Thursday, August 18, 2022

Reader, I married/murdered/misunderstood him, by Catriona

Q: Clichés in our fiction. Are they universalities worth exploring or simply lazy shortcuts?

I don't mind a plot cliche in the least. Recently, when I thought I had gone to see the Oscar-bothering and deeply miserable Power of the Dog, but realised I was actually watching Dog, starring Channing Tatum, the galactic level of cliche in the plot was fine by me.

To give you an idea, in case you . . . tried to see it and ended up watching Power of the Dog instead, let's say . . . CT is a veteran with PTSD. Lulu the dog is also a veteran with PTSD. They are both pretty savage and unstable. Lulu is going to be destroyed, but first she is required (by a grieving family) to attend the memorial service for her late handler, which happens to be on the other side of the country. CT agrees to drive Lulu to the service, then deliver her for euthanasia, after which he can carry out his plan to fall apart completely and forever. 

Guess. What. Happens.

And it didn't matter. 

I'll go even further than "It didn't matter" actually. It would have been a dereliction of duty if anything else had happened. There was a tacit contract between the film-makers and the audience that we all knew what was going to happen at the end of this film.

(I remember being in the audience when that contract broke down once. It was the Gillian Anderson adaptation of The House of Mirth. I knew what I was getting - Edith Wharton. But a row of ladies behind me had seen the costumes on the poster and come along for a RomCom with bustles. As the end credits rolled, one of them said, "Eeh, I'm sorry about that, girls. I had no idea.")

I've made that contract with readers a time or two - promised a cliche and delivered on it. In Come To Harm, there are creepy butchers, unaccountably secretive about their sausage recipe, happy to give young women free accommodation in the flat above the shop . . .

In The Reek of Red Herrings, there are creepy amateur taxidermists, unaccountably secretive about what's in their museum, happy to give young women employment in their home . . .

Far from such plot cliches being lazy shortcuts, I reckon they prevent laziness. If your story isn't original, then you better make sure something else is, right? The characters, the setting, the style, the pacing, the humour . . . as many elements as possible need to be stellar if the book's going to shine.

Where I do have a problem with cliches is in the physical description of characters. Not what the characters look like - they look like people; and people look like anything between Lupita Nyong'o and Steve Buscemi - but in how we're told what characters look like. If I never again read chapter one of a first-person narrative where the voice character looks at themself in a mirror and has detailed thoughts about what they see? Happy days.

A. No one does that. We know what we look like. And B. even if we did, it wouldn't be:

'I sighed in exasperation at my unruly auburn curls and the dusting of freckles on my tip-tilted nose. I smiled and noticed the way the single dimple on my left cheek winked back at me."

I hate her already. No, it would be:

'I tried to concentrate solely on my teeth while I flossed them, but I could still see all three of my chins and my granny's eyebags. I remembered believing, up to last year, that I had a great complexion, then finding out that in fact my eyesight was shot. That first morning looking in the mirror with my reading glasses on could still send me straight to the vodka.'

But that's just me. The pet hate I mean; not the chins/eyebags/vodka (although my God those magnifying make-up mirrors you get in posh hotel bathrooms . . .). Countless others probably don't mind that chapter one bathroom mirror cliche. Like I don't mind the phrase "make a mental note", which causes a writer pal of mine to close a book and take it to the Goodwill donation site. I don't even mind when someone lets go of a breath they didn't know they were holding. 

I did stop reading a novel recently when a character felt a shudder that started in their tail bone and carried on up their spine until it settled in the back of their skull as a tension headache. That's not a thing. That's so bonkers it'll never end up as a cliche.


Wednesday, August 17, 2022

A little bit of elbow grease... by Cathy Ace

How do you beat procrastination? Do you use writing prompts? Tricks to get your motor running and word count climbing?

My first reaction to this question is: hmm…so the implication is that procrastination is a bad thing. Frankly, procrastination is the only reason my house gets cleaned; if a deadline is looming, it never seems quite as critical as washing the kitchen floor, or giving the bathroom a good scrubbing down…but maybe that’s just me.

Honestly, because of the way I make an idea for a story become a published book, I don’t find procrastination to be an issue. Even if I am cleaning the house, or working in the garden, I’m constantly thinking about what I’m plotting, or outlining, or have just written, or am about to write, or the way something that’s already on paper needs to be edited. I’m not aware I’ve ever used a writing prompt in my life…and I have no idea how to “get my word count up” because I never count my words. That being said…maybe my outlines act as my writing prompts, and my chapters replace my wordcount, because I read my notes before I start to write, and set myself writing goals that are chapters/story phases rather than wordcounts.

Any excuse to show off our garden; I'm the little person, for scale!

If all of this sounds odd, it might be because I’m a detailed plotter, so when I sit down to write the book, the whole thing is there, in my head and in my notebook, ready to be just…well, written. I can only type as fast as my three fingers can go; my thinking and typing speeds seem to be about the same, which is something I’m grateful for, though the accuracy of my typing leaves a lot to be desired (I cannot type an apostrophe to save my life…it always ends up being a semi-colon, so I always have to change all of those). I tend to write in chapters, not wordcounts, but maybe that turns out to be much the same thing, because many of my chapters end up being about the same-ish lengths. But, frankly, I have enough to beat myself up about without adding “insufficient wordcount” to my list, so I don’t do that.

Clean kitchen  = deadline looming!

Also, I don’t write every day. Nor could I ever do so. I only “write” when all my planning and outlining is done, then I write constantly and for long hours over a short period of time. The last book I wrote went from nothing more than a title to a once-revised first draft (that was sent for structural editing input) in three weeks. During those three weeks the record of the document tells me I worked on it for approximately 190 hours, which seems about right. It was at 85,000 words-ish when it went for feedback. The revised version went back for full editing a week later at 92,000 words. But they aren’t necessarily all the same words, in the same order – which is why storytelling (chapters) is more important to me than wordcount.

Want to see what forced me to clean that kitchen most recently? Check out my website:

Monday, August 15, 2022

Who Loves a Trope?

 Q: Clichés in our fiction. Are they universalities worth exploring or simply lazy shortcuts?

- from Susan


Trope: a very predictable or unoriginal thing or person.


Cliché: a statement that is obviously true and says nothing new or interesting.

Well, what writer would cop to either of those? Of course everything we write is original, unique, surprising! 

Let me offer an alternative perspective. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Uh oh – a cliché, gasp! Also the opening and theme of one of the most loved novels of all time, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Austen takes that cliché and runs with it, giving millions of readers some unpredictable and thoroughly entertaining examples of what could go so very wrong within that truism of the early 19th century. She – and she’s not alone, of course – took a cliché and said something new (for her times) and interesting (for all times). 

 We live in a human environment that has created just about everything in the way of truisms. I would suggest that our place in the creative cohort is not to come up with never-seen before responses to never-seen before circumstances unless we are among the brave writers who build new worlds in the science fiction and dystopian/utopian landscapes of their minds. Left Hand of Darkness comes to mind because I just read Ursula LeGuin’s amazing novel.Our role in becoming serious writers is to surprise readers by seeming to embrace something commonplace and then upending it somehow, based on the universal truth that no two people see the world outside of themselves in exactly the same way. 


Aside: I’m happy to report my new French village novel, set in a chateau being renovated in Burgundy, is right on schedule to be published in March 2023. Title and cover maybe soon, but so far it's been a great process. 




Friday, August 12, 2022

Ten Years On ...

by Abir


With the kind permission of my fellow writers, I’m making a departure from this week’s topic to talk about something else. This Friday I want to tell you a bit more about my journey to becoming a writer – not so much the practical side – we’ve discussed that in the past - but the emotional side. Why? Because this week marks a decade since one of the key milestones in that journey. 

Ten years ago this week I lost my job.


It came as a shock. I’d never been unemployed before. I'd gone from school to university, straight into my first job and then spent the next eighteen years working my way up a financially rewarding, if fantastically dull corporate ladder. 


For almost two decades I'd gotten up every morning, put on a suit and tie and gone to an office where the work I did interested me less and less. I put up with the corporate politics and the deep sense that my life was passing me by because, well I was earning a good six figure salary and the thought of giving it up and starting again seemed unthinkable. I’m tempted to say I was too comfortable to leave, but comfortable isn’t the right word. True, I was well paid, but with the salary went a hell of a lot of stress, a job which didn’t ever really end, late nights in the office and long trips overseas away from my wife and young son. Rather, I’d  say I'd reached an equilibrium - a steady state that was tolerable, and one that I expected would be the pattern of my life for the  decades to come. 

At some point I expected we’d move out of London, to a house with a garden; we’d have another child and maybe get a dog, and I’d then catch the same train into town every morning. It didn’t fill me with excitement, but on balance, it wouldn't have been a bad life. It was a safe life – one of certainty - but also one where I’d always answerable to someone – to my boss, or my boss’s boss, and where the dreams that I had for myself – of being a writer – would remain unfulfilled, subordinate to the requirements of work and bills and school fees – at least until I retired at sixty-five. 


I wasn’t particularly happy -  I knew that at the time - but what do you do when you’ve got bills to pay and a young family to provide for? You keep going because you think the risk of doing anything else is just too great.


And then it happened. One bright August morning in 2012, I got called into my boss’s office and told I was being made redundant.


I was thirty-eight, married, had a kid with special needs, a stupidly large mortgage and no idea what I was going to do next.


I remember walking out of his office feeling like I’d just been hit by a train. I remember passing his secretary who looked embarrassed and said some kind words to me, words that hardly registered, and then I remember leaving the building, into the sunshine of a scorching hot, central London day. The office was at the top of Piccadilly, opposite Green Park. I crossed the four lanes of traffic without really worrying about getting run over by a taxi or two and then just walked through the park – down to Buckingham Palace, through St James’s Park and then across the West End, just trying to work out what to do. At some point I found myself back on Piccadilly, walking past two of London’s biggest bookstores: Waterstones flagship branch and the famous and historic Hatchards bookshop. I’d spent many a lunchtime browsing in both, but that day I hardly noticed them. (Years later, I'd be signing books and doing events in both of them.)


I went through the beginnings of the classic seven stages of grief: the shock and the anger; and then I went home and told my wife. It was a difficult conversation – not because I didn’t think she could handle the news – we’d been through worse – but because of my own sense of shame. I was still imbued with the baggage we were all brought up with – the stereotypes. I was the man – the breadwinner supposedly – and if I wasn’t winning the bread, then what was I good for? My wife, I should point out, is a lawyer and is far smarter than me. 


She kissed me and told me it’d be ok, and that we’d get through it. 


I took a little time to think about what to do next. The natural decision was to start interviewing for another job. I dusted off my CV and sent it off to recruitment consultants, but in the weeks that followed, I had a change of heart. I realised I didn’t want to jump back into the same frying pan I’d just been thrown out of. When the opportunities for job interviews started to come through, I turned them down. My wife made me see that being made redundant wasn’t a catastrophe – it was an opportunity – a chance to do what I wanted to do - a time to take risks. 


Along with three friends from university: guys I’d known for twenty years, I started a business -  one which is still going today and  going from strength to strength (probably cos these days I have very little to do with it) - and ten years on, all four of us are still really good friends. 


And then came the writing. I was self-employed now; working with my mates. That gave me the opportunity to do other things. It was time to take a chance on my dream.  It was a gamble of course - when you’re self-employed, there’s no safety net. I started writing a book about a British detective who goes to India after the first world war. I got lucky. In 2014, I entered a competition for new crime writers and won and suddenly I had a book deal. It was the start of my writing journey, but what came next wasn’t easy. It was a tough time. I would work during the day, and write in the evenings and at weekends.  The business was young, we weren’t making much money, and as a family we were burning through our savings and I wasn’t spending nearly enough time with my wife and son. There were no guarantees that the book would be any good or that it would sell, and in the meantime my wife was having to work twice as hard in her job and in looking after our son…and also, in what was wonderfully ridiculous timing, we had another kid on the way.


That first book, A Rising Man, came out in 2016 and went on to be a bestseller. In the intervening years, I’ve managed to become a full-time writer, and I’m lucky to be doing the job I’ve always dreamed of. I am eternally thankful for that. The journey (so far) has been tough, but fulfilling, and I want to end this piece by setting out some of the (non writing) things I’ve learned along the way. They’re not meant to be a guide. I’m quite aware that I’ve been lucky, and that my circumstances won’t translate to anyone else’s life. It’s just my story. It might prove helpful in parts to others.




Surround yourself with good people

One of the abiding joys of my life has been the number of good, decent people I’ve met through my various jobs. For every bastard I’ve come across, I’ve been fortunate to meet five or ten wonderful folk, among them people who’ve become lifelong friends; people I’d trust with my life. These are the people you want in a crisis. People who will help you, not because they expect anything in return, but because it’s the right thing to do. In my hour of need there were so many  people who stepped up, whether it was with advice or offers of employment or just support.


Build a financial buffer 

Probably the best piece of advice my old dad ever gave me was, “Put cash away in the good times”. 

Try and save cash for that rainy day. If you have that, it gives you a degree of comfort. It’s easier to make decisions when you’ve got a bit of security. I know it sounds obvious, but it’s hard to do in practice when you think the good times will last forever.


It’s not the end of the world

Being made redundant - for eighteen years it had been the biggest fear of my life. The sword that hung over my head and motivated me to do a job that was slowly killing me. We all have bills to pay, obligations to fulfil, kids to raise. But when the unthinkable happens, you realise life doesn’t stop. You have skills. You can and will survive.


The love and support of family

I can’t tell you how important my wife has been to this whole process: from the initial support after the redundancy, through taking up so much of the burden of looking after our family while I was writing or travelling to book festivals and libraries; to the advice she’s given me on plots; to telling me that my writing is really, really not that bad. I couldn’t have made this journey without her.



Sometimes, you’ve got to take risks

What feels like a disaster can also sometimes be an opportunity. Redundancy turned my life upside down, but if it hadn’t happened, I wouldn't be a writer today. It forced me to take risks. It forced me to set up a business with my friends and it forced me to try and follow my writing dream – in hidsight, two of the best decisions I’ve ever made. 



It's not been an easy road. The journey has been bumpy. At times I’ve wondered if I could ever do this. At others, I’ve felt so much guilt at putting my wife and kids through the struggle when I could just have just gone out and got another job. I’m fortunate that I can say it’s worked out well, so far – I’m eternally amazed and grateful that so many people have taken my characters to their hearts. There are no guarantees though, and as a writer you’re only as good as your last book. It’s a precarious career, and a gamble, but then life is always a gamble. 


Sometimes you get lucky.




Thursday, August 11, 2022

Come Rain or Shine from James W. Ziskin

Do you use weather in your books to create atmosphere or mood? Talk to us about meteorology.

This month we’ve been given a choice of two questions to answer each week. I picked the first one. The one about weather since my upcoming release is entitled Bombay Monsoon. What could be more suitable?

Bombay Monsoon (December 6, 2022, Oceanview) is set during the rainy season in India in 1975. That is during the monsoon” in Bombay,” in case that wasn’t clear from the title. Monsoon season, by the way, is considered exactly that, a season, in that part of the world. There’s winter (December-February), spring (March-May), monsoon (June-September), and autumn or post-monsoon (September-November).

Did you ever stop to think, by the way, that the seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere? In Australia, for example, summer runs from December to February. Conversely, winter is June to September. Of course India is located entirely in the Northern Hemisphere, so this inversion of the seasons isn’t necessary. But one thing is for sure: it’s hot in Bombay (Mumbai). Hot all year round, with average temperatures in the mid-eighties to mid-nineties Fahrenheit. For our readers located elsewhere in the world, don’t worry. The conversion to Celsius is easy. Just take the reading in Fahrenheit, subtract 32, and multiply by .5556. You can do it in your head. No need to thank me.

All right, so Bombay is hot. During monsoon season it’s hot AND wet. Really wet. Bombay is drenched by—on average—seventy inches of rain each year. That’s 1.778 meters (metres) for all you spoilsports who insist on taking the fun (and migraines) out of weights and measures. Almost all of that rain falls during monsoon season. That’s June to September. Try to keep up, for God’s sake!

Now, Bombay Monsoon is a thriller set against Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. The Emergency was perhaps the darkest period of post-Independence Indian history. At midnight on June 25, 1975, the PM used Article 352 of the Indian Constitution to declare a domestic emergency. That Constitutional provision was intended to protect the nation’s sovereignty and security from foreign and/or domestic threats. “Internal disturbances,” as these are called in the Constitution. Mrs. Gandhi used the Emergency to imprison her political foes, suspend civil liberties, and censor the press.

That’s the backdrop for the story, but I’m supposed to be writing about weather. In Bombay Monsoon, the “monsoon” is ever present. It soaks the city and follows our protagonist, American journalist Danny Jacobs, as he gets himself into more and more trouble. (Did you catch that Danny’s a journalist? And that the Emergency imposed strict censorship on the press? Good, paying attention finally, I see. Gawd!)

The word “rain” or “rained” or “raining” appears 105 times in the book. As a point of comparison, the word “just,” that bane of writers who offer advice, appears 108 times. The book is 92,000 words long, written in the first person, so I think that’s acceptable And for the sticklers, I hasten to point out that “only”—a word no one seems to object to, even when it stands in for “just”—appears 141 times…

But back to the weather. I wrote the following as part of the author’s note in Bombay Monsoon.

In my Ellie Stone books, I’ve often used weather to set the mood. Stone Cold Dead is a non-stop exercise in describing ice and snow and frigid temperatures. Thunderstorms abound in Heart of Stone, which takes place on an Adirondack Mountains lake in August. There’s even a lunar eclipse, which actually happened on the date in my book. But—alas—the rainclouds obscured the celestial event. As for the weather in Cast the First Stone, set in Hollywood in February 1962, it does nothing but rain for the two weeks Ellie is in Los Angeles.

I definitely lean heavily on weather in most of my work, because it is—in its very nature—atmospheric. It’s a universality we all understand and recognize. Ice is cold. The sun is hot. Both extremes affect our moods and behaviors. Rain makes us want to shelter and feel protected. Wind is eerie. Sometimes welcome, other times sinister. Weather can be a shortcut—no not shortcut but another brush in our paintbox. A specialized wrench to loosen bolts. It’s always there. To ignore it would leave a hole in our stories.

Elmore Leonard famously advised writers never to start a story with weather. Maybe not. Maybe yes. But I use it everywhere else in my writing.


Wednesday, August 10, 2022

A force of nature

Do you use weather in your books to create atmosphere or mood? Talk to us about meteorology.

by Dietrich

Weather and the wrath of nature can certainly add realism, heighten a story’s tension, rack up the pace, or act as an ominous character. It makes me think of some favorite novels like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, and The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke

Just for fun (along with a touch of self-promotion), I dug up a few lines from my own novels where nature’s hard at play. 

… from House of Blazes

Hot enough to peel skin. Quinn jerked at the cuffs. The

rocket of pain shot up his arm, nothing against the terror of

being burned alive. Flames spread and curled at the ceiling

beams. A board clattered down, then another, sparks flying

back up to the roof beams. Hot as an incinerator.

Glimmers and shadows danced like demons, smoke

choking and billowing. Couldn’t quash the panic, Quinn

swatting at sparks. A deep breath and a gathered rush, he let

go a yell, lugging the bench straight at the door, the wooden

legs sliding on the scattered hay. Throwing his weight, he

heaved the bench at the opening. Levi sitting out in the

Stanley, watching him.

Flinders flew and wood struck the doorway, the frame

splintered down one side. Gulping hot air, Quinn shoved

the bench back, hay catching all around his feet. Rushing

again, the frame ripping free the second time. Couldn’t feel

the broken hand or the foot at all now.

Backing the bench farther into the oven, Quinn thought

one more charge would do it.

The upper floor was totally aflame now.

Eyes on the freedom beyond the doorway, Quinn

dropped his weight low and dragged the bench for the


… from Call Down the Thunder

Sonny Myers narrowed his eyes against the gust, felt the

rush of cold, the air crackling: static electricity churning

and hellfire flashing inside the mass of black looming high

over the flat land. The yard a frenzy of whipping sand and

debris by the time he got his mule and car in the barn. Felt

like the end of times coming. Through the boiling wall of

sand, Sonny made out two sets of headlights approaching

on the county road. Could be coming for shelter from the

duster, but something told him no. Going to the house,

reaching inside the door, he took the shotgun and stepped

off the porch.

Coming to the door, Clara wanting to have a look.

“Just a blow.” He told her to stay inside.

“What you gonna do, shoot it?”

His eyes slits, Sonny stepped into the yard, forcing his

steps, having to lean into it, going toward the headlights.

Looked like two pickups stopped down by the mailbox,

lights dim against the blasting sand. Doors opened and men

got out. Nobody he knew. Best he could tell there were six

of them, pulling hoods on. Two going to the bed of the first

truck, pulling a long cross from the back. Sonny smelling

kerosene and oil from where he stood, halfway to the house.

A couple of them fanned to his left, heading for the side of

the house, flanking him.

Sonny fired in the air, the only warning they’d get, popping

in another shell. Leaving the ones by the trucks, Sonny

went after the pair going wide around the house. Couldn’t

see twenty feet ahead as the duster bore down. Hurrying

around the side, his eyes searched for them somewhere

ahead of him. One hand against the boards, he made his

way around the back, staying low. Expecting an ambush.

… from Cradle of the Deep

Denny turned the wheel and missed hitting the ice hut. The Cortina

off the hard track again and plowing deeper snow. Feeling

the tires spin and dig in, he pressed the pedal, making out

the dark patch ahead on the white blanket. Didn’t know

what it meant. Heard the swishing sound against the undercarriage.

Denny seeing the sign on a stake:


“Out!” Throwing open his door, he stepped into the

slush. Ankle-deep, the water as icy as that time with Nort,

Denny felt the panic, wanting to get away from the car, but

forcing himself around to the back. He yanked at the trunk,

but couldn’t get it to pop. Needed the keys dangling from

the ignition. Ice cracked under his foot, and Denny grabbed

Bobbi as she came around the back, catching her wrist, tugging

her away.

Twisting to get free, she yelled, “Get the money!”

He pulled her to the ice hut. Looking back, no idea where

the cops were, seeing nothing but the falling snow. Couldn’t

see the shore or the patrol cars with their flashing lights.

“The money! We can’t leave it,” she yelled.

Feeling the cracking of ice under his feet, he tugged

her. Getting behind the hut, he looked out, couldn’t see ten

feet through the falling snow. Gripping her arm, he pulled

her, ignoring her protests, guessing which way to the road,

watching for the shadows of the cops. A dozen strides and

he lost sight of the Cortina and the ice hut, trudging with

Bobbi in tow, feeling the icy wet at his feet, the numbing

cold, then finally seeing the flash of cop lights and the red

glow against the falling snow. Finding their way back onto

the snowmobile tracks, he let it lead them back to the road.

The wind had picked up, howling, whipping snow angling

and stabbing at their faces. His eyes were slits. Couldn’t feel

his feet in the sneakers as he pulled her along. Bobbi had

stopped fighting, clutched onto his arm, letting him shield

her, guiding her off the lake.

Moving toward the flash of blue and red. Alert for the two

cops. Scrambling onto the plowed bank, one hand on her arm,

fingers of his free hand digging into the snow, getting them

over. One cruiser sat high-centered on the plowed berm. The

other was on the road, flashers still going. Denny went to it.

“The fuck you doing?”

“How you feel about Plymouths?” Denny shoved her, told

her to get in, then got behind the wheel, thanking Christ

the key was in the ignition. He got it started, looking at

the controls.

Shutting her door, Bobbi looked at him, saying, “The

fuck’s wrong with —” and screamed.

The cop charged over the berm and leaped for the car,

his arms out wide like he was flying, landing against its side.

Denny punched down the door lock, jamming the stick in

gear and mashed the pedal. Two hundred pounds of cop

in a parka and fur hat threw himself again, landing on the

hood with a thump, yelling about them being under arrest,

punching his gloved hand at the windshield, the other hand

grabbing for a wiper blade, something to hold on to.

Denny hit the gas, then slammed the brakes, the cop

sliding off, yelling and pounding.

Putting it in reverse, straightening out on the road,

Denny drove past. The cop getting up and yelling behind

them. Denny adding distance.

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

What Price Murder?


Terry here: We had the choice of two questions this week, and I chose to write about this one: 

 We crime writers write about murder and violence. What are your thoughts about profiting—however meagerly—from the tragedy of others, even if it’s fictional?

 More years ago than I care to admit to, I heard a talk by then budding writer Sue Grafton. She admonished the writers in her audience to take crime seriously. She reminded us that the crimes we write about, usually murder, can be devastating. That murder doesn’t affect just the victim, nor the victim’s family, but the community at large. 

 These days when a proliferation of weapons has made murder numbingly common, her words seem almost old-fashioned and poignant. And yet, just a couple of days ago, I heard the mother of a victim of Sandy Hook remind everyone that her son, who was killed, was a person. A real, live, person. 

 The life and personhood of the victim is something I try never to forget when I’m writing. A few years ago I was on a panel and I told the audience that I was interested in what made murderers feel that they had no other recourse than to kill someone. That I wasn’t interested in writing about serial killers or a crazy person who shot someone at random. I’m interested in what makes someone think that they can only save their livelihood or their good name, or their pride, or can get away with something only by killing a particular person. 

After the panel, a woman from the audience came up to me and told me that she’d never heard an author say that and that it resonated with her. She said her daughter had been murdered along with a few other victims because they happened to be in a store when a young man entered to rob the store and realized that people could identify him. He killed everyone there. It was heart-breaking to hear her store, and I was glad I’d articulated what I felt like was at the heart of my writing. 

 Am I profiting from murder and violence? In some small way, perhaps, but my primary goal is to examine the ways in which life can go wrong and end up in violence. Plus, I try always to illuminate the affect the murder has on the victim’s family and community. In a small town like Jarrett Creek, Texas, murder tears at the fabric of the community. In my latest book, Murder at the Jubilee Rally, a young mother is the victim. Her husband is disabled, further complicating the impact of her murder. When I wrote about the victim’s husband, sister, children, best friend, people who knew her, I wanted to make sure many aspects of her life came through. I wanted to give a sense of real life and death. 

 Taking it seriously doesn’t mean there can’t be light moments in a book. A little humor can help the reader take a breath between scenes of dismaying details about the murder and its affect. In fact, it’s a given that even in the most fraught of real life circumstances, people sometimes exhibit a macabre sense of humor to break the tension. 

 I hope that being true to the reality of how murder impacts everyone involved, the “profit” I produce is for the reader.

Monday, August 8, 2022

Whether or Not Weather by Stephen Mack Jones


Do you use weather in your books to create atmosphere or mood?

        Living, as I do, in the “Mitten” state, the physical, mental and spiritual impact of Michigan’s often schizophrenic weather often makes its way into my writing, e.g., Dead of Winter. The seasons here (of which there are truly only three—Fall, Winter and 93-Degrees-with Humidity) have been known to have a profoundly distinctive and predictive effect on a single personality.

        For example, during Michigan’s insufferably long Winter season, my writing tends to take on what I’ve come to call “The Solzhenitsyn Lament” wherein my characters act and react to the incomprehensible cold, the thousand pin-pricks of horizontal supersonic flight of snow and the monotonous gray-scale landscape with muted anger and bitter defeat, only occasionally howling their King Lear-like mad commitment to resist and prevail above the deafening blitz of bone-chilling wind.

        Oh, I’m fine, but my characters do tend to suffer for all the isolation and loneliness winter brings.

        I owe my own healthy winter attitude to having given up on the human species and social interaction on April16, 1983. Ah, what a liberating day that was wherein I fully embraced the expansive comfort, contentment and security of reading, record collecting (Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, etc.) and the occasional promising visit to Blockbuster Video. An Eighties Schwarzenegger movie, a bag of Twizzlers and a packet of microwave popcorn—how could you not feel a distinct joy?

        Spring in Michigan is really just a dreary addendum to Winter: Cold rain and sleet, black ice is still a threat, the occasional snowfall covering ground where tulips and crocuses have prematurely blossomed. During this brief interlude, my characters—filled with hope and gratitude that the harsh winter has finally passed--will often break out cargo shorts, Hawaiian shirts, black ankle socks with luminescent Crocs since the thermometer often struggles up to forty-five. A veritable heatwave heralding the end of the Ice Age.

        After a few days of this, my characters will join other real Michiganders by going back inside as the blink-of-an-eye-suddenly-summer temperatures have skyrocketed into the high-80s and north of 90s with nearly chewable humidity and famished clouds of mosquitos. Few days go by that an “Air Quality Alert” doesn’t pop up on one’s phone. From the air-conditioned inside looking out, Michigan is actually quite lovely. I can think of few states as vibrantly green as Michigan. Even at its hottest and muggiest, it does tend to draw one out of the A/C to a variety of farmer’s markets, outside restaurant dining options, baseball games and neighborhood barbeques. Ice cold beer tastes better in the heat and humidity. Grilled red meat and tangy sauce dance on the palette under a blinding, melanoma-inducing sun. And Michigan’s multitude of lakes, rivers and streams all glisten brightly beneath blue skies ladened with puffy Cumulus clouds, psychologically cooling boaters, fishermen and fisherwomen and seekers of the perfect tan who have pre-scheduled their Mohs Surgery for the end of the season. (Read Lives Laid Away for a taste of unrelenting action during a Michigan summer.)

        I tend to write less during the summer.

        With Michigan’s bright and burning days of Summer I feel an obligation to get out more. To sweat off some of my Winter poundage. Jogging. Investigating invasive species of plants. Singing and dancing beneath the towering kingdom of forest trees. Laughing heartily while riding a bike.

        But that sort of thing is more for the characters I write.

        Not me.

        And even my characters give me a squinty-eyed over-the-shoulder look that says, “Really? Dancing in a forest? So, like, you think that’s my thing? The hell’s the matter with you?”

        Fall in Michigan is actually my favorite, most productive time to write.

        The season doesn’t last very long—maybe a month-and-a-half, two months—but it’s a beauty. Remember all that green I mention earlier? Well, now those greens have turned bright oranges and iridescent reds and varying shades of yellow. Fall in Michigan has a distinctive smell: crisp, like a chilled glass of pinot grigio and Granny Smith apples. Or candy corn with a soupçon of elementary school bus diesel fumes.

        I often join my characters on fall walks around the neighborhood or one of four nearby parks. We pick up brightly colored fallen leaves, giving them a moment’s pondering and gratitude. We talk about plots and dialog, adventures yet to be formalized and misadventures yet to be realized. I find out what they’re thinking. They already know what I’m thinking, so this is their chance to influence my thoughts one way or the other. We’ve dressed warm, but still appreciate the soft, cool breeze on our faces, the dappled receding sunlight sparkling on a stream. The smell of damp, black earth and the rustle of multicolored leaves above us.

        “Why is a dead man from Chile laying under that tree over there?” a character will finally say.

        “Nice suit, though,” someone else will reply.

        And that’s when I know it's time to go home, open my laptop and find out why, on a cool fall day, there’s a nicely dressed dead man from Chile laying under a brightly colored oak tree in a Michigan park.