Monday, August 03, 2015

Retreating!

By Vicki Delany

As Barbara told you last week, I had the pleasure of spending a couple of days at her lovely cottage on Sharbot Lake last week, along with other writer friends for a writers retreat.

A writers retreat is usually thought of as someplace the author can go to get away from their daily bustle (husband (or wife) children, job, household chores) to get some serious work done on their work-in-progress. Aside from the chores (always the chores) I don’t really have anything I need to get away from. And as you know if you know my writing schedule, I don’t seem to have trouble getting work done.

Writer Writing

But a retreat, I found, can perform another valuable role, and that’s simply to put you in the mind-space to come up with something new.

Mornings were set aside for our writing time. Barbara always writes her first draft in long hand (unbelievable!) so she goes down to the sunny dock. As I need a computer, I also need a table and chair or, as I use at home, a stand-up surface, and a lot of shade, so I stayed on the upper deck.

The afternoons were set aside for reading, swimming, and talking. The first afternoon, we settled down at the dock in our bathing suits with towels, hats, sunglasses, sunscreen, and of course books.

First topic of conversation was what everyone was reading.

Robin Harlick was reading The Far Side of the World by Patrick O’Brien, part of the Master and Commander series. Not a series I’ve ever had any interest in.


But, as it happened, my work for the retreat was the proposal for the fourth Lighthouse Library series by Eva Gates. The book is set at Halloween and it opens when they are decorating the library suitably. You know the stuff: cobwebs, tombstones that say RIP, plastic spiders. And a ghost story to go along with it all.


As Robin talked about the book, I knew exactly what I needed to make the Bodie Island Lighthouse Library Halloween exhibit something special.

The Flying Dutchman. A ghostly ship, doomed to wander the seas forever. In the form of a model ship for the display, and a ghost story to recount.


Perfect! It seems like a small thing, but in writing it’s often the small things that cause a book to rise above the ordinary. And I never would have thought about it if not for being at Barbara’s retreat with time to think and talk with bookie friends and write.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Three Tips for Writing a Mystery


This week’s guest blogger is Kate Jaimet who is the author of the YA mystery Endangered, coming out this month from Poisoned Pencil Press, and several other books for middle-grade and teen readers. Poisoned Pencil is the new young adult series for Poisoned Pen Press.

Visit Kate at her website at www.katejaimet.com.

Three tips for writing a mystery


Hey, buster. Wanna know a secret?

Yeah, yeah. Us author-types are always trying to blow smoke in your eyes, make you think that writing a novel is some deep creative mystery. Well, here’s the truth kiddo. It’s a craft. Like making a pair of shoes. Yeah, you gotta put in some time. You gotta learn some technique. And the more you practice, the better you get. But here’s the thing: it’s not like you gotta be born with a silver pen in your mouth, if you know what I mean. Any schmuck with a decent command of the English language and a helluva lotta perseverance can learn to write a mystery. And guess what? Because I like your face, I’m gonna give you a few tips.

Tip #1: Start with the dead body. You don’t got a mystery till you got a dead body. So start right there. In media res, as that Greek philosopher fella used to say. Throw some clues around the murder scene. Bring in your detective. Now you’re rolling.

Tip #2: Move the plot backwards and forwards. Think I’m getting all fancy on you now, huh? Soon I’ll be throwing around writerly words like “peripeteia” and “denouement.” Nah, all I’m saying is that lots of first time writers only concentrate on unraveling the murder that already happened at the beginning of the book (see Tip #1). Whodunnit? Why? How? Those questions are important alright, but unless you also have some forward motion to your plot, your book’s gonna end up boring. Think about what the suspects are doing while the detective tries to solve the case. Do they try to cover their tracks? Cast suspicion on each other? Get rid of eyewitnesses? These type of plot points (yeah, yeah, there I go tossing around writer jargon) can move your plot forward at the same time as the detective unravels the back-story.

Tip #3: Develop your detective. Who are the main characters of a murder mystery? The murderer and the dead guy, right? Only problem is, one’s dead and one’s trying to fly under the radar. That makes character development a little problematic. So who else have you, the writer, got to work with? A bunch of deadbeat suspects and, bingo! the detective. Readers love great detective characters. Think Sherlock Holmes. Perry Mason. Okay, even that blue-haired Marple lady. Spend time coming up with an interesting detective character. It’s worth your while, especially if you’re planning a series.

So there you have it. Three insider tips on how to write a mystery. Now here’s another one: glue your butt to a chair.

And good luck, kiddo.

Friday, July 31, 2015

How Can I Use That?

I may be speaking for only a small group of heartless, cold-blooded scribblers. But from the conversations I had over the years, I suspect this is true of most of us who write crime fiction. In an emergency, we do our best to respond effectively and with compassion. We do everything we can to help. Then we step back, think, "That was really interesting" and wonder how we can use it in our next book or story.

The following tale will illustrate my point. The cat in the photo below is Harry, my Maine Coon mix, who I adopted in October of last year. He is sniffing an old sock filled with organic catnip and experiencing total bliss.



 Last weekend, Harry was experiencing a completely different emotion. And it was my fault. I live in an old house, 100 years old. My house is one-story, attic overhead, well-insulated since I moved in four years ago. But there is nothing to be done about the basement. The basement has two sections. The smaller, front section is accessed by going down the stairs from the kitchen. The "laundry room" is located there. Gray outdoor carpeting covers most of the rock and dirt floor. The washing machine and dryer are up on platforms. The trim hot water heater sits against a wall. On the other side of that wall is the furnace. One can access that other section of the basement by taking a few steps. When I first moved into the house, I was sure a serial killer lurked on the other side of that wall -- in spite of my alarm system -- waiting for me to come down and do laundry. For several weeks, I would not do laundry at night. Until I really needed something to wear the next day. . .

I still take a flashlight and turn on the lights on the other side of the wall -- just to make sure everything's okay around there in that cavernous space occupied only by the furnace and the work table and tool cabinet on the other side of the room. And a radiator that my contractor told me I should save in case I ever wanted to re-install it. . . My basement isn't as scary to me as it used to be.

When I go downstairs, I always close the kitchen door so that Harry won't be tempted to follow me. Last Saturday morning, I was careless. I didn't realize this until I came back upstairs from putting clothes in the dryer. The door was ajar. I assumed, I had left it that way. But Harry was nowhere to be seen. Not out on the enclosed "sleeping porch" where he had been watching the birds fly by. Not on the radiator watching the birds fly in and out of the bird apartment house on a pole in my neighbor's yard. Not stretched out on the rug in the dining room or the futon in the sun room having a nap. Not under my bed or behind a chair. Nowhere. Harry was gone. 

But both front and back doors were closed and locked. He had to be in the house. I ran back down to the basement, thinking he must have slipped by when my back was turned. Of course, I was calling his name . . . calling with increasing desperation when he didn't respond.

No Harry in the basement. No Harry when I ran back upstairs and looked in all the places I had looked before as if he might have been invisible the first time.  

Back down to the basement still calling his name and reminding myself (the dog person) that cats often ignore their names being called. But he had to be somewhere. And then I head a "meow". It seemed to be coming from outside -- outside just beyond the window above the tool cabinet. Upstairs, I ran. And realized as I reached the front door that the window over the tool cabinet had been closed. 

Back down to the basement again. This time, I tipped over to the cabinet. The cabinet that was against the wall and should have left no room for a large cat to be behind it. But he was. And he hissed at me from midway between either end. Obviously, Harry didn't recognize me or was too scared to come out even if he did. I stopped to think about that for a moment. About what could have scared him so much. He must have been startled by the dryer that I had turned on and dashed into the other section of the basement and found himself there in that strange space. And he had hidden in the only place there was to hide. 

The question was how to get him out. I went upstairs to get the open can of cat food in the refrigerator. Surely when he smelled the food. . . .

That got him almost out, and then he dashed back when I reached toward him. Dry food. The dry food he isn't allowed to have any more because he needs to lose a couple of pounds. But I still had half a bag. Harry always responds to the sound of that bag being opened. 

And he did respond. To the sound of the bag. To the food in my hand. To my verbal encouragement. Slowly, step-by-step, as I backed across the room. Harry following, focusing on me and my outstretched hand. Harry crouching as we came around the wall, staring at the dryer and then moving closer for a better look. Harry dashing under the kitchen steps, but then peering out. Following me up the kitchen steps, one at a time. Harry crossing the threshold and realizing he was back in known territory. And instead of meowing for the dry food he was not allowed to have, dashing into the dining room. And sitting down by my chair at the table as I came with brush and wet wipes to clean away the dust and cobwebs clinging to him. Even allowing me to wipe his paws. Harry jumping back on the radiator to watch the birds.

And me, sitting down and taking a breath. Thinking that had been scary. If I had been that scared -- heart pounding, on the edge of panic -- when my cat disappeared, what would it have been like if the cat had been a child? And thinking the next moment -- "I could write that. I could write that scene with a mother and a child who vanishes. But I don't have anywhere to use it." And thinking maybe I should write it down anyway, while I can still feel the emotions . . .

I did have somewhere to use it! The book I was working on. My 1939 thriller with the first chapter that wasn't working because my protagonist was doing nothing. Yes, he was watching other people who had come that Easter Sunday to see Marian Anderson perform at the Lincoln Memorial. He was observing and he was thinking. He spotted my villain and then he thought about that. But my hero was static, passive. 

What if I moved him back a scene or two? What if that first chapter began as my hero was rushing to get to the event, running late, and concerned that he would be so far back in the crowd that he wouldn't be able to see. And then he encounters the woman -- the desperate mother whose child has vanished. People are rushing by. No one is listening to her. She grabs his arm because he is wearing his porter's uniform. Begs him to help. He tells her she needs a policeman, tries to rush on. . .but she clings. He stops. He helps her look and finds her child, who is hiding and afraid to come out because he thinks his mother will be angry.

My hero has done a good deed (and been heroic). But now -- from his point of view -- he is late. He is irritated. Since he is far back in the crowd, he looks around at the faces as Ms. Anderson sings. He sees joyful, transfixed faces. He sees a few people weeping. He seems my villain -- who shouldn't be there in that crowd. Their gazes meet. My hero is puzzled, disconcerted. . .

Thank you, Harry. I'm so sorry you were frightened. I'm so sorry I was careless and a bad "cat parent". I'm really happy you are curled up on the floor by the table as I write this. But, thank you for solving my first chapter problem. You are going into my acknowledgments.

And I admit I was reaching for my notebook within minutes of making sure you were safe. 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

How Much Research is Enough?


As I, Donis, mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’ve just begun a new novel, and I must say that though I have been working my little tail off lately, I haven’t written very much on the actual story. I’ve been doing research.

The series that I’m writing now is historical, so there is always a certain amount of research that must be done, but every single time I start a new book I end up wrestling with the question of how much research is too dang much. I mean, eventually you have to write the book.

I keep telling myself that it isn’t necessary to do so much research that I become the world’s foremost expert on my subject. Right now I’m researching realistic and historically accurate ways to kill people. This is always problematic for me. Sadly, I have reached such a state of paranoia that I am a little bit afraid to do murderous research on my home computer, lest the NSA bust down my door in the middle of the night. Once I I spent many hours doing anonymous research on library computers because wanted to discover exactly how oil field workers used nitroglycerin to clear obstructions from a well. I am writing murder mystery, after all, and I thought that blowing someone to hell with nitro seemed like a colorful way to commit murder.

I really want to give my reader a true experience of the time and place I write about. I want you to know what it was like to live in southeastern Oklahoma during the flu epidemic of 1918. I want to be accurate, but in the end, I’m writing fiction, not history. Less is almost always more. It’s way too easy to overwrite. You don’t need to explain everything (which I have been guilty of doing.) Even so, that doesn’t mean I can play fast and loose with the facts. One thing I absolutely do not want to do is take the reader out of the story by writing something so obviously anachronistic that she stops and says, “What the …?”

Many years ago a woman told me about a movie she had seen in which an aspiring author walks into a publishing house with a manuscript in hand and asks to see an editor. He gets right in. The editor says, “sure, leave your manuscript with me and come back tomorrow.” The very next morning, the author returns to find that the editor has read the book overnight and loved it. He gives the author a check and tells him that his book will be on the shelves in two weeks.

What? What is this? The Nicholas Tesla Time Warp Publishing House? Their motto is Publishing Faster Than the Speed of Light. I want this publisher.

A lot of people who saw that movie didn’t know or care that that scenario is wrong, but we writers know it’s not only wrong, it’s ridiculous. I remember that story when I’m tempted to think that most of my readers know nothing about Oklahoma in 1918, so I can fudge a little. Somebody knows the truth, and believe me, they’ll let you know when you’ve got it wrong.

Usually history is not front and center in a historical novel. In novels of any ilk, I think it’s the characters that make the story. Walter Mosely said, “Fiction is a collusion between the reader and the novel. Your readers will go along with you, creating a much larger world as they do. It won’t be exactly the world you intended them to see, but it will be close enough—sometimes it will be better”.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

In praise of the writers' retreat

Barbara here, writing from the idyllic shores of Sharbot Lake in classic Canadian cottage country. It is 34 degrees celsius in the city and here on the lake, it is a balmy 29. My cottage has no air conditioning, but who needs it when you can roll into the lake every half hour or so as the whim strikes?

I am lucky enough to have a group of writer friends who live within reasonable distance, allowing us to get together to inspire, commiserate, offer answers, and generally help soothe the solitary angst of a fiction writer. Every writer needs the company of our own kind. No matter how supportive our family or spouse is, no one understands the struggles of writers' block, the teeth-gnashing frustration of publishing, and the exhilaration of a good review better than a fellow writer. I would never have believed in myself nor had the courage to keep going if it hadn't been for the critiquing help and enduring friendship of the Ladies Killing Circle – Mary Jane Maffini, Linda Wiken, Sue Pike, Joan Boswell, and Vicki Cameron – each with their own special talents.


I have always loved nature and find the peace of water, birds, and silence to be the perfect creative environment. I bought my cottage especially as a haven where I could write, far from the demands and hubbub of the city, and I still do my best creative writing on the dock by the lake. This week, as in the past few years, I am hosting an informal writers' retreat for some of my friends, inviting them to share the peace and inspiration of the cottage while we all work on our own projects. RJ Harlick and Vicki Delany have joined me.

The weather is cooperating magnificently. This afternoon, after a morning of writing, we all swam out into the lake with our noodles and spent a half hour bobbing in the cool water, discussing book launches and tours. Yesterday it was how to move the plot forward from a stuck place. There was admittedly some book gossip and rants about the book biz, mostly fuelled by wine at the end of the day. And the dinners were delightful. The perfect way to finish the day.


In this photo, we enjoy Robin's dinner of herb-crusted chicken, chanterelles picked from her woods, and tomatoes with bufala mozzarella and fresh arugula from her garden. And we capped off the day with a refreshing moonlight swim under the full moon.

Thanks to the example of hard-working friends and the discussion of plot tangles, I have made some headway on my new novel, the second in the Amanda Doucette novel. I hope these memories will sustain me during the cold, dark days of February.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What is the deal with CAPITAL letters on so many book covers these days?

by Rick Blechta

I know I’m going to step on some toes with this (even with some of the crew here at Type M), but dang it, I’m getting a bit tired of seeing entire book covers with nothing but capital letters for their front cover copy. (I’m also getting tired of seeing the slab-type fonts that are being used more and more these days, but that’s another beef for another post.)

Having designed many book covers myself, I know why this is happening. If you’re a big-time author, your books have been done this way for years. In that case, it's to alert everyone within 100 feet in a bookstore that JOE BLOW’S latest book is out. I get that. Add this to the fact that publishers like having an author's books display a certain “family look” — presumably so readers can identify them more quickly — and I personally feel as if I’m being shouted at when I walk into a book store. If your store has a James Patterson section (and many do these days), go there and you’ll instantly see what I mean.

Caps are a bit of a slam dunk design-wise. They'’e less problematic to set. They certainly attract notice more quickly, especially if they're in a neon colour, are embossed, or one of the metallic colours is used. They scream a practically audible “LOOK AT ME!” when executed that way.

When a publisher also makes the author's name bigger than the title of the book, you know the author is considered a Big Deal. I actually once overheard a bookstore browser say to his wife while holding up one of these books, “Honey, do you know this author? She must be important.” (Honest!) After the man walked away with the book in his mitt, I noticed two things about the book’s cover: it was rather thick (a good 2") and the author’s name took up more than half of the real estate. I mean it was H-U-G-E. And that’s sort of what got me thinking about this trend.

Now I’m on record here as saying that a book’s cover should also act as a poster for the book. From that viewpoint, it makes sense to use caps, especially when you consider that many people only look at book covers online where the images are pretty darned small. Caps definitely do help get the critical things across.

However, with some thought and a good dash of design knowledge and experience, a very successful cover can be worked out that has some design flair and gets the promotional job done — and doesn’t use caps.

Maybe the problem is publishers being more interested in keeping costs down. Lots of covers now use stock photos as a matter of course because commissioned photography and (especially) illustrations are a lot more expensive. If the design department has a few slab fonts (or “heavy” cuts of other serif or sans serif fonts) that do the job for them, why not just throw these on, squeeze a small moody or otherwise appropriate stock photo in at the bottom, and you've got another cover done with time to do two more before you knock off for lunch.

Problem is, the book will eventually wind up faced on a bookshelf with any number of other titles that have similar covers (like in the JUST OUT section). Trouble is you’ve completely shot your bolt and there’s no way to amp up anything that would distinguish your cover from any of the others following this design trend.

Like most authors, I’ve spent countless hours in bookstores. In watching shoppers interact with books, I would still put money down on a book with a really interesting, well-designed cover, coupled with an intriguing title and some solid back cover or inside flap copy. Browsers consistently pick up these kinds of books. They don’t shout; they just catch your eye with something that piques your interest.

Maybe it’s time that less should become the new more.

Monday, July 27, 2015

On the Bench

After my last post, Rick was kind enough to say he would be interested to hear more about my experience of being a Justice of the Peace, so here goes.

I don't know if the Canadian and American courts do this, but in Scotland and England there are lay magistrates in the lowest courts who aren't legally qualified but make judgements in the cases presented. We're given training of course, and we sit 'on the bench', as the saying is, with a legally-qualified clerk in attendance to stop us doing things like pronouncing the death penalty for double parking – just kidding, even the Supreme Court in Britain can't do that!

In England, every case, right up to murder, is brought before a panel of magistrates who decide if it might merit a higher sentence than they are allowed to impose, and pass it on up to the higher courts. If necessary.

It would be quite exciting to deal with major cases, but it doesn't happen here. In Scotland we have a completely separate system – we Scots just like to be different – and it is a prosecutor instead who decides which court is appropriate for a trial; murder, for instance, would go straight to the High Court.

So the cases I tried were always minor – parking fines,  breaches of the peace, petty theft, minor assaults – and at this level I sat in judgement alone.

It's an awesome responsibility. I had powers up to a fourteen-day prison sentence, though I don't think I gave that more than a couple of times in ten years. Generally what we tried to do was to impose a sentence that might make repeat offending less likely – community service, anger management course, that sort of thing – but inevitably there were the faces that popped up regularly and trying to find constructive ways of dealing with them was a challenge.

They were often very sad cases, alcoholics or addicts. One will always stick in my mind, a lady with a drink problem who was constantly in trouble; any court where Jean didn't appear was a good court. On one particular occasion she stood in the dock looking quite dreadful and I said delicately to her long-suffering defence solicitor, 'Is your client – er – fit to plead?' – meaning, 'Is she so drunk she won't understand what's going on?'

However, he beamed at me. 'As Your Honour and I both know this has sometimes been a problem, but I'm happy to say that my client is more fit to plead than I have seen her for a very long time.'

At which point Jean glared at me. 'Are ye sayin' am I drunk? I'm no' drunk. I wish I was – I'd be feeling a helluva lot better now.'

One of the most serious challenges for a JP is keeping your face straight.

But it was a wonderful education for a crime writer and no, Rick, it was really never boring, except perhaps when I was running through postal pleas for speeding to determine levels of fine and number of points, and even then the young defence agents kept me amused. The rule about lawyers being pompous simply doesn't apply to lawyers with a crminal practice.

The trials were utterly fascinating. Even in these small cases, all human life is there and there were some that Chekov could have used in a short story – for instance the love triangle where two men had got into a fight over a woman.

She had apparently been cheating on her partner with another man and I waited with some interest to see the  object of their desire. In fact, she was a wee dumpy woman in her late fifties with a bad perm and the 'other man' when he appeared was just short of eighty, walking with a stick and wearing a kilt. It was a timely reminder that passion belongs not only to the young.

The cases, of course, were so minor that they were no use as inspiration for a plot, but the chance to observe human interactions and behaviour under stress from an almost 'fly-on-the-wall' position was a priceless opportunity for a writer and I learned a huge amount about people.

It was also a wonderful way to learn about police procedure and indeed it was from the women officers who policed my court that the idea of my own DI Fleming developed. They were all very normal working women with partners and children and perhaps ageing parents to cope with as well as a very demanding job, and I wanted to create a detective who wasn't a dysfunctional loner with a drink problem, a string of lovers and contempt for any sort of authority – I wanted her to be the woman you would meet if you went down the local nick.

I owe a lot to my experience and I was sad to give it up, but I was leaving the court area when my husband retired and I didn't want to start again under a system that was bound to be slightly different – especially since my son is a criminal defence solicitor here (now advocate)  and it could be a bit awkward – 'Mum, you never listen to a word I say...'

Sorry, I've rambled on! It was such an interesting time for me, so I hope some of you, particularly Rick, may have found it interesting too.