Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Mysteries of Writing

by Jean Henry Mead

I wonder whether some of us are born with a compulsion to write. Many writers have created not only elaborate stories while still in elementary school, but novels and three-act plays.

But why do we write?

Mignon G. Eberhart once said: “I write because I like to, sometimes hate to, but I have to write. I started when I was very young, almost as soon as I could put pencil to paper.”

Fellow mystery writer Lawrence Kamarck added: “I suppose I have a storyteller’s compulsion. I want to tell somebody what’s happening to all of us. I’m convinced nobody really knows but me. And because I want to keep the [reader’s] attention, I tell my story with as much force and drama as possible, within credible limits.”

Pulitzer winner A. B. Guthrie, Jr. told me during an interview that “the fun is having written well.” But he confessed that he didn’t enjoy the actual process of writing. “At the end of the day, I go back over it and say to myself, ‘By golly, that’s right, that’s right.’ And then I’m rewarded.”

So why do we write mysteries?

Ross MacDonald said: “Mystery stories have always interested me because they seem to correspond with life. They deal with the problems of causality and guilt that concern me.”

Loren D. Estleman wrote as an adolescent and sold his first novel at 23. He saw little of his parents because he spent so much time in his unheated, upstairs room, his only companion a typewriter. "I lived in my study and I didn’t have much of a private life,” he said. “It revolved around my writing.”

I like Estleman’s description of a mystery. “For me, a good mystery places story and character ahead of all else, yet never loses sight of the simple truth that in order to be a mystery, a question must be asked. It needn’t be a whodunit, and might be something as simple and maddening as why the murdered man had three left shoes in his closet and no mates. If the writer has done his job well, the reader will forget the question as the story draws him in. But there had damn well better be a mystery involved if he’s going to call it one.”

I pulled an aging copy of Mystery Writers Handbook from one of my book shelves and found the following quote from the editor, Lawrence Treat: “Great mysteries are great novels, like Crime and Punishment, A Tale of Two Cities and The Scarlet Pimpernel. And they’re clearly mysteries.”

I then asked my fellow Murderous Musings blog team members why they write mysteries. Ben Small had this to say:

“I write mysteries and thrillers because I love the high stakes competition between good and evil, the uncertainty of justice, and the suspense of the ticking clock as the protagonist puzzles out a solution. Good stuff, escaping into a make-believe puzzle-world where I push the reader to beat me to the solution.”

Beth Terrell said that she loves the fact that the detective puts his own life at risk to protect others. She also loves the fact that “the good guy always wins--or almost always--even if it’s at a terrible cost. I feel like mysteries work on so many different levels. They are ripping good stories, thought-provoking puzzles, and wonderful vehicles to write about real human problems—things that matter. They’re a challenge to write; a good mystery or thriller has to do all the things a literary novel does and weave a gripping plot as well.”

Pat Browning concluded that a mystery is the oldest form of storytelling. Sometimes there's a moral, sometimes it's a cautionary tale. It reassures us that good triumphs over evil. It satisfies our need to know that everything turns out all right in the end. Contemporary mysteries often have a romantic angle, and a humorous twist. In short, the mystery offers something for every reader.

I enjoy not only writing mysteries but reading them as well. If I haven't solved the crime or discovered the murderer before the detective reveals his name, I feel that the author has done a great job. And I hope you'll think I've done a credible job with my new mystery, A Village Shattered. My Shattered blog tour starts tomorrow at My Friend, Amy's and the rest of the schedule is up at my blog site along with my virtual guestbook, which I hope you'll sign, and my new book trailer.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Black Friday To Die For Sales

Just wondered how far people would go to get a sales item. Best Buy had shoppers camping out a few nights ago already. It wasn't zero, but it certainly wasn't that warm out at all. Many stores would not allow people to stay in their cars and wait either.

I heard a woman on the radio saying she went out last night to get in line figuring she'd be first, but there already was a line happening.

Online shopping, which was supposed to be so great, was miserable at Carson's today. I gave up on them and went to Amazon instead and used up one of my Amazon gift certificates.

Anyway, I just wondered if there have ever been any fights or murders over people stealing other people's items from carts or cutting in line on Black Friday.

Hmm, what about a mystery about a woman who sets off for some Black Friday purchases and disappears?

Anyone else have any ideas?

Thursday, November 27, 2008


I've been spending the week, like most other wives and mothers here in the States thinking about Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving, as Andy Rooney recently reminded us all on Sixty Minutes, is in danger of being swallowed up by the commercialization of Christmas. That would be a shame because what other day takes us back to Norman Rockwell's America, where we get to fight with our siblings (of whatever age) over who gets the wishbone, look at old family photos, and remember Grandmom and Granddad, God rest their souls? What other day are you expected to eat until you can't anymore and then do nothing else except, of course, the dishes? What other day is set aside for us to appreciate all that we have? Despite the current economic downturn, I know that I have a lot. And since this post will be published Thursday, and since I like the holiday so much I set my second book, Safe House at Thanksgiving, I thought I'd ask you about Thanksgiving mysteries.

I am one of those readers who likes to read books to put me in the mood. If I am going back East, I might read a book set there. If it's the holidays, I try to read something set at that time of year. Thank God for They've figured out that there are folks like me, and they have lists of books for each holiday. A quick survey of their Thanksgiving mystery list produced a couple that I've read and enjoyed. If you haven't read, Margaret Maron's Up Jumps the Devil, I highly recommend it and anything else that woman has written. I also enjoyed Jeanne M Dams' Sins Out of School, and Leslie Meier's Turkey Day Murders.

I'd love to hear some recommendations from you. So before you go out for those Black Friday sales, (another holiday tradition I thoroughly approve of) sit down with a cup of coffee and tell us all your favorite holiday mysteries.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Mystery to Me

It's still a mystery to me how the plotters do it! I so admire their discipline and their technique. I'm a pantster writer and always have been, except when writing exams in university, where I plotted out point form notes for the essay questions!

For me, writing fiction is like watching a movie and I'm just recording what's happening -- which can get me into point-of-view problems because I'm seeing everything. (Thank you to my fantastic editor.) I guess my way is kind of like what the director of a movie does by seeing all the scenes, knowing all the characters, but letting them express themselves, in a director's case through the actor, and in my case, through the words.

It also means sometimes my characters surprise me by going off on a tangent I hadn't expected...and I can worry I don't know how they'll get back, but they always do. Nevertheless I think it can add a bit of zing to a hero to have a wobble toward wimpdom from his strong, silent stoicism or the heroine having a shoe or purse fetish that leads her to finding out more about leather production and thus to a slaughterhouse, and changes her to a vegan. Which I didn't know about her when we started out!

I generally know who the good guys and bad guys are, what the mystery to be solved will be (a death, kidnapping, robbery or whatever) and that the bad guys will lose in the end, even if they seem to have the upper hand at some stage of the story. But I let my characters lead me along their path. It's a fun way to write and why it never, ever gets old for me.

Libby McKinmer
Romance with an edge

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Ultimate Mystical Mystery

Just a short post today. I'm on an all day driving trip, just stopped in at a Big Boy for some lunch, fired up my wireless laptop to check my email, and there was a note reminder from MM that it was my turn to post today at M3! Fortunately I had a draft partly done and stored, so here goes.

My chosen favorite genre to write in is spiritual/inspirational. And the ultimate mystery writings to me are the scriptures. Pretty heavy dudes, Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, Muhammad, those cats. Miracle working, parable speaking, magnanimous beings of light that either authored or were quoted into books that have inspired humankind and led us to the threshold of enlightenment for thousands of years after their physical death. So my question for the day, an invitation for comments is, hey all you mystery writers - any of you ever read The Upanishads, or the Dhammapada, that sort of thing? Probably most of us here in the west have read the Bible. The Old testament is chocked full of incredible stories. And of course the New Testament is full of miracles by Jesus and the Gospel of John is very mystical. Starts right out with, "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God." That mysterious enough for ya? But for real dazzling and baffling mystical early Christian thinking, try reading the Gnostic Gospels and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Incredible.

Kind of weird subject perhaps, for a mystery writers' blog. But that's what you get for inviting a spiritual/inspirational author on your team! (smile)

So but indulge me. How about it - ever read scriptures? If so why and how do they affect your writing and/or life, and if not, why not?

Looking Through the Rear Window by Anne Carter

“He killed a dog last night because the dog was scratching around in the garden. You know why? Because he had something buried in that garden that the dog scented.”

“Like an old hambone?”

“I don't know what pet names Thorwald had for his wife.”

So goes the exchange between wheelchair-bound L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) and Detective Lt. Doyle (Wendall Corey), wherein “Jeff” tries to convince his old Army buddy that neighbor Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) has killed his wife. Shot on the largest indoor set built at Paramount Studios at the time, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic, Rear Window, required months of pre-production work and construction of the 31 apartments comprising the complex where Jeffries lives. Except for a very few brief segments, the entire film was shot from Jeff’s apartment, from which he watches [read: spies on] the daily lives of other apartment dwellers through his window. Of course, he witnesses what he believes is a murder, and shares his shocking discovery with his socialite girlfriend, delightfully played by the lovely Miss Grace Kelly, and his gruff-but-loyal physical therapist Stella (Thelma Ritter).
Rear Window was voted #1 mystery by members of IMDB, the Internet Movie Data Base, proving its endearment to mystery lovers. The runner up, 1995’s The Usual Suspects, couldn’t be a more different film, with its high body count and fast-moving, multiple character story-lines. Like most modern films, Suspects makes use of a multitude of locales, camera angles and high-action settings, in sharp contrast to Hitchcock’s virtually single-setting picture. Yet both films are considered mysteries, both contain elements mystery movie buffs crave: surprises, twists and humans in peril. Questions arise, such as the most often asked, “Who dunit?” or “Where is the body?” – How about, “Who is he—really?”

Does there need to be a hero? Certainly, Jimmy Stewart is much beloved as Window’s reluctant protagonist, charming audiences with his dry wit and wheelchair antics. Under his lead, John Michael Hayes’ screenplay becomes a “cozy” mystery of sorts. Stewart, whose character is a pro photographer, becomes the amateur sleuth during his temporary convalescence, and viewers easily embrace his suspicions and theories.

The enduring popularity of Rear Window confirms that [intelligent, IMO] movie-goers don’t need the high action, overt violence or CG effects so prolific in today’s “mysteries” in order to be entertained. Thank goodness for American Movie Classics and Netflix!

Note: Rear Window was based on short story "Murder From a Fixed Viewpoint" by Cornell Woolrich, who was considered to be a pioneer of what has come to be known as "noir" fiction. According to Wikipedia, the story was later re-titled "It Had to Be Murder", and was published under pen name, "William Irish". Woolrich counted as his peers Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

What's On Your Desk?

From the slightly south of sanity mind of Earl Staggs

Recently, I accepted an invitation to write a short article for THE VERB, a monthly newsletter about writing published by a terrific lady and excellent writer, Elizabeth Guy. I’ve seen other newsletters as I’m sure you have, but this is my absolute favorite. THE VERB is a well-written, polished, once-a-month, subscription only, free email publication, and I find something interesting, informative and useful in each issue. I highly recommend it to all writers. Check it out at:

Anyway, a regular feature of THE VERB is titled “What’s On Your Desk?” Each month, a different writer is invited to talk about the writing tools on his or her desk. I began my contribution in a conventional manner with mention of standard reference stuff, but soon took a hard left and came up, instead, with some tools I wish I had.

Here’s how it turned out. I hope you enjoy my detour into absurdity, but I’d like to know if you agree with my point (and there is one) at the end.

What’s On Your Desk?

The title of this column reminds me of the old line about Stephen King. While he gives us nightmares with his tales of terror and horror, it’s said he actually has the heart of an innocent five year old. He keeps it in a glass jar on his desk.

I’m afraid my desk is not that interesting. On mine are only the basic tools. There’s a big fat dictionary, of course. Without it, how would I ever remember how many m’s are in accommodate? Then I wonder why accumulate only rates one. Who decides these things? But I shouldn’t let myself be so easily distracted with the monumental questions in life when I should be writing.

Next to my dictionary sits Roget’s Super Thesaurus. This is the tool I use, primarily, to replace my humdrum verbs. After all, I shouldn’t be content with hurried when the more effectual scurried is available.

I know, I know. Both a dictionary and thesaurus are cached within my computer, only a mouse click away. But once in a while, I like to rest the mouse finger and use both hands on something with real paper and ink and pages I can turn instead of scroll.

Next to those two large tomes resides the tiny and well-thumbed copy of Strunk and White’s THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE. Third Edition. With Index. After all these years of writing, I shouldn’t need reminders to “Use the active voice” and “Put statements in positive form,” but I do. Old habits adhere, especially bad ones.

While thinking about these basic tools, however, I found myself thinking of tools I might have if they were available. There I was being distracted again, but before I could bring myself back to being the disciplined writer, I came up with a Wish List of Writer’s Tools.

First, I’d need a whisk broom and dust pan. I’ll explain those in a minute or two.

The Wish List I compiled began with a series of buttons beside my keyboard. For example, I’d have a button labeled “HAD/WAS Eliminator.” A push of the button and every had and was, those heralds of passive writing, would tumble onto my desktop and be magically replaced with active and more engaging verbs and phrases. “I had left her a message at two o”clock and it was now almost six” would become “I left her a message at two, nearly four hours ago.”

Next to that button, I’d have one labeled “COMMA Relocator.” One push and the commas in the wrong place would move to where they grammatically belonged. Extra commas would fall onto the desktop to mingle with the hads and wases.

Another helpful button, the OVERUSED WORDS Exorcist, would remove the words I habitually overuse. These would include then, that and just. A single push of the button and they’d join the pile already building on my desktop and spilling over onto the floor.

By now, I was on a roll. I came up with buttons to fill plot gaps, add character depth, delete adverbs and more before I came to my senses and stopped.

What was I thinking?

These buttons would make writing easier, for sure. No longer would I have to endlessly revise, tweak, and polish. No longer would I sweat and swear for hours to make my work tight, concise and clear. That’s doing it the hard way and takes a lot of time, thought, and effort. It’s a tiresome, frustrating process fraught with periods of wondering why I ever wanted to be a writer in the first place.

But you know what? Doing it the hard way earns me the right to pump my fist in the air and shout “Yes!” when it’s finished and it’s right. When the fat lady peeks out from behind the final paragraph and belts out a tune, I can sing along. I did it the hard way and deserve to join in the chorus and celebrate the accomplishment of a tough job well done.

Besides, writing’s never been easy and shouldn’t be. If it were easy, anyone could do it and we writers wouldn’t be special.

So I shredded my Wish List. I’ll stick to my basic tools and doing it the hard way.

But I kept the whisk broom and dust pan. Even writing the hard way produces piles of had, was, other extraneous words, excess commas and more on the desktop and floor. These must be swept up and properly disposed of. Otherwise, the little buggers will breed and multiply.


Friday, November 21, 2008

A Simpler Time

by Ben Small

I was watching the last episode of the first season of I Love Lucy the other night: Ricky Asks For a Raise. Seems Lucy and Hitchcock are usually better than much of the nightly television fare these days. Anyway, the plot was interesting. Ricky wanted a raise, but was afraid to beg Mr. Littlefield (Gale Gordon), owner of the Tropicana Club, for one. Littlefield’s a blustery, excitable chap who just might go off the deep end, and Ricky, when not croaking Ba-ba-loo, can be a bit shy. Ricky mumbled something like, “You wouldn’t be able to give me a raise, would you?” Littlefield delivered the expected negative response.

So, flustered by Ricky’s timidity and knowing that her household budget, like always, was overdrawn, Lucy took over negotiations. She told Littlefield that Ricky had other offers, anywhere from four to twelve, depending upon which lie (Lucy’s or Ricky’s) Mr. Littlefield believed.

Littlefield fooled them, as we the audience expected. Littlefield told Ricky he wouldn’t hold him back; the Tropicana would let Ricky go, free him to accept one of the higher paying offers.

Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball): "Don’t you want to change your mind?"
Alvin Littlefield (Gale Gordon): "No, N-O."
Ricky :Ricardo (Desi Arnaz): {to Mr. Littlefield] "Well then I quit! K-W-I-T!"

But Ricky didn’t have any other job offers.

Lucy had done it again: She’d gotten Ricky fired. Xavier Valdez is replacing Ricky.

Insert rapid-fire Spanish fury here.]

What’s Lucy to do?

Sabotage the new act, of course. We’re talking Lucy here.

So Lucy, Fred and Ethel make reservations under fake names, lots of reservations ― including one for a party of thirty.

The Tropicana is expecting a big night, a great crowd for the new guy. In walk Fred, Ethel and Lucy, in various disguises, including one where Fred’s in drag. Each fake party enters, learns Ricky Ricardo’s no longer playing the Tropicana, and storms out, expressing fealty to Ricky and promising never to return to the Tropicana until Ricky Ricardo is back.

Ethel Mertz (Vivian Vance): "I can’t make one more phone call. My finger is all worn down to a nub."
Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball: "You don’t have to; they’re all sold out."
Ethel Mertz (Vivian Vance: "Good."
Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball): "Harry and Bess Truman got the last two tables."
Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) [dressed as Tropicana customer]: "Ricky Ricardo ain’t here no more? Well, I’m getting out of this crummy dump."

The Tropicana is empty.

Littlefield panics. He orders Ricky re-hired at twice the salary.

Funny stuff. And so like Lucy.

But what would happen if Lucy tried this today?

The New York show media would learn in a heartbeat that Ricky was gone. They’d be curious about the new job. The lie would be exposed, probably before Ricky and Lucy left the Littlefield apartment. Ricky would be trashed as a liar, and a stupid one at that. That it had been Lucy who’d made the claim would be forgotten. Ricky would be painted in the Arts & Entertainment sections of the New York print media as a turncoat, a cheap hustler who can’t be trusted. Page 6 of the Post would do an exposé, flash a picture of Ricky looking confused and guilty and maybe one of Lucy in a strutting pose. The innuendo would suggest greed, arrogance, and stupidity.

Littlefield, having cash flow problems in this economy like everyone else, might go out of business. He can’t afford an empty house, not when he’s spent a fortune on food and booze and entertainment, not in New York. He may have to put the club into bankruptcy.

Littlefield, or his attorney, will grow suspicious and investigate further. They’ll realize that all the canceling patrons sorta looked alike, about the same height and build, similar vocal tones. Maybe a freckle or mole identical on two supposedly different people. And Ricky’s not working. He and Lucy lost a gambit; they lied.

Littlefield would realize he’d been duped.

Littlefield would call Ricky’s replacement, Xavier Valdez, tell Valdez what he suspected. Both of them would call the prosecutor’s office and file felony fraud and malicious trespass charges, one for each fake reservation or costumed appearance. Their lawyers would file civil suits, putting Ricky, Lucy, Fred and Ethel in the position of facing depositions on the civil side that could adversely affect their criminal cases. They’d be forced to plead the Fifth, and refuse to answer the questions.

Someone, either plaintiffs or defendants, would seek to have the civil case suspended until the criminal case concluded.

But which criminal case? See, Littlefield’s got friends in power. He knows his local Congressman. The Congressman asks the U.S. Attorney’s Office to look into the matter. Maybe Lucy or Ricky used a computer, phone or the mails to set up these fraudulent and malicious acts. The first two would be Wire Fraud, a separate count every time the phone or computer was used as part of the conspiracy. The latter would be Mail Fraud, again a separate count for each use of the post office.

Both of these charges are felonies, too.

And Lucy’s co-conspirators did use these facilitators. They used phones and computers to co-ordinate among themselves and to make the fake reservations. And maybe Lucy used the mails to send Littlefield fake job offers, or the new contract was sent by mail.

The prosecutors, city and federal, would be operating independently, but would be sharing information. They’d try to separate each co-conspirator, offer incentives to turn against the others.

And Fred, most likely, would turn.

What? You doubt Fred turning? Fred’s a curmudgeon. When has he ever been happy about one of Lucy’s schemes?

So Fred, Lucy, Ethel and Ricky are being pressured by prosecutors, federal and state. One lie to the Feds, and there’s another felony ― remember Martha Stewart.

Each felony means up to a three year term in jail and a substantial fine. Ricky’s career is over. Three of our Fab Four ― excepting turncoat Fred ― will do hard time, how much and where depends on judges in two courts.

Nancy Grace will have fun for years. She may get her own network. Anderson Cooper will compare the Ricardos to the Lohans. Dr. Phil will consult with Lucy and then blab her confidences all over the air waves. Britney will rejoice: There’s somebody dumber than she is.

Ba-ba-loo will be popular at Attica. Ricky will be a hot date.

But that’s not the worst of it. The defendants are all broke, too, so deep in debt they’ll see nothing but an abyss. Consider Ricky, Lucy, Fred and Ethel will each have separate counsel, maybe more than one set depending on how the city and federal criminal and civil cases shake out. Defense fees will total in the millions of dollars. Then there are the fines. Again, substantial. Tacked on will be the costs of prosecution. Ricky, Ethel and Lucy are up against authorities with limitless resources. These prosecutions aren’t cheap, especially when so much of the department’s budget can be transferred to the defendants.

A conviction on one of the criminal cases makes the civil cases, both federal and state, slam dunks. And because the fraud was intentional, punitive damages will be awarded.

The Ricardo Fab Four will be famous, yes, but there’s no insurance to cover their financial exposure. Broke, angry and bawling like Jim Bakker, Ricky, Lucy and Ethel will disappear, probably for eight to ten years. Fred will probably turn to pimping. You can see him on the steps of a rundown building, arguing with taxi driver Robert De Niro over a teenage Jodie Foster.

Ten years later, Ricky, Lucy and Ethel, all divorced and living on the streets, will write tell-all books. Lucy will claim Ricky beat her, that Fred came onto her, that Fred liked to wear women’s underwear. She’ll say Little Ricky was fathered by Claude Akins, because Ricky suffered from ED and Lucy was lonely. She’ll say Ethel smelled and was a lousy housekeeper, that it was all Ethel’s idea to sabotage the Tropicana. Ethel had anger issues and often struck out at others and then blamed Lucy.

Ricky will write that Lucy was a meth addict, that she was always stirring her coffee because she thought insects were crawling up the side of her cup. He’ll say he’d contacted a divorce attorney and had been ready to serve Lucy, but that she’d gotten wind of his plans. She’d struck first, and got him fired. But she didn’t stop there; she’d sabotaged the club, wearing outrageous and transparent disguises, foolishly thinking only Ricky would be blamed. Lucy was dumb, he’ll say, as stupid as a red rock in Yellowstone.

Ethel’s book will declare that the Lucy-Ricky marriage was a sham, that she and Ricky were carrying on for years. Fred hadn’t turned down the apartment building’s heat. Ethel had done it; she wanted Ricky underneath her electric blanket. She’ll say Lucy discovered the affair, and instead of taking action to break it up, used it to blackmail Ethel into participating in her schemes.

Little Ricky’s book will blame his lifestyle and Gay Pride activist activities on spending so much time alone or with Mother McGillacuddy, who was a demeaning man-hater. Mrs. McGillacuddy put L’il Ricky in dresses, and forced him to sit on the toilet. So L’il Ricky turned to dolls and makeup and lace.

Fred won’t write a book. He’s too busy recruiting twelve year olds at the bus station, and his computer is filled with porn—induced viruses. All Fred sees is the Microsoft Blue Screen of Death and soiled bills from his drug and sex trade.

All things considered, I’ll take the simpler times. Bring back Lucy and the gang.

Man, I love Lucy.

Where Do You Read?

I've always loved to read since grammar school. I used to read at the beach when I used to go the beach to try and get a tan. Don't do that any more.

Nowadays, I read books on the commuter train to and from work, when I'm not writing. I read the Neighborhood Section of my newspaper while having breakfast. I read books or magazines at the doctor or dentist's office.

The best chance I have to read a good book is on vacation in the car on the way to our cottage, which is on a good day at least six hours away. Also, I love to sit in bed late at night on vacation and read, though my eyes are drooping and I can hardly keep them open.

Do read a lot? If so, where? What do you like to read?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Adding Reality to Mystery - by Vivian Zabel

As a mystery/suspense writer myself, I want to make my books as believable as possible. I've read magazines, online, and books to learn how others write, for material to use, and to add to my knowledge.

My first book, which came out earlier this year, Midnight Hours takes place in Oklahoma City, and three of the main characters are members of the OKC police department. Much what I wrote about the police department came from my imagination and from my experiences mainly with the country sheriff's department. I realized late in the novel that I needed a resource inside the department in order to be sure the details add to the believability of the plot if and when someone who "knows" reads the book. I now know to use that source for information from the beginning of the next book in the series.

Ways to discover facts and possibilities to help with writing any type of mystery (including the sub-genres) are many.

Have a resource person in a police department. I now have one in the OKC department. If I decide to use another city or county entity, I will contact them and ask for help.

Join email groups in the crime/mystery genre. I'm a member of Sister in Crime (} and their Yahoo email group, as well as the crimescenewriters Yahoo email group. Many experts, including police and forensics experts, are parts of each group and answer questions posed about material needed for plots, deaths, discovery, and procedures. I started printing many pages of responses for my mystery file. I have at least three new possible ways to commit murder, investigate them, and solve them.

Read, read, read. Read mysteries of all kinds. Note which plots, characters, and details work and which don't. Analyze why or why not.

Read writing magazines and articles which cover writing different types of mysteries.

Attend conferences with mystery sessions. I have two conferences on my wish list: Scene of the Crime, held in Wichita, Kansas, and Telling Your Story hosted by Mystery author William Bernhardt, held in Tulsa, Oklahoma; but I don't know if Bill will host another one or if I miss my only chance.

The Muse Online Writing Conference the last two years had a complete list of forums, authors, and editors dealing with mystery.

The more prepared we are, the better chance our mystery will have details and information that will make our stories and novels believable.

Midnight Hours started as a novella entered in a contest on Writing.Com. The novel and long short story have a few things in common, but the novel expands and changes some of the characters and plot.

Vivian Zabel
Brain Cells & Bubble Wrap
Vivian's Mysteries

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Plotting for Suspense

Being a writer has changed the way I read. I'm always asking myself, "How did they do that?" Suspense, in particular, is an element I'm always working to improve and always looking to others to see what works. In this post and some following posts, I'll share what I've learned about creating suspense.

Suspense, first of all, is an anticipation that something is going to happen, usually something bad for the protagonist. It's an integral part of the story and not something that's added on. It builds to a peak at a critical time for the main character. I had an "ah ha" moment about suspense one day when I was looking at a calendar of fantasy cover art. One of these covers showed a warrior woman, sword in hand, on a clump of rock, maybe the top of a mountain, surrounded by a more numerous, better-armed enemy. The "ah ha" was when I realized I was looking at the climax of this woman's story. I don't recall the story or the character, but her future was clearly in doubt at that point. The print was a perfect metaphor for what takes place at the climax of a story, the peak of the action.

At the peak of the action, the hero stands alone against a more powerful opponent.

This print had all of that. The insight for me came when I asked, "How did she get there?" She didn't get up that morning with the idea of climbing a rock by herself and swinging a sword at an army of bad guys. She probably had family, friends, comrades-in-arms. Where were they? Why weren't they helping her? What made her go it alone? I don't think she wanted to go alone. Clearly some of our protagonists are loners, but it's not always by choice. When it comes to our own survival, most of us want some help and backup. Readers of police procedurals know that the call that gets cop cars rolling is "Officer needs assistance." This warrior may have sent such a call, but the assistance never arrived.

Therefore, the first principle of suspense is; Isolate the protagonist.

The next question I asked was, "How did these bad guys get there?" How did they get to be so numerous? How did they get to be so well-armed? Our warrior must have royally pissed someone off. She probably didn't start the day that way. Like most of us, she had problems, but they would have been small ones. None of us want to take on more than we can handle. When things begin to get out of hand, we tend to back off. Obviously, our hero didn't. Her problem grew and she could not escape it.

Therefore, the second principle of suspense is: Grow the problem.

Both of these happen slowly and inexorably in the story. We know before we open the book where the hero will end up--alone and up to her neck in trouble. The hero could be FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling, in a basement catacomb, in the dark, trying to save a young woman from a serial killer with a handgun and night-vision goggles. She started the day as the junior member of a team. Her job was to gather evidence. Along the way, she became isolated and her problem grew.

Even the quintessential loner heroes like Jack Reacher and John McClain don't start alone. Nor do they set out to fight terrorists in a skyscraper. On the other hand, when the story involves an ensemble such as the men and women of the Dan Kearney Agency, one of the group will end up alone in the final battle.

To get our hero to that peak of the action where he or she stands alone, we must build in events that increase our protagonist's isolation each step of the way and grow the problem, like Audrey the carnivorous plant, right before everybody's eyes. If we do that, the anticipation that something bad is going to happen will increase inexorably.

In my next post, I'll write about some of the ways authors isolate their protagonists.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Why Do We Love Mysteries

Of course I’m speaking about fictional mysteries, I don’t think we like real-life mysteries if they happen to us.

I have no idea what other’s reasons for loving mysteries are–but I do know mine. There are very few mysteries that I don’t care for and those are the ones where the mystery isn’t really solved, or the bad person, perpetrator of the crime, the villain, manages to get away to come back another day.

Though I do really like on-going series–after all, I write two of them myself– I prefer for each book to be complete in itself. That doesn’t mean there can’t be some ongoing plots in the life of some of the characters, I just want the major crime to be solved.

In my Deputy Tempe Crabtree series, Tempe and her husband Hutch sometimes go through rough patches because of their different belief systems. Hutch is a Christian pastor with strong faith. Tempe uses some of the mystical and supernatural aspects of her Native American heritage to solve crimes. Slowly, he is coming to terms with some of Tempe’s experiences, like her ability to see spirits, though he often has deep concern for the health of her soul. Whatever the major crime may be in a book, Tempe will find out the truth by the time the reader reaches the last page as you’ll see if you read the latest in the series, Kindred Spirits. Though the guilty party has in essence planned the perfect murder, Tempe continues on until he reveals himself.

Because the Rocky Bluff P.D. is about the men and women in the police department and their families rather than just one hero or heroine, focusing on someone different and several crimes in each book, there are many ongoing stories as these people live out their lives on the job and at home. My main theme in each book has been to show how what goes on in the family affects the job and how the job affects the family. The most growth shown in a character has been Detective Doug Milligan, who in the first book, Final Respects, is a street cop who loses his best friend and his wife. In the fourth book, Smell of Death, Doug becomes interested in a female officer who is the first on the scene of two murders. In some of the other books, Doug is merely a supporting character, with other officers in the forefront.

No matter which series I’m writing, you can be sure the bad guy or gal will get it in the end. This is important to me for two reasons–in real life things don’t always turn out for the best or the way they should. Bad guys do get away with murder. I want better endings in the books I read and the ones I write.

The second reason is I have no control over the world I live in–my smaller world containing my friends and family–or the big outside world. When I’m writing, I’m in control–more or less. I must admit, sometimes the characters lead me in directions I never expected, but that’s a whole other blog.

And that’s why I love mysteries. What's your reason?


Monday, November 17, 2008

A Warm Welcome To My Guest, Mystery Author, Robert W. Walker - Intro by Morgan Mandel

Dead On Available June, 2009

I'm happy to welcome my special guest, Robert W. Walker (Rob) to you today. He's not only a nice guy and a member of Acme Authors Link, but also a great author whose number of published books may soon reach his age at the rate he's going! Why do I mention age? You'll see.

Another Heartfelt Growth Experience Year
by Robert W. Walker

Every ten years I go through the Crisis and am typically left devastated. It is part of who I am. My son asks me, "Dad, why don't you just call it a Growth Experience?" So I have worked at trying to put a positive spin on passing another decade. But there's no easy way to deal with it at times.

So...wish me well as I'm having another birthday falling on another year ending in a big fat cold numerical 0, and for a writer this means marking another year I've not seen my babies, my art, my books shoot through the freakin' roof and attain the stature of greatness or monetary reward I burn candles for. Another year I've not seen my titles reach the level of success I want for them, and to be counted among the authors I have worked my entire life to be like, and if that sounds sad and lonely so be it--but I know I am not alone by any means.

There are so many fine, wonderful authors of a vintage age--such as my age--working against all odds STILL after being kicked in the teeth by so many obstacles, both man made and natural from being ripped off by a publisher to being ripped by one's own health that it behooves the older among the writing crowd to warn off the younger who come in starry-eyed and taking on the world of publishing with a beautiful naivete that we miss, a naivete that is part and parcel of youth and determination and passion for one's own efforts. Some younger authors have asked me, "Why didn't you warn me about this so-called business?" But I digress.

Hell, I think I will be digressing this entire blog, and if it is true that the new middle age is 60 then I have many more chances at grasping the golden rings held out by this lottery we call the publishing industry and the book world wherein reefs are bestowed on the few while the many hundreds if not thousands of toiling writers go unheralded.

Now I will digress to recent sad news: The recent deaths of Tony Hillerman, Studs Terkel, and Michael Crichton display the rainbow of fine writing that is so absolutely different among these talented gentlemen, and the distinct number of years they were among us, also quite different. Crichton fascinated us with visions of the future; he delved into moral issues surrounding our scientific knowledge outstripping our social awareness and values and the clash of it all in such books as Andromedia Strain, Terminal Man, and more recently --well, you name it. He touched on the issues of the day and made us think deeply about them. And of course he brought us ER. I have always been a huge fan.

Studs Terkel, whose books were fascinating nonfiction that revealed the lives of so many otherwise hidden characters, has always been a huge idol for me growing up as I did in Chicago. I am reminded of Royko as well.

Hillerman too is a giant among readers and writers, a man who broke down so many barriers that it is undeniable he led the charge for understanding Native Americans through his fiction, and in the process becoming an author who enlightened the rest of us. I once got a piece of advice from Dean R. Koontz to slow down with the caveat that "You don't do your best writing until you turn fifty." That was a long time ago, I can tell you.

And with my more recent work, I certainly understand where Dean was coming from, but I gotta tell you, I think I am goig to do my best work "after sixty" now as I've done my best work "after fifty" already and I'm still working toward perfection which may come "after seventy", hopefully. That elusive butterfly, perfection.

I believe that Hillerman, Terkel, and Crichton--all mining different areas--achieved perfection. So on this Monday, November 17th send cards and letters and wish me well in my continuing quest to "do my best work" ever and to find readers who agree. I have been writing since age 11, meaning I have been penning novels and short fiction now for approximately fifty years, so by gosh and by gawl-ley, I certainly hope I make a worthwhile grab for the ring that I have set as a goal for myself--because it certainly has never been about money alone, despite my jokes to the contrary over the years.

Happy Reading and Writing,
Rob Walker
new site, new giveaways!

Cheer Rob up by leaving a comment, please.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Event Much? Introducing Jess Lourey!

Jess Lourey, for those of you not familiar with her work, is the author of the humorous soft-boiled cozy Murder by the Month series, must read books for anyone who appreciates good plotting, solid writing with laugh out loud humor, and engaging, likable and believable protagonists. I read August Moon on the plane back from Left Coast Crime (where Jess and I first met, bonding like two kids at summer camp) and no doubt disturbed my neighbors with my bursts of laughter and unashamed snorting at some of the lines. I sounded like a very happy warthog.

This past May, Jess and I went on a pacifistic Thelma and Louise type Northwest Coast tour in May from San Francisco up to Seattle and had a blast together. They say you don't really know someone until you travel with them; if this is the case, Jess and I should probably just get married because there wasn't one moment of friction between us during what was a very grueling schedule, with long hours spent in the car driving from bookstore to bookstore. When she left to go back home to Minnesota, I was as bereft as anyone who'd made a new bestest friend as a kid, only to have them move away.

Thank goodness for email!

So without further ado, presenting Jess Lourey!

When May Day , the first book in my humorous Murder-by-Month series, was released in March of 2006, I was a signing whore. I hunted down book clubs and asked to be their guest speaker. I set up signings at every bookstore, library, and lemonade stand within 500 miles. I tapped my bank account flying myself to conferences all over the U.S. for the chance to be on the Sunday 12:30 panel, where they stick all new authors. And it was heady. And exhausting. And expensive.

Along came June Bug and I expanded my signings to hit the states around me. Same with Knee High by the Fourth of July, plus I promised myself I’d attend any event that I was asked to because I was so grateful to be asked. For August Moon I even flew myself to the west coast for a book tour with the brilliant Dana Fredsti
from San Francisco to Seattle. It was wonderful. And exhausting. And expensive.

September Mourn
comes out fall 2009, and I can’t do it all again, not the same way. First, the cost of gas makes that amount of driving prohibitive. Second, I’m not sure that all these sparsely-attended events are building my readership in any significant way. And third, and most importantly, signings and other speaking engagements take time away from my writing and my two young children.

So I need your advice. How do I set up my tour schedule for September Mourn? Do I jump at any offer given to me, from the hospital reading group two hours away to the English teacher’s conference on the other side of the state? Do I only take engagements within a certain driving distance, or if I’m reimbursed, or that are set up to coincide with other events so there will be a sure crowd? And for all you readers out there, how much does it mean to you to meet authors (we’re sort of a boring bunch overall)? Have you ever gone to a signing by an author you didn’t already enjoy, or pick up a book that you otherwise wouldn’t have because the author was sitting at a table in front of the store?

I appreciate any and all advice!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

My Virtual Mystery Book Tour

I never realized how much work was involved in planning a virtual book tour for my soon-to-be-released senior sleuth novel, A Village Shattered. First you have to find writers who will host your blog and hope that they receive at least 50 hits a day so that the word really gets out there. I didn’t ask and don’t really care how many hits they get each day because online promotions can compensate for sites yet to be discovered.

Next, you have to plan a schedule that incorporates interviews, book reviews and articles to please the reading public. Sometimes your hosts have other ideas about what they should be doing instead of what you ask them. So back to the drawing board.

My novel characters are much more interesting than I am, so I asked six of my 15 blog hosts to interview them instead of me. It turned out to be fun. They’re reading pdf downloads of my book and writing questions for my characters to answer. A couple of times I wrote the questions myself because my hosts were too busy to read the book. And that’s fine because who knows my characters better than I do?

Now that everyone has an assignment and is hopefully reading my novel, I’ve received some comments that bolstered my confidence that it might just turn out all right. Because this is my first blog tour, I’m naturally nervous about the outcome and concerned whether anyone will follow the tour. The schedule, by the way, is posted on my website at: and you’re all invited to stop by to sign my virtual guestbook. (Thanks, Earl, for adding your photo.)

Dani Greer, commander-in-chief of the blogbooktours forum, suggested that we put together a Christmas gift basket relating to our latest book, so here are the contents of mine:

~A copy of my senior sleuth novel, A Village Shattered
~A pair of Polaroid glasses to see through the San Joaquin Valley fog
~A magnifying glass to look for clues
~A neck brace to protect oneself from the serial killer
~A home security system gift certificate
~An extra cell phone to call for help
~A plane ticket to Las Vegas
~Oreo cookies

I would also like to have a book trailer ready in time for the tour but was disappointed by a poorly produced trailer for my historical novel earlier this year. If anyone knows of a trailer producer who does a good job and doesn't charge as though it were a Hollywood production, please let us all know here, or email me at Many thanks!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Race prep

I'm writing this because I have some down time while I wait for my training partner to show up. As soon as he gets here, we're heading out to San Antonio to run a marathon. This is something we've been training for since July, running ever longer runs through miserable July, August and September heat. All told, we each put in about 400 miles of road work. The weather in San Antonio looks great for a race--40 degrees at the start, mid 60s at the finish.

Running and writing are alike in some ways. I do them because I can. Any success can be attributed to practice, effort, hours on the pavement in the case of running, hours in the chair in the case of writing. If I don't succeed, I have only myself and my lazy habits to blame.

Running requires no talent that I can see. You put one foot in front of the other and repeat until you cross the finish line. How mysterious is that? Sure it requires a certain level of physical ability and health, but that's not the same as talent. Genes and physique are important for the world class runners, but that's not the same as talent either. You look at the winner of any marathon and he is definitely male, at the prime of life, very thin, possibly Kenyan. But that could describe thousands of individuals. The difference between the winner and everybody with similar genes and physique is practice. What will make the difference between me and hundreds of other middle-aged weekend warriors on Sunday is the number of miles in the preceding months.

I used to skydive. There's a sport that can't possibly require talent. How would a talent for skydiving evolve? None of us are descended from people who fell out of the sky. Skydiving is a sport that requires only practice for success.

Do you see where I'm going with this? When I pick my activities, I ask myself, will I be able to do well if I practice hard enough or is something else required? If something else--talent--is required, I leave it.

Why are some people able to produce beautiful, gripping stories and others write clunkers? Practice. We see the published work and think it's the product of talent. We don't see the hours in the chair, the thousands of poorly constructed sentences, the failed stories. I believe the word "talent" should be stricken from every writers vocabulary. It's nothing but an excuse as in, "I'd write a novel if I had the talent." Talent, schmalent, sit down and write and keep writing until you write something good. Put subject before verb and repeat until you cross the finish line. How hard is that?

Now, I'm off to San Antonio to get in touch with my inner Kenyan.


Mark your calendars now so you don't miss blogs from our special guests at Make Mine Mystery. Here's the lineup so far, but expect more to be added:

Sunday 11/16 - Jess Lourey

Monday 11/17 - Robert W. Walker

Wednesday 12/10 - Deb Baker

Please stop by these days, leave a comment and make our guests feel welcome.

Morgan Mandel

Mad at Word

I hate Word. I learned how to use a word processing program with Wordstar, later switching to Word Perfect. Word Perfect does everything I need it to, and I don't have to fight with it.

However, my publishers all want my manuscripts submitted in Word. So I bit the bullet and purchased the program. I'm even writing my novels on Word--not liking it, but it's better than writing in Word Perfect then having to transfer it to Word.

I also do program designs for people wanting to go into the residential care business. Today I was doing one for someone who is going to have a facility for people over 60 who also have developmental disabilities. The writing is easy because I've done so many. What I had trouble with was the page numbering.

Some pages had the same numbers, others jumped around. No matter what I did, I couldn't make it do what it was supposed to.

I was so angry and the program and myself--and I had to warn my husband to just stay away from me. I had an appointment in town I had to go to and decided maybe time away from the computer might be a good thing.

When I returned, I removed all the page numbers. Using the directions in HELP, what I did should have removed all the numbers, instead it only did one. I had to do each one for about ten pages and then miracle of miracles, finally they all disappeared.

I went back in and did what you have to do for the pages to be numbered. It worked fine all except for one page had the wrong number. By this time I was afraid to fool with it anymore, so changed that number by hand. Yes, it looks tacky, but by this time I'd had it. (My family too, who were all smart enough to tiptoe around me.)

The project is done and ready for mailing. Hopefully, the next time I have to do one of these program designs the numbering will work like it's supposed to.

Working with Word is always a big mystery to me.


Thursday, November 13, 2008

Would YOU read an E-book Because of Oprah?

I love e-books for all the usual reasons: they are cheap, I can put them on my PDA and bump up the font so I can read in bed without my contacts, I can get them at any time day or night whether or not the library or the bookstore is open, and oh yes, they are cheap. Did I mention cheap?
I've been reading e-books for years and it was a big priority to me that my own mysteries come out in electronic format as well as paper. I really believe it is an option whose time has come.
Notice I said option. E-books are no reason for me to stop listening to audio books on my MP3 player as I run in the mornings (Why else get up at 5:45 in the cold and DARK, if not because I can't wait to hear what is going to happen next in that Mariah Stewart book?) E-books are no reason for me to stop getting paper books at the bookstore or at the library to read on the loveseat at night. But I do love having an e-book on that backlit PDA waiting for me to climb into bed at night. I have hard contacts which are only suppposed to be in for 11 or 12 hours a day. (Yes, Dr. Brooks, I do listen! I seriously do NOT sleep in the darn things.) And I can't read with glasses--they just don't correct my vision enough. So that is some serious reading time I'm missing without that e-book.
Not to mention the fact that the backlight on the PDA makes it possible for me to read far into the night without disturbing my husband. So I've been an e-book fan for years. I even bought my husband a Sony e-reader for his birthday and converted him. But now Oprah is jumping on the bandwagon. She is recommending the Kindle. And I'm wondering--would you read an e-book because she does?
Frankly, it always surprises me that many people have a PDA stashed somewhere and haven't gotten the free software at Mobipocket that they can use to give e-books a try. No need to get a new and expensive gadget. Are you curious? Did Oprah make you wonder? Am I the only one who loves to read in bed at night?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Mystery Connection

Writing in any genre can be a solitary occupation – sure, we have critique partners, readers and often listen to music as we work, but we have to develop our stories, characters, plot, pacing, plant our clues and create our whodunit while often in a room with just our self and our computer.

But never fear, dear author, there are lots of ways to connect with other mystery writers. We get that burst of energy or inspiration from like-minded individuals, and challeng ourselves with new ideas and thoughts with interaction from other mystery writers, who may write in a different sub-genre, but who know the unique skill set needed to plant clues that don’t leap out and give away the ending, create a believable story and let the heroine/hero solve it in a satisfying way, whether that person writes sci/fi mysteries, urban mysteries, cozies, thrillers, etc.

You can take classes with some of the masters of the genre and sub-genres, meet editors and publishers, schmooze with other authors and even learn some of the business of writing!

Check out some of the conferences and festivals around North America.

In addition to these get-togethers, there are plenty of online courses offered where you can learn, discuss the topics with like-minded writers, and get inspired. I try to take online courses on a regular basis. Because of my location, it’s tough to get to a weekly class in person, but with the internet I can learn from the best right in my office! So, I always watch for courses that interest me – could be on plotting, or developing the business side of writing, or setting goals.

You can join various on-line writing groups and/or writing clubs that meet in person and chat regularly with other authors about the process, get answers to questions, whether on research (ie, what kind of handgun has the most kickback), plotting, or sometimes you can just chat about the latest episode of CSI!

So, while it’s a solitary profession, mystery writing is never lonely. What are some of your favorite ways of connecting with other mystery writers, and why?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

I Like My Mysteries to be Scary

When I read a mystery I like the element of fear. I want to be mystified, stumped, totally out there and afraid. That’s a major allure of the genre to me. That and a complex multi-layered plot. Give me hints, tease me, lead me on, then do a plot twist that makes me quiver and shake my bewildered and frightened head with a “Huh? - Wha?” You can repeat this cycle as often as you want. I lap I up.

And the scarier the sexier. That’s the way I like my mysteries. I suppose that’s more the thriller/suspense kind of mystery, but hey- just sharing.

How about you? How do you like your mystery reads to be?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Getting Out of Your Own Head by Anne Carter

As writers, we are often -- make that always -- asked where we get our ideas. I've heard others swear they drop them into a basket at WalMart, while others launch a half hour discourse on thoughtful forays into the intellectual unknown.

My favorite discussion about ideas involves the talent of simply "paying attention". Noticing things is an art, a mindfulness that must be practiced daily.

A therapist once advised me to try and stay in the moment more of the time. She suggested I abandon worry, regret and non-production anticipation, and just enjoy what was going on around me. Her advice was good for the writer in me. Writers are often guilty of living inside their own heads, dreamily concocting or inventing new worlds and characters to write about. Ironically, it is this absorption that stunts us, blocking awareness of the world and all it has to offer in terms of new ideas.

With effort, writers can learn to become more open to their surroundings and begin to mine a wealth of resources. A good place to start is to read the newspaper, front page to last. Jot down facts, stories, special interest items that speak to you. Start a file for these ideas.

Eavesdrop. Instead of studying your nails while riding the lift to the 20th floor, listen to the conversations around you, speculate about what will happen next in the lives of your co-riders.

Become a private eye. Next time you are in a public place, such as an airport, a big shopping mall, a government building, pretend you are a spy, a CIA operative or a security specialist. Be keenly observant of those around you, looking for that cloaked subversive, that international terrorist, then make notes to yourself on what it was about these people that gave you the feeling they may walk on the shadier side of life.

Do something out of your ordinary routine. Shop at a different store, walk a different route. Seeing new sites makes us acutely aware of our surroundings, since we need to learn to navigate. We are often least observant while in our own comfort zone.

Last, use it! Peruse your notes, combine thoughts, mix it up. The man on the elevator with the woman in the florist shop who dropped her purse. A building about to be demolished with a waitress in the diner down the street.

It's all there for those who are in the moment to see it.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

What Makes a Good Writer

From the sometimes stable mind of Earl Staggs.

Remember those "Paint by Number" kits from years ago? Anyone could pick up the brush, put the right color in the right space and produce something called a painting. But would it be a work of art? Not likely.

A lot of people learn the basics of writing and write by the numbers. They may take one writing class after another, try one genre after another, one formula after another, and reach a point where they can string words together and tell a story. But can they turn out truly good writing?

Two people can tell the same joke. One will leave an audience rolling on the floor in laughter, one will leave them yawning. People will sigh and say, “Some can tell 'em, some can't.” Call it talent, call it a gift, call it a knack. You either have it or you don't.

Spencer Tracy, legendary actor with a wry sense of humor, used to say when asked how to be an actor, "Learn your lines. When the director yells ‘Action,’ say them and don't bump into the furniture."

Just as anyone can learn the basics and be a writer, anyone can do that and be an actor. There's no mistaking, however, those actors with genuine and immense talent. Every once in a while, as an example, a Meryl Streep comes along. For her, the furniture moves out of the way.

I think it's the same with writing. Anyone can learn what it takes be called a writer, but to leave readers in tears, rapture, rage or rolling on the floor with laughter, you have to have a special something. It comes in your DNA, and you either have it or you don't.

While anyone can learn the basics and produce acceptable writing, when truly gifted writers sit down to write, the best words, characters and plots come calling, and no one bumps into the furniture.

For what it's worth, from Fort Worth.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

James Lee Burke, the Pulitzer, Nietsche and Me

Yesterday evening, I went with my wife to her Friends of the Library book sale. As we’re in the midst of re-ordering our library at home, I did not plan on buying anything. What do they say about the best laid plans? This plan didn’t get laid at all.

Right away I found a copy of James Lee Burke’s The Lost Get-back Boogie. I’m a great fan of Burke, have read most of his books, but not this one. Nevertheless it has an odd kind of importance for me.

I was at Bouchercon in Las Vegas where Burke was guest of honor. He said that The Lost Get-back Boogie was rejected 111 times. He thought it was an industry record. When it was published, it was nominated for a Pulitzer.

Now my book, Pilikia Is My Business, had been rejected 74 times, so, when Burke said 111, all I could think of was, wow, I was 37 short of a Pulitzer. Another year, two at most, of rejections and the prize would have been within my reach. You see, my view of rejection is that, in a Nietsche-esque way, rejections only make your book stronger--that is, if you’re like me and don’t send anything out without revising first.

The comparison between Pilikia and Boogie breaks down when you consider that Burke’s agent made those 111 submissions and they were all to publishers. I did my own submissions, most of which were to agents and only about 20 were to publishers. Taking that into account, Pilikia was actually 91 rejections from a Pulitzer. That put the big P pretty much out of my reach.

I decided that with my next book, I would be more like Burke: I would not give up on submitting to agents. Then, when I got one, the agent could do the submitting and collect the rejections. So that’s what I did. The Law of the Splintered Paddle was rejected by 83 agents before being offered representation. Eighty-three! If rejections do make your book stronger, ala Nietsche, Splintered Paddle is a superman.

So now, my Pulitzer counter stands at 101 rejections away from the prize. Meanwhile, I have The Lost Get-back Boogie to read while I wait.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Mystery Tips Part 2 by Vivian Zabel

This post I want to cover four more components needed in a good mystery: action, tension, misdirection, and dialogue. Mix these well with a well-written story, strong and believable characters, using only techniques that work for you, and a strong plot, and you should have an interesting story when completed, one that will keep readers wanting to read more.

Action must be included in a good mystery. The action can be mental and physical, but both types are needed. Mental agility is needed not only to discover clues, but also to use the clues to solve the mystery. Some kind of physical action is required to investigate crimes, to hunt criminals, to do whatever must be done by the detective (professional or amateur). Yes, in fiction a detective may be almost non-physical, such as Nero Wolfe, but someone has to move and do. Wolfe had Archie to fight and run and kiss the girls.

Tension keeps the reader on edge waiting to discover what happens. Tension is created by showing conflict: conflict between people, conflict between right and wrong, conflict between agencies, conflict between family members. Opposition may be a way to produce tension, but remember not all tension is bad. What about romantic tension? Yes, mysteries can have some romance, too. Opposition produces energy, and energy/tension is needed in a mystery.

Another way to create tension is through foreshadowing, hints about what may happen or bits of information that might or might not be important in solving the mystery. Foreshadowing is a sense of expectation colored with uncertainty.

Misdirection keeps readers guessing, adding to the tension and desire to know. Now misdirection is not false information, but something that sends the reader's mind in the wrong direction temporarily. A writer shouldn't lie to the reader, but can create a situation so that the reader lies to himself. According to Michael Kurland (The Writer,March 2007, "MISDIRECTION The mystery writer's invaluable tool and how to use it") misdirection can be either external or internal. Often what is written is misunderstood until other information is revealed. A small detail can be hidden in a conversation that becomes important later. A red herring can cause the detective (and reader) to chase in the wrong direction.

Kurland writes, "The fiction writer, like the stage magician, can use a candy coating of misdirection to disguise the pill of truth to keep the story healthy and alive."

Dialogue also helps keep a story healthy and alive. If the dialogue is "real" and moves the plot forward, it has power to the plot. Also dialogue is one way of building tension and inserting a bit of misdirection.

I hope I've helped you find a few ways to make your mysteries stronger. May you write powerful ones that will keep readers gripped from the beginning to the end.

Vivian Zabel
blogs: Brain Cells & Bubble Wrap and Vivian's Mysteries
website: Vivian Gilbert Zabel

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

An open letter to President-elect Obama from Mark Troy

Dear President-elect Obama,

Congratulations on your victory. While most people wait for your list of appointments to various cabinet and government posts, some of us are waiting for your presidential reading list. What books you will be reading while in the White House?

Presidential reading lists tend to be heavy on history, philosophy and biographies of famous people, fitting subjects for the president of the United States. But not all presidential choices need to have such gravitas. What do you read on the long flights aboard Air Force One? What books will be in the seat pouch?

President Kennedy was a huge fan of Ian Fleming. His list of favorite books included From Russia With Love. Did it in influence the policies of the leader of the free world at the height of the Cold War? I don’t think anyone knows, but it did spark a reading frenzy in my circle of friends. So you see, Mr. President, your choice of reading matter has power.

President Clinton made a point of reading for enjoyment at least thirty minutes every day, a good habit for any president to encourage. A self-proclaimed mystery addict, his favorite authors were Walter Mosley, Sue Grafton, and Jonathon Kellerman. All of them, great choices.

Mysteries are the most contemporary of genre fiction. They tend, more than any other genre, to reflect the attitudes and mores of the times in which they were written. If you want insights into attitudes of Americans, it would be worth your while to acquaint yourself with some mysteries.

If you are a mystery fan, Mr. Obama, you undoubtedly have your own favorites, but if you are not, I would like to suggest a few that I think you would like.

Washington D.C. is a city you won’t learn about from the windows in the oval office, nor from the people around you, most of whom don’t live in D.C. For that, I recommend Hard Revolution by George Pelecanos. Pelecanos has been called the poet laureate of the D.C. crime world. Hard Revolution tells the story of two D.C. cops struggling to do their jobs in a city short on hope. Derek Strange is a young black cop trying to hold his family together and protect his older brother from the bottom-feeders he hangs with. Frank Vaughan is an older white cop investigating the vicious hit and run of a young black man. Their paths collide on the eve of the assassination of Martin Luther King, an event that set off a chain of events that left Washington D.C. burned, divided, and the dreams of many thousands of people destroyed. I don’t need to say that you represent the revitalization of those dreams

Mystic River, Dennis Lehane’s tour de force, is set in a neighborhood of Boston, a city you may have gotten to know while at Harvard. The novel is about a community and how the lives of the people are shaped by their surroundings. This is not one of the communities you
organized in Chicago, but the people are probably not unlike the people you worked with. Jimmy Marcus is a small business owner, a family man, and an ex-con. When his daughter is murdered, he sets out to solve the crime and administer his own justice. On the way, he becomes a community organizer in his own right. It’s not the path you took, Mr. President, and Jimmy Marcus would never make it to the White House, but his story belongs there for its honesty and emotion.

As president, you will have responsibility for the Department of Justice and the FBI so here’s a twofer for you. The Poet and its sequel, The Narrows by Michael Connelly introduce FBI agent Rachel Walling in pursuit of a serial killer. Walling is one of the best women crime-solvers in a crowded field. She is courageous, competent, smart and sexy. Memo to President: The FBI should be staffed with agents like her. Maybe even director? After The Poet, we had to wait a long time for her return in The Narrows, but it was worth it.
This time she teams up with the inimitable Harry Bosch, LAPD’s maverick detective, now working as a private eye. Don’t be put off by the “maverick” label. Bosch is competent, though he doesn’t always follow the rules, a trait that puts him in conflict with Walling.

The list would not be complete without a mystery set in the state of your birth, Hawaii. Delicious by Mark Haskell Smith gives you the Hawaii that the Visitor’s Bureau hopes you don’t see.
This is not the seven-day, six-night, mai-tais at sunset trip to paradise. This is a dark, uproarious, over-sexed romp. Smith has the comic sensibilities of Carl Hiaasen and the weird world-view of Joe Lansdale. Delicious tells the story of a young Hawaiian chef, Joseph, whose family business comes under attack from a Las Vegas catering company that tries to muscle into it. Joseph’s father considers this an invasion equaled only by that of Captain Cook and this time the outsiders must be stopped at all costs. This is a laugh out loud book. You will wake up everybody else on Air Force One when you read it.

These are my suggestions, Mr. President, but there are many more, equally good books in the genre. I’m sure that readers of this blog will have their own suggestions for you and I hope they contribute them here.

Happy reading.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

What's A Sweet Old Lady Like you Doing Writing Mysteries?

Actually no one has ever quite worded the question in that manner, but I do get similar questions all the time.

Saturday, I had a table at a Book Festival in Bakersfield and numerous folks stopped to browse and visit (yes, a few bought) but nearly everyone wanted to know something about why I wrote mysteries, where I got my ideas, and studied me with wonder. Since I'm a great grandma--and look like one--I can understand their curiosity.

One of my Rocky Bluff PD crime novels, Fringe Benefits, has a wicked knife on the cover. My elevator pitch is--"This is about a very bad cop who kills his wife and nearly gets away with it." Amazingly, those who purchase it are often sweet grandmother types.

My psychological horror, Wishing Makes It So, has a photo of a little girl on the front. I always warn people, "That's a very scary book about a really bad little girl." Some people put it down quickly, yesterday a woman asked me a lot of questions and bought it to put in her library for people considering becoming foster parents. Another young woman purchased it who told me she was a school teacher. Interesting.

Frankly, I really was pushing my Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery series. Kindred Spirits is the latest. For those of you who don't know, my heroine is Native American. I even brought an Indian doll along to decorate the table. Yes, I did sell some of those books--but more of the others.

Because I never know what books are going to appeal to people, I bring some of both series, and one of my older books.

This was an interesting venue. All of the lesser known authors (like me) were situated in the foyer of the ballroom. Inside the ballroom were two bookstores, an independent and Barnes and Nobel. The two authors who spoke were Earlene Fowler and Ray Bradbury. Mr. Bradbury didn't arrive until 1:30 p.m.--though the event lasted until 2, it was time to close-up shop as everyone who'd been perusing the books went inside to hear him.

As you can see, I'm not smiling in the photo, that's because my husband was using my Blackberry to take the pic and he doesn't know how to use it. He kept asking me questions about what to do, then snapped the pic without warning. Most of the time I smiled at everyone.

So, this sweet old lady is now back home and will be until next weekend when I'm headed down to Old Town in Temecula to participate in a writers conference. With fellow author Sunny Frazier, I'll be talking about preparing your marketing plan and alternative ways of getting published. Between now and then I hope to get some mystery writing done.

Monday, November 3, 2008

You Smell by Morgan Mandel

You smell. So do I. That’s why smells are so important in mystery writing. You can easily include some pretty smelly stuff in a scary story.

Who hasn’t read of the coppery smell of blood? The smell of a decaying body, be it human or animal? What about decaying vegetation? Spooky, unused houses with that closed up smell? Damp basements?

Then there are the nervous characters who tend to perspire in all kinds of places like the forehead, lips, under their arms, on the back. Some of that has to smell.

Even my dog, Rascal, after I’d taken her to obedience school where she hadn’t been in a few months, had more of a dog smell on her when we were driving home in the van. She loves people and other dogs, yet she was nervous about doing the right thing and trying to please everyone, hence the smell.

Then we come to the arsenal of colognes and perfumes. You can have a good time describing an unlikeable character by giving that person an overpowering cologne or perfume, or unbathed body odor.

Or, you can describe the pleasant scent of a character you want your reader to like. What about food aromas? What does that say about a character? Who would you expect to inhabit a house with a stinky fish or cabbage smell? I picture a rugged, sloppy guy who must be the bad guy. Or, if you’re describing a homey smell, with bread, cookies or cake in the oven, a picture comes to my mind of a giving mother or wife. Sure, these are stereotypes, but they can be very effective when offering description.

You can also twist such expected stereotypes around and offer contrast, such as by having a mean, nasty guy bake cookies. That can be even more frightening since it's unexpected.

So, remember to include the sense of smell in your manuscript. It's a great way to round out a story for your reader.

Can you think of other examples? Which ones have you used? I invite you to comment.

How Could I Forget? Part II

Boy, the gaps I'm discovering in my memory is kind of scary. Gaping holes, more like. So many authors whose books influenced me have been lost in the mists of time in my brain and it's only through the better memories of other writers that I've been reminded of their existence. And these are authors with large bodies of work, most of which I made an effort to track down once I got a taste for their writing. Some were good, some were bad, some were filled with cliches and some were always witty, original and fun. Some ended up as fodder for the scripts we used in Murder for Hire (the actual mystery oriented theatrical group which led to the murderous impulses later benevolently channeled into MURDER FOR HIRE: The Peruvian Pigeon). All had a part in shaping the type of stuff I would continue read and then later write.

Victoria Holt. Dorothy Eden. Phyllis A. Whitney. Mary Stewart. The grand dames of gothic and romantic suspense. Worlds populated by disturbed children, odd nannies, bitchy rivals, and emotionally unavailable, sometimes borderline sociopathic heroes.

Mary Stewart had less of the above elements than the others. To me she was more of a Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters with less humor inherent in the narrative. And her Merlin trilogy xremains high on my list of favorite books ever. Ever read AIRS ABOVE GROUND? The scene where the heroine is being chased around the parapets of a castle by the villain (who happens to be an acrobat) is one of my favorite suspenseful pursuit scenes ever.

Phyllis A. Whitney I remember with fondness and exasperation. She definitely was queen of the troubled child and bitchy rivals. I ate these books up as a kid and young teenager. She also wrote mysteries for young adults like THE TREMBLING HILLS. I made it a point to hunt down all of her books.

Victoria Holt was another favorite author, but I remember thinking she wasn't very good even as I read her books one after another. They were fun - THE SHIVERING SANDS was a particular favorite 'cause it had quicksand in it and I've always been morbidly attracted to natural disasters and deathtraps - but they seemed lacking in emotion. That being said, HERE LIES OUR SOVEREIGN LORD, written under her Jean Plaidy nom de plume is one of my favorite books ever. It's the story of Nell Gwyn, the orange girl who won the heart of King Charles II, and I read and reread this book over and over again.

Dorothy Eden wrote one of my favorite gothics ever: RAVENSCROFT. Set in Victorian England, it starts with two sisters, Bella and Lally, recently orphaned who run afoul of a ring of white slavers in London and are rescued by Guy, a handsome aristocrat who wants to use them as a cause to help his bid for a seat on Parliament. He ends up forced to marry Bella (Lally is his first choice as she is the eldest and of a more biddable temperament than the fiery Bella) when tongues start wagging and his plan backfires, a marriage that initially brings happiness to either partner. Lally suffers a nervous breakdown, the slavers want revenge, and gothic hijinks ensue. Loved this book. I read others by Dorothy Eden, but this was the standout.

Another author, one who never reached the level of fame she deserves, is Marlys Millhiser. WILLING HOSTAGE is another one of those books I've read multiple times. WILLING HOSTAGE has my favorite hero, Glade Wyndham (it sounds like an air freshener, thinks heroine Leah Harper) who is not only sexy, dangerous, and environmentally conscientious, but a cat lover. He kidnaps Leah, mistaking her for an operative on his trail, leading her and a fat Siamese cat named Goodyear, through rugged wilderness trying to escape the bad guys. No more details 'cause if you haven't read this, I don't want to spoil the read. Some of her other books, THE MIRROR, MICHAEL'S WIFE and NELLA WAITS, are equally engrossing and she also has a relatively recent mystery series with somewhat psychic heroine, Charlie Greene. If you haven't heard of Marlys Millhiser, look for her books. She's definitely worth it.

Sigh. Writing this has caused a massive blast of nostalgia here. I think a trip to the library or used bookstore is in order 'cause most of these books are no longer available new. They're worth the trip.