Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Damned if you do...? by Cathy Ace

Q: Have you written about any controversial issues or created controversial characters in your books? Do you raise issues of conscience or do you steer away from moral questions?

I (usually) write about murder, so I’m only too well aware that every word I write is connected to a clear moral/social/ethical question about how one human being taking the life of another should be viewed, understood, and dealt with by society. That’s big. That requires the consideration of matters of morals, and conscience. It can certainly be controversial.

As an author with a background in psychology, and writing mainly books which deal with motive for murder, as opposed to the procedures used by police services to detect and apprehend a killer etc., I tend to tackle matters of morals and conscience rather than law enforcement issues…focusing readers’ minds on why suspects might have wanted to do it, and how they might have done it, rather than the detail of what happens after who did it has been identified.

Which is not to say I don’t like to flirt with issues that cause a reader to think about what they believe should happen to a killer once they are unmasked. But – and it’s a BIG but – when I am writing traditional (Cait Morgan) and cozy (WISE Enquiries Agency) books I know, understand, and honor the “contract” I have with the reader about the expectations of the type of books I write: both parties expect there to be a suspension of disbelief, and even a suspension of detailed discussion of matters of penalties for crimes, allowing us to focus on the matter of sleuthing through the puzzling clues surrounding a crime.

That said, I have discovered (to my surprise!) that Cait Morgan is quite controversial: she smokes (and is always trying to give up); she’s hugely judgmental of others (never herself, of course); she’s overindulgent when it comes to food and alcohol; she’s never wanted children; she’s not a fan of cleaning her home; she’s kept her maiden-name after marrying Bud Anderson.


None of these aspects of her personality/behavior were gifted to her with the idea of making her controversial…believe me, if I’d wanted to court controversy I could have done so (and still might, though it’s unlikely I’d do it through the sub-genres I’ve mentioned).

But this highlights an overarching point I want to mention: what might be controversial to some, will not be to others, and vice versa. Even motives for (fictional) killing can be “understandable” in some readers’ minds. The question then becomes, of course, even if it’s understandable, is it forgivable? And, should it go unpunished?

I’ll let you ponder…

If you'd like some pondering fodder, you could check my books for controversies I didn't even know I'd written about: CATHY ACE CRIME WRITER

And...a HUGE THANK YOU to everyone who decided to give my latest Cait Morgan Mystery a read - I really appreciate it. Launching a book during what are STILL "unprecedented times" is a bit of a challenge, but this has turned out to be my most successful launch to date; THANK YOU for that! 

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

The Straw That Stirs the Drink

Have you written about any controversial issues or created controversial characters in your books? Do you raise issues of conscience or do you steer away from moral questions?  

From Frank

I've learned to be less than detailed about works in progress, since things change during the creative process (including being canceled). But I've mentioned this one before, so I guess it's fair game.

The novel I'm working on now is called THE RIDE-ALONG. A police ride-along is something many agencies offer - a chance for a civilian to accompany a patrol officer for a shift (or part of one) to get a bird's-eye, snapshot view of the profession.

In my time as a patrol officer, I had many riders. Some were prospective police officers who were exploring if the career was right for them. Some were journalists or writers, doing research of some kind. Some were pro-police community members who were curious about what things were "really" like. And some were police critics who also wanted an inside view.

The latter-most was the least common but it happened occasionally. I sometimes wonder, given the tenor of police/community relations in today's world, if the situation occurs more frequently nowadays, or less. 

That got me thinking. But let's come back to that.

Being a retired police officer (eight years since I put down the badge now), I've watched the events of the last couple of years with a different eye than most. One might expect that to be uncompromisingly supportive of law enforcement but it isn't. Neither am I one of those former cops who are bitter critics of the profession or their former agency. Rather, I'm in the unique position of having had that insider experience by virtue of my time on the job but also the outsider viewpoint by virtue of my time away from it (it doesn't hurt that I traveled and taught extensively in law enforcement after retiring, so gained some additional national/international perspective).

As such, I see the lack of understanding about basic elements of police work that most civilians don't know or understand (yet make judgments about). I see the leaps to assign meaning (usually involving malicious intent on the part of the officer). I see all the misconceptions that breed misunderstanding that become part of the gulf between cops and the people they serve. And yet, at the same time, I see the flaws in police philosophy, the disregard (intentional or otherwise) for the public's view (informed or otherwise), and that we (I still say 'we' after eight years, which is interesting, too) suffer from our own brand of blue blindness.

More than anything, I see people screaming at each other, not listening to each other. And that was the part that bothered me the most. I wanted civilians to listen and understand policing better. I wanted cops to listen and understand the community better. And I wanted both to band together to reform law enforcement in a way that served the people best (including drumming out anyone not suited for the profession). But that wasn't happening. All that was happening was a whole lot of screaming and people refining their talking/screaming points.

And the gulf widened some more.

So I thought about that ride-along scenario. How two people are captive in that patrol car for four, six, eight, even ten hours. I thought of how many times riders said to me that they "never knew" what things were "really like." How much they learned over the course of just one evening.

These comments came from all stripes of rider, too. Those who were "pro" and those who were critics. The human connection made its mark. Even anti-police riders ended the shift with some form of "I still don't like cops but I like you" and admitting that "there are some good ones out there" and "I learned a lot."

I learned, too. For example, journalists tend to be depicted as Satan's spawn among police officers, especially in a city where the newspaper is objectively critical and acutely suspicious of the police. But stick one in the car with me for a shift and suddenly she's a person who is actually pretty okay. "I still don't like the newspaper but I like you," I admitted, adding, "There's some good journalists out there" and "I learned a lot."

Why did this happen? I think it was two obvious reasons.

One, our positions became humanized. I wasn't a badge and uniform - I was a person. She wasn't a notepad and a byline - she was a person. It's easy to demonize a symbol or a large, face-less group. It's much harder when you know the individual. Things are suddenly less simple. Nuances have to be acknowledged (which takes effort and may challenge your belief structure, two reasons people don't acknowledge them in the first place).

Two, we listened to each other. The enclosed little world of the front seat of that patrol car created a unique opportunity for that to happen. 

So what am I writing about in THE RIDE-ALONG?

Something exactly like this. Two people with very different beliefs who are thrown together for a shift, who don't listen to each other... but maybe eventually do. At least a little.

It's still in-progress. And I may fail at it. Even if I don't, will it be controversial? I think it will absolutely be, because I'm exploring different viewpoints. So if you're pro-police, I'm sure you'll get mad at the points the rider makes, whether or not they seem valid to you. The book may read as a blistering critique of the profession by a now out-of-touch retired cop. If you're anti-police, I'm sure the officer's points will irritate you even if they ring true. The book may read like an love letter to law enforcement by an apologist cop still draped in blue. 

In fact, maybe the only thing both sides will agree on will be that they'll hate the ending.

Or maybe no one will read it at all.

But I'm writing it.


No room for BSP here, at least not exactly. See, as I conceived and began work on the RIDE-ALONG, one of the many mental hurdles I have had to leap was where to set it. At first, I was vague, putting it in a general US city. The big police issues the pair debated were those coming from outside, those national events such as the George Floyd tragedy. But I quickly realized this wouldn't work for what I was trying to do. While national events from far away do impact local policing (I worked in Spokane, WA, and the Rodney King beating affected my policing experience), I knew there needed to be local points of conflict as well. And that required specificity. 

It seemed like I should stick with what I know, so I set the book in Spokane. But which Spokane? I already had the thinly veiled version known as River City. But the next RC novel will be set in 2003, so I'd either need to set THE RIDE-ALONG in the past or do a flash-forward (complete with series spoilers). I considered the possibility but decided against this route.

I could put it in the Spokane of my SpoCompton universe. But that is a series focused heavily on the other side of the badge - the criminal element. Setting it there sends a not-so-subtle message that isn't in keeping with the more balanced story I'm trying to tell. So that was out. And since a lot of my other Spokane-based books and stories are set in either River City or SpoCompton (explicitly or otherwise), I was faced with creating another multi-verse instance of my old hometown.

Then I realized the answer was staring me in the face all along. This book should be set in the Charlie-316 universe. It fit perfectly and checked all the boxes. It was specific. There were local police issues worthy of exploring. It was contemporary and could therefore include references to the recent events that got me thinking about this in the first place.

But Charlie-316 wasn't mine alone.

So I spoke with Colin Conway, my co-author for the Charlie-316 series, and reached an easy agreement with him. This would be a Charlie-316 novel. It will even be co-authored like all the others, though our process for this one is a bit different than the previous four (I'm writing the entire first draft before we start revising together).

It's a good fit, and Colin brings a lot to the table. Not just at the writing and editing level but also the experiential. He spent five years as a police officer but has much more of a critical view of some things. He'll help ensure some of the balance I'm looking for.

Monday, June 28, 2021

What Is Controversy?

 Q: Have you written about any controversial issues or created controversial characters in your books? Do you raise issues of conscience or do you steer away from moral questions?  


-from Susan


I write stories about people being killed. How is that not a moral issue? How is the act of trying to bring the killers to justice not on some level an issue of conscience and morality? How is a person who would kill another person in a private act for money, revenge, sadism, or fear not controversial?


More and more, the best crime fiction is telling stories by and about the real lives of people who in the past were relegated (by those writers who didn’t know them) to stereotypes. I am immensely grateful for the inclusion of more voices, who enrich the landscape of fiction and the beauty of human character. Some of their fiction may be deemed controversial because it challenges us to see the world in ways that push us beyond our smaller beliefs. I’m cool with that. 


BLACKTOP WASTELAND by S.A. Cosby insisted that I see the crushing economic trap Beauregard Montage is locked into by society. He’s a Black man who is doing his damndest to live honestly, work honestly, and be a decent husband and father. He’s flawed but Cosby pulls me into his reasoning. 


THESE WOMEN, by Ivy Pochoda, also demands that I see, even for a little while, the world through the eyes of a group of sex workers who try to stand together against people who would shower them with hate and abuse, and objectify them for their own self-righteousness. 


And, of course, the four BLANCHE novels by the late and sorely missed Barbara Neely pulled me into the perspective of a strong, smart, proud Black woman who spent much of her life cleaning up after White people in a lot of ways.


We are opening up the crime fiction community to the best kinds of controversy and the invitation to address – and be addressed – by moral issues and I say, great!

Friday, June 25, 2021

A Drug Deal in Bradford and an Ass-whooping in Delhi...

This week, I'm pleased to introduce you to my good friend and fellow author, A.A. Dhand. His new novel, Blood Divide, is an action packed thriller set in England and India, and is out this week.


What lengths do you (or would you) go to in order to get the geography right in your books? Is it okay to take liberties?

I’m five-thousand miles from home, deep underground in the largest underground market in Asia – Sadar Bazaar located in Delhi, India. 


It’s sensory overload – thousands of vendors and shoppers all attempting to get the best deal they can. I can’t quite believe how hot it is. Above me, at ground level, it’s thirty-five degrees Celsius. The Bazaar is so much hotter – it feels like my skin is melting. 


This place is far removed from the popular touristy hotspots. To say the environment in inhospitable is an understatement.

 I’m here because, it’s a key setting  for several chapters of my latest standalone thriller, “The Blood Divide” and whilst I could have remotely done my research via the internet, for me, authenticity comes from a writer fully immersing themselves in the locations they write about. 

This is not an area where liberties can be taken and I learned this the hard way! 


Let’s step back in time a moment.

It’s 2017. I’m revelling in the fact that my debut novel, set in my hometown of Bradford has been released. Fans and reviews alike are complimentary and I’m feeling pretty damn good. 

Then, I come across a message from someone who enjoyed my book but gave it a poor review because amongst those 85k words, there were two which, to this reviewers’ mind ruined the whole experience of reading it:

I got the name of a street wrong. 

Now, this may seem harsh and at the time, I thought it was but I came to understand why it was so irksome -  the reader is lost in my fictional world – it’s a high-octane chapter; car chases and escape from annihilation. Then, at the mention of this (incorrect) street name, the reader who knows Bradford well, is jarred from the fictional world I’ve created back to reality. It ruined their experience.

Lesson learned. 

Get. This. Stuff. Right. 


So, back to India. 

I landed here a day ago.

Just like my protagonist in The Blood Divide, Jack Baxi, I’ve hired a local taxi and aim to do the exact route Jack does. It’s going to be a chaotic, sleep-deprived 72-hours and we are going to tour various murky places in Delhi before heading to the most militarised zone in India – the Wagah Border which separates India with Pakistan. As per the book, I will live the life of my protagonist (minus the attempts on his life!) for these three days – eat where he eats, sleep when he sleeps and see this magnificent country through his eyes in the hope that I can take readers into a world they have seldom, if ever, encountered. 


My three days go well. I’m tired, a little dirty and my brain is overloaded with plot angles and misdirect devices. I’m pretty happy.

But, whilst the overarching geography is right, I need to visit one of the most dangerous parts of Delhi. Whilst my south-Asian identity (and by this, I mean my brown skin) means I don’t stand out as a tourist, I’m aware that as soon as I open my mouth, I’ll be revealed as a foreigner. Whilst my Hindi / Punjabi is okay, my accent is a dead give-away that I’m not a native and that might prove very costly in this part of the city.

But… I’ve come this far to get the location absolutely spot on. All I need to do is enter the lions’ den (you’ll have to read the book to discover where – clue it’s chapter 54 in the book and I’m on  G.B. road in Delhi…)

So, I enter. 

It doesn’t go well. 

I’ll surmise but the visit ended with me having to bribe my way out of a serious ass-whooping and I duly left, heart-in-my-mouth, promising never to take such a risk again. It would be a promise I would come to break because as a writer, I have come to realise that making my books as realistic as possible is what I enjoy the most. Yes, I will fuse fact with fiction but in my humble opinion there’s nothing more satisfying than taking readers into murky-locations they might recognise and then heightening their sense of fear of those places. It makes the read more personal, more effective and frankly more compelling. 


So, from the edgy streets which Bradford drug-dealers like to frequent to the criminal underworld of Delhi, location is king, authenticity is paramount and there are no room for liberties! Even if does mean you nearly get your ass whooped…

The Blood Divide, Bantam Press is out now!


Follow AA Dhand on Twitter: @aadhand


Thursday, June 24, 2021

In the Driver’s Seat from James W. Ziskin

What lengths would you go to in order to get the geography right in your books? Is it okay to take liberties?

In fiction, geography, like history and guns, is all about the details. It’s important to get those details right, or you risk incurring the wrath

of outraged readers. Expect supercilious e-mails that tell you where you went wrong. Or worse, angry e-mails. That’s why you must have a strategy.

First, always remember that you, the writer, are in charge. You decide which details to include in your books and stories. How sharp is the focus of your descriptions? How granular are the details you provide to the reader? You’re in the driver’s seat, so you pick the route.

Say you want to include a handgun in a scene. What kind is it? Revolver? Single-shot pistol? Semi-automatic pistol? You really don’t need to know, as long as you’ve made the room dark enough and your protagonist escapes without a wound. You made up that scene. Blur the focus if you like. Or dim the lights.

The same goes for history. Not sure which stamp was in use in 1898? Don’t dwell on it. Too much detail can stink of research anyway. Suffice it to say “she affixed the stamp and handed the letter to the postal clerk.”

This works for geography as well. While I care about getting details right, I sometimes allow myself the out of glossing over them. Other times, I research obsessively, because you have to create the illusion of your fictional world, after all, and real-life places can help you achieve that.

In my Ellie Stone series, I debated whether to use my actual hometown of Amsterdam, NY, as the setting. I knew it well and felt confident I could paint a convincing picture of life there. That would surely translate to an effective sense of place for readers. But my books are set in the early 1960s, and I feared I would surely make mistakes the local citizenry would spot. So I followed my own advice and decided to take the wheel and drive. I fictionalized the city and made all worries of inaccuracies disappear in a puff of smoke. Or exhaust, if I’m committed to this metaphor. Residents of my hometown would recognize places, even as they knew the town had a different name and different geography. My fictional New Holland, NY, sits on the exact spot Amsterdam does in real life, yet I can describe it however I want, without fear of contradiction.

I also created a fictional locale in Heart of Stone, the fourth Ellie Stone mystery, in the form of the picturesque Adirondack village of Prospector Lake. Much easier to invent a resort than to recreate, say, Lake George in 1961. Here’s the map from the book.

Fictionalizing a location may not always solve the problem. In my recent Sherlock Holmes story, “The Twenty-Five-Year Engagement,” I set the action in 221B Baker Street, London, which is, of course, a fictional address itself. But its fame is such that it might as well be real. So I had to describe it, and 1880s London, as faithfully as possible in my story. Since this was a 6,000-word story, however, I didn’t need to dwell too much on such minute details. Readers were already familiar with the setting, so only barest descriptions were in order.

Back to my Ellie Stone mysteries. As the series has progressed, I’ve moved Ellie around, to places as far afield as Hollywood in 1962 and Florence, Italy. In those two cases I made damn sure I got the real geography right because a lot of people know those places well. For Turn to Stone, the good news was that Florence hasn’t changed much in the past 500 years, at least not the historical buildings. And I was living in Hollywood when I wrote Cast the First Stone. Still, I did a lot of research to recreate February 1962 Los Angeles, using phone books, Thomas Guides, memoirs, maps, and more newspapers. For the address of an actual gay bar of the time (The Wind Up), I had a true address: 5151 Melrose Avenue. But my publisher said I couldn’t use the real address in the book, even if the bar had closed decades before. We compromised: I made the address 5151 1/2 Melrose Avenue. (Yes, I did that, and you can read it in the book.) I feel confident my research helped me avoid anachronisms when it came to geography and city buildings. And, again, when I wasn’t sure, I blurred the focus.

For my latest book, Bombay Monsoon (news on that coming very soon), the setting is 1975 Bombay, India. And, you might have guessed, during the monsoon… This location and time period demanded lots of serious research. Fortunately for me, I know the city well and have several close sources who lived in Bombay at that time. They helped me get the facts and geography right. Much of Bombay was reclaimed from the sea, after all, and its geography has changed dramatically over the centuries. I also consulted travel guides from the era, as well as maps, newspapers, and photographs. And when I could not establish some detail with absolute certainty, I left it out or blurred the focus.

Here’s a map (in progress) for Bombay Monsoon. It’s vague enough to reflect 1975 accurately. Like Florence, many of Bombay’s landmarks remain the same. The name, however, has, of course, changed to Mumbai.

Remember that you are in the driver’s seat and can negotiate the geography of your story with selective details and blurred focus. Or, I suppose, with intense research and unflinching honesty with yourself. As I always say, know what you don’t know.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Without geography, you’re nowhere

What lengths would you go to in order to get the geography right in your books? Is it okay to take liberties?

by Dietrich 

When describing a setting, my aim is to create a believable image, both for the readers who don’t know the location, and particularly for the ones who do. If there’s a point or structure within the setting, I might make it up if one doesn’t exist, or if an imagined one better suits the story. I guess what I’m saying, I don’t have any hard rules. I’m just out to create a connection between the characters and the environment, creating a ring of truth.

Many elements make up a place, and I am careful what I select to create visuals, then I look for ways to bring in the senses to complete it.

“The topography of literature, the fact in fiction, is one of my pleasures 

I mean, where the living road enters the pages of a book, and you are able to stroll along both the real and imagined road.” — Paul Theroux

The details help paint the scene. And to relay it, nothing beats personally experiencing the lands and people I’m writing about. When that isn’t possible — a setting that’s faded in history — then I need to do enough research so I can write confidently. When I feel I know it, it doesn’t matter whether I’ve been there; what matters is that I transport the reader there.

So, while there’s this mix of the real and the imagined, getting the setting right is key, because some mistakes just won’t fly, and an obvious goof would pull the reader from the story. Like if I were to put the statue of Liberty in New York, or if I called Africa a country, or Toronto the capital of Canada. This is where an editor with an eagle’s eye and good fact checker are worth their weight in gold. 

“It is wonderful to be here in the great state of Chicago.” — Dan C. Quayle

“I get to go to overseas places, like Canada.” ― Britney Spears

“When Brian told me he grew up in New Mexico, I told him I thought it is cool that people from other countries play football.” — Terry Bradshaw

“The people of Peru deserve better.” — Dick Cheney, criticizing the former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez

"I love Africa in general — South Africa and West Africa, they are both great countries.” — Paris Hilton

“So, where’s the Cannes Film Festival being held this year?” — Christina Aguilera

On a visit to Chicago, Toronto mayor Rob Ford took the time to chat with pedestrians, one couple telling him they'd been to Canada once, crossing at the Detroit River. The mayor saying, “Oh, Manitoba. Have you been to Winnipeg?”

The second part of the question: It is okay to take liberties? Whether writing stories in past or present, in a real or imagined place, I’ll take whatever liberties I need to make it real and bring the story to life.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021


UH-OH: Please note that I made a mistake and wrote a post in reply to next week's question, rather than this week's. 

 Terry Shames answering NEXT week's question: Have you written about any controversial issues or created controversial characters in your books? Do you raise issues of conscience or do you steer away from moral questions? 

 To answer this question, I’ll start with a few reviews of my books: 

A Killing at Cotton Hill

"A favorite of fans who like their police procedurals with a strong ethical center, Shames provides the back story of a Southern cop caught between his job and his culture.” -Kirkus Reviews 

The Last Death of Jack Harbin

 “…check out Shames' Samuel Craddock mysteries if you want a complex, riveting story dealing with contemporary issues. The Last Death of Jack Harbin is… a gritty, compelling story.” 
                    Lesa Holstine, Lesa’s Book Critiques 

An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock

 “Skilled depictions of [Samuel Craddock’s] formative choices and emotions enhance a timely story with resonance in the era of Black Lives Matter.” -                                   Publishers Weekly, *STARRED REVIEW 

 A Reckoning in the Back Country

 “Samuel is as large-minded as he is large-hearted; he’s aware of the racism and sexism of others and navigates these in a way that makes him one of the best allies of minority characters in contemporary fiction.” 
                   Criminal Element 

A Risky Undertaking for Loretta Singletary

 “…this book offers serious reflection on the hazards of online dating for those not fully prepared for the risks involved.” 
           Michael J. McCann, Mystery, Thriller &Suspense/Cozy, April 2019 


I believe it’s the job of crime writers to explore crime in all its ramifications. By that I mean everything from the context in which a crime occurs, to the way contemporary issues get mixed in with crime, to how a crime affects the people in a community. 

 Crime doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It occurs in the context of personal and civic history, cultural expectations, family dynamics, religious tradition, politics, friendships, and enmity. The crime hinges on the extent to which one of these forces gets out of control. One reason I continue to write the Samuel Craddock series is that I think the small town is a perfect microcosm for exploring how these various facets of people’s lives can influence their behavior—for good or ill. 

 In A Killing at Cotton Hill, I explore how family dynamics can twist people so that they develop an outsized need for validation that drives them to commit crimes. It also touches on the subject of small-town police laziness, if not outright corruption. 

The Last Death of Jack Harbin explores several community dynamics—deep friendships, especially among men; religious extremism; and how the threat of a person’s place in the community can force them to do things they never would have thought themselves capable of. And in that book, I shone a spotlight on a national disgrace—the careless way veterans of war are treated in this country. I also introduced a character who’s convinced that every citizen should carry a gun. If that isn’t controversial, I don’t know what it. 

 Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek veers into the dynamics of small-town politics and how greed and incompetence can lead to a city becoming insolvent. 

 A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge goes deeper into the subject of family dynamics and secrets that can destroy people’s lives. In particular, the book takes on how young men can use their power ruthlessly, believing that they will never be brought to a reckoning. 

 The Necessary Murder of Nonie Blake is the only book in which I explore mental illness. I don’t have much interest in writing about serial killers or psychopaths. What does interest me is how a family’s twisted response to mental illness can have a devastating effect, especially when the emotionally stunted person believes she is acting out of love for her family. 

Probably my most clearly political book is An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock. It deals with issues of race; police corruption and brutality; and drug usage. The book was featured in an article in Publishers Weekly: The writer of the article quoted me: “It’s the job of crime fiction to explore crime in all of its ramifications…When law enforcement is part of the problem, it presents a particularly difficult situation.” From “Dirty Blue Line: Police Corruption And Brutality in Crime Fiction, in Publishers’ Weekly, November 18, 2016. 

 In A Reckoning in the Back Country I explore the horrific subject of dog fighting. In researching the subject, I was interested to find that lawmen hesitate to investigate rumors of dog fighting rings because the men who force their dogs to participate are particularly brutal, and lawmen who poke their noses into it are at high risk of being murdered. 

 A Risky Undertaking for Loretta Singletary was meant to be a more light-hearted book, but when I dug into the subject of how older people can be dragged into scams on on-line dating sites, it took a dark turn. 

 The bottom line is always that someone views an ordinary set of rules—legal or moral--as a constraint that can, or must, be broken in order to satisfy some outsized need. I once asked fellow-author Doug Lyle what he thought drove people to commit crimes. He replied that he thought it was a fear of losing face. What I think that means is that when someone fears that his or her self-image will suffer a fatal blow by public exposure, they feel a desperate need to remedy the situation. And sometimes that drives the person to commit a crime without regard to the consequence. Is that a moral question, or a civic one? Either way, I’ll continue to plunge into those areas of my characters’ lives that dig into ethical and moral subjects.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Location, Location, Location

What lengths do you (or would you) go to in order to get the geography right in your books? Is it okay to take liberties?

Good Monday morning. Brenda Chapman at the keyboard.

My first books are set in fictional towns so that was easy peasy. I was the town planner, mayor and puppet master, making up locations to suit the story. My last two series have been set in real locations -- Stonechild and Rouleau in Ottawa, Kingston and surrounding towns, from Montreal to Toronto. I used Google Earth and maps to get the geography correct, and made several field trips to Kingston to scout out locations.

My other series of novellas, the Anna Sweet mysteries, are set in Ottawa. I've lived in this city of a million people for well over half my life, and know its streets and neighbourhoods well ... sort of well. Still, I used the maps and Google Earth to research locations and to get the street names and one-way streets right (Ottawa has a lot of one-way streets.)

All this is important homework because I've got very little sense of direction. Turn me around a couple of times and I have no idea where I am. I have to look up directions even for places I've been to previously. Often, I can't remember being there if enough time has passed. So getting all the details right for a book takes a lot of work for me, and I realize that I don't always get it right. So I'm all for taking liberties :-)

A fellow I know from curling bought my books at a store signing. He later commented to me that I'd had my character go north instead of south to reach the on-ramp to the main thoroughfare. Luckily, most people don't know the city that well and he was the only one to notice (or at least to tell me). I'd been warned that readers will point out any errors, such as a car driving the wrong way on a one-way street, and I've been somewhat fortunate that my slip-ups have mainly passed unnoticed.

As for taking liberties, in Cold Mourning, I moved a stretch of undeveloped field over a couple of blocks to suit the story. In general, I invent restaurant and hotel names when I'm setting criminal activity there. No proprietor wants to see their establishment become a murder scene, even if fictional.

In my seventh and last Stonechild book, Closing Time, I shifted the action to a fictional wilderness lodge and cabins east of a town named Searchmont. Now while I grew up in Northwestern Ontario, my neck of the woods was a considerable distance westward from where I set the story. I'd spent overnighters in Sault Ste. Marie (the Soo) and Sudbury on my way to other places, but I'd never been to the town of Searchmont. I'd have loved to make a field trip to explore the area, but Covid and lockdown put an end to that idea.

I relied on the tried and true Google Earth and maps of the area and took liberties when necessary. A reader emailed me that she had a cottage in Searchmont and loved reading about the area in my book. Guess I got enough topography right! 

Mixing fictional with real seems to be more and more my modus operandi. It would be great to take more field trips to get all the details correct, but barring that, I continue to rely on memory, research and my imagination. I try to get the details as accurate as I can, and enough readers have emailed me that they love revisiting these places in my books, so that's good enough for me.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Rain Man meets Bosch By Josh Stallings

Q: Publishers and agents usually ask you to compare your book to somebody else’s and want to know that you are up to date on what is popular at the moment. How much importance do you place in writing for the market?

A: And now we come to the part dear readers, where I destroy all hope of gaining fame or fortune… I don’t think about the market one bit. At least not while writing. I write because an idea, setting or a character shows me a glimpse of a world worth falling in love with. A world I want to chase for the next year or more. 

TRICKY, began with one scene I could fully see, two LAPD uniformed officers aiming sidearms at a Chicano man (Cisco) who is leaning over a body, and holding a gun. He’s not responding to the officer demanding he put down the gun. Why won’t he put down the gun? Did he shoot the dead man or is he protecting him? I move closer and discover Cisco appears to be intellectually disabled. Ok, I’m in. This scene was enough for me to know there was a novel here I wanted to write. 

Marketing asks: Is it a police procedural? A gritty LA crime novel? A social crime novel? I don’t know is the wrong answer, but the honest one. I had yet to discover the story and what it meant to me. 

Like everything I choose to write, TRICKY is full of emotional spiderwebs I can trace to my life. My grandfather was a LA Deputy. My father was arrested more than once, as was I. I’ve had police draw guns on me, as has my intellectually disabled son. TRICKY isn’t biographical or true crime, but it is personal. I can’t write anything worth reading without skin in the game.

Before taking on the novel I wrote Barrio Math, a short story for Eric Beetner’s “Unloaded 2” anthology, in it I explored who Cisco was as a teenager. For “Waiting To Be Forgotten,” Jay Stringer’s anthology inspired by The Replacements, I wrote a story about an LAPD officer working East Los. In this piece I was exploring Detective Madsen’s back story. 

I then wrote and rewrote the opening few chapters. Took notes from my agent, and my wife. Rewrote and had some other writers give me comments. It felt like if I didn’t get this correct, I couldn’t move on. Through all of this I hadn’t thought once about the market. 

As for being up to date on what’s popular. I’m aware of current best sellers, particularly when they’re by a writer whose work I love, or a new writer who's book blew my socks off. Like all readers, I have very particular and peculiar taste. I’m a slow reader and will never have time to read all the books I’d like to. I don’t finish books that don’t light me up. Best seller or limited run indi published, doesn’t matter to me. If I tried to read all the on trend best selling books, I’d never have time for my own writing.

Also, I worked in movie marketing as a trailer editor. I witnessed film after film fail while chasing the latest trend. From the moment you start a screenplay until it hits the theaters is a minimum of two years, by then whatever trend you were chasing has faded. I worked at Cannon films for a bit. They made thrown together copies of successful films, never huge box office but the production costs were low so they made a profit, if not great films.

If I could successfully write to market, I would. Really. It’s just not one of the tools in my chest. I’ve tried, hell I was paid to write screenplays that went from good ideas to dust in my hands after I’d sold the producers on a scene by scene outline. It took me a long time to discover my error, I was spending what passion I had on the outline, leaving myself nothing left for the actual screenplay. My passion comes from discovering the book I’m writing. I leave myself clues and mysteries to be unraveled as I type. No spoilers, but I was three-fourths of the way through writing TRICKY and I still didn’t know if Cisco was intellectually disabled or pulling a brilliant con. 

As I’m writing the book, I do start to think about where it fits in the world of other books. Whose shoulder’s is it standing on? My Moses McGuire novels wouldn’t have been written without James Crumley and Andrew Vachss. Young Americans owes a nod to Donald E. Westlake’s Dortmunder books and E.S. Hinton’s Outsiders. I could only write TRICKY because I read socially relevant police novels by James Lee Burke, Terry Shames, Tana French, Ken Bruen, Stuart Neville, and others whose work helped widen my view of what was possible in a police driven novel. 

Where does TRICKY fit in the market? After the book was finished, that became a discussion for me and my agent and later our publisher to figure out. Chantelle Aimée Osman, the editor on TRICKY came up with the marketing angle “It’s all about neurodiversity.” She also wrote, “More than a police procedural, Tricky explores questions of human nature: Whether a man can change, for better or worse, and whether redemption is possible.”

And that’s loads better than what Hollywood Josh would’ve come up with, “It’s Rain Man meets Bosch.” So I guess I’ll leave market gazing to the pros.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

If you liked Babe Ruth, you'll love Madison Baumgartner! by Catriona

 Q: Publishers and agents usually ask you to compare your book to somebody else’s and want to know that you are up to date on what is popular at the moment. How much importance do you place in writing for the market?

Short answer: what Cathy said yesterday.

Slightly longer answer: No really what Cathy said yesterday - even the fact that I write three different sub-genres of crime fiction and have different "comps" for each.

Real answer, since those first two don't constitute a blog . . . 

I can't remember having to come up with comps. I must have (or maybe it's an American thing and so I never did ???) but once you've got a few reviews with pull-quotes that drop names, the critics are doing it for you. So I'm mostly going to be talking about what other people have said, mystifying as that sometimes gets.

But here's a fresh take. I'm reading CHASER right now, which is Dharma Kelleher's series opener about a bounty hunter in Phoenix, AZ. There's a lot to love (53 pages in): Jinx Ballou's "fairy drag mother" Tia Juana; a heart the size of Brasil connected to a potty mouth of the first order; a plot that's new (to me); and the chutzpah of this little exchange as Jinx and a journo talk about the dearth of women in the bounty business - 

Journo: What about that gal up in New Jersey. God, what's her name?

Jinx: I know who you mean. Met her once when one of my fugitives fled to Trenton. ... Not the most professional bounty hunter I've ever worked with, but she gets the job done. Somehow.

I've got to admit I had a chuckle. Nicely done, sister! It's so much better to admit that no one can write a woman bounty hunter without a bit of Plum juice getting on the page. But here's where Cathy's point from yesterday, about relevant and irrelevant similarities, comes into play. The world of Jinx Ballou and the world of Stephanie Plum are a Venn diagram of two circles with one single glancing touch. It would be bonkers to say "For fans of ..."

Now, I have been compared to Janet Evanovich and very nice it was too. I've also been compared to PG Wodehouse (which is the crown jewel for any comic writer) and to . . . Barbara Pym! (Cue such an overwhelming chorus of "Who?" that everyone's papers just blew off their desks). That jacket quote was simultaneously no help at all for marketing and my proudest moment, because for the few people who know who she was I imagine it would be straight to the buy-link.

It might seem odd to treasure being compared to Barbara Pym, when I've also been compared to Agatha Christie and Dan Brown. But I think those comps are akin to what I call "Catriona's baseball lore". For the writer of procedurals who compared my historical detective novel to Dame Agatha, it was code for "old-fashioned but good". I will take that all day long, by the way. When a reviewer said "Dan Brown" I honestly think he meant no more than "this could sell". And I will take that too. It's like when there's a pub quiz question about baseball players. I don't listen to the details; I ask another one of my team, The Vincibles, "living or dead?" and then decide whether my answer is Madison Baumgartner or Babe Ruth. That is the sum total of my knowledge, split neatly in two.

I'm really not complaining that these comps were broadbrush - can't overemphasise that. I really do think Cathy was right to say that the setting and sub-genre are meaningless when we're trying to decide what to spend our book bucks on or pester our library for. I mean, I'd be surprised if anyone who liked my standalones didn't love Alex Marwood, or if anyone who admires Dandy Gilver didn't have a soft-spot for Flavia de Luce, or if anyone who enjoys hanging out at the Last Ditch Motel didn't happily devour Kellye Garrett's Hollywood novels.

BUT notice that these books are not Scottish, or from the 20s, or about fish-out-of-water therapists. Finding an accurate comp is all about the voice, tone, sensibility, and ambiance. I think I can prove it to you too.

I was recently lucky enough to read Leslie Budewitz (writing as Alicia Beckman) 's ARC of BITTEROOT LAKE. Once I'd sent the quote - it's really good, by the way - Leslie emailed to apologise and assure me that she "didn't know". You and me both, I thought, before I asked her "know what?". "Know that I wrote a book so similar to yours," she said, managing not to open with "Duh" or end with "idiot". "Eh?" I said. "Which one?"

Which one. And I meant it too. 

Then I started laughing because I had done exactly the same to Lori Rader Day when I read LITTLE PRETTY THINGS. I got in touch to rend my garments and try to persuade her that I "didn't know". "Know what?"  "Know that I wrote your book." "Which one?"

Because it doesn't matter at all that Bitterook Lake and Go To My Grave are both "about" reunions. It doesn't matter that Little Pretty Things and Scot Free both take place in a motel. As Lori said, I should be grateful I can prove that the Last Ditch predates Schitt's Creek, because that's the real comp - different genre, different medium, different country and all. 



Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Existential angst? by Cathy Ace

Q: Publishers and agents usually ask you to compare your book to somebody else’s and want to know that you are up to date on what is popular at the moment. How much importance do you place in writing for the market?

Okay – three questions here, really – who am I “like”, and what’s popular – two very different questions, with a third, overarching query…

What other author’s works are my books “similar to”? I admit it, I’m HOPELESS at this game! Yes, yes, I know every author believes their work is utterly unique (and it is) but I also understand (because I’m a reader as well as a writer) that it’s helpful to be able to tell someone “if you enjoy ‘that’ then you’ll probably enjoy ‘this’ too”, so I try my best to be helpful (that’s the kind of gal I am!) when called upon to be so.

But…and it’s a big but…I also know as a reader that what appeals to me isn’t necessarily what a book's about, or where it’s set, or even what type of sub-genre it is (procedural, sleuth, spies, thriller etc.) but the VOICE that appeals to me. If I listed my favorite authors here – authors whose works I will read whatever sub-genre they’re writing in (and several of my most favorite authors write across different sub-genres) – you might be perplexed, because they seemingly have nothing in common with each other, except that I enjoy those voices. Indeed, I’m one of those for whom the “helpful” amazon “People who bought this also bought…” section is worse than useless: 100% of those books listed have never ended up in my little cart. Ever.

"As" Agatha Christie
Thus, I’ve relied upon others to help me in this task when I need to undertake it myself. Professional reviewers, as well as non-professional reviewers, and readers, have proposed the following: my Cait Morgan Mysteries will appeal to those who enjoy books by Agatha Christie (Poirot fans), Lyn Hamilton, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ngaio Marsh, Sue Grafton, and any number of “Golden Age” British traditional mystery authors; my WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries will appeal to those who enjoy books by M.C. Beaton, Alexander McCall Smith, Jeanne M. Dams, and Agatha Christie (Marple fans); my book The Wrong Boy will appeal to those who enjoy TV suspense like Broadchurch, Hinterland, and Shetland (based on the books by Ann Cleeves), or books by Gillian Flynn. I’m not going to argue – but will add that – despite the fact I write traditional puzzle-plot mysteries (Cait Morgan), cozier, character-driven tales (WISE women) and psychological suspense (DI Evan Glover) I am thrilled to say many readers enjoy them all when they try them – venturing beyond their initial “reason-for-buying” to discover a new-to-them sub-genre…YAY!

Now, onto the second part of the question – do I know what’s “popular” at the moment? Well, yes, I do, thanks, but that doesn’t mean it’s what I want to/am able to write. Besides, what’s “popular” today (ie. topping the sales charts) might not be what folks want to read by the time my book is published, so I think chasing the ghost of popularity is a fool’s errand…

All of which, I suspect, allows you to work out for yourself that my answer to the final part of this week’s overarching question – do I write for the market? – is, in all honesty, no. I write books I like to read, and hope my “voice” reaches people who enjoy it, across the board. All I can do is keep doing what I’m doing, and hope enough of the market likes what I write that I can afford to keep doing it!  

By the can help with that last bit *wink, wink* - all my books are listed on my website: CATHY ACE CRIME WRITER