Friday, February 5, 2016

The Lonely Nightstand

What reading material is currently on your nightstand?

by Paul D. Marks

I have to admit that my nightstand is currently unfulfilled, having no stacks of books on it. But that’s mostly because my wife wants me to keep it clear and neat. So I’ve been trying to do that. Of course that’s about the only part of the house that is clear and neat and uncluttered (well semi-uncluttered). And I have to admit that 99% of the clutter is mine. I’m the packrat.

So what’s cluttering up the house? Well, books of course. Tons of books and no more shelf space.
We even have shelves in the garage and we’re still out of space. I still prefer paper books to e-books, though I read both. But just on the space issue I’m leaning towards buying more e-books. But then how would guests know how erudite I am if they can’t see all those books...even though not all have been read. Though most have.

I also collect toys and Beatles stuff and some other rock ‘n’ roll gear. Then there’s all the old papers and old drafts of stories and all the stuff you have to keep for the IRS. It adds up, let me tell you.

On top of that, we just emptied out our storage facility, so the garage I normally park in is now filled with boxes that we swore we would go through quickly so I could get my car back in there pronto. Well, it’s been a month and we’ve yet to go through those boxes for the most part. Y’know, stuff happens and you just can’t get to it. But we did find a couple cool things: a sign off the MGM backlot that I borrowed from a train station set and a newel post from a house in LA’s Bunker Hill, which was flattened for redevelopment in the late 60s. Bunker Hill was LA’s first wealthy neighborhood but went downhill after World War I. But there were many gorgeous Victorian homes there. Some got moved and some got destroyed. But before it all went to hell a friend and I went through some of the houses and I took the newel post as a souvenir. It’s going to become the logo for what I hope will be a long-running series of short stories and maybe even a novel or two about the characters from the first story, Ghosts of Bunker Hill, which will be published in Ellery Queen, though I’m not sure when it will appear. And I’m lucky to have these things, as in a previous move my mean, cruel, wicked wife (I’m kidding, okay – she puts up with me, she’s a saint) made me get rid of a lot of backlot souvenirs and other things, including my Famous Brick off the Andy Hardy set. Yes. She made me throw my brick away. It looked like any other brick, but it was famous and in many, many movies. And now it’s gone, lost in the dustbin of history, along with a bunch of other things she made me toss.

But I guess I’ve gotten off-topic here. So what’s on my metaphorical nightstand since I can’t put books on my physical one? Well, currently I’m reading The Stranger by Harlan Coben. I’m almost done with that. And I have a yen to re-read some classic mysteries. Maybe some Chandler or Ross MacDonald. Maybe some Jim Thompson or David Goodis. I always like going back to those. And I re-read Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn every few years. They’re the reading equivalent of comfort food for me. Maybe these are on my mind since I mentioned most of them in my last post here. I’ve also been thinking about re-reading Bonfire of the Vanities. I’m not sure why, but it just got stuck in my head. I haven’t read The Girl on the Train yet, so that’s a possibility. So what I might do is read an oldie but a goodie and then move on to newer things because there’s a wealth of riches out there for the taking. And maybe some books from people I know, but since I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings if I don’t have their book on my list, I’m not mentioning who. I’m not that brave.

One more thing, congratulations to Art and Catriona on their Agatha Award nominations!


I’m the guest author on the terrific Sue Ann Jaffarian’s Fan Club Page on Facebook this week – and who blogged here for a long time. Hope you’ll drop by there: 

Also, at Bouchercon a few months ago, I read my Anthony and Macavity-nominated story “Howling at the Moon” for Ellery Queen magazine. And that just went up on the net. So if you’re dying to hear me read, check it out. I don’t think Tom Hanks has to worry about his position as the top actor in Hollywood. 

And if you’re not sick of me already, I was interviewed by Pam Stack at Authors on the Air last Wednesday, Feb 3rd . Hope you might want to listen to that podcast: 

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Thursday, February 4, 2016

On my bedside table today . . .

Too easy!

My brain is currently cut into four pie wedges: work in progress; structural edits (Dandy Gilver and A Most Misleading Habit); page proofs (Quiet Neighbors); Sisters in Crime publishing summit on diversity in the mystery community. And The Great British Bake Off. And Left Coast Crime. And Malice. And the Edgars. And life.

So it's lovely to get a point-and-press question here at Casa Criminal today.

On my bedside table, from bottom to top are:
  • The Girl in The Spider's Web - the posthumous Stieg Larsson that I failed to read at Christmas.
  • John Irving's Avenue of Mysteries - which Santa brought me. Santa really mucked up my Christmas reading plans, actually.
  • Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins (Santa's ruins)
  • Tracy Kidder's Among Schoolchildren. Now this is embarrassing. I bought this and Kidder's  Hometown because I had so much enjoyed the Broadway play August: Osage County. By Tracy Letts.
  • The slim blue volume is Mr Frick's Palace, a guidebook about the Frick Collection in New York that acts on me like meditation.
  • Pablu Neruda's The Captain's Verses. I keep one volume of poetry by my bed to read and read until it's in my veins forever. Shakespeare's Sonnets was there for four years.
  • Ann Cleeves' Harbour Street - which is what I'm actually reading right now, because I'm interviewing her at Left Coast in a few weeks. Poor me, eh? What a slog!
  • Lori Roy's Let Me Die in his Footsteps - Lori is my SinC co-board-member and she's written three books. The first one won an Edgar, the second was a finalist and now the third is on the shortlist too.
  • Malcolm MacKay's The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter - which I bought in celebration of the Edgar announcements a couple of weeks back. We Scots are punching well above our weight at this year's awards: there's this, Val McDermid, Denise Mina and *coughsmodestlybutbragsanyway* me.
  • Triss Stein's Brooklyn Graves  - which I've just finished last night, in preparation for moderating Triss (along with Terry Shames, Carla Buckley and Nancy West) at Left Coast. Favouritism? Why, no. Carla's The Good Goodbye and Nancy's Smart But Dead are waiting for me at The Avid Reader and I've already read every word Terry has ever written.
  • And a disc-set of A.S.Byatt's The Children's Book for when those four wedges turn into a pie-fight at 3am.
Happy reading, everyone.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

"Jones the Voice" or "King the Fingers"? by Cathy Ace

What reading material is currently on your nightstand?

By way of full disclosure, I have no books on my nightstand. I never do, because I never read in my bed or bedroom. I know that’s where a lot of reading happens, but not for me. Why? By the time I hit the sack around 1am or 2am after my night-shift writing time, my husband and dogs are fast asleep, so no reading for me.

Also, since I had a new book published this week, and I’m at the stressful final-polishing-before-it-goes-to-my-agent stage of a manuscript, I haven’t the mental capacity to read a book by another author at this point . . . I think my head would explode! But on Friday I’ll email the manuscript, and I’ll be flying to Vegas (it’s Superbowl weekend and Vegas is my preferred place to watch the last game of the season before I sink into withdrawal from general NFL-ness) so I’m looking forward to reading one of two Christmas gifts. Each Christmas my husband and I buy each other a book – we don’t plan it that way, but we always do. As you can see, I have a choice: Tom Jones’s autobiography “Over the Top and Back” (yes, I’ve already looked at all the photos, and they have whetted my appetite); Stephen King’s “Joyland” (yes, I feel bad that I haven’t read it yet!). Tough choice!

Both books will make the trip, both will return home with us. Maybe largely unread – it all depends how Vegas-y our weekend becomes. The good thing is I know I’ll get to read them both, soon – and I still have the chance to decide which to read first.WOOT!
Cathy's second WISE Enquiries Agency Mystery, THE CASE OF THE MISSING MORRIS DANCER, was released in Canada and the USA on February 1st. Library Journal reckons it will "...delight M.C. Beaton and Jeanne M. Dams readers..." and Kirkus said of the four softly-boiled PIs "The diverse sleuths are charming." You can find out more about Cathy Ace, her WISE Women and Cait Morgan Mysteries, and even sign up for her bimonthly newsletter, at her website:

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Head Will Follow

What reading material is currently on your nightstand?

It's rare for me to have more than one book on the go. I prefer to finish one before starting the next. But I've spread myself thin this week, reading a bunch of books on boxing.

The most influential book I've read recently is Rene Denfeld's Kill The Body, The Head Will Follow. It's partly a memoir of her integration into a Portland boxing gym (she's a Golden Glove winner), and partly a Susan Sontag-esque critique of cultural myths surrounding female aggression. The book demystifies a lot of assumptions about whether women are less violent or less aggressive, and if not, why they're perceived as being so. She name-checks Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky in the introduction, as creating more active, physical female protagonists (and role models). Definitely a lot to think about.

I'm also reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's short story "The Croxley Master," about a medical student who turns to prizefighting to pay for his tuition. Doyle is an entertaining writer with an underrated prose style, even separated from his most famous creation.

I'm also reading a biography of Filipino boxing legend Manny Pacquiao, and George Plimpton's memoir Shadow Box. And yes, these books are all for research, but they're also a hell of a lot of fun.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Mixed Up...

What's on my bedside TBR stack right now?

- from Susan

I'm late, I'm late, for a very important date...

This is launch week for my newest Dani O'Rourke mystery, Mixed Up with Murder, and I apologize. I've been composing guest posts for a blog tour, setting up bookstore dates for a live tour, and generally rushing around. I forgot to post and there are only a couple of hours before the next Mind takes the stage.

So, here without any trumpets, is a short list since there are far too many books in my real stack to fir in the bedroom, much less on the little tile-topped table Tim made me.

Holidays On Ice, David Sedaris
A Dangerous Place, Jacqueline Winspear
Intrusion, Reece Hirsch
The Necessary Murder of Nonie Blake, Terry Shames
Hot Countries, Tim Hallinan
Mademoiselle Chanel, C. W. Gortner
The Man On the Washing Machine, Susan Cox
Thinking, Fast and SlowDaniel Kahneman
Mr. Churchill's Secretary, Susan Elia Macneal
The Long and Faraway Gone, Lou Berney

Okay, the pile is larger but it's not ON the table, so I can quit here. If you're an author, I'll bet I have your book in the study on the TBR shelves, so don't feel bad if it hasn't migrated to the bedside yet. Your books are all so appealing that I can't say no!

Little promo: Dani's third adventure was fun to write but took a long time to get into print. There's a tale there about the publishing business and what happens when your series is orphaned. Another day...but my web site has a list of the places I will be reading, mostly in concert with writing pal Terry Shames who also has a new book out. We're doing our dog and pony show all over - please check out the schedule and come see us!

Friday, January 29, 2016

Ruts, Routines, and Writer's Block

By Art Taylor

Like my co-panelist Tracy Kiely earlier this week, I tend to conflate this week's question—"It’s so easy to get into a ‘same old, same old’ rut with your writing. What do you do to break out of it?"—with questions about writer's block, though I know these may fundamentally be too different things. 

In each case, however, I think a change of perspective is key—whether that shift in perspective is taking place on the page (or screen) or away from the keyboard or pen or pencil entirely. 

Yesterday, Alan Orloff mentioned that the seemingly endless blizzard clean-up helped to get him out of a rut, and while he may have been half-joking, I usually find that if I'm getting no traction with my writing (carrying through on some snow imagery, the idea of a rut, etc.), then stepping away from the computer helps to free the mental processes a little, loosen the imagination, provide new ways of looking at some problem on the page, new ways to push ahead. A walk, a drive, a shower, or really anything more physical than mental helps in that regard. 

But both Alan and Tracy speak to the more distinctive connotations of a "rut" as well—when you're traveling the same path routinely without variation. To that end, I like Tracy's suggestion of exercises in style and Alan's approach of varying genre from project to project. As a short story writer primarily, I'm often starting fresh with each new project—in terms character and plot and tone and sometimes even style—and while that poses its own challenges, it also helps to avoid overworking the same moves.

One of the nicest comments I've gotten about my book On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories concerns the structure of the book—a series of stories that are each distinct in many ways but that cohere as a longer story, ultimately as a novel with a larger narrative arc threading through the individual adventures of the title characters. The comment that I get focuses on the various tones in each of the individual parts of that whole: a screwball tone here, a more somber tone there, for example; or a caper tale at one point and a whodunit at another. All of that is by design, of course—my own desire to sample a variety of tones and approaches and even (as Alan said) subgenres under that larger umbrella of crime fiction.

I'm certainly not advocating that all writers should hopscotch through styles and structures and stories in an effort to keep things new, but I do think that those exercises like Tracy mentioned and an awareness of what we're doing generally help to keep the mind and the imagination well-tuned and well-focused.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

’Snow Rut Here

by Alan

It’s so easy to get into a ‘same old, same old’ rut with your writing. What do you do to break out of it?

Here’s what I did to break out of that “rut” over this past weekend:

On Friday, I swept the light snow off the driveway with a pushbroom for an hour or so.

On Saturday, I shoveled snow in a blizzard for an hour and a half in the morning and an hour and a half in the afternoon.

On Sunday, I shoveled snow for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon.

On Monday, I shoveled snow for two and a half hours in the morning. (I took the afternoon off to rest my aching muscles.)

On Tuesday, I shoveled snow for two hours in the morning.

During that time, I broke two broom handles and one snow shovel. But my back held up!

When I was finished, I was no longer in a rut. So, to recap, the best way to get out of a rut is to do hours upon hours of something more unpleasant, like shoveling eight tons of snow. Simple!

In all seriousness, I don’t usually find myself mired in writing ruts (Of course, my readers might feel differently!). Maybe it’s because when I start to feel things getting stale, I switch genres. I’ve written mysteries, thrillers, horror, YA, and YA horror. And short stories. Some with more success than others, but I never really feel confined or stuck in a rut.

My next project will be a horror story about a guy who goes mad after spending too much time shoveling snow.

It’s autobiographical.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Writing Out Of A Rut

By Tracy Kiely

To be honest, I’ve always confused “being in a rut” with “suffering from writer’s block.” I know there’s a difference, but it’s hard to explain that difference when you’re staring at a blank computer screen with a deadline looming. And when you are in that situation, you really don’t give a rat’s ass what the technical term is; you just want it to stop.
It’s kind of like being asked, “Is it a sharp pain or a dull pain?” Um…it’s pain. And I’d like it to stop. Now.
I once read a quote by Roy Blount, Jr. that said, “I think writer's block is simply the dread that you are going to write something horrible. But as a writer, I believe that if you sit down at the keys long enough, sooner or later something will come out."
Thanks, Roy. That’s very helpful. But, somehow, I don’t think Old Ray shares a home with three kids, two large excitable dogs, one permanently peeved cat, and an ever-growing pile of laundry. I’d like to see Roy sit for hours on end waiting for “something to come out.” Something will come out – but I doubt an obscenity-laced rant – even if it is woven in an artistic-like tapestry – is going to do the trick.
So, what does one do? Well, here’s the thing. I don’t really know. I’ve found taking the dogs for a long walk helps somewhat. Mainly because the Gods are cruel and they feed my brain all sorts of lovely ideas when I am away from paper and pen.
Writing something very different from your usual style can help too. Read something, perhaps a set of instructions. Now, write it as if you were, say Hemmingway.

            “Nick picked up the wrench. It was a good wrench. It was heavy and made well. Nick felt the weight of it in his hand. He drank his martini and thought, 'This is a damn good wrench. There was a God. All was right in the world.' After a while he thought of her. He walked home alone in the rain.”

            Now, does this do anything? Hell if I know. But, it will get your brain working a bit differently. It might spark an idea. Or it just might make you want a martini. I can’t say for sure. But, after staring at a blank screen for three hours, both are acceptable outcomes.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Taking my writing to the next step.

By R.J. Harlick

It’s so easy to get into a ‘same old, same old’ rut with your writing. What do you do to break out of it?

This question is particularly apt for me as a writer of a series. With each new book it can be so tempting to fall into a routine and take the easy path, the one Ive followed in previous Meg Harris books. But this becomes boring not only for the reader but also for me, so with each new book I strive to travel down new paths. In every other book, I take Meg away from Three Deer Point, her Quebec home, to a different part of Canada. This gives her the protagonist, you the reader and me the writer an opportunity to explore the uniqueness of this new wilderness setting and the stories and culture of the people who live in it. In each new book I also like to explore different social issues, often tricky ones, particularly as they pertain to First Nations.

In the writing of A Cold White Fear, the latest and seventh book in the series, I set myself a significant challenge. The previous six books are murder mysteries, where the major storyline is Meg solving a murder as an amateur sleuth, although there are usually plenty of other storylines contributing to the main one. I decided to make this book a thriller and put Meg in a life or death situation and see if she can get out of it unscathed.

I also added to the challenge by limiting the setting to Megs rambling Victorian cottage, Three Deer Point, while it is being bombarded by a major blizzard. I plunged her into darkness with a power outage. Not only does she have to deal with no light and no heat as the temperature plunges, but also with no communications to the outside world, for her phone link has been cut off. This while there are strangers in her house, menacing strangers I should add, who emerged out of the pummeling snow.

I also limited the time to less than a day.

I found that I couldnt rely on action to be the main story driver. I had to rely on my characters to bring it to its climactic end. And so A Cold White Fear became more character driven than the previous books, although my characters usually have a big say on where the story is going in all my books.

The biggest challenge, though, was having Meg endure something that even in the writing of these words makes me cringe. After seven books, she has become a very close friend. I so didnt want this to happen to her, but I knew it had to. It took me three revisions of the scene to take it as far as it needed to go. But in its writing I felt that I had grown that much further along my journey of being a writer.

With A Cold White Fear now in bookstores, I am well into the writing of the next Meg Harris mystery. Though I have a title, Im not yet ready to share it. But I can tell you that the colour will be purple. This time the challenge I have set for me and Meg is to fly Canadas Far North to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories and to get to know the Dene who have inhabited this unique wilderness for thousands of years. Megs particular challenge is to prove her husband Erics innocence for he has been arrested for murder.