Saturday, January 30, 2010

7,000 Years And Counting

By Pat Browning

On Sunday night PBS will air a Nature program called “Wild Balkans” and here’s the summary:

“Thick forests, vast wetlands, deep chasms - this is a wild, inaccessible place that belongs more to myth than reality. The landscape looks as if it was taken straight form Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings." But here there are neither orcs nor elves; rather, bears and wolves. This is not Middle Earth; rather it is middle Europe -the Balkans. Through the centuries this land has burned its way into the soul and spirit of its people. The jagged contours have thrown long dark shadows over the history of the peninsula, always in the middle, between forces of the East and the West. It's as if the bloody history of the Balkans conspired to conceal its natural wonders. The landscape is still untouched and in it are wild animals that have all but vanished from the rest of Europe.”

That’s not just hype. I’ve been there – once with a tour group in the wilds of Slovenia on a side trip to the Hotel Grad Otecec. The hotel is a 13th century feudal castle sitting on an island in the Krka River. It’s midway between Ljubljana and Zagreb, less than 50 miles from either, but so secluded it could be on the moon. The hotel makes all arrangements for hunting boar, pheasant, rabbit and other seasonal game, and for fishing.

Close by are two spas specializing in stress-related disorders and splendid isolation. Tucked in there is the small town of Novo Mesto, chartered in 1365. Beam me down, Scotty.

Soul satisfying as all that is, any trip through the Balkans should start in Belgrade. Some day history will be taught in the only way that makes sense -- by transporting students to where it happened on some mass-transit version of the Starship Enterprise.

I first wandered into the old Yugoslavia by accident. I picked a tour that included Austria, Hungary and Italy. Yugoslavia -- Land of the South Slavs -- happened to be in the neighborhood. It's quite a neighborhood.

You want history? Belgrade has sprawled there at the confluence of the Sava and
Danube Rivers for 7,000 years, give or take a century.

The Romans colonized it (lst Century A.D.).
The Huns destroyed it (441).
The Goths captured it (504).
The Avars sacked it (twice).
The Slavs conquered it (630).
The Bulgarians took it (827).
The Hungarians ransacked it (again and again and again).
The Byzantine Empire took it and lost it and took it and lost it …
The Crusaders passed through (1096-1189).
Turkey ruled it off and on for 300 years.
The Germans and Austrians captured it (1915).
The Serbs liberated it (1918) and Belgrade (Beograd) became the capital of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.
The Germans bombed and occupied it (1941).
The Americans bombed it (1944) and the communists moved in.
NATO forces bombed it (1999).

The old Yugoslavia is now Serbia and Montenegro, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia …

You do remember Macedonia, land of Alexander the Great? As recently as 2001, U.S. troops were there evacuating ethnic Albanians from Kosovo.

When I was in Greek Macedonia in the mid-1980s a tour guide took us to the border, where we stared across to that part of Macedonia claimed by Yugoslavia. Greece had been staring across that border for years, in what the guide called "the silent war."

And that is another story.

**The photo of Skadarlija Street is by Branko Jovansovic, found on the Belgrade website at (Click on the English tab at the top.)**

Friday, January 29, 2010

Fiction Action

by Jean Henry Mead

I read a magazine article titled, “Action, the Heartbeat of Fiction” by Jordan E. Rosenfeld that I thought was worth noting. Rosenfeld said, “Action is a dynamic word that calls to mind a director hooting into a megaphone at his actors. It's also the heartbeat of good fiction that keeps readers riveted to the page. Action is comprised of all the elements a reader can 'witness' taking place. From physical movement to spoken dialogue, action transports your readers into your writing and brings your writing to life. Despite all this, many writers have a tendency to shuffle important action ‘offstage,’ relying on pace-dragging narrative summaries and recaps instead.”

The solution to preventing pace-dragging scenes is to write them within a framework. By presenting scenes as though they were happening on a theater stage, all the drama takes place as it happens, not offstage and something for the characters to discuss. Readers remember what happens on stage and can make their own deductions. They needn’t wait for the characters to endlessly discuss what has just taken place.

The scene’s momentum keeps the reader reading and her heart pounding as the action accelerates if the plot situation seems real, particularly when the character is in danger. Instead of characters talking about a past experience, replay the scene in flashback action. By reliving it in living color, the reader can experience it for himself.

Another good way to involve your reader in a scene is to reveal information in dialogue. A good plot reveals new information in each chapter and one of the best ways to deliver the news is to have the characters act it out. Give the narrator a rest. It’s much more powerful to have events happen now than to hear about it later, secondhand.

Character movement is essential in a good scene, whether the protagonist throws a chair through a window in anger, or flicks ashes from a cigarette into his cup. Don’t leave your characters standing around without something to do. Body language is a giveaway when a character’s motives are in question. If a man drops his head when asked if he killed someone, it usually means he’s guilty or knows who committed the crime. If a woman lifts a palm to her chest while denying something, changes are she’s telling the truth.

If your character comes to an important decision or suddenly realizes that he has the answer to a problem, avoid internal monologue as much as possible. The realization will have more impact if it happens in someone else’s presence because it raises the emotional stakes for all concerned, as well as your storyline.

And finally, turn your backstory into frontstory whenever possible or delete it from the plot. Backstory is your character’s past, which you feel needs to be included. It’s usually spooned in as narrative summary instead of dialogue and lacks the elements of scene writing. Because it doesn’t take place in the present, there’s no dialogue or scene setting or action taking place. When that happens, the best part of backstory is casually written off without the slightest hint of emotion. And as I've said before, emotion drives the plot.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Idea Well

By Beth Terrell

"Where do you get your ideas?"

It's a question that, sooner or later, every writer is bound to hear. In fact, just this week, Nathan Bransford ( asked his readership what had inspired our/their current works in progress, a question similar in spirit, if not in scope. And why not? I'm always intrigued by the workings of other writers' minds, by the spark that flashes when that perfect story idea flits past, and by the fact that an idea that sparks for me may be nothing but a bit of drifting ash to someone else.

Where do you get your ideas? I've heard writers give clever, facile answers:

"I get them from a factory in Poughkeepsie. I send then twenty dollars a month and they send me back ten ideas in a plain manila envelope."

"There's an idea well in my cousin's back yard. Whenever I need a story idea, I go out and pull up a pail full. I always find something I can use."

Others are more forthcoming:

"Newspaper clippings."

"Magazine articles."

"Sixty Minutes."

I think they all mean the same thing. Ideas are everywhere, fireflies on a summer night, stars in a winter sky, an infinite number of beautiful, scattered lights. One current work in progress was inspired by some inexplicable fears and behaviors my grandmother exhibited when she was suffering from dementia. As I attempted to understand what she was going through, I had the idea to write about an woman caring for her grandmother, whose "unreasonable" fears have their roots in long-buried memories. The caregiver never learns those secrets, but the reader does.

Another work in progress, the third in a series, was sparked by a conversation a friend and I had about a couple who created a garden in which thousands of small white wooden crosses represent lives lost to abortion.

Recently, I rediscovered a website I'd come across a few times before: This site is an online library of modern and historical crimes. There are also articles on criminal psychology, toxicology, and other topics useful to writers of crime fiction. Stuck for a plot? Skimming these stories about real-life criminals can spark dozens of ideas. What if Sweeney Todd had been born in Chicago in the 1930s? What if someone like Albert Fish took a resourceful child who knew how to fight back? How about a black widow story? What if there was a group of time travelers who kidnapped serial killers in their infancy and raised them in loving, nurturing environments, and what if an evil group of time travelers decided to kidnap some potential killers of their own--and for less benevolent purposes? (Yes, sometimes the idea fireflies lead us far afield.)

Ideas are everywhere. Whether you envision them as fireflies in a field or drops of water in a well, the source is not a factory in Poughkeepsie or in anybody's cousin's back yard. You are the source, and I am, and everything we read, see, or experience helps scatter the stars and fill the well. That is the beauty of writing.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Tremulous Future of Bookstores and Bound Books

By Mark W. Danielson

There is nothing official about this topic. It’s just some observations about the book industry. First and foremost, readers need to support their local book stores, especially independent ones, or they will cease to exist. When that happens, a dark era begins, and you will have to visit Starbucks or McDonalds for your coffee and free Wi-Fi.

In October, 2009, I sent 70 newsletters to independent book stores and fifteen were returned because those stores are no longer in business. Others may follow suit unless our economy makes an abrupt turnaround. This is a disturbing trend, particularly for authors who aren’t household names. If Kindle is successful, bound books may only be published on demand.

Personally, I like browsing through book stores. I like the feel of a book in my hand, flipping pages back and forth. Sometimes I might dog-ear a page or two, or highlight things if there’s good reason. My library is full of reference, fiction, and non-fiction books. I have plenty yet to read, and some I may never read in their entirety. Still, they are comforting to have, knowing they can be viewed regardless of my electric power situation. I don’t believe Kindle can match a book’s features.

Independent book stores feature a far greater variety of authors than you will find in chain book stores. These stores are more likely to carry my books. My latest, Diablo’s Shadow was highly rated, and yet Barnes and Noble won’t carry it because neither my publisher nor I are big names. However, I did receive a nice letter from their corporate department manager saying my books meet their criteria, and they will gladly order them on demand. At least I have that going for me.

Last November, I participated in another enjoyable Men of Mystery event in Irvine, California. As one of the fifty-plus authors in attendance, I am always amazed at the talent in the room, and yet few have heard of the majority of these mystery writers. In this regard, an author breaking out is comparable to an actor being discovered while waiting tables. There are plenty of wonderful books out there, but unless they get noticed by the right people, it’s unlikely they will ever become best sellers.

Some of these issues are discussed in my upcoming novel, Writer’s Block. More than a murder mystery, it’s an inside look into the fiction writer’s world. Please don’t confuse this with a documentary or autobiography, though. Nothing could be further from the truth. Writer’s Block is simply a fun story filled with twists and turns. I hope to name a publisher later this year.

Without readers, there would be little reason for authors to invest so much of their time in creating stories, and yet those of us who take writing seriously would probably write them anyway. Once a story teases your brain, there is no escaping it until it’s written down. Whether you read my stories or someone else’s, please try to buy them from your local book stores. They really need your business.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Wall Street Is Choking Americans

By Chester Campbell

This isn't the blog I had intended to write for today. That one will have to wait until next time. Something I read online this morning prompted the change. Like many of you, I suspect, I receive a flood of emails daily on every subject from health to wealth to stealth (those are the mystery related ones). Some of these I asked for, but a lot of them came collaterally from websites I visited. Some I seldom read, some I only read when a headline catches my eye. Here's what caught my eye this morning:

Wall Street's Stranglehold on the Economy Is Choking Americans

It was in the Money Morning financial newsletter and was written by Shah Gilani, contributing editor. I'll give you the link in a moment, but what I read is the most succinct, understandable, east-to-read explanation of the mess we're in and what needs to be done that I have read in a long time.

It isn't a political piece. He shows there's equal blame for Democrats and Republicans starting back with the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977. It had a laudable goal, the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of race, sex, and other characteristics in the credit and housing markets. But like so many well-meaning ideas, it led to disastrous unintended consequences.

Gilani starts out by saying that after 234 years, the Founding Fathers' worst fears have come true. Their fear was that a concentration of power, particularly among banking interests, could "hijack our fledgling democracy." We're no longer fledgling, but it's happening. He says it's time to look at the truth about Wall Street's tyranny and develop a safe banking system, "not a system rigged by banks."

The article describes how succeeding administrations and congresses kept pushing the boundaries to get more Americans into houses, many  into bigger homes than they could afford and with mortgages they couldn't pay when the economy went south. It explains how the big banks kept playing games with risky loans they were making, creating esoteric products that few people understood.

Gilani shows how greed pushed the banks into ever more risky deals that the executives planned to pawn off on unsuspecting investors. They re-formatted their junk and got it rated AAA by their buddies at the rating agencies. In the end, he says, "Because of their greed, banks actually made the boat and forced us into it. They sunk, along with us, but got bailed out while we were left to drown."

He concludes that we need to break up the big banks and spread the pieces around the country, putting the economy back in the hands of the people. Let banking be done on Main Street, not Wall Street. Gilani says the enormous amount of power that has been concentrated in Wall Street and the banking system is an assault on our freedom.

You can read the full article at Money Morning.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Graham Greene's Haiti

By Pat Browning

Haiti. Where do you start to talk about Haiti?

I would start with THE COMEDIANS, a 1966 novel by Graham Greene that covers another tragic period in the history of that small piece of earth in the Caribbean.

Hollywood made the book into a movie in 1967, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. I don’t remember a single thing about the movie, but I have never forgotten the book. Graham Greene was an exceptional writer.

Stirring up memories of the book was an article in The Washington Post. The horrors taking place in Port-au-Prince are paraded past us daily, but nobody mentioned the wealthy, largely untouched mountain suburb of Petionville – until reporter William Booth came along to tell us that Haiti’s rich and powerful are still living the good life.

I wonder if Graham Greene would be aghast, or even surprised. The Jan.18 article can be read at

The Hotel Oloffson, setting for Greene’s political thriller, still stands. THE COMEDIANS takes place during the dictatorship of “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his thugs, the Tonton Macoute. The narrator is Mr. Brown, an Englishman who inherited the Hotel Oloffson from his aunt. Other central characters are The Presidential Candidate, a well-meaning American who ran for president in 1948 and comes to Haiti to set up a vegetarian center, and Mr. Jones, a gregarious con artist from Europe who finds redemption in an uprising against the corrupt government.

I’ve always like Greene’s opening lines:

“When I think of all the grey memorials erected in London to equestrian generals, the heroes of old colonial wars, and to frock-coated politicians who are even more deeply forgotten, I can find no reason to mock the modest stone that commemorates Jones on the far side of the international road which he failed to cross in a country far from home, though I am not to this day absolutely sure of where, geographically speaking, Jones's home lay. At least he paid for the monument - however unwillingly - with his life, while the generals as a rule came home safe and paid, if at all, with the blood of their men, and as for the politicians - who cares for dead politicians sufficiently to remember with what issues they were identified? Free Trade is less interesting than an Ashanti War, though the London pigeons do not distinguish between the two. Exegi monumentum."

(I looked it up. Exegi monumentum means "I raised myself a monument.")

Some of today’s readers might find those lines slow and old-fashioned. To me, they set up a story that promises to blot out everything else for a few hours.

The Hotel Oloffson is not the only luxury hotel still standing after last week’s earthquake. The old Hotel Villa Creole has a crushed central structure, with beautiful paintings and carvings covered in dust, but it is open to paying customers. A hospital is set up at its entrance, and media from all over the world are based in the swimming pool.

Haiti’s history, briefly: Haiti’s native labor made France rich until a slave uprising at the turn of the 19th century. In 1804, Haiti declared its independence, but its native leaders turned out to be as cruel and corrupt as its former French masters. The country endured 33 coups. U.S. Marines occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934.

Quoting from a story in The Week magazine, Jan 29 issue:

“The island has the misfortune, among others, to be located directly in a geological fault zone, making it susceptible to earthquakes, and its location in the Caribbean makes it a sitting duck for hurricanes. Environmental degradation and poverty, of course, only compound the problems. ‘If you want to put the worst-case scenario together in the Western Hemisphere for disasters,’ says Richard Olson of Florida International University, ‘it’s Haiti.’

You can read entire article -- “Haiti: A History of Hurt” -- at

Graham Greene’s Haiti has changed, but not nearly enough. As for writers, he offers the best answer I’ve found to the question: Where do you get your characters?

THE COMEDIAN is written in first person, from Mr. Brown’s viewpoint. In a letter to A.S. Frere, his former publisher, Greene wrote:

“ ‘I’ is not the only imaginary character: none of the others, from such minor players as the British charge to the principals, has ever existed. A physical trait taken here, a habit of speech, an anecdote -- they are boiled up in the kitchen of the unconscious and emerge unrecognizable even to the cook in most cases.”

Friday, January 22, 2010

A Man of Mystery

by Jean Henry Mead

Edgar Allan Poe was not only one of the most brilliant and original American writers, he’s considered the father of the modern detective story.

Born 201 years ago on January 19, 1809, he was orphaned when his actor parents died.

Edgar’s godfather, John Allan, a wealthy Richmond, Virginia, merchant, took the three-year-old child into his home although he never adopted him. Edgar accompanied the Allans to Europe, where he attended schools in England and Scotland. When he returned to this country in 1820, he continued his education in Richmond and the University of Virginia, where he excelled in classical and romance languages. But he was forced to leave after only eight months because of gambling debts that led to his estrangement with Allan. Because he was penniless, Poe then joined the army.

He was appointed to West Point in 1930 but was expelled not long after for minor infractions of the rules. The first Mrs. Allan convinced Poe to reconsile with her husband shortly before she died but Edgar’s support was again cut off when Allan remarried. Poe then attempted to earn a living by writing alone. His first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems, had been published anonymously in 1827, and was followed by two more books of verse in 1829 and 1831, which hardly caused a ripple in literary society.

Poe then moved in with his aunt, Maria Clemm, and her daughter Virginia in Baltimore. And in 1835, J. P. Kennedy was impressed with his prose and helped him become editor of the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond. While there he contributed poems, short stories and literary criticism, but lost his editorship because of his excessive drinking.

The following year he married his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm, and they moved to New York City in 1837. There he published The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym in 1838. Then, in Philadelphia, he edited Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine from 1839-1840 and Graham’s Magazine from 1841-1842. Some of his stories were collected in a volume titled Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque in 1840. The Poes moved back to New York in 1844, where he worked for the Evening Mirror and edited and later owned the Broadway Journal.

Fame arrived in 1845 with the publication of The Raven and Other Poems, published in the U.S. and Europe. His young wife Virginia died two years later and Poe soon courted the poet Sarah Helen Whitman. But two years later he was engaged to Elmira Royster, a widow who had been his childhood sweetheart. On the way to the wedding, Poe attended a party in Baltimore, and indulged in so much alcohol that he died several days later at the age of 40.

Although Poe was tormented by his own demons, he was said to have been witty and considerate. He was also known to have been a good friend and affectionate husband. His greatness as a writer stemmed from a reported neurotic attraction to beauty, horror and death. “Masque of the Red Death” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” are both beautiful as well as grotesque. Poe's work also influenced that of Dostoyevsky, Swinburne, Tennison, Conan Doyle and the French symbolists.

I’ll never forget the first story written by Poe that I read in junior high, which I remember to this day: “The Cask of Amontillado.” I had nightmares for months afterward, dreaming that I had been walled up in a dungeon. But I later read “The Murders of the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter” as well as his musical and sensuous poetry. Among my book collection is a leather bound copy of The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, which I treasure and hope to find time to reread again some day.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Mystery Writers' Websites

By Beth Terrell

I'm always on the lookout for good websites, books, and other resources for writers--especially mystery writers. Today, in lieu of a long involved post, I'd just like to share some sites you might find helpful--or at least, interesting.

Crimespace at This is a social networking site, much like Facebook or MySpace, but specifically geared toward readers and writers of crime fiction. Each member gets a page, a Crimespace email, and access to the discussion forums. It's not an extremely busy site yet, but I always learn something new there.

Mystery Ink, at This site has author interviews, book reviews, and a list of other crime fiction websites.

Mystery Writers' Forum at The forums include discussions on publishing, agents, crime fiction sub-genres, mystery writing contests, and much, much more. The site also provides a list of resource links for mystery writers, including topics like police, forensics, firearms, private detectives, and poisons.

Agent Nathan Bransford's website at Nathan's blog is not mystery-specific, but it's one of the most comprehensive agent sites, complete with a blog and discussion forums. His regular Friday post on "the week in publishing" is a must-read for anyone who wants to keep up with the latest news from the publishing world.

Absolute Write at Again, this is not a mystery-specific site, but the "water cooler" forums have a wealth of information relevant to writers of any genre.

Happy surfing.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Spirit of America

By Mark W. Danielson

The best part of piloting airplanes is the incredible view. Sunsets, sunrises, cloud formations, ocean swells, mountains, canyons, and patchwork prairies are all interesting and often spectacular. At night over the Pacific, fishing fleets look like large cities. On a moonless night, the stars are so bright, the planets and constellations are indiscernible. But none of these sights compares with what I saw the other day while taxing for takeoff in Denver. Shortly after paralleling the runway, an American bald eagle swooped down and flew abeam us for about ten seconds. I’m certain it wasn’t the least bit attracted to our purple and white MD-11. More likely, it was looking for breakfast in the weeded area next to the taxiway. Even so, it was incredible viewing our national symbol twisting and bending its wings in such close proximity. Near the end of its flight with us, a red tailed hawk took flight ahead of the eagle. The hawk looked mighty small in comparison.
This spectacle made my day. First, it demonstrates that the bald eagle has bounced back from near extinction. Second, we are fortunate to have such a majestic creature as our national symbol, and not the turkey that Ben Franklin suggested. As savvy as a wild turkey is, it’s still a turkey of a bird. Of course, other countries have used eagles as symbols. Hitler was particularly fond of them because of their beauty and strength. Fortunately, the eagle never got a bad rap from that stint. Instead, it was limited to Hitler and his fellow visionaries.

No doubt America’s spirit has been challenged many times throughout history, and is certainly being challenged today. We have mucked up international politics so often that our initials seem synonymous with trouble. But at the same time, whenever there is an international crisis, the USA is always the first to pledge its support. No other country has given so much to relief efforts.

I guess that’s why seeing this eagle instilled so much pride. Far more than a beautiful bird, it reflected our strength, confidence, and conviction. Now is a perfect time to carry that spirit by donating to the Red Cross to help those less fortunate, and remind the world that in spite of our shortcomings, our giving spirit lives on.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Author Question: "Which way is the restroom?"

By Chester Campbell

We did a book signing last Saturday at a library in a small town south of Nashville where they had a large group of authors from the area. Last year at the same event, I sold enough books to make it well worth the trip. For some reason, that didn't happen this time. I didn't see a lot of signing going on anywhere around me. Not all that many people showed up. My single sale came when another author bought my latest book.

That's me and colleague Beth Terrell at the library.

Signings are funny that way. You never know when one will knock your socks off and another will make you wish you had put on two pairs because the reception is so cold. But invariably you get to meet a number of nice people who make the experience worth experiencing.

When I'm doing a solo signing at a bookstore, my wife, Sarah, plays the role of a warm-up act at a night club. She stands at the entrance and greets people, handing out my small promo folders and telling them the author is signing  at the table "over there." Sometimes, a customer will stop and chat with her about the books. That frequently results in a sale.

She gets most of the questions from people wanting to know the location of the restrooms, where to find the magazines, and who knows what else. I get the ones who want to talk about the book they'd like to write. If somebody is actually working on a book, I'm happy to give my advice on whatever they need to know. It's usually about finding a publisher or an agent. The only problem comes when I get a talkative person who stands there forever, blocking the way for people who might want a book signed.

When Sarah takes a break, I stand at the door and greet the customers. I ask, "Do you read mysteries?" and it's appalling how many come back with, "I don't read books." Makes you want to say, "What the hell are you doing in a bookstore?" Of course, some will tell you they just came for the coffee.

It's interesting to watch people's reactions. Some appear intimidated by the appearance of an author and shy away from the table. Others zip right by as if you weren't there. I used to set up an easel near the table with a large blow-up of the cover of my latest book. However, watching people's eyes, I rarely saw anybody notice the poster.

Invariably, someone will stop at the table, take a book, turn it to the back cover, look at the photo, then up at me. "That's you," they say with a look of surprise. "You wrote this." Duh, if I didn't, why would I be sitting here?

Those you never see enough of are the ones who charge up to the table, grab a book and say, "I want this one. Will you sign it for me?"  Occasionally, at a signing like the Kentucky Book Fair, where I have all my backlist available, a reader will look them over and say, "I want one of each. I can start with the first and go right through them."

On the few occasions where sales have been almost non-existent, I found the person who invited me more distressed than I was. I've been around long enough to know these things happen. But the store manager will apologize profusely. I had one small independent owner who was almost in tears. Heck, everybody has a bad night once in awhile. You move on to the next one and hope for the best.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

My Life Between Covers

By Pat Browning

Answering the age-old question: What’s a nice girl like me doing in a place like this?

My first mystery started out as FULL CIRCLE in 2001, and became ABSINTHE OF MALICE in 2008. It’s a long, twisted story but here are questions people are most likely to ask.

What is your book about?
The logline: It’s just another Labor Day weekend in the small California town of Pearl, until discovery of a skeleton in a cotton field leads to murder ... and romance. It’s about small town secrets and getting away with murder when you have money and power.

The working title changed as the story changed. The first title was ROOM THIRTEEN. The second was SKELETON CREW. For a long time the title was MURDER IN THE ROUND. In 2001, about a week before I uploaded the manuscript to iUniverse, I changed the title to FULL CIRCLE.

Then Krill Press came along in 2008 and republished it as ABSINTHE OF MALICE, and I ended up doing some tweaking and revising one more time. It’s beginning to feel like my life’s work.

What inspired you to write a mystery?
About 1995, while I was working for The Hanford (California) Sentinel, the managing editor suggested that I write a book column. I went to the library and walked along the shelves pulling out books that looked interesting. Most of them turned out to be mysteries.

After a few weeks I decided to write my own. I actually said, "How hard can it be?" Five years later I could have written a book on just how hard it is. Through it all I was taking online writing classes, asking questions in chat rooms, lurking on listservs, trying to learn everything I could in the shortest possible time.

FULL CIRCLE had more lives than a cat, with different titles, different characters, different plots and subplots. I think I ended up with nine or ten "final drafts," each time thinking that I finally got it right. Eventually I had to say, "Stick a fork in it, it’s done."

After it was published I still couldn't tell people what it was about because I didn't know. After I heard enough questions and did enough presentations I finally figured out what I had written. It all came from real life -- setting, characters, everything except the plot, which was pure fiction.

How long did it take you to publish your novel?
I probably spent a year writing a few query letters and talking to a couple of agents and editors, but I'm too long in the tooth to spare that kind of time. I had been checking out the new print-on-demand technology via the Internet, and iUniverse seemed to be the best game in town. Not only that, I could publish for $99. It was quick, and I liked the idea of total control over my book. I found Ariana Overton on the Internet, and she designed a beautiful cover for $100. Best $100 I ever spent. So, I formatted and uploaded my book about July of 2001, and by the end of August the finished product was in my hands

A major factor in my decision to go that route was my husband's health. I had given up the newspaper job to be at home with him. So there I was, sitting at the computer for hours at a time, days on end. He was patient, interested, supportive. He kept saying, "When are you going to let me read that book?" Once I decided I’d taken it as far as I could, I let him read the manuscript, then I contacted iUniverse.

He was so proud of that book that he told everybody he met about it. I don't know whether he generated any sales, but it gave him such a kick to talk about it. I never regretted publishing it myself. It was a gift to both of us.

When your husband died, prompting your move from California to Oklahoma, how did you cope? Did writing help?
Ed died 7 years ago this month. It's a terrible experience to sit in a hospital room and watch someone you love slip away from you, and know there is nothing you can do to hold them here. I've done that twice, and the second time was worse than the first. You'd think you'd get used to it. You don't. Another piece of your heart breaks. You can fall on the floor, or you can get up and go home.

My second book was off to a good start but it went onto a shelf while I got my life in order. Fortunately, I had a logline and an outline, so it wasn’t a total loss. An odd thing happened. Going through Ed’s files I came across a snapshot taken in 1937. At the time he was a teenager living in rural California, but I would have known him anywhere.

He hadn’t changed at all. He just got older. I realized this is true of real people and just as true of characters in a book. There’s a lot of talk in writerly circles about characters “growing” and changing, but I’m not quite sure what it means. People – or characters – don’t change, except perhaps superficially. They just get older. What binds us to them is their dependability; that is, they usually do what we would expect them to do. It’s who they are, and that doesn’t change much. Sooner or later they come up against a problem that challenges them but their response is true to their character.

The best example I can think of offhand is Scarlett O’Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND. From the first page to the last she never wavered in two things: her pursuit of Ashley Wilkes and her determination to save the plantation Tara.

What conflicts does your protagonist Penny Mackenzie face in your second book?
Here’s the logline: Small town reporter Penny Mackenzie tracks an offbeat Christmas story and finds herself in the middle of a murder and the mysterious desecration of an old Chinese cemetery.

Penny wants to solve the mystery of a long-dead Chinese man, whose records seem non-existent, and she wants to find out who murdered someone who seemed to have no enemies. On another level, she’s resisting marriage to the man of her dreams (and occasional nightmares) because she doesn’t quite trust him.

Someone who read my first book complained that there were no children in it. True. My characters are the people I know best, baby boomers and their elders. Unless I change the ending, the only character with a speaking part who is younger than 40 is a parrot.

How would you sum up your experience as an author?
Here's a quote from Jonathan Harrington, who wrote the Danny O'Flaherty mystery series. In an online interview with Charlotte Austin, he said:

"When I am gone, all that will be left are the stories I tried to tell in my writing. When the world is no more, all that will be left is a story that begins: Once upon a time a group of people lived on a place called Earth ... We are writing the story of our existence. When everything else is gone, all that will remain is the story of who we were."

Today's writers have computers and word processing software, but in a sense we are still drawing pictures on the walls of the cave, leaving proof of our existence and the way we see the world around us.

What are your future writing plans?
Finshing that second book. Beyond that, I have notes—bits and pieces really, and research notes—for a third and possibly fourth book in the Penny Mackenzie series. There's another possibility, too, for a standalone set in some interesting place I've visited, such as India. Whether it happens remains to be seen. Remains to be seen. Sounds like a good title for a mystery, doesn't it?

Friday, January 15, 2010

American Idol

by Jean Henry Mead

I love watching "American Idol," although the auditions from various parts of the country are often difficult to watch as well as heartbreaking.

The first two shows of season nine premiered this week with a few good singers as well as the usual untalented ones who basically made fools of themselves. I have to wonder why so many people need their fifteen minutes of fame. And do viewers really enjoy watching those with terrible voices ridiculed by Simon Cowell?

As a former singer, I cringe at the off-key notes and poor delivery, but I've shed a few tears of my own when some of them leave the audition heartbroken because of shattered dreams. I wonder how damaging it is to their self confidence and whether they give up on other pursuits as a result of losing their chances to go to Hollywood.

The program ended Wednesday with a 62-year-old man named General Larry Platt, who entertained the panelists with his catchy, self written song, "Pants on the Ground." (See video below). He was 34 years too old to be eligible for the competition, but left everyone smiling. Was Platt's performance arranged by Simon Cowell, as was Susan Boyle's the previous year on "Britian has Talent"?

Curious about Simon's background, I did a bit of research. He began his career in the UK at EMI Music Publishing, where he was promoted to record producer from his job as assistant to an A&R representative. During the early 1980s, he left to create his own label, E&S Music, which soon went bankrupt, so he returned to EMI. He tried again in 1985 with Fanfare Records, which was more successful but went under when its parent company closed its doors.

Cowell then worked as an A&R consultant for the British Music Group, where he was relatively successful producing novelty records by stars from other areas of the entertainment industry, such as professional wrestlers and children's TV personalities. He also signed a number of well known bands to his label, and began working on other music-based projects such as the British show "Pop Idol," later known across the pond as "American Idol."

His third attempt at owning his own music company resulted in Sysco Records, with the plan to feature winners of both "American Idol" and "Pop Idol." Cowell was also behind other competitive reality series, "Britian's Got Talent," "America's Got Talent" and "American Inventor." Next season he'll be appearing on "X Factor."

I'll continue to watch "American Idol," and enjoy viewing those who make the cut. The program has changed the face of American music and will hopefully continue to do so for many years to come. With the disappearnce of Cowell, who's leaving the show after this season, and Paula Abdul's replacement, Ellen Degeneres, season ten will no doubt take on a kinder, gentler format laced with humor. But will it survive?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Breaking the Rules

By Beth Terrell

Elmore Leonard, one of the masters of crime fiction wrote a now-famous list of rules for writers. They're excellent rules, and any writer could benefit from studying them. You could, as Leonard himself has demonstrated, have a long and illustrious career by following them. Yet, in the right hands and with the right techniques, almost every writing rule ever devised can be broken. Knowing the rules is important, but knowing when and how to break them may be equally important.

Consider Leonard's first rule:

1. Never open a book with weather. If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a character's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

Notice how Leonard himself allows for exceptions to the rule. In my opinion, one of the best examples of a book that successfully opens with a description of weather is Glendon Swarhout's masterful coming of age novel Bless the Beasts and the Children:

In that place, the wind prevailed. There was always sound. The throat of the canyon was hoarse with wind. It heaved through the pines and passed and was collected by the cliffs. There was a phenomenon of pines in such a place. When wind died in a box canyon and in its wake the air was still and taut, the trees were not. The passing trembled in them, and a sough of loss. They grieved. They seemed to mourn a memory of wind.

From this description of tumultuous wind, the author breaks yet another common writing rule (though not one of Leonard's) by taking us into a nightmare one of the boys, John Cotton, is having. But that dream, in which Cotton relives a traumatic event (the slaughter of buffalo in an annual culling "hunt") that occurred earlier that day, is what impels him to lead a band of teenaged misfits, all emotionally damaged, all sons of well-to-do families, on a mission to save the remaining buffalo. If you've never read this book, I highly recommend it. This is a guy who knows how and when to break the rules.

Here's another rule:

2. Avoid prologues. They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

Leonard goes on to give an example of a prologue that works. I think it's Steinbeck, who can get away with breaking pretty much any rule he wants to. As I mentioned last week, without the prologue to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I might not have read on. (Well, I would have, because we were discussing it at our Sisters in Crime meeting, but I wouldn't have wanted to.)

Although most of Leonard's rules, like most writing rules, can--and sometimes should--be broken, the last one is pretty much non-negotiable:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

It's hard to argue with that one, and I can't think of a single instance where you'd want to break it. Why put in anything readers are likely to skip? It's a hard rule to follow, though. If we thought it was "skippable," we wouldn't have put it in there in the first place. What I think Leonard means, though, is big chunks of description that go on and on until readers start skimming them.

There are a total of ten Elmore Leonard rules, with a bonus rule that encompasses the rest--If it sounds like writing, rewrite it. You can read the rest of them here:

One of my favorite quotes about writing rules is by Somerset Maugham, who said, "There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are."

Thank goodness for that.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Frigid Opportunities

By Mark W. Danielson

What a way to welcome 2010! So much for Global Warming. January slammed the northern continents with record low temperatures. The late State of Fear author Michael Crichton would have loved to hear environmentalists like Al Gore explain this latest arctic blast. Don’t get me wrong; we can do a lot to clean up our air, but weather patterns are cyclic and ongoing, and as long as we are floating atop a molten core, we can look forward to more severe weather, volcanoes, and earthquakes.

But this cold snap also gives writers a wealth of situations for character development. The news recently reported iguanas falling out of trees when the Florida temperatures dropped below forty. Since these reptiles can’t handle the cold, their bodies go into hibernation. They’ll awake once the temperature warms, probably wondering how they got there. Now, imagine your character’s reaction while hiding in the Florida swap and one of these lizards falls on him.

Authors should welcome cold weather as an opportunity to create vivid scenes in their stories. For example, imagine a homeless man struggling to find shelter when the missions are full. Fighting for his life, his fingers and toes are numb. Since most people stay inside, there is no one to approach for help. In desperation, fight breaks out and he dies a violent death. His misery may be over, but it’s just beginning for the homicide detectives.

The detectives investigating this murder are subjected to the same cold. They find the victim’s blood frozen in the snow. There are tire tracks and footprints nearby, but did they come from the murderer? They find bare skin stuck to a metal post. Their breath is visible, their extremities numb and aching. Their mustaches are frozen from their dripping noses. The air stinks from alley fires and fireplace smoke. The dry snow crunches under their feet. A distant power plant creates an ominous cloud. Snow builds on windows as gale winds pile drifts. The white Hummer parked up the alley is barely visible in the freezing fog. Moisture from its exhaust shows its engine is running. Smoke drifting from the driver’s window shows it’s occupied. The detectives are being watched. Car chases on ice are always exciting.

Only your imagination and power of observation can limit the description in this winter murder. Next time you’re out and about in these extreme conditions, look around, take notice, and jot down your thoughts over a nice hot cocoa. After all, winter a great time for mayhem.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Plot Ideas: Where They Lead

Authors are fond of saying, in answer to the inevitable question, that ideas for stories can be found anywhere. In an interview here the other day, Michelle Gagnon said she got the inspiration for her book Boneyard while doing research on Ted Bundy. I came up with the idea for my first published mystery on a trip to the Holy Land.

True, the world is a cornfield of plot kernels, but what happens after we pick a few? As Bobby Burns put it so aptly many years ago, the best laid plans "gang aft agley." Or often go askew. My colleague here, Ben Small, started working on his latest mystery by setting it in southern Arizona near the Mexican border. But before he got too far along, he took a trip to the Dalmation Coast and changed gears.

What makes us choose one subject over another? For me, part of it is probably laziness. I normally do research as the story unfolds in the computer. When I got into Secret of the Scroll, I found myself doing a prodigious amount of research in libraries and bookstores, online and elsewhere. The second book in the series involved a high-rise condo, which required delving into construction techniques, as well as pursuing information relating to the murder.

By the third book, I looked for more familiar themes that wouldn't require so much digging. I chose to stay close to Nashville, where I had grown up, worked as a newspaper reporter, and spent most of my life. I chose a plot that blended a lot of my experiences, such as an involvement in rental properties and a military background. I used the Opryland Hotel for the murder scene since I had been there many times and my son had worked there and knew a lot of inside stuff.

A modest amount of research was still required, of course. I had to bone up on the Federal Reserve chairman (who I killed off in the book), and a brief interview with a restaurant manager provided all I needed to know about waiters handling dinner checks. A ride-along with a homicide detective filled in some blanks for a key character in the book.

For the fourth book, I chose a subject that was easily covered by a couple of visits to the restored Marathon Motor Works buildings just beyond downtown Nashville. Most of the other details came from my long experience in working around the city. One fun part was researching Trousdale County, a small county to the northeast, and visiting the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation headquarters in preparation for including a TBI agent in the story.

By the fifth book, I had pretty well honed my plot choice style and picked up a  ready-made story from a PI friend who told me about a case she had worked. It worked for me. Except for a couple of visits to a small town nearby, where a key element of the plot (a massive toxic chemical dump) was set, I did most of my research on the Internet. I practically Googled the book.

With number six, I'm pulling most of it out of my head. I've used the Internet a lot and pursued only one interview. Since the other books had occured in spring, summer, and fall, I wanted this one set around Christmas. I wasn't sure how to work that in, but it came along when I needed it.

To me, the fun part of writing is watching the story pour out with hardly any idea of where it's coming from. I guess I'll keep doing it as long as it remains fun to do.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Where Is Global Warming Now...?

by Ben Small

Now there's a good mystery question.

We've been told the ice caps are melting, that glaciers are receding, that the earth's temperature is rising. Yet, the U.S. had one of its coldest years in history last year, and winter this year has been the worst we've seen in twenty-five years, or at least that's what we're being told down in the Tropics of Florida, where oranges are freezing on their trees.

Is anybody too hot out there?

I looked on the internet to see where Al Gore has been flying his private jet, because it seems wherever no-longer-poor Al goes, record blizzards or low temperatures follow him. Only thing I could determine is, he must really get around. Seems everybody is having record lows these days. And while a Global Warming conference was being held in Copenhagen, a blizzard dropped on the delegates, who of course flew in on private jets, too. Is there anyone who believes in a Higher Being who doesn't think that Higher Being was having fun with these high-falutin potentates?

Scientists are a funny group. They tell us the ice caps will melt and the seas will rise, wiping out Florida, turning NYC into a swamp, and converting most of the eastern seaboard into bone-fishing heaven. But did this happen in the Middle Ages? Scientists also tell us that tree core borings show that period on average to have been about twenty degrees warmer on a world-wide basis than now. Guess there musta been too many gas guzzlers on the road in the Middle Ages, huh?

And the scientists can't seem to agree on much of anything. I've heard various alleged supporting reasons for the alleged Global Warming: sun spots, carbon emissions, solar flares, polarity changes, rising magma -- heck, even cow farts. Yet these same scientists -- or maybe their parents -- were telling me we were entering a new Ice Age as recently as during Jimmy Carter's reign. We were urged to conserve fuel; we might need it to keep from freezing.

And I love it when politicians realize that their words ring false; they just change the words. So "Global Warming" is no longer politically correct; now we're told we should use the term "Climate Change." That's what I call "wiggle-room." They can be wrong and still say they were right. And climate does change. It got colder from the Middle Ages; the tree borings prove it. It got warmer when the Ice Age ended; the glaciers melted. So, in other words, all this stuff has happened before.

Yes, I'd like to see a cleaner environment; I'd like to see crystal clear waters, clean air, the end of droughts and floods. And I'd like to see thinner people, those who emit less methane than fatties. And don't we all know fatties cause earthquakes? I've got scientific proof of that. The guy who lives above my Florida condo -- where I'm freezing now -- weighs more than his wife. When he walks, the building shakes. She, in turn, seems to dance on air. And just look at all the fatties in Los Angeles. No wonder Los Angelinos fear The Big One.

I've got a theory: The true cause of Global Warming is politicians. All that hot air's got to raise temperatures somewhere. Did you happen to notice that this cold front started when Congress recessed? I'll bet I can find a scientist who'll say there's a correlation.

But I do get a kick out of those who try to analyze hundred year data. How many third world countries, or even first and second world countries, kept temperature data a hundred years ago? Recently, during a cold snap in Tucson, my home town, the local weather guy said we'd experienced the lowest temperature since record-keeping was begun, some eighty-five years ago. If that's true, where did scientists get their hundred year Tucson temperature data?

Meanwhile, I'll just keep cranking the thermostat up. Maybe if I crank it up far enough and open my doors, I can help create Florida Warming.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

By Beth Terrell

Last month, our Sisters in Crime group had our book club discussion on Stieg Larsson's novel, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It was an interesting discussion, and one of the topics touched on was why the novel was such a monumental success, considering all the rules the author breaks.

One commonly touted writing rule is "Never open with a prologue." Yet, it was generally agreed at our meeting that, in Larsson's case, the prologue was the most intriguing part of the book. But The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo does a number of unorthodox things that, in another novel, might be considered the kiss of death. It has been suggested that the book's success can be chalked up to its setting in Sweden and to the fact that it (along with the other two in the series) were published posthumously. Larsson died of a massive heart attack shortly after submitting all three manuscripts. I don't agree. If you read the reviews on and on Larsson's website, there are obviously other factors at work. Still, the book has a number of weaknesses that bear mentioning.

First, there's a long (very long) subplot involving a libel trial involving the male protagonist, Mikael Blomqvist. General consensus was that this subplot was not very interesting, although it did serve the purpose of making Blomqvist vulnerable enough to accept the assignment that is ostensibly at the heart of the novel (investigating the disappearance and possible murder of his client's niece some forty years earlier). The libel subplot continues again--for more than 100 pages--after the "main" mystery is solved. It creates an odd anticlimax, especially since we never even meet the villain, a corrupt industrialist. Most of the Sisters agreed that this subplot could have--and should have--been dealt with much more quickly.

Second, the intriguing and poignant puzzle set up in the beginning turns out to have very little substance. Blomqvist solves it on the basis of information that could just have easily led him to the opposite conclusion. There's another, related, mystery that turns out to be a serial killer subplot (I don't think that's a spoiler). The killer is remarkably easy to figure out. In fairness to Blomqvist (and maybe Larsson), maybe my reasons for suspecting this particular person would be less obvious if I'd been there in person and not reading it in a book.

Third, the protagonists are both problematic. Blomqvist is an unusually passive character. Generally likable but rather two-dimensional, he plods through the story not doing much of anything until the climactic moment in which he does the most stupid thing imaginable--the thing you see constantly in the kind of bad horror film where you sit in the audience and scream, "No! Don't go ALONE into the basement/attic/scary haunted cornfield!!" Despite this, nearly every woman he meets leaps into bed with him.

The female protagonist, Elizabeth Salander, is stronger and more interesting, but also less consistent. Once moment, she's a socially inept, passive victim who has been labeled incompetent and made a ward of the state. The next, she's a socially sophisticated Mata Hari type. There's no reason at all for her to still be under the thumb of the state, considering her genius and also her genial relationship with the kindly elderly man who is her guardian at the beginning of the book. Her failure to get out from under the system when she had a guardian who would clearly have helped her seemed entirely designed to make her a victim of her new guardian (a beast of a man assigned to her case when her original guardian has a stroke). Yes, she does get her revenge (in a way that's not especially believable), but not before she's put through a lot of gratuitous sexual humiliation.

Both characters demonstrate some rather serious moral lapses that aren't generally seen in protagonists who aren't deliberately set up as antiheroes, and there's a strong undercurrent of mysogeny in the book, despite Larsson's obvious intent to condemn the all-too-common abuse of women in his country. The novel's original title (in Swedish) means Men Who Hate Women, and that's a fair description of the book's theme. Blomqvist's womanizing seems to me to be an illustration of a different, more subtle brand of mysogeny, but it seems unlikely that the author meant it that way. In any case, there's no doubt the author made some unusual choices with this book, and while they didn't work for some of us (Lee Goldberg has an interesting blog post about the book here), they obviously worked for others, who made the book a bestseller through word-of-mouth.

All that said, there was much to like about the book, and it generated one of the most interesting book discussions we've had. Despite the books flaws, I'll read the next two, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. (To be honest, I would probably read that last one just for the title.)

But the question remains: How did such a flawed book become an international phenomenon? Reading the reader reviews on Amazon and on Mr. Larsson's website, it seems like the orginality of the Elizabeth Salander character, the exotic location, and the intriguing setup made the difference. Some people thought the pacing was excellent, though others found it plodding. Whatever their reasons, it's a good illustration of the fact that, if you can engage your readers, you can get away with breaking the rules.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The King

By Pat Browning

On a balmy night last April, my sister and I stopped by Sid’s Diner in Yukon, Oklahoma for burgers and a parking lot performance by Darin Thrasher, a professional Elvis impersonator and owner of the diner. I was impressed. Thrasher’s a good singer, and he flips a mean burger. He serves the best French fries in town.

Worldwide, there must be thousands of Elvis impersonators. Possibly some were in the crowds who gathered in Memphis Friday night for The King’s 75th birthday. Doesn’t seem possible, but then he’s been dead for 32 years, and that doesn’t seem possible either.

Dad or alive, Elvis gets the last laugh. According to ABC news, his estate raked in $55 million dollars in 2009. ABC also reports that the crowd joined in singing “That’s All Right, Mama.”

You Tube, which is so good at so many things, has a hard time pinning down Elvis. The man was simply larger than life. One recording I found is from his 1968 Comeback Special. Jamming in the round with a couple of his original band members on a raw and raucous “That’s All Right, Mama,” Elvis looks young and full of energy, just the way I want to remember him.

Have a listen at

Browsing through You Tube also turned up a wonderful video of the comedian Andy Kaufman imitating Elvis on a 1979 Johnny Cash TV show. Andy does a couple of one-line imitations of Johnny Cash and Minnie Pearl, playing for laughs, before launching into an imitation of Elvis that’s so good it’s eerie.

Kaufman had an interesting show business background, but I remember him as Latka on the TV sitcom “Taxi.” We sometimes say that gifted people are ahead of their time. Kaufman was a comedian out of his time. Apparently the people he worked with never knew whether he was joking or serious.

He isn’t the icon that Elvis Presley is, but Kaufman has his share of diehard fans. As in the case of Presley, rumors have persisted for years that Kaufman didn’t really die but just dropped out of sight. According to, Kaufman died of lung cancer in 1984.

On film, Presley, Kaufman and other great performers of our time are still alive and well. We’re indebted to those inventors, tinkerers and technicians for film, audio, radio, movies, videos and whatever comes next.

Mystery writer Bill Crider wrote a great short story about Elvis. It’s included in his anthology, THE NIGHTTIME IS THE RIGHT TIME (Five Star 2001). For something far out and funny, there’s the 2004 cult movie, "Bubba Ho-Tep," featuring Bruce Campbell as an aging Elvis confined to a nursing home because of a broken hip, and Ossie Davis, who claims he’s JFK, colored black as a disguise.

Both the book and the CD are available through Amazon.

 A publicity shot for “Jailhouse Rock” 1957, from Wikipedia.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Michelle Gagnon Interview

Michelle Gagnon is a former modern dancer, dog walker, bartender, freelance journalist, personal trainer, model, and Russian supper club performer. Her parents were happy when she gave all that up to become a crime fiction writer.

Michele, when did you conceive Boneyard, your chilling police procedural about two dueling serial killers? And how long did it take to research and write the novel?

I first came up with the idea for Boneyard while researching Ted Bundy. One of the cops called the field where he dumped his victims "a boneyard,” and the title was born. Then I was reading Steve Eggers’s book on serial killers, and he discussed the reasons why they frequently operated unfettered for years, including the “missing missing” and “linkage blindness.” I thought all of that was fascinating, especially since my cop friends often complain about jurisdictional conflicts when a case crosses county or state boundaries. Plus it’s sad but true that some victims’ deaths aren’t investigated as intensively as others, despite how things are portrayed on television.

Most women don't write police procedurals. Why did you decide on the genre?

I didn’t, really. I just write about whatever interests me, so each book has gone in a very different direction. I did make the decision to create an FBI agent heroine, mainly because I couldn’t see myself writing an amateur sleuth. There are people who do that, and do it well, but I figured at some point I’d hit a situation where any sane layperson would simply call 911, effectively handing over the case. I wanted a heroine who had a reason to be involved from start to finish, and who possessed the flexibility to travel to different parts of the country.

My next book is actually more of a true thriller in the Lee Child vein, since it involves a domestic dirty bomb plot by an anti-immigration hate group.

Your first book, The Tunnels, has been described as “Silence of the Lamb meets the wicker man.” Tell us about the book.

It’s about a series of ritualized murders in the abandoned tunnel system beneath a college campus. The Tunnels storyline combines elements of Norse mythology, neo-paganism, and ivory tower politics. Lots of fun research involved with that one.

Which author most influenced your own work? And who are you reading most often now?

I can never pinpoint any one writer who influenced my work. I tend to go on reading jags. Recently I read the first two books written by Tana French, Chelsea Cain, and Brent Ghelfi. Can't wait for the third in each series.

What’s your writing schedule like and do you still have a day job?

I’m fortunate that this is now more or less my full time job. That being said, I tend to spend the morning handling emails and all the minutiae of both life and my writing career, and afternoons writing.

You’ve had a variety of jobs. Have any of them crept into your novels?

Not so far, although I look forward to the day when a bartending, dogwalking, Russian supper club performer waltzes on to the page.

What’s the best way to promote your books?

If you know, send me an email and I’ll split all future proceeds with you fifty-fifty. That’s the problem with marketing--half of it works, you just never know which half. So I always feel as though many of my marketing dollars are wasted, and it’s hard to say which were effective. Was it the blog tour? The sample chapters? Darned if I know.

How do you feel about the publishing downturn? What do you think publishers should do to prevent going the way of newspaper failures?

I think we need a “Got Books?” campaign along the lines of the "Got Milk?" one. If publishers banded together to remind people that books provide the most bang for your money in terms of entertainment, we might see those numbers hold steady, or even grow. I also think they need to figure out a way to capitalize on ebooks, incorporating them in with the other formats in a way that makes sense. The new Harper imprint seems like a good start toward doing just that.

What do you like most about writing and what really turns you off?

I love everything about writing, the only thing that surprised me was that after you sell a manuscript, subsequently much of your time is devoted to marketing it. I’d prefer to sit in a room hammering away at a keyboard. Trying to figure out the vagaries of photoshop in order to design bookmarks is always so frustrating.

Anything else you’d like to comment on?

The third book in the series, The Gatekeeper, will be released in November 2009. I’ll have more information and contests posting on my website soon.

Michelle's website:
and blog site:

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Word Play

By Mark W. Danielson

Intuit (pronounced in-too-it) is a company that provides accounting software and other services for small businesses. They chose that name because it implies quality customer service, and in spite of some controversy and criticism, they appear to be doing well. That’s good, considering how our economy is struggling.

Intuit, the word, can also be short for intuition. One definition says intuition is the act where the mind perceives the agreement or disagreement of two ideas. A more common definition is it means understanding without apparent effort. But Intuition is also the name of a professional learning services company that focuses on financial markets, government, and life services. Companies love using word play like this because we notice it.

Along these lines comes the infamous “round tuit”. (pronounced ’round too-it) These little jewels are found in living rooms, kitchens, offices, bedrooms—pretty much wherever people hang out. Ever notice how people give you round tuits when you ask them to do something? Sooner or later, everyone gets a round tuit.
I was awarded some round tuits while in the Navy, and could trade them in whenever I found the time. Round tuits were handy when someone higher ranking than you asked why something wasn’t accomplished. Lacking any better explanation, you could could always say you never got a round tuit. Granted, this usually led to some remedial training, but at least you had the pleasure of collecting the round tuits from your subordinates. You see, a round tuit never expires, but I’m quite sure not everyone honors them.

Although everything I’ve said applies to daily life, it is especially true for writers. After researching their topics, authors must use their intuition to lead their characters into mayhem and back. Experience has proven that it’s easier to create chaos than to restore order and create an ending with its characters intact. Of course, sometimes characters must die. Just ask Leonardo Dicaprio about that. As best I recall, The Aviator was his last movie where his character survived. Apparently, his roles are to die for.

Some of the best word play is found in skits. Everyone over forty surely remembers Abbot and Costello’s Who’s on First skit. Saturday Night Live followed suit with numerous word play skits involving world leaders where their names are substituted for dialogue. It’s fun to involve word play, but not all audiences appreciate it.

The key to successful writing is making sure your content is suitable for wide audiences. Unless they are cute gift books, stories full of word play may not get published. So, authors, remember that if you’re struggling with words and you’re not that intuit, or you can’t seem to get a round tuit, then listen to your intuition and take a break from it.

’Nuff said.