Monday, August 31, 2015


Some time ago Carolyn Hart, an author whose mystery novels I have long enjoyed reading, said something that has stuck in my head. She compared her novels and others in the same genre to medieval morality plays. There is a problem (in the plays, most often a sin). The problem is presented as part of an entertaining story. There is a clear path to redemption, and by the end of the novel or play the sinner (villain)  is either punished or redeemed, and justice is served.

I understood that. It made sense, and explained how I think of and form my own novels.

They were about redemption.

Though many people think of redemption only in relation to theology or commerce, that's not all it can apply to. The five dictionaries I consulted, including Noah Webster's from the early nineteenth century, allow for deliverance from some type of evil or threat, for rescue, for the improvement in condition of any thing or any one. To my way of thinking, that can refer to many types of writing, and certainly does in the field of mysteries.

Actually, though the theme of redemption has always been present in my writing, I didn't see it as a strong factor until I was part way through my latest "To Die For" novel, A Portrait to Die For, (to appear in print and e-book by early 2016).  In this story, eighth in the series, redemption touches almost every character, beginning with an Iraq veteran suffering horrors as a result of his war experience. Others in the process of being subtly redeemed include his bitter and confused twin sister, and even my protagonists, Carrie McCrite and Henry King.

A satisfactory resolution is guaranteed in most novels like this, whether romance, mystery, western, history, slice of life, or one of many more types. Satisfactory endings yes, but not emotion free. Recently my husband and a former editor at St Kitts Press, publisher of my first five novels, worked to bring Music to Die For, number two in the series, back into print. During the process I needed to re-read the manuscript twice. And even for me, the happy ending (created out of my own ideas, mind you) ended up being a three-hanky one, because, I realized, of redemption.

As a reader or writer, have you ever thought of redeeming features in at least some of what you read or write?  For me, the word--the topic--has really opened up new ideas that I can apply to my writing--and to myself.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Fedoras and Ferragamos: The Color of Noir

Kathleen Kaska
            I love the word “noir.” I like the way it sounds as it rolls off the tongue; the way it looks on paper, demanding bold, black print. If a mystery is classified as noir, I’ll read it; a movie billed as noir, I’ll watch it. But what exactly is noir? The word has become trendy. The color of my mascara is “black noir,” the shade of shoe polish I use on my boots is also “black noir.” Redundant, but understandable, since the word means,“black” in French. For me, it conjures up images of women in stilettos and men in fedoras. But as a literary adjective, what does it really mean? 

            A Google search, resulted in these colorful definitions and cheeky delineations:
“A genre of crime film or fiction characterized by cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity.”
“Crime noir are stories of people who decide to cross an invisible but palpable moral line.”
My favorite comes from the online Merriam-Webster dictionary; “Crime fiction featuring hard-boiled cynical characters and bleak sleazy settings.” 
            I’m working on a new mystery series that fits the noir subgenre. It takes place in the mid-forties in New York City. My protagonist is a hard-boiled detective, a cynic who’s suffering from PTS, a guy with a vigilante streak who’s pissed off by what life has dished out. He lives in a sleazy apartment building, in a sleazy neighborhood, and frequents sleazy bars. He has a degree in classic literature. What? Where did that come from?
            Ted Kendrick has another side, making this “crossing over that moral line,” palpable. He’s fallen on hard times, and his anger takes him to the edge of who-the-hell-cares. He puts himself in situations that threaten to destroy and sabotage what little success he’s manage to achieve; there’s the fatalism. He hopes for the good life he had before things came crashing down, but feels it’s unattainable; hence the ambiguity.
            I’m still learning about this fellow even through he’s been brewing in my brain for most of my adult life. And as I write these mysteries, I think he’ll teach me a lot more about what “noir” really means.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Writing Every Day

by Jean Henry Mead

When I sat down to write, I thought of a long ago interview with bestselling romance novelist Parris Afton Bonds for my book, Maverick Writers. Bonds emphasized the need for writers to write every day. The mother of five lively sons, she wrote between diaper changes as well as on the job, which cost her several secretarial positions before she decided to write full time.

“I write when I’m sick,” she said, “and even as I shove that turkey into the oven on Thanksgiving and Christmas. There are no legal holidays for professional writers.”

A steady writing schedule is one of the most important aspects of publishing one’s work. Whether you rise two hours early to write before leaving for your day job, or at night before you go to bed, it needs to be done at least five days a week. Women with small children can schedule their writing time when the young ones are down for a nap, if only for an hour, but the same hour each day until it becomes a habit. But if you only have a few minutes now and then, use that time to jot down notes or bits of dialog as Don Coldsmith did on the backs of prescription pads during his daily medical practice.

Mystery novelist Marlys Millhiser echoed Bond’s work ethic. She began writing at 10:00 a.m. and continued until 4:00 in the afternoons. Both writers stressed the fact that you must stay at the computer (or notepad) no matter how difficult the writing is going that day.

“My first draft is pretty bad,” Millhiser said. “But no matter how difficult it is, I hang in there. Sometimes you have to backtrack and begin again, but don’t stop to polish a chapter until the first draft is finished. When I’m on a run and the plot floats along, the characters take over and it’s wonderful. But most of the time, I’m just sitting there and sweating it out. And I’ve found, I’m sorry to say, that the stuff I sweated out and got three pages by working my pants off, was about the same quality as when the story just flowed along and I’ve gotten ten pages.”

Brian Garfield, author of “Death Wish” and countless other novels and screenplays, said, “I took up writing partly because some of the stuff that was published seemed so awful and so easy to do, and of course it isn’t easy to do, as you find out when you sit down to try to do it. And it took a long time—a lot of apprenticeship practice before I could write anything that was worth publishing. But you don’t know that until you try. At the time of the interview, he wrote five hours a day, from 8:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. until back problems caused him to cut his hours.

Setting a steady pace becomes a habit and as important to those who want to succeed as breathing. Writing is a way of life and a regular schedule is necessary.

When do you write and how often?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Final Stretch

by Janis Patterson

There’s a certain feeling when you’re almost through writing a book. 

No, that’s wrong. There are lots of feelings when you’re almost through writing a book. Delight that the d*****d thing is almost done and you don’t have to wrestle with tying things up any more. Fear that there are things you haven’t tied up. Sadness that you’re on the verge of leaving a world and characters you created, ones that feel familiar. Happiness that you don’t have to work with these uncooperative and headstrong people in a suddenly tiresome setting again. Anticipation that after the polishing and editing are done you can move on to a new idea, a better idea, a bright shiny enticing idea that will be better and easier to write than this one.

Having always been enticed by bright, shiny things, I’m inevitably looking forward to the new project. That’s also the reason I never have less than four projects going at a time. The new shiny thing is always a better idea, and it will be easier to write, and sometimes it makes me feel better to get it started and even just a little bit written. It’s a new world and new people, all just waiting for me to explore, just as soon as I finish this horrible, uncooperative piece of junk I’ve been wrestling with.

It’s very easy to forget that I felt the exact same way about this book when winding up the one before it.

From talking to other writers I gather that most of them feel the same way close to the end of each book. I cannot comprehend the thought processes of those who write series – especially long-running series – when faced with yet another story in the same world utilizing a lot of the same characters. I would die of boredom. However – it seems I am in the minority, as series are very popular now both with readers and writers. It escapes me how people could be so in love with a set of characters in the same general setting that they demand story after story about the original hero’s brothers and cousins and such. Not that there’s anything wrong with that kind of series, though it boggles the mind how one set of characters can believably stumble over body after body. I think it’s called the Jessica Fletcher syndrome. After someone discovers their fourth or fifth body, I would do my best to keep me and my loved ones far away from that murder-magnet. However, if people like that sort of thing – and they obviously do – then I say joy go with them.

Because I am basically a weakling – and because I need to perk up my sales – I have sort of changed direction and am considering writing a series. This will be a different sort of series, though – there will be one central character, but with a different setting and a different set of people in every book. Some of the characters from other books will appear, usually very briefly or only in phone calls or that sort of thing, just to have some sense of continuity and my character’s world. Each book will take place in a different part of the globe and will have its own feel. It’s a very different and exciting concept, and I am gleefully looking forward to working on it.

As soon as I finish this complicated, uncooperative tangle I’m working on now, that is.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Feeling Birthing Pains by Marilyn Meredith

What? Birthing pains at your age?

Of course I'm not refering to giving birth in the usual sense, but my latest Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery, Not as it Seems,  is about to make it's appearance.

I've been planning the promotion for quite some time--a blog tour and some book fairs are scheduled.

Every chapter of the book was heard by my critique group. I sent it off to the publisher, the editor sent it to me with her edits, I fixed what needed to be fixed and sent it back. Got it to check over again and I found more mistakes.

The galley proof arrived--and guess what? More fixes needed.

The cover was sent to me for approval and it looks great!

Now, when the book comes out will I (or readers) discover more mistakes?

I wrote about places I've only visited, did I get all that information right?

Will people like the story?

I'm sure you authors out there know exactly what I'm going through.

Until I actually see the book and get some reader feedback, I'll continue experiencing the birthing pains.


Sunday, August 16, 2015

Wrong Again: Charlaine Harris

I thought I didn’t like cozies, especially those written by Charlaine Harris. To refresh your memory, cozies feature an amateur sleuth (who has some law enforcement connection.) Many sleuths are female: many own cats and like to cook or do some other domestic craft. The violence and sex happen off stage. Most of all, there’s a sweet, light tone to the books. Not my style.

I write police procedural mystery novels. Think cop shows where the action is seen through the eyes of some type of law enforcement. The murder(s) are unraveled with  methods available to law enforcement, be it FBI, coast guard investigators, the sheriff, or big city cops. In my case it’s Santa Monica, featuring a fictional SMPD homicide detective.

It means my tastes lean in the direction of reading other police procedural writers, such as John Stanford, Mike Markell, or Oliver Tidy. Why read something you don’t like?

Or so I thought. Recently the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters-in-Crime, put on a crime writers conference. Charlaine Harris was one of the keynote speakers. As it happened, I thumped down in a chair next to her at breakfast, not recognizing her. With a thick as honey Mississippi accent and southern good manners, she charmed me.

She charmed the entire audience of crime writers and fans that day. I paraphrase one remark. I don’t read how to books on writing. I might find out I’d been doing everything wrong.

One titled Midnight Crossroad was made available in our book bag at the conference. I started reading one night and was hooked. The cozy writer is allowed more leisure in starting off a novel. Police procedural readers want the murder in the first few pages. Harris charmed me again, setting me down in a twisty Texas hamlet filled with original characters and a riveting storyline.

The older I get the less certain I am about my hard and fast opinions. The nice thing about changing your mind about what you like is that it opens you up to a new dimension. I may not like all cozies from now on, but Charlaine Harris is a charmer and I’m a new fan.

Mar Preston's latest book is A Very Private High School

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The History of Mystery

by Jean Henry Mead

Edgar Allen Poe started it all with his first detective story, but as Carolyn Wheat asks in her book, How to Write Killer Fiction, "What’s happened to the mystery genre since [Sherlock] Holmes hung up his deerstalker hat and started keeping bees?”

Wheat states that mysteries have been split into three distinct strands: the classic whodunit, the American hard-boiled detective story and the procedural. She divides up the whodunit category into the regional mystery, historical, comic relief and says you need a gimmick for niche mysteries and the dark cozies. Her book was published in 2003, and a number of subgenres have since been added to the list, including the science fiction mystery.

I love niche mysteries such as Carolyn Hart’s series featuring a red-haired ghost who returns to earth to solve murders following her own death in a boating accident. And former NASA payload specialist Stephanie Osborn not only taught astronauts what they needed to know about space travel, she wrote a mystery involving the disappearance of a space shuttle after her friend was killed in the Challenger explosion.

The American hard-boiled detective story has certainly evolved from The Great Detective who solved crimes with his intellect. The list isn’t complete without the books of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross McDonald, Elmore Leonard and Lawrence Block. The plots take place in urban areas where murder and mayhem happen on a regular basis. You’d be hard pressed to find a hard-boiled detective story set in Cabot Cove, Maine, or St. Mary Mead, England. Or as Chandler once said, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished or afraid.” The phrase epitomizes the hard-boiled detective story that's alive and well in any number of currently written series.

The police procedural evolved when writers came to the conclusion that the majority of crimes were actually solved by detectives who used scientific methods to track down and apprehend criminals--much like Sherlock Holmes with modern equipment. They weren’t bunglers like the cops in Agatha Christie’s St. Mary Mead or mainly corrupt like the cops in Bay City, California. No one seems to know who first wrote procedurals although the genre was influenced by Wilkie Collins’ Sergeant Cuff in his book, The Moonstone, published in 1868, and TV’s Sgt. Joe Friday of the LAPD of the 1950s. Joseph Wambaugh and James Ellroy later refined the subgenre and placed a spotlight on the corruption, violence and racism of the Los Angeles police.

The dark cozy has lightened considerably in this country. I still love Christie’s sleuths and have concocted a few of my own, adding comic relief to my Logan and Cafferty amateur sleuth series. The dark cozy came into being with Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, the first novel to use fingerprinting as a method of detection, long before they were used in real-life police work.

I've compiled two books of interviews and advice from mystery writers from around the world in Mysterious Writers as well as The Mystery Writers, including Elmore Leonard, Sue Grafton, Lawrence Block and Julie Garwood, which further detail the various subgenres of mysteries.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Virtual friends, real and imagined.

When I was in first grade, I met Zandy. She lived two streets away from me and we were best friends. We had sleepovers, rode our bikes together, and went to the corner store together for penny candy. Yep, I’m telling my age here.

Zandy and I swore we’d be friends forever, but then my mom moved the family from the suburban neighborhood I loved to a farm on forty acres. No kids my age lived within a full square mile, even if my mom would have allowed me to ride my bike that far.

Today, my friendships are cemented virtually.  I get to meet people on line and have them turn into my besties. Laura Bradford is one of those people I met on line. She was part of The Good Girls Kill for Money blog and I won a book Laura had as a giveaway. Instead of her mailing the book, we agreed to meet for lunch. And our friendship was born.

Now that she lives four or five states over, we’ve kept in touch through email, Facebook, the occasional phone call and annual face to face meet ups. And when we do get together, it’s like no time has passed.

I’ve lost track of Zandy, but just last year, a friend from high school found me on Facebook. Brad was the goofy kid who loved life and loved to laugh. We were band kids. We were all Tolkien geeks, believing that the world followed the same rules for good and evil. It was great catching up with him but seeing him as an adult? It’s kind of crazy.

I’ve met many people (virtually) in the last few years that when we finally meet in person, it’s like we’ve been friends forever. For me, I’m loving the social part of the social media part of being a writer. Maybe that’s why I’m so comfortable writing about my imaginary friends who live in South Cove. I’m used to not meeting real people except on my computer. Who’s to say my made up worlds aren’t as real as the internet one I visit daily?

Have you developed friendships on the internet? 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Hackers and Proofing

We’ve always known that internet connect computers and other devices can be hacked. In fact, they almost seem custom made for that.

I’ve recently learned that cars can be hacked. Well, why wouldn’t they be hackable? They contain computers that send and receive data, right?

And now—here’s a new opportunity for hackers! Houses. That’s right, you can make your house controllable, remote. How convenient! And how hackable.

We’ve worked long and hard to defend our home computers. We try our darndest not to get our portable devices hacked. Those are dangers we have to live with, if we use those things. But I’m scratching my head wondering why I should have to worry and my car and my house getting hacked! Well, I don’t really have to.

There are still a few cars around that don’t contain computers. That’s the kind I learned auto mechanics on. They’re mechanical and they make sense. And no one, absolutely no one can hack them. We might have to go to Cuba to get them, though.

I think the only way around the danger to my PC is to use one for writing that’s not on the internet. At least I can back up everything multiple places and hope they don’t all get hit at once. Or I could back to writing with pencil and paper and I could mail things to people. Perish the thought.

I hope and pray that I never fall for making my home hackable.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

What Happens When Your Villain is Smarter than You?

by Janis Patterson

I’m having a problem. I’m 60,000 words into A KILLING AT EL KAB (and loving it!), just at the point where my sleuth should start to pin down who the villain is. Only thing is, my villain has so far proved himself much smarter than I. There are clues (breadcrumbs, if you will) pointing to him, but there are more pointing to just about everyone else. At this particular point, I could probably make any one of half a dozen people the killer with equal ease.

I know who the killer is. I know why, and where, and how he killed. He is a very smart man – so smart that he hasn’t made a mistake yet. I know I have to find some flaw in his behavior, some crack where his villainy becomes obvious, but as of yet I haven’t. He has covered his tracks brilliantly, made no mistakes, and my semi-psychic but denying it sleuth is totally clueless as to how to handle a crime.

Okay, during a totally unrelated meeting this morning a thought of how to expose him hit me (good thing) but it means there is a lot of tweaking to be done in the stuff I've already written. I'll do it, though, if only to ensure my triumph over him. He's an arrogant, condescending so and so, and besting him will make me feel very good.

So I can hear y'all asking, why did I create him like that? Believe me, I didn't!

Every so often one local writing group or another will offer a workshop on creating characters, and for many years I attended every one. Some were pretty basic – physical description, work/hobby/whatever, dark secret in their past (and they all had to have a dark secret in their past) etc. Others were detailed to a ridiculous degree – all the above plus things like their favorite flavor of Jello, favorite movie star, who were they closest to in their family, their favorite teacher in elementary school, who would they be if they were a figure in history, what would they be if they were a food... Things I'm not even sure of even in myself! I remember one character interview that went on for seven single-spaced pages

All these workshops did was instill in me a great sense of envy for those who could follow whatever recipe was being taught. Oh, I followed every step with alacrity, made everything just as it should be... and bored myself to tears. After making up so much stuff about a character I found they had all the life and reality of a cheap paper doll. I feel the same way about detailed outlines. Ho-hum. No surprises for the writer, no surprises for the reader.

In case you haven't twigged to it yet, I'm a pantser. When I start a book I have a shadowy idea of the storyline and a couple of stick-figure characters that are more archetypal placeholders than anything else. The rest is done on the fly, and it often surprises even me. My characters walk in almost fully fledged (though they do change and expand and sometimes surprise the heck out of me as I write) and tell me what I'm to do, and if I dare to change what they have decided, they often get huffy and refuse to talk to me sometimes for days.

I tried to explain this to The Husband (a science rather than a word person) without much success. He listened politely, then asked a question or two, then shook his head, murmuring that writing sounded more like possession than it did creation.

He might be right. But I did figure out how to defeat my villain... and please don't tell anyone. Word does get around, and I do want to surprise him!

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Avoid the Mistakes I Made

That was the title of a presentation I made to the Public Safety Writers Association's recent conference. Here are some of them I told about.

I wrote at least three books, sent them out, they were rejected, and I threw the manuscripts away. No computers back then, so no way to even try to retrieve them. They probably weren't much good, but I could've made them better.  Never throw anything you've written away.

I should have learned more about the craft of writing. I didn't. Just because you can write, doesn't mean you can write book. Keep on learning. Read books and magazines on the writing craft, go to writing conferences, join a good critique group.

Don't let rejections discourage you. Learn from your rejections. Keep revising.

I had no clue about promotion when my first book came out and gave away my free copies to relatives and friends. No excuse nowadays not to know about promotion. If you expect your books to sell, you better learn about promotion and spend a lot of time on it no matter who your publisher is

Back when I began, there was little technology and no Interent. Use technology effectively. At the very least you should have a website and/or blog, use Facebook and Twitter and other such sites that you enjoy, do in-person events and have business cards with you book information on them to hand out to everyon.e

Never pay a publisher to do anything--in the beginning I paid for what was called co-publishing. Two crooks--first one gambled away all the money he made and ended up in jail. Second one published 50 copies of my book and then disappeared.

(Yes, you will have to pay to buy copies of your books for you to sell, but should be at a discount.)

I've had three publishers quit and two die. (Not much you can do about either.)

Another publisher had 3 of my books and never paid me a single royalty. When I finally got around to questioning him, he sent me $40. Said he hadn't kept track. Never wait as long as I did to find out what's going on.

And yes, before you ask, I did have several agents along the way. None ever connected me with a publisher.

Be sure your contracts have a clause for getting your rights back in a reasonable amount of time.

One thing you should pay for if your publisher doesn't have an in-house editor, is editing.

Sometimes a small publisher might ask for authors to share in the cost of a booth at a big book fair--then it's up to your whether or not you choose to participate.

That's only a small sample of the mistakes I've made. Hope they'll help someone from not making the same one.


This was the conference room, long and narrow with about 4 seats at each table. Fifty people attended.