Thursday, May 5, 2016

Call me Alan. (Or Art.)

by Alan

They say that the opening line is the most important sentence in a book. That may or may not be entirely accurate, but what are a few of your favorites and why?

I’m a big fan of great opening lines. As a reader, I love getting sucked into a compelling story from the get-go. As a writer, it’s a chance to make a bold first impression, and I work diligently to come up with killer opening lines for my books.

A perfect opening line can set the tone for the rest of the book, offer a hint about what’s to come, introduce a fascinating character’s voice, or spark a question in the mind of the reader (ideally, it should accomplish more than one of those things). Perhaps most importantly, a terrific opening line can hook that reader fast and hard, letting you reel him in during the rest of the book.

Some of my favorite ones include:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” — A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

“Call me Ishmael.” — Moby Dick, Herman Melville.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” — 1984, George Orwell

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” — Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

“It was a pleasure to burn.” — Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” — Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier

“This was no time for play. This was no time for fun. This was no time for games. There was work to be done.” — The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, Dr. Seuss.

“The next to the last time I saw Tush Bannon alive was the very same day I had that new little boat running the way I wanted it to run, after about six weeks of futzing around with it.” — Pale Gray For Guilt, John D. MacDonald

“You may remember me. Think back. The summer of 1990. I know that’s a while ago, but the wire services picked up the story and I was in every newspaper in the country.” — The Lock Artist, Steve Hamilton

“The summer my father bought the bear, none of us was born—we weren’t even conceived: not Frank, the oldest; not Franny, the loudest; not me, the next; and not the youngest of us, Lilly and Egg.” — The Hotel New Hampshire, John Irving

“When Sean Devine and Jimmy Marcus were kids, their fathers worked together at the Coleman Candy plant and carried the stench of warm chocolate back home with them.” — Mystic River, Dennis Lehane.

And the favorite opening line(s) that I wrote:

“Never killed a cop before. Never had to.” — Ride-Along

Ride Along 450x720(In a stroke of pure lucky timing, RIDE-ALONG is in its FINAL Kindle Countdown Day. You can download it for only $1.99! Don’t you want to know what happens after that tantalizing first line?)



What about you? What are some of your favorite opening lines?

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

It Was A Dark and Stormy Evening…

by Tracy Kiely

When I started writing my first mystery, I keep reading how important the first line of the book was. As in, “Get this one thing wrong and you’ll never get published.”
Gotta love those helpful, no-pressure publishing tips. I think it took me a year to come up with a sentence in which I had the smallest bit of confidence.
According to the powers that be, this all-important sentence will determine whether agents or editors read your manuscript. It determines if the reader will do the same. Turns out, there's some truth to this. I’ve stood in many a bookstore (which dates me, I know) and flipped through various books, reading the first page before deciding which, if any, to buy. Granted, there are some really fantastic books out there with "meh" openings, but a great opening can do more than grab your attention. It can hint as to just what kind of story awaits you. Here are a few of my favorites:

"Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.” Gone With The Wind. Margaret Mitchell.

I’ve always loved this opening. Right away we know that Scarlett is someone who will use her charm to help her get anything she wants. And that she is first seen using this charm to flirt with not one but two men, and not any two men but twins, hints at her rather shallow character. Knowing that the book is set against the backdrop of the Civil War makes us wonder what this shallow, vain creature will do to survive. And we aren't disappointed.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen

With a line like that, you know there’s plenty of prettily expressed snark ahead. And you’d be right. Jane Austen was a master at politely mocking social hypocrisy. Austen wrote her books during a time when the marriage market was serious business. What this sentence is really saying, of course, is that women want a husband; preferably a rich one. Regency England’s preoccupation with an advantageous marriage is Austen’s theme here, and from her ironic tone, it is clear that she has a few issues with it.

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again." Rebecca. Daphne du Maurier.

A lyrical beginning made more so by the fact that it's written in iambic hexameter. Du Maurier's choice of a poetic arrangement for her opening is no accident. It helps create a melancholy tone that hints at loss and regret. What is Manderlay? What happened to it? Why is the narrator repeatedly dreaming of it? We are immediately given a sense that Manderlay haunts our narrator's dreams, and that she in turn haunts Manderlay. You can’t ask for a better opening for a Gothic novel. 

“It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr. Brickleigh took any active steps in the matter.” Malice Aforethought. Francis Iles.

We not only know there’s going to be a murder, but we know who the murderer is; a respected doctor. Both elements were unusual in its day (1931), and were sure to grab the reader's attention. While it’s clear that Dr. Brickleigh doesn’t love his wife, it’s just as clear that despite his rather serious decision to kill her, he is not, perhaps, a man of strong convictions or action. The darkly humorous wording of “any active steps in the matter” hints that Dr. Brickleigh adventure into crime will be a macabre one. And it certainly is.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Nineteen Eighty-Four. George Orwell.

“Thirteen strikes on a clock” is a proverb indicating that the previous events or "strokes to the clock" cannot be trusted. For Orwell to tell us that not just one clock, but “all the clocks” were striking thirteen means two things. One: That such an event is normal in this fictional society. Two: Nothing in this fictional society can be trusted.

"Well...I'm fucked."  The Martian. Andy Weir.

I don’t care what you say. That is a GREAT opening. 

Now it's your turn. What opening lines are your favorite?

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Happening-ist Place

By R.J. Harlick

Bethesda MD was the happening-ist place this past weekend. The hotel was rocking with all the murderous deeds being plotted. But since it was Malice Domestic, these deeds were being hatched over cups of tea and biscuits, with a decidedly gentile touch to them.

It’s become a rite of spring for me to climb into a van with three close friends, Vicki Delany/Eva Gates, Mary Jane Maffini/Victoria Abbott and Linda Wiken/Erica Chase and make the long ten hour drive south to Bethesda. This year we split it into two days, with stops at various bookstores to do book signings along the way. The van bubbles with our nonstop chatter and laughter. Since we are mystery writers, we can’t stop ourselves from wondering if that curious rusted out oil drum lying in the middle of a field contains a body or whether the hunched over driver in the SUV streaming past us is fleeing a murder.

What fun it is to arrive at the front door of the hotel or walk the halls to be greeted by fans and fellow writers not seen since the last conference. For me, Malice, is all about people. Sure I attend the odd panel and interview, but I get more enjoyment out of reconnecting with old friends, meeting new ones and finally being able to chat with FB friends in person. Being a writer I mustn’t forget the thrill of a fan rushing up to say they love my books.   

This year’s Malice was particularly memorable for it was the first opportunity I had to meet many of my fellow Criminal Minds in person. Seven of us were there. Meredith, Paul and RM were the only ones who couldn’t make it. So what did we do, but have a photo taken.

From left to right, we are, myself R.J. Harlick, Art Taylor, Alan Orloff, Cathy Ace, Catriona McPherson, Susan Shea and Tracy Kiely. We even managed to co-ordinate our colours. 

The biggest thrill of the conference was to watch our very own Art Taylor receive the Agatha for Best First Novel. Super congratulations, Art.

So until the next conference, happy writing and blogging.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Being Stephen King

by Meredith Cole

Is there a question today? There must be, but as I return home from the Edgar Awards on the train, I haven’t had a chance to dig it up. But I’m guessing most of us Criminal Minds are weary on this Monday from all the excitement of the Edgars and Malice Domestic. (Congratulations Art Taylor on your win!)

On Thursday night, I got to give the Best Short Story Edgar to… Stephen King! But he wasn’t able to be come to the Edgar Banquet. And apparently his editor is a bit shy. So I got to give the award and then accept it on his behalf as well.


Happily this video does NOT show me holding the Edgar statuette all by myself for the pictures (since I was both Meredith Cole and Stephen King that night…). I know. I was confused, too. And really just relieved to have made it up and down the stairs without falling or dropping the Edgar award.

Now it’s back to the Monday grind. I’ll hang up the velvet dress in my closet and put away the shoes, and return to the much less glamorous side of a writer’s life: putting my butt in the chair and writing.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Vandals Took the Handles…or in this case the Newel Post

What is the strangest thing you’ve done while researching a book?

by Paul D. Marks

The things we do for our art: I’ve braved riots, vandalized classic Victorian buildings, suffered through the rich and delish food of New Orleans. It’s a tough life.

Does pre-research count? Did I just invent a term?

I’m not sure I’ve done anything particularly unusual while specifically researching a book in advance, pretty much all the usual stuff that’s been talked about here earlier in the week. But I have lived life to some extent and many of the experiences I’ve had make their way into my stories or inform them one way or another.

Los Angeles - "Rodney King" Riots
Way back in the 90s, I lived through the “Rodney King” riots in Los Angeles. It was an ugly and scary time. Smoke rising, traffic snarled, looting, people in panic mode, etc. My novel White Heat takes place during those riots. PI Duke Rogers screws up an easy case and inadvertently causes someone’s death. To make amends he wants to find the killer. To do that he backtraces the victim, going to see her family in South Central LA the day the riots break out. He’s harassed by angry mobs, his car is torched and he’s stranded in the middle of South Central while everything erupts into chaos around him. And that’s just the beginning of his problems.

Of course that just touches on what the book is about. But one of the things that made me happiest was hearing people who were in the thick of it, cops, rioters, civilians in the wrong place at the wrong time, say how real my descriptions of the riots were. How well I captured them. One person even told me she had to skip over those parts because they were too real and brought back too many memories. Not that I want to cause someone discomfort, but what better compliment could I have? So maybe living through the riots helped me write a story that rang true.

My short story Howling at the Moon (Ellery Queen 11/14) takes place in Southern California’s Death Valley, the lowest and hottest spot in the US. Though it’s been some years since I’ve trekked there, I have been there and drew on those experiences to hopefully give the story a sense of verisimilitude. I remember how hot it was – hotter than hell and if you squinted just right that’s where you thought you were.
Death Valley, California

I recently sold another story to Ellery Queen called Ghosts of Bunker Hill (no publication date yet). This one takes place in an area of downtown LA, not the famous Revolutionary War site in Mass. And today’s Bunker Hill is very different than what it used to be.

Bunker Hill was LA’s first wealthy residential neighborhood, right near downtown. But it got run down after WWI and became housing for poor people. Lots of film noirs were shot there (Criss Cross, Cry Danger, Kiss Me Deadly and many others). It’s also where John Fante lived when he wrote Ask the Dust and other books. But in the late 60s it was all torn down and redeveloped. They even flattened the hills. Ghosts of Bunker Hill is set in and around there in the present.

Bunker Hill, Los Angeles
I love the old Bunker Hill and was lucky enough to “explore” it under the radar before it was totally razed. A friend and I went down there and did some “self-guided tours” of many of the grand old Victorian houses before they were torn down or moved to other locations. I took a souvenir from one of those Victorian houses, the finial off a newel staircase post (if I have the terminology correct). It’s a prized possession and since I want to write more stories with the characters in Ghosts of Bunker Hill, I see the finial as the “logo” for that series. What makes it really special to me is that it’s not just any old finial, but one I actually took from Bunker Hill. So it has both real and personal history.

Bunker Hill is also where the famous Angels Flight funicular railway is/was, from which Michael Connelly takes the name of one of his novels and which I used as a short story title before his novel came out. And I got to ride the original Angels Flight as well, which I’ve used in multiple stories including the eponymous Angels Flight. It was later moved up the street and a “new and improved” Angels Flight was put there, but it closed not too long after it opened.

Back in the day, my friend Linda (though not the friend I explored Bunker Hill with) and I used to go around LA, just point the car and drive and explore. We would just get in the car and head out in any direction, exploring “old” Los Angeles. We’d go anywhere and everywhere. We explored much of So Cal and I treasure those memories and what I learned while we were having fun doing that. And, of course, I’ve used much of what we saw in my writing.

But something just occurred to me that wasn’t pre-research. I was working on a screenplay set in New Orleans and I had never been there. Now, I could have researched it in books in those days or asked people about it – I could have gone to New Orleans Square at Disneyland – but I felt I needed to have the real feel for the place. So I just had to go there and see it for myself. I don’t know if it made the screenplay any better or more real, but it sure made me and Amy happy to be there.

And now that Bouchercon is going to be there in the fall, I guess it’s time for more research.

So, in terms of research, I draw on all of these experiences, plus others, as well as traditional research methods, such as book learnin’, the internet and talking with people, to hopefully give my stories a feeling of really being in the place or with characters who come off as real.


Thursday, April 28, 2016

Harmless weirdness.

Well, my search history isn't pretty. Fatal doses, famous cases, rigor mortis . . . Did you know if you Google "what neurological condition will kill a child by the age of sixteen after years of total immobility" you have to type the whole thing? Google doesn't guess the end for you.

And more and more research is done at the desk every year as more great stuff goes online. The Post Office directories are my favourite research resources. They tell you who lived where and what they did for a living in Britain between 1770-odd and 1921, when they became phone books. They're a treasure trove of names, jobs and all sorts of lore. Where else would you find out that Miss Violet Porteous ran a glovemaking factory on Causewayside and advertised her patented kid-whitening cream for 2d a pot.

If you've got nothing else to do for the next five hours: here they are:

And when you combine them with the ordnance survey maps of the same year:

You've practically moved into Miss Porteous's house and started your apprenticeship. You're welcome.

But still, I don't think I'd like to write completely from strolling about hand-in-virtual-hand with the wee orange man on Googlemaps. The sound of the wind and the smell of the sea only come from buying a plane ticket, hiring a car and getting out to listen and sniff. (If you write about Scotland and live in California, anyway.)

One thing I always do as part of research, that never struck me as weird until I told someone and saw their face is draw floorplans of every location in the story: houses, hotel rooms, shops. . . gotta have a floorplan. And it's not just my own books. I've drawn floorplans of Peter and Harriet Vane's London house, the castle in I Capture The Castle and the flat in Sherlock (after lots of pausing and rewinding).

I don't do it anymore. I don't need to. After you're finished with your five hours in the Post Office Directories, Google floorplans of fictional houses and kiss goodbye to the rest of the day. It was comforting to find out that I'm not alone in this: whether it's The Waltons or The Simpsons, The Golden Girls or the Gilmore Girls, the plans are out there.

Doesn't Carrie Bradshaw's flat have the most dead space you've ever seen?

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Strange is the new normal by Cathy Ace


This is a tough one to answer because “strange” is such a subjective concept. I’ll be honest and admit many things I think of as being perfectly normal might be construed as “strange” by others. 

Take some of the research I've undertaken for my Cait Morgan Mysteries, for example: I thought nothing of engaging a lovely lady by the name of Patti for an hour or so on the lounge deck of a cruise ship so she could explain the details of exactly how her chum had been hypnotized to stop smoking…just so I could take my initial thought of “what a great way to kill someone” and contemplate the logistics of how that might work. (I used the idea in THE CORPSE WITH THE GOLDEN NOSE, but you’ll have to read the book to see just how it played out…no spoilers here!) Indeed, I’ve had so many lengthy conversations with people about matters which, in my mind, lend themselves to murder that I don’t even blush anymore when I explain why I’m quizzing them. See? “Strange” is highly subjective.

The better part of a day I spent tasting tequila (for THE CORPSE WITH THE EMERALD THUMB, set on a tequila-producing hacienda near Puerto Vallarta) went well…up to a point. I don’t think anyone here needs to know exactly how it went off the rails. Quite an experience – but not “strange” given the amount I’d consumed! And who knew there was so much to learn about the supply chain for, and correct storage of, caviar and the challenges of running a restaurant that can only be reached by elevator? Thanks to Lyle at the Eiffel Tower Restaurant at Paris, Las Vegas for spending all that time with me in person and online – it was essential research for THE CORPSE WITH THE PLATINUM HAIR (even drinking all that champagne was critical!).   

I find the emails that pass between me and my ever-so-helpful-and-friendly local coroner to be perfectly normal, and my husband no longer thinks it’s odd that I sometimes eat food I don’t really fancy, but which I think Cait Morgan would try…just to find out what it smells and tastes like, and how it feels in my mouth. Trust me when I tell you snail caviar doesn’t have the flavor or texture of fish caviar and, apparently, there is a limit to how much white chocolate bread pudding a person can eat! (THE CORPSE WITH THE GOLDEN NOSE and THE CORPSE WITH THE PLATINUM HAIR, respectively.)

For my WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries I capitalized upon my love of unusual museums and ended up finding out more about antique dentures than I had previously imagined anyone would ever care to know (see how that worked out in THE CASE OF THE DOTTY DOWAGER). That said, learning about Winston Churchill’s false teeth didn’t strike me as “strange”, but fascinating. 

Maybe that’s how it is for a person who writes mysteries – my “normal” might be “strange” to others – but I have no real way of knowing. Which is probably for the best. 
Cathy Ace writes the WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries (book #2 THE CASE OF THE MISSING MORRIS DANCER was published in hardback in February, and book #1 THE CASE OF THE DOTTY DOWAGER was published in trade paperback on March 1st) and the Cait Morgan Mysteries (book #7 THE CORPSE WITH THE GARNET FACE was published in paperback in April). Find out more about Cathy and her work, and sign up for her newsletter at