Friday, December 23, 2016

Happy Holidays to All and to All a Good Night!

Made it through another writing year! Are you taking a break or is this prime, quiet, writing time for you?

by Paul D. Marks

A break? Are you kidding? Do writers ever take—or get—a break? There’s blogs to write and stories to flog and novels to finish (I did just finish one). Even when we’re not at a keyboard writing-writing we’re thinking and plotting and figuring out ways to kill you, uh, I mean kill someone in our stories.

Actually, I’m working on several short stories, writing blogs and working on another novel besides the one mentioned above. I like being busy, especially busy with writing. And always hoping for more time to be reading. So there’s two of three Rs accounted for. I’m not so fond of the third R, ’rithmetic, but a .666 batting average ain’t too bad, certain other implications of that number aside.

But yeah, maybe somewhere in there there’s room for a hot toddy (I don’t like eggnog) and some family time and Christmas movies. We’ve already started on those, having watched Miracle on 34th Street and Love Actually. Hey, some things you gotta do.

And since it’s Christmas Eve-Eve, some fave Christmas movies:

Miracle on 34th Street (the original only) (Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Natalie Wood, Edmund Gwenn)
The Shop Around the Corner (Jimmy Stewart, Margaret Sullivan, directed by Ernst Lubitsch)
Christmas in Connecticut (Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan, Sydney Greenstreet, S.Z. Sakall)
A Christmas Story (Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin, Jean Shepherd)
A Christmas Carol (we usually watch at least one version of this every year, though the favorite for both of us is the Alastair Sim version)
Remember the Night (Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, screenplay by Preston Sturges)
It’s a Wonderful Life (Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, directed by Frank Capra)
Holiday Affair (Robert Mitchum, Janet Leigh)

But if you’re looking for something not quite so Christmasy, but not as dark as noir, and not in the crime/gangster genres, give some of these a shot (in no particular order):

They Might Be Giants (George C. Scott, Joanne Woodward)
Soldier in the Rain (Steve McQueen, Jackie Gleason, Tuesday Weld, based on a novel by William Goldman)
A Hard Day’s Night (the Beatles)
The Searchers (John Wayne, Natalie Wood, directed by John Ford)
Shane (Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur)
American Hardcore (no, it’s not porn, it’s about the punk rock movement)
It’s Alive 1974-1996 (The Ramones in concert, though it looks like it’s out of print, still can find it on eBay, but CD is available)
Ruthless People (Bette Midler, Danny DeVito, Judge Reinhold, directed by the Airplane guys)
Uncle Buck (John Candy)
Planes, Trains, Automobiles (John Candy, Steve Martin)
Only the Lonely (John Candy, Ally Sheedy)
Sullivan’s Travels (Veronica Lake, Joel McCrea, directed by Preston Sturges; also The Lady Eve, another Sturges movie)
Sideways (Paul Giamatti, Thomas Hayden Church, Sandra Oh, Virginia Madsen)
Ghost World (Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi)
Philadelphia Story (Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart)
His Girl Friday (Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell)
The Gay Divorcee/Top Hat/Swing Time (Fred and Ginger)
Thin Man movies (Bill and Myrna—and TCM is doing a marathon today)
And Now My Love (Toute une vie) (Marthe Keller, André Dussollier, Directed by Claude Lelouch)
Casablanca (my favorite movie, period) (Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt)

If you have kids, some older Disney live-action movies they might not ordinarily see:

In Search of the Castaways (Hayley Mills, Maurice Chevalier, George Sanders, based on a story by Jules Verne)
Old Yeller (good movie, but might make kids sad) (Dorothy McGuire, Fess Parker, Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran, Chuck Connors)
The Moon Spinners (Hayley Mills, Eli Wallach)

Happy Holidays to all and to all a good night!


And now for the usual BSP:

I have a couple of appearances in January.

Santa Clarita: The Old Town Newhall Library
Saturday, January 14, 2017, from 10:00 AM-3:00 PM.
24500 Main St, Santa Clarita, CA  91321

Cerritos Library, where I’ll be moderating a panel:
Saturday, January 28 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
18025 Bloomfield Avenue, Cerritos, CA  90703

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Hitting the Couch

"Is this prime, quiet writing time for you or are you taking a break?"

By the time you read this I will be done. I'll have finished the first draft of a book, printed it out (dancing around to . . . haven't decided yet, but probably 'All I want for Christmas is You'), and slammed my office door. With me on the outside.

I'm going to move my pile of Christmas reading - carefully curated and then hoarded all year -  to the coffee-table. I'll light a fire, put the kettle on for the first of many cups of tea and then . . .  plamph! (That's the sound of a writer's bum hitting the couch, in case you didn't know).

More will be added on Christmas Day, if the number of rectangular parcels is anything to go by.

The two weeks until 12th Night when I start up again are the most relaxing of the whole year.

The house is stuffed with food and drink, so when friends come round there's no more to do than select some and spread it on the table. There's a pile of corny old films on DVD. It's California so there are sunny days to go walking and cycling. (It's California, so we also need to cut the grass at least once, though.)

Long Skypes with distant loved ones, sorties to the supermarkets for more feast-fixings, Christmas jigsaw-puzzles on the kitchen table with BBC Radio 4 on i-player. (If the boss lets me. Last night she was in two minds)

One of my favourite Christmas bits is counting up the year's loose change to go present-shopping. Neil and I started this tradition when we were acutely broke and it's stuck. We're constrained to one town, one afternoon (before we meet up for tea), and half the change-pot each. I recommend it for anyone who doesn't actually need more stuff. There's a bookshop, an ironmonger and a charity shop - what more could you want, really?

I hope you all have a wonderful winter break, whatever you're breaking from and breaking to.

See you next year.


Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Season's Greetings from Cathy Ace

Made it through another writing year! Are you taking a break or is this prime, quiet, writing time for you?

An unusually snowy back deck
This year? I’m at maximum panic point because I have a deadline for a manuscript at the end of January. That means I’m head down, tapping away at the keyboard every chance I have, and trying to do other, family oriented, seasonally required tasks when I take necessary breaks from typing and editing.

No, I’m not crying “boo-hoo”; I realize how fortunate I am to have a book under contract with a deadline attached, but I won’t deny it’s a busy time. The days between Christmas and New Year will be especially good for me because I’ll have the house to myself, and all the preparation, decorating, cooking and baking for a family Christmas will be behind me. 

I think the weather is trying to help me out…it’s unusual for us to have a lot of snow here near Vancouver on British Columbia’s “wet” coast, but the past week has been a white out, with almost a foot of snow becoming frozen solid in temperatures down to about  minus 15 degrees Celsius – again, very unusual. That means that, since we only have one vehicle with snow tyres, I’ve been confined to the house and able to keep my head down. YAY! 

So – the tree is up and decorated, the outside of the house is looking as Christmassy as it ever will, the presents are all ready to be wrapped, and I have the wherewithal to make my usual 100 mince pies. Getting to the down-slope of the manuscript will be a bonus. 
Tree ornaments gathered on my travels

Here’s wishing you and yours the best of the season – and I look forward to connecting with you in 2017, Cathy

Cathy Ace is the Bony Blithe Award-winning author of The Cait Morgan Mysteries (#8 The Corpse with the Ruby Lips was released on November 1st) and The WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries (#2 The Case of the Missing Morris Dancer was published in paperback in the USA & Canada on November 1st, and #3, The Case of the Curious Cook, was released in hardcover in the UK on November 30th).  You can find out more about Cathy, her work and her characters at her website, where you can also sign up for her newsletter with news, updates and special offers:

Monday, December 19, 2016

Joyeux Noël!

- from Susan

Q: Are you taking a break or is this prime, quiet writing time for you?

A: Considering I just returned from a trip to the town in Burgundy where my second French village mystery takes place, with photos and notes about how the people of the area celebrate Christmas, it’s essential writing time. DRESSED FOR DEATH is due to my editor very soon. (The first, LOVE & DEATH IN BURGUNDY, doesn't come out until May 2 and is set in the heat of summer.)

The French deal with Christmas differently than Americans (or Germans, or Scandinavians, or Mexicans) do. Having rebelled against the close relationship between the state and the Catholic Church in the late 18th century, the country has been trying to decide what, exactly, is the relationship ever since in a long series of laws.

Some French people follow Catholicism and you only have to see the frenzied rush to get into Notre Dame Cathedral on Christmas Day for a High Mass celebrated by a senior French Catholic priest to realize there’s still interest. In the small towns and provincial cities, however, the Church and its rituals are far less appealing. The real town I fictionalized for my series has a church building long since owned by the State but used in a desultory, occasional way for Catholic ceremonies. A traveling priest may visit once a year to do any requested baptisms, marriages, etc. Christmas? No priest, just a ragtag group of mostly elderly residents who sing a bit, listen to one of their group read the Christmas text from the Bible, and try to keep warm in the cold, stone building for an hour or less.

The real celebration is in the food, mais oui! That’s what I was researching. Fancy meats, special pastries, candy, traditional holiday dishes. You’ll have to wait for the book to catch the real flavor of Christmas in Burgundy. In the meantime, Joyeux Noël!

My photo from a well-maintained church in the church city of Vezelay in Burgundy. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Right Madness at this time of year …

by Dietrich Kalteis

One of my favorite authors in recent years is James Crumley. A couple of weeks back I recommended some books here on 7 Criminal Minds, and one of them was One to Count Cadence. It was Crumley’s first novel and a great start to a brilliant writing career.

I’ve been working my way through his C.W. Sughrue books, and The Right Madness is the last one in the series. Published in 2005, this was also Crumley’s last novel and the final outing for his character C.W. Sughrue. And while it would be impossible for me to just pick one, The Right Madness is a book that I’d be happy to unwrap as a gift.

The story takes place in Crumley’s fictional Big Sky Country town of Meriwether, and centers on the P.I. after he’s asked by a psychiatrist friend to keep an eye on seven of his patients, who then mysteriously start to get bumped off, leaving Sughrue to solve the mystery in his usual drunken state, told in Crumley’s usual brilliant style.

So, if you're looking for a great read, and if you haven’t read any of his work, put The Right Madness on your own Christmas list, or start with the first one in this series, The Last Good Kiss. Wrap it up and surprise yourself. Then follow it with The Mexican Tree Duck and Bordersnakes. And get to know a great author and some terrific books.

And I do wish everyone a wonderful Holiday Season.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Dreams of Bunker Hill and John Lennon

Do you have writing tics? Words you over-use, things every single last character in a book does, moves you love to make . . .? Do you edit them out or embrace them?

by Paul D. Marks

Since we pretty much had this same question last August (you can see my responses here: Writing Tics: The ‘Comfort Food’ of Writing, and I don’t think I have much new to add, I’ll let that answer stand. Instead I thought I’d talk about a couple of things close to me: John Lennon and Bunker Hill. Both in the context of writing or at least my writing. I usually try to stick to pretty close to the week’s question, so I hope nobody minds.

John Lennon

Yesterday, December 8th, was the 36th anniversary of John Lennon’s assassination. As I’d mentioned here last time, my first paid writing assignment was for a piece about him on the one-year anniversary of his death for one of the LA papers. I’m not going to comment so much here about the tragedy of his death, but about how he and his three partners in crime inspired me to want to be a writer.

Before I wanted to be a prose writer, The Beatles inspired me to want to be a song writer and rock star. (I don’t think I was alone in this…) When my brothers and I were kids we cut out cardboard “electric” guitars and sang along to records. When I got a little older I wanted a real guitar and eventually got one and then focused on the bass. (Hey, it was good enough for Paul McCartney.) And I was in some bands in high school. (See the very professional card we had made up for one of those bands.)

Then, one day I was talking to a counselor and he asked me something like what I wanted to be. I said “I want to be the Beatles.” I didn’t mean it literally, but I did mean that I wanted to be the best in my field. Hey, dream big, shoot for the stars, right? But I knew that I didn’t have the talent to really make it in rock. Of course, you say, neither do a lot of the people who have made it…but that’s another story. So where to then?

Besides rock ‘n’ roll, I’ve always loved movies. And that was something I thought I might actually be able to succeed at in the writing arena. So I gave it a shot. And did have some success as a rewriter/script doctor, though frustrated by the lack of screen credits. And worked at that for many years. But there’s something exasperating about Hollywood and that is, among other things, too many chefs spoiling the stew. Too many people at too many different levels giving input on screenplays and not necessarily making them better – ask me about it some time. So at some point I decided to try my hand at prose writing. I’d always done it to some extent but not as a primary form of writing. Though, even when I went to USC grad school in cinema I took an advanced story writing class from T. Coraghessan Boyle. So my interests always lay there too.

I learned a lot from him and his class, but I also learned a lot about writing and structure from screenwriting. So I started writing short stories and even a novel. And I placed that novel with a major publisher. Boy, was I excited! And guess what it was about – a screenwriter trying to make it in Hollywood. And aside from a little murder thrown in for fun pretty much everything in it was true. All the absurdities and farce. It was a satire. So everything’s humming along fine and then the whole editorial staff at the publisher gets let go…and my novel gets swept out the door with them. And because a lot of the humor in it was topical it would have needed a rewrite before sending it out again. Something I didn’t have the time or maybe the desire to do then. So back to the drawing board, though one day I might bring it out of retirement and polish it up and give it another shot.

But eventually I did start placing short stories here and there and returned to novels. And though I’m still striving to get where I want to be, I’m having fun and getting some recognition and getting to do what I want. Sometimes I bitch that things aren’t always what I’d like them to be, but overall I know I have it pretty good.

So the Beatles inspired me to want to do something creative and not have a 9-5 job, something that would have strangled me and did on the rare occasions when I had to do it. And whenever I hear a Beatles song it brings back memories of my early days as a writer and writing that John Lennon article where I found I had a voice and things I wanted to share. And I feel like I owe the Beatles for that creative inspiration that got me started on this path. Would life have been easier if I didn’t have this need to write? Probably. But it would also be a hell of a lot less interesting.

How about you? What has your journey been like?


Bunker Hill – Los Angeles
(not that ‘other’ one on the East Coast near where the shot heard round the world happened)

My story Ghosts of Bunker Hill is now out in the current/December issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It’s a little bit different; I think you might enjoy it.

That said, Bunker Hill was L.A.’s first wealthy residential neighborhood, right near downtown. It was filled with glorious Victorian mansions and other cool buildings. If you’re into film noir you’ve “been” to Bunker Hill. Many times. Lots of film noirs – as well as movies in other genres – were shot there (Criss Cross, Cry Danger, Kiss Me Deadly, The Brasher Doubloon, Backfire, the Judy Garland version of A Star is Born, and many others).

But in the late 60s it was all torn down and redeveloped. They even flattened the hills and demolished or moved many of the gorgeous Victorian houses (as you’ll see in the story). If you’ve been to the Music Center you’ve “been” to Bunker Hill. It’s where John Fante lived when he wrote Ask the Dust (and other books like Dreams from Bunker Hill), which is largely set there. But it got run down after WWI and became housing for poor people and the Powers That Be wanted to build up downtown, so off with its head, so to speak.

I love the old Bunker Hill and was lucky enough to explore it with a friend before it was totally razed. We did our own little archaeological expedition of several of the houses and I even “borrowed” the top of a newel post from the long and winding interior stairway in one of those houses (see pic). A true relic of L.A.’s past. It’s a prized possession.

So Bunker Hill and its ghosts were the inspiration for the story. It’s a fascinating place and I’m hooked on it. I’ll be writing more about it at SleuthSayers (, the other blog I write for, on Tuesday, December 20th, if you’re into it too.


And now for the usual BSP:

Also, I’ll be interviewed on Writer’s Block Radio on December 15th at 7pm PST. Hope you can check it out. Find it here: 

And I have a couple of appearances in January.

Cerritos Library, where I’ll be moderating a panel:
Saturday, January 28 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
18025 Bloomfield Avenue, Cerritos, CA  90703

Santa Clarita: The Old Town Newhall Library
Saturday, January 14, 2017, from 10:00 AM-3:00 PM.
24500 Main St, Santa Clarita, CA  91321

Thursday, December 8, 2016

It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.

"Do you have embarrassing writing tics? Words you overuse? Things every single last character does in every book?"

I started what turned into a lively thread about this on Facebook last week, when I shared a couple of my copy editor's deletions from the manuscript she'd just returned to me. "Blinked my eyes" and "sounded like fireworks going off" both made me laugh. I had to stop blinking my kidneys I was laughing so much. Luckily, the noise of some fireworks lying in their box in the cupboard drowned me out.

Comments were of two main types.

A lot of writing pals fessed up to having their characters endlessly shrug their shoulders, nod their heads, and even kneel down on their knees. We shared a collective "duh".

Even more pals sprang to my defence (and so I should think!), pointing out that writing a novel isn't like writing a memo. You're not just trying to get the bare meaning across. You're also trying for rhythm, style, voice, and the whole big glorious gulp of being drunk on words.

Why, though, would that even need to be said? Where did the idea come from that cutting is king and stetting has to be argued, that spare prose is inherently better than luxurious prose, that less is always, always more. I mean, yes of course, hooray for Hemingway. But what about Dickens? I still devour every word Joan Didion writes, but I'd hate to be without Joyce Carol Oates for the other 362 reading days of the year.

We know where it came from, don't we? Strunk and White's "omit needless words" has to be the most misused piece of writing advice ever. And what a survivor! The Elements of Style came out in 1959 and we're still in thrall. To guys whose writing skills couldn't handle the existence of women. Well, pardon me, but I'm going to take my cue from people who're not vanquished by the pronoun system of such a straightforward language as English. Imagine if they'd tried Hungarian with its 14+ cases. They'd be lying down with a cool cloth on their heads.

So. Strunk and White. I'm not a fan. And Elmore Leonard didn't help either, although I'm pretty sure he was kidding. In either case, I give them all a raspberry and, above, you'll have noticed me deliberately giving you a sentence with three "that"s and a repeated adverb. You didn't? What can I say?

Deliberateness is the key, for me. Intent and purpose are another two words for it. Okay, I'll stop now. Tics on the other hand are what we do thoughtlessly. They're first draft things. Needless words are the words we think the better of when we edit. But editing out style, voice, rhythm and humour (oh yes, I've had an editor take out jokes because sentences could be tighter without them and they add nothing to the great god meaning) . . . editing out the joy? Why would you do that?

I wouldn't. I didn't. I wrote "stet - rhythm" "stet - idiom" and "stet - voice" all over the manuscript. But I didn't, in the end, specify what the character blinked. I bet no one emails to ask me..

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Writers' Tics

Please welcome my guest, Gwen Parrott, who's covering for me this week while I take a little break. Like me, she's Welsh, and her book, Dead White, is set in Pembrokeshire, Wales, where she lives and I have relatives. Over to you, Gwen....
We all have writers’ tics, whether we acknowledge it or not. We certainly recognize them in other writers and depending on how much we like their work, we smile or grimace. I am as guilty as the next novelist of groaning to myself and thinking ‘Oh for goodness sake, not again’ as I edit my own work. But the idea that we are all captives on some endless hamster wheel, repeating phrases and figures of speech ad nauseam, throws up an interesting point – are we all really writing, as I read recently, in a kind of fugue state, or semi-trance, where we don’t really know what we’re putting down? 

I know that when it’s going well, and I’m typing like a thing possessed, desperate to get it all written before the mood wears off, that I’m far more likely to let my own particular foibles run rampant. Conversely, when the process is like drawing teeth, every word looks wrong, clichéd and badly positioned. It’s not a matter of my writing more thoughtfully when it’s not flowing – I wouldn’t mind so much if it was – but more a case of not writing at all. It seems you can’t win.

When you write crime novels with a historical setting, as I do, you are very aware that readers may not be familiar with many aspects of daily life. My Della Arthur novels are set around 1947, just after the end of the Second World War, and the characters live with food rationing, transport restrictions and all manner of other difficulties. The dilemma I face, and it’s one of my tics, is how much to explain and when to do it. I have a horror of falling victim to what I call the ‘Products of Venezuela Syndrome’. At school, back in the Middle Ages, it seemed to me that every Geography exam I sat for years required me to ‘List the products of Venezuela’. As a dyed-in-the-wool swot, I knew them by heart and could rattle them off. As a writer, when you’ve researched a topic until it’s become second nature to you, it’s a huge temptation to stuff the story full of great chunks of factual information (just like the products of Venezuela) because you know it and it may all be new to the readers. However, just because readers don’t know it doesn’t mean they want to know it. 

I see this syndrome all the time in crime novels, and in its latest incarnation it takes the form of detailed expositions of how pieces of forensic equipment work. The authors have done the research, so it’s going in, come what may! I suppose there must be people who want to learn exactly what a mass spectrometer does, but I’m not one of them. So, using my own lack of enthusiasm as a template, I have to hold myself back from my natural inclination to give a full run down on wartime ‘powdered egg’ and its uses. Yet, occasionally I just can’t resist having characters discuss things that are unfamiliar to modern audiences in a way that gives a little more information than would be normal for them. After all, if you’re living in that world, or any world, you are not forever talking about things you take for granted. Who, nowadays, discusses the miracle of the electricity supply, unless it’s not working? 

Gwen Parrott
 The other major tic for me is the ‘He said – she said’ dilemma. I know from my reading that many writers have done away with this altogether but, frankly, I get confused by long lines of unascribed dialogue, and find myself counting every other line to see who said what. Mercifully, I no longer try to vary the formula with ‘he expostulated – she opined’, but I still use ‘he said – she said’ too much, and all the ‘he answered’, ‘she replied’ and ‘he suggested’ in the world doesn’t really make a dent in the repetitiveness. It does strike me that I may be over-anxious about this and that the human eye skips over these words without taking in more than a subconscious realisation of who the speaker is. And following on from ‘he said – she said’ is the inevitable adverb. My characters are always speaking ‘humbly’, ‘innocently’ or ‘sullenly’, and I’m not always confident enough to edit them out. Am I really sure that the spoken words themselves are enough of a clue? 

My third tic is over-writing. I can’t say that I do this deliberately, but I’ve found that it’s much easier to cut than it is to add during the editing process. As you don’t write a novel in one fell swoop, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll occasionally make the same point twice, and there is actually something very pleasurable about being able to strike out whole sentences. I take a perverse joy in seeing the word count numbers at the bottom of the screen dropping. And once I’ve rejigged or cut a paragraph, I can’t quite believe that it wasn’t always like that. The fact that my novels are written in the first instance in Welsh means that I get two chances to edit – one for the original, and yet again when I translate them into English. I am aware, because of my other life as a translator, that Welsh comes out ten percent longer than English (for your information, French comes out even longer at fifteen percent), but by the time I’m done with editing, if I’m not careful, the English can read like a nothing more than a précis! So perhaps my tic isn’t over-writing, it’s over-editing. I may strike that sentence out later.....

Gwen Parrott’s Della Arthur novel ‘Dead White’ (Kindle) is set in 1947 in her native Pembrokeshire, South Wales. As she is bilingual in Welsh and English, she translates her own work. You can read more about her and the background to the world of ‘Dead White’ at: