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.)

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 18, 2016

Everyone is Fair Game

Did you base any characters in your books off of friends or family?

by Paul D. Marks

Most of my characters are based on people I know or have known, or see or have seen in my various life adventures, at least in part. Those adventures can be anything from mundane daily life events like walking the dogs, going to the market or bookstore, to more exciting things, such as SCUBA diving and a hopefully once-in-a-lifetime experience like pulling a gun on the LAPD! They are also, of course, based on me and most of them have a part of me in them. It could be a big part or a little part, but since I know me better than I know anyone else there’s always some seepage by osmosis. Sometimes consciously and sometimes subconsciously.

Both my lead and secondary characters are based on people I’ve known through the years. And then there’s part of a name here or there, from people I’ve known. Bad guys are often based on people I, uh, don’t like... But to say that this character or that is based on me or so-and-so wouldn’t be accurate because for the most part they’re composites of people I know or have come across.

And some of them are simply based on observations of people I see here or there. For example, I was in the original Barney’s Beanery (click the link for Barney’s to read a history of it, it’s pretty interesting:, a famous LA dive and two guys were playing pool, got into a fight. Beer flying. Pool cues cracking. It ended up as a scene in something I was working on.

My latest story, Nature of the Beast, up at David Cranmer’s Beat to a Pulp (, is a noir story about a
hitman with a heart of lead. Now, I’m not saying I do or don’t know any hitmen. But either way, the character of hitman Jack Lake is based on the experiences and world outlooks of people I’ve known over the years, as well as on parts of my own experiences (and no, I’m not a hitman). We extrapolate traits, characteristics and motivations for characters from our own lives or the lives of people we’ve known or have come across, even if the characters are different in some ways from the real people. So you can take character traits from anyone and insert them into any character that they’ll work for. I may not know any hitmen, but I know some hard people and so their traits make it into Jack.

Everything and everyone is fair game. Writers observe and borrow from everything – people watching in the airport, making up stories in our heads about who they are and what they’re doing. Or sometimes a friend does something or tells us about an experience in their life that we find compelling, which we “borrow” for a story. Often they’ll be very loosely based on something we’ve heard or read about. For example a friend might have gone through an unpleasant divorce and told you about it, but in your story you embellish so one of the divorcing couple plots to murder the other, whereas in real life the unpleasantness might have only been in arguing over who gets to keep the dog. So watch what you say or do in front of a writer, you might just end up in their next book….

And now for the usual BSP: Check out David Cranmer's interview with me at:

And check out my article on Vortex and the Green Absinthe Fairy at Mystery Playground's Drinks with Reads:

Anthony voters please consider my short story, "My Enemies Have Sweet Voices", from Down & Out Books’ anthology Coast to Coast: Murder from Sea to Shining Sea, for Best Short Story.

And please consider Coast to Coast: Murder from Sea to Shining Sea for Best Anthology.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Doreen and Laura

By Catriona

Do I ever base characters on real people?

Well, let's get this out of the way. I never base nasty characters on people I don't like, lovingly describing their bad clothes, breath and personalities. I mean, truly, hardly ever. Seldom. Not for while. In short, yes.

Moving on.

The second Dandy Gilver novel THE BURRY MAN'S DAY was set in the village where I was born, like my father before me, and begins during the second weekend of August in 1923, when my Godmother, the redoubtable Auntie Doreen, was just six weeks old.

I had Dandy get landed with the unpleasant task of judging the bonny baby competition at the local fair and, despite the advice of the judges in the agricultural categories (who do it pretty much by weight), Dandy found herself diverted by a little red-haired scrap with speedwell blue eyes who reached out and stroked Dandy's fox fur with delight.

That was my Auntie Doreen all over. She adored expensive clothes, shoes and cosmetics and would buy a Jenner's dress the wrong colour that didn't fit and have it altered and dyed, rather than go next door to Marks and Spencer's and get the perfect thing for a third of the price. (She died before I started dumpster-diving so she never had to deal with that horror.)

Then last year in The Child Garden I revisited another, very different but just as redoubtable, woman who used to be part of my life. Laura McRoberts was my Step-Grandmother-in-law and she was a splendid old trout. She had been a minister's wife, although that probably only sums her for Scots. Americans should imagine absolute self-assurance and a brusque kindliness delivered in ringing tones. With scones.

By the time I met Laura she was blind and had had both legs amputated, but she still lived alone in her own little house and wouldn't let visitors help with the scones. She also had a granite belief in her recall of Edinburgh and would argue you to numb silence about the street lay-out and bus routes that she knew from the 60s . . . and you'd been on that morning, coming to see her.

God, she was infuriating. And how I loved her! Miss Drumm in THE CHILD GARDEN  is Laura from the peremptory remarks fired at lesser beings (that's just about everyone) to her soft-heartedness around animals and fierce contempt for anyone who harmed them. Writing it felt a lot like visiting her again.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Me, myself, and I, confess... by Cathy Ace

Did you base any characters in your books on friends or family?

To all my friends and family – the answer to this question is…if I did, I only did it for the nice characters!

To everyone else reading this…I have to admit, yes, I did. However, in the spirit of fairness, before I lay bare any secrets about other people, I’ll do it to myself.
Me, myself, and even I, are very much the basis for Cait Morgan: she’s facing fifty (I was 52 when the first book was published, just fifty-and-a-half when I wrote it); she's a short, overindulgent Welsh Canadian foodie who teaches at a university in British Columbia (this was me when I began writing the series, though I have since left that day job); she’s quite bossy, judgmental and self-centered (sadly me); she has a difficult past when it comes to men (definitely me) including a dead
ex-boyfriend (unfortunately me – though I wasn’t arrested on suspicion of his murder, as Cait was); she finds herself with a chance of happiness she’d never expected and marriage to a wonderful man who balances her life in ways she never knew it needed (happily me).

Cait and I are from the same part of Swansea, went to the same school (Llwyn y bryn), attended the same university from which we both graduated in psychology, then we even took the same job – working in a marketing communications agency on a variety of advertising, PR and media accounts. At that point our career paths went off in different directions: I stayed in the world of marketing communications setting up my own business (at the idiotically tender age of 28) which I eventually grew to be the largest of its type in Europe. I sold it and “retired” at 40, only then entering the world of academe as an adjunct professor of marketing on the MBA course at the University of British Columbia and then at Simon Fraser University. Cait left the world of marketing communications in her early twenties – irritated by the folks she worked with – and took her Masters’ degree at Cambridge. She left the UK for Canada to escape the tabloids (I didn’t have to do this, thank goodness) and wound up at the University of Vancouver (a mash-up of UBC and SFU…because I can’t afford any lawsuits!). We both belong to Mensa, enjoy the company of Labradors and will always try something new to eat or drink, even if it’s a nose-wrinkling experience. Neither of us enjoys the idea of exercise, let alone doing it, and I like the fact she solves whodunits with her brain, not using any sort of a weapon (okay, maybe she’s resorted to bonking someone on the head with a champagne bottle, but that’s about it). 

Having exposed myself – what about anyone else? Cait has a sister, so do I. Cait’s sister is Sian, and she has some elements of my own sister in her: a love for, and deep understanding of, opera and classical music; a particular enjoyment of the voice of Jonas Kaufmann; an enviable ability to knit; Sian lives in Perth, Australia – my sister did so for years. That said, my sister isn’t married with children, so I gave Sian some “additions” my sister doesn’t have.

Me with "half of Annie Parker"
In the WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries I have a few people in mind when I’m writing. Annie Parker is a mixture of two good friends: the real Londoner Annie has been my very good friend for more than twenty years and brings the clumsy elements of the character (even she’ll admit this is true), while Eustelle (of St Lucian heritage, with a love of hot sauce and an acrimonious relationship with her backside) was my next door neighbor in London for almost two decades – I’ve pinched her name for Annie Parker’s mother. Carol Hill is also a synthesis of two people I know well: Carol, who’s not Welsh but is lovely and wonderfully bright when it comes to anything to do with numbers, and Chris with whom I shared a flat at university, who came from a Welsh farm and was the gentlest person you could wish to meet, with a warm, ready smile and always ready lend a helping hand. Mavis MacDonald is a mix of another of my university room-mates, Jennifer, who was a sharp, intense Scot with a deeply-held belief that a life lived in the service of justice was the best way to be, and Rose, who was the lady who cleaned the office I had at UBC – she was doing it so she and the family could enjoy a couple of months in a condo in Maui every year…her reputation for not taking any nonsense from anyone (whatever their title) was well-earned. Christine Wilson-Smythe is based upon three people…all of whom will remain nameless, but with whom I used to spend a fair amount of “social time” in London during the ‘eighties  and ‘nineties. It was the heyday of the Sloane Rangers, let’s just leave it at that.
The favorite hot sauce of "the other half of Annie Parker"

I hope no one comes after me with a knife for this! Honestly, even when I find myself using elements of someone I know for a character – be it a quirk of their movement or a phrase they use often (sometimes unwittingly) – I do it with love. If I didn’t enjoy spending time with my characters I’d never visit them again. I will also admit that the characteristics of many more friends and family members probably also seep into my writing – unbidden and often unnoticed by even this author herself.

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.)

Monday, March 14, 2016

Did you base any characters in your books on friends or family?"

- from Susan

1.     Absolutely not.

2.     Yes, of course.

3.     This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

All of the above are true for me in different books and for different characters. Real people morph into characters who live (or die) only on the page. Invented characters take on the eyes, lips, voices of people I know the deeper I dig into the story. Real people I never want to see again in the flesh provide the irritating personalities I need to telegraph villains and their enablers. People I love smile and insinuate their most endearing traits into characters I want my readers to like. All this is perfectly normal and not legally actionable.

It won’t come out until 2017, but the first book in my new series is about an American couple plopped down in a tiny French town with nothing but their artistic talents, their good will, and a couple of unruly dogs to serve as introduction to their new neighbors. That situation is based closely on the lives of my dear friends Alice and David, who were delighted to be the inspirations for Love and Death in Burgundy.

 The real "Katherine," who is actually Alice.

Katherine, the protagonist, is based on Alice, an artist, a woman of a certain age who faces life with a mixture of high optimism and internal fretting. Alice is an artist, she does sally forth into the world with her chin held high, her desire for friendship intense, and her charmingly eccentric style as her calling card. From there, Katherine and Alice part company, however. Katherine keeps injecting herself into other people’s business, competing for popularity, creating a shaky tower of relationships that is too vulnerable to survive a stiff breeze, never mind a mysterious death.

Alice has read the book, loves it, relishes finding bits and pieces of her, her husband, and their lives inside the fictional story. She has blessed what is, for me, the closest I’ve come to using a real person in a novel. Maybe she approves because she lives her life in some measure as if it were a novel, which I mean in the most complimentary way. My story is an homage to Alice and David, who built a fairy tale life with little more than style and courage, and open hearts toward their adopted home.