Wednesday, September 30, 2020

With all due respect

Do you find that proper grammar and structure sometimes interferes with style and tone? What liberties do you take with language for the sake of style?

by Dietrich

I don’t find that it interferes — because I won’t let it. Not because I’m a rebel or challenged by literacy, but for the sake of tone and style.  

An understanding of grammar is a wonderful thing and certainly leads to clarity and effective communication. The funny thing about grammar is I studied up on it when I took to writing short stories some years ago. There was a tall stack of texts on my desk, and I relearned what I had forgotten from my school days, and then some.

“It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.” – Jack Kerouac 

Anyone who’s read my stuff can tell you I don’t exactly adhere to what I learned from that stack of texts. And while I don’t follow many grammar rules in my novel writing, I’m familiar with them, and I know when I’m breaking them.

And it’s funny, we generally break grammar rules all the time. Ever stand in a line with a sign that reads Ten Items or Fewer. We don’t balk when someone says, “Hey, what are you up to?” Although we might raise a brow if someone said, “ To whom shall I pass the joint?”

"That is the sort of thing up with which I will not put!” – Winston Churchill

“I can’t get no satisfaction.” — Mick Jagger

“Lay lady lay.” — Bob Dylan

I generally write from the perspective of a character, so the writing needs to sound authentic to that person. And I assure you most of these people wouldn’t know an adjectives from an adverb, let alone know there’s a royal order to them. And they don’t know squat about em and en dashes, subject-verb agreement, split infinitives, compound or run-on sentences. They speak in fragments and start their sentences with conjuctions and end them with prepositions. And if you pointed it out to them, they’d give you a look and say, “What’re you gonna do ‘bout it?” What can we expect, they’re misfits, marginals and criminals. And not one of them’s ever pondered why the O sounds different in “tomb” and “bomb” or “comb.” 

The important thing is that the characters sound natural and real. It most cases it would sound phony if they started speaking proper English.

“Great Music, it said, and Great Poetry would like quieten Modern Youth down and make Modern Youth more Civilized. Civilized my syphilised yarbles.” ― Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange

And consider that William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, James Joyce and Jack Kerouac, didn’t have much use for punctuation. 

So, grammar is the correct use of English, and I generally stick to the rules when I’m writing letters or a blog like this one. But, when I’m writing fiction, that rulebook goes right out the window.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

What's Proper?


Terry Shames here, talking about whether I  find that proper grammar and structure sometimes interfere with style and tone, and  what liberties I take with language for the sake of style.

The operative word for me is “proper.” I don’t let anything interfere with the style and tone of what I’m writing, especially not some subjective idea of “proper” grammar and structure. 

                                    Small town Texas

I write books set in Texas, which means there’s a certain style and tone appropriate to my stories.  There are idioms and regional colloquialisms that crop up in the language that aren’t necessarily “proper.” Not everyone speaks like a rube, but some of my characters do. I’ve had to fight with editors (and autocorrect) when I have someone say, “We done all we could,” for example. But it’s the way people really talk. And Texans often use more words than necessary. I remember my dad laughing when he overheard a mechanic saying, “Look at this little bitty old tack I found in this tire.” Daddy said, “Look at this little tack” would have been just as descriptive. But  the original wording “sounds” right for a Texan.

I also use current, more “lax” conventions when I write. I use sentence fragments. And I start sentences with “and” or “but.” It isn’t that I don’t know the proper way to do it, but I’m interested in writing as conversation, not as instruction. 

Maybe the use of “proper” grammar and construction is what people mean when they talk about “literary” fiction, but I can point to plenty of literary novels that don’t adhere to the rules. For example Cormac McCarthy and E.L. Doctorow are among those who don’t use quotation marks when their characters speak. That said, it’s important for a writer to know the rules (or is it?) so she’ll know when she’s breaking them. 


There are only a few real “rules” that actually should rule: 

1) Use writing to communicate, not obfuscate (heh). If you’re writing for literature professors, maybe you can slip in some big words, but for the general reading audience, keep it simple.  Which means you need to know who you are writing for.

2) Use active more often than passive voice. “Mario encased the guy’s feet in concrete and threw him over the side,” rather than “The guy’s feet were encased in concrete and he was thrown over the side by Mario.” Except…that sometimes passive is fine. Depends on who’s telling the tale.

3) Be true to your characters. Dialogue has to reflect a character’s intent, her education, her quirks, his personality. 

That’s it. You can throw in a whole lot of extra rules under these umbrella rules, but they pretty much cover everything else. In other words “proper” grammar and structure actually means what is “proper” for the story you are telling, the characters you are writing about, and the audience you hope to reach. 

Speaking of audience, next Sunday, October 4 at 4PM  Central Standard Time, I'll be on a panel with Reavis Wortham and and Ben Rehder on Texas Murder and Mayhem. For more information, see my website events at

Sunday, September 27, 2020

My Canadian Style

Do you find that proper grammar and structure sometimes interfere with style and tone? What liberties do you take with language for the sake of style?

Brenda Chapman writing today.

I worked for many years in government communications. We followed the Canadian Style Guide religiously with many levels of approval to ensure messaging and grammar were on point. Before the government job, I was a special education teacher and several times helped high school students learn grammar. This meant I poured over grammar books to figure out the concepts and terminology, most of this forgotten from my own high school days.

So when I began writing books, I had a solid grasp of what constituted a sentence, the ability to match up the verb with the subject, and the knowledge that one shouldn't end a sentence with a preposition. Initially, I stuck to the rules quite religiously (as far as I could tell anyway) but as time has gone by, and with all the different editors I've worked with, I don't get as worked up about punctuation or capital letters -- and believe me, no two editors are exactly the same. Other grammar usage still bothers me if I don't get it right.

I adhere to the rules of proper grammar and structure for the most part because these are the building blocks of good writing. However, I'm fine taking some liberties, particularly when it comes to dialogue where people are known to say a sentence that ends with a preposition. Split infinitives don't bother me too much either :-)

I've broken small rules that don't always make sense to me. I remember in school being told never to start a sentence with 'and'. Yet how many of us when speaking begin a sentence with 'and'? Especially if we're arguing points with our spouse ... "And I hate it when you always have to be right. And what do you mean my dress looks like your grandmother's table cloth?" ... And so on. I've begun the odd sentence with 'and' if it sounds right.

Sometimes, I'll write a phrase instead of a complete sentence if this fits with the flow of the paragraph. Quite often however, I turn the phrase into a complete sentence when I'm editing. My rule of thumb is that the words used shouldn't be jarring or detract from the story. 

I've been surprised at the simplicity of the sentence structure in some best-selling fiction. Short, simple sentences and lots of quick dialogue. The language choice can also be quite simple. Newspapers were once written at a grade eight level (not sure if they still are) and novels in and around this same reading level might be the ones that reach the widest audience. 

Quite a long time ago, an acquaintance asked a couple of us to read a manuscript she'd written. I realized after a page or two that she didn't know the difference between a complete sentence and a phrase or incomplete sentence, for starters. My friend who'd also give the manuscript a read said, "There's a difference between using an incomplete sentence because you know the rules and you're playing with sentence structure, and using an incomplete sentence because you have no idea that there even are grammar rules."

I've waffled a bit on my response to this week's question even as I'm writing. Truth be told, I never deviate that far from the writing rules. Even when I do, I usually go back and edit out the rogue bits. (I like a painting to look like a picture rather than blobs of colour on a page so I'm probably more of a traditionalist than a modernist.) I can appreciate and enjoy writing, particularly poetry, that's innovative and plays with the rules. Writers develop their own style throughout their career so I won't say that I'll never play around with the grammar rules, but to me the key is to have the finished product be cohesive and ring true.


Twitter: brendaAchapman

Facebook: BrendaChapmanAuthor

Friday, September 25, 2020

Testing one, two, three. Is this thing on?

Heard any good books lately? What are your thoughts on audiobooks?

by Paul D. Marks

The answer to the first question is “no”. The reason is because I don’t listen to audio books, much as I sometimes wish I did. My mind wanders too much. But when I read a paper book I don’t have that problem. I also like the heft and tactile sensation of paper books and still prefer those to e-books as well. Though I do read e-books.

Since I basically commute from the bedroom or kitchen to my home office, a distance measured in seconds rather than hours, I don’t do much reading of any kind on my commute. But if I did—and if I had a self-driving car—I’d be reading a hardcopy book or one on the Kindle app. 

I don’t know why my mind wanders when simply listening, but it does. So, while I’ve tried to listen to audio books and have even completed some, mostly I don’t. I got The Girl on the Train in audio and kept losing my place so to speak. So I ended up buying the paper book and reading it with my eyes instead of my ears. And doing it that way, I got through the book and enjoyed it.

"The Girl on the Train" audiobook

I have stacks of TBR books all over the place and a virtual stack on the Kindle app. I have some audio books around that I try to listen to now and then, but as I said, I tend to lose focus. My wife Amy reads on audio a lot—or did, before working from home during Covid, when she commuted to work on the train. However her brain is wired vs. the way mine is allows her to concentrate on audio books and her mind doesn’t seem to wander. She really enjoys her audio books and I envy her ability to do so.

Also, like Susan said earlier in the week, she was taken aback by the readings of some of her books. I haven’t had that experience, but I have had actors read scripts I’ve worked on. And sometimes it’s great and other times it’s a horror show. In those cases, I think it also depends on the director. S/he can give input into how to play a scene or a whole script. And I remember one time when the director directed the actors to play something for laughs that wasn’t at all meant that way. It was a nightmare. So it does also depend on the presentation.

Janet Hutchings, of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and Paul D. Marks
recording "Howling at the Moon"

In response to the second question, I think audio books are great for people who enjoy them. I have nothing against them, they’re just (mostly) not for me. And, from what Amy says, I do think the reader has a lot to do with one’s enjoyment of them. As long as people are “reading” books, I pretty much don’t care about the medium they get them on.

All that said, there is an audio recording for Ellery Queen of my story Ghosts of Bunker Hill, which won the Ellery Queen Readers’ Award for 2016. I’m not sure if it’s the best performance possible. The actor did as good a job as he could, but then he wasn’t a professional. Uh, it was me. Ellery Queen asked me to read the story for their Fiction Podcast Series. So if you want to hear Ghosts of Bunker Hill, read by the author, you can find it here:

I also recorded my first story for EQMM, Howling at the Moon, for their series and you can find that one here: . But please remember, I’m not an actor, so don’t throw tomatoes.

So, bottom line, books and reading—in any form—are gifts that we should treasure.


And now for the usual BSP:

Thanks to Steve Steinbock and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine for the review of The Blues Don’t Care in the current September/October 2020 issue just out. Four stars out of four. My first time getting reviewed in EQMM. A great honor!

And our own Cathy Ace’s The Corpse with the Crystal Skull is also reviewed in this issue.

Please join me on Facebook: and check out my website

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Your eyes are getting heavy . . . by Catriona

On long journeys - remember them? - there's nothing like an audiobook. My mum and I drove home from Monterey once listening to PG Wodehouse and rocking with laughter.

And a good audiobook can get you through the wall painting, floor sanding and even unpacking that goes with moving house. Neil and I bedded into Fintloch accompanied by Michael Innes' most bonkers novel, Appleby's End. (Not every picture has to be a book. Behold: a house)

But day-to-day, I've never been much of an audiobook listener. Until now. At the start of the lockdown, I was sort of okay all day and through the evening but lying in bed at night, my thoughts ganged up, pounded a red bull, and set out to mess with me relentlessly till morning.

So I subscribed to Audible and started six months of aural cuddles; books so soothing, read by narrators so talented, they were only a step form being lullabies.

Is it a problem, falling asleep while listening? Not at all, because I only listen to books I've read already, and can pick up the story the next night, or backtrack to where I zoned out.

So far, I've heard:

Grave Sight/Secret/Surprise and An Ice Cold Grave, by Charlaine Harris. I adore Harper and Tolliver, and this (too short) series is the perfect mix of plot and comfort for the troubled late-night mind.

Three Rosato and DiNunzio novels, by Lisa Scottoline. These are great bedtime fare because it's like hanging out with old friends. The only problem is the description of Ma-made Italian cooking. More than once in the night, I would have killed for a plate of spaghetti and "gravy".

Two mysteries by Georgette Heyer, which were not quite absorbing enough to stop the thought hamster from climbing onto its wheel. That was a surprise, because I'm a big fan. Such a big fan that I can't resist a pretty reissue of my favourite titles:

And yet I can't bring myself to throw the old, ugly one away:

So, whatever the problem, I moved on to My Animals and Other Family, by Clare Balding. (I can't find it to take a pic, so here's the sequel, which is annoyingly not on Audible yet.)

In the acknowledgements at the end she thanked the estate of Gerald Durrell for letting her play on the title of his most famous work, My Family And Other Anaimals. So I cued that up next. And that reminded me of my favourite animal stories ever: James Herriott's oeuvre. I'm four books into them now and they're as warm and witty as they were when I first read them. Back when publishers thought this was a good look for a paperback:

And that's it for the last six months, because when you fall asleep after twenty minutes and rewind the next night, it takes ages to finish anything.

My night-listening is completely different from my day-reading, which has been a bit more varied during lock-down than before, owing to all the buy-buttons on Crowdcast events mostly. So don't judge me for being a comfort-junkie. If you need to judge, take a look at what's going at the other side of the bed, where Neil - similarly beset with insomnia and deprived of baseball, which usually does the trick - is being lulled to sleep by Stephen King's Dumas Key, haunted lawn jockey, creepy ghost children and all.


Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Listen very carefully, I shall say this only Cathy Ace

Reading: Heard any good books lately? What are your thoughts on audiobooks?

Here I am recording the audiobook of The Corpse with the Silver Tongue

I’m not sure if this is a “confession” or not, but I haven’t listened to an audio book since I listened to the Audible versions of the first two Cait Morgan Mysteries. And I only listened to them because I was the one who read them – yes, I auditioned to be the reader, and was hired! Audible secured a studio in Downtown Vancouver for a week for me to record them, edited them (production editing, they are not abridged versions) and then published them. WOOT! It was great fun, if a little daunting. I know, I know, I suspect the pool of Welsh Canadian voice actors wasn’t exactly huge, but I was pretty damned proud to do them 😊

The process was fascinating, and I learned a great deal (you have to learn fast because studio time is so expensive!). Watch in front of me so I can keep an eye on the time - recording engineers need breaks too! Earrings OFF, because you really need your headphones to fit snugly. Coffeeeeeee - need I say more? An 8am to 6pm day in the studio is tough on your whole body - brain power is drained because you've been concentrating so hard; aching back and legs because you've been sitting still for such long periods; a throat that feels like you've been gargling hot sauce for hours; gritty eyes because I don't think I blinked for days! And did I mention the studio was a two-hour drive, each way...that was a looooong week! 

You can find them here: 

CLICK HERE for The Corpse with the Silver Tongue

CLICK HERE for The Corpse with the Golden Nose

Go on – you KNOW you want to listen to me for a total of almost 17 hours, right? 😊 And if I can sell a few more copies, they might hire me to record some more! By the way, if you've already listened to them - and enjoyed them - did you know you can actually write to Audible and ask them to get more of the series recorded? No? Well, allow me to be the one who informs you of that little nugget, and might I also be the one to encourage you to do so? Thanks!

As you can see, I use my hands quite a lot, even when I'm "talking to myself"!

So, why don’t I listen to audio books? Hmm, I don’t listen to anything – not word, not music, not anything – except when I’m driving (when it would be music…but I hardly drive at all, at the moment) or when I’m flying (when I watch/listen to movies…but I’m not flying at all at the moment). Working? Nope, it has to be quiet. Gardening? Nope, it has to be quiet because I am usually plotting. Relaxing? Nope, I am a TV and movie girl. So, no listening time for me at all, these days, and never audio books.

That being said, I know people who enjoy listening to books in a language that is not their first, to develop their comprehension skills; others who are encouraged to keep working on their general literacy levels because they’ve already unlocked the joy of books, and can see it’s a worthwhile endeavor; some whose sight has always been absent, or has become recently compromised, and can revel in a huge range of good books; those who prefer to have two hands free to “do something else” (like driving, knitting, sewing, scrapbooking, hanging onto a strap because they are commuting etc. etc.).

Audiobooks are BRILLIANT!

PS: a note about the title of this post: 'Allo 'Allo, was a ridiculous comedy series that ran in the UK in the 1980s - this is a famous/infamous catchphrase from that series. 10 points (utterly useless points, but points nonetheless) if you got it. Nil points if you didn't 😆

If you'd like to find out more about me and ALL my books, please check out my website HERE.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Reelin' in My Ears

Reading: Heard any good books lately? What are your thoughts on audiobooks?

From Frank

I love audio.

I listen to audiobooks (and a few podcasts) whenever I can. Riding my bike, doing yard work, in the truck (especially on road trips!), or any other activity that makes sense.

Earlier this decade, a number of my own books were produced. My River City series is produced by Books in Motion and narrated by Michael Bowen. His voice reminds me a little of Peter Coyote.

A number of my other books were produced during the halcyon days of Amazon's ACX. Several stood out as particularly well narrated but I'll let you check them out to decide which are best.

What have I "read" recently that I've liked?


I am writing this entry a couple of weeks before it posts, so I'll probably be just finishing up Stephen King's 11/22/63 about then. I read it in book form once before but Craig Wasson does a great job narrating, and this is a great book. It may not necessarily be the best "Stephen King" book, but it is probably Stephen King's best book, if that makes any sense.

I'm big into history, but strangely not as much into historical fiction. An exception to that is Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Chronicles (renamed The Last Kingdom series after the first novel and the Netflix series). The series follows the long, brutal, and fascinating life of the fictional Uhtred of Bebbanburg as he interacts with very real historical figures and events in the late 800s of England. There are several narrators over the course of the series, some of which I like better than others, but all do a fantastic job. I read a couple of these books and listened to the rest, and I think it is one of those cases where I enjoyed the audiobooks more. 

As an interesting aside, though, there is a pronunciation shift for a couple of supporting characters when the series moves from one narrator to another. For some reason, this grated on me ("For God's sake, Steapa is pronounced Stay-ah-puh not Steep-uh!), much like the weird pronunciations and shifts in A Song of Ice and Fire... although the latter has the same narrator throughout, so go figure.

I also really enjoyed Christopher Moore's A Dirty Job on audio. Fisher Stevens narrates it and he captures the whimsical, sarcastic, and fantastical nature of Moore's writing in general and this book in particular.

I first discovered Moore, like many did, with the book Lamb. And while I enjoyed that in audio form, too, I have to say I most enjoyed it when Kristi read it aloud for us both while we drove from Kentucky back to Washington after I graduated from command school. 

The last one I'll mention is Mary Beard's SPQR, a wonderful history of a good chunk of the Roman Empire. The narrator is Phyllida Nash. Not only is her accent awesome, but her delivery is spot on. Beard's work is scholarly but written in an almost conversational, certainly accessible, tone. Nash's narration expresses this perfectly. 

Even if you're not into history, this one is worth a listen. It may be history, which inexplicably bores some people, BUT... it is great storytelling and wonderfully read.

I'll leave you with this - my newest Charlie-316 novel, Badge Heavy, just came out a week ago. It's not in audio yet, but you can read it now in paperback or digital. Your choice, and if you do, you'll be narrating it yourself in your head, eh? It can be your new favorite audio book!

Monday, September 21, 2020

Wait - Who Is That?

 Q: Heard any good books lately? What are your thoughts on audiobooks?

-from Susan C Shea


My answer is offered sheepishly. No, I haven’t listened to any audiobooks recently. Not even my own. The audio rights to several of my books were purchased and the books made. I received copies and keep meaning to listen. But the first two were produced without any input from me and the voices and interpretations of character in the first few pages startled me so much I turned them off in a kind of panic. 


Silly of me, really. They weren’t bad, just not quite right, or at least not what I had in my head as the voices of my protagonists. For example, Dani O’Rourke was born in New York City but not with the voice that would say “Long Giland.” At least, I wouldn’t pronounce it that way, and I was born in New York City. My reading of Dani would be my voice. I have a hunch that a lot of us hear our own voices when we write our protagonists, maybe in all of our characters to a degree. 


The first book in my French village series was voiced by a fine actress, but her Katherine had a whiskey voice and a cynical way of speaking. No, no, no!  My Katherine tries so hard to please people, struggles with insecurities, doesn’t smoke. I respect the actress who was working to find a character, but it disappointed me so much I couldn’t get past the first page. And I wondered if people listening would understand why Katherine made the choices she did with that persona.


Interestingly, I had a new agent when the second French village mystery was also sold to audio and when I told her how rattled I was about the first reader, she said we could fix that in negotiations. Not only did she win me the right to audition the actress, but when I selected someone whose voice and French accent was perfect, the actress asked me for notes, ideas about how Katherine’s personality would reveal itself in her speech. I was amazed and grateful. They sent me a few minutes of recording to see if I approved and I was so appreciative I almost cried!


But have I listened to the whole book? This is where sheepish comes in. I’m afraid I’ll hear all the flaws in my writing, that I will want to rewrite the book because her excellent reading will point out – at least to me – all the places where I could have written better. 


For six years, I commuted an hour each way every day to my job and audiobooks (then on tape) were a lifesaver. I tended to go for long books – classic literature, history – because I liked having something to look forward to as I dealt with the typical Bay Area rush hour commute. Years later, I commuted an even longer distance to a different job in Silicon Valley. By then, it was CDs and the job was so intense that I needed to unwind at the end of the day. David Sedaris for humor, John McPhee for escape into environments I had no idea I would be fascinated by until I ‘read’ them, science…topics I didn’t have to deal with during the day.


For some reason, mysteries don’t work for me as audiobooks. Not sure why except that I like to stop and think about the puzzle or the possible red herring the author just dangled, or to take a break from the deranged mind of a killer. I read crime fiction all the time, but it doesn’t appeal to me to be read it by someone else. 


And now, I don’t commute at all. Maybe now I’ll listen to DRESSED FOR DEATH IN BURGUNDY and enjoy the experience that wonderful actress created.



Friday, September 18, 2020

Rebel Without A Clue

 By Abir Mukherjee

In these times, how do you stay positive so that you can focus on what you write?


Right, well the question rather assumes that I have stayed positive and focussed on my writing.


I’m not going to lie to you. Since about June my writing regime has been an utter farce, a crap-shoot, a veritable s*%t show. Sure, I could blame this on Covid, and sure, Covid is probably partly responsible, but a lot of it is down to my own sheer incompetence, laziness and general inability to concentrate on anything for longer than oh look! A puppy!


As for staying positive – that’s not really been a problem, cos if there’s one thing I don’t suffer from, it’s a lack of positivity. Some people see the glass half empty, some half full. Me, I don’t care how much is in it, I’m drinking the contents and stealing the glass. I think I get it from my dad. Now there was a man who had supreme self-confidence in the face of a Himalayan mountain range of evidence to the contrary. He taught me that hard work and diligence were no substitute for charm, good looks and a pig-headed sense of self-belief. I am grateful to him for that.


Yeah, so I’m still positive, because, well why wouldn’t I be? I’ve got so much to be thankful for.


That’s not to say the whole Covid business hasn’t wrought its effects on me and mine. As I’ve said here before, I’ve not really been allowed out of the house much cos my wife thinks I’m the sort of idiot who, at the first whiff of freedom, is going to go out and lick people in the street. That’s rubbish, of course. I probably wouldn’t lick anybody, but try telling her that.


The forced incarceration though has had some peculiar results. I spent most of June and July buying clothes online. Millions of clothes. Jeans, shirts, jumpers, shoes, sneakers, t shirts – you name it, I bought it. I don’t even know why. It’s not as if I need them and I can’t exactly wear them anywhere. So I wear them round the house. I swear I’m the smartest bum you’ve ever seen. Some people do Zoom calls in their boxer shorts. Not me. I’m wearing a three piece suit.


And a cravat.


Maybe it’s my way of looking forward to the day we’ll finally get let out. If there’s a shrink out there, I’d be glad for your opinion on this (but I’m not paying, I’ve spent all my money on clothes).


My wife thinks it’s a mid-life crisis, and maybe she’s right. Last month I bought a biker jacket. I’m forty six and I don’t have a bike. I’m probably never going to get one. Still, I love the jacket. It makes me look tough. I’m looking forward to wearing it to the pub with the rest of my forty something crew - Steve and Alan and Jim (not their real names - I asked them but they said that when it came to being friends with me, they'd rather maintain an air of mystery). Strictly speaking, Alan is still in his thirties and is technically a millennial, so his opinion on most matters is suspect, though he’s useful in the music rounds at the pub quiz because none of the rest of us have any clue about music post 1997. Talking of the pub quiz, I can’t wait to wear my jacket to it – I imagine the other teams will stare at me in awe as I strut in. They’ll be like, ‘Wow, look at that jacket. He’s obviously hard as nails, and he knows the capital of Venezuela.’


But by the start of August, there was no more space in any of our wardrobes and so I had to stop buying clothes. So I started buying electrical items instead. I bought a laser printer. It’s a thing of beauty with its clean white lines and touch screen, and it’s whirring is like the sound of angels bickering. But then I found out the price of a new toner cartridge and nearly had a heart attack. How can toner cost more than my car?! It’s insane. So now the beautiful printer just sits there, a white elephant which I admire wistfully, from a distance, and imagine what wonderful stuff we might have printed together if I’d been a millionaire. 

Beauty, thy name is HP ColorLaserjet MFP M282-M285

I've also bought a microphone for a ridiculous amount of money. I thought it might help on Zoom calls and for my podcast (the Red Hot Chilli Writers) if I bought one. And this has been a good purchase. Before, my recorded voice used to sound like a cat being strangled. Now I sound like the love child of Billy Connolly and Barry White. 


It’s not just me though. I think my wife has caught whatever madness this is. On Sunday she went out to buy milk and ended up buying an unbelievably huge mirror. I’m not joking. The thing has doors. It’s less a mirror and more like the entrance to Narnia. She says it’s the kind of mirror you don’t actually hang up, but leave standing on the floor – which suits me fine because it means I won’t have to risk being crushed to death trying to get it up on the wall. But there is nowhere in our house with enough space for it to stand without looking ridiculous. We are literally going to have to move to a bigger house so that we’ve got space for this mirror. 

What’s more, the delivery guy left it outside our house and I was the one who had to bring it in and put it up against every wall to test where it looked best. That was fine, but later that night we were sitting on the sofa watching the final episode of Cormoran Strike, and just as things were reaching a crescendo, I sat up a bit straighter, just to catch the denouement, and promptly put my back out. I’m pretty sure it was because of all the mirror carrying earlier. I was in agony for the rest of the night, and I still don’t know what happened at the end of the programme. I’ve spent the last few days with a hot water bottle pressed up to my back. But as I say, I’m a positive guy, I look on the bright side. The good news is, the hot water bottle fits perfectly under my new biker jacket.

Mirror? Or portal to another dimension?


Wait, before you go, there's one more thing. 

The Bloody Scotland Crime Festival is on this weekend, and because it's virtual this year, it's allowed it to be truly global and feature the best of British and international crime writers such as Lynwood Barclay, Ann Cleeves, Jeffrey Deaver, Peter May, Ian Rankin, Steve Cavanagh, Lawrence Block, Val McDermid, Adrian McKinty, Yrsa Sigardursdottir, Lee Child, Robert Crais, Lou Berney, Denise Mina, Mark Billingham John Connelly to name a few.

 It starts today and runs all weekend, and best of all, it’s free. Just click on the link below:

Have a good weekend, and stay safe.


Thursday, September 17, 2020

How I’ve Spent My Time in Solitary by James W. Ziskin

 In these times, how do you stay positive so that you can focus on what you write?

This question sounds familiar. Four weeks ago, we were asked how we managed to stay sane and motivated in these strange times. For me, sane and positive go hand in hand. When I’m feeling positive, I’m also confident that I’ll keep my sanity. But the gauntlet has been thrown, so here goes.

I’ve been relatively happy since March, when we began self-isolation. Here’s what I’ve been doing to stay positive and, in turn, focused.

On the personal side, I’ve spent lots of time with my wife and cat, each working at our own jobs, me at my desk, my wife at hers, and Bobbie—the cat—supervising. Our work days run eight to ten hours. I write, edit, and draw—maps for my next book. But I also take care of things around the house. Laundry, shopping, cooking.

Cat at work
Map in progress for new book



Risotto alla Milanese

Over the past six months, I’ve expanded my culinary repertoire, but I won’t be appearing on Master Chef anytime soon. For one thing, I can’t seem to get the hang of following recipes. I improvise, especially with measurements. I’m also a terribly slow prep cook. When the recipe says fifteen minutes prep, it invariably takes me forty-five. And don’t ask about my knife skills. I’m more likely to cut myself than that piece of chicken.

As for the shopping, I’ve been ordering online for home delivery. We have an area near the door that’s far from the rest of the house, so we’ve created a quarantine space there. Items not requiring refrigeration are left there for three days in boxes with exit labels. We’re going with a three-day quarantine for food and mail.

For the things that need refrigeration, I wash them with soap and water in the kitchen sink as soon as they arrive. Yup, I wash them. Tomatoes, zucchini, milk cartons, etc. are easy. Cabbage isn’t too bad. But parsley? Broccoli? It’s like washing hair that you intend to eat. But I do it. Then I spread it out to dry for a few hours before putting it into the fridge.


Did you really think I was abstaining? It’s shameful to admit, but alcohol has definitely taken some of the sting out of isolation. Hic.


I wish I could say I was exercising more, but I can’t. And that’s not the sports I was referring to. With the NBA playoffs and the start of the NFL season, I have a pleasant diversion to amuse me several times a week. Can’t say the same for baseball. The game is getting slower and slower, and I’m not interested. Maybe when the World Series rolls around. And, sorry, Canadian friends, I’ve never been a hockey man. 


I don’t watch a lot of television. Apart from Shetland, which I enjoyed recently, I haven’t binged anything on TV. But I have been listening a lot to French and Italian radio on Radio Garden. Look it up. Hundreds of stations from around the world are streaming there for free. I tend to go for the older stuff. Songs I remember from my years in France and Italy in the seventies and eighties.

On the professional side, (here’s the focused part) I took advantage of the isolation to increase my writing productivity. I wrote a Sherlock Holmes story, “The Twenty-five-Year Engagement,” that will appear in the anthology, In League with Sherlock Holmes, coming December 1, from Pegasus, edited by Leslie S. Klinger and Laurie R. King. See? My name is last, after a lot of very talented writers.

I also wrote a new book, Monsoon Chase, a throwback thriller set in 1975 India. That’s been satisfying, if very difficult. I’m not used to the challenges of completing a novel in just over two months. The speed caused many problems in the manuscript, so I’ve also been revising like mad. The revisions have now reached the point where I’ve decided to make a major change in the story. As I’ve noted in past posts, when you change something in your book—even something small—so many connections can be broken. So imagine how difficult that is when you’re changing lots of larger plot points. It’s a lot of hunting and pecking to find the shattered connections and fix them. But I think the result will be better than the original. I should be finished with this revision (number eight) by the weekend.

So that’s it. For me, accomplishments, big and small, are what have been keeping me feeling positive. And sane during this crazy time. How Jim fills his days... This must be the most boring post ever on 7 Criminal Minds. I apologize. See you in two weeks after more of the same!

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

A noise in the head

In these times, how do you stay positive so that you can focus on what you write?

by Dietrich

I try to avoid anything negative – easier said than done sometimes. I don’t check out the headlines before I sit down to write. There’s not much that I need to know, and even less that’s going to lift me up. And I’ve learned not to go traipsing through my social media or email accounts before I get started. Undistracted by any of that noise, I sit at my desk, and I let whatever I’m working on take shape. I’m always motivated to get back to whatever the story is – and I always feel fortunate to be doing what I love to do.

"Imagination is more important than knowledge.” – Albert Einstein

We’ve all got stuff to deal with from time to time, and if I let myself get in a slump, then it would likely show up in my writing. So, I jump right in and shove all that mind noise out of the way, and I allow myself to get transported into the story, and I’m engaged. I do have a couple of things that help me get there, like my morning bucket of coffee, along with the music I like to play while I’m writing.

"There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You never quite know where they'll take you."  Beatrix Potter

Away from the desk, I get inspired by great writing, and I’ve always got a book or two on the go, with a stack waiting.

Here are a couple of recent summer reads that I found both inspiring and darkly funny and definitely worth passing on. Dana King knocks it out of the park with his latest in the Penns River series, Pushing Water – you have to read this guy. And although not a new book, I recently read Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Letham, and it’s top notch writing and a very funny and entertaining book.

Anything that inspires keeps me motivated. A lot of the time that means a great book, but it could be a film or a series too, or a trip to the art gallery to see some amazing pieces on display. And sometimes I just like getting away from the city noise and tramp through the woods or stroll along the water’s edge. 

“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.” – John Steinbeck

Humor helps to keep everything light, and I love to laugh. Give me a comedy series like Veep, a standup routine by Gina Yashere, or a funny book by Terry Fallis or some crime novel laced with dark humor, something by Donald E. Westlake or James Crumley.

I’m also looking forward to my new book Cradle of the Deep coming out early in November, and that gets me jazzed. Now that’s a great feeling – to be working on one story and knowing another one is about to be released. Yeah, life is good.  

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Staying Sane

Terry Shames, here, talking about staying "positive"  In these times.

Positive? No. Something like “upright and functioning” comes to mind. This will not be a cheerful post, so be advised.


I’m one of the lucky ones. I have a husband I get along with (usually), two entertaining dogs (except when they wake me up at 3AM to inform me that a skunk is in the backyard),


a nice house with a big backyard 

 plenty to eat (we’re not going there), no kids to educate, and plenty of friends and family to talk to by Zoom or on the phone—and lately in the backyard, at distance.  I’m also healthy and usually upbeat. I have wide interests and actually find there are too many things to do.



But the biggest advantage I have to keep me positive is that I’m a writer. 

Being a writer means I can lose myself in whatever world I’m creating at the moment. That said, in the first few months of lockdown I finished up a novel I was working on and the result was a disaster. It read as if halfway through a crazy person had taken over. I wandered off the subject, failed to address plot holes and generally screwed up. I kept trying to revise it and only after my agent “gently” broke it to me that it would not do did I realize I should have scrapped it a long time ago. I didn’t like the characters or the plot. In better times, I think I would have recognized the shortcoming of the book earlier. But I do think that forcing myself to write every day kept me sane.


So now, I’m sane, but not positive. There are too many bad things going on in the world right now. Why did the apocalypse choose 2020 to rain down? Who knows. All I know is that scientists have been pleading for years for governments and citizens to pay attention to climate change. Reaction has largely been hands over ears, eyes shut, screaming loudly that it can’t be true. The result: climate run amok—epic fires on the west coast, and apocalyptic air quality.


Backyard at noon during smoke.

Scientists have been pleading for months that being disciplined about wearing masks and keeping distance would improve chances of overcoming the pandemic. Reaction has been wildly scattered, with some taking it seriously; others not. The result: we all know. The non-believers make sure the believers have to stay inside—maybe forever. Thanks.


Every day seems to bring new horrors to face. People try to stay positive with wry humor (Did you have millions of acres catching fire on your Bingo card?) or ignoring it (I can’t face another disaster. I’ve turned off my TV), or trying to find something positive (note my second paragraph).


I did find that since I scrapped the book I was working on and went back to my “roots” and focused on the community I’ve always written about, I have been able to escape for a few hours every day into my alternate world.


Everyone knows me as the most upbeat person around. But it’s gotten increasingly harder.

There’s nothing to be done but put one foot in front of the other and, in my case anyway, believe that things will get better. But that doesn’t mean I don’t envy people who are Covid deniers, who blithely go on about their business and ignore the 1,000 people each day who die of the disease. It doesn’t mean I don’t envy climate deniers who blithely buy gas hog cars and vote for candidates who roll back environmental protections. They live in an easier world than I do. Their world is more irresponsible, but probably more fun.


Positive? Sorry, but the most positive I can be these days is to know that I’m not Covid positive.


But like Brenda, I have a few things that help me cope:


Reading. I’ve never read so much. Fiction, non-fiction, mysteries, sci-fi, you name it.


Buying new toys, one in particular: Because we decided not to have our housekeeper come (yes, we still pay her), I bought a Roomba. You’d think I bought a new pet. I follow it around and talk to it. I named it Sweepie.


Jigsaw puzzles. I’ve been doing huge puzzles. It keeps my little eyes busy, if not my brain.


Exercise. Going on long walks has been very helpful—until the smoke. Now, indoors is best. I do have an old exercise bike and elliptical trainer, and they get liberal use.

Hike near my house


Cooking. We never went out to eat much, so I’m really happy that I love to cook.


And one odd addition: I like to drive around. It makes me feel normal. A drive to the Bay is lovely. Except, now the smoke. At least I have hopes that the smoke will go away.

And now, tomorrow we're leaving to spend three weeks on the beach in a rented house that is Covid free. And we get to see these two while we're there: