Sunday, January 31, 2010

Tag You're It

Gabriella Herkert
Catnapped and Doggone

Genre or literary. Toh-ma-to, to-mah-to. Sort of. I would love to be able to say that it makes absolutely no difference. Yet it does. Genre or literary matters to the business side of writing far more than it matters to the actual writing itself. The labels determine where you get placed on the shelves of your local bookstore. It affects who stocks your book, who reviews it, which book clubs consider it and whether or not Oprah will give it the magical wand treatment. Literary means you are somehow more “important” and are, therefore, more likely to win a major award. Genre isn’t considered for Pulitzer’s or National Book Awards even if that designation was made by a marketing team trying to figure out the best way to promote a book that could easily fit either category. Genre is code for I know some people who might read it. Yes, it’s important for them. For the reader, it can pull you away from books you might find fascinating. Beware the genre or literary tag. It can deny you a world of pleasures.

My first great review came from the Romantic Times. I love them for it. I do not consider Catnapped a romance but I can’t actually tell you why. Someone with more imagination than me at RT saw my book and thought it was good enough to make their list regardless of the imprint’s backlist or the book’s placement on some arbitrary shelf. My protagonist’s love interest was added after the first draft. Probably after the fifth. That’s how much I considered my book a romance. Yet, that first review brought many readers to my work who couldn’t have found it another way tucked as it was on the mystery shelves.

Look at Tim O’Brien. He’s a National Book Award winner who frequently writes about his experiences, fictionalized, during the Vietnam War. He’s Mr. Literary. He wrote a book called In the Lake of the Woods. In my opinion, it’s a romance. It’s a nuanced examination of a long-term relationship and how our assumptions about another person can become our reality if they are never challenged. It’s as complex a relationship story as any written by Nicholas Sparks yet it’s somehow treated differently. A man reading The Notebook on a commuter train is likely to have it hidden in a book cover while Tim O’Brien’s book can be viewed openly, possibly eliciting engaged conversation with an intellectual co-passenger. Tim O’Brien’s book is also a mystery. I won’t spoil the end for you. If you haven’t read it, or anything by him, I beg you to give him a try. But in Lake of the Woods when you get to the last word, if you’re like me, you’ll double-check to make sure you’re not missing another chapter. The one that answers the questions. How great a mystery is that? It’s got as much heft as Hammett, surprise equal to Christie and a twistier end than the one from The Usual Suspects. I don’t care what the business calls him. I just think he’s great.

There’s a famous quotation I can’t seem to find the attribution for that says (I’m paraphrasing here) that a forgery is still art if that’s the way you see it. Genre is art. Literary is art. Good stories are good stories regardless of their marketing strategy. Seek them out in all their guises. Never judge a book by its cover or library location. Keep in mind that books aren’t pillows. You can go ahead and remove the label.

Thanks for reading.


Saturday, January 30, 2010

By any other name . . . .

By Michael Wiley

Two plots, one “literary” and one “genre”:

(1) A powerful man has been poisoned, murdered without witnesses while sleeping. The man’s son, a brilliant but unstable loner, sets out to catch the killer. But he faces every obstacle imaginable. The government is protecting the killer. His own girlfriend seems to have betrayed him in favor of the killer’s gang. Most of his friends have betrayed him too. His mother, instead of crying over the death of her husband, is sleeping with a new lover . . . who turns out to be the killer. But along with a sidekick (not so much a Joe Pike to his Elvis Cole as a Watson to his Sherlock), the son investigates the murder, and using a combination of wit (tricking the bad guys into revealing their guilt, Columbo-style) and brute force (killing those who stand in his way), he exposes the killer and brings him to justice.

(2) An old man – once a powerful general but now a shell of his former self – inhabits a realm that now seems too large and lavish for him. Like many other great men, he has lived according to his own moral code, one that often has been at odds with social norms but nonetheless has had an integrity and nobility of its own. But now his daughters are betraying him and the values he has stood for. They too have lived according to their own moral codes but theirs have lacked an honorable guiding principle. Into the life of this family comes a heroic figure who corrects the daughters’ wrongs, saves them from various evils, and restores a semblance of order to the old general’s world.

The first plot, of course, is from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the second from Chandler’s The Big Sleep. But the first story is also a variation on any of dozens of “genre” murder mysteries, and the second could be mistaken for a bad summary of King Lear. One can imagine visiting a favorite independent bookstore in Elizabethan England and searching through the shelves for a good bloody thriller by Shakespeare. At least I can imagine it. After all, a lot of “literary” writers started off on the pulp fiction shelves. Look at Joseph Conrad’s early book covers, and you know that readers a hundred years ago were stuffing their copies of his novels into their beach bags alongside their suntan lotion and iPods.

I’m not saying that all mystery writers are the same as great Renaissance or Modern “literary” authors or that all great Renaissance and Modern “literary” authors are mystery writers. I’m just saying that a good story – whether a revenge tragedy or a tale of seafaring or a PI novel – by any other name would smell as sweet. And I’m saying a well-written PI novel has better claims to present and enduring attention than poorly written literary fiction.

If any critics think otherwise, I know a couple hundred mystery writers who would be happy to “beard” them as Hamlet might, or (to borrow a poetic line from Sophie’s blog entry) to pull their ears off their heads.

Friday, January 29, 2010

A distinction without a difference ...

Tell us how you feel about genre vs. literary.

By Shane

I was sitting in a mall in Iowa, drinking stale coffee and hawking my first crime novel. A lady walked up and asked:

"Do you write literary fiction? Or genre?"

I replied:


She blinked confusion.

Then asked me where the bathrooms were.

I wasn't trying to confuse her, or make her want to tinkle. I was quite serious: genre is literary. Good writing is good writing, period. The rest is marketing, PR, fairy dust, and labels created to allow one group of writers to look down on another group of writers and thus feel better about itself. America doesn't have royals, so we insist on creating them ourselves.

It's a particularly silly distinction, anyway, literary vs. genre. Most real people can't tell the difference. Don't believe me? Then take my "Is It Is or Is It Ain't?" quiz and find out!

1. "This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air."

How about this:

2. “The house looked oddly like a skull, with its glassless windows gaping out at the snowscape. Pink fiberglass insulation was everywhere, sticking out of the house, blowing across the snow, hung up in the bare birch branches like obscene fleshy hair.”

Or this:

3. "The sky above us was the color of ever-changing violet, and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns."

Or this:

4. "It was cold, bleak, biting weather. He could hear the people in the court outside go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them."

Or, finally, this:

5. "He stood in front of a curtain of pine trees crusted with snow lumps, which steamed in the cold rain. His fur was a mottled brown, turning gray near the rump. White tufts spackled his ears, throat, and snout. His nose was the blue-black of engine oil; his antlers large and airy. Each branched into a chandelier of tips that twinkled amber in the vapor lamp standing lonely sentry over the exit."


1. Literary: F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.
2. Genre: John Sandford, Rules of Prey
3. Literary: James Joyce, Araby
4. Literary: Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
4. Genre: Hey, that's me, in Torn Apart

But it's all good writing! So the labels are meaningless and silly and we're all better off drinking Scotch and smoking cigarettes in ivory holders and talking about turns of phrase so goddamn brilliant they tingle your skin and catch your hair on fire.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Exclusively Yours

By Kelli

"Tell us how you feel about literary vs. genre."

Short answer? Not much. But I'm blogging, anyway.

Those who know me will tell you I have very little patience for labels. I have very little patience, period, so with boxes and labels and the tags, I run out pretty damn quick.

I know they're necessary for bureaucracy to keep running the world, necessary for bean counters and insurance companies, necessary for DMVs and census takers and every other entity that seeks to bag, tag and file away people into sortable categories ...

And I know they also have their positive uses. Part of me has always enjoyed cataloging stuff, reveling in the organization that labels and such provide. Arranging chaos into an attractive pattern, taking comfort in the order that order provides. I try to embrace the Yin and Yang of it, balancing chaos and category like symbiotic halves, necessary for both brain and soul.

No, what makes me crazy is when labels become more important than what they seek to identify. When labels supersede humanity, let alone books, when "computer says no" becomes a standard reply in so-called customer service.

With books--and other creative endeavors--it's the implicit value judgment that bothers me . The idea that one label--of books, films, art, music--is "better" than another. One is art, one is popular culture. One is worthy of transcending the ages; one is disposable "entertainment" ... as if entertainment is a dirty word. [For the record, it's not--I know them all.]

So where does this come from?

Exclusivity. The root of all snob appeal. If only a few can afford to eat at a restaurant, it must be good. If only the top fifty thousand people can get a new electronic gadget and are willing to wait in line to get it first -- hell, we all need one! And God forbid that someone else wore that Oscar dress.

The few vs. the many, patricians vs. plebians, aristocrats vs. peasants ... the list goes on. And anything that smacks of "popular"--even in 2010--will garner an upturned nose and a stuck-out pinky, and possibly a sniff of disdain. Review *that*? It's -- it's just a mystery. A thriller. A romance. A ... fill in the blank genre.

It's never been about literary vs. genre. It's been cult vs. popular, books that--according to the snobs of the world--supposedly only the intelligentsia are intelligent enough to appreciate versus those that ordinary people read for escape.

Pfah. I've read more than my share of academic nonsense, made up doctoral cant invented to impress each other and justify a too-expensive education, that at the end of the day says nothing and contributes nothing to our understanding of the subject matter or one another. Words designed to keep people out--not to let people in.

I've been published in that arena, presented internationally. And the literary vs. genre divide exists there, too, in what subjects people choose to study and what studies get funding. It exists everywhere, and as writers, we are affected by it.

But here's some news for the exclusive set ... Shakespeare wrote for the groundlings. Euripides, Sophocles? Popular playwrights. And you don't get much more "common" than Aristophanes.

ALL fiction--unless it's a completely narcissistic example of literary onanism--is meant to be shared and hungers to be popular. Some of it entertains, some of it enlightens, some of it makes you think and changes your life. And some of it does all of the above, and does so in high-heeled genre pumps, too.

So, yeah ... I'm a genre writer. And a literary writer. No versus required.

And on that note--next week is City of Dragons!! Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

There's Someone For Everyone

by Sophie

Tell us how you feel about genre vs. literary.

How do I feel about genre vs literary? I feel like there is no way to have that discussion without me ending up wanting to scream and pull people's ears off their heads, so let's talk about something else. (Warning, though...anyone who drags their sorry ass into MY SFARWA meeting while I'm president and exhibits one ounce of genre snobbery will find him- or herself shown the door...)

This is related, and it was on my mind today: writer crushes.

I don't mean that you have a crush on the writer. Well, you sort of do, but only because they write such beautiful prose that you want to marry their book and make it omelettes and take care of it when it's sick and tattoo its name on your hip.

(I am sorry, but I am not going to reveal the identity of my current writer crush because it would be wayyy to embarrassing and also way too easily misconstrued. Kinda like when a certain dear friend of mine, with whom I had shared the identity of the author who I modeled Stella's would-be boyfriend after, figured it out and announced it to the whole bar where he happened to be sitting.)

Anyway it's all subjective, of course, which is nice because just like your mom always reminded you that "There is someone for everybody" it turns out there is also some book for everybody as well.

Me, I love a knock-down turn of phrase. It's language that gets me every time. I went through this Woodrell phase where whole paragraphs were lodged in my head. (Fellow Woodrellites get it; I was in the TallyHo once when the whole table was quoting at each other. I'm sure we sounded deranged...) If it had occured to me I probably would have bought an extra GIVE US A KISS and made a dress out of the pages, or something.

But other people don't care about the language - they love the cliffhangers. Or the worldbuilding. Or the action scenes. Or even, God love 'em, the unapologetic gore or the super-creative were-creature love-fests with fur and fangs 'n stuff. That's cool! Hey, you don't give your best friend a hard time about the fella from the cop bar who started out as a dirty weekend and ended up moving his toothbrush into her bathroom...cause it's really not your business who she chooses. She gets to like who she likes. In guys and also in books.

Oh, my...looky there, in my usual lurching and clumsy circular manner I've managed to address today's subject after all. Just in case you missed it....let me paraphrase: genre or lit? - take your pick; but telling anyone else what to read is like telling your friends who to hook up with at closing time. It ain't cool and it's not your business.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Literary vs. Genre?

by Rebecca Cantrell

“Tell us how you feel about genre vs. literary,” says a reassuring voice with a light Viennese accent.

The lights are dim. The Persian rug on the floor is red with an elaborate pattern of what look like flowers. The chaise is oxblood leather.

The patient shifts on the chaise. “I feel fine.”

“Does it make you feel denigrated when someone calls your work genre?” The doctor strokes his pointed beard.

“I’m just happy when someone calls it anything at all. It has genre elements. People die mysteriously. Their murders are investigated and solved. Justice, alas, is complicated.”

“But,” says the doctor. “It is more than that. What about the writing? The voice? The historical background? The themes you try to convey?”

“It has all that too,” the patient says. “Why wouldn’t it?”

“Because it’s genre!” The Viennese voice sounds a little annoyed now.

“Genre doesn’t have to be reductionist.”

“Of course it does!”

“Why?” The patient sits up and adjusts her socks.

“Aren’t you supposed to by lying down where I put you? Answering the questions that I ask you?”

The patient stands and starts doing jumping jacks.

“You must calm down.” The Viennese doctor stands too. He strides behind his desk and watches her nervously. He looks at his telephone, undecided.

“I am calm. I can be calm and do jumping jacks. I can write things that are literary and genre.”

“You can’t.”

“Read it and weep.”

So, the Viennese doctor puts down his notebooks and pen, adjusts his horn-rimmed glasses and begins to read. He reads through that session and the one after. He reads all afternoon, book after book.

Because, reading can be fun. And unexpected. And anything you want it to be.
So, calm down, do some jumping jacks. Read what you want, call it what you want. The books and the story will endure regardless. Or not.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Power to the People!

Tell us how you feel about genre vs. literaryfiction.

Depends if you’re asking me the reader/book consumer or me, the author/small businessperson.

As a reader, makes no difference. I read them both and enjoy them. And anymore, just as genre boundaries are being crossed and cross-pollinated, so is the boundary between literary and genre blurring.

Only problem? The bookstores just don’t get this. In fact, something that constantly frustrates me, the author, is that the major chain bookstores and my own publisher don’t understand how most consumers buy books.

For instance, the closest bookstore to me is twenty minutes away—it takes a lot to get me there, usually combined with other errands and usually with the intent of buying several books, not just one. Despite this, the last three times I’ve made the trip, I’ve been stymied and walked OUT empty-handed without buying the books I went to buy, much less any impulse buys.

In my opinion this total lack of understanding their target customer is why chain bookstores are failing—and the publishers aren’t helping by persisting in their age-old genre bias.

Here’s one of the books I drove twenty minutes to buy and failed. I went to find a James Lee Burke novel—an author I’m sure we’d all agree is one of the most literary writers out there, although his books center on a detective protagonist, they have varying degrees of mystery and suspense elements in them.

I expected to find him in the General Fiction and Literature section of the store since, well, he’s James Lee Fricking Burke. So I dove into the murky morass that is Gen Lit, armed with my trusty compass—my alphabet—and surface near the “B’s”. Only to find no James Lee.

Instead I found his daughter, Alafair, whose books I enjoy, but they are straight mystery/suspense, nothing literary about them. Okay, I swim out of Gen Lit and head over to Mystery/Suspense, again plunging right into the “B’s”.

There I find his backlist in mass market paperbacks. No sighting of the book I wanted, a book that at the time was on the NYT bestseller list. Hmmm… to the trusty clerk at the kiosk who is busy fielding phone calls and questions. He checks the computer and assures me they have the book I want in stock but is interrupted by another phone call, so I go off to find it myself.

Turns out my compass, the alphabet, no longer works in either Gen Lit or Mystery/Suspense….as this store has begun to segregate some hardcovers (but not all—don’t ask me how they decide) away from the mass market and trade paperbacks. Now the hardcovers (some, not all) are lined up in a separate shelf closer to the center aisle where everyone walks….but with NO SIGNS to tell the consumer this!

And, if you’re an author with a hardcover out and you’re already shelved in Mystery/Suspense, your hardcover book can be one of three places—the center aisle hardcover penthouse, the first row of Mystery/Suspense, or in the ghetto along with the paperbacks….but here’s the problem. How the heck is the customer to know???

Imagine searching for an author who is truly cross-genre like John Connolly or Mario Acevedo or Neil Gaiman??? Or, for that matter, little ole me!

Here’s where the author/businessperson in me gets frustrated. Because not only do the bookstores persist in segregating books with no rhyme or reason, the publishers encourage them!

I’ve lost track of the number of writer friends whose books I, a highly motivated shopper, can NOT find because the publisher decided to shelve their romantic suspense or police procedural or paranormal in Gen Lit.

And guess what, my own publisher does the same with mine. Yes, my fast-paced, fun beachy read paperback novels are shelved not in Mystery/Suspense but rather in the morass of Gen Lit, just to the left of MOBY DICK!!!

Look at these covers—my publisher is clearly marketing to a specific target audience: women who enjoy medical dramas/romantic suspense. Are those women going to browse the quamire that is Gen Lit? Are they going to look for my sexy suspense stories to the left of Herman Melville?

NO! They’ll look in Mystery/Suspense first, and since so many of the romance reviewers/readers have embraced my series, they may look in Romance next. And then they’ll leave the store empty-handed because my books won’t be in either place.

I get hundreds of fan letters. The only complaint I have ever gotten from any reader is: I can’t find your books in my store.

Of course they can’t. You don’t go looking for a candy bar alongside the capers.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my books, I think they’re fun, kick-ass, mighty-good reads. So do the critics and so do my readers—if they can find them.

My books perform the same purpose as any books in the Gen Lit section including any that could be called “literary”—they entertain. They provide a diversion and escape from the mundane world. They give the consumer their money’s worth.

But they’ll never be confused with Moby Dick!

I propose that the bookstores, at least the chains, use the system that makes shopping for books in Europe so delightful. The stores I’ve been in abroad encourage browsing and make things ever so simple for everyone, customers and clerks alike. How? They have no genre sections for fiction—everyone is arranged using my trusty compass, the alphabet.

So yes, in Europe my books are still to the left of Moby Dick—but everyone knows where to find them, right at the end of the “L’s” where they belong!

Speaking of the power of the consumer, I’ve begun a new program called: BUY A BOOK, MAKE A DIFFERENCE.

As a pediatric ER doctor turned author, I applaud the efforts of Doctors Without Borders and their humanitarian aid during disasters such as the recent earthquake in Haiti . In order to support their continuing good work, I will be donating the royalties from the sales of four of my Kindle titles from now until February 29, 2010 to Doctors Without Borders.

The titles, all romantic suspense novels, are: NERVES OF STEEL, BORROWED TIME, CHASING SHADOWS, and LOST IN SHADOWS. For more information on these titles or my Buy a Book, Make a Difference program, go to

If you don’t like romantic suspense, you can still make a difference! Make a donation to a worthy cause of your choice and pass this offer on to your friends and family.

As always, thanks for reading!

About CJ:
As a pediatric ER doctor, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about in her cutting edge suspense novels. Her debut, LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), became a National Bestseller and Publishers Weekly proclaimed it a "breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller."

The second in the series, WARNING SIGNS, was released January, 2009 and the third, URGENT CARE, October, 2009. Contact her at

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Gruel and Rabbit Ears

Gabriella Herkert
Catnapped and Doggone

What was my favorite childhood television program? Ouch. This is where I have to tell my Dickensian story of a small girl’s deprivation and denial and how the harsh conditions of her upbringing led her to the life she now leads. My evil mother (she should be a step-mother for this piece but I am not actually adopted except when it suits me) placed strict limits on the amount of television we were allowed to watch. I know. It’s hard for me to pull this pop culture skeleton from my family’s closet but there you go. If it happened now, some enterprising pre-teen would be dialing the Department of Children Services abuse hotline. But back in the old days, this kind of parental domination was actually allowed to happen to poor little kids like me.

At first, when we still lived in Illinois, we were allowed Wild Kingdom and The Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights. Mostly, I remember Marlin Perkins, the host, reeling off amazing facts about the animal world until some less than cooperative game animal charged, at which point he’d yell “Get him, Jim,” to his long-time assistant. Marlin, for all his hide behind the Range Rover antics, gave me a great appreciation for wildlife and its habitat. I write Animal Instinct mysteries for Pete’s sake. For that matter, some of my chase scenes bear a remarkable resemblance to poor underpaid Jim Fowler’s scrambles for safety. Walt Disney played a role, too. I doubt there’s any mystery writer who won’t tell you that Walt’s infusion of the happy ending doesn’t affect both their choice of genre and the way they go about it. Evil queens need to be bested. The schemes of dark princes must be revealed by the last page. And singing mice and whistling dwarfs make for fun, adventurous sidekicks. Uncle Walt did right by me.

When I was in the seventh grade, we moved to Wisconsin. The television time restriction was lifted but it was moot. We lived in the country. Pre-cable television. Yes, I’m old. But it left us with three channels one of which was forever being pre-empted for an endless program of question and answers by the state university’s hockey coach. No, I am not kidding. The second channel was one of the big three networks but it never really came into focus. Which left exactly one channel. PBS.

I still love PBS. I watched Ivanhoe and never again wrote a story where the hero chooses the vapid girl next door over the quirky challenge who was his intellectual equal. I saw Mother Love with Diana Rigg and David McCallum and realized middle aged women could be more dangerous than any hockey mask wearing psycho. This has never been released on DVD but it stuck with me so strongly for so long, I actually sent an email to the BBC asking them to release the darn thing so I can see if it is as scary and bloodless as I remember. I watched every episode of the Prisoner with the abrupt disappearance of Number 2 and the endless chess game machinations of good versus evil. It’s John LeCarre’ on screen long before he was. Masterpiece Theater’s Alistair Cooke brought me Austen, Hardy and Bronte so I could either compare them to the books I’d already read or add the books to my must read list. And read I did. For every hour of PBS I watched, I probably read ten hours. For every great story I saw on screen, I sought five more on paper. Childhood television made me a bigger reader. It was probably that evil woman’s (sometimes called Mom) nefarious plan all along.

Recently, she suggested I go back and rewatch Rocky and Bullwinkle which was a Saturday morning PBS staple when I was about eight years old. We used to watch it together. She’s concerned I thought it was about a raccoon and a moose when it really was one of the smartest, sharpest political satires of all time. I guess I’m finally ready for big girl TV.
Thanks for reading.


Saturday, January 23, 2010

TV made me everything that I am

By Michael Wiley

As a child I spent many happy hours watching television, hours that my wife and I now deny to our kids, telling them that we don’t watch television (except when we pull it out of the closet for emergencies such as approaching hurricanes and the running of the Kentucky Derby) because they can spend their time better by reading or drawing or climbing trees. The fact that my wife and I read, drew, and climbed trees while also watching hours upon hours of television when we were kids doesn’t change our minds. Still, we secretly worry that we’re depriving our children of an essential part of their education, maybe even a part of childhood itself.

Much of my own sensibility comes from the television shows I watched as a kid. I got in my first fistfight one morning when I was four years old and wanted to watch Popeye while a friend wanted to change the channel to watch . . . I don’t remember what, something weak-kneed like Rocky & Bullwinkle. I remember being angry and, if it’s possible for a four year old, aesthetically wronged. How could anybody want to watch Bullwinkle when one could watch a little guy like Popeye conquer Bluto and win the girl? This was art, I explained to my four-year-old friend in not so many words, and soon we were on the floor wrestling and throwing little fists at each other.

I grew up. A little. At age ten, I spent nearly every weekday afternoon watching re-runs of Adam-12 and then Dragnet. The ridiculously scrubbed-faced actors who played LAPD cops in Adam-12 would never make the cut in today’s gritty police procedurals, but the episodes kept this kid on the edge of his couch. Joe Friday was staid and stiff in Dragnet, but I felt a thrill every time the announcer said, “the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” Who needed reality TV?

Did watching these shows lead me to write detective novels? At least it didn’t steer me away from writing them. On the other hand, for a while I also watched The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family, and I never did learn to play bass guitar like Danny Bonaduce. But if you read closely, you might see similarities between one or two of my femmes fatales and Florence Henderson.

Friday, January 22, 2010

With a broom and a brush ...

By Shane

"With a broom and a brush, cleaning up for the rush ..."

The songs were the thing.

The TV shows of my childhood were, frankly, sucky. Wooden performances, bad writing, poor production values. I loved them anyway. They were fun and exciting, and made me think I could do the stuff those actors did if only I was cool like them.

But what I loved the most were their theme songs.

Yep, the theme songs. Those pretty bitty ditties that summed up the premise of the shows in one to three minutes of singin' and dancin'. They were so memorable as to be unforgettable; I mean, who can't still sing "Gilligan's Island," right?

"... the movie star ... the professor and Mary Ann ...

Right. But great theme songs didn't apply only to the shows. The music in the commercials was equally catchy. I can't think of a single modern beer commercial I can sing. Yet, I can still belt out, "A beer is a beer is a beer is a beer until you've tasted Hamm's."

So join me now in some of the great theme songs from back in the day, courtesy You Tube ...

And this ...

Another memorable beer commercial ...

With this from the same brewer ...

With the full lyrics, for those who don't quite remember. I wish I could find a video with the full song, but alas, it doesn't seem to exist. So, everyone:

I've had beer from a pitcher
and from a German mug.
I filled up a paper cup
I poured it from a jug.
I've had beer mild.
I've had beer bold.
I drink it whenever I can.
But a beer is a beer is a beer is a beer
Until you've tasted Hamm's.

This product was memorable if you needed to smell good after a couple of those beers ...

Hey, this is a crime-writin' blog, right? Let me introduce you to a few of my favorite crime-related (broadly interpreted) TV themes ...

Lest you think my fave TV themes were all dramas ...

For cops everywhere ...

Thanks for hanging out with me singing.


P.S. This one's for you, Kel, and for everyone who loved those morning kids shows ...

Shane Gericke is a national bestselling thriller writer who wants his own theme song in the worst way. The newest in his series, TORN APART, launches worldwide on July 6.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Phoebe Figallily is a Silly Name ...

By Kelli

OK. I admit it. I still get a glazed look and a slightly dumb smile when I hear the Nanny and the Professor theme song.

I didn't watch much TV as a teenager, because we lived in a rural environment, and flipping on a show required a real commitment--we didn't have PG&E, just a gasoline generator, which meant going out into the cold and yanking the cord and making sure the damn thing had gas in it.

We still watched a fair amount of programming--Sixty Minutes, usually Love Boat and Fantasy Island, Wonder Woman (new and old adventures), Laverne and Shirley (though I gotta admit, it wasn't worth the generator pull after Shirley left and it was just Laverne and the crazy blonde. But I digress ...). A lot of movies of the week (anybody else remember Anthony Hopkins chewing scenery as Hitler? Or Jane Seymour in East of Eden?)

Back when I was younger, though, TV was divided up into new and reruns, and the reruns were always my favorite. So from a very young age, I loved ...
Captain Kangaroo (of course). Romper Room felt too much like boot camp.
I Love Lucy. The Dick Van Dyke Show. The Addams Family!! The Doris Day Show. Bewitched (though Darin yelled too much) and That Girl (though Donald yelled too much). And, of course, Batman, which sparked a life-long love of comic books [which means I'm not selling my Julie Newmar autographed Catwoman photo].

When I was a bit older, I discovered The Twilight Zone, Star Trek and Night Gallery--all favorites to this day (You've probably all heard my Shatner story. And yes, I have all the original episodes on DVD. And no, I don't recognize Generations as canonical).

I also watched a lot of westerns with my dad. Gunsmoke was a family favorite (I was partial to Festus), along with High Chaparral. I liked Barbara Stanwyck in The Big Valley long before I saw Double Indemnity ...

New series? Well, Happy Days, and spin-offs. Earlier, I loved The Ghost and Mrs. Muir with Hope Lange. MTM, of course, Bob Newhart, the Carol Burnett Show and The Julie Andrews Hour in the early '70s. MASH. Also Hawaii Five-O and Harry-O (no relation), and Barnaby Jones and Columbo and McMillan and Wife.

But my earliest favorite was still Nanny. Richard Long (Big Valley) played the Professor--Juliet Mills played Nanny--the kids were cute--and who wouldn't want a magical British nanny to solve all your problems? She even drove a cool old car--a 1930 Ford named Arabella. And best of all, she was in love with the professor, and he with her. I knew this--no one could argue me out of it. In fact, the last line of the Addrisi Brothers theme song, contrary to popular opinion, is not "Is it love?" but "Nanny is in love." And I am unanimous in that. ;)

Ah, the memories.
Excuse me, gang ... got an appointment with my computer and ...

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Favorite Childhood TV Show

As a kid I spent "way" too much time in front of the TV - yes at one point I had the whole ABC, NBC, CBS schedule memorized (We didn't have cable - funny thing is I spend $100 a month on a satellite dish now and I still mostly watch the networks - but I digress.)

I guess the answer really depends on what part of childhood. When I was really young it was anything to do with adventure and Sci-Fi. Star Wars was a revelation to me, so when Battlestar Galactica hit ABC - I was all over it. Of course even then I thought it was cheesy that they kept showing the same cut of the Cylon ship getting blasted by the Viper every time they shot one of those metallic bastards down. (Did they really think we weren't going to notice.)

I'm also down with what Josh said earlier - loved all the action adventure shows, the A-Team, the Fall Guy, (my plan was to someday marry Heather Thomas, which reminds me, what happened to my poster?) I will even admit to thinking the Dukes of Hazard was cool - I wanted a car like the General Lee, welded shut doors and all. Then of course there was Dallas, which I loved because I wanted to be JR, but I realized deep inside I'm a lot more like Bobby a good hearted sap, but it was okay because he had Victoria Principle as his wife. Hey I'm seeing a pattern here - high school kid with no dates in love with beautiful TV women.

Later though, I needed something cooler. Really thought Miami Vice was awesome. Don Johnson and PMT, the music, the Ferrari, Edward James Olmos as Lt. Castillo (who later showed up on the awesome new version of Battlestar Galactica). It was so cool - at least it was at the time - the thing is I've seen some episodes recently on NetFlix - the good ones are still pretty deep, but the bad ones - what the hell - this is not how I remembered it. Some of the dialogue makes me cringe, the clothes and the hair - how did we think this was cool? I can only chalk it up to 80's syndrome, world in some kind of bizarre flux, which can be verified by my own hair and clothes including many photo's of me walking around with my collar up and spiked hair - or worse yet the "mullet". thank goodness this was pre-JPEG era or you guys would force me to post a picture.

But in the end there can be only one - and my favorite TV show of all time - I haven't even seen a repeat since I was like seven years ole - The Six Million Dollar Man. What's not to like, Astronaut, pilot, all around stud super hero in a track - suit. The cool bionic sound when he jumped and crushed things and of course the most awesome theme song of all time.

Steve Austin, a man barely alive. We can rebuild him. We have the technology...

Ahh, memories.

Television Boy

As a child, my favorite TV show was all of them. I loved me my Muppets. I loved me my A-Team. I loved me my poorly translated Japanese anime. It's not that I was indiscriminating. I just grooved on escapism. I still do. Don't you?

But if I had to choose one TV show that I absolutely had to watch, every week, it probably would have to be the" Creature Double Feature." It always ran on Saturday afternoons on UHF Channel 56 out of Massachusetts and I almost always got home in time from Saturday morning services to catch the first of that day's two sci-fi/horror flicks. Since I wasn't really into the Wide World of Sports - both on TV and outside on the street - the "Creature Double Feature" became my default Saturday afternoon treat.

The sci-fi/horror flicks which were broadcast during these Saturday afternoons were very much not appropriate for Saturday afternoon broadcasts. Some of the films I remember watching during the "Creature Double Feature" were James Whale's Frankenstein, Tod Browning's Dracula, and Roger Corman's The Raven. Yep, The Raven. With Vincent Price. At 2pm in the afternoon. For all the non-athletic kids in New England to behold, absorb, and retain.

On a school day, when I was sick, I also enjoyed VHF Channel 6's "Dialing for Dollars," which was pretty much the same concept as the "Creature Double Feature" except there was only one film (usually horror but sometimes Fletch) and occasionally, during the commercial breaks, there would be a sort of lottery drawing where viewers could win cash. I myself never dialed for dollars. But I wanted to.

As I grew up, I really began to gravitate toward the syndicated shows out of Canada (Degrassi, Friday the 13th: The Series, Highlander, Forever Knight, War of the Worlds) if only because they were just so weird. Plus they tended to share casts, so it was like watching rep in the comfort of my own bedroom. Funnily enough, the "Dialing for Dollars" concept originated in Canada, and Janis Joplin immortalized it ("Dialing for Dollars," not Canada) in her song "Mercedes Benz."

On a side note, my small TV (once I finally got my own) had a malfunctioning on/off button, so it often would click on in the middle of the night. This is how I learned about infomercials and the Star-Spangled Banner.

(Special thanks to this fantastic website for the first graphic.)

ADDENDUM A: Since today is my day to post, it also becomes my pleasure to announce that today, our own Sophie Littlefield has been nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author!!! Congratulations, Sophie!!!

ADDENDUM B: Sadly, it is also my duty to share with you this news, courtesy of our own Shane Gericke: "Robert B. Parker has just died at the age of 77. He was at his desk, writing, when he slumped over and was gone. He is, of course, the author of the immensely popular Spenser for Hire private-eye books, among so many others." Well put, Shane. Mr. Parker was a genre legend, a writer's writer, and he will be missed.

Monday, January 18, 2010

True Confessions

Meredith Cole directed feature films and wrote screenplays before writing mysteries. She won the St. Martin’s/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery competition, and her first book, Posed for Murder, was published by St. Martin’s Minotaur in February 2009. Her next book, Dead in the Water, will come out in May 2010. She teaches screenwriting and mystery writing. And she's very glad to be guest blogging again at Criminal Minds.

I have a confession to make. My parents didn’t own a TV when I was a kid. It made playing TV tag a total embarrassment. Every time I got tagged, I would try to remember shows I’d seen at someone’s house, but I'd often end up repeating myself.

Most of my childhood was spent finding other ways to amuse myself. I read a lot. I drew paper dolls with huge extended families, large wardrobes and complicated biographies. I rode my bike, roller skated, and learned how to dance to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. But when my parents split up, my father started a television repair business. Suddenly his house was full of TVs, and I had some catching up to do.

My father (who is British) made sure to introduce me to Monty Python and Benny Hill at an early age. We watched M*A*S*H together, too, even though I think quite a bit of it went over my head. I never did come to like Benny Hill much, but I developed a life-long appreciation for Monty Python.

So what was my favorite show? When I thought it over, sadly none of the great TV classics popped into my head. Instead, it was The Love Boat.

When I was in fifth grade, my friend Betsy and I would watch the show at our respective houses, and talk on the phone during the whole episode. We would predict who was going to fall in love (the doctor almost always got involved with a woman--it's a good thing there weren't too may medical emergencies on board), and discussed the pros and cons of each relationship. It was like a story and character analysis seminar conducted by eleven-year-old girls.

What made The Love Boat so entertaining for me? Even now I’m not sure. Maybe it was its predictability. The boat sailed at the beginning of each episode, people fell in love and and broke-up, but in the end they all returned to homeport. Despite each episode having multiple story lines, I can’t remember a single plot point going unresolved. It had a satisfying symmetry to it, kind of like a mystery novel. And kind of like life.

So--what was your favorite childhood TV show?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

To Amateur Sleuth or Not to Amateur Sleuth

by Michelle Gagnon

Gabi asks:
What made you choose the FBI as the agency for your protagonist? And what does a performer in a Russian venue do exactly? Troika? Vodka sommelier? Borscht interpreter?

I chose an FBI agent as my protagonist because I wanted a main character who could go nearly anywhere in the United States, and who had a reason to be involved in a criminal investigation. I have nothing but respect for people whose books focus on amateur sleuths, but for the life of me I haven't been able to come up with a storyline for one that would support an entire series. By and large, when a crime occurs, most people call the appropriate authorities, who then handle the investigation.

Also, even if you do have an amateur sleuth, at some point they're going to need some help and/or inside information- tough to get if your protagonist is a sanitation worker. But that's just me- obviously there are mainly successful series featuring amateurs. I figured that these books can be difficult enough to write, and didn't want to set up any additional hurdles for myself.
So an FBI agent seemed the most logical option for me when I was starting out.

I get the Russian Supper Club question a lot, since it's by far the most interesting part of my bio (and, second to writing, was my favorite job ever. Seriously). I blogged about it once for Killer Hobbies, here's what I said...

The item on my resume that elicits the most attention is always the bit about how I was once a performer in a Russian Supper Club. This generally provokes questions running along the theme, “Were you naked?” (I wasn’t, I swear).

So let’s clear up any misconceptions. This is back when I was a professional modern dancer. I got the supper club job through a friend from one of my dance classes who knew I was between gigs (which is a nice way of saying I was out of work at the time). I usually filled those interims with bartending jobs, but had recently had a bad experience and wasn’t eager to continue slinging drinks. Rent was coming due, and my bank account hovered around zero. My friend approached me after class one day and said, “I know how you can make decent money for a half-hour show three nights a week.”

Sounds sketchy, right? But my friend assured me that there was no nudity involved, in fact the costumes were elaborate to the point of being ridiculous. I tentatively agreed to come to rehearsal that afternoon. If all went well, I’d be onstage the following night. I walked in and met the seven other performers (five dancers, two singers). Over the space of two hours they taught me six dance numbers. I found it curious that everything was set to early-eighties tunes like “Beat It” and “Turn the Beat Around,” (this was the mid-nineties), but figured it could be worse.

I was still reluctant, but agreed to try it out for the weekend. I left the club address with my boyfriend just in case I arrived home with one less kidney (or didn’t turn up at all) and headed to Times Square. A van shuttled us from there to Brighton Beach, where a huge neon sign announced “Club Versailles” on a building that looked like a storage warehouse plastered with fake Doric columns. We went in the back way. I followed my friend down a narrow staircase that opened into the kitchen. The room was filled cooks in ragged tank tops, most with a cigarette dangling out of their mouths (and dropping ash into the food, at which point I made a mental note not to eat the free dinner). They all leered as we passed, following the snaking corridor to a tiny room at the end of the hall where we were meant to change. A rickety screen in front was supposed to shield us from prying eyes, but let’s just say it was fairly ineffective.

As for the show itself, let me give you the backstory (yes, there was a running plot):

Aliens had landed in Brooklyn (this was illustrated by the descent of a miniature spaceship from the ceiling, accompanied by clouds of fake smoke. I was actually fairly impressed by the recent immigrants metaphor). The singers (aka the aliens) learned all about American culture via a series of songs and dances. These included, paradoxically:

-a disco routine where we wore towering French powdered wigs and hoop skirts,

-a Michael Jackson number complete with Jerri-curl wigs and black spandex outfits, and

-a flapper number where we danced the Charleston.

Confused? I was. The modern day equivalent would be teaching people about American History by showing them YouTube clips.

The dining room was packed with families seated at long tables (I was told that most of these were local mobsters). Vodka flowed freely, and kids ran around the room despite the late hour. We closed the show every night by grabbing people from the crowd, dragging them onstage, and forcing them to perform the Macarena with us. I’m not kidding.

And here’s the funny thing: in retrospect, it was the most fun I ever had dancing. Up until then I’d worked with a series of very serious modern dance companies doing “important” pieces. So I’d be rolling around the stage in a black leotard simulating the situation in Rwanda, or wallowing in pieces called “Disconnected” that were supposed to illustrate the dehumanizing effect of machinery on modern existence (mind you, this was pre-internet). And the Club Versailles job was just pure fun, the dance equivalent of a summer blockbuster film. I had a blast doing it for the three months the gig lasted. Then one night, we were all abruptly terminated. Apparently the owner suddenly realized that she could hire Russian dancers for a fraction of what she paid us, and wouldn’t have to provide van service from Manhattan.

So I bid the mobsters a forlorn dasvidania and returned to the bar scene. A few months later, in the face in worsening knee injuries, I hung up my dance shoes and moved west in search of a new life. So in the end, Club Versailles closed out my dance career. I’ll admit it, I still get a little teary whenever “Beat It” comes on the radio...

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Life vs. Reality

by Michelle Gagnon

Michael asks:
Michelle, you describe yourself as a former modern dancer, dog walker, bartender, freelance journalist, personal trainer, model, and Russian supper club performer. In THE TUNNELS, THE BONEYARD, and THE GATEKEEPER you write wonderfully suspenseful stories about serial killers and worse. I’m curious: in what senses do you or don’t you “write what you know”?

I usually keep my hidden past as a serial killer out of the bio since it tends to make people uncomfortable.


The truth is, as my bio indicates, I'm completely unqualified to write the books I write. I've never worked in law enforcement (although I dream of one day making a citizen's arrest), I was never a doctor, lawyer, PI, or anything else that would provide a solid knowledge base (all of this will seem even funnier when you read my amateur sleuth post tomorrow- because ironically as it turns out, those are the only books I am actually qualified to write.)

But I really did want to feature an FBI agent as my protagonist (more on that tomorrow).
So to compensate for my ignorance, I always do as much research as possible. Then I hand entire sections of my WIP off to experts for vetting during the editing process. (In spite of that, as one FBI agent told me at a conference, there are oversights, especially in THE TUNNELS. But she claimed to have enjoyed it anyway as a work of fantasy :). )

I firmly believe that as fiction writers, very few of us write what we know- if we did, it would probably be marketed as non-fiction. Few of us (hopefully) have stumbled across a murder victim. And fewer still have been assigned the task of tracking down the perpetrator.

People like Doug Lyle MD, FBI agent George Fong, and others have been tremendously helpful in helping me close that information gap. For THE GATEKEEPER I had a nuclear physicist, bomb expert with the ATF, CIA operative, and K&R negotiator on speed dial (note: most of them do not enjoy being called at 3AM to answer specific questions. They are surprisingly unsympathetic about impending deadlines. Apparently their sleep is more important--go figure).

However, what I do possess is a good grasp of is basic human nature. If you go back over my bio, notice the "bartender" bit. Slinging drinks provided a license to observe people, sometimes when they were behaving terribly. I got to be very good at guessing what different conversations revolved around: which couple was on their first date, which was breaking up, which guy was ready to strangle his buddy over something. In crime fiction, take a minor conflict you've observed (say, a guy going into a rage over a parking ticket) and imagine how exponentially greater it would be if he just found out his wife was cheating on him. Or that he's about to be fired. Amplify the reaction. Because when it comes down to it, we're pretty simple beasts. We just have a knack for complicating things.