Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Christmas Season Excerpts from Two Wrongs by Morgan Mandel

For my Christmas season contribution, I’m offering a few excerpts from my mystery, Two Wrongs, which relate to one of the Christmases in the novel. These excerpts concern the inner battle Danny, the main character, faces as he fights an attraction toward his wife’s sister.

At Christmas, the family congregated for dinner at Cathy’s parents’ home. His wife sparkled in a tartan silk vest over green toreador pants. He caught short glimpses of Dora in a cranberry sweater as she sped back and forth from the kitchen to the dining room.
After a delicious roast lamb and accompaniments, they all retired to the family room and sat contentedly. Dora volunteered to clean up, refusing Cathy and Danny’s offers of help. As soon as she’d rejoined them, Ted, removing his arm from Nancy’s shoulders, asked, “What about those presents?”
“Sit back…I’ll hand them out,” Dora said in a cheerful voice, though her eyes glinted brightly.
Why was she keeping so busy? Did she feel out of place in her own family?
Danny eyed Dora as she reached for the presents beneath the tree. Her earrings sparkled in the semi-darkness. The Christmas tree lights cast a twinkling glow, illuminating her face, making her look sexy and mysterious.
“Here, Danny.”
He let go of his wife’s hand. Dora’s fingers brushed his as she handed over Cathy’s present. Ignoring the unexpected tingle, he turned and extended the gift-wrapped package to his wife.
At home later that evening he and Cathy exchanged their own private gifts beneath the seven-foot tree they’d picked out themselves at the forest preserve. Among its ornaments was one labeled Our First Christmas, which Cathy had discovered at a craft fair. They glanced at it and exchanged smiles.
Pushing aside disturbing thoughts of the lonely figure beneath the other Christmas tree, Danny gathered his wife into his arms. He made love to her amidst the twinkling lights of their own tree, while the aroma of pine needles tickled his nose. Life was good.

And later in the story after Danny suffers an injury:

He loved his wife, yet at this point he felt extremely vulnerable. It was not a good time for Dora to be around. The seeds of doubt had been sown and he was powerless to ignore them. Cathy’s sister understood him. Right now he needed to be with someone like that, someone who’d encourage him and tell him he still had a chance.
He glanced at Cathy, but her innocent face revealed no idea of his torment. He’d keep it that way. She must never guess. There had to be a way out of this. “Doesn’t Dora have law school?”
“Yes, but remember, she’s through early on Mondays, so she can get over here by three-thirty. I told her the key will be under the flowerpot, so you won’t have to get up. You’ll see. It’ll all work out fine. She’ll fix dinner and that’ll give me a break too. I may have to stay late at the shop.”
He almost choked on his food. Feeling like a craven coward, he badly wanted Cathy here to protect him. Appetite gone, he pushed aside his pancakes.
That evening he couldn’t sleep. No matter which position he tried, he was uncomfortable. His foot hurt despite the medication. On top of that, anticipation welled inside of him at the thought of seeing Dora. He hadn’t seen her since Christmas and next week was already Valentine’s Day.
A picture stole into his mind of Dora wearing the cranberry sweater, sitting alone under the McGuires’ Christmas tree. The ornament-shaped earrings glinted in her ears, catching the reflection of the flashing tree lights. Her eyes flashed with unshed tears. Her full breasts strained as she passed over the brightly wrapped presents.
He’d told himself then, as he did now, it’s wrong to lust after your wife’s sister.
He and Cathy had made love that very night under their own Christmas tree. The urge had been strong, but had he given into it to block out the image of Dora? How would it have felt to have Dora beneath him instead?
As soon as the traitorous thoughts slipped into his mind, he wished he could take them back. It wasn’t right to think of Dora as he lay beside his wife.
His ears caught the sound of Cathy’s soft breaths. She was his angel. She’d put up with a lot. To be honest, he had to admit his road trips were rough on her. After a long day at the shop, she had to feel lonesome stepping into an empty house. He shouldn’t blame her if she wished he had another job. Yet he did. And he knew Dora didn’t share Cathy’s feelings. Resentment flared. Why couldn’t Cathy be more like her sister? Swearing inside, he punched the pillow.

You'll need to read the book to see how it ends. (G)

Buy Links - Amazon:
or just go to and type in morgan mandel in the Search field.

Publisher - Hard Shell Word Factory:

Morgan Mandel

Monday, December 29, 2008

A Village Shattered’s Logan & Cafferty Interview

By Jean Henry Mead

Today I’m interviewing Dana Logan and Sarah Cafferty, two main characters from A Village Shattered, my latest senior sleuth mystery/suspense novel. My 60-year-old senior sleuths aren’t too pleased with me at the moment:

Dana, having a serial killer lurking in the San Joaquin Valley fog must have put a damper on your Christmas festivities?

It did, and we received some strange gifts. A friend in Arizona sent me a helmet to protect me from a possible attack. She also sent a neck brace in case the killer tries to strangle me, like he did to two of our club members.

Sarah, did you also receive some weird presents?

My kids sent me a baseball bat and a paint ball gun. The sheriff won’t allow us real guns, I guess he thinks we’ll shoot ourselves in the foot, or each other.”

Guns are dangerous if you don’t know how to use them.

Dana’s late husband taught her to use all kinds of guns. And our friend Micki shot all the game meat for her freezer. Everyone thought her late husband shot the deer, but Micki says he couldn’t hit a barn at five paces. You won’t tell anyone, will you?

I’m afraid I already did. Whoever reads the book will know why you and your surviving club members are being killed alphabetically.

We were doing just fine until you brought that serial killer into our midst. Our So and Sew Club Members were happily meeting each week to do needlework and swap retirement village gossip. Why’d you have to ruin it?

Sarah, you don’t write a mystery/suspense novel without at least one body.

One sure, but your serial killer is trying to send us all to the happy hunting ground. Why so many victims?

I guess it’s because I give my characters free rein and the killer wasn’t satisfied with just one body. . . By the way, Dana, how are you coming along with your sleuthing? Found any clues?

You planted plenty of red herrings but we’re sifting through them. I really think you have a mean streak because you planted us all in the fog. Thank goodness my daughter Kerrie arrived in time to help with the investigation. She’s a journalist, you know, and thanks to you she’s also on the killer’s list.

Which scenes were the most frightening for you, Dana?

When the killer locked us in the closet. He was planning to turn the old farmhouse into a crematorium, with us in it. It was even worse when he kidnapped Kerrie.

What about you, Sarah?

I was nearly scared to death when Dana and Kerri were lost in the fog and had to steal a police car. I didn’t know about it until later. I just knew they were missing.

Well, ladies, are you looking forward to a happy new year?

Fat chance. You’re gonna put us in a motorhome in the middle of a Rocky Mountain blizzard in the next novel, Diary of Murder. Why can’t you leave well enough alone?

Sorry, Sarah. I just can’t help myself . . . It’s time to tell everyone, “Happy New Year.”

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Those Dreaded ING Words

With Happy Holiday Wishes from Earl Staggs

I cringe. I shudder. I gnash. I itch in hard-to-reach places. I

Still, they come.

I open a book or magazine, and there they are.

...the ING sentences!!!

I suspect some writers use them as a variation in sentence structure.
There's nothing wrong with deviating from standard subject-verb-predicate
arrangement here and there to break the monotony. Variety, after all,
makes life -- and reading -- more interesting. I know that. I accept
it. I do it myself. I can live with it. Most of the time.

But then I read something like this:

"Pulling on her new red sweater, Mary drove downtown."

. . .cringe...shudder...gnash...itch...scratch. . .

In that construction, the two actions (pulling and driving) take place simultaneously and concurrently. Poor Mary. I envision her struggling into her sweater and driving at the same time -- all the way downtown. I hope she makes it to work without a major traffic accident.

If the author had said:

"After pulling on her new red sweater, Mary drove downtown."

or, even more simply:

"Mary pulled on her new red sweater and drove downtown."

Not only would Mary arrive safely at work, look terrific in that sweater
and have a fine day, but I'd be spared a lot of scratch marks.

But no! In the very next paragraph, I read:

"Applying a fresh coat of makeup, Mary stood and gave her speech."

. . .cringe...shudder...gnash...itch...scratch. . .

I'm sure what Mary had to say was worthwhile, but surely the audience
was distracted by the makeover she gave herself as she talked.

Not all ING sentences bring on strange bodily reactions here. This one

"Gripping the knife in both hands, Mary slashed the ugly red sweater
nineteen times."

The gripping and slashing co-exist in time just fine. (But I pity the
dumb putz who gave her that stupid sweater.)

Here's another ING sentence that works fine because the two actions
(realizing and blushing) can occur at the same time:

"Realizing she had blundered into the wrong meeting, Mary blushed
as red as her sweater."

While I feel sorry for poor dear Mary for the terrible day she's having,
mine is better now that my peeve has been expounded, my rant has been

Hoping what I've said makes sense and slipping into my slightly used and
somewhat mutilated red sweater, I await any comments anyone might care to

Earl Staggs

Saturday, December 27, 2008


by Ben Small

Many mystery and thriller writers use guns in their stories. Guns are perceived as simple, deadly and hard to track, assuming the murder weapon is not found.

But that’s not always true, just as it’s not always true that ballistics can match the gun to the bullet. And in some cases, DNA might be a bigger threat to the perp than ballistics.

Many writers don’t use the research tools available to provide realism to their character’s gun use. Ignorance or error may cause the writer to overlook what might be a fascinating plot turn, or worse yet, there's an error that turns off the reader. Trial judges usually give juries a form of the following instruction, “If you find that a witness has been untruthful in one part of his or her testimony, you may disregard the testimony in whole or in part.”

Many readers apply the same rule to the books they’re reading.

So let’s discuss some interesting aspects of gun use, some mis-conceptions, and I’ll toss in some research resources where you can learn other tidbits useful in your writing.

First, DNA may be as large a hazard to the gun-toting perp as ballistics. Probably the most famous and best American gun designer to date was John Moses Browning. The famed 1911 pistol was a Browning design, as are most non-striker-fired semi-automatic pistols. A recent enhancement, most notably developed by Ed Brown, a high-end custom gun manufacturer, is the beavertail, a looping attachment at the butt end of a gun that looks like an extended thumb. (See image on right.)
The purpose of the beavertail is to protect the shooter's hand from slide-bite, caused by a meaty hand or a high grip on many semi-automatic pistols. As the trigger is pulled, hot gases from the discharge rocket the slide backward. Anything caught in this movement, like the webbing of the hand between the thumb and first finger, will be torn, leaving the shooter’s DNA on the slide and the perp wearing a bandage. Slide-bite can occur on any gun lacking a beavertail, even on a Glock or Sig Sauer, but it’s most prevalent with guns that follow Browning’s designs more closely, guns like the Browning Hi-Power, still with a high market share, and the famous Sig Sauer P-210, perhaps the most accurate production pistol ever made.

These babies can take some skin.

For this reason, many shooters use shooting gloves, usually possessing nylon webbing where slide-bite may occur and thinner material for the trigger finger, so the shooting finger will still fit within the trigger guard.

But slide-bite isn’t the only DNA risk. If you’ve loaded many semi-auto mags, you no doubt know how sore your loading thumb gets. If you’re not wearing gloves, you’ll not only leave prints on the cartridge casing, you may leave some skin, too. Saavy shooters use auto-loaders for their semi-auto pistols, little plastic devices that fit over the magazine. A bullet is inserted and a button pushed, then the bullet is slid into place. Easy on thumbs, but no protection against prints.

The shooter may wear gloves as he’s loading the cartridges, but will he wear them when he’s removing the cartridges from the box? Not doing so will leave at least partial prints and maybe some loose skin tissue on the bottom of the cartridge. Wearing gloves will make cartridge removal awkward, unless the shooter just dumps the box out, in which case a cartridge or two may roll away, perhaps rolling under a couch or chair.

Another hazard exists in racking a semi-auto’s slide. While slide grooves or serrations usually exist front and back, to provide traction with a somewhat difficult slide, racking the slide using the front grooves exposes the meat of the hand to hangfire risk. A hangfire is an accidental discharge caused by something striking the primer and causing the bullet to fire when the trigger hasn’t been pulled. Until recently, when Hornaday developed the LeverEvolution bullet, lever guns with tube feed used rounded, soft lead bullets. The guns were loaded in a horizontal position. All this because of hangfire danger, risk that the tip of one bullet might bump the primer of the bullet on top of it. Well, hangfire can occur in semi-automatic pistols, too, which is why experts caution people to only rack the slide using the rear serrations. Needless to say, a semi-automatic pistol hangfire can do serious damage to a hand exposed to an open slide via the front serration pull. The problem is that some guns, especially 1911s, custom guns, and new guns are tight, the slides don’t move easily. Many women and men with small hands have difficulty racking these slides. So they use the front serrations.

That can be an oops the shooter will remember.

Another oops can arise from shooting a revolver the same way one usually shoots a semi-auto. Many semi-auto instructors teach one to use the support hand to point at the target and support the firing hand in anticipating recoil. This positions at least one finger in front of the trigger guard. Do this with a revolver, and you may be missing some fingers, or you’ll at least suffer a bad burn. Why? Because there’s a gap between the cylinder and the barrel, and hot gases explode out of the revolver’s cylinder and leak around the barrel. The preferred support hand positioning for a revolver is below the firing hand, not in front of it. Screw up this rule and your perp will be in a bad way.

And what about ballistics? It’s not foolproof, you know.

First, one must find the bullet. If the perp used a FMJ (full metal jacket) bullet, the traditional ball ammo, the bullet probably passed through the victim and may never be found. If a JHP (jacketed hollow point) bullet was used, it may be a mostly flat blob of metal inside the victim’s body. Some barrel marks may be visible under magnification, but maybe not. If a .223 round was used, the bullet will likely fragment, break up into little pieces. These bullets don’t often pass through windshields or body armor, one of the reasons the M-4 and M-16 rifles aren’t popular with troops.

Did you know replacement barrels are available? Barsto is one company that makes replacement barrels for almost any pistol. And gun manufacturers sell replacement barrels, too. Some of these barrels may have to be fitted by a gunsmith, but others are drop-in. It would be easy for a perp to switch gun barrels, kill someone, then replace his old barrel and dispose of the new one. Ballistics might be able to match a strange firing pin profile on the primer, but they’d never match the barrels. Replacement barrels can be ordered by anybody, and some gun shops have them on hand. Nothing to sign, no background check required. Throw that into your ballistics stew and chew on it.

Another company, Otis Technology, has come out with a ceramic barrel liner. Just coat a bunch of bullets, fire them, and whamo, you’ve got new life in an old barrel. And new life in the old barrel probably means a new ballistics pattern, although there may be some carryover. Can Ballistics determine if this ceramic coated barrel is from the same gun before the ceramic treatment? Stay tuned. This stuff is too new for anyone to say with certainty.

It’s widely believed that hollow point bullets are rare, that usage of them demonstrates intent to kill. This is just false. In fact, hollow points are considered the standard defense round and the round cops carry in their guns. Why? Because they’re safer to bystanders than ball ammo; they tend to keep the damage limited to the target.

Many people don’t believe the 9mm bullet to be a man-stopper. While proponents complain it’s all about aim, and protest that a 9mm bullet aimed correctly will do the job, most people believe the 9mm bullet is not the preferred man-stopper. In fact, the FBI developed the .40 cal S&W cartridge after a fatal Miami bad guy encounter. The bad guys were pumped full of 9mm bullets, but still managed to keep firing and killing FBI agents.

Many people feel the primary risk associated with a .45 acp round is over-penetration, the likelihood that a round will penetrate walls and strike people even at distance. But tests with ballistic gelatin show that .45 acp bullets, because of their mass, travel at slower speeds than 9mm bullets and penetrate less. Make that bullet a hollow point, and there will likely be no .45 acp over-penetration at all.

I’ve often heard the statement made by experts that mystery writers who claim a gun can be identified by a bullet alone are wrong. And in most cases, that’s a correct statement. But as with most things, this isn’t the full story. In fact, in some cases, the crime investigators and CSI folks can come mighty close.

For instance, short barreled pistols are popular for concealed carry, for obvious reasons. But hollow point bullets shot out of a Baby Glock (G26, G27, G28, G29, G30, G33 and G36) for instance, may not open up. Hollow points need to reach a certain velocity to open upon impact, and the extremely short barrel of some guns prevents the velocity from reaching terminal energy limits of the round. These hollow point bullets may perform like ball ammo. An investigator who sees an unopened hollow point will likely determine it was shot out of a short-barreled gun.

That narrows the field somewhat, but let’s carry this scenario further. What if it was a .357 round? Well, the .357 was designed for a revolver. The semi-auto version is the .357 Sig. They’re different bullets. There are very few short barreled revolvers shooting a .357 round; fewer still semi-auto models shooting the .357 Sig round. (A side note is necessary here. If you’re an investigator investigating a .357 indoor shooting, look for someone who’s deaf. Most crimes are spontaneous, and even if not, how many mysteries or thrillers have you read where the gun-shooting perp was wearing hearing protection?)

What if the bullet was lead? Well, if you’re thinking Glock, which has the largest gun market share, lead bullets should not be used. Most guns have lands and grooves inside the barrel. These are used to start the bullet spinning, which like a spiral pass in football, makes the bullet more accurate. But Glocks use a proprietary system, different from the typical lands and grooves. Read your Glock manual; it says not to use lead bullets. Lead bullets in a Glock, even just one firing, will foul a Glock barrel, affecting accuracy and velocity. Only someone who doesn’t know much about Glocks would fire a lead bullet in one.

Issues like these abound in shootings and the investigation of them. If you’re looking for ways to trip up your perp and make your protag more brilliant, knowledge of some of these facts or issues may be of help. In future columns, I may add some more interesting factoids that make your book a little more special.

But you can also research these things yourself. As I said in my last blog here, I got interested in guns when my editor excoriated me for a gun safety error I’d made. So I researched guns, bought some and found I caught the bug. No, I haven’t shot anybody, and I don’t intend to. But the gun is America’s weapon of choice, and I decided if I was going to write about them, I should learn something about them. And I’ve found some really good resources.

I subscribe to many gun magazines. The three best, I believe, are Combat Handguns, Guns and Ammo, and The American Rifleman, the magazine of the NRA. Additionally, Personal Defense, Guns and Ammo, and The American Rifleman are television programs that are broadcast weekly. Another good television program is Tactical Impact, where not only are stalking skills taught but also comparative analysis of the positives and negatives associated with various weapons assigned to various missions. Interesting and useful stuff.

But by far the best resource I’ve found is the internet. My favorite site is You’ll find over forty-five thousand members talking guns, not limited to Sig Sauers, and most of the members are military or law enforcement. Ask a question, you’ll get an answer. Or use the search function. This site is extremely well run and is focused on being helpful. Jerks are not tolerated.

Other useful sites are, The,,, and to name a few.

Bottom line: If your perp used a gun, make sure you know what you’re writing about.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas

I'm the lucky writer who gets to post for Christmas and I mean that sincerely. As a regular reader of this blog, as well as one of the writers I've been thinking about Chester Campbell's post "'Tis the Friday before Christmas," and Libby McKinnons' post entitled "The Time of Year." Like Chester, my writing could use some regularity. It's not that I am disorganized. It's not even that I don't want to write. I am just plain too busy. And as for reading being guilt free because I'm a writer, as Libby said? Oh, I only wish.

I think Christmas is just about the only day of the year anymore where I feel able to sit back and just not do anything. Oh yes, there are the family rituals and the feast but what other day of the year is it permissible to sit back and watch snow drift lazily down? On what other day of the year do I tell myself I SHOULD read this book, since it was a Christmas present or go see a movie with the kids?

And that is a shame.

I have just realized that I am always late for something and always feeling as though I should be somewhere else. And it's not a comfortable feeling.

While I'm sipping eggnog today and reading a bit--maybe finding a new mystery to read with that gift certificate I'm hoping for ( Fictionwise for my Ipaq or maybe one to my local indy bookshop Murder by the Book)I'm going to take a second to reflect on all the hurry and bustle we all just got through and ask myself how that is working for me. I think I may already know the answer. But at least I'm finally asking the question.

Have a Merry Christmas, everyone.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Time of Year

It's the time of year most of us, regardless of what we celebrate, take a bit of time to reflect on the year past, dream of what we may accomplish in 2009, and enjoy the hours we get to spend with family and friends.

And because we're all writers, we also get to take guilt-free time to read! Right now I'm enjoying Elizabeth Peter's new one, The Laughter of Dead Kings, her first Vicky Bliss novel in a decade. Next in line is The Headhunters by Peter Lovesey, a new author to me, but the premise of the story caught my imagination. And then followed by any books that might be under my tree!

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, or Solstice, there is a mystery to each that is part of what makes it a special holiday. Enjoy!

Libby McKinmer
Romance with an edge

Merry Christmas Blogs

Just popping in to wish you all a Merry Christmas. If you'd like to read some Christmas blogs to put you into the Feel Good Spirit, come on over to Double M.

Here's the url:

Here's the lineup:

Dec 21 - New Fad - You'll never guess what it is
Dec 22 - Christmas Movies - What are your favorites?
Around 4pm today, Dec 23 - What's Cooking? What are you having for Christmas?
More coming as soon as I can think them up.

I'd love to have you over to start celebrating Christmas.
Morgan Mandel

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Writing Without Distractions

Take a look at my picture. The one in the blog sidebar. Yup, Dana Fredsti, that's me. The gal with kittens sprawled on her lap and work, a resigned look on her face.

Writing at my house is never without distractions. I don't have kids, but I do have 10 cats of varying ages and temperaments. I'm also heavily involved in feline rescue and lately there have been emails flying back and forth trying to decide the fate of various cats, who will foster which ones, nursing sick kittens's time-consuming and emotionally draining.

Then there's the television. "Surely it won't hurt to have Giant Snake/Crocodile/Shark Movie Festival on Sci-Fi Channel on in the background while I write! White noise!" Except the white noise takes on all sorts of color when bad actors are running away from wretched CGI effects. I'm a sucker for bad movies.

Even more distracting than cats or bad movies, however, is the lure of the Internet, both justifiable (networking enough to keep my face/name/book out there) and frivolous (pick your 'net surfing poison, it's out there). And when the writing is going slowly, it seems like SUCH a good idea to check email. Just one more time... Soon the whole bag of cyber potato chips is gone and several hours frittered away.

Even still, I have never been tempted by the idea of going to a coffee house to write. I've always been perplexed by all those laptop carrying folks I see setting up camp at Starbucks and other less ubiquitous coffee houses. I mean, how the heck could one concentrate out in public? So when my writing partner and pal Cynthia Gentry (we have a non-fiction project due beginning of February) suggested meeting at a Starbucks in Belmont, I was skeptical I would accomplish anything useful. However, knowing Cynthia wrote the majority of her last project at Starbucks (she has a toddler, which makes the need to escape the house understandable), I agreed to give it a go.

Well, dang me if I didn't have an incredibly productive two hour writing session! I had no internet connection, so I couldn't distract myself with email/Facebook/Twitter/email. Sci Fi Channel wasn't an option. I didn't have felines crawling over and around me demanding attention and food. And I had my cell phone turned off. It was amazing, like being cocooned in a plastic bubble (with air holes) surrounding our table.

Mind you, I still prefer writing within the walls of my cozy house by the beach. And when I have a good writing day here, it's generally a great day. But I will no longer poo-poo the idea of retreating my local java establishment with my iMac if I feel the need to remove all distractions.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Technical Difficulties

We hope to have Dana Fredsti's blog back up and running some time later today since it somehow disappeared.

Please check by later.

Never Polish the First Chapter Until the Final Draft is Done

by Jean Henry Mead

I’ve rewritten a first chapter many times before progressing to the second, only to find that it had to be rewritten to fall in the line with the rest of the novel. I finally learned to write it once and forget it until the first draft is done.

I’ve never been able to outline a novel because I literally give my characters free rein. And they rarely submit to what I’ve planned for them. They have minds of their own and I wouldn’t want them doing something out of character. In my current Logan & Cafferty series, my feisty 60-year-old senior sleuths surprise me by doing things I’d never consider before sitting down to write. Dana Logan and Sarah Cafferty live with me 24/7 while I’m writing about them and they have their own plans for what should happen that day. Sometimes I have to retreat to chapter one to include some of their "brilliant" ideas.

In A Village Shattered, Logan and Cafferty gather their friends to discuss the serial killings taking place in their retirement village. Out of that meeting came many new ideas about who the murderer might be and why he or she was on a killing spree. Until the third quarter of the book, even I didn’t know who it was, and I was forced to return to early chapters to flesh out the killer by adding inner monologue.

In the second novel, Diary of Murder, due out early next spring, I take my sleuths out of California and place them in a motorhome in the middle of a Rocky Mountain blizzard. Fortunately, that had happened to me, so I could write convincingly about the life and death experience. The blizzard starts the novel off with a bang, but they face a similar situation later in the plot, so I had to swap some snowy details between the first and later chapters so that they didn't appear too similar. Weather plays a lage role in any northern state, and gives the plot an element of danger.

In A Village Shattered, the opaque San Joaquin Valley tule (too-ley) fog hides the serial killer, but I didn’t even think about the fog until I was writing chapter three. Having lived there for a dozen years, I know the horror of trying to drive in pea soup fog, so I switched seasons and went back to chapter one to add it to the plot. In doing so, it tied all aspects of the story together. 

Friday, December 19, 2008

'Tis the Friday Before Christmas

by Chester Campbell

‘Tis the Friday before Christmas,
and all through the place,
not a writer is stirring,
not even to save face.
The laptop screen is blank,
the ash tray overflowing,
but the only thing at work
is the Christmas tree’s glowing.

Call it holiday malaise, or Yuletide lethargy. I have an idea for my next Greg McKenzie mystery, but I have yet to write the first word. I’m plagued with an inability to switch from promoter mode to writer mode. With a new book coming out in April, I’ve been courting reviewers, looking for signing opportunities, searching out other ways to promote.

I suppose my real problem is difficulty in allocating my time. Some people think retirement is just a bunch of leisure. I’ve even heard talk about fears of boredom. Those folks would get disabused of those notions if they came around my house. Besides frequent trips to the grocery, Wal-Mart, Office Depot or the post office, there’s hauling and picking up grandson at school or Taekwondo. Plus volunteer jobs like delivering Meals on Wheels and folding newsletters at church. Not to mention the inevitable visits to doctors or dentists for my wife or myself.

Between all that running around, I manage to scoot up to my office for occasional snippets of time during mornings, afternoons and evenings. And while on the computer, there are all those listserve messages beckoning with their highlighted displays.

It’s a wonder I get as much done as I do. I’m envious of authors who regularly work on their novels for four-to-six-hour stretches. And there are those like my friend Tim Hallinan who flies off to Bangkok and Phnom Penh to write. I have too many family responsibilities to afford that luxury (plus I’d probably have a hard time surviving that life at my age).

I’ve never done New Year’s resolutions, but maybe that’s my solution. I’ll allot certain days and certain time blocks for writing and others for promotion. But what to do about all those email lists? Ay, there’s the rub. The Bard was lucky he didn’t have Internet.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Mystery of Giving by Vivian Zabel

The Christmas season is one of giving, and as I look at the commercialization of the season, I wonder what happened to true generosity, giving, from the heart not just for show. I've written some posts for this blog concerning writing tips, but now I want to address the mystery of giving.

What causes some people to be "givers" and "takers"? Yes, mysteries come in all kinds of disguises, including personalities and character. When we write, we need to take much into consideration as we develop our characters. One character trait that makes characters believable is generosity.

If we look into the depths of our characters, we need to discover if he or she is a giver or a taker. Aren't most antagonists takers? They take lives, property, reputations -- whatever belongs to another person. However, to make the villains more than caricatures, we need to find a way for them to also be givers. Perhaps one murder loves a younger brother and "gives" him money, a home, an education, and/or attention.

In my novel Midnight Hours, the villain's twisted love resulted in some evil behavior, but in Midnight's own way, she "gave" to others. If I explained, I'd give away the plot. However, I know we can all find examples of antagonists giving to someone he or she loves.

Giving is almost always found in the "good guys." But, couldn't we make them more "human" if they sometimes are a bit selfish?

People are complex, and so should our characters be.

Merry Christmas Happy Holidays
Vivian Zabel
Brain Cells & Bubble Wrap
Vivian's Mysteries
Prairie Dog Cowboy
Midnight Hours

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Writing Suspense--Growing the Problem

In two previous posts, I wrote about a theory of suspense based on two principles: isolate the protagonist, and grow the problem. In the last post, I gave some ideas for isolating the protagonist. In this one, I'll talk about some ways to grow the problem.

One way of growing the problem is to give our protagonist a formidable oponent. Few authors do that better than Sara Paretsky. Her detective, V.I. Warshawski, faces such foes as a labor union, the Chicago mob, a huge insurance company, a Great Lakes shipping magnate, the Democratic Party of Chicago, the Chicago Police Department, and the Roman Catholic Church. But Paretsky doesn't only challenge V.I. with powerful antagonists. She challenges V.I. in every scene.

Here's an example. V.I. is knocked unconscious while searching the basement of a decaying building. She wakes up to find the building on fire and the door locked, her escape blocked. In the room with her is her elderly aunt who has also been knocked unconscious. Will V.I. get her auntie and herself out of the building in time? Of course she will, but not before encountering numerous obstacles and raising the reader’s heart rate along with her own.

The book is Burn Marks. The suspense is unrelenting. How does Paretsky create the suspense? In several ways: One, she creates obstacles for V.I. Two, she takes each problem and enlarges it. Three, she raises the stakes. Four, she isolates the protagonist as I discussed in my last post.

Obstacles can be a part of the problem or unrelated to it. Either way, they intrude and make the problem more difficult to deal with. The tendency of V.I.’s aunt to run away makes the initial problem of finding a place for her to stay that much more difficult. If auntie hadn’t run away to begin with, the two women wouldn’t find themselves in the burning building. Other problems also intrude; an irate neighbor who calls the cops when V.I. disturbs his sleep, clients who push deadlines on her, and police who harass her. All these obstacles increase V.I.’s frustration and, consequently, the reader’s frustration, thus raising the reader’s anxiety.

Giving your detectives emotional or physical problems that impair their abilities increases suspense and makes them seem more human. A hangover is a good temporary impairment, so is a bout of flu or a minor injury, either job related or from some other source. Little problems become big problems and big problems become life-threatening. With each one, the reader’s sense of anxiety increases. At the same time, the reader’s sympathy and emotional involvement with the protagonist increases. A protagonist who gets up to chase the bad guys despite being under the weather is one we can identify with and root for.

An author enlarges the problem by making sure that the obvious solutions don’t work. Readers are intelligent and will expect the protagonist to attempt the obvious solution. When they don’t work the protagonist is frustrated again and must resort to extraordinary methods. In Burn Marks, when V.I. gets the desperate call from auntie asking for help, the reader thinks, “Call the cops.” V.I. does, but the officer in charge of the case isn’t there; the dispatcher tries to relay the message but the officer doesn’t receive it. Obvious solution #1 has failed. V.I. tells her auntie to stay by the public phone so she can locate her. Auntie, of course, doesn’t. Obvious solution #2 doesn’t work. Expecting the cops to be there soon and expecting her aunt to be nearby, V.I. enters the hotel in search of her, beginning in the basement. Now she’s isolated and the suspense is mounting. She finds her aunt unconscious but then she herself is knocked out.

When V.I. comes to, groggy from the blow and still weak from the flu, the obvious solutions aren’t so easy. It’s dark, the door is locked and the building is on fire. It’s a life or death situation. The author has raised the stakes.

V.I., on her hands and knees, searches the floor for her flashlight (obvious solution) but encounters rats (enlarged problem). Without a tool to open the door, she shoots the lock (obvious solution), but the door doesn’t budge because it has been nailed shut (enlarged problem). Finally she gets out by shooting the hinges, but her aunt is still unconscious (enlarged problem). If V.I. were at the peak of her abilities, if she were not weakened from the flu, if she were not groggy from the blow on the head, she might be able to carry her aunt up the stairs to safety. But of course she can’t because the problem has been enlarged and all the obvious solutions taken from her.

Who could put the book down at this point? We’re caught up in the suspense the author has created by, 1) throwing obstacles up to the protagonist, 2) making sure the obvious solutions don’t work, 3) raising the stakes, and 4) isolating the protagonist.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Me? A Marketing Role Model? You Gotta Be Kidding!

Recently, on one of the many social blogs I’m a part of–can’t tell you how many because I can’t keep track of them all–someone commented on one of my tales that I was a role model for marketing.

That was surprising. I do a lot of marketing or promotion, but I certainly don’t feel like a role model of any kind. What I’d written about was some interesting things that had happened recently. While I was at the antique store doing an all day book appearance, a young woman reporter (a June graduate from high school) came to interview me for the newspaper. She was cute as she could be and asked me several questions, disappeared for awhile, then came back to ask me a few more. Monday morning her article was on the front page of the paper. It was about all the things that were going on in town that Saturday. The paragraphs about me were on the second page. She did a great job and I suspect she’d go far in the journalism business.

Monday, hubby and I played hooky and went to the movies. When we got home there was a message on the answering machine from another reporter (males this time) who wanted to know if I’d be interested in being interviewed for a feature on local writers. When I finally managed to reach him, we set a time when he’d call. He called on time, but said he’d have to call later as there’d been a huge pile-up on the main highway due to fog and he had to cover it.

That’s neither here nor there, my point was that I wondered if maybe I was finally getting some name-recognition even if it is localized.

One thing I’ve learned though, about events of any kind if you can be friendly, chat with folks like you know them (sometimes I do and just didn’t remember), answer all their questions, be sure to know where the bathroom is because that will be one of the questions, and after you’ve spent a little time talking to you, they most likely will purchase one of your books. Always ask the spelling of a name if they want it personalized–people do spell names all sorts of unusual ways–and if you think you know them but just don’t remember for sure, it’ll save some embarrassment.

When I’m having an event in a town, besides putting it on my email groups and anywhere else that lists events, I also mail or email invitations to people I know who live near the venue. That worked well for my event in the back room of the antique store. I also served cookies and hot cider, so that tended to make people sit down and visit for awhile.

I’ll be doing the same thing for two days at the Art Gallery in the next town, only this time I’ll be with a lot of artists selling their wares and crafts. And yes, I am bringing more cookies–as I think everyone else is doing. If nothing else, we’ll have a great time munching out.

Once I’m through with this, I’ll be able to relax and prepare for Christmas. (Oh yeah, that means finishing wrapping presents and preparing dinner for Christmas Eve and Day celebrations.)

And then there’s the New Year. My promotion for Kindred Spirits will be winding down, but folks, I’ll have a new Rocky Bluff P.D. crime novel coming from Oak Tree Press, NoSanctuary–and I need to start gearing up for that one. Oh my!

We’ll see just how much of a marketing role model I’m going to be then.

Take time out to enjoy the holidays with your friends and family.


Monday, December 15, 2008

What Drives Your Mystery? by Morgan Mandel

I prefer mysteries that delve into the minds of the characters, be they good or bad. The further into their minds I as a writer go, the further my readers can travel.

That means at any given time when working on a novel, I'm a good guy or gal solving a crime or trying to survive in a world gone suddenly bad, or I'm a villain creating chaos.

In my Chicago based vengeance novel, Two Wrongs, there's a further complication. One of the good guys turns bad. I enjoyed doing that switch.

In another of my mysteries, Deadly Dreams, as of yet unpublished, a famous mystery writer and his victims become trapped in a deadly world because he can't distinguish truth from fiction.

I know there are plenty of mysteries which are plot driven, such as police procedurals, but I enjoy reading and writing those that are character driven.

What's your preference?

Morgan Mandel

Sunday, December 14, 2008

What Lies Ahead in Publishing?

From the Sunday morning mind of Earl Staggs

Recently, my good friend Kevin Tipple sent me a copy of an article by David J. Montgonery from a site called “Crime Fiction Dossier.” The article began with:

“We're starting to see reports of tough times in the publishing industry, with sales at Borders down 10% and Mifflin Harcourt declaring a freeze on acquisitions.”

The article goes on to say layoffs are rumored throughout the publishing and bookselling industries and that publishers will start making some changes to their business models. Some of the changes referred to were fewer one-off books, more books published as paperback originals, and fewer monster advances.

Mr. Montgomery went on to say:

“We'll almost certainly see a contraction in the number of books published. This is a step that has been a long time coming and is desperately needed. Currently the big houses publish too many books; more than they can adequately promote and sell. By publishing fewer books, and focusing their efforts on the ones remaining, they'll not only improve their bottom line, they'll better serve their authors. (Obviously this means that some writers will get the axe, but only those that were the most marginal anyway.)”

Basically, he’s saying if the publishing industry wants to survive, it must tighten its belt, do some serious housecleaning, and make some drastic changes in the way they do business. (Unlike the mortgage and automobile industries who only have to ask the government to refill their coffers with our tax money. But that’s getting into political territory and we don’t want to do that here.)

I doubt Mr. Montgomery’s thinking comes as a surprise to anyone in the writing community. How long have we wished publishers would regress to the days of old when they promoted and supported talented new writers with their dollars until the writers could build a fan base?

Instead, we’ve seen their dollars go into multi-million-dollar advances to the same big name authors who already have an audience and to ribald celebrities for tell-all books. Except for a slight few authors fortunate enough to land decent contracts, we’re pretty much left to our own devices and purses for promoting and selling.

In summing up his article, Mr. Montgomery said:

“The current economic climate provides a chance for the publishing houses to take steps that will put them on a firmer long-term foundation.”

What steps the big houses take, how successful those steps will be, and which houses will survive fall squarely in the wait and see category.

To bring it down to a more personal level, how will the changes in the foreseeable future within the publishing industry affect us? All we can do is wait and see.

* * *

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Pistol Packing Perp

by Ben Small

When my editor read my “polished” draft of Alibi On Ice, my first entry into the mystery/thriller market, he phoned me, outraged, fit to be tied. I imagined foam spewing from his mouth, a geyser at Yellowstone.

What had I done so wrong?

“Snub-nose revolvers don’t have a safety,” he said, so loudly I tilted the receiver away. “Anybody who knows anything about guns knows that.”

Well, I didn’t. But then I didn’t know anything about guns. I thought every modern gun had a safety.

“Look,” he said, “if you’re gonna write mysteries and thrillers, you gotta understand that there’s a huge gun culture audience reading the genre. And there’s nothing they’ll spot quicker than a gun error.”

I must have sounded a bit doubtful. More likely I was just embarrassed.

“Do you have any idea how many NRA members there are?" he said.


“Neither do I. But look it up. You’ll be shocked.”

I was. The numbers were enormous.

So my editor suggested I purchase some guns and get to know them. He suggested I obtain a concealed carry permit, not just for personal protection, although more and more that alone seems a good enough justification ― especially when one has white hair. No. He wanted realism, not boring page-after-page Clancy-style engineering detail, but pixie dust particulars that fit the character, his knowledge, his planning and his execution. For instance, a pistol-packer will walk, sit and act differently from an unarmed person. Cops know this. They look for people not walking normally, maybe not swinging one arm as much as the other. They’ll look for the reassuring pat, the yup-it’s-still-there touch to the cargo pants pocket, the upper chest-armpit junction or the belt. Or if it’s an ankle holster, the packing leg’s stride will be just a bit shorter than the free leg. Or they’ll look for the print, the telltale lump, sag or barrel outline.

Cops can spot these things from a distance. And so can you if you know what to look for. Adding some of these considerations to your perp’s conduct will make him or her more real. (Note: I’m addressing the perp here. While the same considerations apply to protagonists, I prefer messing with bad guys.)

It’s a simple fact that carrying a pistol is not comfortable. Pistols are heavy and mostly made of metal. No matter where you put the thing, you’re gonna be aware of its presence.

Most Inside the Waistband holsters (“IWB”) are placed on the side, either strong side or cross-draw. This means an added two inches to your belt and waist. Think about that after a large meal. And what about material? Your IWB holster most likely will be made of leather (cowhide or horsehide) or Kydex, a hard plastic mold. Expect chafing; there’s a direct correlation between your girth and how much skin you lose. And of course, the larger the pistol, the greater your skin lotion outlay. Add in hot weather, and you’d better line up a dermatologist.

Obviously, an Outside the Waistband holster (“OWB”) presents more concealment challenges than the IWB. The thing is hanging off your belt, for Chrissakes. An untucked shirt may adequately conceal an IWB packed with a Baby Glock (a G26 or 27), but good luck concealing a bazooka tugging at your belt. You’ll need a long winter overcoat.

A pistol-packer will find sitting no joy, especially in a car. Imagine the fun of managing the seat belt/carry position alternatives. Move your holster to your back? Then you’ve got metal resting against your backbone. Take those speed bumps slowly, and pray no one rear-ends you.

Shoulder harnesses aren’t comfortable either. They need support, which means the carry side is offset by straps around the non-carry shoulder and maybe a tie-down on the belt. Need a loose shirt or a jacket to conceal that arrangement. And get used to feeling constrained, as both shoulders and maybe your belt are all tugged together by hanging pistol weight. A man will quickly learn why a large breasted woman hates her brassiere.

What about an ankle holster? Truth be told, they’re not practical. Cops only use them as backups. And for good reason: extraction and re-holstering are not easy or fast. Ankle holsters are tight; they have to be. Lots of wrestling with taut elastic or leather and snaps. Driving is difficult with an ankle holster, and you’ve got hard metal close to your very sensitive ankle bone.


Of course, many of these considerations apply only to men, if women are smart and use a purse holster. A fanny pack is about as close to this option as a man can get. A man wearing a purse might as well be wearing neon shoes. People will stare.

Some pistol-packers worry that a fanny pack screams GUN, but that’s nonsense. Athletes wear them; hikers wear them, and tourists wear them. Coupled with the right clothing, a fanny pack may well go unnoticed.

Regardless, however, what concealment option your perp chooses, he or she will remain very conscious of what they’re carrying.

And that’s the biggest tell of all.

Drop some of these considerations in your character’s conduct like pixie dust. Don’t overdo it, be subtle. You’ll draw your reader deeper into your character and your story.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Lure of the Mystery

Why do we like puzzles and mysteries? Are we all police wannabes? Do we have a secret fantasy of being Sam Spade, Tempe Crabtree or Philip Marlowe? Have we watched every episode of Columbo? There is an innate need to know that makes us want to know whodunit.

And some of our favorite writers can make us work for it, creating a complex tale that taxes our investigative abilities! That's part of the joy of reading a mystery, though, isn't it? Do we fall for the red herrings sprinkled through the story? Or do we toss away a vital clue, served up to us on a silver platter, because we think it's a ruse to throw us off the scent? Do we figure it out, just after the writer gives us the answer? That's the goal of the mystery writer -- to hold the reader's interest, keep him or her thinking and trying to figure it out right to the climax of the reveal of the killer.

It's fun to abandon discrepant awareness and drift into the 1930s world of Hercule Poirot. Or to explore the newest forensics techniques for lifting fingerprints, tracking DNA or crime scene investigation. Is your preferred story a traditional cozy mystery, a modern, high-tech story, or even a futuristic detective with access to technology today's investigators can only dream of having?

Another reason we like mysteries? The bad guy always gets caught -- maybe he or she can't be prosecuted, but our detective figures out what s/he did and how it was done. And that's a very satisfying feeling!

So, grab a mystery by your favorite author and enjoy the journey!

Libby McKinmer

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Lure of the Mystery

Why do we like puzzles and mysteries? Are we all police wannabes? Do we have a secret fantasy of being Sam Spade, Tempe Crabtree or Philip Marlowe? Have we watched every episode of Columbo? There is an innate need to know that makes us want to know whodunit.

And some of our favorite writers can make us work for it, creating a complex tale that taxes our investigative abilities! That's part of the joy of reading a mystery, though, isn't it? Do we fall for the red herrings sprinkled through the story? Or do we toss away a vital clue, served up to us on a silver platter, because we think it's a ruse to throw us off the scent? Do we figure it out, just after the writer gives us the answer? That's the goal of the mystery writer -- to hold the reader's interest, keep him or her thinking and trying to figure it out right to the climax of the reveal of the killer.

It's fun to abandon discrepant awareness and drift into the 1930s world of Hercule Poirot. Or to explore the newest forensics techniques for lifting fingerprints, tracking DNA or crime scene investigation. Is your preferred story a traditional cozy mystery, a modern, high-tech story, or even a futuristic detective with access to technology today's investigators can only dream of having?

Another reason we like mysteries? The bad guy always gets caught -- maybe he or she can't be prosecuted, but our detective figures out what s/he did and how it was done. And that's a very satisfying feeling!

So, grab a mystery by your favorite author and enjoy the journey!

Libby McKinmer

Does the Economy affect YOUR Reading Habits?

It's Christmas time and if the news about the economy is to be believed, we're all broke. So my question to you is, how is this affecting your reading? I don't just mean your book buying habits. I've seen no surveys on this issue but I do have a couple of friends who work in libraries who assure me that they are busier than ever. I'm guessing that means two things: 1. more people are getting books from the libraries because they are cutting back on buying. 2. Lots of mothers can't afford after-school programs and so they are telling the kids to go to the library after school (Hey, it happens.)
This isn't one of those buy more books for Christmas posts, you'll see enough of these in the blogsphere right now. Although, by all means, buy more books. They are relatively inexpensive, very portable and can provide a very emotional experience. Buy Safe House, Reader's Eden is having a 40% off sale for Christmas.
My question though is more about how you navigate tough times. Do you gravitate towards less scary books when things are stressful? Is the current economy making you think more cozy mystery rather than tense thriller? Are you crossing horror totally off your list right now and gravitating towards Romance? Or do you tend to read the same genre regardless of what's happening? Take a sec, and tell me what you think.

Some Mystery Help by Vivian Zabel

In my forays into writing and reading, I visit the works of many mystery writers and sites for information. Allow me to share a few of my finds.

Places to look: I receive several writing magazines, and I've found The Writer and Writer's Digest to have more information about mysteries and writing mysteries (including suspense and thriller sub-genres) than most. For example, the July, 2008 The Writer has articles by Anne Perry (one of my favorites), William G. Tapply, and John D. MacDonald (from their achieves). I suggest that everyone find a copy of the July issue and read all three articles that I'll mention.

One place to find all types of information dealing with forensics, police procedure, types of guns, and other material a writer may need is Lee Lofland's website Graveyard Shift. Lee is a retired law enforcement person with a list of credentials that's most impressive.

Ideas to use: John D. MacDonald wrote a series based on the character Travis McGee. The article in The Writer appeared the first time in September 1964, but the journey taken by MacDonald holds true today.He said that "successful" to him meant two things: Not just a public acceptance ... but also a format which would give him the chance to continue to do paper-bounds originals satisfying to him. MacDonald wrote two full-length books, which he scraped because the hero didn't work. His third try he had Travis McGee, who had some of the man from the first book and some of the man of the second. MacDonald then allowed his character to "live" and become himself. "The only way to find out (what will work with characters) is to keep trying."

William G. Tapply offers tips about developing a series character in his article, "Create a sleuth for the LONG Haul." He has five which he labels: 1. Think big, have faith, and plan ahead; 2. Decide if your sleuth is going to be a pro, semipro or amateur; 3. Decide on voice, tone and personality; 4. Focus on flaws, foibles, weaknesses and quirks; and 5. Decide to what extent and how you'll reveal personal history, tastes, preferences and appearance. Reading and following some of Tapply's advice will strengthen anyone's detective.

Anne Perry sets her mysteries in the past, and she states that details need to be placed accurately. "Clothes, fabrics and fashion have to be right ... Of course, they can also reveal a great deal about characters ..." Perry says that characters must sit easily in their time and place, and an author's job is to do this well enough that readers feel as if they are in the time and place of the story. A few examples she gives in "Set your characters in their TIME & PLACE" to give fiction the feel of daily life include the following: domestic chores that go with the time; food of the time, preparation, quantity and locality; flowers and plants of the time; medicine and medical practices of the time period. The most important ingredient is accuracy.

I like mysteries, and have since I discovered Nancy Drew, but I want to be able to lose myself in the believability of the characters and plot. Anything that helps me accomplish that goal as a writer, I want to learn.

Please visit the site for my books Midnight Hours; Prairie Dog Cowboy
and Vivian's Mysteries.

Vivian Zabel
4RV Publishing

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Please Welcome Our Guest, Deb Baker, Author of Ding Dong Dead

Make Mine Mystery is Happy to Host Deb Baker today. Here's what she has to say:

Focusing on the Prize
by Deb Baker

Thanks to the wonderful authors at Make Mine Mystery for hosting me. I’m on a blog tour to promote the launch of Ding Dong Dead, which hit the shelves last week. Book number seven for me. I can’t believe it. Not only that I’m a published author, but that I even managed to finish the first book, let alone seven.

I’m a flitterer. I flutter between projects, working a little here, a little there. And I love to try new things. So writing was a natural for me. It’s in the same category as cooking and gardening because it’s always evolving. I can cooking tonight and whip up something completely different than anything I’ve made before. Gardening plans for spring? I can change the color scheme every year by adding new annuals. Writing? The process, the topic, the voice, the POV can all be changed at my whim.

Cooking, gardening, writing. They are all dynamic.
Anyway, back to flitting. My brother (he’s exactly like me) said when he heard about my plan to write a book, “You’ll never finish it.”
Oh, yeah, Bro. The gauntlet had been thrown down. I’d been challenged.
But how to focus long enough to complete my mission? I would have to learn to keep distractions from creeping in, at least until I finished the book.
Here are a few tips that worked for me as I proved my brother WRONG, WRONG, WRONG:

• Focusing exercises – I had to train myself to concentrate for long periods of time. One simple exercise I used to learn control: pick an object (mine is usually nature-based like a tree), concentrate on its shape, color, texture. Then close your eyes and visualize it as long as possible.

• Walking – it clears the mind chatter and sets a rhythm that allows your thoughts to flow. Walking opens your senses. For creativity purposes, the walk must be solitary.

• Meditating – Another brain trainer. Learning to bring my mind back was invaluable when I needed to stay in my seat and write. There are many forms of meditation. Here’s what worked best for me: get in a comfortable position, close your eyes, be aware of your breathing, watch your thoughts come and go but don’t dwell on them, simply observe and gently draw them back.

Of course, sheer determination and stubbornness play an important role in accomplishing our goals. What are some of your favorite tricks to keeping your eyes on the ball?

To celebrate Ding Dong Dead’s release, I’m running a contest. You can win a $50 gift certificate to the bookstore of your choice!

Here’s what to do. Get a copy of Ding Dong Dead, read it, go to my website at before January 15th. Correctly answer three easy questions pertaining to the book. You will be entered into the drawing, which will take place at noon on January 15th. Winner will be notified through email and announced on my homepage Good luck!

Owen Fiddler is a Mystery to Most

Hey everyone. This guy is swamped right now, in the midst of a whirlwind virtual tour with my irascible, incorrigible and enigmatic character Owen Fiddler. So Morgan gave me a by this Tuesday on coming up with an original post. Thank you, sweetie - I needed that!

But how about this? Join me on the tour today - or as often as you like, for that matter. The entire fabulous line-up is posted HERE. Lots of prizes and giveaways also.

And for all the fun happening today, go to our very own Dana Fredsti's blog, Zhadi's Den. Dana posted a review of Owen Fiddler, and a humorous piece written by yours truly and also - now get this - a preface written by Owen Fiddler! Yep. You'll need stitches. Mebbe even some bandages and/or a cast afterward. So proceed with caution, but the risk is worth the fun.

Okay, that's it for the old silly today. Gotta jet. But I'll be back in two weeks with something to share from my perspective on topic with our Make Mine Mystery blog!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Where it All Started--For Me by Anne Carter

The cover of the book depicted three young men in a motor boat navigating rough waters at the base of a cliff; beyond them, a single figure pilots a row boat, and all seem affected by a house above them on the edge of the cliff.

The book, of course, is The House on the Cliff, the second in the Hardy Boys Mystery series, and I was probably eleven years old when I read it. First published in 1927, this children’s novel sold 1.7 million copies by 2001, and is ranked 72nd on Publishers Weekly’s All Time Bestselling Children’s Book List.

What many find interesting today about these time-honored books is the fact that author of record, Franklin W. Dixon, existed only on the by-line of each novel. Dixon was not just a pen name for some unknown author, it was a name created to veil various ghostwriters who would pen the 190 titles in the series. The first, and the one to define the style and nuances of the characters, was Leslie McFarlane, who later discussed the early books in his autobiography, Ghost of the Hardy Boys. McFarlane hated the stories, despised writing them but desperately needed the paltry fee he was paid per title. Here is an excellent article on McFarlane’s life and stint as Franklin W. Dixon.

Because of the early era in which they were written, and to keep the books appealing to more modern audiences, the first 38 titles were revised beginning in 1959. Racial stereotypes were re-visited, storylines tweaked, minor details updated in a process that took 15 years to accomplish.

It is interesting to note that during the evolution of the series, likely due to the variety of ghostwriters involved, many inconsistencies have been discovered in the storyline details, much to the chagrin (and likely, the delight of some) of its readers. Today’s editors would shudder at the thought of a character’s name (i.e., Mrs. Hardy’s) changing from one book to another (Laura vs. Mildred) or even minor details such as whether Mr. Hardy’s airplane is a single or twin-engine model.

What attracted me to the series was the televised version aired by the Mickey Mouse Club during the late 50’s, where as a youngster I delighted in watching Tim Considine and Tommy Kirk portraying the handsome, youthful sleuths. An animated version followed in the late 60’s, and in 1977 the boys once again debuted on the small screen with Parker Stevenson and teen heartthrob Shaun Cassidy stepping into the roles of Frank and Joe on The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew Mysteries”.

Hardy Boys aficionados will note that the series was followed by many additional spin-offs, comic books and mini-series of modern titles. Lawsuits have ensued between publishers (see Grosset & Dunlap, Simon & Schuster and Stratemeyer Syndicate, the original creator of the franchise), covers have been changed, and the series’ have been translated into at least 25 different languages.

Despite the updating of the series, the stories are considered outmoded alongside most of today's top-listed children's novels. However, their popularity endures, as children will always enjoy mysteries wherein they can see the possibilities of themselves participating.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Real People and Literary Vengeance

There was a great post on MMM discussing whether it's wise to base fictional characters on real people. I left a comment with my opinion, but decided to expound on it for my post today.

When the idea MURDER FOR HIRE: The Peruvian Pigeon was first born, the inspiration for the novel was a sincere desire to kill a woman we worked with -- ‘we’ being me and Maureen, my old writing partner and co-founder of our San Diego based theatrical troupe, Murder for Hire – on the entertainment for the first La Jolla Raymond Chandler Festival.

To quote MFH’s press release: Along with her best friend Maureen, Dana was co-producer/writer/director for a mystery-oriented theatrical troupe based in San Diego. While no actual murders occurred during their performances, there were times when the actors and clients made the idea very tempting.

Oh, so very tempting… I used to fantasize often about the demise of one of our clients, the woman who was in charge of the Gala Charity Dinner for the Chandler Festival. She was actually more of a client-in-law. We were hired by the head librarian for the newly opened Florence Riford La Jolla Library to do walking tours and a performance for the gala dinner. ‘Jane’ (not her real name) was hired by the Friends of the Library to put together the rest of the gala, hire the musicians, caterers, etc. She had a lot on her plate so one would have thought she’d be glad not to have to worry about the rest of the entertainment, right?


Jane didn’t hire us and was one of those people who, if something wasn’t her idea, it meant it was a BAD idea. An evil, bad, wrong idea that must be squashed like a nasty bug. Murder for Hire, our troupe, was the bug in question. Unfortunately for Jane, MFH was
not an easily squashed bug. We were more of a mutant ‘we’re a featured movie on Sci-Fi Channel’ type bug. She tried her best to get rid of us, but we had the head of the festival and most of the Friends of the Library on our side so we stayed. But OH, did I want to kill this woman. I think most of the cast and crew of MFH felt the same way, but I was definitely the yang to their yin, the Jay to their Silent Bob as far as my inability to keep my mouth shut.

I had a confrontation with her at one of our rehearsals, a slice of life that was immortalized in MFH: The Peruvian Pigeon. Yes, a few things were added because as pissed as she was at me after the real life encounter, it wasn’t really dramatic enough to work in the book. But everything that DID happen in the real life confrontation made it into this particular chapter. And oh, it felt good.

Jane was not the only character based on real people. Of course, I didn’t want to kill most of them…at least not as often as I dreamed of offing her. I admit there were times when our actors drove me bonkers. Not all of them And I’m not gonna name any names here because even the ones who were the most annoying still did a good job and…well…most of my memories of our cast are very fond. And the memories that aren’t so fond will no doubt make it into the next book, MURDER FOR HIRE: The Big Snooze.

At any rate, murder is a great incentive for fiction if you don’t want to go to jail. Of course, you also have to take into consideration things like ‘libel’ and ‘lawsuits’, but changing the names and physical descriptions to protect the guilty should take care of that. And if someone in real life does recognize themselves in your work of fiction? Well, if they’re heinous enough, how many of them will actually want to bring attention to the fact they were the inspiration for the C-U-Next-Tuesday in your book?

As an interesting wrap-up, I set up three Google alerts to help track my exposure on the ‘net (we’re not talking about those ‘See Nude Pictures of Dana Fredsti here’ hits), one for my name, one for Murder for Hire and another for Peruvian Pigeon. 90 percent of the hits I’ve gotten for Murder for Hire are about actual murders or plots in which someone was hired to rub someone else out. If the government is monitoring my email and interests, I could be in trouble.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Global Warming, Another Story

Global warming is one of the great mysteries of our time. Some see it as cataclysmic, others think it's exaggerated.

One of the really earth-shaking consequences of the phenomenon that most people have yet to consider came to mind today as I passed Santa Claus in the mall with a cute, blonde tyke in his lap. Do you realize the likely consequences if the polar ice cap continues to go the way of yesterday’s Icee? According to Wikipedia, some scientists believe this could happen by 2030.

How will that affect the Santa story?

By 2050, jolly old Saint Nick will be living on the lush, newly-tropical island in the Artic Ocean known by the acronym NoPo. The North Pole (peppermint-like with alternating red and white stripes) will stick up out of Santa’s pineapple plot. Instead of those bulky red pants tucked into black boots, he’ll be decked out in UV-blocking shades and a red swim suit nicely contrasting with his deeply tanned skin.

He’ll have traded in his reindeer for a group of fleet-footed Kentucky thoroughbreds. In place of that crusty old sleigh, he’ll be driving a souped-up redwood hay wagon designed by Toyota engineers. It will feature oversize Bridgestone tires guaranteed to make a soft landing on any type of roof.

The elves, wearing skimpy shorts and flip-flops, will knock out their toys in an outdoor workshop shaded by large oak trees. The kids’ wish lists will still feature traditional items like Radio Flyer wagons. Because of all the extra water resulting from ice caps and glaciers melting, however, the wagons will feature pontoons instead of wheels.

Mrs. Claus will circulate around the workshop with lemonade and gingerbread cookies to help the elves keep their cool. During her free time, she’ll lounge at poolside with a peppermint julip.

Since the world will be a warmer place in 2050, there won’t be much need for chimneys. Santa will have to vary his approach. He’ll probably rappel from the roof and go in the front door with his universal pass key.

All of this upheaval in the Santaland saga will cause Clement Moore the 10th (or whatever) to rewrite parts of The Night Before Christmas. One segment will probably say:

“Now, Citation! now, Slew! now, War Admiral and Seabiscuit!
On, Count Fleet! on, Whirlaway! on, Assault and Secretariat!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”

Okay, enough of this global warming stuff. Don't want to scare the kids out of their nighties. But before I close and cruise out of sight, I’d like to wish a Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.

Chester Campbell

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Interview with mystery author J.A. Jance by Vivian Zabel

I’ve had the honor and privilege of meeting author J.A. Jance, first through her books, through e-mails, and then in person at OWFI (Oklahoma Writers Federation, Inc.) Conference in 2008. Not only is she a talented mystery writer, but she is a lovely person.

She was kind enough to answer a few questions, and I feel as if I’m sitting across a table from her drinking a mug of tea as we visit.

How did/does your history and home background affect your writing?

An editor, a short-lived editor, once told me, “The problem with your books is that all your characters do things because of the way they were raised.” I kept waiting to hear what the problem was with that because it’s true for all of us. All of us, fictional characters or not, do what we do because of how we were raised. In some instances, we fight against it. In other instances we embrace it. I came from a loving family where reading was an important activity.

Tell us something about your educational background that has made you a better, or more caring, writer.

When I was a sophomore in high school, my Latin teacher, Mr. Guerra, wrote on the top of an essay I wrote about Servius Tullius, one of the five kings of Rome, “A+, Research worthy of a college student.” That was the first time I had any inkling that maybe I was smart enough to go on to college, and it’s no accident that one of my books is dedicated to Richard Guerra.

Please fill us in on your hobbies, interests, or activities you participate in during your leisure time. *laugh* If you have any.

I’m a bad but nonetheless enthusiastic golfer. Make that fair-weather golfer. And I still love to read.

Authors are often asked when they started writing or what triggered their interest in writing. I like to know that, also, but I would especially like to know what keeps you writing.

I wanted to be a writer from the time I read the Wizard of Oz books in Mrs. Spangler’s second grade classroom in Bisbee, Arizona. A lot of people who “want” to be writers aren’t so much interested in doing the “work” of being a writer—of meeting deadlines; of going on book tours; of sending out 7000 notices in advance of a book coming out. Writing is WORK. But what keeps me writing is knowing I have fans all over the world who use my books as a way to have fun and as a way to get through tough times
You have so many projects going all the time; how do you manage?

I’m usually writing one book, editing another, and promoting a third. Those are three very different tasks and that I can do. I don’t try to write more than one book at a time. That would drive me nuts.

What is your most recent book, and what inspired you to write it?

I think we all assume that what we do or say in the privacy of our computers is private. Just this week someone reached into my computer—without benefit of a download or permission and messed up my mail programs. Cruel Intent grows out of that same kind of thing. There are predators wandering around on the Internet, and they don’t have our best interests at heart.

How did you manage to come up with the ideas for your series, which now numbers three, correct? What would you care to share about any of your books? (By the way, I own almost every book you’ve written except the last two)

Four actually. Ali Reynolds, J. P. Beaumont, Joanna Brady, and the Walker Family. I started with Beaumont. After writing 9 books about him, I was getting ready to knock him off. My editor suggested that I give him a rest instead. That’s when I wrote the first Walker book and also my first hardback, Hour of the Hunter. When I went back to write about Beau again, it was also fun again. Then they suggested I have another series. Up popped Joanna.

The Beaumont books are police procedurals written in the first person through the eyes of a middle-aged homicide cop. The Joanna books are third person, female point of view. The Beau books are set in the Pacific Northwest where I live now. Joanna lives and works in southeastern Arizona where I grew up. For Beau’s background I used what I learned during my first marriage to a man who ultimately died of chronic alcoholism. For Joanna I used what I learned being a woman in a “man’s job” (insurance sales) and also being a single mother.

The thrillers are set on the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation where I taught school for a number of years. The Ali Reynolds books are about a middle-aged woman forced by circumstance to rethink her life and start over in a new direction. Been there, done that, too.

(Ooops, I forgot the Walker family, but I’ve read those books, too. *shiver* J.A. gets into her characters almost too well.)

Do you have a particular writing process or technique that you use, if so, what?

I start at the beginning and write to the end. Because I write murder mysteries, I usually start with the murder. Then I spend the rest of the book trying to figure out who did it and how come. I do NOT outline. I know lots of writers who do, but for me, personally, it doesn’t work. I count the words every day. My books are supposed to be around 100,000 words long. By counting the words, I know how many I’ve used and how many I have left before I need to finish telling the story—to me as much as to my readers.

(Knowing I’m not the only writer who does not outline makes me feel better.)

How do you feel when you complete a book?

I feel GREAT!! Starting a book? Not so much.

What are your writing achievements and goals?

My goal is to keep writing as long as I physically and mentally able. I want to be P.D. James when I grow up, and I hope, like her, I’m still writing at age 88.

Do you or have you participated in writing groups, and if so, what help have they been?

I was a single mother when I started writing. A single mother with two kids, no child support, and a full time job selling life insurance. My writing time was between 4 AM and 7 AM when I got the kids up to get ready for school. There were no writers groups that met during those hours, so I didn’t participate in any. I have, however, participated in numerous writers’ conferences. As a college junior, I wasn’t allowed in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Arizona because I was a “girl.” (It’s no accident that the crazed killer in my first thriller is a former professor of Creative Writing from the University of Arizona.) I participate in the conferences because they constitute a back door to the world of writing to many folks who had the front door of writing slammed shut in their faces.

Does writing help better you as a person? How?

It’s a self-starting job. I’m more focused and more motivated by doing this job, one I love, than I would be if I were doing anything else.

What advice would you have for a new author?

When I bought my first computer, the guy who installed my word processing program fixed it so that when I booted up, these were the words that flashed across the screen: A writer is someone who has written today. Those were encouraging words that kept me motivated when I was a beginning writer, and they do the same thing for me today. And today, by the way, I do qualify. Answering e-mail interviews is part of the “work” of being a writer.

Thank you, J.A., for answering my e-mail questions. I know that for you to take time to help another person, by answering questions you’ve probably answered dozens of times before, is a kindness.

J.A. Jance's newest book is Cruel Intent, a Ali Reynolds novel.

Interviewed by Vivian Zabel
Vivian's Mysteries
Brain Cells & Bubble Wrap

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Plotting for suspense--isolating the protagonist

Remember the exciting finish to The Silence of the Lambs? FBI Agent-in-training Clarice Starling is alone in the serial killer’s basement. The lights go out. She can’t see, but he can because he has night-vision goggles. Of course she keeps her wits about her and blows the guy away. The solution is both satisfying and heart pounding. While all this is going on, the SWAT team is in another city breaking into an empty house with well-practiced precision. Would it have been as exciting and satisfying if the SWAT team, with all its firepower, had found the correct house and captured the killer? Of course not. The satisfaction comes from Clarice facing the killer alone.

Isolate your protagonist. That’s the key to building suspense. A good story follows the principle of rising action. At the peak of the action, your character should find him or herself alone, facing tough odds. In some stories, the protagonist’s isolation is the entire premise. This is especially true of espionage stories. George Smiley, trying to find a Soviet mole in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, was isolated by the fact that he couldn’t trust anyone around him. Virgil Tibbs, a black Philadelphia detective trying to find a killer in a bigoted, segregated Southern town was isolated racially, and geographically in In the Heat of the Night.

Where the detective’s isolation is not a premise of the story, the writer has to devise ways to accomplish it at the critical points. The problem is that most mystery readers understand that police are quick to bring in backups and reinforcements at early signs of trouble. Readers also expect their detectives to be intelligent, common-sense people who will not put themselves in danger for no reason. So how do you credibly isolate your protagonist? Here is my own taxonomy of ways to do it.

Confront the villain. This is the classic method. The detective needs to have his theories confirmed or his curiosity satisfied before calling the police. Hercule Poirot did it frequently; Nick Charles did it in The Thin Man. Spencer does it for personal satisfaction, though it almost gets him killed in Valediction.

The hunted becomes the hunter. Instead of the detective seeking out the villain, the villain comes to the detective. Sam Spade found the villains waiting for him at his apartment because he had what they wanted -- The Maltese Falcon. In The Poet, the killer has singled out the protagonist from the start. In Demolition Angel, the serial bomber wants to display his handiwork to detective Carol Starkey, so he waits for her at her house.

While in the course of gathering evidence. The detective, operating on a hunch perhaps, finds herself alone while looking for a critical piece of evidence. In A is for Alibi, Kinsey Milhone has such a hunch on her way to see her client. She is examining a hit-and-run vehicle when the bad guy unexpectedly shows up. Kinsey has to run for her life. The chase ends with a deadly confrontation inside a dumpster at a beach park.

Isolated in time and space. The use of the setting to force the isolation is common to many stories. Kinsey was physically isolated at the beach park; Clarice was isolated in the darkened basement. V.I. Warshawski finds herself trapped aboard a boat in Deadlock. In A Thief of Time, Tony Hillerman makes terrific use of the desert southwest setting to isolate his protagonist. Joe Leaphorn tracks an injured woman to a remote canyon reachable only by kayak or helicopter -- the killer’s method of arrival.

Misdirect the cavalry. This is why Clarice finds herself confronting the bad guy. The F.B.I. was certain they had him at another place. They were wrong. Clarice found him where he was least expected to be. A variation of this is to pin down the cavalry by circumstances they can’t control.

Mentor is a shape-shifter. It could also be a lover or a partner--somebody the detective has every reason to trust. This puts the detective in a really tough spot. She thinks she's getting advice, back-up, support. She's not going it alone, or so she thinks, until the shapeshifter is revealed. The DaVinci Code and The Poet are two examples where the person the protagonist turns to for help is the bad guy.

The heat of the chase. Like Patton out-distancing the rest of the American forces, the detective can become caught up in the chase and leave his or her backup behind. Sharon McCone does this in Eye of the Storm. The setting, a remote island in a storm, enhances her isolation. Harry Bosch takes off after the bad guy into a drainage tunnel in Black Echo.

Protagonist as decoy. Carlotta Carlisle in Coyote is part of a trap to catch a killer. Naturally, the killer is wily enough to have his own plan for isolating the decoy. At a critical moment, Carlotta loses contact with the police who are supposed to spring the trap.

Burnt bridges. In Shooting at Midnight, private eye Bridget Logan abandons her job, her lover and her sister in such a way that nobody would take her back. She does it to get undercover as a drug dealer, eventually becoming a heroin user herself. All of this is an effort to save her best friend from jail, but, if her friend knew what she was doing, Bridget's cover would be blown. When she finally breaks cover, the police use her as a decoy.

Emotional isolation. In False Witness by Dorothy Uhnak, an ambitious bureau chief with eyes on being D.A. finds her hopes ruined and herself isolated from her superiors when her case against a society doctor collapses dramatically. At the same time, she finds herself betrayed by her lover. Normally in control of events, she suddenly finds that events are controlling her.

Fish out of water. The protagonist finds him or herself in a strange culture or country where every action, no matter how well-intended, produces unexpected, often dangerous consequences. The classic fish out of water is Philadelphia police detective John Book in Witness trying to protect an Amish woman and her son in an Amish community.

Mother nature is a . . .. For east Texas constable Sunset Jones, the word rhymes with "rich." After enduring a tornado, winds, rain and Texas heat in Sunset and Sawdust, she confronts a vicious killer during an infestation of grasshoppers that is so thick she can't see or even stand and her help can't get to her. This is a plague that goes beyond biblical. The little buggers catch fire and become tiny incendiary missiles. So, not only is she isolated, but the problem has grown! (Stay tuned for my next blog post on growing the problem.)

Protecting the innocent. The detective goes alone to protect someone no one else will protect. Who can forget Atticus Finch, armed with only a law book, putting himself between his client, a black man falsely accused of rape, and a white lynch mob. The innocent might also be a child as in Gone, Baby, Gone.

The best suspense often involves a combination of factors that isolate the protagonist. The peak action in Spree, by T.J. McGregor, finds the protagonist in a remote farmhouse (isolated in time and space) during a severe storm (mother nature is a . . .); her husband/partner is pursuing a lead elsewhere (misdirected cavalry); she is preoccupied by concerns for her infant daughter (protecting the innocent); and the killer, a police detective she had been working with (shapeshifter) comes after her (hunted becomes the hunter). You could hardly have a better ending.