Monday, July 28, 2014

Authors and Baked Beans

Some time ago, when I was Chair of the Society of Authors in Scotland, the new managing director of the chain book store Waterstones came to speak to our committee. We wanted to talk books;  he wanted to talk  commodities. I don’t think I was the only one who was struck dumb when he told us flatly that there was absolutely no difference between a book and a tin of baked beans; they were both just something to sell, preferably piled high and priced cheap. Successful selling was all about ‘the brand’.

I’m happy to say he was wrong; Waterstones didn’t prosper under his direction and he has long since gone. James Daunt, who is in charge now, fortunately has an entirely different attitude and the bookshops are once again a pleasure to visit, a place where books have individual identities.

But as authors we’re constantly being encouraged to develop ‘our brand.’ As part of ‘the package’ we must also  develop ‘our voice’. One website I looked at recently suggested that  to be successful you needed to work out precisely who your target audience was and aim your writing precisely at them. A helpful way to do it would be to read the advertisements for products that this audience might enjoy and imitate the style of the copywriters.

It made me profoundly sad. Perhaps it works, but I’d hate to think so. I’d always naively thought that your individual ‘voice’ was something that came about as you grew into being a more confident writer, a projection of what you are, yourself. I like to think that when  readers pick up one of my books that they can recognize that it’s me speaking to them, the way my friends recognize my voice on the phone without having to be told who it is.

I can see that from the point of view of sales it’s good to make it easy for someone browsing to spot your books on a shelf but I reckon that’s more a question of consistency in book design – and I’m particularly lucky with my present publisher that they have developed a distinctive style – a ‘brand’ if you like –  for my covers. (If you’re reading this, Susie, thank you!). 

I admit, too, that when I started writing I studied PD James because I thought maybe it would rub off on me so that I wrote like her – imitation genuinely here being the sincerest form of flattery! It didn’t, of course, but I’m glad about that. I’m me, and even if I’ll never be the writer she is, I’d hate to be successful because I was marketed under a ‘PD James’ brand – yes, just like a tin of baked beans, only  with the supermarket label instead of  Heinz.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Why I Can't Write Your Idea

Once in while someone comes to me (usually after a signing) saying they have the most wonderful story. They know I will just love it. They have a proposal for me. They will give me their idea. (For free, yet.)  Then I can write the story and we will split the money.

At that point I usually have a brainstorm. Why don't I give them an idea and they can do the work and we'll split the money.

Only you will have that essential emotional connection to your ideas. Your ideas will rarely stir another writer to actually sit down and produce some work. There are obvious contradictions to this, of course. Some work very effectively as collaborative writers. And one of the greatest husband and wife teams I know are Michael and Kathy Gear. But that is an entirely different process.

A book is a difficult undertaking under the best of circumstances. It requires a tremendous investment of time and energy. The idea you have will be best written by you, because of the fire in your heart. The most common reason people don't proceed is they don't think they can. "I'm not a writer," they protest. "Really. I wouldn't know where to start."

Do you think we Type M'ers know where to start, just because we are published authors? Actually, no. You would think, after all these years. . . but no! I have always believed that there are wonderful writers out there who will never experience the joy of seeing their work published because they could not stand to bat their way through the fog. Because when writing doesn't come easily, they think they have no "natural" talent.

There have been several posts about ideas on Type M recently. I've never understood where ideas come from. I'm the happiest when I've made some progress on a book and instead of being bombarded by ideas for books, stories, sewing projects, computer workarounds, my mind switches to plot problems. Plotting might be harder, but it's more comfortable than the pre-book restlessness.

One of my best short stories developed when someone asked me what I was getting my granddaughter for Christmas. I said "that depends on what the other grandmother is buying." Loved the phrase"the other grandmother." No, "the other mother" would be even better. I liked the way it rolled off my tongue. Such an unlikely source for a workable idea. The story morphed into "Any Old Mother," and was selected for the MWA anthology, Blood on Their Hands.

Only a true Kansan will connect with the precipitating idea for my next mystery, Fractured Families. Anyone care to guess? If so, tell me on the comments screen.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Community News

One of the best things about being a crime writer is that the "community" of crime writers you hear so much about really is just that.

Case in point: I'm in Exeter, New Hampshire, where Dan Brown wrote many of his works, where there's a pretty well-known school (Phillips Exeter Academy), and where yours truly is in the midst of summer school — teaching crime fiction to 56, 8th- and 9th-grade students. Wednesday, I taught a wonderful story, “A Family Game”, by good friend Brendan DuBois, a novel and story writer whose short stories have won just about every major award a mystery story can win.

After he spoke to my class, we went for coffee. Brendan shared some information that I will pass on here:, utilizing an Amazon platform called, has a program where a writer can offer his or her backlist (titles to which one owns the rights). Narrators audition for the writer, and the royalty splits give the author 25%. With a growing backlist (five and counting), it seems like a no brainer to me, since one can earn roughly $5 on every sale.

As Brendan did for me, and from one writer to another, I pass this information on to you. I’ll keep you posted as to how my excursion goes.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

And now for something completely different.

Okay, Type M fans, you’re going to have to do a little reading today before we being. Since you’re here, I’m going to assume that you have some interest in what writing is all about, in which case I’ve got something quite intriguing for you. I few weeks ago, I stumbled across an article about the results of German researchers investigating how the brains of writers actually work when they’re at work. Click on this to read it. I’ll just work a bit on my new novel while I’m waiting for you to read it.

So, what do you think? Having been involved in serious writing for more years than I sometimes care to acknowledge, the results of this study really don’t surprise me. But most intriguing to me was the fact that trained and seasoned writers’ brains appear to work differently from those who are untrained. The suppositions as to why this is happening makes perfect sense. Most of my best “creating” when it comes to writing is done inside my head and away from the computer. My famous “walks in the snow” with recalcitrant characters. I suspect that you writers in the audience will agree with me on this

When I’m writing my novels, a fierce process of creating the necessary dialogue to accompany a particular scene begins in my head. I don’t ask it to happen, it just does. At first, realizing what was going on made me question my own sanity. Fortunately, I’m quite used to having internal music going on inside my head — sometimes even when I’m listening to music — so pretty quickly I came to accept it as part of the creative process:

“By contrast, the brains of expert writers showed more activity in regions involved in speech.”

It’s nice to see that my experience has been now medically confirmed. I am not a flake and my brain appears to be working the way it should. There’s nothing wrong with my invisible friends carrying on discussions in my brain — even when I don’t ask them to. Case in point: last night, after a rehearsal of the big band in which I play, as we sat around in our host’s backyard (Thanks, Henry. It was a lovely evening!), I dropped out of a conversation I was having with two people when I realized that two of my characters had started a discussion about why it’s important for people to make clear decisions about what they want to pursue in life based on what their interests are, not on parental expectations. The conversation might well never appear in the book, but it confirmed something I had been suspecting about both characters which they had previously only hinted at. Now they were saying it out loud. Whether the dialogue appears in the eventual book or not is immaterial. It tells me a lot about each characters’ motivations and I can move forward with that in mind.

On the surface, this is a very weird and difficult thing to explain to people whose brain don’t work in this manner. In fact, I suspect little thought bubbles appearing above their heads would probably reveal, “This person is completely mad.”

I’m not. I’m just wired that way!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Travels to Haiti

By Vicki Delany

Barbara talked earlier about one of the joys of the writers’ life research and travel.

Yesterday morning I finished the first draft of the new Sergeant Ray Robertson mystery, A Hill Full of the Dead. This is a Rapid Reads book for Orca Press, a follow up to Juba Good.   Juba Good is about an RCMP officer serving with the UN in South Sudan, helping the new country create a modern police force, and I wrote it when I was visiting my daughter, a Canadian diplomat in that country.

Orca liked Juba Good so much that they wanted another book in the series.  But with the situation in South Sudan being so volatile at the moment, I felt that I really couldn’t set another book there.

So, instead, I took Ray to Haiti.  I have a friend who lives in Haiti and I was able to pay her a visit. She introduced me to a couple of RCMP officers who were working with the UN in Haiti, and they were able to tell me all about their jobs there.  A perfect setting for Ray!

You can’t fake having been to places such as Haiti or South Sudan. If you want any veracity at all, you have to go there.  The air is different, the light is different, the sights and smells are different from what we are used to, and very different from what we imagine them to be.

As an example, as soon as I saw the main cemetery in Port Au Prince, I knew the climax of the book had to be set there. 

Here are some pictures of places I visited that I have incorporated into the new book.
A Cemetery

Looking over Port Au Prince

Lunch at the Oloffson Hotel

At the Oloffson Hotel

The Main cemetery in P-au-P

A taxi called a tap-tap

Look for A Hill Full of the Dead, in Fall 2015.  In the meantime Juba Good is available from all your regular sources. Including this one: 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Today’s Guest Blogger Lynn Cahoon

When Romance Turns to Murder

As a little girl, I ran off the bus, through the driveway, up the stairs, and through the front door to sit in front of the television for the last fifteen minutes of Dark Shadows. Twenty, if the bus was early.
I’ll pull off my coat, dump my books beside me, and get lost in the black and white story. I could feel the dark mist pouring out of the cabinet television.

During commercials, my mom would let me have a treat – usually an RC (Royal Crown cola in the glass 18 oz bottle) and homemade cookies. Then she’d catch me up on what happened on the show before my arrival. What I wouldn’t have given for a DVR back then. I loved the dark Barnabas Collins, my first bad boy. Doesn’t get much badder than the local vampire. But Barnabas only fed when he had to. And he truly loved Victoria.

Dark gothic soap opera. Watching that show was probably the start of my writing career. My wanting to write the happy-ever-after that Barnabas craved but knew he could never have. So it didn’t surprise me that my first completed (and now under the bed) book I wrote was a romance. The first book I sold was also a romance –The Bull Rider’s Brother released in June 2012. Then I sold a witchcraft novella. 2012-2013 was all about the love for me. At least in the books I released.

In 2013 I sold Guidebook to Murder, the first book in The Tourist Trap Mysteries. I’m releasing the second book, Mission to Murder this month. And a third in late autumn. So my writing this last couple years has focused on setting the clues and not outing the bad guy too soon.

So why the move from small town romance to small town murder? Mostly because like the little boy in The Sixth Sense, I see dead people. Okay, not like real dead people. I’m the girl that when we stop at the rest area off the freeway and I look at the woods surrounding the area and says, “That would be a great place to hide a body.”

Yep, I’m fun at parties.

Adding a dead body into the story adds instant conflict. And if my heroine just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, so much more the fun. Don’t get me wrong. I love writing romance. Helping characters fine their soul mate one book at a time is a great job. Writing romance reminds me that me that love does conquer all barriers, even between a vampire and his dinner.

Writing mysteries reminds me that good can overcome evil. Actually good must conquer evil in my view. I’m not a fan of the slasher movie types. The ones where the villain gets up and walks away after the heroine has spent the last two hours figuring out a way to win. Jamie Lee Curtis deserved better in Halloween. She worked hard to defeat Michael Myers, he should have stayed dead. You can argue the point, but I know I’m right on this. At least in Lynn’s world view.

Stories set in small town America allows me to build a community of people who care about each other. People who have their own quirks and insecurities. Sometimes these insecurities make them doubt each other. Sometimes they bring people together. And book after book, the characters grow on me, their creator, to the point three books later, I’m not sure who’s doing the story telling, me or them.

I grew up in a small town. The bus I rode home took forty-five minutes to deliver me back to the farm house where we lived eight miles out. Living in the country as a kid was hard. The friends I made were unusually in books. I planned to live and work in the biggest big city I could think of – New York City. From a farm south of Nampa, Idaho, I dreamed of taking my own bite out of the Big Apple. Yep, I would have fit in with the Glee kids. Except for the amazing vocal and acting talent.

Instead, I stayed close to home and currently, live in a small historic town on the banks of the Mississippi river. Not a small apartment in a big city high rise. I have a two story with a back yard that backs up to a wooded area, perfect for hiding bodies. Or at least the bones my Pomeranians like to bury there.

Small town settings bring my stories to life. And my villains stay defeated. And sometimes, love blossoms between a couple characters.

I think Barnabas would be proud.


USA Today and New York Times best-selling author, Lynn Cahoon is an Idaho native. If you’d visit the town where she grew up, you’d understand why her mysteries and romance novels focus around the depth and experience of small town life. Currently, she’s living in a small historic town on the banks of the Mississippi river where her imagination tends to wander. She lives with her husband and four fur babies.


In the California coastal town of South Cove, history is one of its many tourist attractions—until it becomes deadly…

Jill Gardner, proprietor of Coffee, Books, and More, has discovered that the old stone wall on her property might be a centuries-old mission worthy of being declared a landmark. But Craig Morgan, the obnoxious owner of South Cove’s most popular tourist spot, The Castle, makes it his business to contest her claim. When Morgan is found murdered at The Castle shortly after a heated argument with Jill, even her detective boyfriend has to ask her for an alibi. Jill decides she must find the real murderer to clear her name. But when the killer comes for her, she’ll need to jump from historic preservation to self-preservation.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Gone to a Movie

I am stuck. I am profoundly, officially, ripping out hair stuck. All week, I've been multitasking. Last night I had dinner with a friend and we brainstormed a short story I've been asked to write for a unique anthology (more about that later). Earlier in the day and the day before, I did some research on topics that I might write about related to funerals and crime. The victim in my next book is a funeral director, and I have been thinking about marketing. On Wednesday, I spent a lot of the day reading a dissertation about honor and masculinity in 19th century literature. I learned why Alexander Hamilton fought a duel he didn't want to fight -- or, at least, the author's well-reasoned theory about that. On Tuesday, having started Monday with confidence, I was sure that this week I would finally have a breakthrough. I thought I would finally -- at long last -- settle on the title for the book I'm writing about dress and appearance in American crime and justice. I thought I would settle on a title and finally be able to finish writing the proposal that my agent is waiting for and that I have been working on for months. I was wrong.

It may seem unimportant that I can't choose among the list of titles that I have in my notebook and on my computer. After all, chances are that if the book is sold, the title will be changed anyway. But, as I may have mentioned here, I have a thing about titles. I can't write -- or write well -- until I have one that captures what the book is about. So I wait for the right title and it usually comes. The title for my 1939 historical thriller came from the mouth of Opie Taylor while I was half-listening to a re-run of The Andy Griffith Show. When I heard it, I knew that although it seemed to have nothing at all to do with my story, it was actually a perfect metaphor for what I was trying to say about the old and the new.

But nothing like that has happened with my clothing and crime book. I've read poems, looked up quotes, tried variations. One moment I think I have it and the next I don't. I have arrived at a state of anxiety that makes me think it would be easier to write the book than finish this proposal. But, of course, I need the title before I can finish the book. I have titles for individual chapters. I've done work on those. But I can't pull it all together and say what it means until I have the book title.

I woke up this morning, knowing the title I came up with before bed last night still wasn't right. Rather than scream, I decided to analyze the situation. That was when I realized that by trying to power through this, I am only making matters worse. As we have all occasionally noted here, sometimes the only sensible thing to do is remove your fingers from the keyboard and step away from the computer.

This is confirmed by research on the value of not concentrating. Concentrating too hard on the task at hand can be counterproductive. In an article in New Scientist (6/16/2012), Richard Fisher writes about the value of daydreaming. Humans, as a group, have a hard time staying focused. Even when we try to pay attention, our minds drift. The good news about this, is that we often get some of best ideas when we are daydreaming. The corollary of this finding is that if we are faced with a difficult task that seems to require concentration, this is often the best time to disengage -- to, as Fisher suggest, watch a Robin Williams stand-up routine -- and relax. Rather than try to work when our minds are sharp, if the task requires creativity, we might do better to work when our minds are groggy.

Writers often talk about getting their best ideas in the shower. There seems to be some science related to this. S. Kay Murphy (The Writer, March 2005) discusses the value of turning up the volume on some kinds of sounds. It seems that what taking a shower or sitting within hearing of a refrigerator or clothes dryer have in common is that both the water and the home appliances produce "white noise" that block other more distracting sounds (such as a barking dog). With the distracting sounds muted, we are more relaxed and the ideas comes.

I am now stepping away from my keyboard. I'm going to go drop by my office to check in with the IT person who happily will have my office computer today. Then I'm going to go see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. After that I'm going to have an ice cream cone. And maybe go for a walk in the park and spend some time sitting by the lake. I am taking a mental health day because my poor little brain needs the rest.