Thursday, June 25, 2015

A Tribute to My Beta Readers

by Jackie King
There should be a special place in heaven for friends of writers. Especially smart friends who love to read and who volunteer to read your work. Some of these are called alpha readers and some are called beta reader.

Alpha readers are the folks in your critique group or other friends with generous hearts who will read your work as it’s produced. I have a group of these folks who support me emotionally on a regular basis: my remarkable critique group. I owe these fellow writers untold thanks.
Judy Rosser and daughter Anna Dooly--My Beta Readers
Beta readers are volunteers who agree to read your entire manuscript after it’s as good as you can get it, or nearly so. Two extraordinary women, Judy Rosser and her daughter Anna Dooly, undertake this momentous task for me when I finish a book.
Anna Dooly One of My Beta Readers
I’m almost read to print my latest manuscript THE CORPSE AND THE GEEZER BRIGADE and deliver copies to them. Along with the manuscript I’ll send a packet of sticky tabs to mark any problems or questions they might have had.

Last year when she was reading THE CORPSE WHO WALKED IN THE DOOR, Judy delivered the entire manuscript back to me with about 150 sticky notes flagging problems she had found. I spent the next few days correcting and changing everything marked, greatly improving my book.

I was thunderstruck when Judy said, “Print us a clean copy and we’ll read the book again.” This was generosity beyond belief and I was both stunned and humbled. Of course, I jumped at the chance.

Like most people who are willing to volunteer, these two women are unbelievably busy. Neither has one bit of spare time, yet they are willing to help.

Both work full time and have husbands to spend time with. Judy is an avid golfer, a gardener and also looks after relatives who have been unfortunate enough to have health problems.

Anna lives on a farm with her husband. In addition to their day jobs, they take care of bees, horses, and animals of all kind. Anna gardens and cans her produce to enjoy during winter.

But they are also readers and pure-gold friends.

God bless all readers. Especially beta readers.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

America the Beautiful, take one.

We’ve been to the USA in all the seasons. It started back in the 70s when my wife and I were doing a revue at the Edinburgh fringe and shared a theatre with a group of students from The University of Rhode Island. They invited us to take the show over there and that was the first of many other visits when I was a visiting professor and gave courses on textual appreciation, creative writing and even writing sketches (or skits as they’re called over there). I also translated 3 one act Molière plays for performance. My wife acted in one of them and I directed another.

I also had the enormous privilege (and I really do mean that) of being asked to direct Shakespeare there. It was As You Like It and, while I’ve directed plenty of plays and video/DVD shoots, that was the only time I experienced the full pleasures (and power) of working with a truly professional company. Costume and set designers, committed actors (all students in the Theater Department), technical staff – all treated me as if I knew what I was doing and helped to create a rich production. I have many memories of the rehearsal and performance process but I’ll just quote two, from both ends of the spectrum.

One was when the lighting technician asked me what sort of moods I wanted for different scenes in the play. The set was (of course) the Forest of Arden and the trees consisted of hanging verticals of a silky material (tree trunks), with swathes of various greens looped between them as leaves/branches. I asked the techie (a student) to create appropriate lighting for dawn, dusk and the four seasons. A few days later he was ready to show me what he had and I sat alone in the centre of the dress circle, the house lights went down and I watched a shifting, indescribably beautiful sequence of woodland scenes as he worked his way through his designs and colours. Tones and brightness shifted from mood to mood and, minute by minute, the seasons and times of day came and went. It was magical, and it was all for me.

Then, of course, there were the rehearsals and the notes I had to give to actors afterwards. Toward the end, when we were rehearsing the whole play rather than individual scenes, I mentioned to the student playing Rosalind that she’d made a bit of a meal of a particular speech, whereupon she smiled and several others laughed. I said ‘Oh, don’t you use that expression over here?’ Her answer was ‘We use very few of the expressions you use over here’.

Anyway, back to this trip and it was as satisfying as ever. The trees, the UK, lots of our ideas about the USA come from movies and, just as Americans have a stereotypical idea of Brits, so we think we know what they’re like. But when you go there, you realise how wrong the stereotype can be. I’ve only been to New England, Arizona, California and New Orleans, but in all those places, the people we’ve met have been welcoming, friendly, helpful, generous and nearly always upbeat. Waiters in restaurants don’t have the put-upon quality so many of them seem to have in the UK or the superiority their French counterparts are always keen to show. They chat, answer inane questions cheerfully and genuinely seem to care about the job they’re doing.
coastline, the lovely clapboard houses and, most of all, the people. In the

If you haven’t yet been to the USA, put it on your bucket list. At the top.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Mysteries That Make Us Laugh--Guest Author: Shelley Costa

Book 1 in series--Edgar Nominated!

What’s So Funny About Murder?

by Shelley Costa
The answer in the real world, of course, is nothing.  So how do we mystery writers who put humor on the page get away with treating the subject lightly?  In some ways, funny murder mysteries are actually about something other than, well, murder.  The murder becomes a kind of springboard for writing a comical tale about a set of interesting characters flung together to investigate the crime.  The victim -- in a cozy – is typically someone we readers either don’t know particularly well (usually because s/he’s killed off in the first or second chapter), or the other characters don’t know particularly well, or is someone odious enough to take the edge off just how much we care about what’s befallen him or her.  In some sense, the lighthearted mystery is more about the mixed-bag relationships among the living than it is about whatever led up to the murderous moment between killer and victim.
Book 2 in series--Guaranteed to make you laugh!
But infusing some humor into a tale about something as ancient and dire and wicked as homicide is also a way of distancing us – writers and readers alike – from the awfulness.  Is that a good thing?  What does that little bit of distance do for us?  I think it lets us experience a story about crime and punishment from a place other than fear or disquiet.  If we’re not scared or disturbed (which is the work, say, of the thriller or suspense novel), then we’re freed up to investigate alongside the sleuth.  To employ our own little grey cells in the contemplation of the crime.  In that, I do believe, there is great pleasure.  Humor is a way of setting us up in our own little Olympian heights, safe from the fray on the page. There we take in the overview, consider the clues, glance skeptically at the suspects’ stories, formulate a hypothesis.  And along the way, we laugh.  It’s a ride I’m always ready to climb aboard.  Join me!
Shelley Costa

A 2004 Edgar nominee for Best Short Story, Shelley Costa is the author of You Cannoli Die Once  and Basil Instinct (Simon and Schuster 2013, 2014).  Cannoli was a 2014 Agatha nominee for Best First Novel.  Shelley’s mystery stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Blood on Their Hands,The World’s Finest Mystery and Crime Stories, and Crimewave (UK).  Next up is the first book in a new series, Practical Sins For Cold Climates (Henery Press, January 2016), featuring thirtysomething sleuth, Valjean Cameron, a New York editor sent to the Canadian Northwoods to sign a reclusive bestselling author to a book contract.  But first she has to find him — a tricky thing to do in her Prada heels.  Practical Sins is a traditional amateur sleuth mystery. Shelley teaches creative writing at the Cleveland Institute of Art.  Find her at
Note from Jackie King: 
This is the second post in my series of MYSTERIES THAT MAKE US LAUGH featuring my panel-mates at Malice Domestic 27, held the first of May. 
More to come!

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

More thoughts from below the equator – an interview with Dorothy Johnston (part two)

by Bill Kirton

Last time, Dorothy gave us her insights into the labyrinthine nature of suspense/mystery and the cultural/historical influences that bear on writers of the genre in Australia. In this second part, I’m asking her about the specifics of her own writing.

For no obvious reason, after reading The White Tower, I found myself wondering about your attitude to the paranormal. Perhaps it’s the way you linked real and virtual worlds in the book. What are your thoughts about ‘alternative realities’?

In a way this is a prophetic question because the book I’m working on now is about the murder of a Henry Handel Richardson scholar who believed he could make contact with her spirit. One of the suspects is a psychic medium. In my daily life, I have no time for ‘alternative realities’, but when I sit down to write, I find that I enjoy exploring them. 

I was struck by your use of apparently insignificant detail in the narrative. For me, it enhanced the reality of your fiction. I assume that’s a deliberate choice. Am I right?

I’m not sure what you mean by ‘apparently insignificant detail’. Some details are there to mislead, or to make more plausible what turns out to be a false path. There’s a lot of detail devoted to making Canberra a solid, material place, in the tradition of mystery and crime writers for whom their settings are, in themselves, important characters. 

By details, I meant things like when Sandra is staring out of a window at ‘a square of grass’ and you write ‘A magpie hopped across it, dragging a tangled piece of string’. It’s maybe part of making the setting live, like Stendhal with his ‘petits faits vrais’. Anyway, here’s a boring question – ignore it if you like. Sandra Mahoney comes across as a fairly complex character and some of the complexities arise from the fact that, as well as an investigator, she also has a well chronicled home life, especially in sequences when she reflects on nursing her baby. Has she borrowed some of your own experiences in these areas?

Despite appearances and stereotypes, motherhood is not such a bad training for criminal investigation. I gave Sandra, partly as a reaction against the cerebral pull of cyber-detection, a weight of domestic life that, as you suggest, is not without its complications. The fact that I’ve made her a mother whose parental responsibilities aren’t brushed aside, or handed over to a nanny, or simply dropped from the narrative as the plot thickens means, for some critics, that she can’t at the same time be a credible investigator. She is the antithesis of the loner stereotype beloved by the genre.

I once wrote an essay titled ‘Female Sleuths and Family Matters – can genre and literary fiction coalesce?’ in which I attempted to argue the case that one doesn’t need to forego an in-depth exploration of family life in order to write a detective story. At the time I published the essay, I believed the combination was possible; now I’m not so sure. But I don’t regret the experiment because it taught me a lot.

Sandra’s children both are and are not mine.

She’s a great, rounded character. But then, so are the others you introduce in your narrative. You make some of them share impulses and motives and yet they’re all distinct individuals. Have you got a particular approach to creating them?

No particular approach. My children were a ‘given’, whom I then proceeded to take liberties with. Ivan is based on a Polish boyfriend from my early twenties, but I doubt he’d recognize himself in the character. Characters just come to me, much as I expect they do to you.

Yes, it sounds a familiar process. There’s also the fact that much of what we know of them comes as much from the conversations they have as from Sandra’s assessments of them. You seem to like dialogues. When you write them, do you have a specific purpose (i.e. that you want someone to reveal something inadvertently – about themselves or someone else, or supply some other clue or snippet of information necessary to the plot)? Or is it the power of the characters that drives them?

I don’t think I’m very good at dialogue. I re-write it heaps of times. I’m more comfortable with descriptive narrative, and with implication – what remains unsaid. I’m well aware that convincing dialogue is necessary for good mystery novels, so I keep working at it.

Well, take it from me, your hard work gets good results. But, turning to the comfort you feel with your narrative, does it ever take turns which surprise you?

Of course. I don’t write plans, so I don’t have pre-conceived ideas about where a narrative is heading. So I’m not ‘surprised’ in the sense of expectations being overturned. But my characters frequently surprise me.

That’s definitely a feeling we share. Now, I’m hoping your answers will have piqued the curiosity of readers so, if someone unfamiliar with your works decided to try one, which one would you recommend and why?

I’d recommend One for the Master or The House at Number 10 because I think these two novels contain my best writing. Also several short stories: ‘Two Wrecks’, ‘The Boatman of Lake Burley Griffin’ and ‘An Artist’s Story’.

On the subject of what you call your ‘best writing’, it seems that a critic found one of your books ‘too literary’. I find that a truly bizarre comment but would be interested to know your own reaction to it? Did you know what parts of the text made him/her say such a thing? Was your aim to ‘be literary’? Or was he/she expressing the annoying assumption that genre fiction is and/or ought to be qualitatively inferior?

One reviewer of The Trojan Dog wrote that I came to the genre with a pedigree. He meant literary pedigree, and that it did not fit me at all well for my new incarnation. I felt like writing back and saying that he’d made me feel like a poodle being told it couldn’t join the mongrels’ club. And that I’d always thought of myself as a mongrel. Genre classifications – and ‘literary’ is now considered to be one of these, though it is a qualitative assessment, not a genre – might be useful to marketing people and I accept that they can be useful to readers too. In my view, though, they are highly problematic.

… and that was where we stopped. I must confess, though, that I found Dorothy’s answers so thought-provoking that I’d liked to have asked her even more. So far, I’ve only read one of her Sandra Mahoney quartet but I’ll be reading the rest.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Korean War Memories That Led To a Novel

By Chester Campbell

My second Post Cold War Political Thriller grew out of experiences dating back several decades. The Poksu Conspiracy takes place about half in Korea. I got my first taste of the Far East as a young lieutenant in the Air Force. That was early 1952 and Japan was still digging its way out of the mire of World War II. I arrived at Yokohama on a troop ship and was transferred to a processing station. I had little chance to see the area with only a brief visit to the adjacent town. It had lots of broken English signs luring GI's into a variety of businesses.

After getting my assignment to the Directorate of Intelligence at Fifth Air Force Headquarters in Seoul, I lugged my B-4 bag and portable typewriter onto the train and we headed southwest. One of the last stops before we crossed over to the island of Kyushu was the most memorable. I'll never forget hearing the conductor calling out, "Hiroshima, Hiroshima, Hiroshima!" This was a little more than six years after the A-bomb drop. We were in the city for only about fifteen minutes, but I got off and looked around the area. There was little visible of more than one story.

Our destination was the town of Fukuoka, home of an Air Force base from which I was flown to South Korea. My first view of Seoul was of a city with many buildings destroyed, streets in disrepair, other structures bearing holes left by bullets as well as artillery shells. Fifth Air Force was located in the former medical school of Seoul University. The main building housed offices. The DI was on the second floor, down the hall from the Joint Operations Center, which worked in cooperation with the Army, and the Tactical Air Control Center. I spent many off-duty hours in the TACC watching airmen move tokens representing aircraft, enemy and friendly, over a flat map of Korea that covered most of the room. Using earphones scattered about the perimeter, I listened to radio transmissions from the pilots.

The Eighth U.S. Army was headquartered on the main university campus across the street. I attended a few of Gen. Mark Clark's briefings over there.

My job in the Estimates Division was to track enemy activities. I received copies of all debriefings of aircrews that included reports of enemy air activity. From these I tracked patterns of MiG fighters flying down from China. With this and reports of pilot chatter, it became obvious the Chinese were using the war to train their pilots as well as Russians.
One of my Korean War mementos that sits on my desk is a brass plate with my name in embossed letters. It has a Korean scene on the back. The ingenious Koreans who made them used brass from artillery shells left by troops sweeping through the area. During an R&R (Rest and Recuperation) visit to Japan, I brought back solid silver candelabra, beautiful cloisonne vases, and a set of Noritake china.
The Seoul that appears in The Poksu Conspiracy is the one I visited in 1987 during a month-long tour of the Far East. It is a burgeoning metropolis that hardly resembles the town I knew in 1952-3. My protagonist, Burke Hill, also visits Chiangmai, Thailand, a unique city I toured during that trip in 1987.

Scenes in  Beware the Jabberwock, first book of the Post Cold War trilogy, take place in Hong Kong and involve locations I also visited during that Far Eastern tour.

Click these links to read about Beware the Jabberwock or The Poksu Conspiracy.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Your Own Personal Critic

by Jean Henry Mead

William G. Tapply wrote an interesting article about acquiring a personal critic to read your work—someone you can trust who is well read: a spouse, who may be a writer; a literate friend who won’t just tell you what you’ve written is great, or someone who can “read your manuscript with fresh eyes and give you straight-forward feedback that will help guide you through the vital process of revision.”

Even well-established novelists such as Stephen King rely on others to look over their work. Fortunately for King, his wife Tabitha is also a writer. He’s been quoted as saying that his wife has always been an extremely sympathetic and supportive first reader . . . but she’s also unflinching when she sees something wrong. “When she does, she lets me know loud and clear.”

Tapply says that sympathy and support as well as unflinching honesty is what you need from a personal critic. He suggests the following guidelines:

~ Don’t expect your critic to be an editor. Simply ask for an impartial read.

~ Have your critic read the manuscript with a pen in hand and write his or her views in the margins. Don’t expect the critic to censor himself, but simply write down whatever comes to mind.

~ The most useful feedback is what doesn’t work for the reader.

~Tell your critic not to worry about hurting your feelings. You want candor, not kindness.

~ You’re not asking for solutions because repairing what’s wrong is your responsibility.

~ However, if your critic has ideas about how you can handle something differently, you should be receptive to suggestions.

~Ask that your critic note her emotional responses to the story, both positive and negative.

~ Ask that notations be made if a passage is boring. All your critic has to write in the margin is “Ho, hum,” or if confused, “Huh?”

~Did your reader skip parts or an entire scene? Have him note it in the margin.

~Did anything in the story contradict itself or seem inconsistent?

~Were any of your characters or events unbelievable?

~ Were there any factual errors?

~ Ask that any words or punctuation marks be circled that don’t quite ring true.

And because criticism is much easier to give than take, ask that your critic write you a letter that points out and explains the most important observations and overall responses to your story. When you receive your marked-up manuscript, give yourself at least a week to absorb the comments. Then, if you feel like screaming, hopefully no one will hear you.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Three books in 4 months!

by Carola

 Minotaur reissued the first Daisy Dalrymple mystery (England 1920s) in trade paperback, with new artwork to match the latter half of the series.
 This is exciting in more than one way. I love the work of the artist who has been doing my covers since the 12th of the series, Die Laughing, so it's great to have the match for Death at Wentwater Court. It's wonderful to have Daisy's first adventure once more available to readers who prefer print. And, with any luck, it means they will continue to reissue the rest of those that were published in mass market paperback by Kensington after the original hardcover from Minotaur. There are already plans for the second to reappear in March 2016.

The 21st book in the series came out in trade paperback (hardcover publication was 2013). This may be my absolute favourite of all Bradley Clark's covers to date.
On the 9th of June my NEW Daisy mystery comes out. Need I say that I love the cover? It's had great reviews, too, from Kirkus, Booklist, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly. (I can't help but wonder how many people choose their reading based on reviews and how many on the art!)

With three books to sign, I'm heading for West Coast mystery bookstores. I'll be at

Mystery Ink, Huntingdon Beach, June 14th at 2pm
Mysterious Galaxy, San Diego, June 19th at 7:30 pm
Seattle Mystery Bookshop, June 27th at Noon

These books and the rest of the series can be ordered from any of the above (If you hurry you can request a signed copy!), or any indie bookstore or, of course, Amazon (who say they have the books in the correct order, but don't you believe it!).