Friday, April 29, 2016

The Vandals Took the Handles…or in this case the Newel Post

What is the strangest thing you’ve done while researching a book?

by Paul D. Marks

The things we do for our art: I’ve braved riots, vandalized classic Victorian buildings, suffered through the rich and delish food of New Orleans. It’s a tough life.

Does pre-research count? Did I just invent a term?

I’m not sure I’ve done anything particularly unusual while specifically researching a book in advance, pretty much all the usual stuff that’s been talked about here earlier in the week. But I have lived life to some extent and many of the experiences I’ve had make their way into my stories or inform them one way or another.

Los Angeles - "Rodney King" Riots
Way back in the 90s, I lived through the “Rodney King” riots in Los Angeles. It was an ugly and scary time. Smoke rising, traffic snarled, looting, people in panic mode, etc. My novel White Heat takes place during those riots. PI Duke Rogers screws up an easy case and inadvertently causes someone’s death. To make amends he wants to find the killer. To do that he backtraces the victim, going to see her family in South Central LA the day the riots break out. He’s harassed by angry mobs, his car is torched and he’s stranded in the middle of South Central while everything erupts into chaos around him. And that’s just the beginning of his problems.

Of course that just touches on what the book is about. But one of the things that made me happiest was hearing people who were in the thick of it, cops, rioters, civilians in the wrong place at the wrong time, say how real my descriptions of the riots were. How well I captured them. One person even told me she had to skip over those parts because they were too real and brought back too many memories. Not that I want to cause someone discomfort, but what better compliment could I have? So maybe living through the riots helped me write a story that rang true.

My short story Howling at the Moon (Ellery Queen 11/14) takes place in Southern California’s Death Valley, the lowest and hottest spot in the US. Though it’s been some years since I’ve trekked there, I have been there and drew on those experiences to hopefully give the story a sense of verisimilitude. I remember how hot it was – hotter than hell and if you squinted just right that’s where you thought you were.
Death Valley, California

I recently sold another story to Ellery Queen called Ghosts of Bunker Hill (no publication date yet). This one takes place in an area of downtown LA, not the famous Revolutionary War site in Mass. And today’s Bunker Hill is very different than what it used to be.

Bunker Hill was LA’s first wealthy residential neighborhood, right near downtown. But it got run down after WWI and became housing for poor people. Lots of film noirs were shot there (Criss Cross, Cry Danger, Kiss Me Deadly and many others). It’s also where John Fante lived when he wrote Ask the Dust and other books. But in the late 60s it was all torn down and redeveloped. They even flattened the hills. Ghosts of Bunker Hill is set in and around there in the present.

Bunker Hill, Los Angeles
I love the old Bunker Hill and was lucky enough to “explore” it under the radar before it was totally razed. A friend and I went down there and did some “self-guided tours” of many of the grand old Victorian houses before they were torn down or moved to other locations. I took a souvenir from one of those Victorian houses, the finial off a newel staircase post (if I have the terminology correct). It’s a prized possession and since I want to write more stories with the characters in Ghosts of Bunker Hill, I see the finial as the “logo” for that series. What makes it really special to me is that it’s not just any old finial, but one I actually took from Bunker Hill. So it has both real and personal history.

Bunker Hill is also where the famous Angels Flight funicular railway is/was, from which Michael Connelly takes the name of one of his novels and which I used as a short story title before his novel came out. And I got to ride the original Angels Flight as well, which I’ve used in multiple stories including the eponymous Angels Flight. It was later moved up the street and a “new and improved” Angels Flight was put there, but it closed not too long after it opened.

Back in the day, my friend Linda (though not the friend I explored Bunker Hill with) and I used to go around LA, just point the car and drive and explore. We would just get in the car and head out in any direction, exploring “old” Los Angeles. We’d go anywhere and everywhere. We explored much of So Cal and I treasure those memories and what I learned while we were having fun doing that. And, of course, I’ve used much of what we saw in my writing.

But something just occurred to me that wasn’t pre-research. I was working on a screenplay set in New Orleans and I had never been there. Now, I could have researched it in books in those days or asked people about it – I could have gone to New Orleans Square at Disneyland – but I felt I needed to have the real feel for the place. So I just had to go there and see it for myself. I don’t know if it made the screenplay any better or more real, but it sure made me and Amy happy to be there.

And now that Bouchercon is going to be there in the fall, I guess it’s time for more research.

So, in terms of research, I draw on all of these experiences, plus others, as well as traditional research methods, such as book learnin’, the internet and talking with people, to hopefully give my stories a feeling of really being in the place or with characters who come off as real.


Thursday, April 28, 2016

Harmless weirdness.

Well, my search history isn't pretty. Fatal doses, famous cases, rigor mortis . . . Did you know if you Google "what neurological condition will kill a child by the age of sixteen after years of total immobility" you have to type the whole thing? Google doesn't guess the end for you.

And more and more research is done at the desk every year as more great stuff goes online. The Post Office directories are my favourite research resources. They tell you who lived where and what they did for a living in Britain between 1770-odd and 1921, when they became phone books. They're a treasure trove of names, jobs and all sorts of lore. Where else would you find out that Miss Violet Porteous ran a glovemaking factory on Causewayside and advertised her patented kid-whitening cream for 2d a pot.

If you've got nothing else to do for the next five hours: here they are:

And when you combine them with the ordnance survey maps of the same year:

You've practically moved into Miss Porteous's house and started your apprenticeship. You're welcome.

But still, I don't think I'd like to write completely from strolling about hand-in-virtual-hand with the wee orange man on Googlemaps. The sound of the wind and the smell of the sea only come from buying a plane ticket, hiring a car and getting out to listen and sniff. (If you write about Scotland and live in California, anyway.)

One thing I always do as part of research, that never struck me as weird until I told someone and saw their face is draw floorplans of every location in the story: houses, hotel rooms, shops. . . gotta have a floorplan. And it's not just my own books. I've drawn floorplans of Peter and Harriet Vane's London house, the castle in I Capture The Castle and the flat in Sherlock (after lots of pausing and rewinding).

I don't do it anymore. I don't need to. After you're finished with your five hours in the Post Office Directories, Google floorplans of fictional houses and kiss goodbye to the rest of the day. It was comforting to find out that I'm not alone in this: whether it's The Waltons or The Simpsons, The Golden Girls or the Gilmore Girls, the plans are out there.

Doesn't Carrie Bradshaw's flat have the most dead space you've ever seen?

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Strange is the new normal by Cathy Ace


This is a tough one to answer because “strange” is such a subjective concept. I’ll be honest and admit many things I think of as being perfectly normal might be construed as “strange” by others. 

Take some of the research I've undertaken for my Cait Morgan Mysteries, for example: I thought nothing of engaging a lovely lady by the name of Patti for an hour or so on the lounge deck of a cruise ship so she could explain the details of exactly how her chum had been hypnotized to stop smoking…just so I could take my initial thought of “what a great way to kill someone” and contemplate the logistics of how that might work. (I used the idea in THE CORPSE WITH THE GOLDEN NOSE, but you’ll have to read the book to see just how it played out…no spoilers here!) Indeed, I’ve had so many lengthy conversations with people about matters which, in my mind, lend themselves to murder that I don’t even blush anymore when I explain why I’m quizzing them. See? “Strange” is highly subjective.

The better part of a day I spent tasting tequila (for THE CORPSE WITH THE EMERALD THUMB, set on a tequila-producing hacienda near Puerto Vallarta) went well…up to a point. I don’t think anyone here needs to know exactly how it went off the rails. Quite an experience – but not “strange” given the amount I’d consumed! And who knew there was so much to learn about the supply chain for, and correct storage of, caviar and the challenges of running a restaurant that can only be reached by elevator? Thanks to Lyle at the Eiffel Tower Restaurant at Paris, Las Vegas for spending all that time with me in person and online – it was essential research for THE CORPSE WITH THE PLATINUM HAIR (even drinking all that champagne was critical!).   

I find the emails that pass between me and my ever-so-helpful-and-friendly local coroner to be perfectly normal, and my husband no longer thinks it’s odd that I sometimes eat food I don’t really fancy, but which I think Cait Morgan would try…just to find out what it smells and tastes like, and how it feels in my mouth. Trust me when I tell you snail caviar doesn’t have the flavor or texture of fish caviar and, apparently, there is a limit to how much white chocolate bread pudding a person can eat! (THE CORPSE WITH THE GOLDEN NOSE and THE CORPSE WITH THE PLATINUM HAIR, respectively.)

For my WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries I capitalized upon my love of unusual museums and ended up finding out more about antique dentures than I had previously imagined anyone would ever care to know (see how that worked out in THE CASE OF THE DOTTY DOWAGER). That said, learning about Winston Churchill’s false teeth didn’t strike me as “strange”, but fascinating. 

Maybe that’s how it is for a person who writes mysteries – my “normal” might be “strange” to others – but I have no real way of knowing. Which is probably for the best. 
Cathy Ace writes the WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries (book #2 THE CASE OF THE MISSING MORRIS DANCER was published in hardback 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 was published in paperback in April). Find out more about Cathy and her work, and sign up for her newsletter at 

Monday, April 25, 2016

Fromage, Anyone?

What's the strangest thing you have done while researching a book?

-from Susan

I can’t say I’ve done much that would raise eyebrows or cause an observer to call a cop. I spent fifteen minutes taking pictures of the garbage dump and some rocks in a small town in France where part of my story was going to be set, I thought at the time. The old couple walking their dog doubtless thought it – and I – were strange.

One beautiful morning in June I bought cheese from the seller in Noyers-sur-Serein whose truck looked unassuming until he pulled open one side panel and displayed what must be 100 or more different cheeses, all from Burgundy, each on a little pedestal and fronted by a handwritten sign written in that unique French script. When I say I bought cheese, understand it was for research. Further understand my French is not nuanced or even always correct. So, before my friend could save me by explaining I was hoping to get names of the individual cheeses, I had purchased a dozen paper-wrapped packets and the seller was beaming. The little notebook I carry shows that my notes got sloppier and sloppier as I tried to keep up with his enthusiastic and fulsome descriptions of each cheese I pointed to. The cheeses were wonderful, by the way. Just don’t ask me to name them all.

The Dani O’Rourke series is so close to what I know that I never had to do anything strange for research. I lived the experiences for real when I was working in the non-profit world. For Dani, I just had to embellish (and disguise) odder moments from my former life. One aspect of this has been therapeutic. In the recasting of life in the trenches at universities, my memories of the stresses, petty feuds, and simmering frustrations have turned into funny stories.

Friday, April 15, 2016

If You Want to Send a Message – Call Western Union

Tell us which conferences are your favorites and why you like to attend them.

by Paul D. Marks

Well, since I’ve pretty much answered this week’s question before, let me put up a link to the previous post on that: . Everything’s pretty much the same as I talk about there, except that I’ve been to an additional Bouchercon in Raleigh, which was great fun. And, we loved the local food.

So instead, I’d like to answer the question from two weeks ago instead. That question was:

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

Well, there’s messages and there’s messages. Sam Goldwyn—the G in M-G-M/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer— is famously rumored to have said “Pictures are entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union” or, depending on where you find it, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”

That said, of course there’s some themes and/or underlying messages that come across in my work.  And though my novels are noir-thriller-mysteries there’s usually something of an underlying theme. And some of those themes I’ve revisited in several projects.

One of those recurring themes is people out of time. And I don’t mean in a sci-fi way. But “dinosaurs,” people that time has passed by one way or another and who would be better living in an earlier era. While Jack, the sidekick in White Heat, is in some ways a modern man, he also has some very unPC attitudes that might have served him better in previous eras. I was a little concerned about him before the book came out, but people seem to really like him. He says things that other people think but are afraid to say. On the other hand, he always does the right thing, even when he’s saying the wrong thing. And, as I say, more people have told me they like him than I ever could have imagined, people from all walks of life and backgrounds. Another character who’s living in the wrong era is Tom Holland in the story Angels Flight. He’s something of an old-fashioned cop, not quite ready to partner up with a black, female woman from the mayor’s office and her unusual crime-solving techniques.

Another theme I seem to go back to a lot is that of broken dreams, people whose aspirations are greater than their achievements.  Along with this is the theme of Los Angeles as the last stop on the West Coast before everything tumbles into the Pacific—after all, Route 66 ends right about where the Santa Monica Pier is. And L.A. is both a theme and character in my writing in the sense that it is the last stop for many. In the short story Free Fall Rick comes to L.A., finding himself at the end of Route 66, hoping for a new start on life…and he gets it. In fact, he gets much more than he bargained for when he meets Gloria, who asks a favor of him that causes him to go into a tailspinning free fall.

In another story, Endless Vacation, a young woman comes to L.A. with stars in her eyes, expecting to find the streets of Hollywood paved with gold. Instead she finds that Hollywood is the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, paved with heroin instead of gold.

Howling at the Moon is a story about honoring the past and paying attention to tradition. It’s also about a returning war vet who reconnects with his American Indian roots in a dangerous way.

But with all that, my number one goal in all of these, and others, is to entertain. To bring the reader on a roller coaster ride that’s thrilling and fun. And I have to go back to Sam Goldwyn’s line about Western Union. At the very least, messages shouldn’t be heavy handed. And the prime purpose for your story should be to entertain. Which brings me to the great Preston Sturges movie Sullivan’s Travels, with Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake. McCrea plays a movie director who makes trifles like Ants in Your Plants of 1939, but he wants to make a serious, ponderous movie called Oh Brother Where Art Thou that the studio is against. He sets out to see what life is like for the down and out, getting much more than he bargained for. But ultimately what he finds is that those who are really down and out don’t want stories about that, they want to laugh—to be entertained. And that’s our number one job to entertain.

When I was judging for a short story award a while back I read every story word for word to the end because I wanted to be fair to the writers. But there was one exception. And why did I stop reading that one a few pages in: because it was nothing but a preachy didactic political diatribe. What happened to the story, what happened to the characters? This was just the author ranting on in the voice of the character or narrator. It brought the story to a dead halt and I halted with it.

So if we’re going to have a “message,” keep it low. Let the characters be who they are and not some cardboard fill in for your rants. And most of all be entertaining.

And that’s my 9 cents (increased for inflation) on the subject.


Thursday, April 14, 2016

Shiny things!

I'm tempted to bet that my favourite con ever is next year's Left Coast Crime at Waikiki Beach, Hawaii. Gay Gayle was signing up attendees at this year's con in Phoenix (also rather splendid) and she wasn't working that hard. "28 wooded waterfront acres" was all it took for most.

But seriously, what are the contenders? Bouchercon (5), Left Coast Crime (5), Malice Domestic (5), Harrogate (3), Bloody Scotland (2) and Wigtown Book Festival (5? Some as a punter and some as a writer.)

And my favourite is . . . nah. They're all my favourite as they happen. We spend weeks on end alone in a room, typing and weeping, and then we get on planes and we go where there are people and laughter and all manner of shiny things.

I couldn't pick one. So instead, let's go for moments. In ascending order of how-is-this-my-life-ness here are my top five moments:

5. the opening ceremonies at Bouchercon Cleveland, in the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame:

4. the lunch they serve every day in the green room at Wigtown:

3. winning one of the tribal teapots at Malice (I love that Malice hands out teapots as awards)

2. everything about Left Coast Crime, Monterey, but especially the fact that my parents were there.

1. Oof, this is hard. I started the top five thinking I'd know what number one was when I got here. Not a chance. So instead, I'll share this picture of me on my birthday morning last year, that I just found while looking for the others. Can anyone explain what's going on? Look closely.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

A Tale of Several Cities by Cathy Ace

Tell us which conferences are your favorites and why you like to attend them.

There are different types of conferences in “our world” of crime writing: there are the conferences devoted to the craft of writing where authors pay to attend and have the chance to listen to those who write and teach writing; there are “festivals” where authors are invited to attend, are paid to do so, and tickets are sold so that (generally) readers and fans have the chance to listen to authors speak on panels or in interviews; then there are “conferences/conventions” where authors and readers/fans sign up and pay to attend, the authors are arranged into panels where their audience comprises readers and other authors, and there are many chances for socializing and mingling.

I’ll take the chance to consider this third type of “get together”, because it’s what I’ve attended most of to date.

So far I’ve attended Bloody Words (now defunct…nothing to do with my appearance there, I don’t think!), Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime and Malice Domestic. I’ll be attending CrimeFest in the UK for the first time this year. Each is different and all have their plus-points, so being asked to choose a favourite is like being asked to choose a favourite child. I’ll therefore (wimp that I am), give that part of the question a miss and focus on each in turn (this might help readers of this blog who are considering attending a conference and need some insights).

With Sue Grafton at Bouchercon
Bouchercon is the biggest annual international convention focusing on crime fiction, and non-fiction. It moves to a different venue each year and, while it’s usually held within the last three months of the year, the exact dates vary. Because it’s the biggest (around a couple of thousand delegates sometimes) it can feel overwhelming (the first ever conference I attended was a Bouchercon and I certainly felt a bit nonplussed at first). However, because it’s so big it gives authors of many different types of sub-genres the chance to meet each other, their readers, and new potential readers. From cozy to noir, historical to espionage, YA to forensic (if you can imagine those as being on any sort of spectrum) authors and fans are represented, so it’s a wonderful melting pot for all things criminal. I met people at that first Bouchercon who have become friends I now keep in touch with on an ongoing basis, learn from as I read and admire their work…and I had the chance to become a complete fangirl when I met many of the Big Names whose work has given me joy over decades – Sue Grafton and Katherine Hall Page to name just two. Here’s a link to the website:

With Louise Penny
Malice Domestic is the annual conference that focuses on traditional and cozy mysteries. To the uninitiated, it might come as a surprise to realize how far the word “cozy” goes: Hank Phillippi Ryan, Louise Penny, Charles Todd and Catriona McPherson – all of whom write books that deviate from the expected “here’s a cat solving a mystery in a cheese shop” idea of “cozy” – are among the attendees (and award winners) who write compelling, thrilling, procedural and even dark works where a crime is at the heart of the story, and the recesses of the human condition and character are investigated. It’s always held in Bethesda, Maryland over the last weekend in April and has a few hundred attendees – both authors and readers. It’s a blast for those of us who believe suspense and satisfaction can be delivered without the need for acronyms, global maniacs, umpteen explosions or car chases – and that we can weave a tale that engages and holds the attention of readers without resorting to gore or strong language on the page. I’ve attended a few Malice Domestic conferences, and am looking forward to the next one at the end of this month. I’ll get to renew friendships, learn from my peers, and mix with authors whose work is, for me, the epitome of skillful plotting, character-building and storytelling. This year I also get to moderate a panel there for the first time – something I’m honoured (and a bit nervous) to do…it’s a big responsibility to ensure the authors on the panel have their chance to shine. Here’s the website:

With Catriona McPherson at LCC
Left Coast Crime is, for me, a great balance: its focus is any sort of crime fiction/non-fiction but with a slant toward the West Coast of the USA and Canada. Around five hundred authors and readers attend, and it’s held in different venues in the “Left Coast Crime” region at slightly different times of the year (usually February/March). Authors who either live in the region or set their work there (the location on the temperate West Coast attracts many from the chillier East) enjoy the relatively relaxed atmosphere, and there’s a lot of mingling with readers and fans. I’ve attended a few of these and have also planned my time to be able to indulge in “side-trips” (this year it was held in Phoenix, AZ, so I took the chance to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West – next year it’s in Honolulu so I dare say a bit of time on Waikiki Beach will be called for!). Because it’s a multi-genre conference the mix of readers and authors is similar to Bouchercon, but on a smaller scale. Even so, with four or five tracks of panels running for the whole conference there’s no shortage of places to be, and people to meet. Here’s a link to the site:

I don’t know what to expect of CrimeFest. Because I have a UK publisher for my WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries (which are set in Wales) I felt I should find out more about UK authors and readers, and attending CrimeFest seems to be a good way to do it. I’m thrilled that the two panels I’ve been selected to appear on will have me sitting down with, in one case, James Runcie the author of the books featuring Sidney Chambers upon which the TV series Grantchester is based, and, on another, with Felix Francis, who has taken up the reins of his father’s hugely successful domination of books set in the world of horse racing. It’s also got an international slant that veers toward the European and I know I’ll get to meet Icelandic, Scandinavian and French etc. authors as well as others from the UK (Ian Rankin included – WOOT!). It should be exciting! Here’s a link:

Cathy Ace writes the WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries (book #2 THE CASE OF THE MISSING MORRIS DANCER was published in hardback 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 was published in paperback in April). Find out more about Cathy and her work, and sign up for her newsletter at