Thursday, July 30, 2009

Writing-- The Dream Job?

I've been looking for work for a while now and someone asked me recently what my dream job would be. Being in day job mode, I answered something like full-time and with full benefits--especially health insurance. Then my questioner asked me again, "Seriously, what does your dream job look like?"

When I answered her, I told her about my writing. My dream job is to write as a day job--with those full benefits, I mentioned.

But when you think about it, no one expects writing to be a day job. I'm published but no one expects me to actually make any money at this, let alone get health insurance. Writers frequently give their skills away, writing blogs for free, writing articles so that they can get publicity for their other writing projects, writing the church newsletter because somebody has to do it. Yeah, so why doesn't the church's secretary volunteer her services? Or the church handy man?

But writing is regarded differently. We want to be entertained, but we don't expect to pay much, if anything, for it.

Every so often, usually on listserves like National Writer's Union, or Author's Guild, I'll see some activist who will rail against all of those who give their writing away for free. If all of us would just grow backbones and demand what we're worth, the theory goes, the average income for every writer will go up.

I'm not so sure. Afterall, the world is not going to fall apart if all of us writers go on strike--with the possible exception of TV programs. The social networking site Twitter's coverage of the Iranian election proved that even news will still get around without the help of people who consider themselves writers. So while I'd like to believe that somehow my writing will earn my living--I have to be realistic. And no activism on my part will really change that. I'd like to get paid, but I need to write.

So does my neighbor and the guy who is on the board of adjustments and the guy who drives the Kroger delivery van. The bright spot there is that some of us are going to drop out. I've been writing long enough to know that.

Writing friends have quit writing to have babies, start a business, get married (yeah I didn't get that one either.) Some have died. Being stubborn (and healthy) counts for something in this business, I think. Really, other than the need for money what other weeding out process do you know in a business that lets you blog on anything and everything you want for free? All you have to do is be satisfied with...pretty much nothing.

I'm not going to quit.

I'm a writer. I have my dream job. You can't take this one away just because it doesn't pay the bills. But if you know of any bookkeeping jobs in the Denver area, let me know.

Christine Duncan is the author of the Kaye Berreano mystery series. Book two of the series, Safe House, is due out later this summer.

Monday, July 27, 2009

What's in a Name? and other character building questions

by Austin S. Camacho

A while back I talked about character inventories - a list of traits and details that you could use as a fill-in-the-blank character starter. Each of those traits tells a bit more about your character and if you remain consistent with all of them you’ll have a great character who readers will take to their hearts because they will feel as if they really know this person.

Character inventories usually start with names and that’s not just for convenience. Superficial as we humans are, we draw a lot of meaning out of a person’s name. My detective Hannibal Jones has a very common last name, indicating an everyman. His father named him after the only African military conqueror he could name, the man who led elephants in his army and almost defeated the Roman legions. Who is your character named after? Who named him, mom or dad? Does she have a name that indicates parental personality expectations? Many common women’s names do: Chastity, Felicity, Hope, and Faith. Such characters often either grow into their names or they may take a stance in opposition to it like fictional adventurer Modesty Blaise?

Last names often indicate nationality with all the assumptions they bring. If you have a fellow named Patrick O’Connor in your cast and he ISN’T Irish, you’d better tell us quickly, because we’ve already slotted him. And in fact if he isn’t, there’s a great story there about how he got that name that will tell us a good deal about him.

Similarly, nicknames tell us a lot about your character, but we need to know if he took the name himself or if someone stuck him with it. If you introduce me to a character named Tiny I expect a giant. But if her pals call her Brain, she might be the one who always has a plan, OR she might be an idiot. Either way, the fact that she accepted that nickname tells us about her confidence level and self-image.

As for backgrounds, consider your own nationality. I think very few of you will say, “American.” We all come from somewhere, or our ancestors did. There are no generic people, and readers won’t care about your characters if they are too generic. Everyone has a race, a nationality and a religious background – even if the person doesn’t practice a religion. Consider how that affects your character’s personality.

Economic background affects personalities too, even if the character has moved on from that background. Habits learned during a poor childhood don’t vanish when your character strikes it rich, and vice versa. Know how she’ll behave in a store, in a restaurant, or in a bar. How much does money matter to her choices?

I’ve said all that before mentioning appearance because I think too many people think looks make a character. A description is NOT a character, friends. It’s probably the least important thing. However, it does matter for a few reasons. It indicates race and nationality, and whether the person is inclined to sports or not. It indicates how often others might be attracted to them.

When describing your characters don’t forget importance of clothing and jewelry. Beyond what we’re born with, consider what the character chooses to change. Has he had plastic surgery? Is she dieting? Do they wear a wig or toupee? All those tell us a lot about this person, just as being bald and proud of it does. How do they dress? How much makeup do they wear? These are all more clues to this personality.

Personally, I consider descriptions to be the most boring part of most books. So this is my personal plea for the use of simile and metaphor for description. He’s as tall as what? As fat as who? Her voice sounds like a… what, exactly? Pretend you’re describing your character to a friend who’s never seen him because that’s exactly what you’re doing.

And remember that, beyond description, characters are best revealed by what they say and what they do.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Unique Kill

by Ben Small

In my ever increasing effort to find a more unique murder weapon than Chester Campbell's smudge pot, and to keep Lee Lofland guessing, I've found this:

The PSEXTech Tac-15 Tactical Assault Crossbow.

Okay, I know anything in black thsee days is called "tactical," but this baby really is. It comes with or without a scope, will fill the same hole at forty yards, and sends a 425 grain steel bolt on its way at four hundred thirty-two feet per second -- the fastest crossbow on the market.

Zowie! Shazam. Take that, Batman.

This beast features a Picatinny rail for scope and accessories, weighs only 6.3 lbs, features a free floated fore-grip/handguard, so hand pressure will not bend the bow and adversely affect accuracy. It features an integrated quick-cocking design with a lever crank, a good thing, because maximum pull-weight is one hundred seventy pounds. One would need to be big, green and nicknamed "Hulk" to pull this tension without the crank. While you may imagine the creaky, clanging of gears pulling up a moat bridge, this hummer is whisper quiet.

Since "assault" rifles, whatever that term means, often are described as "black rifles," I suppose this would be a black bow -- good thing since it's black, huh? Blends into the night.

Heh, heh, heh. Just a whistle and a thud, the body hits the ground.

At this speed and with the weight of this bolt, I'd guess the bolt would pass clear through a body, but if not, retrieval would leave quite a mess. Either way might have Lee scratching his head for a bit.

And it gets better. Since it's designed on an AR platform, the crossbow fits onto any lower AR receiver. So, your perp or protag can choose on the spot whether he can afford the noise of his AR-15 black rifle, or the slippery silence of a dead-nuts bolt. Just strap the upper on your back and off you go with your AR-15, ready for action.

Too bad these bolts aren't wood: Vampires wouldn't stand a chance.

Better yet, this piece of arsenal auxiliary comes from a company in Tucson. Yes, we like our smugglers to have the latest stuff. And bad guys may buy; no NFA clearance or investigation required. Just walk in and plunk down $1200 of dirty money.

Ain't technology grand?

Sure, Lee would eventually figure it out -- he always does -- but this one would have him scratching his head for a bit. Once figured, tracking would pose no issue, at least while this thing is new, but as demand spreads out and used products become available, tracking would become more difficult. And of course, there are other crossbows on the market, just not with the speed and power of this one.

I know, Chester's still got me beat. A smudge pot is hard to match. But I'm trying.

Wouldn't Vlad the Impaler have had fun with this thing...?

Tactical Assault Crossbow

Friday, July 24, 2009

Conferences...Learn Something New? by Chester Campbell

My high school alumni association holds a monthly luncheon at a cafeteria not far from where I live. The largest attendance is from classes in the 1940s and 1950s. That makes sense as most all of us from that era don’t have to worry about day jobs. It’s always fun to reminisce about what we did “back then,” as well as chat about what the grandchildren are doing. We usually have a speaker on some subject of interest, and Thursday it was a woman who had written a book on discounts for seniors. She made an amusing talk, but as we were leaving my wife asked me, “Did you learn anything you didn’t already know?”

Very little, if anything, I was forced to admit. It got me to thinking about mystery conferences and conventions. Do I learn anything new when I go to one those?

In the past I’ve attended as many as six in a year, ranging from Florida to Indiana to Texas to Las Vegas. With the current economic climate, I’m cutting down to three in 2009, including one just across the county line to the south (Killer Nashville). The other two are SleuthFest in Florida, a perennial favorite, and Bouchercon, an easy half-day drive away in Indianapolis.

During the first few years, I took copious notes, digesting all sorts of useful information on writing, publishing, marketing, and a slew of other subjects that go into the mix. I also made lots of contacts with other writers, a number of fans, bookstore people, agents, editors, etc.

Now, rather than learning new things about the business, I find I am more often reminded of things I learned in the past but have not been putting into practice. Conferences have become more like a refresher course. Dialogue? Break up all those quotes with a little action. Sure, I knew that, but had I been paying enough attention to it? That’s just a minor example.

I chat with old friends and meet new ones. It’s an opportunity to put a face to those names I’ve been scanning in the emails. I might find somebody new who’d be willing to blurb the next book. And there’s always the chance of picking up a promotional idea I hadn’t considered, or unearthing an interesting way to jazz up a book signing. You’re never too old or jaded to learn something new. It’s just that there aren’t all that many things out there you hadn’t encountered before.

In earlier days I was always concerned about getting my books in the Dealer Room. I still like to have them available. But I’ve learned that lacking a household name in the mystery world, the chances of selling more than a handful of books at a conference are pretty slim. Especially at a major event like Bouchercon. I’ll never forget my first one in Vegas when I sat at my table in the signing room like the proverbial wallflower. The vacant table beside me had a line winding out into the hallway. I later learned they were waiting for James Lee Burke. One guy said he meant to come by my table but he didn’t want to get out of line.

Now I mostly choose small conferences, where you get a chance to meet most of the people and interact with those who are really interested in reading your books. Killer Nashville is one of those. This will be the fourth year, and it’s developing into a nice venue with some great speakers and interesting panels. And it’s fairly inexpensive. If you haven’t checked it out, here’s a link.

Bottom line, conferences have important values, whether you learn much new or not.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Making an antagonist evil and believable - by Vivian Zabel

Psychopath or Sociopath – how to make your antagonist real.

A good writer does the best to make characters believable. Antagonists need to be round characters, too, not stereotypes or flat. One way to put depth into a villain is to decide whether or not the person has a “problem,” perhaps one that’s pathological or traumatic, that motivates behavior.

I’ve researched psychopath and sociopath. Most information stated that they are one and the same, and the terms have been considered interchangeable for at least twenty years. However, some of the newer decisions by the psychiatric community has been to show a slight difference between the two conditions.

Let’s look at the traits found in a psychopath and then look at the slight difference between psychopath and a sociopath. The first eight are absolutely associated with a psychopath. Nine through fifteen aren’t always noticeable, but are found to some extent. The final four are not as common as the first fifteen, but many psychopaths have the traits or history of such traits.

1. Glibness/superficial charm
2. Grandiose sense of self-worth
3. Pathological lying
4. Cunning/manipulative
5. Lack of remorse or guilt
6. Emotionally shallow
7. Callous/lack of empathy
8. Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
9. Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
10. Parasitic lifestyle
11. Poor behavioral control
12. Promiscuous sexual behavior
13. Lack of realistic, long-term goals
14. Impulsivity
15. Irresponsibility

1. Juvenile delinquency
2. Early behavior problems
3. Revocation of conditional release
4. Many short-term marital relationships
5. Criminal versatility

The one difference between a psychopath and a sociopath is a sociopath can, and sometimes does, feel guilt or remorse. A psychopath never does, and if he shows such emotion, he is acting.

Does that mean that every psychopath and sociopath is a criminal? No, because the same traits can be found in politicians, CEOs, and other people in positions of power. However, those people don’t believe that anything they do is wrong, that if others are hurt, it doesn’t matter.

So using the traits to make the antagonist more believable makes our writing better, gives motivation for our villain.

Vivian Zabel
Brain Cells & Bubble Wrap
4RV Publishing

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Honolulu Stories, reprise by Mark Troy

Today I am reprising a post from my other blog, Hawaiian-eye, because a storm last night fried my modem at home and I'm unable to post what I had planned. This article was originally posted as a lead up to Left Coast Crime in Hawaii. Although LCC 2009 has come and gone, the stories in this anthology are timeless.

In a previous post, I mentioned Honolulu Stories, a newly released anthology of short stories, poems and essays about Honolulu. I lamented that there were no selections from mystery authors. There are, however, stories with crime or mystery elements.

One such story is "Stalking Haunani" by the great Hawaiian musician, Keola Beamer. It's the story of a hapless auto mechanic named Honey Boy Rodrigues whose problems with his ex-wives, his sisters, his boss and his cat are hilarious. Then, while looking through his binoculars into apartments in Waikiki, he discovers the beautiful Haunani Freitas.

As I said there is no mystery here, but there are crimes aplenty. Besides the stalking crime of the title, we have peeping tomism, terroristic threatening, destruction of property, lying to a police officer, and substance abuse. The substances that are abused are pomade and Brut cologne.

The story is told in the first person by Honey Boy in his pidgin dialect. If you've never heard or read pidgin, this will be a little slow at first and some of the words will be confusing, but the speech rhythms are dead on and delightful. Read it out loud. It's full of hilarious exchanges as this one between Honey Boy's ex-wife and the divorce judge:

"Was he hostile?" the judge wen acks, all serious and formal like.

"Ho, judge," Su Yen wen hiss tru her pouty lips. Steam was comin out her eeah, like da funnel of da smoke stack from one model train. Da pooah ting was strugglin wid her mean tempa. She wen rake da hair from her forehead, an stand up quickly from da chair.

"Hostile, dogstyle, anykine style," she yell out. She point at me. "An den, right afta dat, all da time, ZZZZZZZ, ZZZZZZZZZZ, like one chain saw, yoa honah. I res my case!"

If you are going to Left Coast Crime and you want to familiarize yourself with the local culture and dialect, this is the story to set you on the right path. While you're at it, get some of Beamer's music. "Honolulu City Lights" is still my favorite after all these years.

Mark Troy

What's In a Word

Do you have a favorite word you lean on in conversation? We all do – maybe it’s “like” or “well.” Could be “you know” or “um” or even a phrase like “no way.” Well, authors have words and phrases they lean on, too. That’s great in a draft…it's essential to get the story out and on paper, or hard drive as the case is today. Don’t even worry about them at that point.

Then you have to be relentless as you scour your manuscript. How many times do you start a sentence with “but” or “and,” “however” or “although”? Another word many of us are guilty of using as a prop is “that.” Use the “Find” command sometime and take a look at how many times these words sneak into a manuscript.

Don’t get me wrong -- sometimes one of those is exactly the right word choice, but many times those words creep in because our minds are zipping along as we write. It gives us a moment to get the sentence flowing as we go. Kind of like that “um” partway thru a spoken sentence. It seems invisible until you start to hear the other person saying it, like, you know, every couple of sentences. Then that’s all you can, like, hear! You start to sort of tune out…or focusing on it instead of what the person is saying!

So, take a few minutes and check out the repeats in your next completed first draft. Don’t be too worried too at what you find – we all do it as we write.

Next step, though, is to start striking through those handy lean-ons relentlessly.

Libby McKinmer
Romance with an edge
On Twitter, Facebook and GoodReads, too

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Mystery of the Pigeon by Morgan Mandel

I'm sitting at the Corner Bakery at the train station trying to fit in what writing I can before walking to the office.

As I'm typing on my computer, a pigeon walks by. Nothing unusual about seeing a pigeon, but what makes this sighting different is I'm indoors at the Ogilvie Transportation Centre, a huge building.

When you write a mystery, have fun by inserting objects or clues that don't quite fit right away, but later when you unravel the story, they make perfect sense.

I'm still trying to figure out the mystery of how this pigeon got in here. Maybe there's a hole in the ceiling. Maybe it got in through the swinging doors downstairs. Maybe it got in through the depot side, but then it would still have to fly inside the other swinging doors from the depot to the train station proper and down the hallway to the Corner Bakery.

This is one mystery I may never solve. Do you know of any real life mysteries you've never figured out?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Trying Something New

My beloved MacBook has been ill lately - trouble with the fan. When I last took it to the Apple Genius Bar, I was told yes, it does need a new fan, but not right away.

The other night after about an hour of use, it got REALLY hot and shut down before damage was done to any of the inner workings. Which is a really nice selling point of the MacBook. However, it makes any sustained periods of work impossible. I need to take Annie (my MacBook is named after a jaguar at EFBC/FCC and yes, I name just about ALL of the important appliances/cars/surfboards in my life) back to the Apple Store and have the fan replaced. Thankfully under warranty. I intend to do so Monday.

In the meantime, I've been using Annie for short bursts of online activity, keeping careful watch on the heat emanating from her while doing so. For my writing, I've started using my NEO Alphasmart (loaned to me by one of my best buddies, writing partners and amazing horror author T. Chris Martindale - if you want to read a scary book, pick up WHERE THE CHILL WAITS and if you're a fan of Paul F. Wilson's REPAIRMAN JACK series, read Martindale's Stoker award nominated book NIGHTBLOOD), and..

I love my NEO.

You can choose font size to have 3, 4, 5 or 6 lines of text on the display window. You can't see a whole page and constantly second-guess yourself the way you can with a regular computer, so it's somehow easier to just ... well ... write.

So I've gone from full on panic mode at the thought of being without my beloved Annie to a calm 'I can do this' attitude, knowing I can work on my WIP on NEO and probably accomplish a lot while Annie is in for her 'operation.'

Thank you, T.C.!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

How to Impress an Agent

by Jean Henry Mead

I was going through a stack of writer magazines, trying to decide whether to toss or keep them when I came across an article written by agent Lori Perkins. Her essay on impressing an agent made me laugh because the tips are so obvious. But I’ve been writing a long time and maybe there’s someone reading this article who doesn’t know the basics.

The most important thing you can do to impress an agent is to submit a cleanly typed and professional query. And never longer than one page because editors are very busy people who read a lot of queries. Sucessful agents receive a thousand or more a month. Make sure your letter of inquiry is on white paper—colored stationery doesn’t impress agents or grab the right kind of attention. Use 8.5 by 11 inch 20 bond paper. Absolutely nothing lighter.

Perkins said, “A dirty, tattered, handwritten letter” just doesn’t impress," no matter how good your manuscript happens to be. Because she represents a number of horror writers, Perkins receives pretty strange queries. Some have been written on black paper with white ink or with red ink to represent blood. She’s also received computer-generated stationery with vampire bats, skulls and coffin decorations, which wind up buried in the trash.

Use 10 or 12-point type and Times New Roman or Courier typefaces. The agent said not to type chapter heads as they appear in a book. And don’t try to bribe the agent with booze, Cuban cigars, coffee mugs or a box of Vidalia onions. (I’m not making this up.) Your work has to stand on its own merit. Never tell the agent that you have ten completed manuscripts in your closet that you’re willing to share. And wait six to eight weeks to call after you’ve submitted three chapters for her approval. Another NEVER is to tell the agent you’ve tried to sell the book yourself or have been rejected by every editor listed in Writer’s Market. Sounds silly but some would-be writers have done just that.

For heaven sake, don’t lie to impress the agent. There’s a well-told story about a writer who made up a quote from a bestselling novelist, which helped his agent sell the book for a six-figure book deal. When the bestseller heard about it and called The New York Times to repute the quote, the publisher dropped the writer before the ink was dry on his contract.

Perkins also said too much personal information call kill the deal. Wait until an agent-writer relationship has been established before you talk about your ex-spouse or that your car's been repossessed. If it doesn’t pertain to your book, don’t talk about it.

Don’t make assumptions about your book before you’ve even signed the contract. And don’t ask the agent about whether a movie deal will be in the works or how large an advance a publishing company is willing to pay. Start work on your next book and let the agent do her work. Give her your phone number, email address and enclose an S.A.S. E. (self-addressed envelope). And get those three chapters in the mail as soon as possible after they’ve been requested. If there’s some kind of delay, be sure to let the agent know.

Don’t forget to briefly list your literary credits. Perkins said, “Don’t be afraid to blow your own horn,” but do it as briefly as possible.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

How Much Research Do You Do? by Christine Duncan

I recently went on Goodreads looking for something to read when I was attracted by a discussion in the mystery group about writers cutting corners in their research. I couldn't help responding since I don't know any writers who do that. The writers I know spend too much time researching--getting caught up in details such as what kind of boot fasteners women used during the Civil War. Then these same writers try to stuff it all into their manuscript when they finally sit down to write the thing. Meaning--they get tired of their critique groups getting on their cases because they haven't brought in anything for weeks so they finally write something which reads like a Sears catalogue from the 1860s! Then the critique group gets on their cases AGAIN for data dumping and tells them they don't want to read a 400 word description on women's boot fasteners in the Civil War in the middle of the scene. (Yes, it did happen. I was there and I even told the writer in question that the rules of our critique prohibited arguing when she was being critiqued. Otherwise known as the shut up, sit down and take it critique method. And yes it is compatible with the sandwich critique method which we can discuss another time.) Anyway, whatever else it is, this is hardly an example on cutting corners on research.

The woman I responded to in the mystery group was offended and told me that the discussion was not meant as a forum for writers to defend themselves. So I kept quiet until asked a question by another discussion member. Another writer brought up the fact that some of her research was cut from the book by her editor (who was probably someone from my critique group still ranting about data dumps.)

Obviously there is a fine line where we writers need to include enough facts to supply verisimilitude but not so much to bore the reader right out of the book. So many of us probably end up limiting what we put in. And I've heard of writers being corrected on facts by their readers. One woman, who I won't name, told of being flooded by emails pointing out that she had her chase scene going the wrong way down an obviously famous, one-way street in a very big city. The writer was actually a native of the city and knew the street well. But when she was writing the scene, she got turned around somehow and no one else ever caught the error...until it was in print.

Now I don't consider that to be cutting corners on research. The writer was relying on her memory and really didn't even think about researching the fact. If you had asked her about research for the book, she probably would have been able to list tons of sources. But she thought she KNEW that street. That stuff happens and it's not the same as, say, having the novel's forensic investigator pull fingerprints off of a cotton t-shirt (which I understand from my research, is pretty unlikely. But you know, after this discussion, I'm afraid to say that without checking that research again so don't rely on me here.)

So do you cut corners on research? Have you read books where you suspected that the writer did? Obviously I can't go anywhere with this, but I want to know.

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

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

How Many Ways Have You Murdered Someone?

How's that for a title?

I've been thinking about the next Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery I'm going to write. Not the next one that's going to be published, that one's due out in September. And I've got another ready to send off. The victim in that one dies by gunshot wound. I've killed other victims with guns, no stabbing yet, but lots of poisonings--there are so many different ways to poison someone including beautiful flowers.

It takes me awhile to come up with exactly what I'm going to do in the Tempe mysteries--the murder victim(s)need to be someone who lives in the small town of Bear Creek or somewhere around, or on the reservation, and I like to weave some Indian mythology or legends in somehow. Who will be the murderer always takes some decision making--sometimes that's the first person who comes to mind, but sometimes I'm not sure who the suspect will be until I'm into the book a ways.

Sometimes I have to shoot an e-mail off to Dr. Lyle to see if my idea for murdering someone will work and what the corpse will look like after a certain time period. He is always very obliging. Have you ever checked out Dr. Lyle's website? Most educational.

The Rocky Bluff P.D. series is easier for me to come up with a new plot. For one thing, I always need to decide which of my cop characters and/or their families are going to have major billing. I collect news clippings of unusual crimes that I think I might use one day in a story. I also follow some of the online police reports for ideas. I especially like small town crimes because both of my series are set in small towns.

I've gotten other ideas by attending my local Sisters in Crime meetings and listening to detectives, coroners, and police officers. I always take careful notes because I never know when something I've heard will fit perfectly into a story I'm writing.

In the next Rocky Bluff P.D. crime novel, as yet untitled, the murder victim is beheaded. Certainly gruesome, but the county coroner who told the story to us took great glee in giving all the details to a room full of women right before lunch.

When you think about it, we mystery writers do think and write about terrible things. I've had people ask me why I do it. My answer always is I have absolutely no control over what goes on in the real world, but in the worlds that I create I do have some control and I know the bad guy will always get caught in the end.

So, how many ways have you murdered someone?

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

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Truth About Private Detectives

by Austin S. Camacho

I find it interesting that Ben Small should be here chatting about handguns just as I was thinking up a piece on private detectives. I think most people think they know all about private investigators but tell me, have you ever met one? I have. And I was neither a client nor a target.
I write a series about a private detective named Hannibal Jones, most recently seen in last month's release, Russian Roulette . Like Ben with guns, I figured if I was gonna write about these guys, I ought to learn something about them. Researching for my stories has taught me a lot about the reality of private investigation. I think a lot of people have a rather romanticized picture of private eyes, so I thought I'd share some of the facts I've gathered about P.I's with you.
First of all, books and TV would give you the idea that there are millions of private detectives out there, in every city and on every street. The fact is, there are only about 45,000 private detectives in the whole country. That might still sound like a lot until you realize that only about a quarter of them are self-employed. About the same number work for some detective agency. Then you subtract out the 15 percent who are store detectives. That leave about a third of the big number who are working for state or local government, law firms, employment services companies, insurance agencies, and banks and the like. None of them wants to help you with your problems.
So why only an average of less than 500 per state? Well, the hours suck. The work is dangerous. And people who are really qualified - the guys who could be Sam Spade or Joe Mannix or Hannibal Jones - usually have better sense. Their ability allows them to stay in law enforcement, or the military, or work for an insurance company if they choose. They might also get jobs in government or doing intelligence work.
Most P.I.s come from those professions and many of them are highly qualified. Not all of them have their B.S. degree in police science but some have lots more valuable years of police experience or time in a federal law enforcement agency. On the other hand, some have no qualifications at all, and it’s buyer beware if you’re in the market for one.
Most states, like Washington DC, require private detectives to get a license. The requirements are all different, though, and in Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, and South Dakota there's no license required at all.
Some people question why we need private investigators. Isn't that what we pay the police for? Well, the reason I like to write a fictional private eye is that there are things they do that the cops can't, and most of them are even legal. The biggest thing, in real life, is the surveillance. Sure, you can check a guy's employment or income with a phone call, but to know what he's really up to, nothing replaces laying eyes on a guy for hours or days at a time. The police can't afford the resources for that kind of thing. They also can't informally interview friends, neighbors and coworkers. Lawyers and businesses hire private eyes to do that kind of thing as often as individuals do. And the cops can't just work one case until it's done, like they do on TV. Private investigators can, and generally do.
P.Is often take more varied jobs. They do personal protection work, stop harassment, get the goods on people at the wrong end of law suits and child custody cases, and occasionally handle missing person cases. A few specialize in computer fraud or identity theft. Some say they are not interested in premarital screening or verifying infidelity, but for others, that's their bread and butter.
I was surprised to learn how often they specialize. There are private detectives who focus on intellectual property theft. There are legal investigators, corporate investigators, financial investigators, store and hotel detectives. All this specialization made it plausible for my character, Hannibal Jones, to be a professional troubleshooter. He’s the only one I know of, but it fits the pattern I think.
I hope none of this spoils your ability to enjoy fictional private detectives. But I also hope that if you ever need one for real, you’ll have a better idea of who they really are.
There is more about private detectives – real and fictional – in the “Other Works” section of my web site, at

Saturday, July 11, 2009

What's the Deal?

by Ben Small

As many of you know, I’m a gun guy. Figured if I was gonna write about this stuff, I ought to learn something about guns. And then lo and behold, I found I enjoy shooting, and carrying a piece gives me a better sense of security in a part of the country where home invasions, car jackings and shootings are on the rise.

But the .380? C’mon. I always thought the .380 was sort of a .38 junior, like a spitball that just tumbles out of a pretend-gun. No stopping power, known to bounce off a thick leather jacket.

Well, evidently I was wrong. (Yeah, it happens occasionally, more than that according to my wife.) Because just about every gun manufacturer is announcing a new .380 these days. And of course, they’re all claiming their little pistols are “revolutionary,” whatever that means. And what does it mean? All these pistols are semi-auto, most are double action, and all contain anywhere from six to nine rounds. So what’s revolutionary about that?

In the last year, we’ve seen old standbys like Sig Sauer, Ruger and even Magnum Research come out with one. And the only one is “revolutionary,” at least in the sense of radically new and unexpected ― the Magnum Research Micro Baby Eagle. What makes this pistol revolutionary is its place in the Magnum Research arsenal. Magnum Research is known for its gigantic pistols, the Desert Eagle being the standard. You’ve seen this pistol, it’s the one that requires a weight lifter to just pick it up. The Desert Eagle is huge, perhaps the largest semi-auto manufactured. You can usually find them in the “used” section of your gun dealer’s stock, or on Gunbroker, which usually means someone’s selling one from his collection. Why? Because the Desert Eagle is no fun to shoot; heck, it’s not even fun to lift. I shot a .50 AE Desert Eagle once, and that was enough for me. It goes bang in a big way, lots of fire and recoil, the gun often pictured in You Tube videos banging some unaware shooter in the forehead because of its massive recoil. I don’t know anyone who enjoys shooting a Desert Eagle, which is why so many are sold used. The gun is so ugly, it’s even sold in a gold version. Just pull this gun out and people start running, maybe the shooter, too.

Okay, so here’s the Desert Eagle.

And here’s the Micro Baby Eagle.

Ugly little sucker, isn’t it? And it only holds 6 +1 rounds of .380.

Now, a little research will show you that the .380 cartridge is nothing more than a .38 in semi-auto style. It’s essentially the same bullet as found in the .38, the .38 Special, the 9mm and even the .357 magnum, but it’s not the bullet size that counts; it the powder and cartridge in which this bullet resides. Not much oomph here. As I said, the .380 has been known to bounce off thick leather jackets.

So why the demand, especially in this day and age when bigger is usually better and when folks want more rounds than just six or seven? Heck, even the tiny Glock 26, the “Baby Glock” and the Walther PPS come in 9mm and hold more rounds.

Here’s the Glock 26. Holds ten rounds, twelve if a mag extension like the one pictured is added. And it’s a 9 mm pistol, more oomph than the .380.

The answer is .380 pistols, being so small, are easily concealed, and with the number of concealed carry licenses being granted during the Great Obama Panic, concealment is important. You can drop these babies in your pocket, and your pants won’t fall down. Or drop it in your purse, and you’ll have room for your wallet. Wear it on your ankle, and it won’t even pull your socks down. There’s almost no recoil, no big flash of flame, and while not as quiet as a .22 lr, this one won’t break your eardrum.

Some cops carry these guns, but usually only as a second or third back-up. And even then, most prefer a 9mm.

But the economy is down, and fear is up, and many newcomers to concealed carry are nervous about doing so. They feel like everybody is looking at them, and can see they’re packing heat. They want protection, but don’t want anybody to know they’ve got it. A comfort factor.

Yes, I carry concealed. Have a permit to do so. But I opted for the Baby Glock. More bang for my buck. And if I carry a backup, which occasionally I do, it’s a tiny North American Derringer, five rounds of hollow point, .22 magnum bang. I carry it in a pocket holster that also contains eight additional rounds, meaning I’ve got thirteen rounds of powerful .22 mag available. My North American Derringer is petite, about half the size of a .380.

So here’s my back up of choice. You can fit this little baby inside your sock.

The .22 lr has always been the mob hit man gun of choice, because up close it will do the job with a bang so soft only the hitter will hear it. Put a .22 lr slug in the back of the hittee’s head, and he’s ready for the morgue, probably with an open casket. The bullet will bounce around the hittee’s skull like a pinball, but probably won’t exit. And the .22 mag is just one step up.

So why the .380, if it’s the smaller brother to the .38, with a little less bang and fewer rounds than its cousins?

Hell if I know. But they’re coming out all over, and each one is being called “revolutionary.” Funny thing, though, all these new .380s, and yet the .380 round is one almost impossible to find on ammo shelves. Go ahead, ask your local gun dealer for some .380 ammo. Watch him laugh at you. Better yet, order some from an online store. At least nobody will be laughing with him, because nobody will see your rejected order unless you show it to them.

So, do I want a .380? You betcha. I’m a gun nut, and they’re “revolutionary.”

Friday, July 10, 2009

Steve McNair...a Classic Homicide by Chester Campbell

The past week in Nashville has been like a primer on police procedure for mystery writers. If you happened to glance away from all the Michael Jackson coverage for a bit, you may have seen where Steve McNair, the retired quarterback for the Tennessee Titans, a former NFL MVP, was murdered in an apartment near downtown in the wee hours on the 4th of July.

McNair had played for the Titans and its predecessor Houston Oilers his entire career, except for his last two seasons with the Baltimore Ravens. After retiring, he returned to live in Nashville with his wife and three children. He was a popular figure, constantly involved in working with kids and other charitable activities.

With such a high-profile figure, the Metro Nashville police went all out to investigate the case and bring it to a quick conclusion. A friend who rented the apartment with McNair found his body on a sofa early Saturday afternoon with two gunshots to the head and two to his chest. On the floor in front of him was a 20-year-old woman. She had been shot once in the head.

Homicide detectives, crime scene techs, a doctor from the Medical Examiner’s staff , and scores of cops converged on the scene. Crowds of fans who had been headed for a riverfront Independence Day celebration gathered behind the crime scene tape. Continuous live TV coverage showed evidence bags being brought out of the apartment.

At 3:30 p.m., Police Spokesman Don Aaron gave media the first official word that Steve McNair was dead, also a female not being identified until next of kin could be notified. When they moved her body, they found a semiautomatic pistol beneath her. Ballistic tests would be conducted at the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation crime lab.

Later that evening, police identified the woman as Sahel Kazemi, originally from Jacksonville, FL, whose mother came from Iran. Police had swarmed her suburban apartment and questioned neighbors. Sunday morning’s newspaper said the 36-year-old former quarterback had been dating her for several months, that she drove a Cadillac Escalade registered in both their names.

On Sunday afternoon, Spokesman Aaron gave another news conference. Autopsies had been completed, and McNair’s death was ruled a homicide. He said Kazemi’s death would not be classified until completion of further investigation.

Police reported on Monday that ballistics tests showed two shots to McNair’s chest and one to his head were fired from three feet away. The other shot to his temple was a contact wound. With the assistance of the ATF, they determined that Kazemi, a waitress at Opry Mills Mall, had purchased the gun Thursday night in the parking lot from a private individual.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Police Chief Ronal Serpas confirmed that Kazemi had shot McNair, probably while he was asleep, and committed suicide. Though McNair had apparently co-signed to allow her to purchase the Escalade, she was responsible for the payments. Conversations with friends and co-workers showed she felt her life was unraveling. She didn’t know how she could pay her bills, and she thought McNair had another girlfriend.

"We do believe there was evidence that she was spinning out of control," said Serpas.

The newspaper gave widespread coverage of the crime and the investigation, including detailed drawings of the crime scene, showing where the bodies were found. It was a classic case of gumshoe work questioning everybody who might have known anything and forensic testing to determine everything about the gun and its firing.

Thousands of fans flocked to memorial services yesterday. Crime writers are tasked with showing the effects of homicide on those around the victim. In this case, those most directly impacted were McNair’s widow and three young children in Nashville, plus an older son living with family in his hometown of Mount Olive, MS. Mechelle (Mrs.) McNair has chosen to remain totally private and has made no statement regarding her husband’s death.

Ironically, Steve McNair had opened a new restaurant, Gridiron9 (his old jersey number), near the Tennessee State University campus two weeks ago.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Odds 'n Ends of Advice from Mystery Experts - by Vivian Zabel

I read writing magazines, blogs written by writers and writing experts, and articles about writing. Usually each thing I read gives me at least one nugget of golden advice. Here are a few of my favorites bits and pieces or “odds ‘n ends” of advice.

1. Clive Cussler, The Writer March 1979: Lead readers on and on by ending chapters on a note of mystery. Cut out deadwood. If it isn’t necessary, cut it.

I’m not always consistent about following the advice to end chapters on note of mystery, but I’m getting better.

2. I really like this bit of advice from James Scott Bell, Writer’s Digest March/April 2009, and I use it often: “Relive your scenes. Not rewrite. Relive.” Imagine yourself as the characters living the scene.

3. In the March 2009 The Writer, Staton Rabin writes: “Handle exposition delicately.” He states, “We must never know we are having things explained to us.”

4. Going back almost as far in The Writer history as the Clive Cussler article is the 1985 article by Randall Silvis, who wrote that dialogue draws the reader closer to the action, intensifying it.

5. Nancy Lamb wrote in a Writer’s Workbook, Writer’s Digest March/April 2009, and I’m going to quote the whole paragraph: “Never let the truth get in the way of your story. Creative writing is just that: creative. If the truth prevents you from telling your fictional story effectively, get rid of the facts and invent something that makes the story work.” Wonderful words of wisdom for fiction.

6. According to Gary Braver, The Writer April 2009, “give your hero two quests,” a personal and a public quest.

7. Jessica Page Morrell’s title, Writer’s Digest July/August 2009, is excellent advice: “Keep your story moving at the right pace.”

8. In the February 2009 The Writer, Mary E. DeMuth writes, “Translate your emotional experiences,” and “Get out in the world.”

I’ve given only eight tips out of the hundreds available, but each one gives an author much useful advice. Yes, they are some of my favorite odds ‘n ends of mystery writing advice.

Vivian Zabel
Brain Cells & Bubble Wrap

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Location by Mark Troy

If you’ve been keeping up with Helen Ginger’s Straight From Hel blog (and why wouldn’t you?) you know she undertook a quest at my suggestion to find and photograph Slip F-18 Bahia Mar, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Along with 221b Baker Street, the abode of Sherlock Holmes, Slip F-18 is one of the most famous addresses in mysterydom,. It’s where Travis McGee docks his houseboat, The Busted Flush. Both addresses are fictitious but their locations are real.

I don’t think I’m an obsessive fan, but if I ever visit London, I will surely go to Baker Street. I have walked the block of Marlborough Street in Boston where Spenser lives, though I could not identify which apartment was his. (Bob Ames of the Bullets and Beer website believes he’s figured out which one is Spenser’s. You can read how he did it here.) I have Googled Woodrow Wilson Avenue in Los Angeles where Harry Bosch lives and, using the street view feature, have found some likely candidates.

Why does it matter where our protagonists live? It’s actually the rare story in which the protagonist’s home is relevant to the plot. If the home figures into the story, it’s usually where the story begins, where we see the hero in his or her ordinary world; and it’s often where the story ends when the hero returns to the ordinary world. In between, the hero might return home to catch his/her breath or lick his/her wounds.

If home is not important to the plot, it is, nevertheless, important to character. Where they choose to live and what they choose to surround themselves with, tell us a lot about the characters and what they value. We never learned much about Philip Marlowe’s pad except for the ever-present, unfinished chess game, but that tells us a lot about his spare, focused personality. Spenser’s Back Bay apartment reflects his appreciation of substance and quality. The location is near the center of his world. In contrast, Harry Bosch chose a house high up in the Hollywood Hills with a deck that overlooks the city he serves. His job takes him into the pit of hell every day, so it’s understandable that he would want to rise above it, literally and figuratively.

The main character of my current project, Ava Rome, lives in Waikiki because she likes to be near the activity. Waikiki, however, is a densely populated area full of high-rise apartment buildings, which, in my opinion, lack character. Ava thinks so too, and refers to their collective style as “Californication.” I looked long and hard for a place in Waikiki that would suit Ava and finally found it on Pau Street. It’s a two-story apartment building that looks like it was built in the early 60’s before the high-rise building boom. It’s next door to a single dwelling home that could be even older and might be the last single home in Waikiki. Pau Street is a one-block street on the western end of Waikiki. Even the name resonates with meaning. Pau means “end” or “finished” so this out-of-date apartment on this tiny street represents a last stand against whatever needs to be stood up to. And that’s what Ava does. She’s the last stand for people who have messed up their lives. Her apartment has one other feature that makes it desirable for my story. The stairs going up to her door are painted red, so blood stains won’t show.

The Busted Flush, Travis McGee’s houseboat, is as much a part of his character as his cynical outlook. It's how we picture him, sitting on deck, waxing philosophic on love, friendship, gin and women. Of course everyone knows he's not there. But if he were there, he would have greeted Helen Ginger and her husband with a cold martini. Then he would have listened sympathetically to her account of the highway clogged with traffic and the ocean views ruined by development and he would have had very harsh words for the people who destroyed his Florida.

So writers, how did you choose where your characters live? Readers, what fictional abodes would you visit if you could?

Mark Troy

Monday, July 6, 2009

Last Chance by Morgan Mandel

My proof for my romantic suspense, Killer Career, was delivered to my brother's house Friday (chosen because he has an enclosed porch which keeps deliveries dry.) The DH picked it up on Saturday. It was an exciting time to actually hold Killer Career in my hands and see what it will look like.

Since the 4th of July weekend was so busy, I had little time to check it out. I'm on page 53 of 300. I intend to read it all to make sure nothing was added or forgotten. Hopefully, I won't be bummed out by mistakes I should have caught before. Keeping my fingers crossed all will be ok.

What about you? Have you ever had problems somewhere in the publication process where things didn't go right? Please share.

Morgan Mandel

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Heat is On

I am having trouble with my MacBook. It made a horrible clacking noise last week, so I backed everything up, shut it down and took it to the Apple Store, where the Genius Bar dude listened and fiddled and finally diagnosed a clogged fan. He blew some compressed air in the vents, dislodged a wad of cat hair (shocking, I know...) and sent me home, sans noisy fan.

Well, it looks like my MacBook is actually sans working fan altogether. It heats up after less than a half hour, hot enough to be felt through a pillow. So... I'm going back to the Genius Bar and hoping it's something that can be fixed quickly and easily or I'm gonna be sans MacBook for at least a week. I can write on my Neo Alphasmart, but I won't have my WIP to refer to while I'm writing . Maybe this will be good for my productivity... maybe not. We shall see.

So. Since my beloved MacBook is heating up even as I type this, what do YOU do when your computer poops out temporarily? Pen and pad? Tape-recorder? Inquiring minds want to know!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Too Much Dialogue

by Jean Henry Mead

Dialogue makes or breaks a novel. Excessive conversation accelerates the plot and your reader can’t relax. It’s like a nervous people who can’t stop talking because she’s afraid of silence. Dialogue must be balanced with narrative as well as action.

If your characters all sound alike you’ve got a problem. You have to vary speech patterns so they can be recognized without dialogue tags. Make effective use of speech patterns by having a character “murder” the language with “he don’t” or “you was.” Or have someone stutter or use cliches. Those are extreme examples of speech patterns but they individualize your characters.

The quality of information your character imparts is also important. One of your characters can be feather-brained and rattle on without making sense—but not for long. Another character may sound like Einstein because his words are few and wise. Like the old brokerage firm commercial: “When you whisper, others listen,” remember that short bursts of dialogue elicit the reader’s attention while long diatribes can put them to sleep.

If you’re writing about Abe Lincoln giving his Gettysburg Address, you need to split it up with a gunshot or someone interrupting him so that it doesn’t go on forever. Monologues belong on the “Tonight Show,” not in your novel.

Dialogue should be lucid. Don’t have a character reciting a laundry list of complaints without taking a breath. Again, have another character interrupt him by asking a question or punching him in the nose.

Don’t overedit your dialogue. No one, whether living or in fiction, speaks with perfect diction—unless he’s an actor reciting a script. Make sure there's plenty of emotion as well as color in every character’s speech.

Bharti Kirchner’s article, “What Did You Say?” emphasizes dialogue as a language unto itself. “It has its own rules and rhythm and is tightly focused. You don’t necessarily answer a question, but, as often as not, go off on a tangent and start a fresh topic. This keeps the reader in suspense.“

For example:

“Joey!” She frowned at him from across the room.
“You’re late.”
“You look so beautiful today that I’m going to take your picture.”

When you leave out tag lines, the conversation is allowed to flow more smoothly. But, make sure that each character's speech patterns area easily recognizable.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Forensic Tips and Other Stuff

The Public Safety Writers Association conference turned out wonderfully! I was in charge of the program--and like anything else, I wasn't sure how the speakers would be or how well they'd be received.

Steve Scarborough, who I'd met the year before, is a newly retired forensic expert who gave us some intriguing tidbits. I put them on my own personal blog, but think they are good enough to spread around a bit more:

Steve was wonderful. He's been an expert forensic witness on all kind of crimes. I'm just going to mention a few of the things he told us.

Forensic Evidence can narrow the leads and eliminate suspects.
Forensic facts can make your story come alive, but you need to be careful.

You should know the direction your story is going before you do the research.

Fingerprints are the most conclusive form of forensic evidence though Fingerprints and DNA should get equal billing.

It's hard to get fingerprints off of towels, the sofa, etc. metal and glass works better.

Ballistics evidence depends upon certain conditions of the bullet.

Other types of evidence are hair, fiber, glass fragments, ABO blood type, shoe prints.

Everything is circumstantial evidence except an eye witness.

What you must have is Means, Motive and Opportunity.

It's a myth that anything can be done--nothing is proven quickly, and some of the science seen on TV is make-believe.

You can't tell race or sex from fingerprints.

There is no such thing as a three point or four point match in fingerprints.

Detectives don't follow the evidence to the lab.

And the labs don't have everything they need in forensics. The smaller the place, the less they will have in the way of crime labs.

Steve was fantastic, worth the price of the conference. (And by the way, he had to pay to come too. Because it's such a small conference, all the speakers had to pay to come. Guess how much fun that is to explain when you're trying to get speakers. Despite that, we had other great speakers, Betty Webb for one, Sheila Lowe who is a forensic handwriting expert, and Joyce Spizer Foy who besides being a private eye has written screen plays and any number of exciting pursuits.)

In my books, the police officers use old-fashioned detective work--I never use much in the way of forensics, found it easier that way. Even had a reviewer say once that he suspected most police departments operated like my fictional Rocky Bluff P.D. using old-fashioned police work to find out the answers.

And as a P.S. I'm already planning for next year. If you'd like to be a speaker (writing information or as an expert) and don't mind paying your way, please do contact me.

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