Friday, March 29, 2013

Yes, Up To A Point...

Do I use pieces of my personal life like hobbies and favorite restaurants, etc. in my books?  Absolutely! Odelia, the heroine of my Odelia Grey mysteries, loves cheesecake and drinks copious amounts of unsweetened ice tea, as do I. She loves cats. Me too! She's overweight, middle-aged and works in a law firm as a paralegal. Yeppers over here! And we're both California Notaries.

The 7th Odelia book
In fact, a lot of people who know or meet me say when I speak, they hear Odelia. Or when they read the books, they hear me. Odelia is my alter ego. The Walter Mitty side of me who gets to discover dead bodies and solve crimes while I sit at a computer all day and work on increasing my vitamin D deficiency.  After all, why reinvent the wheel when you already have one rolling along without a hitch. Many of the places and restaurants she visits in the various books, I've visited already, some many times. It's fun to incorporate pieces of my life into that series.

But, and there's always a but, and I'm not talking about my big butt (also like Odelia's), there is a place where I draw the line.

The 3rd Granny book
Since both Odelia and I are seasoned paralegals, I'm often asked if I put bits of my paralegal career into the books, along with people I either work with or have worked with. To that I say absolutely NOT. And there are two reasons for this.

Anyone working in law, either as an attorney or paralegal, or any position for that matter, must respect confidentiality, not only of their current employer but past employers. Yes, I could change names to protect myself, but I'd like to think I'm a creative enough writer not to have to draw on past cases I've worked on to write a book. Now that doesn't mean I can't get ideas from past experiences, but I can honestly say that next to the jams Odelia gets into, my day job working in health care law is as boring as watching Lindsay Lohan go to rehab ... again.

Newly released Granny
Apples novella
The second reason is self-preservation. I like my job. I work with nice people who pay me well. I intend to be at my current job until it's time for me to retire. The last thing I want is to put someone's nose out of joint by having them think I killed them off or made them the bad guy just because they didn't refill the paper towels in the firm kitchen when they took the last one, or messed up my job at the copy machine, or asked me to work late on a holiday weekend. No, sireee. Not me. Did I mention I like my job? Not that I'd get fired, but I'd also like my work place to be as drama-free as possible.

Then there's my Ghost of Granny Apples series. The heroine of those books, Emma Whitecastle, is tall, thin, blond and gorgeous. She's the wealthy ex-wife of a TV star and has her own show on cable. Now that is totally me!  At least it will be in my next life.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

It's my story and you'll cry if I want to

Dandy Gilver is a unenthusiastic wife, a half-hearted mother, upper-class, a city-lover, relies on sevants to do everything from cooking her meals to choosing her clothes.  I'm married to my best friend, don't have kids, working-class, country-bumpkin, grow some of my own food but cook all of it from scratch and am usually wearing something from at least a thrift store if not a dumpster.

And here's the kicker.  She loves dogs and I love cats.

Oh and she hasn't had the action-packed hair-colour past that I've been through either. 

Safe to say Dandy's not me.  But does my stand-alone character, Opal Jones, share my interests?

The whole of As She Left It takes place in a few pretty fraught weeks in Opal's life, with not much time for macrame and yoga.  And it's just occurred to me that I don't think she switches on a radio or telly or plays a single track of music in the entire book.  She does give up on Ikea as a source of furniture and goes to a charity shop instead, so with a bit of a stretch I suppose you could say we're both bargain-hunters.  Or mean anyway.

I was just talking to Laura Disilverio (click) about this at Left Coast Crime at the weekend; apparetly ballroom dancing is like dog vs cat as far as characters and authors go.  Laura has the hardest time persuading readers of her dancing mystery series (most recent Homicide Hustle) that she's - whisper - making it all up, and not fitting the writing in around travel to professional tournaments in the ballroom world or at least the daily grind of foxtrot lessons in her studio.

But then I have my troubles in separating writer and characters too.  My friend Jess Lourey (click)  writes the gripping yet hilarious murder-by-the-month series (most recently December Dread) and in my head the heroine, Mira, is Jessie, so much so that when Jessie talks about her dog, I feel bad that she's showing such favouritism and hardly mentioning her cat.  Her fictional cat.  Dammit, her protagonist's fictional cat!

The funniest example of a writer herself not being able to separate her interests from her characters is another friend of mine Cathy Cassidy, (click) a UK children's writer and a vegetarian of many years' standing.  Cathy just can't stand to write a meat-eating protagonist.  Her books are full of kids and adults from all walks of life in all sorts of extreme situations, all ordering mushrooms and chips in British chippies, or eating quorn sausages and quiche.  It's so much a moral issue for Cathy that she couldn't have a sympathetic character chomping into a chicken leg for the Pullitzer prize.

It makes me love her (and miss her) but it's a good thing she doesn't write mysteries; we'd all know in the first chapter whodunnit.  Him over there with the bacon cheeseburger.  Call the cops.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Cut It Out

by Chris F. Holm

How often do my personal interests sneak into my fiction under the guise of my characters' own interests?

As little as possible. And when they do sneak in, I do my best to excise them during editing. Why? Because I discovered through painful trial-and-error that they almost always weaken the story.

Sounds counterintuitive, I know. I mean, my interests should inform my books, shouldn't they?

Sure. But the question of the week isn't about informing books, it's about informing characters. My books are deeply personal affairs crammed front to back with my pop-cultural obsessions. My characters, on the other hand, need to stand on their own two feet. Each of them has to present a convincing illusion of personhood to the audience, and to do that, they need their own interests, their own opinions, which should stem not from me but from their own experiences.

Sometimes, by sheer happenstance, a character's interests and mine momentarily align. That's fine from time to time, so long as those interests truly suit the character. But I grow wary when my characters start to sound too much like me; it makes me worry I'm shoehorning myself into the story. The truly colorful among us might pull it off (Tarantino, for example, has the knack), but truth be told, I'd make a dull-as-dirt fictional character.

Believe me, I know. Because that painful trial-and-error I mentioned is otherwise known as my first finished novel. I crammed that thing so full of random digressions, pet theories, and personal diatribes, a story that should have clocked in at a taut 80,000 words wound up around 120,000 in first draft. I thought I was putting my own stamp on the tale. Instead, I was sapping the story of momentum in the interest of proving to the audience I had good taste. (Which, at 24, I almost certainly did not.)

My wife Katrina (the best beta reader/editor a guy could hope for) and I now call that First Book Syndrome. You see glimpses of it from time to time in debut novels, and way more often in manuscripts that never get that far. We writers are a quirky lot. Sometimes we lay it on a little thick our first time out the gate.

In a way, I'm glad I botched that first draft in such grand fashion. I learned more about the craft of writing trying to whip that book into shape than I ever could have had I landed closer to the mark straight off the bat.

Now, I let my characters make up their own damn minds about what they like and what they don't. Saves me the trouble, and a boatload of red ink.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The EVIL Tour, Part One

By Hilary Davidson

I'm on the EVIL Tour right now (heading into Austin, Texas, as you read this; Houston, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Toronto coming up soon). You know what that means. I don't have time to write a post... so you get lots of pictures!

At St. Peter's University in Jersey City the day before EVIL was released. Thanks, Barna Donovan!
At the NYC launch party at the Mysterious Bookshop with two of my favorite people: my publicist, Aisha Cloud, and my editor, Paul Stevens.
With Dennis Tafoya!
With Liz Zelvin and Suzanne Solomon.
At Book Revue in Huntington, NY. I feel famous!
Signing books with J.A. Jance at the Tucson Festival of Books.
"Other Cultures, Other Crimes" panel at the Tucson Festival of Books, with Simon Woods, Alan Jacobson and Donis Casey. 
Signing at the Poisoned Pen booth at the TFOB with Kim Fay and Susan Vreeland.
The TFOB "Strong Female Sleuths" panel was a riot, thanks to Jenn McKinley, Simon Wood & Becky Masterman.
At the Poisoned Pen for my event with Cara Black.
With the Poisoned Pen's owner, Barbara Peters.
Celebrating with friends in Scottsdale after the event. Check out the neon margaritas... Keith Rawson's was very pink.
At Mysterious Galaxy Redondo Beach with Daniel Harris and Matthew McBride.
With wonderful Bobby McCue at Mysterious Galaxy.
The after party, at the home of my amazing friend Ghen.
The cool chicks.
Stopped to admire the Art Deco magnificence of the downtown L.A. public library.
Decided to take a break with my friend Ghen to run the L.A. marathon...
At Book 'Em with Erika and Josh Stallings.
At Book 'Em with Kim Fay.
At Tattered Cover Highlands Ranch with Elle Lothlorien.
With my friend, travel photographer Blaine Harrington, at the Tattered Cover. (Note to anyone reading EVIL: the travel photographer on that trip is the opposite of Blaine in every way but talent.)

Monday, March 25, 2013

Me Or Not Me?

By Reece Hirsch

It's natural for some readers to think that a writer's protagonists are thinly veiled versions of themselves, right down to their musical tastes, restaurant preferences and sports allegiances.  Whenever I encounter that assumption it makes me uncomfortable, in part because it's a bit true and in part because it's a bit false.

Normally, I'd just rather not talk about it, but since it's this week's blog question, I'll fess up.

Every writer has to use their experiences and impressions as their raw materials, so that will inevitably be reflected in the writing.  When I was writing my first book, THE INSIDER, I have to admit that I was wearing some of my cultural references on my sleeve.  Within the first twenty or so pages, I manage to name-check Leonard Cohen and Ross Macdonald, two artists that I like a lot.  And there are some ways in which the protagonist of that book, Will Connelly, is a proxy for the younger me when I was a senior associate trying to make partner in a law firm.  Will's perspective on Big Law is clearly drawn from my experiences in that world.  However, Will is also very much an invention, and he's different from me in far more ways than he's like me.

My new protagonist, Chris Bruen, is a little bit of a proxy for the older me, but he's even more of an invention.  For one thing, Chris, a former computer prodigy, is much more analytical and mathematical than I am.  When I thought about Chris's likes and dislikes, I wasn't merely superimposing my personal tastes.  Chris listens to a lot of Bach, finding in his compositions the elegant precision of computer code.  That decision led me to listen to a lot of Bach during the writing of my second book.

In particular, Glenn Gould's early- and late-career recordings of Bach's Goldberg Variations serve as bookends, commenting on Chris's frame of mind at the beginning and end of the story.  I listen to pretty much every kind of popular music, but I've always maintained a distanced relationship to classical, a little guilty that I didn't appreciate it better or love it more.  As I listened to the Goldberg Variations over and over during the writing of this book, it sunk in for me in a way that classical music never has before.

So, in that case, the character does reflect my personal tastes, but it was the character that imposed his tastes on me, rather than the other way around.  Now maybe I should write a character that would teach me how to love opera.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Hour of the Gun

Gunfighter.  Gunhawk.  Sharpshooter.  Sixgunner.  Regulator.  Peacekeeper. 

Hipshot Percussion by Stan Lynde
From  the vaunted time of the Old West to today, guns and the people who use them are a volatile topic, particularly in the wake of the horrible mass shootings we’ve undergone lately.  Switzerland, interestingly, has high gun ownership, but that's the Swiss, not us.

 I own a handgun but I’m for background checks, limiting magazine size, banning assault rifles and a lot of the other measures being considered these days.  Though truth to tell, when I first started publishing crime and mystery fiction, I felt obliged on getting it right when I’d have passages about guns.  Yes, I admit it I have a bit of a crush on guns.  Not James Bond’s longing looks at his Walther PPK, but still.  .

But don’t get me wrong.  There are way too many damn guns in the hands of way too many people who should not have them.  Given that, considering the sort of hardboiled stories I and some of my colleagues here on Criminal Minds pen, how do you not portray gun violence?  Yet if you’re writing about low lifes and the desperate, guns are going to show up.  Doesn’t mean you have to fetishize them, just the opposite I’d say.  Guns are serious business.. 

Gone are the days like in those episodes of Mannix I used to watch as a kid when ol’ Joe would get shot by a high powered rifle in the shoulder, and the only sign of injury would be in the next scene his arm would be in a sling but other than that, he was good to go.  Never mind that a high velocity round even in your shoulder (mind you the shooter is using a scope and is supposed to be a pro) would rip and tear muscle and tendons, probably break his collar bone and do nerve damage.

I recall some years ago reading a piece, one in a series, in the L.A. Times about gunshot victims and emergency rooms.  The article detailed what a gunshot does to the human body, weaving in comments by trauma doctors and nurses.  I kept that article and referred to it knowing while I would have guns and shootings in my work, I couldn’t be flippant about portraying the after effects.  That there had to be psychological and physical tolls.  When I had my private eye Ivan Monk shot in one book, there was ramifications for him over the course of other books and short stories.  He wouldn’t shake it off like Mannix.

In my latest novel Warlord of Willow Ridge, a few guns are bandied about in the course of the antihero O’Conner’s confrontations in the book but not fired.  The idea being this career criminal, with one foot in the suburbs, still operates in a arena of hotheads and potential violence.  And when a gun is finally fired toward the end of the novel, it has greater impact as events have brought the reader to this point .  That even them there are consequences for O’Conner post the shooting.

In an era where first person shooter video games are competing to be more bloody, offer more carnage than the other, us long form writers do need to look inward.  Rather than try and amp up the violence, better to explore the ramifications when the guns come out and shots are fired.  What happens when the smoke clears. 

Related to this conundrum about guns and crime, and just to be a blatant self-promoter for a moment, please check out this cool project I’m involved with called Midnight Mover.


Thursday, March 21, 2013

Cilantro is Evil

by Alan

I am not a fan of guns. I’ve only touched a real gun once, at a shooting range as part of a Citizen’s Police Academy. (Don’t mess with me—I put all five in the inner circle!).

mushroom cloudBut I’m not a fan of a lot of things: switchblades, ricin, nuclear weapons, child abuse, nunchuks, garrotes, poison, cilantro, cheese, aggressive drivers, ebola, bad ballet, good ballet, blowhards, cannibalism, back-stabbing, double-dealing, two-timing, UNC basketball, soccer shootouts, Iran, the DMV, poor punctuation, snow, earthquakes, baggage fees, illegal narcotics, rush hour, 4 a.m. telephone calls, rude people, liars, neckties, torn ligaments, bigots, and ingrown toenails.

Yet…I write about a lot of that stuff. And about other things many people would find objectionable. Why? Because it’s all part of the human condition, for good and for bad (okay, mostly for bad).

I’m not romanticizing these things, or making them seem cool or attractive or fashionable. But sometimes you have to write about stuff you don’t like—really icky, evil stuff—because unfortunately, there’s evil stuff in the world.

Sticking our heads in the sand and ignoring that reality is doing a disservice to our readers.

Besides, it would be pretty boring if I only wrote about unicorns, cotton candy, and rainbows. Trust me, I’ve tried.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

This Gun For Hire – Depending on Advance/Royalties

 By Tracy Kiely

“So shoot me now!”
-Daffy Duck

Given the breaking news from the Senate that a proposed ban on semi-automatic firearms modeled after military assault weapons has no chance of passing the chamber, perhaps it’s apropos that our topic this week is our own views on guns.
While I do not own a gun, I did grow up in a house where there was a gun. Well, sort of. My grandmother owned a BB gun. In the summer, we’d visit her house in Connecticut and inevitably she’d bring out the gun, and we’d all take turns trying to hit a battered tin can hanging from a huge oak tree in her backyard. My father would always boast that he was by far the best marksman of us all, which wasn’t too big of an accomplishment as I was seven and my mom had terrible aim. One year, right before my father took his turn, my grandmother crept into the house and went to the upstairs porch. Right when my father took his shot, she tossed a rubber chicken out at him. I had to run and hide because I couldn’t stop laughing. 
Later, when she moved down to Virginia to live with us, she brought the gun. Our back deck faced a kind of wooded area and so another tin can was brought out for target practice.  My father and I would shoot at it from time to time. My grandmother did not. She preferred to take pot shots at our obnoxious neighbor’s mailbox. After that, my mom took away the BB gun. While I understood my mom’s reasoning, I missed watching her take aim at his mailbox. He really was an ass.
Anyway, as I said, we don’t own a gun. For one thing, statistically there’s a greater chance of you killing a loved one than an intruder, and for another, I have too much of my grandmother in me.
My books, obviously, deal with death and murder. So far, only one of my victims has been killed with a gun. Not out of any preconceived plan – it was just that the plot flowed better with a different kind of murder. In the book I’m writing now, I was going to have the victim shot, but then I realized that she was three months pregnant. (I love how I “realized” something that I created. I sound like an idiot right now. Reason three for no gun, I guess. I suspect there are more reasons.) I had a problem with shooting a pregnant woman. Instead she’s whacked over the head with a large frying pan.
Which, I think we can all agree, is sooooo much more humane.
The fact is, we write about death and murder. To do so while holding a self-righteous banner proclaiming, “Guns Don’t Kill People; People Kill People” is not only asinine, it makes it nearly impossible to accurately type.    
And besides, in our case anyway, the banner would read, “Guns Don’t Kill People; Authors Kill People.”

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

No Weapons Allowed

Crime fiction deals with some dangerous—and violent—situations. How does your personal belief about guns affect your writing about guns?

by Vicki Delany

Let’s state right out that I am a passionate supporter of gun control. The stricter the better.  I am Canadian, so that is not at all an unusual position to take.

I know a handful of people who have long guns: rifles and shotguns. I can see the sense for a farmer, who might need to put down an injured animal swiftly and humanely, or someone living close to the wilderness, who might just find a cougar in their yard.  I suppose I can even stretch myself to think it’s okay for hunting – provided the hunter actually eats the meat.  Trophy hunting, no way.

But there is no place in a civilized society for handgun or assault weapons or high-capacity magazines. In Canada, as you may know, assault weapons are prohibited and handguns  are very tightly restricted. Which, of course, doesn’t mean they aren’t used because yes, handguns do get in (guess where they come from?).  But it’s a crime to have one without a permit, and a permit is very rarely granted.  I don’t know one single person who owns a handgun.

Police officers are armed.  But, they are not allowed to carry their weapons when not on duty or in uniform.  There are few exceptions to that.  Police either change in and out of their uniform at the station, and lock up the weapons there, or have to go directly home and put the gun into a secure place.

So, how do my books reflect that?  Well, for one thing my police are not armed when they’re not working.  Molly Smith has had occasions where she’s had to fight when not in uniform. In the first book in the series, In the Shadow of the Glacier, she’s up against the bad guy with nothing but her stiletto heels, her cell phone and her considerable wits. But he doesn't have a gun either, so they’re even!

In the new book due out in August, A Cold White Sun, a person is killed by a shotgun in a sniper-type shooting. Sergeant John Winters then takes the opportunity to reflect sadly on the “now-crumbling long-gun registry” that he once would have been able to use to help locate the owner of the weapon.  

Because in fact, just last year the Canadian government destroyed the long-gun registry that kept track of rifles and shotguns and their owners.

In the Molly Smith books, I largely deal with writing about guns… by not.  In all of the books (six so far) there is only one case where the police are involved in a shooting.  The cops use their intelligence and their wits to catch the baddies.

Much more effective, I think.

In the Klondike mystery series, it’s easy. There weren’t any.

The NWMP banned guns from Dawson City during the gold rush.  Banned them outright. The result was that in the year 1898, at the height of the gold rush there wasn’t one murder in Dawson City. Not one.

Of course, as I write mystery novels, I’ve had to introduce a couple.  But no guns are ever used.  

Although in Gold Mountain when a police expedition goes into the wilderness to rescue the kidnapped Fiona MacGillivray, they take along one rifle.  Which they use for hunting.  
In real life, the NWMP did keep a Maxim machine gun at the top of the Chilkoot Pass. 

To keep out the Skagway gangster, Soapy Smith.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Don't shoot!

How does my personal belief about guns affect my writing about guns?

by Meredith Cole

I am not a big gun fan. I don't own a gun, I don't regularly shoot guns, and I really know very little about them. I think there's far too many guns in America, and too many crazy people can get a hold of them too easily.

But I also grew up in the south where people drive around with gun racks on their pick-up trucks, and kids were pulled out of school for the first day of hunting season. Hunting means the difference between a freezer full of food and lean winter months in many households, and it has an added benefit of keeping the deer population down. As a gardener, I'm in favor of anything that keeps the deer population in check.

I also grew up with a gun in the house. I was raised on a farm, and the gun (which I saw only once or twice and still don't know where it's kept) was brought out to deal with such things as rabid animals threatening the safety of people or animals, or a predator that had managed to get inside the hen house or was slaughtering sheep. My peace loving parents preferred to use a have-a-heart trap whenever possible, but I guess they realized early on that some situations needed more deadly measures.

I have also shot a gun. I went on a NY Sisters in Crime field trip to a gun range in New Jersey and, after learning quite a bit about handguns, we each had a chance to shoot one.  I was surprised at how hard it was to pull the trigger and how challenging it was to aim. And I discovered that I wasn't a bad shot. I proudly brought home the evidence of my prowess, and it helped inform my writing about guns.

With guns, though, I generally use the same technique to write about them that I do with other things I know very little about: avoid them. That doesn't mean that guns are never in my books, just that they don't play a very large role. And you'll never hear me mouthing off about the technical characteristics of this gun or that. I know that's a sure fire way to get myself in hot water.

Not to change the subject or anything, but The Virginia Festival of the Book is all next week in Charlottesville, and I'll be moderating two panels at Crime Wave on March 23rd. The festival is a lot of fun, and I enjoy having so many talented writers come hang out in my hometown for the week!

Friday, March 15, 2013

A Slave to the Bones

by Sue Ann Jaffarian

The real questions to be considered are:

When does routine become ritual?
When does ritual become obsession?
And when is it time to take meds?

During the week I write almost every morning before I go to my job as a paralegal. Normally, if I put my head down and ignore the internet, I can get in almost two hours of really good writing time before I shower and dress for the day.  On weekends the routine is the same, except I get in 4-6 hours a day.

The morning routine is the same no matter what the day: 

Get up between 5 and 5:30 (7:00 on weekends) - check
Feed cats - check
Scoop litter box - check
Make coffee - check
Check e-mail, both personal and work - check
Check calendar for reminders of the day's events - check
Make breakfast and eat during next chores - check
Wish friends on Facebook happy birthday - check
Check new comments on my page and in the few groups on Facebook in which I participate - check
Do some book and blog promotion - check

Once the above is done, I settle in for some focused writing time.  Looking at the list above, you might think this takes hours to do, but it doesn't. I can buzz through this to-do list in 30 minutes.

I don't have lucky charms, amulets or a mantra. I have this list of chores that must be done or I'm off kilter. Off kilter means the writing suffers, or rather, the writing time suffers.
Okay, now that you all think I'm a workaholic and are suitably impressed, here's my deep dark secret not posted to the list above.

My name is Sue Ann and I'm addicted to playing dominoes online. And I don't mean ordering pizza.

Yes, it's true, the Bones (as they were called in earlier times because they were once made of actual bone) have a hold on me.

I play it in the morning after I've written about an hour or so. I play 3 games on MSN Game site, then it's back to writing. Or if it's later in the morning, it's off to shower and get ready for work after the games. As of the writing of this blog post, I have completed 7,573 games, won 3,638 and lost 3,935.

So you see, I've been doing it quite a while and am still only fair to middlin' in my skill. On weekends I do it several times a day, but only 3 games at a time.  It started years ago as a diversion when I was mentally stuck in my writing. I would play a game or two, relax my brain, then return to my manuscript with my gray matter more flexible. I know people who use Spider Solitaire in the same manner.

One of the nice things about dominoes is that it doesn't take much time to play 3 games. Dominoes moves fast. I can be in and out and on my way to the next few pages in my manuscript without so much as a blink of any eye. 

Boy, it felt good to come out of the closet with that!

The only time I don't play my 3 games is if I'm in THE ZONE. You writers out there know what I mean. THE ZONE is that magical writing trance when nothing else exists but the manuscript you're working on.  When you're in THE ZONE, you'll keeping pounding away at the keyboard even if you need to pee so badly your teeth ache. Even if the cats are gnawing on your ankle for attention. Even if the clock is telling you it's time to go to work. Yes, even if the ghost of your dead mother is screaming obscenities in your ear. Nothing, not even the Bones, can upset THE ZONE. It's a rare occurrence that trumps all other obsessions.

Gotta run. I haven't played my 3 games yet today and the clock is ticking...

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Superstition is the way.

I was going to say I don't have any writing rituals that would count as superstitions; all I have are sensible working practices.  But, while looking around my office for examples, I noticed my pens.

I use blue Bics.  Bic Cristals.  But that's not a ritual, right?  That's a preference.  They're a design classic, for a start - evidence: they're in MOMA.  Also, they don't leak like Hi-techpoints and other fancy-schmancy pens when you take them on a plane.  Finally, they smell like pens should.  Not that I sniff my pens. 

But the reason they caught my eye is this:

When I say I use blue Bics, I really mean I like to have a full pen-holder of them, as well as the one I'm using, one in my bag and a packet of new ones in my desk drawer.  And it gets worse.  The three back slots in the pen-holder - a sea-washed brick picked up on Prestwick beach in the late eighties - contain a red Bic for corrections (under the Dandy Gilver fingerpuppet), a black Bic for occasional scanned government forms (under the Bury Her Deep gravestone) and a pencil (under the Bunty Dalmatian).

Now, the black-pen-under-blackish-gravestone and red-pen-under-red-Dandy look either neatly orgnanised or slightly anal, depending on your point of view, but at this point you probably think the pencil-under-Dalmatian is completely random.  A devil-may-care detail that balances out the rest of it.  Not so:

It's really quite a Dalmatiany pencil under there. 

So.  Writing superstitions.  Hello, my name is Catriona and although I can write in my office, by the fireside, on the porch, in bed, in coffee-shops, in the Ethel Merman quiet room of the Davis Public Library, in departure lounges, hotel rooms and on planes, I can only do it if I know that on my desk there are five blue Bic Cristals in their slots against a backdrop of red, black and pencil finger puppets.  Don't judge me.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


by Chris F. Holm

Back in September 2012, we Criminal Minders tackled a question as to whether we had any peculiar writing rituals. I proudly declared that I did not. Because I'm me (read: long-winded and digressive), I did so by relating a tale of my youth misspent hustling drunkards at pool. An old-timer at the pool hall I frequented gave me a bit of advice back then I carry to this day: if you want to hustle, you'd best learn to play with the house cues. You come in with a billiard glove and a custom cue, and no one's gonna play you. But if you learn to play with a cue from off the rack, your mark will never see you coming.

It's a bit of advice I took to heart in large part because I'm a deeply superstitious person, and to my mind, superstition and ritual go hand-in-hand. I like the notion of a lucky cue. A lucky table. A lucky mug. A lucky pen. It's all too easy for me to settle into little rites and rituals to help me get through my day unstruck by lightning or uncursed by gypsies or whatever. The only thing keeping me from counting all the sidewalk cracks I step over from beneath the cool shade of my tinfoil hat is sheer, teeth-gritted force of will. If I let so much as one teeny, tiny superstition have dominion over me, it won't be long before they rule my life.

Which is why I've decided to use this blog post to slay the only superstitious writing ritual I have.

See, titles are important to me. So important, in fact, that I've often said I can't so much as start a piece unless I've got a title for it. Whether that title sticks or not is irrelevant (although to a one, my titles thus far have; how's that for jinxing a lucky streak?) What matters is that I've something to build off of.

Or should I say, what mattered. Past-tense. Because it seems to me, I just wrote a post without a title as my guide.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to cross myself and knock on wood.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Welcome to the World, Evil!

By Hilary Davidson

I'm on the road again thanks to my third novel, Evil in All Its Disguises, which was released last Tuesday by Tor/Forge. Right now, I feel like I'm traveling inside the eye of a hurricane: I had three book events in and around New York for Evil's release, and then I headed southwest for the Tucson Festival of Books.

Next up: Scottsdale's Poisoned Pen with Cara Black on March 13th, Mysterious Galaxy Redondo Beach with Matthew McBride on March 14th, Book 'Em Mysteries in Pasadena on March 15th, the Tattered Cover Highland Rand (near Denver) on March 20th, Left Coast Crime, BookPeople in Austin on March 26th and Murder by the Book on March 27th. Here's the complete list of upcoming events. If I'm in your town, I hope you'll come say hello!

I couldn't have dreamed of a better release week. Some of the reasons why:

This National Post profile by Books Editor Mark Medley. Also this National Post book review by Adam Nayman. And I'm grateful the paper let me share part of the story behind the story.

Canada's iBookstore. I really don't have words, just gratitude.

Jenn's Bookshelves

CBC Radio's "The Next Chapter"

Jen's Book Thoughts

Crimespree Magazine

Criminal Element

Book Reviews by Elizabeth A. White for this review and for asking me to guest-blog

MysteryPeople (that's BookPeople's mystery bookstore within the store)

Raincoast Books

Neliza Drew

Janice Gable Bashman

There are so many more people I need to thank. Heartfelt gratitude to everyone who's spread the word about the book!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Portrait of the Artist as a Caffeine Addict

By Reece Hirsch

I am not particularly fussy or superstitious about my writing habits.  I can't afford to be given my schedule.  As I've mentioned here before, I wrote much of my new book on BART trains while riding back and forth to my law firm job.  But no matter where or when I'm writing, there is one constant -- I am probably going to be gacked up on caffeine.

While alcohol and writing have all sorts of mythic associations, coffee is vastly under appreciated as a literary muse and crutch.  Unless you're a brand name author, you probably have another job, cobbling together time to write at odd hours and on weekends.  And, if you're perpetually sleep-deprived, rising at 4 or 5 to knock out pages, what is the first thing that you probably do before sitting down at your computer?  You pour yourself a cup of joe.

Of course, some writers, like Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, have relied upon other more turbocharged stimulants to fuel their literary efforts.  However, unless you, like Thompson, have the constitution of an adult wildebeest, then coffee is a more sustainable alternative.

O, Coffee!  Even as I sit here writing this blog post on a Sunday morning, I am feeling the effects of that first cup of the day.  When I started writing this post, I must admit that I was still groggy from sleep.  Now that I'm on paragraph four, that little buzz has kicked in behind my eyes.  The morning fog has burned away, I'm descending through the thinning clouds to view a sparkling landscape that stretches to the horizon, and it's going to be a glorious day.  I WILL be productive.  I can just hear the new, inspired manuscript pages spitting out of my printer to assemble themselves in a nice neat stack on the corner of my desk.

But here we are in paragraph five, and I believe I'm already starting to lose a little of that altitude, that first cup acuity.  It's sort of like those tests that you take at the optician's office where you peer at the eye chart through that multi-lensed, steampunk-like contraption.  A new lens clicks in and everything is sharp and focused.  How's that?  "Great," I say.  How about this?  Another lens clicks into place and it's good, but just a bit muddier than the first.  "Let's go with the first," I say.  No, this is what you get.  That first one was only available for a limited time.

That means it's time for my second cup of the day.  Now, if you'll excuse me ....

Friday, March 8, 2013

Oh, Villainy

by Gary

Quick, name the good guy in the Fu Manchu novels.  It’s the British Secret Service’s Denis Nayland Smith but who the hell remembers that?  The man is pretty much a cipher.  He’s stalwart and stiff upper lip, but we all know who the evil genius Dr. Fu Manchu is, and are fascinated by his dastardly deeds.   
Mads Mikkelsen as your favorite head case.
“…Tall, lean, and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green.”  Understand Sax Rohmer’s (born Arthur Henry Ward) Fu Manchu and other Chinese in his books were not just portrayed politically incorrectly, but his Smith espoused downright racist notions of Asians.  The books play on and propagate the “yellow peril” paranoia of the times.  Yet, as the recent re-issues of three of the Fu Manchu novels attest, the character still holds our interest. 

Translated from book to screen now to TV comes Hannibal.  The idea here is that the series is a prequel to the events of Red Dragon by Thomas Harris.  Young FBI profiler Will Graham, played by Hugh Dancy, enlists criminal psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter, played by Mads Mikkelsen, for his help in catching serial killers.  Of course part of the fun, as it were, is we all know that this is Hannibal the Cannibal, the worst serial killer of them all.  That like Fu Manchu, he is a man of towering intellect capable of monstrous evil.

Now while these sort of grandly villainous sort have a certain fascination, to me I want to give my villains a point of view, explore their rationales for doing what they do.  To me if you’ve read a book about one serial killer, that plenty.  My villains like my heroes tend to want something.  He or she may have base desires of greed or avarice, but the more you can make them complex, the more they are willing to unleash their Id to enact their vision of what’s possible, I think those are the villains that resonate.

My femme fatale lawyer (some wags would argue a lawyer is an automatic villain, heh) Wilma Wells in The Jook was after a specific goal that she uses the main character, himself an anti-hero, to get.  Knowing that, I could portray her with nuance and shading, not just a good-looking dame out for the fast buck.  She was a strategist.  She had a plan and made that plan happen.  The villain as strategist is a compelling character to explore.

Sherlock Holmes is vexed and challenged by his arch-nemesis Professor James Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime.  Our heroes must be put to the task, overmatched even, for them to rise as the hero.  Their test is physical and psychological, often suffering a loss, in their attempt to stop the bad guy.  It is great stuff to put our protagonists through their paces, and cathartic to write their opposites who don’t have to act with the same constrains as the detective or the cop.

Then too there is the aforementioned anti-hero, the character shrouded in their varying shades of gray.  Hawk in the Spenser books, Parker in the Westlake as Stark books (he’s defined by the sometime even more venal and ruthless crooks in his arena, Catwoman in the comics and cartoons, and Mouse in the Easy Rawlins books.  These characters have a wider range of what they might do in a given situation.  They can be more volatile, less predictable, and therefore somebody we want to see what they’ll do when they get in deep.

The hero is often the dark reflection of the villain, and vice versa.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Speaking of anti-heroes, in the shameless BSP department, check out troubled Afghan war vet Danny Shaw over at the Indiegogo webseries project I’m writing called Midnight Mover.   I think you'll dig it.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Embracing My Dark Side

by Alan

Do you ever like your villain more than your hero? Which is easier for you to write?

Mwa ha ha! I love, love, love some of the villains I’ve created in my books. (“Love” in the sense that I think they are especially evil or maniacal or twisted. But, no, PeeWee, I wouldn’t want to marry any of them.)

For me, I enjoy creating a diabolical villain. Fictionwise, the stronger the villain, the more difficult it is for the hero to triumph, and the more opportunity for great conflict. But even better, writing for a villain is a lot of fun.

You can be mean. You can be crude. You can be truly evil. You can have your villain do things that a law-abiding, moral human would never do. And it’s all acceptable! Encouraged even! There are many things you can do with your villain that would get you thrown out of the author’s guild, if you tried it with your hero.

I’m not sure it’s any easier writing from a bad guy’s perspective, but it does provide me with an outlet for my aggression. Rather than kick the cat, I can live vicariously through my villains’ heinous actions. (Please, no letters. I don’t own a cat and I would never kick an animal. Heck, I take bugs outside rather than squish them.)

Of course, not all villains are over-the-top Darth Vader types. Still, there’s usually some aspect of their personality that my id can relate to and, um, enjoy. (I’m not sure what that says about me, but we’ll leave that for another blog post: When Good People Write Bad Things and the People Who Love Them.)

Besides, don’t readers like reading about evil villains?


Ride Along 450x720And speaking of villains, I’d like to take this opportunity for a little BSP. My latest ebook original, RIDE-ALONG, is now available for Kindle. Of all the books/stories I’ve written, this is one of my favorites, partly because the opening sequence is based (loosely) on a wild police ride-along experience I actually had. Download a FREE sample today! You can also enter a LibraryThing giveaway HERE.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Chillin' with my Villains

By Tracy Kiely
“Come, come, Mr. Bond. You disappoint me. You get as much fulfillment out of killing as I do, so why don't you admit it?” - Scaramanga

Villains, as we all know, are bad, nasty people. They cheat, steal, lie, and kill with nary a bit of remorse. Many times this reprehensible behavior can be traced back to an abusive upbringing, such as the one experienced by Austin Powers’ Dr. Evil: “My childhood was typical: summers in Rangoon ... luge lessons ... In the spring, we'd make meat helmets ... When I was insolent I was placed in a burlap bag and beaten with reeds — pretty standard, really.” In other cases, their evil stems from some genetic mishap, such as in the case of The Incredible Hulk’s Emil Blonsky, the power hungry soldier who becomes the Abomination after deliberately exposing himself to gamma radiation.
But no matter what their childhood woe or genetic mishap, they all seem to share one important trait and that, to paraphrase Martin Blank, is that their psych profile fits a certain moral flexibility that lends itself well to killing.
Personally, I think it would be a blast to write over-the-top characters like Dr. Evil. How could you not enjoy writing for a character who says things like, “You know, I have one simple request. And that is to have sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their heads! Now evidently my cycloptic colleague informs me that that cannot be done. Ah, would you remind me what I pay you people for, honestly? Throw me a bone here! What do we have?” (I’m not really sure what the Abomination said. He mainly seemed to grunt and make Liv Tyler scream a lot.)
Although my books are humorous, the villains, while very bad, aren’t in the same category as Dr. Evil.  Very few could be. However, I do have fun with my bad guys because I can make them say and do all the sorts of outrageous things that one can’t do in real life. And up until the killing part, I think we all have moments when we’d just love to let loose on someone. Another nice part to writing a villain is that I can then have my protagonist respond to them in kind. And since most of the time my villains are composites of annoying people that I’ve encountered over the years, it’s somewhat therapeutic to tell them off and have them hauled off the jail.  
But, I can only deal with a certain level of evil. I remember reading Thomas Harris’ The Red Dragon in college. I also remember not sleeping for about a week because every night I would put that book down and then turn over in my bed so I could watch for signs that my doorknob was moving – a clear sign that serial killer Francis Dolarhyde was about to break in. I only spent a week with the unspeakable evil of embodied that character. God only knows how long Harris had to deal with him as he was writing the book. I simply couldn’t sit down every day, month after month, and put myself in a brain that demented and devoid of humanity.
So, to sum up my thoughts on writing evil characters, I will paraphrase Jane Austen (oh, please, you knew it was coming) and say that “of some delights a little goes a long way.” 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Not goin’ there.

by Vicki Delany

I’d like to address last week’s question about what’s off limits.

The suggested off-limit items were serial killers and child predators.  To which I would reply: Yes.
As a reader as well as a writer there are somethings I am just not interested in.  Serial killers rank right up there. Particularly books in which the serial killer has a POV.  Sorry, no, I don’t want to read your explanation of why this person is bad.  I have found too many books in which the use of a serial killer is just a way of upping the violence and sadism quotient.  I’m not interested in going there, or in taking anyone else there.

Having said that, of course, a serial killer story can be well done.  Maybe the cops investigate a murder.  Find there’s one similar.  Start digging: find another.  Those books can be well-executed and really work at building the suspense.  I won’t slam the book shut and put it down.  I might even think of writing one like that one day.

But if the book opens with the serial killer pondering his next evil deed or following some beautiful young woman, or the blurb reads,  “Detective Jones must stop the dreaded XX Killer before he can kill again” Or “Before Detective Jones (beautiful young woman) becomes his next victim” then count me out.

The one thing that is strictly off limits for me, again as a reader is excessive violence, particularly torture or sexual violence.  Not only is it unnecessary, but (in my opinion – no hate mail please) can be used by a certain sort of author and reader as a way of getting titillated.  That’s a softer version of the word I am really thinking of.

So as a writer, I am not going to write it, because I do not intend to imagine it, thank you very much.   My books are not cozies and my cops face some tough things in life. But no one needs it lovingly described.   Violence against children certainly fits in here.

I have an unpublished MS that did the rounds of the major publishers by a major agent.  It’s a dark book about trafficking of teenage girls into prostitution.  What happens to these girls is left entirely up to the imagination.   In the book, the focus of the protagonist is more against the men in her community who use these disposable girls, because that’s an area that is almost never addressed, than the ones who are simply making money off them.

But it couldn't find a publisher.  One publisher wrote to my agent to say they didn't like the contrast between the plot (as described) and the setting (small-scale vegetable farm in Upstate New York).  And that was kinda the whole point.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Who do you love?

by Meredith Cole

Do you ever like your villain more than your hero?

In the traditional mysteries I wrote, I would have said "absolutely not." The books were all about Lydia McKenzie and her attempts to catch a murderer. I tried to make the murderers flesh and blood people rather than caricatures, but they weren't people I wanted to hang out with. Especially not in a dark alley at midnight.

But recently I've been trying my hand at writing a different kind of book, one without any murders. Oh, there's mystery all right--and someone even dies--but right and wrong isn't so cut and dried. Who is the villain? Who is the hero? Who do you trust? And who is telling the truth? What is a crime? And what is redemption?

My story isn't filled with criminals like Elmore Leonard, but it does ask the question of whether an honest man (or woman) would commit a crime if given an opportunity. And what it would take to right a wrong.

I'm enjoying playing with these concepts, and hanging out with all the characters in my book--even the ones on the lam. They all feel like flesh and blood people to me--just ones with a few more problems than I have (thank goodness).