Sunday, February 28, 2021

Life in the Covid Bubble

How has your life, and way of living in general, changed since “Lockdown Life” began a year ago? Are there parts of your life that have changed for the better? Anything that will stick, even when life gets back to “normal”?

Brenda Chapman 

This has been a crazy year as we approach twelve months of Covid isolation. It was the second week of March, 2020, when our federal government put Canadians into our first lockdown. Since the, we've alternated between total and partial shutdown, staying close to home, rarely going out socially except to shop for groceries and get haircuts.

So has anything changed for the better?

The pace of life slowed down. We had not much to do and all day to do it in. Once spring came last year, we spent a lot of time outside with two other couples who live across the street. We socially distanced our lawn chairs and whiled away many an hour. I began walking in the evenings with the two women, something we plan to do again once the nice weather starts.

I spent a lot of time in my garden starting in May and through the summer and fall. My husband commented that the garden was 'a pleasure' in August -- usually it's way past its peak come the end of July. I've already ordered some plants for spring planting so I imagine I'll be spending lots of time out there weeding and watering again this year.

Being outside more was definitely a result of Covid isolation and I imagine this will continue post-Covid. My husband tarped over our back deck and we bought a fire pit and heat lamps and spent some time out there through the winter. We even celebrated New Year's Eve out there with those same neighbours and my daughter's February birthday. 

Trying to stay warm on a cold February morning

I had more time to read and write as a result of having nowhere to go. I also began a more regular exercise regime in the mornings ... never a bad thing. This gave a bookend to my day that helped me to sleep better.

I discovered the joy of online shopping and free shipping. I imagine this will continue long after everything opens up again. One click and a crate of wine shows up two days later. Who knew?

Zoom has kept us tethered to people and I've used it to visit with friends and family in town and far away. I've also begun interviewing authors from my Ottawa/Eastern Ontario region and posting these videos on the Crime Writers of Canada site, something I never would have contemplated before Covid. I'll continue to use Zoom to connect with people far away long after Covid ends and perhaps do more book marketing on social media.

All in all though, life has gotten smaller and more compact. Too compact in some ways. I worry that it will be hard to break this daily routine of never straying far from home or making plans with people. Like many authors, the solitary life falls within my comfort zone. Yet, I'm also eager to be back out in the world, seeing friends and family in their homes, travelling, eating in restaurants without fear of getting sick, attending book events. If Covid has done anything, it's taught me not to take human contact and these simple pleasures for granted ever again.

Twitter: brendaAchapman

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Friday, February 26, 2021

It Was The Best Of Lines, It Was The Worst Of Lines

Paul's taking a bit of a break this week (his treatment is proving to be a bit exhausting, however he WILL be back) so here's a post - following this week's theme about openings - that he posted in August 2019. Depending on your perspective that's either "not every long ago" or is eons ago, in the "pre-COVID period". Either way, it's a fascinating, and insightful post. 

Readers often read the opening few lines or page to a book before deciding to buy. What makes an opening sentence stand out above the rest? Give examples of openings, including your own, that you believe work brilliantly. Any tips or lessons learned for new authors about what to avoid on that first page? 

by Paul D. Marks

“It was the best of times,
It was the worst of times.”

I don’t think you can beat Dickens and that opening line. And despite the title of this post, I’m not doing the worst lines here.

It’s interesting, when I first started writing this piece I went back to a lot of mystery/crime (and some non-mystery) books that I really like. And I found that a lot of them didn’t have what I would consider particularly catchy or hook-y opening lines. Though I did find some (see below). Yet for one reason or another I was still hooked into those stories. So this leads me to believe that, while a good opening line is a good thing, it’s not the only thing that one needs. Maybe these days it’s a little more important because everything is moving faster and people need to be hooked quicker. But I’m thinking that a good opening paragraph or even a few pages will do the trick.

Also, some of the lines I would have used have been snatched up earlier in the week. Not wanting to repeat those, I’ve come up with some other examples.

Re: my own openings, coming from a screenwriting background, I do usually try to open a story with a hook or teaser. You need something to draw readers in and give them a little taste of what lies in store for them. Like some of my fellow Criminal Minds have noted, it doesn’t have to be a body or a murder, but something intriguing has to happen. There has to be a compelling reason to keep reading. And clearly the style or genre of the story will make a difference in terms of the opening. So let’s get to it.

Here’s the openings from some novels that I like:

The Poet  – Michael Connelly:

Talk about a great opening line—the first sentence really intrigues you. You know this character is involved in crime—maybe a cop, a newspaper reporter? Death is a normal occurrence for him, but then comes the reversal, “But my rule didn’t protect me—.” Now the reader knows something unusual is happening, something different and this is not going to be your run of the mill murder story. This is, however, my favorite Michael Connelly story of all of them.

Nightmare Alley – William Lindsay Gresham:

Stan Carlisle stood well back from the entrance of the canvas enclosure, under the blaze of a naked light bulb, and watched the geek. 

This geek was a thin man who wore a suit of long underwear dyed chocolate brown. The wig was black and looked like a mop, and the brown greasepaint on the emaciated face was streaked and smeared with the heat and rubbed off around the mouth.

This opening sets an atmosphere that’s mysterious and piques your curiosity. You have no idea where the story is going, but the description gives you a visual image that is so strong you feel like you’re there and you want to know who the geek is? What’s he going to do? And where is this story going to take me?

Tell No One – Harlan Coben:

This opening creates so many questions. It lets the reader know that they’re in store for a mystery that will be complex and multi-layered. It sets us up to wonder what happened in the past and what happened that altered everything? Already your imagination starts going into overdrive.

The Grifters – Jim Thompson:

Three paragraphs into the story and we don’t know who Dillon is yet or what his problem is, but we immediately know he has problems. And we know they’re not your ordinary type of problems. And we’re sucked into Dillon’s life and dragged into all his issues. Again, this opening sets a tone and mood. You know you’re in for a rough ride.

Down There: A.K.A. Shoot the Piano Player – David Goodis:

Why were there no street lamps? Why was the man kneeling at the curb, spitting blood? That intrigues me in this, my favorite David Goodis novel. And don’t go by the movie where the action was changed to France.

This is an example where the opening starts at the end of the story and we go back to find out what led up to this. A great opening sets mood, tone and makes us ask questions. It draws you in.

Devil in a Blue Dress – Walter Mosley:

Here you have a great example of voice. We get a taste of the narrator’s (Easy Rawlins’) personality and we want to know more about him. Yes, we are intrigued by the white man who walks into the room, but the real grabber is Easy’s reaction and the little tidbit of his history that we learn about. His character draws us in.

And one I always site from Raymond Chandler’s short story Red Wind:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Ana's that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

This is the classic opening that I’ve been inspired by again and again. What do I love about it? It describes a mood and setting that is so real you can feel it, taste it and smell it. And, of course, there’s Chandler’s voice, his acerbic wit and keen observation of human nature. He’s a master at openings.

Here are some openings from some of my novels:

Broken Windows:

The Hollywood Sign beckoned her like a magnet—or like a moth to a flame. The sign glowed golden in the magic hour sun—that time of day around sunrise and sunset when the light falls soft and warm and cinematographers love to shoot. Like so many others, Susan Karubian had come here seeking fame and fortune, hoping to make her mark on the world. Oh hell, she had come to be a star like all the others. And she would do it, just not quite in the heady way she’d anticipated.

I mostly write things set in L.A., so I like using film terms like “magic hour” to set a tone for the story. And I try to set up the mood and tone and describe the scene so readers can feel like they’re there. I want the reader to feel like they are in Susan’s place and empathize. And to wonder what she’s doing at the Hollywood Sign and why.

White Heat:

My father always said I was a fuckup, that the only reason we get along is ’cause he keeps his mouth shut. Maybe he’s right:

I fucked up high school.

Fucked up college.

Fucked up my marriage.

Fucked up my life by leaving the service.

And now I’ve fucked up a case.

Fucked it up real bad.

Teddie Matson was different. She had a golden life, until her path had the misfortune of crossing mine. I sat staring out the window of my office, k.d. lang playing in the background. It was a while till the sun would set, that golden hour when everything takes on a gilded glow.

Golden hour is the time when the light hits just right in the early morning or late afternoon. The time when movie cinematographers most like to shoot. The light is tawny and warm. Gentle. It makes the stars shine brighter.

Golden hour is the time when Teddie Matson was killed.

This opening introduces my character Duke and hopefully draws readers in in response to Duke’s voice. Again, I’m using film terms like “golden hour’ to set a tone and to contrast the illusion of the film world to the harsh reality of real life.


All I wanted was to forget the past. Put it behind me and never think about it again. But you can’t forget the past. Not really. It’s always there inside you, like a leech holding on, sucking blood and life from you every minute of every day. Sucking down part of your soul, holding you back and keeping you from moving forward. Like a shark, if you don’t—or can’t—move forward you die. The past is one harsh mistress. And it won’t let you forget it either.

I came home from the war and felt like I was on the front line again. To hell and back and back to hell again.

I guess this opening sums up my character’s philosophy and maybe makes you want to read more. It makes you wonder what happened that could be as bad as being in a war?

So, there you have it. What are some of your favorite openings? 


And now for the usual BSP:

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Thursday, February 25, 2021

“I’m Proud of You, Brother” by James W. Ziskin

With apologies to my 7 Criminal Minds colleagues, I’d like to go back to last week’s topic, which was preempted by the Lefty Historical first lines post. So here it is.

Who is someone in your life who has been supportive of your writing? What was their impact? 

My brother Bill has always been a enthusiastic supporter of my writing—deserved or not—showing up at each local signing with his trusty camera, reading all my books and stories, recommending them to friends and colleagues, and offering detailed feedback and criticism at every turn. A scholar of Shakespeare—and then some—he’s given me invaluable advice on characterization, plot points, and the rhetorical devices his experience taught him. He truly has been an inspiration for me to do better and strive to reach higher. That’s the advice he always gave to his drama students. “That was great. Now do better.” No wonder I’ve always been so touched and encouraged by his congratulations on social media when one of my books comes out. “So proud of you, brother,” is his usual refrain. And that means a lot coming from such a creative and accomplished soul. 

Let me tell you about my brother Bill. I thought some bullet points would illustrate his remarkable and varied accomplishments/talents:

  • Captain of his high school football team
  • Valedictorian of his high school class
  • B.A. and M.A. from the University of Albany in English and Education
  • Veteran of the Army National Guard, having served six years in the 10th Mountain Infantry Division
  • Educator—Bill retired from teaching English and Theater at Schenectady High School after thirty years
  • Actor/director in regional stage productions from 1980-2016
  • Founder of the prestigious Blue Roses Theater, Schenectady, NY
  • Professional photographer, covering the University of Albany sports programs

There’s no shame in saying that, from time to time, we all need a boost for our flagging creative spirits. And Bill has always done that for me. For that I’m grateful.

I’m heartbroken to report, however, that I’ll have to rely on memory for that support from now on. Bill passed away on Monday at the age of fifty-eight from complications from pneumonia, brought on by Covid. Over the past fifteen years, a chronic health condition sapped him of his strength, wasted his once-strong body and health, and left the door open for that killer contagion to do its worst. 

Jennifer, his loving wife of thirty-five years, was by his side when he died, as were two of my brothers. His suffering is at an end. A small grace.

I’ve found comfort in the dozens of tributes posted in his honor on social media since Monday. So many former students—their parents, too—his lifelong friends, and his loving relatives—siblings and cousins—wrote such moving paeans to his dedication, goodness, and talent. He not only touched lives, he changed them and inspired them. For the better. His loss will forever leave a huge hole in the hearts of those who knew and loved him. Bill was that special. So, coming full circle, I say to him, “I’m proud of you, brother.”

William W. Ziskin

If you’d like to read more about his amazing life, and the good that he did, please have a look at this article in the Daily Gazette from Schenectady, NY.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

From my "lovely, ugly town"... by Cathy Ace

What’s your favorite first line of a book or story, and why? Then tell us your favorite first line from one of your books and stories, and why.

Unlike my protagonist Cait Morgan I do not have an eidetic memory, which would come in handy at the moment. Generally speaking, I don’t go around memorizing the opening lines of anything, books included. So, ignoring the obvious quotes about the best/worst of times, or the predilection to marriage of single women etc. etc., I’m going to share with you the most impactful words that I can never quite quote, but which have drawn me into a magical world since I first heard them…yes, I heard them before I read them, because these are the opening lines of a play, for voices, set in the fabulously-named village of Llareggub (which is “bugger all”, backwards…something that’s bound to make a young person titter).

Maybe it’s no surprise that, since I grew up in Swansea, I should gravitate towards the words of Swansea’s (possibly) most famous son, Dylan Thomas. 

My rather faded copy of the play

But I should warn you that his work is pretty divisive in some circles – for example, my late father thought Thomas was a preening drunk who took himself too seriously, and his work not seriously enough. But me? I adore Thomas’s work, and reserve my views about his personal life. I have several recorded versions of “Under Milk Wood” on vinyl – the Stan Tracy jazz version of it was my eighteenth birthday present from my classmates in school. Link here to see the Brecon Jazz Festival 2001 performance:  

I did memorize the wonderful “Fern Hill”, in its entirety, to recite at a school Eisteddfod in the 1970s. Thus, the opening lines of that are, in fact, etched in my mind, and always make me so happy that I speak them aloud whenever I can:

“Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs

About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,

The night above the dingle starry,

Time let me hail and climb

Golden in the heydays of his eyes,

And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns

And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves

Trail with daisies and barley

Down the rivers of the windfall light.”


As for my own paltry meanderings…I think I’ll stick with the opening paragraph of my first Cait Morgan Mystery, “The Corpse with the Silver Tongue” which I believe works well:

‘The chatter among the dinner guests was bubbling along nicely, when Alistair Townsend suddenly clutched at his chest, made gurgling sounds and slumped into his bowl of escargots. Reactions around the table varied: his wife told him to stop messing about, one of his guests looked surprised, one a little concerned and a couple were quite cross. All of which led me to suspect that “How to react when one’s host drops dead at the dinner table” is not tackled in any modern etiquette books.’

To find out how that story continued, you can find out a lot more about my work at my website:

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

A Fave

What’s your favorite first line of a book or story, and why? Then tell us your favorite first line from one of your books and stories, and why.

From Frank

I thought about this one for a little bit, knocked around a few contenders, but in the end, it wasn't even close.

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

Thus begin's Stephen King's magnum opus, the seven-tome Dark Tower series (actually, eight, if you count the "side-quel"... and of course, there are tie-ins all through the Kingverse).

Why do I like it? 

It has action. Someone is fleeing. Someone is pursuing. Something is clearly happening. 

It also has mystery. Who is the man in black? Who is the gunslinger following him? Why?

It is simple. No complex words, just powerful ones.

Lastly, it is short. Reading the sentence takes just a couple of seconds, and you're hooked (or I was, at least).

Now, I'm an admirer of King on a variety of levels. But even I will admit that he has, at times, written rather thick books that weren't a breeze to get through some of the swampier areas. Actually, I seem to recall some of that even happening in this particular series.

But man, what a first line, huh?

In my own work, I think one of my favorite first lines comes from At Their Own Game, the first book in my SpoCompton series.

So far, I've been to jail three different ways.

Why do I like it? I think it has a little bit of mystery to it, and it immediately ties into who the narrator is. As one discovers on page one, he's a former cop turned criminal. So one of the ways he went to jail was to book prisoners an officer, one was when he was himself booked, and the third... well, the third is right now.


I hope so. That's the idea.

If you did, you can learn more by clicking on the cover. It's not my most recent book, but it is an ongoing series that will have a novella and two more novels in it, at the least.

Monday, February 22, 2021

A priest, a president, and a Boy Scout walk into a bar...Great First Lines

 Q: What’s your favorite first line of a book or story, and why? Then tell us your favorite first line from one of your books and stories, and why.


from Susan


This is a hard question to answer. There can never be one for all time. Reading as many books as I – and you – do every month, let alone every year, trying to remember which one struck you as the “best” is difficult enough. 

But then there’s the problem of what makes a “best.” After all an intriguing first line may lead you by false promises into a very dull story. A quiet line about a woman filling a coffee pot may turn out to be pivotal to understanding a self-effacing character or be chilling because of what we learn in the third paragraph is in the pot. 


The first line, or the first couple of sentences? 

Here’s one sentence – the entire first paragraph is one sentence! – by the inimitable John Mortimer (Rumpole of the Bailey (1978) , in which Rumpole introduces himself in the bloviating, self-celebratory style that is his character: 


“I, Horace Rumpole, barrister at law, 68 next birthday, Old Bailey Hack, husband to Mrs. Hilda Rumpole (known to me only as She Who Must Be Obeyed)…”  and it carries on from there. Rather a grand opening sentence.



Elizabeth Little’s newest novel, Pretty as a Picture (2020), is another first-person soliloquy, as short as Mortimer’s is long and mucho important to the plot:


“They say a picture’s worth a thousand words. 

“That’s not what I’d say.

“I’d say it depends on the picture.”



I’m including the first lines of my own Dressed for Death in Burgundy (2018). I wanted it to pull the reader into the village environment, the season in which the story takes place, the domestic nature of the story, and the wit that I hope is part of my storytelling. Yeah, I’m proud of this one:


“Emile’s new dog was barking again, a deep, rhythmic complaint that had as much to do with the presence of Katherine Goff’s yellow cat sitting beyond the fence as it did with the dog’s desire to be inside, away from the biting December wind.”




Note to fellow writers: Yes, I know Courier is a typewriter font, one that doesn't appear on our manuscript pages, much less in books now that typewriters are merely artifacts and cute, retro pieces of decor. But I'm saluting fingers pushing keys and that's still a thing unless you're one of those amazing people who manage to "write" books by talking into your cell phones.






Friday, February 19, 2021

Written in the Stars

Who is someone in your life who has been supportive of your writing? What was their impact?

By Abir

It’s Friday again, and we have another fascinating question this week. There are so many people I could thank, whom I should thank, for supporting my writing, but the question is, where to start?

Do I mention my English teacher, Mr Simon who helped inculcate a love of language and literature within me? Or do I start with Alison Hennessey, the editor who helped me craft my first novel and who pretty much taught me how to write? Or my agent ‘Handsome’ Sam Copeland, who took a chance on me, having only read 5000 words of my work? Or the many, many people who’ve helped me at every stage of my writing career? They all deserve my gratitude and more thanks than I could ever give them.

But as you know, I tend to use this blog as a form of personal therapy, so I’m going to start closer to home and tell you about my dad.

So. My dad came to the UK in 1964. He’d been born into a lower middle class family in India, the eldest son in a family of about 100 siblings (I have a LOT of  cousins). Anyway, after siring a boat load of kids, my grandad promptly passed away, possibly from exhaustion, leaving my dad, at the age of about fifteen, to look after his mum and raise his brothers and sisters (a task he took on for the next twenty five years of his life and managed with varying degrees of lack of success) but I digress. At the same time, he managed to put himself through school and university, working a number of part-time jobs (including in a Chinese laundry, on the railways, and in a textile factory, where he developed a life-long appreciation for twill weaves and inhaled so many fibres as to leave him with life-long asthma). All the while, though, dad had this innate belief that he was destined for better things

Then, one day in 1951, dad went to visit an astrologer. Now astrology plays a big role in Indian society. Many folks believe that the exact time and place of your birth, together with the alignment of the heavenly bodies, can act as a map to your whole life. Indeed it’s said that several Prime Ministers of modern India made sure to consult their astrologers before making important decisions.

This is where things get complicated. The astrologer was a chap by the name of Professor S.N. Bose, Bachelor of Arts, based at the Swami Premananda Ashram in Dum Dum, Calcutta, an institute which, according to its letterhead, “has received the highest commendation…from the Leading Journals and the Public throughout India, Burma and Ceylon”. Professor Bose, after asking my dad loads of questions and consulting star charts and other astrological wizardry (in which India is far in advance of NASA) wrote him a letter setting out the course of the rest of his life.

Dad's horoscope - the document which started it all

One paragraph in particular sticks out:

"Going to Foreign Land: There is indication of your going overseas but there is delay: towards the second half of 1953 such a chance indicated."

This may have been the first time that dad thought seriously about leaving India, or maybe it had always been in his stars. In the end, Professor Bose was out in terms of timing. The delay he put at two years, turned out to be thirteen, but in astrological terms which cover billions of years, being a decade out ain't bad.

The problem for dad was that he had no money and no connections and brothers and sisters to raise. Another man might have given up, but not my dad. You see, dad was born with a few, very useful gifts:

1.     He was as stubborn as a goat. Once he got something into his head, no matter how ridiculous, he would pursue it to the bitter end. (One day I might tell you the story of how, at the age of 83, and after winning the talent competition on the QE2,  he decided he wanted to become a singer on a cruise ship. There’s not enough space here to go through that whole bizarre saga).

2.     He was never short of confidence. Dad never let small things like a lack of talent, ability or opportunity stand in his way. He was supremely, unshakeably, self-confident. Some might consider this arrogant, but when you’re born in a land of a billion people, with very little scope to progress without money, self-confidence can be a life-changer.

3.     He was really quite handsome. I mean the man looked better at 45 than I did at 25.

It would take thirteen years and all three of these traits for him to realise the goal of coming to the UK. 

Over time, dad became an accountant and talked himself into a job in a company owned by a rather rich industrialist. The story goes (and I only have dad’s word for this, so it might not be 100% accurate) that the industrialist took quite a shine to dad, hoping to set him up with his daughter. Dad demurred, on the grounds that he wanted to go overseas for further education (“but also the girl, she was not good looking”). Long story short, the industrialist paid for dad’s passage to the UK and acted as his sponsor on all the paperwork. Dad got on a ship in Bombay and, a month later arrived in the UK.

He enrolled at college and set to work, studiously failing the year end exams, not once but twice, until the industrialist and his daughter got tired of waiting and arranged her marriage to someone else. Dad then promptly passed his exams.

In 1968 he returned to India to find a wife, “because I couldn’t cook, and other people were getting sick of cooking for me and I was losing weight.”

He was introduced to my maternal grandfather, an educational reformer in Calcutta and an Anglophile. The fact that dad was living in London was enough to convince grandad to let dad marry his daughter. Alas, Grandpa Banerjee failed to do much due diligence. If he had done, he’d have realised that my dad was 40, while his daughter was 25. Mum only found out after they were married when she saw his passport at the airport. Dad’s defence: “What? I thought they knew. I was so handsome and young-looking that they must have thought I was 25. If they asked, I would have told them!”

A little while after they got married.
Poor mum. 

Anyway, the following years in England were a struggle – especially for mum – going from a house and servants in sunny Calcutta to a one room bedsit in rainy Shepherd’s Bush, West London, with a shared kitchen and bathroom – it wasn’t exactly the married life she’d been expecting. But they had fun, got through the hard times and were inordinately blessed when I came along (and less so when my sister arrived some time later).

Anyway, one of dad’s ambitions (alongside cruise ship singer and being a film star – he was in the queue for auditions the day, Bengali film legend Uttam Kumar got his big break. Dad claims he missed out when he left the queue to get a cup of tea) was to become a novelist. He had a rather active imagination, and loved writing short stories. He even got a book of them published in Bengali and spent the next six months haranguing the staff at our local village library in Scotland until the finally gave in and stocked his book, even though no one could actually read it.

He then started writing a novel in English – going to the library each afternoon and writing the thing out longhand. Over four years, he wrote the whole thing. I was a teenager at the time. I remember the hours he put into it. I remember family friends scoffing at the idea of him writing a novel. They passed it off as just one more of his eccentricities. There was no way anyone would publish a novel by an Indian immigrant whose English wasn’t quite good enough. Who would want to read it? But he kept going, with that sheer bloody minded persistence and self-belief that he brought to everything. He told them he’d prove them wrong. Of course it never was published. As far as I know, he never even showed it to an agent or a publisher. He wouldn’t have known how to go about it, or even where to start. 

Was it a wasted effort? Was it worth the snide comments from members of the community? Was it worth the financial and mental strain on the family? Who knows? But years later, when I told him I was considering quitting a good job to become a writer, he didn’t react the way a lot of Asian parents do, which is either with horror or disinterest; he understood why I wanted to write, and why I had to write. He asked me if I was sure I wanted to do it, he was worried about what it might mean financially – I had a wife and a young family after all, but he was supportive.

They say that fathers live vicariously through their sons, and that boys live their lives to fulfil the dreams of their fathers. Maybe there’s something in that. Maybe I’m a writer today because, on some level, I wanted to vindicate my father's choices. 

He never lived to see my first novel published, but he knew I’d got a publishing deal and that the book was coming. I hope he'd have enjoyed it,  and I know he’d have said he'd always had faith in me. Because, he'd tell me, unlike him, I’d been born under a very good star.

One of the most stubborn men in history

Thursday, February 18, 2021

With Many Thanks ... A Guest Blog

Catriona writes: We've got guests today at Criminal Minds. Four authors from Level Best Books are launching novels and celebrating them this month: one debutante - Mally Becker; two sophomores (right? that means second-time round (still assimilating)) - Cynthia Tolbert and Kerry Peresta; and our old friend Liz Milliron who is two books deep in her second series. Welcome, everyone!

Liz, Kelly, Cynthia and Mally have gamely pitched in to answer a QotW. “How do you decide who to acknowledge and who to dedicate a book to?”

And now over to our guests:

Mally Becker:
Blog posts and articles claim that acknowledging gratitude improves our mood and health.

In that case, I should have felt a blast of mood-boosting endorphins when I opened a new document on my laptop to craft a book acknowledgement for my soon-to-be-published mystery, The Turncoat’s Widow.

But I didn’t.

I was knee deep in other publishing deadlines by the time I sat down to write my “thank yous.” I frantically pulled books by favorite authors off the shelf to read their acknowledgements for inspiration. I worried about how many people to thank and in what order. I worried about whether I’d inadvertently offend people I left out.

I missed the chance to treat the process of writing acknowledgments as what it is: an act of gratitude.

I’ll let my fellow authors provide how-to advice here. My short post merely asks you to take a breath–maybe three–to appreciate all the people who have made your writing journey so much richer as you write your acknowledgements. I didn’t do that then, but I’m doing it now. 

My husband gets major props for keeping me company at Revolutionary War sites up and down the Mid-Atlantic. (He comes last in the acknowledgements but is first in my heart.)

The mystery writing community, including Criminal Minds, has been incredibly generous and welcoming to this new author.

Catriona writes: If I may, Mally, you've got this! You've clearly got this! Welcome to the tribe.

Liz Milliron: For my very first book, Root of All Evil, I knew immediately who I want to dedicate it to – my parents, who gave me my love of books in general and mysteries in particular. But the acknowledgements, ack! I think I agonized over them for a week. Were they too long? Too short? Had I forgotten anyone? It felt like I spent as much time over them as the story. 

Now I keep notes so I remember who helped me with a particular book. Makes the process much simpler and lower stress.

Catriona writes: it's such good advice, Liz, and yet and yet, every time I find myslef scrabbling through piles of notes for the bit of paper that happened to be on my desk when I got the name of the person who happened to be on the phone . . . 


Kerry Peresta: It’s a quiet afternoon, and I only have two things left on the information sheet that is patiently staring at me as it displays itself on my laptop. The Acknowledgments. The Dedication.

Dedication is easy. My mother. She died in 2014, I miss her intensely, and she was the biggest champion of my book. Even in the throes of dementia during her final months, she somehow remembered my first book and clung to it angrily if someone tried to pull it away. She’d shake her head and yell, “MINE.” Easy decision for the dedication. On to Acknowledgements. 

I sigh, and bite my fingernail, thinking. Should I cast my brain like a net over every, single person that helped me along the way? Do I include all the writing and critique group members and people I’ve met at conferences? My heart rate speeds up. I close my eyes. No. Impossible. Do I even know where those people’s business cards are? Their emails?

No, I cannot sprawl the Acknowledgements over the vast array of mentoring, hand-holding, detour-laden, groups and writing events I’ve been a part of, so scratch that. I cock my head and place my hands on the keyboard. Just start typing, I tell myself, and it will come.

I sit there for five minutes, hands on keys, staring out the window. A few names bubble to the top of my mind. I type. More names bubble up. I type faster. Angst begins to pour out of me, and before I know it, my fingers cannot keep up. Yes, there are individuals to thank, but also communities too. These communities molded and directed me with patience and generosity of spirit. Some of them inflicted pain in ways that strengthened my writing chops and taught me endurance. In short, to keep writing, keep learning; even in the midst of adversity. I end up with eight individuals and a shout-out to these wonderful communities.

When I am finished, I sit back in my chair, cross my arms, and smile. Staring at the finished 500 words or so, I get a little misty-eyed.

Catriona again: Kerry, you've made even the account of your acknowledgements-day into a gripping read! It augurs very well for the book . . .


C.L. Tolbert: I write my books in phases, and, on top of that, I’m something between a pantser and a plotter. I’ll outline a few chapters, write them, and go forward similarly until the book is written. Since I write mysteries, I concentrate on the plot during the first draft. In doing so, I leave out important attributes of many of the characters, and even significant emotional reactions. I concentrate on character and touch up the action during the second draft. My writing group is accustomed to this quirk by now, and as a result their criticisms have become honed and invaluable. I always mention them in my acknowledgements because the book would not be the same without them.

I also rely on my group of beta readers who offer thoughtful insights. My ninety-two year old father is one. He reads Baldacci as well. If he says something isn’t suspenseful, I listen. Old high school friends, friends I’ve have for the past twenty years, and even mothers and husbands of friends are on my list of beta readers. I’m incredibly thankful for the time they take to read my books, and always acknowledge their help.  

I’ve dedicated one book to my children, and mentioned them in another, indicating that they’ve always inspired me, because they have. But I like to mention anything that has inspired me. My love for the city of New Orleans was one of the inspirations for The Redemption, which I indicated in the acknowledgement section of that book. Inspiration is what causes us to pick up a pen in the first place. There should always be space to acknowledge that.

Catriona writes: hear, hear. What a lovely idea - to acknowledge the places as well as the people. On behalf of all of us Minds  . . . congratulations on your books and all the best with many Acks and Deds to come. 



Mally Becker became fascinated with the American Revolution when she peeked into the past as a volunteer at the Morristown National Historical Park, where George Washington and the Continental army spent two winters. A former attorney, advocate for foster children, and freelance writer, Becker and her husband live in Warren, NJ, where they raised their son. The Turncoat’s Widow, featuring Becca Parcell, is her first novel.

Liz Milliron is the author of The Laurel Highlands Mysteries series, set in the scenic Laurel Highlands of Southwestern Pennsylvania, and The Homefront Mysteries, set in Buffalo, NY during the early years of World War II. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, Pennwriters, and International Thriller Writers. A recent empty-nester, Liz lives outside Pittsburgh with her husband and a retired-racer greyhound. 

Kerry Peresta’s publishing credits include a popular newspaper and e-zine humor column, “The Lighter Side,” (2009—2011); The Hunting, women’s fiction/suspense, Pen-L Publishing, 2013; and The Deadening, Book One in the Olivia Callahan Suspense Series. She is past chapter president of the Maryland Writers’ Association and a current member and presenter of Hilton Head Island Writers’ Network, and the Sisters in Crime organization. Kerry is the mother of four adult children. She and her husband moved to Hilton Head Island, SC in 2015.

In 2010 Cynthia Tolbert won the Georgia Bar Journal’s fiction contest for the short story version of Out From Silence.  Cynthia developed that story into the first full-length novel of the Thornton Mystery Series, which was published by Level Best Books in December of 2019. Her second book in this same series, entitled The Redemption, which is set in New Orleans, will be released in February of 2021.  Cynthia has a Master’s in Special Education and taught children with learning disabilities before moving on to law school. She has four children, and three grandchildren, and lives in Atlanta with her husband and schnauzer.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

A shot in the arm

Is there a non-writer whose work inspires your writing? 
by Dietrich

There are people in different fields and walks of life who have been an inspiration along the way. Those who paved the way, those who left a positive mark, and the ones who questioned prevailing beliefs and conventional wisdom. 

Aside from writing, I’ve been drawn to creative expression since I was a kid, and I’ve taken paint to canvas, found notes on guitars, and snapped many photos. And to get into any of it, I’ve looked for inspiration. That’s like the gas in the tank.

To connect with my creative side, I’ve learned that I need an uncluttered mind. Ever watch a kid going down the street, arms out, making propellor sounds, flying like a plane? Or blowing at a dandelion gone to seed, watching the little parachutes float off—the kind of things that would likely land the average adult in therapy? To me, that’s an uncluttered mind at work, a kid connecting with imagination. Just ask most kids if they can dance or sing? Not only will you get a resounding yes, but likely a demonstration. Now ask an adult the same thing. 

I’ve learned plenty from those who inspire me. I’ve learned to stay open and to make a point of noticing the simple things, taking my time with the details that the busy me would glance past, and to consider things in new ways. And I’ve learned that it’s better to be bold than to be safe.

“As our eyes grow accustomed to sight, they armor themselves against wonder.” — Leonard Cohen

When I lived back east, I spent many happy days at the McMichael Gallery in Kleinberg, fascinated by the works of the Group of Seven. I even met A.Y. Jackson, who resided there, when I was a kid and that experience stayed with me and likely influenced me to pick up a brush in the first place. And I’ve found inspiration in the works by other great artists; I love looking at Wassily Kandinsky’s geometrical forms, Jackson Pollock’s expressionism, the contemporary works of Julie Mehretu, the moody cityscapes of Jeremy Mann. 

I find photography as art motivating too, those great captured moments. I can’t get enough of the images of Joel Meyerowitz, Vivian Maier, Elliott Erwitt, Saul Leiter, Fred Herzog, and many more. What expression.
And I’m in awe of the sculptures of Alberto Giacometti, Bruno Catalano, and Alejandro Colunga.

Musicians always give my day a lift. And the mood I’m feeling dictates what I listen to, or maybe it’s the other way around—the music dictates and lifts my mood. Music feeds the muse, and no matter what I’m doing, I’ve usually got something playing, anything from blues to classics and everything in between.

“Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” 
— Henry Ford

A great performance on a stage or screen can be inspiring too. And comedians who make me laugh can lighten things and keep me from taking myself and everything going on too seriously. And there’s a lot to be said for being surrounded by friends and family. So, when this covid thing’s over, I’ll put together a long playlist and throw a big party.