Friday, October 24, 2014

Shades of Gray – But Only Forty-Nine

by Paul D. Marks

Since I answered this week’s what are you reading now question on the SinC blog hop a couple of posts ago and it hasn’t changed all that much, hope no one minds if I respond to last week’s question instead: Is there a type of crime you won't write about? Why?

Being obsessed with crime and murder is a pre-requisite for a mystery writer.  My wife and I often joke that if I was being investigated for a crime that the cops would take a look at our bookshelves and internet searches and have a field day. God forbid anything should ever happen to her... Those internet searches will put a needle in my arm. As crime writers, we tend to focus on corruption and evil, so there probably aren’t a lot of subjects we won’t explore. But sometimes there are crimes that are so heinous that they turn our stomachs and topics that are so controversial that we wonder how people can do what they do.

There used to be certain types of crime that I thought I wouldn’t write about, mainly because I didn’t want to give anyone any ideas—mostly things having to do with terrorist/terrorism type stories. But it seems that the real world has far outpaced anything I can think of in terms of horror and cruelty so I don’t think I would be giving anyone any ideas anymore.

Just look at some of the horrific things people do to each other on the various Investigation Discovery shows. Then look at the beheadings in the Middle East. The planes flying into the World Trade Center. I never thought of that one exactly, but I did have ideas for “terror” stories that I never pursued because I didn’t want to give people ideas, as if they needed me to give them ideas. And, like I say, most of it’s already been done at this point anyway—in real life. Watch the news tonight and you’ll see. Besides, Tom Clancy and Vince Flynn have that area covered pretty well. And the George Clooney-Nicole Kidman movie The Peacemaker (a “breathless thriller,” I might add—see pic) and Outbreak, starring Dustin Hoffman, respectively deal with the stealing of Russian nukes and a virulent disease epidemic.

At the same time, I don’t think we’re responsible for other people’s actions. And we shouldn’t shy away from uncomfortable or topical subjects. My novel, White Heat, deals with the ugly subject of racism via the plot and characters of a mystery story.  And the N word is used several times by the characters. I debated a long time whether or not to use that word, but ultimately I felt it was part of who those people are. I didn’t want to compromise the story by putting a pretty face on it or wiping clean all the offensive language that might show some characters in not the best light. But I think I also tried to show the flipside of that too—how people can sometimes say or think the wrong things, but do the right thing. Or how we can have people in our lives who we love despite their weaknesses and faults. I try to show moments of humanity where I can. And the reality is that the world is not black and white, but shades of gray, as are most of the people in our lives, including ourselves.

*          *          *
And please check out my new post, “Words and Pictures: Short Stories, Novels, and Screenplays,”  on Ellery Queen Magazine’s blog site: Something Is Going To Happen, on the differences between the three forms of writing. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

What did you eat yesterday?

Like "What are you reading now?", it's a great question.

Once, when I moved to a different village and got a new doctor, he asked me, "What did you eat yesterday?" at the initial appointment. I said, "Uhhhh, yesterday's not a great example." He said, "Yeah, exactly. That's why I don't say 'describe your diet'. What did you eat yesterday, Catriona?"
I liked him a lot.

In the same way, "Who are your favourite writers?" gets a lot of Balzac, while "What are you reading now?" gets more Billingham. (Because some people are pseuds, not because Mark's not fab, by the way.)

I'd also add "And how long have you been reading it, and how many times have you abandoned it to inhale a thriller, and if you had to bet your own money if you'd ever finish it, how high would you go?"

So. What am I reading now? Actually, I'm reading magic realism, counterfactual history and a volume of short stories. Pretty high Balzac rating, eh?

In detail:

1. A pdf of an ARC of Jessica Lourey's delicious upcoming magic realism* novel THE CATALAIN BOOK OF SECRETS. It's being published under Jessie's own steam via Kickstarter and she's almost there.

*Was it Terry Pratchett who said magic realism could be defined as "fantasy by people who speak Spanish"? I like to think so. Part of the joy of reading this book - as well as the characters, secrets, wordsmithing and Minnesota, which is my favourite place I've never been - is trying to work out what magic realism is. I'm still not sure, except that I think Harry Potter must have been it. And Sookie Stackhouse. In fact, if I was pressed, I'd say magic realism is fantasy where people are called Jasmine instead of Qwon'droth.

2. JACK 1939  by Francine Mathews, for moderating at Bouchercon. (I love my job.) It's a historical thriller that sees a young JFK spying for Roosevelt in Europe just before WWII. I'm googling a lot because my knowledge of the period from a US perspective isn't quite strong enough to see what's counterfactual and what isn't, but I'm loving it. It's like Nancy Mitford crossed with Harlan Coben crossed with John LeCarre. And that's not something that comes along every day.

3. WORKING STIFFS by Simon Wood, for interviewing him at Bouchercon. I don't normally read a lot of short stories; they make me feel as if I've set off on a long walk and immediately stepped off a cliff. It might be because I tend to read for long stretches at one sitting and short stories are best read one at a time. I must say, though - these are great. I'm not surprised Simon's been such an award-botherer for his shorts. It's kind of sickening to read a plot you just know you'd have made a novel out of it and yet there he is just tossing it over his shoulder on a ten-page story. Plenty more where that came from, I can hear him say. Big show-off.

Monday, October 20, 2014

What Are You Reading?

- from Susan

Unlike, “What are your three favorite books?" this is a fun question to ask or answer, both as a reader and as a writer. It used to be fairly easy: look at the stack next to a person’s bed. I’ll start there:

Incognito: The Secret Life of the Brain, by David Engleman (author of Sum, an inventive and moving series of small stories about the possible forms of an afterlife)

The Orientalist, by Tom Reiss, the biography of a man caught between his fantasies of an old and attractive concept of “East” and the war-shaped realities of the 20th century

The Years of Rice and Salt (for the second time), by Kim Stanley Robinson, a rich, compelling alternate history based on a “what if?” – what if the plague had killed almost everyone in Europe, leaving a political, geographical, and economic hole to be filled?

Bird by Bird, by Annie Lamott, because I’m always reading Bird by Bird

Murder Misdirected, by Andrew MacRae, a fellow board member of SinC Norcal, because it looks like fun

Anarchy and Old Dogs, by Collin Cotterill, whose crime fiction tales of Dr. Siri Paiboun, the only coroner in the sloppy, sorry world of communist Laos are funny in the way “Waiting for Godot” is funny

But that’s not my complete TBR stack These are among the two ten-foot bookshelves’ worth waiting to move to the bedside table:

This summer, headed to France with a present of books for my friend, I was faced with space issues in my suitcase, so I bought my first e-reader. Now there’s a virtual stack there too:

Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek, by Terry Shames
Criminal Intent, by Sheldon Siegel
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler
Killer in the Cloister, by Camille Minichino
Lawrence in Arabia, by Scott Anderson
Treasure Hunt, by Andrea Camilleri
The Family Way, by Rhys Bowen
The Housewife Assassin’s Handbook, by Josie Brown

And there’s always this to fall back on, should I find myself looking for a good piece of crime fiction to read (other genres are shelved elsewhere in the house). 

I don't think I'm crazy, and I know I’m not alone. We People of the Book all have stashes of reading material that will take us through every crisis and feed us for our lifetimes. And  because I'm always looking for more good books, I hope blog readers will chime in. There's always room in my house and on my TBR list for another book!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Guest Blogger: Mark W. Danielson

This week’s question is “What's your biggest dream / ambition as a writer?” Instead of responding to it, let me introduce friend and colleague, mystery-thriller author Mark W. Danielson.  Mark’s background as a fighter pilot in both the Navy and Air Force, as well as a FedEx pilot (so you know who to get mad at when your stuff is late J)  gives him plenty of background material for his exciting novels.

Mark’s fast-paced novels share startling coincidences with actual events.  Spectral Gallows and Writer’s Block are in the Maxx Watts detective series.  Diablo’s Shadow echoes a Florida missing child case.  Danger Within is an action thriller that takes the reader into the gritty world of commercial aviation and underwater salvage.  The Innocent Never Knew is a political conspiracy that parallels the suspicious death of President Clinton’s Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown.   Twice selected as the US Navy’s top author, Mark’s global travels as an airline pilot enable him to write from a perspective shared by few.

Take it away, Mark:

Recently, my friend Paul D. Marks posed the following question to me:  What's your biggest dream / ambition as a writer?  Pausing to consider this multi-dimensional question, my first thought was my characters have more dreams than me.  How can this be when my characters stem from my imagination?  Simply put, in first drafts, the characters that originate from my subconscious thoughts grow as they tell their stories.

Having said that, if I were to have only one ambition, it would be for someone to send me a note saying they loved a character’s particular line.  To me, that’s an author’s ultimate praise.  To clarify, here’s an example from a Stephen Coonts novel where his protagonist faces a rival at a party.  With a grin, his protagonist says, “You look constipated.”  I was so impressed by Coonts’ slam that I wrote him to pass on my admiration.  He responded with an equally simple line, “Sometimes you get it right.”  I liked that one, too.

Fan feedback trumps any book review because it comes from the heart.  On the contrary, editors and book reviewers, like car show judges, may give your work/car accolades one day, and the next hate it even though nothing changed.  For thin--skinned authors, this indifference can be demoralizing, but if you’ve been around a while, you learn to expect it and find the good in their critiques. 

Flashing back to Paul’s original question, my biggest ambition is to be recognized as a credible writer.  In other words, readers would recognize the extent of research done in order to create my reality-based stories.  And because my stories are factually based, I tend to use actual locations and in some cases, real names.  In Danger Within, a novel based on an actual FedEx DC-10 in-flight fire, I received a note from someone in the FedEx safety department saying that while he enjoyed the book, it sounded a lot like the FedEx fire.  As a FedEx pilot, my response to him was, “It is,” still smiling from his flattering feedback.

The business end of writing is ugly, and can quickly snuff the dreams and ambitions of any writer, so if you’re in it to make money, you’re better off writing for magazines where they always pay up front.  If you’re in it for fame, then consider turning your talents to acting.  Just remember how many actors wait tables in LA. 

Fiction writing is about being true to yourself and expressing your innermost thoughts through characters.  It gives you the chance to play God, creating harmony from chaos while giving others a sneak peek into your soul.  But the risk is high, for every word will be judged, few readers will ever write a review, and fewer still will remember your name when they finish your story.  So write from the heart because it’s what you like to do, and it you’re lucky, someone might send you a kind note.  

Thank you Mark!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Deadly Nightstand

I swerved the posted Criminal Minds question for the Sisters in Crime Great September Blog Hop in August so why not round it off in October? (Especially when Robin and Clare have nailed the answer for the official question and then duct-taped it, to make sure.)

So. I'm going to answer:"what's on your nightstand?" - a question pretending to be about literary taste that's really about how much of a hopeless book junkie and slattern you are.

Here's the unexpurgated list of books on the nightstand in my mum's spare room in Edinburgh, where I'm writing this blog post.  That is, here are the books I have with me two long plane journeys from my house.


On the top:

John Gilstrap's END GAME (I'm on p. 91) This doesn't count because it's for moderating at Bouchercon.


A WEDDING IN DECEMBER, Anita Shreve (I read it last year and left it here to take home this year because this year I wasn't going to buy any books and I'd have room in my case)
DARK PLACES,  Gillian Flynn (bought this year)
NOW YOU SEE ME, S.J. Bolton (read last year and left here to take home this year because . . .)
JOHN McPAKE AND THE SEA BEGGARS, Stuart Campbell (bought this year, but doesn't count because he's my English teacher)
MURDER PAST DUE, Miranda James (read last year and left here to take home . . .)
FATHER CONFESSOR, Russel McLean (read last year and left here . . .)
UNSEEN, Karin Slaughter (read last year and . . .)
JACK 1939, Francine Mathews (bought this year but doesn't count because it's for moderating at Bouchercon)
TIME OF ATTACK, Marc Cameron (this year, doesn't count, Bouchercon)
BLOWBACK, Valerie Plame (Ha! Sent by publisher - really doesn't count)
DID NOT FINISH, Simon Wood (borrowed from brother-in-law for Bouchercon Toastmaster interview prep - mega doesn't count)
NO SHOW, Simon Wood (ditto)
WORKING STIFFS, Simon Wood (brought over with me but . . . Bouchercon so still doesn't count)
THE SCRUBS, Simon Janus aka Simon Wood (Bcon, doesn't count)
ASKING FOR TROUBLE, Simon Wood (guess whether it counts)
DEAD MEN'S BONES, James Oswald (on a Bouchercon panel together, doesn't count)
THE LAST REFUGE, Craig Robertson (ditto)
THE NIGHT HUNTER, Caro Ramsay (on three panels together this year. Not having this book would be rude.)

So, basically, when you get right down to it, on my nightstand are one Gillian Flynn and an ARC of a Tana French.  I'm travelling light. Who needs a Kindle?

Monday, October 6, 2014

Read Any Good Women Writers Lately?

By Susan C Shea

I’m joining my Criminal Minds colleagues in the SinC blog hop this week, having been tagged by Paul D. Marks. (See his last post for the rules and the list of off-topic questions we can choose from.) I decided to take on what may well be the most controversial of the seven questions, so here goes:

If someone said, "Nothing against women writers, but all of my favorite crime fiction authors happen to be men," how would you respond?

Are you thinking what I’m thinking: Who’s speaking? Gender, please? Can we agree it’s a fair bet this hypothetical voice was male, or intended to represent a reader of That Sex? Answering the question begs for generalities, and I intend to deliver them, along with a summation, so here goes.

Item: I am the mother of two sons and two grandsons (I also have two granddaughters, so I have a control group.) We tried limiting toys to building blocks, Legos, train sets, stuffed animals, card games, and the like. The boys found sticks, made swords, built collapsible building traps, staged fights with plush squirrels and bears before moving on to paintball and Star Wars computer games.

Item: My darling man, a gentle artist who loved women and paid them great personal and professional respect, read voraciously, mostly paperback thrillers with black and silver embossed covers, the kind you find at airport kiosks with blurbs like “rectum-tightening suspense!!!”

Item: Movie marketing aims at 18-25 year old males, which research has brought us summer after summer of blockbuster Iron Mans, Batmans, and Spider Mans, and whatever Tom Cruise is up to that involves flaming cars, burning cities, and massive explosions. In fact, if a sensitive actor or actress wants to make big bucks, the easiest way to do it, the entertainment industry says, is to do a high energy thriller in which you are bionic or at least brain-wrecked and can kill anyone within three seconds of sighting him or her at twenty paces.

What I’m getting at is there is a real, measurable embrace of pretend violence that is usually (here’s a generalization) stronger among males than females, that begins early in spite of our motherly efforts to temper it, and is nurtured unceasingly by those who want to sell entertainment.

But, those same marketers have figured out that females, even as little girls, are still being socialized to take care of…anything. They build Lego safe houses, comfort plush animals, play-cook for daddy, form little social pods – you do have to watch out for extreme verbal violence when they hit their teens, alas – and make up very few paintball teams. Title Nine and the access to real sports have made some inroads into the stereotyping of female lack of assertiveness, and allowing women to become soldiers has given them experiences that will influence their perspectives. But I still think (another generalization coming) that female readers approach entertainment, and in this case, crime fiction, with less appetite for blunt force trauma writing, for child-endangerment plots, for fist-fighting and car-torching scenes.

That said, there are fine women writers who write tough stuff, and male writers whose books bring empathy into the heart of the tale. A very personal couple of examples: Denise Mina’s memorable, bleakly noir series about a Glasgow journalist who gets sucked into terrifying crime situations; David Corbett’s stand-alones about the culture of violence, written with an empathy that makes us understand how people go bad. (Both were on my beloved’s bookshelves along with Walter Mosely, Robert B Parker, Val McDermid, Lee Child, James Lee Burke, and Harlan Coban.)

My shelves include the great Sara Paretsky, Barbara Neely (sadly not writing the Blanche series any more), Sue Grafton, Rex Stout (yup, a guy), Laurie King, Magdalen Nabb, Gar Anthony Haywood (another guy) and Donna Leon. The narrative voices I resonate most strongly with, be they female or male, are those that have at least a soup├žon of the same socialization I grew up with, a tendency to want to fix problems without guns, correct wrongs without too much vengeance, and comfort victims rather than blow everyone up as a way of clearing the decks.

Summary: I do think gender is linked to readers’ preferences, and that it mirrors the miasma of media-driven socialization from the cradle to the grave. What I would argue is that we - as readers and writers -  owe it to the goal of defeating stereotypes to try something new once in a while, to vary the menu and the narrative voices we choose in the crime fiction genre. We can be happily, thrillingly, surprised when we read something out of our normal range.

Coda: My partner came to relish Paretsky and Leon, with their passion for social justice, among my other recommendations. I love his Walter Mosely collection because it’s full of unforgettable, darkly comic characters, even if I blanche when Mouse gets one of his bad ideas!

Feel free to push back – and pass along some recommendations to convert our hypothetical reader.