Tuesday, March 31, 2009

JA Konrath & Jack Kilborn Cornered By Rob Walker (an interview and a reunion)

I checked to make sure my phone was recording. “Tell me about horror.”

Konrath grinned at me, eyes glinting. “You know all about horror, Walker. Hell, I was reading you when I was a teenager. In fact, I read you under three different pen names before I knew they were all you. Maybe that’s why I decided on a pen name for Afraid.”

I glanced nervously at the gun, then checked my crib sheet. “That’s your first Jack Kilborn book, coming out at the end of March, right? Does it take place in Chicago?”

“Wisconsin. A tiny little town of nine hundred people. Something evil comes to town, and the population gets reduced. Drastically.”

“Any funny stuff in this one?”

Konrath/Kilborn shook his head. “This one is all scares, no laughs.” He leaned forward, lowering his voice. “I’m predicting that a lot of people who start it won’t be able to finish it. Too frightening.”

“Why the switch to horror?”

“I’ve always written horror. The Jack Daniels series has a lot of scary scenes. But Afraid gave me a chance to sustain the terror-level for a whole book, rather than just a few chapters.”

I checked my notes again. “Would you classify any of your books as your favorite? And if so, can you explain why?”

“I like Rusty Nail. It introduces Alex, who becomes Jack’s nemesis for two more books, Fuzzy Navel, and Cherry Bomb, coming out this July. It’s a pretty wicked book, in between the jokes.”

“As wicked as Afraid?”

“I’ve never read a book as wicked as Afraid.” He smiled. “Except for some of your stuff, Walker. Remember the first time we met, I called you a sick son of a bitch?”
“First words out of your mouth. Endeared me to you forever.” I switched gears. “ No author on the planet has done more guerilla-styled and classy promotion and marketing than has JA Konrath both on the web and in the real world, and if a prize were given for most endurance in an author on a tour and self-promotion effort, it must go to you, Joe. In fact, if I had a canned ham, I’d award it to you now.

“Thanks. I might even share it with you, if you threw in some bread and cheese.”

“You’re a generous man. My question is: Can you offer a quick word of advice to authors, new and old, who struggle with marketing or have flat out given up on it?”
Konrath took in a breath, blew it out slow. “Okay, in a nutshell. The one who gets their name on the most pieces of paper, wins. That paper could be a book, a short story in a magazine or anthology, or virtual paper, like a blog or web page. The more places people can find you, the better you’ll do as an author. So you need to help people find you.”


“Having an Internet presence that’s all about offering information and entertainment. Making sure people can easily find you, while also making sure other people find you when they’re searching for something else. That means you have to give good content.”

“What else?”

“Meeting as many people as possible, in person and on the web. Some people have more power than others. Media folks. Reviewers. Booksellers. Librarians. Bloggers. Give them extra special attention.”

“You make it sound easy.”

“Writing is a service industry, my friend. Give good service, and people will come back for more.”

We hear footsteps just outside and Konrath blows out the single kerosene lamp we have been laboring under. “Who is it, Joe? Who’s after you? For God’s sake man, perhaps I can help. If you are in some kind of trouble . . . you must tell me who is stalking you?”

“Same people who are after you!”



After a moment, the sounds from outside become muffled and soon are gone altogether. Joe relights the lamp. My gun is back in my possession, but the phone is still recording. “Final question for the ACME blog, Joe is not a question. This space is completely and utterly yours to sound off. Your time to add anything you wish.

"Anything I’ve failed to cover.”

“You’ve been in this biz long enough to know the secret, Walker. It’s about survival. But you can’t survive on your own. We’re writers. There’s no competition between us. My fans are your fans, and vice versa. So we need to treat each other better. Support one another. Recommend each other’s books. Hell, we should buy and review each other’s books as well. Never ceases to amaze me that something so simple, so obvious, is done by so few.”

Konrath stands up, offers his hand. “Thanks for the interview, Walker, and for watching my back. You know I’m your biggest fan.”

I nod, and he walks off into the shadows before I can return the sentiment. But if you’re reading this, Joe, know I feel the same way…

If you’ve enjoyed our brief interlude with Joe Konrath, you can learn a great deal more about him at his website -
If you’ve enjoyed our brief interlude with Joe Konrath, you can learn a great deal more about him at his website - http://www.jakonrath.com/

His blogspot - http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/

MySpace - http://www.myspace.com/jakonrath

For more tedious information about moi, it’s http://www.robertwalkerbooks.com//

Thanks for coming by –
Rob Walker

Monday, March 30, 2009

Guest Mystery Writer, Patricia A. Rasey

Please join me in welcoming guest Patricia A. Rasey. Ms. Rasey has nine novels published, along with novellas and an award-winning short story.

What is the first mystery you remember reading? Wow, I don’t even remember. It could be a Mary Higgins Clark book, though I can’t recall which one. I’ve been reading books for years…all the way back to childhood. One of the first adult books I can remember reading is The Betsy by Harold Robbins. I was hooked from that point on. I couldn’t find enough time in the day to read all the books I wanted to read. I still feel that way. I have more books than I’ll ever find the time to read.

What is the most recent mystery you’ve read? I just finished the four book Twilight series…what a task. Before that, I think I read a lot of romance. But I think the last one I read was Ancient Laws by Jim Michael Hansen. I don’t think it’s out yet, I gave an author quote…but great book! I’ve read and enjoyed several of his books. He might be considered more thriller, though.

When you’re writing, do you keep a list of “clues” and “red herrings” at hand? I try to. I’m not the best of organizers. I keep a list in a WORD document of things I may need to address later in the book. It’s a way for me to go back and take a quick look when I’m further down the road to see what I may have done and things I need to tie up. Sort of a reminder if you will.

Are you a plotter or a seat-of-the-pants writer? I am definitely a seat-of-the-pants writer. I can’t say I don’t plot at all…I do, it’s just that I have a tendency to dive in and then once I get so far in, I start plotting things out more. I don’t think I could tie up all loose ends if I didn’t plot at all. But I am not a heavy plotter.

If you could spend an afternoon over a pot of coffee with any writer (living or dead), who would it be? John Douglas, although technically he doesn’t really write his materials, he co-writes. But I think it would be awesome to pick his brain. Or maybe Edgar Allen Poe…love him!

What would be the first thing you’d want to ask? What it was like to interview all the serial killers he did. I would have loved to have been there when he did. Their dark minds and what drives them is fascinating to me.

Do headlines trigger story ideas for you? Definitely. I think all things in life can be triggers. You never know when something might happen and make you think that would be a great addition to my story. Or to even revolve your whole novel around a concept. I read headlines on “toothing” once and added that to my last novel. Although, the phenomenon ended very quickly. And recently, a friend was telling us about the violent dreams he had when he was on the patch to quit smoking. He made a statement and I just sat there and went wow…that’s the opening line to my next book. And it is…to my work in progress, Charred Remains.

How do you stay organized when in the midst of writing, editing, reading galleys, etc? I can’t say I am organized at all right now. I work fulltime outside the home—so juggling my writing, work, and home life can be a challenge. When writing my novel—I can never turn off the self-editor in my head, so most times, by time I type “The End,” the book is nearly finished. A final read-through, a few changes, and it’s done.

What program(s) do you use to organize, write, promote? I use WORD for everything. I’m not great with creating graphics and the whatnot, so most everything I do is in WORD. I do my outlines there, my synopsis, my rough draft, etcetera. Then when I keep track of what marketing I do—I also put it in a WORD document to save. Not real imaginative, but it works for me. Recently, I got a new computer with a new version of WORD. I’m struggling…I don’t like change. Maybe not so much change, but the time it takes to learn something new. As I said—my time is so limited these days.

When is your next release and please give us title and a little tease.
I don’t have a release date for my next book…I sort have been sitting on it. It’s been finished and fine-tuned, but a good friend of mine is taking a look at it before I start the submission process and hopefully get a publisher for it. It’s called Love You To Pieces and I’m hoping it’s my best work to date. I certainly put a lot of time in it. The two characters, Detective Jaycen McCain and Sara St. James have a lot of hurdles to cross before they can ever think about getting together…if that ever happens. Jaycen is chasing his late wife’s murderer while her cousin, Sara, is trying to heal those old wounds for him. There’s a bit of darkness in this one. It’s more of a thriller, than a mystery as I tell you who the killer is by chapter seven and hope I still pull off the intrigue. It was my goal to be able to do that and still keep the reader wanting to change the page. The next book, Charred Remains, that I am now writing collides Love You To Pieces sequel with the sequel to Fa├žade. I think it will be great to revisit the characters from that book…and start a whole new tale for those two.

Thanks for asking me to guest on your blog…I enjoyed the visit.
You can visit Patricia anytime at her website www.patriciarasey.com

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Characters Gone Wild

Okay. You've just written a couple of pages...things are going okay. Maybe not the best writing day you've ever had, possibly a few bits where the story isn't flowing or the dialogue seems clunky. Or maybe you're having one of those days where nothing is working and you feel like tossing a brick through your computer monitor. So you decide to take a break, leaving your characters and story to percolate for an hour or so. You go for a walk, maybe have something do eat or slam back a shot of Jack Daniels - whatever constitutes a break in your world. Ideas start percolating, the creative juices are flowing and you can't wait to get back to your work. You sit back down in front of your computer, open the document and...


"Wait a minute," you say to one of your characters. "Didn't I leave you in a juice bar?"

"Yup, sure did," replies said character, whom we'll call Nick just for the heck of it.

"Erm...so mind telling me what the hell you're doing a bar?"

Nick shrugs. "Got bored. Only so much to look at in a Jamba Juice." He takes a sip of what looks and smells like booze.

"Hey! Is that alcohol you're drinking?"

"Best Manhattan in the city." Nick toasts the bartender. "Thanks, pal."

"But...you're a health nut! A vegan, fer crissake! You don't drink anything harder than raw carrot juice, remember?"

Nick wrinkles his nose in distaste. "Yeah, well, about that. I've decided I hate friggin' carrot juice, I like red meat and I have a drinking problem. Don't smoke though. I hate the smell."

"What, what, WHAT?!" You stare at him in outraged disbelief. "That's not how I wrote you!"

"Yeah, well, tough shit." Nick takes another long draught of his Manhattan and signals the bartender for another one. "And make one for the lady here. She needs to relax."

"I do NOT need to relax!" you sputter. "You are a vegan, non drinking, health nut and that's final!"

Nick looks at you, one eyebrow raised in a sardonic expression that has no place on his face. At least not the way you originally wrote his character. "Look, lady," he says after a long pause. "It wasn't working. No offense, it's not like you're a bad writer or anything...but there's no way the Nick you wrote will work for the story you want."

You start to protest, a knee-jerk reaction to someone daring to tell you what will or won't work for YOUR creation. Then you stop yourself because...well...it wasn't working, was it?

Nick nods, his expression this side of smug. The bartender places a fresh Manhattan in front of both of us. "Think about it for a minute," says Nick. "Have a drink. Then we'll talk."

You think, you drink, and then the two of you discuss the story at length. Damned if Nick isn't right. It'll mean some rewriting, but ultimately you know the changes will result in a better story.

Moral of the story?

We may create these characters, but they really can and do take on a life of their own. And in my personal experience, allowing them the space to grow and change rather than try to keep them in a tightly sealed box of my creation helps me grow as a writer.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

A Much More Difficult Time...

by Ben Small

I paid a visit to my friend John Weber just outside Tombstone. He’s a licensed rattlesnake hunter. But this time I went not for rattlesnake wallets, although I bought some for family members, but for his outdoor museum. John and I spent a couple hours staring at the implements he’s collected, evidence of the hard life experienced by desert settlers during Tombstone’s boom time. I also spent some time at Wyatt Earp’s house, a small two room house with no kitchen or bathroom. For meals, Wyatt and his live-in mate, had to cross the street to Virgil Earp’s home where family meals were cooked. That house burned down in 1998 and wasn’t rebuilt. It’s a vacant field now.

Here’s a section of Wyatt Earp’s wallpaper.

And here's one of Earp's buggies. Wyatt sold it when the Earps left Tombstone, and the not-for-profit that runs his house was able to track it and buy it back and restore it. Note: no shock absorbers.

Yuk. But Tombstone wasn’t a “feel good” sort of place in the 1880s, unless you were Ed Schieffelin and his partners, who were among the few who actually made money from the mines. They cashed in early for what now would approximate one billion dollars.
For the rest, Tombstone was, indeed, the “Town Too Tough To Die.”

These pictures show various tools used to de-horn and remove testicles from bulls. Evidently, from the number and variety of these in John's collection, this was a regular activity in Tombstone days. Don't know why I took pictures of so many of them. Maybe I identify with the bulls...

Here are some actual Tombstone posters which were nailed to posts throughout the town. These are the real thing, not something printed up post-period.

Branding was the name of the game for both ranchers and rustlers in those days. Cattle were free-range, so branding was essential. Problem was the rustlers were excellent at making their own brands, which would duplicate an existing brand but add a bar or circle, so the rustlers could claim the cattle were theirs. And cattle farming or stealing was profitable; the miners needed food. So, naturally, John Weber has many brands, some of which are remarkably similar. While I've got pictures after pictures of these different brands, I'll just flash one for you.

Of course, as shown by one of the posters above, Tombstone was a gun-free town, unless you were a Clanton or McLaurey and you wanted a gunfight over the issue. But outside town, hog-legs and Winchesters were essential tools. Between the Apache, rustlers and mine raiders, this was a very dangerous territory. John has some cartridges from the period.

Everyday existence in Tombstone was a struggle. There was no water; it was carried in from the San Pedro River via wagon and cost 3c/gallon. Ironically, water led to the closing of the mines in 1887, just nine or so years after the town was founded. The Tombstone silver mines were not closed because of the plunge in silver prices, as is commonly stated. The mines were flooded when a massive 1887 earthquake tore open a fault and part of the underground San Pedro flow streamed upward.

When a cattleman, miner or traveler had to spend a night in the desert, there was the issue of what to do with the horses? Unless one was staying along the river where large mesquite or cottonwood trees would provide a tie-up, the traveler had to carry the means for keeping his horse nearby. But the river was an especially dangerous area, because brigands, marauders and predators (mountain lions, rattlesnakes and bears) prowled the river banks. So it was much safer to sleep out in the desert. But how to tie up the horses? Here's an example of how that was done. The traveler would screw these posts into the ground and tie his horse to it.

If you were a miner or a cattleman who caught a claim jumper or rustler, and you didn't shoot him, you had to have some way to keep the bad guy captive until the town or county marshal could take over. Here's one way this was done.

The miners were afraid to leave their mines, lest claim jumpers settle in, so the miner had to keep nearby all his pots, pans, tents, and mining equipment. So much like the movies, travelers during this period usually trailed a mule laden with all this hardware. Here are some of the things those poor beasts had to carry.

If you happen to travel to Southern Arizona, I highly recommend visiting John Weber's outdoor museum and rattlesnake crafts store. Admission is free, and what you see will leave lasting impressions. Contact John at http://www.rattlesnakecrafts.com/. You may recognize him; he's been on both The Today Show and PBS.

In the meantime, I'll leave you with a picture of the entrance to his museum. It's quite a place, and a reminder that no matter how tough we think times are now, they were much more demanding a hundred twenty-five years ago...

Note: Sorry for the dis-jointed positioning of some of these pictures. This was the best I could do given the limitations of Blogger.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Out of Time

I am more than a bit overwhelmed right now as Safe House is so near to being released in print. I've spent months getting ready for this day, establishing a web presence with blogs, printing and sending out ARCS for reviews, lining up blogs who will allow me to guest post for a blog tour. And I am still unprepared.
I still need more reviews. I need a better press release. I need...more time.
The irony of the whole thing is that this isn't my first book. I knew I knew nothing about promotion for a mystery author last time. I figured I'd learn and that I would know better this time. Yeah right.
Since I was last published things have changed. The internet has changed. Authors now promote themselves on social networks like Facebook and Myspace. They are required to tweet on Twitter at least once if not several times a day. Twitter wasn't even a whisper in its developer's ears when I last got published.
Authors should still keep up with emails on places like Yahoogroups that deal with their genre like Mysterymostcozy or CozyKorner making sure to post about their books and yet still keep up with the group's converstaion, making it clear that the author is not just there to sell books. We need to network with other authors to keep up with the trends. Then we authors are supposed to arrange in-your-face promotion--signings, and talks and tours.
Sigh. With more time, perhaps it's all possible. Who knows what other promo activity could be invented with more time. Tell me, please, how do you do it all?

Christine Duncan is the author the of the Kaye Berreano mystery series

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Plot is Everything

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While doing some online studying on writing good mystery novels, I ran across an article written by Ginny Wiehardt, titled "Top 10 Rules for Mystery Writing." Good article, just click on the title if you want to read it. She puts as number one in importance, the plot. Here's an excerpt from the article:

1. In mystery writing, plot is everything.
Because readers are playing a kind of game when they read a detective novel, plot has to come first, above everything else. Make sure each plot point is plausible, and keep the action moving. Don't get bogged down in back story or go off on tangents.


I tend to agree. Certainly in any fiction genre, plot is of tremendous importance. But in the mystery novel it takes front and center stage, more so than say, the romance novel - where the same old "boy meets girl and they eventually fall in love against all odds and probability" plot will work just fine. Back story all you want, go off on a romantic and/or dangerous tangent here and there if you please, so long as the characters and situations are complex and interesting enough, and it all ends in a steamy lovemaking scene with the promise of living happily ever after, you're fine. Or the spiritual/inspirational novel where the messages delivered, if powerful and insightful enough, can be of more importance than a super duper move-it-always-straight-forward plot interlaced with several sub-plots and all kinds of twists to it.

Not so in the mystery novel. The "guessing game" aspect, the beloved "twists," those smack yourself on the forehead "aha!" moments when you realize how cleverly the author has misdirected your attention and/or had you despising the wrong "obviously guilty" character up until now - this is the quintessential stuff of good mystery writing. A superior plot is absolutely key and the mystery novel without one is doomed to mediocrity without it.

That's my opinion. What's yours - and why?

Monday, March 23, 2009

"I Knew My Lips Were Snarling" by Anne Carter

As a writer, I am intrigued by writing in the first person. It’s fun because it’s personal—to the character—and more “conversational”. The protagonist’s thoughts and experiences are unique to his/her personal point of view. However, there are some caveats.

First of all, the reader is immediately let in on the fact that the first-person character has survived whatever is about to happen in order to tell the story. Doesn’t work if you protag is rubbed out in chapter 19.

Readers can only know what the character knows, can only experience what s/he experiences along the way. This can make it a challenge for the author to convey important information to the reader without relying on hackneyed memory flashbacks or info-dumping conversations with other characters. The reader also might find it difficult to “see” the character’s expressions, get the full impact of his body language unless the writer is adept at describing them without sounding forced.

“I grimaced at myself in the mirror.” “I felt my eyebrows come together in a decided, confused frown.” Hmm.

On the plus side, first-person is easier to control, especially if the writer has difficulty in third-person with regard to head-hopping through multiple point-of-view characters. There is no choice here. Additionally, readers often find it easier to identify and sympathize with a character when they spend the whole book inside that character’s head. There’s an intimacy created with the protagonist that cannot exist with other characters.

Many mysteries are written in first-person for these very reasons. However, in cases where the character in question does not survive to tell the tale, or where the reader needs to be allowed to “pull back” a bit from the character in order to “see” more of the story’s surroundings, a limited third-person point of view may be more beneficial. Some mystery authors prefer this technique, because although the POV is limited to one character, the writer has more freedom with regard to what the reader is allowed to experience.

In my romantic novella STARFIRE, my protagonist is an attractive, lonely accountant who happens upon a chance to have a fling with a well-known actor. Because the reader is treated only to her fears, her desires, her angst, I can control the reader's sympathies toward her, despite the fact that others (her husband, her children, etc.) could have very conflicting views of her behavior.

The choice is yours. But if you’ve never written (or read) a first-person story, I recommend you give it a try, if for only a short. For authors, there is a discipline to staying on that first-person path that will benefit third-person or limited-third-person writings of future work. For readers, it’s just great fun to “become” someone else for the next 300 pages, solving the mystery one step at a time with the protagonist.

Anne Carter is the author of paranormal romantic mystery, POINT SURRENDER, from Echelon Press, Amazon and Fictionwise. Visit Anne at BeaconStreetBooks.com.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


From the hopefilled mind of Earl Staggs

I’m always interested in what people who write call themselves. Most, I suppose, describe themselves as a “writer.” That’s fine, but it only tells me they know something about stringing words together.

Many are expert in the craft of the written word. They know the rules of grammar and punctuation, when to use "who" and when to use "whom," and know a preposition is not something with which to end a sentence. But there are so many different arenas in which they might apply their writing skills. There’s technical writing, for instance. Ask a technical writer to explain an economic principle or scientific theory, how to use a computer or prune a rose bush and they'll string words together in understandable prose. There’s also journalism. Journalists, or reporters, don’t create news, but use their writing ability to describe to the public what’s going on in the world around them. Some writers are reviewers or critics and use their skill to share their opinion of a book, movie, play or TV show.

There are more ways people use writing skill and that’s why, when someone says they’re a “Writer,” I want to know more. If they refer to themselves as a “Fiction Writer,” that narrows it down some.

Then there are those who refer to themselves as “Novelists.” Okay, but that only tells me they write books and at least one of them has been published.

While there’s nothing wrong with any of those terms, I would like to be known as a Storyteller.

In my mind, a Storyteller wants to do more than string words together to describe or report facts or events. A Storyteller wants to blend and brushstroke words into a tale so interesting and engrossing readers care how it ends. A Storyteller strives to create characters who think and feel so vividly readers understand their passions, exult in their joy, and feel the warmth of their tears. A Storyteller attempts to portray places and events, real or fictional, so true to the mind's eye readers are transported to those places and experience those events.

When someone can use the skills and craft of writing to tell a story that lifts readers from their immediate reality into a created one so truly as to leave indelible impressions in their minds and hearts, that person is blessed with a wondrous gift. I think of it as the Gift of Storytelling.

And that’s why I hope to be remembered as a Storyteller. Perhaps, if I keep learning and working hard at it, people will go one step further and think of me as a Good Storyteller.

Earl Staggs

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Hounding the Mailbox and Waiting for Publication

By Jean Henry Mead

I’ve waited up to 18 months for a book to be published, but that was before publish on demand. POD is considered second class by many in the publishing industry, and I don't understand why. It's much more efficient than traditional publishing and isn’t it great that the wait between submission and publication is only a few months? Your books aren’t languishing in some warehouse, maybe never to be delivered to the bookstores. That's happened more often than publishers care to admit. It’s also the reason bestselling authors have delivered pizza, donuts and coffee to warehouse workers. It insures that their newly published books leave the loading dock.

If you’re young, you have all the time in the world to wait for a major publisher to produce your books. But as you grow older and wonder if you’re going to live long enough to see them in print, you think POD is the greatest invention since paper towels.

I came to that conclusion last year after the first novel of my Logan & Cafferty mystery/suspense series was orphaned. Who would want to publish a series that had already been published? I wondered. I received an almost immediate response from Avalon to my query letter, but I waited and waited for a go-ahead to my submission. Seven months later and tired of waiting, I decided to go with a small POD publisher that is very accommodating.

My first two books were published within three months and released not only in print but Kindle and Fictionwise multi-format. Not on the bestseller list, by any means, but they remained #1 in sales for a couple of months at Fictionwise-epress. That made it worthwhile.

This week Diary of Murder, the second novel in my mystery series, appeared in print at Amazon.com nearly a month after the Kindle edition, and it’s difficult to find although the Kindle edition pops right up. I finally tracked it down at: http://tiny.cc/gO2vi, and wonder if POD editions are given second class status by online bookstores. I think it’s time, especially during this economic downturn, that POD publishing receives some respect.

What do you think?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Too Many Killings? by Chester Campbell

How much killin’ is enough? You expect to find murders in a murder mystery, but do some authors go overboard?

Lee Child is one who knows how to knock ‘em off with abandon. Jack Reacher and his antagonists can be counted on to dispatch up to a dozen or more in every book. Reacher does it with a bit of flair, killing in just about every way imaginable.

Robert B. Parker’s Spenser has been known to knock off a few bad guys, though he usually keeps it to a fairly low number. I seem to recall in Potshot, however, that Spenser and his crew stirred things up out in Arizona on a level that outdid the O.K. Corral guys by far.

Of course, when the good guys are pulling the trigger, it isn’t murder, it’s self-defense. But sometimes, it seems, they can get pretty self-indulgent.

When the mystery involves a serial killer, it’s a given that there will be a string of bodies laid out all through the book. Some authors delight in giving us all the gory details of how it happens. But are we any more enlightened than when we only learn the basics of the slaughter from a detective’s perspective or an autopsy report?

I have described a few deaths in my books, but I keep the gory details to a minimum. How do you feel about killings in mysteries? Are there too many? Are they too graphic?

Chester Campbell
Mystery Mania

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Put zip in mysteries by Vivian Zabel

I tried to read three different books a few weeks ago, two of which were mysteries or sub-mystery genre. I couldn't force myself to plow through the words between the covers. Another two books, mysteries, too, were sent to me to review. I don't know what to do about those reviews because the books are poorly written, except in a few spots.

I'm a avid reader. When I can't find anything else, I may read the back of cereal boxes. But these books defied my attempts to force myself to read them. So, I decided to analyze the problem or problems as to why the reading was labored and uninteresting.

Using four of the five books, the mysteries, (but not identifying them to protect the poor authors) as examples, I can give several reasons that books can be unreadable, things that an author needs to avoid. However, this time I'll discuss five.

1.Too many subplots can become confusing. Confusing, and thus losing, readers isn't a good thing. That doesn't mean that having subplots is a bad thing, just that too many spoil the book. Too many subplots makes the overall plot too complex.

2. Making "make-believe" world unbelievable. Readers can suspend belief IF authors develop a world in writing that a reader can accept, can suspend belief enough to accept. However, a reader must be able to say, "Oh, yes, I can see how that might happen if such a world or circumstances did exist." Therefore, as Laura Whitcomb states (Writer's Digest, March/April 2009), "Readers need to buy into the reality put forward by what they're reading." An author cannot go too far with a plot point or not far enough as the reading audience is being prepared. The plot cannot become too far fetched, or readers will not be able to suspend belief enough to accept it.

3. Dialogue can't be just talking heads. Action needs to be involved as well as conversation, and conversation with action should move the plot along and reveals character. Also, the reader needs to know who is talking when.

4. An unsatisfactory conclusion should be avoided. A twist or surprising ending that has a good foundation laid in the story is good. An ending that does not "fit" is bad.

5. Forced emotion can destroy believability. Most people do not sit mulling over their inner most thoughts and emotions in the midst of action. Yet, I'm discovering many novels that have a character do just that. Not only does such needless and in depth thinking tell and not show, but it becomes monotonous.

There, five ways that cause mysteries to become targets for the waste basket, when avoided can improve a story. Of course more ways exist, but those can be covered another time.

Vivian Zabel
Brain Cells & Bubble Wrap
4RV Publishing

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Happy St. Patrick's Day by Mark Troy

As I write this, St. Patrick's Day is drawing to a close. The corned beef has been consumed. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem are singing about poor Tim Finnegan on the CD player. There is two fingers of Bushmill's in the glass and an Irish mystery novel to read.

Few mystery fans have not heard of Ken Bruen. Less well-known is his countryman, Declan Hughes, an Irish playwright turned mystery writer. I happened to be a part of the Shamus Award committee for Best First PI Novel when Hughes's first book, The Wrong Kind of Blood, Harper Collins, 2006, was submitted.

The Wrong Kind of Blood features California PI Ed Loy who returns to Ireland, his birthplace, after a twenty-year absence. Loy is here for his mother's funeral. The book hooked me in two sentences.

"The night of my mother's funeral, Linda Dawson cried on my shoulder, put her tongue in my mouth and asked me to find her husband. Now she was lying dead on her living room floor, and the howl of a police siren echoed through the surrounding hills."

As the opening conveys, Loy becomes involved with a woman who hires him to find her missing husband. She later turns up dead. There are a lot of bodies in this book, some buried in the foundations of the city's town hall. Others are buried in Loy's past along with resentment for his mother who entered a sexual relationship with another man shortly after his father's disappearance. There are corrupt real estate deals, drug running, and blood. A lot of blood. Loy is the kind of PI who uses his head for butting as much as for cogitation.

The best part of the book, however, is Hughes's unflinching eye for modern-day Ireland, which one character claims is the 51st state of the United States. Loy has been gone too long from Ireland and he has difficulty accepting the changes.

"Seafield Town Hall stands at the top of the main street. You can see it from the harbor, and walking right up the town toward it gives you a sense of how the town used to fit together. It's a substantial late nineteenth-century granite-clad building with a clock tower, council chambers, and public reception rooms. At least, it once was all of those things. Now, it’s a Macdonald's. I stood outside it feeling utterly bewildered, like George Bailey in Pottersville."

In the end, Loy comes to terms with Ireland and his own past.

"You can't outrun your past. I spent twenty years in a country dedicated to that very idea. But it doesn't work. Your blood might be wrong, but it's your own. Your past is always waiting for you, and the longer you leave it, the less prepared you are. I had left it long enough."

Reader's who expect the gritty noir of Ken Bruen might be disappointed. What they will find, though, is a fast-paced book with well-drawn characters and vivid descriptions of the sights and smells of modern Dublin.

The Wrong Kind of Blood won the Shamus Award for Best First PI Novel of 2006.

The Color of Blood and The Price of Blood followed it, all featuring Ed Loy who brings to Dublin the excitement that Spencer brought to Boston.

The Bushmill's is gone for now, but there will be many more glasses to look forward to in the future to go with many more Irish mysteries. Erin Go Braugh!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

My Book Launch Pics

This was so much fun. We put black tablecloths on the table, decorated with crime scene tape, you can see we used it to block off the door into the church from the fellowship hall we used for the launch.

The "we" is my daughter-in-law and granddaughter. Granddaughter was in her p.j.'s and went home before we started. Daughter-in-law stayed and helped.

What was nice people came in and visited and then left before a new group arrived. Had plenty of time to talk with each set of folks.

Wonder what I'll come up with next time, love planning book launches.

a.k.a. F. M. Meredith

Monday, March 16, 2009

Put A Girl In It By Morgan Mandel

So, you've got a great hero, wonderful plot, all kinds of suspense, all kinds of action, all kinds of twists, yet it doesn't click. Why? Maybe you need to "Put a Girl In It," as Brooks & Dunn sing, accompanied by Reba McIntyre . Or, in the case of a heroine, put a guy in it.

The fact that Harlequin's sales are up, despite a flagging economy, tells you something. People are fascinated by stories that include love and/or sex. Adding that aspect to a mystery provides one more dimension to a character and increases what's at stake.

How much you include is your choice. Or, maybe you still would still prefer your character to brave it alone.

What's your opinion? Do you enjoy mysteries with a love interest involved or not? Why?
Please share.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Changeling and True Crime by Morgan Mandel

Saturday night my husband and I watched Changeling. I often fall asleep watching movies on the couch at home, but this this was one movie which kept my attention from start to finish. Just when everything seemed to be going right, more setbacks slammed into Christine Collins, played by Angelina Jolie. Leave it to the DH to notice she didn't seem to mind getting her eye makeup smeared or her nose red, but I digress.

What's shocking is this movie was based on a true story. Each day I hear more about corruption in our era, but the events in Changeling began in 1928. For some reason I expected old fashioned values to prevail in such a setting, instead of what was the case.

The movie is about a mother whose son disappears and the police claim they've found him, but is it really him? For more, here's the clip:

Although there are enough hair raising happenings to choose from, I've never considered writing a book or script about a true story. The plot would be limited to a certain degree to keep true to history, but in between there would be lots of leeway to exercise the imagination.

What about you? Do you like to read True Crime books? Have you read a good one? Would you consider writing one? Please share.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Location, Location...

by Ben Small

Part and parcel of a good story is the location chosen. I especially enjoy mysteries set in locations that offer historical, cultural or topographical oddities or curiosities, or those which will add interesting aspects to my plotting.

And I've found a gem this time, right in my own back yard. My next book, title as yet undetermined, will be set in the historic areas south of Tucson, the San Pedro and Santa Cruz rivers, the valleys they support and the Santa Rita Mountain Range which splits them. It was here that the first Spanish settlements arose during the 1500s, and it was along the San Pedro where Wyatt Earp carried out his vendetta against the Cowboys. In fact, close to the place where I took the lead shot for this article, Wyatt Earp shot dead the famous outlaw Curly Bill Brocius, leader of the rustling Cowboys, in a hail of gunfire. Back then, the term "Cowboy" was an insult; intended to refer to the murdering rustlers who invaded ranches in Mexico and the Arizona/New Mexico territories, murdered the residents, and stole their cattle or horses. There was no law and order back in those days, no jurisdictional respect or order between federal, county and local law enforcement agencies. County law enforcement was aligned with the rustlers, while the Earps were town and deputy U.S. marshals. Two U.S. presidents tried to remedy the outlaw culture, and the Government of Mexico threatened war, but it took Wyatt Earp and his brothers, not the most pleasant or legitimate characters themselves considering their gambling and prostitution interests, to clean up the mess. And at root, politics was behind much of the conflict, for the rustlers were Democrats, and the gamblers and pimps were Republicans.

How's that for consistency?

Despite the time difference between then and now, the 1880s mentality still remains. This is harsh country, and solutions to problems are sometimes direct and brutal. As was stated in the movie, Casino, there are many holes in the desert. I happened on one grave (Curly Bill?) where someone was kind enough to mount a cross. But many graves are unmarked, if remains are buried at all. Many bodies were and are left to the coyotes, mountain lions and the ever-present turkey vultures.

Back in the 1880s, this area was the Wild West.

Now it's just wild.

The San Pedro and Santa Cruz river beds, valleys, highways, and the mountains in between them are known as Smuggler's Alley, where trafficking in drugs, weapons and humans is most keen. Residents report finding live and spent 7.62 X 39 shells -- the kind shot by AK-47s, the smugglers' weapon of choice -- in their backyards. They hear gunshots and see people running.

The Border Patrol snatches over 800 illegals per day here.

Drive through this area during daylight, and you will see Border Patrol vehicles, lots of them, all shapes, sizes and types of them, and you'll pass through Border Patrol Inspections, both permanent and temporary. You'll see helicopters flying over, and you'll see people on mountaintops, watching, much like Cochise and Geronimo and their bands did here in the mid-to-late 19th Century. At night, you'll see flares, Kleig lights and flashlights. You may see flashing signals in the mountains. The Border Patrol will fly over, spreading their floods on hilltops or fields. You may hear shouts or shots, perhaps both.

The winds blow often, sometimes fierce and gusting; they carry strange sounds, conversations and activity from some distance away. But from where..? Tension grows as dusk falls. It builds...

At night, the desert comes alive. You hear rustling, the baying of coyotes, and sudden rushed movements, a struggle. A scream on the wind. Laughter? Terror? The air stills like it was snuffed, and you hear another rustle in a bushy mesquite nearby. You hear a shot, or was it a door slam maybe at the ranch next door? You analyze what you heard, decide there was a clang to it. Must be a door that took a breeze badly.

Be careful when you're between the valleys.

Here's a daylight shot from my car window, not far from the Santa Cruz.

If you look carefully, you'll see two people watching me from on top of a foothill five hundred yards away. I departed quickly, after I saw one of them raise a rifle through my zoom lens. I called the Border Patrol and gave them the GPS coordinates.

This is beautiful country along these two rivers, even when the rivers and streams are not running. Mountains, washes and game abound. The San Pedro valley is noted as one of the world's best bird sites.

But beware, around the next corner may lurk danger. If you're off the main roads, you may want to be armed.

Other risks affect folks in this area, too. Water, for instance. Green Valley and Tucson pull most of their water from the Santa Cruz watershed. The water table, which varies from several hundred feet from the surface to just a few feet close to the river, is declining, and groundwater and stream flow are showing increased levels of contaminates. The Santa Cruz originates in Mexico and flows north. Nogales, Sonora is a major industrial center, and it's pumping TCE laced water into the riverbed.

But there's more... This area, up from Mexico to Tucson, sees some of the most intense mining operations in the world. Gold, silver, copper, molybdenum, uranium and other minerals are mined and processed here, and these processes use sulfuric acid, arsenic and other heavy metals and poisonous substances. The chemical tanks, piping, seals and acid ponds sometimes leak. Tailings from these mines dot the countryside, creating huge toxic mounds saturated with these chemicals -- and radioactive to boot. This is open pit stuff, most of it, so the mountains are being scarred. And where tunnel mining prevails, there are problems with subsistence (sudden collapse of mine shafts). A collapsing mine channel may unpredictably divert rushing floodwaters during summer monsoons. You're in the mountains, and there's no soil to absorb rainfall. The ground is hard-pack. It, too, is mined, for Portland Cement and Cemex, the Mexican concrete giant.

The chemical runoff from these mining operations is contaminating the groundwater at ever increasing rates. And the areas close to the river, where the water table is closest to the surface, are prime farming areas. Take for instance, this pecan farm, where I'm placing Denton Wright's ex-wife in the new book, a horse rancher and pecan farmer. The farm is less than a mile from the Santa Cruz, so the water table is close to the ground.

As I was scouting this area, I came upon a copper mine just a few miles from this pecan farm. (Indeed, another one was across the street from it, an abandoned mine, but with the tailings pile still intact.) A big 'un, with enormous sulfuric acid tanks and holding ponds and a pile of tailings climbing to the sky. Huge ore trucks pass by, throwing up clouds of dust. The trucks are timed, so the dust doesn't become a fog, but when the wind is blowing, good luck.

Here is the tailings pile. You'll also note the hanging dust cloud from an ore truck that passed by some minutes before. The roads are paved with crushed tailings here, so you're traveling on radioactive roads through radioactive clouds dusted with sulfuric acid and arsenic.

Good times, huh?

Adding more fuel to the area's growing flames of discontent and concern, there's the proposal of a Canadian company to put a new silver, copper and moly open pit mine just south of Tucson, close to Vail, an incorporated suburb. The waters from this location feed both the San Pedro and Santa Cruz rivers. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are currently conducting investigations that will lead to an environmental impact statement, but an 1872 federal law gives mining a preference over any other land development, and local residents feel bitterly that environmental concerns are once again taking a back seat to mining development. It's irony that this battleground is proceeding despite a severe downturn in materials prices, a decline that's laying off copper miners and closing many mines.

A lot of property for sale here...

So Denton's ex-wife is in the midst of this mess, trying to save her pecan farm and horse ranch, while dealing with the pressures of guarding against illegal trafficking across her lands. She lives north, in horse ranch territory, just west of the old McCartney Ranch, where Linda McCartney died. She lives two blocks from Tucson's only oasis, Aqua Caliente Park, where Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday met the territorial U.S. Marshall, who informed them Frank Stillwell and Ike Clanton were waiting at the Tucson train station to murder the entire Earp clan. The shooting of Frank Stillwell thereafter, for which Doc Holliday was charged, was the beginning of Wyatt's famous vendetta. The Cowboys were destroyed.

The problems are great, the challenges greater, and the risks are real and apparent. Still, nestled at the foot of the Santa Catalina range, in an area twenty miles away from her farm and horse ranch, Denton's ex-wife's residence looks scenic and tranquil. Desert plants, especially saguaro abound underneath the concrete-like hard-pac. It's a desert jungle, thick with mesquite, chollas, barrel cacti, acacia, ocotillo, hopbush, paloverde, mexican jumping bean, chuparosa, canyon ragweed, Parry's penstemon and creasote. Sandwiched between two mountain ranges, the northeast side of Tucson, where she lives, sees double the rainfall of metro-Tucson. The mountains squeeze the water out of clouds passing through their slot like a wet chamois twisted in strong hands.

But looks can be deceiving...

Friday, March 13, 2009

My Recommendations

I just finished reading Lincoln Child's new book Terminal Freeze. Good thriller. Here's the website for it:

I'm currently enjoying Linda Fairstein's Lethal Legacy. Check out Linda's website at: http://www.lindafairstein.com/

Sorry if any of the URLs wrap.....

Libby McKinmer
Romance with an edge

My recommendation is

This was posted on The Short Mystery Fiction Society list. It is an article about the world's greatest diamond heist. True crime that puts Ocean's 11 and Topkapi to shame.

Jean Henry Mead was kind enough to interview me on Tuesday. You can read it at Mysterious People (http://mysteriouspeople.blogspot.com)

Mark Troy
Hawaiian Eye blog

My Recommendation Is

Today is Recommendation Day.

I recommend you check out Acme Authors Link today for a great interview by mystery author, Rob Walker, who takes on mystery/thriller author, JA Konrath/Jack Kilborn. You can find them sparring at http://acmeauthorslink.blogspot.com/

If you liked my recommendation, and feel like coming back to say so, please do.

Morgan Mandel

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Language Fads

When I was younger, I would roll my eyes whenever one of my writing mentors would wring their hands about "in" words that people would use. Get over it, I would think. The language evolves.
I think I may have missed their point. Maybe sometimes, evolution is not a step forward (Hmm, would that make it de-evolution?) When we all keep using the same word over and over again, the language loses something. It's like serving the same dinner every night--fine at first, but then you just can't face the table anymore.
Let's take the word ginormous. This particular mess juxt seemed to appear EVERWHERE last year for no apparent reason. Every so often we try to think of a word that tells us something was bigger than big. The last example of this that I paid attention to was humongous (okay, I am showing my age here.) That lost some of its bigness so we went to ginormous. Thankfully that was last year which is now so last year let's not even talk about it. Oddly enough, the origins of ginormous appear to be before that of humongous--which just goes to show you how odd these crazes are.
Then there's the word pop as in "The color just makes her eyes pop." Do you hear yourself here, folks? Or am I the only one thinking about the poor girl sitting there with her eyes popping? It is not a nice picture.
The one that will not go away is ridiculous. Why that is, I can't explain. People are using the word in almost every other sentence. A bargain is ridiculously cheap or a task is ridiculously easy. Not much that I have done was ridiculously easy or cheap but I keep hearing about it. I like the words very, extremely, even awfully but I don't hear them as much anymore.
No rant on trendy words can be complete without some discussion of the F word. Come on people! Do you ever think of anything else? If we all did it as much as we talk about it, this world's population would pop--I mean we'd be ridiculously ginormous, don't you think? Or too freakin' tired to worry about what words are all the rage.

Christine Duncan is the author of the Kaye Berreano mystery series.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Great Mysteries That Intrigue

We spend a lot of time constructing our mysteries, laying in the clues and red herrings, characterizing our hero/heroine and villain, plotting meticulously and creating a satisfying conclusion for our readers. But there are many, many unexplained mysteries out there. Here are a few intriguing ones:

Loch Ness Monster
Nessie has fascinated us for hundreds of years. First reported in 565 AD in the large, freshwater loch, interest renewed in the 1930s and has continued to today. This legendary water monster has had dedicated searchers hoping to find him or her, to no result – yet – despite photos, sonar and even a video.

The Great Pyramids
Who built the great pyramids? How were they constructed using the tools and knowledge available at the time? Man has spent a great deal of time since the mid-19th century exploring the pyramids, without coming up with definitive answers.

Plato teased us with stories of a great seafaring civilization whose island world sank into the sea, leaving no trace. There have been stories, movies and endless discussions about the mysterious world of Atlantis since.

Jimmy Hoffa
Head of the influential Teamsters union, Jimmy Hoffa disappeared one day in Detroit, Michigan, in July, 1975. No trace has ever been found of Hoffa, but there are plenty of theories and rumors about what happened to him.

Bermuda Triangle
How many aircraft, ships and people have simply vanished in the famed Bermuda Triangle. Is it a wormhole, piracy, weather phenomenon or something else entirely?

Just a few mysteries that intrigue and puzzle us – do you have a different favorite mystery?

Libby McKinmer
Romance with an edge

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Complete the Scene - Your Way

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Today I thought we'd have some fun. This is a blogience participation post. I'm going to write the first two sentences of three mini-scenes ... you all write one final sentence to each of them in the comments. The idea is to share the most compelling, mysterious, shock-value-hair-raising endings we can come up with, okay? Cool. Here we go-

The door opened slow and noiselessly, without Cameron's noticing. Anthony slipped into the room and crept silently up from behind, carrying the instrument of judgement, of slow and tortuous death, thinking how just and sweet his vengeance would ... but wait - what?


It had been three hours at the stakeout with not so much as a sighting or a sound, when suddenly John heard a strange noise from behind. He jerked his neck around to see the hideous thing crawling through the back window.


Marlene awoke to the sound of an intruder coming up the stairs. She switched the bedside nightlight to on and realized in a fit of panic the power had been cut off.


All right, MMM'ers - come up with some shockeroos!

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Monday, March 9, 2009

Make Mine... Mystery Radio

by Anne Carter

I’m not quite old enough to have listened to 1930’s, 40’s or 50’s mystery radio programs. But now, through the miracle of the internet, these fabulous, classic shows are available again to mystery fans for as little as … free! I’ve been listening to RadioLovers.com for several years.

From Beyond Midnight to the Adventures of Philip Marlowe, one can listen in on any number of 30 minute stories from radio’s golden era. My personal favorite is Candy Matson. Some of the recordings are scratchy and difficult to comprehend, but most are reasonably clear. I like that I can play individual programs while I’m working on other things—things that don’t detract from my ability to listen to the story.

Some of these episodes are recorded with their sponsors’ commercials attached. Many have the leading actors reading the advertisement in between acts. Listening to commercials for long-forgotten soap products or snippets about war bonds is almost as interesting as the mystery itself.

Another thing I really like about mystery radio is that it engages the imagination more than its video cousins, TV and movies. Like an audio book, radio theater lets the listener imagine, with the help of a very few sound effects, the visual portion of the story as it unfolds. Sometimes, at the beginning, end or during a commercial, I visualize the actors standing before tall, floor microphones with scripts in their hands. How different from the mechanics of today’s entertainment.

By the way, a disclaimer on RadioLovers.com states that they believe that copyrights on any of the shows they offer are expired. See also Old Time Radio Fans.

Anne Carter is the author of paranormal romantic mystery, POINT SURRENDER, from Echelon Press, Amazon and Fictionwise. Visit Anne at BeaconStreetBooks.com.


From the packrat psyche of Earl Staggs

They call it “killing your darlings” and it’s painful when you have to do it. You’ve sweated over a part of your work in progress and you think it’s good. But then, your critique partners or a trusted reader says it has to go. It’s not relevant to the story, they say, or simply doesn’t fit into the story or does nothing more than slow down the plot.

Even harder is when you read it yourself and are struck with the nagging possibility that maybe – just maybe – that scene does not belong in that story. That’s when you flop back and forth between take it out or leave it in. A tough decision, darn tough, when you’ve put so much time and effort into it. What do you do if you decide to cut it? Delete it as if you never wrote it in the first place?

Absolutely not! Not for me anyway. I never delete anything I’ve written. If I make the painstaking, gut-wrenching decision to take something out of a WIP, I save it. Maybe someday I’ll find a place for it, maybe not. Doesn’t matter. I’ll save it anyway. You just never know.

The best example I can think of was when I was rewriting a short story called “The Missing Sniper.” It happens to be the first appearance of Adam Kingston, who later became the main character in my novel, MEMORY OF A MURDER.

The short story was about the time Adam was hired to help track down a sniper hired to shoot a a prominent politician. Naturally, I began the story with the sniper on a roof, taking aim at the politician. The sniper fired, the politician fell, and the sniper made a clean escape. The local police were desperate to find him and called on Adam to help out. I thought it was a great scene, full of tension, suspense and drama and was the best place to start the story.

Later on, after much deliberation with myself, gallons of coffee, and days of flopping between take it out or leave it in, I decided to take out that scene and begin the story at a different point.

So I saved that darling and hoped I’d made the right decision. Sometimes, in this kind of situation, you never use your saved darlings and you never know if you made the right call.

This time, it worked out.

A few years later, I happened upon that scene and wondered how I could use it. An idea struck and I used it as the beginning of another short story. In this one, the sniper was the main character and the story took off in a completely different direction from the one in which the scene originally appeared.

I called that story “All The Fine Actors” and darned if it didn’t go out and bring home a Derringer Award as Best Short Mystery Story of the Year in its category.

Now, as I’m sitting here scratching for an idea for a story, I’m thinking I should browse through all my saved darlings and see if it can happen again. You just never know.

Earl Staggs

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Deadly Poisons

By Jean Henry Mead

The discovery of poisons occurred when prehistoric tribes foraged for food; an often deadly experience, or what would later be known as Russian roulette. Primitive poison experts were people to be reckoned with, and they either served as tribal sorcerers or were burned at the stake, depending on whom they practiced.

Our first written accounts of poisonings are from the Roman era over 2,000 years ago, although the Chinese, Egyptians, Sumerians and Indians had practiced the art of poisoning for centuries. Cleopatra allegedly used her slaves and prisoners as guinea pigs while searching for the perfect suicidal poison. She tried belladonna and found that it killed quickly but was too painful for her own personal demise. She also tried an early form of strychnine but it caused facial distortions at death, so she chose instead the bite of an asp, a small African cobra, which produced a quick and painless death.

Those in some cultures were so afraid of being poisoned that they consumed gradual amounts of various poisons on a regular basis to build up their immunity to them. Dorothy L. Sayers, in her book, Strong Poisons, had her villain doing just that, as did Alexander Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo.

Food tasters were employed by most royals. If they survived, after sampling each dish, the king would consent to eat his meal. The job must have paid well, or a steady stream of prisoners were employed against their will.

The use of poison-tipped arrows during the Renaissance period paved the way for modern pharmacology. Drugs such as astropine, digitalis and ouabain evolved from plant concoctions used for killing both people and animals. And we now know that thousands of people are killed each year with current pharmaceutical prescriptions.

The Roman Borgia family of the fifteen century was a dynasty of poisoners, according to Serita Deborah Stevens in her book, Deadly Doses. If Casare Borgia were offended by something someone said, the unsuspecting person was invited to attend a party and would leave seriously ill or in the back of a mortician’s wagon. Borgia's poison of choice was arsenic, the favorite of assassins of that era.

Bernard Serturner isolated morphine from opium in 1805, but the formal study of poisons began with Claude Bernard, a physiologist, who researched the effects of curare, a South American poison the Indians used to tip their arrows. Chemical analysis could detect most mineral compounds by 1830, although not organic poisons. By 1851, a Belgian chemist discovered the technique of extracting alkaloid poisons while investigating a homicide caused by nicotine, a very deadly poison. Jean Servais Stas was the first to isolate nicotine from postmortem tissue.

The use of poison as a means of murder declined when modern methods of detection were perfected and physicians began saving many of its victims.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Making Characters Come to Life by Chester Campbell

I think we all agree that characters are chief ingredients that make our mysteries come to life. “Cardboard characters,” as the terms implies, leave stories flat. I thought it might be instructive to peel away the layers and see how a protagonist comes into being.

The person in question is Gregory McKenzie, the lead character in four Greg McKenzie Mysteries. When I came up with the idea for Secret of the Scroll, I wanted a man who would do anything to save his wife from a murderous group of terrorists. I preferred someone with investigative experience who could track down hostage-takers without taxing the reader’s credibility. Since I had an Air Force background, I decided a retired Office of Special Investigations agent would be an interesting departure from other protags.

I wrote two-and-a-half single-spaced pages of background for Greg, which also included basic information on his wife, Jill. I put his age at sixty-five, hers a few years younger. One of my intentions was to show retired seniors as the competent individuals that I know them to be. I was tired of reading blundering caricatures of my age group.

Re-reading my notes from ten years ago, I found a lot of information that has never come out in the books. I also noted more than a few incidents that appeared in the book originally, but were dropped after being axed by my editor. I may find a place to use some of them eventually.

To make him sort of Joe Average, I set Greg’s birth in St. Louis. For a good Scottish background (after all, I am a Campbell), I made his father a burly, garrulous, red-faced Scotsman who emigrated at age fifteen and became a master brewer for Anhauser-Busch. His mother also contributed some Highland blood from her side of the family, as did my own.

Greg retired as a lieutenant colonel, held down in the ranks by his penchant for stepping on as many toes as necessary while pursuing the truth in criminal investigations. He angered a brigadier general early in his OSI career who came back later as a three-star general to stop him in his tracks. His doggedness is a characteristic that hasn’t changed over four novels.

I have added more background to the character as different stories came along. One involved his family’s military history. This is how Greg described it in a paragraph from the second book in the series, Designed to Kill:

When the 98th Argyllshire Highlanders were first mustered in 1794 at Stirling Castle, north of Glasgow, there were sixteen McKenzies on the roster, one of them an ancestor of mine. After the unit was re-designated the 91st, other McKenzies followed him on down to 1881 when the 91st was merged with the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders to form the regiment my grandfather fought with in the Boer War and World War I. My dad, Rob McKenzie, was a little less combative, serving as a U.S. Army cook in World War II.

One of Greg’s little idiosyncrasies, seemingly unlikely for a former Air Force officer, is his fear of flying. This despite the fact that his wife, Jill, is a licensed commercial pilot who owns a Cessna 172. It makes for interesting scenes when they need to fly somewhere on a case as private investigators, which they become in books three and four.

Family backgrounds, personal foibles, and other intriguing aspects of character help mold our protagonists and antagonists into real people for the reader. And our protags become our personal friends as well. It makes life at the keyboard more interesting.

Chester Campbell’s website
His Mystery Mania blog

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Pain, Agony, and Misery by Vivian Zabel

My body aches with twinges of sharp pain thrown in for good measure, letting me know that I’m very much alive. Rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and fibromyalgia affect joints, muscles, and even skin. Pain is a constant companion but not a friend. Different methods or combination of methods help people manage living with pain, but not all work consistently. Knowing and using some of these methods in writing about a character helps develop that character more fully.

Pain medications are the main line of defense for many pain sufferers. Everything from aspirin to heavy-duty narcotics help delete or deaden the pain that wracks bodies. Also, often those medicines only deaden the level of pain, without dispersing it completely. However, the use of such drugs can allow a person to have a better quality of life. A person in a book or story might use pills and/or injections to move and do things.

Massage and/or manipulation helps alleviate some aches and pains. Such treatments also relax a person, which in turn causes pain to decrease at least somewhat. When the arthritis in my neck and back is severe, massage works with my medication to reduce the levels of agony. Another bit of information which could be woven into a plot.

A warm bath, or at least a shower, relaxes a person and eases the pain in muscles, tendons, and joints. Climbing into a hot tub with jets pounding against sore places brings relief, too.

Some people practice bio-feedback to help manage pain. The results seem to vary from person to person. At times, a person can develop a method that greatly reduces pain levels; at other times, the results are little to none.

Exercise appropriate for a person’s condition, age, and/or situation helps with pain. With my many problems, my physical activities are quite limited, but swimming, short walks several times a day, and isometric exercises help reduce the level of pain. When I’m in a lupus or RA flare, activity has to be limited, but exercising in warm water helps. One of my characters not only had to endure the agony of pain from an injury, but also the misery caused by therapy.

When all methods have been tried, often some pain remains. Then a person has to learn to live with it. I know that I’m never completely without pain, and if I should be, I would be like the old woman in a joke. She woke her husband, insisting that she was dead. He assured her that she wasn’t dead. She would state again that she was dead. Finally he asked her what made her think she was dead. Her answer was, “I’m not in pain, so I must be dead.” I laugh because it’s so close to the truth, and crying just makes the pain worse.

But, you ask, what does that information have to do with writing mysteries? The best writing has believable characters, and a character who lives with constant pain needs to exhibit how he does. Knowing about methods to deal with pain, a writer can invest some of that knowledge into his character. A hero who lives with pain but still acts and reacts “heroically” despite it appears more human to readers. Villains, who suffer physically, also seem more human. Every character, at least major ones, should be well-rounded, three dimensional, not flat. Therefore, the protagonist shouldn’t be without flaw, and the antagonist shouldn’t be all bad, completely evil.

In my mystery/suspense novel Midnight Hours, the protagonist is recovering from being shot in the back. He lives with pain as he attempts to regain the use of his legs. I used "real" life solutions and experiences in the book.

Vivian Zabel
Brain Cells & Bubble Wrap