Friday, April 18, 2014

Guest Author -- Mary Reed

Type M is thrilled to welcome Mary Reed to our blogging party this week. Mary and her husband Eric Mayer are the joint authors of the wonderful John the Lord Chamberlain mysteries set in Sixth Century Constantinople at the court of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. The Sixth Century may have been more than a millennium and a half ago, but don't think for a minute that people weren't just as inventive as we are today. Even more so, if I may say. Have you ever created your own automaton?
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Three For A Letter is largely set on the country estate of Zeno, once described by our protagonist John as a man of eclectic credulity. As the novel opens, a special presentation of the story of Jonah and the Whale is under way at the estate to entertain Zeno's honoured guest, Empress Theodora.

The whale is an automaton created by Zeno's Egyptian servant who named himself Hero after, dare we say it, his hero, Heron of Alexandria, also known as Hero, who among other things drew up blueprints for dozens of automatons. His namesake's job is to create similar mechanical marvels.

Automatons appearing in Three For A Letter include a wine dispensing satyr, an archer who will take an important role in a local festival celebrating the harvest, and birds that sing, all as described by Heron in his treatise Pneumatics. However, he did not, so far as we know, provide instructions on how to construct a mechanical whale so we had to invent one ourselves, based on his writings.

And now Hero's mechanical whale makes its appearance:

The curtains parted and although there was no sign of pulleys or any other device, a large, shadowy shape, taller than a man, rolled forward.

The room's remaining light limned its broad, gray back and enormous flukes and gleamed in the great glassy eyes set on either side of its head.

An admiring murmur rose from the audience as the beast's tail,moving slowly from side to side, emerged from the curtains. It was apparent that the leviathan was not being propelled from behind. Indeed, it continued forward on its own, as if truly alive. There were gasps, and John tensed, as the great head moved out over the edge of the stage. However, just as it appeared the whale would swim straight into the diners, it came to an abrupt halt.

There was a hissing noise. The whale spouted.

To the startled exclamations of the audience, a jet of water burst up from the contraption's head and descended in a cloud of droplets that caught the dim light and glittered like stars over the sea. John, sitting near the end of the table, felt mist against his face.

The flutes keened more urgently, underscored by a new sound, a clanking and ratcheting. Slowly and majestically,the whale's mouth opened a crack. Through a fence of huge bronze teeth brilliant light poured out across the banquet table to flash and coruscate amidst gold and silver bowls heaped with delicacies.

And how, you may well ask, did this mechanical leviathan work?

All actions performed by our whale could be created by compressed air, water, or various ropes, pulleys, and counterweights, important components of many of the automatons described by the ancient writer.

Thus, the whale's ability to trundle about unaided came from Heron's description of an altar that functioned in the same fashion.

Zeno's servant Hero explains the method thus:

"It's done by winding two ropes, one in each direction, around the back axle of the whale's base. Now, as you see, inside the creature are two compartments, each half filled with sand." Showing John the mechanism as he described it, he went on "Each compartment contains a weight to which one of the ropes is tied, resting on the sand. When the bottom of the first compartment is opened, the sand flows out and the weight resting on it descends as it empties, pulling its rope down with it. That in turn moves the axle to which the rope is tied. Thus the whale rolls forward. Later, when the other compartment begins to empty, the process is repeated and the whale rolls backward. It's the sort of device has
been used in the theatre for hundreds of years," he concluded.

We've mentioned before we cast our nets wide when researching this series, =and the method by which the lamps in its mouth self-kindled is explained by a paragraph in Hippolytus' Refutation of All Heresies.

Hippolytus discloses wood spontaneously bursting into flame on an altar is because the altar contains freshly-burned lime instead of ashes. When the lime is wetted by libations poured by the priest, the result is a chemical reaction with enough heat to set fire to combustible materials.

In the case of our whale, when set in motion, a particular rope hidden in its body pulls up a bar operating lids on a set of tubes filled with water, whose contents fall onto minute amounts of burnt lime sprinkled in deep grooves around the lips of the lamps, and the resulting heat causes the lamp oil to catch fire.

Of course, we could have wound up with an exploding whale but Hero was very careful in his calculations as to quantities and no doubt experimented numerous times to ensure this did not happen.

As for the spouting effect, this was accomplished, as Hero explains,with the aid of a sealed vessel semi-filled with water, forced out by compressed air. This sequence we imagined would be set in motion by a specific rope in the afore-mentioned internal system of pulleys and counterweights, which also causes the whale tail to move and its jaws to gape.

Since we did not actually build a prototype of the whale it was all theoretical but we felt, given many of Heron's much more complicated mechanisms, it could be carried out by engineers and metal workers without violating the laws of the universe. We could at least have contributed the tongue, the simplest part of the whale's construction, since it's merely made of stuffed red linen.

As events unfold, a sacred herd of fortune-telling goats living on a nearby island become involved. They are not automatons, so we did not have to create a whole herd of mechanical beasts, but at the same time they are not quite what they seem...

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The husband and wife team of Mary Reed and Eric Mayer published several short John the Lord Chamberlain detections in mystery anthologies and in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine prior to 1999's first full length novel, One For Sorrow. The American Library Association's Booklist Magazine named the Lord Chamberlain novels as one of its four Best Little Known Series. Ten For Dying, tenth in the series, appeared in March 2014 from Poisoned Pen Press. Head of Zeus is now publishing the series in the UK and Europe. More info about their writing at http://home.earthlink.net/~maywrite and
https://www.amazon.com/author/reedmayer

Connecting the Dots

The intrepid Lottie Albright delves into old murders which causes new murders. It's not really a cold case series, as it focuses on the present day murder. Thus it technically morphs into a suspense. Will my historian/undersheriff figure out who did it back then in time to prevent becoming the victim  on the next page?

In some ways, a straight cold case would be easier to present because the Lottie Albright series is told in present day first person. I can't use flashbacks and have to depend on the back story emerging through historical investigation techniques.

My most dependable tool has always been microfilmed newspapers. The Kansas State Historical Society was founded in 1875. They have one of the world's most comprehensive collection of newspapers. All the papers are on microfilm and many are on-line through Chronicling America http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/newspapers/#Kansas. Instructions for obtaining microfilmed Kansas papers can be found at http://www.kshs.org/p/newspapers-in-kansas/11528.

Since Lottie doesn't have access to the villain's mind the plot depends on her ability to connect the dots. Nothing is more valuable in both academic investigation and mystery plotting than knowing something is just not quite right. In other words, reading between the lines. Because usually newspaper items are objective.

Here's an example of what I mean by not quite right. An announcement in the 1950s local news item: "Lonnie Balfour and family will be moving to the Balfour homestead later this month. He will take over the extensive farming operation of his late father." Lottie thinks that's funny. Lonnie was a CPA and the second son. The oldest son, Jeff, was the obvious heir. He was a farmer. Was there tension over this? This leads her to the recorded deed and even more newspapers and death certificates. Aha! Lonnie died in a mysterious accident. His descendants are alive today. And so it goes. Diaries, letters, voting records, notes from organizations, and yearbooks have their own testimony.

Was one child consistently on the honor role and in every activity under the sun? And another in the same family barely mentioned in the high school newspaper or not a participate in any groups according to the yearbook? Why? With persistence, it easy to find this out.

It's easy to really keep the plot hopping through the protagonist's questions as long as the writer resists the temptation to inject a massive dose of history and cultural details. For instance, old newspapers show group pictures of students at events. The debate team is especially well-groomed, except for one member. Why was there no one looking out for this kid? Had his parents ever come to one of his debates?

Being able to enter the mind of the first person protagonist is quite a lot of fun, because one can make this amazing sleuth really smart, not at all like the bumbling novelist who hasn't got a clue.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Longest Week

It’s that time again.

The proof pages for Bitter Crossing (August 2014) have arrived from my editor at Midnight Ink. This is the stage I least enjoy, the stage when the author reads his or her novel one final time, top to bottom. The proverbial speak-now-or-forever-hold-your peace moment. Or, if you grind over every syllable, like I do, a daunting 12-hour period.

Some authors enjoy this stage. They sit down with a glass of wine and re-read their words, reminiscing about how hard they worked to get things just right. Not me. I’m thinking I could make this better. Always.

“Note that this is the last opportunity you will have to submit changes for the book,” writes my wonderful editor, Nicole Nugent, “but that we are past the ‘rewrite’ stage; only corrections that are necessary should be made to the text at this time.”

But…but…

What does she mean by “necessary”? It’s necessary to always make the book better, right?
Just one more brush stroke? Please?

I’m the author who tinkers with a sentence for 20 minutes, the guy from whom the publisher has to pry the “finished” book from. After all, nothing’s ever “finished.” I mean, Fitzgerald was still tinkering with The Great Gatsby during the proof stage. And if his prose still needed work, mine sure as hell does.

I wonder if F. Scott got stomach aches reading his final proof, too. I hope he didn’t. I hope he saw his genius.

Ironically, near the bottom of Nicole’s letter she urges me to enjoy “your first copy of the book!”

If she only knew….

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The dangers of handing out (or accepting) writing advice

The dreaded “track changes”…
This past week, I was asked to be a manuscript evaluator once again for Bloody Words here in Toronto. I again declined. Mostly, it’s because I don’t have the time. I’m up to my eyeballs with far too many things to do. In fact, the harder I work, the farther behind I seem to be getting. I am not about to take on evaluating someone’s writing if I’m not going to give my evaluation the care and consideration the project would deserve.

But there’s also another reason: writing is so subjective, I don’t want to say things that are totally wrong or counterproductive to a budding author’s progress towards realizing their goals. Who’s to say that I’m right? Someone who doesn’t know any better, that’s who. “Hey, he’s written ten novels. He must know what he’s doing.” The truth is, I do know what I’m doing (more or less) – but only for me.

What I find really appalling is writers who don’t have enough skill or “mileage” under their belts, setting themselves up as experts because they’ve sold a short story or two, and then inflicting themselves on the defenseless as writing experts. If I were ever asked to teach creative writing, I would run away screaming. Being an effective teacher is a very particular (and rare) skill. I do know of what I speak because I taught music for nearly 25 years, and that’s something that’s a lot less subjective than teaching writing. I saw a ton of bad teaching – a lot of it my own. Would I want to be responsible for giving someone the exact wrong advice because I couldn’t see something or didn’t understand it properly?

You’re getting this from someone who assigned a promising student the drums many years ago. Scott Harrison has gone on to become a very accomplished and successful musician – on trumpet. We laugh about it whenever I see him, but inwardly I’m appalled by what I did. You see, I almost assigned him trumpet, but I needed someone with innate timing to be the percussionist in my beginning band, and Scott filled the bill. I gave him the wrong instrument for the wrong (and admittedly self-serving) reason. Thank the stars he got it right on his own.

It all boils down to this for me: who am I to be telling impressionable writers what is right and what is wrong?

In defense of my position, I hold up the multitude of tales about writers who had their work rejected a humiliating number of times by agents and editors – the “experts” – only to eventually find outrageous success when their work is finally accepted by someone who’s willing to take a chance. Those stories are true. What did those experts miss – and why?

The other thing is taking part in critiquing groups with people who know about as much as you do. I’ve seen good writers become paralyzed because of conflicting advice, or taking all the advice, their writing turns into beige pap because there is no personality left. It only makes sense to me to take advice from people who know more than I do. Just because a certain passage doesn’t work for a certain person doesn’t mean it’s wrong, for instance. Do you honestly expect everyone to love everything you write? That’s nuts. Even Shakespeare has his detractors.

Elmore Leonard said one should never use adverbs. I believe Mark Twain said never use adjectives. You cannot say never in writing, and I’m always skeptical of those who espouse hard and fast statements like those in any art form. To my mind, great writing lies in the grayness, and in breaking the rules effectively. Good art can seldom come out of black and white rules. What one should be is aware of all the “rules” and then to forge one’s own path.

I will close, though, and actually give the two pieces of advice that I feel are worth sharing:

  • if one person says something critical about your writing, they may be correct. But if several people say the same thing about your writing, they’re most certainly correct. Think about the former. Listen to the latter;
  • the only true path to success as a writer, is to never be anything but truthful with yourself. To have any hope of success, you must be able to step back and evaluate your writing truthfully and honestly.

And here’s some incredibly astute advice from Neil Gaiman: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

The best experience I had with an editor was at the hands of Pat Kennedy, of whose skills I think a great deal. She flagged various things in my edited ms as deserving of the chop. A few of them I thought were wrong-headed. She smiled, leaned back in her chair and said, “Okay. Defend yourself.” I started off, and a few minutes on, the light invariably went on in my head, and I would realize she was correct. I only stuck to my guns on one point, and guess what? Time has proven that she was right about that one, too.

When you find a really great editor, you’ll know it. Hang on to them for dear life.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Guest post - Stephen Booth

Aline here. I'm delighted to welcome Stephen Booth to Type M.  He's a highly successful British writer with a string of awards and commendations, notably as the winner of the CWA's Dagger in the Library and the Barry Award for the Best British Crime Writer of the Year; he's been a finalist in the Gold Dagger too. His books have been published in fifteen languages and recently his back list novel, Black Dog – which he talks about here – has been taking America by storm since it was published by HarperCollins ebook imprint, Witness Impulse (my publisher too!)

Here in Britain we're hoping to see his Peak District series, set in scenic Derbyshire, on our TV screens before long.
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Time is a strange thing for a writer. It can be a friend, or an enemy. And I’m not just talking about those pesky deadlines which make such an interesting sound when they go whooshing past.

When you write a series of mystery novels, you find yourself switching between two parallel timelines – the real one that your families and friends exist in, and a fictional one inhabited by your characters. In a way, we’re all Time Lords living in a Dr Who episode. I’m very aware that my protagonists, detectives Ben Cooper and Diane Fry, are aging much more slowly than I am. When they reach middle-age, I suspect they’ll regenerate into younger versions of themselves.

The relationship with fictional time becomes more difficult to handle as years pass in the real world. We all like to think we improve as writers over time, that each book we produce is better than the last, thanks to our finely honed plotting techniques. But for readers, all those books exist simultaneously. When you’re 14 books into a series, the worst thing a well-meaning reader can say to you is: “I think your first book is the best one.” So I’ve been going downhill ever since, have I? I might as well give up now…

Sometimes, it’s nice if we can allow our first book to settle gently into history and become a ghostly memory. But often the ghost comes back to haunt us.

I wrote my first novel when I was 12 years old. It was a science fiction story about astronauts landing on a planet and meeting aliens (well, it was the 1960s!). For years, I worried that my mother had kept that juvenile sci-fi epic hidden in a drawer and would one day produce it for visitors like an embarrassing childhood photograph. It never happened, for which I’m eternally grateful.

But what if your book has been published, and begins to take on a life of its own? The first novel in my series about two young Derbyshire police detectives Black Dog was written way back in 1998. That might not seem such a long time ago, but it was a different century, a different millennium, a world wholly unlike the one we live in now. The internet was a thing most of us thought was imaginary. People didn’t walk around permanently plugged into their smartphones and MP3 players. We even trusted our bankers.

In the newspaper office I worked in back in the 90s, we had just one cellphone. It was kept locked in the news editor’s desk and was issued only when someone needed to be in touch with the office and might not be able to get to a public phone box. Reporters and photographers fought over the privilege of using this amazing device. It was about the size of a house brick, and you had to be careful not to snap off the antenna.

In the police service, junior officers weren’t issued with cellphones either. As detective constables, Ben Cooper and Diane Fry wouldn’t have had phones at the time, only radios. But I recall thinking that cellphones were becoming more common, so I decided to let my characters have them in that first story. It was a good choice!

I’ve been thinking about this passage of time recently. Thanks to the digital-first imprint Witness Impulse, my early Cooper & Fry novels have been getting a new lease of life in the USA through ebook editions. The series was re-launched from the beginning with Black Dog. Amazingly, it sold so well that it reached number 1 on Barnes & Noble’s Nook bestseller list.

So thousands of new readers have been picking up a book written in the dim and distant 1990s and no doubt expecting it to be a contemporary novel, since it’s only just appeared on their ebook readers. And they find themselves reading about characters who drive around in cars no one has manufactured for years, young police officers who marvel at the ability to communicate via cellphone and never think of googling someone they’re interested in. Ben Cooper actually goes into a bookstore for information, for heaven’s sake. And people shop at Woolworth’s. Woolworth’s!

I can only assume that readers accept the fact they’re reading something historical. They must be taking all the archaisms into account, the way you do when you’re reading a Sherlock Holmes story and enjoying a description of Holmes and Watson travelling in a horse-drawn cab through a Victorian fog so thick that it obscures the gas lamps.

But of course Black Dog was a contemporary novel when I wrote it. There’s nothing I can do now to make those distant versions of Ben and Diane aware of 9/11, or anything that’s happened in the world since 1998. Strangely, this means that Cooper & Fry are still aged in their twenties for many readers in the USA, while here in the UK we’ve reached Book #14, so the same characters are well into their thirties and know all about the banking crisis and the use of social media Those two timelines are rapidly becoming three.

And then there’s the prospect of a TV series. Cooper & Fry are currently in development for a UK crime drama. Once you sign over your rights for the small screen, you enter a whole different universe where your characters begin to evolve in unexpected directions. If that happens, I might just go back into my Tardis and shut the door. My world is much bigger on the inside anyway.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Thank You for That Question

I learned something important this week. I was invited to speak during Library Week at a public library in a nearby city. The invitation came from a mystery discussion group that I've spoken to before, and I was delighted to be invited back again. Or, as delighted as a night owl who really wants to do something can be when told that the invitation is for mid-morning when mouth is not necessarily connecting with brain yet.

But what gave me more pause than needing to be up, dressed, and on time with functioning brain was what the group leader had said in her e-mail. She mentioned that the group would be interested in hearing about my characters and the writing process and how I got my ideas. Actually, her questions were more specific. The questions that writers often are asked at talks or following panels. What gave me pause was that my first thought was, "What else can I say about that?" I had the feeling that I had said it all before, and I would try again to explain my writing process and be no better at conveying what I do than I usually am. And they would be bored because I was muddled and lackluster, and we would all have a less than sparkling morning.

Now, in truth, I knew it wouldn't be that bad. After years of being an "author," we all learn how to rise to the occasion. To tell interesting stories -- or, at least, stories that we've told often enough so that we've gotten them down and can pause for the laughter. But this time, I wanted to just say, "My writing process is messy and disorganized" (something I've said before) and this time actually demonstrate (something I've never done before). For my own amusement, I decided to document the scatterbrained way in which I get to what eventually appears on the page.

Looking for "my show and tell" documents, I went into the closet in my office and started pulling out boxes. Maybe, I thought, I could find and copy two unpolished pages from different drafts of a manuscript. Since it was morning when I had this thought, it didn't occur to me to go to my computer and print out these two pages from different drafts. I'm glad it didn't because while I was digging around in boxes, I came across an exhibit that captured what I wanted to convey. I found a small spiral-leaf notebook. Flipping through it I find I'd written two versions of what I had apparently intended to be the title of my first published mystery. I'd scribbled these versions of the title at the top of a page on which I'd listed the stages of the hero's journey (Joseph Campbell). Apparently I'd been to my RWA chapter meeting (where Campbell is sometimes discussed) and then come home and tried using the stages to think through what was happening with my protagonist. Her journey began when lightning struck a street in the backyard of her grandmother's house in Kentucky. Finding my notebook page, I thought, "Wonderful, I'll copy the page from the journey and the page from my published book and tell them what inspired the incident" (a friend telling me about a windstorm that had come out of nowhere and knocked down a tree that she had been admiring a few minutes earlier).

So I had the beginning of my talk. I intended to point out that the title I had thought of using was nothing like what I had ended up with.

Then I flipped to the next page in the notebook. There at the top of the page was the title of my book -- Death's Favorite Child. Below that was a summary of a scene that occurred in the book but involved a different character. And below that a line from a poem -- about betrayal. My book's title appeared in that line that I had apparently intended to have one of my characters said. And, I thought -- "Aha! The title really did come from a poem." But when I Googled the line nothing turned up but my own book title and fragments of what I'd seen in various places when I searched for lines about death. So, it seems I cobbled together bits and pieces for my fake line of poetry and took my title from something I'd made up. Which didn't surprise me when I thought about it because I ended up doing that for the title of my fourth book You Should Have Died on Monday and for the faux blues song with those words in the lyrics that my femme fatale sings. I was concerned about copyright -- and rather pleased when a few reviewers thought it was a real song. The interesting part is that no one ever utters that line of poetry in the first book. Good thing because it was bad.

But the most important thing I discovered was that the title that hadn't worked for my first book was now perfect for my 1939 historical thriller. Not as a title for the book I'm working on, but as a phrase that one my characters -- the villain -- writes in his journal. Those five words capture who he is and how he sees himself.

Getting back to my talk -- I also decided to tell them about my frustrating experience with my current nonfiction book. I've mentioned this book before. It's about dress, appearance, and crime. My agent is waiting for the proposal and the sample chapters. But I've been stuck -- table of contents done, know what I want to write, have tons of material, but unable to write the two chapters I need. As I was thinking about how to explain why I couldn't do what I've done before, I suddenly understood my problem. My agent has asked me to be sure to include the last chapter in the book because it deals with a case that has been in the news. But what I suddenly realized is that I have never done that before. I am all over the place when I'm brain mapping and doing research and reading and doing all the prep work for a nonfiction book. But when I sit down to write -- whether fiction or nonfiction -- I write in a linear fashion. As the King in Alice advises, I start at the beginning and go on to the end, then stop. If I'm writing a mystery, I can't skip to the next scene. If I'm writing nonfiction, I write the chapters in order. Being asked to write the last chapter had thrown my mind into turmoil. That's not the way it should be done, my stubborn unconscious has been telling me.

But, I think -- I hope -- I may have solved the problem. I remembered -- something I had forgotten -- what I normally do when I'm writing nonfiction. I collect the articles and other material I need to refer to and create a file box for each chapter. Then I work my way through the boxes. I have to follow this process because my brain needs order and system.. I need to get the piles of paper off my desk and the floor and corralled. So what I'm going to do is pretend that I'm about to write the book. Buy my boxes, sort the chapters -- looking through the material again as I go -- then write the first chapter, sort through the boxes for the next ten, making notes, and then write the last chapter. I will still have to re-write the last chapter when I write the entire book, but maybe this will allow me to finish the proposal.

After I shared this problem during my talk, a woman in the audience came up and suggested I move the last box to the front of the queue, dress it up in colored paper and keep looking at it. And my mind will begin to think of it as the first chapter. I think I need to leave it at the end, but maybe dressing up both the first box and the last will work.

And that is the tale of how in the process of digging deeper for my morning book group talk, I made some fascinating discoveries about my untidy brain. I related another story to them about an idea I'd once had and written down and forgotten that I'd written down and then years later discovered on a piece of paper after having what I thought was a new idea. That was the lead-in to sharing some findings from Dr. Nancy Anderson, PhD, from her research on the creative process shared by artists, writers, and scientists. She describes the four stages of the process -- which I would share with you here if only I could find the folder that contains the title of the article so that I could get to the link. Anyway, what resonated with me was Dr. Anderson's description of the incubation stage in the creative process. What struck me was her description of the probably chaotic, but elegant manner in which the unconscious puts together the pieces and delivers them to us in that "eureka" moment we get in the shower or while out taking a walk. Coincidentally, as I was driving to the library, a short story writer being interviewed on public radio was talking about "the wisdom" of the unconscious mind and how he has learned to rely on it.

What I've learned is to say "thank you" for being asked questions often enough that I feel obliged to really dig for new ways to answer them. I am also thankful that I have been reminded to go through my old boxes, flip through notebooks, and think more about my process.

Now if I could only remember not to jot down notes to myself on paper napkins that I end up accidentally tossing in the trash . . .







Thursday, April 10, 2014

How to Pick a Good Title

I (Donis) love reading about how the titles for my favorite books come about. Often the author titles her own book, but that’s not always the case, you know. The final word on the title and cover of a book comes from the publishers, and if they decide on something the author isn’t thrilled with, that is too bad. I’ve been lucky. Thus far my publisher has used every title I have submitted.

Titles are important. You want to convey something of the spirit of the story, catch the reader’s eye, intrigue her enough that she wants to read that book. For the first book in my Alafair Tucker series, I went through several titles before I landed on The Old Buzzard Had It Coming. Since the book takes place in Oklahoma in the dead of the winter of 1912, I first tried to find a title with the word “cold” in it, as in “cold blooded murder”. For a long time, the working title was Blood Run Cold, but in the end, I decided that wasn’t ethnic enough, and changed it to He Had It Coming, since the murder victim is quite a horrible person. Then, one day my mother described a man who lived in her apartment complex as an “old buzzard”. Aha!

That title has served me well, even if early on, my sister-in-law Dolores couldn’t quite remember how the title went and called it The Old Coot Deserved What He Got, which is pretty good, too. In fact, we considered an entire series with similar titles: The Miserable Son-of-a-Gun Got What Was Coming to Him, The Skunk Couldn’t Have Died Soon Enough, and the like.

I decided to go for something short for the second book, and agonized for a long time before my husband actually dreamed the title Hornswoggled. Since that book, I’ve more or less given up on short titles. The production manager at my press used to tease me for using such long titles that she couldn’t fit them on the spine. But what can you do?

I sometimes have a title before I have a story in mind. That’s what happened with my sixth book, The Wrong Hill To Die On. The idea for that title was given me by an Illinois mystery author, Denisa Hanania. People are always giving me ideas for book titles. Seems every person living has heard her grandmother reel off a folksy saying that would fit right into the world of my early 20th Century Oklahoma family.


Most of the time I don’t have a title in mind. I just wait until one of the characters says something that sums it all up in one eye-catching phrase. Often for me, good title is like pornography. I can’t really define it, but I know it when I see it. That’s what happened with my upcoming June release, Hell With the Lid Blown Off. One of the characters was surveying the devastation following a tornado that rolled over Muskogee County Oklahoma. It looked like hell with the lid blown off, says he.

Thank you, Trent Calder.


Wednesday, April 09, 2014

My Lucky Writing Sweater

I've been a happy camper this week. For the first time in months I've got four whole days at home in Portland before heading back to Los Angeles to work my "day job." I also have four days to complete my latest round of revisions for the second book in the Honeychurch Hall mystery series. Did I also mention that I have to write a gazillion blogs for a Virtual Blog tour that's coming up in May, too? So you could say I'm a tad busy.

This means that I am a bit of a slattern. Laundry doesn't get done, my husband has to cook or we have to order-in ... and I wear the same sweatpants and green sweater—I would call it a jumper but Americans will get confused—every day. It's cashmere with a hood and I've had it ever since I started writing "properly." It's full of moth holes and there are a few dubious stains on the front but for some reason, it inspires me to write.  I call it my lucky writing jumper.

I have also created 'incentives' to help me stay on track. These include plenty of unhealthy snacks like chocolate bars, drinking endless cups of coffee and eating carefully rationed Jelly beans (35 per portion). I set an alarm to go off every forty-five minutes that gives me permission to stop for a treat— the addictive but trashy Daily Mail Online (10 minutes), Facebook (10 minutes) walking to the river and back (10 minutes - we're close to the Willamette) and watching a five-minute clip of Dudley Moore from the movie "TEN" to make me laugh. Since I write facing the window this last treat has caused a few raised eyebrows from my neighbors across the path. I suppose I must look a bit odd laughing manically to myself. "Oh look, it's that weird woman in green who dashes down to the river and back."

I started looking at the habits of other writers. Truman Capote supposedly wrote supine, holding a glass of sherry in one hand and a pencil in the other. John Cheever wrote in his underwear; Agatha Christie sat in her bath-tub eating apples when she was devising her plots.

Victor Hugo's situation was slightly different however. It was said that since he was always late delivering his manuscripts, he no longer wanted to incur the 1,000 francs fine (thank heavens we don't have THAT anymore!) So Victor Hugo decided to put himself under house arrest, lock up his clothes and wear only a long, gray shawl. The reason being that if he couldn't get dressed, he couldn't go out—and that's how he met his deadline.

At the time of writing this, I have no plans to switch my green writing sweater to a gray shawl because that really would get the neighbors talking.