Wednesday, October 31, 2012

My Fictional Fling

By Tracy Kiely

Mr. Darcy
 Knowing my love for Jane Austen, particularly Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, you might think that my fictional dream fling would be either with Mr. Darcy or Captain Wentworth. After all, both are pretty swoon worthy, and both have left many a young woman secretly hoping that one day she would meet her own modern-day equivalent of Fitzwilliam or Frederick. However, the very reasons these men are so beloved – their innate decency, honesty, and loyalty – makes having a fling with either of these men unthinkable. Would a man who uttered the words “Dearest, loveliest Elizabeth,” be capable
Captain Wentworth
of having a cheap fling? No.  Nor would one who proclaimed, “A man does not recover from such a devotion of the heart to such a woman! He ought not; he does not.” You might as well tell me to have a fling with Hercule Poirot – after all he’s decent, honest, and loyal, too.
"Order and method, mon ami!"
Okay, now my mind has just created the most horribly hysterical scene of Poirot in bed with a woman. He would fuss over the quality of the sheets, the size of the pillows, making sure that everything was just so. I can see him muttering about order and method as he smooths down his waxy mustache. Oh, god, now he’s talking about his little gray cells…aghhhh! make it stop!    
Okay. Sorry about that. Let’s pretend that didn’t happen.
In fact, the only two men in Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion who would be amenable to having a fling – George Wickham and Mr. Elliot – are the very kind of men that one wouldn’t want to be with – unless one wanted to expose themselves to whatever STDs were rampant during the Regency Period. And if I have to engage in some kind of Jasper Fforde, Thursday Next time travel where Z-packs are non-existent, I’m not going to hop into bed with a known womanizer.
So that pretty much eliminates any of Austen’s heroes.
I considered the modern-day updates to her work – specifically, Bridget Jones’ Diary. Mark Darcy is out for the same reasons cited for the original Mr. Darcy – he’s too nice – but Daniel Clever might be fun. He’s clever, witty, and handsome, and I’d still have access to modern-day medical treatments should the need arise. But at the end of the day, Daniel is not a nice man.
So, he’s out.   
My next thought was Eric Northman, Charlene Harris’ sexy bad boy vampire from her True Blood series. Eric is definitely the kind of guy who would be amenable to a fling, but since he’s a vampire I’m pretty sure that he’s free of all those pesky STDs as he’s…well, um, dead.  Plus, he’s full of V (vampire blood), which according to Ms. Harris, does wonderful things when bestowed on humans. It makes their skin glow and their hair shine. It also makes them stronger and faster and more alert. And I definitely could use all of those enhancements right about now. And, if you would have asked me this question last year, I probably would have gone with Eric. However, HBO ruined last season’s True Blood with this stupid subplot involving Sookie having a three-way with Eric and Bill. I haven’t felt the same about Eric since.
So, he’s out.  
Seriously, is this supposed to be this hard? Am I over thinking this?  
I guess my problem is the fling (well, that and some weird, unrealized fixation about STDs; honestly, where did that come from?). The fictional men I harbored crushes on wouldn’t have a fling. They’d pine and love from afar and be decent and write lovely letters…and wow, never get a date in high school.  I guess that’s the rub – these men send young girls hearts fluttering because their stories are all the vexations of romance and courtship with ultimately a happy ending – sex doesn’t come into the picture.
Which, for some heroes, is how it should be.
Speaking of which. Hercule just popped back into my head. I can see his egg-shaped head peering above the sheets on his perfectly made bed. “Order and method, mon ami, order and method,” his accented voice purrs as he leans in, his waxy mustache quivering with anticipation…
Hey - everyone deserves at least one good scare on Halloween. That image is yours. Enjoy!    

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Book tour news

At Teague Library in Glendale, with Donis and librarian Shelly
I'm going to skip the question of the week because I'm on book tour right now and using an unfamiliar computer. Plus I have pictures to show!  I hope everyone in the path of Hurricane Sandy stays safe.  Ironically I regularly check the hurricane news because I have a daughter living in the Turks and Caicos.  I asked her if Sandy was affecting her, and she said "no'.  Then I turn around and my own house is in the path!   As a bit of a weather junkie, I'm rather sorry to be here in sunny Arizona while Frankenstorm descends on my neighbourhood.

I'm touring with Donis Casey, whose newest book, THE WRONG HILL TO DIE ON, has just been released.  We're having a great time, and really enjoying exploring how our books, so different on the outside, have several important themes in common.

Trying on hats, with Don

Barbara Peters, me, Donis Casey. Like my new hat?

Meeting new readers at the PEO function in Tempe. 
Here are the first pictures of the tour:

Monday, October 29, 2012

So Many Male Characters, So Little Time

Be Still My Heart.
Thinking about which fictional character I would most like to have a fling with brought a warm, sweet smile to my face.  Okay, that's not entirely true.  It actually brought a big shit-eating grin to my face.

With such a wealth of male sleuths out there from all corners of the world and serving in all kinds of professional and amateur capacities, you'd think it would be a difficult choice. Not for me.

A lot of ladies would immediately zero in on Lee Child's Jack Reacher or Charlaine Harris' Eric Northman, and those would be excellent picks. But when I considered the question, there was only one answer I could honestly give:  JESSE STONE. Maybe it's my New England heritage weighing in.

I love Robert B. Parker books, but am absolutely in love with the complicated and tragic character of Jesse Stone. And when they made them into TV movies, I jumped for joy and the airing of each finds me on my sofa slurping them up like fine wine.

And it certainly didn't hurt that they cast the always hunky Tom Selleck as Jesse.

My. Oh. My. Oh. My.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Where the Series Ends

by Meredith Cole

The moment that a series usually comes to an end is usually not the moment that most people agree that it should end. Some series end far too soon, and readers wish there were more books so they could hang out with the characters far longer. But publishers are under increasing pressure to discard dead wood, and so if a series doesn't take off they stop buying books from the author. And in some cases we lose talented authors (like Hillerman) and have to mourn both the writer and their characters' demise.

What about a series that goes on too long? Will Grafton's series end with "z" or should it have ended long ago with "m"? Will Evanovich make it to 100 on her Stephanie Plum books? Will someone continue Robert Parker's many series until Spenser is in a nursing home?

I don't know. But I do know this: as long as publishing houses are paying money, people are buying the books, and Hollywood is knocking on the door, authors will continue to write a series. I could say that I'm too pure to be corrupted, but I can truthfully say that I have not yet been tested. (Note to publishers and Hollywood: I would be happy to have someone try to bribe me--so give it your best shot!). My series, like Chris', is still just two books long.  I just hope when I get to my xth book in my series, I know when to call it quits and move on.

But I'm not only a writer--I'm also a reader. And there is definitely a moment when I give up on a series and wish it would go away. Here are just a few reasons:
  • Every book in the series has become exactly the same. You pick up the book and the character hasn't changed, the story is almost identical and you know exactly what is going to happen. Clearly many readers find this comforting. I find it rather dull.
  • The same villain comes back again. And again. And again. Until you wonder if you've stepped into some alternative universe, and the story is no longer scary--just ridiculous.
  • The cast of characters has become so large and complicated that you need pages and pages of explanation to get you up to speed. And characters constantly refer to previous cases that happened in earlier books until your head is spinning.
  • The author is just phoning it in so they can collect a check. How do you know? See any of the above.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


And when it's time to ring them down.

When I got a publication deal for the first book in a detective series - or rather when I got a publication deal for a detective novel and was asked whether it was a series (see below) - my agent told me loud and clear that I had to write at least six. 

(Below.  When an interested publisher asks you if you see it becoming a series, it's the crimewriter equivalent of a Hollywood casting director asking if you can ride horses.  You say yes without missing a beat and work out how later.)

Why six?  Because, my agent told me, that's how many episodes there are in a serving of BBC Sunday night telly.  (Do US agents tell new American writers to shoot for twenty two?)

It was a bit of a joke to my friends and family, but then fan me flat if, just after No. 6 came out, the BBC didn't go and option it.  I'd mess that neat bit of plotting up with a problem or two if I was in charge.  I'm glad I'm not.

So the first half of my answer to the question of when to retire a series character is not until you've written six (if it's British and/or has any kind of bonnets or shawls about it anyway.)

How about the other end?  How long can you rumble on? 

I wouldn't want to end up like Agatha Christie.  In Dead Man's Folly (1956), thirty six years after she introduced her Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, she introduced the character of Ariadne Oliver, a writer of detective stories, who is pig sick of her Finnish detective, Sven Hjerson and wishes he was dead or at least not Finnish anyway.

I started Dandy Gilver off in 1922 and I'm just editing the 1930 story now.  I've got a great idea for 1936, which looked a hilarious distance off when I started and now seems like it might be just round the corner.  I've got a cracker for 1972 too.  Dandy would be eighty six.  Just a spring chicken compared to Poirot.

In which the author jumps the shark...

by Chris F. Holm

Damn my clever, clever cohorts and their clever cleverness.

See, as the author of a brand-spankin' new series that's only just gotten out of the gate, I was going to play all glib with this week's question ("How do you know when it's time to retire a beloved series character before he or she jumps the shark?") and (at least attempt to) bust out some kind of funny "It might be time to retire your character if..." list. I mean, what do I know from beloved? The first book in my Collector series (cough DEAD HARVEST cough cough) has barely been out seven months, and the second (cough THE WRONG GOODBYE cough) came out just a few weeks back. Since I've only just begun to find an audience, I'd like to think I haven't overstayed my welcome yet.

Then Reece went and made a list. And what's worse, it's pretty darn funny. Which means if I go back to the list-well, I run the risk of jumping the shark myself.

Or nuking the fridge.

Or midichlorianing the Force.

Or Calypso-ing the Pirates of the Caribbean.

Or replacing the Becky.

Or nominating the Palin.

Or "SCULLLLLLYYYYY!"-ing the Mulder.

Or detonating the Jughead.

Or eating the Ray Liotta's brains and running off with Clarice Starling (because seriously, what the eff was that about?)

Or whatever the heck was going on with the last ten Cornwell novels, 'cause dude.

Which is why, dear CM audience, I would never dare attempt to follow Reece's list with another of my own. For one, it would be tacky. Cheap. Obvious. And for two, I respect you all too much.

Then again, shark-jumping worked for the Fonz...
Confidential to those in the greater Quebec City area: this weekend, from October 25-27, I'll be participating in QuebeCrime alongside John Connolly, Linwood Barclay, Laura Lippman, Owen Laukkanen, Chelsea Cain, and many more! It's shaping up to be a killer con, and I'd love to see you there. Details are here. Great company in a beautiful city - who could ask for more than that?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Bouchercon Highlights

By Hilary Davidson

Before this year's Bouchercon, I described the conference to more than a few people as "Christmas, Halloween and summer camp rolled into one event." Photo evidence from Cleveland to prove it!

Oh, what a night! Dinner at Lola Bistro with my husband, Dan, and wonderful friends Kat & Chris F. Holm, & Lauren O'Brien. 
At the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with the incredibly talented Chris F. Holm. 
My "Murder He/She Solved" panel with moderator extraordinaire Kat Niidas Holm, Joy Castro, Robert Olen Butler, & Bruce DeSilva. (Just out of the frame: panelists Hannah Dennison & Cathy Wiley.)
With Kat. Can you tell we're having fun yet?
Neliza Drew, Dan O'Shea, Dan O'Shea's Rather Spectacular Jacket, & Sabrina Ogden.
With my amazing friend Robin Spano at the Canuck event.
More Canucks! My Toronto Sisters in Crime Helen Nelson & Janet Costello.
With another wonderful friend, Kathy Ryan.
Colin Campbell, Christa Faust, & Judy Bobalik. Did I want to steal Christa's lovely vintage purse? Oh, yes. 
Timeless style: Ken Wishnia & Kelli Stanley.
Preparing to toss Brad Parks into the hotel fountain...
At the last minute, we showed mercy & posed for our annual Charlie's Angel photo instead. (With Christine McCann, Lauren O'Brien, Elyse Dinh, & Brad Parks.)
What we look like when we're not toying with Brad's fate. You'd never guess what we're *really* like!
One of the best things about Bouchercon: seeing friends from every corner of the continent. Hanging with with Austin's awesome Scott Montgomery.  
Thugs of the world unite! With Big Daddy Thug (AKA Todd Robinson) & Robert McClure.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Browner Pastures

By Reece Hirsch

You know it may be time to retire your series character when:

  • More than one of your protagonist’s love interests has met a violent end.  You’re starting to feel like the mother of an unmarried thirty-five-year-old.  (“Oh, I really liked that one that you were seeing a few years back -- until she was gunned down by that psychopath.”)
  • Series fans are starting to enjoy the books that feature the sidekick a little bit too much.
  • More than one book has centered around placing the character’s love interest in jeopardy.
  • On some level, you wish the villain would stop all the gratuitous monologuing and just put a bullet in the protagonist.
  • Hollywood has made a movie featuring the character and has botched it badly.  (If the film starred Katherine Heigl, that doesn’t help matters.)
  • More recent entries in the series feature a co-author.
  • Your character’s wisecracks are starting to sound like open mic night at the Laugh Factory.
  • Series fans seem to take more interest in unearthing new facets of the character’s backstory than they do in the actual plot of the book.
  • The character has a dog that has now lived more than 150 dog years.
  • Your character has taken so many beatings from bad guys that you feel the need to address the adequacy of his or her health insurance coverage.  (This is particularly a problem for PI characters.)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Looking Here and There

It’s not either or with me on this question of what comes first in terms of research.  That is, I can go someplace or meet someone in an interesting walk of life and think, huh, now there’s a story there.  Or an idea for a character or situation occurs to me possibly spurred by some news story. If intrigued enough, I pursue where that idea takes me. 
As an example, several years ago there was the Rampart Scandal here in L.A.  This involved a tough anti-gang cop operating out of the Rampart station getting busted for stealing a bundle of coke from his division’s evidence locker   The cop’s name was Rafael Perez.  As his colleagues sweated him for the lowdown on why he stole the coke, seeking to make a deal, Perez reeled off a raft of eyebrow raising revelations that rocked the city and got national attention.  The New Yorker did what I can only call a East coast biased piece that woefully missed the many aspects of this multi-faceted story.
For on a daily basis more layers of the scandal came to light.  As it happened, given my background as a community activist and at that time heading a nonprofit to better race relations (this being post the ’92 Rodney King verdict riots), I knew a couple of the lawyers representing some of the gang members Perez and his cohorts had vamped on in the heavily Latino populated Pico-Union section here in L.A. 
I had breakfast with one of those lawyers, asking this and asking that and taking notes.  Additionally, as happenstance would again have it, I knew Perez’s defense attorney slightly as our kids played on the same basketball team at a neighborhood park.  He couldn’t talk to me of course, though I did pitch him to ask his client what about me writing Perez’s memoir, but still.  I also knew various community activists, some ex-gang members, who had plenty to say about some of the officers operating out of Rampart.
Up to that point, I hadn’t written a police procedural.  I’d written several books and short stories about my private eye Ivan Monk, two about ex-showgirl and cold cash courier Martha Chainey, and a standalone or two.  But how could I not write this story?  I got delayed for several months after having written an outline and some sample chapters with this editor at a big house who wanted me to redeem one of my main characters and I didn’t.  As we argued about the direction of the narrative over a period of months, the film Training Day got out the gate and the Shield was on the horizon for cable.  So I had my agent withdraw my work from that house and fortunately my editor at Kensington dug the story the way I wanted to tell it and they published Bangers in ’03.
More recently, my novel out now, Warlord of Willow Ridge, began as a news article I read in the L.A. Times last year.  It was about this housing subdivision that had fallen on hard times out in Hemet, what we call the Inland Empire here in the Southland.  How, as the effects of the Great Recession had roiled these homeowners, some of whom had bought their houses when the market was up.  But now, after the developer ran out of money, you had some of these homes next door to skeletal frames or any number of foreclosed homes in the subdivision.  You had squatters and gang members running through, renters versus mortgage holders.  A kind of modern Western. 
Like many of us, I’d read and seen on TV various stories about the money meltdown.  I was already contemplating doing some story of story about this, but as I read more and made more notes, didn’t think I wanted to tell the story from the top, via say a Wall Streeter.  I did toy with what if a professional thief was hired to steal back some money ripped off by a Madoff-type.  But that article stuck with me.  So what, I thought, if my pro, my career criminal is no kid.  He’s in his forties and finds himself, like the aging gunfighter, at a crossroads.
The antihero arrives at this once tony subdivision not on a horse but on a failing motorcycle.  He can’t travel further and decides to take over a foreclosed house.  Turns out an enterprising gang has taken over another empty house and turned it into a high tech meth lab, there a shapely divorcee who inherited an auto-body chain eyeing my bad boy, her grown daughter has a thing for the enterprising gang leader and sells his meth to Hollywood wannabes, the head of the flagging homeowners association very concerned with the Ph balance of his pool and some other odd types.  What might happen with my guy and them are in the same orbit?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Just Enough

by Alan

How much research do you do for your books?

The short answer is: just enough to get the job done. I’m not one of those research lovers who pores over old books in the stacks or delves deep into the details. I do just enough research to allow me to depict the settings, situations, and characters in my books with verisimilitude.

But, on occasion, I will venture out of my writing cave to do some research. Here’s a summary of a recent research excursion I took for my work-in–progress:

DSCF2134The last few scenes of my book take place in Washington, D.C., on the Mall (The National Mall. You know, the place with the Capitol and Washington Monument). So I put myself in my protagonist’s shoes and drove to the Vienna Metro station where I boarded an Orange Line train (I’m a Northern Virginia suburbanite—it didn’t take long).

Then I made notes about what I experienced (saw, heard, smelled (yuck)) as we paralleled I-66 before diving underground. At Metro Center, I changed trains, but not before darting from platform to platform, trying to shed imaginary followers (as my protagonist does). I kept track of which escalators I took and where I doubled back and what the whoosh of air preceding the trains into the station felt like. If anyone was truly following me, I must have looked quite confused (and/or suspicious)!DSCF2193

When I got off the subway—where the protagonist in my story gets off—I pulled out my camera and began to take pictures as I walked. In many cases, I didn’t even slow down as I pressed the shutter button, because I was timing how long it took me to reach certain landmarks. (In all, I took 221 pictures.)

I continued this for the next hour or so, snapping more pictures and traipsing along the Mall. Then I visited a couple of D.C. “attractions” (which shall remain nameless for the time being), to do some research for two particular scenes. At each place, I took a guided tour, again snapping pictures and asking questions where necessary (the questions had more to do with the buildings’ layouts, than the collections, which I’m sure made my guides suspicious. Thankfully, no one called security on me).

DSCF2040When I got home, I revised my draft to include all the new material I’d learned. I need to make another jaunt into town to shore up a few more details, and then it’s a wrap!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Sage Advice

by Tracy Kiely

Ah…the age old bit of advice to writers; write what you know. We’ve all heard those words uttered by illustrious writers as they stand before a podium addressing a packed auditorium as they detail their tricks of the trade. Invariably, this advice is followed by a low murmur of agreement from the audience and plenty of knowledgeable head bobbing. 
All writers – all successful writers, that is – apply this sound advice to their own writing and never stray outside their own sphere of knowledge. Just look at J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Charlene Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series, and the complete works of William Shakespeare.
(And for those of you who are now angrily sputtering that it was impossible for William Shakespeare to have written those plays as he wasn’t a trained playwright and never went to University, please take this opportunity to firmly flick yourself on your forehead.)
            Now, I’m not saying that there isn’t some merit to the advice. When you write what you know, there is an authenticity to your prose. If your setting is a real place and you’ve never been there before, you must research it or you will get angry emails from readers. I skirted this one a bit for my first novel, Murder at Longbourn. I set it in Cape Cod, a place I love and visit often. However, I intentionally set it in a nameless town of my own imagination so I wouldn’t have to worry about details like whether you can make a left on Main Street after 7 pm. I wanted to write a mystery, not a travel guide.
            Characters are also obviously better when they seem “real.” By carefully observing those around you, you can create some really solid characters.  Characters that make you feel, make you care, and in some cases, characters that make you giggle with glee when they finally get what’s coming to them. For instance, let’s say you know a person that really gets under your skin. As in nails on a chalkboard, air-horn in your face, desire to punch their lights out, under your skin. By taking the qualities that annoy you so much and applying them to a fictional character, you will have written what you know and, most likely, in a believable way. Then you kill off this character, and go and enjoy a well-deserved cup of tea.
            The only problem with this is that sometimes the people who annoy us the most are the same ones who are most likely to show up at our table for major holidays. We all have a relative (or two) that were our mothers one day to quietly take us aside and admit to a brief indiscretion with the milkman, rather than recoil in disgust, we’d hug her with joy. (By the way – do milkmen even exist anymore? Where did they all go?)  However, were we to actually put these annoying souls into our books, we’d get busted. And most likely right in the middle of one of those holiday dinners that are just around the corner.
            (Okay, I’m totally interrupting myself here, but this is funny. Every year, we host Thanksgiving at the Cape for my husband’s family. Every year, I attempt to seat twenty-eight people of varying temperaments in a manner that ensures as little friction as possible. I usually fail, and am always left in awe at those poor souls who arrange the seating charts for United Nations’ Dinners.  Anyway, a few years ago our dog, Cormac, was suffering from epileptic seizures. Our vet, who is also a close friend, gave me a syringe filled with Valium to use on him should one happen. Now, Cormac was a big dog, and so was the syringe. Honestly, it was cartoon-like huge. It looked like something Fred Flintstone might use on Dino. Anyway, Cormac was fine, and we didn’t need to use it. But I was sooooo tempted to inject the turkey with the Valium to ensure that we all had a peaceful, drama-free dinner regardless of the damn seating arrangements.)       
            Which brings me to my point about writing what you know. Granted, it's a point I’ve proposed before, but damn it I’m going to do it again. Remember Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, where the two men traded murders? Instead of trading murders, I propose we create a writer’s database of Really Annoying People.  It won’t be limited to relatives; co-workers, bosses, ex-loves are all eligible. This way we can write believable characters and still sit down for holiday dinners without fear of drama and tears.
            Well, drama and tears about being realistically portrayed in a book. I can’t promise anything about the rest.  Unless you happen to have a large syringe of Valium handy.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Write What You Know. Not.

By Vicki Delany

Writers are often given the advice of “Write what you know.”
In a lot of cases I don’t think that’s good advice.

Say you’re a systems analyst at a major bank in a big city. You take the commuter train into the city every day from your home in a leafy suburb, you interact with computer programmers and businesspeople, you write technical documents and at the end of the day you get back on the train for a half-hour ride to the leafy suburb whereupon you drive home and cook dinner for your family. A bit of TV, helping kids with their homework, maybe read before bed.

Boring. Unless a writer can put a real twist on the above (example: The Zac Walker books by Linwood Barclay) it’s going to be as boring to read about as it is to live.

I know. That was my life for a good number of years.
So because I didn’t want to write a book about the life of an office worker and a commuter, I set about learning what I wanted to know so I could write about it.

I wanted to write the sort of books I love to read: mainly the British style police procedurals. I have no experience in law enforcement whatsoever, but it was important to me that my books have some veracity, at least within the bounds of fiction. I just hate it when I come across a book in which the author clearly hasn’t bothered to try to learn simple things they should know. We particularly find that in Canadian police stories, where everything the author knows about policing is from watching American TV and reading British books. 
Before beginning the Constable Molly Smith series, I made contacts in my local police departments. I found that most people are happy to talk about their jobs, few more so than police. I read a few true-crime books set in Canada so I’d get the hierarchy and the inter-force relationships right, even though true-crime isn’t normally something I read. I read newspaper articles with an eye to who did what, and scour web pages of police departments for technical info about ranks and divisions.
In short, I learned what I wanted to know.

When I wrote my new standalone novel, More Than Sorrow, I set it in a place I know very well – because I live there – but on a small-scale vegetable farm.  I know nothing about farming (you do not want to try to survive on the output of my garden) so I found a helpful cheerful farmer to tell me all about it.  I know nothing about traumatic brain injury (thank heavens) and found the internet an invaluable source of information.   The book has a historical backstory, about a people and a time I didn’t know much about, so I set about learning.
Same with my Klondike Gold Rush books. I wasn’t there, so I have to go to what sources I can find.  Fortunately, the Klondike Gold Rush was extensively photographed.  It was the last great gold rush, and the camera had just become small enough and easy enough to use that it could be taken out of the studio and away from stiff formal portraits to capture life on the street and people unaware.  In fact, in next year’s book, Gold Web, a photographer comes to town and young Angus MacGillivray decides that might be an interesting occupation.  Case in point: I went to the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY,  to meet with the curators to learn about old cameras and primitive photography. Fascinating stuff.

After all, it was bad enough being stuck on that commuter train and in that office in real life. Why would I want to spend time there in my imagination? You don’t think that J.K. Rowling created Harry Potter by writing what she knew, do you?
In Arizona or California?  I'll be touring libraries and stores in Phoenix, LA, and San Francisco over the next few weeks with Donis Casey, author of the historical Alafair Tucker series.  Our schedule is posted at my blog: It would be great to see you!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Knowing So Little About So Much!

When I first started writing a lot of folks advised me to write what I know.  Sounds like good advice, doesn’t it? Problem is, I know so little.
One of my favorite things about being a writer is researching for a new book. I love it!
When I first develop a plot for one of my Odelia Grey novels, I come up with a central theme or topic around which the murder is wrapped.  For instance, in Curse of the Holy Pail I used the theme of lunch box collecting. In Corpse on the Cob it was corn mazes. In Twice As Dead I utilized Drag Queen Bingo. I knew nothing about any of these things before I started my research. Somewhere along the way I had heard about them and thought they would be a fun theme for a book. From there it was as simple as paying a visit to a corn maze and a charity drag queen bingo game. I take lots of photos on these trips and ask a lot of questions. For the lunch box theme I contacted a man who had written books about lunch box collectibles.
One day last year I was home sick and found myself on the sofa playing TV roulette with the remote. I finally settled on a marathon of Storage Wars. Three hours later I had a book in mind. In fact, I’m currently writing that book. It’s working title is Bidding On Bodies.  Stay tuned!
For my Ghost of Granny Apples books, I take a little different approach. Because Granny and Emma investigate the murders of ghosts they encounter, there is a lot of research into the history surrounding the subject ghost’s time frame. Before starting a book, I pick the period of time during which the ghost lived and the location. That’s the baseline. I may research for several hours only to use a tiny bit, but the research is necessary to get the culture, speech, dress and mannerisms of the ghosts just so. 
Both series sometimes require travel to a location, especially the Granny Apples books.  Again, lots of photos are taken and I usually find several people to talk to about the history of the place.  For Gem of a Ghost I visited the haunted Old Jail Museum in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, and was given a private tour by the owner. But not all locations involve long distance travel. In Hide and Snoop, my most recent Odelia Grey novel, I visited the Olympic Spa in Los Angeles so I could get the surroundings just right for the book. To make sure I got it correct, I went back a few times.
What can I say? It’s a dirty job but someone has to do it. And while I’m still an expert at nothing, my head is full of fun facts and trivia. Maybe I should try to get on Jeopardy?

Friday, October 12, 2012

How do you find the perfect name?

by Meredith Cole

Some characters come named--just like that. There's no stress or worry. You know their name just as you know everything else about them (their favorite foods, the color of their hair, and the car they drive) right away. Other characters take a bit more thought and it takes a while to find the perfect name for them.

I don't remember naming Lydia McKenzie in POSED FOR MURDER and DEAD IN THE WATER. She just came along with a name one day. As I got to know her, I learned about her penchant for vintage clothes and her desire to take murder recreation photos. But the secondary characters were more challenging for me to name.  I had Italian American private eyes, a Puerto Rican detective, a French gallerist, and various artists. And yes, you can't name several people with the same first initial. It's way too confusing.

My first strategy was to use the Brooklyn phone book. Brooklyn has every single ethnic group imaginable so I just went shopping there for the perfect Italian name. D'Angelo. Angels. Lydia's bosses certainly don't seem like angels, but they grow on you. They have more heart than she thinks, and they introduce her to an exciting new profession--becoming a detective herself.

Romero popped quickly into my head as the name for the homicide detective/love interest. I didn't realize until later how close it was to "Romeo"... It's taking Lydia a little longer to figure out that he's the man for her.

If a name doesn't occur to me, I sometimes try one out for awhile. One character I called "Andy" until I realized he was a bad guy. My step-father is also an Andy, and I didn't want to use his name for someone awful. Think of the awkward Thanksgiving conversations! So I changed it.

One of my pet peeves when I read a book is names that don't fit a character at all--the name is too old or too young for them, or totally in the wrong time period. You wouldn't name a Medieval maiden "Tiffany" even if there was an occasional Medieval maiden with that name. It just sounds too 80's pop star. And there may be one or two thirteen-year-old girls running around named Susan in America, but believe me it's not very common. Susan was a name that was wildly popular in the 50's, so it would be great for a 60-year-old woman.

A great way to find just the right name for someone--one that really fits--is to check out the social security website. There you can find out the top 100 names for any year--and you can even look up states! That's not to say you should feel limited by those, but it's a great way to find out what the kids will all be named in kindergarten in five years. And you can get a better sense of what sounds are particularly popular (Jayden, Brayden, Hayden--or--Hannah, Anna, Savannah)--especially if you don't have a young kid at home and don't spend all you time on the playground. It's also interesting to see how names in the south differ from those in the north east... (Did I mention this is dangerous if you're on a deadline--?)

I like to give main characters stand out names that not everyone has--but secondary characters that I want to stay in the background need to blend a little more. And I always keep the first initials different so they don't all blend one into the other...

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Dandelion by one particular other name . . .

. . . is "pee-the-bed".  Something that didn't occur to me until after I'd called my new series detective Dandelion (aka Dandy) Gilver, because her parents were devotees of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, the type who'd think a wildflower was a wonderful thing.

Gilver, Dandy's name since she married Hugh Murdoch Cathellen Gilver, is believably Scottish (I know McGilvers and Gilverys) but not actionable, since I made it up out of GIL (Scots for servant) and VER (Latin for truth).  So she's a dandy servant of truth i.e. good detective.

Be assured I don't go into that much depth and cunning for everyone.  Ordinarily, I love naming characters precisely because flashy results for little effort are the best bit of writing.

So for the first names - what Dandy in Scotland in the 1920s would call Christian names - I use Naming Baby by Eugene Stone, a fine little volume inherited from my grandmother after she used it (presumably) to come up with James,Walter, Peter, Annie and Minnie.

For what I call second names, US speakers call last names and Dandy would call surnames, I used to flip through the weekly Galloway News.  There was much fun to be had with McSporrans and McHaggises, McGurks and McGoggs and McGilihooleys.  I couldn't use them all, obviously; that many micks and macks would send readers cross-eyed, so the second names in the books are never an accurate reflection of what a batch of Scottish names would actually be.  (Think California towns starting with San or Santa and you'll get the idea). 

A related - if irrelevant - problem is that if I buy an address book outside Scotland it never has enough space under the Ms and I have to steal some of the N pages to cram in clan McPherson, clan-in-law McRoberts and all my McKenzie, McKie, McLean, MacDougall, MacKay and McKinnon pals.  It must be the same in Ireland with Os.

These days I do it online.  There are no fewer daft Scottish names but there is always the danger of finding yourself, two hours later, deep in the bowels of Youtube, watching a cat stuck in an urn.

The most fun I ever had naming characters was in a circus setting for The Winter Ground: Topsy Turvey the acrobat, Tiny Truman the dwarf clown and the flying Prebrezhenskys, a Risley act. 
Tiny Truman was named after what was called, at the head of a paragraph on the Finger Lakes in the Rough Guide to New York State, Tiny Trumansburg.  I know the town was named after the president and the guide was commenting on its size, but I loved the idea of a big town named after someone called Tiny.

The most frustrating bit of naming characters is that, in being realistic, you have to ignore endless real-life examples just too outlandish to appear in fiction: I used to have a colleague called Zip Dominion; a mature student whose parents, in the 1950s, saw no reason not to call her Gay Cocks (but get these feminist credentials - she didn't change it when she married!); the local indie bookshop in Davis is run by the magnificently monikered Alzeda Knickerbocker; or what about Madison Bumgarner of the Giants?  (I'll tell you what about him - Go, As!)  And I'll never forget the day I learned of Diana Ross's decision to grace her beautiful little girl with the fragrant . . . Chudney.  Oy.

Let's finish off back in fiction; Chudney couldn't happen there.

My favourite fictional name of recent times is the hero of Daniel Friedman's stellar debut Don't Ever Get Old.  He's a curmudgeonly octogenerian Memphis Jewish ex-detective and his name is Buck Shatz, which makes me laugh every time I see it.  I'm just sophisticated that way.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Jain Says

I can't tell you how happy I am to be addressing the topic of character names this week. In part because it's a topic close to my heart, and in part because I recently wrote a guest-post for a friend's blog series on this very topic, which I can now quote from (and link to) with impunity - no small thing, given my brain is still fried on account of a whirlwind Bouchercon this weekend past.

So, the following is lifted shamelessly from Abhinav Jain's blog, but represents just a portion of my complete post. If you'd like to read the rest, click here. And be sure to check out additional entries in his Names series from the likes of Myke Cole, Kim Curran, and many more.
Name-wise, my Collector series is easier to tackle than anything else I’ve ever written. I think it’s because I’m playing around with both pulp crime and religion – two wildly disparate influences, perhaps, but each with their own rich traditions to draw upon when it comes to dubbing characters.

My protagonist, Sam Thornton, takes his name from the pulp side of the fence. It’s derived from two of my literary heroes, who’ve both influenced my Collector series immensely: Samuel Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Thornton Chandler. The handle suits him because although he’s an undead collector of souls, his role in the narrative is essentially that of the hard-bitten detective.

His handler Lilith, on the other hand, is yanked straight from the Apocrypha. These texts, considered by some to be gospel and others heretical, describe her as a voluptuous, redheaded vixen with wicked ways and an insatiable appetite for sex – the first woman in Creation, cast out of the Garden of Eden by God for refusing to be subservient to Adam. Folklore tells us Lilith then engaged her appetites with countless (ahem) members of the demon realm, giving rise to incubi and succubi, who are in turn responsible for our modern (nonsparkly) vampire myth. Though she’s hardly a household name, she’s inspired many a redheaded seductress in fiction, from Brigid O’Shaughnessy to Jessica Rabbit. In short, she’s the archetype on which the modern femme fatale was built – and therefore perfect to play the role of one in my novels.

My first Collector novel, Dead Harvest (out now!), features a young girl named Kate MacNeil, whose surname (in a winking minor spoiler) was lifted directly from The Exorcist. It also features an angel named So’enel, whose name, if I assembled it correctly (which I may well not have, in which case I hope I get points for trying), is Hebrew for “warrior for God.”
If you'd like to read on, and get some insight into the names that pepper my brand spanking Collector novel The Wrong Goodbye, then click through to read the rest of my post. If, however, you'd rather see photos of bleary-eyed con-goers, then keep reading.
This Bouchercon was an eventful one. I was lucky enough to dine with fellow 'Minder Hilary Davidson, to meet (if all too briefly) a certain Mr. Orloff, to bump into CM alumnus Michael Wiley, and to catch a panel featuring the inimitable Kelli Stanley. Add to that a panel for me, another for the missus, and more wildly interesting folks to talk to than you can shake a martini at, and believe you me, I didn't get much sleep. Here's a couple photographic highlights:
My Morally Challenged Heroes panel. L to R: Ali Karim, Lou Berney, Liz Hand, Seth Harwood, and yours truly. Air-vent cockroach not pictured.
The Murder He/She Solved Panel. L to R: the lovely and talented Katrina Niidas Holm, the captivating Hilary Davidson, Joy Castro, Robert Olen Butler, Bruce DeSilva, Hannah Dennison, and Cathy Wiley
Katrina and I enjoying dinner at Lola with good friends Dan, Hilary, and Lauren
Some scruffy author signing books

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Lily by Any Other Name

By Hilary Davidson

I obsess over character names. It's not unusual for me to spend days or weeks — or even longer — figuring out what a character should be called. It's a mix of sound, meaning, personal significance, and pure luck. Here are some of the names I've used for characters in my books, along with the reasons I chose them.

Lily Moore: Years ago, when I was living in Toronto and taking a fiction-writing workshop at Ryerson University, I had the germ of an idea for the book that became The Damage Done. I knew, without consciously thinking it through, that the sisters' names were Lily and Claudia. The last name was another matter entirely; I wrote much of the first draft without figuring it out. Then, in a conversation with another writer about the book, I said, "With Lily, there's always more under the surface." It was as if a light bulb went on over my head at that moment, and Moore became her surname from that point on.

Jesse Robb: Lily's best friend is the one person she really depends on... but even though Jesse is loyal, charming, and kind, he does have a roguish side. As Lily is well aware, he has no problem invading her privacy by opening her mail or listening in on her telephone conversations, and he will occasionally lie to her if he believes doing so is in her best interest. Jesse literally means "God's gift," but when I say the name, I can't help but think of the outlaw Jesse James, too. Jesse Robb's surname seemed right for a rogue with a good heart.

Bruxton: I love the fact that so many people have taken the time to write to me to ask, "What is Bruxton's first name?" Some of them make guesses, since there are clues in the books. (I thought my clues in The Damage Done were so obvious, but no one has guessed correctly... yet! There is a giant clue dropped in Evil in All Its Disguises, coming in March 2013, so I think Bruxton's secret will be out after that.) "Bruxton" is a name I made up — its root is the word brusque, which literally means abrupt in manner, blunt, or rough. When Lily first meets him, that's how she would describe him, too.

Norah Renfrew: Lily and Norah bond, partly, over a shared love of female singers from the 1940s, especially Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. While Norah Renfrew is an NYPD detective, I wanted her to have a name to match her rich, resonant voice — and, to my ear, this does. Norah means "woman of honor," and that certainly fits this character.

Tariq Lawrence: With a Pakistani mother and English father, Tariq Lawrence is a man caught between two words, and I wanted that tension to be visible from the start. Also, Tariq literally means "evening caller" in Arabic, and Tariq is very much a creature of the night (Lily first encounters him in the middle of the night in The Damage Done).

Leonard Wolven: Hmm, it's hard to write about this one without being too spoilery. Let's just say that, when I started writing The Next One to Fall, I knew that there was a man at the center of the story who was a predator when it came to women (and to many other things). His first and last names reference a couple of predators of the animal kingdom, the lion and the wolf. But there's a powerful tension in the character, too, and since lions and wolves are very different creatures, I wanted the reader to wonder which side would dominate. At one point in the book, another member of the Wolven family says, "The name Wolven is appropriate, because we are like wolves."

Bastián Montalvo: His first name is a derivative of Sebastian, but the real reason I chose it is because Bastián reminds me of bastard (if you've read The Next One to Fall, this may seem appropriate). His surname is from Spanish nobility, and members of the family were part of the conquest of the New World, settling in Chile (where Bastián hails from), Peru, and other parts of South America. Being nobility, a Montalvo traditionally could not be executed by hanging, but he could be killed by firing squad...

Elinor Bargeman: This woman is Lily's nemesis for much of The Next One to Fall, and while Lily detests her, she also develops a grudging respect for her tenacity. "Bargeman" describes the character pretty well — she barges into rooms, speaks without considering other people's feelings, and is generally overbearing. But I had to give the character a first name I love to remind myself that there is much more to her than meets the eye.

*          *          *

Speaking of Evil in All Its Disguises... I'm giving away 10 advance reading copies over at GoodReads. If you have a mailing address in the US or Canada, enter now!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Name Game

By Reece Hirsch

How do I come up with character names?  I must admit that I don’t have many cogent, coherent things to say about the process because, for me, it’s largely intuitive.   Over the course of writing a book, I usually try on a number of names for my protagonist until one just seems to fit the character that’s on the page.

Sometimes I think a name is right for a character when I start a manuscript, but then the character morphs during the writing process.  There are actually quite a few variables when picking a name.  The first name has to sound good with the last name.  And you can’t have too many character names in a book that are too similar because that can confuse the reader.  You would think that naming the primary characters would be one of the more straightforward parts of writing a novel, but I always seem to struggle with it.

Since I don’t have a lot to say on this week's topic, and Bouchercon has just wrapped up in Cleveland, I’m going to cheat a bit by rerunning my post from last year on 9 things that you might overhear in the bar at Bouchercon (slightly updated).  I wish I could have been there, and I want to congratulate Criminal Mind emeritus Michael Wiley on his Shamus Award win for A Bad Night’s Sleep!

1. “My agent says that because my last book didn’t sell, I’m going to have to publish my next book under another name. In fact, it was so bad that she says that my wife and kids are going to have to change their names, too.”

2. “At every panel at Bouchercon, there’s always that one guy in the front row who wants to explain to everyone during the Q&A about how self-published e-books have killed traditional publishing. I know it’s not always the same person, but it feels like it’s the same person.”

3. “Forget biorhythms. I never feel better than when my Amazon rating spikes.”

4. “My next book is a stand-alone, but it could also be the first book in a series. It’s a mystery, but it has thriller, paranormal and dystopian elements. It’s the Swiss army knife of books.”

5. “See, it’s kind of like Strangers on a Train.  I’ll create sockpuppets for your book, and you create sockpuppets for mine.  It’s the perfect crime.”

6. “I’m writing a YA noir. With the economy and the environment in the toilet, kids are going to need to understand earlier than ever that life is bleak and unjust.”

7. “My cover art looks like it was drawn in poo on the bottom of the monkey cage at the zoo. And not by a smart, Rise of the Planet of the Apes monkey. No, I'm talking about the other monkeys.”

8. “For my next book, I’m doing a virtual book tour. I’m going virtually nowhere.”

9. “After four or five stiff drinks in the bar at Bouchercon, this whole publishing business starts to make sense to me."

Friday, October 5, 2012

Nothing But the Facts...Sort Of

“This is the West, sir.  When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
            -- from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, screenplay
                by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck

by Gary
Facts to the storyteller -- unlike what plainclothes detective Joe Friday to the right needs -- are meant to be manipulated.  Need to wipe out Hitler and Goering and some other rat fink scum suckers at a Nazi propaganda film showing in Vichy France as in Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards?  Done.  Make Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator a stove pipe hat wearing, bad ass ax-wielding vampire slayer, and have Jefferson Davis, the father of the Confederacy sign a pact with these blood      suckers…no problem.  Create this near-mythical tribute statute said to be encrusted with rubies and emeralds, and have some greedy jackanapes willing to lie, cheat, steal and murder to posses this fabled object as in the granddaddy of all detective novels, the Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett.  On it.
Now the one thread that runs through these three storylines, ranging as they do from the fantastic anti-histories to the fatalistic, is they use certain facts to construct their stories.  Be it the Civil War, the Nazi regime or the Knight Templars, these are actual people and events.  These facts help to moor their tales in a reality we recognize, while also warping that reality to tell the story the writer intended for the reader or the viewer.  Given that, there are generally other facts, details in particular, that the writer will adhere to keep that mooring secure.
In Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, book and movie, the types of guns and uniforms of the Civil War soldiers are portrayed as they were; no .45 semi-autos of Tommy guns showed up – though sometimes anachronisms are used in stories of this type.  Inglorious Bastards was a wish fulfillment romp, but adhered to the technology of that era.  In fact one could argue it was because of the flammable nature of physical film at that time that the plotters plan was able ot be carried off successfully.  And while there may have been no gold bird statuette paid to the King of Spain as tribute, the notion of such does not strain credulity.
As another example, and more personal to me, in Big Water, this graphic novel Kickstarter project I’m working on (yes, please, click on Big Water’ and see more about it) involving who owns the water we drink, there is no town in Southeast Los Angeles called Bell Park.  But there have been news reports about corruption in that part of the county in towns like Bell and Cudahy.  There have also been pitched struggles in municipalities in the Southland and elsewhere over whether to privative a city’s water and wastewater system.  Then there’s the crazy money bottle products like infused and coco water make – water it costs pennies to extract and once you slap a label on it, get some sexy spokesmodels to pimp, er promote it, billions can be raked in.
Do these facts make their way in the fictional story, you doggone right they do.  But the intent is to use the facts as context and undergirding to a story that is about betrayal and desire, loss and redemption.  You know, the good stuff.  Because nothing bogs down a story more than unloading the facts you’ve learned in your research.  Most research isn’t employed but you never know anecdotally what you’ll uncover in the facts, so the facts must be compiled but distilled judiciously in your work – like a fine bottle of chilled fizzy water.
As Casper Gutman observed to Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon, some facts are subject to interpretation, but they remain facts as we understand them and that they have a bearing on our actions.
“These are facts, historical facts, not schoolbook history, not Mr. Wells' history, but history nevertheless.”