Friday, October 31, 2008
Hello, dear reader. Welcome to National Chain Bookstore, or, as we like to call it, NCB. Come on in and look around. Careful, don’t trip over the stacks of remaindered hardcovers there. Do you want one? They were all fairly successful a couple of years ago, and while they last, they’re cheaper than their paperback reprints.
No? Okay then how can I help you? A novel, eh? How about one of these titles here on the front table? Lots of good stuff there; in fact many of our customers never go any farther than that into the store. Must be why publisher pay us to display their books there.
No, no pressure. I’m anxious to put the perfect book for you into your hands. What kind of book were you looking for today? I see. Well, “fiction” is a big category. Do you like literary fiction or commercial fiction? Wow, I don’t really know how to answer that. You’re right, it is a subtle difference. I look at it this way: If you have to read it in school, or if the fact that you're carrying it is likely to impress people, chances are we categorize it as “literature” and we put those titles on the shelves that line the outer wall. No, the other wall. That wall’s for Photography books. Hey! You two boys! Put the book down and quit looking for dirty pictures in my store! Sorry about that.
Okay, good. Commercial fiction. Science fiction? Romance?
Great. A Mystery, then. Do you prefer cozies, hardboiled or softboiled? Whoa, another good question. Well, as I understand it, as the body count goes up, the book is boiled more. If the lead detective is a cat, it’s definitely a cozy. Everything else is a gray zone. Maybe you can tell me an author you like to read.
Uh-huh. Michael Connolly . . . John Grisham . . . Jeffery Deaver. Goodness gracious, you don’t want a mystery at all. You want a thriller. Well, sure there’s a mystery in most of their books, but a thriller has more suspense. What’s that? Of course. I agree that there’s suspense in Moby Dick and Oliver Twist, but people respect those books, so those are literature. Were you not paying attention before?
I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I was indeed flippant. I meant no harm. You just ask very good questions, and I’m not answering them very well. Of course. I understand. Tell you what. If I may be so bold, you can never go wrong with a Gilstrap book . . .
Thursday, October 30, 2008
Oops, meant to say Halloween. And to celebrate the occasion, I’m offering a few novel ways (no pun intended) to pass the time until All Saint’s Day:
- Sacrifice a goat. Or, read a book, depending on the availability of goats in your area. I recently hosted a witchcraft panel at a Book Group Expo, and consequently have three Halloween-appropriate recommendations. The Witch’s Trinity by Erika Mailman just came out in paperback, and it’s a terrifying tale of witch hunts in old Europe. The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent portrays the Salem Trials through the eyes of a young girl whose mother stands accused. And The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry (don’t you just love that name?) is set in a more modern day Salem, focusing on two missing women. All were amazing reads, and perfect to get yourself in top Trick-or-Treating form.
- Burn a Wicker Man. Or, rent Shaun of the Dead, IMHO the best zombie flick of all time. Because it not only stays relatively true to the genre, it’s funny and presents a nice depiction of how many people are already zombies, they just haven’t realized it yet. Genius. And who doesn’t love a film where the heroes take refuge in a pub as their last resort?
- Bob for Apples. Or, if this always seemed strikingly unsanitary to you (it certainly does to me, that bobbing pit is like a cold, nasty, water-filled petri dish teeming with disease) Rent Season 1 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Because it truly doesn’t get any better than Buffy. True Blood is okay, but let’s be honest: Buffy is still the gold standard. I never get tired of watching a young Sarah Michelle Gellar kick vampire butt. And the first season, when she’s still getting her sea legs, is classic.
And what will I be doing, you might ask? Well, here in the Gagnon household it’s eyeball pizza and grog night, where I simultaneously man the door against greedy little beggars who try to seize handfuls of candy while also valiantly guarding the well-being of my carved gourds. Wish me luck. And Happy Halloween!!!!
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
By Joe Moore
We lost a great one on Sunday. Bestselling novelist, Tony Hillerman, past away at the age of 83. Best known for his mysteries set among the Navajos of the Southwest, Hillerman was a true storyteller. His novels involved people struggling to maintain their ancient traditions while coping in a modern world. His series featured Novajo tribal police detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, and painted such strong visual images of the Southwest that I felt I had visited there in his books long before I did in my travels. His stories have vast physical, intellectual and spiritual dimensions.
I became a fan when I started reading Hillerman about halfway through his catalog. That’s when I picked up a copy of A Thief Of Time, a mesmerizing tale of the Anasazi, a missing archeologist, and the black market run by “pot hunters”. It was later made into a movie staring Wes Studi and Adam Beach.
Besides weaving great mysteries, Hillerman always showed through his characters a high level of compassion and a hunger for justice. And he wasn’t afraid to explore the misunderstandings and cross-cultural conflicts still very much alive today.
But he was first and foremost a great storyteller. He will be missed, for talent like Tony Hillerman is as rare as rain in the desert.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
“Oprah endorses Kindle.”
The Kindle, in case you’ve been marooned on another planet, is Amazon’s much-ballyhooed e-book reader. Oprah’s nod is likely to give the gadget a boost in sales. To quote one industry insider, a blessing by the Queen of Talk TV means that “the sale of Kindles will increase sales by approximately one bazillion percent.”
I’m a bit of a Luddite when it comes to gadgetry, so I haven’t tried the Kindle yet. But I was gratified recently to learn that my latest book, A KILLER WORKOUT, has been published in a Kindle edition. Now that my book has made its debut in the e-reader world, it feels like my baby has grown up and left home. And forgotten to send a postcard.
But I have to admit, there are some real advantages to e-books, particularly the Kindle. For example, when I heard that Kindle lets you increase the text size, I thought—“Okay, this is a winner.” Me and a silent majority of over-40 presbyopic-somethings, we’re yearning for text that is ten feet tall!
Plus, the Kindle promises that its “revolutionary electronic-paper display provides a sharp, high-resolution screen that looks and reads like real paper.”
I will definitely give the Kindle a trial run (probably by giving it to someone close as an Xmas present).
Meanwhile, I’m interested to hear from folks who have tried the Kindle. What’s the reading experience like? Authors, have Kindle sales boosted your audience?
Monday, October 27, 2008
By Clare Langley-Hawthorne
On Friday, with great sadness, we had to euthanize our beloved collie Benjamin. As an unapologetic dog lover I was devastated by the sudden blow but it placed in perspective how we often treat the sick - and how in many ways we get the opportunity to treat our pets more humanely than we can ever hope to be treated as humans.
After a series of strange, stroke like episodes, we sought a neurologist's opinion about Benjamin. Not only could he be seen the following day but they then scheduled an immediate MRI scan, spinal tap and chest x-ray. That night the neurologist phoned me to discuss the results and altered his schedule so he could go through the images in person with me the following day. Everyone at the animal care center treated me with compassion and concern and having seen how distressed I was when I saw Benjamin after the tests (he could barely walk) the neurologist phoned me twice that evening to see how both collie and owner were faring. I was told that if we did consider surgery that the neurologists would put aside their surgery schedules and do Benjamin. Having seen many family members face a cancer diagnosis and treatment I can tell you that Benjamin received far better attention and care than they ever did (and they had both health insurance and decent physicians!)
When we finally made the decision not to put Benjamin through surgery (a proposition that had little guarantee of success and we knew the tumor on his spinal cord would all too quickly return) and sought euthanasia, our own vet and the neurologist were both quick to console and reassure us. When it comes to the animal world we at least can alleviate pain and humanely deal with what is a terminal illness. Would that the same could always be said for our human companions.
Today's blog post is unashamedly sentimental. I remember all my collies - Sam, Charles, Edward and now Benjamin. I grew up with a true Lassie as a companion. Sam was the kind of collie who would leap over furniture and through an open window to come to his owner's defence. I still cannot watch any Lassie movie or TV episode without weeping. Call me a wimp but all I need is those deep brown eyes, the cocked head and the classic Lassie intense gaze and I am a goner. Benjamin was the most mellow, soft-hearted dog in the world. He was a true Californian - laid-back, zen like and yet a true gentleman. He will be missed.
My writing experience will no longer be the same without him asleep nearby. I will miss hearing his sighs and seeing him lift his head as if to say "isn't it time we were on the couch watching TV - not at the desk revising?" Half the time I used Benjamin as an excuse not to work. After we had the twins, the evening was the only 'me' time Benjamin and I used to get. He would place his snout on the cushions on the couch, look up at me with his deep brown eyes, as if to ask permission. He would then clamber up, all fur and uncoordination. I would then stretch out and put my feet under his paws for warmth. Those are the times I will cherish.
Call me foolish but I have lost a beloved friend and when I begin my next manuscript I know I will look up from the page and feel his absence acutely. I will miss the comfort I got from being with an animal who could live each moment without worrying about the next, reveling in the joy that came from the simple things, like lying on the couch, letting the world pass him by, living simply, without pain - knowing that the people around you would never let you suffer. I think we humans have a lot to learn from our beloved canine friends.
Saturday, October 25, 2008
Yet the technical stuff might be needed for understanding the story, the situation, or the protagonist’s actions. Jargon may be essential for authentic-sounding dialogue.
What’s a writer to do? In my case, what’s an editor to do?
I’m a developmental and line editor, my full-time occupation for 44 years in publishing, starting in NYC. Coping with family transfers, I moonlighted for eight of those years by teaching writing for publication at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
I was also an instructor of writing for the University of Maine-Portland, then for SUNY-Rochester. One memorable summer I spent in the mountains near Seoul teaching conversational skills to South Korean teachers of English-as-a-second-language. They understood our grammar better than most Americans do.
DIGRESSION VS PROGRESSION
Notice that the preceding information is a digression. In fiction, that kind of content is called backstory. You probably keep reading such action-stoppers, at first, but after a while you’re likely to skim and skip ahead whenever the content seriously veers off topic.
Skimming and skipping are easy when only a paragraph of tangential information intervenes. Besides, most backstory and explanations can and should be cut. (Really.) But essential material that continually interrupts, especially if it’s technical, needs cutting and restructuring.
FORMAT AS AN EPIGRAPH
Catalyst: A substance that starts a chemical reaction but which is not itself chemically changed.
The above exemplifies a method I suggest of opening each chapter with a paragraph containing the least amount of technical data required by that chapter. Format the information as if copied from another source, using italics or a font different from your main text.
You can also set off the paragraph by indenting from both side margins. Instead of double-spacing, use one-and-a-half lines. Similar formatting and placement make it easy for readers to glance at the technical stuff, yet find it again if they later choose to see what it says.
LANGUAGE AND STYLE
In Southern Discomfort, Margaret Maron starts each chapter with an epigraph from an actual U.S. Navy manual on construction. Be sure the source you quote is in the public domain. (Government publications are.) Or concoct the “quotation” yourself in the style of a legitimate-sounding source.
The above definition of a catalyst is one of many chapter openings in 13 Days: The Pythagoras Conspiracy. This debut thriller by L. A. Starks follows the woman who must discover and stop a foreign plot to sabotage Texas oil refineries. The resulting gas shortages are shockingly real and unexpectedly deadly.
Definitions placed at the opening of many of Stark’s chapters allow the thriller’s pace to move like fire through an oil spill.
A similar device is used by Deb Baker in her delightfully humorous, nontechnical Dolls to Die For mystery series. Each is supposedly excerpted from a book on doll restoring and collecting “authored” by a character in the series, the missing mother of the protagonist. Here’s an example:
When attending a doll show, a repair artist must be prepared for any doll emergency. Aside from standard stringing tools such as elastic cording, rubber bands, and S hooks ... (and so on).
Each of Baker’s epigraphs is followed by this authentic-appearing credit line:
—From World of Dolls by Caroline Birch
ASIDES AS ANOTHER TECHNIQUE
Death Will Get You Sober is an insightful, engaging mystery by Elizabeth Zelvin, a psychotherapist experienced in treating alcohol addiction. Her first-person protagonist translates the jargon of the AA 12-step program with brief, unobtrusive asides within the narrative itself. The explanation below follows a line of dialogue spoken by a minor character obviously unfamiliar with acceptable AA practice:
“The man’s an asshole,” he told me.
“You mean you don’t like his sobriety,” I said. An AA way to register disapproval without actual name-calling. Step Four was taking your own inventory, not someone else’s.
Another example from Zelvin’s debut novel offers an even briefer, equally straightforward explanation:
“You take care of yourself,” she admonished me. “Don’t you dare go AMA before you’re discharged, and don’t get into any trouble.” She meant leaving against medical advice.
If you have your own examples of explanatory asides in third-person, or other effective techniques, I hope you’ll share them with me.
CHRIS ROERDEN wrote the Agatha Award winning, Anthony and Macavity nominated DON’T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY and its all-genre version, DON’T SABOTAGE YOUR SUBMISSION.
In the early fifties William Faulkner once answered the question as to why he didn’t have a telephone by saying, “I won’t be at the beck and call of any son of a bitch with a nickel.” Calls were cheaper then, and people who couldn’t get a private line often used public phones. I know Bill did have a telephone because there’s one on the kitchen wall at his home, Rowan Oak, in Oxford, Mississippi, with his friends names and numbers penciled on the wall by his and his wife’s hand. Well, he may have said that before his wife decided she wanted everybody with a telephone to be at her beck and call. While there was bourbon in his writing room, there was no telephone.
Recently when I wrote a phone booth into a manuscript and my editor told me there were no such things in New York City any more, just kiosks, which are becoming rarer these days due to cell phones in every pocket––even those pockets without the price of a public phone kiosk call in them. We can communicate with anybody any time, and even pre-tens have cell phones. One crisp winter morning while I was sitting in a stand in the woods in Mississippi deer hunting I got a call from my agent telling me that the first draft of SIDE BY SIDE had been accepted as written. Ten minutes after hanging up, I shot a deer. After I pulled the trigger, I got a second call, this one from a friend on another part of the property asking if that had been my shot he’d heard. Not long ago I was on a panel in New York at Thrillerfest when my son decided to call me to see what I was doing. I covered the phone with my hand to mute it until it fell silent, then I took it out and turned it off. Holy Moto interruption, Batman.
A couple of years back I saw someone using their cell phone to take a picture and I commented to them, “I have a camera that does that.” Today’s cell phones do everything but mix drinks. I’ve been told that mine has games in it, a 5 megapixel camera, a video camera, texting capabilities, a calculator, access to the internet, an audio recording feature, a choice of ring tones, an alarm clock, a clock-clock, and more, but I merely use mine for phone calls. My kids laugh at me because I don’t know what I can accomplish with the tiny privacy invader. And nothing bugs me more than getting a pocket call from someone who sat on the phone and I have to listen to their conversation with someone else, or background noise, while I’m hollering into my phone at them trying to get their attention to complain. Evidently sound enters a pocket easily, but doesn't travel from one worth a damn.
I am old enough to remember when Dick Tracy wore a wrist watch with a radio in it and how ridiculous and futuristic that seemed at the time. I remember how badly I wanted one, and now for less than $200.00 I can have my choice of several. They make one that also plays music. Check it out: http://www.lightinthebox.com/wholesale-Watch-Style-Cell-Phone_c1298/All-3?gclid=CKGh-uaCu5YCFRKAxgodSSfkmg
The worst thing about writing modern fiction is the problem of instant communication. You can write a technology that doesn’t exist and nobody bats an eye. In one book recently I devised a test (not yet accepted by courts, but in a beta existence) that gave my protagonist DNA results in hours instead of a couple of weeks, and nobody said anything. Because everybody who watches CSI “anywhere” thinks that instant DNA results and access to everybody’s DNA in that city is in a fancy computer database along with fingerprints. If you watch any fictional cop show you see technology at use that (if it existed) would cost cash strapped departments millions of dollars. On TV they do autopsies using holographic images they can view from any angle. In one thriller two men exchanged their actual physical features like they’d exchange two-dollar masks. This is despite the fact that the actors had totally different voices, body types and facial bone structure, and they totally fooled people who’d known them for years. How many cops and criminals are that good an actor.
I use modern technology in my plots because––in a world of nanny cams available for a few dollars–– you can’t ignore it, but I have to admit a burning desire to write a book set in the time of scarce phone booths, mobsters who have to be found by their bosses, villains who can’t listen in on the good guys by merely aiming a laser at a window, can’t use GPS to monitor people’s movements from a distance, fire a rifle and kill someone 1500 yards away, make a bomb that can fit into a tube of lipstick, move around the country in private jets, hack into computers, and all the things that make life easier for all of us. I wanted to set a thriller in 1917 a while back––against the backdrop of a famous murder trial––but was informed that period thrillers didn’t sell. Truth is, I’d love to be able to set a thriller during the War Between the States one of these days.
For a long time we have been living in a world catering to instant gratification, and nothing proves that like our need for immediate communication. I have seen people out in the middle of nowhere take out a cell phone and freak out when they can’t get a signal. I have to admit, it’s odd not to be able to get a signal anywhere these days, and it’s getting to where the absence of a signal is very unusual even out here in the middle of nowhere. I only get irritated when I’m doing something important to me and I am interrupted by someone who basically just wants to break up their day by chit-chatting. I don’t mind being called by someone with something to say––especially when I want to hear what they have to say, but sometimes I, like old Bill Faulkner, resent being at the beck and call of…. Well you know.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
So I flew into DC a few days early. Spent the night in a hotel just outside the base that was apparently entirely populated by Marines in between tours of Iraq (and let me tell you how unnerving it is to step off an elevator into the lobby and have every eye in the room--and I do mean every one-- swivel toward you, as if they're waiting for someone to show up with an IED). I kept my hands in sight the entire time since they seemed extremely twitchy.)
Unfortunately according to my GPS the Academy didn't exist, so thanks to directions scrawled on a napkin by the concierge I stumbled in the back gate of the complex. Two checkpoints, each with armed guards. I had one of those moments where I act like I'm doing something wrong even though I'm not (a terrible habit I developed somewhere) and got waved over both times for more intensive scrutiny. Forty-five minutes later I finally made it inside and was waiting in the lobby for the group I was latching on to, a contingent from the latest Sacramento "Citizen's Academy."
The buildings themselves are fairly standard, that brown block style that was such a hit in the late sixties. There's a strange, Habitrail feel to them since they're all connected by windowed corridors. We wove through a few times, until I completely lost my sense of direction and couldn't find my way back if I tried (this might have been intentional).
Like so many tours, it featured sparks of excitement and fascinating tidbits, separated by long periods of powerpoint presentations and minutaie during which even I, devoted FBI fanatic, had to fight to stay awake. There's really only so much a person needs to know about J. Edgar Hoover.
But the tour of the Hostage Rescue Units training facility was amazing. Set inside a huge quonset hut, the entire interior (save for a narrow corridor running along the inside) is a giant maze composed of black padded walls. Sadly, no photos were allowed to be taken there, which struck me as overly cautious since the maze is changed on a regular basis (every room is composed of slats hung from metal beams). Bullet marks pock the walls: live fire drills are conducted here, with instructors walking along the top of the maze monitoring the progress. Suspended above the maze is a nearly full-size mock-up of an airplane, complete with dummies (some of whom appear to have taken a few hits; I'm guessing those trainees failed the course).
Another highlight (for me, at least) was Hogan's Alley, the faux town constructed in the center of the compound. We marched into the fake pool hall, checked out the real/fake deli, and explored a seedy motel. Good times. Plus we got to watch some of the students go through their driver training, performing high speed weaves through the cones on the driving course. And let me tell you, you haven't lived until you've shopped in the FBI gift store. Quantico onesies: who knew?
All in all, it was a thrill ride (with some boring bits). I considered a CIA Headquarters tour as well, but according to those who went it was mainly a tour of the CIA cafeteria (Eggplant espionage!)
Anyway, I made some new friends (see below) and got some excellent source material for the next book. Can't beat that.
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
By Joe Moore
Book titles are critical. It’s that first impression when a potential reader glances down at the new fiction table in the local bookstore. And even if you’ve got a great title, you hope the publisher’s art department doesn’t somehow screw it up with the cover art. I’ve seen books with good titles that were almost impossible to read from a distance. And others where the design was so busy, it gave me a headache.
When Lynn Sholes and I decided to collaborate on our first book, we used CORPUS CHRISTI for the working title during the three years it took to write. Since it was a thriller about cloning Christ, we thought using the Latin for Body of Christ was cleaver. But when we sent it off to our agent, she pointed out the error of our ways. Could be a travel guide to a city in Texas. Could be a novelization of a Broadway play running at the same time. So we changed it to THE ENOCHIAN PROPHECY, a brilliant title that no one could pronounce or spell. Our publisher wisely changed it to THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY which has stuck in all the foreign translations except German.
Book 2 had the working title of THE THIRD SECRET. Steve Berry released a thriller by the same name so our agent changed the title to THE LAST SECRET. So far, it has worked for the foreign publishers that have translated it, although we haven’t seen the German version yet.
Book 3 had a working title of INDIGO RUBY for the year it took to write. The title had a great deal of meaning for at least two people: Lynn and myself. Again, the publisher stepped in and wisely renamed it THE HADES PROJECT which is exactly what the book is about. Clever.
BLACK NEEDLES was what we called number 4 which was the name we gave the deadly retrovirus that formed the threat of the book. Cool title, but it really didn’t tell the reader anything about the story. Could be a book about a knitting club for witches. So the publisher finally settled on THE 731 LEGACY. The book involves the Japanese WWII biological warfare division called Unit 731 and how its legacy propels the story. OK, we agree that was a wise decision and makes sense.
The working title to our next one is THE PHOENIX APOSTLES. We'll see if that makes it to print.
Sometimes it’s better to leave the titles to the marketing and sales department and just stick to writing the story.
So why are titles important? Paul McCartney’s working title of the Beatles classic “Yesterday” was “Scrambled Eggs.”
Have all your working titles made it to the cover of your book? If not, were you happy with the final version?
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
I may never hatch the Great American Novel in a dream, but I recently discovered the importance of dreaming to my creative process.
I’ve always been an on-the-nose dreamer. There are few hidden messages in my dreams. If, in my day job, I’m trying to solve a gnarly problem related to the worldwide web, I will dream of battling a giant spider web (get it?). If in real life I’m trying to stop eating sugar, I’ll dream about diving into a pint of Chunky Monkey. And so on.
My dreams, while challenging, invariably end on an upbeat note. I may spend the night outwitting shotgun-toting bad guys, but somehow, the dream always ends with my escape. I’m quite the REM-state John McClane, with the requisite nine lives.
But then came the day when I temporarily stopped dreaming, thanks to the Happy Blue Pills. And all of a sudden, it became much harder to get the creative juices flowing. The words came more slowly. I had no energy for writing.
At the time, I had no idea what was causing my writer’s block. I was getting plenty of sleep, right?
Then one night, I forgot to take the sleeping pill. That night, I dreamed for the first time in weeks. And for the first time in weeks, I woke up thinking about my story. And I began to write.
Phew! It seemed miraculous. That was the morning I poured all the little blue pills down the garbage disposal.
I did a little research, and found little hard data to back me up on this, but my theory now is that nocturnal dreaming is essential to the creative process.
So I’d like to know from other writers and creative types: do you dream at night? A lot? Do dreams help you solve story problems directly, ever? Do you dream in color (which used to be considered the hallmark of creative people)?
Monday, October 20, 2008
Just a quick post today as I have just returned from book tour for The Serpent and The Scorpion and look a little like this picture - not that my boys care. They seem happy just to have me back home (bless 'em!) I had a terrific time visiting amazing mystery bookstores (and meeting actual readers!) in LA, Houston, Seattle, Portland and of course here in the SF Bay Area. I also got to have a great time at Bouchercon in Baltimore - am I lucky or what! But above and beyond this I also got to read some terrific books - with flights and travel I get to indulge in my favorite past time - 'book inhalation'.
I've been away nearly two weeks and have managed to 'inhale' the following books (all of which I loved):
* Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (embarrassingly I hadn't read this until now!)
* Charlaine Harris' first Stookie Stackhouse - Dead until Dark
* Harlan Coben's The Woods
* Linwood Barclay's No Time for Goodbye
* Tana French's In The Woods followed immediately by 'The Likeness' - you can see how much I loved those books int hat I read both in three days!
Not bad going I must say and my brain was thankful to finally have the time to sit back and enjoy. So I loved the book tour - spent lots of time with readers, fans, other writers and bookstore owners as well as books!
Now for some sleep...Before I do some more local events this week and then off to Arizona next week!
Sunday, October 19, 2008
I'm very excited as I open a package from my favorite online miniatures store. I pull out a tiny bathtub, a bathroom sink, a two-inch male doll, and some mini-tiles to lay down a floor. Just what I ordered. Any other customer would probably be constructing a dollhouse bathroom.
Not me. I'm setting up a crime scene. All I have to do is throw the doll in the tub, add "water" in the form of resin, and toss in a miniature iron. There's no sizzle, but the doll is dead just the same.
I have a lot of friends in the miniatures community. They all have Victorian dollhouses or New England cottages or a country farmhouse. My most elaborate dollhouse is a mortuary. It's fashioned after the building where my Periodic Table Series protagonist lives. Gloria tiptoes past mourners on her way to her kitchen, trips over a trocar when she goes down to do her laundry. My dollhouse reproduction has an embalming room in the basement, viewing parlors on the "street level," and Gloria's apartment on the top floor. It wasn't easy to fashion an embalming table out of foil, but I had to, since no miniatures stores seemed to have any in stock.
I'm not always turning matchboxes into caskets and strewing dolly arms and legs around a crime scene. Here's a benign tip, for example, from my new protagonist, Gerry Porter, of the Miniature Mysteries series from Berkley: Lay some bell pepper seeds on a paper towel and let them dry. Then put a few of the seeds in an old contact lens/bowl and you have chips ready for munching (by a very small person). It's a project fit for family viewing.
But for the most part, when I buy a set of dollhouse dining room silver, you can bet that I'll pick out the tiny knives and sprinkle them with blood—uh, paint—in case there's a mini-murder by a mini-serial killer eluded by mini-cops.
"Why don't you write about romance instead of murder?" my husband asks me once in a while (when I have no crafts blades or scissors handy). "Don't you love me?" I can answer the second question (of course), but not the first.
I'm always looking for the creepiest take on a scene, whether I'm doing grocery shopping, performing a wedding, teaching a class, or wandering around a museum. At an exhibit of Chihuly glass art in San Francisco recently, where others saw magnificent irises, beautiful ferns, and interesting seaforms, I saw a CSI-type close-up of a gunshot wound.
Mystery writers and miniaturists apparently have the same occupational hazard—twisting things, morphing scenes easily from an idyllic pastoral into a bloody crime scene.
Or is it just me?
Saturday, October 18, 2008
I dislike politics, but I truly hate elections. The local, regional, and national candidates clutter my television set with constant half-truths and nastiness, send me slick mailers I don’t read, and their people call constantly to insist I vote for their candidates or ask me questions for polls, which I generally decline to answer as it is none of their business. Two of my three sons support a presidential candidate I think is an empty suit, and they get mad at my glib responses to their entreaties designed to get me to vote for their candidate. My third son is an ex-Marine who was in Iraq and he’ll probably vote with his father, but I’m sure of that. I explain to the other two that I am voting from the perspective of my life experience, and for someone I am more comfortable with. I also explain that if their candidate wins I don’t think it’s the end of the world, but more proof that elections have become simply another popularity contest where the issues and philosophies are secondary considerations at best.
My father passed away last October, and he never voted for a Republican in his life, and was very proud of that. He was a Yellow Dog Democrat who believed that members of his party were always the best choice for any office. I always vote for the candidate, Democrat or Republican, whom I believe will do what’s in the best interest of my country, state, county or city. I will cross party lines for the individual whom I feel is best suited and who will move us intelligently into the future. I have been wrong before and I’m sure I’ll be wrong again, but the idea of voting for someone just because they belong to my party is short-sighted and closed minded. I will never follow anyone holding any banner just because they can out-yell their opposition.
Because we are all flawed, politicians are also flawed, and we all know what it takes to be in a position to be nominated and elected, which is sobering and frightening at the same time. I think that whether Obama or McCain is elected what they can accomplish will be what the legislative branch allows to be done and that is also scary based on their past performance during our lifetime. Nobody believes that our congressmen and senators vote strictly (or even mostly) for what’s in the best interests of their constituents, but for what their biggest contributors think is best for “them.” Voters are only important because they keep them in office, and non-voters are merely shadow humans.
I’m proud of my liberal sons and I taught them to think for themselves and to vote their consciences. They are familiar with the issues, and know the records of the candidates, and will vote as informed individuals who pay attention. They are idealistic and believe their candidate will make the best president and make decisions on what he promised, which is an illusion I hate to ruin for them. I don’t mind that because of them my vote will be wasted, because they will learn a lesson for themselves. I hope I’m proven wrong and the country will somehow heal and get better under the next administration.
I believe that it is not just my right, but my duty to vote, because our own young men and women have given their lives for my freedom––to preserve our right to vote and live free. All citizens, yes, even those completely ignorant of the issues who will vote for a smile, should go to the trouble to cast their votes so their voices can be heard. Politicians only respond to voters, and if you don’t vote they could care less about you. Men who seem less qualified can and have become great leaders, and I always try to keep that in mind when someone I don’t vote for are elected by the majority. I firmly believe that, though we may not agree on directions, we can all learn to live with the results, as long as we live in a free country and can face the future together. I respect the office of the presidency, as should we all, and I believe that men (and women) can become more than they are when lobbed headfirst into the crucible of that high office.
Friday, October 17, 2008
Well I finally saw one of the new wonder machines by amazon.com. I was on a cross-country flight from Washington to San Francisco when the guy in the seat next to me pulled out this nifty electronic pad, flipped a switch and made writing appear on the screen. He said it was a business book that he’d downloaded from the amazon site.
I’m not much for chatting up the people next to me on airplanes—in fact, I get my noise-canceling headphones in place as fast as I can as the most polite means of telling the world to leave me the hell alone—so I nodded and feigned fascination for long enough to get my trusty Boses on my ears and then went about my business. Had I been in the mood to engage, though, I would have told him that he hadn’t in fact downloaded a book—he’d downloaded merely the text.
I’ve been called a Luddite before, and not without good reason, so maybe it’s no surprise to my friends that I hold strong to my belief that a book by definition is printed on paper. A “book” on CD is a recorded story. A “book” on an LCD screen is . . . well, hard to look at. I’m a traditionalist on these things.
For me, the act of reading a book involves nearly all the senses. I love the feel of the pages, the aroma of the ink, the gentle whisper of sound that some with every page turn. When I read a really good book, the most impressive scenes and turns of phrase aren’t just locked into my memory as scenes or sounds, they’re locked in by their position on the page where I read them. As I plow through a book, I love to watch the progression of the bookmark. When I’m starting out on a trip, it’s that bookmark landmark that tells me whether or not I need to put a backup book in my briefcase.
When a book is awaiting its turn to be read, it lies supine on a pile; when it’s finished, it gets a place on my library shelves. On cold nights in particular, there’s no greater pleasure than sitting in that book-lined room with the reading light on, swallowed in my green leather chair with the volume on my lap and a scotch in my hand. I’m not much for napping, but if one must fall asleep accidentally, there is no better circumstance for it.
I look at computer screens all day and many nights. Everywhere I go, it seems, I’m surrounded by plastic and buttons.
But not in the library. Never in my library.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
He knows I'd never blurb an Amherst grad...
I'll say one thing, Bouchercon '08 held the appropriate moniker. People sent to the hospital with food poisoning, people tumbling down flights of stairs, people consuming alcohol in levels roughly equivalent to those experienced at college frat parties (far be it for me to condemn that behavior, however, as anyone who saw me in the bar on Thursday night can attest).
Bouchercon '08 was truly one for the record books. As has already been noted on various blogs and lists, the Jordans and Judy Bobalik did a phenomenal job of organizing something that makes herding cats look easy. Let's call it the equivalent of herding parrots. And despite the few inevitable mishaps, it went off largely without a hitch. Here, then, are my belated comments on the experience...
The Panels: Wow, I ended up on some great panels. Those bribes really paid off. Booze and books (or something like that) with Ken Bruen, Jason Starr, Liz Zelvin, Con Lehane, and the inimitable Ali Karim moderating, Gordon's Gin in hand. Lively and lots of fun. I also loved the one on "Psycho Killers," here I thought I was an expert but I learned some things (like the true identity of Jack the Ripper. Seriously. Ask Mark Billingham if you're curious). My only complaint was that my fellow panelists were all far too witty and well-informed. I much prefer to be partnered with dullards, it makes me look so much better in comparison.
The Food: I might be alone in this (although I suspect Robert Gregory Brown would agree with me), but I could not seem to get a decent meal in Baltimore. Part of that might be due to the fact that I ate a fair portion of my meals at the hotel restaurant, Shulas. Never expect a good meal from anyplace bearing any relation to football (I should have learned from all those years I ate at Boomers in NYC.) Lots of salt, copious amounts of butter. I escaped relatively unscathed (although the girl who vomited on Alison Gaylin in Burkes came dangerously close to hitting me as well). But I was definitely a little disappointed in the cuisine: I don't mind a mediocre entree, but I do mind paying $30 for it.
Baltimore: I didn't see all that much of it, not having a rental car, but wow-- the Harbor? Awesome. I quickly learned, however, that there was only one proper route back from the harbor to the hotel. Take the street running parallel to that one, and you were quickly in the midst of seedy bars and places named things like "The Jewel Box." I might be wrong, but they didn't appear to be selling jewelry. Though I'm a hard core fan of The Wire, stumbling on set is unnerving. I kept expecting Snoop to turn the corner with her nail gun.
Lee Child: The man throws the best parties. Do whatever you must to get invited, they're amazing. And Lee is always a class act.
Harlan Coben: Next time you see him, tell him Amherst is a safety school. He loves it, I swear.
My Voice: Started out normal, went through a series of phases from Lauren Bacall to Kathleen Turner on two packs a day to Froggy from the Little Rascals. I'm still recovering.
It was incredible linking faces to all those familiar names from various groups and blogs (such as this one), and I love it when people come up and introduce themselves by saying, "I'm your Facebook friend." How 21st century is that?
Anyway, I returned home as always with no voice, twenty extra pounds worth of books (no checking the bag on this leg of the journey), a few photos, and a miserable hangover from lack of sleep and general overconsumption of liquor and salt. Whew. Thank god I have a full year until Indianapolis, this time I start training early...
PS- Stay tuned: next week I'll tell you all about my tour of the FBI Academy in Quantico, including an interesting tidbit I picked up about what tomato sauce resembles under a black light.
Louise Ure, under attack by a rabid fan. Note her calm demeanor, this woman is pure steel...
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
By Joe Moore
When your first book was published, was the experience everything you dreamed it would be? For me, it was quite different than what I expected. The first time I walked into a national chain bookstore and saw my shinny new novel on the new release table, it was a rush. I was proud. I felt like I was on top of the world. I couldn't wait to see customers gather it up in their arms and rush home to read it. Then I stood back and watched as people picked up my book, glanced at the back cover copy, and put it down with no more interest than in choosing one tomato over another at the supermarket.
Reality quickly set in. Not everyone will want to read my book. Not everyone will like it if they do read it. And I found out rather fast that once a book is published, the real work begins.
Today, I'm writing (with co-author, Lynn Sholes) my fifth novel. My books have won awards and I've been published in many languages. And yet, every day I face the reality that the true test of my success or failure is what the customer does when they stand over that literary produce bin and pick what they think is the ripest tomato. It's about as scary as it can get.
As a full-time writer, I have the best job in the world. I would not trade it for anything. But a word to anyone dreaming of publishing their first book: be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.
So when your first book came out, was it everything you dreamed of? And if you're still working at getting that first tomato out there, what are you dreaming it will be like?
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
From North Carolina recently, my daughter reported seeing men with baseball bats at fuel-starved gas stations. They were patrolling the lines of automobiles, preventing interlopers from cutting in.
Evidently a hurricane or a pipeline breakdown had disrupted energy supplies to certain areas of the southeast, and suddenly there seemed to be no gas for sale anywhere. To cope with the fuel shortage, my daughter stayed over with friends on campus to avoid driving; her manager at work had to send a vanpool to pick up the company’s workers. The city seemed to come to a standstill, she said.
And that was before we heard the news that the banks had run out of money.
So I’ve been speculating: if we were to have a real economic depression, how would today’s America cope? Most cities reportedly have a two-to-three day supply of food on hand. In the event of a severe disruption to the food supply, those baseball bats would come out again in a hurry.
According to some old timers I’ve spoken with, today’s America is less self-sufficient—and therefore less ready to cope with a depression—than it was eighty years ago. Back then, back yard vegetable gardens were plentiful, and many rural homes had a barn and a few chickens. To a generation raised on Starbucks, McDonalds, and WalMart, real deprivation would come as an ugly surprise.
But perhaps we have hidden resources. I can visualize ways that technology would push dramatic new responses to a crisis. Maybe instead of bread lines, we’d have "flash mobs" at grocery stores. They’d converge on a store, clean it out within seconds, and disappear. Then the government would bail out the grocery chains because they’re “too big to fail,” and life would move on.
In any case, the 24-hour news cycle would never stand for a prolonged depression. After a couple of weeks, hardship stories would get “old,” and we’d be back to discussing Paris Hilton’s next presidential campaign.
Or maybe we’d just get bored with suffering and ignore it for a few years, the way we generally do with war and poverty. And life would go on, only things would be much harder than before.
Any thoughts on how the technology generation would cope with a depression? Creative ideas, please!
Monday, October 13, 2008
Inspired by my panel at Bouchercon on social issues in crime fiction, I thought that I should be clear and unapologetic – yep, I have a feminist heroine and I’m proud of it.
One of my fellow panelists also pointed out that I have a lesbian main character too and that it was great that this was not an issue in the book at all. In Edwardian England the concept of female ‘close friends’ was tolerated in a way that male ‘friendship’ most certainly was not – so in both Consequences of Sin and The Serpent and The Scorpion, the sexual orientation of Winifred Stanford-Jones is really only background to the plot and not a social issue per se.
One of the questions I and my fellow panelists (the terrific Neil Plakcy, Karen Olsen, Charles O’Brien, Frankie Y Bailey and moderator extraordinaire, Clair Lamb) were asked was whether we had a particular readership in mind when we considered addressing social issues in our fiction – to which I replied that I guess for those who didn’t believe that women should have got the right to vote, my books were probably not for them.
Other than that though we all agreed that the issues were integral to the story but not a pulpit from which we were determined to preach. In The Serpent and The Scorpion I raise all sorts of issues – the rise of socialism, the potential culpability of the so called ‘merchants of death’, feminism, Jewish settlements in Palestine, Egyptian nationalism – but none of these issues was something I necessarily felt compelled to write about – they all arose organically out of the creative process – through research on my settings, history, character and plot.
AND NEITHER IS ANY OTHER SOCIAL ISSUE...
Nonetheless it was interesting to hear about the ‘ghetto-ization’, particularly of gay and lesbian as well as African-American crime fiction. Seems that all too often these books will be marginalized in bookstores – often placed in a hard to find corner somewhere at the back of the bookstore (probably near self-help). Typically I have found my books are placed squarely in the mystery or general fiction sections – sometimes the historical mysteries are separated out but not usually hidden away where no one can find them!
On our panel we got to explore the ways in which mystery and crime fiction in general can provide a framework in which to view the world – to focus in and illuminate social issues that transcend genre as well as time period. I'm not even sure we can divorce crime fiction from social issues (crime is after all a social issue!)
People after all do not change. Their vices do not change. There is still injustice. There is still a passion for change. One day let’s hope there will be no need for boundaries and labels – genre fiction will no longer be considered literary fiction’s ugly stepchild and crime fiction, no matter who the protagonists are or what the social issues may be, the books won’t be marginalized in a bookstore but will be out there for all to see, find and read.
Saturday, October 11, 2008
Well, I missed Bouchercon again this year. The one and only Bouchercon I attended was in Chicago a few years ago. I was tempted to go when it was held in Alaska, but if I ever go up there, it will probably be to collect red meat for my game freezer. In Chicago I met a lot of authors I wouldn’t have otherwise have met, and I enjoyed the social aspects like exchanging writer-war stories over a scotch on the rocks, and I learned a lot about the lives of other people who do what I do. I was on a couple of panels with other authors, and attended panels manned by other authors, which is always beneficial in that it gets me to think about our craft and see things from a new perspective. But, despite everything that was positive, I left Chicago unconvinced that the weekend sold any more of my books than I could sell by speaking at a book club in a small southern town. But you never know what creates sales and what doesn’t. Networking with people involved in the industry is almost never a waste of an author’s time or money, just like talking to readers is never a waste.
What I saw in Chicago was a large number of authors who were marketing their books (mostly) to other authors. But I suppose there were more readers, librarians, and fans, in Chicago than I’ve seen at most other conferences since. Don’t get me wrong, we authors buy books, and probably read more than most non-writers, but most authors are a lot more interested in promoting their own books than the books of their fellow authors. I’m not saying we authors don’t promote each other, because most of us do just that, and we are in turn promoted by authors who enjoy our work. There’s certainly no more rewarding audience than our peers. Money is tight for most of us, but think about conferences as an exchange of experiences, and that can make it worthwhile––plus you can write conference expenses off on your income taxes. By finding out what expenditures have worked for others, and what financial outlay didn’t, makes us money, by saving us money we’d otherwise waste as our brethren did. While our children may not choose to learn from our experiences, we are smart enough to learn from other author’s mistakes.
This year I’m only attending Thrillerfest and Magna Cum Murder in Muncie, Indiana later this month. I chose Magna because it’s not just more fun than most and far more intimate than Bouchercon, it’s like meeting with family and I learn something worth the outlay every year. Did I mention that it’s far more fun for the buck than most other writers conferences? Plus the folks at Ball State know how to put people together and make it a learning party. I plan to attend Thrillerfest every year, not just because it’s all about authors who write what I write. I’ll go to Thrillerfest until I have to walk to get there. The thing I like about conferences is that best-selling authors socialize easily with the authors who are not best-selling brothers and sisters, and they are happy to share the secrets of their success. If nothing else, it’s amazing to see so many talented people assembled in one place.
We are living in interesting and (of course) frightening times, and as belts tighten fewer new authors will be published as publishing houses become more careful about which books they can take financial chances on. The industry is going to be changing, and we are all going to have to be smarter to survive. With the economy in the shape its in, people will either be reading more to escape reality, or they will be reading less because they can’t afford to purchase books like they could before. I think we will all have to be a lot more intelligent with our future promotion dollars. We may have to forget bookmarks and start thinking about placing ads on knitted cozies that fit over the stocks of assault rifles, or on matchbooks that go into K-ration packs. Maybe it won’t be Mad Max time for a few years yet, but I’ll be working on new ideas as things change. Mad Max sprang to mind because we’ve had gas shortages in the Southeast since Hurricane Ike when people were actually following gas tankers on their routes in order to buy the gas at the stations where the loads were dropped off. I wish I were kidding, but when men and women can’t get to work or take their children to school, there is nothing humorous about it. I didn’t see many people reading novels while they waited in long lines at the pumps.
Attending conferences is expensive, and most of us can’t afford to attend the number of conferences we have attended in the past, or would like to attend. I’m having to decide which organizations I can afford to belong to, despite the write-off factor. Do you know how many laying hens you can buy and feed with $100.00? I do. Up until last year I belonged to several writer’s groups, but I decided to take a hard look at the yearly dues I paid. The ITW became smarter and found a way to forgo the yearly dues by using its members’ talent to generate those necessary membership funds. I feel confident that the ITW is doing what’s best for its authors, and operating smarter. If the ITW can do it, and offer the benefits they do, other organizations should be able to follow suit. It just took effort, vision and thinking outside the box. When I look at the dollars I spend on professional memberships, I start to wonder what those organizations are doing for my career in return for my money, and how flexible and innovative they are. We also have to look at what we can do for those organizations that are actively promoting its authors, and we should put our efforts and dollars where they do the most good. Now when I write a check for membership dues, I’m more critical and I look harder at what the organizations are accomplishing.
We will all have to learn to survive in a changing world, and to be smarter about how we do things and spend our hard-earned dollars. We're all going to have to make choices we didn't have to make before. We are going to be living in leaner and hopefully more interesting times than we’re accustomed to, and I’m not sure it will be a bad thing for any of us …in the long run.
Friday, October 10, 2008
When Six Minutes to Freedom was published in 2006, I was shocked and, frankly, dismayed by the number of fans who told me that they couldn’t wait till my next novel came out because they don’t read non-fiction. But SixMin is a thriller, I told them; it just happens to be true. Some took a chance, most didn’t, and that’s fine. People obviously have the right to read whatever suits their fancy. I've turned my back on non-fiction anyway. It’s too hard. In writing non-fiction, you’re constrained by what actually happened, without regard to the development of the most intriguing story arc.
Fiction is about drama; non-fiction is about reality. At least that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But in these hyper-political times, where it seems that everyone on every street corner has proclaimed him or herself to be either a rabid Republican or a rabid Democrat or rabid Something Else Entirely, I’m wondering if a little non-fiction might be in order.
McCain says that Obama voted against funding the war in Iraq. Well, not really. He voted against a bill that funded the war without setting a date for early withdrawal. Without addressing the wisdom of the vote itself, I’m dismayed that the sound bite omits the qualifier. On the other side, Obama asserts that McCain likewise voted against a bill to fund the war, but he omits the extenuation that McCain’s objection reflected the presence of a hard date for withdrawal.
Why, then, don’t they publicly argue the real issue, which is the wisdom of announcing a withdrawal date? I think it’s because that argument is a complex one, and complex arguments can’t be conveyed in a sound bite—which has become the attention span of far too many voters. I hate to let my cynicism show so clearly, but I’ll bet bucks to buttons that of every ten people who blame the worldwide financial woes on Democrats or Republicans, not two of them could cogently articulate what, exactly, their alleged culprit did wrong. I’m sorry, but the laying of blame on “Wall Street’s corporate greed” is so hyper-simplified as to be meaningless.
Does the sound bite drive the news because of viewers’ demands, I wonder, or really because the sound bite represents the depth of knowledge of the average news reader? Clearly, that’s not my call. My bag is the entertainment business. I make stuff up for a living. And if I do my job really, really well, I can create global crises that seem very plausible, even though they’re built entirely of my imagination. It’s a cool job.
But I wonder sometimes where my license to entertain ends and where my responsibility as a citizen begins. For years, I’ve been sitting on this really terrific, terrifyingly plausible terrorist plot because I worry about giving the bad guys a new idea. We’re a nation at war, and I deeply and genuinely worry about writing anything that might bring additional danger to people in harm’s way. I worry about making our nation and our leaders look worse than they already do to the rest of the world, because I believe that everything that weakens those leaders internally empowers our enemies abroad. Empowered enemies, in turn, shoot at people I love.
Now, let me state for the record: I in no way favor any form of government-imposed censorship. Ever. Never in any case, period.
But is a little voluntary restraint out of the question?
Remember a few years ago when Oliver Stone released his movie JFK? It was a complete and total fabrication of events surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy, and to his credit, Stone never represented it as anything but. Still, a recent poll showed that an astonishing majority of Americans believe that the film represents a historical record. Next week, Oliver Stone will release W, his “biography” of President Bush—a man whose politics Stone openly loathes. He confesses that the movie is likewise fiction, but surely he knows—as we all know—that a substantial majority of Americans will not bother to do the independent research to find the reality within the fiction, and will therefore accept his fiction as truth.
Intellectually, I understand and accept and would even defend that there’s nothing wrong with that. But deep inside where that little whirly-gig tells you what’s really right and wrong, I wonder about all those young men and women in harm’s way who will face a newly re-empowered enemy.