Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Why a writer?

by Dietrich Kalteis

I missed out on the question why I became an author a couple weeks ago, and since this week’s a free for all, here’s my chance.

Being a writer had been a dream since I was a teenager and penned a draft of a novel in longhand. That one never got past the shoebox of handwritten looseleaf pages stuffed under the bed, and it took quite a bit more time for me to get a novel published and to take myself seriously as an author. I’d talked about it off and on for years, but real life kept getting in the way. It was my wife who encouraged me to actually do it.

There’s been a love for books and stories since before I could read, starting with the brothers Grimm. When I started to read it was The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham. As I grew, I moved on to swashbucklers and westerns. And I loved the classics by Hemingway, Steinbeck and Salinger. I don’t know how many times I’ve read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and To Kill a Mockingbird. Eventually, I got got my first taste of mysteries with the Hardy Boys. 

I do read other genres. I love the books by Patti Smith, and Hunter S. Thompson, and the beat writing of Jack Kerouac. So, I’m kind of all over the map, except to say I love reading a strong voice.

There’s something about the suspense in a good crime novel or thriller. And a great voice to take me on a journey, painting scenes of times gone by, and places I may never see, not to mention things I would never do. While I’ve mentioned them before, greats like Elmore Leonard, Charles Willeford, George V Higgins and James Crumley have been both an influence and an inspiration — a kind of a benchmark for me, something to reach for in my own writing.

I started writing short stories and a few screenplays, trying different approaches and genres to see where I fit. Early on, if I was happy with what I wrote that day, I usually hated it when I reread it the next morning. I sent some stories out and some were published and that was very encouraging. After several screenplays and a number of short stories, I wrote a piece that was a scene of dialog, and when I reread it the following morning I didn’t hate it. It was about an insurance investigator checking into a scamming housewife, trying to cheat the company he worked for. And I expanded on the idea, and although it changed quite a bit, that was the beginning of Ride the Lightning, my first novel. 

Aside from the suspense and pace, I love a sense of levity in a crime story. Often it appears in dialog or in a particular character’s dumbness. But it’s great when it’s done right alongside the natural tension in that kind of book.

Since I’m influenced and inspired by what I read, I want to mention some that I’ve read over the past few weeks that I think are worth passing on to anybody looking for a good book: Emily Schultz’s Men Walking on Water, George Pelecanos’ Drama City, The Drop by Dennis Lehane, Tough Guys Don’t Dance by Norman Mailer, Sideswipe by Charles Willeford, Sam Wiebe’s Invisible Dead and William Deverell’s Sing a Worried Song.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Feeding Creativity

At 7 Criminal Minds this week we are picking our own subject. I’m writing about feeding creativity.

A few years ago I was working on a book and got totally stumped. I couldn’t move forward, but I couldn’t give it up, either. Finally, I realized that I had holed up and worked on the book to the exclusion of other activities. My creative brain had gone stale. I knew it was time to get out and about and feed my creative side. In this particular case, I went for a long walk. But not just any walk—not a mindless ramble. I focused. I promised myself to really look at everything around me. I noticed the beautiful red bark of the manzanita tree that I often passed without paying attention to it. I stopped to take in the incredible variety of the color green on a hillside—every shade from silver-green to deep jade, to the soft green of new shoots. I noticed that intricate patters of tree trunks:

Several years ago, I started taking painting classes. I have no “talent” at painting, and no illusions that I would burst onto the art scene. I thought it might make me better able to see the world. I’m not a natural at “seeing. I’m more tuned to hearing the world around me. Learning to really look at things turned out to be more rewarding than I could ever have imagined. I learned about the important of light and shadow and how difficult it is to replicate the colors of nature.

In my writing, it made me able to open up to description. I always had trouble describing scenes. I was of the “just describe everything in the room” writer. Nothing, it turns out, is more boring than reading a checklist of what’s in a room. From painting, I learned the art of picking out the important visual cue. I don’t see a tree trunk anymore. I see the roughness or smoothness of the bark, the way the trunk twists, the visible roots on the ground. Is see the intricate details of flowers:

I have learned over time to feed my creative side in all kinds of ways. One of my favorites is to go to art galleries. Did I say I was more tuned to hearing than to seeing? I realized several years ago that when a piece of visual art really speaks to me, I often hear a soundtrack with it in my head.
Here’s a photo I took while strolling through Bouquets to Art at the DeYoung Museum, a yearly exhibition in which floral artists interpret art in the gallery: Can you hear the music that goes along with it?

Bird-watching expeditions are a wonderful way to see the world afresh. In the Bay Area, we are lucky to have places to observe shorebirds, woodland and forest birds, as well as free-ranging raptors. Birds are around us every day, but “seeing” them requires being still and really looking for the subtle colors, watching the way they feed and preen, the way they fly and interact with each other and their environment.

Sometimes it isn’t nature that fulfills, but other arts. Going to a movie or to the theater can stir your imagination and set you buzzing with a new idea. Music: The symphony or the opera, or any kind of music. Rock, folk, jazz.

And of course, sometimes what works best is reading. Not just reading mysteries, but reading outside sometimes reading outside your comfort zone. I just read the brilliant Lincoln in the Bardo, not knowing what to expect. It reminded me that literature can take you out of your everyday experiences and fling you into a new way of seeing the world.

How do others feed their creativity? Do you work on your car? Cook? Rearrange your furniture? Take photographs?

Friday, January 26, 2018

The Story Behind the Story -- Guest Post by Laura Brennan

Every week we answer a set question. This week you have the opportunity to write about whatever you want to write about as long as it has something to do with the intent of our blog.

by Paul D Marks

Since today’s post is an open question, I thought I’d have Laura Brennan pinch hit for me. Laura’s eclectic career includes television, film, theater, fiction, and news. Her weekly podcast, Destination Mystery, features interviews with mystery writers of every subgenre. Her short story, “Driving Dead Daisy,” is available on Amazon, while other stories have appeared in anthologies such as “Hell Comes to Hollywood” and “Live Free or Ride.” On screens large and small, Laura has lopped characters’ heads off and fed them to dinosaurs. But it’s not all blood and guts: her web series Faux Baby explores the lighter side of motherhood. And if the faux baby loses a limb here or there, well… No, actually, she has no justification for that at all. Laura talks about many of the authors and stories she’s been exposed to since she started interviewing authors a couple of years ago. So take it away, Laura:

The Story Behind the Story

by Laura Brennan

Two years ago I started the podcast Destination Mystery. I did it because I love mysteries and wanted an excuse to interview authors, and also because, as a newbie mystery writer myself, I wanted a way to be part of the conversation.

But over two years and sixty-plus interviews, I have learned so much from my chats with other writers. Some of the highlights:

1) We all write from our own life. Like her heroine, Dr. Ellen Kirschman is a therapist who worked with first responders and their families. Leslie Karst has restaurant experience in both the front of the house and on the hot line, bringing authenticity to her Sally Solari mysteries. And Kellye Garrett was broke in Los Angeles when she saw a billboard offering a reward for information on a murder. She didn’t solve the case, but Dayna Anderson, the heroine of Kellye’s debut, Hollywood Homicide, did.

2) Mystery writers tend to have experience with law enforcement. Criminal Minds’ very own Paul D. Marks told me how he pulled a gun on the LAPD and lived to tell the tale (a story you can check out here: Jessie Chandler, who writes capers, is herself a former police officer, while S.M. Freedman worked for a decade as a private investigator. Living the dream!

3) Other crime writers have had what Denise Swanson calls an “encounter with evil.” Denise stumbled across a satanic cult that was abusing children and became a target of them herself. Jane Kelly lost a friend to a murder -- a loss that had a direct impact on her writing. And of course, true crime writer Holly Tucker, while not herself directly touched by tragedy, was inspired by real life events: an epidemic of poisoning in the court of Louis XIV.

4) Writers grow and change -- and so do the books they want to write. Cozy author Ellery Adams has been pushing against the confines of the genre for a while and made a clean break with her new series, The Secret, Book & Scone Society, which she calls suspenseful women’s fiction. On the opposite side, Olivia Matthews comes from a background of romance and romantic suspense while her new series is squarely cozy -- and her protagonist is a Catholic sister!

5) Finally, everyone has themes that they return to again and again. This one worries me a little, because I can see a theme in my own writing -- one of unreliable narrators and moral codes that are just a little outside the norms. Not quite sure what that says about me!

But I can’t fight it. It seems impossible to escape our obsessions, at least on the page. Jenny Milchman writes thrillers about women who find the strength to recover from betrayal and learn to trust themselves. Steph Cha’s Juniper Song mystery novels are a modern take on LA Noir, infused with Raymond Chandler’s sensibility. And Kwei Quartey’s traditional police series is set in his native Ghana; in each Darko Dawson novel, Kwei ties a wider social issue to the very human and personal motives for murder.

Destination Mystery has exposed me to subgenres I would never have picked up on my own: Pirate Noir, anyone? While Steve Goble’s The Bloody Black Flag introduced me to that genre, I’ve learned about the Great Fire of London from Susanna Calkins, Joseph Haydn (Nupur Tustin), and growing up during the Civil Rights Movement (Valerie C. Woods). But best of all has been the chance to chat with fantastic authors about the struggles, inspirations, and successes in their careers.

Mind you, I’m still a bit worried about that unreliable narrator theme of mine…


Thank you for stopping by, Laura. And I hope people will check out Destination Mystery at 


And now for the usual BSP:

Check out my website:

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Ae Fond Blog

Well, this is fortunate. It's free-for-all week at Criminal Minds and so I get to write whatever I want on the 25th of January of all days. It's an important one in the Scottish calendar, being the (258th) anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns. 

Who? Robert Burns. Odds are if you asked a hundred Scots "Who's the greatest Scot who ever lived?" you'd get the answer "Rabbie" from most of them. (Even people who don't think they know who he is, do kind of know who he is because he wrote "Auld Lang Syne".)

So that's how I'm spinning this: he was a writer and this is a writing blog.  He wasn't a crimewriter, but he was passionately interested in justice. A man of such humble birth that his nickname was "the ploughman poet", he never had his head turned by success, but remained in sympathy with the most unfortunate and down-trodden in society and was their champion, railing against unfairness and lampooning pomposity.  

One of my favourite poems of his is "To a Mouse: on turning her up in her nest with the plough, November 1785". It can move me to tears. It made me ugly-cry when Neil recited the first verse to the wee mousie we caught in a cup in our kitchen.

wee sleekit, cowrin tim'rous beastie
The second verse goes: "I'm truly sorry man's dominion// Has broken Nature's social union// And justifies that ill opinion// Which makes thee startle// At me, thy poor, earth-born companion// An' fellow mortal!"

His whole philosophy is right there. I believe we need his humility, wisdom and compassion more than ever now, so many years after his birth. 

But Burns Night isn't all solemnity. There's food, drink, singing, drink, men in scratchy skirts, drink, toasts, drink and a few drinks to wash it all down. I love Burns Night and I love my American friends who've taken it to their hearts so completely, I'm not even homesick anymore.

Except in one crucial way. I have to make my own haggis! It's impossible to express how daft it seems to have to make your own haggis. It's like making your own cornflakes. It's like making your own jeans. No one in their right mind does it. And I've done it seven times now. 

I'm almost good at it. But I want to look back to the first time I tried and it went horribly wrong.

Some haggis ingredients: don't ask.

World’s first Haggis Transplant and Triflectomy (from January 2011)

Scots have a long history of medical innovation: Simpson and his chloroform; Fleming and his penicillin. Now McPherson joins them with a pair of linked surgical procedures. One is illustrated below. No one needs to see the other.

Scene: kitchen in Calfornia. 
Time: late January.  
V/O: In a worrrrrllllld without haggis, one woman is on a quest to track down liver, find out the Spanish for “sheep’s stomach” and learn how to flirt suet out of Mexican butchers before Burn’s night commmmmmmes.  This [pause] is her storyyyyyyy.

The Spanish for “sheep’s stomach” is oveja buce but I never found one. So I made my haggis in a pudding basin, like a clootie dumpling, and there began the problem. Haggis for twelve includes a kilo of oatmeal. Let me share a secret with you: oatmeal swells. A kilo of oatmeal swells a lot. And the bowl I’d set aside to steam my haggis in wasn’t up to the job. I’ve got a bigger bowl, but it had a rhubarb and ginger trifle under construction in it.

So, despite the mystery of the missing liver and the flirty suet, the biggest challenge of my first home-made haggis was performing a mid-gestation transplant and triflectomy. Big spoon! Fish Slice! Spatula! That thing with the holes!


The patient recovered well and custard masked the scars. Then cream covered the custard. If only it had been dipped in batter and deep fried it would have been the perfect Scottish salad. (Just as well we’re good at medicine really.)

And the haggis was lovely.

Happy birthday, Rab. 

Happy Burns Night, everyone, for tonight and for Saturday, when I'm guessing most Burns suppers will be held (with drinks).

And remember: Your social status is just the pattern on the face of a coin. What you are inside is the gold the coin is made of.  I make a lousy poet, eh? Burns said it better: "The rank is but the guinea's stamp. The man's the gowd for a' that."  

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Blog posts as Cathy Ace

Every week we answer a set question. This week you have the opportunity to write about whatever you want to write about as long as it has something to do with the intent of our blog.

“Write what you want…” sounds appealing for a while. Then it doesn’t. It’s like setting off on a journey with no map, no goal. And I’m not good at that. Nope, I need to know where I’m heading, and why. I’ve always been the same, and you know what they say about old dogs and new tricks. I cannot enjoy the journey for the journey’s sake, not unless I have a destination in mind. Aimless wandering is not for me. 

I’m in a reflective mood at the moment; those of you who read this blog will know I’ve just been in Wales visiting Mum, who suffered a broken shoulder. It was wonderful to spend time with her – and my sister – but it made me think long and hard about what I value most in life. About what I should be doing with the most important commodity I have (and everyone has) – time. So here goes with using this blog post as something of a confessional...insofar as I'm about to let you all visit my inner thoughts.

Five weeks after her fall, Mum was up to lunch and a concert in Cardiff, when I visited Wales earlier this month

The past five and a half years have been all about writing and the world of publishing and promotion for me; twelve books traditionally published, plus one self-published, during that time, with a few short stories thrown in for good measure. I’ve achieved certain goals I set for myself (get a book published, get another series published), and even some I never imagined possible (winning a national writing award). 

With several 7 Criminal Minds bloggers and alumni at Bouchercon 2017
I’ve attended a lot of conventions and met some wonderful readers, reviewers, bloggers and authors – many of whom are people whose work I have read, enjoyed and admired for many years. It’s been quite a ride.  

Now? With my husband about to retire, and me due to step down from my role as Chair of Crime Writers of Canada in May, I have to think beyond that point, and come up with a new plan. 

Why? Big question.

One of my publishers told me in June 2016 that they would not publish mysteries any more. Given the fact they still do, I have to now view their words as meaning they weren't going to publish MY mysteries any more. My other publisher was recently bought up by a company with a radically different contract model that doesn’t really fit well with my publishing preferences. So, what to do? Sign, write another book in that series and feel my hands are tied when it comes to the book being available to readers? No. I didn't do it; I have gone through the pain and frustration of learning that the availability of a book within the marketplace is critical to successful sales, and that retaining ownership of SOME rights is important for author sanity. 

2012, with my first book...before I really understood how the world of publishing works

So I’m going back to my “writing roots” and starting all over doing what I first did – writing what comes from the heart, and is exactly what I want to write, rather than something that’s massaged into a well-defined publishing niche.

What does that mean specifically? Well, I’ve recently waded into the deep waters of self-publishing to get out an anthology of novellas and short stories that go back to the “genesis” of my characters Cait Morgan and the WISE women, and I’ll be working on another anthology of four novellas which take those characters to the point they’d reached before their lives began in novels. (I dare say I shouldn’t ask everyone reading this to buy the book I've just self-published, but if you'd like to check it out, click on the link under the photo to reach it and there you can read the entire first short story, Dear George, which was the first thing I ever wrote and had published, back in 1988!)

Click here to read an entire short story from this book

And I’m just starting to work on a book that’s been fighting to get out of me for a while now – a domestic suspense novel, which considers how obsession and denial come into play when a gruesome murder is investigated in a not-yet-quite-regenerated Welsh seaside community. Three generations of women – a widowed grandmother in her eighties, a divorced mother in her fifties, and her seventeen-year-old daughter – share a somewhat dilapitated house on the seafront, and are all connected (whether they know, or admit it, or not) with the shocking murder of a local youth.

I always think that writing a book is rather like three-day-eventing for horses…and I am looking forward to the thrilling “steeplechase” phase right now, which is how I think of writing a first draft. Then it’ll be on to the “showjumping” phase, of editing and reshaping with a bit more finesse, then, finally, the “dressage” of finagling all the finer points until I’m happy with it all. Then it’ll be off to an editor I enjoy working with so we can see how it can be buffed and polished to be ready for market.

Remember – you heard about it here first, folks! Meanwhile, thank you for taking the time to read this far– I know how precious your time is.  There - that's my confessional done with for a while. Now back to what I love about being an author...the writing!

Cathy Ace is the Bony Blithe Award-winning author of The Cait Morgan Mysteries and The WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries.  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: