Monday, January 31, 2011

Another Attack of Anglophilia

Keith here.

It’s happened again. Like recurrent malaria, I’ve just suffered another attack of Anglophilia.

I’m not sure what brought it on, but it became particularly acute this week as I watched the six hour English-made miniseries Downton Abbey on PBS. There’s a beautiful estate, a righteous nobleman, a couple of headstrong daughters, a rich American wife, a downstairs filled with servants who have intrigues and loves of their own, and an acerbic harridan of a mother (played by the inimitable Dame Maggie Smith!).

I cannot pinpoint precisely when the mosquito-vector carrying Anglophilia bit me for the first time. I did love Sherlock Holmes as a boy. The first time I went to England I stayed a block from 221B Baker Street (or at least where it should be). After college, I studied English history over there along with cricket and lawn tennis and pubs and garden parties. What a life.

I remember Blackwell’s, my favorite bookstore in the world, located on Broad Street in Oxford. I know women who go shopping for shoes to cheer themselves up. Me? During my two years in England, when the least bit bored or out of sorts, I’d just drop by Blackwell’s and leave in the best of spirits. Back then, you didn’t even have to worry about paying for your books. On the way out of the store, I’d just wave a volume and call out my name. At the end of the quarter, a bill would show up. When it came time to move back to the States, I dropped off all my books at Blackwell's and they packed and shipped them to me. (My memory says there were four dozen cartons, but reason tells me there could not have been that many.)

In the last month or so I’ve read memoirs by Ivana Lowell about her privileged (and crazy) upbringing as granddaughter of a marquess and by Dame Antonia Fraser, historian, mystery novelist, daughter of an earl, and widow of Harold Pinter. I’ve also knocked off The Lessons by Naomi Alderman, which is set against a background in Oxford, and Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question, the Man Booker Prize winner that explores being a Jew in England – which I was, at least for two years.

The United States has a population over 300 million compared to England’s 51 million, but do we write six times more novels worth reading? And why do the English do television so much better than we do? In addition to Downton Abbey, thanks to Netflix, I’ve recently watched the fabulous mini-series The Politician’s Wife and State of Play; the movie version of the latter with Russell Crowe couldn’t hold a candle to the original.

I wish I could say the books I write have been influenced by my Anglophilia. Nope, not that I can tell. My two published books are set right smack dab in Silicon Valley where I grew up and live now. The action in my latest manuscript is centered in Washington, D.C. I think I’d better start following the example of pal and fellow Inkster G.M. Malliett, who is setting another series in England. (Her Wicked Autumn featuring an MI5 agent who has retired as an English vicar will be out, when else, this autumn.) Ah, her research trips must be wonderful. Maybe I should take a chance and get myself over there and wait for inspiration to overtake me. But in the meantime, I’ll just keep reading those English novels and memoirs and watching those English TV programmes until this latest bout of Anglophilia subsides.


Saturday, January 29, 2011

Inkspot News - January 29, 2011

The Mystery Bookstore in LA is closing, alas. If you're in the area, there's a good-bye party on the 31st of January at 6 p.m. So long, good friends.

From their media release: "There will be food, drinks, great memories, and probably a few tears. In addition, as a thank you to all of our wonderful customers, we will be holding a drawing for exciting Mystery Bookstore gifts!"

The Mystery Bookstore
1036-C Broxton Avenue
Los Angeles, California 90024
Phone: 310/209-0415 | 800/821-9017
Fax: 310/209-0436

Friday, January 28, 2011

Stop Me If You've Heard This One

by G.M. Malliet

Actually, just stop me.

I was recently asked to take part in a mystery conference panel. The subject of this panel was the use of humor in the mystery novel, and I was enormously flattered that the organizers thought of me in this context.

I had a scheduling conflict, however, and would in fact be sitting on the tarmac waiting for my plane to take off about the time this panel convened, so I had to bow out. I must confess, though, it was with a hint of relief that I realized there was a conflict. If people think I write humorous mysteries--and my reviews indicate that people do--nothing would scotch that belief half so quickly as seeing me on a panel trying to make people laugh.

Any humor I manage to produce in my books comes at a cost of an entire day's work, more often than not. It's seldom spontaneous, and putting a microphone in front of me is probably guaranteed to make matters worse, not better.

When and if the funny thought arrives, I swear it seems to come out of absolutely nowhere, and then only if I've sat at my desk a long time, staring at the words on the screen until they rearrange themselves into something funny. It's a total blessing when it does happen, and I generally send up a little thank-you prayer for it.

The Midnight Ink authors who use humor in their books will probably back me up on this: If it looks like it just fell off the pen, it probably took the author hours or weeks to get there. It's supposed to look easy, and shining a light on the process by having something like me talk about the process...well...that's just too scary a thought for me. In fact, I could just see people leaving at the end of this panel, shaking their heads, and saying to each other, "That Malliet person thinks she's funny? Sheesh! I want my money back." My book sales would plummet. Returns from the bookstore would skyrocket. Total disaster.

Back me up, Inkers. Many or most of you have an element of humor in your books; many of you are just plain funny, in person and on the page. I won't embarrass you by pointing you out--you know who you are. easy is it for you to write those killer sentences and paragraphs?

Photo of Steve Martin from
Photo of Eddie Izzard from
Photo of Gilda Radner from

G.M. Malliet
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Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Millennium Battle

by Julia Buckley
My sixteen-year-old son and I are reading Stieg Larsson together. We didn't actually plan this as a mother-son activity; I bought the first book on a whim and left it lying around. He picked it up one day and asked if he could read it.

This was a dilemma for me. On the one hand, any book that encourages my son to read--especially when gaming and texting compete for his attention--is a good book. Larsson's first book in the series is obsessively readable and exciting.

On the other hand, sending him into this book was sort of like giving him permission to fly off to observe at a Swedish sex resort. Whatever sexual imagery he hadn't already seen on tv or conceived of himself, he would probably learn from Stieg Larsson.

In any case, he read the first book and we discussed it, and then he bought me the second book for Christmas. He may have had a hidden agenda, because he promptly started reading it on December 26th. I didn't get at it until recently, when I had jury duty. I went downtown with about 200 pages under my belt, then read about 400 more in my time at the Daley Center in Chicago. The second Larsson novel was even better than the first.

My son and I discussed this one, too, and I found that I liked having reading material in common with him (which I really haven't had since I read him the books myself). And who knows when we will both like the same book again? So I ordered the third one, and we are snatching bits of reading when we can pry the book away from each other. We have arguments like this:

IAN: Mom, did you take out my bookmark?
ME: No, it fell out. Sorry.
IAN: You took it out! You were mad at me for not taking out the garbage!
ME: That's ridiculous. It's hard to keep the bookmark in when you're turning pages beyond it.
IAN: It's going to be hard to find my page.
ME: I think you were on 118.
IAN: (already reading) Mmmmmrph.

Or, when we are less confrontational, like this:

IAN: Did you get to anything significant yet?
ME: I don't know--they're doing a lot of background checks and stuff.
IAN: But nothing . . . big . . . has happened?
ME: No! Is something big about to happen?
IAN: I can't say. Just keep reading.
ME: Take out the garbage.

And thus, we have shared a special bond--the joy of reading, the wonder of shared discovery.

I waited a long while to read these books, but better late than never. And it's nice to discover a great treasure like this series just sitting and waiting patiently for you--and your offspring--to pick it up.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Nature Girl

My fondest childhood memories are of times spent with my parents and grandparents at what we called "the farm." Located in northern Vermont on 100 acres of wooded land, the "farm" was my grandfather's hunting retreat -- a ramshackle house with a front porch, outhouse, gas lamps, and a few bedrooms, one of which had a triple-decker bunkbed. In the kitchen was an enormous black cookstove in which my greataunt could bake her mouthwatering strawberry-rhubarb pies. Little wonder that my brother and cousins and I adored the place.

For me, one of the best things about the farm was the abundance of wildlife. We'd scrutinize the way the porcupines gnawed at the screen door because they liked the salt from our hands; the beaver that made his dam down the dirt road in a small pond; and the few trout that swam lazily in the abandoned well. Bear scat would appear now and then on the small patch of lawn, and we'd see the bears themselves off in the distance crossing the power line in search of ripe berries. Living among nature I felt whole, a feeling that would disipate little by little as we drove back to our home in Massachusetts.

Flash forward to today, to Maine, the state I've happily inhabited for the past twenty-five years. Here I can be a nature girl to my heart's content. I know that not everyone enjoys spotting a coyote at the neighbor's feeder, or watching as a moose wanders out from the bog into the middle of the street, but to me these indications that we share our world with more creatures than our pets is somehow redemptive. It's not all about me, or twitter entries, or how many calories I burn on the eliptical. There is a bigger world out there, a world that expands our senses and reawakens the same awe we felt as children. Ignore it, and you're likely to suffer what experts are now calling "nature-deficit disorder."

It's not surprising that my love of nature leads me to include the natural world in my mysteries. That wasn't too difficult in the first book (A House to Die For,) which, after all, took place in Maine. But the second in the Darby Farr Mystery Series, Killer Listing, is set on the Gulf Coast
of Florida. Luckily I have spent some wonderful times watching manatees, herons, dolphins, and even 'gators in the Sunshine State, so I was able to create a rich setting that included nature for my heroine. (The photo of my kids spotting one of the state's famous reptiles is from a camping trip in the Everglades years ago.) As to the diversity of plant life in Florida, I turned to several guidebooks (and, yes, the Internet) to help me write about bristlecone pines and fan palms, and my personal favorite -- the strangler fig.

Just as I cannot imagine my life without nature, I can't imagine my mysteries without it. What about you? Do you believe in the transformative power of the natural world, and do you include it in your books?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Blatant Self Poisoning?

Recently I was having a meal with a friend – another author. As always, our conversation turned to discussing books we’d read, those we were reading and those added to our To Be Read Pile. When I mentioned a book I’d recently picked up, she groaned. “I wanted to read that book,” she said, “but if I see one more word about it or even the cover again, I’ll vomit.”

Not exactly the response the author of that book was going for, I’m sure.

What went wrong? Why did my friend go from dying to read that particular book to considering it a leper?

The answer: Too much blatant self promotion.

For any newbies out there, blatant self promotion or “BSP” as it is fondly and not-so-fondly referred to in the writing community, is when an author personally pushes his or her own book. It’s not the promotional campaign the publisher puts in motion.

Sadly, I couldn’t disagree with my friend. I’d seen the author’s personal promotional campaign myself. If you spent any time on the Internet, it was impossible to miss. Blogs, digests, social networking – you name it, the author was there hawking the book over and over like a cure for cancer. I’d read so much about it, at times I felt I’d already read the book itself. Which leads me to wonder if, like my friend, I should even bother.

BSP – every author does it. We do it every time we open our mouths or type anything about our own books. What’s more, every author MUST do it. There’s no getting around it. Lack of sales can translate into lack of future contracts. Something every author is keenly aware of and fears. We can’t be shy or overly humble about promoting our own books. If we don’t believe in them, how can we expect readers to plop down their hard earned money for them, especially in such a shaky economy. We have to walk the walk and talk the talk when it comes to having confidence in our own work.

But when does blatant self promotion become blatant self poisoning? When do we cross the line from helping ourselves to hurting, and possibly even killing, ourselves in front of readers? What’s the cutoff, the edge of the cliff, between having faith in your book and shoving it down people’s throats until they back away in horror? When does confident PR start looking like an act of desperation?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I am curious and a bit worried. You see, my book, Ghost in the Polka Dot Bikini, the 2nd installment in the Ghost of Granny Apples mystery series, was just released (there, I got in my own BSP), and I sure don’t want to turn folks off.

Sue Ann Jaffarian
Odelia Grey mystery series
Ghost of Granny Apples mystery series
Madison Rose vampire mysteries
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Monday, January 24, 2011

The “It’s Really Real” Moment

I had this post all planned out in my head. It was going to be a humorous recap of my New York City trip, complete with drool-worthy photos of the Manhattan Library. Here’s one, at least: Marble and carved wood and electric chandeliers and so many books I could get happily lost in there for a decade.

And I saw a Gutenberg Bible. Among dozens of other ancient books in their current display of religious texts. The gilding, the calligraphy, the artwork… a book lover’s paradise.

But just as a character can wrest control of a WIP by main force, the events of the end of last week grabbed this planned post and ran with it.

A box sat on my front stoop when I returned from the airport. A heavy box. From Midnight Ink. Filled with my author’s copies of Force of Habit. In a new tradition started by I created a sculpture with them.

Last Friday, my boss showed me his copy of Force of Habit—just delivered. I signed it for him and went back to work. I few hours later, in a classic delayed reaction, realization hit me: I just autographed my first book. That someone ordered, paid for, and received in an everyday business transaction.

After four years, three books, 185 rejections and a few publisher passes, it’s real.

I met four authors much farther along in their careers than I am—one has 70 published books! Yet as we talked about debuts, they all reported the same “oh, wow” moment for their first book.

This deliriously happy post brought to you by that great catchphrase from the movie Galaxy Quest: Never give up! Never surrender!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Smells for Thought

I thought Cricket McRae's January 12th post on Inkspot about food being a useful tool to enhance storytelling (Food for Thought) was very interesting. So, I decided to expand on that post with a discussion about how stimulating the reader's sense of smell can also enhance storytelling.

Smells can trigger intense memories, especially childhood memories.

Smell and memory are closely linked because the olfactory bulb, which processes smell sensations, is part of the brain's limbic system. The limbic system also includes the amygdala, which processes emotion, and the hippocampus, which is responsible for associative learning. So memories and smells get associated or linked in our brains within the limbic system. Many people are transported back to their mother's kitchen when inhaling the scent of her signature dish. Or to their father's garage when smelling engine oil. And who doesn't think of Christmas when smelling the scent of pine?

Smells can affect behavior.

This concept is the basis for aromatherapy and scent marketing. In aromatherapy, lavender and chamomile are used to induce calming, lemon to lift depression, and peppermint to raise alertness, for example. Scent marketing is the use of aromas to enhance a customer experience or to brand a product. For example, a coconut spice scent is pumped through the HVAC system of the Mandalay Bay casino in Las Vegas to compliment the lush foliage and give gamblers more of a "jungle experience." And who hasn't heard of the idea of baking cookies or an apple pie before opening a house for a real estate showing?

Smells can trigger emotions.

Many of our likes and dislikes of particular smells are based on strong emotions we felt while first smelling them. When we're exposed to that smell again, the emotion comes along with it. Thus, when they smell the coppery scent of fresh blood, many people experience fear, fear that they felt when they were injured as a child. Based on past experiences, the same smell can trigger different emotions in different people. The salty scent of the ocean can bring happiness to someone who spent hours playing on the beach as a child or can bring fear to someone who almost drowned in the ocean in their past. Many smells, however, trigger the same emotional reaction in the majority of the human population. Most people, for example, find vanilla to be a sweet and satisfying scent, so it is a component of many perfumes.

So how does the author use smells? We can't infuse the pages of our books with scents, but we CAN describe those scents. Those descriptions evoke memories of the scents in readers' minds. Those scent memories bring along with them other memories and emotions and behaviors in the readers that are associated with the scents. And that pulls readers deeper into the scene, so they are THERE experiencing the story with the characters.

Here are some examples of how I used smells in my upcoming release, Deadly Currents, which features whitewater river ranger Mandy Tanner. What do you feel and remember when you read them?

In a description of Mandy's boyfriend (who probably smells like a lot of men who work outside):

"When he gathered her in his arms, Mandy inhaled his familiar scent of soap, leather, and the grassy outdoors. "

In a meal description:

"When he lifted the lid of the extra large pizza box in the kitchen, releasing hot steam filled with the tantalizing aroma of cheese, ham, and pineapple—her favorite toppings—she felt faint."

When Mandy walks into a beauty salon:

"A white jarred candle glowing on the reception desk scented the room with vanilla, though it didn’t completely mask the underlying chemical odors of hair coloring and nail polish."

So, evoking the scent memories of readers can be a very powerful tool for the writer. Can you think of a particularly powerful use of smell in a piece of fiction that you've recently read or written? Share it with us!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Wish I'd Thought of That

It’s amazing how some people can take the ordinary and make it into the extraordinary—then make a profit with it.

Take the Silly Bandz explosion: colored rubber bands shaped like animals, objects, letters, numbers, etc., priced within a kid’s reach at $4.95 for a twenty-four pack. For a while, they were a must have, fun to trade. Even movie stars wore them.

The latest example I’ve seen is duct or duck tape. How many years have I been looking at this stuff, primarily in the standard gray color, lying on my husband’s workbench? This weekend I took my daughter to the store so she could use her Christmas money to buy Color Duck Tape, specifically hot pink and zebra striped, to add to her growing supply. She uses it to decorate her school folders and notebooks and to make flowers on the ends of pens and pencils. Now it’s a must have, and the local craft store had plenty of it at $3.99 a roll, well within a kid’s budget.

You may remember the story of the accidental invention of the sticky note or the Post-It Note. The adhesive’s invention was accidental, but its uses were ingenious. I’ve got yellow, hot pink, blue, and green Post-It notes on my desk. I know artists have used them to create wall art, and some writers use them to create movable storyboards.

I guess that’s what’s referred to as “thinking out of the box.” Apparently, I’m firmly nailed inside my box, because these sorts of ideas never occur to me. It’s noteworthy that I’m even thinking they might, because I’m usually trying to think of something for dinner.

So, what about you? Anything like these few that you wished you’d thought of?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Darrell James

Earlier this month, yet another independent bookseller, The Mystery Bookstore announced its closing. So sad. Located in trendy Westwood, California, a mere block off the UCLA campus, this fabulous stalwart of the printed book has served the mystery reading community for the past 23 years, and has hosted virtually every mystery author, big name or small.

Robert Crais at The Mystery Bookstore (Wow!)
One of the last signings there.

On nearly the same day, the major book chain Barnes and Nobles announced record fourth quarter sales. How can this dichotomy exist?

Well, it seems the source of B&N’s bragging rights came not from book sales in its stores, but from the on-line sales of eBooks for electronic readers. On Christmas day alone, the chain reported that their computers had crashed as a result of being clogged with orders for eBooks for its latest reader, the color Nook. Another statistic said that more than half of all “best seller” sales were eBooks.

In the words of the song artist and poet, Bob Dylan “… the times they are a’changin’.”

For authors, it seems to ring the death knell for printed books. Yet the reality of it is that more books than ever are actually being sold. Just not in the form we’ve come to love.

I’ve come to the eBook revolution kicking and screaming. I love books. Real books. My shelves are crammed with them. My nightstand is stacked with them. I love the look and feel of them. Having spent time in the printing industry, I even love the smell of them—that heady ink-on-paper aroma.(I know you know what I mean.)

I’ve recited all my objections to owning a reader, be it Kindle, Nook, or iPad… “I don’t like reading off a screen.” OR “What happens when the battery goes dead?”

The response from the progressive minded people who already have one or more of these devises, sounds something like: “Yes, but you can’t tuck your book into a purse or pocket. You can have it with you anytime, over lunch, in line at the bank.” AND, “When you go on vacation you can carry dozens… no!… hundreds of books with you. Think about the size of the suitcase you’d need to do that. Huh? Huh? Have you thought about that?”

Okay, I have imagined trying to fit a shipping container full of books into the overhead compartment on an airplane.

The change, though, has left me feeling maybe a bit the way the scribes of old must have felt when Guttenberg first introduced movable type, making their beautifully crafted calligraphy-styled books obsolete.

The truth is, when I listen to the arguments, my objections seem rather lame. Technology has proven itself valuable to the consumer (again). People buy them because they like them. It’s progress.

I envision a day when brick-and-mortar bookstores will mostly be a thing of the past. Possibly a few will exist to service collectors and hippy-holdouts like me—those who still store their music on vinyl record albums, proclaiming… “It sounds better.”

It doesn’t sound better; it just sounds familiar.

For authors promoting their works, perhaps the rest of Dylan's lyrics apply:

“Come gather ‘round people wherever you roam and admit that the waters around you have grown. And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone. For the times…”

You know the rest.

I now have plans for a Nook, Kindle, whatever… “Uncle! I give.”

Still, my heart cries, “It’s not a book, unless its printed.”

Where do you stand on the debate? Have you gone to the darkside of eReadership. Or are you clinging stubbornly to tradition?... Join in. Let’s call it our official poll.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Editing Made Easy (Or At Least Easier)—by Elizabeth Spann Craig

Striped_Notepad_4710 (7)After I finish a first draft, I start into my edits right away. And boy, is there usually a lot of editing to do!

Looking at the manuscript as a messy whole is sometimes overwhelming.

To get me started on the right track and help myself feel a little more enthusiastic about the chore in front of me, I usually start out with some easy edits that make a big difference.

The first thing I do is a find {ctrl F} for my favorite words. I’ll find a lot of ‘justs’ and ‘sighs.’ This takes only minutes to do, but makes me feel a little more cheerful.

Not sure what your favorite words are? Some folks use Wordle, which highlights the most common words in a manuscript.

The next thing I look for are weak words and words to investigate…because I might need to make the sentence stronger: That, seem, there, might, something, ‘to be’ verbs (like was ____ing), had, very, so, little, almost. This takes a bit longer, but is still really easy. Terry Odell has a nice post on using Word to eliminate problem words.

I have some new words to look for, too. There was a great post on Write it Sideways last week about filter words. Quoting the post, filter words are “those that unnecessarily filter the reader’s experience through a character’s point of view.”

Those words are (again, quoting directly from the blog):

  • to see
  • to hear
  • to think
  • to touch
  • to wonder
  • to realize
  • to watch
  • to look
  • to seem
  • to feel (or feel like)
  • can
  • to decide
  • to sound (or sound like)

So, to give a quick example, a sentence using the filter word ‘heard’ might look like this:

John heard the siren.

Without the filter word, you could have this:

The siren blared.

Basically, you’re putting the reader in John’s shoes and deeper into the story.

Of course, you wouldn’t want to eliminate all of these words. And there are plenty of situations where you need them—where the wording would be too awkward otherwise.

But it’s a great place to start with editing, I think. It’s nothing if not easy. You can search for the words and just take a quick look at the sentence and see if it can be stronger or worded better.

When I knock out these easy fixes, it just helps me feel more confident about knocking out the rest of the mess. :)

Are there particular words that you look for? What words do you commonly use as fillers?

Elizabeth Craig/Riley Adams
Mystery Writing is Murder

Saturday, January 15, 2011

InkSpot News - January 15, 2011

Alice Loweecey will be part of the Mystery Writers of America panel "Without Conscience: Why Psychopaths Make Such Interesting Characters."

The event takes place this Wednesday, January 19th at the Mid-Manhattan Library, 40th Street and 5th Avenue, New York, NY, at 6:30 pm.

Other authors appearing are: Anthomy Rainone, Katia Lief, Jonathan Maberry, Wendy Corsi Staub, and Wallace Stroby.

And it's free! Come enjoy some spine-chilling discussion on a cold winter's night.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Think Time

by Kathleen Ernst

I was in the middle of an exercise class a few years ago when I heard someone nearby say, “She’s not very friendly.” The speaker was talking about me.

I thought about protesting: “I’m a very friendly person! I’m quite nice! I’m just working!” But since I was working, I didn’t engage. I’d been writing that morning, and would soon go back to writing. While going through the motions of the class, I was working out story elements in my mind. I hadn’t come to the class to socialize, as pleasant as that would have been. I was on deadline and needed to stay focused.

Like every other writer on the planet, I have a million distractions. And it’s quite possible to write books in tiny snippets, snatching whatever few minutes might be available among family time, day jobs, etc., etc. Kids, partners, spouses, and friends can usually understand that when a writer is sitting at the keyboard, or scribbling in a notebook, they should be left in peace.

What can be harder to convey is that “writing time” can also happen while washing dishes, tossing laundry in the machine, going for walks. And for me, having time and space to think about a novel, without interruptions, is just as essential as having time to peck at the keyboard. Maybe even more so.


That’s why I started setting aside a couple of weeks a year where I can leave home, go someplace quiet, and work in solitude. Sometimes I get on a tear and stay up until 3 AM. Sometimes I go for long walks and simply think through some ideas. However the time works out, these are incredibly productive periods.

I’m lucky enough to have friends who are willing to loan me their cottage for a week every spring. I’ve found a couple of other places where I can go in the off-season, hunker down, and get to work. I take my cat and my laptop, whatever reference books might be relevant, an empty notebook or two. Throw in a bag of groceries and a few CDs, and I’m good to go.

I know this is a luxury. If I’m not staying at my friend’s place, I’m paying for a week of cottage or cabin rental. And my absence from home can present challenges. Still… as I juggle writing Chloe Ellefson books with my children’s writing projects and promotional efforts, these sabbaticals also feel like a necessity.

On the day this is posted, I’ll be driving to Door County, WI, and settling in for a week’s retreat. At this time of year, the place I stay is usually deserted and silent. My only access to Inkspot will be via my phone, so forgive me if I don’t respond to comments promptly.

How about you? As readers and/or writers, do you ever crave solitude?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Misunderestimating, by Jess Lourey

I was recently reminiscing with a friend about a gentleman we both worked for. He has since risen very high in the world and is now the commanding general of the ROTC for the state he lives in. At the time we worked for him, he was just our boss who had a bad habit of assuming everyone saw the world the same way he did. My favorite illustration of that was relayed to image me by Catherine, who speaks Spanish and went on a church trip to Mexico with him as his translator. On their third day, the two of them presented to 60 teenaged girls who wanted to learn about volunteer opportunities in the U.S. My boss, thinking to set them at ease, told them he was happy to be there. They received this well. He told a couple jokes,which Catherine translated, and the whole audience erupted in laughter and applause. Encouraged and possibly suffering from jet lag, he next told them that they were foxes. My friend Catherine slid him a look, but he was too caught up in the positive energy, so she shrugged and translated, "he thinks you are small furry rodents.” The 17 year-olds are all WTF? as he is leering appreciatively at them, and he moves on from there, having completely lost his audience.

Language barriers (and lack of personal filters) can cause a lot of misunderstandings. For example, there is the “Ladies are requested not to have imagechildren in the drinking lounge” in a Norwegian bar, or “Drop your trousers here” at a Bangkok dry cleaner. In writing fiction, though, misunderstandings are more subtle, as I’m reminded every time I get my manuscript back from my fabulous friends and family who edit for me. Sections I thought were funny are…not. I was also advised to remove “BFF” and “WTF” from my most recent manuscript by my mother, who said many people will not know what they mean. I had a horrible character say a horrible thing, and I was told by several people that the horrible thing was so offensive that it took their breath away, in a bad way. They said it was too jarring for a humorous mystery.

I listen to everything they say and play it against my internal rubric. I know, most of the time, what good writing looks like and what bad writing looks like. It’s just that when it’s my own, it’s hard to see the difference. Until someone points it out to me, that is. I end up making most of the changes recommended to me by editors because most of the time they’re right.

My question to you is, how do writers tell the difference between what must stay and what should go?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Food for Thought

Cricket McRae


I recently read a book which, for various reasons, left me cold. It didn’t do the job of engaging me in the story or making me care about the characters. There were several reasons, but one was that the characters never ate.

Off the top of my head I can think of several books where the people who populate the goings on don’t eat. Thrillers have to keep the pacing up, and eating isn’t thrilling (well, to most folks). Other authors have the good habit of skipping all the boring stuff even if they aren’t writing thrillers.

On the other side of the coin are the mysteries that revolve around food. Over time they’ve carved out their own subgenre: culinary mysteries. And boy, are they popular.

My Home Crafting Mysteries don’t really fall into that vaunted category. There are no caterers, no bakeries, no restaurants. Some of the home crafts are food oriented – cheese, mead, and home canned veggies. But really? My characters simply eat a lot. Not a lot in terms of volume, but certainly on a regular basis. Almost like actual people.

Food can be a useful tool to enhance storytelling. Another layer to add to atmosphere, an indicator of things going on under the surface. And some food has deep symbolic roots the author can tap into. It can:

Reflect regional tastes. My books are mostly set in the Pacific Northwest, and many of the menus include salmon, crab and other seafood which is readily available there. When I moved the fourth in the series to Colorado, meals reflected dishes from south of the border and also featured some of the Southern cooking that Sophie Mae’s mother grew up with.

Indicate the time of year in which the story takes place. Heaven Preserve Us is set in February, so the fresh offerings are limited while the canned goods get a good working out. Spin a Wicked Web is set in June, when fresh peas and new potatoes tossed with parsley butter or salads made from baby greens are realistic options.

Show emotion and the relationships between characters. Missed meals indicate stress and urgency but so can eating peanut butter out of the jar with the biggest spoon in the drawer or wiping out all six portions of chocolate mousse chilling in the fridge. When eleven-year-old Erin is upset about the death of a neighbor, Sophie Mae and her housemate make her favorite meal of spaghetti and meatballs. When Barr refuses a square of Sophie Mae’s classic carrot cake, she knows something is seriously amiss.

Offer additional sensory data without hijacking the story or purpling the prose. Eating is basic, and adding the layer of cooking and food to a story can help ground the reader more firmly.

How else do you think food/eating can enhance a story? Or do you think it detracts from the important action? As a reader, do you enjoy culinary touches in a book? As an author, do you use food as an element of your writing?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Princess Ride

By Deborah Sharp

With tears in my eyes, I watched Rapunzel try to use her magical hair to save her dying love. Yep, there I was in a darkened theater at age well-over-fifty-something, watching Tangled, the movie that Disney claims will be its last offering in a very long line of tiara tales.

I feel like I should be standing in front of a group of fellow addicts, confessing: Hi, I'm Deborah and I have a princess obsession. Ever since I was a little girl, and watched an animated prince slip a crystal slipper on Cinderella's dainty foot, I've been taken in by the happily ever after. And it's not just cartoons, either. I'm a sucker for any story featuring a princess: Enchanted, the Princess Diaries, the Princess Bride.

P.S., I don't have kids, or grand-kids, so I can't even use that as an excuse for sneaking off to see Tangled.

So, what am I supposed to do now? Disney told the L.A. Times in November that this animated story of a princess, stolen by a wicked woman and imprisoned in a tower, would be its final fairy tale for the foreseeable future. Looks like the clock may have finally struck midnight on the genre. Disney execs fear it's too girlish to attract little boys and their daddies. Well, duh. The princess fantasy is a girl thing. Aren't there enough movies with fast cars and things that go BOOM for the boys?

Spoiler alert: Despite the imminent death of the princess tale, the story ended well for fair Rapunzel. And the fact that I cheered her on, that I loved this children's movie, got me to thinking about the endurance of this theme in books and movies. Are you pro-princess, or anti? Are princess stories a plot to delude women into waiting hopelessly for Prince Charming? Or, are they a sweet sojourn into Fantasyland? How about you men? Do you have a secret prince fantasy, where you get to save the day and end up with the beautiful girl? Wait a minute . . . isn't that the plot of every action movie ever made?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Reality TKO's fantasy

So I received a text the other day from a friend. He says, "Oh my God, you have to write about this!" And he goes on to tell me about a story he'd just read in the StarTribune, our local newspaper, about nutjob who was going to mail one of his ex-girlfriends an intimate toy that was loaded with gunpowder, buckshot and BB's. Then he was going to blow it up at an "opportune" time. WHAT? No way! You've got to be kidding!!! In the newspaper? Really?????? I Googled it, and sure enough, my friend was not messing with my mind. This time.

Never in my wildest imaginings have I or any of the writers I know come up with something that horrifying, intriguing, or twisted. Which brings me to the point of this post. I was at a gas station in my home town of Siren, WI tonight. The clerk saw the word "writer" on my t-shirt and engaged me in a short conversation. He's a newspaper journalist for the county paper, and would like to delve into novel writing one day. He asked me where I get my plot ideas from...and isn't that just the question?

That interaction made me remember that I'd attended a great session at Bouchercon this past October on just that subject. There was a lineup of I think five authors, and the moderator had passed out a different section of the newspaper to a number of the attendees. One person got the sports page, one the business section, another the front page, and so on.

The object was for the audience member to read the first paragraph of any story of their choosing, and the authors had to brainstorm a plot out of that paragraph. And I'll be darned if they didn't manage to do it for each section, even sports and business. It sure made me look at the newspaper in quite a different light. I'd always kept an eye out for unusual stories, but to take ANY one of the pieces on the page and twist it into a murder mystery was something I hadn't considered.

So the next time you sit down with your morning coffee and your favorite paper, pick out a story, read that first paragraph, and see what you can come up with. Even ask your wife or husband or partner to brainstorm with you if they're around. I guarantee you'll come up with something. If it's useable or not, who knows, but what a simple exercise to get that writer's brain all juiced up. Since reality is so often loonier than fiction, run with the truth once in awhile. Who knows where you'll end up, and it'll probably be a hell of a ride!

Friday, January 7, 2011


We normally don’t post blatant self-promotion here at Inkspot, but it’s not every day that one of us has a book about to be released. So today I’m breaking with tradition and will give the blogging boat a sound rocking. Hopefully, my fellow MInkers, as we fondly refer to ourselves, won’t cyber-smack me around for doing so. You never know, though, given their propensity for writing about murder and mayhem.

Assault With a Deadly Glue Gun, my latest book and first mystery, will be released. Actually, the book has been available on Amazon for nearly a month and is probably already on bookstore shelves, but tomorrow is the official release date. Assault With a Deadly Glue Gun is an amateur sleuth mystery and the first book in the Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries, published by Midnight Ink.

I’ve often heard authors refer to their books as their “babies” and the road to publication as “labor pains.” There’s a big difference between birthing a baby and birthing a book, though. With each progressive baby, the birthing process generally becomes a lot easier. I remember being in labor with my first son and resolving that I’d NEVER go through that pain again. Nearly three years later, I was giving birth to his brother when I remembered that I’d vowed not to go through labor ever again. I’m convinced nature makes us forget the pain of childbirth in order to keep our species from going extinct. In truth, though, that second delivery was a lot easier and less painful than the first.

Then there’s birthing a book. Ask any multi-published author, and he or she will tell you it never gets any easier. Or less painful. We sweat and worry over each sentence, each page, each scene, each chapter. When we type “THE END,” we continue to worry.

Will my editor love the book or hate it?
What will the reviewers say?
Will readers buy the book?
Will I earn out my advance?
Will sales be good enough to secure my next contract?

The worries never end. But maybe it’s the act of worrying that spurs us to continue to hone and improve our writing, knowing that with each book more is expected of us, making readers clamor for the next book even before they’ve finished the current one. One of the greatest compliments an author can receive is when a reader says, “I can’t believe I have to wait a whole year for your next book!”

I’ve been lucky so far in that Assault With a Deadly Glue Gun has received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Booklist. PW said, “Crafty cozies don't get any better than this hilarious confection,” and Booklist stated, “Winston has hit a home run with this hilarious, laugh-until-your-sides-hurt tale. Oddball characters, uproariously funny situations, and a heroine with a strong sense of irony will delight fans of Janet Evanovich….” Kirkus Reviews called it, North Jersey’s more mature answer to Stephanie Plum.”

However, it became evident that the cosmos wanted to keep me from getting too swelled a head when Library Journal pronounced, “This funny and clever debut almost makes the reader forget that there is not much of a mystery here.” Ouch! That’s another thing that never gets any easier no matter how many books an author has published. When someone finds fault with your baby, whether it’s your first, fifth, or fiftieth, it hurts.

In celebration of the release of Assault With a Deadly Glue Gun, Lois is doing a blog tour throughout January. You can find the schedule at her website and at Anastasia’s blog. Everyone who posts a comment to any of the blogs during the tour will be entered into a drawing to receive one of 5 signed copies of Assault With a Deadly Glue Gun.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

New Beginnings (Again)

bowlingWhen I was a teenager, I bowled in a league. Every Saturday, we’d wake up (relatively) early and go roll a series. Sometimes things were going well; sometimes we’d get a few too many splits. Whenever we’d hit a rough patch, we’d walk up to the scoresheet (you kept your own score in those Neanderthal days) and scratch out a big fat pencil line after the most recent frame to signify that we were now going to “start bowling.”

Sometimes we’d have six or seven pencil scratches in a single 10-frame game. We weren’t shy about our “new beginnings.”

To some extent, I continue to use that philosophy. I look for opportunities to “start fresh.” (Before I go any farther, this is not a prelude to some kind of momentous announcement. In fact, things are going well right now and I hope they’ll continue.)

Here are some of my favorite “starting fresh” points, in no particular order:

  • New Year’s Day
  • Jewish New Year
  • Chinese New Year
  • Beginning of each season
  • First of every month
  • Beginning of school
  • Beginning of school vacation
  • Any day ending in “y”
  • Beginning of each meal
  • Beginning of dessert
  • When the clock chimes at the top of the hour
  • When I click the “new document” button in WORD

How about you? Content with the same ol’, same ol’, or do you crave a fresh beginning?


{By the way, you can view my latest fresh beginning here. I just gave my website yet another facelift (Joan Rivers, watch out!).}



Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Goals vs. Wishes

by G.M. Malliet

Years ago, I read an interview with comedian and actor Drew Carey in which he talked about how he'd achieved success in his career. The world is full of talented would-be comedians and actors, after all. How did Drew manage, after years of struggle, finally to rise to the top of his profession?

His secret was simple: He decided exactly what he wanted to achieve - his goal - and he wrote it down. Then he pinned his goal somewhere where he would see it each each day - on the fridge or the bathroom mirror. His reasoning? "If it's not visible and in your face all the time, it's not a goal. It's a wish."

His good advice has stayed with me. The tendency to wish and dream and hope is part of any writer's makeup - certainly it's part of mine. At what point do you decide you're serious? I think it's at the moment you write down when you're going to be a published author - by what date. What kind of book you're going to write. How many hours you're going to devote to your manuscript. How many pages long it's going to be.

Or anything else that makes the dream specific and alive to you. If you are off by a few pages or even years, what difference does it make when you do reach your goal?

As this is the time of year when we set new goals, here's mine: Within the next three years, I want to spend time in Italy. Not just a vacation, but a real immersion in the country. I want to wake up each day to the rolling landscape, and visit the markets blooming with the different-colored harvests of the seasons. To learn how to cook authentic Italian meals. To share those meals with friends - meals that go on for hours. To see the works of artists who helped invent art as we now know it. To wallow in the sense of limitless time - time to shop, to sip coffee, to people watch, to visit museums, to speculate and to dream. There are few places in the world that allow and encourage this way of life outside of Italy.

If I put money aside for this adventure, the only thing really getting in my way is the language. I tell myself I've never been good at learning languages - that I have one of those brains hard-wired just for English. But with sufficient motivation I know I can learn Italian, even at my great age. The motivation is to be able to purchase Parmesan cheese and balsamic vinegar and fruits and vegetables from a vendor who speaks no English, and to be able to do this with with more than my point, nod, and smile methods of the past. 

So here's the first step that will take me to my overall goal, and I'm writing it down and printing it out: 

I will spend one hour a day in 2011 studying Italian online.

Not a wish, but a goal.

[The photo at right of the happy couple was taken in Cortona, Italy, the perfect place to sip coffee and people watch. The photo at top is from outside a grocers shop in Cortona. And I think the photo in the center is of a place where actor George Clooney stays when he's in Italy. I wonder if the struggling young actor George wrote down his goals, too.]

G.M. Malliet |
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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

What Kids Are Saying About Books

by Julia Buckley

At this time of year all sorts of reading polls go up: books of the year, best lists, tips for good writing, et cetera. But mainly we're asking adults these questions. I thought I'd poll my children--ages twelve and sixteen--about their views on books.

IAN (age 16)

What's the best book you read in 2010?'

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
. More accurately, it was one of the only books I read in 2010.

On what form of entertainment do you spend most of your time? Do you still make time for reading?

The computer. Does reading computer font count?

Sort of. What sorts of books will you NOT read?

, and the other stuff in that area. Also post-modern poetry.

If you were a writer, what would be your genre?


If you could choose between reading a really good book or seeing a movie based on that book, which would you choose?

It depends on the ratio of pages in book to hours in movie. If the book is like 700 pages, I may just watch the movie. If the movie was good, I'll try the book.

GRAHAM (age 12)

What's the best book you read in 2010?

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster.

On what form of entertainment do you spend the most of your time? Do you still make time for reading?

I spend a lot of time on my Play Station 3, but I try to make time for reading.

Hmmm. What sorts of books will you NOT read?

I will read any type of book; it depends on the contents of the specific book.

If you were a writer, what would be your genre?

I would choose adventure, because it's more interesting when there is more excitement.

If you could choose between reading a really good book or seeing a movie based on that book, which would you choose?

It depends on the book/movie, but honestly? Probably the movie.

Very revealing; thank you, Graham.

A recent interview on NPR about the future of entertainment informed me of the fact that everything is changing (which we already knew), and that entertainers and producers will need to decide NOW how they will respond to that change.

In the case of writers, things are becoming more visual and more integrated with other media. My sons' comments (albeit extremely brief) seem to highlight that idea. The book is not always the first choice (although, to my relief, they are both in the process of reading one now).

If we want to see the future, we need look no farther than the young people in our midst. They can tell us exactly what it looks like.

Monday, January 3, 2011

May Auld Acquaintance

Keith here.

In 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010, I started a new book in January. Each year I finished that manuscript by December. About three weeks ago, I sent off my latest to my agent. What does that mean? I reckon that I should get started on something new. Right?

Like most writers, the most common question I'm asked is "Where do you get your ideas from?" I do have an idea for a book and like my Dot Dead and Smasher, it's set against a Silicon Valley background. Weirdly though, this time it's non-fiction. Here in the Valley, history is written and rewritten every day. Way back before I was a software guy, I was a history grad student. Maybe I can combine both those earlier callings with my current one as a writer. I'm going to call an editor friend of mine who specializes in business books and see if my idea makes sense to him. Wish me luck.

Any other resolutions for 2011 besides to get going on whatever comes next? One more is to read more books. I've stopped subscribing to The Economist, which I love, but reading what a mess our world is in doesn't seem to help in fixing it. So I'll escape this world for a couple of extra hours a week and spend the time in another world some author has created.

* * *

BTW, I did want to mention the book that had the greatest impact on me in 2010. The memoir, Serenade to the Big Bird, reminded me of Anne Frank's Diary. The author, Bert Stiles, was a B-17 co-pilot in his early twenties during World War II. As with Anne Frank, you know before starting to read the book that he didn't live to see the end of the war. His language is stark and moving and cynical. He gets a medal and reports, "The citation was mimeographed, with my name typed in. The mimeograph was just about out of ink when it got to mine. The exceptional gallantry part was pretty thin.... We were late for chow and all the seats were taken." But like all the best American heroes, under the cynicism runs a streak of old-fashioned idealism:

"There are all kinds of people: senators and whores and barristers and bankers and dishwashers. There are Chinamen and Cockneys and Gypsies and Negroes. There are Lesbians and and cornhuskers and longshoremen.... And some day we are going to catch on that no matter where people are born, or how their eyes slant, and what their blood type, they are just people.... They are not masses.... And until we call them people, and know they are people, all of them, we are going to have a sick world on our hands."

* * *

As I've mentioned, I'm sending out a literary quote each weekday on Twitter (@writerkeith) and here are two for the new year with slightly different outlooks . A wonderful 2011 to you all!

"We will open the book. Its pages are blank. We are going to put words on them ourselves. The book is called Opportunity and its first chapter is New Year's Day." Edith Lovejoy Pierce

"Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual." Mark Twain