Saturday, January 31, 2009


by Ben Small

It was the last days of winter, 1997, and I was sprawled out on the couch, just a month away from the back surgery that would once again make me whole. Deadened by heavy doses of Vicodin and Naproxin, I could walk, but just barely. My pain was constant, like that from a knife wedged in my lower lumbar vertebrae slowly twisting, sending off currents of agony down my legs. Sleep came in spurts and in strange positions, usually curled around or on top of pillows, with my legs flopped over or around one of those large sitting pillows with arms.

At my feet sat my wife, watching me carefully, hurting from watching me suffer, helping by comforting me and periodically refreshing my ice pack.

We were watching a movie… or trying to.

My twenty—one year old son walked in with a date trailing behind him. Three large young men followed them in. I turned from the movie and waved.

“Dad,” my son said. “I think we have a problem.” My son was still walking, and was beginning to look like he and his date were being chased.

Somehow, I twisted around and sat up. You forget pain when you have to. My wife scooted over to give me room, and so she could see what was happening.

“Dad,” my son said, his tone more urgent. “We got a problem.”

The lead man, a youth in his early twenties, huge, probably my size but bigger ala a steroidal Charles Atlas, stayed hot on my son’s trail. My son was hurrying into the living room, trying to shield his date from the onrushing Bluto.

I saw fear in my son’s face, something I’d not seen before. I started to rise.

“Sit down, old man,” said the brute. His tone was deep, threatening. And for effect, he stopped and gave me a hard stare. Meanwhile, his two buddies closed the gap behind him.

Instinct, anger and the need to protect my wife and firstborn drove me up, through the fog of pain, fully to my feet. Adrenalin pumped through my system, flushing me with attitude and action.

Time moves in slow motion during an adrenalin flush. Alternatives flashed through my head. Our only conventional weapons were some knives in the kitchen, more in a bedroom drawer, my father’s unloaded snub-nose .38 under the bedroom laundry basket, and an unloaded shotgun in the mudroom closet. I could fashion a make-shift weapon, perhaps, from maybe a piece of steel artwork or a busted up chair, but I’d never be able to overcome all three of these guys. The two companions of the lead brute didn’t have his size ― few people do ― but they looked as if they may have played high school football some years ago.

All three goons were drunk. They were shouting slurred curses and threats against my son and me, and their movements were wobbly.

I got between my son and Bluto where the living room met the kitchen, and as I moved forward, Bluto had a choice: stand still and take me on when I got too close, or move backwards into the kitchen. I closed to where I could smell the stale beer on Bluto’s breath before he budged.

But he moved backward.

I followed Bluto and his buddies into the kitchen, and motioned my wife to take care of my son’s date and to grab our two monstrous dogs. Two hundred pound Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, the hardiest and strongest of the Retriever family. Strangely, the dogs hadn’t sensed a threat. But I worried they soon would. Snarling, barking monster dogs wouldn’t ease raw tensions.

As my wife rushed to corral the date and the dogs, I whispered to my son to stay behind me, and when he saw an opportunity, to grab the phone and dial 911. As my son tucked behind me, I pushed forward, driving Bluto and his buddies back, issuing a steady stream of threats as I moved. “You know I’m a lawyer, don’t you?” I said. “I know criminal law, a lot better than you idiots do. Lemme see, you’re currently guilty of trespass, assault and home invasion, misdemeanors, which means you may not go to jail for much beyond six months. But you or your buddies touch one hair on my head or anybody else in this house, and battery is added to the offenses, they all become felonies, and you will spend ten to twenty years in jail being raped by your cellmates.”

One of Bluto’s buddies grabbed him by the shoulder, but Bluto shrugged him off. He took a swing at my son, who’d picked up the phone and was dialing, but I managed to shove him and throw off his aim. He caught air. Once more, I moved between Bluto and my son.

I repeated my message over and over, adding to it that the police had just been notified and were now on their way. “Time’s running out,” I said. “Get on it, or get out. But remember, you touch one hair, and it’s felonies all round. Most of your lives in jail.”

I stepped forward, my movement something of a dare. I wanted them on defense.

“Hey, man,” one of Bluto’s pals said. “Come on, we didn’t bargain for this. Let’s go back to her place. C’mon, this isn’t worth it. She’s hot; we’ll have more fun there.

I didn’t know who “her” was and didn’t particularly care, except that any diversion was certainly welcome.

“Yeah, tough guy,” I said. “The cops will be here any second. Maybe you better go back and tell your girlfriend how tough you were to break into a stranger’s house and threaten him, his wife and his son.”

Bluto was still talking tough, pointing his finger at my son, threatening him, pointing at me, threatening, starting forward like to charge, then stepping back. But his progress was backward, a retreat into the mudroom and then the garage.

I followed them, repeating the trouble they were in, their need to get away quickly.

And my son followed me, ignoring my hand signals to get back, to shut the mud room door and lock it. He wasn’t going to leave me alone with three drunken brutes.

As I passed the mud room closet, I reached inside and pulled my shotgun. Empty, but our invaders didn’t know that. And besides, even without shells, the Browning made a good club.

The invaders’ eyes went wide, and Bluto’s two buddies tugged harder on him, one of them grabbing him by the belt, one by the shoulders.

They passed into the garage, and that’s when I saw someone I knew: my son’s former girlfriend. They’d broken up two weeks prior. Sally looked a bit worse for wear, rumpled, like from a rollicking sexual marathon, drunk, so bombed she could barely stand. And she was bawling.

“Sally,” I said. “What have you done?”

She was so upset she couldn’t talk.

Bluto had been trying to climb into the front seat of Sally’s car, but when he saw me talking to her, he charged out and ran at me. CIack, clack, I racked the shotgun’s slide, and pointed the gun at him. Bluto tried to slap the barrel away, and as he did, I swung the butt around and drove it toward his head.

Both of us missed.

Bluto’s two buddies managed to grab him and pull him back to the car. He resisted, but they succeeded in pushing him into the back seat. My son handed me a couple twelve gauge shells, but I slipped them into my pocket rather than up the tube.

One of Bluto’s pals held up his hands. “Look,” he said, “we’re sorry. Sally got us drunk and promised us sex if we hurt your son. We’re leaving now, and we won’t be back. Just let us go.”

I lowered the shotgun, and Sally, still bawling, managed to slip behind the wheel. Her engine roared, and her tires spun. She fish-tailed as she turned the corner. I heard the car rocket down the street.

About an hour later, a sheriff’s deputy showed up. They’d caught the invaders and arrested them. He wanted statements from all of us.

As he readied himself to leave, the deputy turned to me. “Oh, one more thing...”

“Yes, officer,” I said.

“The kids said you pulled a shotgun on them, racked the slide and pointed it at them. They remember that shotgun very well.”

“Yes. It wasn’t loaded, but they didn’t know that.”

The deputy stared at me.

“Officer, what would you do if three guys that size invaded your house and said they wanted to hurt your family?”

“I’d have loaded the shotgun,” he said.

Years have gone by since that incident, but it still looms large in my memory. An event like a home invasion is a shock to the system, an unsettling cause for great reflection. There’s the vulnerability, the parental and spousal protection instincts, the male ego… Over the years, I’ve broken down this event second by second, wondering if there was anything else I should have done, or could have done. This time, everybody survived, and the matter ended well. Nobody was hurt, and the bad guys were caught.

But what about next time?

We no longer leave our doors open. We once felt safe in the wilderness boonies of rural Wisconsin, yet we were victims, at the mercy of three drunk guys with an agenda. Now we live in Tucson, with an illegals problem so bad, our city is among the leaders in home invasions.

I vowed that Wisconsin night that we would never again suffer a home invasion. And we haven’t. We hear about them on the news every night, and they’re on the increase, but we’re better prepared now. We now have complex security systems, and I’ve got small finger-pad gun safes in the rooms we usually occupy. I read recently in a police magazine that a victim of a typical home invasion has approximately eight to twenty seconds to react. I can open my safes in three seconds. The magazine also said that if the victims aren’t immediately killed, they’re often stashed in the master bedroom closet. So I’ve got a shotgun hidden there, and shells nearby. There are no kids in my house, so I don’t worry about them finding the shotgun. Besides, when children do visit, the shotgun goes into the master safe, the one bolted to the floor in my garage.

Call me paranoid if you want, but my wife and I have lived through a home invasion.

We refuse to be anybody’s victim.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Meet Medical Thriller Author CJ Lyons by Vivian Zabel

I first met CJ Lyons on two Yahoo email lists: Crime Writers and Sisters in Crime. Soon after I discovered that she would be one of the presenters at the OWFI (Oklahoma Writers Federation, Inc.) writing conference May 1-2, 2008.

Not only did I attend CJ's sessions and have her autograph my copy of her debut medical thriller LIFELINES, but she also joined me at my writing group's table at both banquets.

When I heard about her new novel being released this month, and which I have pre-ordered, I asked her if I could interview her. She agreed, and the following is the result.

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

CJ: My mom was a voracious reader, so I grew up surrounded by books. I began reading at a very early age and skipped the whole "see Dick run" stage, going right to books like Agatha Christie.

And fairy tales—lots of fairy tales. But not the sanitized Disney version, my mom had lots of the "real" ones—Perraults, Grimm Brothers, etc. I think they helped me to learn the value of a good story, how the hero's journey works on a subliminal level, and also that no happy ending comes without paying a price.

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

CJ: Being a pediatrician definitely has given me insight into how real heroes are born. Watching children and their families respond to tragedy and triumph has both inspired and humbled me.

Since I spent a lot of my career working in urban trauma centers and as a victim's advocate, I also witnessed occasions of true evil—and saw how insidious it is, how easily it can hide in plain sight. And I saw how so many of us live our lives in a gray area between good and evil.

That's the reality of our world. In my fictional world, I try to address this cosmic ambiguity, with many of my characters doing all the right things for all the wrong reasons—or all the wrong things for all the right reasons. I love stories of redemption, of triumph over one's own self.

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

CJ: Great question — strange to say, but I used to have a lot more free time when I was practicing medicine! Now that I write full time, it seems that almost everything is tied to the writing. Either getting the current book done, researching the next, or marketing the one hitting the stores now.

But that's all good!. When you do something you love, it doesn't seem like work. And I've been able to expand my writing career to include a busy teaching schedule. Now I get to combine my love of travel with trips to give master classes, workshops and keynotes. This way I'm always meeting new people who share my love of storytelling!

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.

CJ: I've been telling stories all my life—took me a looooong time to figure out the difference between fiction and reality when I was a kid. This led to many hours in time out—which led to more stories fermenting in my imagination…..a vicious cycle.

I honestly don't think I could stop writing if I tried. It's an addiction for me. There are so many stories to tell and so little time.

Vivian: You have so many projects going all the time: working on books, traveling, etc.; how do you manage?

CJ: I'm a lousy housekeeper. Seriously, you should see my place—my Christmas gift to myself was investing in a Dirt Dog robot vacuum cleaner so at least the floors would get done. Now, if I could just teach it to dust and do the laundry….

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

CJ: WARNING SIGNS is due out on January 27th. It's a coming of age tale, featuring a medical student who is investigating a mysterious illness killing her patients. Then she begins to exhibit the same deadly symptoms herself….

I was inspired by my own experiences as a student. None of us were immune from "medicalstudentitis"—a form of hypochondriasis brought on by exposure to arcane knowledge about rare and mysterious ailments.

I swear at one point we all thought we had Leishmaniasis, Q-fever, Kawasaki's, and Sjorgens—simultaneously! Working 100+ hours a week, plus non-stop studying, poor diet, no sleep, no exercise all combined to produce in us symptoms that we were sure were deadly….only to be reassured by our patient clinical instructors that we would indeed live until tomorrow.

Of course things are never so easy in the fictional world of Angels of Mercy Medical Center and my medical student has something a lot more devastating to face.

About CJ:
As a pediatric ER doctor, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about in her cutting edge suspense novels. Her debut, LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), became a national bestseller and Publishers Weekly proclaimed it a "breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller." The second in the series, WARNING SIGNS, is due out January, 2009. Contact her at

Lifelines by CJ Lyons
March 2008
ISBN: 978-0-425-22082-5

Warning Signs by CJ Lyons
Jove, Feb 2009, $7.99
ISBN: 9780515145830


Vivian Zabel
Brain Cells & Bubble Wrap
Vivian's Mysteries

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Research Opportunities for Mystery Writers

So you've got an idea for a really great mystery novel but you need to research it a little. Now what? Writers often shy away from research for a variety of reasons.

First off, research can stop the flow of words and you don't want to spoil that. Sometimes you may not even know what research is needed until you start writing something and realize you need to know more.

Secondly, it can be really hard to call an expert, identify yourself as a writer and ask questions. What do you do if they ask what you've written and then say they've never heard of you. Do you look like a want-a-be?

You can do this. If the words are flowing and you can write around the area that needs researching, then keep going, making sure to mark the area you have questions about with a comment.

As for identifying yourself as writer--hey that's a whole 'nother article, but maybe you don't need to go that far yet. You may just need to delve into research opportunities that you may not even have known about.

Let's say you need to know what would happen to blood splatter from a knife wound in a fire in a torched garage. That's something you probably want to ask an expert. Most police and fire departments have public information officers trained to answer questions. So if you want to just get this research done with a phone call, start there.

If you don't know exactly what you don't know, you can sign up for a police ride-along in your community. This is just what it sounds like--you ride along with the cop in the police car--usually for about half a shift (four hours). In my own city, citizens can do this once a month.

This experience can be invaluable. Think of it! You get to see the inside of a police car, without having to do time. Plus, you can get a good close view of what is included in a policeman's uniform, an idea on how the radio works (deciphering what comes over it is a trick) and maybe even some inside skinny on a cop's job.
You can ask the cop about just about anything there, and get a chance to see exactly what a shift is like.

For more in-depth information on police procedures and techniques, you can enroll in a citizen police academy. Many cities offer them now. They are usually a semester's worth of classes on a range of things that the police in your community deal with. One night you might get a demonstration on how police check out a call about a disturbance in a vacant building; the next class session might be a practice session at the shooting range. Plus most classes end with a call for questions from the class. The police department gets its own benefits from these academies. First off, informed citizens are more likely to be supportive citizens. And many academies use their alumni as volunteers for projects around the community.

Speaking of volunteering, don't rule that out as a way to learn, and help while you're doing so. Many police departments now use volunteer victim assistants. Victim assistants can help the police with victims of domestic abuse by counseling the victims on their options. As a volunteer, you might accompany a woman to court. Victim assistants can also help with child abuse victims. It depends on the police department but if you are willing to help, you can make a difference while seeing the inside workings of some police matters.

Okay, let's say you have the police/forensic angles covered. Your real research need is for medical information. If you have just a quick question, you can probably sneak it in to your own doctor when you're having your annual physical. But if you've got more in mind than that, or if you need to give your book more of a medical flavor, there is another alternative. Many medical schools around the country are now offering mini-medical schools.

Like the citizen police academies, mini-medical schools have grown in response to the public's desire to know more. Also, like the citizen police academies, these mini-medical schools are multi-class sessions--usually over the course of six or more weeks. Do your homework before you sign up. Although some schools advertise themselves as giving classes on a smattering of everything a medical student would study, some schools offer classes on whatever they could get a faculty member to talk about. All are quick to tell you that attending a mini-med school won't qualify you for a doctor's degree. Nor should you expect to get all the jargon from this setting. Since it is aimed at the public, most lectures in these schools will be at a level that the lay person can understand. As far as I'm concerned, this is a good thing.

Question and answer sessions are standard here too, so even if your exact question isn't covered in the lecture, you can still ask it afterward.

These schools are intensely popular though. Check out your local medical school now to see if they are offering something in the fall. The cost can be minimal or even nothing as many schools offer these as a service to the public. Don't rule this option out if you are not close to a medical school. Here in Colorado, the mini-medical school's lectures have been broadcast to smaller cities on the Western slope, so that people who are too far away to commute for the lectures can view them from community colleges there. Be sure to inquire about the possibility.

Last but not least, your local writer's group should be a resource for you. My local Sisters in Crime chapter helps the county sheriff's department by being victims in crime scene simulation scenarios. We've gone on tours at the local FBI branch, and had experts in to talk about everything from arson to psychology. You don't have to be a woman to be a member either. Mystery Writers of America or your local writer's group can offer similar opportunities. So get involved. And get that research done.

Christine Duncan is the author of the Kaye Berreano mystery series. She is an alumni of the Arvada Colorado citizen's police academy.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Blonde or Brunette?

How do you choose the physical attributes of the characters in your stories? If you knew a gorgeous guy named Gordon in high school or college, do you find all your heroes tend to have the same dark, wavy hair as Gordon? Could your fictitious Gordon’s name be a derivative of his – Gord, Gordon or Don for a first name, or maybe Gordo, Gordin, Gerdon or something similar for a surname?

Did your favorite teacher stand only five-six, so your hero is a compact man? Or does he have the long, lean build of the track captain you had the big crush on?

Was the librarian a tall, willowy blonde woman of statuesque proportions and you see her in every heroine? Just because she saved books for you by the authors you liked best? Maybe you had a thing for your next door neighbor and every heroine has the same green eyes as hers.

Then there are the villains of the pieces. The bully who tormented the other kids could lend some of his or her characteristics to your novel's bad guy or gal, as can the perpetually grouchy clerk at the video store. Not that they’re villains in real life, any more than the tall librarian from your childhood could necessarily face down mobsters or murderers! But it’s easy to draw a trait from an individual we know who we really like--or don’t--to help create a person in our story. That doesn’t mean he or she “is” your heroine or your villain, of course.

But many authors will not give a fictional character the same name as someone they know, simply because it’s too hard for your story’s “Laura” not to become the organized multi-tasker your college roommate was! Of course, there are authors who include friends, thinly veiled, in the cast of characters in a book and acknowledge them in their notes! That’s okay if they’re part of the chorus, so to speak, and not one of the main movers and shakers.

So, how do you create your villains and heroines?

Libby McKinmer
Blogs at:

Plot Twists

Essential in a good mystery is the beloved "twist." The sudden unexpected turn of events or realization that things are not what they had seemed to be up to this point. To me ya gotta have 'em, and the more the merrier. Sure you can overdo it, but several twists in a story keep you guessing, make you wonder, and add that surprise! surprise! element to a gripping story.

In a classic whodunit, a good author can have you feeling for certain that "this person" is guilty, then for sure it's "that person," but oh, no! - you're kidding me - it was her all along? And then still you weren't correct. It was him that did it!

Love it. Plot twists. They add to stories in many genres, but the mystery/suspense genre, to me, really shines when this ingredient is well done. Again, not overdone. While not a novel, the last "Mission Impossible" movie (I think it was the last one) with Tom Cruise went stupid with the mask wearing thing. I thought I was going to puke if just one more person tore off their mask right at the height of a pivotal scene to reveal that they were impersonating someone, whether good guy or bad guy. That's weak redundant overuse of the same old same old.

My favorite twist is when the protagonist, all book long, turns out to be the perpetrator.

What's your take on plot twists? How much is good, how many is too many, and what kind is your favorite?

Monday, January 26, 2009


A fearless prediction by Earl Staggs

When I visualize the brick and mortar bookstores of the future, I see something entirely different from what they are now. First, I see stores about one quarter of their current size. Inside, I see only one copy of each book, and it’s only for browsing purposes. When a browser decides to buy the book, she steps over to the counter and places her order. Once that’s done, she returns to browsing or slips into the coffee shop for twenty minutes.

While she’s gone, the store clerk punches some numbers into a computer. On the other end, the publisher's computer downloads a digital manuscript to the store’s print on demand equipment, and the book is printed and bound. In a short while, the customer returns to the counter, collects her book, and goes on her merry way.

Compare that to what’s involved in getting that book into a customer’s hands today. To begin with, the publisher has to produce a large print run of the book. Those books must then be shipped direct to bookstores or to distributing warehouses first, then transported again to stores. Once in the stores, they must be inventoried and shelved. Printing, stocking, shipping and shelving costs money, all of which goes into the cost of the book. Later on, those books not sold will be returned to the publisher for credit, adding even more to the book’s cost.

The difference between bookstores of today and bookstores of tomorrow, as I see it, is the installation of print on demand technology in the store. There will be no more large print runs since each book is printed only after it’s been purchased by a customer. There are no transportation costs and no stocking or shelving costs to speak of. There will also be no returns, a major problem being wrestled with in the publishing business today. Middlemen such as distributors and warehouse facilities will become extinct.

Initially, the books will be soft cover, but somewhere down the line, someone will come up with a way to produce hard covers in the store to satisfy that demand.

I see this change as inevitable and pure common sense. Placing print on demand equipment in bookstores will be the salvation of the convoluted, cumbersome and cost-heavy publishing and bookselling industry we have today. Since print on demand (or “POD”) has become almost a derogatory term, I call it In Store Digital Printing.

Once the revolution happens and In Store Digital Printing becomes a common reality, the cost of a book will be cut in half. This will certainly stimulate the purchasing of books. Publishers will be able to buy and publish more books from promising writers and have money left over for promotion and advertising. To “publish” a book will only mean converting it to a digital file and having it ready when an order comes in from a bookstore. For writers, this will mean more opportunities to become published.

Everyone wins.

I first predicted this change about five years ago. As with any major advance in technology or radical change in the way things are done, my opinion was met with resistance. There are always naysayers.

Take for example, the guy who said, "Television? Who'd want to sit at home and watch a tiny little screen when they can watch a huge screen at a real theater."

Or the one who cried, “Home Computer? Why? I already have an adding machine and a typewriter."

Then there was the one who said, “Cell Phone? What idiot would carry a telephone around in his pocket when there's a pay phone on every corner?"

While I’m still holding to my prediction of In Store Digital Printing, you don’t necessarily have to agree with me. After all, I’m the guy who said, "Pizza? A round, flat crust with tomato soup on it? It’ll never catch on."

Where Was Agatha?

by Anne Carter

She has been called the best-selling writer of books of all time, and the most famous mystery writer in the world. Her well-known sleuths, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and the inquisive, elderly spinster Miss Jane Marple, are enormously popular characters among mystery buffs of all kinds.

Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born September 15, 1890, in Devon, England. She got the “Christie” from first husband Archibald, an airman with the Royal Flying Corps. The marriage, which lasted from 1914 to 1928, was not a happy one, and they divorced two years after Agatha discovered that Archie was having an affair. Her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published in 1920, introducing the venerable Poirot, who “went on” to appear in 32 more novels and 54 short stories.

In 1926, Christie created a mystery of her own. After quarreling with Agatha, Archie reportedly took off to spend a weekend with his mistress, a Miss Nancy Neele. Agatha left later that same day, leaving a note for her assistant that she was off to Yorkshire. Although her car was found abandoned, she was not seen again for 11 days; she turned up as a guest at a hotel in Yorkshire, where she registered as “Miss Teresa Neele”. She gave no accounting of where she’d been for those 11 days; two different doctors declared her as suffering from amnesia. Some suggested she had suffered a nervous breakdown, while others were certain her mysterious disappearance was simple a publicity stunt. There was even speculation that Mrs. Christie had attempted to cast a shadow on her cheating husband, hoping that officials would think he’d killed her.

As recently as 2006, biographers were still studying the matter. Biographer and former doctor Andrew Norman is certain that Christie was experiencing a "fugue state", or an "out of body amnesia" induced by stress, wherein she would have acted in a trance-like state.

Where was Agatha? Reports are that she was in the spa hotel in Yorkshire the entire time, but did not acknowledge who she was or respond to reports about her disappearance. It’s not likely we’ll find out more anytime soon. Anyone who had knowledge of her condition during those infamous 11 days surely would have come forth by now, 33 years after her death.

Knowing what we now know about her skill in crafting mystery, it is entirely possible that she disappeared on purpose, weaving a personal “whodunit” of her own as she hid away somewhere in the English countryside. For 11 days, at least, she had the whole world wondering what had become of her, and she just may have been laughing at the fingers pointing to her Cassanova spouse. Well… could happen!

Anne Carter is the author of paranormal romantic mystery POINT SURRENDER. Visit her at Beacon Street Books!

Friday, January 23, 2009

On being a storyteller

A message writer I’m not. Some mystery novelists prefer to call attention to social problems by highlighting them in their books. That’s fine if it isn’t done in a preachy way. As for me, I’m quite content if I can tell a good story that will entertain my readers.

However, I have found that some readers will read things into your books that you never intended. When I met with a book club that had read The Marathon Murders, one woman was certain I had mentioned a lot of different cars because the plot revolved around the old Marathon Motor Works in Nashville. That was the farthest thing from my mind. I did it so my editor wouldn’t chastise me for having too many Fords or too many Chevrolets.

My new book due out in April, The Surest Poison, deals with a chemical dump that plays havoc with the health of people in a small rural community west of Nashville. I’m sure a lot of readers will presume that I wrote it to highlight the problem of water pollution from toxic waste.

If the book makes people more aware of the dangers that result from the careless handling of industrial chemicals, that’s fine. But unless they’ve been living under a rock for the past twenty or thirty years, I can’t imagine that any modestly knowledgeable adult would be unaware of the problem.

I chose the subject because it provided an opening for the creation of layers of tension that could be developed into an exciting story. And that’s what I do, tell stories.

This one came about when I was talking to a PI friend who has made quite a name for herself in the area of locating missing persons. She told me about a case she had worked a few years ago down around Jackson, Tennessee. It involved a company that faced disaster from trichloroethyelene dumped on its property by a previous owner that had gone out of business. She was hired to find the people responsible.

I took her case and moved it closer to home, adding a bunch of bad guys who had a history with my protagonist, new Nashville PI Sidney Lanier Chance. The idea struck a nerve because the first review I received, from author Tim Hallinan of the Poke Rafferty Bangkok mysteries, started out:

The Surest Poison is a terrifically timely mystery about one of the most pressing problems of our era.”

Maybe it’s the old law of unintended consequences. If it’s considered a good environmental mystery, I’ll take credit for being socially concerned. But, really, all I wanted to do was be a good storyteller.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Law of the Splintered Paddle

This is supposed to be a blog about mysteries, but, because this is the first day of the Obama presidency, I'm going to beg your indulgence and stray a bit from the topic.

Yesterday the world saw the inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States. Much has been made of the momentous fact that Mr. Obama is the nation's first African-American president. I don't believe too much can be made of that historical fact. Nevertheless, I don't believe enough has been made of the fact that Mr. Obama is the nation's first kama'aina president.

Kama'aina means native-born Hawaiian. (pronunciation at the end)

I'm not a kama'aina, though my youngest son is. While I no longer live in Hawaii, my main characters do.

In the United States, we don't take the measure of a man by an accident of birth. However, we recognize that the milieu in which a person spends their formative years does a lot to determine character and values. Mr. Obama writes fondly of Hawaii and Punahou School. Punahou's emphasis on instilling values taught him to create a foundation for his life. Those values almost certainly include the ideals of caring and compassion that is characteristic of Hawaii's unique culture, often called the Aloha spirit. An iconic element of that spirit is a precept of Hawaiian law known as Ke Kanawai Mamalahoe, the Law of the Splintered Paddle. The ideas embodied in the law lie at the core of the fiftieth state.

To understand the law, we have to go back to the story of the first commander-in-chief of Hawaii, Kamehameha I. The legend goes that Kamehameha, then a young warrior, was leading a raiding party and spotted a target of opportunity, a group of unarmed fishermen. The fishermen fled from the attack, but two of them stayed behind to make sure the others, including women and children, got away safely. Kamehameha went in pursuit, but his foot broke through a lava crust which trapped him. The two fishermen beat him with a canoe paddle until it broke. They let him live and made their escape.

Kamehameha recovered and went on to unite all the islands into a nation. In 1797, shortly after becoming Hawaii's first monarch, the two fishermen who beat him, were found and brought before him. They feared for their lives, but Kamehameha realized he had been in the wrong and surprised them by providing them with land and promulgating the first law of Hawaii, known as the Law of tthe Splintered Paddle: "Let every elderly person, woman and child lie by the roadside without fear of harm."

The law has been interpreted to mean that the defenseless will be protected from harm, particularly from government officials. It is enshrined in the bill of rights of the Hawaii State constitution which was rewritten and ratified in 1978, when Mr. Obama was in high school. At the time that Kamehameha promulgated it, the law represented a breakthrough in human rights. It has become a model for laws regarding the treatment of civilians and non-combatants in battle. It certainly would have been a part of the curriculum at Punahou School. In the final analysis, we may never know the extent to which the Law of the Splintered Paddle influences Mr. Obama's core beliefs.

So what does this have to do with mysteries?

The commitment to human rights and the Law of the Splintered Paddle is represented on the Honolulu police badge as two crossed canoe paddles in the center. Read the story of the badge here.

The Law of the Splintered Paddle doesn't distinguish between the innocent and the guilty. It provides protection from harm to everyone. This is sometimes cited as one of the reasons Hawaii has no death penalty.

The Law of the Splintered Paddle is what motivates my newest detective, Honolulu private eye, Ava Rome. She calls her agency the Mamalahoe (Splintered Paddle) Agency and will protect anyone who is defenseless wothout regard for guilt or innocence. The first book in the series is finished and making the rounds of publishers. With any luck you'll be able to read it while Mr. Obama is still in office.

In the meantime, all I can offer is a new for 2009 story, "Horns," featuring another of my main characters, Val Lyon. If you do get a chance to read it, I hope you will let me know what you think of it. On my Hawaiian Eye blog, you can find out about other Hawaiian detectives or you can go here for a list of kama 'aina mysteries.

kama'aina --ka mah EYE nah
ke -- kay
kanawai--kah nah WHY
mamalahoe--mah MAH lah hoy

Mark Troy

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

How Do you Feel About Cursing Characters?

A new member of my critique group sent an email asking me and another older member if she would offend if she used the “f” word in the story she was writing.

I wrote back and told her that I’d both read and heard the word before and if it fit the character by all means use it.

However, I also told her that I don’t use that word or other curse or guttural words in my books–though I do write things like, “he spit out a slew of curse words.” I confess to using the word “crap” though. Why I think that’s more acceptable, I don’t know, except that I’ve been known to say it myself at times.

When I first started writing, my mom was reading my manuscripts, and I held back with the “bad” words because I knew my mom would be unhappy reading them. Of course I left the romantic sex scenes in, which she commented about–but didn’t seem to mind.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I read books that have such words in them–however, I notice the books I like best don’t seem to need curse words and the characterizations don’t suffer because of it.

I’ve read some books that would have worked just fine without having the curse words sprinkled liberally on every page. Feel the same way about some movies.

Getting back to the critique group, have to laugh because I forget how old I am and I’m sure that’s why the young woman felt she needed to ask.

Let me know how you feel about your characters and what they have to say.


Monday, January 19, 2009

Should Books Contain Expiration Stamps?

Food and Drinks are stamped with expiration dates. What about books?

There are many novels, such as Tale of Two Cities, Jane Eyre, and countless others that remain classics with the passage of time. Those are not the norm. Except for historical novels, readers expect books to reflect the time period in which they're released.

Because of that, you may want to think twice about including current fads, happenings or buzzwords in your manuscript. Remember, a book usually gets released a year or so after it's accepted by a publisher. Will those cute phrases be popular then? Worse yet, will they be overworn and redundant?

What about places? When you include actual places in manuscripts you run the risk they may not be there when your book gets out, such as Marshall Field's. When I wrote my Chicago area mystery, Two Wrongs, little did I know that Field's, a Chicago institution, would be taken over by Macy's and the name changed. Fortunately, in the case of Two Wrongs, although Field's no longer retains its name, many people have fond memories of it. Some buy the book to relive the days when Field's was popular. That doesn't happen in every case, so be careful of the places you include in your manuscript, or make up your own.

References to a VHS player or dial phone, without a good explanation, would date a manuscript.

Can you think of instances where authors have included outdated fads, items, events, buzzwords, or places that are no longer in existence? Or, can you think of examples that should not be included because they may soon become outdated? What is safe to use? Please share.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

How Not To Promote Oneself

I've read a lot of blogs over the last year, gotten to know many fellow authors, attended and sat on panels and other events. I realize it's necessary to indulge in self-promotion and have done a fair bit of it myself. But nothing turns me off to an author more than one who talks about nothing but his/her own work, rarely has anything positive to say about another writer, and NEVER asks other authors about their work.

If I go to a panel, I want to hear about the subject, be it 'what makes a cozy mystery cozy' or 'sexed up thrillers' or whatever. I do NOT want to to hear an author answer every question by turning it into a reference to his/her book. Once in a while, sure. But every question? Jeez Louise, just shoot me! No, just shoot the author in question. With a tranquilizer dart, of course. An elephant tranquilizer 'cause some of these people have all the subtlety of elephants.

And if you're writing post on a publishers author blog, don't make every post an advertisement for your latest work. Or upcoming or past work, for that matter. Don't tell your readers to 'get those sales going.' Make sure your post will still hold together if you take the words 'I' and 'me' out of it.

Don't get me wrong, the majority of writers I've met are delightful people with genuine interest in other people, supportive and helpful to aspiring writers. Sisters in Crime Nor Cal alone has some of the nicest people I've ever met. Hailey Lind (current president of our chapter) is worth the price of membership alone. She is personally responsible for kick-starting my social life at last year's Left Coast Crime. Without her, I'd probably still be wandering the hotel halls, too shy to talk to anyone. Actually, if you're in SinC NorCal, just assume you're always welcome in my house. Unless you're allergic to cats. If so, you're still welcome, but bring Benadryl.

And so many of the writers I've met through Make Mine Mystery and Fatal Foodies...well, I've enjoyed both getting to know you and (slowly) making my way through all of your books. You offer good, solid advice and what promotion you do for yourself makes me want to read what you write.

Now I want to know, what drives YOU crazy in terms of bad promotion? What makes you turn and run the other way, vowing never to read a word a particular author has written..and if you do, it's only out of a morbid curiosity to see if their work can possibly live up to their own hype? Inquiring minds want to know...

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Clinging To Our Guns

by Ben Small

In anticipation of an Obama swearing-in ceremony, America has been buying guns in unprecedented numbers. Of course, Obama-phobia isn’t fully the explanation. Americans feel threatened; they’re afraid. Gang and drug warfare are on the rise, as are home invasions, and in some cities, like Chicago, which is setting murder records, only the cops and bad guys have guns. (Ordinary people aren’t supposed to defend themselves in Chicago. Mayor Daley won’t permit it.)

But there’s no denying the Obama effect. Overnight, prices of AK-47s skyrocketed, in some places as high as 200%. Same with AR-15s and other weapons carrying more than ten rounds. You may remember the Clinton Assault Weapons Ban. That didn’t do much to stop the proliferation of serious weaponry. It was a joke. Yes, magazines were limited to ten rounds. But there were no limits on how many magazines one could carry.

Several articles have appeared about surging guns and ammo sales across the nation, and the gun stores I’ve visited have been packed full of purchasers eager to beat expected new anti-gun measures. Barack Obama has said he supports gun control, and his legislative record backs him up. Yes, there was the Supreme Court’s Heller decision, but that victory for Second Amendment gun rights was by a one vote margin. Change a judge, and it’s a new ballgame.

But something else, too is driving the buys. A different fear.

Mexican drug gangs are storming our border, shooting up border towns and killing police officers and border guards from El Paso to Tucson to San Diego, and of course, their Mexican counterpart cities. And the Latino gangs that support these drug lords, like MS-13, are spreading across our lands like an infection. MS-13 is in Los Angeles, San Diego, Tucson, El Paso, Chicago, Madison, Minneapolis, Phoenix, and other cities as well.

Just last Halloween in Tucson, my home turf, three teenagers in three wrong places at three wrong times were shot down, two of them killed. All three were students at Sunnyside High School. Three normal kids with bright futures, students of a friend of mine. One of these kids, a young girl, was at a party. Some gang-bangers tried to crash, and an argument ensued. Later the bangers came back. They shot up the house from their car. The girl, inside dancing with friends, died.

My teacher friend says the kids know the ropes. You’re sitting at a stop light and a car pulls up. Someone in the other car flashes a gang sign. You’re not in a gang or you’re in a different gang; you don’t respond or you give the wrong sign.

That's disrespect.

Bang, bang, you’re dead.

Amazing. Imagine being a teenager today...

A few weeks ago, my wife and two of her friends took their Concealed Carry Class and submitted their permit paper-work. The class was jammed. The instructors said classes have been packed for more than a year; they're struggling to keep up with demand.

Now these are ordinary citizens. Not gang-bangers, not criminals. You can’t get a concealed carry permit if you’re a criminal. Nor can a criminal buy a gun – legally. But criminals don’t have any problem getting guns, all kinds of guns, even automatic weapons. They just smuggle them in from Mexico and spread them around the gangs. The guns that are terrorizing Chicago aren’t guns held by law-abiding citizens; they’re gang guns. No gun ban is going to stop that trade. Only law abiding citizens are denied the means to protect themselves in Chicago.

Our growing security anxiety is fueled by several very real concerns: 1) fear that our institutions are breaking down; 2) fear that wealth re-distribution policies will heighten tensions; 3) fear that anti-gun measures will limit purchases by law-abiding citizens of weapons and ammunition; 4) fear that like the L. A. riots after the Rodney King beating and the looters and marauders during and after Katrina, there will be roving gangs of looters and predators following any future catastrophe or breakdown of food delivery, power supply, energy or social order; 5) fear that terrorist or gang or drug lord raids within our borders will increase; 6) fear that our borders are so porous, we have no ability to stop drugs or the growing illegal gun trade, and 6) fear that the police cannot adequately protect us.

A Harvard study a year or so ago examined the effectiveness of strict gun control measures worldwide. The study concluded that those jurisdictions that have the more severe gun limits, have higher crime rates. Look at Chicago or Washington, D.C. Indeed, Britain, which completely banned most guns many years ago, has seen violent crime rise since.

Already, some silly measures have become law, and are being considered elsewhere. Like the California law that requires every handgun sold by 2010 to imprint on its cartridge identifying marks traceable to the gun. This law was passed last year by the California legislature and signed by the Governator despite no proof that such technology exists or would be effective. In fact, a study by the University of California at Davis, showed that such technology does not work. And what about revolvers? Their cartridges are carried away with the gun.

Imagine how easily you could be framed. Go to the gun range, fire your weapon. Someone picks up your brass and leaves it at a crime scene.

Boom. You’re in jail.

The gun industry has reacted slowly to the California measure, although at least one manufacturer has decided not to sell guns to police or anyone else in California if this law remains in effect. A few other manufacturers are considering similar actions.

So called “assault” weapons are defined very loosely. The term is usually described as semi-automatic weapons, those that don’t have a rotating cylinder feeding a bullet to the chamber. Banners claim these weapons aren’t used for hunting; they're only used to kill people.

That's not true. On either front.

Varmint hunting is popular these days. Rats, prairie dogs, coyotes, they're fair game in many areas. And semi-automatic weapons, both pistols and rifles, are popular choices for hunting them.

I've owned semi-automatic weapons for over ten years, and I don't hunt.

I haven’t killed anybody.

I shoot paper, lots of paper. I compete in paper-shooting contests. Fun stuff, shooting in competitions, part of our American heritage. Sergeant York, an American hero, used to compete in turkey shoots. So do I, but my turkeys are paper, and they’re taped over cardboard.

And what’s wrong with that? Good clean sport. Nothing gets killed, and only a few pieces of paper and cardboard are damaged. The paper, bullets and cartridges are all recycled.

Shooting is green.

So who gets hurt by me owning a gun... or several?

Semi-automatic weapons fire one bullet at a time, just like revolvers do. Yes, magazines for these guns may contain more bullets, but some revolvers shoot as many as eight rounds, and there are speed loaders available. Speed loaders facilitate a revolver rate of fire not far slower than a semi-auto's.

Pick up any gun magazine; there are many from which to choose. Check out the ads. Yes, they may scare you. But remember, these are the guns the good guys, law-abiding citizens, are buying. They're used for self defense and for sport. A gun ban won't stop gangs from getting guns. Criminals don't file for concealed carry permits, and they don't buy their guns in U.S. gun stores. You bump into a bad guy at the wrong time and place, and the only thing between you and the coroner may be your ability to defend yourself.

The bad guys may have machine guns. And sometimes, grenades.

Back in Connecticut, a Revolutionary War cemetery adjoined my back yard. Stones dressed with flags mark the war's graves. In those veterans' days, every home contained a gun.

We may return to that notion.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Mystery Promo

As a mystery book author, I have received a heck of a lot of advice. My mysteries need to be available at every book store in the country, I need to sign at every one of those stores, I should give talks to every library and bookstore who will have me and all of this should be done in the first two weeks after the book is published. It's all pretty interesting if impossible to achieve.
And frankly, I'm at the point where I wonder just exactly how well all of this works anyway. I personally have never bought even one book because of advertising or even because of reviews. I buy books that others who read what I do tell me about but mostly I buy books that I think will be keepers--ones that I will want to read again and again. What that means to me is that the for the most part, I've read others of that author's books and loved them all. I am occasionally disappointed with this method, but not often. Usually, this results in a very small bag of books that I want to give away.

I have seen a lot of authors give readings, most of those didn't happen in the first few weeks after a book was published. I've been to a number of signings. They aren't all that interesting, really. I've bought books in both cases, and sometimes I won't buy a book, because the author did something to turn me off. One author, whose name I won't mention, did a reading with several other authors. During her reading, the silence was palpable. While the other authors read, she chatted with folks and made so much noise, I couldn't hear the other authors. I didn't buy her book.

So all of this is the long way round to saying I think promo is necessary, and I have and will do promo, but I am giving myself permission with this book to make mistakes and take it slower. I've already sent Safe House out to slews of reviewers even though it won't be in print until late spring. And I'm already trying to line up signings and interviews and blog tour hosts. But maybe it doesn't all have to be done in the first two weeks. Just maybe. What do you think?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


There's been a lot of talk about promotion -- and it's key to keeping your name out there. But how do you find the readers? Are you just promoting to other writers, who are also promoting?

There are tons of social networks now -- MySpace, Facebook, GoodReads, Shelfari, Twitter and many blogs. How do I get readers to check me out on MY blog, MY page on the social networks? Do I buy ads in traditional magazines, on websites, put up banners on sites and networks? Do I attend conventions?

I think each author has to sit down and think about what areas work for him or her. Most publishers have a presence on the major social networks, have an area for their authors to run blogs, send books and promo to conventions, buy ads, etc.

In a recession, we all have to think about the dollars we allot to our promotion, but another very important resource is to allocate our time properly. Can you be on every social network, update your page(s), write blogs, design ads, banners and plan for a trip across country to a convention?

I think it's essential for authors to participate in blogs like Make Mine Mystery because we support one another, have a variety of blog topics that will bring readers to the site and maybe discover another writer than the one they dropped in to read!

I also think you must think about your budgets -- of money and time. You can't burn out either! If you spend all your money on ads, do you have the funds to go to the convention you really want to attend? If you spend all your time updating social network pages, when do you write?

READERS: How do you find writers? Do you go to social networks, troll thru blogosphers, read ads, attend conventions? Or do you have a different strategy?

AUTHORS: How do you find readers? Same as the readers find writers, or something different?

Let's connect and still have money to buy books, time to write books, and time to enjoy life!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Favorite Titles

To me, the title of a good mystery book is of paramount importance. I think more than in any other genre, it is the main “hook” that gets me to pull a book off the shelf and give it a look. If the jacket/cover blurb continues to intrigue me I may just be plopping down my cash or plastic at the counter. And a fundamental element in a good title in the mystery genre is that the title itself be somewhat mysterious. Catchy, grabby, but leaving you like, “what?” Here’s ten of my favorite mystery novel titles, in no particular order.

And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie

The Postman Always Rings Twice – James M. Cain

Double Indemnity – James M. Cain

The Anatomy of a Murder – Robert Traver

The Silence of the Lambs – Thomas Harris

To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

The Bone Collector – Jeffery Deaver

Speaking in Tongues – Jeffry Deaver

In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – John le Carr

How about you? How important is the title to you, and in what way? And what are some examples of great mystery book titles in your opinion?


Monday, January 12, 2009

Mysterious Cerebral Connections by Anne Carter

Whenever I visit this blog, almost daily, I am humbled by the talent and knowledge conveyed by my co-bloggers. I’ll admit that one of my reasons for coming is to gauge what the others are writing in comparison to what I’m considering as my next contribution. Many are offering nuts and bolts advice on the technique of writing mystery. Some are sharing their likes and dislikes about the genre, while others are asking empirical questions of our blog followers. Me, I’m just here for the ride.

Mystery has always been my go-to choice as a reader. I consider the mystery akin to a mind-sharpening puzzle. Experts agree that keeping the mind stimulated can strengthen brain cells and even improve the connections between them, possibly creating new cells in the process. The Alzheimer’s Association recommends keeping the brain active every day through activities such as reading, writing, working puzzles and maintaining curiosity. What better way than to delve into a good mystery?

Okay, I’ll admit to being a long-time puzzler. That is, solving the Los Angeles Times Sunday crossword puzzle is a favored activity. Nothing quite like filling in that last tiny square with a satisfying “aha!” And isn’t that the same feeling we get when we reach the “aha!” moment in a good book, when the pieces all miraculously fall together and the answer is revealed? Don’t we revel in the fact that we know we’ve solved the mystery before anyone else possibly could?

My husband won’t watch “Wheel of Fortune” with me, and he covers his ears when I leap forward during the last minutes of a suspense film with a broad grin on my face. “Save it for the rest of us, will you?” he begs. Sheesh! He needn’t get so perturbed; I’m only trying to keep my brain healthy!

Anne Carter is the author of romantic paranormal mysteries including POINT SURRENDER; visit her at

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Limp Wristing

by Ben Small

No, this note is not about a casual evening stroll along the walk on Venice Beach, nor is it about San Francisco culture. And it’s not about a punk rock band either, although I understand there’s one with the name “Limp Wrist.”

No, I’m talking about a shooting phenomenon which affects every shooter, which I’ve yet to see affect any protagonist or antagonist using a gun. The term “Limp Wrist,” is a verb. It’s the failure to grip your automatic handgun tightly enough, causing the pistol to fail to extract a spent casing from the chamber.

A semi-automatic pistol fired with a limp wrist will either not fire at all, or if it does fire, it will not cycle for a second shot. In other words, you either have a weapon that will not fire, or you’ve got a jammed gun.

Oops. That can get your character killed.

In order to fire, semi-autos need a stable base. Wasn’t it Einstein who decreed, “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction?”

Well, Einstein was right. If you were to suspend a pistol in the air and pull the trigger by string, the bullet would fly, but so would the gun… in the opposite direction. And the semi-auto would fail to cycle because the resistance it needs to move the slide back and eject and feed has been removed. That means a jam that can only be cleared by removing the magazine and racking the slide.

Limp wristing happens to the strongest people; indeed, it happens to everybody. Often when a character is moving or distracted or panicked, he’s more focused on his target and what he’s doing than on how he’s holding his gun. Maybe the protag or perp is leading a victim, or ducking and dodging. A momentary lapse, and the grip on the pistol loosens.

Many modern semi-auto pistols, such as high end 1911s or the new Springfield XD series, have wrist safeties, which will not permit the pistol to fire is being held with less than a firm grip. See the picture on the right. The short but distinct separation at the upper end of the grip under the beaver tail, is the grip safety. This safety arm must be depressed before the gun will fire. Look at the structure. The grip safety is at the top of the grip, meaning the upper part of the shooting hand is what depresses the safety. So a firm grip with the bottom part of the hand is irrelevant, at least relating to operation of the grip safety. With pistols containing this safety, limp wristing will mean a failure to fire.

On semi-autos without a grip safety, as for instance with Glock, HK or Sig Sauer Classic or Sig Pro pistols, a soft grip will fire the pistol but cause it to fail to eject, thereby jamming the gun and preventing a second or follow-on shot until the pistol is cleared.

In many of our books, we see characters shooting under stress. And stress is one of the causes of limp wristing, because stress causes the shooter to focus on something other than a firm pistol grip. It’s not about strength, not a gender factor at all; it’s about distraction. If the character has been wrestling with someone for the gun and the gun goes off, odds are the shot was limp wristed, so the gun will be jammed. And of course, if it was one of those guns with a grip safety, the first shot wouldn’t have fired at all.

In most of these situations, the author will have someone (the perp, the protag, or a third character) grab the pistol and struggle to fire, in a hurry, probably with a bad grip.

When, if ever, are we shown the gun jamming in this scenario? Yet, that’s what would likely happen. And the jam is the more critical of these issues because the pistol must be cleared before it will shoot again. With a wrist safety, the gun didn’t fire, so there’s no jam. A firm grip = Bang.

So, beware the dangers of the limp wrist. Or use a limp wristed shot (or non-shot as the case may be) for a little more drama and realism in your story.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Research - the Backbone of Your Mystery

Research provides the backbone of a mystery novel. In her book Writing the Modern Mystery, Barbara Norville says unless you’re a professional in a field that lends itself to solving crimes, the choosing of your protagonist starts with research into the type of people who do.

When I started my Greg McKenzie series, dealing with a retired Air Force Office of Special Investigations agent, I read all I could find about the OSI, then arranged an interview with the Special Agent in Charge of the OSI office at Arnold Air Force Base south of Nashville.

I spent a couple of hours with him, going over the agents’ backgrounds, the types of cases they worked, how they operated on the job. With the knowledge I had gained as an Air Force intelligence officer, that interview gave me enough information to predict how my protagonist would act when he faced the problems I had in mind with my plot.

Getting into your main character’s head, though, is just the start. The major research effort will provide you with the details you need in setting the stage for your story. Back to that first book, Secret of the Scroll, I needed to know about ancient Hebrew parchment documents, how they are handled, something about their translation.

I went to the library and checked out books on the Dead Sea Scrolls and biblical archeology. After absorbing several of those, I did a telephone interview with a professor at Emory University in Atlanta who went to Israel each summer and worked on translations.

In talking about the book with a writer friend, he asked if I was familiar with the Bible Codes. I’d never heard of them. A trip to the bookstore got me a book that seemed to cover the subject with an honesty I found refreshing. It gave me a plot point that was exactly what I needed.

Since the book began in the Holy Land and wound up there (after several chapters around Nashville), information on Israel was vital to the story. I got the original idea on the way home from a trip to Israel and Jordan, and I had brought back lots of information. That included three hours of video I shot during the tour. But I bought a couple of guidebooks to refresh my memory and fill in some details that would help color the writing.

One I used spoke of the Israeli-born Jews called Sabras. It said they have a distinct character like the prickly pear, from which they got their name, spiky on the outside but sweet on the inside.

Being set partially in a foreign land and dealing with a historical subject, this book required more intensive research than any of the others I’ve written. It gave me a good introduction to the requirements for research, however, which has carried over to my later novels. Since a lot of my information gathering has involved interviews, my newspaper background proved helpful. But any writer can do it.

If you want your story to sound realistic, do the research and gather all the facts you can. You won’t need to include them all, but they will give you the factual background to satisfy those who know a lot more about the subject than you do. If you'd like to get a taste of the research I did for that first book, click on the link below.

Secret of the Scroll Opening Chapters

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Ideas not to use in mysteries by Vivian Zabel

I read books that sometimes irritate me because they contain cheap tricks, but nothing causes me to grit my teeth and throw the book across the room than when it's a mystery with cheap writing tricks. What are some of these "don't use ideas"? Ah, let me count the ways. Sorry, wrong analogy.

Don't have a protagonist, which is usually a woman, insert herself into a dangerous situation when she could call 911. How many stupid people are there in the literary world?

Don't leave the reader guessing about what the hero finds. A clue, a piece of evidence, whatever, should be shared with the reader when the character finds it.

Don't make dialogue boring, unreal, filled with background information. Have you ever become irate when one character explains something to another that the second person should know? I don't like it when one CSI person tells someone running a test all the steps. Surely the one running the test would know what to do.

Don't make the police appear stupid or dumb. Law enforcement officers should be realistic, not buffoons. Yes, they can make mistakes and actually appear flawed as we all are, but they should be intelligent enough to be on the force.

Just a few of my "don't dos," but I'll have more another time.

Vivian Zabel
Brain Cells & Bubble Wrap
Midnight Hours
Prairie Dog Cowboy
4RV Publishing
Vivian's Mysteries

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Lessons from Skydiving

At a Southwest Mystery Writers of America conference a few years ago, Laura Joh Rowland, author of the Sano Ichiro mysteries, talked about the lessons she learned from her new hobby, glass-blowing, and how they applied to writing. I thought, "How cool. Someday, I'm going to do that." Not glass-blowing, but apply the lessons from my hobby to writing.

At that time, my hobby was skydiving.

I don't skydive anymore, but the lessons I learned stayed with me and still inform my writing.

Lesson one: practice is everything. If you want to be good at skydiving, you have to practice. It doesn't require much practice to go out the door of an airplane, anymore than it requires much practice to put words on paper. But, to master body flight, you have to do it over and over again. Likewise with writing, mastery of the complexities of plot, character, and language takes practice. Air time for skydiving, seat time for writing.

You will never hear skydivers talk about a talent for skydiving, because there isn't such a thing. Where would it come from? We are not descended from people who fell out of the sky. If you want to improve as a skydiver, your only option is practice. Now, I don't know if there is a talent for writing but I write as if there is no such thing. That is, I practice. What choice do is there? Practice will improve on talent, if you have talent. If you don't have talent, practice is all you have.

Lesson two: don't be afraid to let go. To skydive, you have to get off the ground, go out the door, let go of the strut. You have to push outside your comfort zone. The same is true with fiction. Good fiction requires letting go of reality. Too often neophyte authors fall into the trap of creating main characters like them. Same age, same sex, same occupation, same hometown, same belief in love and goodness. Boring! In Shame the Devil by George Pelecanos, one character has this comment on a book he read: "In the end, the writer had been afraid. In general, thought Farrow, that was the flaw in most people, a timidity that separated them from those who were strong." Writers who are afraid to let go of what they know, will not be strong writers. Ken Kesey said, "Don't write what you know. What you know is boring. Write what you don't know." Fear to go where they've never been has probably doomed more writers than the complexities of grammar and spelling.

Lesson three: trust the wind/imagination. This is the corollary to the preceding lesson. Skydivers soar on the wind., writers soar on their imagination. Trust it. Whenever someone tells me a character in their story thinks, speaks, or acts exactly like some real person they once met, I know I'll be reading a flat, boring character. The writer is too timid to create something new, doesn't trust his/her own imagination.

Lesson four: planning prevents later grief. Skydivers dirt-dive their maneuvers, rehearse emergency procedures, check their equipment, and monitor conditions aloft and on the ground because, let's face it, if they don't, they die. For writers, a failure to plan doesn't have such dire consequences, but planning can help prevent dead-ends, rewrites and embarrassing errors. You don't want to put several years of work into a project only to have it die. Planning doesn't mean outlining. Even a seat of the pants writer can profit from planning. I recommend making copies of all the forms in Hallie Ephron's Writing and Selling the Mystery Novel. The writing will go a lot easier after you've filled them out.

The main lesson I learned is that the ride is exciting, no matter how it turns out.

For a vicarious skydive, you can read my short story, Drop Dead Zone, published in Mystery Buff Magazine in 1998. It is now available on my website.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Not Disappointing Our Readers

Recently I went to lunch in a fairly new steak house in our little town that everyone’s been raving about. We tried a couple of times to go in the evening and learned they had an hour’s wait and were too hungry to stay.

Four of us went, two of us ordered the same thing, hot roast beef sandwiches. When our food finally arrived it was nearly cold. The other two had hot food the way it ought to be. We waited for the waitress to appear again, but she didn’t so I went after her and told her the fool was cold. She took it away. Awhile later, we could hear the cooks ringing the bell, but she didn’t even pause from what she was doing. When she finally brought our plates back with the food heated, she gave us the wrong ones. I knew because of the way I’d tasted and moved around my mashed potatoes. Sad, because restaurants never last long in our town–and if things don’t improve, this one won’t make it either.

As writers, we need to make sure we don’t disappoint our readers like the restaurant disappointed me.

First, of course, we must write a good book. It doesn’t have to be a great book, but a story that will satisfy the reader. A story that will transport the reader to a different place and give them a few hours of enjoyment.

I do realize that readers have different tastes and not everyone will like the same book. The point I’m trying to make, though, is if the book is advertised as a suspenseful page turner, then it better live up to that description. If the cover says it’s a cozy then there shouldn’t be any graphic sex scenes or guttural language. That doesn’t mean a writer can’t stretch and write a book that crosses genre lines as long as the book is well-written and keeps the readers interest.

Because there are certain genres I’m not particularly fond of, I won’t buy them because I know I won’t like the book no matter how well-written it is. Just like if I didn’t like sushi, I wouldn’t go to a restaurant where that’s all that’s served. (I do like sushi, it just seemed like a good comparison.)

One thing I have learned over the years though, is to keep reading even if I'm not immediately captivated–sometimes it takes awhile for me to be sucked into the story. Part of that might be because the editor part of my brain isn’t turned off–once I get into the imaginary world the writer has created, I’m able to relax and enjoy the book.

Probably I’m more critical of food in a restaurant than the books I read–but when I’ve put out money for either one, I do expect to enjoy myself.


Monday, January 5, 2009

Our First Award for Make Mine Mystery

I thank Vivian Zabel of Brain Cells & Bubble Wrap for bestowing the Your Blog is Fabulous Award on Make Mine Mystery. You'll see the award at the top of the right column.

The award comes with some requirements to fulfill, but they're easy ones.

Name 5 addictions.
Name 5 blogs deserving of the award

Here goes:

1. The Internet - I'm on it every chance I can get. This includes e-mail, blogs, e-groups, websites, Google, and other spots on the web.

2. My Iphone - I feel lost without it. I use it for photos, e-mails, checking directions, reading books, listening to music, and more things I can't think of at the moment since there are so many.

3. Writing - I feel compelled to write even when I'm having trouble thinking up the right words to put down. I think you'll find most writers are addicted or they wouldn't keep writing. Vivian also has this addiction.

4. Pepsi Free - I hate it when I have to drink another kind of pop - I notice Vivian has a similar addiction to Pepsi as well, but not the cafeine free variety. I won't drink cafeinated.

5. Slots - I can play slots for hours on end - That's why I only do it on vacation and only play penny slot machines. (A misnomer, since most of the time you need to put in at least 45 cents to cover all the spots and win a jackpot)

Five Fabulous Blogs: - Mystery Mania - L. Diane Wolfe - Ann Parker - Jenny Beans - Joan De La Haye

There are plenty more bloggers with fabulous blogspots, but I'm limited to five. Now, if you wish, you can hop over and check some of them out.

Morgan Mandel -

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Washed Ashore

My boyfriend and I have a morning routine on days I don't go to my day job. We walk up to George's Zoo, a little market/deli across from the San Francisco Zoo, getting hot drinks (coffee for me, chai tea latte for Dave) and walking on the beach for an hour or so. I'm a dedicated (okay, compulsive) beachcomber, with a house and garage full of shells, rocks, driftwood and beach glass as testimony to my obsession. I have restrained myself from hacking out teeth, skulls and other pieces parts from dead seals or sea birds. Too messy and smelly.

I am totally fascinated by the variety of stuff that washes ashore every day and how the terrain of the beach can change after one stormy night. There's a shipwreck, the King Philip, under the sands of Ocean Beach up by Noriega Street. It lies concealed most of the time, but once every decade or so the sands shift to reveal bits of it. Last year the ruined prow poked up, rusted metal bits clinging to the wood. It was fascinating and always made me wonder what else was under there.

A month or so ago we were out in the morning and saw police cordoning off a section of beach (also down near Noriega). There was a dead body lying on the sand, up out of the tide line, stiff and...well, dead. For someone as fascinated with horror movies, morbid ways to die and/or kill someone (I'm a mystery writer, so I figure it's normal enough. Right? RIGHT?!), I found the sight of this poor dead fellow very disturbing. It brought home issues of mortality I didn't realize I had. I mean, it's one thing to come across a dead seal with an obvious shark bite taken out of its body, but a fellow human being is a different matter. At least for me. Funny 'cause when I read a book or watch a movie, I'm always far more upset when an animal is hurt or killed than when a person gets kacked. Go figure.

This morning Dave and I went for our usual walk and saw a sailboat listing to one side in the sands down the beach a ways (near Noriega, to be exact. Gotta wonder if there's an ancient Indian burial ground or something else around there...) so we wandered down to check it out. The sails were gone, just the metal skeleton of the rigging remained.

A young woman was doing stretches in front of it, a small dog leashed up to the railing. We asked if it was her boat. It wasn't. Evidently it had run aground Christmas Day during a storm and the owner of the boat was found dead inside the cabin. He had been removed, but the boat was basically abandoned.

People had taken the sails and a few other items, but there were still sandwiches inside the cabin, books, DVDs, mail... I know this because Dave climbed up and poked around for a few minutes. I didn't. It seemed too much like desecrating a grave, a reaction I found surprising. I love poking around old historical sites, graveyards, ruins, you name it. But this...well, it was too new. Besides, I've seen far too many Japanese horror movies like GRUDGE with pissed off, vengeful spirits. I told Dave if he brought home a white faced ghost with lots of black hair or a spooky little kid, he was in deep shite.

Dave looked at the mail. There was a bill from a pathology lab and an alimony payment notice alongside a half empty bottle of wine. It made us both wonder what had happened out there on the ocean. Did this man decide to kill himself, perhaps riddled with some incurable cancer? If so, did he expect the boat to go down in the water or did he have visions of it sailing unmanned like a modern day Flying Dutchman? Something about the combination of the mail, the wine, and the fact he was out alone on the ocean during a storm at Christmas more than hints at premeditated suicide.

Poor guy.

There are those nasty thoughts of mortality creeping in again. They're definitely mixed up with a desire to use this in a book and a certain amount of guilt at using someone else's tragedy as creative inspiration.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Mystery of the Hard Drives by Morgan Mandel

I'm blessed and cursed with two computers - a desktop and a laptop.

When I write or market, I love to sit down at my desk and use my ultra fast desktop computer with the large screen. The setup is easy on the eyes and comfortable.

I also love the convenience of walking to and from the commuter train with my lightweight laptop computer slung over my shoulder. Once onboard, I can do the same things I can do at home with the desktop computer.

Now, here's the catch. Sometimes I save files on the hard drive of my laptop computer. Other times, I do it on the desktop's hard drive. To make things more confusing, my laptop is the only place I can sync my Iphone photos. However, I can send emails from my Iphone to the account I'm not using to send the email. (If I send it to the same one I'm on, yahoo won't show it). Anyway, these emails will show up on both computers.

I also own a small Canon camera which I use for flash or telephoto pics, plus movies. The content from that camera is saved on an SD card. I can use either computer to do the transfer.

Sometimes I work on my novels at home on the desktop, other times on the train.

If you've been following my clues, you can already detect the drawbacks suffered for the sake of owning two computers. Today, I wanted to change a photo on my website, the program of which is stored on my laptop. After a search, I found the photo in the other computer.

Last week I wanted to use my laptop computer to spend time on my novel. I wasn't sure, but I seemed to remember the last time I'd worked on the novel was on my desktop at home. It wouldn't be a good idea to add to the confusion and change the file until I knew for sure. When I got home, I compared the file dates and discovered the desktop was the correct spot for the file.

To solve at least that part of my mystery I've decided to always send myself an email of the work in progress every time I finished working on it. That way both computers will contain the correct file.

Do any of you have similar problems? If so, what solutions do you use? Or do you operate out of only one computer? Please share.

Morgan Mandel

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Writing Tips from other Writers by Vivian Zabel

I take and read several writing magazines: The Writer, WRITERS' Journal, and Writer's Digest. All of them give me ideas and advice that helps me be a better writer. As I read some of the current issues, I realized that some of the articles included suggestions that definitely apply to writing mysteries, thrillers,crime, and/or suspense novels and/or stories.

Some of the suggestions apply to any writing; some perhaps more to the mystery genres. However, all are usable to us. At the end of this article, I'll give the sources for the information I'm using. I highly recommend that everyone read all the articles.

Create believable and distinctive characters. Have you ever read more than one book where at least one character could be dropped into more than one story, even if the names aren't the same, and no one notice? I mean other than in a series or a sequel that contains the same characters.

Some ways to make characters believable and distinctive are several, but a few include to have characters not be predictable, to make them three-dimensional rather than stereotypical or all good or all bad, to "show" their personalities and characters rather than "tell" the reader what kind of person they are. An antagonist shouldn't be a "flat" all bad, evil person. A protagonist shouldn't be all good without any faults or short comings.

Include the four elements. Every well-written novel or story needs to have a strong hook at the beginning to grab the readers attention and keep it.

Conflict is necessary to have a plot, a story. Of course without conflict, we would have only a narrative, and we wouldn't have anything to interest a reader.

Conflict leads to a struggle, according to Diane E. Robertson, both internal and external. The ups and downs of the struggle make the plot move forward to the resolution, the end of the story. Authors need to be sure that that end is not a false finish. The end must make sense and satisfy the reader. A surprise ending should still be credible.

Make sure the plot is plausible to the reader. Often, coincidences are thrown in to surprise a reader, but if credibility is stretched too far, the reader won't accept it. Hallie Ephron states, "... never, ever, ever make a coincident integral to the solution.

Don't conceal clues from the reader. The reader should know all the clues as soon as the mystery solver or detective does.

I gave a few of the many tips found in three articles and a bit of my own knowledge mixed in. I'll add to the list later.

Sources, besides the information I've accumulated over the years:

The Writer, Hallie Ephron,October 2008 page 26-29; Paola Carso, December 2008 page 28-29.
WRITERS' Journal, Diane E. Robertson, January/February 2009 page 46-47.

Vivian Zabel
Brain Cells & Bubble Wrap
Vivian's Mysteries
Midnight Hours