Sunday, May 31, 2009

When Bad Plots Attack

I am watching ZOMBIE NATION (yes, yes, I know I have a fixation with zombie movies and books), it's a half hour into the film, and there have been so many idiotic plot points and incongruous settings, a few shambling zombies can only add some realism to the goings on here.

In a nutshell, a cop is arresting women on idiotic pretenses, such as jaywalking, applying lipstick while driving (which is stupid, but not necessarily arrest-worthy), and for no apparent reason at all; kidnaps them; takes them to a warehouse; looks into their mouths with a doctor's light, injects them with something, then stuffs them in a duffel bag and buries them. We won't even go into the lame reasons behind his behavior, shown in an abuse of the time honored gimmick of flashbacks. It's just too stupid.

Okay, his mom used to work at an insane asylum, where she'd chain the inmates and make them spank one another while he watched. Happy?! I'm not either.

His partner, an honest yet stupid rookie, suspects there is something amiss after he sees his partner lugging said duffel bag into the trunk of their squad car...oh...about a dozen times? Only then does he finally talk to his police captain. The result is a round of fisticuffs between the good yet wussy cop and his psycho partner, suddenly surrounded by a passel of men and women who bear no resemblance to the cops we saw in the previous scene. They're not even wearing uniforms, fer crissake! After the fight (bad cop wins by knocking good wuss into a pile of conveniently placed cardboard boxes - this police station has something for everyone ), the police chief promptly tells one of his officers to find a fall guy before 'the public' hears about this cop in a uniform kidnapping women. The police station, btw, is in a warehouse with a roll up door, a huge pipe running past the police chief's desk into cavernous darkness behind him, and, for some incomprehensible reason, there is a huge gong hanging up behind him as well.

I mean, really, people. I understand low budget films and the need to make due with what you have. But making due is different than ignoring things that make the scenes so obviously wrong and fake that you've lost credibility after ten minutes. It's not that difficult to angle the camera to hide the pipe. You don't SHOW the rolltop door in your supposed police station. If that's the only set your budget will afford, you disguise the fact instead of lovingly filming a scene set with the rolltop door as a backdrop. And...a gong? I shakes my head.

Ah well. 45 minutes into the film and still no zombies. I feel cheated.

No...wait, the zombies have appeared. Why? Well, one of the cop's victims is a young gal from Slovakia who conveniently went to see some voodoo priestesses before being kidnapped (we know this because a: we saw it and b: her brother tells reporters this fact when asked if he's worried about her disappearance) and after her death, they wiggle their fingers over a white snake and bring the dead girls back to undead life as zombies. You know they're zombies 'cause they stagger a bit, have black make-up around their eyes and...well, that's about it. Oh, and they do eat the flesh of the living. But for women stuffed into the ground for several weeks/months, they're in remarkably good shape other than that nasty case of raccoon eye. I've seen shabbier clothes at my local Goodwill. And I'd love to know what brand of lipstick these zombie babes are using 'cause it has some awesome lasting power. We will assume they're gonna eat the cop at some point. I wish they'd eat the writer and director.

What does this have to with writing, you might ask? Yes, I'm talking about a movie in this specific instance. But I firmly believe the mistakes, stupidity and just plain sloppy plotting that are making me want to drive spikes into my, into the screenwriter's eyes... and bang someone's head against a wall can translate just as easily into writing, whether it be mystery, horror or, in this, case, unintentional comedy.

What about you? Have you ever read a book or scene a movie where you felt slapped in the face by stupidity and lost all good will towards the author or filmmakers? Share your horror stories! I need company about now...

Saturday, May 30, 2009

James Lee Burke Is One Scary Dude

by Ben Small

For the longest time, I didn't read James Lee Burke. A friend had portrayed his writing as describing frogs on a bayou log. "How many times can you describe that frog?" my friend said.

Then I read Burke. Had some spare time, and one of his books appeared as if by magic. Okay, so I was curious: What was so great about a frog - Budweiser ads excepted - that merited description in oh so many books?

Well, wow! That frog does dance.

Most "How To" books urge the writer not to go overboard on description, to keep the picture portrayals strictly relevant to the story, lest the reader get side-tracked or bored. And many writers violate that rule, and are shot as a consequence. But Burke gets away with using descriptions to fill about a third of his page count.

How does he do this?

Simple. He puts the reader in the bayou, swimming in the muck and quicksand, swatting the mosquitoes, sweating like Kirstie Alley in a sauna, and stinking like a Kathy Reichs' bloated-body-bugfest.

And evidently, a lot of people like to experience that: mucking, swatting, sweating and stinking. Or is it that they don't; that they want to experience Louisiana without actually going there? I'd say count me in that post-Katrina group except for one thing: the food. My god, the food. Why can't Arizona make a decent facsimile of Louisiana gumbo?

Well, I've gotten side-tracked here. The mere thought of Louisiana food always does that to me. Back to James Lee Burke and his writing.

What kind of nutbag is this guy?

Stephen King and other writing authorities suggest writing what you know. If James Lee Burke is doing that, I can learn from this man. More or less, every one of his books I can remember has featured a cast of people you never want to meet: degenerate preachers; evil rich bad guys who lust after pretty young and innocent things; pimps and prostitutes; druggies and boozers; tattoed boob-ettes; gunbulls; prison rapists; mobsters; gamblers; hitmen; crooked cops and politicians, and last but not least, Clete Purcell.

Can there be a more degenerate character than Clete? Forget the gut, the unhealthy glow of 220-over-140 blood pressure readings, and his pock-marked and sweaty sun-burned neck. This stuff just makes Clete look like Larry, the cable guy. No, Clete's got the personality to match these wonderful characteristics. Pop your fingers and count: 1) Clete's always drunk and sweaty; 2) He can be counted on to say and do the dumbest of things to all the wrong people; 3) He's killed a federal informant; 4) He enjoys drugs and prostitutes; 5) He was a corrupt N.O. cop; 6) He's murdered a bunch of people in a plane crash; 7) He's probably left more teeth in toilets than a dental convention, and 8) He's been known to attack with innovative weapons such as hammers, fully oiled frying pans, and tire irons. (These tools are just for novelty; Clete likes guns, knives, saps and baseball bats, too.) Clete actually enjoyed Vietnam, thought it was a hoot. So, of course, with all these charms, how can Clete help but be a babe-magnet? His latest conquest: an FBI agent. Smart guy, that Purcell: Go with a chick who can bust you for lying. What's next: Playing medicine ball with a hornet's nest?

But seriously, how could Clete not be a stud? He's so vulnerable, isn't he? What that poor man has had to endure. Clete's seen more hospitals than Doc Kildare. Poor S-O-B had his hand squashed in a car door; he's been smashed with enough iron to make him fearful of magnets; he's been shot so many times he could strain spaghetti, and in the latest Burke masterpiece Swan Peak he was tied to a tree, blindfolded, doused with gasoline and forced to listen to a Zippo's spinning wheel.

Doesn't Clete ever wonder if it's smart having Dave Robicheaux as a buddy? Seems to me the only thing more hazardous is having Jessica Fletcher around.

And what about Dave? Poor ole Dave Robicheaux stands for truth and justice, and it's cost Dave plenty. He's had wives murdered and a daughter threatened. He's been suspended numerous times, suspected of murder over and over. He's been beaten, stabbed, shot, haunted by Vietnam nightmares, and don't ask about his parental issues. The guy's a drunk. And is it any wonder? Dave's hollow inside; he's not just got worms in his head, they're full-bodied snakes. In Swan Peak, Dave - the good guy - threatens to throw a preacher into an airplane propeller. My goodness, we thought water boarding was bad. And, oh, did I mention, he married a nun? Dave best do some serious repenting.

So getting back to my point: If what Stephen King and others say about writing what you know is true, James Lee Burke is one spooky dude.

But can I learn from this man? Hell yes, about description and the depravity of man.

Do I want to be his pal?


Why not. I just bought a Total Gym. Chuck Norris is my buddy.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Paint Me a Picture

Recently I was reading a mystery where the heroine rented a "big ass pimp-mobile." There was no other description of the car whatsoever. I put the book down to ask my husband and kids just what those words meant to them. No one agreed on the make, model or color of the car, let alone the year. (My husband seemed to think some car he owned as a teenager was the only one ever made to fit this description. The only thing the kids agreed on is that they strongly disagreed with that.) According to them, the car was violently pink, glossy black, or even (unlikely as it seems to me) purple. I never picked the book up again as it bothered me that I could not see this car in my head. My kids tell me that is because the book wasn't aimed at my age-bracket. I'm thinking that's most likely true but still not an excuse.
This is a problem I have with description lately. People think that some popular term means the same thing to everyone and that will fill in for description. Sometimes it does--but I think it's mainly limited to "Beam me up, Scotty." And even then, I know a few Trekkies who think this is a sign of a kindred spirit --instead of a comment that they are living in whole 'nother world than the rest of us.
We all want to skip writing the parts that readers skip reading (with apologies to Elmore Leonard for mangling his quote) but you can't take shortcuts to writing good, taut, description. The picture in the reader's head won't ever be exactly the one in the author's head--no matter how you try. How many times have you seen a book made into a movie and been upset by the choice of actress for the lead? But think of the Harry Potter books and the way some readers (many adults) return over and over again just to visit that world. The description was a big and necessary part of the series.
It doesn't take much to take a reader out of our books. This whole, beautiful, chaotic, world is in competition with what we have to say. That's why we have to make our fictional world as real as we can. And have a little fun describing those pimp mobiles.

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

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Planting the Clues

Rather than a how-to, this is more of a how-do? We all know one of our favorite parts of reading a mystery is trying to figure out all the clues...can we discover whodunit before our intrepid detective, whether it’s a police investigator or the nice neighborhood grandmother who always seems to be involved!

I tend to lay in the clues as I go along – I know what I want my reader to know, what s/he can extrapolate from that and what should be a bit, shall we say, “fuzzy” in an effort to keep the villain a secret as long as possible.

Let’s share our secrets: how do you get your clues in there? Do you plot them out before hand? Do you drop them in at the end? Do they surprise you and kind of insert themselves at opportune (or even inopportune) moments?

Let’s dish for our readers!

Libby McKinmer
Romance with an edge
Also on Twitter, GoodReads & Facebook

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

On Pace

Today I want to share with you another example of writing styles. It's all about pace - the speed of movement of your story. Here are two versions of the same scene. One is slow paced, the other fast paced.

First example-


The ball went up. Up. Up. Out. Further. Higher. Further.

Thirty thousand fans held their collective breath as time stopped and held them transfixed. Glen clutched at his sinking heart. Still there was hope. Maybe. A mighty west wind had held center field yard unbeatable all afternoon. The ball rose higher. Glen's heart sank deeper.

Surreal, it seemed, as the slow motion play unfolded below. Like clay puppets struggling to scramble, but without actual muscles to propel them with any efficient motion. Fate seemed to mold their motions frame by frame in a stop/adjust/stop/adjust/stop/adjust impossible to believe lackadaisical series of jerky hiccups. Excruciating.

The pitcher's pained face was fixed on yonder far yard. The catcher's mask was off, his stance and body language one that said, "Dammit, I told you he'd hit your heat. He knew it was coming. Why don't you ever listen to me?"

The center fielder made his way back. Back. And the ball went up - and back. But wait - a sudden downward trajectory! Glen's heart pumped again with the glimmer of hope, with the scarcely believable but just-might-be-possible chance. He fixed his eyes westward, his mind taking a snapshot of the backdrop of azure skies spotted here and about with puffs of cumulus, his nose registering atmospheric conditions heavily dosed with scents of beer, popcorn and corn dogs. Then the play. The play that would decide everything. This was it. It all came down to now. With his back against the wall, the player leaped - glove wide, high above the fence.


Horse-hide met cow-leather in an eye and ear popping catch that could be heard throughout the entire massive stadium. The fearsome reign of silence that had been lord of the arena began to slowly crumble. The very fabric of the air began to tear apart as thunderous peals of shouts and roars of victory pummeled the heinous dictator and banished it forever into exile.

Glen sighed, let go his grip on his jacket just outside of the heart, and turned to his wife. They hugged, jumped up and down, hooted and hollered together. The impossible had become a reality. The little guys had beat the big bad guys. Celebrations would ring the city's all-night hours alive with the joyous sparkle of a million happy-go-lucky and inebriated townsfolk tonight.


Second example-

Thirty thousand held their breath as the pitcher let his heat fly. Smack! The ball flew up and away, streaking out into center field like a laser guided missile on a search-and-destroy-every-heart-in-the-arena mission. Glen grabbed his heart and choked, gasping for not only air but some glimmer of hope. Players scrambled about in a flurry. Center fielder was the last chance, the only possible one to stave off certain doom, an end to what had been the most improbable of journeys all season.

The ball went out and up. Just as it seemed all was lost, the center fielder leaped right at the moment when the ball fell just enough to ...

He caught it! The stadium erupted in waves of disbelief and torrential screams of victory. We won! We won! We're number one! The champions!

Glen and his wife grabbed each other and jumped for joy in a hopping happy dance. Hometown would be party town tonight.


Two different styles, different approaches to writing the same scene. And of course you can go anywhere in between. Which style do you like best, and why, and for which kinds of scenes do you think fast pace is better than slow pace and visa versa, especially in the mystery/suspense book genre?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Allow Me to Introduce Myself

My name, Jose Jimenez. (No, not really.)

My name is Sue. How do you do? (No, that's not right either.)

My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die! (Another lie, but it sounds like me.)

Actually my name is Austin S. Camacho and I’m the author given the unenviable position of filling the space previously held by the lovely and talented Anne Carter. As this is my first official appearance on Make Mine Murder I will take the coward’s way out and tell you all about myself… in lieu of anything useful.

I am the author of five detective novels about Washington DC based African American private eye Hannibal Jones. The newest novel, Russian Roulette will officially release on June 13th so I’m a little single-point focused right now. I could blog endlessly about my new book, my character and my series, but I’d understand if you might prefer other topics.

I’m active in several writers’ organizations, both national and local. I’m a past president of the Maryland Writers Association and the Northern Virginia chapter of the Virginia Writers Club. So I can regale you with tales of participation in such groups. I’ve also attended and run several writers conferences so I can speak on those cool things too.

In addition I teach writing courses at Anne Arundel Community College. My classes cover creating great characters, and the use of setting, dialog, and plot. I could add my voice to this esteemed group on matters of writing craft.

I’ve also written a popular marketing manual, Successfully Marketing Your Fiction in the 21st Century. That, and my decade of experience as an author, qualify me to blog about marketing books and give concrete examples from my own efforts.

I still do media relations work for the Defense Department - For more than a decade American Forces Network carried my radio and television news reports to military families overseas. I’ve settled in Springfield, Virginia with my lovely wife Denise and Princess, the Wonder Cat.

I will not blog about my wife. I might one day write about Princess. But what would YOU like me to discuss? Now that you know a little about me, let me know how I can best serve the Make Mine Mystery cause. I can’t make you miss Anne any less – heck I miss Anne’s posts – but maybe I can entertain you and enlighten you about matters pertaining to the writer’s craft, the writer’s life, and of course… murder!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Prologues Pro and Con

By Earl Staggs in Fort Worth for what it's worth.

A few years ago, I joined a local writer’s critique group. Only one other member wrote Mystery. The others wrote in a range of genres from Fantasy to Science Fiction to Historical. It wouldn’t hurt, I thought, to gain exposure to other genres. After all, writing’s writing.

My initial exposure to the work of another member, Chuck by name, came when he submitted the beginning of a new novel. He submitted for critique not one, not two, but three prologues to his novel.

The others didn’t bat an eye, but I had to ask. “Why three prologues, Chuck?”

He explained that his novel was set in the present with a heavy dose of religious undertones and each of the three prologues dealt with the creation of a different religion centuries ago. Knowing how those religions originated was backstory, he explained further, but had nothing to do with the current story line so he wanted to get it out of the way before he started the main story.

I wanted to ask, “If it has nothing to do with the current story line, why do you need it at all?” Since I didn’t know him well and since he was nearly twice my size and half my age and might not like my being so abrupt, I didn’t ask that.

Instead, I offered several suggestions as to how he might blend the backstory into the current story without using prologues. I suggested small doses of narrative exposition cleverly spaced within the current story, for example, as well as flashbacks and having the backstory come out in conversation among characters. I didn’t phase him. He remained steadfast in his resolve to have his three prologues.

I then told him I knew for a fact some agents are so deadset against prologues they will not even read a manuscript that has one, certainly not one with three of them. I added that some readers will not read a book with a prologue.

His defense was, “Many famous authors use flashbacks.” He went on to name several whose names I didn’t recognize then and don’t remember now.

He was right. Some authors use prologues, some agents read manuscripts with prologues, and some readers will buy and read books that have them.

My philosophy, however, is this: I won’t include a prologue in a novel of mine because I don’t want to take the chance it will end up on the desk of an agent or publisher who happens to be anti-prologue. If an agent or publisher decides not to do business with me, I want it to be for a reason other than because I wrote a prologue. I also don’t want to take the chance some browser will pick my book from the shelf, open it to find a prologue, and promptly put it back without giving it a chance. If I have backstory, I’d much rather use one of the methods I suggested to Chuck.

That’s not to say, however, I will never write something that looks very much like a prologue. I will simply not call it a prologue. I’ll stick it in the front of the book and call it Chapter One.

Earl Staggs

Friday, May 22, 2009

A Reading Celebration

By the time you read this, I should be en route to Irvine, KY or on the scene of an intriguing book signing experience. It’s a mystery how I came to be invited, located as I am some 250 miles away in Nashville, TN. I suspect someone involved must have stopped by my table at the Kentucky Book Fair last November.

The woman who sent my invitation, wife of the school superintendent, wrote “mysteries are my favorite.” She said we’d love the location. It’s on the edge of the Appalachian Mountains, next to the Daniel Boone National Forest, where “the mountains kiss the bluegrass.”

The Friday night event is billed as the Estill County Reading Celebration. It takes place at the Estill Springs Elementary School and features an ambitious program, including a tent behind the school where an Appalachian storyteller will hold forth and a past Kentucky Poet Laureate will perform poetry skits with students.

Various rooms in the school will be decorated with ideas from children’s books. Students will choose which rooms to visit during 20-minute periods.

Several authors have been invited to sign their books in “Author’s Row” from 4:30 to 8:00 p.m. Among them are children’s authors, a weaver, a few poets, a novelist who writes about Kentucky’s Shaker communities of the past, and one mystery writer, me.

Irvine is a small town in a small county, but the organizers assure me the event has been extensively publicized and should draw a good crowd. The local newspapers have highlighted each author with a bio and book description. Large posters of our book covers have been made to display at the tables. The opening ceremony will feature Mrs. Jane Beshear, the First Lady of Kentucky.

Since the town has only one small motel, my wife and I have been invited to stay at the home of Tom and Francine Bonny. He’s the retired superintendent of schools.

I have no idea how this will turn out, but being the good Scout I am, I’ll be prepared. My trunk is loaded with all five of my mystery books. Regardless of the outcome, I’m sure we’ll meet lots of nice people with interesting stories to tell. I may even have a few to pass along myself.

Chester Campbell
Mystery Mania blog

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Dark Paradise

Ah Hawaii. Bright sunshine, glistening beaches, soft breezes, green mountains, and friendly people. How could anybody set a hard-boiled story in such a happy place? New York is hard-boiled. Chicago, Detroit, Miami and Los Angeles are hard-boiled. A hard-boiled locale needs darkness, not sunshine. It needs injustice and oppression, not friendliness. It needs violence.

As someone who writes mysteries set in Hawaii, I've run into this from time to time. I've heard editors say no one would be interested in Hawaiian mysteries; they want Elvis and Blue Hawaii. I was on a hard-boiled/noir panel at Bouchercon one year and had a hard time convincing my fellow panelists that there could be any hard-boiled stories set in Hawaii.

Well now I'm reading two books about the dark side of Hawaii. One, appropriately titled, Dark Paradise, is a novel by Lono Waiwaiole (You can't find a more Hawaiian name than that). The other is an historical account of the leper colony on Molokai, The Colony, by John Tayman.

Dark Paradise tells a story of drug trafficking, rape and murder over money and power on the Big Island of Hawaii where ethnic Japanese, Mexican and local Hawaiian groups are fighting for control of the island's methamphetamine trade. "Ice" is a scourge of the 50th state where the appetite for it seems insatiable. Dark Paradise is billed as a "noir-novel-cum-sociological-study" of the society that has resulted from generations of internal colonialism by the United States, beginning with the Calvinist missionaries and continuing through wave after wave of immigrant laborers from Japan, Korea, China, the Phillipines. At the bottom are always the native Hawaiians who are among the most economically depressed groups in the United States and whose only ways out are through sports, entertainment and drug-dealing.

The Colony begins with a man and his family in a desperate flight for freedom that led to a military standoff in the mountains of Kauai. The man's crime? He had leprosy. Leprosy, now known as Hansen's Disease, reached the islands in the 1860s and the government responded in Biblical fashion: anyone suffering from the disease was pronounced "utterly unclean" and exiled to a peninsula on the island of Molokai.

The peninsula, Kalaupapa, was bounded at one end by sea cliffs so high and steep that goats fell off. It jutted out like an overturned flat iron into seas so rough that ships couldn't land. Instead, the exiles were rowed close to shore and tossed overboard with their belongings and forced to swim to the rocks. When they got there, they were greeted with the chilling words, "In this place there is no law." They had been tracked by bounty hunters, taken from their families, and forced to this place where all manner of crime and brutality awaited them. The colony had little food and little medical care.

Talk about injustice! Most were not contagious and many did not have the disease. A case of psoriasis was enough to send a man, woman or child into banishment. It was the longest and deadliest instance of medical segregation in American history. There are a lot of villains in the story, not the least of which are the doctors, public health officials and government servants who carried out and enforced the practice. Mostly the story is about the eventual triumph of the human spirit over ignorance and prejudice.

If that isn't hard-boiled, I don't know what is.

I visited the colony two decades ago when there were more than sixty residents/patients. Less than thirty remain and all are elderly. Soon there will be no more victims of the injustice, only memories. The Kalaupapa settlement served as one of the setting of my book, Pilikia Is My Business, but my account doesn't capture the heartbreak and suffering. Read Tayman's book for a picture of the best and worst of human nature. Read Waiwaiole's novel for a gripping tale of life in modern Hawaii.

Mark Troy

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

My Sisters in Crime Group

A couple of Saturday's ago I was the speaker for the San Joaquin chapter of Sisters in Crime. I am one of the founding members of this chapter. I remember going to a meeting in a restaurant where everyone who was interested in forming a chapter gathered--probably about 20 or so women.

Over the years the chapter has met regularly on the first Saturday of the month. We started in a fabulous restaurant in the Tower District of Fresno. Now we meet in another restaurant that is famous for it's food right off the 99 freeway.

Last month our speaker were Henry Hill, the gangster (now retired) of GoodFella fame and a retired cop and author, Denny Griffin, who writes about gangsters and crime in Las Vegas. These two drew a huge crowd.

About half that number came to see me. Of course I've spoken to this group nearly every year. Some of the people could tell my stories. I do have fans and most of them showed up, eager to buy my latest two books, No Sanctuary and Kindred Spirits.

They had requested ahead of time that I answer their questions.

Here are two of them along with the answers.

1. How do I handle writers' block? My answer is I never have writer's block. I learned early on when it's time for me to quit writing for the day to stop in the middle of a scene, that way I don't have any trouble beginning the next time I sit down to write.

2. How do I schedule my time including speaking engagements? I try to write every single day until I run out of steam. I also have blogs that I have to write, like this one. Often I write them ahead of time when I have a few extra minutes. I try to do some social networking every day through Facebook, Twitter, etc. As for my physical engagements, I keep a calendar by my computer and when some calls or emails asking me to speak, I can immediately check to make sure I'm not double-booking. I also have a calendar I carry around with me. I try to go to a few writing or mystery cons every year. For this year it's been Epicon, then Mayhem in the Midlands where I'm on two panels and moderating another, the Sisters in Crime/Mystery Writers of America California Crime Writers Conference where I'll be on a panel about e-publishing, then Public Safety Writers Association's conference (I'm in charge of the program there) and that's it for this year though I have other speaking engagements.

Despite the small number of sisters there, I sold 18 books. I was thrilled. Plus hubby and I had a great time. One of the sisters said she's starting a fan club on Facebook for hubby. He has a following wherever he goes.

I'm so glad I joined Sisters in Crime.

Marilyn a.k.a. F. M. Meredith

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Mystery of the Missing Socks by Morgan Mandel

It may not seem serious to you, but I've got this mystery going on in my house. It happens at least once or twice a week. When I do the wash, after I take the clothes out of the dryer, I always seem to be missing at least one sock, many times even more.

Where do those socks go? They don't seem to be sticking to the other clothes. They're not in the washer or dryer. They've completely vanished. Is someone stealing the socks and going around wearing mismatched socks of ours? Why not take both instead?

Seriously, I did read once about a person who had someone living in her house each day while she was at work. She had no idea that this was going on. Apparently, somehow she caught on, but I don't remember how. Maybe a light was turned on where it shouldn't be, food was missing, an appliance wasn't turned off.

Anyway, it sounds like the beginning of a great mystery plot. Do you know of any mysteries taken from real life experiences, either partially or completely? Please share.

Tea and Poison

As Events Coordinator for SinC Nor Cal chapter, it's sometimes a challenge to come up with interesting and affordable events for our monthly meetings. My boyfriend Dave (who is very into the whole Sisters in Crime social scene) thought it would be fun to have a toxicologist as a speaker. I loved the idea and took it one step further; have the meeting at a teashop and discuss poison over tea and scones. The idea was met with enthusiasm by the rest of the SinC board members, so Dave and I set about trying to find both a location and a speaker for the April meeting.

I researched local tea shops and found The Secret Garden, a cute little teashop on Lincoln across from Golden Gate Park with a private cottage in back of the main restaurant that sounded perfect for our needs. The price was right and the selection of foods mouth watering.

Meanwhile Dave contacted the City of SF and a private forensics company in an effort to snag a toxicologist interested in telling a group of blood-thirsty writers and readers about the best way to get away with murder when poison is the weapon, but got no takers. Someone on the board had mentioned Tim Maleeny, author of the 2007 Macavity Award-winning story, "Till Death Do Us Part," for which Tim did a hell of a lot of research on various poisons. I contacted Tim and asked if he'd be our speaker in exchange for tea, scones and adulation. He agreed (we negotiated the number of scones and scantily clad fans) and we had our April meeting nailed down.

The event was a success, partly because of the food and service provided by the Secret Garden staff (I would recommend it highly for anyone looking for a nice venue for a private event; just be warned that the bathroom in the private cottage is labeled 'Little Princesses' and you must wade through a cornucopia of tiaras, tutus, hats, and glittery jewelry on hand for children's parties), which was excellent. Yes, it's kinda twee, but it's a tea house, so bone china with flowers, lace doilies, and an abundance of pink is pretty much to be expected.

The other factor that made the event so memorable was Tim Maleeny's charm, wit and humor as a speaker. The man is funny and intelligent, and his story, "Till Death Do Us Part," was a hoot. He read it out loud to start his presentation and also brought a bunch of books on poisons that are must haves for any mystery writer's library.

I won't say anything else about the story to avoid spoilers, other than to say I agree with this review from Book Fetish: "Till Death Do Us Part by Tim Maleeny was laugh out loud funny, in a perverse kind of way." I can't imagine a toxicologist being as entertaining as Tim's presentation, although I'm not ruling it out for next year.

My only regret about the Tea and Poison event is my failure to buy almond essence and slip it into a few cups of tea...just to see if anyone got the joke. Ah well. Next year.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


by Ben Small

What if your protag or perp, in a hurry, picks up some ammo, plugs it into a gun and it goes poof? Not bang. Poof.

Can this happen?

You betcha. It happened to me at the range a few weeks ago. A cloud of smoke and burning powder, some of which burned my cheek, and then the gun locked up. Yes, the bullet made it out of the barrel and there appeared to be no damage done, but I would not have been able to fire a second shot without clearing the cartridge and risking damage to the gun.

Not all guns and cartridges play well together.

So what went wrong?

Well, it could have been a hand-loaded cartridge, perhaps using the wrong powder or too much of it. Or it could have been a reloaded cartridge, and maybe the case failed. Bullets may look simple, but they are anything but. The standard cartridge is the product of precise development engineering and testing, where various corrosive or non-corrosive primers must be matched with cases matched to specific cylinders, each with dimensions proven through years of experimentation in controlled environments. But that’s just part of a bullet’s development. There’s also choice of powders: some fast burning, some slower. And on top of that, you add a bullet, which requires weight, composition and construction choices. Each manufacturer’s bullet is different, and there are many standard production bullet manufacturers.

And then there are the wildcatters and reloaders, those who make their own bullets. Believe it or not, there are millions of these people, and the market for bullets, cases, primers, powders and loading equipment is enormous. Take a look at Gun Digest, the leading gun magazine, considered by many as the place to look for gun ads. You will find pages of advertising for each of these items.

But that’s just the bullet side of it. You gotta consider the gun, too. Guns can be finicky about the ammo they’ll eat.

What prompted this article was my experience at the range. I was firing a high end pistol, a Sig Sauer X-5 9mm pistol, perhaps the most accurate production pistol currently made. It’s a match grade pistol, which means the fittings are tight. And I was firing Winchester Ranger ammo, again, a high grade of ammo.


Now, it could have been a bullet manufacturing error, but if so, I would have expected to have the problem recur. And it did. But only in this gun. My much cheaper Beretta and Glock had no trouble with this box of ammo at all or with Winchester Ranger ammo in general.

A defective gun? Believe it or not, this match grade pistol ate the much cheaper aluminum cased Blazer ammo with nary a hiccup. And it ate all the other non-Winchester Ranger I fed it.

No, the answer in this case – pardon the pun ― was in the mating of the gun and ammo. Ask any gun expert about what ammo works best in any particular gun, and he’ll tell you he can’t know without experimentation. Usually this answer means accuracy will vary depending upon the individual characteristics of the gun, the barrel, its condition, the weather, lubrication, the weight of the bullet and how all these conditions work together.

But sometimes they don’t work at all. And sometimes the mating of ammo to gun can be dangerous. Guns do explode; people can be hurt. Usually, the problem is careless handloading, maybe a defective case, an improperly seated bullet or poor choice of powder…or too much of it. Or maybe the gun was poorly maintained, over lubricated or under lubricated. Maybe there was a bulge in the barrel. The Gun Zone - Springfield M1A
The Gun Zone - Glock

This stuff does happen. Kabooms aren’t common, but they occur. Jams are much more common, especially with semi-automatic firearms. That’s why some people prefer revolvers.

A gun owner who shoots his gun frequently will know what ammo it likes. But someone who picks up a gun or ammo may not have a clue. And some guns are more finicky about ammo than others. For instance, Glocks and Berettas feed on just about any form of standard production ammo. Springfield XDs and XDms seem to like heavier weight bullets. A Sig Sauer .22 LR Mosquito is notorious for having ammo preferences. Shoot modern .30-06 ammo in an M-1 Garand, and you may get a nasty surprise. The military version of .30-06 ammo, the bullets for which this gun was designed, use a slower burning, lower pressure powder.

What to do when the gun jams… A seasoned shooter will know; an amateur probably will not.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Buying books?

I had a discussion with my daughter at Christmas time. One of her friends was very, very into the Twilight series but was not buying the latest book until after payday. My daughter, a single, twenty-something, with a good job, was worried about her friend. Could she really be this poor? I worried that I hadn't presented the basics of the economy and budgets, but my daughter actually works in the accounting department of a rather large company. She must be going to hear about this stuff soon.
On the other hand, maybe not. There seems to be a disconnect with so many people about this recession. The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that retail sales in April declined for the second month in a row. The Dow took a tumble on the news. Frankly, Wall Street may have been surprised by the figures, but I wasn't. I knew I hadn't been shopping in April, nor were a lot of my acquaintance. We were hiding out at home, trying to figure out how to pay our taxes.
Be that as it may, sales at bookstores rose last month even if only by .3%. I'm pretty sure that resale of books--at garage sales, Craig's list and e-bay is probably pretty good too. Too bad the stock market doesn't take note of those outlets.
I hear Star Trek did pretty well last weekend at the box office too. So although other news reports are blaring about vacations canceled and a travel industry in trouble, we all need to have someplace to escape to.
So here's the question: Are you buying books? Waiting for payday? Going to the library?
And while you're at it--what makes you buy a book? Reviews? Ads in your favorite magazine? Tell all!

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

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Almost Missed You!

Well, I could claim I was laying in the clues, red herrings, false paths and beefing up my villain, but truth be told, time got away from me. I was editing (pays the bills so I can write) and it’s the time of year I’m getting horses used to pasture, so there you go!

Right now, I’m reading a book I don’t know if it’s a mystery or chick lit – maybe it’s a new genre – chick mystery? There is a mystery involved, although somewhat of a mystery of relationships and the acts they can precipitate, the emotions they can engage and the guilt that trickles down through the years. But it keeps me coming back to find out what happens, and that’s the goal of any writer for her or his reader.

What other cross-genres do we like in mystery – historical mystery, science, legal and sci/fi mysteries. What about paranormal mystery? And one of my favorites – romantic mystery, often known as romantic suspense!

What else can we come up with?

Libby McKinmer
Also at Twitter, MySpace & GoodReads

Monday, May 11, 2009

Show and Tell

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This is a short tutorial I wrote some time ago for another blog I write for, the Blood Red Pencil. I thought it would be appropriate to post it here as well. It is especially apropos in the mystery and thriller genre - see what you think.


Something I’ve learned about effective writing in fiction is knowing when you are “telling” the readers your story and when you are “showing” it to them. There is a place in any good book for both methods, but the “shown” passages are always more illustrative, while the “told” passages are more narrative. They create two entirely different effects. Instead of telling you the difference, I will show you. Here is a short paragraph, an example of a story being told to the reader.


Bob walked over to the door. He turned the door knob, opened the door and started to walk outside. It was an icy cold winter day so he went back inside in a hurry and put on his coat.


Well, if I’m the reader I haven’t missed anything, I know what’s happening, but the passage doesn’t draw me into Bob’s world, doesn’t let me feel or sense much of anything. Now I’ll rewrite the same passage showing you the story.


Floor boards creaked underfoot. Step by step, across the room. The chill of cold brass felt smooth in his palm as the knob turned. A thunk nudged against the quiet as bolt released from its locked position. The squeak of old hinges cried “please oil me” to Bob as they pivoted. A final push, swing and a step. Whistling arctic wind whipped his face as shivers crept all over him.

Wow. Cold. Bob thought better of his choice of clothing. Slam!

Nippy fingers worked their way through the dark foyer closet, feeling for heavy suede.


In the second example, we see, hear and feel Bob’s world. It’s a much sexier read. By comparison, the first passage is more a simple statement of a sequence of events. In fairness, I did not try very hard to write an impactful narrative in the first passage, because I was trying to emphasize a point. There are cases, lots of them, when narrative prose is just the right thing. A fist, knife or gunfight, for instance, often demands a fast, even hectic pace and needs to be told in a hurry. It usually depends on the pace you want your story to move at; which will be the subject of another post.

Movin' On Down the Line

Happy Monday! As we march through May at a break-neck pace, I've come to realize that life is getting past me as I sit at my keyboard typing away, albeit at something I love to do: writing. Still, in a push to restructure my time, I'm adjusting where and when I appear on the 'net, and will be focusing more on my new website and blog and a bit less elsewhere for the time being. Which means I will be handing off my Make Mine Mystery slot. I still consider myself a member of this wonderful venue and will be visiting often, commenting and guest posting from time to time.

The terrific news is, prolific mystery author Austin S. Camacho will be taking over this time slot beginning May 25 and you are going to love his style and flare. Austin is the author of the Hannable Jones thriller series, including BLOOD AND BONE and the upcoming RUSSIAN ROULETTE. I know you will give him a warm welcome!

Please visit my new website and blog at to keep up with me and stay in touch. And remember to make yours mystery, too!

Anne Carter/Pam Ripling

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

Learn to Bowl, Learn to Shop, Learn to Write

A Sunday musing from Earl Staggs

Once upon a time, my wife decided to join a bowling league. She also decided I should join. I told her I had no interest in bowling and there was nothing she could do or say to make me change my mind.

She gave me logical reasons why I should bowl with her. I could get some exercise, she explained, I could meet some new people, and I could continue to sleep under the same roof with her.

We joined a bowling league the following week.

I was a terrible bowler and by the fifth frame of the first game, everyone in the establishment knew it. Now, bowlers as a whole are friendly people, always willing to help. After that first game, a good bowler named Randy from the opposing team approached me and said, “Let me show you what you’re doing wrong.”

Randy showed me how to stand with my legs straight, my back bent, my feet parallel and close together, and to hold the ball tight against my right hip. I listened, of course. Randy had an average of 255.

For the rest of the game, I bowled exactly as Randy said, but I wasn’t comfortable and did as badly as before.

The following week, I was approached by Jim, a bowler with a 240 average. “Let me show you what you’re doing wrong,” he offered in a friendly and generous manner.

Jim demonstrated how I should stand with my knees bent, my back straight, my right foot in front of my left, and to hold the ball up to my chest in both hands. Completely different from Randy’s advice.

That prompted me to scrutinize a few other good bowlers in the league. Amazingly, no two of them bowled exactly the same way, yet each had a high average. Each had a style of his own.

So I did the same. I borrowed a little of Randy’s technique, a bit of Jim’s, and bits and pieces from a few others to develop my own style. I’m proud to say I eventually became a slightly better than mediocre bowler.

Years later, when I started to write, I found several “How to” books written by successful writers. While some basic fundamentals were the same, the specifics weren’t. “Start with an outline,” one said. “Don’t outline,” said another. “Always have three suspects,” one gave as a must. “Never open with the weather,” proclaimed one bestselling author. No two of them gave exactly the same advice.

What was a beginning writer to do? I was reminded of my attempt to learn how to bowl. Like bowling, there was no single way to write which fit everyone. Each writer needed to read what the masters had to say, then adopt some of this, some of that, and develop a style that worked for him.

Actually, writing is more like shopping. I hate shopping, but occasionally my wife, a world class shopper, convinces me to tag along with her. How? With logic.Wives are good at that.

My wife goes into a store to buy, let’s say, a dress. She browses this rack and that rack carefully and slowly. Very slowly. Eventually, she finds a dress she likes. She holds it up, turns it around, touches it, examines whatever features it may have, then returns it to the rack and pulls out another. After what seems like hours, she’ll choose one or two, maybe three, and moves on to the final determining test: trying them on to see what looks and feels the best on her. Sometimes she’ll buy one at that store. Sometimes we’ll go to another store and repeat the process.

But that’s how she finds the best dress for her, and that’s how writers find the writing style best for them. Examine what’s out there, study the different methods, and if something looks and feels right for you, try it on. Eventually, we each settle into a style that fits and feels right for us individually, a style that’s a little of this, a little of that, and works for us. We have to be patient, though. It may take a while.

So if you want to be a good bowler or writer, I may be able to pass along some tips which might help. If you want to be a good shopper, ask my wife.

Earl Staggs

Saturday, May 9, 2009

THE SUREST POISON, by Chester Campbell

by Ben Small

I want to say something about Chester Campbell's The Surest Poison.

Sid Chance and Jaz LeMieux are fresh, new characters, and fun folks to follow. And I know something about the subject matter of the book: TCE and tracking down from whence it came. For twenty years I defended TCE pollution cases, as TCE was the most commonly used degreaser in the world up until the mid-eighties, and it's found its way into the groundwater in many areas of the country and the world.

How did it get there? Sometimes from dumping, but usually from plant spills, leaking pipes or product stored outside.

And the chemical is interesting. While it's allegedly harmful to many systems in the body, it's like beer; it's not stored. It quickly leaves the body through urination. The original EPA mouse/rat studies which led to the "Possible Carcinogen" determination, were flawed, seriously flawed. The studys' flaws were similar to those which led to the erroneous determination that saccharin was cancer causing, which it took the EPA over thirty years to correct. Indeed, TCE used to be the decaffeinating agent in coffee. If you drank Sanka, you drank TCE. And it was used in the dry cleaning process. If you wore dry-cleaned clothing, you wore TCE.

But there's a more dangerous aspect to TCE than its immediate harmful affects on the body or even its effects over time. TCE changes its chemical composition, and when it does so, it evolves into much more dangerous chemicals, known cancer causing agents, agents like PCE or vinyl chloride. Allow TCE to percolate long enough in your ground water and you will find these chemicals there. And they can kill you. And this is just the groundwater. Soil gases, gas percolating upward, is also dangerous.

So Chester's spot on, and the problem with TCE cleanup is finding who to blame. Cleaning the groundwater, so it's free of these chemicals is very expensive. It requires pumping stations and filtration equipment. You have to draw the flow in, clean it and then disperse it so it flows naturally, not an easy thing to do. And in many cases, the party responsible for the TCE leaching into the soil and groundwater is dead or ceased operations many, many years ago. In some cases, the government is even responsible, because the government took over the operation of some plants during the Second World War. Chemical procurement records must be researched, aerial views, if they exist, must be studied, loan and property ownership records, and trucking company records. It's a tough job. We had a case in Rockford, Il where we found over eighty companies had used TCE during the period 1940-1980. The groundflow was from the industrial area into suburbs that didn't exist during most of that period. The cost of cleanup was in the hundred million dollar range. The cost and number of companies involved was so high, the city, in conjunction with the EPA, organized a special cooperative arrangement to manage cleanup and funding.

So the problems Sid and Jaz face in The Surest Poison are real. Many companies have gone bankrupt facing the prospect of TCE cleanup. The opportunity for crime is high.

Bravo, Chester, for bringing this to light and for the opportunity to meet folks like Sid Chance and Jaz LeMieux.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Photo--a Key Piece of Evidence by Chester Campbell

Lee Lofland has a fascinating puzzle on his Graveyard Shift blog today. He has a photo of two keys found on a “person of interest” in the case of a half-billion dollars worth of paintings stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The theft occurred March 18, 1990. We’re talking Obama bailout cash here, folks. Half a billion bucks.

The museum’s director of security brought the photo to Lee and asked that he see if any of his blog readers recognized the type of key. In 19 years, neither the FBI nor the Boston police have come up with evidence proving who did the deed.

I reminds me somewhat of Morgan Mandel’s post the other day about looking at a picture and trying to tell where you are. Photos can play a vital role in solving mysteries. Maybe Lee’s “key piece of evidence” will lead investigators to the fate of the expensive paintings by such artists as Rembrandt and Manet.

I featured photos for evidence in one of my mysteries when my PI Greg McKenzie used his miniature camera to photograph guest checks in a restaurant where he and Jill were investigating the theft of cash by waiters and waitresses. They used the photos the next morning to compare what the patrons received with what the waiters turned in.

Probably the most frequent use of photos in criminal cases today are those that come from tapes in surveillance cameras. Mystery writers find them handy for identifying suspects and capturing the bad guys doing bad things. Candid shots are sometimes used to show a person was in a place where he claimed not to have been.

Photos found on mantels and other places around a home provide clues to family members and friends of a deceased. Have you ever used photos as a key piece of evidence in a mystery? Can you think of a book where a picture sealed a suspect’s fate?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

One of my favorite authors - Carolyn Hart, by Vivian Zabel

Dare to Die, publisher Morrow, ISBN 978-0-06-145303-8 published date 3/31/09
Ghost at Work, publisher Morrow, ISBN 978-0-06 087436-0 published date 10/27/08 (set in Oklahoma)

May I present Carolyn Hart, mystery writer.

Vivian: Carolyn, do you have a website? but no blog

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

Carolyn: I grew up wanting to be a reporter and majored in journalism at OU. I've used a news background for several books. I also love to read mysteries. This provided the background for the Death on Demand series.

Vivian: The Murder on Demand books are set on Broward’s Rock, an island off the coast in South Carolina. Why did you choose that location?

Carolyn: We started vacationing on Hilton Head Island in the mid 1970s. When I decided to write Death on Demand, I wanted to use a resort background for Annie's mystery bookstore and Hilton Head was the only resort area I knew well. I created a fictional sea island inspired by Hilton Head of the '70s.

Vivian: The first book in your new series with Bailey Ruth is the first book set in Oklahoma, I believe. What made you decide to have a book set here?

Carolyn: The Bailey Ruth series is my only series set in Oklahoma. Oklahoma is the background for Letter from Home, a standalone novel set in a small northeastern Oklahoma town in the summer of 1944. It is a story of the home front during WWII.

(I forgot about Letter from Home.)

I love Oklahoma and enjoy using my home state as a background.

Vivian: The Henrie O series attracts me, probably because I can emphasize with a woman of “a certain age.” Do you have any more books featuring her in your writing future? If so, would you share some tidbits of information about one?

Carolyn: Henrie O is currently resting, as they say in Hollywood. I am committed to write one Death on Demand book and one ghost book every year and I don't at the moment have time for a new Henrie O.

*sigh* I can understand Henrie O resting. I find I need more rest, too. At least we'll be able to read more of your books, though, and I did enjoy "meeting" Bailey Ruth.

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

Carolyn: I used to enjoy jogging and tennis but now settle for leisurely walks in the park. Walking and reading are my hobbies.

Vivian: 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.

Carolyn: I have always been fascinated by language. I enjoy creating a scene that I hope will interest readers. Writers are not disciplined. Writers are compulsive. Writers have to write. It is their destiny.

Oh, I so agree with your description of writers.

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

Carolyn: I always focus on one task at a time.

Vivian: The two most recent of your books I’ve read are Ghost at Work and Death Walked In. What influenced you to write those books?

Carolyn: I love ghost stories, but I like happy ghost stories such as Topper. I wanted to write a book of that sort and the outcome was Bailey Ruth Raeburn, my impulsive, well-meaning redheaded ghost. Death Walked In, as are most of the stories in the Death on Demand series, a study of failed relationships and the effect on everyone involved.

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

Carolyn: When I start a mystery, I know the protagonist, the victim, the murderer, and the reason for the crime, and I have a working title. That is all I know. I have no idea where the story will lead or how I will get to Page 300.

Vivian: Do or have any writing groups benefited you and your writing? If so, how?

Carolyn: I am a member of Sisters in Crime, Authors Guild, Mystery Writers of America, the American Crime Writing League, abnd the International Association of Crime Writers. If so, how? Membership affords information about the industry and collegiality.

Vivian: What advice would you have for a new author?

Carolyn: Write about something that matters enormously to you. If you care, somewhere an editor will care.

Vivian: Any other comments?

Carolyn: Follow your star.

Thank you, Carolyn. I know I enjoyed our visit, and I'm sure many others are, too. At the OWFI writing conference this past weekend, I was telling a group at lunch about Ghost at Work, and one comment was, "Carolyn can pull it off better than anyone else." I agree that you did "pull it off," and I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

Vivian Zabel
Brain Cells & Bubble Wrap
Midnight Hours
Prairie Dog Cowboy

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

E-book breakthrough?

There is e-book news from several fronts this week. First, the Texas legislature has passed a bill that allows school districts to use their textbook money for e-readers. Second, news leaks tell that Amazon will unveil a new, larger size Kindle for reading newspapers and textbooks. The unveiling is set for tomorrow (as I write this) or today (as you read this.).

The textbook news out of Texas should cheer all e-book lovers. Texas is the second largest purchaser of textbooks. Now, school kids in Texas may get their books electronically. The savings will be felt by the districts who won't have to store textbooks, who will be able to replace them easier and cheaper when they wear out or become outdated. Children will feel the weight of all those books removed from their bookbags. I have always believed the spear point of the e-book revolution is in textbooks. The generation that goes to school on e-books will be the e-book market of the future.

The Kindle news is also exciting in this regard. The large format of the new Kindle is intended for textbooks, which are printed in a larger format than trade books. The larger screen will allow for presentation of graphs and other illustrations. It's also rumored to have the ability to make annotations to the text—to write in the margins, in other words. The large format will make reading newspapers easier, too.

Is this the breakthrough e-book authors have been waiting for? Perhaps. It's certainly a significant step. However, I believe the biggest breakthroughs are yet to come and they are not in technology or legislation, but in marketing. The breakthrough will be in the selling of e-books, or more specifically, getting the book in front of a potential buyer's face.

The genius of the Kindle, in my opinion, is not in the electronic ink or other razzle-dazzle, nor in the ability to carry your entire library in your hand. No the genius of the Kindle is that you carry an entire bookstore in your hand. With a Kindle, you can buy a book whenever the mood strikes. Say you've just finished a Michael Connelly. You can immediately purchase the next one and within minutes plunge ahead into the series. No having to head to a bookstore, or start up your computer. A flip of the switch and you're connected. Another book purchased. Genius.

The shortcoming of the Kindle is that it connects to the Amazon store, which is not an inviting store. I like bookstores and drugstore racks and airport displays and newsstands as a means of selling books. A bookstore with shelf after shelf and tables piled with books and end displays with the covers facing out is a pleasure palace, full of temptations. The Amazon store, on the other hand, is like a bookstore with sheets over the shelves and tables. You can see what's inside only if you peek behind the sheets. Even then, you only see a small part of the stock. That's what the Amazon search engine feels like to me.

You sell a book by putting the cover in the reader's face. That's what a bookstore does. That's what a book signing does. Until publishers, booksellers and writers can figure out how to put the book cover in front of a reader's face, instead of at the end of a search function, we won't have a breakthrough in e-books.

What do you think?

Mark Troy

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Wow! What Must it Be Like to Have a Publicist!

Recently I attended a bookfest with several authors, a great majority self-published or published by a small press like I am. However, one author was there with her books that's published by a major New York house. Because I don't see much mention of her or her books on any of the lists I'm on, I suggested she might want to do a bit more promotion so that more people would know about her mysteries and have the opportunity to read them.

She told me she didn't feel the need since the publishing company had spent $20,000 on a publicist for her latest book. Whew! I can't even imagine that. Obviously, if that much money is being spent, publicity is being generated even though I haven't seen it. I'm guessing maybe ads in the book section of major newspapers and maybe endcap positions in bookstores like Barnes and Noble.

Having neither a big publisher behind me nor a budget for a publicist, I'll have to keep on doing what I'm doing and hope I touch a few readers who might enjoy my books.

I must confess I felt a tad envious. With a publicist doing all the work, I wouldn't have to blog or tweet, read and respond to so many lists, go to mystery cons or speak to Sisters in Crime groups or at libraries. I'd have far more time to write.

But--I wouldn't have the opportunity to meet so many people--people who have become true friends. So, I guess I'll be glad for who I am, the small publishers who have published my books, the groups and libraries who have asked to hear me speak.

Marilyn a.k.a. F. M. Meredith

Monday, May 4, 2009

Where Am I? by Morgan Mandel

In a good mystery, it's hard to tell which road the author is leading you down. You think you've figured it out, but then the plot suddenly curves in a different direction. Sometimes you don't know where you are at all.

It's not easy for an author to do this. It involves not jumping at the first solution that comes to mind, but instead delving deeper, going for the fifth or sixth. Just make sure whichever one you choose makes sense or the reader will feel cheated. You may need to go back and plant clues to back up your choice. It's not enough to make sense, you also need to make the solution not too obvious or it won't really be a mystery. You've got to keep them guessing.
Can you tell where this photo is from? Let me know your guess. You can see if you're right tomorrow when I post the answer on my daily blog, .
Or, if you don't have a clue, instead maybe you could share the name of a mystery where you were surprised by the author. Or, maybe you could share ways you've surprised readers yourself when writing your books. Please share.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Promotional Overload

Ever done a blog book tour? I know a lot of you are familiar with Dani and BlogBookTours, including her wonderful Yahoo listserv group on which she is now running classes every three months. Or is it four months? If I wasn't so tired from my latest jaunt into the cyberworld of promotion (or the promotional world of cyberland?), I'd do some fact-checking. But whatever the specifics are, Dani is the, the empress...NO, Dani is the goddess of blog book tours and I worship at her shrine!

ANYway, I have done two cyber tours for my murder mystery MURDER FOR HIRE, one solo and the other with Jess Lourey, author of the very funny MURDER BY THE MONTH series. Both were hard work; lots of posts to write and interview questions to answer, but definitely manageable. And the one with Jess was a lot easier because we shared the work.

Why I thought this would mean organizing and running a tour for eleven romance authors (myself included) for Ravenous Romance would be easy is beyond my comprehension. I guess I figured if there were eleven of us, it would mean that much LESS work for me. Except I was the organizer. And none of these other authors had ever done a blog book tour before and had no real concept of what it was.

Without boring you with the myriad of frustrations I experienced during the last two months, I'll just give you a brief idea of what I had to accomplish with this tour. There needed to be 13 stops: an intro, eleven stops that showcased one author per day, yet also involved all 11 authors, and a final stop to wrap things up. I had to find and contact all the host blogs, explain what we were doing, and figure out dates for each post while matching authors with the appropriate blogs. I came up with a format that included a question of the day that would be answered at length by the showcased author, with short Reader's Digest answers from everyone else. I had to send out questionnaires to the authors, nag them to get the questionnaires back in time for me to cut and paste all the answers into 11 separate posts, add the last paragraph telling people where the next day's stop would be and talk about the
giveaways for each post. These had to go BACK to the showcased authors for their intros and anything else they wanted to add, including their book excerpts. Lists of urls and hyperlinks were sent to all the hosts, along with the schedules. Reminders were sent out, more nagging to authors to get the final posts back so I could proof them and send them on to the various hosts.

I was the first blog host and spent hours putting in everyone's book cover jpegs and as many hyperlinks as would help promote the authors, Ravenous Romance and all of the hosts. I checked links obsessively to make sure everything would be perfect for our first day. And it was - over 95 comments for our first stop. After that... well, let's just say no matter how carefully you plan something like this, there will still be things to go wrong and all you can do is damage control as best you can.

One host, a very reliable friend of mine, had the time wrong so the post wasn't up in the morning and I couldn't get a hold of her. I hastily put the post up at my blog, contacted another person on her blog, and he got the post up and running at the planned site. Another host was gone a large portion of the day and had the comment moderation on, so none of the comments showed up for a few hours. Yet another had the wrong link for the showcased author's website and was also gone for a large part of the day.

I, of course, took them all as personal failures and emitted
stressons all over the place. My long suffering boyfriend was on hand to dispense soothing words, backrubs and wine. All in all, I spent two months putting this tour together and then baby-sitting all the stops, even while on a mini-vacation. I have not gotten anything substantial in the way of writing done during this time.

Was it worth it? Yes. The authors have seen a rise in their sales, we had an average of 60 comments per stop (over 160 at one stop), and it's been a blast. Doing a tour for my next mystery novel will be a snap in comparison.

Would I do another multiple author tour again?
Ask me in a few months when I've recovered from this one!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Rescuing a Stalled Plot

by Jean Henry Mead

We’ve all been there at one time or another. Your story’s going along great and all of a sudden you come to a complete stop as though a stone wall stands in your path. Surprised and a little fearful, you can’t seem to get going again. You either abandon the project or put it aside, hoping you’ll eventually come back to it.

A good plot is like a good marriage. It begins with plenty of enthusiasm and energy, but after that first rush you have to settle in for the long haul. Your story has to deepen and acquire rich details so that your reader doesn’t lose interest. Sometimes, when you’ve run out of action and detail you might begin to hate your story and wish you’d never started it. That’s when you’ve run out of what William McCranor Henderson calls “character knowledge.” He says, “When you hit that wall and don’t know where to go next, the best solution is to dig deeper.”

Okay, get out those shovels and dig up intimate facts about your characters. It’s not everything about them, Henderson says, “it’s just the stuff we really need to know about our characters. Ideally, this includes the two or three key nuggets of personality or character history than can make you fall back in love with your story.”

An example of character knowledge may be that Terry likes ice cream and is allergic to chocolate. These facts don’t necessarily add up to character knowledge unless they cause something crucial to happen in the story. If Terry is investigating a murder case and eats a dish of ice cream containing white chocolate that he’s unaware of, he may wind up in the hospital just as he’s about to crack the case. Or Julie comes down with a bad case of poison ivy just before her wedding because her jealous rival puts snippets of the woody vines in her bouquet.

One way to dig deeper into your character's past is to interview yourself. In a focused freewrite, you jot down a few lines and answer the questions honestly. Such as:

Q. Why would Johnny marry a girl he doesn’t love?
A. Her father owns a large company and will offer Johnny a management job. His wife will inherit the company some day, making Johnny a wealthy man. Maybe the old man will have an unfortunate accident and Johnny won’t have to wait that long for the money.
Q. But won’t his wife know that he doesn’t love her.
A. He’ll shower her with gifts and pretend that she’s the love of his life.
Q. But everyone thinks he’s a great guy.
A. So did I until I started digging into his character.

If you’re not getting the right answers from yourself, interview your characters.

Q. Why were you involved in an accident?
A. The road was slick and I lost control of my car.
Q. Weren't you paying attention to your driving?
A. Well, I guess I overcorrected when Sara distracted me.

Properly interviewing characters can bring out traits and faults you never knew existed, which can lead to all sorts of plot complications and solutions. Then, when you rewrite that blocked scene, you can take a new run at the wall and watch it disappear because you have character knowledge that allows you to view the scene through new eyes.