Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Counting Words

By Mark W. Danielson

I hear a lot of authors counting words. One will say, “I wrote one thousand today,” while another boasts ten times that many. I once wrote over fifty thousand in four days during a Kazakhstan layover because there were no distractions, and I wasn’t the least bit concerned because it was a first draft. At this point, my only goal was to document my thoughts down without regard for word count or quality. While this may sound contradictory, count and quality apply to later stages of manuscript writing.

As with many fiction writers, I do not use outlines. I admire those who do because it probably cuts down on editing and makes writing the synopsis easier. But I prefer letting my characters walk me through the tale. Words flow easily because my plot has been teasing my brain for weeks, months, or even years. During my initial draft, I want my characters to transport me through a variety of obstacles while leading to a viable conclusion. I become so entranced by the words appearing on my screen that my heart stops if the phone rings or the dog barks. There is no magic number of pages or words that I expect to complete by day’s end. I’m happy, so long as my story progresses. Truth be known, I’m better off counting calories than words at this stage. But once this draft is complete, I am absolutely driven by word count because most publishers cap novels at one hundred thousand.

If I find myself significantly over the cap then choices must be made and the quality search begins. If I’m not sure where to start cutting, I’ll pick an adjective, do a word search, and see if it’s been overused. I avoid lengthy descriptions because they slow the pace, and fewer words generally paint better pictures. If I’m still over my word count, I’ll check to see how often I used “said”. Bear in mind that “said” identifies who is speaking, but if I’ve already introduced who that is in a conversation between two people, then “he said, she said” is probably unnecessary.

It isn’t difficult to cut fifteen or twenty thousand words from a 100,000 word manuscript and replace them with another ten or fifteen thousand that improve the story. In this sense, my “word diet” is like a “people diet” because my numbers will fluctuate like a scale’s reading before they stabilize. A good rule of thumb is when in doubt, cut.

By the time I send the manuscript to my editor, I feel pretty good about its quality and word count, but I also realize that my editor’s job is to return me to earth. Objective editors look for logic, believable characters and scenes, flow, and conclusions with little concern for word count. If my manuscript is over the cap after I’ve made my editor’s corrections, then I’ll consult the editor about what other cuts could be made. I will never send a manuscript to anyone other than my editor that does not meet a publisher’s parameters. To do so would mean instant rejection.

Authors agree that writing should be fun, but they also recognize that professional writing is a business with specific demands. Style, font, and layout are as important as word count. Numerous guides provide this information, and Writer’s Digest is one of the best. In the end, counting words is a reality, but count should never override quality.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What makes a good novel?

In the course of an interview, Norm Goldman, the publisher and editor of Bookpleasures, asked me what made a good novel. My thoughts turned immediately to the well-known Somerset Maugham quip, which is (approximately) ‘There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are’. In fact, it’s a hard question and answers may even vary depending on the sort of novel you prefer to read. But the scope (and looseness) of the form almost encourages diverse responses. I think mine are pretty basic.

First, you have to believe what’s happening in the pages, even if it means stepping outside what’s normally called ‘reality’. The hero may be a battle-scarred galaxy wanderer with green blood and a prehensile nose, but if you’re interested in him and care what happens to him, you’ll read on. In fact, I’m sure I’d find such a character far more sympathetic and interesting than the pieces of cardboard that masquerade as characters in the Dan Brown epics. (Sorry, Dan, if that upsets you. Go and read your bank balance, that’ll cheer you up.) Sci-fi may hop from planet to planet or past to future as if they’re neighbouring streets, fantasy may move into fifth, sixth or other dimensions, vampires may even overcome mortality itself but, in each case, if there’s a commitment to and a concern for the creatures living the story, you’re held by them.

So the primary quality of a good novel is its ability to make you care about its characters, worry for them, dislike them for what they do to others, pity them. Above all, you need to believe in their reality. It’s your empathy/sympathy that guarantees the authenticity of their world. If you’re involved in it it must, by definition, be real.

Another obvious quality must be the page-turning one. You have to want to know what happens next. Sometimes, the intensity of the emotions involved (yours as well as the characters’) transcends the actual story but usually there’s a journey to make, problems to be solved, setbacks to be overcome. I’d argue that these, too, depend on the characters and their interactions, but as a plot develops, it renews those chars, gives them opportunities to redefine themselves, makes them harder or easier to like. They can’t grow in a void, they need to be tested, questioned.

Then you get to the other qualities, the sub-texts,  themes – all those things which, for some students in tutorials, ‘spoil’ the novel. ‘Why do there have to be meanings?’ they ask. ‘Why spoil the story by analysing it, taking it apart?’ And it’s not easy to answer those questions. If they’re enjoying reading something, that should be sufficient in itself. On the other hand, a closer look at the text can make it even better as echoes are heard, hidden motives are revealed, characters are exposed as being not just individual psyches but representatives of greater truths. But even if they resist the analytical urge, readers will still be affected by the great novels in ways of which they may be unaware, but which come from subtler processes than ‘good stories’ or identifying with the people in them.

It’s the things that make a good novel great which are the hardest to pinpoint. They’re the result of some extra elements that the better novelists achieve, a sort of layering which gives you the satisfaction of the story but also suggest undercurrents, a significance just beyond your perceptions. Even after you’ve finished reading, your mind keeps returning to what’s happened or to an image because it’s stayed with you, disturbed you or made you smile. These are things whose meaning goes beyond their own immediate context. On the surface, novels like that are certainly about people, but they’re also about indefinable forces.

And they’re fundamental to the form. Even with novels which are too easily dismissed as ‘mere genre’ novels, these forces are at work. If readers are lifted from their limited present into a realm where unicorns graze and everything is possible, their experience of life is enhanced. Whether this happens from reading Tolstoy or a hospital romance is irrelevant. The point is that it happens.

The novel is a great form. It gives you space in which to let things develop. You can create echoes between themes that bring together things which on the face of it are separate. You hear an animal scream in the woods as a man reflects on a love he’s just lost and you fabricate connections between them. And when I say ‘you’ there, I mean the reader. That’s the final beauty of the form and one I mention ad nauseam: the writer provides the raw materials and the indications but  leaves room for the reader to do some work, create some patterns, draw his/her own conclusions. It’s a strange, but powerful intimacy between the two.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A New Spot for People Watching?

By Shane Cashion

June's recent post about jury duty and the replies it received got me thinking about courthouses. For those who've never been, they're actually great places to people watch - way better than the mall or the zoo or the ballpark. At the courthouse, you can see the whole spectrum of human emotion. The only other place I've seen people so impassioned is the pawn shop. When suffering through bouts of insomnia I sometimes watch Pawn Stars and Hardcore Pawn on TV. The pawnshop-courthouse crowds seem to overlap. Actually, you could probably add casinos to the list, especially casinos found in your seedier cities. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that a lot of folks start their day at the courthouse, spend the afternoon at the pawnshop, and then hit the casino in the evening.

Wednesday is the best day to visit our courthouse. Thanks to the generosity of our legislature and county judges, straight couples can get hitched for free every Wednesday afternoon in a civil service. Not too long ago I had a hearing on a particularly hopeful Wednesday in front of a judge I like and admire. As I was handing him my motion I said, "Weddings on Wednesday; gotta love it, Your Honor!" He snickered and said, "Ha, the farm system for the family court." Judges can be jaded, much like cops. I have a close friend who's a cop. When I see a guy standing on a corner I think, "Good for him; must have decided to walk today." My friend thinks, "What's that boob getting ready to do?"

Once I saw a bride at Weddings on Wednesday with the face of the man she was marrying tattooed to the side of her neck. To me, that seemed like true love, even more so than the vows they exchanged. It looked really cool when they kissed, too, like a spirit was watching over them. Unfortunately not every Wedding on Wednesday is as blissful; the court sees its share of mistaken love too. Rumor has it that one doomed couple got married at one o'clock and then went back to see the same judge for a divorce at three o'clock. Apparently the bride and the best man allowed their kiss to linger too long.

Regardless of whether you visit your local courthouse on a wedding day or not, if you go, make sure you find the floor that handles associate circuit cases, domestic cases, or criminal cases. Those are the cases with the most action because the clients often have to appear with their lawyers, and sometimes, when things don't go as planned, the clients take their lawyers out to the hallway to "lecture" them. The reverse is also true. Either way, it's morbidly entertaining to watch. At some point you'll invariably hear: "I paid you to ...," or "You didn't pay me enough to ...."

Now if it's a trial you want to see, unless you've got days to kill, i.e. you're a juror, I'd recommend sitting in on a couple of small claims trials instead. They only last a few minutes and are kind of fun in a Pros vs. Joes sort of way. For the pro se litigant, it's an opportunity to try a case against a "professional" lawyer, which can be entertaining. For the lawyer, it's basically a no win proposition. The lawyer's expected to win, of course, but often times the pro se litigant has a better grasp of the law, and is far more vested in the outcome of the case. I have a buddy who is a partner at a large firm here in the Midwest, an Ivy Leaguer no less. For reasons too long and boring to share, he tries a fair amount of small claims cases for his largest client. At last count, his record against pro se litigants is four wins and nine losses. He maintains that the unpublished rule of small claims court is, "He who wears sweatpants wins," and because he wears a suit he's always the underdog.

I myself have only had to appear in small claims court once. I represented a guy I went to high school with in a dispute over a classic car he'd restored and sold to a lunatic. My pro se opponent brought all the parts he didn't think worked with him to court to show the judge, a sixty-something woman in designer heels. The entire plaintiff's table was covered in greasy parts. By the time we were finished the courtroom smelled like a gas station. I won on a wormy technicality. I thought for sure I'd get hit with a spark plug walking back to my office.

Like most courthouses, ours has seen a lot over the years, from near billion dollar verdicts, to fights, to even a shooting. It's not a place I'd recommend visiting often, particularly as a party, but if you're not a party and you're tired of the same stilted conversation outside your favorite Starbucks and you don't have a beach or a mountain to gaze longingly at, give it a try. It's definitely something different, and if you leave your pocketknife, belt and steel-toed brogans at home you won't have to wait to get in.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Hello From Silent Susan

by Susan Santangelo

I sat down at my computer this morning on beautiful Cape Cod to write this post. I stared at a blank screen for hours (ok, maybe five minutes) and realized -- I've got nothing coming into my brain. Nada. Zip.

Usually, words just pour out of me. Just ask my family. They can never shut me up.

Then, it came to me. I have a case of The Dreaded Writer's Block. Yikes! What's the cure for this?

So I decided to post about...having nothing to say. I know it happens to everyone sooner or later. And how do you all deal with it?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Man Who Brought Down Manaus

by Leighton Gage

In the years before the First World War, Manaus was one of the richest places in the Americas – North or South. It was the first city in South America to install an electric grid; the first to have a telegraph link with Europe; the women wore French fashions; the children were sent to France to be educated; the per-capita consumption of champagne was higher than anywhere else in South America.

The opera house (above) was built with marble from Carrara and hand-painted tiles from Portugal. It featured chandeliers of Baccarat crystal and huge decorative vases from Sèvres. The rafters rang with the great voices of the age, Sarah Bernhardt and Jenny Lind among many others. All of which is pretty surprising when you consider where Manaus is located. It’s nine hundred miles from the sea, smack in the middle of the Amazon jungle.  Even today, there are no roads that will take you there from Brasilia, or Rio de Janeiro, orSão Paulo. You have to fly, or you have to take a boat.
So how come Manaus was so rich?
Back in those days Brazil had a monopoly on all the rubber in the world.

Rubber trees were native to the Amazon rainforest - and existed nowhere else. Naturally, the Brazilians wanted to keep it that way, To that end, they made it illegal to export the seeds or the seedlings of the rubber tree, and made it clear they’d classify anyone who did it as a thief.
Enter this man, Henry Wickham:

Wickam, in defiance of Brazilian law, stole 70,000 seeds and bore them off to the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew. They were planted the day after their arrival. Over two thousand of them germinated. 
The descendants of those seedlings were sent to Sri Lanka, to Singapore and to India. With them, the English established their own rubber trade, a trade that ended up being far more successful and lucrative than the Brazilian one.

And that for one reason: every other place in the world the trees could be planted in groves; but not in Brazil. The Amazon rainforest, you see, harbors a blight that exists nowhere else in the world, a blight that attacks rubber trees. If one tree is infected, the blight kills all the other trees in the neighborhood. The Brazilian trees, therefore, are always spaced throughout the jungle. The harvest of their latex is an expensive proposition, too expensive to compete with the plantations, and low labor costs, of the East.
Brazil’s loss.
England’s gain.
Henry Wickham got a knighthood.
Manaus got shafted. These days, it's no more than a backwater.

And is known for little more than the “meeting of the waters”, the place where muddy brown of the Rio Solimões meets the black of the Rio Negro and forms the beginning of the Rio Amazonas, the true Amazon.

And yet...and yet...there's a very good reason to go there: to see the place where most of the action takes place in my book Dying Gasp, the third in the Chief Inspector Mario Silva series.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Golden Age

A Guest Blog by Timothy Hallinan

I once knew a woman who translated hieroglyphics, and one of the texts she rendered into English was one of the oldest poems known to man, dating from about 3000 BC. And what was it about?

It was about how things were better before. It was a lament for having missed the Golden Age.

It seems to be human nature to think in terms of lost Golden Ages. The operative word is “lost.” It's not even fashionable to suggest that we're living in a golden age.

But I think we are. I think this is a golden age for mysteries and thrillers.

Sure, some of the great ones are gone: Christie, Hammett, Chandler, Sayers, Tey, Highsmith, Stout, McDonald, Parker, and many others. But we have an enormous number of exceptional writers working now, and more titles to choose from than at any time in history.

I'd put the best writers working today up against the best working at any time since Poe kicked things off. Who's better than James Lee Burke, Sue Grafton, Louise Penney, Laura Lippman, SJ Rozan, Lee Child, John LeCarre, Donna Leon – I could go on for pages – all writing right now?


I think this Golden Age has come about for three reasons:

First, the ubiquity of relatively inexpensive books; until just a few years ago, despite all their moans and groans, the world's publishers put out, in editions of varying costs, more books than at any other time in history. And with all those books being published, good writing usually found a champion.

Second, the durability of the genre. The mystery or thriller is the one of the oldest genres (what is “Oedipus Rex” but a mystery?) and one of the most universal. Mysteries and thrillers help readers work through some of the most difficult aspects of human existence. They present a world in which order, even though it's been temporarily broken down, can be restored. They ignore the fashion of nihilism and despair that mars so much supposedly “literary” fiction.

Third, women have come full circle. Once the royalty of the genre, they faded during the heyday of the pulps. the hard-boiled noir, and the five-testicle PI fiction of the 40s through the 60s. And then, starting in the 70s, the entire genre tilted; women re-emerged with a vengeance, no longer confined to the classic and/or cozy end of the spectrum, but ranging straight across, from one extreme to another. And in one of the most remarkable shifts in modern marketing history, women became the driving force in mystery writing.

So now we have women writing all kinds of books and also some of the best male writers who have ever worked in the genre. Jackpot. We've also seen a loosening (pretty much an abandonment) of the old restrictions on what people can write about, which has produced some terrible books but also some really serious explorations of the darkest corners of human behavior.

And now we're seeing things open up even more widely. The ebook has broken New York's stranglehold on what we can read—and what we can write, too. Once again, we're seeing a lot of books that should have remained in people's desk drawers, but we're also seeing some tremendous stuff.

It's certainly opened things up for me. Like most writers, I've been restricted in what I could write because publishers would only buy a certain kind of book from me. But now I can write literally anything I want and put it out there to sink or swim.

I've always had an ambition to write a series in which the thrills were real but there were also a lot of laughs. And now, thanks to ebooks, I am. I just put out LITTLE ELVISES, the second in a series starring a Los Angeles burglar named Junior Bender who moonlights as a private eye for crooks. It's got some rough stuff in it, but it's also pretty funny, or so people tell me.

I believe it's a uniquely human experience to be frightened and amused at the same time, and I love writing books that attempt to put the reader in that position. Junior's first outing was CRASHED, and it did well enough that I had offers from traditional publishers to buy the series, but I decided to stay with the e-book channel, direct from me to the reader.

Do I think LITTLE ELVISES is golden age material? I doubt it—I can't take myself that seriously. But they're the product of a writer doing what he wants instead of what a corporation wants him to do, and in the long run that has to be good for everyone. When people look back on this particular golden age, I think they'll say the emergence of the ebook both broadened and prolonged it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A question of identity

by Carola Dunn

When I speak to an audience of readers, the question I hear most often is: "Where do you get your ideas?" The second most frequent is: "How do you pronounce your name?" That's much easier to answer!

Carola--just like Carol or Carolyn or Caroline. NOT Ca-Roll-a, let alone Corolla, Crayola or any similar trademark. However, I do forgive people who say it wrong--the first four or five times.

The next thing people say is "I've never heard it before. Did your mother make it up?"

No, she didn't. If I remember correctly (which I frequently don't), she once told me she named me after a favourite book called Life as Carola, by Joan Grant.

This is one of an interesting series supposedly describing one of her own incarnations, as was her first book, Winged Pharoah, set in ancient Egypt. I read and loved Winged Pharoah, but I could never quite bring myself to read Life as Carola--altogether too weird!

I've met several Carolas, too. My godmother had a cousin called Carola. After I left school (Friends' School Saffron Walden), I understand another Carola arrived there. When I lived in Carlsbad, California, I had a call from a lady called Carola who'd read about me in the local paper. And in Eugene, where I live now, the head of the area's forestry service police turned up at a book-signing, not because she was interested in the book but because her name was Carola. So we're not common (Heaven forbid), but I am not alone.

I've met a Carola in at least one mystery series: Robert Barnard's Charlie Peace has a daughter of that name. And another mystery connection--this is an old poster for a phonograph, owned by Larry Karp, author of The Ragtime Kid.

Here are some other Carolas:

Carola's Parotia Bird of Paradise. Do check out this link and see them dance.

Historian Carola Oman, author of one of the best biographies of Nelson ever written, or so I understand.

Another queen: A Swedish princess who became queen of Saxony. There's a port in New Guinea called Queen Carola's Harbour, which I think must be named after her, but I couldn't get a picture of it. The Parotia may also be named for her. I like the look of her!

I just googled images of Queen Carola's Harbour and found a pic of me and several of my book covers! Also a painting by Paul Wyeth, on sale at Christie's, of his wife and daughters, Mrs Titula Wyeth, Carina and Carola in the Studio.

And then there's the Swedish singer Carola, who won the Eurovision song contest in 2006!

So, you see, I'm in good company, though I have to admit I don't know how any of these Carolas pronounced our name.

PS I hate to boast, but I just heard from my UK editor that according to The Bookseller:

"This week's number one [on The Accelerators list]... is A Mourning Wedding, Carola Dunn's 13th 1920s-set Daisy Dalrymple mystery [increase in sales 406%]. Publishers Robinson has just completed its mission of publishing all 19 books in the series, beginning with Death at Wentwater Court two years ago. Book 20, Gone West, hits shelves in February."
[And Die Laughing is at #5!]
The accelerators chart comprises books that have been out for at least two full weeks and have experienced the biggest week-on-week sales boost. All data derived from Nielsen BookScan

I'm not sure of the significance, but it sounds good!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Perils of Plotting

Maybe perils is a bit melodramatic, but it's eye-catching. How about dilemmas? Okay, still a little heavy, but it carries the connotation of difficulty. Things don't always pan out the way we plan. Take my new book, whose cover appears here. As I've said before (likely too many times), I'm a "pantser" when it comes to plotting. I start with a basic idea and jump in feet first.

With this book, the second Sid Chance entry, I did a bit of cogitating and came up with the idea of building the story around the subject of Medicare fraud. I got the impetus from a CBS news piece about FBI agents in Miami tracking down storefront scammers who billed Medicare for durable medical equipment, like power chairs and such. It has been a lucrative business, but I didn't recall any mystery novels delving into it. I know, somebody will write that they've read a dozen of them, but I haven't.

Anyway, I researched the subject, learning the requirements for setting us an operation able to bill Medicare. I read about the new regulations aimed at making it more difficult for fraudsters. I learned that some drug traffickers were finding it more lucrative than selling dope.

Before I plopped down on my recliner with laptop on lap, the local paper ran a few stories about the problem of killers who are kids getting tried in Criminal Court and sentenced to prison. If they weren't genuine ciminals when they went in, they probably would be when they came out. In juvenile correctional facilities, they get guidance designed for people their age.

The main story featured Nashville's youngest murderer of recent memory, a black boy who shot a man during a drug deal at age twelve. He was released from prison at twenty-five after spending more than half his life behind bars. He vowed to lead a changed life now, though he hadn't been able to find a job. I read a few months later that he'd been arrested for beating up a girlfriend, but I already had my character who vowed to go straight.

My man, Djuan Burden, appears at a Medicare scam shop in the process of closing and ready to skip town. The owner had just been shot, causing Djuan to flee in panic. A pair of Metro Nashville homicide detectives with his description and license number, plus a paper he'd left on the desk with his fingerprints and his grandmother's address, promptly arrest him for the murder.

PI Sid Chance is hired by the grandmother, who had reason to believe in Djuan's innocence, to prove he didn't murder the shop owner. Sid and his sometimes partner, Jaz LeMieux, find evidence of Medicare fraud which the cops missed because they were only interested in the homicide. Sid turns it over to an FBI agent who is a key contact as the story progresses.

Great so far, but at this point the plot switches gears. Sayonara Medicare fraud. The story turns into a tale of bad cops and other villains involved in murder and revenge and similar nastiness. There are good cops, too, of course, including Homicide Detective Bart Masterson and Patrol Sgt. Wick Stanley, who along with Sid and Jaz are members of the Miss Demeanor and Five Felons Poker Club. While writing the book, I attended the Metro Nashville Citizen Police Academy. It prompted me to dedicate the book to the men and women who wear the badge and risk their necks day and night to keep us safe.

I suppose what happened with the plot to this book illustrates why I prefer the "seat of the pants" method of plotting. I had no idea things would turn out they way they did. It's exciting to learn what characters wind up doing and how they steer the story into new dimensions.

You'll find more about the new book here at my website.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Range Snobs

by Ben Small

You know who you are...

The guy who trots along all firing stations, oil can and screwdrivers in hand, during every break in firing.

The guy who stares at all my cammo'd gear, Molle-bags, ammo containers and piles of magazines before snorting, "Beginner."

The guy who then retreats, adding "Park close?" over his shoulder.

The guy who takes a look at your target, your rifle and your rests and scopes, and sadly shakes his head.

The guy who goes back to his shooting station and tells his buddies, who then all come down to look and chuckle.

The guy who, on one pass through, tells me controlled-feed bolts are more accurate than the direct-feed crap I'm shooting.

The guy who fingers my Wal-Mart Winny White Box round and says, "I make my own."

The guy who tells me smudging my scope may improve my aim.

The guy who claims I flinch with a television clicker.

The guy who taunts me at a target change, saying, "Why bother? You didn't hit it."

The guy who then adds, "Need to move it closer?"

The guy who, on another pass through, touches my steel, blows on his fingers and says, "This barrel won't last long."

The guy who told the range master I'd said the woman next to me had a nice ass. I swear; I said, "She's a nice lass!" There was no stalking...

The guy who got all smarty-pants-pissed-off just because I bumped his original Winchester 1873 Carbine off the rack and onto the concrete. How'd I know Jimmy Stewart once fired it?

The guy I told, "Well, it won't work now..."

Saturday, August 13, 2011


By June Shaw
Have you ever served on a jury?

How do you feel about jury duty? Would you want to serve, or dread it as much as having three wisdom teeth yanked out without deadening?

I always told people I would never want to serve on a jury. I was adamant. And this was even before we were watching so many trials go one for weeks and hearing about all that on TV. Some jurors were locked up for days with little or no contact with the outside world—their families or jobs. They had to make major decisions that could not be taken back. And now, especially, we see so many cases in which we believe the jurors made poor decisions.

Why in the world would I want to serve?

And then I was called.

Goodness, I received a notice that I would have to show up at the courthouse in town, and I’d possibly be called on to become a juror.

I dreaded it. There was no way that I would decide to convict anyone of a crime. If I did, suppose I made a mistake that could affect the rest of that person’s life?

Thank goodness the first time I made a last-minute call and discovered the case was settled out of court. I didn’t have to go. Yay!

A few months later I was again summoned. This time attorneys on both sides questioned me. They told me the case concerned someone with drugs and wanted to know whether I had strong feelings about drug use.

Wow, how easy for me to respond. My middle son had been hooked on marijuana, making our lives miserable for years. Finally, thank God, he’d quit. It took us having to do an intervention – one of the hardest and best things I’d ever done in my life. He was so proud of the years he spent without using pot; we were all proud of him, too. I HATED illegal drugs.

After I said this, the prosecuting attorney wanted me in the jury. The defense attorney said, “Absolutely not.” I went home. The experience hadn’t been too bad.

A year or so after this I was called again. This time I was chosen. I had mixed feelings.
Right away the judge told us the trial concerned a young man charged with armed robbery. The defendant had robbed a drugstore and taken money and drugs. They caught him with the goods soon after he left the store. He did not have a weapon—but he had his finger in his jacket pocket and pointed it, telling everyone in the store that he had a gun.
Even if he did not, he had committed armed robbery, we were told.

Okay, so if they knew all of that, what were we there for?

The judge said we were having the trial because the thief pled not guilty because of temporary insanity: He was high on drugs when he robbed the drugstore.

I couldn’t believe it! I also couldn’t believe that the entire jury didn’t come up with a quick decision after we heard all of the evidence. Gosh, if someone could rob a store and be excused because he was high, then anyone could do anything—rob and kill—and say, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to do that. I was high.”

Just think of the robberies and murders in this country. Most of them are caused by drug use. I knew that if I were the last juror standing with my feelings, I would not see the accused go free.

We didn’t. The trial was interesting, and the judge made us feel important. I knew I was doing the right thing. The only thing that disappointed me was that once we turned in the Guilty verdict, the judge thanked us and excused us. I was sorry at first that we wouldn’t know what happened to the defendant. But thinking about it afterward, I decided that probably was for the best.

And the only thing that disappointed me for quite awhile afterward was that I didn’t get called again. Surely it will happen. The next time I’ll go with no hesitation.

How about you? What are your feelings about serving on a jury?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Midsummer Night's Dream

By Mark W. Danielson

It was a hot summer night and sleep eluded me. To be truthful, I had gone without blissful sleep for weeks. In my job, getting five solid hours is a blessing, but since I had been home a while, my unrest was inexcusable. After flipping non-stop like a fish out of water, I rolled out of bed to toil on mycomputer. An hour later and utterly exhausted, I lumbered to the basement bedroom so I wouldn’t disturb anyone. Lying on my back, my dog at my feet, I once again stared into the darkness with eyes wide open.

Busy minds keep bodies awake, and in my case, it was like I consumed sixteen Mountain Dews. Silently counting backwards from one hundred normally drains my brain, but tonight, it merely challenged me to reach zero. I then went through my stress exercises of tightening and relaxing every muscle, but my mind fought back with a vengeance. Then suddenly, miraculously, a new plot came to me about a man so drunk on sleep that he communicates with a spirit. Ah, the perfect sequel to Writer’s Block! At the time, I knew nothing about the real haunting at Fort Worth’s Scott Theater. I learned about that the next day while conducting research, but since my protagonist is a Fort Worth homicide detective, the Scott Theater haunting nicely fits into my story.

Smiling now, I settled into the pillow and closed my eyes, letting my mind drift with the plot. The sequel that I had already begun could wait, for this new story must go forth. After all, who knows sleep deprivation better than an international airline pilot?

Fate has crept into my life in many ways, and I have no better way of explaining this revelation. It wasn’t the first time I received subliminal messages, but I never recalled any being as vivid. So now the fun begins, banging on keys while my subconscious writes this story. I love this stage because nothing has to be perfect. While I have definite ideas on where the story will go, I look forward to my characters taking me there. Months will pass before this story sees its first edit, but that’s not a problem since Writer’s Block won’t be released until this fall. In this regard, perhaps there is some value in sleepless nights. Then again, it would be nice waking up feeling refreshed.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

An ignorant take on fantasy

My first ever request to write a guest blog was for a site called Who Said Pixies Are Rational Creatures? It’s aimed at writers and readers of fantasy and historical fiction. OK, I’ve written a historical novel, a historical short story, some kids’ stories about a fairy called Stanley who lives under the dripping tap in my bedroom and recently, to my surprise, I had a short story accepted for a fantasy/sci-fi anthology. In other words, while not totally ignorant of the fantasy genre, I know precious little about it really. But they trusted me, and this was the result.

A warning, I have difficulty in taking things seriously. Not those which involve compassion, sympathy, tragedy and all the other personal things, but all those heavy outpourings which clog up the news. But I don’t intend to judge, undermine, satirize or otherwise criticize the fantasy genre. I have many friends who write romantic novels and, just like crime novelists, they’re constantly having to put up with seemingly innocent observations which suggest that they’re somehow involved in an inferior form of literature. No doubt fantasy writers experience the same thing. I don’t intend to add to it.

All I want to do is try to imagine myself as someone exploring the genre and give myself a brief fantasy experience. So, without any real experience of writing fantasy, and with an unfortunate absence of belief in anything supernatural, what can I think of as a potential fantastical subject in my immediate surroundings (which is where all my other writing ideas are conceived)? How would I set about finding a story and the characters who drive it?
I imagine that, first of all, I’d have to suspend my normal beliefs and perceptions and that they’d be replaced by others which I’d have to invent. Fantasy no doubt frees you but it simultaneously creates other restraints arising from its settings and conventions. And yet, surely, all I have to do is free the various objects about me and let them be what they want. The paper knife on the desk will shine and glow when I leave this evening and, as the darkness creeps in, it’ll be picked up by the small creature which left it there early this morning. He, she or it will look from the desk’s plateau across the void to the model boats sitting on the little table, bucking and rocking under the cliffs of books. The carved wooden eagle perched among the flowers outside the window will stretch its wings and carry the creature and its sword to the bottom of the garden, where the granite wall will open and show the fires flickering up from its depths onto the undersides of the clouds. And then there’ll be the songs and voices, the cries of prisoners, the gropings of blind, lost sisters, the unearthly growling of the ebony dogs.

And suddenly, I get a sort of intimation of the strength of fantasy. When I draw back from my imaginings, what am I left with? Predictability. Everything around me has a function, a specific, defined purpose. Even me. And it makes no concessions to the magic that makes the grasses and flowers outside appear each spring. The clouds aren’t billowing sails of aerial galleons but mere water vapour. The faint tick of the clock is simply an inevitable, mechanical fact, whereas I now know that, at night, it will separate itself from the clock, become the pulse of something, supply the rhythm of a creature’s advance.

I said I have no beliefs in the supernatural. This isn’t that, it’s natural. We carry all these race memories, dreams, imaginings; we can release people and things from their restricted functions. Maybe fantasy is simply a means of relaxing our grip on experience, a way to deny chronology and inevitability. Maybe it’s just a less uptight reality.

Monday, August 8, 2011

House Hunters International

By Shane Cashion

I couldn’t agree more with Susan’s last post and Jean’s reply lauding the mood-elevating effects of reading. The panacea for my doldrums would have been choice D: exercise. As much as I love a good book, I’ve always turned to physical activity to lift my mood. At any rate, I would most certainly pick reading over television, especially now where satellite has only multiplied the number of inane shows. That said I still watch way too much TV. When the heat index is in the mid 150s, there’s not much else to do. Read, eat, complain, argue, and flip channels. It’s too hot to exercise.

So with that as a backdrop, I thought I’d “plug” a TV show that I’ve been watching a lot lately. It’s called House Hunters International. For those who haven’t seen it, the premise is pretty simple. In each half hour episode, the viewer follows a couple seeking to buy real estate in a foreign country. The couple is presented with three properties and at the end of each show the viewer gets to see which property the couple chooses. Through the magic of TV land, all the red tape that attends buying property is eliminated; ensuring that the chosen couple can close on their new home in less than twenty minutes.

What’s great about the show is the variety of cities and countries showcased. In the dozen or so episodes I’ve watched, they’ve gone to Israel, Kenya, Fiji, Amsterdam, Iceland, and the Cayman Islands. The beauty of these foreign lands always steals the show, but what often shocks me is how expensive it is to live abroad. Here in St. Louis, the nation’s most dangerous city, you can buy a new three thousand square foot house for pretty cheap. Want that same house in Noosa Australia? Forget it! It would cost you a couple million bucks!

Occasionally, the buyers themselves can be pretty entertaining, too.

Agent: “This house is priced competitively at 9.7 million dollars. Naturally, the home is beautiful, but it’s the exquisite view that you’re paying for.”

Buyer: “Well it certainly is a beautiful view. I just don’t know about the drapes. And that yellow’s way too bright in the eighth bedroom.”

Agent: “You can always replace the drapes, and paint’s cheap.”

Buyer: “Hmmm. I guess that’s true. Let’s look at the next house all the same.”

Real estate agents have a tough job. The buying public would send me straight to the nervous hospital. At any rate, if you’re waiting for that next great book to arrive in the mail, or feel like catching a half hour of television before calling it a night, check out House Hunters International. Between it and Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations you can learn where to eat and what to buy in just about every city in the world, which is certainly better than the rest of the excrement that’s on.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Reading Is Fun-damental, and Good For You, Too

by Susan Santangelo

Two weeks ago, Parade Magazine published an article titled, "Sunny Side Up." The sub-head was, "Do you know how to be happy? Take this quiz to find out." Ten questions followed, and Number 5 really grabbed me. "If you're sad, which of the following is most likely to cheer you up? A: Watching reruns of your favorite sitcom; B: Reading a novel; C: Tuning in to the news.

The answer -- drum roll, please -- was B. The article went on to say that people who read often are happier than those who watch TV, according to researchers at the University of Maryland. Even if the novel's plot is depressing.

How about that!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Who Invented the Airplane?

Ask any Brazilian, and you'll be told that this guy did. Alberto Santos-Dumont.was the sixth of eight children, born to a wealthy coffee planter in the state of São Paulo. And, although there is still debate as to whether the Wright Brothers or Santos Dumont should be credited with designing the first heavier-than-air craft, all the experts agree that Alberto designed, built, and flew the first practical dirigibles.  In so doing, became the first person to demonstrate that controlled and routine flight was possible.  And what a routine his was!

In those days, before air traffic control, Santos Dumont used to putter around Paris in his contraptions, gliding along the boulevards at rooftop level and mooring them to convenient hitching posts while he dined, or enjoyed coffee on a terrace, or attended polo matches in the Bois de Boulogne.

On October 19, 1901 a flight he made around the Eiffel Tower emerged in a photograph. That image catapulted him into international prominence.  Young men of fashion began adopting his high collars and the singed Panama hats of which he was so fond. 

Caricatures of him began appearing in magazines throughout the world.

On one occasion he allowed an American lady, Aida de Acosta, to fly his Airship Number Nine while he pedaled along below, on a bicycle, calling out instructions. That was in 1904, six months before the Wright Brothers first powered flight at Kitty Hawk. Aida’s exploit, a round-trip flight between a polo match at Bagatelle and Neuilly St. James lasted one-and-a-half hours. She later recalled that Santos-Dumont enthusiastically called her “la première aero-chauffeuse du monde!" ("the first woman aero-driver in the world!"). 

Her parents were less ecstatic. In fact, they were downright appalled. Aida was only twenty at the time, and they were certain no man would consider marrying a woman who’d done any such thing. They did everything they could to hush it up.

In 1904, during a dinner at Maxim's Restaurant, Santos Dumont complained to his friend Louis Cartier about the difficulty of checking his pocket watch while in flight. He needed, he said, an alternative that would allow him to keep both hands on the controls.

Cartier’s solution was a watch with a leather band, and a small buckle, to be worn on the wrist.  Cartier later expanded the line, still produces it, and you can buy a simple one for as little as seven or eight thousand dollars. It’s still called the Santos Dumont.

But was Alberto Santos Dumont really the man who invented the airplane? Well, that comes down to how you define an airplane.  If you define it as “a powered heavier-than-air machine taking off from an ordinary airstrip with a non-detachable landing gear and under its own power” then he undoubtedly was.

The Wright Brothers flew their early contraption farther, longer, and sooner. But the Flyer, as they called it, had to be launched with a catapult.

Santos Dumont’s 14 Bis, didn’t require one. And his was the first aircraft that fulfilled all of the above specifications. In 1918, (some sources report 1916) Santos Dumont returned to Brazil where he remained for the rest of his life.

In July of 1932, a constitutional revolution broke out and the federal government moved to surpress it. Santos Dumont was reputed to have seen a flight of bombers flying over his home in the seaside resort of Guarujá.

Driven into despair about the destructive use to which aviation was being put, and feeling guilty about his role as a pioneer of flight, he committed suicide by hanging himself.

He never married.

But, at the time of his death, a framed photo of Aida was found on his desk – beside a vase of flowers.
Posted by Leighton Gage

Friday, August 5, 2011

A Little Humor, a Little Romance, A Little Murder

A guest blog by Marja McGraw

I write two mystery series: The Sandi Webster Mysteries and The Bogey Man Mysteries. My logo is “a little humor, a little romance, A Little Murder!” It suits my books. They’re lighter with a little humor, and while there is some romance, there are no sex scenes. They aren’t necessary to my stories, and I’m old school – I’ve always felt like anticipation and imagination are much sexier that reading about it with the details all laid out for me.

Some books have sex thrown in just for shock value. It doesn’t progress the story at all. I’ve also read stories where this element was pertinent to the story. In addition, there are books that don’t have any sex and they’re as entertaining as any story can be. I believe that the anticipation of what’s to come can be very titillating, especially when you fill in the blanks yourself. Think about it. John Doe whispered something in Jane Smith’s ear, and smiling, followed her through a door, pulling it closed behind him. Do you want someone to tell you what happened behind that door? Or would you rather dream up your own scenario? Hmm. All kinds of possibilities there.

I have a friend, Shirley Kennedy, who wanted to write contemporary romances. Well, she wrote a good book and submitted it to a publisher. The publisher was interested, but only if she’d add sexual content. So Shirley sat down in front of her computer and started adding sex scenes. It turned out there was a problem. She suddenly realized that as she wrote this graphic, sensual scene, she couldn’t bring herself to look at the computer screen. She looked up, to the right, to the left, and out the window – anywhere except at the screen. She’d been asked to write something that she wasn’t comfortable with. When she told me this story, I laughed. I could picture the whole thing in my mind. Still wanting to write romances, she changed from Contemporary to Regency romances, where she didn’t have to include sex scenes. By the way, Shirley is a terrific writer and now writes other types of romance stories, too.

The thing is, when I laughed at this story and pictured it in my mind, the woman sitting in front of the computer unexpectedly turned into me. Talk about surprising yourself! I write mysteries, and the stories I write don’t involve graphic sexual encounters. They’re about mysteries and solving crimes. They center around the characters and their growth, and they include some humor.

I won’t knock any author who writes graphic material, because there is a market for it – and some of it is extremely well-written. I simply prefer something entertaining and mysterious. I won’t even try to change any minds here. However, I will add that a young woman approached me after reading my first book and told me two things. First, she said that she never, ever reads anything that doesn’t contain graphic sex. Secondly, she said that it was two weeks after she read the book before she realized there wasn’t any sex in it. Draw your own conclusions.
Take a chance and try reading Bogey Nights – A Bogey Man Mystery, which was released in March of 2011. It will entertain you, even without sexual content.

Jean, thank you for inviting me today. I’ve enjoyed my visit.

Buy Link: Amazon

Oak Tree Press
Available through your favorite bookstore

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Literary Friendships

By Jaden Terrell

I thought I'd share with you an email I got today from Lee Lofland's Writer's Police Academy. Lee's been sending out a lot of interesting and informative posts, and today's was especially notable to me. It's about 11 famous--and infamous--literary friendships. You can read it here.

Some of the famous friendships are J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, Percy Bysse Shelly and Lord Byron, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Some of the friendships endured, while others fell prey to personal or professional jealousy. All have something valuable to teach.

When it comes to literary friendships, I've been blessed. Not only have I met many kind and generous online friends (like those of you at Murderous Musings, DorothyL, and Murder Must Advertise), but I've had the long-time support of the Quill and Dagger Writer's Guild. Then there are the friends I've met through Sisters in Crime, SEMWA, MWA and the Music City Romance Writers. Maybe it's the genre--stories I've heard from writers in other genres lead me to think mystery and thriller writers are an exceptionally friendly and supportive bunch, and I've met very few exceptions to this rule.

This is good, because writing is a tough field. Not in the same way being a crab fisherman is tough, but tough in the sense that the opportunities for rejection are limitless. Rejections from agents, poor sales, bad reviews...even if you've written the best book in the history of the world, someone, somewhere will hate it. Don't believe me? Go to and check out the one-star reviews for The Diary of Anne Frank, A Separate Peace, To Kill a Mockingbird, and even the Bible.

This makes the friendship and encouragement of other writers doubly important. It's easy to get caught up in the write-promote-write-promote treadmill and forget to thank all the writers who have helped and continue to help along the way. So, to all of my online and offline writing friends, thanks for everything.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Dog Days of Summer

by Carola Dunn

As you all know, of course, this time of year in the Northern Hemisphere is known as the Dog Days of Summer. The Ancient Romans--following the Greek idiom, as usual--named the hottest part of the year for the brilliant star, Canis Major, or Sirius, which rose with the sun at that season. Because of the Precession of the Equinoxes (don't ask me what that means; I've never understood it), Sirius no longer rises with the sun in early August, but what the heck...

So, it's the Dog Days. According to a 19th century writer, it's the time "when the seas boiled, wine turned sour, Quinto raged in anger, dogs grew mad, and all creatures became languid, causing to man burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies." Quinto? Who's he and where does he come into the story?

But talking of dogs and phrensies, it's the time of year when long, lovely evenings invite us outside. In my case, I join friends on the school field behind my house, just to sit on the grass and talk. Oh, friends and dogs, the latter at times definitely phrensied.

This is Maka. She's feeling a bit phrensied because a pair of dogs she doesn't know very well have arrived on the field. She's seeking safety in my lap.

This is a selection of the hordes. Last night we had 11 dogs out there. I find it safest to sit, so I can't be knocked down when they all decide to chase each other. They just run right over me instead. My Trillian is the magnificent tail left front.

And here's a phrensie of love, a big sloppy kiss from Oli. He's Trill's best friend and comes to stay when his mom and dad go away. He loves my books, too:

And so does Maka:

I've never caught Trillian reading my books, though.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Brewing a Controversy

One paragraph in Bill Kirton's post the other day really resonated with me. It went like this:

"I’m wary of creative writing courses. I’m sure there are some brilliant ones, but there are also plenty which indoctrinate their graduates into parroting stuff about shifting points of view, not starting paragraphs with ‘And…’ and all sorts of other things that have little to do with creativity."

I've never taken a course in creative writing, so that part didn't concern me. What did was the part about parroting stuff about shifting points of view, etc. I admit I'm not much of an editor. I read from the viewpoint of a reader. I was a copyreader on a newspaper at one time, so I notice grammar and spelling. But if the story is well told and interesting, so that I can easily understand what's happening, that's a good enough brew for me.

Switching points of view is only a problem to me if it's unclear whose head I'm in. If I'm getting the thoughts of one guy now and another a couple of paragraphs later, I'm getting more into the characters and have no problem following the story.

Reading over some early manuscripts from my fiction writing career, ones that were accepted by agents and got favorable comments from editors (though no sale for one reason or another), I noticed I had yet to be indoctrinated on the blasphemy of point-of-view switching. Yet is was obvious who was speaking and thinking.

Bill's mention of starting a paragraph with "And" is one of many other such non-no's that I disregard. I think where we notice such things is in a story that has a lot of other faults, including protagonists we don't care for, wordiness, lack of a cohesive plot, etc. Some authors user words in a way that makes the writing sing like a ballad. Those are a treat to read. But if the story is competently written and intriguing, I'm just as happy with it.

Okay, let the purists throw me in the witch's cauldron. It wouldn't be the first brew I've ever spoiled (or should I say spoilt?).

Visit me at Mystery Mania

Monday, August 1, 2011

Fraud, Waste, Abuse & Misconduct

by Ben Small

You may have noticed the report issued by the BATFE and Eric Holder a year or so ago that most of the assault weapons captured in Mexico during the cartel wars were smuggled in from the United States.

The report was fraudulent. Not only untrue -- very few weapons captured in Mexico are turned over to the United States for tracking -- but now we learn that the Justice Department and BATFE were actively engaged in assisting gun smuggling throughout the Southwest and into Mexico. Even over the strong objections of their own agents.

The BATFE also made a public announcement last year, carried in newspapers, radio and television that they'd arrested and shut down some gun dealers in Texas and Arizona who'd run 2500 or more assault weapons into Mexico. Yes, the same guys who had contacted the ATF, told them they thought these guns were being smuggled, and were told to let them go.

Needless to say, when charges are dismissed, Justice and the BATFE rarely issue press announcements.

The man pictured above is Kenneth Melson, Acting Director of the BATFE. Melson admits he was instructed to supervise Operation Gunrunner's Fast and Furious program, the operation to smuggle these weapons thought a good idea by the Justice Department. Some BATFE agents who complained against the program were threatened or disciplined.

Now Melson says the Justice Department is stonewalling its own Inspector General investigation into Fast and Furious and that of Congress, which has been investigating the program ever since news of it popped after the murder of Border Agent Brian Terry. At least one of those rifles was used in the fusillade Agent Terry faced.

The official explanation for Operation Gunrunner's Fast and Furious program is that the BATFE and Justice wanted to track these firearms into dirty cartel hands. But they installed no transponders into the stocks, no GPS, no tracking device or mechanism whatsoever, and in fact, no tracking occurred... until Agent Terry's death. Ever since, these weapons have been showing up at Southwestern and Mexican crime scenes. Agents complained, and after Agent Terry's murder, some went public.

Suddenly BATFE and DOJ had a media relations problem.

Could there have been a different agenda, a political one, say, to drum up support for new gun ban laws? Consider that both Eric Holder and Barack Obama are adamant gun-banners, who if they had their way would strip our Second Amendment rights entirely. But these two have had a hard time finding support for their programs, especially after over sixty Democratic Congress members -- including Gabriel Giffords, a gun owner herself -- wrote a letter just after Obama was elected saying they fully support Second Amendment rights. But there's another player here, a treaty up for adoption in the Democratically controlled Senate. The U.N. Small Arms Treaty. Adoption of that treaty would mean an easier road for gun control legislation -- a treaty obligation.

There's also the Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing and Trafficking of Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives and Other Related Materials, currently languishing in Congress.

The question naturally arises: Was Operation Gunrunner's Fast and Furious program a political set-up for additional gun control measures? For the life of me, I can't think of any other purpose, given the lack of any tracking at all and the certain knowledge on the part of our leaders, hopefully, that BATFE had no means of tracking them. You don't make decisions knowing they will cost lives without asking about stuff like that.

The fact that the Acting Director of the BATFE, an agency already regarded as the lowest branch of the Justice Department (especially after Ruby Ridge and Waco fiascoes), is pointing his finger at Daddy makes one demand to know who at Justice approved this program. It had a budget of some $25 million. Melson says that number came from DOJ; the money came from DOJ.

Funny thing is, Eric Holder said recently he learned what BATFE was doing on Fast and Furious in March, but he mentioned the program two years ago.

So what is the truth? Who knew about this program and when? These were criminal acts ordered by the BATFE and DOJ, acts that caused how many deaths? Will anyone ever be put under the criminal scope for this? Will anyone be disciplined? Were any MMS officials who forged and submitted false inspection reports on the Horizon oil rig ever criminally punished? They committed fraud and lied to public officials. Look hard; you won't find it. Was anyone even demoted, suspended or fired. Again, you won't find it.

So now, the DOJ, part of the administration that candidate Barack Obama said would be the most transparent ever, is stonewalling any investigation of Operation Gunrunner's Fast and Furious operation.

I went to the Justice Department's Inspector General's website, its hotline especially, where citizens are encouraged to report government waste, fraud, abuse or misconduct either by filling in their form or via email. I tried both relative to Fast and Furious. The form wouldn't let me get past my name and address, and the email address wasn't in service. Don't believe me? You try it.

We need a Special Prosecutor. I doubt anything less will ever answer these questions.