Monday, March 31, 2008
In the middle of the night on a mist-shrouded country road, Michael Starkwedder runs his car into a ditch. When he goes to the nearest house for help, he finds a murdered man in a wheelchair and a woman holding a smoking gun.
That's the opening scene of Agatha Christie’s classic play, The Unexpected Guest, adapted as a novel by Charles Osbourne. No spoilers here, but suffice it to say that the action goes inside-out when Michael Starkwedder arrives.
Precisely what happens when unexpected guests appear on my pages. Even though I (attempt to) outline before drafting, characters I never saw coming invade my plays and novels. In response, I do the only thing I can: sit back and watch as they take over what I erroneously believed was my story.
Case in point: An Ann Arbor-based animal rights advocacy, Four Legs Good (a.k.a. Fleggers), blindsided me while I was drafting the second Whiskey Mattimoe mystery, Whiskey Straight Up. Founded by a veterinarian with a speech impediment and no sense of humor with humans, Fleggers has been shaping my plotlines ever since. Poor Whiskey still struggles with the term “anti-speciesist.” So do I.
Another case in point: A hunky Scot named MacArthur stunned me when he showed up in Chapter One of Whiskey and Water claiming to be a “cleaner.” His biz had nothing whatsoever to do with either yard work or maid service although he did pick up dog shit. You’d have to read the series to appreciate how much that pleased Whiskey. The cleaner revealed many talents, including a knack for erasing celebrity hijinks. And selling real estate. He's versatile enough to resurface in the book I’m writing now, Whiskey with a Twist. I wonder what he’ll do in this one.
Have unexpected guests changed the course of your fiction? If not, just wait. . . .
Saturday, March 29, 2008
G.M. Malliet will be at the Virginia Festival of the Book, which runs
from March 26-30.
Learn more at the Virginia Festival of the Book website.
Felicia Donovan, author of THE BLACK WIDOW AGENCY series will be hosting a reading at the Rochester, NH Public Library on Saturday, April 5th at 1PM.
Bill Cameron will be appearing at Murder With Friends, hosted by Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing, Wednesday, April 9 at 7:00pm. The event will feature 13 Pacific Northwest authors in a casual, get-to-know-you setting.
Tom Schreck's On the Ropes and Tim Maleeney's Stealing the Dragon were two of the five finalists in the Crimespree Award for Best FIRST BOOK OF 2007!
Sean Chercover's Big City, Bad Blood won the honors.
Friday, March 28, 2008
I’d planned to be at the Quilters Heritage Celebration in Lancaster, PA for four days this week, signing books. An all expense-paid trip. Paid by me. Like LCC, I would have spent over $1000 to get there. And no witty crime writers in the bar.
After American Airlines cancelled my flight the second day in a row, I was stuck. Getting east from the left coast isn't easy and connecting flights to Harrisburg happen once a day. I was willing to go after a one-day delay but a two-day delay, I decided the trip wasn't worth it. I needed to cut my losses ($60 in cabs going back and forth and back and forth to the airport), and stay the heck home.
But should I gotten there somehow? Isn’t that the American way? It’s clearly not the American Airline way.
Ironically, I’d planned this post to be about the Amish. Lancaster is the original home of the Amish. They never have these kinds of travel problems. They only go to places that the Mennonites can drive them to. Niagara Falls is a big destination. The Grand Canyon. Last time I was there, Rueben Yost told us about his trip to California. Even though he was a farmer, he couldn’t name the spiky leaved plants he was seeing from the bus. Artichokes, we told him. He’d never seen an artichoke.
Traveling by horse and buggy has its limits. Left turns are a bitch, evidently. And horses can only pull a buggy about fifty miles a day. Anna, Rueben’s wife, got misty-eyed when she told us how much she missed seeing her daughter. She lived 55 miles away. 55 miles! I’d drive that for the right piece of fabric or a new book. Or to watch the pelicans dive bomb. I’m three-thousand miles from my mother. For Anna, her daughter might as well be on the left coast.
I didn’t get to go the quilt show and meet my new fans, but I did save a lot of money. I think I’ll spend some of it on gas and go to the ocean. Next week, I’ll fly to NY to see my mother.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
- How to tail a spy in a big city. It's hard, but it's a lot of fun to wear a hat and Jackie O glasses and surreptitiously take digital pictures from behind a newspaper you're pretending to read.
- I never want to read a medieval mystery. It's just me, and I think it has more to do with the disappointment at finding out there are not wenches and swords in them as much as anything.
- Midnight Ink has a great line-up of authors, and a fantastic team all around (everyone I meet loves the covers!).
- I automatically take people with British accents more seriously because they're smarter.
- According to a panel I listened to, death is not funny, but people are funny. I would like to add to that that sex is funny, but dead people having sex isn't.
- All mystery writers are nice, except for the three assholes, and everyone knows who they are.
For me, this was the first mystery conference I've attended that reaped enough rewards to justify the $1000+ required to fly there, register for the conference, pay for the hotel, and eat out for four days. What made it worthwhile was the connections I made with fellow authors that have led to the West Coast tour, though I gotta tell you, seeing a stranger sitting on a couch reading May Day was a close second for thrills (there is a human being not related to me who reads my books!).
Other than that, the mystery conferences I've been to have not paid off. I spent the others I attended feeling like I was in a big high school, wandering around and trying to get noticed, but I had the wrong hair. I always have the wrong hair. So that brings me to Bouchercon, the granddaddy of all mystery conferences, coming up in October. To conference, or not to conference?
Sunday, March 23, 2008
Wikipedia's own definition of itself:
Wikipedia is written collaboratively by volunteers from all around the world. Since its creation in 2001, Wikipedia has grown rapidly into one of the largest reference Web sites. There are more than 75,000 active contributors working on some 9,000,000 articles in more than 250 languages. As of today, there are 2,299,740 articles in English; every day hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world make tens of thousands of edits and create thousands of new articles to enhance the knowledge held by the Wikipedia encyclopedia. (See also: Wikipedia:Statistics).
So...after the what-I-know-is guy posts his stuff, then other geeks—volunteer geeks-- fact check those semi-facts and verify them for accuracy. It's all very grass roots as well as being one big geek-fest, and I'm right there in the middle, wallowing.
Under the guise of research I can get completely lost in Wikipedia. The problem is, most of the facts I uncover are rather arcane, maybe bordering on the bizarre or er, um, useless.
Did you know the platypus is one of only five mammals that lays eggs instead of giving birth?
Friday, March 21, 2008
author of the Duffy Dombrowski Mysteries
On the Ropes, TKO
Okay class, your assignment is to watch the video and answer these discussion questions:
1. What does the hound represent in the publishing world?
2. What fuels the screenwriters' denial?
3. What archetypal symbolism is embedded in the ham?
4. What is the secretary's name?
5. What does the hounds command to round up every small rabbit tell us about him?
6. Before you got an agent or got published would you have signed with this agent? If you are unsigned now would you like his address?
Thursday, March 20, 2008
Can we really have reached the Spring equinox already? Looking at my small garden, I notice plants pushing through the earth, and flowers dotting the trees, long before they make their usual appearances. (I am reminded of a bumper sticker I saw the other day that read, “Is the planet getting warmer, or is it just me?”)
It took me awhile to notice that the planet was getting warmer. I think this is because we moved around so much when I was a kid—we were in the circus. Just kidding. We were a military family. So I had no benchmark for what was normal for spring, summer, fall, or winter. It just depended on where we were that year. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I settled in one place long enough to start taking stock of my surroundings.
So when it comes to descriptions of the natural world, I’ve had to train myself to observe and take notes and research, probably more than most, and there is still a danger I’ll get it wrong. I tend to notice people and their behaviors more than I notice what kind of tree they’re standing in front of. This may be another legacy of military life: Being injected into different surroundings every few years, you have to learn to pick up on the mores as quickly as possible.
I’ve noticed other writers deal with the “natural world” dilemma by having a character say something like, “There was a vase of some kind of spiky blue flower on the table.” Sometimes that’s enough to know. Long descriptions of trees and plants, listed by their Latin names, can be pretty boring anyway. And that phrasing tells you a bit about the character: This guy is no gardener.
What about you? What descriptions come easiest for you: animal, vegetable, or mineral?
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
I'm late to the party, as usual – sorry. (Big thanks to Keith for reminding me what day it is.)
This is a brief post to say thanks to all the politicians out there for making our job as writers so damn easy. In my next book I have a passing reference to a lieutenant governor who borrows funds from the state treasury to pay for underage prostitutes, a highly illicit activity for an elected official but nothing compared to what's happening in the real world. Just this past week we had a governor of New York snared in a prostitution ring, a former governor of New Jersey who had already resigned over one sex scandal confessing to having threesomes with his wife (before he decided he was gay), and the newly appointed Governor of New York raising his hand to confess to multiple affairs before the press could dig them up.
What a great country to be a writer.
Sure, the sex-obsessed press in our Puritanical society sometimes overlooks real corruption involving bogus campaign financing, influence peddling and gerrymandering, but those require more elaborate plotting from a writer's standpoint. For a quick cheap thrill, look no further than city hall and your local newspaper for your ideas.
Monday, March 17, 2008
See, I write about a fellow that lives in the Caribbean so on the surface it would seem like an idyllic situation for research. Well, it would be - if we weren't talking about me. It so happens that I tend to get into tight situations when I travel. Oh, don't worry. Nothing really life threatening or anything like that. Just "uncomfortable" situations really. Like having my passport stolen in Venezuela and trying to get to Caracas to replace said passport after the military had taken control of all transportation and had set up roadblocks every 10 kilometers.
Or when I was in Mexico and had my rental car towed from a "no parking zone" that just happened to be a hotel parking lot. But then Mexicans have a creative flair for language and it's application. But I got the car back without having to fork over my retirement funds - thanks to the quick intervention of a blonde with large breasts. Yes, it seems Mexican men prefer blonds too.
But my favorite among many is when a friend of mine was chased through the town of Valladoid Mexico by an angry father after catching him with his 14 year old daughter. Now wait, it's not what you think. Let me explain.
We were having dinner at a small "Loncheria" or makeshift cafe in the barios of Vallodoid. At the time we didn't have much money and we like to eat as local as we can anyway. But we also like to drink beer. And as the saying goes, you only rent beer. And nature always wants it rent. So my innocent friend asks the young girl working the counter if they had a bathroom - "baño" in Spanish. Well, public toilets are few and far between in this neighborhood so the helpful young lady takes my friend by the hand and leads him behind a neighboring building. Apparently, this is how it's done in Vallodoid Mexico. My friend, shy bladder and all, is able to pay his rent and walks out from behind the building, just minutes after the young lady emerges. He's still closing up, and as he looks up, there stands papa.
With death in his eyes.
Why is my friend coming out of the shadows, zipping up his fly, mere minutes after is daughter? Well our gringo Spanish didn't seem to satisfy him and he became increasingly mad and I will say, his Spanish cursing is much better than mine. But we had 20 years on him and even though we were full of black beans and rice we were able to out run the chivalrous father. From this day forward, my friend is known as "Señor Baño."
So you see, research can be an adventure - especially if you live it.
The day before the event, I spent several hours in the Barnes & Noble where the event was going to take place. Not because I was scoping out the joint, but because I was scanning beginnings of new best sellers, examining the premises of the new books, picking out some author craft that I could use the following day in the workshop. About thirty minutes into my adventure I was overwhelmed with what Joe and I and most of us are really up against. There are thousands of, hardcover, mass market, trade, and coffee table books all poised to attract the browsing reader. What’s going to make somebody in Nebraska (we live in Florida) pick my book up and take it to the register? What’s going to make the consumer go look for Sholes & Moore? Lee Child, Jeffrey Archer, Jodi Picoult, Danielle Steele and the like are calling out to the customers from the end caps, dumps, and Just Arrived shelves. How do we go up against that kind of competition?
I suppose the best analogy I can come up with is this. How many kids dream of becoming a pro athlete, movie or rock star? For me, my dream was becoming a writer—a best-selling author. For the kid who wants to be an athlete, he might be the best damn quarterback in his whole county, maybe even an all-star in college, but then he has to come up against the big boys. Suddenly, he’s a small fish in a very big pond. It’s the same for writers. You might be a great writer in high school and college, earning all kinds of accolades. You might be the best in your critique group. But in the end, you have to go up against the big boys. As my husband says in his most eloquent way, if you want to run with the big dogs, you have to piss in the tall grass. Like the aspiring athlete or actor/actress, you pray to be discovered. But looking around Barnes & Noble yesterday pounded the fact home that the writing playing field, like all others, is dominated by a few.
All we can do is write the best book we can, hone our skills, do our homework, and pray for the break-out book. I can’t let the enormity of it all sink me. If I do, I’ll never write another book—and I’m sure we are all alike—we are compelled to write. It’s a compulsion. It’s hard and tedious and laborious and exhausting, but we have to do it, live to do it. Even if I won the lottery, I’d still write. Writers have a true love/hate relationship with composing. It’s our therapy and our demon. So, before leaving Barnes & Noble, I sat quietly and decided to practice a little metaphysics. I read THE SECRET. I believe in it. Our second book, THE LAST SECRET, was based on that theory. So, I took some cleansing breaths and then concentrated, envisioning a Sholes & Moore book on that best-seller shelf.
Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking. But I’ll bet you’ve done the same thing. I’m giving my writing the best I’ve got, there’s nothing else I can do on that front. What harm can there be in a little new age nudge?
Saturday, March 15, 2008
Thursday, March 13, 2008
by Felicia Donovan
When I think of the number of times that I have been challenged about writing not being a "real" job by people who are clueless about the effort it takes not only to write, but then to get published and finally to market the hell out of a book, I am eternally grateful for this:
because it is my living proof that in fact, I am a REAL writer, a published one, in fact.
I whip THE BLACK WIDOW AGENCY bookmark out of my purse at the speed of lightning and flap it like a hundred dollar bill in the person's face. "See, I even have a bookmark. It's official."
Despite my best efforts, I don't think they have a clue as to what an enormous task this involves. Heck, before I got published, I didn't either and I keep reminding myself of that. Still, I don't know what it takes to design and build a high-rise building, but I respect that it must be pretty involved and time-consuming.
I figure right now I'm easily averaging 30 - 40 hours a week marketing THE BLACK WIDOW AGENCY; editing the proofs on SPUN TALES - the next in the Black Widow Agency series; rewriting FRAGILE WEBS - the third book in the series; and working on yet another project. And yes, that's in addition to the full-time "day" job which keeps me on call 24x7.
So why is it that writing falls short of being recognized as a "real" job? Is it because writing is a somewhat reclusive endeavor so there's no one to actually witness the effort it takes? Perhaps it's because everyone from the meter reader to the guy in the Easter Bunny costume figures they have a novel in their head and it can't be all that hard? I'll put a positive spin on it and suggest that maybe it's just because people see our enthusiasm and dedication and figure if we love it that much, it can't really be "work." What do you think?
This past Tuesday was a big day for me. Why was it special? Because I had a date at our county jail.
Where I grew up, the county jail was a small affair and even though I’d never been inside the building, it didn’t seem threatening. Now I live in Richmond, Virginia. It’s not a small town and it has several large and imposing jail facilities. Again, I’ve never been inside one of these structures. I’ve gotten my share of speeding tickets, but I plead guilty (because I always am guilty!), write my check, and hand the whole thing off to the mailman.
But I’m halfway through my current manuscript (tentatively titled Path of the Wicked) and my amateur sleuth needs to visit the incarcerated son of one of the victims. The problem: With the exception of what I’ve seen on TV, I have no idea what a visitation area looks like. I also had a list of procedural questions for any sheriff’s deputy willing to talk to me, so I made an appointment to get a tour of the jail.
I have to admit—I was a bit scared come Tuesday morning. I wondered what to wear. (Look professional, but not too attractive. I imagined that the inmates might be more vocal in their catcalls than a group of construction workers. This was stereotyping at its worst on my part, as the only inmates that actually talked to me were extremely polite).
Bearing two boxes of bagels to show my gratitude (even though my friends dared me to bring donuts. I refused!) I waited on the check-in line in the lobby until Major Talley sought me out.
I’m not going to repeat the entire experience, as much of it will appear in my book, but I was amazed at how many facts I would have gotten wrong had I not made that visit. I didn’t realize that prisoner’s scrub colors indicate how much freedom they have to move around the jail. I also didn’t know that those in white were often within thirty days of being released. Their faces certainly looked more cheerful than the inmates in beige (the color assigned to the general population).
The sight that effected me the most was of the cells. Now, a cell is not a cage with two cots a dirty toilet, and rows of iron bars as often portrayed on TV, but a large, brightly lit room meant to house four men. It held thirty-five instead! And man, was it noisy!
“Why are you so overcrowded?” I asked my guide.
“Because the state penitentiary can refuse an inmate if they don’t have a free bed. We can’t, so these men sleep on the floor. We’ve got 190 men that should be at state.”
“Why don’t they build another prison?” I inquired naively.
“They’re building one,” my patient Major answered. “But the problem is that as soon as they finish, it’ll fill up. Build another one. It fills up. That’s the real issue.”
Boy, those words and the sights and sounds from that morning are still echoing in my mind. I can’t shake the image of the mother trying to convince a deputy to bring her son his reading glasses or the wife of an inmate holding their infant son up to the glass so that her husband could see his baby or the string of angry curses a girlfriend heaped onto her hostile-looking boyfriend on the other side of the glass wall. When he slammed down his telephone headset, I thought a gun had been fired. How often I have written about criminals, but they had never been so human until I spent some time around them!
I wonder if you’d share a time when you stepped out of your comfort zone. Did you ever serve a meal at a homeless shelter? Visit an elderly person you didn’t know? Go to court? Be the guest speaker at a school? What did you take away from that experience?
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
By Joe Moore
At least for me, that’s the fun part. Like digging for buried treasure, it's the excitement of uncovering those tidbits and morsels of fact that add seasoning and spice to the story. Over the years, I’ve accumulated a list of tricks and techniques to do my research. And I’ve placed the info in one location so you can use it, too. But before I reveal the location of the treasure, here’s a sampling of what you'll find.
How do you come up with names for your characters, especially the minor and walk-on characters? Pop in a DVD of any movie and skip to the credit roll. There’s hundreds of mix and match names to choose from. And if you need foreign names, just pick a movie that was shot in a particular country. Even the major Hollywood studies use local crews when they're on location and list their names in the credits.
Don't want to watch a movie? There's even fake name generators online.
How about background info on your characters? Easy. Just check the obituaries in a local or national paper. You’re sure to find biographies you can modify for your needs. There’s even a national obituary website where you can find thousands to review. And don’t forget searching the faculty bios at hundreds of colleges and universities for background info.
What about creating a sense of place? This one is really fun. Let’s say you need to describe a house where your character lives in a particular town. Start with one of the many a real estate websites. A quick search will show you what the houses look like in a particular neighborhood or area, many with virtual tours. Google maps gives you the names of the surrounding streets, highways and landmarks. And Google Earth shows you the surrounding territory in detail.
Your hero is in Mexico City reading the morning news. What’s the name of the leading Mexican newspaper? There are websites that list and monitor thousands of newspapers from around the world.
You need statistics? Visit the CIA World Factbook or the Bureau of Justice Statistics websites. Need info on the global terrorists attacks that happed this morning? How about military terms and technology? Or how stuff works? What about access to over 39,000 public record databases? Or finding out what time it is right now in Nigeria or Singapore? There are websites for these and so many more for writer’s research resources.
And the most intriguing treasure of all: The Hidden Web. It’s over 500 times larger than the Internet and hardly anyone knows about it or how to access it. Now you will.
As promised, here’s the location of my treasure trove, no digging needed. It's my present to all my writer friends. Enjoy!
Monday, March 10, 2008
“Don’t eat that. It’s dirty,” Mom used to say as my sisters and I ran around frantically trying to catch snowflakes on our tongues. And when we attempted a snow ice cream recipe, mixing sugar and half-and-half with five cups of the fluffy white stuff, she went apoplectic. “You don’t know where that’s been. What were you thinking? Throw that out, right now.”
So we did.
Bacteria in the Snowflakes?
Now I discover she was right. According to an Associated Press article in last week's St. Louis Post-Dispatch, scientists found that as much as 85% of the nuclei of snowflakes were bacteria. Okay, it’s the kind that only causes diseases in tomatoes, but those things mutate, don’t they? I mean, today it’s tomatoes, tomorrow you’re kissing your liver goodbye.
I set aside my daily paper, pushed away my latte, and buried my head in my hands. “If she was right about this…what else does Mom know? Maybe I should have been paying better attention.”
There was that threat: Step on a crack and you’ll break your mother’s back. She said it and laughed. Was she teasing? I’ve experimented, and so far, no word from Florida about breaking bones, but…who knows? Maybe it’s just a matter of time.
If you read in poor light, you’ll need glasses. By golly, she had me there. I’ve been blind as the proverbial bat—not a real bat, mind you—since fourth grade. Then I had LASIK surgery. But since then I must gone back to reading in poor light, because now I can scarcely read my AARP card held at arm’s length.
Your face is going to get stuck like that. On close examination, I do believe that hash-mark between my eyes is the result of constant frowns. Of making faces about the cost of gas, why my teenage son isn’t home yet, and failed attempts at weight loss.
Step outside with wet hair and you’ll catch your death of cold. Maybe wet hair doesn’t attract the rhinovirus, but a good chill does lower your immune system. At least, I think it does. After all, no one seems to know exactly what does and does not prevent a cold. As a young adult, I gulped gallons of orange juice. Next, I popped Zinc lozenges. Now I chug Airborne. What if all along the culprit has been wet hair? Wouldn’t surprise me a bit.
I reach for the phone and give Mom a call.(That's a photo of us taken 50-some years ago.) She’s always glad to hear from me. I take a deep breath and apologize. “Mom, all these years, I wasn’t listening to you. Turns out, you were right.” I go through my list of “mom-isms” and give her long overdue credit.
A Useful Citizen at Last
“See?” She says, a hint of self-satisfaction in her voice. “The pediatrician told me someday you’d be a useful citizen.” With that she signs off.
I put away the paper and clean the breakfast dishes. I feel strangely relieved to know Mom was right about so much. Checking the time, I realize I need to hurry or I’ll be late for my appointment. One foot is out the door, when I hear my mother’s voice in my head: Always put on clean underwear before you go out. What if you get hit by a car and they take you to the hospital?
And, Lord help me, I run upstairs to change.
Annoucing the Box O'Books and Lots O' Stickers Contest
Pop on over to http://www.killerhobbies.blogspot.com and enter the first ever Box O' Books and Lots O' Stickers Contest. All you have to do is sign up for our mailing list in the boxes on the right ON or BEFORE St. Patrick's Day, 2008, and you could win 1.) A box of gently read books totaling more than $180 in value or 2.) A selection of Mrs. Grossman's Stickers.
Come on and get lucky!
Joanna Campbell Slan is the author of ten non-fiction books. Her new series set in St. Louis will debut in September with Paper, Scissors, Death: A Scrapbooking Mystery (ISBN: 0-7387-1250-7) from Midnight Ink. Joanna and her family live in St. Louis.
Saturday, March 8, 2008
Lynn Sholes & Joe Moore will conduct the "UNDER THE HOOD, Fine Tuning Your Fiction" writing workshop & Book Signing.
Coral Springs Festival of the Arts
Saturday, March 15 - 3-4 PM
Barnes & Noble
2790 University Drive
Coral Springs, FL
Friday, March 7, 2008
Some oft-cited examples, in no particular order:
• Women protagonists who blindly walk into peril
• People who won't talk to the police
• Sub-plots involving adultery
• Did I mention swearing?
• And smoking?
All this surprised me. First of all, it was a little alarming because my follow-up to Lost Dog features a fair degree of swearing and smoking (and extensive craving of a smoke) as well as people who won't talk to the police and a sub-plot involving adultery. I even have a minor character with lots of tattoos. I don't have a woman protagonist who walks blindly into peril in this one, which is my one saving grace I suppose. Oh, and I don't kill a dog, an act so heinous it doesn't even need to be listed.
My own personal pet peeve, as described in a previous post, is unrealistically great first time sex, with ubiquitous, unstoppable computer hackers running a close second. Other than that, I am pretty tolerant. We're talking about a novel here, after all. It's not like I have to hang out with these people.
Take smoking. My guy, Skin Kadash, smokes like a chimney in Lost Dog, but has mostly quit in my second novel, Chasing Smoke. All throughout Chasing Smoke, however, he's craving a smoke. I mean, he just quit, and it's hard. Sometimes he almost breaks down and lights up, but even when he's not smoking himself he's watching others smoke, and thinking about it. A lot.
Now, I'm not a smoker. I'm not even a former smoker. I'm gracious about it with my friends who do smoke, but I admit I don't care for the smell of tobacco smoke and I don't care for smoker's breath and smoker's hair. But, hey, let's face it, it's not my decision and if my friends want to smoke, it's their choice. If we're out having a beer and a friend lights up, no worries. I like my friends a LOT more than I dislike smoking. And no doubt I have plenty of habits that others don't care for.
In writing about smoking, I went to great lengths to create a character who was sympathetic, and whose need for a smoke actually accentuated his intrigue as a person. Aside from the challenge it posed to me as a writer, it also just fit in with who he is. How successful I am with Skin I'll leave for my readers to decide, but I would hope that no one would dismiss him, or the book, out of hand simply because he's a smoker.
Consider that other great taboo. Killing a dog or cat. As crime fiction writers, we can kill off untold numbers of people, but lay a finger on the fur of a single fictional pet and we're Hitler. Kids are pretty much sacrosanct too, though we're actually allowed to put children in danger at times.
True, some folks have gotten away with the killing of the innocents. Glenn Close still had a career after boiling the bunny. Steven Spielberg still gets to make movies despite T-Rex eating a dog in Jurassic Park II. And there are a number of successful books and films in which children come to a dark end. But for the most part, those are events we dramatize fictionally at our peril. "After he killed the pomeranian, I resolved to never buy another book by him, and to picket bookstores that sell his books, and to mail little ziplock bags of dog doody to his mother, and,... and,... and,..."
That's disappointing to me, and not because I want to kill a dog. I love dogs. And I love kids. And I love people, though certainly not all of them. But as a writer, I want to feel free to tell stories as they unfold, not feel constrained by lists of no-no's. And, as a reader, (and let's face it, I read a LOT more books than I'll ever write), I want authors to feel that they can tell the stories they need to tell without stressing about the Verboten!
I'm not advocating gratuitous butchery here. But let's be honest. We're killers, as writers, and voyeurs of killing, as readers of crime fiction. Even the coziest among us produce a body count that would be shocking if it weren't on the page. The distinction between a bloodless death in the drawing room and serial slaughter in an abattoir isn't all that great, even if sometimes we pretend it is. And certainly I know there are any number of topics that probably cross the line for the vast majority of us. I'm not saying there aren't valid lines. I'm also not suggesting that we have to read or write about topics that don't interest us. There are a million books out there, and none of them are for everyone. I just wonder if, considering the mayhem we do tolerate, some lines aren't a little arbitrary and unmindful of what's really going on here.
I don't smoke, and I don't have a tattoo, and I won't commit adultery. But I write about all these things, and many others that probably make it onto scold's list somewhere. I guess, in the end, if we're okay with Colonel Mustard doing it in the library with a candlestick, might it also be okay if he has a smoke afterwards, and maybe cops a feel from Mrs. White at the biker bar up the road while getting his tats touched up? We're being entertained by imaginary murder. Is a cigarette or illicit affair so awful in comparison?
Thursday, March 6, 2008
My first two Odelia Grey novels were home runs on the first pitch. There was never any doubt in my mind (or my publisher’s) that Too Big To Miss or The Curse of the Holy Pail weren’t winners. Then came the third novel. The recently released Thugs and Kisses started life as Remedial Murder, then morphed into Mother Mayhem. Neither my publisher or I could come up with anything better. Then one evening, while playing a game of online backgammon, I took note of the screen name of my opponent: Thugsnkisses. A light went on in my head and the next morning I sent an e-mail to my editor: Was it too late to change the title???? It wasn’t, but just barely. And Thugs and Kisses became a winner by a landslide.
At the beginning of the year, I submitted the 4th Odelia Grey novel to Midnight Ink. From the start its title has been Epitaph Envy, but when I received suggestions back from the editorial committee on the manuscript, it seemed that folks didn’t get the title. Oh oh. Although nothing had been officially bantered about, someone at Midnight Ink suggested the title of Booby Trap. It took me all of 3-1/2 seconds to fall in love with Booby Trap and I’m hopeful that it will receive the official blessing by the publisher powers that be.
Now I’m working on the 5th Odelia Grey book and am kicking around some possible new titles even before I have 3 chapters written. Its working title is Fifty Can Be Fatal. A good and fitting title, but is it the best for the book? Will it stop book shoppers in their tracks? Will it boost sales? Inspired by Booby Trap, I spun the book’s plot around in my head and came up with a new title: Corpse on the Cob. Tasty, huh? (Note: the plot involves a maze set in a corn field.)
Often when I sit on panels I’m asked about book titles. Do authors get to choose their own? How do you come up with them? What makes a good title? A great title?
Janet Evanovich runs contests for her book titles. My friend and fellow Midnight Ink author, Keith Raffel, recently posted suggestions for book’s titles on his blog and asked folks to comment on them. It took two posts for him to come up with something blog readers were happy with, but he’ll still need to get that title past his publisher.
Although the author gets to name the baby manuscript, the author may have little or no say in what title it wears when it grows up and leaves the nest. So far, I’ve been fortunate in that my publisher and I have seen eye-to-eye on titles. I’ve loved their suggestions as much as they’ve loved mine.
What creative ways have you used to come up with titles for books?
What titles have you disliked?
What is your favorite book title of all time? (The first one that came to my mind was A Confederacy of Dunces.)
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
The other night my guy and I went to a birthday party. A few minutes after we got there, a man I will call TJ walked up to us.
“Hey there.” Points to himself. “TJ. I’m here as R’s date. Not that we’re you know, dating. We’re just ----ing. Hahahahaha. I don’t know you. I’d remember if I knew you because I always remember good lookin’ women.” Peers around. “Where’s my friend Jack?”
And off he went to find his fifth of Jack Daniels, which he carried with him all evening, swigging directly from the bottle until it was gone. I kid you not. Why, after all, dirty a glass?
Then he passed out in the backyard.
Between his delightful greeting (we had, in fact, met before, and it was just as unpleasant the first time) and his blessed unconsciousness, he yammered loudly to anyone within listening range, insulted several of the other party goers, made out with some woman who was not his “date” for the evening, and had his face slapped.
Now: this was a large party with lots of people. Most of us were well over the age of forty, with a few thirty-somethings tossed in. There were martinis and mojitos, chatting and catching up, lots of laughter and a little dancing later on. It was, in short, a fun time.
Except, of course, for TJ. He was obnoxious, loud, and rude when sober, and then he and Jack managed to exacerbate those marvelous qualities as the evening progressed. And to make it worse, the woman who was supposed to be his date was the birthday girl.
At one point my S.O. breathed into my ear, “Oh, man. You have to put that guy in a book. He’s a perfect asshole.”
Ruefully, I told my dear one that however much I’d love to mine such an extreme character, he was, unfortunately, too perfect. TJ was simply too much that guy: a caricature of himself. A real person who could only be a cliché in fiction.
At a recent reading, a woman asked whether the people I base my characters on recognized themselves in my writing. Her question presupposed that I use friends and family as characters, and I had to explain that I really don’t do that.
She insisted that you have to write what you know, so my fiction must reflect actual people. I pointed out that I also know all the other folks I’ve met in a lifetime of reading fiction and non-fiction, as well as watching movies and television. So if you take that into consideration, the questioner was probably right.
Last week my aunt called. She said she’d read Lye in Wait, and she’d finally figured out who everyone in the book was.
I made inquisitive noises, though I suspected where the conversation was headed.
“Tootie is your great grandmother McCoy, isn’t she? But are you Sophie Mae or Meghan?”
Neither one. Both. In fact, I’m everyone in my books, to a degree, because I can’t help but write from aspects of myself. Sophie Mae isn’t me, though we share some of the same interests. And Meghan isn’t me, though I’m short and have brown hair. Barr Ambrose isn’t me, though I’m originally from Wyoming. And Erin isn’t me, even if I was a smart ass ten-year-old.
Maybe I can't put TJ into a book until I get better at being a jerk. I'll try and work on that.
So where do your characters come from? Are they alter egos? Have you ever put someone you know directly on the page? Do you get to know your characters as you write, or do they come to you fully formed?
Monday, March 3, 2008
Writers, are you ever censoring what you write because of what your spouse, squeeze, kids, parents, or friends might think? Spill it.
A funny thing happened on the way to writing this blog post. I got engaged . . . to be married. Here I was, all set to blog about “unexpected guest” characters—you know, those fictional folks you don’t see coming who nonetheless show up on the page and change everything—when my significant other slipped a ring on my finger. A very nice ring, I might add.
The Unexpected Guest Character post will have to wait because my new status as fiancée has filled my head with entirely different notions. And I’m not talking about wedding plans although The Event will certainly require some forethought. Not to mention the fact that we're contemplating a move to another part of the country. No, what I’m thinking about now is the way my attitudes toward love and lust manifest in what I write.
During the years when my previous marriage—a long one gradually destroyed by his preference for booze over employment—was in decline, the women in my fiction were either leaving their husbands or coping with the death of their husbands. That includes my first teen novel and my first Whiskey Mattimoe mystery. In the years following my divorce, I wrote about women falling into passionate love with thrilling but inappropriate men. Let's just say I enjoyed the research.
My ex insisted he never saw the divorce coming. Being drunk most of the time made it hard for him to keep up. He might have got a clue if he had read Whiskey on the Rocks or Homefree, or even considered the titles. My whimsical play Cherchez Dave Robicheaux offered a big tip: the heartsick protagonist leaves her husband for a fictional character. My protagonist was more desperate than I was.
Enough about what came before. What’s happening now is that I’m engaged to a tender, funny, generous man who puts family and friends first. Although more into sports than literature, he used to be a professional speechwriter; thus, he respects my work. I met my fiancé when I wasn't looking for love, yet I knew almost immediately from our ease with each other that he was Mr. Right. Never mind that he wasn't my “type,” and I'd never written about loving a man like him.
In the movie Definitely, Maybe the hero concludes that finding the right partner may be more a matter of when than whom. Put another way, you have to be ready. I opened my heart and recognized a fine man when I met him. The rest was easy. But if I'd met my guy a couple years earlier, I doubt we would have clicked. Timing, as they say, is everything. And I'll go a step further: anything I've ever tried to force has failed, be it a relationship, a storyline, or a laugh.
Fiction is the realm where I play with my fears and fantasies. But life is where I live them, and it offers more surprises than I can make up.
Your turn. Tell us a little about the relationships, romantic or otherwise, you've built on the page . . . if you dare!
P.S. Happy Birthday, Inkspot! This blog was conceived one year ago today. Jess Lourey gets credit for thinking of it, Joe Moore for building it, Keith Raffel for scheduling it, and the rest of us for contributing essays once a month.