Friday, November 27, 2015

The Ghosts of Books Past

For some time now I've been thinking of my all-time favorite books and feel compelled to reread a number of them.

Thanks to Amazon it's easy to track down these old books that I've remembered for a lifetime. I still own a lot of them. My interest is more than a nostalgia kick, although I am a nostalgic person. This obsession was stirred up by my whimsical treacherous muse who pointed out that I needed to improve characterization.

The books I especially admire were mostly commercial successes, but that not why they stuck with me. I loved the central character in each one. But beyond that, these characters had a huge heart-wrenching problem worth wresting with.

For that matter, it seems to me the old writing books had a lot more information than the manuals I pick up today. I'm re-reading Maren Elwood's Characters Make Your Story. It's outstanding. It's tough reading and I don't think I understood some of her points until I had written several books.

Elwood insists that characters come from within. Spinning them from thin air doesn't work. You can give a man a quirky car, some semi-handsome physical attributes, a few snarly snappy lines and he will still seem like everyone else's cardboard cut-outs. Ditto for Too Stupid To Live Heroines. You know. The ones who never call for back-up. Or run around saying, "Oh I'll show him!"

Here is a just of a few of these old, old books I'll re-read and why:

Green Dolphin Street--Elizabeth Goudge.  It's my all-time favorite whose theme touches a spiritual chord within me. Goudge, has the  ability to make unlovable multi-dimensional characters profoundly lovable.

Love Let Me Not Hunger--Paul Gallico. This is a hauntingly beautiful insight into the cloistered world of the circus. Who knew that this society fostered it's own royalty? What I remembered forever and forever was Mr. Albert, the animal trainer. How did Gallico so vividly create such a noble humble old man whose personal story broke my heart?

A Distant Trumpet--by Paul Horgan. A historical novel telling about the Indian wars and the relentless campaign to hunt down the Apaches. And for years, whenever we moved to another town, another library, or even when I was visiting relations, I went to the their library to look up General Alexander Upton Quade. I couldn't believe he wasn't real. After forty years went by, I found out this character was based on the autobiography and writings of General George Crook. Horgan told the‎ story from the Indians' point of view as well as the soldiers'.

Not As a Stranger--Morton Thompson. One of the great all-time medical novels. Not only was it informative, I had such hopes for the protagonist. He was destined to be one of the all-time great doctors.

Five Smooth Stones--Ann Fairbairn. One of the great social novels and one of the few that delved into subtle Northern racism. This was published in 1966 when the Civil Rights Movement was roiling America.

Rebecca--Daphne du Maurier. Need I say more? One of the great classic mysteries, which was the forerunner of the gothic novels. At one time I couldn't get enough of them.

There are some common denominators to all the books I've mentioned. They all have great plots. Every single author is a masterful story-teller. And for some reason they are all l-o-n-g.

Will these books still resonate with me forty years later? Will I still have the same insight? Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving Collage

John here.

Once again, my post falls on Thanksgiving in the US. I have much to be thankful for -- and my writing career is a very small part of that. I am grateful to be part of the Midnight Ink family and to have Julia Lord and Ginger Curwen representing me.

Most importantly, I am grateful for the home team and time this week to be together. Here's a collage from Thanksgiving week.

My daughters Delaney (right) and Audrey

My mother Connie and Edie

Happy Holidays!

Delaney and Audrey in the kitchen
My sister Kelli

The family
Nana and Keeley, 7

My stepfather Mike
My wife, Lisa

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Turkey Day Mysteries

It’s Thanksgiving week here in the U.S. Poor Thanksgiving. I feel sorry for it sometimes. Wedged in-between Halloween and Christmas, it often doesn’t get the attention it deserves. With some stores open on Thanksgiving Day, the focus seems to have gone off giving thanks and spending time with family to Christmas shopping.

This got me thinking about mysteries that take place around Turkey Day. I can think of plenty of Christmas and Halloween mysteries, but few based around Thanksgiving come to mind. That seems rather strange to me. The holiday is almost made for murder. Put some families together around the dinner table and voila! arguments start, old grudges come to the surface, family secrets are revealed. All good bases for murder mysteries.

I did a little investigating to see how many mysteries I could find taking place around Thanksgiving. I came across more than I expected. Here are a few of them:

The two I immediately thought of were The Killer Wore Cranberry and Secondhand Stiff. The first is an anthology of short stories centered around the Thanksgiving holiday. There have been three more volumes since. I’ve only read the first one, which I enjoyed. I expect the others are good as well.

Secondhand Stiff by Sue Ann Jaffarian is one of my favorite books in the Odelia Grey mystery series. Let’s just say Odelia’s family doesn’t always get along. When her mother’s stay is extended after the Thanksgiving holiday, some of the family attend a storage facility auction where cousin Ina’s husband is found dead in one of the units for sale.

Turkey Day Murder by Leslie Meyer. This is the 7th book in the Lucy Stone mystery series. It’s set in Tinker’s Cove, Maine. The Thanksgiving festivities include a high school football game where Metinnicut Indian activist Curt Nolan is found dead with an ancient war club next to his head.

The Alpine Vengeance by Mary Daheim. This is the 22nd installment in the Emma Lord series. It’s set in a small town in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. I love this series, partially because I grew up in Washington state, but also because it’s just a good series. In this one, the town of Alpine, Washington is preparing for Thanksgiving when anonymous letters are sent to the sheriff asserting that a murder conviction of a town resident from ten years earlier was the result of a wrongful arrest. The man has died behind bars. Then a fourth letter arrives “threatening retribution in the form of another death.”

The Pumpkin Muffin Murder by Livia J. Washburn. This one caught my eye because I’m partial to all things pumpkin including pumpkin muffins. This is number 5 in the Fresh-baked mystery series featuring retired small town Texas teacher Phyllis Newsom. I haven’t read it, but it looks pretty interesting. It’s Thanksgiving and Phyllis takes her grandson to the Harvest Festival, hoping she’ll win the baking contest. Then a decorative scarecrow turns out to be a body in disguise...

So, Type M Reader? Do you have any favorite mysteries centered around the Thanksgiving holiday? What are you reading this week?

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

All in

by Rick Blechta

I know my share of very successful authors, you know, the A-list types who actually have the stature that their publishers will pay the freight and do the grunt work for publicity. Make no mistake about it, though, these authors still work very hard when they’re on the I’ve-got-a-new-book-out road, but I will also add that having someone paying the bills, arranging for local publicists, handling the bookings, etc. does make it a hell of a lot easier to bear.

The question everyone else has is this: How do I get to that stage in author-dom?

Well, generally one of three things has to be at work:
  • You’re very well-known for something else. Dick Francis was a champion steeplechase jockey before he began writing thrillers.
  • You’re incredibly lucky. Before The Firm, John Grisham was not all that successful. The novel was the beneficiary of an extraordinary promotional push by its publisher.
  • You’ve written an extraordinary book that everyone connected with it will move heaven and earth to get the word out and make it a success.
But there is a fourth way, and that’s a really tough road. It involves the author believing so much in themselves, justifiably I might add (the ditch by the side of the road to publishing success is littered with authors who believed in themselves but couldn’t deliver the prose goods) and devote all their waking hours, all their finances to achieving one goal: becoming a publishing success.

One of my ultra-successful author-friends literally hand sold books one at a time. I shudder to think of the number of signings, literary events, conventions this man attended (and still continues to attend). After a lot of miles and burning through a big chunk of change I’m sure, things started happening for him. He began to win awards. Novels got optioned — and produced! Now, this author did indeed have the ability to deliver the goods. Anything he writes goes to the top of my to-be-read stack. He’s seldom let me down.

But here’s the thing. If he hadn’t taken that leap of faith and gone all in, he might well not have risen to the top of the heap. It was his personal spade work in the book promotion trenches, that critical networking, those miles of being on the road which made his route to the top a success in the end.

Can we all do it? Well, no. Personally, I have too many responsibilities to family to be able to take the risk. It’s something I’m not prepared to do to them, because ultimately it is a rather selfish, or should I say self-centred thing to do.

I did, however, do it in my youth with a band I started. We had that belief in ourselves and the ability to be really extraordinary. It was a very heady ride while it lasted, but ultimately, we were too young and emotionally immature, had really inadequate management, but also couldn’t manage to get that one little sliver of luck to make stardom happen. Eventually I had to give up and get a “real” job.

So success is possible, but it is a very hard slog. One has to deal with so many things that are beyond your control. You can be the hardest worker of all time, but if someone wants to, they can easily stick a knife in your laboriously inflated balloon. You know what happens to them, and that’s exactly what it’s like watching your hard-won career running out of luck.

Still, it’s one of the biggest reasons we all keep on. We might actually manage to snag that brass ring on the very next trip ’round the publishing merry-go-round.

Monday, November 23, 2015

A Mini Vacation

by Vicki Delany

Oops, is it my day again! 

I am working this morning on the final proofs for Reading Up A Storm, (by Eva Gates) coming in April, and I had some CWC business to do earlier. So about all I have time for now is to tell you about my vacation.

I took myself off on a short trip to Quebec City after my launch for Rest Ye Murdered Gentlemen in Ottawa. I'd never been there before, despite living about 6 hours drive away.  A friend told me that the Chateau Frontenac, the huge luxury historic hotel there, was having a "Christmas in November" promotion.  

It was a great chance to stay at the famous hotel for a reasonable price, so I booked myself in for three nights.

I had a marvelous time.  Just enjoying the hotel, walking and walking and walking through the old city, and eating and drinking. 

The hotel was wonderful, as befits its reputation and location (and regular price) and the city is a marvel. You really do feel as though you are in France. Quebec City is the only remaining walled city in North America, and most of the walls are still in place, as are buildings and streets that date from the 17th century.

To make it all even nicer, the city is getting ready for Christmas. Here are some pictures. I hope you enjoy them. 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

This weekend’s guest blogger, RJ Harlick

I’d like to welcome RJ Harlick as our guest blogger. RJ writes the popular wilderness-based Meg Harris mystery series set in the wilds of Quebec. With an underlying Native theme, each book explores not only the motives behind murder, but also issues facing Natives today and their traditional ways. Like her heroine Meg Harris, RJ loves nothing better than to roam the forests surrounding her wilderness cabin or paddle the endless lakes and rivers. The 4th book, Arctic Blue Death was a finalist for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. A Cold White Fear, the seventh in the series, has just been released. RJ is a past president of Crime Writers of Canada.

Launching into the great unknown

I’m thrilled to be making another appearance on Type M for Murder. Thanks, Rick, for inviting me.

I celebrated the launch of my latest book, A Cold White Fear, this week at a local pub in Ottawa with good friend and Type M blogger Vicki Delany, who was launching her latest, Rest Ye Murdered Gentlemen. Even though this was the seventh book in my Meg Harris series, I still found it as thrilling as the launch of my very first book, Death’s Golden Whisper.

I know some authors don’t believe in official launches, but I’ve done it for every book and wouldn’t think of tossing it into the great unknown of discerning readers without a party. I love being able to celebrate my latest achievement with friends, family and fans. My sister even gave me a gorgeous orchid to mark its birth. For a few hours I am able to bask in their excitement at the prospect of reading a new book. For me it is a fitting end after months spent alone in front of my computer bringing my treasured words into fruition. I would feel cheated, if I only relied on my publisher’s press releases and ads to get the word out there. Sure I post numerous announcements of its pending release on Facebook and various blogs, but there isn’t the same feeling of celebration as there is with a gathering of excited readers.

For my earlier books I used the lobby of a nearby library for the venue, but I found it cold and uninviting despite being packed with gregarious readers. Three books ago I switched to a local pub and liked the warmth it exudes much better. A tipple or two doesn’t hurt either, on the part of the readers that is. I wait until after my reading to have my celebratory glass of wine or two, otherwise who knows what I would end up reading.

The pub I use has a room that is separate from the rest of the establishment, so I don’t have to contend with noisy chatter from regular pub goers, plus I can get the manager to turn off the Muzak. You want people focused on your reading and not on the conversation going on at the next table.

A pub location does however restrict the timing of the launch. Needless to say Thursday through to Saturday evenings are a non-starter. I usually chose Tuesdays, a quiet night for a pub and a night most people are likely to have free. Some of my fellow writers chose Sunday afternoons, another quiet time for a pub. But I prefer evenings, which gives the launch a more party-like atmosphere. To handle book sales, I bring in my favourite independent bookseller, rather than trying to manage that aspect myself.

Since people are there to chat with you and each other and to get a glimpse of what the book is about, buy it and get it signed, I like to keep my words to a minimum. I do a short five to seven minute introduction to the book along with appropriate thank you’s, followed by a short five-minute reading.

I always start with the first chapter. I figure if my first chapter can’t spark interest at the launch how can I expect it to draw in readers who pick it off an anonymous bookshelf. But I do some editing. I know, you’re probably suppose to read every word, but I don’t. I usually leave out the text that provides situational information that a reader reading the entire book would need. And I always end it on a cliff hanger. Usually this is the end of the first chapter, but sometimes it isn’t. I want my listeners to be hanging on every word, dying to know what will happen and when I don’t reveal it, having them rush over to the bookseller to buy the book to find out. I follow the same practice with any public reading.

After that the fun begins, chatting with everyone and signing their books, though I do find it a challenge to come up with appropriate and unique inscriptions. After all, you don’t want people comparing books and discovering that they all have exactly the same inscription.  And oh yes, now I get to enjoy a glass of wine.

In closing, I’d like to introduce you to A Cold White Fear, now available in a store near you or any online bookseller and in all ebook formats. This seventh Meg Harris mystery is a thriller, a departure from the crime-solving story lines of my other books, though they all have a thriller aspect to them. It’s an action packed read. One reviewer said she started reading it when she went to bed, couldn’t put it down and ended up staying up until the wee hours of the morning to finish it.

It’s the week before Christmas and Meg is alone with her young friend Adjidamo in her isolated Victorian cottage.  Outside a blizzard rages, closing off all road access. A knock suddenly echoes through the house. She discovers two men at the front door, one of them bleeding. And so begins a terrifying night that has Meg summoning up a courage she didn’t know existed to get her and Adjidamo out of it alive.
Visit RJ Harlick’s website,, for more information. 

Friday, November 20, 2015

Moving up the Hierarchy

Last night I was watching Cupcake Wars. The four bakers were competing for $10,000. The winner would also have her fabulous cupcake creations served at the star-studded celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the iconic TV sitcom, I Love Lucy. I was watching this show because I love shows about food. But I was thinking now and then that I should be writing my post for today. But it has been a labor-intensive week, so I stayed there on the sofa with Harry, my cat, sleeping, belly up and paws in the air, beside me.

This week I finally finished the synopsis of a proposed book and sent it off to my editor. Actually, I sent a short version and a very long (34 pages) version. I had spent so much time on that 34 page version that I couldn't not send it along. When I was plotting this book, I used script-writing techniques to craft my scenes. Unlike when I simply outline, my characters had a great deal to say. They started talking to each other. Knowing I should type instead of telling them to shut up, I included those snatches of conversation in my synopsis. My characters were talking about what they needed. They were explaining how what they had done was related to what they wanted. In those snatches of conversations --either stated or implied -- they were telling me about the internal needs that motivated them.

My cat, Harry, had his bedtime snack early last night and at 7:47 am, he meowed politely outside my door. Harry has been incredibly considerate these past few weeks. A friend says Harry has "mellowed out" now that he knows he is really home and it's okay when I put him in his carrier and in the car (that I do intend to bring him home from the vet's or come back after my vacation to retrieve him from his sitter's house). Harry no longer meows and knocks on my door with his big paws (Maine Coon mix) because now he is not worried that I have disappeared and he is not going to be fed. He now sits on top of the radiator waiting for me to come out and raise the blinds so he can bird watch. Or he sits outside my door waiting for me to wake up and come out -- so quiet that I've almost stumbled over him a few times. But this morning, he was hungry, and he thought a polite meow would let me know that his stomach was rumbling.

Harry has reminded me of something I learned in Psychology 101 (or, whatever that long-ago Intro Psych course at Virginia Tech was numbered). It was in that course that I first heard about Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

Offering a theory of human motivation, Abraham Maslow argued that humans are motivated by needs that range from basic physiological needs to self-actualization. Humans . . .

I had to take a break between paragraphs because Harry was standing beside my chair meowing insistently.
(Photo taken by his sitter, Russ, on another morning).

This morning, having had his breakfast (wet prescription cat food mixed with pumpkin) and spent some time looking out the window at the birds sitting in the leafless small trees, he felt compelled to remind me that I had neglected to carry out our morning ritual. Each morning, using a pet grooming tool that has a metal rake on one side and a bristled brush on the other, I attend to Harry's fur. When I adopted him in October of last year, Harry's back had been partially shaved because his fur was matted when he came into the shelter. Now, his fur has grown back and is luxurious and thick, and it tends to tangle on his stomach. I suspect that he knows he will be swallowing a lot of hair when he grooms himself if I don't brush him first.

But having me brush him each morning is also Harry's way of maintaining our connection. He is moving up his cat hierarchy. As he is being brushed, Harry is ensuring his continued security and maintaining bonds of affections. I'm pretty sure he's also nurturing his self-esteem ("I'm a handsome cat. I cannot be seen with my coat looking scruffy").

Observing Harry has reminded me about my character's pyramid of needs. My characters -- whether in my 1939 historical or the whodunit with the very long synopsis -- are not going to zip through my books without stopping for meals or bathroom breaks. Yes, the public stakes may be high in my thriller, but along the way my protagonist and his valiant team are going to have those moments I've always loved in books and movies -- the outlaws are lurking outside, but inside the safety of the jail Dean Martin is stretched out on a bunk and he begins to sing about his pony and Rick Nelson joins in and then Walter Brennan pulls out his harmonica. . . yes, I watch too many old movies.

But my point is that I have now found another way to think of that dictum that in every scene in a book or story, each character should want something. Harry -- meowing again, paws on my knees, before he jumps, all 16.5 lbs of him (he's a pound from his goal weight), onto my lap -- is working on his hierarchy. He wants to sit in my lap because he's ready for a nap. He could be much more comfortable on the sofa or curled up on the radiator or an area rug. But he wants to sleep in the crook of my arm as I type. His need to bond and feel secure makes him want to sleep in my lap even though he has better options when it comes to physical comfort. A cat's reminder that meeting ones needs sometimes requires trade-offs. I must keep this in mind about my characters.