Saturday, August 6, 2022

Through Rain or Sleet or Snow ...

Do you use weather in your books to create atmosphere or mood? Talk to us about meteorology.

Brenda starting off the week.

We Canadians love to talk about the weather. Meet a stranger at the bus stop and one is likely to comment, "It's a cold morning. Will it ever stop raining?" to which the other replies,"Sunny tomorrow if you can believe the forecast." (Comments vary depending on the day.) Yup, the weather is our number one preoccupation and the best conversation starter, no matter the situation.

It is only logical then that I focus on the weather in my stories. A stormy night can create atmosphere. A hot summer day can be used to make my characters uncomfortable. I believe the sensory aspects of weather ... heat, cold, wet ... draw readers into the scene and make them experience what the characters are feeling. Weather is our common denominator -- the element that unites us, no matter where we live.

In Ottawa, where I make my home and where my latest Hunter and Tate series is set, our climate runs the gamut, from 30 below C in the winter to a tropical 40 degree C (with humidex) in the summer. We experience all four seasons, and with climate change, are having increasingly more frequent weather events, including winter ice storms and summer tornadoes. We even had a derecho at the end of May, and if you have no idea what one is (none of us did),  a derecho is (ah hem): "a widespread, long-lived, straight-line wind storm that is associated with a fast-moving group of severe thunderstorms known as a mesoscale convective system". In other words, a mother of all storms causing quick but wide-spread destruction.

As a writer, it's important to write enough description to evoke a scene without overdoing and boring the reader. I try to slip in a sentence or two about the weather and insert little 'reminders' about the setting as a chapter unfolds. To give a sense of this, I'll conclude with a three examples from my books, hoping these examples give that sensory ah ha that we writers aim to elicit. The first is from Killer Heat, an Anna Sweet mystery novella (summer), the second from In Winter's Grip, a standalone mystery (winter), and the last from Closing Time, last in the Stonechild and Rouleau police procedural series (autumn).

Ottawa was into its second week of steamy July heat and people were grumpy. Passers-by who used to say hello now couldn't be bothered to smile. It was so hot by mid-morning that people were frying eggs on the sidewalk. Well ... they could have fried eggs on the sidewalk if they'd felt up to it.

"Somebody is going to kill somebody," said my PI partner Jade Price, wiping sweat off her forehead. She'd tied her black dreadlocks into a soggy ponytail on the top of her head. The air conditioner in our second-floor office in the Hintonburg neighbourhood was broken. Two fans were pushing hot air around like a pea soup bath.

--Killer Heat 

The rest of the household was asleep when I stepped outside into a bitterly cold day. Sometime during the night, a north wind had blown away the cloud cover, and a high pressure system had pushed its way in. Already the sky was turning from black to midnight blue and frosted orange as the sun slipped over the tree line. Every so often weak, silvery sunshine glistened through the trees, casting slender lines of brightness in the snow.

--In Winter's Grip. 

The air was cool and a white mist hung over the water so that sounds were muffled and the feeling was like being inside a globe of cotton batting. Even as Stonechild let the canoe drift, the sun began burning off the fog and warmed the dampness on her face. The pink and rose colours reflecting off the water faded.

-- Closing Time 

I'll conclude by adding the link to an excerpt from Blind Date: A Hunter and Tate Mystery, published in the Ottawa Citizen this past Tuesday. Blind Date is featured as one of the summer reads!


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Friday, August 5, 2022

Rules For Writing Crime Fiction by Josh Stallings

 "Actually, it's more of a guideline than a rule..." - Ghostbusters

Teen age me
Q: We crime writers write about murder and violence. What are your thoughts about profiting—however meagerly—from the tragedy of others, even if it’s fictional?

A: This question stirred up a lot of thoughts. First, I grew up with a certain amount of violence and criminality. I don’t want to dance around it or glorify it. My parents were social activists, non violent protesters who when pushed hard enough would get violent with us kids. My father once told me that he had me by the throat, against a wall and saw in my eyes that I couldn’t back down. He said he realized that “I had to kill you or walk away.” I’m glad he didn’t kill me.

My tattoo for when life gets rough

As a teenager I discovered alcohol and drugs, driving too fast on country roads, and that if I let my rage build up it could be used as a weapon. I sold pot, and hash that was reported to have swirls of opium in it. I robbed multiple homes. Arrested for driving while drinking at fifteen, arrested for robbing a house when I was sixteen. I carried a Buck knife and a pistol when I was afraid enough to feel I had to. I was a lousy criminal. I felt guilty for being me. I knew criminals, looked up to some, feared others, was good friends with a few. I knew sex workers. I knew what it felt like to be surrounded by families with money when we had none. I know how it feels to be hit and how it feels to hit.

Why this very personal confession? To let you know I know some truths about crime and violence. I don’t feel I profit off tragedy as long as I share the real real. Violence isn’t an 80’s action flick, all cool lines and painless killing of thug #1 through #57. Not that I don’t dig those films, they just don’t speak to my soul.

Mean Streets and Taxi Driver both ripped my guts up in the best way. They told stories I understood and thought one day I might create myself. They were honest about the crazy pain and macho posing that preceded violence.

There were writers who convinced me I could tell my stories in books. 

Steve H. Gave me this years ago

James Crumley wrote poetically about tragically flawed drunks fighting to right wrongs and mostly failing. His violence is always ugly, never heroic. 

“I have learned some things. Modern life is warfare without end: take no prisoners, leave no wounded, eat the dead--that's environmentally sound.” 

James Crumley, Dancing Bear

That line is pure hardboiled poetry, and heartbreaking when you realize it is Milo Dragovitch’s world view. 

"I had butterflies with razor wings doing loop-the-loops in my stomach.”  - Gary Phillips, The Jook

Again, pure poetry that also makes me feel the pain. There were more writers but you get the point.

I never met a rule I didn’t want to break, and yet, here are my personal rules for writing crime fiction:

1) Violence hurts everyone involved. It eats away at the victim and assailant. For creatures with such a violent history we humans haven’t often dealt with it or it’s aftermath well. If I’m afraid to show all of this, I shouldn’t write about violence.

2) Poverty doesn’t equal criminality. This is a trope in crime fiction films and books. A couple driving home from a Lakers game break down and have to leave the freeway, they wind up in… da da da dum, COMPTON. Now they are in real danger. Life is cheap on mean (read poor) streets. Bullshit. Life is equally valuable to all families regardless of income bracket or zip code.

This also shows up in country noir and desert noir. Being broke doesn’t make you become a criminal, it’s more complex. Some commit crimes because they see no other way to make it financially. Some people commit crimes for the thrill. For a while there was a prison program where hard core criminals were taught deep sea welding. The job is dangerous, i.e. thrilling. They’re on a platform at sea for weeks or months at a time, that means when they get back on dry land they had a knot of cash. It fulfilled many of the same needs crime did. The recidivism rate was near zero. But it didn’t look like  “tough on crime” so the program was dismantled. 

2a) Drug addiction doesn’t equal criminality. Addiction is multi hued and complex, but it doesn’t make people steal. Not having access to drugs is the real problem. As a culture we believe drug addiction is a moral failing and must be punished. If we cared about our citizens we would have policies that mitigate harm to the addict and society. Clean needles, and a clean place to use them. Naloxone, a medication used to reverse overdoses of opioids should be carried by every emergency worker and be readily available and affordable to anyone who wants to have it on hand. But again that doesn’t sound tough on crime so it’s a no go. From a writing stand point, junkies are complex interesting humans. Don’t fall into the party line that they are all dangerous criminals. 


3) Criminality does not equal lack of morals. Tomas C. my actual partner in crime was an honest and faithful friend. He thought violence was the last resort of weak people. He was trained in martial arts, Kung Fu if I remember right. Just fucking around I’d seen what he could do. One day a group of guys came after him and me. Called him a honkey loving beaner. Tension sizzled and sparked between them. Slipping my hand in my pocket I opened my knife, ready for what surely was about to happen. We were fourteen, high on testosterone and rag weed. The guy spit in Tomas’ face. My muscles tightened. I wanted to puke. I wanted to hurt this asshole. Without even wiping off his face Tomas tilted his head at me, turned and walked away. I followed him. Our backs were open to our enemies. A fatal move. Only it wasn’t. If this was a film, Tomas and I would have been teen thugs, criminals not even worthy of names. But Tomas had a moral code stronger than mine or any of our peers at that age.

4) Sex workers have neither hearts of gold nor are they all consumed with avarice. And I just laid down a false binary. None of us are simply A or B, we are all combinations of the entire alphabet. Every one I’ve known or interviewed was a complex interesting person. Some chose sex work because of daddy issues or trauma, others because they were parents and baby needed diapers and Cheerios. Some did it because it’s their body to do with what they want, and they chose to monetize it. For others it was a lark that turned into a job. Point is, if I wouldn’t stereotype a janitor or a car mechanic, I shouldn’t stereotype sex workers. Forgetting the humanist aspect of this, it also leads to flat boring characters.

A gang banger isn’t a character any more than a stripper is. Don’t let a simple description stand in for real character work. And if you don’t know any sex workers, meet some. Or build them based on someone you know. Just don't base any character on characters you’ve read in other crime fiction. This how we get hollow tropes and flat characters.

5) No one is only who they are on their worst day. No one is who they are on their best day either. Roll back to the Tomas almost fight story, had it gone another way, I fully believe I would have tried to stab one of the guys circling Tomas. Violence is random. I wasn’t trained to knife fight. Stab in one place, the kid gets a bandage, two inches over he gets a body bag. Unlike fiction, in real life when it comes to violence, intention and result are unrelated. So if I had killed someone that day, should that define entirely who I am? Should Tomas go through his life trying to live up to his one saintly moment. WE WERE JUST KIDS, and we were petty criminals. And we were friends. And we went to Market Street in San Fransisco to buy our first pairs of platform shoes and Super Fly hats. And before going into high school we sat in his brother’s car smoking dope and listening to Richard Pryor on the 8-track. Our high school was scary. Pot and Pryor helped us at least start the day feeling cool.

I have lived a multiverse of lives, some of them overlapping in confusing ways. I started writing about a deeply pained suicidal bouncer at a time I was in a lot of pain and as a dad and husband. I was running out of safe places to stuff it. I hoped to turn that pain into something of value. I wrote TRICKY because of what happened, and almost happened to our intellectually disabled son. I hoped by writing about it I could turn it into something of value to myself and others. Hoped I could get one person to see my son and his community as richly diverse humans, not targets to be feared.

If I can help deconstruct our simplistic puritanical views of our fellow riders on this bus called life by writing crime fiction, then I can honestly say, “Fuck it, I’m okay with profiting from the tragedy of myself and others.” 

Thursday, August 4, 2022

Cain kills Abel and we're off to the races, by Catriona

Q: We crime writers write about murder and violence. What are your thoughts about profiting—however meagerly—from the tragedy of others, even if it’s fictional?

My conscience is clear. People have always composed tales of wrong-doing where innocent victims get in some degree of trouble. And it helps that I've never written anything "ripped from the headlines", I think. Plus I don't write much on-the-page depravity anyway. Or if I do, I write it from a moral perspective, where the depraved get their come-uppance in the end.

That's the thing for me. It very much depends on where the author, and the book, are standing in a moral sense. Bad things happen and then order is restored, justice is meted out, good triumphs and evil trips and farts, right in front of an old boyfriend. Or bad things happen and it's a problem that order is not restored, justice not meted out, that good withers and evil walks away looking cool. 

But what about the fiction where that doesn't happen and no one in the fictional world thinks it's a big deal? The Sopranos was always problematic for me. I had to keep reminding myself that Tony was a murderous sociopathic thug, not worthy of my empathy just because he also had a mawkish attitude to family. (And I've got a good friend who has never seen The Godfather, because he can't be doing with the glorification of the mob.)

The most shocking account I ever heard of a mass moral failing, with respect to fiction, was when a reviewer of Schindler's List said the cinema where he attended the screening was mostly full of youngsters - teenagers - and they sniggerd their way through scenes of the most abject suffering as if they were watching Beavis and Butthead. Or as if they themselves were Beavis and Butthead. That chilled me then and it chills me now: to think that an unvarying diet of "cool", affectless, consequence-free violence might blunt human empathy to such a degree.

However, Schindler's List was itself a story on a screen. There's no reason to think those sniggering people would react - or fail to react - to a real life event in brave and compassionate ways. 

And, for sure, the idea of "degenerate art" is not one to entertain lightly. 

I just re-read that paragraph about B&B and the words to highlight are "unvarying diet", I reckon. I would hestitate - hang on, that's not strong enough - it would never occur to me to produce or consume a body of work where . . . Hmmmm . . . where all the cops were heroes, all the women screamed and fainted, guns saved the day every day, all the religious people or rightwingers or atheists or leftwingers or white people or black people were wrong'uns. 

But hang on again. I might have just argued myself to a completely different stance, if I'm going to be honest. And I think I am. (This is a really great blog prompt!) Objectively, given what I've just said, the cloudiest patch of my conscience is surely caused by the way I do produce the same unreality over and over again: the bit where I write resolutions, not the bit where I write trangressions. That crime-writer's habit of supplying endings to problems, rather than depicting the unending unaddressable mess of real life. 

Are we harmed by a diet of soothing final chapters? Am I doing harm by writing them? I think, on balance, I'm going to fall back on Jill Paton Walsh's defence of crime-fiction, and not for the first time. She said it offers "a dream of justice" and argued that as long as we remain able to see the gap between that dream on the page and what happens in the world, we can keep trying to close it.



Wednesday, August 3, 2022

The joy of having written - a NEW book! WOOT! by Cathy Ace

Do you love writing or having written? Is the process enjoyable or a necessary chore to get to where you want to be?

I think of writing as being a specific part of the overall “getting a book published” process: for me, it’s the pure joy of writing the first draft, based upon my plotting, research, backstory creation, outlining, and chapter planning. Yes, I do all of that before I sit down to “write the book”. Then I literally settle my bum into the chair and type…making sure I hit the marks in my chapter outlines. It sounds pedantic, but I’ve already seen the entire book, in my head, like a movie, and have worked out the best way I know to translate that vision into a book that will be fun and easy to read (without the words getting in the way of my story), so I find it best to work this way.

I have pages of notes, I follow them, I get to the end. And, no, I don’t find that plotting adversely affects the feeling of “creation” I have as I write, indeed, I find it frees me to allow my fingers to fly as fast as they can because I know where my characters, and my story, are going. As writers we all need to find out what method works best for us; this is mine.

I do not enjoy the reading, editing, re-reading, re-editing process as much as writing, and I find the detail of proof checking to be onerous…and not something at which I am adept, which is why I have a structural/full editor, and a copy editor.

So, I love having written and I love writing…you see, like every author, I’m a storyteller at heart, and getting that first draft done is me telling the story. It’s there, in all its imperfect glory…ready for the (seemingly endless) hours of editing and polishing that are needed.

And now – if you’ll forgive me – I’ll take the chance to plug the book I have most recently written, and which was published a couple of days ago. As you’re reading this I’m arriving in Wales (if everything, including the Air Canada schedule, has gone according to plan) and that’s where the fifth WISE Enquiries Agency Mystery is set, as are the first four.

It’s been a long time since I wrote one of these books: the fourth in the series was published in 2017, which means I wrote it in 2016. (I don’t really need to tell you that six years is a long time, do I?!) Why such a long break? Hmm…the publishing house that published the first four books in the series was sold, I walked away from the contract the new house offered me, fired my agent, I set up my own company, self published a collection of short stories, a collection of novellas, a standalone novel, and four Cait Morgan Mysteries. The e-pub rights to the four WISE books were sold to a secondary publisher in 2021; they put them all out at 99cents each, then the boxed set of four at 99cents/$3.99. Their “pile them high and sell them cheap” approach lead the books, then the boxed set, to achieve #1 amazon status in several categories around the world, which was fantastic…and led to a LOT of new readers, and a LOT of emails from folks wanting more. Which was lovely, and encouraging…so I have written the fifth in the series, and now it’s available. I have self-published this one, using the same editor as the first four (she's no longer with the original house, but is now a freelance editor).

I chose to set the fifth book just a few months after the fourth – in the way we authors are wont to do – so the story of the duke and his pregnant wife, Carol’s baby, Annie and Tudor’s potential romantic relationship, Christine’s recovery from being shot, and Mavis’s constant battle to curtail the bizarre excesses of the ageing dowager Althea all continue in the original timeline…with new cases being tackled by our four private investigators to boot.

It’s been enormous fun to rejoin the ladies, and to revisit stately Chellingworth Hall and the delightful village of Anwen-by-Wye. In this book I’ve sent Annie off to Swansea and the Gower coast to do some undercover work involving a dangerous gold-digger, while the rest of the team remains in the heart of rural Powys, trying to unravel the murderous rumors surrounding one of the previous dukes of Chellingworth, as well as a strange and puzzling theft in the village.

The cover shows Dyffryn House, in Wales,
a place I've visited many times, and an inspiration for the books

I hope folks enjoy reading this book as much as I enjoyed writing it – it was wonderful to “visit old friends” and, as you read this, it will be wonderful for me to return to my Homeland, Wales, and gaze upon the coastline you’ll be reading about.

I hope you choose to give this one a go: ask your local library to order it, or do the same at your local bookstore…or maybe read it on your Kindle, Kobo, or Nook. All the details are at my website, including the ISBN numbers you’ll need for the paperback/hard cover ordering:

PS: yes, I have started my envisioning of the 6th book in the series...more news later in the year!

Monday, August 1, 2022

A Very Personal Response

 Q: We crime writers write about murder and violence. What are your thoughts about profiting—however meagerly—from the tragedy of others, even if it’s fictional?


-from Susan


I’m approaching this topic on tiptoe because it’s something that I think about a lot and because gun tragedy has touched my life and my family’s lives. As a writer, I struggle with similar violence and murder to avoid getting anywhere near the experience we had. As a reader, I’ve found myself slamming a book shut when I realized it was making my heart pound and my breathing become irregular.


Certainly, I don’t read or write about children in peril. If another reader assures me the child is okay at the end of the story, maybe I’ll try a book that has great reviews, but even then, my gut tells me the danger itself would be traumatic for that fictional child and everyone who loves them. 


When a writer gets an idea from a news story she’s read or seen, and converts it to fiction, I’m guessing most of the time the writer is trying to be sensitive to the families of the victim by altering a lot of details, keeping only the core action, and perhaps some idea of what motivated the villain. But, even writing this, part of me says no – it’s still invasive, it’s still turning something staggeringly awful into entertainment. 


My squeamishness is totally subjective. Example: I recently read – and I bet you did too – about a sweet little old lady who writes self-published romance novels and who is alleged to have plotted, researched and then murdered her husband. Now, really, there’s a true story (at least so far as the prosecutors are concerned) that offers so much potential for a good piece of crime fiction. In part, my response is predicated on there being no information about the victim, certainly nothing to trigger empathy. Also, it does not touch at all on what my family has experienced. And, I guess that’s it, isn’t it? Had a dear parent been the victim of what’s alleged to have happened in this situation, I might have felt it was awful to turn it into entertainment. 


So many people “monetize” other peoples’ and animals’ suffering – fundraising, click bait, TV series, movies, books – that we’ve become accustomed to it. This question is a good one, and I can only answer it from an individual perspective without casting blame. 


Friday, July 29, 2022

Saints or Sinners?

 Which side of the fence are you most comfortable writing from, the good, the bad, or the ugly? Do you consider one side or the other more marketable?

by Abir


Now this is a good question! It’s one that is making me think, and as you know, I’m not the sort of person who likes doing that.


My first four books in the Wyndham and Banerjee series are all written in the first person, from Captain Sam Wyndham’s point of view. Book five, The Shadows of Men, while again written in the first person, is told from both Sam and Suren Banerjee’s perspectives. These guys are ostensibly the heroes of my novels. I say ‘ostensibly’ because they sometimes make rather dubious moral calls, and at other times are rather useless. Having said that, their hearts are always in the right place.


The book I’m currently writing, a stand-alone thriller, is written in the third person, from three different points of view, but while at least one of them could be seen as the bad guy, again all three are good people.


Even in my short fiction, while a few are written from the perspective of the villain (my short stories all seem to focus on women trying to murder their husbands, I’m not sure why), these women aren’t evil. If anything they’re long suffering ladies who deserve better.


If I’m being honest, there's a dearth of truly evil characters in my books. My villains tend to be rather genteel. I’ve never written about serial killers or rapists or sex offenders or sadists. The deaths in my novels tend to be sanitised. They certainly aren’t gruesome - at least not by the standards of much of crime fiction - and while there is one occasion where a man is rather horrifically killed by an elephant, I only put it in because it was historically accurate (death by elephant was the penalty reserved for regicide in certain parts of princely India).


Getting back to the issue, I think I do have a problem writing really bad and really ugly. They say ‘write what you know’ and the truth of the matter is that I have never known ‘really bad’ or ‘really ugly’.  I suppose I could imagine it, but probably not as well as others, and part of me is rather scared of going down that route. There are passages in my current stand-alone which are darker than anything I’ve written to date, and my wife, when reading those passages, has commented that she’s worried about what goes through my head (I’m guessing this is a common refrain amongst the spouses of crime fiction authors), but it’s still something that worries me.


There’s also the fact that real evil – in the sense of psychopathy – or cruel violence, are not things that I particularly wish to write about. I like to think that my writing is fuelled by issues which anger me. I’m not into providing cheap thrills or violence for the sake of it. I’d much rather discuss other issues in my books; but that’s just me. I feel other writers, with different backgrounds and different insights, are much better positioned to tackle such things.


Looking at it on a more general level, I think you can write from any perspective you choose to, but if you want to take a large number of readers with you on a 400 page journey, then even if you’re writing from an ‘evil’ character’s perspective, that character needs to have traits that your audience can relate to. Similarly, a good character who’s too good is a turn off. We root for flawed characters, characters with weaknesses, because most of us (not me, obviously) are flawed. The keys to characterisation, I think, are relatability and depth. If you have these then I think your readers are more than willing to follow the exploits of an evil character.


I’m currently reading a book where one of the narratives is told from the point of view of a psychopathic serial killer. It’s the only narrative which is told in the first person, and it works because we get a view inside the killer’s head. We learn about his fears and what drives him. This is really important because when we learn what a person is thinking, even when they’re a serial killer, we can, to a degree, understand them and empathise. That book is The Accomplice, by Steve Cavanagh, and it’s a brilliant thriller, partly because of Steve’s ability to portray both the flawed heroes and the darkest villains in a way that readers can understand.


So, long story, short. While I’m most comfortable writing about the good guys, some of the most interesting characters, and some of the best books, focus on the bad guys. The important thing is to make your characters truly three dimensional and, on some level, relatable. And to paraphrase that great American philosopher, Billy Joel, we can both laugh with the sinners and cry with the saints - as long as they entertain us.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Superman or Batman? from James W. Ziskin

Which side of the fence are you most comfortable writing from, the good, the bad, or the ugly? Do you consider one side or the other more marketable?

My Long Fiction

In my books, I’ve always written from the side of good. Ellie Stone is a good person, even if she smokes and drinks too much and occasionally falls into bed with the wrong guy. Despite her flaws, she remains a deeply moral person with a strong sense of right and wrong. She’s mentally tough, but I wouldn’t put my money on her in any contest involving feats of strength. Although she did hold her own—mano a mano—against a man in A Stone’s Throw. To be perfectly accurate, I should say that it was not so much mano a mano as it was botella a nariz, as Ellie clipped her aggressor across the nose with a half-full (-empty?) bottle of Dewar’s Scotch Whisky, her favorite.

While Ellie is good, her antagonists are bad. I try, however, to flesh out those characters by giving them dark histories and motivations that aren’t always of their own doing. It’s essential to avoid flat characterization when it comes to villains. Sure, they’re bad, but they should have a reason to do bad things. There are certainly sadistic killers out there who murder simply because they enjoy murdering but, ultimately, I think that such a motivation is uninteresting in fiction. I find it more intriguing if the killer kills for reasons other than sport.

What inspires my bad guys ranges from delusional obsessions to uncontrollable antisocial urges to covering up a crime to revenge to righteous punishment. You’ll have to read my Ellie Stone books to figure out whose motivation belongs to whom.

My Short Fiction

Thinking about this week’s question, I realized for the first time that in my short stories I write from the side of bad. At least when I write in first person. My third person stories—two of them—were both written from a neutral stance, and justice prevailed. In “Pan Paniscus,” for example, how was I supposed to make a villain of a Bonobo who’s escaped from the zoo? Even if his mischief sets in motion a chain of events that ends in tragedy?

On the other hand… Not counting a Holmes and Watson pastiche I wrote, when I use first person in my short stories, quite the opposite is true. My narrators are villains. Not that they’re completely evil or without charm, but they certainly don’t wear white hats. One of them planted his foot into the backside of his cheating wife and sent her rocketing through the railing of their apartment’s balcony to her doom ten stories below. And he made sure her lover took the blame. In another story, my narrator pins the blame on an innocent man so that he—my narrator—can steal his—the innocent man’s—beautiful lover. And all this takes place against the backdrop of a New Year’s Eve wife-swapping party in 1954.

Perhaps there’s something about the short form that inspires me to root for cuckolded husbands and debauched rou├ęs. These are darkly humorous stories, of course, that end with an ambiguous sense of justice. I doubt I would let a bad guy win in a novel. For me, a book is serious stuff, I guess. But short stories give me more leeway for experimentation and humor. Of course they can be serious, but, for a reason I can’t explain, I enjoy a little wickedness.

Which Is More Marketable?

Clearly good and bad both work. There are so many wildly successful books featuring villains and anti-heroes, from The Silence of the Lambs to Lolita to The Talented Mr. Ripley. Too many to name. And the same is true of books with good characters, even if they’re flawed and far from perfect. 

One thing’s for sure, at least in my mind. Perfect heroes are boring. The good ones still must have their sins. I remember a question a beloved professor of mine once asked: “Who is the more interesting character, Melanie Hamilton Wilkes or Scarlett O’Hara?” Score one for the bad guys.

Okay, I didn’t talk about Superman and Batman. But you get the idea. Argue amongst yourselves.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Whose side am I on?

Which side of the fence are you most comfortable writing from, the good, the bad, or the ugly? Do you consider one side or the other more marketable?

by Dietrich 

I feel at home writing from either side of the fence. I never feel the need to agree or disagree with the way my characters think or behave. It’s simply about picking the viewpoint that will best suit a given scene, chapter, or entire novel.

No matter whether it’s the good or the bad doing the telling, I love watching the characters spring to life, getting to know them to the point where I can just let them loose on the page. When I feel like I’m just typing their own words, without getting in their way with my own thoughts or feelings, then I know I’ve got it right. 

I’ve been asked if there are aspects of me in my characters, and I suppose there can be at times, maybe more than I realize. My aim is to let these make-believe individuals evolve and make choices that are their own, particularly the ones that I would never consider myself.

I write a lot of dialogue in my stories, and I like to think it lets the reader look past the surface of the characters. It’s interesting how their words can reveal so much more about who they are than what the words alone are saying. And dialogue’s a great way to slip in some discrete backstory without having to slow the pace by investing pages of narrative to achieve the same end. 

I’ve told stories in third person, and I’ve tried first person. In my latest, Nobody from Somewhere, I tell the story from various points of view. The idea behind doing it this way was to give the reader a deeper insight into the various personas and a broader understanding of what drove each of them. Amor Towles’ The Lincoln Highway and The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood come to mind as fine examples of stories told from multiple points of view.

I also love taking the POV of the unreliable narrator (Poughkeepsie Shuffle), a technique that allows a writer to tell a story through the eyes of a madman, liar, lunatic, or whoever. It’s such a great way to experiment with voice too. Some all-time favorites of stories told in this fashion: Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk; Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger; A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess; Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Do you consider one side or the other more marketable? If I planned a novel based on what I think will sell, I would probably miss the mark by a mile. I want to feel inspired when I get the spark for a story, one that will grow and shape into the kind of novel that I would want to read myself. I go instinct, and when I’m satisfied with what I’ve created, I send it off, and if that book does well on the store shelves, then that’s fulfilling too, as well as reassuring that I’m on the right track. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Mayhem, Malice, or Sweetness


Terry here. Our topic this week is about our essential writing intention: whether we write from the good, the bad, or the ugly. And whether we consider one more marketable that another. 

I love to read a well-written book full of mayhem and nasty characters. Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog is a case in point. It's one of my all-time favorite crime novels. It held my interest from the first page to the end hundreds of pages later. Some of the characters were mobsters, members of the mafia, and prostitutes. Those were the good guys!  You know you’re reading “ugly” when members of the mafia are easier to root for than most other characters in the book. And I’m sure the book was a wild commercial success. 

Does that mean “ugly” books are more marketable? Not necessarily. There’s a market for every mood. Lori Rader-day has had huge success with her psychological thrillers. Yes, there are bad guys, but not truly ugly. I gravitate towards reading those books more than the sweetness and light ones. But then you get to Cartriona McPherson's delightful Dandy Gilver series. Books like those work for me  because they have a solid sense of humor. 

One thing not asked in the question was the marketability of humor. Humor is very hard to do well. But I think most successful books have moments of humor. Even the ones with really ugly characters usually have humor--sardonic, cynical, but funny in their place.


But that’s reading. Writing is different. I can write sneaky meanness, and psychological mayhem, but ugly, not so much. I write about an older chief of police in a small town who has a sense of justice and integrity, and feels a keen responsibility for the well-being of the town of Jarrett Creek, Texas. I have written some tough scenes, some hard scenes with “bad” characters, but they’re usually bad because of circumstances, not because of inherent evil. 

 The closest I got to ugly was in book #7, A Reckoning in the Back Country, which involved the heinous “sport” of dog fighting. I knew my readers wouldn’t be any more keen than I was to get into the details of dog fighting, but if I’m going to write about small-town, rural Texas, I have to include the less savory elements. To be true to the reality of dog-fighting, I had to get grittier than I normally do. One of my beta readers chided me because in an early draft I’d shied away from graphic details. She said, “You can’t write about dog fighting and not show a dog fight.” Period. I solved it in a way that I thought worked really well—I had Samuel remember in his childhood when his less-than-stellar father had taken him to a dogfight. The scene is blurred through the vision of childhood, but is still an ugly scene. My readers let me know that I skirted the edge, but didn’t go too far. 

I also used another trick to soften the ugly. I gave Samuel Craddock a puppy. Dusty is now his faithful dog—well, mostly faithful. His favorite person is deputy Maria Trevino. 
So at bottom, I suppose you could say I write from the “good,” but there’s a problem with that. Often, about halfway through writing a manuscript I realize I’ve made every character too “nice.” They’re friendly, happy, cheery, nice to each other. I always have to go back and give them a dose of reality. It simply isn’t realistic for everybody but the “baddie” to be oh-so-sweet. Even nice people can sometimes be cranky, sneaky, secretive, miserly, gossipy…etc. What I hope to accomplish is to give people a read that includes realistic attitudes, problems, and solutions. Sometimes reality is ugly; but sometimes it’s also good. 

 To answer the question, I write a mixture of the good, the bad, and the occasional ugly. With humor thrown in. 

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Playing Favourites

Which side of the fence are you most comfortable writing from, the good, the bad, or the ugly? Do you consider one side or the other more marketable?

Brenda starting off the week.

What a good question. This reminds me of actors saying that while they like playing 'good' characters, they love acting as the downright evil ones.

I'm comfortable writing whatever character I'm working on because I don't see them as all good or all bad. Even the bad ones have moments of regret or humanity, and the good ones can make errors in judgment or let others down -- "Nobody's perfect," as I used to tell my students when I taught special education. (I had them add, "except Ms. Chapman, but that's a story for another day :-) Fictional characters included.

The trick, I think, is getting into the head of whatever character has the stage, and more often than not, they start to reveal themselves on the page. I like the good characters, flaws and all, but am also intrigued by the nasty and ugly ones. I've created a few narcissists (some verging on psychopathic) and it's fun to give them some rope to see how far they'll go in the story.

As to which is more marketable, every book or story needs conflict and this starts with the characters. Readers need to root for those good ones and they can only be 'good' if there are bad characters to cause them grief or to tempt them to the dark side. I read once that the heroes needs opponents equal to themselves - a worthy adversary like Batman facing the Joker. Overcoming the evil is then worth something.

There are movies and stories where a truly evil or flawed person is the main character and the plot revolves around them. I'm thinking of The Talented Mr. Ripley or even Gone With the Wind, where Scarlett really isn't the nicest of people. Both were highly marketable and these are only a couple of examples. I'm not sure that readers or moviegoers would want a steady diet of evil anti-heroes though. Most appear to want a happy or satisfying ending, such as in those Christmas Hallmark movies.

I kind of like writing happy endings ... although not always for every character. Just don't kill the dog, as my friend Darlene likes to say. On this point, we both agree.


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Friday, July 22, 2022

Genre? We Don't Need No Stinking Genre, by Josh Stallings

Q: Okay, we write about crime, but if you had to dip a toe into another genre, which would you add to the mix, and why?

A: This is a wonderful question in that it runs my mind down multiple tracks of thought. I call myself a crime writer, and yet I’m not sure I believe in genre except as a way to organize bookstore shelves. 

Gary Phillips One-Shot Harry is clearly a crime book, and it is equally a historical novel about race, civil rights, politics and the police in 1963 Los Angeles. It is also a fine and wonderful novel. 

Naomi Hirahara’s Clark and Division is crime fiction, and it is a historical novel depicting Japanese Americans who, when released from mass incarceration were sent to live in Chicago. It can be read and enjoyed as a mystery, but the facts and history lessons buried in it are unavoidable. And this is where genre lets us down, no good book is just one thing, or even two for that matter. 

Is Steinbeck’s reworking of Arthurian legends in Tortilla Flat a crime novel? Danny and his mates commit crimes, they are in and out of jail. The story without the writer’s voice could be noir. Crime novel or character study or…?


Is To Kill A Mocking Bird a crime novel, legal thriller, or a coming of age novel? It has elements of all of these, as does any great book regardless of the genre we place it in.


Inside crime writing we have Traditional, Hard Boiled, Noir, Cozy, Detective, Police Procedural, Spy, Heist, etc…. That’s before we get to thrillers and all its hyphenates. (I’m sure I’ve left many out.) 

I think of crime fiction like the blues. John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, BB King, and Mississippi John Hurt all work within the same 12 bars, 3 chords, 6 notes constraint. And yet they each express their own voice inside it. Chicago Blues and Delta Blues have less in common than Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler yet they are in the same section of iTunes. And even with the simplicity of the blues, these artists spent their lives exploring those 12 bars. 

So far everything I’ve written fits into crime fiction, but I have danced in multiple sub-genres. The Moses McGuire trilogy was spot on hard boiled. Then I wrote a memoir. Then a disco heist novel. 

With Tricky I wanted to write about a good cop like my grand father had been. I also needed to speak to how intellectually disabled people are treated by the police. Katrina Niidas Holm at Mystery Scene Magazine wrote, “Stallings manages to entertain while advocating for criminal justice reform and calling out unexamined societal biases.” Which sounds like a social justice crime novel, yet it is categorized as a police procedural.

I start every new book with a wisp of an idea so ephemeral that anything as solid as genre would blow it away. This is totally true, until it isn’t. Coming off the Moses books I was beat. Looking for a new idea I thought about writing a story harkening back to my misspent youth as a glitter kid in the ‘70s. The words, “Disco Heist” came to me. Hadn’t a clue what it meant except that heist was a sub genre. Excluding Young Americans, I wait until the book is done and with the help of my agent and editor we discover a marketing approach, part of that will be discovering the best genre to place it in. 

And there it is, I just stumbled onto why I don’t think of genre when working; trying to decide how to sell a car before you even know if will have wheels or wings, or could be a boat, doesn’t help me as a writer. (Side note, genre also doesn’t help me as a reader.)

Back to the question, are their other genres I might try out? Sure. I am enamored with Emily St. John Mandel’s work. I would love to write a post-apocalyptic tale like her Station Eleven. The way she drifts through time and place with a powerful emotional through line is stunning. I’ve also had a western kicking around my head for a while… We’ll have to see if either of these climb their way to the top of my to-be-written pile.

My current work in progress may not have any crime in it. I pitched my agent a rough outline. Added, “Bad news, it may not be crime fiction.” She told me it didn’t matter, just pour my heart into it. And that’s what I’ll do. Pour my heart on the page and let marketing figure out this genre deal.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Three's the Charm, by Catriona

Craft: Okay, we write about crime, but if you had to dip a toe into another genre, which would you add to the mix, and why?

Hmmmmm. Well, it wouldn't be poetry. I love poetry - read it, learn it, recite it (when alone - don't worry), buy slim volumes by my favourite poets. But it doesn't come out of me. I am prosaic to the marrow. Recommendation: Kathleen Jamie, whose poem about Ospreys arriving in Scotland, or rather in Scottish weather, begins "You’ll be wondering why you bothered: beating up from Senegal" and brings me to tears every time I look at it.

But wait. Is poetry a genre? Google says crime, romance, science fiction, fantasy, westerns and horror. Okay. It wouldn't be romance. I'm getting better at reading romance - after neglecting the genre for many years - but it always feels like a ride on a waltzer (tilt-a-whirl?) because I don't quite get the structure. And, since I'm such a pantser, I don't think I ever would. Recommendation: Alyssa Cole (with her other hat on) / Jenny Colgan.

Nor would I attempt science fiction or fantasy. I know I'd end up bombastic and embarrassing if I didn't have bus lanes, doughnuts, and wet washing to keep my stories grounded in the oh-so glamorous real world. Recommendation: NK Jemisin (if you liked Lovecraft).

Westerns . . . I don't think I could write an authentic western. And this is definitely the genre I need to work on reading too. I don't think I've ever read a single one, unless Little House on the Prairie counts.

I've been accused of writing horror even though I don't think any of my books qualify. And I've been congratulated in an email on the success of The Last House on Needless Street, by Catriona Ward. (I wish! And I recommend!)

That's all the actual genres, according to Prof. Google. But what about the other kinds of book?

Like YA, MG, chapter books and early readers. Nah, you have to know far too much about how to pitch the language to an age group. I'd have to study. I mean, okay, the studying would be reading books but I don't feel at all confident that I'd ever crack the code. Recommendation: Angie Thomas, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Roald Dahl, and the spectacular . . . Baby Monkey, Private Eye. (He's a baby. he's a monkey. He has a job. He's . . . )

Literary fiction? Or women's fiction? (Literary fiction written by the likes of me - Grrrrrrr.) I've tried to write a book that wasn't in any particular genre. Someone dies at the end of chapter two and we found out whodunnit on the last page. So that was a bit of a failure. Recommendation: Anne Tyler

Then there's non-fiction. Ooft. One of the best things about giving up academia was giving up facts. I suppose I could write a memoir, but it's all in the novels anyway. Biographies of other people? Who? I don't know anyone. Travelogue? I never go anywhere. Self-help manual? Bwah-hahahahahahahahahahaha. I could maybe write a cookery book, but the world doesn't need another cookery book. Recommendation: UK national treasure, Clare Balding's, My Animals and Other Family.

But thinking about books full of beautiful artwork I wouldn't have to produce, I have written the text for three picture books - The Plucky Buckets, Call Me Annie, and That Ginger Cat - but none of them was published. It's a tough corner of the industry, or at least I'm telling myself it is . . .

Aha! That reminds me. I've also written two sitcom pilots. One of them went into development and never came out again. So I sent the second one in after it, and now they're both lost forever. Nevertheless, if I had to write something that wasn't a crime novel I'd honour the rule of three and make it a hat trick, with a third failed pilot for a sitcom. Recommendation: Detectorists, Derry Girls, Black Books


Note: I'm still in Scotland and most of my books are in California, hence the Amazon jacket pics.