plays a man with a very a boring and predictable life. He’s an IRS auditor, and a good man, but he lives by his watch. Every morning he does the same thing at exactly the same time—every routine task for getting ready for work has been assigned a particular time of the day which he follows precisely.
Then, one morning, he hears a narrator’s voice in his head. She recounts what he’s doing and then makes uncannily correct observations about what’s going to happen next. (For the first time in his life, Harold Crick is about to miss his bus.)
He starts getting worried. The narrator is too spot-on. Is he losing his mind? Eventually, Harold discovers that he’s a character in a book. And, he’s going to die. He decides to convince the author of his book to spare him. And he, the man who lives each day exactly the same to the minute, decides to give his life a complete overhaul.
Although this film wasn’t exactly a blockbuster hit, its premise was very interesting to me. I remember JK Rowling received numerous letters from parents and children begging her to spare their favorite character’s life. But she was determined to stay true to her outline and not be influenced by her fans. In her last book, of course, many popular characters died.
After watching the Farrell movie, I started thinking about the people I’d killed off in the three books I’ve written. I’ve even killed off a protagonist’s best friend. In fact, I’d killed two characters in each book, for a total of six. These are mysteries, after all, so the number is about right. But as I’m continuing in my series, I sometimes think there are one or two that I’d like to bring back from the dead in a sort of soap operatic move.
It’s not that I feel sorry for these characters, who were created solely to die, but that I felt a few of them would have been really useful players in later books. They were fun, interesting, or unusual. And I can’t exactly make another character just like them because that might be too obvious.
Have you ever killed someone off in your books and regretted it later? Have you taken some of the dead characters’ traits and recycled them in other books?
Sunday, September 13, 2009
Sue Ann Jaffarian's Ghost a la Mode: "Emma made a believer out of me."
Elizabeth Spann Craig's Pretty Is as Pretty Dies: "Wonderful cozy mystery: solidly written, well-plotted and funny."
Tim Maleeny's Jump: "A stunning book."
Lisa Bork's For Better for Murder: "entertaining" with 'subtle humor, self-deprecating and complex heroine, and engaging story."
Deborah Sharp's Mama Rides Shotgun: "Funny and sharp."
Congrats to all.
Saturday, September 12, 2009
1:00 - 4:00 pm "Authors Galore" multi-author event! John J. Lamb, Ellen Crosby, Andrew Fox, G.M. Malliet, Ellen Byerrum, Tony Ruggiero, Dennis Danvers, Marcia Talley, Pamela K. Kinney, Andy Straka and Maggie Stiefvater will sign their works at Creatures and Crooks BookShoppe multi-author Book Signing Event, 3156 West Cary Street, Cary Court Park & Shop, Richmond, VA 23221
Bookstore Phone: 804-340-0277 or toll-free (888) 533-5303 www.cncbooks.com.
G.M. Malliet is also guest blogging today at Writers Plot.
Friday, September 11, 2009
There are still seven months before the official release date for DIAMONDS FOR THE DEAD, but I'm beginning to see signs that my book will become a real, honest-to-goodness physical entity (instead of existing in some feverish, tantalizing dream).
This week, my cover art became "official."
As you probably know (or can quickly surmise by glancing to the right and checking out the covers of my fellow MIers), Midnight Ink has a tradition of producing tremendous covers. And, in my completely unbiased and purely objective opinion, this cover is no exception (giant kudos to cover designer Ellen Dahl. Thanks, Ellen!).
The overall image is (pick one or more adjectives): intriguing, mysterious, ominous, compelling. The slanted lettering juxtaposed against the slanted rectangle reflects the off-kilter feelings of the protagonist. And, amazingly, the cover manages to evoke scenes from both the beginning AND ending of the book. Very, very cool.
Also this week, a "pre-order" listing went up on the Midnight Ink website (it’s on Amazon, too!). Here’s the description:
Talk to anyone in Reston, Virginia, and they'll say Josh Handleman's dad "Honest Abe" was a real mensch. But when Josh returns home to bury his estranged father, he gets the shock of his life: his thrifty dad was filthy rich. Oy!
Who was this man who donated millions to charity, invested in the dreams of Josh's friends, and shared his home with a strange vodka-swilling Russian? Apparently, Abe collected diamonds too. But when Josh can't find the gems, he begins to wonder if his dad's death was truly an accident.
Hounded by grief and remorse, Josh resolves to find his dad's diamond stash—which could be his inheritance and proof of his father's love. What he doesn't realize is that this emotionally charged treasure hunt is taking him closer to his dad's killer.
Of course, with a great cover and a great title (kudos to the whole Midnight Ink team!), I really feel the pressure. Will my words between the covers live up to these lofty expectations?
I hope so.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Who would I choose, if I could choose anyone? Well, some of them are dead and the rest are really old. Mary Stewart, my all-time favorite, is alive and 92 years old. Ross MacDonald and Raymond Chandler died long ago, as did Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. But they're people I would want to friend and occasionally chat with online (assuming that was the only way I could meet them), because they are great mystery writers. I would become their fans, assuming that they were online as writers who were looking for fans (as most writers do nowadays).
There's just one problem. From what I've read of these people, none of them would have any interest in joining Facebook. Mary Stewart would ask why people weren't out walking in the fresh air instead of sending flair or playing Lexulous. Ross MacDonald and Raymond Chandler would scoff at the idea of plying one's books online when one could be using the time to perfect one's craft. Write more, play less would be their mottos.
Agatha and Dorothy might be slightly more playful, but still, I think, reluctant to join Facebook. Christie wouldn't need the fans and would prefer watching some archeological dig; Sayers would prefer writing old-fashioned letters to a carefully selected group of friends over "friending" strangers.
Facebook and its ilk are a phenomenon of the new publishing world--one with which they would not be familiar. There are swarms of writers on Facebook, and only some of them are polite about PR. Many of them write to ME and ask me to become their fans. Huh. Seems like once it was the other way around.
But writers know that they're expected to promote that book and somehow raise those sales numbers. Writers are made to believe (either explicity or implicitly) that if they don't sell, they are somehow not worthwhile. And that makes for a whole bunch of desperate people using any online resource they can to keep their books in the public eye.
Facebook is one of many places that the new writer must try to sell. But a part of me yearns for the image I once had of writing: the mystique of the writer who had no website, but only a glamorous picture on the jacket of the book. If one wanted to contact this writer, he or she had to write to the publisher and ask that they pass along the message (and the message was generally "I love your books!"). The writer, in the meantime, could remain relatively anonymous.
I think Mary Stewart was able to do her writing without it really affecting her everyday university life. I doubt she had to do much touring, and I think she would bridle at the idea of putting any personal information on a website.
This is a new world, and Facebook is an example of the very visual requirements of the public.
But sometimes, when I'm reading the newsfeed or sending mythological virtual snowglobes to "friends" all over the world, I seem to channel Mary and wonder if I'd be better off walking the moors.
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
I started teaching a college class in psychotherapy last night.
Before we got into Freud, Skinner, Rogers et al I asked them to think about whether someone could ever make an important change in their lives without the presence of pain.
Do we ever grow without discomfort?
In the last six months I started volunteering on the Samaritans Suicide Hotline. People in pain from all over the country call just to be listened to. I get the impression some will use their current crisis and come out of it as stronger more complete people.
I'm pretty sure others won't.
Getting better is vastly different than feeling better. I believe that getting better requires you to feel pain but human tendency is to do something as quick as possible to feel better.
Do you know the most efficient and reliable way to conquer a phobia? Implosion therapy.
That means doing what you fear, a lot and often until you become desensitized.Studies show it works better than other methods.
Phobics usually choose a less threatening method.
I think a lot of therapy is focused on helping people feel better and not get better.
I believe that often most therapeutic thing that you can say to someone is "That's sucks, now deal with it."
That would take about 10 seconds to say and wouldn't do much for a private practice. Most of human problems come from our addiction to immediate gratification and though we may have poor genes or neurotransmitters stopping self defeating behavior always involves one thing.
Not doing that behavior and dealing with the discomfort of denying immediate gratification.
Does it do anyone a service to make getting better more complicated than that?
So what if you were breast fed from falsies--you're 48 and getting better is up to you? Yes, dad and dad's dad drank too much. You shouldn't, so stop.
You're a compulsive gambler. Hey, when you missed the mortgage payment that was a sign to knock it off.
Smoking is bad for you. I don't smoke and am tired of seeing gross commercials to encourage smokers to stop. How much more info do thy need?
Is depression different? Schizophrenia? I think it sucks if your predisposed to them but ultimately work and patience ( and maybe medication) are going to be the answer.
Love, warmth and support feel good and maybe they lead to you taking the suggestions of a helper. Talking feels good, especially when someone listens intently.
In my 25 years in human services I've met lots of people (on both sides of the desk) who loved to talk. Some people say you gotta let it out.
But is letting it out curative? Could it just bolster irrational ways of thinking and acting, especially if a professional is agreeing how hard you had it?
Would people get better faster if you told them to quit complaining and blaming and stop doing shit that was self-defeating?
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
My nephew flew in yesterday to begin grad school at Stanford, and he and his roommate came over for dinner last night. The roommate is an aspiring novelist and was asking about life as a writer. All he wanted to hear was how great it was. Of course, a lot of it’s not. I tried to explain. What I love best of all, I told him, is writing the first draft of a book. Part of it’s the challenge, the climbing up the rock face. An even bigger part is the chance to lead a life, have an adventure, as another person in another universe. I’m addicted to the rush those two elements provide. (How do I know I’m addicted? Because of the post-partum depression I feel when the draft is completed.)
I then spent some time recounting what’s the downside: the editing, the waiting for comments, the research, the deciding on topics, the finding an agent, the waiting to hear back from publishers, and much more. Oh, yes, then there’s the publicity. Setting things up for publicizing a new book isn’t fun. But the results of that work, being out on tour, definitely is for me. Probably the high point of my writing experience was seeing a long line of readers waiting for me to sign Dot Dead, my first book, at Book Expo America. (That's me at BEA to the left. Margery Flax of MWA likes to tell people she was there when I lost my signing virginity.)
I love meeting readers and coming across what I’ll immodestly call fans, people who tell you that they can’t wait till your next book is out or who buy an armful to give away as holiday presents. It’s not all sweetness and light though. Five minutes before my event at Kepler’s last time, my dear friend Barbara was shaking with nerves because there were fewer than a dozen people. Three hundred seconds later another 50 had poured in. Saved from humiliation by the cavalry. At another bookstore no one showed except for my in-laws. I guess a little humiliation keeps one humble.
As far as my next book, Smasher, goes, the work part of the publicity is mostly complete. The tour is set and begins next month. I’m chomping at the bit. Cynthia at Kepler’s challenged me to a bet on how many people would show there on October 20. (Help! It will be expensive to both wallet and ego to lose.) I’m trying something different, too. For half the tour, I’ve joined forces with the wonderful Libby Fischer Hellmann, whose newest, Doubleback, is out next month, too.
C’mon out. It should be fun. Help me win a bet and stave off humiliation.
Click here for the schedule or on the link below.
Monday, September 7, 2009
by Felicia Donovan
I recently began planning a fence at my friend's house so I could bring my dogs during my visits. The process began with carefully drawn out plans on paper of a quintessential New England white picket fence. We imagined the flowers to be planted in front of it ala Yankee Magazine. The remaining fenced-in area would be green-colored mesh set back into the woods to not break the visual flow and blend carefully into the landscape.
With careful measurements and a diagram laying the whole area out, I proceeded to my favorite home improvement stores and quickly loaded the back of my van with posts and brackets, rolls of mesh fencing and stakes to support it. I gulped when the total came up, but it was a small price to pay knowing the dogs would be safe and separate from the other members of the animal kingdom who were known to visit including deer, porcupine, skunks, etc.
With much enthusiasm, I began to build the wire fence by driving the metal support posts into the ground. Bang, bang, ping. I felt an odd vibration in my hand as I struck the top of the metal post. Rocking it, I heard the sound of scratching as the metal hit rock. No problem, I thought, I'll just move it over a bit. Bang, bang, ping. Ten feet later, I still had the same results. Turns out, my friend's house was built on bedrock. One solid slab of bedrock that lies about four inches below the ground...consistently.
You know what they say about the best laid plans. The fence is now a dog run with plenty of area for them to exercise and do their business. No visits from Yankee Magazine, but life is full of compromises and this is one of them.
As I pounded away with muscles I'd forgotten existed (but painfully reminded me the next day), it occurred to me that trying to put up a fence is very much like trying to write a book. No matter how big or small the plot may be at the start of your project, sometimes stuff gets in the way. If finishing the job is important, be willing to compromise and keep pounding away. That's what authors do.
Saturday, September 5, 2009
1:00 - 4:00 pm "Authors Galore" multi-author event! John J. Lamb, Ellen Crosby, Andrew Fox, G.M. Malliet, Ellen Byerrum, Tony Ruggiero, Dennis Danvers, Marcia Talley, Pamela K. Kinney, Andy Straka and Maggie Stiefvater will sign their works at Creatures and Crooks BookShoppe multi-author Book Signing Event, 3156 West Cary Street, Cary Court Park & Shop, Richmond, VA 23221
Bookstore Phone: 804-340-0277 or toll-free (888) 533-5303 www.cncbooks.com.
Friday, September 4, 2009
I've just returned from two weeks in England. Not entirely by design, the trip turned, in part, into a pilgrimage to sites associated with Agatha Christie's life and works.
We began, however, with a few days in Cambridge, where I was not so much doing research as refreshing my memories for the third book in the St. Just series, which book is scheduled to appear early next year. The book's theme is rowing, and having been nowhere near good enough at rowing to be in a Blue Boat, I wanted to double-check some of the details surrounding the training for this fantastic sport.
From Cambridge, then, it was on to Oxford, a bus journey of well over three hours--a journey so tedious it reinforces the impression that the authorities don't want the members of Cambridge and Oxford to cross-pollinate in any way. But near Oxford is Wallingford, where Agatha Christie lived for several decades, and where we have friends who had kindly offered to drive us to her house and on to see her gravesite. (Wallingford, for Midsomer Murders fans out there, has also been the scene of filming for several episodes, and is used as a stand-in for DCI Barnaby's town of Causton.)
The first picture on this blog entry, then, is of Winterbrook House, in the hamlet of Winterbrook near Wallingford. Agatha Christie purchased the property in 1934. Actually, as the house is currently occupied, and surrounded by a screen of trees, the best I can offer is a shot of the front door. The house sits very close to the street, but on an enormous tract of land that apparently stretches all the way to the Thames. (My friend and I skulked around the perimeter of the grounds as far as we could go, no doubt looking fairly mysterious ourselves in the process. I trust that the owners are used to this by now.)
The second picture is of the cottage (well, the roof of the cottage) just adjacent to Winterbrook House. Agatha is said to have used this as her office.
The next stop was at the Parish Church of St. Mary, Cholsey. Sunday services were in progress, so we didn't venture far into the building, but we stopped outside at Agatha's grave, where she was buried in 1976. Her second husband Max died less than two years after she did and is buried next to her. I paused and tried to say a prayer but could really only come up with a heartfelt "thank you" to her for providing me with so many hours of distraction and entertainment in my life, whether or not I needed them at the time. As I stood there, I could see and faintly hear a train going by in the distance. I think the author of Murder on the Orient Express and The Mystery of the Blue Train would have liked that.
In fact, anyone who doubts novelists and their wild, fanciful stories serve a useful and long-remembered purpose should have seen the crowds at the next stop on the pilgrimage, Agatha's vacation home at Greenway. From Oxfordshire we had traveled by train to Torquay (Agatha's birthplace), and from there by passenger ferry on the River Dart for a visit to the newly opened Greenway (last photo is of me, dwarfed by the front door). Now I truly was in heaven. The house tour is designed to allow the visitor as much time as needed to browse around. Nothing is roped off, although you are asked not to touch, and the house, comfortable and welcoming, is much as Agatha (and later, her daughter Rosalind and her husband Anthony) left it.
I'm out of time and space so for fellow Agatha fans I plan to blog more about Greenway next week as a guest at Writers Plot and/or to post photos of the Agatha Pilgrimage on my Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/g.m.malliet. Or maybe the public link will work this time). I took literally hundreds of photos of sites associated with Agatha, thanks to the wonder of digital technology, so imagine the self-discipline required today to winnow it down to these few. ;-)
Thursday, September 3, 2009
When I saw my son for the first time, I remember looking at my husband. We were both thinking the same thing, “Now what?” All that waiting and anticipation had led to the big day, but we hadn’t thought too far beyond it.
This week, after months, years really, of anticipation, my debut novel For Better, For Murder is published and on the market. And again I’m thinking “Now what?”
I’m also thinking, “Will it sell?”
Good news, it did get positive reviews. CrimeSpree Magazine said, “Lovely book.” Kirkus Reviews said, “Bork juggles multiple puzzles deftly in her witty debut.”
My ten-year-old daughter read the Kirkus review. She said, “What does deftly mean?” I knew the answer—I’d already looked it up just to make sure.
“It means skillful.” She scrunched her forehead. “It means I’m a good writer.” She nodded.
Then she asked, “What does witty mean?” I knew the answer to that one, too. Yes, I looked it up, just to ensure I understood all the nuances.
“It means very clever and humorous. It means my book is funny. That’s what I wanted it to be.”
She smiled. All was good in her world. I could only hope the same for mine.
I know “Now what?” includes promotion. I’m doing my best. I don’t really like to toot my own horn, but it’s hard to stand out in the crowd of mystery writers without making the effort. I’ve sent email announcements to book clubs, flyers to independent mystery bookstores, and registered for Bouchercon. I’ve contacted my alma maters, the local press and booksellers as well as visited with my town librarian. I’ve written guest blogs, posted announcements on all my yahoo groups, and scheduled my first signing. Everyone has been very nice and receptive. I can only hope it pays off in book orders.
I do have a few other self-promotion ideas, all of which require me to be less reserved than usual.
Did I mention I’m a homebody, perfectly happy to be the solitary writer? Not so eager to be the worldly promoter? But I’m doing it nevertheless.
I’m doing it because I enjoyed writing For Better, For Murder, and I think people will enjoy reading it. It is a murder mystery. It’s also part romantic suspense, part family saga, part tourism, and part car trivia. It’s fast-paced, light-hearted and cozyish. The protagonist, Jolene Asdale, is interesting, smart, and capable, not to mention attractive and unwilling to suffer fools. Overnight, her life is filled with murder and mayhem, but she’s up to the task. Her almost-ex-husband is uncompromising, an honest deputy sheriff who takes his job seriously. Her sister, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. The three of them are a potent combination.
Now I can only hope skillful, clever, and humorous is an equally potent—and selling—combination.
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Do I really waste my time on YouTube? Not as much as I did when it was a novelty, but I do return to favorite videos when I need a laugh.
The past month had more valleys than peaks for me and mine, so I’ve clicked these links several times. They serve one purpose: they make me smile. I’m going to list three of them and a bonus “kitty song” to hopefully brighten up your day.
1. The “Use Condoms” commercial video – it’s not dirty, just super funny. Trust me!http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=luZ_-E0PlXs
2. The best wedding party entrance ever filmed: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-94JhLEiN0
3. A model wipes out during a Paris fashion show. It’s not the fall that’s funny, but the anchormen. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JICRtY-epH4
Bonus: This song will be with you all day! Share it with cat lovers. My kids LOVE this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qit3ALTelOo
Anyone else have a favorite YouTube clip? Feel free to make us laugh!
(Can you tell I have a deadline in 3 weeks or what?)
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
You’re not supposed to look at the image of yourself on TV while you’re on TV. You are supposed to have a facial expression other than “frozen smile melting into fear.” You’re not supposed to stare so intently at the host that it looks like you’re wondering what her hair tastes like.
This is what I know about promoting your book on television, and I learned it all the hard way on Showcase Minnesota last week.
My publicist, Courtney, has been doing a fantastic job setting up media events to promote September Fair. She’s nailed numerous newspaper, radio, and television appearances, not because I’m in demand but because I have serendipitously written a murder mystery that takes place at the Minnesota State Fair that just so happened to be released two weeks before the Fair opened. Turns out people like a little “dairy princess getting murdered while her head is carved from butter” mixed in with coverage of the prize-winning pumpkin, the farmer whose gone to every State Fair since he was born except for the year he was away at war, and the “how to make ____-on-a-stick” recipe segments.
But here’s the dirty secret: most of us don’t write because we like attention, and we certainly don’t like being on TV. We write because sitting in front of a computer, writing, wearing pjs so worn that the butt area is more screen than door suits us just fine. When I’m on TV, I’m not thinking deep or sparkly thoughts, and I’m not having fun. I’m hoping I don’t snart, do remember the name of either of my two children, and don’t accidentally blurt out “two city busses,” the calming mantra of my two-year-old second cousin.
It does get easier, however. A little Vaseline on my teeth so I don’t flash the snaggle-toothed smile, a couple homeopathic stage fright pills that taste like sugar and probably are, and clothes that don’t cling, and I can stumble through an interview all right. Or not. You can be the judge. And wish me luck—I’m doing Fox Morning News and Twin Cities Live tomorrow. While you're at it, why don't you tell me what the worst/most embarassing thing you've ever seen someone do on live television is. I'll treat the information either as schadenfreude food (schadenfood!) or a slippery slope that I'm plummeting toward.