Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Whatever works

By R.J. Harlick

What sources do you draw on for ideas for your stories?

I tell you, it’s a tough life. I’m basking by a pool in the land of sun and fun, listening to palm trees clatter in the breeze, while at home winter doesn’t want to leave after burying the streets in another record-breaking snowfall. I feel for my fellow Ottawans.

Feeling very mellow and relaxed in this new-found sun, I find myself having to write a blog. I’d planned on doing it before I left the snow, but…you know, one thing led to another and before I knew it I’d run out of time. No problem, I’ll write it by the pool.  Except I can barely lift a finger to tap on a key, let alone summon up the energy to think. But I don’t want to let my fellow Minds or our readers down, so here goes. My apologies beforehand if I end up rambling…but, you know, the pool does beckon. And oh, this heat, this sun feels so delicious. It feels like an eternity since I’ve felt such soothing warmth.

The short answer to this week’s question is I draw from many different sources for my story ideas. Often for the major overarching themes of a particular book, I will draw on the news media for the major issues facing First Nations people today. In Green Place for Dying as the number of missing indigenous woman in Canada climbed with little to no attention being pay to these women by the police and other authorities, I decided to build a story around it to do my bit to raise their profile. I had been avoiding the residential school issue in my books, knowing it was a complicated subject. But after the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report I felt the time had come. In the upcoming book, Purple Palette for Murder, I write about the repercussions of having ‘the Indian wiped out of them’ by these schools on several generations of a Dene family.

The overarching theme in A River Runs Orange came from a conversation with a gentleman at a cultural centre at the Kitigan Zibi Reserve. He was very excited about a beaver pelt petition he and several others were going to present to authorities at an Ottawa museum. The petition was asking for the repatriation of 5000 year old remains that had been found in the Ottawa River on an island the Algonquin consider within their traditional territory. They believed the individual was an ancestor and should be returned to Mother Earth and not studied and put on display.

Sometimes the ideas come from my own life like the underlying Inuit art theme of Arctic Blue Death. The very first work of art I bought was a stone cut print of an owl by Cape Dorset artist Pitsiolek. Because of this print, I became intrigued with Inuit print making so decided to interweave it into the story. Red Ice for a Shroud opens with Meg and Eric clearing cross country ski trails, something my husband and I along with others do every fall in the forests surrounding our log cabin. I mustn’t forget whitewater paddling. A River Runs Orange opens with Eric and Meg paddling madly through rapids of a wild river. It was based on my first whitewater paddling trip. While I based Meg’s river and its rapids on the river I paddled, the Dumoine, I named Meg’s river after my dog DeMontigny. By the way, Meg doesn’t like paddling through rapids any more than I do.

I also draw on my family for ideas. In Death’s Golden Whisper, the Grand Tour of Europe that Meg’s Great-aunt Agatha went on just before the start of The Great War, was based in part on the European trip my grandfather made at the same time, even down to voyaging home on the Lusitania a couple of years before it was sunk by the Germans. I chose the setting for Silver Totem of Shame because I’d grown up on tales of these mystical Haida Gwaii islands or the Queen Charlottes as they were called by my father. His father, my grandfather, used to travel to them when he worked on the boats and my father spent a summer or two in a logging camp while he was going to university.

Lastly, I mustn’t forget human nature and all its variations and complexities, the best source for a motive for murder. I rely on it heavily for all my characters actions.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Sources of Inspiration

Revealing my sources, by Terry Shames

Last week someone asked me why I wrote Samuel Craddock as an art collector. It’s a convoluted answer, but it boils down to this: People, places, and plots in my books are based on real life. I love modern art, but the more compelling reason had to do with a bit of family history that I used in a creative way.

I just read an author I had never read before and thoroughly enjoyed his crazy plot that revolved around nonstop mayhem, complete with characters who were borderline insane and whose dialogue was one snappy line after another. I kept thinking, “Where did his ideas come from?” If they come from his reality, I would love to visit him at home. In a way he’s a writer who writes the opposite of me. My characters, plots and dialogues often involve secrets, stealth, and innuendo (my family style). His characters blurt out anything that comes into their minds, and act out of pure impulse.

I wasn’t very old before I realized there were a lot of sly references in my family both in conversation and in looks (raised eyebrows, nods, widened eyes) that conveyed a language I as a kid wasn’t privy to. Even as an adult I sometimes found myself unable to decipher oblique hints among my relatives. I often thought it would be much easier if people would just come out and say what they meant. One friend told me I was blunt, and I think it’s my response to the world of hints that I could never quite get a handle on.

But it isn’t only intentional family secrets that give me ideas for my novels. Sometimes it’s about the way people remember events. My sister and I have had many shared experiences and when we discuss them, we remember them completely differently. Unless we remember them exactly the same! That’s the tricky part. Some stories in my family have taken on the status of myth. Since the “characters” or those stories are no longer living, it’s impossible to know what really happened. My mother and father were secretly married and my aunt told me the story of how my mother’s parents found out. When I asked my mother about it, she snorted and said, “That’s ridiculous. Your aunt has an active imagination. It didn’t happen that way at all.” Although it would be wonderful to climb into the way back machine and find out the reality, that’s impossible. But I can certainly mine it for fiction. When I weave these fragile memories into stories I get to have everybody behave the way they want to in the world I’ve created….no matter how much they depend on my family history for their existence.

When it comes to writing, all that secrecy and obscure history serve me well. It’s the world that continues to fascinate me as a writer. It leads my imagination to fill in gaps and make stories out of fragments. It spurs me think about what kind of person keeps a particular kind of secret, and what motivates people not only to keep a secret for themselves but for someone else. And what motivates people to break trust. And it spurs me to wonder who would be willing to kill to keep a secret from coming out. Secrets and secret histories—that’s the source of my imagination.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Movies Inspired Me to Read the Book

by Paul D. Marks

Reading—What authors particularly inspire you? Do you read them when you are working on a book?

To the second question, I’d say I have and can read some of the following while working on something, but I don’t necessarily do so on purpose. Sometimes that’s just what I happen to be reading at the time.

Now to the first question: I’m inspired by a lot of authors and a lot of individual books where maybe the writer’s oeuvre doesn’t hit me but they have that one book that’s a knockout. And my two favorite books, both of which inspire me in different ways, are not mysteries or hardboiled novels.

My favorite book of all time is The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham. But I have to admit that I saw the movie first, the original Tyrone Power version, and that’s what inspired me to read the book. I couldn’t relate to everything in it of course, but I related to a lot of it, mostly the main character, Larry Darrell’s search for meaning in an insane world. I relate to the character of Larry on a lot of levels, his disillusionment after the war (WWI), and his search for peace and meaning in life. I found the book inspiring. Still do.

Later on, I saw the Bill Murray film version when it came it out. I didn’t like it nearly as much as the Power version, though it’s grown on me over the years. And it was my understanding that Murray wouldn’t do Ghostbusters II unless he could do his version of The Razor’s Edge, because he also found it so inspiring. Not sure if that’s true though. And, as a sidenote, the day after it was released (I think—hey, it was a long time ago) I saw him on the Warner Brothers lot (though I think then it was called the Burbank Studios, it’s kind of like the song “Istanbul was Constantinople, Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople,”—well, it used to be Warner Brothers then it was The Burbank Studios now it’s Warner Brothers again, so a studio by any other name…). He was leaning on a car in one of the parking lots, reading a review of it—everybody has to check their reviews.

My other favorite book is The Count of Monte Cristo. Who doesn’t love a good revenge story and this is the best of all, especially the way the Count hoists the villains on their own petards. It's the ultimate revenge story and revenge is so satisfying, served hot or cold. As such, it almost counts as a mystery or hardboiled story. Almost.

And while I’ve read books, both fiction and non-fiction, since I was a little kid, I’m a movie guy at heart, so I came to a lot of writers and their books via the movies. This happened with my favorite mystery writer, Raymond Chandler. And he is the top of the heap to me, bar none. I love his style, his turn of phrase. His depiction of a Los Angeles that still existed to some extent when I was a kid. And I came to him through the Bogie-Bacall version of The Big Sleep. His prose definitely inspires me and I keep trying to write my own version of the opening to his story Red Wind.

When it comes to noir, David Goodis is the man. And guess what, I came to him through the movies too, another Bogie-Bacall movie, Dark Passage, based on Goodis’ novel of the same name. I’d seen that movie several times and finally decided to check out the guy whose book it was based on and I was hooked. I devoured everything by him and back then you had to find used copies of his books cause there were few, if any, new production books out there like there are today. My fave Goodis novel is Down There, which was made into the movie Shoot the Piano Player by Francois Truffaut. I’m not a big fan of the movie, but the original book is terrific if you like down and dirty noir stories. This one’s about an ex-GI, a former Merrill’s Marauder, now a piano player who finds more trouble back home than in the war and he had plenty there. Goodis has been called the “poet of losers” by Geoffrey O’Brien and his stories deal with failed lives and people who are definitely on the skids. They’re often people who weren’t always in this position though and the interesting part is seeing how they deal with their downfall—not always so well. Goodis inspires me so much that I wrote a story that might be considered an homage to him. Born Under a Bad Sign was originally published in Dave Zeltserman’s Hard Luck Stories magazine, but is now available in LA Late @ Night, a collection of some of my previously published stories.

Along with film noir, the early hardboiled writers (though there is some crossover) have influenced and inspired my mystery-noir sensibility: Chandler, Cain, Hammett, Dorothy B. Hughes, etc. Along with these writers comes John Fante, although Fante doesn’t fit in either the noir or hardboiled categories. Nonetheless his thinly disguised autobiographical tales of a struggling writer's life in early 20th century L.A. made enough of an impression on me that I wrote to him shortly before he died.

Farther down the time-line road, I was drawn to Ross MacDonald with his psychological insights and stories that constantly double back on themselves and James Ellroy with his corrupt and sultry grittiness. Of current writers, Walter Mosely, Carol O’Connell, Michael Connelly and Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source help to inspire me.

But for me Chandler, with his elegant descriptions, metaphors, characters, depiction of the mean streets and his ville fatale relationship with Los Angeles, will always be on top.

What draws me to many of these writers and the noir and mystery genre in books and films is that they're about the other side of the American Dream, the dark side. There's an inner core of darkness and corruption in society, a feeling of fear and paranoia. There's a moral ambiguity in the writings of most of these writers and in these films. They are the equivalent of an Edward Hopper painting (another major influence on my writing) with its cold light and shadows, filled with a sense of loneliness, alienation and angst.

In much of noir and some hardboiled writing (and there is often, though not always a difference between the two) there's no sense of redemption, but much betrayal. No good guys, just bad guys and worse guys. The hero is flawed. People's own flaws and weaknesses create their fallibility and ultimately lead to their downfall. I think this appeals to me in the sense that it's a realistic, though often pessimistic and cynical, view of society. And in my own writing, both in my novels White Heat and Vortex, and many of my short stories, the characters are flawed, the situations ambiguous.

So my inspirations seem to go from the heights of the Himalayas (Razor’s Edge) to the gutter (Down There), which is kind of noir in itself.  What about you—what/who are your inspirations as a writer, as a person?


And now for the usual BSP:

Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea is available at Amazon.com and Down & Out Books.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Day I Dodged

It should be my day today (Catriona), but I'm handing over the blog to my friend and fellow writer, Lori Rader Day, as she celebrates the publication of her third novel THE DAY I DIED, the follow-up to the Mary Higgins Clark winning LITTLE PRETTY THINGS. I was lucky enough to read TDID early on, and it's absolutely fandabbydozy. 

So, without further ado, over to Lori.

What authors inspire you? Do you read them when you are working on a book?

Which writers inspire me? This is not sucking up. I will read anything Catriona McPherson cares to write. Her grocery list? Bring it.

But since she is my host today, I should probably think of other writers who inspire me.

My first mystery/suspense inspirations were Lois Duncan, Agatha Christie, and Mary Higgins Clark. Imagine the 12-year-old me carrying my Mary Higgins Clark library copy of A Cry in the Night onto the school bus to seventh grade to share with my friends. Yeah. That really happened.

Today I’m still inspired by the careers of those three women and by those who follow in their footsteps: Tana French (The Likeness is my favorite) Megan Abbott (The Fever), Lisa Lutz (Heads You Lose with David Hayward is a book more people should read), and Ann Cleeves (I love Vera!). I also read male authors, of course. Favorites include Charles Todd (I’m cheating there, I know) and William Kent Krueger.
I do read fiction when I’m writing, or I wouldn’t read fiction at all. But let’s be honest: I do sometimes put off reading books that I think might influence me too much in what I’m writing. Instead, I might read a novel that is so different from my style that I’m unlikely to borrow. (M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth series is great for this, or Alexander McCall Smith’s Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency.) Confession: I have not yet read Lou Berney’s award-winning The Long and Faraway Gone because I’m pretty sure it’s going to give me a severe case of Why Botherism.

I don’t have time to feel more insecure than I already do. Thanks anyway, Berney.

What I read most when I’m trying to get my head out of my own work-in-progress for a while is nonfiction. The best kind of nonfiction is work that may spark ideas for my own project, but that’s hard to predict. The best examples I’ve had of this are the Jon Curran Agatha Christie notebook books and a recent read that blew me away, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin.

Not all of my nonfiction reads have to be about my favorite authors, of course. I’m also a fan of books by Erik Larson, Melissa Fay Greene, Sarah Vowell, David Grann, and books like Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of Remarkable Meetings by Craig Brown and The Fiddler on the Subway by Gene Weingarten—essay collections that have nothing to do with what I write but send my mind pinging all over the place. That’s what I’m looking for in anything I read, whether I’m drafting or not: distraction, energy, and that excitement I used to get as a kid, finding a new favorite story. It’s hard to get as an adult, as someone steeped in books all the time. But when you find it, it’s just as magical as it always was.

Catriona again: Over to you all, Criminal Minds readers - who inspires you?

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Simon Says vs Chatty Cathy...by Cathy Ace

“Reading—What authors particularly inspire you? Do you read them when you are working on a book?”

Oh heck – this is a tough one to answer! Second question first – I don’t read when I’m writing…I just cannot do it. Not because I’m afraid I’ll start writing just like Agatha Christie (!!!) or any other author, but because when I’m working on a book I’m so completely immersed in the world I’m creating that I barely have room for the real one, let alone the inventions of other authors. So, not reading novels while I’m writing one is my way of hanging onto my sanity.

Some of my Christie books
As for reading when I’m not writing – yes, I still do that! Over the years I have broadened and deepened my list of “authors whose work I have read”, but I have to admit I am probably still most influenced by those whose works I read earliest and have therefore re-read for the longest period of time. Agatha Christie’s works have had a profound effect on me; I own at least one copy of everything she ever wrote (plays and memoirs included) and have lost count of the number of times I have read each one. I’ll admit not every book is “brilliant in every respect”, and some might be said to be a little “clunky”, BUT Christie at her worst is better than so many other writers, I’ll step back into the metaphorical “comfy slippers” her works offer at the drop of the proverbial hat rather than wade through something that doesn’t hold me, or appeal to me.

I also read a great deal of Patricia Wentworth, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L Sayers and Ellery Queen when I was young – and still read their work now, so all of that must have influenced me.

As I write this blog post I am asking myself “In what way/s have they influenced me?” and this is what I’ve come up with…

Structure, setting, characterization, the laying down of clues, playing fair with the reader or specifically deciding to not do that – all these things were laid down in my psyche because of my early reading. Topics? Christie, Wentworth, Marsh, Queen and more wrote about extra-marital affairs, sex before/outside marriage, drug dealing and addiction, alcoholism, espionage, violent theft, serial killers, psychopaths, sociopaths, narcissists and so many types of characters or situations we often forget they tackled when we think of their work. They might not have used foul language, or have dwelt on the gory physiological aspects of a crime, but they certainly examined the psychological damage done, and did so in a pretty intense way in many cases. So, by starting my crime-reading life with their books, I gave myself a framework for when I began to write. Every topic I’ve mentioned above is contained within what I’ve written in my traditional Cait Morgan Mysteries. So, there’s that…

Nowadays I try hard to read works by authors I have met and come to know – and I have to admit I am not sure how much that reading influences me. I suspect it does in that it marks out for me what “their territory” is…and allows me to see what’s working well in the marketplace and how good writing sells. I’m always trying to learn, and, while I believe there’s a lot to be learned from authors who were working many decades ago, I am also sure there’s a great deal I can learn from those who are writing today. 

With Sue Grafton - a living inspiration!
An example here would be the work of Sue Grafton; I think it was the Kinsey Millhone books that allowed me to understand the different way that a “Golden Age” book (be it about the sleuth Miss Marple or the PI Poirot) vs a “modern” book about a professional investigator can and should work. Let’s be honest, we never get the feeling that Poirot is taking on a case because he needs the business – I know he has Miss Lemon to organize his correspondence and immaculate filing system, and that he is commissioned to take cases but, rather like the Sherlock Holmes tradition, we’re aware of Poirot “picking” his cases rather than having to do something to allow him to pay the bills (for Poirot aficionados, yes, I know there are a couple of times where the state of his bank account means he takes a case he might have allowed to pass him by, but that’s not his usual motivation). Kinsey Millhone is a true professional, and her “cases” often build from seemingly innocent/slightly boring or uninspiring beginnings. That’s how my WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries work – with my four professional private investigators taking on a case – after the proper signing of contracts, of course – which leads them somewhere they never expected. Of course, Kinsey's in the USA in the 1980s and my WISE women are in Wales today, but...you know. So there’s that…

This is a bit like peeling an onion…I know I have never, ever, set out to "copy" the style/shape of another author's work, but there must be innumerable ways in which what I read fifty years ago (Enid Blyton’s “Secret Seven” books) or fifty days ago (Elly Griffiths’ “The Crossing Places”) has and will influence me – be that in a turn of phrase, or an entire structure for a character/tale/series. Maybe I’ll never really know where certain inspirations come from, and maybe that’s for the best; I’d like to believe I’ve come up with some of the stuff I write all on my own, you see!

Cathy Ace is the Bony Blithe Award-winning author of The Cait Morgan Mysteries (#8 The Corpse with the Ruby Lips was released on November 1st) and The WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries (#3, The Case of the Curious Cook, was released in hardcover in the UK on November 30th and in the USA & Canada on March 1st).  You can find out more about Cathy, her work and her characters at her website, where you can also sign up for her newsletter with news, updates and special offers:

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Rule Breaker

What authors particularly inspire you? Do you read them when you are working on a book?

An author who inspired me some years ago, when I was looking for representation, is Louise Penny. Along with enjoying her Gamache series, it was also a matter of the permission she gave me to break some rules, or what I thought were rules.

Louise Penny proved:

            Yes, I can set my stories in Canada, where I live.

            I can be a touch sappy if I want.

            Tension doesn't have to be a kidnapped president or a primed pistol.

It all seems self-evident now, but when you're trying to make your manuscript as marketable as it can be, you read between the lines of all the advice that comes at you, and draw your inferences, right or wrong.

Louise Penny breaks rules, and her writing can be unreservedly melodramatic at times (but so what, and yay Louise!) She's got insecurity issues. I heard her on a podcast describing how devastating a bad review can be, no matter how many good ones she may have. Frankly, she's got a lot of good ones, not to mention countless awards. But still she avoids reading her reviews, for fear of the rotten one, and that's so human, isn't it.

In the big picture, the whole world loves her, and I love her too, for her strengths and weaknesses, and for what she did to the rules.

For the second part of the question, I regret that I don't have time to do either right now. In normal circumstances, if I'm writing a lot, it's a relief to put my work aside and read. Sometimes something challenging and different, but often I turn to the comfortably familiar, especially when stressed, and Louise Penny and her village of Three Pines is about as comforting as it gets.