Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sweatin' the Small Stuff

by Kathleen Ernst

I just finished my final read-through of Old World Murder. Today it goes back to Midnight Ink, and on to the printer.

Many authors, I suspect, savor this moment. (I'm done! I'm done!) Me? Not
so much.

It's not that I'm not excited about publication. Of course I am! But a refrain keeps circling through my brain: What did I miss?

I can't even count how many times I've carefully worked my way through these pages. Dozens and dozens. Hundreds, maybe. Lots of writer-friends and content specialists have reviewed it as well. And still, on this final pass, I found more than a few mistakes.

After Midnight Ink accepted Old World Murder, I cut about twenty thousand words in order to get the manuscript down to the publisher's target length. I tried to smooth over the cuts, but I did find a couple more disconnects on this final round. For example, very late in the novel I refer to a character saying such-and-such, when in fact, that line in Chapter 1 was deleted.

Then there were the awkward bits. Here's one clunker: "A headband striped with yellow and green and blue kept a curtain of shoulder-length braids swept back from her shoulders." How could I have missed that double "shoulder" earlier?

Old World Murder is set in 1982, which provides a few extra challenges. One reader informed me that the word "Scrunchie" was not in use then. (Scrunchies, for those not in the know, are hair thingies.)

I have memories of wonderful meals at a place called The Nite Cap Inn back in the '80s, and I wrote it into the book. (I only use real places if I love them.) I thought I'd described it well, but my husband and I recently dined there so I could revisit the fish fry experience. The food is still superb, but I'd forgotten that you have to order first, and wait in the bar until a table is ready. A small thing...but locals would know the difference. I changed my scene accordingly.

Consistency is another bugaboo. A patio table that was made of iron in chapter 4 had magically morphed into wicker by the book's end. My cop character is keeping an eye on a tavern called The Eagle's Nest; I noticed on this round that about half the time I didn't capitalize "The." Ack.

And despite the careful and detailed timeline I've constructed for the narrative, I not once but twice referred to the wrong day of the week.

I work really hard on my books. I hope I've told a good story in Old World Murder, but that isn't enough. I want the writing itself to sing.

So to all patient editors, manuscript reviewers, copy editors, and proofreaders--thank you. I'd be lost without you.

And to all readers--thank you too, for being willing to float over whatever flubs escape the final edit, and make their way into print.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Revenge of the Tic Tac Toe Chicken

Yes, I was a Nancy Drew girl growing up, but that’s not where I came imageup with that title. Rather, it’s about a certain tic-tac-toe-playin’ chicken found in a glass cage in Reptile World in Rapid City, South Dakota. Four years ago, that chicken beat my 8-year-old daughter’s butt in a game of x’s and o’s, and this weekend, she’s getting a rematch.

It’s time for our annual family vacation (cue “Holiday Road”). I come from a family of teachers, and the summer road trip is sacred to us. This summer, my kids and boyfriend and I are spending two and a half weeks in a car: first to Mount Rushmore for the 4th of July (and a chick tac toe rematch), over to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, down to Colorado for some whitewater rafting, through Nebraska and Iowa because they’re in the way, to Indianapolis to visit family, back through Wisconsin Dells, over to Winona for a summer Shakespeare festival, and back home.


This will be Steve’s first summer trip with the kids and me. His jawimage clenches when he smiles and tells me how much he’s looking forward to it. He’s no dummy.

But I love the summer road trip. It’s the only time I don’t feel guilty about not cleaning the house, mowing the lawn, paying bills, exercising, or any of the daily chores that accumulate like woodticks on my back. I may do some writing, but I probably won’t. I’ll read, and my kids will play rather than watch TV, and I won’t halt any conversations because I have to get back to my computer to grade. Wally World, here we come.

Any suggestions for writing on the road, places to visit in the upper U.S., or smell- and tasteless over-the-counter narcotics to sedate children/boyfriend with? If not, I’ll take car game suggestions as a back-up.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Inkspot News - June 26, 2010

Alan Orloff will be appearing at the American Library Association 2010 Annual Conference in Washington, DC, signing today in the Midnight Ink booth from 1:30 - 2:30.

Joanna Campbell Slan will be at the conference on Sunday, signing in the Midnight Ink booth on June 27 from 10 - 11 am, and at the Sisters in Crime booth from 11 am - 1 pm.

G.M. Malliet will also be appearing at ALA on Sunday, June 27. Her book signings will take place following the "Red Herrings" panel with fellow mystery writers Jane Cleland (Silent Auction), Sheila Connolly (Red Delicious Death), and Daniel Stashower (Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters) at 10 am; at the Midnight Ink booth at 1 pm, and at the Sisters in Crime booth at 2:30 pm.

The full signing schedule starting today for authors at the ALA Sisters in Crime booth is as follows:

Saturday 6/26
9 –11:
Maria Lima
10 –12:
Elizabeth Zelvin
Alexandra Sokoloff
11- 1:
Meredith Cole
12:30 – 2: 30:
Nancy Martin
1- 3:
Rebecca York
2:30 – 3:30:
Jane Cleland
Rosemary Harris
3 –5:
John Willis
Pat Summers

Sunday 6/27
9 – 11
Ellen Crosby
Sandra Parshalll
Alex Sokoloff
10 – 11:30
Hank Phillippi Ryan
11- 1
Joanna Campbell Slan

Libby Hellman
Peter Abresch
1 – 3
Sheila York
James Hayman
Donna Andrews
2:30 – 3:30
GM Malliet

3 – 5
Tom Kaufman
Cara Black
Monica Faeth Myers
Monday, 6/28
11 – 1
Debbi Mack
1 – 3
Marcia Talley
3 – 5
Pamela Samuels

Friday, June 25, 2010

Gratitude ... and a Video

Cricket McRae

Yesterday I drove down to Denver to have lunch with my publicist at Midnight Ink, who's there for a trade show. She's a delight, and three and half hours slid away like it was nothing. Our afternoon together sparked thoughts on the drive home about all the people who have helped my writing career in both small and large ways.

And that in turn sparked a memory. Hadn't I already written a post here about how lucky I felt? Yep, it turns out I did, and it was timed almost exactly the same as this one: right before the release of a book.

That post was prior to the release of Spin a Wicked Web, book three in my Home Crafting Mystery Series. This time Something Borrowed, Something Bleu is due out in six days. Funny how the prospect of a book hitting the shelves fills me with gratitude. Or maybe not so funny. Maybe it's just right.

I've thanked everyone I've worked with at the publisher, the terrific group here at Inkspot, kind blurbers, reviewers and, of course, readers. My acknowledgements mention my agent(s), family, friends, critique partners and people who helped me with research. This fourth book is dedicated to libraries everywhere.

And I'm still grateful to them all.

But unmentioned elsewhere are the other writers who encouraged me early in my journey and also later in my career. Fellow workshoppers and students, teachers and generous published writers. The time William Dietrich told me to never stop writing because I told a good story and he knew I'd make it. When William Kittredge told me after a creative nonfiction workshop that I'd be published within two years (it was close). My chance encounter with Skye Kathleen Moody in the basement of the Denny Building at UW and her out-of-the-blue offer to read my manuscript and recommend it to her agent if she liked it. Robert Michael Pyle's constant, gentle appreciation of my off-the-cuff prose.

Over the years I've contacted them all to say thanks.

And now there are the people in the various professional organizations who offer advice, camaraderie and keep me sane simply because they get it. I've heard of stingy, jealous writers, but I have yet to run into any of them.

Of course I may have tempted fate by writing that. I'll let you know.

Anyway, the book is coming out next week, and I'm guesting at various blogs and wandering around to book stores to do my dog-and-pony show (since it's just me maybe it's only a pony show?). For anyone interested, the whole schedule is here.

Now I'll leave you with the trailer for Something Borrowed, Something Bleu. And THANKS!

Create your own video slideshow at

Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Comfortable Fit

By Deborah Sharp

It was a Tuesday in the distant past, and I was trying out another writing group. A fellow aspiring novelist read what he'd labored over, something about Russian immigrants and snow.

My God, this room is cold. Is that an ink stain, or are my fingers actually turning blue? I glanced around the air-conditioned room. Maybe I'll move. Wonder if that side is any warmer?

My interior monologue on the AC thermostat didn't bode well for the reader, or for my membership in that particular group. I'm a huge supporter of writing groups, but it's important to find the right fit. When I left journalism six years ago to try my hand at writing mysteries, I heard the same advice I now give beginners: Join a critique group. There's nothing like getting other eyes -- or ears -- on your work. But finding the right group is easier said than done.

I worked harder at finding a writing group than I did at finding a husband (Thanks to my persistent husband, Kerry, for finding me!) Choosing a group, I was like Goldilocks and beds. One was too hard; the next was too soft. One was too big; another too small. One group hadn't even moved beyond talking about writing. It was less a critique group than a support group.

Me: My name is Deborah, and I'm addicted to the idea I may write someday, just not today.
Group: Hi, Deborah!

Another group fancied itself Serious Novelists. They all wrote Literary Tomes about Important Themes. Now, if y'all know anything about my Mace Bauer Mysteries, featuring Mace's wacky mama . . . Serious, Literary, and Important do not immediately come to mind. One member was writing about a post-apocalyptic world, after almost everyone died of the plague.

Woo-eee, sounds like a knee-slapper! After 20 years as a journalist, I'd had enough sad stories. I wanted to write fun, frothy books. The serious group clearly wasn't the group for me.

All this is not to say you have to find writers working in your exact genre, with your exact style. I ultimately found two groups in Ft. Lauderdale, and I still pop in occasionally (the pace once you're published makes regular attendance more difficult). Both have members with a wide range of styles, including Young Adult (YA), historical, and even a few Serious Types. The key, for me, is the mix. Not too lofty; not too lowbrow. Similarly proficient in the basics, like punctuation, spelling, and the ability to write in paragraphs. Supportive, but also willing to give honest critiques.

Your writing group should be like a favorite pair of shoes. You wouldn't buy a pair you couldn't walk in, would you? (Okay, I've done that ... but still). The shoes don't have to be perfect, just comfortable.

How about you? Do you go to a writing group? What's the best -- or worst -- thing you've gotten out of it?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Pix from BEA in NYC

A few weeks ago, I went to BookExpo America (BEA) in NYC. I had a blast. Here’s a pictorial recap:




The Midnight Ink booth







And more booth








Some interesting books








Fellow MWA member Jason Pinter signing at the MWA booth ( where I signed the following day)







ITW pal Pam Callow’s awesome light-up display for DAMAGED






From Kathy 1 

Me, trying to smile, talk, and sign at the same time. Harder than it looks!




From MI 1


Terrific Midnight Ink authors Sue Ann Jaffarian and Sebastian Stuart (and me)




From MI 7


Wonderful readers lining up to get signed books





 From MI 5


Pal Sue Ann Jaffarian, down to her last few copies of MURDER IN VEIN




Special thanks to Midnight Ink and my agent for taking some of these photos!


If you’re going to the American Library Association’s annual conference this weekend in D.C., stop by the Midnight Ink booth on Saturday, June 26 between 1:30 and 2:30 when I’ll be signing copies of DIAMONDS FOR THE DEAD. On Sunday, June 27, stop by and see Joanna Campbell Slan (10 –11 am) and G.M. Malliet (1 – 2 pm) to get signed copies of their books.

I love librarians!!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Sex Scenes

Tom Schreck writes the Duffy Dombrowski Mysteries and is the co-author with JA Konrath of the KIndle best seller PLANTER'S PUNCH
. He's a big freakin' deal.

First of all, cool your jets.

This blog isn’t going porno at least until I can set it up so I can accept credit cards, lose weight and do some ab work.

This is about writing sex scenes in non-erotic fiction.

BTW, have you read the stuff called “erotic romance”. These books are found in Barnes and Noble in the romance section and they have covers that are a tad more suggestive than the usual romance covers.

Inside they read like a Penthouse letter. (I would know this only from what I’ve read in clinical journals and trade magazines about pornography, having never opened a magazine of that ilk.)

I guess because they are marketed to women they aren’t sealed in plastic and put way high up on the shelf of shame next to the sign that says “STORE IS MONITORED BY SECURITY CAMERAS.”

I’ll leave the discussion of that inequity for another day (and wait for Jen Forbus’s reply.)

Anyway, what about the sex scenes in non-erotic books? Have your read Stuart Woods and seen how happy he gets writing embarrassingly explicit scenes? Apparently Stone Barrington got his nickname for good reason.

Then there’s authors who get so flowery I can’t even tell what the people are doing–which is probably fine. Great authors who can put you right in the middle the action suddenly forget how to write when it comes to the narrative about the beast with two backs.

There’s also the issue of realism. I guess if novels were focused on being real we wouldn’t want to read them. I mean we read to take us away from our boring drudgery. At the same time I get a little annoyed at sex partners who can do it 26 times in one evening, standing up, swinging from a trapeze and in a scuba suit. Twenty-six times? Really? That’s like twice what I can do! (I can write this because my wife never reads my blog.)

So what makes for a good bumpin’ uglies scene? Here’s what I think:

1. It shouldn’t be graphic but it shouldn’t be so obtuse you can’t tell what the hell is happening.

2. It helps if the people are ah…how do I say this.. built realistically.

3. Chill out with the extent of the bliss the two parties experience.

4. Don’t go crazy with the lovey-dovey stuff or the over-the-top gritty porn-like stuff.

5. Throw in some anxiety, apprehension and insecurity because I’ve read some people (though certainly not successful authors of dog-related mysteries) some times experience these emotions.

6. Make sure it has at least something tangentially related to the story line. Don’t throw in a sex scene every 112 pages to keep the reader’s attention.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Interfering Characters

Maternite-Nicolas Tarkhoff On Saturday, I took my children to see The Karate Kid to escape the relentless heat we’ve been having in North Carolina.

I was 13 when the original movie came out, but this movie seemed different—and better—than my memory of the original. I think it was also a lot more intense…there were several scenes of Dre being bullied that made me wince.

The mother in the movie was an interesting character. She’d never have allowed her son to be bullied—if she’d known about it. The character clearly loved her child…but was busy with a new job, new country, new customs, etc. I thought the writers and director had a tough job—show the mother as loving and supportive, but ultimately keep her distant to allow her son to run into trouble.

It seemed to me that the screenwriter accomplished this by making the mother ineffective in a plausible way:
She’d just moved to a foreign country.
She was trying to learn the language, currency, and her new job.
She was busy enough not to be perceptive.

I’ll admit I’m on top of my kids all the time—I know where they are, who they’re with, how long they’ll be there…and they’re not allowed to go wandering around the neighborhood by themselves.

Any movie based on my children would be extremely boring.

But this mother moved to China, where her son spoke not a word of the language, and let him roam around the neighborhood at all hours. Once there was a text on his phone from his mom that he needed to come home—that was pretty much it for supervision. She also let him spend entire days with a maintenance man who was a stranger to her…someone she knew nothing about.

If she hadn’t kept this distance from her child, if she’d demanded to know why Dre had a black eye when he clearly lied and said he’d run into a pole, the plot couldn’t have moved forward. He’d never have encountered the bully that made him take up kung fu. He’d never have learned martial arts from the strange man. The whole plot could never have taken place.

This kind of character is very prevalent in YA literature—as are dead parents. :) Parents are notorious for interfering. But then I started thinking about my own books. Both of my protagonists are widows. Why? Because they’re older ladies and I didn’t want their husbands being over-protective and interfering if they wanted to track down killers. My Myrtle Clover character has an interfering son, but since he’s not in the same house, he can’t shut her down as effectively—she can bypass him.

Some interfering characters are important—the antagonist, obviously, is there to provide conflict for our characters and propel the plot forward.

But characters who hold our protagonists back? I’m thinking most of us avoid writing them unless we’re writing a story where our character breaks away from these people (Harry Potter escaping his awful aunt and uncle comes to mind.)

How about you? Do you have a character that holds your character back? How do you handle it?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Inkspot News - June 19, 2010

G.M. Malliet will be appearing at the American Library Association 2010 Annual Conference in Washington, DC, on Sunday, June 27. Her book signings will take place following the "Red Herrings" panel with fellow mystery writers Jane Cleland (Silent Auction), Sheila Connolly (Red Delicious Death), and Daniel Stashower (Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters) at 10 am; at the Midnight Ink booth at 1pm, and at the Sisters in Crime booth at 2:30 pm.

Alan Orloff will also be at the conference, signing in the Midnight Ink booth on Saturday, June 26 from 1:30 - 2:30.

Joanna Campbell Slan will be at the conference, too, signing in the Midnight Ink booth on Sunday, June 27 from 10 - 11 am, and at the Sisters in Crime booth 11 am - 1 pm.

Beth Groundwater won't be at the conference, but she'll be discussing and signing her books Saturday, June 26 at The Dinner Detective Murder Mystery Dinner Show, Embassy Suites Denver Southeast, 7525 East Hampden Avenue, Denver, CO from 6 pm on.

The full signing schedule for authors at the ALA Sisters in Crime booth is as follows:

Friday 6/25
5:30 – 7:30:
Ellen Byerrum
Becky Hutchison
Alex Sokolofff (tentative)

Saturday 6/26
9 –11:
Maria Lima
10 –12:
Elizabeth Zelvin
Alexandra Sokoloff
11- 1:
Meredith Cole
12:30 – 2: 30:
Nancy Martin
1- 3:
Rebecca York
2:30 – 3:30:
Jane Cleland
Rosemary Harris
3 –5:
John Willis
Pat Summers

Sunday 6/27
9 – 11
Ellen Crosby
Sandra Parshalll
Alex Sokoloff
10 – 11:30
Hank Phillippi Ryan
11- 1
Joanna Campbell Slan

Libby Hellman
Peter Abresch
1 – 3
Sheila York
James Hayman
Donna Andrews
2:30 – 3:30
GM Malliet

3 – 5
Tom Kaufman
Cara Black
Monica Faeth Myers
Monday, 6/28
11 – 1
Debbi Mack
1 – 3
Marcia Talley
3 – 5
Pamela Samuels

Friday, June 18, 2010


I never make New Year’s resolutions. I figure I don’t need one more added stress in my life, and whether I make a resolution about it or not, no matter how much I diet and exercise, that muffin top isn’t going away. And let’s face it, isn’t that what 99% of New Year’s resolutions are about -- losing weight?

But why, you may ask, am I talking about New Year’s resolutions in June? Because even though I never make New Year’s resolutions, I did make one last year. I kept it last year, and I’ve repeated the resolution this year. (The trick is to pick something that has nothing to do with losing weight!)

Last year I decided to keep track of all the books I read. So I opened a file on my computer and named it BOOKS READ IN 2009. There are 23 books on that list. My BOOKS READ IN 2010 list is already up to 13. I’m well on my way to breaking last year’s record, and I’m feeling pretty good about that. I know many people read a book a day or at least one a week. I wish I had that much free time. I’m juggling 3 jobs. Carving out time for pleasure reading isn’t easy. So I’m grateful to have the time I do for the reading I’ve done.

I’m a very eclectic reader. So far this year I’ve read books as diverse as Pride and Prejudice, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Mistress of the Art of Death, and The Spellmans Strike Again. I’ve also read quite a few books by my fellow Inkspotters. Right now I’m reading Winging It, a memoir about a family and their pet parrot.

As diverse as my reading has been, I gravitate toward books with happy endings. I’m convinced as a society and a country, we need happy endings now more than ever. With people all around us losing their homes, their jobs, and their retirement nest eggs, plus an environmental disaster and two wars that show no signs of ending any time soon, we need an escape from reality. And what’s more of an escape from reality than books with happy endings? Who needs books filled with angst and despair when we get more than enough of that by watching the news?

So what about you? What kinds of books are you reading lately?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

God dag

God dag, mig namn er GM Klubben, och Jag har skrev en Svensk blockbuster sätta inne Stockholm.

That is Swedish for, "Good Day, my name is GM Malliet, and I have written a Swedish blockbuster set in Stockholm."

At least I think that is the proper translation. I have no idea why the online translator changed me from GM Malliet to GM Klubben, but, hey, I wanna be a paperback writer so I'm fine with that, so long as klubben doesn't mean "smelly swordfish left behind in the sauna for several days."

The reason for my sudden willingness to change is this story in the NY Times: "A Scandinavian Hit Sets Publishers Seeking More." The runaway success of the Stieg Larsson trilogy has publishers scrambling to acquire rights to books by other Scandinavian authors who for one reason or another are extremely popular yet never achieved the runaway success of Larsson--authors like Camilla Lackberg, Henning Mankell, and Jo Nesbo. Karen Fossum (Norway) and Arnalder Indridason (Iceland) have also contributed to the chilly thriller phenomenon. The trend, slow-moving as an ice flow, seems to have started with Peter Hoeg's 1992 Smilla's Sense of Snow.

The Times reports that the Larsson books so far have sold 6 million copies in the United States and 35 million copies worldwide. The tragedy, as everyone must know by now, is that Larsson did not live to know of his phenomenal success. That alone is a scary, heartbreaking story that touches the core of every author of every type of book.

The Times goes on to talk about Jessica Case, an editor at Pegasus Books, who is quoted as giving Ms. Lackberg "one of the highest advances we’ve ever paid" for her American debut of The Ice Princess, a book first published in 2003. I must say that as an author I find this inspirational.

Of course, all authors know that chasing a trend in publishing is a sure recipe for disaster. I could change the protagonist in my current book into a Swedish priest, and change the setting to some gloomy town in Scandinavia, include a gorgeous female sidekick with tattoos, and publish as GM Klubben, but something tells me it just wouldn't be the same.

I missed the vampire boat, being sailed so successfully by Charlaine Harris and our own Sue Ann Jaffarian. I missed the whole Harry Potter scene, and the Dan Brown-type religious thriller. I also missed the chick lit trend, typified by Bridget Jones' Diary, but I was just in time to parody the trend in chick lit mysteries in my own Death and the Lit Chick. Does that count?

You have to wonder, as you ponder those 35 million copies worldwide, what the next great country or theme will be. Any guesses from blog readers or my fellow MInkers?

 p.s. This morning's Washington Post also carries an intriguing article on the Scandinavian invasion.

Photo from

is of the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden.

Photo of village is from Scandinavia Travel.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Careful, or You'll End Up in My Novel

by Felicia Donovan
careful The other day I had a rather bizarre run-in with a complete stranger in the middle of a store parking lot. The episode all began as I tried to allow a car that was turning from a side aisle, to go ahead of me. I waited and waited for the car to go, but when it was clear (at least to me) that they weren't going, I moved forward. I parked. They parked two spaces away.
As I exited my car, the driver, a woman around my age, approached me quickly and proceeded to launch a tirade of nasties that were so foul, even I was left speechless. Trust me, after years of working at a police department I'm not easily shocked, but she was launching everything she had. She stormed off into the store. I turned back, wrote down her license plate and proceeded into the store where the litany of swears continued every time I crossed her path in an aisle. She would turn her tall, thin body away from me and quietly launch yet another attack. At one point I tried to engage her in dialogue, but clearly she too caught up in her own misery and anger to listen. "A wretched soul..." Shakespeare would say.  I finally left the store ahead of her fearful that my car would be keyed.
The episode has been on my mind ever since. I honestly do feel sorry for her and her anger, but after several days of reflection I decided the whole incident would work well in my current project.
"Careful, or you'll end up in my next novel."
That's what is printed on a sweatshirt my good friend gave me for Christmas one year.
This woman was a total stranger from out-of-state whom I'm likely never to cross paths with ever again. I don't feel particularly emotional about describing her in as much detail as I can (of what I recall amidst the verbal colonoscopy ), but it brings to mind that as writers, we are a unique lot because we have the capability and opportunity to share stories with the rest of the world based on our own experiences. That's pretty powerful. Hopefully we protect the innocent, but what about the guilty? Have you ever felt compelled to use your writing talents to seek revenge? Serve justice for an injustice? My Black Widows certainly know all about that and would be the first to not only admit it, but to do so with pride. What about you?  'Fess up now, Everyone! 

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Fevered Spring

Keith Raffel here.

No advice today. No startling insights. I haven’t had time to come up with either.

A week ago Sunday was the baccalaureate service for this year's graduating seniors from Palo Alto High School including my #2. (See photo of the happy grad and her proud parents at left.) Wednesday was the actual ceremony. Reading the names of the 400+ grads took well over an hour. Once that last name was read, #2 and her (now) fellow alumni climbed on to buses that took them to the USS Hornet, the aircraft carrier that recovered the Apollo 11 capsule, for Grad Night. Good ol’ Dad picked her and two friends up at 3AM. After a few hours of shut-eye , I rolled out of bed for #4’s promotion ceremony from elementary school which was marked by the exuberance you'd expect from 5th graders. That evening we went to #3's promotion from middle school. Since she only had sixteen classmates, the service was far more intimate than her big sister’s.

No, graduation festivities weren’t over. Nephew #2 picked up a master’s at the Jr. university (full name: Leland Stanford Junior University) across the street from Palo Alto High on Sunday. His parents wanted to throw him a party and our house became the designated site. We had a motley collection of family, music and engineering students, my brother’s friends from high school, neurosurgeons, and even a gubernatorial candidate over here celebrating his graduation. Next year for the first time in almost a decade we won’t be in loco parentis for a temporarily orphaned-by-distance Stanford student.

Saturday night my wife and I went to friend Dan’s 50th birthday party. In an act that should warm the heart of any author or bibliophile, the only gift we were allowed to bring was a favorite book. I took the egocentric route and gave him a bound manuscript of what my agent is out there trying to sell right now. At least I could be sure it wouldn’t be a duplicate.

Earlier that day I did a sign-and-greet at Borders in Palo Alto. The store was filled with the proud parents of Stanford grads and a fair number of them will be reading Dot Dead or Smasher on their plane rides home. Sold over 50 of them.

While life swirled around me, I’ve written a couple of articles, too. Yesterday a story and interview I did with bestselling thriller writer Linda Fairstein was posted here. My agent was smitten by her. See if you are.

Also this morning, is running the Father’s Day reminiscence I wrote about books and my father. Here's how it starts:

"When I was twenty, I was in college, protesting, studying, and hanging out. When my father was twenty, he was in France a mile behind the front lines using a surveyor’s transit to help pinpoint the location of German artillery."

Yes, that's a photo of Dad taken during the War. You can read the rest of the posting here. Please let me know what you think.

Amidst the tumult, I did try to get some work done. My current work-in-progress is a historical thriller that opens in the Palo Alto of 1940. What I like best about writing this one is being able to leave this world beset with oil spills, rogue regimes developing nuclear weapons, political campaigns fueled by campaign contributions rather than thoughtful debate, and on and on. Much easier to hide out in an earlier time when the lines between right/wrong and good/evil were bright and distinct.

Cheers. The summer solstice is next Monday. Goodbye spring and welcome summer!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Dickens, The Marshland, and Suspense

by Julia Buckley

My son just completed his first year of high school. I was eager to hear how he liked high school English, but to my disappointment he was underwhelmed by the class for most of the year, and he was not a big fan of any of the literature that I had predicted he would love.

Not a fan until, that is, his final book–Charles Dickens’ GREAT EXPECTATIONS. This book he liked, and I think he fell in love with Dickens’ style. Not every young person in the 21st century understands Dickens’ humor, so I was pleased when Ian told me he thought this was a very funny book.

It is a funny book; but when I picked it up again and re-read the first few chapters, I was amazed anew at Dickens’ gift for setting a scene and for creating a sense of mystery.

Here is his description of the marshes, where the main character, Pip, lives:

“Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana, wife of the above, were dead and buried . . . ; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low, leaden line beyond, was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.

‘Hold your noise ’ cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. ‘Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat ’ “

So begins a very mysterious and circuitous tale which does in fact contain a significant mystery. Dickens knew how to draw in his reader from the start, and an escaped convict confronting a small child in a graveyard on the gloomy marshes is a real attention-getter.

Later Pip brings the escaped prisoner some food that he is compelled to steal from the larder of his own sister and caretaker, a cruel and cold woman who is almost as frightening as the convict. Here again Dickens uses the marshland setting as a vehicle for creating mystery:

“It was a rimy morning, and very damp. I had seen the damp lying on the outside of my little window, as if some goblin had been crying there all night, and using the window for a pocket handkerchief. Now, I saw the damp lying on the bare hedges and spare grass, like a coarser sort of spider’s webs; hanging itself from twig to twig and blade to blade. On every rail and gate, wet lay clammy; and the marsh-mist was so thick, that the wooden finger on the post directing people to our village–a direction which they never accepted, for they never came there–was invisible to me until I was quite closer under it. Then, as I looked up at it, while it dripped, it seemed to my oppressed conscience like a phantom devoting me to the Hulks [prison ships].

“The mist was heavier yet when I got out upon the marshes, so that instead of my running at everything, everything seemed to run at me. This was disagreeable to a guilty mind . . . . “

I love the way that Dickens links the marshes and the fog with the guilt and terror of the boy. I think it might behoove me to spend the summer studying Dickens as a writer: his style, his plotting, his settings, his dialogue, his descriptions.

Writers of mystery should of course look to writers of mystery, but they should also look to the acknowledged masters of the writing craft, and Dickens is one great example.

Thanks to GREAT EXPECTATIONS, my son is actually planning to read another Dickens novel on his own. That is the sign of great writing–a story that can capture the hearts of a fifteen-year-old boy and a 45-year-old woman.

Photo of Inch Abbey on the Marshlands from here.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

InkSpot News - June 12, 2010

On Friday, June 18th from 5 -7 PM, Beth Groundwater will be discussing and signing books at The Book Haven, 128 F Street, Salida, CO, during the FIBArk Whitewater Festival, a very fun event!

G.M. Malliet's second book, Death and the Lit Chick, has been nominated for an Anthony Award for best paperback original.Winners will be announced in October at the Bouchercon mystery convention in San Francisco.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Of Bikes and Blogs

Next week I will spend three days pedaling my bike more than 180 miles in the Trek Across Maine, an annual fundraising event for the American Lung Association. It's my third year participating, and before you say, "Wow, sounds like fun! Sign me up!" let me remind you that Maine is very hilly (mountainous, actually) and that last year's ride can be summed up in one adjective: miserable.

Without a doubt the first day was the worst. We woke to soaking rains, temperatures in the forties, and a forecast that promised only more of the same. Normally about two thousand cyclists ride, but the extreme weather whittled down our numbers to less than half of that. Those of us still hardy (or foolish) enough to wrap ourselves in Gore-Tex and brave the downpour shivered at the summit of Bethel's Sunday River Ski Resort, waiting for the start gun and wondering what the heck we were doing.

The deluge never stopped. Sixty miles up and down Maine's twisty roads and around her scenic lakes, with every single part of every biker's body soaking wet and cold. The rest stops, where hundreds of volunteers hand out granola bars and Gatorade, became La Brea-like mud pits. The port-o-potties, those odiferous (and yet roofed) structures, seemed like sacred places of refuge from the tempest. (Imagine wanting to go into a port-o-potty and you get a sense of how bizarre the day really was.)

Days two and three were only marginally better, and yet I found myself signing up again this year. What gives? Am I a masochist or do I just love soggy granola?

I do the Trek because I believe in healthy lungs and clean air, and am willing to fundraise and ride to support these goals. I do it because I enjoy the camraderie of the other cyclists, as well as a break from my everyday routine. I find it satisfying and oddly relaxing to spend a few days doing nothing more than getting from point A to B, even if I have to climb some hills to do it.

Another reason: I enjoy training for the ride. Logging one hundred miles or so a week in preparation for the Trek means I get in some nice long rides whenever I can. And those rides are not just good exercise -- they are periods of creativity. There's something about the repetitive motion of pedaling that generates a calming effect in my head which in turn leads to insight. I've brainstormed titles; composed poems; and worked out character issues. Some call it a form of meditation; others liken it to runner's high. I call it an unexpected gift.

I'm curious as to what activities fuel your creative fires. Are they solitary pursuits or group events? Do they involve nature, or technology? I'll watch for your responses and think of you next week as I pedal under (hopefully) sunny skies.


Books and food, my two favorite subjects. I write mysteries that take place in a pie shop. The sleuth is a baker who learned everything she knows about lemon meringue, key lime, and pumpkin chiffon from her dear grannie who's gone to her reward in the upscale retirement home on the hill. There she plays Bridge (where her opponent is murdered right there at the card table). I not only write food-based mysteries with recipes included, I read them too. I recently read a mystery that takes place in a tea shop. The descriptions of the exotic types of tea and the muffins and scones made my mouth water. I had to drop everything including my work in progress and bake a batch of chocolate sour cream scones. Which were scrumptious.
It's not enough to write about food, I belong to a book club that chooses a culinary theme based on the book we're reading. Tonight's book was Swedish author Steig Larson's THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. After a spirited discussion we ate Swedish meatballs, open face sandwiches on Swedish rye bread, Matjes herring with dill, and pancakes with Lingonberry jam.
It's not easy being a food writer, reader and eater, all at the same time, but I'm giving it my best shot. What sacrifices do you make for your craft?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Pimping Character Names

It all started a few years ago when my good friend Ashley had no idea what to get her mother-in-law for her birthday. Knowing that her mother-in-law, Susan, was a fan of my Odelia Grey novels, I suggested that she put Susan’s name in one of my books. The price would be a donation to my nephew’s cancer ride. The gift made Ashley daughter-in-law of the year.

Since then I have probably given away at least ten to twelve names a year for various charitable causes, including five to seven names a year at $100 a pop going to the Los Angeles Ronald McDonald House Walk for Kids. Many purchase these character names as gifts. It definitely helps that I have three series to spread these names around. This year I didn’t even get a chance to open up the Ronald McDonald name slots to the general public. Five were scooped up by folks in my office, with almost all wanting to be in my second vampire book, and the other two were requested by friends. Finding the names closed for this year, one reader put himself on the list for next year’s Ronald McDonald donation, stating he wants to be in book seven of the Odelia Grey series.

A waiting line. Can you believe it?

Outside of the Ronald McDonald House, most of the other names are donated for auctions at mystery conferences and library events. They are always popular and a lot of authors do this. The most memorable donation was at an event for the Anaheim Library a couple years ago. I donated a name to be in Ghost à la Mode for a live auction. The bidding boiled down to two parties facing off, each determined to get the prize. Finally, the bidding stalled at $900. Piping up, I said I’d donate two names if each party would donate $900. They did. The Anaheim Library received $1,800 and I put the names in the book.

Along with a name in a book, the individual receives a signed copy of the book in which it appears.

A lot of authors may think using pre-set names might hamper their creativity. So far this hasn’t happened with me. In fact, a few times I’ve heard the name and knew exactly which character it would fit. And it’s funny how characteristics present themselves once the name is incorporated.

Of course, when using real names, an author must be careful. Recently, one author was sued for using the name and alleged personal history of a person she knew. The last thing a writer or publisher needs is a lawsuit claiming defamation.

I never use the individual’s real physical description, personality or personal history. I use the name. Period. If the person is going to be a bad guy or on the shady side, I might check with them first to make sure they are comfortable with it. So far, so good, with many loving the opportunity to walk on the dark side, at least in a book. One person even wanted to be a murder victim.

In auctions or donations of this kind, I generally give a certificate with the information on how and when to contact me once they have won the prize. At the bottom of all certificates is the following fine print:

Winner understands that this prize is for a character’s name only and such character may or may not bear any likeness in physical appearance or personality to the individual bearing the character’s name. Winner hereby gives consent to the use of such name and releases Sue Ann Jaffarian and Midnight Ink/Llewellyn Worldwide from any and all liability in connection with the use of such name.

It gives me the warm and fuzzies to raise money this way for charity. It’s another perk of being an author. It also makes me feel proud that so many people want their names in my books. I get just as big a kick out of it as they do, maybe more.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Books, Books, Books

Last week was the annual used book sale run by the American Association of University Women. Wait—let me rephrase that: Last week was the “There’s THOUSANDS of Books In There—Lemme At ’Em” sale. I picture Betty and Wilma from the Flintstones TV show waving their stone credit cards in the air and giving the call to arms: “Charge it!” Barney and Fred used to cringe, but my husband knew I’d spend about $50 and come home with about 50 books.

I was close. Two days, $56, 57 books.

I’ve heard some writers complain about used book sales because they don’t get royalties on those sales. Yet I’ve picked up books by at least a dozen authors that were unknown to me, and because of that one used book I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of money at Barnes & Noble on the rest of that author’s works. I’m also a lifelong library user, which is a reader’s lifesaver when funds are short, or you’re laid off. The same holds true: I’ve read a new author there and headed to B&N for the complete set later.

I took an informal poll of fellow published and unpublished writers when discussing this sale. With a handful of exceptions, they all were in favor of buying used books. Partially because most writers aren’t rolling in dough, but also for the reasons above. We all look forward to the day when a total stranger picks up our first book for a dollar and then sends fan mail through our website. And then (of course) rushes to their bookstore of choice to buy everything else we’ve written.

Have you haunted the used bookstores in your budget-crunching past (or present)? What memorable old and new gems did you find?

For me, the first was Lin Carter’s The Man Who Loved Mars. I’m not usually a SF reader, but I was looking for schlock horror to read on vacation. Something about this book caught my eye and I discovered one of the best wounded heroes ever. My modern discovery was Laurie R. King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. Say no more.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Fabulous People In My Book

I’m inordinately fond of twenty-three people. Who are they? Here are some clues:

* They’ve read a mystery.
* They know how to use the Internet.
* They can follow directions.
* They liked my first book enough to want to read the second book in the series.

Did you guess? These twenty-three people took the time to visit my website after reading For Better, For Murder and click on the link to request an email announcing the release of For Richer, For Danger.

Now you may be thinking “twenty-three people—big deal.” Well, it’s a big deal to me for a few reasons.

First, that’s twenty-three more times than I ever requested a similar announcement from another author and I’m a voracious reader.

Second, rumor has it Janet Evanovich once said she became a bestseller by telling five of her friends about her books and asking them to tell five of their friends and so on. I’m starting twenty-three voices ahead when my second book comes out, and whatever I can do to be like Janet is okay with me.

Third, these twenty-three people are independent confirmation readers visit my website. New authors are told they must have a website, but it’s hard to measure the return on investment. For a while, I watched the statistics to see if anyone visited. They looked encouraging. Then my daughter told me her best friend logged onto my site repeatedly to watch my book trailer. So much for statistics.

Finally, these twenty-three people approached me about the mailing list. They didn’t write me a check or participate in a drawing, inadvertently providing me with their address for future use. I didn’t automatically assume they would like to receive book announcements because they sent me an email about something else or joined the same group as me. They’re not on my Christmas card list [yet]. No, these people were excited about my first book and wanted to read more, excited enough to make the effort to seek out my website and send the email.

Now aren’t they fabulous?

Incidentally, For Richer, For Danger is now available for preorder!!

Friday, June 4, 2010


by Darrell James

Okay, before we get off on a debate that has only one obvious answer, let me say that we’re talking city’s and towns and story settings.

The reason for the discussion is that I’m considering starting a new series of thrillers (aside from the Del Shannon series that will debut next year). Some advisors suggest that a series should have a large playground, ie: a major urban area in which to fashion multiple stories. The argument is that only big cities have the depth and diversity to sustain multiple stories in a long running series. Certainly others have gone this route: Leonard has Detroit, Lehane has Boston, and nearly everyone has L.A. (Connelly, Crais, Wambaugh, Chandler.)

But is it possible that a small town has just as much depth of interest (if you look deep enough beneath the skin) to form the setting of a major series?

I was raised in the Bluegrass State, in the small town of Crescent Springs, Kentucky. It was a simple string town with store fronts lined along the tracks of the Southern Railroad where the rails led south out of Cincinnati, Ohio. A wooden, one-lane bridge at the end of Buttermilk Pike got you across the tracks and into the heart of town. There was a little grocery store, hardware store, a barber shop, and “stag bar” (yes, only men allowed! sorry feminists!) and a depot, where in the old days, trains would make “unscheduled” stops to let off passengers. In later years the depot housed the volunteer fire department.

The population of this little berg was too small to bother counting (maybe a few hundred at the time). You knew virtually everyone in town and referred to them as Mrs. Eubanks or Mr. Tucker. (Never Bob or Roy or Bettie or Edith.) Even adults used this formal politeness.

Life in this little microcosm was less than glamorous by “city folk” standards. In the evenings, bats would swarm around the one street light near the bar (the only business open after dark). Drunks would stumble home on foot. Hooligans of the day would sit on the bridge railing to smoke and watch the cars go by. Maybe one every two hours or so would pass (they went through a lot of cigarettes obviously). On the rare occasion that two cars met at the bridge, one would have to wait for the other to cross before proceeding in or out of town. There was a politeness here too. No one dashed for the bridge to be the first one across. They’d wait and wave, and sometimes argue over who should go first. Meaning… “you first”… “no, please, after you”… “no, you”…

You get the picture.

While, I could go on, I’ll save it for the potential series.

I guess my question is: as a reader or a writer, do you favor fiction set in large metropolitan areas? Or do you find small towns can have their own rich diversity that can serve a story series well?

While you’re at it, tell me about your city or town. Or your most memorable fictional location.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

My Four One-Word Writing Prompts

Lately I've come up with a "cheat sheet" sticky note that I keep on my computer monitor to remind me of four basic concepts that I want to include in every scene of the book I'm working on. For my Work in Progress (WiP), the second book in the Rocky Mountain Adventure series, I'm editing chapters to submit to my critique group, then editing them again after I receive comments from the group. As I edit the scenes in each chapter, I look at my cheat sheet to make sure I have evaluated these four concepts in each one.

1. Emotion - Are all of the characters in the scene, especially the POV character, experiencing some kind of emotion, the stronger the better? Am I expressing that emotion in their gestures, actions, speech, tone of voice, facial expressions, etc.? Is there any way that I can increase the emotion in this scene? Can I better elicit emotion from the reader?

This usually means evoking the "show not tell" principle. Instead of saying that a character felt nauseated by the blood on the corpse, I have her swallow back the burning bile in her throat, tear her gaze from the body, put a hand to her roiling stomach, and finally involuntarily gag and bend over to splatter her breakfast on the ground below.

2. Conflict - Does the scene include a conflict, either within the POV character or between at least two characters in the scene? If not, how can I introduce conflict into the scene? How can I escalate the conflict if I already have one?

I recently attended a workshop by literary agent Donald Maass at a writers conference about adding micro-tension to scenes and have started to put that into practice. For example, at the beginning of a scene, I have Mandy Tanner, my whitewater river ranger sleuth, putting up her equipment and raft at the end of the day. Her boss comes out in the equipment yard to ask her if she's heard how the fly fishing tournament is going. She says no and suggests they walk over to the event registration area to find out. No conflict there, right? This is just the start of a scene where there's conflict later, but I thought I could add some here, too.

So, I changed the scene so that Mandy had a rough day, having to pick up muddy, rank-smelling trash along the river and she has to heave a heavy, wet trash bag into the dumpster which drips all over her, making her even dirtier and smellier. She wants nothing more than to go home and take a hot shower. But, when her boss asks her about the tournament, she sighs, delays her shower, and suggests they find out about it. More interesting, right?

3. Question - Am I planting a question in the reader's mind during this scene, especially at the end? Is the question strong enough to propel the reader forward and make him or her turn the page? If not, how can I plant a question, or leave out something that I'm explaining in this scene and explain it later?

Having spent years writing technical documentation and user's manuals in my former career as a software engineer, I had a firmly ingrained goal of making my writing clear and straight-forward and explaining everything in a step-by-step way so the reader doesn't become confused. This is exactly what a writer does NOT want to do in a mystery! What this often means is that I delete the last sentence or two from a scene, and many times replace them with a question, either in the POV character's thoughts or spoken aloud. Or my characters refuse to answer each others' questions or do so indirectly or incompletely. Or I describe only part of what my character sees or does.

4. Senses - Am I eliciting all of the reader's senses in this scene (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste, etc.)? If not, how can I add to the descriptions in the scene to evoke more senses?

For example, in the opening scene of my WiP, I kept reworking the description below until I had the characters, and the reader, feeling the heat, hearing the wind, seeing the trees, tasting water, and smelling...death.

Heat waves shimmered off the parched ground. Mandy followed Steve's lead, removing her PFD and lifting the end of her strawberry blond ponytail off the damp back of her neck. An early September Monday in Chaffee County, Colorado, this one was showing signs of being a record-breaking scorcher. While Steve took a long pull on his water bottle, Mandy shielded her eyes from the glare of the late morning sun and scanned the Vallie Bridge campground. From the tent sites she could see, it looked deserted.

With the raven now quiet, the only sound was the hot wind soughing through the grasses and nearby copse of stunted pine trees, bringing with it the scent of baking dry needles, and something else...

Mandy wrinkled her nose. "Something smells rank."

Do you have any "cheat sheets," notes, or other writing prompts stuck on your computer monitor to help you remember good writing concepts or avoid bad ones? What are they?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Witty, Pithy, Memorable? by Kathleen Ernst

I need a slogan.

I have, I think, a pretty good platform for my new series. Old World Murder introduces Chloe Ellefson, Curator of Collections at a huge historic site called Old World Wisconsin. Future books will get Chloe to other historic sites (much as Nevada Barr gets protagonist Anna Pigeon to various national parks.)

Since I was once a curator at Old World Wisconsin, and know the world of historic sites well, I feel qualified to write about it.

But I want a slogan. Something I can use to promote the series, and not just a single book. Something witty. Something pithy. Something memorable.

Sisters in Crime found a good one: "SinC Into A Good Mystery." It works on buttons and bumper stickers.

Some authors choose names for their protagonists that can do double duty. Laura DiSilverio’s first book, Swift Justice, (due in October) features Charlotte Swift, a PI who runs Swift Investigations. Easy to remember.

Sandi Ault obviously planned ahead when she created her series. Her protagonist is Jamaica Wild; the books are known as the Wild Mysteries. They are largely set in wilderness areas, and each title incorporates the key word (Wild Indigo, Wild Inferno, etc.) She has a great logo to represent the series.

I had good reasons for choosing “Chloe Ellefson” as my protagonist’s name. Still, it doesn’t give me a whole lot to work with on the marketing end.

The only thing I’ve come up with so far is this: “Set your sights on the next Chloe Ellefson/Historic Sites Mystery.” Someone told me that might make people think of the National Rifle Association.

I’m not particularly clever when it comes to these things. So what do you think? What might work as a clever catchphrase for my series? I’ll be on the road on the day this is posted, and unable to access the internet and respond immediately, but I’m open to any and all suggestions!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

New Covers and Gynecologists, by Jess Lourey

JuneBugThe Murder-by-Month series is getting a JBmakeover! On your left, you can see the first cover for June Bug, and on  your right, the new cover. What do you think?

This rebirth of the series (along with turning 40 last week) has caused me to reflect on my career as a writer, which officially began in March 2006 when I published May Day (it’s getting a new cover soon, too!), and was invited to speak at my first book club at my then hometown of Alexandria, Minnesota.

The book club meeting was held at a gorgeous, tastefully decorated house on the local golf course. The hostess served strawberries dipped in chocolate, stuffed mushrooms, and delicious wine. I was nervous and out of my element and the first one there. Soon, though, the the women started filing in--a reporter from the local newspaper, some teachers, a few doctors, and then, all of a sudden, there was my gynecologist.

Usually, when I'm at a party, I'm the only one there who has seen me naked. You can bank on it.

The shock of seeing my gynecologist in civilian clothes in that immaculate house where I was about to come under the microscope of a baker's dozen of slightly tipsy professional women caused me to hiss under my breath, "That woman has seen my vagina!"

Apparently, gynecologists, like mothers, dogs, and teachers, have supernatural hearing as she turned in my direction and said, "It must have been normal, because I don't remember it." Ha! That's a great line. My gynecologist was funny. The rest of the night was a good time, though there was much more talk about life than May Day, which is the way it should be.

Since then, I’ve published four more books and am today sending off the sixth in the series, Octoberfest, to my editor (I promise, Terri!). It’s been a fun ride, one that I hope continues for decades.