Thursday, March 31, 2016

Beautiful People

Q: Is there a message you want readers to get from your books?

A: Apparently, yes. (But I swear no.) My agent spotted it first and brought it up. For some reason, in my books, I seem to be obsessed with the idea that appearances don't matter and, in fact, good looks and grooming - especially in males - are signs of moral turptitude. (In real life, I'm as vain and shallow as anyone you could hope to meet.)

If there's a potential love interest or even mere male sidekick for one of my contemporary protagonists - Gus in The Day She Died, Stig in The Child Garden, Lowell in Quiet Neighbors (out next week) he is guaranteed not to be much of a Prince Charming.

Let's see: these three between them have got long crinkly hair, brushed hard without being washed so that it sits in ridged hanks, bumpy red skin from using a blunt razor, cold purple feet, eczema, bad crowns going black along the gumline, sweat rings on a shapeless hoodie, big yellow teeth stained in stripes from coffee and red wine, a stale, frayed, fawn cardigan, and a haemorrhoid pillow.

Mr Darcy has no competition in any of my stories really. It was Lowell's grey and yellow teeth in Quiet Neighbors that made my agent finally raise her voice in protest. So I gave him a run-in with some whitening strips about halfway through. Further than that I would not - could not - go.

If I wrote erotica . . .
If it's not deliberate, what is it? Well, I don't like reading stories about aspirationally beautiful people. You know the ones: she's got a tip-tilted nose, unruly curls, coltish legs and a cute flaw; he's got dimple in his chin, a peppering of grey at his temples and can lift her up and carry her without throwing his back out. They both run five miles every morning and they never get a Starbucks cup stuck under the brake pedal.

I'm not much more keen on characters who're perfect on the inside either. Characters with goals. Characters who could finish the sentence "My core values are ...."

These are not my people. And their stories don't interest me much. I like hanging out with the ones who're bumbling around cluelessly, trying to do the right thing and beating themselves up when they get it wrong. Pitch one of these people into the worst day of their life and there's a tale I want to tell.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Messages and themes by Cathy Ace

Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?

This is a good question – and my answer is both no, and yes. “No”, because I never set out to write a book that has, at its core, an overarching “message” (other than don’t kill someone or do something spiteful, vindictive, horrid or just plain awful because you WILL be brought to justice); “Yes” because I find I always seem to end up writing a book where there’s some sort of theme running through it. 

Cait Morgan Mystery #7 - arrives in April
My Cait Morgan Mysteries are traditional, closed-circle mysteries – classic whodunits with a modern setting. As such, I have to write every character from the point of view that the reader should have a good reason (or two) to be able to imagine they might have dunit. Thus, everyone has secrets, everyone lies – or at least omits – and everyone has to face the fact their past and present inter-relationships with the titular corpse brings their moral judgement into question. Thus, all these books are written with the undercurrent that anyone is capable of murder given the right circumstances. Maybe that’s a theme because it has to be….but there are other themes too. In April, Cait Morgan Mystery #7, THE CORPSE WITH THE GARNET FACE, is published, and, like all the Cait books, it has a thread running through it; in this instance it’s about how appearances can be deceptive...or not. Bud discovers he had an uncle, now dead, and, when he follows the man’s final wishes and travels to Amsterdam to dig into the truth about the man’s past, he has to work out how – if at all – the large port-wine birthmark covering half of his late Uncle Jonas’s face might have affected his life. Do we “judge a book by its cover” when the book is another human being?

In the WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries each book certainly has a theme, if not a message. It might be a simple theme, such as the strength of friendship or the different types of relationships between parents and children, or maybe some readers will pick up on the way modern technology impacts our everyday lives. Not themes I would call “messages” but they are certainly there as touchstones.

Cathy Ace writes the WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries (book #2 THE CASE OF THE MISSING MORRIS DANCER was published in February, and book #1 THE CASE OF THE DOTTY DOWAGER was published in trade paperback on March 1st) and the Cait Morgan Mysteries (book #7 THE CORPSE WITH THE GARNET FACE is published in paperback in April). Find out more about Cathy and her work, and sign up for her newsletter at  (Sign up by April 1st and you'll be entered to win a signed copy of The Corpse with the Garnet Face.)

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Aligning Your Wings

Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp? 


Some messages run deep, not just within my first published novel COLD GIRL, but the series, and I don't know if they can even be called messages so much as backbeats, about addiction, depression, courage, belonging. The message I am conscious of trying to get across also runs through my series, and it's similar to Susan's opening in yesterday's post. Basically: be a good person.

Being optimistic most days, I believe people are quite good enough, thank you -- even in these sad, mad times of demagogues and bombs -- and don't need me chipping in with my message of peace, love and understanding. Other days it feels like all humanity is pure evil and my mild nudging would be futile anyway. But that's only on really bad days. On any day, I think it's important to state your case in the undercurrents of your prose -- without getting in the way of plot and all that.

Because "be good" IS an important message, however generic it may sound, and even good people may need annual (or even semi-annual) realignment, right?

For instance, I'm a good person (I believe). But when I watch a movie or read a book with the underlying message *be good, be tolerant, be open-minded*, I don't go, phh, don't tell me what to be! I go, yeah, I could be better!
Though I'm getting better at public speaking, it's still hard for me. If I'm in a large group and I have an opinion on something, I'll just swallow it. Or suffer treppenwitz, that maddening ability to think up a snappy answer when it's too late. So writing gives me a bit of a platform to express, at my own speed, how I feel about an issue, say homophobia, racism, sexism, or just plain stupidism.
I'm watching some online TED Talks lately, because I've got a book launch coming up and I'm trying to figure out how to be brave, lucid, powerful, resonant, smart, or at least come across like I know why I'm standing here at the podium. On one TED session Clint Smith -- described as a poet and teacher -- talks about the danger of silence, and how we need to find the courage to speak up against ignorance and injustice.
Well, easy to say if you're an eloquent wordsmith like Clint Smith, not so easy if you're me. But I take what he says, and going forward will try to learn how to be vocal about what I believe in. In my writing, I think with time I will introduce stronger and more daring messages to my subtext. For now I am keeping it simple, and hope that my readers, if they're looking for direction, will take my message to heart and be swayed toward respecting each other, and animals, and the planet, as much as they can.
Not that it's always easy, practical, or even possible to be as good as we want to be. But every little bit helps.
* * *
It just occurred to me, I'm talking about spreading goodness and light by writing crime novels. CRIME novels. Seems incongruous, but that's probably a topic for another day!

Monday, March 28, 2016

Keep Smiling and Sheath Your Knife

"Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?"

- from Susan

Yes: Don’t kill people. It’s not worth the hassle.

Sorry, I’m late posting. I’m on the board of the northern California Sisters in Crime chapter and sent a request for information to all 110 members Sunday. My inbox is flooded and it feels a little like the episode of “I Love Lucy” where Lucy is stuck at the end of the conveyer belt that’s delivering (what was it – candy?) faster than she can deal with it.

Anyway, I can’t say I consciously begin a book with the idea of a social, ethical, or moral theme other than the above. But I do try to reflect the world – my world – in the characters. So, in the Dani O’Rourke series set in San Francisco and an art museum, even though I don’t make an issue of it – in fact, I might challenge readers to know who I mean – there are gay men who are simply part of the community, there’s a black woman who is Dani’s esteemed colleague but who has an interesting life outside of Dani’s circle, and there are older people who aren’t senile and who don’t fit any stereotype.

I guess I do look hard and without favor on the wealthiest among us who have chosen to separate themselves from the community, who choose not to do good with their money, and who really, truly, believe they are above the law. But I try to balance that will uber wealthy people who are generous, community-minded, and choose to live connected lives. This is an issue that has become major in this election cycle but I started writing about the most self-centered ultra rich long before it became a spotlighted issue, perhaps because I’ve had professional dealings with a few in the past.

I recently completed the first book in a new series that’s set in rural contemporary France. The only theme there for me is pretty much the same as Jane Austen’s: When you upset the status quo and the social order an insular community, it involves everyone. And until there is a resolution, everyone will be jarred from the nicely working machinery of social order.

Lest this sound like I’m an avenging angel, I’m not. I look on all of this with the same jaded, slightly cynical sense of humor that dear Jane and many others since have brought to the subject of the perennial dances within societies. Sometimes I have to work hard to bring that same humor to my perspective on real life social issues, but in fiction, I can still smile!

Friday, March 25, 2016

On the Road: Challenges At Every Turn

By Art Taylor

This week's question: "What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological and logistical) in bringing your latest book to life?"

And answers for each!

Research: Several of the settings for On the Road with Del & Louise were places I had personal knowledge about: New Mexico, Napa Valley, and Las Vegas—all through vacations—and North Carolina, which is both Louise's home state and my own. But I'd never been to either Victorville, California, or to Williston, North Dakota (only to the other Dakota), so I did a lot of reading and research about each place—research which not only served to provide backdrop but also influenced significant aspects of the plots themselves; in fact, what I learned about North Dakota was one of the reasons I set the story "The Chill" there instead of South Dakota. Other research related to that same story was about pregnancy, obstetrics, and more, but I can't go into that here in much detail without potentially spoiling parts of the plot.

Literary: From a craft standpoint, my biggest challenge was trying to stay true to Louise's voice. I've said before that I'm not quite sure where she came from and that I sometimes felt like I was following her myself through the stories—but "channeling" that voice was easier sometimes than others. I often felt like I was analyzing my own writing to see where the narration might step out of character.

Psychological: I'd sometimes wondered if I'd ever be able to write a novel at all. Several attempts had ended up under the bed (or tucked away into some lonely batch of files on my computer), and the prospect of maintaining a book-length narrative always seemed elusive. In my case, my confidence about the short story—in many ways, my chosen form—helped me to begin building toward the larger narrative: a novel in stories, as the book's subtitle explains. While that was useful from a psychological perspective—not psyching myself out—it ended up becoming a second literary challenge: How do I make sure that the individual stories maintain narrative integrity as stories while also keeping the novel's arc strong and propulsive?

Logistical: My publisher Henery Press was very supportive throughout (a) the process of my finishing the book and (b) the editorial process—shepherding this odd and crazy thing out into the wider, wilder world. I tend to write very slow, so having a deadline for the entire project set me writing at a different pace than usual, so that was a challenge. But the process did force me to write that full novel rather than just write toward it—a finished product rather than just another planned one.

And how did it all turn out? I've been very fortunate with the feedback I've received from readers and professional reviewers and more recently with the book being named a finalist for this year's Agatha Award for Best First Novel. But only one way to find our for yourself: Check out the book here—and then let me know!

# # #

In other news, I had a great time last weekend at the Virginia Festival of the Book, and it was so great to see my fellow Criminal Mind Meredith Cole in person for a change rather than just at the other end of our week's blogging! Meredith facilitated a panel on humor with Donna Andrews, Jack Bunker, and me, and I facilitated a panel on thrillers with Matt Iden, Jamie Mason, Chris Pavone, and Eric Rickstade. Much fun all around!

Since my last post here, I've also gotten my panel assignments for Malice Domestic, and I'm very much looking forward to it—only a little over a month away! Here's my full schedule there—and looking forward to seeing many friends along the way!
  • Panel (as moderator): “Make It Snappy: Our Agatha Best Short Story Nominees,” with Barb Goffman, Edith Maxwell, Terrie Farley Moran, Harriette Sackler, and B.K. Stevens • Friday, April 29, 1 p.m.
  • Opening Ceremonies • Friday, April 29, 5 p.m.
  • Panel (as panelist): “New Kids On the Block: Our Agatha Best First Novel Nominees,” with Margaret Maron (moderator), Tessa Arlen, Cindy Brown, Ellen Byron, and Julianne Holmes • Saturday, April 30, 10 a.m.
  • Agatha Awards Banquet • Saturday, April 30, 7 p.m.
  • New Author Breakfast • Sunday, May 1, 7 a.m.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Anxiety Times Thirty

by Alan

What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological and logistical)
in bringing your latest book to life?
runningcoverforwebsiteOne year ago, my latest novel, RUNNING FROM THE PAST, was published by Kindle Press (an Amazon Publishing imprint) after winning a contract through the Kindle Scout program.

What’s the Kindle Scout program, you ask? A brief summary:

The Kindle Scout program is sort of like American Idol for books. If you’re an author with a completed manuscript (in one of a handful of select genres) and a cover, you can enter. There’s an introductory screening, and if Amazon approves, then the cover, a bio, a short book blurb, and an excerpt (up to about 5000 words) of the novel itself get uploaded onto the Kindle Scout site, and your 30-day campaign begins.

During this campaign, readers (“Scouts”) can peruse the different campaigns and nominate those books they would like to see get published (each Scout can have three books nominated at any one time). The books with the most nominations after their campaign ends get further reviewed by the Kindle Scout editorial staff. Then, those books that the editors like (and see sales potential in, no doubt) receive contracts.

The Scouts are rewarded, too. Each Scout who nominates a winning book gets a free copy of the book two weeks before it gets published.

Now, to answer this week’s four-part question.

Were there any research challenges?
Not really. I set the book in places I’d vacationed, so there wasn’t a whole lot of research necessary.

Were there any literary challenges?
None, beside my lack of a formal education in grammar! (Me never let that stop myself!)

Were there any logistical challenges?
Again, not really. I’d put this manuscript on Wattpad, so it was already fully edited and ready to go, and I already had a professionally-designed cover.

Were there any psychological challenges?
Just every single day, for thirty straight days!

Because getting a lot of nominations is an important part of the process, I tried many things to garner votes. Some things worked, some things didn’t. Each day brought new challenges and worries, including those days when I didn’t do any promoting (I should be promoting!). Stressful!

My book was in the first wave of Kindle Scout books, and I didn’t know what to expect. There were no real metrics regarding how well the book was doing, except for a Hot & Trending List, which would get updated hourly. (Now there are more real-time statistics about how a book is doing, I believe.) So, basically, I was anxious for thirty straight days as I checked the Hot List hourly every waking hour. Yes, my mouse-clicking finger developed a callous.

But it didn’t end there—after the campaign ended, I was in limbo for a few days, waiting for Amazon’s decision. More anxiety.

I wish I could say that after I received the contract, my stress dwindled. But as many authors know, the stress doesn’t end with a book’s publication.

There’s always some marketing or promotion to do, and the feeling that you’re never quite doing enough persists!

Kindle Scout t-shirt selfie

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

On Vacation

by R.J. Harlick

What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing your last book to life?

Initially, I had every intention of answering this question. But then life got the better of me, vacation life, that is.

Two weeks ago, my husband and I loaded our two dogs into the car along with all their food, beds, toys and so on. We had to buy a Thule box to fit all their stuff in because they were taking up the entire back seat. We headed to Florida, to West Palm Beach to be precise. We took it slowly, stopping at pretty well every Rest Area along the way to give them a reprieve from the backseat. 

After four days on the road, we finally arrived at our rental property. Nirvana. Palm trees clattering in the wind. Hot, baking sun. Splashes in the pool to cool off. Cascades of fuchsia bougainvillea spilling over the fence. Bananas ripening on real live banana trees, while overhead some kind of weird fruit, along with coconuts are poised to land in our pool.

You have to realize that when I left Ottawa the temperatures were hovering at freezing levels with two feet of snow on the ground and the weather couldn't make up its mind on whether to snow, rain or do both.

Since our arrival, we, my husband, the dogs and I have barely been able to rouse ourselves to leave our marvelous tropical garden.

I’ve tried writing a proper blog, but just can’t get my head around it. So I give up. I don’t know how you guys living in such marvelously warm, sunny climes can even write a single word let along an entire book.  I also had plans to work on the 8th Meg Harris mystery. Well, it ain’t going to happen. I’m having too much fun.

I formally declare I am on vacation.

So in answer to this week’s question, the most challenging thing facing me at the moment is writing this blog.