Tuesday, October 21, 2014

It's A Secret

This week's question: What are you reading now?

My answer: It's a secret.

I'm reading 2 very cool stories. One is aimed at children, one at middle-grade readers. I'd love to give you more details, but neither book is published yet so I don't want to give away any plot lines that result in the writers' ideas being stolen and them suing me for all the royalties they would have earned. In both cases, I'm helping them with edits and thoroughly enjoying both stories in the process.

P.S. For authors who say no to reading other people's manuscripts because of how time consuming it is, I highly recommend finding space in your life for at least one unpublished novel per year. I find that I learn just as much from helping other people hone their novels as I do from any writing craft book or course.

Monday, October 20, 2014

What Are You Reading?

- from Susan

Unlike, “What are your three favorite books?" this is a fun question to ask or answer, both as a reader and as a writer. It used to be fairly easy: look at the stack next to a person’s bed. I’ll start there:

Incognito: The Secret Life of the Brain, by David Engleman (author of Sum, an inventive and moving series of small stories about the possible forms of an afterlife)

The Orientalist, by Tom Reiss, the biography of a man caught between his fantasies of an old and attractive concept of “East” and the war-shaped realities of the 20th century

The Years of Rice and Salt (for the second time), by Kim Stanley Robinson, a rich, compelling alternate history based on a “what if?” – what if the plague had killed almost everyone in Europe, leaving a political, geographical, and economic hole to be filled?

Bird by Bird, by Annie Lamott, because I’m always reading Bird by Bird

Murder Misdirected, by Andrew MacRae, a fellow board member of SinC Norcal, because it looks like fun

Anarchy and Old Dogs, by Collin Cotterill, whose crime fiction tales of Dr. Siri Paiboun, the only coroner in the sloppy, sorry world of communist Laos are funny in the way “Waiting for Godot” is funny

But that’s not my complete TBR stack These are among the two ten-foot bookshelves’ worth waiting to move to the bedside table:

This summer, headed to France with a present of books for my friend, I was faced with space issues in my suitcase, so I bought my first e-reader. Now there’s a virtual stack there too:

Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek, by Terry Shames
Criminal Intent, by Sheldon Siegel
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler
Killer in the Cloister, by Camille Minichino
Lawrence in Arabia, by Scott Anderson
Treasure Hunt, by Andrea Camilleri
The Family Way, by Rhys Bowen
The Housewife Assassin’s Handbook, by Josie Brown

And there’s always this to fall back on, should I find myself looking for a good piece of crime fiction to read (other genres are shelved elsewhere in the house). 

I don't think I'm crazy, and I know I’m not alone. We People of the Book all have stashes of reading material that will take us through every crisis and feed us for our lifetimes. And  because I'm always looking for more good books, I hope blog readers will chime in. There's always room in my house and on my TBR list for another book!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Is Anything Off Limits?

By Art Taylor

This week's question—"Is there a type of crime you won't write about?"—prompted two immediate answers: sexual violence and the abduction/abuse of children. Along the same lines as Meredith earlier in the week, the issue of child abuse in fiction became particularly troubling after my wife, Tara, and I had a son of our own. Soon after he was born, I read a couple of stories that centered around the abduction and/or abuse of a child, and it was simply too much for me to take in, emotionally overloading and exhausting. And both with that topic and with sexual violence, there's such a risk of handling the material poorly: the potential for it to appear exploitative, missteps into insensitivity, the challenge to offer deeper insight emotionally or otherwise.

All that said, I think I'd generally shy away from making either of those topics the central focus of any of my works, at least now.

However, even as I write that, I realize that I've incorporated each of those issues in smaller ways into recent stories. Earlier this year, I finished a story in which two young boys are caught in the center of trouble as the father of one of the boys threatens the mother of the other, with at least the possibility of sexual violence churning in the mix. My wife reviewed "Parallel Play" in draft form, and while she said it was one of my best stories, she asked me to please not ever ask her to read it again. I would encourage you to see for yourself, but it won't be published for a year and a half, in the next Chesapeake Crimes anthology, Storm Warning.

A rape in the distant past was also an important—but again, not central— aspect of another story that I wrote a while back, "The White Rose of Memphis," which was published in Needle: A Magazine of Noir. My editor at Ellery Queen, I should say, passed on that story as not right for their readers; and I could certainly understand. Just proof that such issues, even treated indirectly, can be tough to take. 

I hope I don't seem to be contradicting myself here. In my mind, the distinction is a clear one. Burrowing deep into the physical details and psychological aftermath of either of these specific types of crime would, at this point, be more than I want to attempt writing about. But I also don't think it's necessary to pretend that such things don't happen—to purge completely from the page any reference to those crime or the possibility of those crimes.

It's a fine line there, of course—and a fine line to tread generally for anyone attempting to write about sensitive, troubling issues at all.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Going to the Dark Side

by Clare O'Donohue

Q- Is there a type of crime you won't write about?


Also, probably, serial killers. In part because (forgive me) it's been done to death. But also because the idea of killing for the thrill of it, to satisfy a craving, doesn't really interest me.

From what I can tell, either you have an urge to be a serial killer or you don't. It's kind of like the ability to roll your tongue. If you don't think that way (and I sincerely hope you don't, especially if you know where I live) then serial killers are the literary equivalent of circus freaks. You might be fascinated to take a peak, but you're not afraid of turning into a serial killer anymore than you are of becoming the bearded lady.

Maybe you might imagine yourself his victim, but fictional victims of serial killers tend to be less interesting than their fictional killers. They exist to up the body count.

I'm more interested in people who - but for a specific issue, like money or infidelity or a twisted kind of love - would never commit a serious crime. I want to know what makes them take a step like that, so far out of their nature. I want to know if it haunts them, or if they have found a way to justify it. I want to know how they got from never thinking about murder all the way to actually plunging the dagger into a friend or loved one. What was the tipping point? Did they think they'd get away with it?

I think we all have a dark side. And, under the right circumstances, we would all be willing to kill. Maybe it would take war, to save your own life, or the life of someone you loved. Or maybe your line in the sand is murkier. That's the character I want to write about. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Dodging a bullet

Is there a type of crime you won't write about? 

by Meredith Cole

Some people probably think that mystery readers are a blood thirsty lot. We like nothing better than to curl up with a lurid tale and consume all the gory details. But the truth is that quite a few of our number is--how should I put it?--a bit prudish. Many readers I know have a long list of items that they do not like in a book and will "throw it across the room" if they run across these objectionable things in a book (hopefully missing any hapless passersby and/or the writer). And others will find a book decidedly flat if it doesn't contain any of those things. So what's a poor writer to do?

I think every writer should write about what they're interested in and what they like to read. When my child was small, I couldn't read books in which children were kidnapped or killed. I just couldn't. My overprotective mother imagination was already working overtime and didn't need any help. So I certainly didn't write any books where children were endangered either. But I don't rule out becoming fascinated by a story land writing a book with a child victim some day when my own child is safely into adulthood.

I'm not very interested in writing about professional criminals. Mobsters, for instance, who kill people as part of their daily routine are as fascinating to me as office workers who do data entry. But I enjoy reading books by others where the traditional mobster story is given a new twist--something that makes it different from every other book that came before.

I think our only choice as authors is to write books with as much skill and talent as we can muster and find out audience among the people who like to read what we're writing about. And every once in a while we can also become the "exception" to someone's rule. "I don't normally like books where the murderer is the narrator," they'll say, "but I just couldn't put this one down!" Indeed.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Guest Blogger: Mark W. Danielson

This week’s question is “What's your biggest dream / ambition as a writer?” Instead of responding to it, let me introduce friend and colleague, mystery-thriller author Mark W. Danielson.  Mark’s background as a fighter pilot in both the Navy and Air Force, as well as a FedEx pilot (so you know who to get mad at when your stuff is late J)  gives him plenty of background material for his exciting novels.

Mark’s fast-paced novels share startling coincidences with actual events.  Spectral Gallows and Writer’s Block are in the Maxx Watts detective series.  Diablo’s Shadow echoes a Florida missing child case.  Danger Within is an action thriller that takes the reader into the gritty world of commercial aviation and underwater salvage.  The Innocent Never Knew is a political conspiracy that parallels the suspicious death of President Clinton’s Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown.   Twice selected as the US Navy’s top author, Mark’s global travels as an airline pilot enable him to write from a perspective shared by few.

Take it away, Mark:

Recently, my friend Paul D. Marks posed the following question to me:  What's your biggest dream / ambition as a writer?  Pausing to consider this multi-dimensional question, my first thought was my characters have more dreams than me.  How can this be when my characters stem from my imagination?  Simply put, in first drafts, the characters that originate from my subconscious thoughts grow as they tell their stories.

Having said that, if I were to have only one ambition, it would be for someone to send me a note saying they loved a character’s particular line.  To me, that’s an author’s ultimate praise.  To clarify, here’s an example from a Stephen Coonts novel where his protagonist faces a rival at a party.  With a grin, his protagonist says, “You look constipated.”  I was so impressed by Coonts’ slam that I wrote him to pass on my admiration.  He responded with an equally simple line, “Sometimes you get it right.”  I liked that one, too.

Fan feedback trumps any book review because it comes from the heart.  On the contrary, editors and book reviewers, like car show judges, may give your work/car accolades one day, and the next hate it even though nothing changed.  For thin--skinned authors, this indifference can be demoralizing, but if you’ve been around a while, you learn to expect it and find the good in their critiques. 

Flashing back to Paul’s original question, my biggest ambition is to be recognized as a credible writer.  In other words, readers would recognize the extent of research done in order to create my reality-based stories.  And because my stories are factually based, I tend to use actual locations and in some cases, real names.  In Danger Within, a novel based on an actual FedEx DC-10 in-flight fire, I received a note from someone in the FedEx safety department saying that while he enjoyed the book, it sounded a lot like the FedEx fire.  As a FedEx pilot, my response to him was, “It is,” still smiling from his flattering feedback.

The business end of writing is ugly, and can quickly snuff the dreams and ambitions of any writer, so if you’re in it to make money, you’re better off writing for magazines where they always pay up front.  If you’re in it for fame, then consider turning your talents to acting.  Just remember how many actors wait tables in LA. 

Fiction writing is about being true to yourself and expressing your innermost thoughts through characters.  It gives you the chance to play God, creating harmony from chaos while giving others a sneak peek into your soul.  But the risk is high, for every word will be judged, few readers will ever write a review, and fewer still will remember your name when they finish your story.  So write from the heart because it’s what you like to do, and it you’re lucky, someone might send you a kind note.  

Thank you Mark!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Deadly Nightstand

I swerved the posted Criminal Minds question for the Sisters in Crime Great September Blog Hop in August so why not round it off in October? (Especially when Robin and Clare have nailed the answer for the official question and then duct-taped it, to make sure.)

So. I'm going to answer:"what's on your nightstand?" - a question pretending to be about literary taste that's really about how much of a hopeless book junkie and slattern you are.

Here's the unexpurgated list of books on the nightstand in my mum's spare room in Edinburgh, where I'm writing this blog post.  That is, here are the books I have with me two long plane journeys from my house.


On the top:

John Gilstrap's END GAME (I'm on p. 91) This doesn't count because it's for moderating at Bouchercon.


A WEDDING IN DECEMBER, Anita Shreve (I read it last year and left it here to take home this year because this year I wasn't going to buy any books and I'd have room in my case)
DARK PLACES,  Gillian Flynn (bought this year)
NOW YOU SEE ME, S.J. Bolton (read last year and left here to take home this year because . . .)
JOHN McPAKE AND THE SEA BEGGARS, Stuart Campbell (bought this year, but doesn't count because he's my English teacher)
MURDER PAST DUE, Miranda James (read last year and left here to take home . . .)
FATHER CONFESSOR, Russel McLean (read last year and left here . . .)
UNSEEN, Karin Slaughter (read last year and . . .)
JACK 1939, Francine Mathews (bought this year but doesn't count because it's for moderating at Bouchercon)
TIME OF ATTACK, Marc Cameron (this year, doesn't count, Bouchercon)
BLOWBACK, Valerie Plame (Ha! Sent by publisher - really doesn't count)
DID NOT FINISH, Simon Wood (borrowed from brother-in-law for Bouchercon Toastmaster interview prep - mega doesn't count)
NO SHOW, Simon Wood (ditto)
WORKING STIFFS, Simon Wood (brought over with me but . . . Bouchercon so still doesn't count)
THE SCRUBS, Simon Janus aka Simon Wood (Bcon, doesn't count)
ASKING FOR TROUBLE, Simon Wood (guess whether it counts)
DEAD MEN'S BONES, James Oswald (on a Bouchercon panel together, doesn't count)
THE LAST REFUGE, Craig Robertson (ditto)
THE NIGHT HUNTER, Caro Ramsay (on three panels together this year. Not having this book would be rude.)

So, basically, when you get right down to it, on my nightstand are one Gillian Flynn and an ARC of a Tana French.  I'm travelling light. Who needs a Kindle?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014


by Clare O'Donohue

Q: What's your biggest dream / ambition as a writer?

Yesterday Robin answered this question perfectly and I am tempted to say, "What she said" and end there. But that would be cheating.

So I'm going to elaborate, in hopes that it counts as something new...

1. I want to make a living as a full time novelist. I say novelist rather than just writer, because technically my job is as a TV writer and in case the universe listens in on such things, I don't want them to get confused. I've seen the Twilight Zone. I know how you make a wish to have time to do nothing but read. And the world ends, so you finally do. But then you smash your glasses. I'm not getting screwed by fate because I wasn't specific enough.

I'm not greedy. I realize I'm very lucky in the writing department to have been published and to make money at it. So I'm not saying, "I want to beat James Patterson's annual salary." (Though, universe, I'm fine with that in case you're asking.) I want to replace my TV income with the earnings I make from just writing my books and stories. That would be an amazing accomplishment.

2. I want to be a really good writer. I have always said that I want my 50th book to be my masterpiece. I want to get better with each book, as I learn from my own work and from the work of other people. I want to write, not just a sentence or paragraph that makes me tingle with excitement, but a whole book. That would be even more amazing than beating Patterson.

So, yeah, "What she said" pretty much sums it up...

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Short Answer

Question of the Week: What's your biggest dream/ambition as a writer?

My Answer is very short this week:

I have two goals. On the outside they have nothing to do with each other, yet I'm pretty sure that if I achieve #2, #1 will come along with it:
  1. To make a living from writing fiction.
  2. To be so in tune with the craft that I can mold words like clay in my fingertips.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Read Any Good Women Writers Lately?

By Susan C Shea

I’m joining my Criminal Minds colleagues in the SinC blog hop this week, having been tagged by Paul D. Marks. (See his last post for the rules and the list of off-topic questions we can choose from.) I decided to take on what may well be the most controversial of the seven questions, so here goes:

If someone said, "Nothing against women writers, but all of my favorite crime fiction authors happen to be men," how would you respond?

Are you thinking what I’m thinking: Who’s speaking? Gender, please? Can we agree it’s a fair bet this hypothetical voice was male, or intended to represent a reader of That Sex? Answering the question begs for generalities, and I intend to deliver them, along with a summation, so here goes.

Item: I am the mother of two sons and two grandsons (I also have two granddaughters, so I have a control group.) We tried limiting toys to building blocks, Legos, train sets, stuffed animals, card games, and the like. The boys found sticks, made swords, built collapsible building traps, staged fights with plush squirrels and bears before moving on to paintball and Star Wars computer games.

Item: My darling man, a gentle artist who loved women and paid them great personal and professional respect, read voraciously, mostly paperback thrillers with black and silver embossed covers, the kind you find at airport kiosks with blurbs like “rectum-tightening suspense!!!”

Item: Movie marketing aims at 18-25 year old males, which research has brought us summer after summer of blockbuster Iron Mans, Batmans, and Spider Mans, and whatever Tom Cruise is up to that involves flaming cars, burning cities, and massive explosions. In fact, if a sensitive actor or actress wants to make big bucks, the easiest way to do it, the entertainment industry says, is to do a high energy thriller in which you are bionic or at least brain-wrecked and can kill anyone within three seconds of sighting him or her at twenty paces.

What I’m getting at is there is a real, measurable embrace of pretend violence that is usually (here’s a generalization) stronger among males than females, that begins early in spite of our motherly efforts to temper it, and is nurtured unceasingly by those who want to sell entertainment.

But, those same marketers have figured out that females, even as little girls, are still being socialized to take care of…anything. They build Lego safe houses, comfort plush animals, play-cook for daddy, form little social pods – you do have to watch out for extreme verbal violence when they hit their teens, alas – and make up very few paintball teams. Title Nine and the access to real sports have made some inroads into the stereotyping of female lack of assertiveness, and allowing women to become soldiers has given them experiences that will influence their perspectives. But I still think (another generalization coming) that female readers approach entertainment, and in this case, crime fiction, with less appetite for blunt force trauma writing, for child-endangerment plots, for fist-fighting and car-torching scenes.

That said, there are fine women writers who write tough stuff, and male writers whose books bring empathy into the heart of the tale. A very personal couple of examples: Denise Mina’s memorable, bleakly noir series about a Glasgow journalist who gets sucked into terrifying crime situations; David Corbett’s stand-alones about the culture of violence, written with an empathy that makes us understand how people go bad. (Both were on my beloved’s bookshelves along with Walter Mosely, Robert B Parker, Val McDermid, Lee Child, James Lee Burke, and Harlan Coban.)

My shelves include the great Sara Paretsky, Barbara Neely (sadly not writing the Blanche series any more), Sue Grafton, Rex Stout (yup, a guy), Laurie King, Magdalen Nabb, Gar Anthony Haywood (another guy) and Donna Leon. The narrative voices I resonate most strongly with, be they female or male, are those that have at least a soup├žon of the same socialization I grew up with, a tendency to want to fix problems without guns, correct wrongs without too much vengeance, and comfort victims rather than blow everyone up as a way of clearing the decks.

Summary: I do think gender is linked to readers’ preferences, and that it mirrors the miasma of media-driven socialization from the cradle to the grave. What I would argue is that we - as readers and writers -  owe it to the goal of defeating stereotypes to try something new once in a while, to vary the menu and the narrative voices we choose in the crime fiction genre. We can be happily, thrillingly, surprised when we read something out of our normal range.

Coda: My partner came to relish Paretsky and Leon, with their passion for social justice, among my other recommendations. I love his Walter Mosely collection because it’s full of unforgettable, darkly comic characters, even if I blanche when Mouse gets one of his bad ideas!

Feel free to push back – and pass along some recommendations to convert our hypothetical reader.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Thin Line Between Heroes and Villains

By Art Taylor

This week's question—"Which type of character is more fun to write: villain or hero (in the classic sense of the word)?"—is a fascinating one, and my initial impulse was to say villains, since they're so so so much more fun to read about, aren't they? Even without that word "classic" in the question, it's the classics that leap to mind here: Medea, Satan in Paradise Lost, Dracula, a slew of Shakespeare's characters (Richard III and Iago at the top of that heap), and speaking of Heep, doesn't the scheming Uriah liven up that second half of David Copperfield considerably? Even in more recent books, it's the villains who command both the page and our cultural consciousness: Tom Ripley, Hannibal Lecter, Voldemort.

But then I looked at my own writing and realized that the question didn't fit: Most times, I don't think I write either heroes or villains, as it turns out.

My story "The Care and Feeding of Houseplants"—about a troubled love triangle—was the first that jumped to mind, because the opening section just oozes with nastiness from one of the three main characters—and I sure had fun writing it. Here are the first paragraphs:

During one of their trysts, one of those long lunch breaks they took from the ad agency where they worked, Roger invited Felicia to bring her husband over for a Friday night cookout. 
“Tell hubby it’s casual,” he explained to her after he’d caught his breath once more. “Tell him we’ll just”—and here he grazed his fingers a little more insistently along her damp skin—“just get together and heat up some meat in the backyard.”
Felicia arched a single eyebrow and then turned her head toward the far side of his bedroom—looking at what, Roger wasn’t clear. Unlike the other women who’d sometimes shared his bed, often under similar circumstances, Felicia seemed a true mystery—aloof, challenging, and the more desirable for it. He followed her gaze. Her beige linen business suit was folded sensibly across a chair by his bedroom window. Beyond stood the backyard itself, the patio, the teak table and chairs. Roger could already see himself standing by the grill, making small talk with her husband. Your wife’s breasts, he would think as he smiled and chatted with the other man. That mole on her pelvis. That scar at the hollow of her ankle.
“Whatever you may think,” Felicia said finally, “Blanton is not a fool.”
“Blanton,” Roger said and then again, “Blan-ton,” stretching out the syllables as if they were his to twist and toy with. “You know, I still just love his name.”

But then I realized that by the story's end, the roles have shifted in several ways: underdog hero, hapless victim, cold-blooded villain—which is which when all is said and done?

[The full story, originally published by Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, is available here thanks to EQMM's generosity. Winner of the Agatha Award back in May, it's also up for the Anthony and the Macavity at this year's Bouchercon in Long Beach, CA.]

My most recent story for Ellery Queen, "The Odds Are Against Us"—about a conversation between two old friends—also has a pivotal shift, where any clear division between hero and villain gets desperately blurred, a move that's ultimately the point of the story.

And my novel-in-stories On the Road with Del and Louise, due out next September from Henery Press, follows the adventures of small-time criminals—at once the heroes here and yet, well, criminals, right? which could be troubling? Members of my writing group (a distinguished bunch, though I won't name here) did tell me that writing about criminals as main characters might be a marketing mistake—might alienate readers in some way. But at the same time, "Rearview Mirror," the first of the Del and Louise stories, remains the favorite story among many readers—the one I get the best feedback about. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that readers down the line continue to find them charming instead of contemptible.

While I'd never put myself into the same league as the great Donald E. Westlake (any more than Milton's, Dickens', or Highsmith's), I can't help but think of him when a question like this comes up—both the Dortmunder books and the Parker novels, completely different series, of course, but in each case stories where the pleasures of reading them don't depend on external judgements about who's doing the right thing or the wrong one, who's good, who's bad. And as an added nudge toward thinking of Westlake, there's this week's review in the Washington Post of The Getaway Car, a new collections of essays and other writings by the master. Definitely on my own TBR list.

Heroes? Villains? The best characters, I guess I'm trying to say, hopefully offer a little from both ends of that spectrum—and it's from the gray areas that the best conflict, both external and internal, emerges. At least that's what I seem to be striving for in my own work, for better or worse.