Monday, March 31, 2014

A Wordless Day

If you lost the ability to write or read for a day, what would you do?
by Meredith Cole

I do not think a day has gone by when I haven't written something (even if it was just a to-do list or an email) or read something. Not having something to good to read has thrown me into a teensy bit of a panic before (What will I do if I have to stand in line? How will I manage to go to sleep?). Sadly I have managed to go many days without doing any productive writing. But I think I find this question intriguing because when I'm overly obsessed with word counts and/or my TBR pile, often what I really need is a break from the page.

Here are three things I would do on my wordless day:

1) Garden
Since leaving New York City, I have become a rather obsessive gardener. Getting outside and digging in the dirt is such a great change from sitting in front of a computer. I have come to the conclusion that there will never be enough bulbs/flowers/shrubs/fruit in my yard--so I keep adding more! And when I'm not planting something, I walk around weeding, trimming, mulching and admiring all the plants.

Just added this fall: loads of perennials, more roses and a strawberry patch.

2) Spending time with a friend or family member

Too often I keep in touch via quick emails or texts or Facebook posts, and I forget to make the time to sit down and really talk to friends and family. I have friends spread all over the globe, but even for the ones close at hand we're always juggling busy schedules. It's such a different experience to speak face to face, and I always mean to do it more often...

3) Swimming/Running/Dancing/Hiking...

I'm so much happier when my day includes a swim or a run, a dance or yoga class--or even just a walk. Without it, I feel so much less centered and content. I hate when work/writing/teaching, etc., makes it impossible for me to squeeze in some exercise, so I would use my time not reading a book to make sure I squeezed in a little more in my day.

So what would you do on your wordless day?

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ask, Please!

Hey there criminal blog readers,

It's time for us to generate the next round of questions for our virtual panel, and this time, we'd like to take our cue from the audience to address questions you'd like to hear answers to.

Are you a reader who wants to know more about our characters? An aspiring author who wants to learn about process? A published author interested in the opinions of colleagues?

Be wild and crazy. Make it easy or tough on us - your choice. But tell us:

What would you like our panelists to answer in the weeks to come?

Leave your devilish questions here for our weekly panel to tackle, then come back to add your own answers, comment, or throw virtual tomatoes at us for our responses over the next few months!

Friday, March 28, 2014


Who would be your dream mash-up? (For instance, Sherlock Holmes thrown together with Stephanie Plum.)

By Paul D. Marks

(I think I understood this week's question a little differently. I thought mashing it up was teaming two detectives together, rather than merging them into one. So, on that basis, here goes.)

In this corner we have Kathy Mallory, Carol O'Connell's tough as her long, red fingernails, NYC police detective. And in this corner, we have Mickey Spillane's violent and brutal PI Mike Hammer. What a team.

If you're a bad guy you better watch out if these two are coming at you.

Hammer has frequently been labeled a psychopath and Mallory has been called a her own author, Ms. O'Connell. These two would be the solve it or kill 'em Dream Team. And any bad guy's worst nightmare as they tag-teamed them into submission.

Not only would Mallory and Hammer hammer on the bad guys, they would probably hammer on each other. And given each one's characteristics, I'm not sure who would come out on top.

Mike Hammer and Kathy Mallory – old school, brutal misanthrope vs. cold analytical not-give-a-damn-and-want-to-do-things-her-way-or-the-highway NYPD detective. Hammer is reminiscent of Dirty Harry (or vice versa as Hammer came first). Of course, now that I think about it so is Mallory. Mallory is sort of like a cat going after a mouse. She is beautiful to look at but cold and ruthless, without any remorse. Efficient and cool in pursuing her prey. She's relentless, a computer expert, who digs in deep and finds things no one else finds, sees things no one else sees, robotic in her efficiency. Somewhat emotionless, though one gets the idea that there are emotions she won't always admit to going on under the surface.

And Hammer makes Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade and most other classic detectives look like kids playing cops and robbers in a playpen. For Hammer, the law is just an obstacle standing in the way of justice – or at least justice as he sees it – and one that can be gotten around by pretty much any means necessary. The end justifies the means. He has his own code and he will enforce that code, since the actual statutes and codes often let the badguys off. He doesn't give a damn about little things like laws, Miranda Warnings and other niceties. All in all you might say – and this is being kind and gentle – that Hammer is a thuggish, sexist, sadist, misanthrope. But probably a fun guy to have a beer with...

If Raymond Chandler thought of Marlowe and other detectives as modern knights errant, Spillane's Hammer is the tarnished knight, maybe the Black Knight, but he's no Darth Vader. He hasn't gone over to the dark side – he just uses dark side methods to help those who can't help themselves or who society is slow to help, if at all, find some semblance of justice.

Some readers have asked for a kinder, gentler Mallory. And the badguys would certainly like that. But O'Connell states in a Publishers Weekly interview: "PW: "Mallory’s drive remains as intense as ever, and she’s still lacking in warmth." Carol O'Connell: "Sometimes readers ask for a kinder, gentler Mallory. I explain that if I do that, I’ve got no book. These are character-driven novels, and I like the way the lady drives. In that respect, she has a vehicular-homicide way about her: always a challenge to go through a red light before it can turn green. I suppose I could try to warm up her image by giving her a dog, but the dog would be frightened all the time."

And if the question of a kinder, gentler Hammer was ever posed to Mickey Spillane I'm sure he would have thrown his drink in the questioner's face and laughed him out of the bar.

Some men, the good, the bad or the ugly, would be intimidated by Mallory. I don't think Hammer would. On the other hand, I don't think she would be intimidated by him. Wonder if they'd even find a little romance, if Hammer could tear himself away from Velda and Mallory could act human for a change.

The question I'm left with is would Mallory and Hammer beat the bad guy to a pulp or each other? Now that's a mash-up.

And I'd like to congratulate Catriona for winning The Bruce Alexander Memorial Historical Mystery Award for Best historical mystery novel at Left Coast Crime last weekend for "Dandy Gilver and a Bothersome Number of Corpses." She gave a terrific and very moving and touching acceptance speech.


Had a great time at Left Coast Crime last weekend. The conference was fun and interesting. Met lots of new people and reconnected with old acquaintances. And Monterey and the drive up and back is nothing short of stunning.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A mash made in heaven

Jane Tennison squinted past the smoke from her seventh cigarette since the start of the shift and took a long look at what stood before her: the golf tan almost orange against the pale pink polo shirt, the white loafers peeking out below khaki chinos, the manicured hand held out in greeting.

"Who the hell are you?" she said.

"Windsor Horne Lockwood III," said the stranger. "They call me Win. Who are you, cutie?"

                                                         (in my head, WHLIII = DHP)

Tennison blew two plumes out of her nostrils and ground the stub out in a brimming ashtray.

"They don't call me 'cutie'," she said. "Not twice anyway."

"Ma'am?" said Win.

Tennison narrowed her eyes.

"Not ... sir?" he asked. "Surely."

she shook her head very slowly, just once to one side and once to the other.

"Kitten?" said Win. "Cupcake? Sweetcheeks?"

Her lips twitched before she answered.

"Guv," she said. "Call me Guv to my face. Whatever you want behind my back. And for God's sake change your clothes before someone sees you."

"What's wrong with my clothes?" said Win, trying not to let an eyebrow lift as he surveyed her ill-fitting grey skirt, her sweat-ringed blouse and the scuffed shoes she had kicked off. Her toenails, with their chipped polish, had made holes in her tights.

"This is a nick," said Tennison. "Not a bloody country club. Now shut your mouth before your whitened teeth blind us all. We've got work to do."

In Harlan Coben's Myron Bolitar series, we're told that Win - the sociopathic philandering sidekick - sometimes helps out international law enforcement. I love to think of him arriving at Southampton Row Police Station in London and joining forces with Det. Supt. Tennison to crack a case. He's indefensibly awful but charming with it and I imagine that as soon as he clapped his cold eyes on Jane, he'd set out to seduce her. He'd fail; she'd eat him for breakfast with extra ketchup but he'd never forget her.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


by Clare O'Donohue

This week's question: If you could merge two fictional detectives, who would your dream mash up be?

The first thing that came to mind was Sherlock Holmes with Nick Charles, from The Thin Man. Why?

Because Sherlock is often so hyper intellectual, while Nick is more free-wheeling. I'm not sure it would make for a better detective but it might be fun to watch.

Or Lee Child's Jack Reacher with Agatha Christie's Jane Marple - a really bad ass, tea drinking, crime solving, shoot first/ knit later detective. I'd read that book.

Or the leather-wearing, computer-savvy Lisbeth Salander of Girl With Dragon Tattoo mashed together with the polite, rumpled, Lt. Columbo...

I could do this all day and not just because it's fun to Frankenvent new characters. I like contradiction. I think we're all opposites inside our skin. It's what makes each of us so interesting, and worth more than a first impression dismissal.

There's humor in Jack, vulnerability in Lisbeth, a toughness in Jane, a drunken genius in Nick, a yearning to connect in Sherlock, and fans know that Columbo's obsequiousness is just strategy. That's why these characters, and so many others, endure in our imaginations. We think we have them all figured out, but they defy easy explanation - they require getting to know before they are really understood. Just like actual people.

I'm realizing what a great writing exercise it is to take two seemingly opposite characters, mine them for their most obvious traits, then create a new, wonderfully complex person.

I think I know what I'll be doing this week!   

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Bond. Ava Bond

This week's question: If you could merge two fictional detectives, who would your dream mash-up be?

My answer:
I'm in love with Ava Lee, the creation of Ian Hamilton who has taken Canada by storm and will soon do the same in the US. She's polite, empathetic, fiercely loyal to her friends and family, and a brilliant forensic accountant. But if you violate her moral code by, say, embezzling millions of dollars, she'll gladly kick your ass with bak mei, the martial art she has literally mastered. Her cases span the globe, from Canada to Europe to Asia. She's a lesbian Chinese Canadian whose residential home is Toronto and work home is Hong Kong.

She can be a bit of a prude though. She has fun when she lets loose, but that's not often enough. So I'd like to mash her up with James Bond.

Mashed up, Ava Bond or James Lee would of course love women. In my mash-up, this new lead is a female, but I think instead of gay I'll make her bisexual. More opportunity for scandalous fun. So instead of going home to “make love” like Ava Lee does, Ava Bond would use sex to open doors like James Bond does. She'd find beautiful men and women to connect with all over the globe. Some would live and some would die. She'd extract herself from harrowing situations with twice the alacrity, since we'd be doubling up his and her powers. And she'd give the bad guy the poetic justice that both of those lead characters always do, to such delicious reader satisfaction.

OK I know what I'm writing next now. Thanks to whoever asked this question!

Monday, March 24, 2014

On Mash-Ups, Zombies, and Unlikeable Protagonists

It's a treat to help launch a debut author and I'm happy to introduce Lisa Alber as a guest. Lisa describes herself as "ever distractible, staring out windows, dog walking, fooling around online, or drinking red wine with my friends." She's interested, in no special order, in Ireland, books, animals, photography, and blogging (whew) and she's hard at work on the second novel in the County Clare mystery series.

Thank you for letting me take over your spot today, Susan! I’m an excitable debut author, but I’ll attempt to keep it sane … except that when I found out this week’s topic was mash-ups, my brain began sizzling like hot oil on a fry pan.

Which is to say, I love a good mash-up. I’m thinking movie mash-ups at the moment, and if a movie’s got zombies in it, all the better. Zombie romance in “Warm Bodies,” zombie 1950s domestic drama in “Fido,” zombies and Elvis Presley in “Bubba Ho-tep.” And let’s not forget zombie comedies a la “Shaun of the Dead” and “Zombieland.”

(If you have a thing for Elvis and Bruce Campbell like I do, you gotta see “Bubba Ho-tep.”  Bruce does a perfect Elvis—heeelarious.)

Being a book geek, I can’t help but ponder what a mystery + zombie mash-up would look like. A zombie detective, perhaps, who’s hard-pressed not to gorge on his suspects? Someone’s going to come up with a zombie mystery series, you just know it. And we’ll shake our heads as that author rakes in millions.

Recently, I was asked to mash-up familiar characters to describe the protagonist in Kilmoon, my debut novel. I had a helluva time coming up with an answer because Merrit, so I’ve learned, isn’t what you’d call an instantly likeable character (for some readers at least).

Unlikeable protagonist?!?!? Nooo, tell me it isn’t so!

Here’s what riles me—and I hope you don’t mind me pulling out my soapbox: If Merrit were named Mark, the likeability question wouldn’t be an issue. Apparently, we women are supposed to care about being liked and thus to act in likeable ways. Phooey!

I find Merrit endearing in all her flaws and morally dubious complexities. She’s got baggage, and heading off to Ireland to meet her long-lost father is, she hopes, a fresh start. (All I can say is, Hah!)

I’m not into the black-and-white thing. Life occurs within the, dare I say it, shades of gray. We all experience moments of weakness and high stress that can cause us to act out in questionable ways. Why should female characters be deemed “unlikeable” because they inhabit luscious gray worlds?

So, in honor of “difficult” female protagonists, I’d love to see a mash-up between Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennison and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s Elisabeth Salander. You know this Jane Salander/Elisabeth Tennison would kick some zombie ass.

A little about Kilmoon: Californian Merrit Chase travels to Ireland to meet her long-lost father, the famous Matchmaker of Lisfenora. Little does she know that he’s a man with a dark past, and murder is about to make an unexpected appearance. Family secrets, betrayal, and vengeance from
beyond the grave … Merrit’s in for a wild ride!

Friday, March 21, 2014

These Are Your Kids On Books

By Art Taylor

When was the first moment you knew you wanted to be a writer?

Like everyone else this week—everyone but "Alan Come Lately," that is—I've thought about the possibility of being a writer for almost as long as I've been a reader, and probably even before that, when I was just being read to. I'm not sure there's a "moment" I could pinpoint, since all of it seems so tied up with all my childhood experiences.

Of all the little images that sometimes seem to be making the rounds on Facebook, my favorite may well be this one:

As a kid growing up in very rural North Carolina, my friends and I had our fair share of adventures:  building forts out in the woods behind our house and defending them against attacks by marauders or dragons or whatever; tromping through the fields beyond those woods on a quest for mysterious lands and magnificent treasure (we did find a washing machine once, plopped down in the middle of nowhere); setting the neighbor's yard on fire... twice, in fact (which was less adventure than misadventure, I guess).

But right alongside the memory of those real-life adventures stands my memory of the places I traveled in so many books and the people I traveled with and the things we did. I went with Sir Toby Jingle on his Beastly Journey. I won the services of Hawkins, "gentleman's gentleman," for a month. I had the weirdest girl in school, Clarissa Mae Bean, as my own friend, and then there were those fat men from space whose transmissions I picked up through that fresh filling filling in my tooth. With the Three Investigators, I got into and out of trouble, solved the mystery, reported back to Alfred Hitchcock himself. And as for Nancy Drew... well, I still think Miss Drew was likely my first love. After all, who could resist that feistiness and fearlessness, that titian hair (such an exotic word!), and that cool roadster?

It was a short step from reading such adventures to imagining more of them... and then to begin writing them down.

And maybe there's just something natural about that step from a love of reading to a desire to tell our own stories. Even at two, my son Dash easily gets wrapped up in the books we read to him... and we've found that if we start making up a tale, he'll join in himself with finishing the sentences we begin or providing the next step along the way. Of course, most of the stories these days involve a little boy going to the store in the car... to buy another car... and then drive that new car to a castle... where everyone has lunch....

And what's for lunch? Well, he just lets his imagination roam wild at that point—maybe a little writer in the making himself.

I'll be appearing at several events in Virginia and Washington, DC, in upcoming weeks. If you're in the area, please check out the events page at my website here for information on the Virginia Festival of the Book, the Books Alive! conference, the Conversations and Connections conference, the SmokeLong Quarterly 10th Anniversary Anthology book launch, and Malice Domestic, where my story "The Care and Feeding of Houseplants" is a finalist for this year's Agatha Award for Best Short Story. Hope to see folks at each of these events!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Alan Come Lately

by Alan

When was the first moment you knew you wanted to be a writer?

Ever since I was able to hold a pencil, I’ve been writing stories. Short ones, long ones, ones about sea serpents and space travelers and swashbucklers. As a child, I’d spend every spare moment spinning tales. I’d fill notebook after notebook with my scribblings, lost on adventures with my imaginary friends. In fact, I become known around town as that “little writing machine.” It got to be---

Wait! Hold on! Stop the presses! Not a word of that is true.

Let me try again, this time with the truth.

When I was in high school, I hated English and I hated writing reports. (Actually, one afternoon when I was about ten, I sat down with my best friend to write the sequel to War of the Worlds. We wrote about a page and a half, then went out to play basketball, never to finish the job.) In college, I didn’t take a single creative writing course (I was required to take a single English class, and Technical Writing qualified). I never wrote anything longer than a grocery list, and even then, I’d use abbreviations. In grad school (business), I couldn’t escape writing altogether, but I made sure that whatever I wrote was as dry as dust and chock-full of clichés, buzzwords, and nonsensical jargon (I fit right in with the future Captains of Industry!).point a to point b

But fiction writer? Never. No way. No how!

And then, about ten years ago, things changed. Now, I spend a lot of time writing fiction.

What caused this reversal?

Beats me!

It sounds like my transformation would make a heck of a story! If only I could find someone to write it…

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

When the dream becomes a reality

By R.J. Harlick

When was the first moment you knew you wanted to be a writer?

I’m not sure there was a definitive moment when I shouted, ‘Yes, I want to be writer.” I more or less slid into it, starting where many writers start, as a reader. I devoured books as a child, in particular mysteries beginning with Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and eventually graduating to Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, Raymond Chandler, Nero Wolf and the like.  Sometimes I thought it would be fun to write one of these myself.

Though I loved reading, English wasn’t my favourite subject. I found the piecemeal taking apart of a story destroyed the magical hold it had over me.  But I loved the creative writing part of English classes and would spend many an hour on class assignments making the stories that swirled around in my head come alive with words. Needless to say many had a mystery angle to them.

I continued to enjoy playing around with words in university. I excelled at making essays read as if I knew something about the topics about which I was writing, when I didn’t. Studying wasn’t one of my strengths. Perhaps this is where my penchant for creative writing started. I continued to read voraciously branching out into the world of the great authors. Though I thought it might be fun to become a writer, like Ernest Hemingway or Somerset Maugham, I didn’t treat it seriously.

This enjoyment for words continued on into my work life. I invariable preferred the writing part of my job to other aspects.  But it was business writing; letters, proposals and reports. Although I didn’t try my hand at fiction writing, I continued to harbour the dream of being ensconced somewhere bucolic penning the next great Canadian novel.

To satisfy my need to write, I started recording my time spent at my log cabin in the woods in a journal. Finally, one day after reaching a significant birthday, I decided it was time to find out if I could become the fiction writer in the bucolic setting of my dreams. The setting was easy. I was already sitting in it, the screened-in porch of my log cabin overlooking the surrounding forests. And so I set out to write what would eventually be published as my first Meg Harris mystery, Death’s Golden Whisper.

My first goal was to see if I could even write a book. Until now, none of my business writing had approached the 100,000 word length of a typical novel. The next was to determine if I could write fiction, for I quickly discovered fiction writing is a totally different animal from business writing.  As I marched along on this new adventure, scene after scene, chapter after chapter, towards the climactic end, I realized I really enjoyed doing this. I decided writing was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Six books and the odd short story later here I am continuing the adventure with the next and 7th Meg Harris mystery.

If I may be allowed some BSP, the ebook versions of the first 5 books in the Meg Harris series are available at fire sale prices with all the major ebook sellers as a lead up to the May release of the latest, Silver Totem of Shame.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The birth of a storyteller

When was the first moment you knew you wanted to be a writer?

by Meredith Cole

Some people just know they are writers from a very young age. That was definitely me. Before I even knew how to form words with my pen, I dictated stories to my mother. She was very patient about acting as my secretary, even though reading some of my early works makes me giggle. There was no real plot, they were inspired rather heavily by fairy tales and they often ended quite oddly and abruptly. 

I knew that words on the page were intriguing and entertaining. When I started to learn my letters, I would fill the page with nonsense (AAAAA...) or curly-cues and then proceed to "read" my story out loud to any interested person. Or I would sit down at the typewriter and type away for awhile until I felt I had sufficient letters on the page to create a story and then go in search of an audience. I also loved using a tape recorder, and I would make up stories on the spot and record them. My baby brother was one of my first audiences for my books on tape.

I also loved to read. In my opinion summer afternoons were best spent with a book and a quiet corner. But I never stopped writing. I have journals dating back to my elementary school years which are fascinating, really, only to me. They mostly consisted of recording the events of the day. Every once in a while I wrote about something else--like a dream--and when I read them over suddenly everything about how it felt to be a particular age comes rushing back to me.

At some point in high school, my love for writing turned into a more general love for storytelling. I became fascinated with filmmaking. I spent a semester of college at New York University, and then made a documentary my final year at Smith College. I wrote screenplays, directed features and worked in television for over 10 years. I dabbled from time to time with short stories, poetry and started the occasional novel. But it wasn't until I was pregnant that I realized that what I had really wanted to do all along was write books. After all, I read far more than I watched movies or TV shows. So I started writing a mystery novel and finished it. And then wrote another. And never looked back.

If you're coming to the Virginia Festival of the Book this weekend, come by to see me on a panel this Friday at two talking about the anthology of short stories VIRGINIA IS FOR MYSTERIES. Also come see Art Taylor at 8 PM Friday moderate a panel with Lisa Scottoline, Ellen Crosby and lots more fabulous writers. Check out the schedule online for all the great Crime Wave events Friday and Saturday.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Masters and Commanders of Our Fates

What period of history, from the invention of the printing press to yesterday, was the best time to be a writer?

by Paul D. Marks

clip_image002It depends. Like with most things, there's pluses and minuses to various times in history for being a writer.

If you start off in Gutenberg's days – or even before – there probably weren't a hell of a lot of writers, so there probably wasn't a hell of a lot of competition. On the downside, there probably weren't a hell of a lot of people who knew how to read.

Also, I doubt many people could afford a printing press, and writing more than a few pages with a quill pen probably wasn't a lot of fun.

During the Renaissance, writers and artists had patrons or you could be someone's protégé like the Mischa Auer character in the movie "My Man Godfrey," though, of course, that's not set during the Renaissance (good screwball comedy by the way). Wouldn't it be nice to have a rich patron to freeload off of and it wouldn't matter how many books you sold? But, of course, being writers we want to sell as many books as possible. There's always a downside, isn't there?

In the 20th century, things were a little easier in some ways. Typewriters were ubiquitous, which made the physical aspect of writing easier. But there was a highly entrenched establishment in the publishing industry and it was really hard to break in, almost as if you needed some magic spell to get the door to open – Open Sesame. But if you got in, even if your weren’t at the top of the best seller list and were just a midlist writer, you were at least nurtured along by an editor and/or publicist. And I think people in the publishing industry liked writing and had a respect for writers. That started to change, maybe around the 80s, when things got more corporatized and Hollywoodized. And the people in publishing cared less about the writing and the writers than the marketing. I saw this change from the time I "sold" my first book to a major publisher (that ultimately didn't get published), to when I tried later on to do it again and the whole ethos of the business had changed. The people I dealt with originally loved writers and writing and books. Not necessarily so a few years later. Very frustrating.

But also in the early 1980s, personal computers started to come in. When they did I was working in Hollywood and had a writing partner. He was the first person I knew to get a PC. I thought it was a silly toy...until I was over at his house one day and he showclip_image004ed me how easy it was to move a paragraph from page 3 to page 71. I was hooked – and I was the second person I knew to have a PC. Ancient technology by today's standards. It had two 5.25" floppy drives, no hard drive and a monochrome monitor. It was a Leading Edge, similar to the one on the right. Looks pretty high tech, doesn't it? And if you wanted to run more than one program you had to take the floppy with that program out of one floppy drive and put in the next program. Fun. Still, it was better than a typewriter. And things moved quickly and writing with computers was definitely the way to go.

But the biggest improvement came with the internet and being able to "take" meetings over e-mail and chat and send things and not have to live in town and be close to everything. And, of course, researching on the internet is a breeze. I'm a night person. I sleep during the day and I write at night. And there are few libraries open at 3am. But the internet is on 24/7. And that's heaven for me.

Along with that and things like e-books and Amazon, the publishing industry began to change again. Today, because of the indie scene, the gatekeepers are not as strong as they once were. And we'll see how things shake out. Now, with so many players on the field, the question becomes (as it was even with gatekeepers) who has a good book, how does a reader distinguish, and how does the writer get it noticed?

The final question is, how do you earn a living as writer? At least enough of a living to live off of it. In the mid-20th century people could actually make a living writing short stories. You could get paid a decent amount for them. Today you have more freedom, but paying markets for short stories have begun to dry up and it’s impossible to make a living off them. Even most novelists, both traditional and indie published, still have to keep their day jobs. Isn't the writing life grand, not quite Hemingway sitting on the Left Bank, is it?

That said, my answer to the question posed is: today is the best time for writers overall. Why, because for good or bad, we are much more the masters of our own destiny today. And (mostly) that's a good thing. Because as William Ernest Henley said in his poem "Invictus":

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Ink Odyssey

No, I'm not going to suggest that Ancient Greece was the best time for a working-class girl to be a writer. (Sidebar: I can entertain being born in Ancient Greece but not being posh or male? What's that about?)

I'm down at the other end of the cultural universe with Mr Kubrick, because 2001 was when I became a professional writer and I think, in what might be a massive failure of imagination, that it was the best moment I could have chosen.

I'll see off earlier times first. The trouble with being a writer when Jane Austen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf or Dorothy L Sayers were writers is I'd have to actually live then too. The problem with that is . . . dentistry and sanpro. I'd love to visit any of those times but oh how very briefly. (My favourite scene in the Lost in Austen time-travel caper is where Amanda finds herself back in modern London and heads straight for the Colgate).

As for the thirteen years since, they've been horribly interesting times. Recessions, mergers, shrinking markets, exponentially complex business practices. I'm sure someone somewhere knows what's going to be going on in publishing when the dust settles but it's not me or anyone I've ever spoken to. I know how lucky I am to have happened to catch the last uncomplicated publishing boom.

It's hard to believe how different it was from today. I sent a paper submission to an agent. She wrote me a letter back. Licked a stamp and everything. I sent a huge block of paper to London and it thudded onto editors' desks, one after the other, until someone bought it. They paid me a decent wedge for English rights, and I started writing the second one. I went out for lunch with my publisher, made scones for the newspaper arts correspondent who came round for tea to talk to me, and signed for the bouquet of flowers that arrived on release day.

No blog tour to double-book, no Skype dates to forget, no online bookmark print order to get wrong, no conventions to spend a ton of money attending, no Facebook to use up 12 hours, no Twitter to use up the other 12 hours, no Kindle daily deals to find out about a day too late to tell anyone, no pirate sites to monitor until your eyes cross.

Man, it was dull. I absolutely love blogging, Skyping and ordering online. Left Coast, Malice and Bouchercon are like Christmas, New Year and my birthday all over again. Facebook is home. Twitter is my weekend cottage in the country. Kindle daily deals are like little gifts from a stranger and I get to fight pirates!

But sometimes I feel like one of the old countries spouting on about free trade and conveniently forgetting that they made their stack when it was anything but (coughempirecough). When I see a first-time writer beginning to fray at the edges under the sheer tonnage of stuff writers do now that's not writing, I just want to give her/him a hug and a huge cocktail.

So, if you see me at Left Coast Crime next week, debut authors, and you can summon a half-decent eye-twitch or neck blotch, the drinks are on me.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


by Clare O'Donohue

Question of the Week: What period of history, from the invention of the printing press to yesterday, was the best time to be a writer?

Boy, this is a tough one. I think anytime would be good to be a writer, frankly. We are the keepers of the stories. When is that not a cool job?

But as Susan rightly pointed out, there are times when it can come at the very high cost of one's head. Actually Robin made the same point, only in her case - Paris in the 20s, it would be her kidneys that paid the price.

Renaissance Europe, 1920s Paris, or another romantic writerly time, Greenwich Village in the late 50s, through the 60s.... there was a belief that each had in common.That creating - whether it was  art, music, or literature - was important. Even necessary. As someone who spends her time writing, quilting, painting, and dabbling in a half dozen other visual arts, it's a belief I can get behind.

I think what made these times, among others, stand out in our collective imaginations is that very creative people congregated together, shared their ideas, fed off each other's energy, and ultimately made each other better writers and artists.

And they had a lot of casual sex and drank too much. 

I think, for me at least, it's less about the specific time period and more the attraction of like minded souls. It's being with people who couldn't get through a day without creating something. I write, quilt, paint, bake, and dabble in half a dozen different arts. I have friends who are artists, actors, and musicians. Being around them inspires me, makes me better at the things that I do, and just plain makes me happy.

For me, anytime where creative people hang out together is the best time. And these days we have so many ways to do that...

Facebook and Twitter might not have the same allure as a Paris salon, but it keeps us in touch with far more people....

Organizations like Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime remind us that though we have individual goals and ambitions, we have a shared love of words....   

And mystery conventions and book fairs may be only a weekend here and there, but it puts us in the same room where we can  share ideas and feed off each other's energy.

So like Susan and Robin, I choose now as the best time to be a writer.

Though, if anyone is having casual sex and/ or drinking too much I must be must be missing it.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Paris in the 20s

Question of the Week: What period of history, from the invention of the printing press to yesterday, was the best time to be a writer?

Yesterday's panelist, Susan C. Shea, opted for the chaotic present after mulling various periods of time when writers got their heads chopped off if they annoyed the Queen, and other horrors.

I agree that right now has some great advantages. With self-publishing and ebooks taking the world by storm, it's the era of the empowered writer and the less almighty publisher, which is a good thing in my world view. Even though I still opt for traditional publishing at the moment, I like to see the options open so that every book has the potential to reach its audience. (And I'm with an awesomely cutting-edge press who has their eye on the changing industry in a way that impresses me more each day.)

But if I could go back in time and hang out with Hemingway and FitzGerald to party in Paris in the 1920s, I would jump there in a heartbeat. I wouldn't like to stay long. A decade would be fine. (Actually my liver could probably only handle a week, max.) What appeals to me most is the intellectual hedonism. All those interesting people living as large as they possibly can and still producing innovative works of art and fiction, creating from the deepest parts of themselves.

I understand that I'm looking through a romanticized lens at an era that had many problems of its own. But when I read a book like The Sun Also Rises, the dialogue makes me wish I could pour myself a big glass of red wine and join those conversations in a Left Bank café.

The movie Midnight in Paris, magic realism where a young aspiring writer travels back in time each night at midnight and returns to 2010 after spending what feels like several hours in the 1920s, sums up my fantasy perfectly. He gets his manuscript read (and praised) by Hemingway, he falls in love with Picasso's mistress. (Though I'd like a male love interest if I travel back, please.) And his present day life is enhanced for these encounters, allowing him to make sense of a muddled situation.

But as Hemingway himself says (in The Sun Also Rises), “you can't get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.”

So I'll stay here and party in my own time, live as large as I possibly can, and take inspiration from some great thinkers I'm lucky enough to call friends.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Would You Write If It Meant Getting Your Head Chopped Off?

What period of history, from the invention of the printing press to yesterday, was the best time to be a writer?

This week’s question catches me unprepared, I admit. Part of me enjoys romantic fantasies about Shakespearean England, another about 1920s Paris, and let’s not forget The famous round table at the Algonquin in Manhattan.

But then I remember that 16th and early 17th century England was fond of hanging, beheading, or incinerating people who wrote something that displeased whoever the queen was at the moment, that writers have died of starvation or neglect (witness the stories enshrined in grand opera), and that books have been burned in more than one epoch including the terrible 1930s in Germany.

Today, traditional publishing is a bit of a shamble as the people who watch the health of the bottom line have triumphed over those who watch the health of the culture and society. On the other hand, e-books and self-publishing have opened the universe to exponentially more voices.

So, who’s to say? I’m hoping more erudite Minds will pick up the ball and run with it this week. I’ll learn something in the process. For now, I’m sticking with what I know – the only time I’ve been in the business – the present.


Friday, March 7, 2014

Another View on Reviews

By Art Taylor

I'm in a slightly different situation from the other writers who've preceded me with this week's question: "Do you read reviews? Reply to them? Review the works of other writers?" As a short story writer whose work appears in magazines and anthologies (i.e. not a full-length collection of my own fiction yet), I'm less likely to have my work reviewed at any great length—though I certainly did appreciate having been included in a round-up of last year's best EQMM stories and getting a quick shout-out on a particular story from a reader who enjoyed it. And I'm sure I'd feel stung if someone took the time to single out one of my stories as one to not read in a particular issue of EQMM; that would take a particular brand of disappointment, wouldn't it?

But beyond being a short story writer and thus largely ignored/sheltered (take your pick) from reviews, I'm also (quickly switching hats) a professional reviewer, with articles appearing fairly regularly these days in The Washington Post and past reviews in the pages of magazines including Mystery Scene, The Oxford American, The Strand and other publications.

The Post requires, of course, that I not review books by writers with whom I've had any personal connection, so I don't find myself in the position of having to write something negative about friends, acquaintances or colleagues—though I have indeed had the time when I've run into writers after a review has been published (those authors have mostly, but not always, been kind to thank me for the attention) and in a couple of cases I've found myself ducking away from other writers carefully at the big conferences, making sometimes brisk escapes into the crowd. Such distancing (and dodging!) allows me the necessary objectivity to call books as I see them, ranging from really positive reviews (I loved Jason Matthews' Red Sparrow, currently up for an Edgar Award) to pretty negative ones (well, click through for yourself).

In each case, I'm not just trying to offer a thumbs up or thumbs down, which I think is the disappointing and even destructive thing about a lot of Amazon reviews these days, and in the end, I doubt that anyone really cares whether I personally liked a book or not. Instead, I try to gauge a book on its own ambitions or intentions (best as I can judge them), on the audience that it might be aiming for, on how it fits into some larger tradition or trend, etc. My hope it to provide some context that will let the reader know what a book is trying to do, how freshly or smartly it's doing it, and whether they might want to look into it further or likely just steer clear. In fact, one of the best comments I got on a review was from a friend who said, "I could tell that you didn't care much for that book you reviewed, but it sounds like just what I'd want to read. Is that bad?" No, not bad at all. In fact, that makes me feel like I did my job.

While I haven't myself gone through the process of writing and revising a book-length manuscript, finding an agent, finding a publisher, getting edited further, etc., I do respect and admire anyone who's gone through that and come out the other end with a published book in hand—and because I can certainly imagine what it must feel like to come through that process and find a lot of negativity waiting at the end of it, I don't cast such aspersions lightly. Contrary to popular belief, I don't think that critics in general take great pleasure in trashing someone else's work or in being clever at the expense of somebody else. Still, I do think there's an obligation to be honest about what might not be working in a novel and to give readers some insight (as I said above) about whether a book might just not be right for them. No one is served well if you just give a little pat on the back to everything you read.

Good critical commentary—whether a single review or the weekly contributions of critics like Ron Charles or Michael Dirda, the columnists I most admire—celebrates great accomplishments more often than not and provides both a deeper understanding of the work under discussion and of the larger world of literature across a wide set of genres. While I know the first question this week is about whether we read reviews of our own work, I do want to stress that everything I've tried to say here is why I read reviews in general—even of highly praised books that I ultimately have no intention of reading myself. There's lots to learn from a careful and conscientious critic, about our own craft and others' work and a whole lot more.