Friday, July 29, 2022

Saints or Sinners?

 Which side of the fence are you most comfortable writing from, the good, the bad, or the ugly? Do you consider one side or the other more marketable?

by Abir


Now this is a good question! It’s one that is making me think, and as you know, I’m not the sort of person who likes doing that.


My first four books in the Wyndham and Banerjee series are all written in the first person, from Captain Sam Wyndham’s point of view. Book five, The Shadows of Men, while again written in the first person, is told from both Sam and Suren Banerjee’s perspectives. These guys are ostensibly the heroes of my novels. I say ‘ostensibly’ because they sometimes make rather dubious moral calls, and at other times are rather useless. Having said that, their hearts are always in the right place.


The book I’m currently writing, a stand-alone thriller, is written in the third person, from three different points of view, but while at least one of them could be seen as the bad guy, again all three are good people.


Even in my short fiction, while a few are written from the perspective of the villain (my short stories all seem to focus on women trying to murder their husbands, I’m not sure why), these women aren’t evil. If anything they’re long suffering ladies who deserve better.


If I’m being honest, there's a dearth of truly evil characters in my books. My villains tend to be rather genteel. I’ve never written about serial killers or rapists or sex offenders or sadists. The deaths in my novels tend to be sanitised. They certainly aren’t gruesome - at least not by the standards of much of crime fiction - and while there is one occasion where a man is rather horrifically killed by an elephant, I only put it in because it was historically accurate (death by elephant was the penalty reserved for regicide in certain parts of princely India).


Getting back to the issue, I think I do have a problem writing really bad and really ugly. They say ‘write what you know’ and the truth of the matter is that I have never known ‘really bad’ or ‘really ugly’.  I suppose I could imagine it, but probably not as well as others, and part of me is rather scared of going down that route. There are passages in my current stand-alone which are darker than anything I’ve written to date, and my wife, when reading those passages, has commented that she’s worried about what goes through my head (I’m guessing this is a common refrain amongst the spouses of crime fiction authors), but it’s still something that worries me.


There’s also the fact that real evil – in the sense of psychopathy – or cruel violence, are not things that I particularly wish to write about. I like to think that my writing is fuelled by issues which anger me. I’m not into providing cheap thrills or violence for the sake of it. I’d much rather discuss other issues in my books; but that’s just me. I feel other writers, with different backgrounds and different insights, are much better positioned to tackle such things.


Looking at it on a more general level, I think you can write from any perspective you choose to, but if you want to take a large number of readers with you on a 400 page journey, then even if you’re writing from an ‘evil’ character’s perspective, that character needs to have traits that your audience can relate to. Similarly, a good character who’s too good is a turn off. We root for flawed characters, characters with weaknesses, because most of us (not me, obviously) are flawed. The keys to characterisation, I think, are relatability and depth. If you have these then I think your readers are more than willing to follow the exploits of an evil character.


I’m currently reading a book where one of the narratives is told from the point of view of a psychopathic serial killer. It’s the only narrative which is told in the first person, and it works because we get a view inside the killer’s head. We learn about his fears and what drives him. This is really important because when we learn what a person is thinking, even when they’re a serial killer, we can, to a degree, understand them and empathise. That book is The Accomplice, by Steve Cavanagh, and it’s a brilliant thriller, partly because of Steve’s ability to portray both the flawed heroes and the darkest villains in a way that readers can understand.


So, long story, short. While I’m most comfortable writing about the good guys, some of the most interesting characters, and some of the best books, focus on the bad guys. The important thing is to make your characters truly three dimensional and, on some level, relatable. And to paraphrase that great American philosopher, Billy Joel, we can both laugh with the sinners and cry with the saints - as long as they entertain us.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Superman or Batman? from James W. Ziskin

Which side of the fence are you most comfortable writing from, the good, the bad, or the ugly? Do you consider one side or the other more marketable?

My Long Fiction

In my books, I’ve always written from the side of good. Ellie Stone is a good person, even if she smokes and drinks too much and occasionally falls into bed with the wrong guy. Despite her flaws, she remains a deeply moral person with a strong sense of right and wrong. She’s mentally tough, but I wouldn’t put my money on her in any contest involving feats of strength. Although she did hold her own—mano a mano—against a man in A Stone’s Throw. To be perfectly accurate, I should say that it was not so much mano a mano as it was botella a nariz, as Ellie clipped her aggressor across the nose with a half-full (-empty?) bottle of Dewar’s Scotch Whisky, her favorite.

While Ellie is good, her antagonists are bad. I try, however, to flesh out those characters by giving them dark histories and motivations that aren’t always of their own doing. It’s essential to avoid flat characterization when it comes to villains. Sure, they’re bad, but they should have a reason to do bad things. There are certainly sadistic killers out there who murder simply because they enjoy murdering but, ultimately, I think that such a motivation is uninteresting in fiction. I find it more intriguing if the killer kills for reasons other than sport.

What inspires my bad guys ranges from delusional obsessions to uncontrollable antisocial urges to covering up a crime to revenge to righteous punishment. You’ll have to read my Ellie Stone books to figure out whose motivation belongs to whom.

My Short Fiction

Thinking about this week’s question, I realized for the first time that in my short stories I write from the side of bad. At least when I write in first person. My third person stories—two of them—were both written from a neutral stance, and justice prevailed. In “Pan Paniscus,” for example, how was I supposed to make a villain of a Bonobo who’s escaped from the zoo? Even if his mischief sets in motion a chain of events that ends in tragedy?

On the other hand… Not counting a Holmes and Watson pastiche I wrote, when I use first person in my short stories, quite the opposite is true. My narrators are villains. Not that they’re completely evil or without charm, but they certainly don’t wear white hats. One of them planted his foot into the backside of his cheating wife and sent her rocketing through the railing of their apartment’s balcony to her doom ten stories below. And he made sure her lover took the blame. In another story, my narrator pins the blame on an innocent man so that he—my narrator—can steal his—the innocent man’s—beautiful lover. And all this takes place against the backdrop of a New Year’s Eve wife-swapping party in 1954.

Perhaps there’s something about the short form that inspires me to root for cuckolded husbands and debauched roués. These are darkly humorous stories, of course, that end with an ambiguous sense of justice. I doubt I would let a bad guy win in a novel. For me, a book is serious stuff, I guess. But short stories give me more leeway for experimentation and humor. Of course they can be serious, but, for a reason I can’t explain, I enjoy a little wickedness.

Which Is More Marketable?

Clearly good and bad both work. There are so many wildly successful books featuring villains and anti-heroes, from The Silence of the Lambs to Lolita to The Talented Mr. Ripley. Too many to name. And the same is true of books with good characters, even if they’re flawed and far from perfect. 

One thing’s for sure, at least in my mind. Perfect heroes are boring. The good ones still must have their sins. I remember a question a beloved professor of mine once asked: “Who is the more interesting character, Melanie Hamilton Wilkes or Scarlett O’Hara?” Score one for the bad guys.

Okay, I didn’t talk about Superman and Batman. But you get the idea. Argue amongst yourselves.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Whose side am I on?

Which side of the fence are you most comfortable writing from, the good, the bad, or the ugly? Do you consider one side or the other more marketable?

by Dietrich 

I feel at home writing from either side of the fence. I never feel the need to agree or disagree with the way my characters think or behave. It’s simply about picking the viewpoint that will best suit a given scene, chapter, or entire novel.

No matter whether it’s the good or the bad doing the telling, I love watching the characters spring to life, getting to know them to the point where I can just let them loose on the page. When I feel like I’m just typing their own words, without getting in their way with my own thoughts or feelings, then I know I’ve got it right. 

I’ve been asked if there are aspects of me in my characters, and I suppose there can be at times, maybe more than I realize. My aim is to let these make-believe individuals evolve and make choices that are their own, particularly the ones that I would never consider myself.

I write a lot of dialogue in my stories, and I like to think it lets the reader look past the surface of the characters. It’s interesting how their words can reveal so much more about who they are than what the words alone are saying. And dialogue’s a great way to slip in some discrete backstory without having to slow the pace by investing pages of narrative to achieve the same end. 

I’ve told stories in third person, and I’ve tried first person. In my latest, Nobody from Somewhere, I tell the story from various points of view. The idea behind doing it this way was to give the reader a deeper insight into the various personas and a broader understanding of what drove each of them. Amor Towles’ The Lincoln Highway and The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood come to mind as fine examples of stories told from multiple points of view.

I also love taking the POV of the unreliable narrator (Poughkeepsie Shuffle), a technique that allows a writer to tell a story through the eyes of a madman, liar, lunatic, or whoever. It’s such a great way to experiment with voice too. Some all-time favorites of stories told in this fashion: Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk; Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger; A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess; Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Do you consider one side or the other more marketable? If I planned a novel based on what I think will sell, I would probably miss the mark by a mile. I want to feel inspired when I get the spark for a story, one that will grow and shape into the kind of novel that I would want to read myself. I go instinct, and when I’m satisfied with what I’ve created, I send it off, and if that book does well on the store shelves, then that’s fulfilling too, as well as reassuring that I’m on the right track. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Mayhem, Malice, or Sweetness


Terry here. Our topic this week is about our essential writing intention: whether we write from the good, the bad, or the ugly. And whether we consider one more marketable that another. 

I love to read a well-written book full of mayhem and nasty characters. Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog is a case in point. It's one of my all-time favorite crime novels. It held my interest from the first page to the end hundreds of pages later. Some of the characters were mobsters, members of the mafia, and prostitutes. Those were the good guys!  You know you’re reading “ugly” when members of the mafia are easier to root for than most other characters in the book. And I’m sure the book was a wild commercial success. 

Does that mean “ugly” books are more marketable? Not necessarily. There’s a market for every mood. Lori Rader-day has had huge success with her psychological thrillers. Yes, there are bad guys, but not truly ugly. I gravitate towards reading those books more than the sweetness and light ones. But then you get to Cartriona McPherson's delightful Dandy Gilver series. Books like those work for me  because they have a solid sense of humor. 

One thing not asked in the question was the marketability of humor. Humor is very hard to do well. But I think most successful books have moments of humor. Even the ones with really ugly characters usually have humor--sardonic, cynical, but funny in their place.


But that’s reading. Writing is different. I can write sneaky meanness, and psychological mayhem, but ugly, not so much. I write about an older chief of police in a small town who has a sense of justice and integrity, and feels a keen responsibility for the well-being of the town of Jarrett Creek, Texas. I have written some tough scenes, some hard scenes with “bad” characters, but they’re usually bad because of circumstances, not because of inherent evil. 

 The closest I got to ugly was in book #7, A Reckoning in the Back Country, which involved the heinous “sport” of dog fighting. I knew my readers wouldn’t be any more keen than I was to get into the details of dog fighting, but if I’m going to write about small-town, rural Texas, I have to include the less savory elements. To be true to the reality of dog-fighting, I had to get grittier than I normally do. One of my beta readers chided me because in an early draft I’d shied away from graphic details. She said, “You can’t write about dog fighting and not show a dog fight.” Period. I solved it in a way that I thought worked really well—I had Samuel remember in his childhood when his less-than-stellar father had taken him to a dogfight. The scene is blurred through the vision of childhood, but is still an ugly scene. My readers let me know that I skirted the edge, but didn’t go too far. 

I also used another trick to soften the ugly. I gave Samuel Craddock a puppy. Dusty is now his faithful dog—well, mostly faithful. His favorite person is deputy Maria Trevino. 
So at bottom, I suppose you could say I write from the “good,” but there’s a problem with that. Often, about halfway through writing a manuscript I realize I’ve made every character too “nice.” They’re friendly, happy, cheery, nice to each other. I always have to go back and give them a dose of reality. It simply isn’t realistic for everybody but the “baddie” to be oh-so-sweet. Even nice people can sometimes be cranky, sneaky, secretive, miserly, gossipy…etc. What I hope to accomplish is to give people a read that includes realistic attitudes, problems, and solutions. Sometimes reality is ugly; but sometimes it’s also good. 

 To answer the question, I write a mixture of the good, the bad, and the occasional ugly. With humor thrown in. 

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Playing Favourites

Which side of the fence are you most comfortable writing from, the good, the bad, or the ugly? Do you consider one side or the other more marketable?

Brenda starting off the week.

What a good question. This reminds me of actors saying that while they like playing 'good' characters, they love acting as the downright evil ones.

I'm comfortable writing whatever character I'm working on because I don't see them as all good or all bad. Even the bad ones have moments of regret or humanity, and the good ones can make errors in judgment or let others down -- "Nobody's perfect," as I used to tell my students when I taught special education. (I had them add, "except Ms. Chapman, but that's a story for another day :-) Fictional characters included.

The trick, I think, is getting into the head of whatever character has the stage, and more often than not, they start to reveal themselves on the page. I like the good characters, flaws and all, but am also intrigued by the nasty and ugly ones. I've created a few narcissists (some verging on psychopathic) and it's fun to give them some rope to see how far they'll go in the story.

As to which is more marketable, every book or story needs conflict and this starts with the characters. Readers need to root for those good ones and they can only be 'good' if there are bad characters to cause them grief or to tempt them to the dark side. I read once that the heroes needs opponents equal to themselves - a worthy adversary like Batman facing the Joker. Overcoming the evil is then worth something.

There are movies and stories where a truly evil or flawed person is the main character and the plot revolves around them. I'm thinking of The Talented Mr. Ripley or even Gone With the Wind, where Scarlett really isn't the nicest of people. Both were highly marketable and these are only a couple of examples. I'm not sure that readers or moviegoers would want a steady diet of evil anti-heroes though. Most appear to want a happy or satisfying ending, such as in those Christmas Hallmark movies.

I kind of like writing happy endings ... although not always for every character. Just don't kill the dog, as my friend Darlene likes to say. On this point, we both agree.


Twitter: brendaAchapman

Facebook & Instagram: BrendaChapmanAuthor

Friday, July 22, 2022

Genre? We Don't Need No Stinking Genre, by Josh Stallings

Q: Okay, we write about crime, but if you had to dip a toe into another genre, which would you add to the mix, and why?

A: This is a wonderful question in that it runs my mind down multiple tracks of thought. I call myself a crime writer, and yet I’m not sure I believe in genre except as a way to organize bookstore shelves. 

Gary Phillips One-Shot Harry is clearly a crime book, and it is equally a historical novel about race, civil rights, politics and the police in 1963 Los Angeles. It is also a fine and wonderful novel. 

Naomi Hirahara’s Clark and Division is crime fiction, and it is a historical novel depicting Japanese Americans who, when released from mass incarceration were sent to live in Chicago. It can be read and enjoyed as a mystery, but the facts and history lessons buried in it are unavoidable. And this is where genre lets us down, no good book is just one thing, or even two for that matter. 

Is Steinbeck’s reworking of Arthurian legends in Tortilla Flat a crime novel? Danny and his mates commit crimes, they are in and out of jail. The story without the writer’s voice could be noir. Crime novel or character study or…?


Is To Kill A Mocking Bird a crime novel, legal thriller, or a coming of age novel? It has elements of all of these, as does any great book regardless of the genre we place it in.


Inside crime writing we have Traditional, Hard Boiled, Noir, Cozy, Detective, Police Procedural, Spy, Heist, etc…. That’s before we get to thrillers and all its hyphenates. (I’m sure I’ve left many out.) 

I think of crime fiction like the blues. John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, BB King, and Mississippi John Hurt all work within the same 12 bars, 3 chords, 6 notes constraint. And yet they each express their own voice inside it. Chicago Blues and Delta Blues have less in common than Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler yet they are in the same section of iTunes. And even with the simplicity of the blues, these artists spent their lives exploring those 12 bars. 

So far everything I’ve written fits into crime fiction, but I have danced in multiple sub-genres. The Moses McGuire trilogy was spot on hard boiled. Then I wrote a memoir. Then a disco heist novel. 

With Tricky I wanted to write about a good cop like my grand father had been. I also needed to speak to how intellectually disabled people are treated by the police. Katrina Niidas Holm at Mystery Scene Magazine wrote, “Stallings manages to entertain while advocating for criminal justice reform and calling out unexamined societal biases.” Which sounds like a social justice crime novel, yet it is categorized as a police procedural.

I start every new book with a wisp of an idea so ephemeral that anything as solid as genre would blow it away. This is totally true, until it isn’t. Coming off the Moses books I was beat. Looking for a new idea I thought about writing a story harkening back to my misspent youth as a glitter kid in the ‘70s. The words, “Disco Heist” came to me. Hadn’t a clue what it meant except that heist was a sub genre. Excluding Young Americans, I wait until the book is done and with the help of my agent and editor we discover a marketing approach, part of that will be discovering the best genre to place it in. 

And there it is, I just stumbled onto why I don’t think of genre when working; trying to decide how to sell a car before you even know if will have wheels or wings, or could be a boat, doesn’t help me as a writer. (Side note, genre also doesn’t help me as a reader.)

Back to the question, are their other genres I might try out? Sure. I am enamored with Emily St. John Mandel’s work. I would love to write a post-apocalyptic tale like her Station Eleven. The way she drifts through time and place with a powerful emotional through line is stunning. I’ve also had a western kicking around my head for a while… We’ll have to see if either of these climb their way to the top of my to-be-written pile.

My current work in progress may not have any crime in it. I pitched my agent a rough outline. Added, “Bad news, it may not be crime fiction.” She told me it didn’t matter, just pour my heart into it. And that’s what I’ll do. Pour my heart on the page and let marketing figure out this genre deal.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Three's the Charm, by Catriona

Craft: Okay, we write about crime, but if you had to dip a toe into another genre, which would you add to the mix, and why?

Hmmmmm. Well, it wouldn't be poetry. I love poetry - read it, learn it, recite it (when alone - don't worry), buy slim volumes by my favourite poets. But it doesn't come out of me. I am prosaic to the marrow. Recommendation: Kathleen Jamie, whose poem about Ospreys arriving in Scotland, or rather in Scottish weather, begins "You’ll be wondering why you bothered: beating up from Senegal" and brings me to tears every time I look at it.

But wait. Is poetry a genre? Google says crime, romance, science fiction, fantasy, westerns and horror. Okay. It wouldn't be romance. I'm getting better at reading romance - after neglecting the genre for many years - but it always feels like a ride on a waltzer (tilt-a-whirl?) because I don't quite get the structure. And, since I'm such a pantser, I don't think I ever would. Recommendation: Alyssa Cole (with her other hat on) / Jenny Colgan.

Nor would I attempt science fiction or fantasy. I know I'd end up bombastic and embarrassing if I didn't have bus lanes, doughnuts, and wet washing to keep my stories grounded in the oh-so glamorous real world. Recommendation: NK Jemisin (if you liked Lovecraft).

Westerns . . . I don't think I could write an authentic western. And this is definitely the genre I need to work on reading too. I don't think I've ever read a single one, unless Little House on the Prairie counts.

I've been accused of writing horror even though I don't think any of my books qualify. And I've been congratulated in an email on the success of The Last House on Needless Street, by Catriona Ward. (I wish! And I recommend!)

That's all the actual genres, according to Prof. Google. But what about the other kinds of book?

Like YA, MG, chapter books and early readers. Nah, you have to know far too much about how to pitch the language to an age group. I'd have to study. I mean, okay, the studying would be reading books but I don't feel at all confident that I'd ever crack the code. Recommendation: Angie Thomas, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Roald Dahl, and the spectacular . . . Baby Monkey, Private Eye. (He's a baby. he's a monkey. He has a job. He's . . . )

Literary fiction? Or women's fiction? (Literary fiction written by the likes of me - Grrrrrrr.) I've tried to write a book that wasn't in any particular genre. Someone dies at the end of chapter two and we found out whodunnit on the last page. So that was a bit of a failure. Recommendation: Anne Tyler

Then there's non-fiction. Ooft. One of the best things about giving up academia was giving up facts. I suppose I could write a memoir, but it's all in the novels anyway. Biographies of other people? Who? I don't know anyone. Travelogue? I never go anywhere. Self-help manual? Bwah-hahahahahahahahahahaha. I could maybe write a cookery book, but the world doesn't need another cookery book. Recommendation: UK national treasure, Clare Balding's, My Animals and Other Family.

But thinking about books full of beautiful artwork I wouldn't have to produce, I have written the text for three picture books - The Plucky Buckets, Call Me Annie, and That Ginger Cat - but none of them was published. It's a tough corner of the industry, or at least I'm telling myself it is . . .

Aha! That reminds me. I've also written two sitcom pilots. One of them went into development and never came out again. So I sent the second one in after it, and now they're both lost forever. Nevertheless, if I had to write something that wasn't a crime novel I'd honour the rule of three and make it a hat trick, with a third failed pilot for a sitcom. Recommendation: Detectorists, Derry Girls, Black Books


Note: I'm still in Scotland and most of my books are in California, hence the Amazon jacket pics.

Staying in my lane... by Cathy Ace

Craft: Okay, we write about crime, but if you had to dip a toe into another genre, which would you add to the mix, and why?

Tough question, because I’ve only ever wanted to write crime fiction. That said, I have written nine books that are not fiction…but I dare say that textbooks for managers about marketing, brand building, and promotional planning for e-business are not top of your list of books to read!

Some of the textbooks I have written

So, because I know I really don’t want to write anything but crime fiction, allow me to give you some reasons why I don’t think it’s necessary – for me – to write something other than crime fiction, but to still have the chance to write significantly different types of books…because that’s what authors I know who genre-hop tell me they’re doing – giving themselves the chance to write different types of books, as in “a change is as good as a rest”.

First of all, I write three very different types of books, which – and, again, I can only speak from my personal experience – allow me to work in different ways, with different outcomes, and appeal to different readers…or the same readers who enjoy reading different types of books.

The books I have written most of are the Cait Morgan Mysteries: these are traditional, puzzle-plot mysteries, written in the first person, always set in a different location – with Cait Morgan and Bud Anderson being the only two characters who are in each book. They follow the “Golden Age” shape of book, with a few twists: a murder upfront; a not-so-amateur sleuth with a retired cop who works for secret service agencies allowing access to “insider” information (on occasion, though not always); lots of clues and red herrings dotted about in the “fair play” manner; a crescendo to a final denouement where the perpetrator/s are unmasked and justice (sometimes legal, sometimes natural) is allowed to restore the balance of life. There’s no gratuitous blood/gore on the page, no sex on the page, no foul language.

Because these books feature a professor of criminal psychology, and characters who tread/have trod some pretty dark paths, the WHY is critical to the solutions…and I plot, plot, plot these books ensuring that every action (past and present) by every character is deeply rooted in their unique psychological profile, so I plot in the timeline of the book, from beginning to end, and only then do I start to write the book. These are very “ordered” books, in terms of writing them, and I have the fun of traveling again to places where I have lived or worked, as I write, AND I bring in a different filmic/literary influence for themes/motifs in each book too, which is fun to do, and readers always seem to find that aspect very satisfying if/when they notice it (I always try to let that aspect be the sprinkles on the topping, rather than being either a driving force or laying it on so thickly that it becomes a “thing”). So I find writing these books to be absorbing, satisfying, and giving my mind lots of opportunities to roam.

The WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries are much cozier – they are quintessentially British, stately home/village mysteries, with four female private investigators who run their business out of a converted barn on a large ducal estate in the rolling Welsh countryside. Writing these books allows me to write in a very different way: there is always more than one mystery in these books (different cases upon which the private investigators are working) so, while I plot the overall arc of the book to start with (usually the title of the book relates to the main case) I also plot the different cases as separate entities, then weave them all together, ensuring the overall time-frame works.

NEW BOOK COMING!!! amazon link

These are much more “procedural” books, too – yes, there are some puzzle plots thrown in, but private investigators work in a different way than a sleuth does, so I enjoy that difference, too. Of course, the challenge when writing books set in a recurring location, with many characters recurring, is to allow all those characters to develop somewhat with each book, but to also allow a couple of the characters to shine in their own way in each book…in the way that daily/weekly daytime/early evening dramas do on television. That’s a different discipline for a writer, but the treat is to return to people and places that are like old friends, with a constantly evolving backstory for players, as well as numerous plots driving the character development forward. It’s fun to do – and quite different to writing the Cait Morgan Mysteries. 

Then there’s the challenge of writing a standalone rather than a series – this is also fun, because the stakes for the main characters are higher: if it’s not a series, not everyone needs to survive, so there’s a chance to increase the danger level for even central characters. And writing a tale of psychological suspense is such a different process than writing mysteries and whodunnits…no need for as many clues or red herrings, though misdirection is the name of the game, and writing about an atmosphere rather than substantive occurrences is quite a challenge.

So, no, I don’t feel the need to write books that aren’t crime fiction, because I manage to meet all my needs as a writer by writing different types of crime fiction. Now, if I had more hours in the day, or months in the year, I might play with writing something else, but, as a full time author, I reckon I am using as much of my life writing as I can /is healthy, so I’ll settle with what I enjoy, thank you very much! If you'd like to catch up with any of my books, you can find out all about them at my website:


Monday, July 18, 2022

Space. The Funtastic Frontier.

Okay, we write about crime, but if you had to dip a toe into another genre, which would you add to the mix, and why?

        Make no mistake about it: Crime fiction has been very good to me, both reading and writing.

        Reading such crime fiction luminaries as Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Rex Stout, Sujata Massey, Ed Lin, Ace Atkins, Rachel Howzell Hall, Ian Rankin and the criminally talented contributors to this
blog has been both highly entertaining and extraordinarily educational. And having met a few of these luminaries, I can attest to their generosity, humility and all-around good nature.

    As to my own writing, I can’t think of living a more charmed life; I get to write stories of my own choosing and work with an absolutely brilliant editor at Soho Press, a classy Midtown Manhattan operation with just enough people to get the perfect job done. These folks have proven since Day-One that their solitary and unwavering mission is to partner with writers in the pursuit of their literary success (Thanks, Bronwen!) I love the crime fiction genre and the crime fiction community, many of whom share my affinity for super-casual—if not severely wrinkled--clothing, insanely giggling at stupid jokes and a preference for beer, whisky and a mound of "fully-loaded" fries over champagne, Baluga Sturgeon caviar and lobster canapés. (Not that any of us would turn down a glass or two of bubbly or wolfing down our fill of fish eggs and crustacean snickity-snacks—it’s just that whisky, beer and wacked-out fries are more familiar to us and more easily assessable through Door Dash.)

        Admittedly, I haven’t always been about the reading or writing of crime fiction.

        Part of me—the long-ago kid in me—still has his head floating Zero-G through the star fields of a clear midnight sky.

        I have since my early reading days been a rabid fan of science-fiction. My galactic tour guides were Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg and Donald A. Wollheim, Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula K. Le Guin, Arthur C. Clarke and the inestimable Octavia A. Butler. My eyes were glued to our Magnavox TV screen whenever the original Lost in Space, Twilight Zone, Star Trek and Outer Limits were on. And these days, I choose to wait several days after my birthday so I can pull out all the celebration stops for May 4, i.e., “May the 4th be with you!”

        So naturally, I would love to try my hand at writing science-fiction.

        Not unlike crime fiction, science-fiction is often a reflection of who we are as a human species.            

        The wonder of sci-fi is often the speculation and extrapolation of where we might be as a human species in a day, a decade, a century or millennia. Yes, our technology will change—but will human nature evolve and how will it evolve, if at all? Science-fiction is, more than not, a cautionary tale of how collectively humans impact the future and how an unpredictably future will impact an unprepared human species. I would think the only constriction to writing a tremendous science-fiction story is the limits of one’s own imagination . . .

        . . . then again . . .

        . . . there’s always Godzilla kicking the radioactive poop-cicles out of Mechagodzilla, or a monster chasing Sigourney Weaver in a thong around a spaceship.


        Sometimes sci-fi is just Bennie Hill in helmets, shiny suits and thongs.

        So, what the hell do I know?

- Stephen Mack Jones

Toe-dipping into new genres

 Q: Okay, we write about crime, but if you had to dip a toe into another genre, which would you add to the mix, and why?


-from Susan


Right now, I’m toe-dipping into what’s called “women’s fiction,” a term that makes me wince, but is quite popular. In my mind at least it means stories that center on women and how they interact with the world in ways that are different than men. Of course, this means huge generalizations unless authors work hard to avoid clichés and myths. I’m actually playing with those clichés. Crime can be involved. Romance can be involved. Female friendships and alliances are almost always part of the story. 


I’m doing this because I love opera, in this case, “Don Giovanni,” by Mozart. More I won’t say, in part to avoid added disappointment if my project bombs. I’m hard at it right now, trying to work my way into the genre’s sensibilities, a stretch for someone who loves to write murder mysteries. 


I’ve always wanted to write a Carl Hiassen-like crime satire and maybe I’ll try that too, although unless you are Carl Hiassen, it’s probably hard to sell. And I love capers and have one half-written manuscript that keeps getting set aside when the demands of a real contract capture my attention. 


Like every one of my Minds colleagues, I just want to write, to keep making things up that give me pleasure. Straying from one genre into another is part of the challenge that attracts me and keeps me at my desk when I should be getting exercise.


NOTE: I’ll be on the faculty at Book Passage’s highly regarded Mystery Writers Conference again this year. First weekend in August. I’m an alum of the MWC myself, and this year, a former participant I spent time with in 2019, D.M. Rowell, is having her first crime fiction novel published, and I’m thrilled for her! It comes out in November, and based on our lengthy conversations at MWC, I am sure it’s going to be outstanding. 



Friday, July 15, 2022

The Future's Historical

by Abir

What are the best books you’ve read lately? What’s on the stack that you’re looking forward to?



Summer is now well and truly upon us, and that means the return of festival season. One of the best things about life getting back to normal post covid is the return of physical crime fiction festivals. It’s been six years since my first novel was published and in that time, these festivals have become a cherished part of my annual calendar. In the first few years, I was invited mainly as a panellist, but more recently I’ve been invited as a panel chair. That means reading the works of the panellists so that I can ask meaningful questions.


This summer I’m chairing several panels, mainly on historical crime fiction, and so I’ve been reading quite a few books in that sub-genre. Here are some of them:


The Silver Collar by Antonia Hodgson

The blurb:

Autumn, 1728.
Life is good for Thomas Hawkins and Kitty Sparks in their home above the Cocked Pistol, Kitty's wickedly disreputable bookshop. But when Tom is attacked by a street gang, he discovers there's a price on his head.
Who wants him dead - and why?
For Tom and Kitty, the answer is only the beginning of the nightmare.


My thoughts:

Antonia is one of the finest historical fiction writers in the UK, and The Silver Collar is a fitting next instalment in the wonderful Tom Hawkins series set mainly in the England of the  early 1700s.


For me, the most powerful portion of this book is set in the Bahamas and follows the life and escape of a slave from a sugar plantation. Too often, we think of slavery as an American issue, whereas whilst abolished far earlier, the British too benefited from the inhumanities of slavery. 


This is a wonderful book and a must read for those interested in the period.


The Darkest Sin by D V Bishop

Florence. Spring, 1537.

The blurb:

When Cesare Aldo investigates a report of intruders at a convent in the Renaissance city’s northern quarter, he enters a community divided by bitter rivalries and harbouring dark secrets.

His case becomes far more complicated when a man’s body is found deep inside the convent, stabbed more than two dozen times. Unthinkable as it seems, all the evidence suggests one of the nuns must be the killer.

Meanwhile, Constable Carlo Strocchi finds human remains pulled from the Arno that belong to an officer of the law missing since winter. The dead man had many enemies, but who would dare kill an official of the city’s most feared criminal court?

As Aldo and Strocchi close in on the truth, identifying the killers will prove more treacherous than either of them could ever have imagined . . .

My thoughts:

The Darkest Sin is the second in the Cesare Aldo series by New Zealand born author (relocated to Scotland) D V Bishop.


Set in the Renaissance world of Florence, it follows Aldo, an officer of the courts as he aims to solve a murder in a nunnery. At the same time, one of Aldo’s peers is found murdered. Has his death got anything to do with a secret that Aldo keeps?


A great insight into Renaissance Florence. What I love about these books is the seemless weaving of factual history with a great story.


The Black Drop by Leonora Nattrass


The Blurb:

July 1794, and the streets of London are filled with rumours of revolution. Laurence Jago - clerk to the Foreign Office - is ever more reliant on the Black Drop to ease his nightmares. A highly sensitive letter has been leaked to the press, and Laurence is a suspect. Then, he discovers the body of a fellow clerk, supposedly a suicide. Blame for the leak is shifted to the dead man, but Laurence is certain both of his friend's innocence and that he was murdered. But at a time when even the slightest hint of treason can lead to the gallows, how can Laurence find the true culprit without incriminating himself?


My thoughts:

Back to the 1700s, but the tail end of the century this time, and we’re in Downing Street and Whitehall, following the adventures of Laurence Jago, a foreign office clerk, investigating the suspicious death of a fellow clerk during tense negotiations between Britain and the nascent United States to try and avoid war.


A fascinating time and a real insight into the workings of the proto-modern British state.


The Clockwork Girl by Anna Mazzola

In the midst of an icy winter, as birds fall frozen from the sky, chambermaid Madeleine Chastel arrives at the home of the city's celebrated clockmaker and his clever, unworldly daughter.
Madeleine is hiding a dark past, and a dangerous purpose: to discover the truth of the clockmaker's experiments and record his every move, in exchange for her own chance of freedom.
For as children quietly vanish from the Parisian streets, rumours are swirling that the clockmaker's intricate mechanical creations, bejewelled birds and silver spiders, are more than they seem.
And soon Madeleine fears that she has stumbled upon an even greater conspiracy. One which might reach to the very heart of Versailles...
A intoxicating story of obsession, illusion and the price of freedom.



What I say:


For a book to impress me these days requires a combination of fantastic plot, interesting subject matter and beautiful prose. I have to admit, I didn’t expect to like this book. Gothic Fiction set in 18th century France isn’t generally my cup of tea, but Mazzola’s writing, her wry humour and the intricacies of history and plot just came together and kept me reading in a way few books have. The last book I can remember which similarly impressed me was An Equal Music by Vikram Seth, a book set in the world of orchestral music and musicians, which has become one of my favourite books of all time. A Clockwork Girl might end up in that list too.


Thursday, July 14, 2022

Don’t Bother Me I’m Reading from James W. Ziskin

What are the best books you’ve read lately? What’s on the stack that you’re looking forward to?

This is a great topic. It gives us all a chance to crow about someone else’s work. In no particular order, here are some books I’ve read recently. I only wish I could read more. But now I’m trying to write a new book myself, so I might have to scale back for a couple of months. I enjoyed all these books. If my comments pique your interest, you should give them a try.

The Corpse with the Granite Heart, Cathy Ace

Yet another gem from our own Cathy Ace. Featuring incomparable criminal psychologist, Cait Morgan, her eidetic memory, and her solid-as-a-rock husband, Bud Anderson, The Corpse with the Granite Heart recalls the best of Golden Age country house mysteries. Its sharp characterizations—one of Ace’s many strengths—as well as the clever, intricate plot, pave the way to a most satisfying conclusion. The artistic and gastronomical treats, the touristic jags, Shakespeare, and Cait’s brilliant powers of deduction all conspire to make this the best yet in this ever-so-smart series.

Serpent’s Doom,
Connie Di Marco

Intriguing and riveting, Connie di Marco’s latest Zodiac mystery, Serpent’s Doom, is a new year’s firecracker of an adventure. Told with heart and conscience, Serpent’s Doom features a superb cast and setting, with a plot right out of the headlines. The best yet in this highly original series.

The Girl They All Forgot, 
Martin Edwards

The Girl They All Forgot, Martin Edwards’s eighth Lake District Mystery, seethes with a foreboding of violence, even as it looks back at a long-buried cold case of murder. The Crooked Shore, accursed scene of the crime, looms ever-present with malicious intent. Magnificently creepy estate agents, stop-at-nothing gigolos, and lustful widows with bags of cash make this a tense and irresistibly gripping read. It will suck you in like the Crooked Shore’s murderous quicksand. No use struggling against it. You’ll lose. Brilliant.

Unpublished Title, Susan C. Shea

I read an early draft of our own Susan C. Shea’s work in progress. I loved it. A great tale of love and revenge. Not sure if she wants me to share the title or any more details. I’ll let her decide and post in the comments below if she wants to. At any rate, this is a book with a lot of potential. I hope she finishes her revisions soon and gets it out on submission.

A Blizzard of Polar Bears, 
Alice Henderson

A favorite author of mine, Alice Henderson writes heart-pounding, suspenseful eco-thrillers. A Blizzard of Polar Bears (after A Solitude of Wolverines) is the second in her highly original and popular Dr. Alex Carter series. Polar bears in the Arctic Circle, helicopters, and bad guys on snowmobiles. This book has it all.

Clark and Division, 
Naomi Hirahara

Clark and Division is a must read. A compelling recount of the lives of interned Japanese-Americans during World War II. This is an award-winning novel that taught me a lot that I didn’t know happened in our own country. A brave and beautiful book.

Aria for Murder, Erica Miner

Coming soon! No cover yet. A ruthless and clever killer haunts the Metropolitan Opera and the hidden recesses of Lincoln Center. Violinist Julia Kogen, a rising star in the pit, must unmask the murderer or become a victim herself. Erica Miner’s richly satisfying Aria for Murder delivers a compelling mystery, replete with devious characters, glorious music, and plenty of behind-the-scenes dirty laundry. A musical and dramatic triumph. Bis! Encore!

One Gun, Vinnie Hansen

Vinnie Hansen’s One Gun unspools a long, exquisite crescendo of foreboding and dread as clouds gather for a chilling, unexpected climax. Top-notch writing, sensitive touch, and heart-wrenching choices. Hansen is an author to watch.

Like a Sister, Kellye Garrett

Kellye Garrett’s Like a Sister drew me in immediately and held on tight for the duration. Garrett paints a complete, compelling, and riveting portrait of two estranged sisters, one of whom—Desiree, the glamorous famous one—has been found dead from a drug overdose on a Bronx playground. Regret dogs her half-sister, Lena, and drives her—relentlessly—to find out exactly what happened to Desiree. Readers will be swept along in Lena’s churning wake, unable to resist turning just one more page. Just one more page. This book is killer good. Garrett is a star in her field.

The Midnight Lock, 
Jeffery Deaver

Deaver is a master of plot and character. He leads the reader where he wants with his sleight of hand. Brilliant. I loved the detail on locks and keys in this book. It felt a little like Moby-Dick, if Moby-Dick had been about locks instead of 19th century whaling. A veritable encyclopedia. Another great addition the Lincoln Rhyme series.

The Ride-Along, 
Frank Zafiro and Colin Conway

The Ride-Along, by our dear Criminal Minds alum Frank Zafiro and my good pal Colin Conway, will challenge your assumptions, prejudices, and biases. With unflinching honesty and remarkable balance, this important novel tackles the issues of policing, politics, institutional racism, Black Lives Matter, and more, all over the course of a dramatic graveyard shift ride-along. A third-generation cop and a police-reform activist engage in a marathon point-counterpoint that seems hopeless from the start. There are no easy answers here. Yet Zafiro and Conway manage to tiptoe through the partisan minefield without taking sides or providing pat, facile solutions. The Ride-Along is a brilliant, measured achievement. An informative and provocative must-read in these contentious times.

Shadows of Men, 
Abir Mukherjee

The fifth installment in our own Abir Mukherjee’s brilliant series set in post-World War I colonial India is fabulous. Abir writes with great insight and sensitivity about the political and social landscape of Calcutta under the Raj. And the action will give your heart a workout. In Shadows of Men, Captain Sam and Sergeant Suren “Surrender-Not” are in Bombay, trying to prevent a breakout of religious strife. And Suren’s neck is on the line.

The Island, 
Adrian McKinty

Simply terrific and terrifying. I’ve been a fan of McKinty’s for years. His Troubles series is stellar. The Island provides non-stop thrills, danger, and suspense. Fantastic characters and lots of local color. This book is a hit. Don’t miss it.

And what am I looking forward to reading? More, I guess. Just more. Especially from my Criminal Minds team. Such great books.