Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Eve by Christine Duncan

It's the time of year for reflecting on what was and what we would like the next year to bring. I tend to like resolutions that are on the positive side. It is so much less stress to resolve, for example, to be happier this coming year. Never mind that I don't know exactly how I'd accomplish that.

Focusing on what we hope for, can deprive us of opportunity to really see what we have done. This time of year should also be pat on the back time. If you got something published this year, this may seem like a no-brainer, but there's more to your writing life than tha. Remind yourself of the progress you've made toward all your goals.

Did you finally figure out the ending to your work in progress? Maybe you learned how to Tweet like a bird, and you are the go-to person for Facebook. Whatever you did, celebrate that. You did good.

Then go out and have a happy New Year!

Christine Duncan is the author of the Kaye Berreano mystery series. Book two, Safe House was released this fall.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Ozona, Texas

by Ben Small

Man, Texas is long, oh so very long. Eight hundred eighty miles via I-10, and it seems as if most of it is West Texas, the largest patch of nothingness my wife and I have ever seen. And we live in the Arizona desert.
But seriously, there’s nothing out in West Texas. Well, okay, let me qualify this statement: There are oil and natural gas wells... and deer. Judging from sights and my conversations with locals, a whole lotta deer.
We made the mistake of stopping for the night in Ozona, a flat, squat postage stamp of a town known mostly for its deer. We didn't have much choice: Deer carcasses littered the interstate through Ozona like bodies laid to waste in a Quentin Tarantino movie. I felt like our car was dodging and weaving through a high speed video game. And what a place to stop: Even the name “Ozona” conjures up images most people want to avoid: bad air, coughing, wheezing, dizziness, a headache.
Hmm… maybe that’s why nobody’s there. Not much chance of a second honeymoon, for sure.
But Ozona does have a Holiday Inn Express. And so we stopped, puzzled perhaps why anybody would put a Holiday Inn Express in Ozona, Texas.
Good luck finding food in Ozona. But if you’re a deer and you somehow avoided being squashed on the interstate, you’re in luck. Across the street from the Holiday Inn Express is a deer food manufacturing operation. A big 'un. Bags of deer corn, blocks of deer food, salt licks, sort of a deer smorgasbord. You can buy deer food everywhere: at Godfather’s Pizza, at the local drugstore – heck, they probably sell the stuff on the street, a sawhorse and a sign. But people-food is a trickier proposition, especially when one arrives at 9:30 P.M.
Starved from six hundred miles of interstate, we watched in horror as Sonic Burger turned off its sign. We asked, and the Holiday Inn Express recommended a café next door to the deer food factory. The café turned off its lights as we entered the parking lot.
My wife hates pizza, only eats my favorite food when nothing else is available. In Ozona, Texas that evening, Godfather’s Pizza was the only option around. But they turned off their stoves just before we arrived. Nothing in the plastic slice stacks, grill doors open. We had a choice: hamburgers cooked on a grease-streaked grill, a burrito that looked like it had been rolled in 1875 when Crockett County -- yes, named after that Crockett -- was founded, or microwave meals for carry-out.
I opted for the burrito and my wife chose the hamburger, sans the moldy cheese. We should have chosen our room’s microwave.
My burrito was cold and stiff. The grease had hardened to sludge. Every bite was a testament to my courage. The hamburger was served on a bun, or what resembled a bun. A bun so hard I could have used it as a paddle-ball racquet. A bun so hard not even the running grease on the green slab of beef softened it.
Needless to say, Rick Steves will not be writing a tour book of Ozona any time soon.
But we did learn something: Ozona, Texas is the deer hunting capital of the world. Landowners here rent their land for that purpose. There’s a deer stand store that covers an entire town block. Cool stuff, hard polyurethane igloos on thirty foot stands and about every kind of camouflaged tent, stand, blind and sleeping bag imaginable. Our troops would be well served with some of this stuff. The drugstore manager was proud: She said blood-thirsty deer hunters come for stuff or to kill from all over the world.
Well, good for them. But I hope they eat what they kill or bring their own food.  There’s not enough Ex-Lax in the drugstore to risk a meal in Ozona.
Well, I guess I won’t be selling many books in Ozona, Texas, huh...?

Friday, December 25, 2009

Saga of the Boiled Custard

I’ve read lots of Christmas stories that touch the heartstrings the past few days. I thought I would relate one that goes right to the gut. I refer to it as a saga, and that seems to fit. According to my American Heritage Talking Dictionary, the primary definition of saga is “a prose narrative usually written in Iceland between 1120 and 1400, dealing with the families that first settled Iceland and their descendants.” This saga deals with my family and the season in Tennessee that most resembles the climate of Iceland.

Since I was old enough to remember Christmas, I’ve always associated boiled custard with the holiday. My mother made it to serve after dinner. It was always eagerly awaited. We kids got the plain vanilla version (actually, it’s flavored with vanilla extract), but the adults joked about spiking theirs with a little hard stuff. Dad and my drinkin’ uncle, Wade, would venture out somewhere and return with a bottle in a brown bag. The Prohibition Era didn’t end until I was eight years old, and alcohol was still illegal in Tennessee until 1939.

People outside the South tend to confuse boiled custard with eggnog, which it definitely is not. For one thing, eggnog contains nutmeg while boiled custard is flavored with vanilla. And the “boiled” is a bit of a misnomer. When cooking the mixture, you bring it to the boiling point but only allow it to begin to bubble.

I continued the custom when I started my family, and all four of my kids love the stuff. I skipped the spiking routine as we enjoy the natural flavor. My brother also maintains the tradition. Now it has spread to the grandchildren, who are starting families of their own.

At my house we always used a recipe that made well over a gallon of custard. We used the double boiler method, cooking it in a can sitting in a larger pot of boiling water. When it was finished, we poured the mixture in two large glass jars. This led to one of the popular stories surrounding the annual rite. When a nearly-full jar cracked one year, we faced a dilemma. It was too precious a commodity to pour out. Nobody wanted to risk glass silvers in their custard, but we had nothing like cheesecloth to use as a strainer. We finally used a pair of my wife’s pantyhose. Worked like a charm.

The original recipe was lost, but we recreated it as best we could. It involves 16 eggs, separated; a gallon of whole milk; 6 tablespoons of flour, sifted; 2 cups sugar; a pinch of salt; and vanilla flavoring to taste (about 4 tablespoons for us). First you scald the milk. Combine sugar, flour and salt, which are added to the beaten egg yolks. Then add the milk. Stir constantly in the double boiler until it coats the spoon and starts to bubble. After the mixture has cooled (we set the jars outside on the patio table back when the temperature was in the 40s), beat the egg whites and fold into the custard. Add vanilla.

It’s a smooth, thick drink that’s dee-licious.

The only problem has been that it takes forever to reach the boiling point. We started using a thermometer to check it, and the best we could get was around 208 to 210 degrees. This year one of my daughters found a new recipe that doesn’t use a double boiler. It calls for only 10 eggs, 2½ cups of sugar, 1 gallon of milk, and vanilla extract. The recipe did not separate the eggs and cooked the mixture on the stove top. We tried it tonight (Christmas Eve), and the jury is still out as it cools. But it created another semi-disaster.

The recipe said to stir constantly until the mixture thickens and coats a spoon and begins to bubble a little. In contrast to the old method that required stirring for more than an hour, we found this one takes only 30 minutes. However, when it “begins to bubble a little,” beware if the mixture is anywhere near the top of the pot. It suddenly foamed up and over the sides. I grabbed it off the burner, nearly burning my fingers. Fortunately our stove has a glass cooking surface so the mixture didn’t run down inside. But the hot burner cooked the egg mixture into crusty black strips that were the devil to clean off. It ran down the sides of the stove also.

We still had a little over a gallon of boiled custard to serve after Christmas dinner. It doesn’t seem as thick as the kind with beaten egg whites, but hopefully it’ll be good. Sure did take a lot less effort. I wonder if it’ll be like writing novels? A little extra effort can make a big difference. We’ll see.

I hope today is a magnificent Christmas at your house, and next week will bring you a glorious New Year. Boiled custard of not.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Alternatives to Major Publishers by Vivian Zabel

First, I'd like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. A Christmas story written by me to share with you can be found on Brain Cells & Bubble Wrap.

I usually write about tips that tie directly to writing or reading mysteries. This time I want to talk about getting a book published, no matter what the genre.

Many authors dream, as well as work very hard, to get a book published. The problem is there are many more hopeful writers than available slots in the few major publishing firms. The number of major firms has shrunk over the years as one merges with another. Finally major publishers prefer going with authors whose names already trigger the attention of the public. What then should a writer do who wants to be published and have a book to market? Various alternatives exist to trying to go through a major publishing company: small-press companies; DIY, do it yourself; or independent publishers. The first step in marketing a book is for it to be published.

According to various sources on the Internet, only six to eight major large publishing corporations now exist, if their subsidiaries are not counted separately. However, Publishers Weekly estimates that more than 7,000 new publishers form each year, giving writers options for seeing their books in print.

Small-press companies don’t have the funding to pay large, or sometimes any, advances, but according to Judith Rosen in September 2006 The Writer, they can deliver big books. A small-press can be an alternative to the frustrations of a major company or can be a stepping stone to a large corporate house.

Independent presses don’t accept everything from fiction to non-fiction, from science fiction to science, from mystery to romance. They usually specialize in rather narrow areas. But one publisher or more covers every genre and area of publishing. One place to find small presses is through the membership of The Small Press Center for Independent Publishing. Another is page 52 of The Writer, September 2006.

Robert S. Nahas, in his book How to Get a Book Published states that a decade ago, self-publishing (or DIY) was viewed as a joke, and many people considered self-published authors were not really published authors. He goes on to write, “... but today there is a much different climate ... As more and more self-published authors have begun to reap impressive, and sometimes staggering, sales over the past seven or eight years, the world has begun to take notice of the amazing successes.” Note that he is not speaking of “Vanity Publishing,” but of works that have been professionally prepared with thorough editing and formatting.

Another type of publishing is electronic publishing, whether as DIY or through an electronic publishing company. Although books on line didn’t become the replacement for hard copy books as predicted in the past, they are starting to become more popular as time passes.

As with any business venture, a writer needs to research any company he or she considers working with. All should be careful of scams, but anyone willing to write and prepare a well-written manuscript has more opportunities than ever to take the first step toward marketing a book by being able to have it published.


1. Robert S. Nahas, How to Get a Book Published, pages 33 - 54.

2. Robin Nobles, Publishing companies on the Internet,

3. Judith Rosen, “Small-press success,” The Writer, September 2006

4. “Publishing,” Wikipedia

5. “Publisher,” Wikipedia

Vivian Zabel
Brain Cells & Bubble Wrap

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Happy Holidays!

Why are you reading this?

'Tis the season to be jolly. Go outside and look at all the lights on the houses or cuddle in front of the fire with someone special.

Here are my wishes for you.

For writers: May your labor of love find that publisher who loves it as much as you do.

For readers: May your nights be filled with great books from new authors.

For everybody: Peace and Joy!

Mele Kalikimaka from the Troy Family, Mark, Mary Fran, Ted, Michael, Laura, Morgan and Matthew.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

No Snow but we Have our Usual--Fog

No, it isn't snowing. It did briefly last week--but because we've had lots of rain, we're experiencing fog all over the San Joaquin Valley and it does creep up here in the foothills at times during the day. Fog is what we experience most from around or after Thanksgiving usually until March. There is nothing scarier than driving in fog. I've done a lot of it.

When we lived on the coast there were times that I drove in the fog and had no clue where I was. Coming home from a party with a car load of women (no drinking involved) we were driving out in the country and we had to stop and someone get out to read the road sign to make sure we were indeed headed in the right direction. What I hate is when you are following someone and they pull over and once you pass they drop in behind you so they can follow.

A friend of mine once followed someone right into his driveway on a foggy night and had no idea the person had left the freeway.

Though the fog situation hasn't changed, on the 99 freeway these days (major highway through the San Joaquin Valley) when the fog is really bad, the highway patrol drives slowly back and forth at a much slower pace to keep the idiots who think they can still drive 70 when they can't see a thing.

Thinking about fog makes me realizes using fog in a mystery would really work well. In fact the situations I described could be used as part of a plot.

For me, now that the fog has settled in I'm settling in too. I'll go as far as town, 17 miles down the road, but that's it.

Now that I've been thinking about it, what can I do with fog in the book I'm writing now?

Merry Christmas one and all--hope you have appropriate weather for you holiday pleasure.


Monday, December 21, 2009

Library Displays by Morgan Mandel

A while back, when I first joined Chicago-North RWA, Pat White mentioned her display at Arlington Heights Memorial Library. I went to check it out and was quite impressed. Pat since moved on to Seattle, but her idea stuck with me.

A few years ago, I set up a display for myself and another for the chapter at the library. Now that Killer Career is out, I thought it would be a good idea to put up another, so I reserved a spot in the lineup. The result was last Sunday I spent over 2 hours setting up my display. I didn't remember having to reach in so far to tack up the clippings and excerpts. Also, I had to borrow a step stool to get to the top shelf.

I'm not a professional at such things, so it took longer than someone who does it often. Anyway, I was happy with the way it turned out. I included mementos from each of my books Above, there I am with the entire display, then I've got the Killer Career corner to your left, Girl of My Dreams to your right and across from here the left is Two Wrongs. A few people even stopped by and commented on a few of the items while I was in the process, so having a display does attract attention. One liked the picture of the Big Tree from the Walnut Room, part of my inspiration for a scene in Two Wrongs. It brought back childhood memories for him of visiting Marshall Field's for the Holidays.

Also, on the bottom shelf, it's hard to see from this picture, but if you look closely on the bottom toward the right, I managed to include a few pictures of Rascal to introduce her, since I'm doing a book about her next.

Anyway, hopefully readers will remember me from the display and be curious enough to read my books. The display will be up through January.

What about you? Have you ever put up a display at your library? Do you think you might try, if you haven't before? If I can do it, you can.

Happy Holidays!
Morgan Mandel

Sunday, December 20, 2009


I have not prepared a post nor can I think of anything in particular to write about this week. My father is very ill, currently going on his 6th day in ICU. I've tried to write over the last few days, but the most frequently used key has been 'Delete.' Instead of making today a writing day, my sister, boyfriend and I drove to Sacramento to attend a cousin's annual Christmas party so we could spend time with assorted aunts, uncles and cousins, some of whom we haven't seen in years. We got lost trying to find Jon's house thanks to Google Maps complete disregard for reality when it comes to Sacramento roads. Left was right, whole streets were left off the directions, and it took an hour to travel what was essentially a mile. Google, you are SO on my list of who's naughty this year...

Ah well, it was worth it. It's too easy to take family for granted, friends too, for that matter, especially when one is perpetually on 'a writing deadline.' Not that I don't take my writing very seriously. I do. But next time I think about calling my dad, instead putting it off because I don't want to break the flow of a writing session ... well, I think I'll trust my muse to understand my choice of picking up the phone for a few minutes.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Pacing Suspense

by Jean Henry Mead

I once read an article by mystery novelist Phyllis Whitney concerning pacing and suspense. She said the best advice she received was from the editor of Weird Tales Magazine, a highly respected pulp magazine published before she began writing novels. The editor said she shouldn't try to keep her stories at constant high pitch, that readers grow as bored with continuous excitement as they do with nothing happening at all.

Pacing suspense is important because a reader needs time to relax between action scenes. Another important aspect of writing suspense novels, she said, is that your reader will find endless defeat and discouragement too unpleasant to read. Writers are, first and foremost, entertainers. And main characters’ lives should never be easy although small victories have to be paced strategically along the way to keep the plot interesting.

Much like mystery novelist Marlys Millhiser, Whitney started her novels with a setting. She said she wanted a place that gave her fresh and interesting material, even though it may be in her own backyard. In her first mystery novel, Red is for Murder, she went to Chicago’s loop to get behind-the-scenes background on the window decorating business. Because the book only sold 3,000 copies, she returned to writing for children, but years later, the book was reprinted in a number of paperback editions as The Red Carnelian.

Once she had her setting, Whitney searched for a protagonist driven to solve a life and death situation. The more serious and threatening the problem, the higher the reader’s interest. Whitney stressed that a writer needs to think about this powerful drive during the novel’s planning stages because it’s easier to build the plot around the problem in an action story than something much quieter. However, inner turmoil can be just as suspenseful as the threat of bodily harm if the writer remains aware of the character’s desperate need to reach a certain goal. Action doesn’t necessarily have to be violent.

The protagonist doesn’t know from the beginning of the story how to solve his problem, but sooner or later, he decides something needs to be done. That’s when the story actually begins. The character may make the wrong decision but he needs to do something rather than just drift along through several chapters.

Give your character(s) purpose and a goal to reach by the end of the book. If your protagonist is unable to reach her goal or solve her problem, bring in another character who can help. This new character may have ulterior motives or a different goal, and therein lies suspense.

An eccentric character can also provide suspense by doing the unexpected, thus making the situation worse. Whitney advised against more than one strange character per novel because it suspends belief. But any character doing the unexpected can build suspense. If the reader knows what’s going to happen next, she soon becomes bored and may lay the book aside. So to prevent that from happening, surprise your reader with something unusual although logical. Whitney had one of her characters making her way down a long, dark, narrow passageway when she suddenly touches a human face.

That’s not only unexpected, it's suspenseful.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Writers, Write a Christmas Story by Christine Duncan

I've been having fun on my other blog challenging writers to write a Christmas story and post the link in the comment section. Some people have emailed me off blog to say they tried it and it was too hard to whip out a story. It can be.
But here's the deal. We're all busy and writing can take a back seat in the holiday season. We're rushing around, baking, shopping, sending out cards and we're maybe not stopping to enjoy. Writing a Christmas story can make you focus on just what you love (or hate) about the season, and put some of your focus back on your writing.
So I'm issuing my challenge here as well. Try it! Write a Christmas story. Make it a mystery Christmas story. Or not. But post your link in the comment section here. Help us all get in the Christmas mood.
The link to my story? It's on my website.

Christine Duncan is the author of the Kaye Berreano mystery series. Safe House the second book of the series was released this fall.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


How many of us read both mysteries and thrillers with equal enjoyment? What’s the difference? Well, according to International Thriller Writers, a thriller is characterized by "the sudden rush of emotions, the excitement, sense of suspense, apprehension, and exhilaration that drive the narrative, sometimes subtly with peaks and lulls, sometimes at a constant, breakneck pace."

From a mystery, in books, is defined as “mysterious, unresolved and unexplainable circumstances with which the hero or heroine comes in contact. This can be anything from the occult realms, strange disappearances, unexplainable sudden affluence or sudden monetary loss, psychological distortions, property destroyed or desecrated without known reason, suicide when no suicide seemed feasible, and of course, murder.”

Those may, at first, seem very disparate, but any of the circumstances in a mystery can result in a thriller’s “sudden rush of emotions” and, while some cozy mysteries may not proceed at a “constant, breakneck pace,” most mysteries have a sense of apprehension and suspense. Without it, why would we worry about who dunnit?

Who are your favourite mystery and thriller writers – and who would you consider a crossover author?

Monday, December 14, 2009

'Twas the blog before Christmas... by Austin Camacho

"A Christmas Carol" and "It’s a Wonderful Life" have become the traditional films that are symbolic of the season, but for me the key movie is the original 1947 version of "Miracle on 34th Street." In it, a nice old man who claims to be Kris Kringle is institutionalized as insane. A young lawyer decides to defend him by arguing in court that he is the real thing. So unlike the other two classic films, this story isn’t about an individual’s redemption but rather addresses the much bigger question at the heart of Christmas: Is There a Santa Claus?

In my mind, Santa isn’t about elves at the North Pole, or even believing in magic. He’s about the principle he represents. Santa Claus gives to everyone, not because of what they do for you, or what they mean to you, but just because they’re nice. No quid pro quo. No worship necessary. Kids don’t even have to believe in Santa Claus. They just have to be nice and they’re on the gift list.

I love the movie so much that it inspired the title of my holiday short story, “Mystery on Capitol Street” which was posted on the Echelon Shorts web site. In it my private eye Hannibal Jones gets lost on Christmas Eve and has to crash at an unknown motel. There’s no room at the inn but the manager lets him sleep in a small, unrentable space. Of course he stumbles on a murder that needs solving and, although it isn’t really his job, he decides to help the obvious suspect – just because she's nice.

The Miracle in the movie concerns the two giant department stores that dominated New York’s 34th Street at the time, Macy’s and Gimbel’s. Santa convinces the rival owners to shake hands and to direct shoppers who don’t find what they want in their own stores to their rival’s. The heroes of the film also get a NY court to rule that there IS a Santa Claus, which I suppose is a miracle in itself.

There’s a miracle in my story too, but you’ll have to read Mystery on Capitol Street to find out about it. But first, seek out this classic film and see that it really IS the most moving of the holiday fare. And if you disagree... well, what's YOUR favorite holiday movie??

Saturday, December 12, 2009

What's Wrong With This Picture...?

by Ben Small

Images, the ones in our eyes, what we see. How much can we rely on them? Sometimes, images are influenced by expectations, maybe by prejudices, habit, cultural traditions, whatever... Compare witness statements about what was seen at a crime or event. They will vary.

Sometimes, these variances may be explained by physics, anatomy, the ravages of disease.

The point is... we can't always believe our eyes. We form judgments based upon conclusions formed from images before our eyes. But sometimes these conclusions are wrong; sometimes because we assumed what was not.

Take these two images. What do you see?

I know, a babe and brutes. Look further. A lot of money spent on these shots.

Do you see the errors? Most people won't.

In both of these pictures, the scopes are on backwards. Some prop guy knew nothing about weaponry, and he installed the scopes backwards.

Go for that zero.

And nobody caught it. Not producer, photographer, production department, editors or any other quality control mechanism. Everything broke down because of an incorrect assumption at the beginning.

You'd be surprised how often this sort of thing happens.

Here's another example, another instance where a mistake at the beginning led to disaster.

I believe this is an advertisement for Heckler & Koch, a renowned manufacturer of handguns and battle rifles.

There's only one problem: There's no H&K product in the picture. What you see is a Sig Sauer P-210, perhaps the most accurate production pistol ever produced.

Somebody got the wrong gun. And nobody at H&K or their advertising firm caught the error.

Even experts make mistakes.

But isn't this dynamic -- the incorrect early assumption -- often at the core of a mystery novel?

Of course it is.

Which is why I mention it.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Writer's Christmas

‘Tis the season to be jolly,
NaNoWriMo’s gone by golly,
Time to sit by the fire and think,
My writing gene is on the blink.
Mystery plots keep swirling about
Like snow blown from an elephant’s snout,
Grabbing one can really be tough,
You wind up with a bunch of fluff.
Can’t tell the bad guys from the good,
The dames seem mostly made of wood,
Clues supposed to be well hidden
Lie about like who’re you kiddin’?
What to do ere old Santa comes
And finds me with three sets of thumbs?
Grab the keyboard and whack away
Before the roof gets full of sleigh,
Dancer and Prancer, what a sight,
And Rudolph’s nose a big red light.
I’ll pen a draft so fast it streaks
Like stars above the highest peaks,
A Christmas story oh so grim
You won’t believe it’s just a whim,
It’ll give the readers quite a fright,
But still I wish ‘em all GOOD NIGHT!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

This, that, and the other thing

December, being the last month in our (conventional) year, seems to me to be a time to tie up loose ends in one way or another.
  • We mend fences with offended family members, if for no other reason than to try to keep the peace at holiday gatherings.
  • We writers try to write that closing scene to the novel that has been percolating on the back burner all year long... or maybe in worse cases, the opening scene.
  • We try to make last-ditch efforts to fulfill those promises we made that ended with, "...before the end of the year, I promise!"
  • The very young often frantically try to make up for all the naughtiness of the year in order to escape a gift of coal in the stocking.
  • We look into the closet to see what we can re-gift this year, thereby de-cluttering.
For me, it's often a time to stop and look back at the past year and sigh. "Regrets, I've had a few... but then again, too few to mention." Frank, thanks for that line. Regrets are not necessarily the nasty thing that many people seem to think. A powerful regret can give the impetus to do things differently next time, to turn things around, or simply to change an attitude.

Here are some regrets I have, that I'm using as fuel to power up some changes:
  • I regret waiting so long to put my publishing company's books into ebook format. Ebook sales have been too good to have let it go that long! (The Gift of Murder in Kindle format moved to Amazon sales ranking of 648 this week!)
  • Along with that, I regret not having a part of my publishing company devoted strictly to ebooks, so that is changing as of the first of the year.
  • I regret putting everything else in the world in front of my own writing. My early resolution is to devote time every week to my own creative efforts, not just publishing and promoting the books of other authors.
  • I regret not entering my work into more writing competitions, so today I sent off two pieces to writing contests. We'll see what happens. As the old saw goes, "Nothing ventured, nothing gained."
  • I regret not spending more time with my two granddaughters, so I'm going to work on remedying that.
  • I regret that we have not gotten as much done on the building of our new home as we wanted, so I (and my wife) simply need to focus on that a little more.
What regret do you have, if any, and what are you going to do to keep from having the same regret next year? Tell us about it!

Other things...

Protecting ourselves from ourselves: This past week I saw a cartoon where a guy had just finished typing up an email to the editor of a newspaper, but his computer wouldn't let him send it. Reason? It had Spiel Check. I laughed my butt off at that, but then thought about it seriously. I wonder how many times I... you... other folks, too, have written an email in haste and anger and sent it off without taking time for a cooldown period. Man, I know I did when email was a fairly new thing for me. Maybe we all need a Spiel Check on our computer, similar to Gmail's feature called Mail Goggles, introduced in late 2008. Spiel Check could detect words like "idiot," "jerk," "slimeball," and various other words that are spicier and even more insulting, initiating a ten-minute delay before the program would send the email. Programmers, take note!

Homebuilding: As stated before, Dear Wife and I are building a home on property across the road from where we now live. We are literally building it ourselves, putting up walls, pouring concrete, etc. We stopped buying premixed concrete in sacks (too expensive) and mix our concrete from the bulk ingredients. The other day Lara, aka Dear Wife, was mixing a batch of concrete while I did plumbing work, and she screamed. There was something wiggling around in the concrete. It seems that a hapless toad had taken up residence in the sand pile, and was inadvertently shoveled into the mixer. He took a few turns around the motorized cement mixer before she saw him and we mercifully rescued the toad. He seemed a bit dizzy but none the worse for wear. Two days later another toad did not fare as well. Now, she sifts the sand into the mixer instead of dumping it haphazardly. (All you crime authors out there, here's an idea for you: find a body in the sand pile or gravel pit of a construction company. Or better yet, find it after the concrete has set up, because of a body part visible from the edge of the poured concrete.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Writing Advice from George Pelecanos

It's commonplace for an established writer to publish a book or an article about writing. But sometimes a writer will insert such advice into a story for the unsuspecting reader to discover. When I come across such gems, I feel as if the writer is reaching out directly to me. In an earlier post, I mentioned some advice from Michael Connelly in Echo Park. Now comes words of wisdom from George Pelecanos.

If George Pelecanos gives advice on writing, I'm on it. I'll take every word and tattoo it into my brain. Pelecanos doesn't need to say a lot about writing, because his advice, like his stories, gets right to the essence, like a stiletto into the heart. Here is a gem from Shame the Devil (2000). The advice is given by a surprising source, a cold-blooded killer, Frank Farrow, who, only 35 pages earlier, had executed four men, killed a cop and run over a five year-old boy.

"He had enjoyed the man's book but felt in the end that the writer had been holding back, had not gone far enough into that black rotted place that surely would have existed in his lead character's mind.

In the end, the writer had been afraid. In general, thought Farrow, that was the flaw in most people, a timidity that separated them from those who were strong. They used their idea of Goodness and Love as an excuse for living a life of weakness. People were afraid to go to that black place and use it when the time came, or even admit that it was there."

Shame the Devil, George Pelecanos, Dell, 2000., page 61.

That brief passage tells a lot about the character, Farrow, but it also tells a lot about Pelecanos and his writing. He is not afraid to go to that dark place that exists in every person. It sets his stories apart with strong characters and difficult topics.

So what about you? Have you stumbled across gems of advice you'd like to share?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Christmas and Mysteries

Up until now I've never written a mystery around a major holiday. Never even considered it. I do know there are many out there and that promoting a book for a gift that has Christmas in it, is quite a good idea.

The next Deputy Tempe Crabtree book, Invisible Path, which won't be out until the fall of 2010, happens during the Christmas holidays. It wasn't done on purpose, it just happened that way. Because of what I was writing about, I wanted snow--and what better time for snow than December.

I also wanted Tempe's son Blair to be home and since he's in college, the time needed to be during the school holidays.

So, for the first time I wrote a mystery that incorporated Christmas. It's way too soon to be promoting that particular book, but I wanted to write something about Christmas and mysteries and this was what came to mind.

How many of you have a favorite Christmas mystery? Or perhaps have written or are planning to write a Christmas mystery?


Monday, December 7, 2009

The Mystery of the Missing Checks by Morgan Mandel

I seem to recall it was May when I thought I'd ordered checks and received them, yet when I went to get them a week before vacation, they were nowhere to be found. Well, my memory isn't as good as it used to be, so after a search in the usual places, I figured maybe they hadn't arrived after all. I gave up the search and did a quick online order and received them on time.

For the past weekends, I've concentrated on getting my pigsty of a house in order. Part of the project was grabbing all the totebags on the floor of one of the closets and putting them into a rubbermaid container. They look so much neater that way. When I went to grab for one of the totes, lo and behold, I spotted the missing checks behind them in the weirdest spot, kind of attached to the molding and clinging to the wall in the back of the closet. They come in flat plastic wrapped containers now. It couldn't have happened in the old boxed containers.

So, after eight months, the mystery was solved. The checks did come. Being in the slippery container they came in, it was easy for them to slide to the back of the closet and then cling to the wall. I must have been holding them in one hand and grabbing for something else and not noticed them slipping.

What does this have to do with writing, especially mysteries? Well, I was able to go online and order checks and get them right away, but don't you dare make it that easy for your protagonist to wriggle out of a situation. Let that poor person suffer and work for a solution to the problem. When the resolution happens, make sure it makes sense and isn't a crazy coincidence or a easy out. That way you won't short change your readers, but you can still make everything turn out all right at the end.

Now, I'm going to start using those checks I found. Lots of bills to pay. Wouldn't you know it, I just ordered another batch a week ago.

Morgan Mandel

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Writing from a Rich Point of View

My mom is visiting us this week/weekend, which means several things:

1. The house is cleaner than usual (yesterday she went after the kitchen cupboards and counters with sponge and cleaner).

2. The cats are a bit mellower than usual because they have another warm and affectionate body to snuggle up with, cutting through some of the sibling rivalry for Dave's and my affections.

3. We watch at least one MGM musical (this time it was The Pirate with Gene Kelly and Judy Garland).

4. We play tourist a bit.

For number four, we were going to do a drive up to Fort Bragg yesterday, but since I've had a nasty head cold (the kind where you can't really do anything but blow your nose, drink hot toddies, watch TV or sleep) and only just started feeling better Friday evening, we decided to do something closer to home. We went to lunch at a little cafe in the Richmond district, then parked the car near the Legion of Honor and went strolling through the affluent neighborhood of Seacliff.

Seacliff used to be Sharon Stone's neighborhood, and Robin Williams is a current resident, just to give you an idea of what type of affluence I'm talking about here. You can tell which house is Robin Williams because of the topiary brontosaurus sticking up above the stone wall surrounding the property. The head of the brontosaurus is still just a wire frame, waiting for the topiary to catch up. On Halloween night the line of trick'or'treaters stretches out down the street.

I've driven through Seacliff many times - it's my back route to the Golden Gate Bridge, a much prettier route than 19th Avenue. But I've never actually walked through it, so my house ogling has been quick and surreptitious from the driver's seat of my car. Walking through it allowed us to really take our time and study the architecture and landscaping on some pretty amazing residences. Relatively cozy 'cottages' nestled in between palatial mansions. Marble, painted brick, wood, turrets, arched doors, courtyards, gardens, ocean views (there's a reason it's called 'Seacliff), you name it. Pretty much anything money can buy, including a few butt ugly modern homes that looked more like hospitals than homes.

We walked down one street and stopped to ogle an amazing estate at the edge of the cliff, a huge turret dominating our view from the top of the gated driveway. A towncar was parked out front and the driver lounged against the car. "It's for sale," he said, nodding towards the mansion.

"Oh yeah?"

"Yup. Twenty five million." He grinned at us as Mom, Dave and I started laughing.

"Yeah, we'll take two," said Dave.

We walked on, unable to even imagine earning that much money in one life time, let alone paying that much for a house, no matter how beautiful. "It'll fall into the ocean one of these days anyway," I said by way of group consolation. And that is probably true, considering the rate of erosion on the California coastline.

As we continued our walk, I thought about how impossible it is for me to get into the mindset of someone that rich and wondered if I'd be able to write from the point of view of a character used to being able to buy anything they wanted on a whim. I could write from the point of view of what it would feel like to suddenly come into money because I have a good imagination. I've written from the POV of characters who interact with people with lots of money because I've met a few of 'em. But I don't know if I could do a believable first person POV of someone like, say, Paris Hilton. Or Robin Williams, for that matter. Although the topiary dinosaur would be a nice starting point.

What about you? How much experience versus imagination do you think is necessary when creating believable characters and writing from their point of view as opposed to having them as supporting players in your stories?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Compulsion to Write

by Jean Henry Mead

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

But why do we write?

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

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

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

So why do we write mysteries?

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

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

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

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

I then asked my fellow Murderous Musings blog team members why they write mysteries. Ben Small, during one of his more serious moments, had this to say:

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

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

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

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A quick look at The Surest Poison

Since this is mystery excerpt week, I'll share a snippet of my latest book, The Surest Poison, first in my new Sid Chance series from Night Shadows Press. The following excerpt introduces the two main characters.

It was still dark when Sid Chance pulled off I-40 at the Old Hickory Boulevard exit. He turned his vintage brown pickup toward Madison, a rambling middle-class suburb on the northeast side of Nashville. A big man, every bit of six-six, he had a headful of black hair and a short beard to match, both laced with threads of silver. The last time he had glanced in a mirror, the glower he saw made him think of a troll. He recalled an old admirer saying he looked like a Hollywood hero when he smiled. He wasn’t so sure. He hadn’t done all that much smiling in recent times.

Though most of the area’s workers remained asleep or just getting started on breakfast, traffic moved at a moderate pace on the circumferential highway. After crossing the Cumberland River, Sid took the cutoff north to Gallatin Pike, Madison’s Main Street. His office, a grudging requirement of his new life, occupied a corner in a glass and stone building near RiverGate Mall, anchor for the community’s primary shopping area. One strip center after another lined both sides of the street, deserted mini-cities at this time of day.

He glanced at his muddy boots and smudged jeans as he ambled toward the front of the building. He needed a shower and clean clothes, but that could wait. He figured his chances of encountering someone now little better than those of holding a winning lottery ticket. Nobody was fool enough to come in at this time of day except a habitual early riser, something he’d been since service with Army Special Forces in Vietnam. That’s where he learned to exist on a minimal amount of sleep. Inside, he turned toward his office and glanced at the “Sidney Chance Investigations” sign on the door. It brought one of his infrequent grins. How cool would it have been if they had named him Random instead of Sidney.

The answering machine chirped its practiced greeting as he walked in. Welcome back to what most people would call the real world, he thought. Maybe a few more months of civilization would rekindle his appreciation for the marvels of modern technology. Right now they seemed more an annoyance. A computer glitch that had gobbled up three days of painstaking work was the kicker that sent him back to the cabin for a cooling off period.

He found six messages on the machine. Two from Jaz LeMieux wanting him to return her calls, two from guys he didn’t know and doubted he wanted to, one from a process server, and one from a lawyer seeking his help. He played that one again.
“This is Arnie Bailey, with the law firm of Bailey, Riddle and Smith. Jasmine LeMieux highly recommended you for a job I need done. She said you were good at finding missing persons. This is a little different, however. It’s a missing company. My client faces a major financial disaster if we can’t find the organization involved. It’s a chemical pollution case around Ashland City. I’d appreciate your calling me as soon as you can.”

He glanced at his watch. It was way too early to call a lawyer, even somebody who sounded as anxious as this one. He decided to go home and shower, eat breakfast, then come back and have another go at it. No doubt the calls from Jaz related to Bailey’s problem.

Sid lived in the ranch-style brick house his mother had called home for twenty-five years. She died around the time his career as a small town police chief crashed and burned. The house stood near the river at the end of a quiet street in a neighborhood of mostly young couples and a few retirees. The sky had begun to brighten by the time he pulled into his driveway, though dirty gray clouds seemed to hang within arm’s reach.

He reveled in the soothing spray of the shower. It drummed against his back like a masseur’s fingers, easing some of the troubled thoughts that had knotted up his mind on the drive back from his hillside retreat. Despite a lot of jury-rigging, he had never come up with a reliable way to get a hot shower in the backwoods. He dressed and settled into the compact kitchen for breakfast. As he poured milk onto his cereal, the phone rang.

“Glad you finally decided to answer.” Jaz LeMieux’s voice had an edge.

“I just got home a little while ago.”

“From where?”

“The cabin.”

“Don’t you answer your cell phone?”

“When it’s turned on.”

There was a pause. “I think you’re reverting to your mountain man persona, Sid.”

He said nothing.

“Have all my efforts been wasted?”

“I did a lot of pondering last night,” he said. “But I came back.”

At first he had credited his financial mentor, Mike Rich, with the responsibility for luring him out of self-imposed exile. Lately he had begun to lean toward Jaz.

“Have you talked to Arnie Bailey?” she asked.

“I went by the office around 5:30 and got his message off the answering machine. What’s the story?”

“You’ll have to get the details from Arnie.”

“He a friend?”

“He’s a good guy. He’s done legal work for us.”

At forty-five, she served as chairman of the board of Welcome Traveler Stores, a lucrative chain of truck stops her father had founded. She was also a sharp, attractive, persuasive woman who knew how to get what she wanted. Sid wondered how much pressure she had put on the lawyer.

He settled back in his chair. “Bailey says you told him I was good at finding people.”

“You are. You’ve navigated those databases like an old pro.”

“Fine, if the computer would quit eating the results.”

“I told you I could fix that.” Jaz held a computer science degree as well as an MBA. She knew the inner workings of the machines as well as arcane methods of mining the Internet’s secrets. “Is that why you went traipsing back up the mountainside?”

“Partly. There were other issues.” Sid rumpled his brow. “Bailey mentioned a pollution case.”

“There was a story in the paper, but I didn’t get a chance to read it. Do you plan to call him?”

“Yes. But I doubt he’d be around this time of day.”

“I know he gets to his office early. Maybe not this early, but he likes to be well prepared before court opens.”

“Okay, Jaz, I’ll talk to him. That’s a promise.”

“Good. Let me know what he says.”

The pollution case led to the book's title, The Surest Poison. It's available from any bookstore, all the online sites, including for the Kindle, and at my website, Crimespree Magazine called it "a top rate mystery by a gem of a writer."

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

An Excerpt from Dispel the Mist

The excerpt I've included is a dream that Native American Deputy Tempe Crabtree has which is a warning about what is to come in Dispel the Mist.
* * *
Her first dream was about her grandmother. Once again, Tempe was a child, cuddling against the soft warm body. Grandma’s nut brown wrinkled face, always expressive when she told Tempe the Indian stories. Love for her granddaughter apparent in her dark eyes. Tempe smelled the lavender that grandma always sprinkled into her dresser drawers. In the dream, she told a story Tempe had never heard before.

In the old days, women learned never to leave their acorn meal unattended. All day long they made ground acorns on the big rocks near the river. Then they took the meal down to the water to wash out the poison. They left it in the sun to dry, but when they came back it was gone.
Grandma paused dramatically and Tempe gasped. Who could have taken the acorn meal?
None of the women took it. None of the children took it. When they looked around they found big footprints in the sand where they left the meal, so they knew the Hairy Man had eaten it. He liked Indian food too and was smart enough to know he needed to wait until the acorn meal was leached of its bitterness before he took it. After that, they always set aside a portion of the leached meal for the Hairy Man. The women always wondered if the sound of them pounding the acorns let him know when it was time to come for his share of the food.

Tempe wanted to ask her grandmother questions about the Hairy Man, like did he still come for the acorn meal, but she faded away.
The only reason Tempe remembered this dream was because she had an urgent need to go to the bathroom. On her way back to bed, she noticed Hutch hadn’t joined her, so it must still be evening. Still sleepy, she thought briefly about the dream deciding it had absolutely no relationship to Supervisor Quintera’s death and promptly returned to her slumber.
Her next dream was a nightmare. Tempe knew she was on the reservation, but it was different looking as familiar places often are in dreams. The buildings all seemed dilapidated and badly in need of repair though she couldn’t see them clearly because of a grayish-yellow swirling mist surrounding everything. Jagged black mountain peaks poked through the clouds. Though she was alone, a feeling of menace was so prevalent, she could almost smell it.
In fact, she did smell a sour aroma mixed with smoke, like someone was burning trash with something toxic in it. Not knowing exactly what to do or where to go, she walked down the road which instead of being paved was dirt, and filled with rocks. No vehicles were around, either moving or parked.
Without warning, a large man who resembled Cruz Murphy stepped out of the fog. He held up a hand, palm out. “Stop. Danger ahead.”
“Maybe I can help,” Tempe said, moving closer to him, but as she did, he faded into the mist.
“Chief Murphy. Cruz, wait. Tell me what’s going on. I need to know.”
He didn’t answer, but another figure appeared from the gloom, Daniel Burcena dressed all in black. His features sharp and menacing. “You should heed warnings that are given to you. You may have native blood flowing through your veins, but your heart isn’t on the reservation. Everyone who lives here can see that. Go back where you came from.”
“I loved my grandmother,” Tempe said. “I’m sorry I wasn’t proud of my Indian heritage. Let me make it up to her.”
“It’s too late. Way too late.”
A warning siren blew. People ran from the buildings, spilling out onto the road and crowding around Tempe. What was going on? The siren stopped for a moment. It sounded again. More shrill this time. It stopped and then shrieked again.
It was the phone. Tempe shook the nightmare from her mind and picked up the receiver. “Deputy Crabtree.”
A strange voice, one that sounded like it was electronically altered growled, “Stay away from Painted Rock.”
“Who is this?”
No answer.
Again no answer, though she could hear breathing.
“This isn’t funny. If you want to tell me something, speak up.”
The connection broke. Tempe stared at the receiver before she replaced it.
Hutch raised up on an elbow. “What was that all about?”
“I haven’t a clue. Someone warned me to stay away from painted rock. Do you know what that is or where it is?”
He shook his head. “Nope, never heard of it, but sounds like something that might be on the reservation.”
“Maybe.” Tempe looked at the time on her digital clock. Four a.m. What fool would call a deputy at four in the morning with such a cryptic message? She never heard of a place called painted rock, so why would she go there? Maybe that was the idea, to entice her to go. She’d certainly had some interesting dreams but had no idea what they meant. Hopefully when she slept again, no more dreams would interrupt her rest.

* * *

Dispel the Mist is available at all the usual bookstores, but until December 31 it's 20% off at the publishers website, Mundania Press, if you use the code SANTA.