Tuesday, May 31, 2022

How Dare You!


Terry, here with this week’s topic: Authors are told never to respond to bad reviews. Have you ever been tempted? How do you deal with negative comments? 

 When my first book came out, I read all the reviews, both professional and reader-driven. They were wonderful, and I was thrilled. But after a while I began to realize that there was nothing about them that helped me learn anything about my process. Occasionally I’d get an email giving me word that I needed to do something better. For example, one man wrote to me to tell me that in my second book, The Last Death of Jack Harbin, I’d mentioned motorcycles and that I needed to add some information. I resisted replying that if he wanted more about motorcycles perhaps he should write his own book. I hope he loves Murder at the Jubilee Rally, which comes out in October. It's set at a motorcycle rally. 

 Another wrote to say that I had mentioned alfalfa growing in the fields, and I was mistaken, that alfalfa doesn’t grow in Texas. He informed me that what people thought was alfalfa was actually Johnson grass. I resisted the temptation to tell him he was wrong, that indeed there was plenty of alfalfa in Texas. Instead, I wrote him that my daddy had told me those fields were alfalfa and I believed him. (I still believe him). 

 There were a few less than excited Amazon and Goodreads reviewers who said the books were too slow, but that didn’t bother me. The Samuel Craddock I don’t write thrillers—or at least I didn’t write them at the time. But by and large the reviews were all terrific. 

Then one day I told one of my fellow “minds,” James Ziskin, that I’d never gotten a bad review. He begged to differ, and hunted up a review he’d read about my fourth book, A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge, that was in fact a complete take-down. The reviewer said he’d liked my other books, but he hated this one so much that he threw it across the room. 

He raged that it was something he never believed would happen and that he thought I must be laughing at my readers. 

 So what did I do? I laughed. Why? Because the review had been written two years earlier, and I’d somehow missed it. Also, I somehow felt that getting a bad review made me a real part of the writing community. Everyone gets bad reviews at one time or another, and this one was a doozy. Maybe if I’d read it at the time the book came out, I would have been horrified and felt the need to tell him that in fact the book was based on a real incident. But too late. I had moved on, and presumably he had, too, because he reviewed the next book positively. 

 In the past few years, I have only read professional reviews. Not that I have an aversion to reading reader reviews, but I never seem to find the time, and when I do take a peek, I have no complaints. The fact is that even if I got bad reviews, it probably wouldn’t change the way I write. I have a particular slant on things in my small Texas town and with my characters and I think it would be hard to change that. I do wonder if I’m pushing hard enough, though. Maybe it’s time to rile up my readers and get some tomatoes thrown at me!

Sunday, May 29, 2022

The Good, the Bad, and the Downright Nasty

Authors are told never to respond to bad reviews. Have you ever been tempted? How do you deal with negative comments? Pick a few irksome ones (anonymous of course) and let us know how you really feel … no judgment.

Brenda Chapman here.

I've come to be in a zen place with negative/nasty/dismissive/ reviews. I'm not sure who said it, but the best advice I ever heard when faced with a bad review is: "This person is not your reader". Yeah, they really aren't and that's okay. I'm not a fan of everything I read either, even some books that are on the best-seller lists. And that's okay too.

I have to admit though, there have been times I've had to pull myself away from the keyboard because I soooo wanted to respond to somebody's comments, but then I sunk into my mantra ... "Just not my reader."

So a few anonymous examples.

A recent Goodreads reviewer took the time to read all seven of my Stonechild and Rouleau books before giving the entire series one star. My question to them would be, "Why did you keep reading if you didn't like the first book? Who reads seven books if they aren't enjoying the storyline or characters?" Hmmm.

Someone else wrote recently about the last book in the series, "The author dialled this one in." I want to respond that I spent a year writing and editing that book, and took great pains to make it an original story with a complex plot. My editor and publishing team also spent a great deal of time working on it. Readers have almost to a person lauded the book and lamented that it's the last one in the series. Dismissing my work with one flip line sounds like a dialled-in response to me :-) 

One final irksome example of a review that bothered me (just ask my husband how much) happened a few months back. My latest book Blind Date had just been released and started a new series. I nervously awaited feedback from readers to see how it would be received. A day or two after the book was up on Amazon, a reader rushed to put up a two-star, critical review that stubbornly stays first on the list of reviews, the rest of which are all positive. This first review was demoralizing, but I'm happy to say that it's been the only negative one to date.

Recently, I watched some well-known American authors in a webinar and they spoke about the reviews on Goodreads. One of the authors said after her first book came out, she opened up her phone to read the reviews while in her car in the grocery store parking lot. She said they were so bad that she burst into tears. Another author on the panel said that she's learned never to read reviews on this site because they can be so brutal. 

While I respect the right of every reader to their opinion and recognize that tastes can vary widely, I'd like to gently suggest that reviewers remember a very real person has written the book and invested a lot of time, sweat and effort. Constructive criticism doesn't have to be so cutting that the author is devastated, maybe even enough to contemplate stepping away from the business. 

On the other side of the coin, any reader who is moved enough, either positively or negatively, by a book that they rate or review it, is a marvellous thing. However, I'd argue that every author deserves respect even if a reader doesn't care for their writing or book. It's fair to criticize, and writers appreciate constructive feedback, but I'm not a fan of taking kindness out of the equation.

Website: www.brendachapman.ca

Facebook & Instagram: BrendaChapmanAuthor

Twitter: brendaAchapman

Friday, May 27, 2022

Make Them All Unforgettable Characters, by Josh Stallings

Q: How much air time do you give to secondary characters? Have any threatened to take over a book?

A: I give them as much time as they need to be fully there. A paragraph, a chapter, I don’t have a formula. The tension between narrative drive and character exploration comes down to personal taste. I can feel when editing when I come to a section that’s off the main story if I want to blow past it, it means it needs work, either to cut it down or make it sing. 

I’m dancing around the question because though I understand the term “secondary characters” I don’t think about any characters as secondary. Every one of us believes we are the hero of the story. I realize this phrase is both vague and over used, so I’ll dig a bit deeper into my process. Because I mostly write from beginning to end not knowing where the tangled twisting path leads, I am forced to treat every character that stumbles onto the stage as if they might be a key player, and they might. One of my best friends since we were glittery rock teenagers is Tad Williams. He writes these MASSIVE epic fantasy series, because of the size and scope he peoples them with a huge cast, some will be spear holders and others may step forward in book three and save the day. Sitting at the starting line he can’t see seven years of writing down the line who will be what, they all must be worthy of taking the lead.

Another way of thinking about this is, the best stories make me feel like they are showing me a small portion of a real world, one that exists beyond the page. Everyone we meet is coming from somewhere and going to someplace else.

Great paintings work this way for me. I was a weird kid, I loved landscape painting. My father was an artist, and my mother was a teacher who believed art was an integral part of any education, so I spent a lot of time in museums. I was drawn to work where I would day dream about what was around the next corner on a country road, behind a tree in the forest.

Two early lessons in theater school were, “Know where your character was before they walk on stage.” And “Write your character’s biography.” Even if you only have a one line walk on, doesn’t matter. The audience will never see this work but if you do it, they’ll feel the truth. Same thing for writing. I have to know my characters intimately, I often discover who they are as I’m writing. Once I really know them, I go back and build a document with only their scenes, I read and edit them to be sure they track with who I know they are now. 

Part of the joy in writing TRICKY was getting to show the intellectually disabled community as individuals. I wanted the group home where Cisco lives to be peopled with three dimensional characters. They all started out based on people I’ve known, or observed. But once I start writing they take on lives of their own. 

Meet Pris, with wild unkempt long hair and smeared on make-up. She claims the staff cut her hands, “Staff say I’m too pretty to live. Like a butterfly on fire.” Only when she shows her palms to the detective there are no signs of any damage.

And Donald, in his Star Wars wheelchair and Rebel X-Wing tee shirt, “June, June, June.” He calls to the house manager.

“Donald, what is it?”

“June, June, June.”

“What?” June smiled at Donald.

“Um I forgot. God damn it!”

“Language, Donald.”

“Sorry, sorry, sorry.”

And Lilly, a wonderful innocent who we discover has feelings for Cisco as she explains to Detective Madsen, “I think he’s beautiful.” 

“Did David and Cisco get along?”

“Everyone likes Cisco. Do you like him?”

“I just met him today.”

“That’s all it takes. Maybe you think too much.” She scrunched up her eyes, mimicking over concentration. “It is okay to trust.”

Combined they illustrate that being intellectually disabled doesn’t preclude one from being delusional, or paranoid, or use profanity and be really into Star Wars, or have crushes and fall in love. But none of them are stand-ins for an idea, they are characters I’ve gotten to know well enough that I could write a book about any of them, they just happened to show up in Cisco’s book.

Now as for characters threatening to take over a book? All the time. Early on in TRICKY I had wanted to write much more about Lilly with Cisco. I’m a romantic. But what I want and what the novel needs are often very different. I feel like that tension helps make a better book. I want Cisco and Lilly to have a love story, hopefully so do readers, the tension lies in will it won't it happen? If it doesn’t happen in the novel, it still remains as a possibility and that creates a world beyond the book in the reader’s mind.

YOUNG AMERICANS is a disco glitter rock heist novel told through the eyes of the intelligent but naïve Jacob Stern, and his safe cracking sister Sam. Set in 1976 their crew is full of flamboyantly wonderful characters, but it was Valentina Creamarosa who stole my heart and could have walked away with the whole damn book if I’d let her.


Valentina spun through life trailing glitter and feathers molting from her thrift store boa. Six foot two and muscular, she vibed Tina Turner on steroids. 

A trans-gender badass and the patron saint of Fabulousness. She was an expert in firearms and lip liner. Vulnerable, loyal, damaged and deadly. 

“Settle down you dazzling bitches, class is in session.” Valentina unzipped an olive canvas duffle bag that was sitting on the coffee table in the Creekside Apartment living room. It was full of guns.

“Oh, fuck me.” Terry turned a lighter shade of pale.

“You OK, Terr-Terr, this shit getting a little too real?” Valentina tossed a snub-nosed .38 to Terry. He recoiled and the revolver bounced off his chest, landing on his lap. “Pick it up, Ms. Cutie.” Terry looked scared. “Pick. It. Up. Bitch.”

“Leave him alone, Val,” Jacob said, reaching for the gun.

“Stop. Terr-Terr either pulls his weight or he walks.”

“Fine, fine, I’m cool.” Terry picked up the snub-nose.

“I want the nickel-plated Smith & Wesson,” Candy said. “I have a silver snakeskin belt that will go perfectly with it.”

“Done, girl. Style points are always appreciated. We may be robbing this joint, but there is no excuse for looking tacky.”

Valentina is the character I’ve gotten the most requests to write a book about. And I get it, I love her, who wouldn’t? A local coffee joint owner loves her so much whenever I pick up a latte instead of my name it says, “For Valentina.” 

I guess that’s the point of this job, to become invisible and write characters people can’t forget.  

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Whose book is it anyway? by Catriona

How much air time do you give to secondary characters? Have any threatened to take over a book? Choose one of yours that you particularly enjoy and share them with us, including a snippet of text that gives us their flavour.

This question made me laugh a hollow laugh. When I embarked on the Last Ditch Motel series, one of the boons - so I thought - was that there would be a different selection of transient minor characters in every book. You know, because it was set in a motel. 

That plan went ever so slightly wrong. In Scot Free, I put a pair of doctors in the next-door room to my heroine, Lexy Campbell. They were staying for a few nights while their house was tented for bugs. But I fell in love with them and didn't want them to go away at the end of the book. So I gave Todd a bad case of cleptoparasitosis (a fear of bugs, including imaginary bugs) and made them permanent residents of the motel because it's the only place safe enough for them to live in.

Lexy meets Todd thus:

a young man in Hello Kitty shorty pyjamas shoved past me, leapt across the floor, and dove into my bed

“Emm,” I said.

“Can I stay here?” he said. He had the covers clutched to his chin, a chiseled chin with perfect stubble and a dimple you could have filled with melted chocolate and dipped marshmallows in.

“Emm,” I said.

“I saw the bed was slept in so I knew someone was here,” he said. “Can I use your phone?”

“Are you in some kind of trouble?” I said.

“I’m Todd,” he said. “I live next door. In two fourteen. But I just got up and went into the bathroom and there is a s-p-i-d-e-r the size of Godzilla’s grandpa in the shower. So if I could just stay here and use your phone to call Roger – my hubs; he’s at work – to come and kill it, that would be a really big help to me.”

“Or,” I said, “I could go and kill the sp- it for you.”

He had pulled the covers up to his eyes when I started to say the word, but he let it drop again. “For

 reals?” he said. “It is bigger than my first apartment.”

I might have been able to resist Todd enough to send him back to his house for the start of Scot and Soda but when I added Roger the two of them together were too much for me: 

            "Well, for God’s sake, Lexy," said Todd. "Pour us a glass of Chablis and tell us all!”

“I haven’t got any Chablis.”

“He’s probably filled your refrigerator,” Roger said. “As you see, Todd doesn’t really do boundaries.”

“As you see, Roger tends to over-psychologize everyday life,” Todd shot back.

“My apologies,” said Roger. “As you’ll soon find out, Todd likes to take care of people.”

“As you’ll sooner find out, Roger is troubled by normal amounts of everyday kindness.”

“Normal?” said Roger. “What about when you fostered those hedgehogs?”

“What about it? The PETA website linked to my Facebook post.”

“Todd, you bought a stroller!”

And that's not all. Why is the Last Ditch Motel the only safe palce for Todd and Roger to live? Well, because of another pair of transient motel guests who morphed into permanent residents so they could be in every book. I had put a germaphobe and her long-suffering wife into Scot Free, for plot reasons. With a flick of the wrist, I made the long-suffering wife into the motel owner - because it's always funny to me when someone monumentally grumpy works in a customer-facing job. Here's Noleen, perhaps my absolute favourite character, still bitching and moaning in the motel reception, in Scot on the Rocks:

She was facing away from me, wearing a sweatshirt I hadn’t seen before – it read nobody asked you – upending the stationery drawer over a black bin bag. Elastic bands, bulldog clips and pens cascaded down. I think I saw some postage stamps go in there.

“Wow,” I said. “Are you going paperless?”

“I’m starting over,” she said, turning. The front of the sweatshirt said Shut up. Blunt, even for Noleen. “I’m going to OfficePro after Della gets here to tag me and buying just what I need and nothing else. None of this . . .” she stirred the very dregs of the drawer contents then tipped it higher to shoot the lot into the bin bag.

“Is that foreign currency?” I said. “Because it looks like quarters. Nolly, you’re binning money.”

“I’m letting go,” she said. “And I’m going to start locking this drawer so no one can put hairbands and thumb tacks in it when I’m not looking.”

“No one . . .” I began. “Okay. But you know what I think?”

“Don’t want to,” she said. “Don’t want your opinions stinking up my head any more than I want random strangers’ Canadian change stinking up my drawer.”

And once Noleen was the owner, Kathi the germaphobe automatically became permanent too. I added a laundromat to one end of the horseshoe of rooms and made her its manager. The perfect job for someone who likes everything spick and span. I also added a cousin in Costa Rica who supplies the insecticide that keeps the Last Ditch bug-free. (It's illegal in California, this insecticide. In fact, it's so good it's illegal in Nevada too.) Here's Kathi in Scot Mist, which takes place in March 2020, doing what she does best - panicking:

Kathi jabbed a finger at me before she spoke. “Disneyland is closed. The federal government has offered a tax-filing extension. A. Tax. Filing. Extension. Lexy, they’ve admitted that the only sure thing is death.”

“I don’t know what the Brit equivalent would be,” Noleen chipped in.

“Me neither,” I said. “Taking down the Bake Off tent?”

“I swear to God if you crack one single joke,” said Kathi. Her jaw was clenched so tight she sounded like Sean Connery. Doing a surprisingly good American accent.

“I’m not joking!” I said. “We haven’t got a Disneyland to close.”

“Look,” Kathi said. “I don’t know how many people are sick,” I did and, from the way she shifted her feet, I think Noleen did too. “But they’re not all from Wuhan and they’re not all on that floating petri dish down in the docks. Some of them are in the city and some of them must be leaving the city and this is a motel ninety minutes from the city and so it closes today.”


“So help me, Betty White, if you tell me not to worry . . ."

So there it is. My four transients from the first book are all still there. And it was more or less "in for a penny" that made me give up and turn the other guests into permanent residents too. Dylan, the college kid, was supposed to be there for a weekend because he was being bullied in his dorm. Della and little Diego were staying a while till she could find a flat. In next year's Scot in a Trap (Book five of the planned trilogy (I might have a general lack of control, it occurs to me)),  not only are the three of them still checked in but SPOILER Della and Dylan are married and now there are four, after baby Hiro was born on Thanskgiving Day:

‘Okay!’ Della said, putting her hands on the arms of her chair and pulling herself upright in it. ‘Ahhhhh. Ooooh. Owwwiiieeee.’

Everyone around the table winced in sympathy, except Hiro who was yelling at her own fists as they waved in front of her face. And also except Diego, who was motoring through a towering bowlful of pie and ice cream as if he was being paid by the slice. ‘What’s wrong, Mama?’ he said, pausing with a spoon half way to his mouth. ‘Brain freeze?’

‘My vulva tore a little when I was pushing Hiro out,’ said Della. ‘It’s tender.’

A huge thought bubble formed above everyone’s heads overshadowing the accompanying silence.

‘Things are so much better than they used to be,’ I said, eventually. ‘As a therapist, a woman, and a buttoned-up Brit, I thoroughly approve of no-nonsense openness.’

‘Speak for yourself,’ said Noleen. ‘That’s just weird. Vulva? No way Diego knows what a vulva is.’

‘It’s the folds of skin around-’ Diego got out, before Noleen managed to stop him.

‘Mommy was right on the edge of needing stitches,’ Todd said, as if Diego – or any of us – needed more detail. ‘But Uncle Roger said she could give it a day and then take another look. What do you think, Dell?’

‘The ice-pack helped,’ Della said. ‘Oh, Lexy. I need to replace your ice-pack. Remind me if you remember.’

Like I’d forget.

‘Anyway,’ Della said, ‘I want to talk to you about three things. We need to have a memorial for that guy who died.’

‘We do?’ said Noleen.

‘I do,’ said Della.

‘Someone died?’ Diego said, with his eyes like saucers.

‘This’ll be good,’ said Noleen. ‘What the vulva equivalent when it comes to sudden death?’

‘He did,’ Della said. ‘He went to Heaven to live with Jesus, and we need to honor his memory so that his spirit is at rest.’

‘Phew,’ said Noleen. ‘No death vulva. Fine by me.’

I can hardly remember these people as minor characters in a single book now. They are Lexy's logical family, to quote Armistead Maupin, and she loves them all as much as I do.  Cx


Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Oh what a tangled web... by Cathy Ace

How much air time do you give to secondary characters? Have any threatened to take over a book? Choose one of yours that you particularly enjoy and share them with us, including a snippet of text that gives us their flavour.

Oh, this is a good one…and something I was asked about on a panel in which I participated at CrimeFest in Bristol, UK a couple of weeks ago. Yes, I’ve been “on the road again”, and it was a blast! Anyway, I won’t go on and on about how wonderful it was to spend time with my tribe (though there are some photos to show how fun it was!) because I could chatter on all day…so…to the question!

"Long running series" panel: Caro Ramsey, Peter Guttridge, Kate Ellis, Andrew Child, me

I always planned the Cait Morgan books as a series where each story would take place in a different setting, with only Cait Morgan and Bud Anderson being in every book, but, even though I’m writing fiction, I aim for relatable circumstances that allow readers to happily inhabit the worlds I’m creating…so there are folks who pop up more than once.

Jack and Sheila White are a case in point: Jack was something of a mentor to Bud during his early days with the Vancouver Police Department, and the two men built a friendship based upon mutual respect that lasted beyond their retirements. The Whites also have acreage where Marty, Cait and Bud’s tabby black Lab, can stay when they are off on their mystery-solving jaunts (which is handy!). Thus, Jack and Sheila have appeared briefly in several of the books, and they finally took center stage in The Corpse with the Crystal Skull, when they stayed with Cait and Bud at a private resort in Jamaica…which is where we find out a good deal more about their backgrounds.

With Barry Ryan, of  Free@LastTV, the company
producing the Cait Morgan Mysteries TV series

Another recurring character is John Silver. Yes, he’s tall…which leads to the inevitable nickname…and he’s also quite mysterious when we first meet him: he arrives in Amsterdam in The Corpse with the Garnet Face as a “facilitator” with links to international intelligence-gathering services, and his presence allows us to discover more about Bud’s links with similar organizations. But I didn’t want John Silver to end up being no more than a cypher…a cut-out character who allows the plot to move forward by mysteriously revealing key background details about suspects…so I allowed him to also be the person upon whom Bud relied when Cait completely disappeared in Budapest, in The Corpse with the Ruby Lips; this time it’s Bud taking the lead, with John in support. In The Corpse with the Crystal Skull, John joins the house party in Jamaica as a guest, bringing with him his newly-acquired girlfriend, and we discover that maybe his overall judgement isn’t quite what his secret-squirrel job might lead us to believe it should be! Then, in The Corpse with the Granite Heart, I’m sorry to say I left poor John Silver completely undone…and questioning his entire future. I do have a plan for John, but won’t say here what it is…but the fact that he and Jack White are about the only people Bud trusts 100% (as well as Cait, of course) means he’ll be back, but maybe not in the way readers might expect.

I’ve enjoyed illuminating John Silver, and allowing the light cast upon him to reflect onto Bud, allowing his character to be revealed more and more too, which I think adds dimensions to one of my leads it would otherwise be difficult to communicate: judging a person by the friends they choose works well in fiction, as it does in life.

As requested, here’s a passage where John Silver is playing a central role. The set up? Taken from The Corpse with the Crystal Skull, Cait and Bud, Jack and Sheila White, and John Silver are “enjoying breakfast”, when John’s questionably youthful plus-one, Lottie, has openly “accused” John, Bud, and Jack of visiting Jamaica to carry out some sort of secret operation…including investigating the death of the man who owned the resort where they are staying – Freddie Burkinshaw.

Sheila and I exchanged a glance as Lottie’s comments hung in the heavy air, then we looked at our respective husbands. They, in turn, were glaring at John, who’d puffed out his cheeks, snapped his napkin onto the table, and pushed away his plate.

He said, “Right-ho, this obviously needs to be addressed. Lottie dear, you don’t know anything about any operations that Bud, Jack, or I may, or may not, have been party to. Cait and Sheila are married to two wonderful men who’ve put in their years for Canadian law enforcement and have both now retired from that life. I, as you know, have a desk job. Yes, I work in Whitehall, and, yes, I have to travel within my role, on occasion. But I can guarantee you that – if I ever had been involved in that sort of undertaking – I would now be well past the age when I would be called upon to carry out any ‘secret squirrel’ work, as you so quaintly described it. I know that Rusty, Sir Roger Rustingham, is professionally involved with a particular branch of British security in a senior role, but he does have friends and acquaintances from other areas of his life too. I got to know him when we worked together on a couple of charity committees. Where I also met your father, I might add. It’s all totally innocent, and above board.”

“Well, that’s a pity,” replied Lottie with a wry smile, “because when I spoke to Daddy on the phone earlier today he said he’d known of Freddie Burkinshaw, and had always wondered if he’d been dispatched to Jamaica to ‘keep an eye on a few local chaps’. Apparently, Freddie arrived here just around the time independence was granted, and was pretty close with Ian Fleming – and we all know what sort of a war he had, and what he got up to after it, don’t we, children?” She rose, and swooshed her chiffon scarf around her firm, young throat. “I’m off for a shower now. It’s so dreadfully humid. The rain’s stopped at last, I see. Thank you for a delicious…egg thingy, Cait, Bud. See you in a bit, John. Maybe someone will be kind enough to let me know what sort of place we’re dining at tonight, when you’ve made the arrangements, so I can dress accordingly. Bye-ee.”

And she was gone. Leaving us all a bit flummoxed, and – in my case anyway – fixated on the fact that I’d just heard several potential reasons why someone might want Freddie Burkinshaw dead. It seemed he might not have been the innocent octogenarian without an enemy in the world we’d all thought him to be, after all.

BSP: find out all about John Silver - and Cait and Bud - here: http://www.cathyace.com/

Monday, May 23, 2022

A Man Walks into a Bar...

 Q: How much air time do you give to secondary characters? Have any threatened to take over a book? Choose one of yours that you particularly enjoy and share them with us, including a snippet of text that gives us their flavor.


-from Susan


Oh, boy, have they! A spunky teenage girl in the first French village mystery, LOVE & DEATH IN BURGUNDY, with whom I fell in love and ended up following around delightedly. She became, in a way, the warm heart of the story, the focus of way too much attention from some other characters, and key to the riddle of the mysterious death. By the (fictional) time of the second book, she had, alas, morphed into more of a typical, albeit French, teenager, so had a presence but not the same role.


But the best book-crasher I ever met was a character in all three Dani O’Rourke mysteries who wasn’t even supposed to be there at all. Richard Argetter III, Dickie to all and sundry, was a part of Dani’s off-the-page backstory, her ex-husband. I promise you when I wrote these words on page 8 of MURDER IN THE ABSTRACT, the first book in the series, I had no idea how they got there: 


    “Hello, cupcake. Fancy meeting you here.”

     Damn and double damn. Dickie Argetter III, my ex, charming, millionaire about town, unfaithful husband, source of many of my insecurities, the burr under my saddle. 

    “What are you doing here?” I blurted as I spun around.


That last could have been me, and maybe I did mumble it aloud. Where did Dickie come from in my imagination? How did I know he had $450 million dollars inherited from his father, a pied a terre in Paris, and more than one Porsche? I promise I didn’t know – much less marry and divorce – someone like him. The man literally wormed his way into the room Dani was entering after someone fell from a museum window during a gala event, declaring his intention of helping her, somehow. 


Through three books, Dickie tried to regain her love, and for three books Dani tried to shake him off. Dickie, it turned out – who knew? not the author! – that he was not such a bad guy, that he was truly repentant for running off with a Victoria’s Secret underwear model, and that he only wanted what was best for her. Dickie was perennially upbeat, perhaps to a fault.


I had to lay that series aside to begin the one a new publisher wanted, but I’ve always wondered if Dickie’s persistence overcame Dani’s resistance. Most of the books are still available one way or another on Amazon. They all had more than one publisher and exist in several formats in print, e-book and audio. Next year, I will re-publish the Dani series independently. I’m thinking I may have to go back and write a new mystery so I can open the door and see if Dickie walks through again. I miss him. 

                                 MURDER IN THE ABSTRACT
                                          THE KING'S JAR
                                 MIXED UP WITH MURDER


Friday, May 20, 2022

The Road Not Taken

By Abir 

Who sparked your younger self to love writing?


I grew up in a house full of books, in a family full of story tellers. Our shelves were stacked high with books – in English, but just as much in Bengali. As a kid I’d stare at the curious Bengali type-face, with its pointed, angular letters dangling precariously from the top of a line rather than sitting, self-satisfied above it like the letters of the Latin script.


Bengali is a culture rich in stories – everything from folk-tales and fairy tales to existentialism and Nobel prize winning poetry. As a young child, my mother would tell me the tales of Oodho and Boodho and recite the nonsense poems of Shukumar Ray, side by side with stories of Hansel and Gretel and English nursery rhymes.


As I grew older and began to read books and comics (mainly comics), that tradition of duality continued; the superhero stories of Batman and Superman melding seamlessly with the tales of fantastical Hindu gods like Hanuman the monkey god and mythological Indian heroes from the Ramayana. At the time I took them for granted – a universe of stories more diverse than Stan Lee or DC could ever come up with.


Stories are in my blood. They are the legacy bequeathed to me by my dual heritage.


As I reached my teenage years though, as I tried to figure out who I was, my reading changed. I shunned the Bengali influences and looked West. I read only English, and only books by white authors. It was a mistake, of course. I did it as a way of fitting in. At that point in my life, at that time in the eighties, it didn’t pay dividends to be an Indian kid in Scotland, and so I embraced the western side of my dual heritage; and in doing so, I lost out on so much. There is a richness, an alternative perspective, a joyous, fullness to Bengali and other Indian literature which I missed out on, and that hole in my experience still exists.


What took its place? The classics (the western ones that is) – Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, Hardy – at school; and thrillers – Forsyth, Ludlum, Archer – at home. I read 1984 in 1984, at the age of ten, and didn’t much understand it, but I’d try again, at the age of fifteen, and would fall in love with it. I’ve read it thirty or forty times since.


Then came the seminal moment. At sixteen, my mate Jamie gave me a copy of Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park. I’d never read anything like it, and in a sense all my writing so far has mirrored the themes of that book: politics; ethics; and above all good men, good people compromised, upholding a corrupt and evil system. That book sparked my love of crime fiction. It started me on the journey that led to Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler and William McIllvaney and Ian Rankin and Val McDermid...and to Bengali detective fiction - to Byomkesh and Feluda . It would lead, eventually, to my own writing – of the trials of British rule in India – a journey that would bring me full circle – to Bengal and the literature of my parents. The literature that I closed myself off from and which now, in turn, feels closed off to me. 


I try to make up for it by reading the translations of the Bengali classics - the books of Tagore and Bankim Chandra, of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay and Michael Madusadhan Dutta, but it’s not the same; and so instead I reach for the works of Rushdie and Jhumpa Lahiri and Arundhati Roy – sublime Indian writers, writing in English. It gives me an isight into what I’m missing, but only partially – like a glimpse through a quarter-open door.


I wish I could read the literature of my parents in the original Bengali, but I can’t. Not only is reading the script now beyond me, but the language – the formal Bengali in which they wrote – is too complex. I’ve tried listening to passages, but most of it passes over my head – a familiar language that I’ve allowed to become foreign. Every so often though, I’ll hear a phrase or a sentence, and, like the clouds parting to reveal sun and sky, I’ll make sense of it and savour the richness of language, of thought and writing so different from our western literature. And then the clouds will close again, leaving me to rue the road not taken.

A recent article on Rabindranath Tagore - the most famous literary son of Bengal:




Thursday, May 19, 2022

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants from James W. Ziskin

Who sparked your younger self to love writing?

(Disclaimer: Some of the following was published five years ago. I’ve added to it and updated it now.)

The answer to this week’s question is easy:

Reading (and by extension, my mother)

I began my journey to writing by reading my mother's childhood books. Picture books, poetry, adventure stories, and tales of far-off places. I remember the muddy brown-and-white lithograph bookplates, picturing a young girl in a wood and bearing the mysterious inscription "Ex libris Elizabeth W***." (Her last name is what my middle initial stands for. And that name—like Rumpelstiltskin’s—shall remain a secret.) Mom’s books spanned a remarkable breadth of variety and genres and sparked my love of reading.

One Christmas, when she was seven, her parents gave her a beautifully illustrated translation of the Decameron. When I was a young boy, the language seemed old and dusty to me, and I never paid any attention to the book until I was studying Italian literature in grad school. That's when I discovered just how ribald and downright filthy many of Boccaccio's stories are. If you don’t believe me, try Googling “Putting the devil back in hell” for one modest example. Clearly, my grandparents hadn't done their due diligence when selecting an appropriate book for their seven-year-old daughter. Years later—in January 2020, in fact—I used the Decameron as inspiration for my seventh Ellie Stone mystery, Turn to Stone. That book earned me a Barry and a Macavity award, as well as nominations for the Sue Grafton Memorial and Lefty Historical awards.

Long before I published my first novel, I studied languages (French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Hindi, with some Latin on the side). Over the years, my reading habits have changed, matured, and taken detours. And my journey has played an essential and formative role in my own writing. Here is a partial list of titles that plotted the road map I have followed:

My youngest days

Highlights Magazine. "Goofus and Gallant." I was Team Goofus
Alfred Noyes's “The Highwayman”
The King's Stilts. My favorite Seuss 
The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf 
Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton 
Beatrix Potter 
James Whitcomb Riley, “The Raggedy Man” 
Grimm’s Fairy Tales

At school 

7th grade: Great Expectations. It took two semesters for our class to finish it. 
8th grade: Ivanhoe and Ethan Frome. Inspired choices for easily bored teens. 
9th grade: As You Like It. They told us it was a comedy. Good thing, because we couldn’t tell.

Early Teens

Murder on the Orient Express, my first Agatha Christie. 
Archie comics. I could never choose between Betty and Veronica.

Mid teens

The Carpetbaggers. The cover. 
Flashman in the Great Game by George MacDonald Fraser. Again, the cover.

Late teens

Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim
Hamlet: Borrowed it from school. Never returned it, thus validating Polonius’s advice.
Williams: Sweet Bird of Youth, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire 
Orwell and Huxley. Perhaps now would be a good time to re-visit these two…

My twenties

Longfellow: Evangeline. My favorite epic poem. 
Twain: Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer 
Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea 
Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front, Arch of Triumph 
Steinbeck: Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men 
García Márquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera 
Roald Dahl

Grad school

Zola: The Rougon-Macquart series
Flaubert: Madame Bovary 
Stendhal: Le rouge et le noir
Svevo: La coscienza di Zeno


P. G. Wodehouse: All of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves 
Evelyn Waugh: Brideshead Revisited 
Graham Greene: All of it. Every last word.

Favorite book about nineteenth-century whaling: Moby-Dick

I suppose I could cite all the authors above as mentors. Their works inspired in me a love of reading. But the writers listed below showed me my calling and pointed the way.

Poe: “The Raven,” “The Tell-tale Heart,” “Murders in the Rue Morgue” 
Doyle: The Hound of the Baskervilles 
Wouk: Winds of War, The Cain Mutiny 
Forsyth: Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File
Sayers: Have His Carcase, anything else with Harriet Vane 
Christie: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder of the Orient Express, etc. 
Chandler: The Big Sleep 
Eco: The Name of the Rose 
Hammett: The Thin Man 
Cain: The Postman always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity 
Francis: Whip Hand 
Paretsky: Indemnity Only 
Grafton: my ABCs
Block: Eight Million Ways to Die, When the Sacred Ginmill Closes


Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Stoking the burner

Who sparked your younger self to love writing?

by Dietrich

It wasn’t a who, but a what. The love of writing came from the love of listening to stories at an early age. There were the bedtime fairy tales my mother read to me when I was a kid, a lot of Grimm’s tales in German. Later on, my kindergarten teacher, Miss Mitchell, read to the class at story time — stories that sparked my imagination before I could read on my own. Funny, I still remember a lot of those tales in vivid detail. 

Once I could read on my own, there were authors who stoked that love of books: Rudyard Kipling, James Fenimore Cooper, Roald Dahl, Dr. Suess, L. Frank Baum, Lewis Carol.

In my teens, I read my way through the Hardy Boys, trading those hardcovers with friends at school. Then came the classics written by Mark Twain, S.E. Hinton, William Golding, Herman Melville, Mary Shelley, Harper Lee, Jack London, George Orwell, JD. Salinger, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Edgar Allan Poe, and many more. 

I went through a western phase of Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour before I bumped into the crime novels of Elmore Leonard, Robert B. Parker, and George V. Higgins. These were some of the writers who inspired me to do more than just read. Still in my teens, I wrote a rough draft of a novel in longhand. Getting discouraged and distracted, I finally gave up on it, but in the back of my mind, I thought someday I was going to write a book like the crime novels I’d come to love.

I’ve never lost the love to read, and I still find inspiration in great novels. I just finished an ARC of Dana King’s latest crime novel, White Out, and it’s uplifting to read something so well-written by one of my writer pals. I also loved the new one by Don Winslow, City on Fire. Strip Tease by Carl Hiaasen had me laughing cover to cover. These novels are top notch and highly recommended.

Outside the crime genre, I recently read Dragon Teeth, a tale set in the Wild West by Michael Crichton; Hero Found is a true story by Bruce Henderson, about the only POW who ever escaped a prison camp in the Laotian Jungles during the Vietnam War.  The Willow Wren is the latest by fellow ECW writer Philipp Schott, a tale of his own father’s survival in Nazi Germany, another great read. Irish Thunder by Bob Halloran is a biography about the life and times of famed and troubled boxer, Mickey Ward. And I just finished Beloved by Toni Morrison, an epic tale of a woman born into slavery, living with a past she can’t seem to escape. These are the kind of books that keep sparking my imagination and continue to inspire me to keep on writing. 

Coming June 7th.