Monday, February 29, 2016

Girl Reporter Exposes Family Secrets

If you had to name a single book that inspired you to be a writer, what would it be?

-from Susan

For me, it’s not “a single books,” it’s “books,” as in all books.

I just returned from Left Coast Crime, a wonderful convention where writers still unpublished, authors with dozens of books out, and avid readers gather to celebrate crime fiction. It was held in Phoenix, Arizona this year. A few of the panel discussions I attended included a variant of the question, “When did you decide to become a writer.” I was struck by the number of answers that began with “When I was in third grade….”

My own answer is pretty much the same. When I was in the third grade I published a newspaper for my family of 5, one of whom was still a bit shaky on her reading skills. The adults were a bit shaky in their private behaviors related to alcohol but to their credit made no move to censor the hard-hitting, eight-year old editor. When I say “published,” I mean it. Carbon paper instead of a printing press, but a full layout with headlines, banners, decks, and hand-drawn substitutes for photographs. Copies were delivered to everyone who was on the subscription list – father, mother, kid brother, and baby sister.

So, clearly, when I was in the third grade I had made a career decision. (I later did become a grown-up reporter, so I was getting good practice.) So had other writers I know. It seems that by that age or grade, we’d had enough exposure to the magic power of words to know we had to aim in that direction. We had already been inspired, and surely it was books that inspired us. Read to at two and three, memorizing favorite pages at three and four, picking out words at four and five, and then sitting at little tables and wielding pencils to make letters and words and then – glory of glories – stories, ways to share our dreams, fears, and wildest wishes.

So, I say this in all seriousness: The books that inspired me to be a writer were Mother Goose, Peter Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh, Madeline, Wind in the Willows, Stuart Little, Mary Poppins, Curious George, Gigi, and a score of others that my parents read to me first and then I read over and over. They filled the bookcase in our playroom, were decorated with my crayoned commentaries, and became my closest companions.

I never stopped wanting to be a writer once I had learned how to make sentences. I think that was what the other LCC panelists, many of them award-winning, justly celebrated authors, were saying too. Other books, deeper reading, more experience with telling stories better by seeing how great authors through the ages have done it were all added fuel for the basic drive.

Advocacy moment: Read to your kids, to your grandkids, to your school’s kids, to the kids at Big Sisters and Big Brothers, to kids in hospitals and at day care. Give them books, as many as you can, like the generous attendees at Left Coast Crime did by generously supporting the auction to raise money for a program that works hard to make sure every child in Phoenix has a book of her or his own in the – you guessed it – third grade!

Friday, February 26, 2016

Tears, Fears, and Cheers

This week's question—"What's the last book that made you cry? Laugh out loud? Quiver with fear?"—prompted some immediate responses from me, though I had to alter (of course) that word book just slightly in the process of answering. 


As I discussed at some length at SleuthSayers, my other group blog, I'm a big fan of author-illustrator Arnold Lobel's work, including the Frog and Toad books, Uncle Elephant, Owl at Home, Small Pig, and others—and several of these have become favorites as well for my son Dash. While he zeroes in on the silliness at the heart of the stories, what often hits me hard is a different kind of heart: the emotional intensity in some of the plot twists, in some of those simple gestures of grace that punctuate the stories. Toad struggling to tell his own stories for his sick friend Toad—until he's sick himself and the positions reverse. Frog recounting a youthful journey to find spring just around the corner, and then Frog and Toad turning a corner themselves. Toad's frantic fears when Frog runs late for Christmas dinner, and a simple gift that wraps the story up tight.... And (switching books) don't get me started on the counting that Uncle Elephant does on his train rides with his nephew. At least I'm not alone in the way these moments leave me with a tightening behind the eyes and a tugging at my tear ducts. As someone commented on a friend's Facebook page after he shared my post there: "Uncle Elephant and Owl at Home have the capacity to reduce me to blubbering mush."

In terms of more adult fare, I recently led a discussion about Louise Penny's A Rule Against Murder for a course I'm teaching at George Mason University—and here too, throughout the book, several scenes and passages struck me as very poignant, tear-jerking even. While my wife once cried after watching five minutes of the finale of a TV series she'd never watched a single episode of, I'll admit I sometimes think of myself as a hard-hearted. So what is it that does the trick for me, whether in children's books like Frog and Toad or in novels that aren't purposefully intended to be tear-jerkers? Basically those moments of some depth and rawness of emotion, obliquely presented but with hints of real vulnerability, presented in contrast to small acts of generosity and selflessness. For me, that's a combination that can't be resisted.


It's not often that I encounter books or stories that leave me truly frightened—though even reading a review of Sue Klebold's recently released memoir A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy brought back some pretty intense memories of Dave Cullen's brilliant Columbine several years ago, a book which left me with fears and anxieties that have proven deep, pervasive, and unshakeable. (And having a son myself now has only intensified some of those emotions.) Given that qualification, however, several scenes in a novel I read recently did leave me with a sense of creepiness and unease: Ripley Under Water, the final book in Patricia Highsmith's five-novel Ripliad (which I finished as part of last year's New Year's Resolutions). It wasn't the violence in that book (or really any of those books) that affected me, though Highsmith's coldness does work its unsettling charms in such scenes; instead, it was the simple conversations over cocktails between Tom Ripley and his new neighbors, David and Janice Pritchard, that left me edgy and uncomfortable. Those chats always seemed to have some menace coursing beneath them—with sudden, unexpected twists, giddy accusations and defenses, and always, always an escalating politeness that made it all the more unbearable. Do I really need to say it? Highly recommended.


The question of what made me "laugh out loud" was the toughest one here. I generally read more toward the darker end of the crime fiction spectrum, and while there are many very funny writers I admire in the mystery field, from Edmund Crispin to Sarah Caudwell to Donna Andrews, I haven't read any of their works in the last two months. And yet I did remember laughing—and out loud!—at something just a few days ago. It took me a little while to recall what it was, and here's why: It wasn't a book at all or even a published story but an assignment from one of the students in that course I mentioned above. Sarah Wheeler, an MFA student at Mason, turned in a pastiche (really a parody) of Raymond Chandler's "Red Wind" that really hit the nail on the head. Here's a short excerpt that she agreed to let me share: 
She walked in, the wind blowing at her long, red hair. I could tell she was trouble by the way she moved, confident, legs up to here, and the way she looked at me from under her eyelashes, all shy-like, and the way Taylor Swift’s "I Knew You Were Trouble" bled through the headphones she wore around her slender neck, and the way her tight shirt was emblazoned with the word TROUBLE in rhinestones, with an arrow pointing up from between her pert breasts to her own distant yet intriguing face. These are the kinds of subtle clues you pick up on when you’ve been at the game as long as I have. 
I said to her, “I have one rule. Don’t fall in love with me.” 
She said, “Mister, I’m a strong woman. But I ain’t that strong.”
That's just a sample, of course, but throughout, as Wheeler updated some of Chandler's approach and his tropes to the present-day, she revealed a sharp understanding of his work while at the same time letting imitation tumble into exaggeration and then absurdity—delightfully so, in my opinion. 

SmokeLong Quarterly: Scott Onak's "The Final Problem"

While I can't pass along all of Wheeler's story, I do have another one to recommend—one that also works its magic somewhere in that area between pastiche and parody, between exaggeration and appreciation. Earlier this week, SmokeLong Quarterly published Scott Onak's "The Final Problem," a story which I selected from blind submissions during my week guest editing for the journal back in January. As I wrote in my comments about the story, "I always admire fiction that can both play with and build intelligently on the forms and the elements of genre fiction, particularly when it’s my own chosen genre of crime fiction. This story does just that—in a piece that can be read as a parody but that also comments on and illuminates some of the deeper issues and concerns at the core of the classic detective story." I flat-out love this story—and love too the illustration by Jessica Gawinski that was commissioned to accompany it and that I'm reproducing here. Please do check out the full story at SmokeLong's website.

News On A More Personal Front.... 

And finally, some quick news of my own. Just before my last post here a couple of weeks ago, I learned that "Rearview Mirror," the first story in my novel in stories On the Road with Del & Louise, had been selected by Elizabeth George and Otto Penzler for the forthcoming Best American Mystery Stories anthology—really a dream come true in so many ways. And then this week I learned that another story I was associated with has also been selected for the anthology: Tom Franklin's terrific "Christians," which was published in a collection I edited last year, Murder Under the Oaks, the 2015 Bouchercon anthology. I'm doubly thrilled by all this great good fortune—or even triply (trebly? thrilled three times over?) on the heels of On the Road with Del & Louise having been named a finalist for this year's Agatha Award for Best First Novel. My concern has always been that this ungainly hybrid thing I produced would succeed neither as a cohesive novel nor as independent stories, so the good fortune here has been much welcome. Thanks too, in this regard, to Paula Gail Benson for interviewing me and Georgia Ruth Wilson at The Stiletto Gang about this news—and a final cheers to all the other friends and fellow writers whose stories have also been selected, including Matt Bell, Bruce Robert Coffin, Robert Lopresti, and Todd Robinson and who knows who I missed. Can't wait to see who else shows up there!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

I’m Not a Robot. Really.

by Alan
What's the last book that made you cry? Laugh out loud? Quiver with fear?

I’m not much of a crier (I remember crying when I watched Bambi. Does that count?). I do most of my laughing inside. And I haven’t quivered in, well, forever. That’s not to say I don’t experience emotions (Believe me, I’m not a robot, no matter how dull I appear on the outside); I just won’t take this week’s questions too literally.
Unoriginal SinnerI can nail two-thirds of my answer in one swoop: an obscure 40-year-old book that both made me laugh out loud AND made me cry (figuratively, at least). THE UNORIGINAL SINNER AND THE ICE-CREAM GOD by John R. Powers is part of the LAST CATHOLIC IN AMERICA and DO PATENT LEATHER SHOES REALLY REFLECT UP? trilogy, and while the humor might not be for everyone, this book (along with the others in the series) hit my funny bone with precision—and often. As for making me cry, well let’s just say the story packed an emotional punch beneath the humor.

A Head Full of Ghosts
I love the creepy, and when I’m in a reading rut, I’ll often turn to something that will make my skin crawl (Stephen King is a particular fave). I recently read Paul Tremblay’s A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS. I loved the voice and I loved the premise and I loved the writing and I loved the eerie atmosphere he created. I knew I was in for a treat when I read this endorsement, by none other than the aforementioned Mr. King: “A Head Full of Ghosts scared the living hell out of me, and I’m pretty hard to scare.”

So I guess I’m in good company!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Sucker for tear jerkers

By R.J. Harlick

What's the last book that made you cry? Laugh out loud? Quiver with fear?

Cry, laugh, quiver. It’s a rare book that can evoke such a strong emotion and a rare author who can write such a book. I’ve lost count on the number of books I have read since I first started reading as a child, but the number that made me cry, laugh or quiver I can probably count on one hand.

Though I seldom read heart breaking romances, I am a sucker for a good one, particularly one that will make me cry. I suppose the first to produce copious weeping, and boy, did I shed tears, was Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, which I read as a teenager. I can remember devouring the big, thick book with a box of Kleenex constantly at my side. Love Story by Erich Segal was another romance that required the box of Kleenex as did The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller. All wonderful tear jerkers.

Getting me to laugh is a harder challenge. I don’t tend to read humourous books, mainly because they rarely make me laugh. Humour is so subjective. What one person finds funny another finds boring. But I still remember the funniest book I’ve ever read even though it was probably forty years ago. The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be by Farley Mowat. It made me laugh so hard I cried.

I tend to stay away from books that will get me quivering with fear. I’ve never read a Stephen King book for precisely that reason. I usually read just before going to sleep. I worry if I read too scary a book, I would end up having nightmares and would spend the entire night jumping at every little sound. So I’m afraid I have no candidates for quiver. I don’t even like to watch scary movies anymore, although I did as a child.

I’m off to the sun and fun of Phoenix tomorrow at the crack of dawn to attend Left Coast Crime. At least I hope so. We have another major snow storm coming our way, so I’m praying it behaves itself until after I am winging it south.

 I’m going to be busy, starting with the International Authors Evening at Poisoned Pen Bookstore tomorrow night February 24 from 7:00 pm to 8:00. There is going to be a murder of us Canadian crime writers there along with some Danish ones and a few American ones too.

I’m looking forward to my panel on Big Fish in a Small Pond on Thursday February 25 from 1:30 pm to 2:30. With Dana Stabenow as the moderator it promises to be a lively discussion.

Friday from 6:30 pm to 7:30, you will get to meet myself along with the rest of the Canadian gang at the Crime Writers of Canada reception. There is a lot of us this year. You’ll get a chance to test your wits and to win a prize.

On Saturday you can join Barbara Fradkin and myself for afternoon tea along with some uniquely Canadian goodies. This will be from 3:00 pm to 4:00. It is part of the author connections LCC is offering this year. You can reserve your spot here

If you are going to LCC, please drop in and say hi. I'd love to chat with you.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Emotional reading

"What's the last book that made you cry? Laugh out loud? Quiver with fear?"

by Meredith Cole
This is a hard question! As I know I've mentioned before, I read a lot. I also don't confine myself to one genre. I find books that sound interesting and try them out. In the past month or so, I've read Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont, Not the End of the World by Kate Atkinson, How the Body Knows Its Mind by Sian Beilock, The Martian by Andy Weir, and Falling in Love by Donna Leon (and a few others I didn't write down...). So--a mix of literary fiction with a mystery, a science fiction novel and a non-fiction book thrown in.

I read to learn. To be entertained. And occasionally a book makes me laugh, cry or quiver with fear. I just don't remember which ones. So here's a guess:

So... the last book that made me laugh out loud? Has to be All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriott. I'm reading it out loud to my kid right now and we get the giggles as he describes chasing cows around the field, falling in the muck and dealing with all the crazy characters in Yorkshire.

Quiver with fear? Some dark thriller that totally freaked me out and made me glad I'm not walking at night down a dark alley in Sweden/Norway/Berlin at the moment.

Made me cry? Probably rereading A Little Princess or A Secret Garden or something like that. Gets me every time.

Looking forward to seeing everyone's list this week!

Friday, February 19, 2016

Another Fine Mess

When you’re elbow deep in a first draft, can you read other fiction, or does it mess with your own writing?

by Paul D. Marks

If I didn’t read while working on projects I’d never read ’cause I’m always working on projects and
then I’d really be in a fine mess. This applies to TV and movies as well. It’s impossible to avoid the buzz in the air...or over the air.

In terms of the question “does it mess with your [my] own writing?”: I don’t think so. In fact, I’d say just the opposite. Since ideas can come from anywhere—we just pluck them out of the air, a newspaper, TV, a snatch of conversation—we can also be inspired by what we’re reading. Of course, we don’t want to borrow something directly, and that’s not what I’m referring to. But a line, a turn of phrase, a character, an incident, etc., from something we’re reading might inspire us to get over a hump in our work-in-progress.

I often run into roadblocks when I write. One thing or another isn’t working the way I want it to. I do all my little tricks, take a drive, let the words flow stream of consciousness, walk the dogs, take a shower—yeah, for some reason that opens up the brain valves. But sometimes none of that works and lately we’re limited here in CA on how much showering we can do, which cuts down the brainstorming. (It’s a good-smelling state...and still another fine mess.) But another time I’ll be watching a show, having a conversation, walking them dogs…or maybe reading something and an idea just pops into my head, because something in what I was doing made something click. Then it’s, “What if I did it this way?” or “What if I change that action to this?”

Sometimes, when reading something by an author you admire you get inspired by them, not to copy
or steal, but to take their inspiration and spin it in a different direction or take it to another level. Like reading Ross MacDonald and wishing I could dig into the psychological depths the way he does or being envious of Chandler’s descriptions and metaphors. I think reading some of these great authors has helped me to become a better writer.

James Ellroy doesn’t read fiction anymore (though that was a while ago so maybe it’s changed). But I like reading fiction and crime fiction in particular. It’s a good escape. Often the world comes out better in the end than in real life.

But the question asks about reading fiction, not just crime fiction, and I read that too, while I’m working on projects. The worst part is finding the time to do the reading. Seems I used to have tons of time for that, but not so much these days. But when I do read I read all sorts of things, from various non-fiction subjects to literary/mainstream and crime fiction. I don’t read a lot of sci-fi or fantasy, YA, things along those lines. To each his/her own, right?

And I suppose the question can be applied to almost any activity, even just sitting in a cafĂ© listening to people. Inspiration and ideas, whether for a whole novel or just a snatch of dialogue can come from anywhere, so why limit ourselves? Sure we want to create something from whole cloth, so to speak, but even if we were to shut ourselves off in a hermetically sealed room we’d still be influenced by things we’ve read, watched, seen and lived. So there really is no “escape” from having things “mess” with our writing.


Please check out Pam Stack of Authors on the Air Interviewing me a couple of weeks ago: 

And my reading of my Anthony and Macavity-nominated story Howling at the Moon, from Ellery Queen. I don’t think the Barrymore clan has to worry: 

And look for my post on Drinks with Reads at Mystery Playground, going live on Wednesday, Feb. 26th, but one of the pix is already up on the front page: 

Check out my website:

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Why Bother? Give Up Now.

 I've got a great future as a motivational speaker, don't you think?

So the question is whether we can read fiction while we're writing fiction; specifically when we're elbow deep in our first drafts.

I've read lots of writer interviews where people say they don't read while they write. It's always struck me as peculiar (and "peculiar habits of writers" is a strong field). Because I'm always writing. If I didn't read when I wrote, I'd never read. And if writing came at the cost of reading I know which I'd ditch. I'd stop this lark as quick as I stopped studying literature, once I twigged that I'd never enjoy a novel again.

The short answer is yes. I can and do. I've written half of a first draft so far this year and read thirteen books, eleven of them fiction.

I couldn't read absolutely anything. P.G. Wodehouse is far too infectious. Raymond Chandler is too - but I'm not tempted to re-read Chandler the way I'm drawn back to old Pelham Grenville, because Chandler never wrote: "The least thing upset him on the golf course. He missed short putts because of the uproar of butterflies in the adjoining meadows".

What are you wearing, Dr House?
Hemingway might get in the way, but I find him easy not to re-read. I can't resist listening to him on talking books but audio doesn't seem to interfere as badly. Lisa Scottoline's headline relative clauses are catching.

Which makes me careful to weed them out when I come down with a dose.

The biggest pitfall I've found in combining reading and writing is when you read something so perfect and brilliant and effortless that you get a case of the "why bothers". It's happening right now. I'm reading Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins and when I come back to my own half-born first draft I pep myself up by saying to it: "oh blah blah blah. What's the point?"

Luckily, I answer myself by saying "the point is it's due in on the 30th of June and you've banked the advance". And I can cheer myself up with the thought that I only need to write two thousand words and then I can read Atkinson again at lunchtime.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Planning the Great Escape by Cathy Ace

When you’re elbow deep in a first draft, can you read other fiction, or does it mess with your own writing?

I find the reality of being an author means I am (as at the moment) working on polishing a manuscript in one series, working on substantive edits for a book in another series, finishing up proof edits for another book in that same series, and outlining and plotting three other proposals. I also have a stack of books to read by authors with whom I will shortly be sharing panels in Phoenix, USA (Left Coast Crime), Vancouver, Canada (Cuffed) and Bristol, UK (CrimeFest).

So – do I read “other” fiction while I’m elbow deep in a first draft? Yes, both my own, and that of other authors. Sometimes I have little choice about what I’ll be reading – be it revisions, research, or making sure I’m familiar with the works of folks with whom I’ll shortly be sharing the podium, sometimes I have a “must do” list. When I can choose what to read, what is it? Often biographies, or other non-fiction works, or fiction in a field that is something other than crime. I often return to classics I’ve enjoyed in the past, finding them soothing and always ready to show me something I’ve missed on previous visits.

Does any of what I read mess with my writing? I don’t think so. I think everything I’ve ever read has somehow been absorbed and must influence everything I write – and I’ve been reading for more than fifty years now, so that’s quite a lot of stuff rattling about up there in the old noggin. But as for what I read today influencing what I write tomorrow? I don’t think it happens that way. Not for me, anyway.

When I am utterly immersed in my writing – to the extent I can be with several projects on the go at once – I happily admit to enjoying watching TV and movies. I find the relaxation is a total release. It doesn’t mean I don’t still love to read, it just means I also enjoy watching TV and movies…an hour or two of total otherworldliness is a great escape.