Monday, February 29, 2016

Girl Reporter Exposes Family Secrets

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

-from Susan

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

I just returned from Left Coast Crime, a wonderful convention where writers still unpublished, authors with dozens of books out, and avid readers gather to celebrate crime fiction.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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 19, 2016

Another Fine Mess

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

by Paul D. Marks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Check out my website:

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Why Bother? Give Up Now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Planning the Great Escape by Cathy Ace

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 15, 2016

Avoiding Echo Chambers

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

-from Susan

This is a good question, and I’ll be eager to hear what other writers have to say about it. I think my response would have been different, or more emphatic with the first book in the Dani O’Rourke series, when my protagonist’s voice was less mature; that is, when she hadn’t yet become a thoroughly embedded persona in my head. There were books that might have swayed my own writing, and I knew it instinctively. So, I didn’t read any female narrators, light or humorous stories, anything set in San Francisco or the art world. I have a hunch the fear some new writers have of having their own ideas stolen in the marketplace is a projection of their own concerns that they will unconsciously “steal” from someone else. It may happen in small or large ways, but the more you write, the more you realize that five people can take the same premise and write five entirely different stories.

I’m glad I made that choice to avoid reading other crime fiction while I was working on my first draft because I was forced to dig deeper into my own head for character, plot, setting. I hope I wasn’t echoing anyone I admired while I was figuring out how Dani O’Rourke would react, think, and protect herself emotionally and physically. However, having written the third in the series (Mixed Up with Murder, out February 2), I’m a lot better connected to my own fiction. I am grounded, as a writer, in the world I’ve created.

I will say, though, that if it’s a writer I particularly admire who has a strong voice of her or his own, I may shy away from reading until I’ve finished the first draft, not so much for concern that I’ll start mimicking as that I’ll get so caught up in that good book that my own manuscript will suffer in my head from the comparison and I’ll get discouraged. So Catriona’s latest is usually on my this-will-be-a-reward TBR, as are Terry Shames’, Sara Paretsky’s, Tim Hallinan’s and a handful of other crime fiction writers whose work always pleases me.

Friday, February 5, 2016

The Lonely Nightstand

What reading material is currently on your nightstand?

by Paul D. Marks

I have to admit that my nightstand is currently unfulfilled, having no stacks of books on it. But that’s mostly because my wife wants me to keep it clear and neat. So I’ve been trying to do that. Of course that’s about the only part of the house that is clear and neat and uncluttered (well semi-uncluttered). And I have to admit that 99% of the clutter is mine. I’m the packrat.

So what’s cluttering up the house? Well, books of course. Tons of books and no more shelf space.
We even have shelves in the garage and we’re still out of space. I still prefer paper books to e-books, though I read both. But just on the space issue I’m leaning towards buying more e-books. But then how would guests know how erudite I am if they can’t see all those books...even though not all have been read. Though most have.

I also collect toys and Beatles stuff and some other rock ‘n’ roll gear. Then there’s all the old papers and old drafts of stories and all the stuff you have to keep for the IRS. It adds up, let me tell you.

On top of that, we just emptied out our storage facility, so the garage I normally park in is now filled with boxes that we swore we would go through quickly so I could get my car back in there pronto. Well, it’s been a month and we’ve yet to go through those boxes for the most part. Y’know, stuff happens and you just can’t get to it. But we did find a couple cool things: a sign off the MGM backlot that I borrowed from a train station set and a newel post from a house in LA’s Bunker Hill, which was flattened for redevelopment in the late 60s. Bunker Hill was LA’s first wealthy neighborhood but went downhill after World War I. But there were many gorgeous Victorian homes there. Some got moved and some got destroyed. But before it all went to hell a friend and I went through some of the houses and I took the newel post as a souvenir. It’s going to become the logo for what I hope will be a long-running series of short stories and maybe even a novel or two about the characters from the first story, Ghosts of Bunker Hill, which will be published in Ellery Queen, though I’m not sure when it will appear. And I’m lucky to have these things, as in a previous move my mean, cruel, wicked wife (I’m kidding, okay – she puts up with me, she’s a saint) made me get rid of a lot of backlot souvenirs and other things, including my Famous Brick off the Andy Hardy set. Yes. She made me throw my brick away. It looked like any other brick, but it was famous and in many, many movies. And now it’s gone, lost in the dustbin of history, along with a bunch of other things she made me toss.

But I guess I’ve gotten off-topic here. So what’s on my metaphorical nightstand since I can’t put books on my physical one? Well, currently I’m reading The Stranger by Harlan Coben. I’m almost done with that. And I have a yen to re-read some classic mysteries. Maybe some Chandler or Ross MacDonald. Maybe some Jim Thompson or David Goodis. I always like going back to those. And I re-read Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn every few years. They’re the reading equivalent of comfort food for me. Maybe these are on my mind since I mentioned most of them in my last post here. I’ve also been thinking about re-reading Bonfire of the Vanities. I’m not sure why, but it just got stuck in my head. I haven’t read The Girl on the Train yet, so that’s a possibility. So what I might do is read an oldie but a goodie and then move on to newer things because there’s a wealth of riches out there for the taking. And maybe some books from people I know, but since I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings if I don’t have their book on my list, I’m not mentioning who. I’m not that brave.

One more thing, congratulations to Art and Catriona on their Agatha Award nominations!


I’m the guest author on the terrific Sue Ann Jaffarian’s Fan Club Page on Facebook this week – and who blogged here for a long time. Hope you’ll drop by there: 

Also, at Bouchercon a few months ago, I read my Anthony and Macavity-nominated story “Howling at the Moon” for Ellery Queen magazine. And that just went up on the net. So if you’re dying to hear me read, check it out. I don’t think Tom Hanks has to worry about his position as the top actor in Hollywood. 

And if you’re not sick of me already, I was interviewed by Pam Stack at Authors on the Air last Wednesday, Feb 3rd . Hope you might want to listen to that podcast: 

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Thursday, February 4, 2016

On my bedside table today . . .

Too easy!

My brain is currently cut into four pie wedges: work in progress; structural edits (Dandy Gilver and A Most Misleading Habit); page proofs (Quiet Neighbors); Sisters in Crime publishing summit on diversity in the mystery community. And The Great British Bake Off. And Left Coast Crime. And Malice. And the Edgars. And life.

So it's lovely to get a point-and-press question here at Casa Criminal today.

On my bedside table, from bottom to top are:
  • The Girl in The Spider's Web - the posthumous Stieg Larsson that I failed to read at Christmas.
  • John Irving's Avenue of Mysteries - which Santa brought me. Santa really mucked up my Christmas reading plans, actually.
  • Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins (Santa's ruins)
  • Tracy Kidder's Among Schoolchildren. Now this is embarrassing. I bought this and Kidder's  Hometown because I had so much enjoyed the Broadway play August: Osage County. By Tracy Letts.
  • The slim blue volume is Mr Frick's Palace, a guidebook about the Frick Collection in New York that acts on me like meditation.
  • Pablu Neruda's The Captain's Verses. I keep one volume of poetry by my bed to read and read until it's in my veins forever. Shakespeare's Sonnets was there for four years.
  • Ann Cleeves' Harbour Street - which is what I'm actually reading right now, because I'm interviewing her at Left Coast in a few weeks. Poor me, eh? What a slog!
  • Lori Roy's Let Me Die in his Footsteps - Lori is my SinC co-board-member and she's written three books. The first one won an Edgar, the second was a finalist and now the third is on the shortlist too.
  • Malcolm MacKay's The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter - which I bought in celebration of the Edgar announcements a couple of weeks back. We Scots are punching well above our weight at this year's awards: there's this, Val McDermid, Denise Mina and *coughsmodestlybutbragsanyway* me.
  • Triss Stein's Brooklyn Graves  - which I've just finished last night, in preparation for moderating Triss (along with Terry Shames, Carla Buckley and Nancy West) at Left Coast. Favouritism? Why, no. Carla's The Good Goodbye and Nancy's Smart But Dead are waiting for me at The Avid Reader and I've already read every word Terry has ever written.
  • And a disc-set of A.S.Byatt's The Children's Book for when those four wedges turn into a pie-fight at 3am.
Happy reading, everyone.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

"Jones the Voice" or "King the Fingers"? by Cathy Ace

What reading material is currently on your nightstand?

By way of full disclosure, I have no books on my nightstand. I never do, because I never read in my bed or bedroom. I know that’s where a lot of reading happens, but not for me. Why? By the time I hit the sack around 1am or 2am after my night-shift writing time, my husband and dogs are fast asleep, so no reading for me.

Also, since I had a new book published this week, and I’m at the stressful final-polishing-before-it-goes-to-my-agent stage of a manuscript, I haven’t the mental capacity to read a book by another author at this point . . . I think my head would explode! But on Friday I’ll email the manuscript, and I’ll be flying to Vegas (it’s Superbowl weekend and Vegas is my preferred place to watch the last game of the season before I sink into withdrawal from general NFL-ness) so I’m looking forward to reading one of two Christmas gifts. Each Christmas my husband and I buy each other a book – we don’t plan it that way, but we always do. As you can see, I have a choice: Tom Jones’s autobiography “Over the Top and Back” (yes, I’ve already looked at all the photos, and they have whetted my appetite); Stephen King’s “Joyland” (yes, I feel bad that I haven’t read it yet!). Tough choice!

Both books will make the trip, both will return home with us. Maybe largely unread – it all depends how Vegas-y our weekend becomes. The good thing is I know I’ll get to read them both, soon – and I still have the chance to decide which to read first.WOOT!
Cathy's second WISE Enquiries Agency Mystery, THE CASE OF THE MISSING MORRIS DANCER, was released in Canada and the USA on February 1st. Library Journal reckons it will "...delight M.C. Beaton and Jeanne M. Dams readers..." and Kirkus said of the four softly-boiled PIs "The diverse sleuths are charming." You can find out more about Cathy Ace, her WISE Women and Cait Morgan Mysteries, and even sign up for her bimonthly newsletter, at her website: