Thursday, November 23, 2017

Happy Thanksgiving

I have much to be thankful for this year. I say that every year, usually in the cliche way most of us living First World lives do. But this year things are a little different.

This time around, the words resonate a little more. Actually a lot more.

On August 24, after a week of not feeling so hot and two days after driving my 19-year-old to Kenyon College in Ohio, which is 10 hours away, I went to the ER, figuring I’d come home that night with a prescription.

I walked out of the hospital 17 days later.

Turns out, I had a perforated colon. Just a slight fever, so everyone missed it. (At one point, I told a doctor I had been hiccuping for 72 hours, and it seems to me that should’ve been a clue, but there’s no use crying over spilled milk.) I didn’t know how serious things had gotten until after the operation and after a week in the ICU. (Between the trauma and meds, I pretty much slept through that first week after the surgery.) I was arguing with the surgeon about my recovery time. My wife asked the brilliant woman to “give us five minutes.” When we were alone, Lisa said, simply, “That woman saved your life Saturday night. You might want to trust her.”

Thanksgiving in Florida
“Saved your life” was an ice bucket to the face, the proverbial wake up call, one I have not forgotten. Earlier this week, my 16-year-old asked how the episode changed me. The answer was simple: priority rankings. I told her the only things I was thinking about in the ICU were Lisa, Delaney, Audrey, Keeley, and getting back to my book. For the first time anyone can remember, I wasn’t checking school emails. I missed teaching. But the longing wasn’t the same as the need I felt to spend time with those strong ladies and to finish the book I was working on.

From left: Keeley, Delaney, Audrey, Lisa, and John
So this year, as we gather at my in-laws’ house in Florida and are joined by my parents, I will be looking across the table at my family, thankful for my blessings, and continuing to rise before everyone else in the house to write –– and loving every minute of it. I've shared some photos of the week here.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of our readers who celebrate the holiday!

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Thanksgiving at the Beach

It’s Thanksgiving week here in the U.S. Time for half the population to travel to visit the other half. Or that’s the way it seems, anyway.

I enjoyed the recent posts by Aline and Barbara on setting so I thought I’d chime in.

I live in a Southern California beach city. Temperatures here are fairly mild as far as fall and winter are concerned, although we did register unseasonably warm temps in the upper 90s less than a month ago. You never know when a hot spell is going to crop up. Here’s a photo I took on Thanksgiving Day a few years back.

My books take place in the fictional town of Vista Beach, similar to the one I live in, so I look at the events and happenings that occur in my area around the time the book is set. Then I create my own event that’s a take off from the real one. In my last book, A PALETTE FOR MURDER, I have a chalk art festival that is roughly based on the one that happens in Redondo Beach every September. Here’s one of the entries from this past year.

Right now I’m working on a story set in October so I’ve been immersing myself in Halloween for months now. That means my writing has overlapped the actual October here at the beach. This time around I spent some time at the Old Town Music Hall in neighboring El Segundo. The theater regularly shows silents accompanied by live music on its Mighty Wurlitzer organ. This year they played several horror classics including Nosferatu (1922), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1921) and Phantom of the Opera (1925). In my WIP, I have a scene set at Vista Beach’s own silent movie theater so of course I had to go to the OTMH to see some silent films. I've seen silents there before, but I wanted to double-check my memories.

Old Town Music Hall interior

The other thing that I’m including in my WIP is a version of the pumpkin race that takes place here every year. Yep, people decorate pumpkins, attach wheels to them and race them down the hill toward the pier. It’s quite fun to watch.

My next book is taking place during December so I’m getting a headstart on research for that one by noticing all of the holiday events that occur around the South Bay to see which ones might be good candidates for inclusion. I’ll have one more Christmas season before it’s due, but it’s nice to get a headstart on my research. And fun, too, of course.

That’s it from the beach. I hope everyone in the U.S. has a nice Thanksgiving and, to everyone else, I hope you have a great week.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Stop the presses!

by Rick Blechta

A thriller has won a major literary award!

Yes, you read that correctly. Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square won the Giller Prize last night (along with the $100,000 prize). The annual gala event is broadcast by CBC coast-to-coast-to-coast here in Canada and it always gets massive media attention, which is very good for publishing in general here in the Great White North. And finally a crime fiction novel has won something very worthwhile.

To be perfectly transparent, I haven’t yet read the book (but I will ASAP), so what I’m saying must be tempered by that knowledge.

One thing we crime writers (and genre writers in general) are fond of saying is that many of our top authors write as well or better than any number of “literary authors” who have won major prizes. This statement is usually followed up by, “But of course crime fiction will never be even shortlisted for any major prize because the people who run these contests don’t take our genre as a serious literary endeavour.”

Well, this year’s Giller judging panel certainly blew that out of the water.

Now one thing I have noticed is that the news coverage of the results of the Giller calls Bellevue Square a “literary thriller” (as if that makes it more acceptable to them), and judging by reviews I’ve been reading all morning, the novel is certainly not anything one could call formulaic in the way the story progresses, but the fact that “Giller winner” and “thriller” are appearing in the same sentence is something that sets my little heart just a-pumping.

This is a very big deal for all of us ink-stained wretches who write crime fiction. There’s hope for us!

Monday, November 20, 2017

Tanjin Binhai Library, China by MVRDV

For my brief post today, I'd like to share the news about China's spectacular new library, the Tianjin Binhai Library in Tianjin. Why? Because it's unbelievably beautiful and we writers all like libraries, don't we?

The library contains 1.2 million books and is designed by the Dutch architectural firm MVRDV.

The 360,000-square-foot library is designed to look like a giant eye. It has five storeys and the book shelves span from the floor to ceiling — many of the shelves double as stairs and seats in the delightfully designed space. The “books” above the actual bookshelves are decals painted onto the building to look like full shelves that continue up to the ceiling, creating the floor-to-ceiling illusion.

You can visit the MVRDV website for more photos and details here:  I'd love to visit the actual library, wouldn't you?

The photos of the library are by Ossip van Duivenbode and by kind permission of MVRDV.


Saturday, November 18, 2017

RJ Harlick: The special people I’ve met along the way

Our guest blogger this weekend is my long-time friend and fabulous Ottawa writer, Robin Harlick. Called “the queen of Canadian wilderness fiction,” RJ Harlick writes the popular Meg Harris mystery series set in the wilds of West Quebec. Like her heroine Meg Harris, RJ loves nothing better than to roam the forests surrounding her own wilderness cabin or paddle the endless lakes and rivers. But unlike Meg, she doesn’t find a body at every twist and turn, although she certainly likes to put them in Meg’s way. While most of the action takes place close to her Three Deer Point Victorian cottage, occasionally Meg travels to other Canadian wildernesses. In the latest and eighth book,  Purple Palette for Murder, Meg travels to Canada’s Far North in a desperate attempt to prove her husband innocent of murder.

Before I begin I’d like to offer many thanks to Barbara Fradkin for giving me this opportunity to tell you a bit about myself as a writer and about my latest Meg Harris mystery, Purple Palette for Murder

When I started on this writing journey with my protagonist, Meg Harris, I didn’t give much thought on where this journey would lead us. My sole focus was on completing the monumental task of bringing Meg to life through finishing the first book, Death’s Golden Whisper and finding a publisher to release her to the reading public. I never really thought about the world I would be entering, that of a published crime writer. But eight books later I’ve learned that writing crime fiction is about more than writing and publishing books. It is about the friendships made along the way.

I have learned that the crime fiction community is a very social and friendly one. Several of the writers with whom I started out are still very good friends. I’ve met others along the way, either from my local community or at various mystery conferences. We travel together, meet up at conferences or other events, share war stories, be they about writing or publishers or anything else that sparks our interest and we gossip. Boy, how we love to gossip. We support each other in many ways, including guest blog invitations, like this one, or inviting each other to share events, such as store signings, launches or library readings. We will even critique each other’s manuscripts before they are sent off to our respective publishers and go on writing retreats together. I treasure their friendship.

I suppose at the outset I had assumed that my writing would likely spark friendships with other writers, but I hadn’t expected that friendships would develop with readers of my books. I was delighted when I received the first emails from readers I didn’t know. I could barely believe that someone other than family or friends actually liked my books.  I even received a real live hand written letter, a rarity in this technological age, complete with a photo of a lake setting the reader thought mirrored Meg’s Three Deer Point. I always made a point of thanking them, still do, and would often hear from them again.

As the journey with Meg continues, so have the emails, some leading to more frequent correspondence. I exchange travel and pet photos with one reader, who with the publication of each new book sends me money for a signed copy. I have also found that Facebook is another great way to develop friendships with readers. Not only do I get to chat with them, but I also get a glimpse into their lives the same way they learn about mine. I mustn’t forget readers met at conferences, who’ve also become friends. I look forward to reconnecting with them at each conference. One reader brings me shopping bags from her home town, which I proudly sport when I do my grocery shopping. Others drive many miles to attend my book launches and other events. I was thrilled to receive this photo from a fan recently to celebrate the launch of my latest book. Her books look rather well read, don’t you think. I love chatting with my fans and value their friendship highly. 

What I hadn’t bargained on was the impact Meg would have on my readers, particularly her relationship with Eric, her one and only love. Recovering from an abusive former marriage, Meg has difficulties confronting the demons in her life and strives to overcome them. Alcohol was her remedy, but Eric, the one steady rock in her life, has managed to ween her off it, for the moment.  One traumatic event too many could tip her over the edge and back into her drunken oblivion.

Many readers have told me how much they admire Meg’s dogged determination to get on with her life. Some have even related their admiration for Eric and his relationship with Meg. I sometimes suspect that for some, aspects in Meg’s life relate a little too closely to their own. Meg and Eric offer them hope. Besides Eric is easy to fall in love with. I will admit I have a warm place in my heart for him too. As a result, I now feel a certain responsibility for Meg and Eric and the other recurring characters in the series, something I didn’t feel when I created them.

For all you readers out there, I would like to offer a special thank you for inviting Meg into your own life.

Before I go, I want to tell you about Purple Palette for Murder, the eighth and latest Meg Harris mystery. Meg has refused to leave the sanctuary of her Quebec wilderness property called Three Deer Point, while she attempts to deal with the traumatic events that happened in A Cold White Fear, the previous book. Eric has flown to Yellowknife in Canada’s Far North for some business meetings. She is rescuing an abandoned fawn when she receives a phone call from a lawyer, saying Eric has been arrested for murder. Setting her fears aside, she flies to that northern town to do what she can to prove his innocence.

Purple Palette for Murder gives you an opportunity to experience the northern wilderness without having to leave your armchair.  It also gives you a glimpse of the impact residential schools have had on the extended families of indigenous people in Canada. And of course, there is lots of murder and mayhem. I recently wrote a prequel to Purple Palette for Murder for another blog, Dru’s Book Musings. You might be interested in reading it here.

To learn more about RJ Harlick, check out  and twitter @RJHarlick.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Conferences and Subplots

I intended to chime in on the discussion about setting, but last night I was thinking more about conferences and subplots. No, I'm not planning to use attending a mystery conference as a subplot in my book in progress. But attending a conference did take me back to tinker with my subplots.

This past weekend, I attended the New England Crime Bake, one of my favorite conferences. It's jointly sponsored by the New England chapters of Sister in Crime and Mystery Writers of America. Even though I belong to the Upper Hudson Valley chapter of Sisters in Crime, I also belong to the New England chapter. This year, I had the opportunity to present a Master Class on "Using Research to Get to the Roots of Your Novel." I was on a panel about the writing process. I was asked, as a presenter, to read and critique excerpts from works in progress by unpublished writers. I met and shared my comments with the two writers that I was assigned. A couple of my books were on sale and people were actually buying them. All of which should have made me feel like "veteran author." Right?

Well, I did, until I got home and started to think about a conversation I'd had with a friend from Albany who also attends Crime Bake. She was sitting at "my table" for Sunday morning breakfast. While we were waiting to see if we were going to be sitting there alone (dreaded by all writers, if no friend is there to save you), she told me about Jane Cleland's Master Class. Since my friend has been in my panels and sees me often, she wanted to hear someone else. My friend, who is working on her first book, was still thinking about what Jane Cleland had said about building subplots.

Before we could get too deep into the conversation, a couple of other people came to join us. But, having enjoyed a book tour in North Carolina with Cleland (and Donna Andrews), I decided to pick up her book on writing. I bought it before leaving the conference. The title is Mastering
Suspense Structure & Plot. I confess that I have only read -- really scanned -- Chapter 5 about having two subplots. As I was trying to read, my mind was on my manuscript. I was already thinking about the predictable subplots in my 1939 thriller. My protagonist who has struggled to go to law school finds himself in a situation that makes him a suspect. His foe finds that his plans to create havoc may cost him the woman he is in love with and has been pursuing. Predictable.

And that brings me to my point about the value of conferences for writers -- even for those of us who have been at it for a while. As I was sharing my "wisdom" with the two unpublished writers whose manuscript excerpts I critiqued, I was asking them questions and remembering again what I had to learn as a novice writer. As I was listening to my friend talk about structure and subplots, I was reminded of what I had forgotten about what I'd learned. Back home, with Cleland's book as inspiration, I started to scribble. (I'll read the rest of the book when I start to revise).

I'm happy to say that my upright protagonist is now wrestling with a secret that will heighten the stakes for him. And I've discovered something about my antagonist (aka villain) that will not only make the romance subplot more important but make him more human.

My reminder: Go to conferences and listen to anyone who is saying anything. Writing should be continuing education.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Day of the Dead

I missed my post a couple of weeks ago, and it was completely by accident. I actually wrote the entry below and scheduled it for publication, but I didn't hit publish. Instead I kept it as a draft. Now, I've been known to do this before, but I always always check on my post day to make sure the entry came up.

Except for last time. Instead, I was lying in bed suffering from the flu, and rather than sharing thoughts about the Day of the Dead, I was wishing I was dead.

I have recovered, more or less. My plan for this week was to write something about the Women Writing the West Conference I attended a couple of weeks ago,  (which is where I picked up the influenza of death.) But I like my Dia de los Muertos/Samhain entry and felt sad at the idea of not using it. So here it is, Dear Reader, two weeks late. I hope you enjoy it notwithstanding.


Today (Nov. 2, 2017), my friends, is the Day of the Dead, a Spanish/Aztec celebration much beloved down here in southern Arizona. Día de los Muertos is a day for remembering your loved ones who have passed on. It’s like a family reunion, with your dead ancestors as the guests of honor. Day of the Dead is a joyful time, with parades, music, costumes, lots of food, and a candlelit altar to help the dead find their way home for the two days of the year (Nov. 1 and 2), when the living and the dead can commune.

Throughout the 1990s, I ran a little shop and sold imports from  Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. For a decade I was totally immersed in the Celtic culture. Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 are very important days in the Celtic calendar, for at midnight, the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead thins, and we may actually be able to see one another.

All those Celtic peoples who came to the New World early on and settled on the frontiers and the back woods, from whom many, many of us descend, myself included, had a view of existence that is very different from the modern way of looking at things. We wonder how such realistic and practical people could have so readily believed in ghosts and haints and contact with the dead.  It had to be because they were ignorant and uneducated, we think, and obviously not as smart as we are.

But I say, au contraire, my friends.  As I travel through this life, I begin to have an intimation that things are not necessarily what they seem.  We perceive the world as we have been taught to do.  We see what we are looking for.

My great-grandmother, whom I was privileged to know when I was a girl, knew there were spirits abroad just as firmly as she knew the sky was blue. She had seen them, and she believed the evidence of her own eyes. Did she really see them, or was she deluded? I’ve never seen a ghost. Am I realistic, or am I blind? How does a sighted person convince someone who has never seen that there is a color blue?

My protagonist, Alafair, perceives the universe in the same way my great-grandmother did, and I do not judge her for that.  In fact, maybe I’m a bit envious.

Samhain (pronounce that SHAW-win), Dear Readers, is a festival better known as Halloween, All Souls Day, and Celtic New Year. Some Celtic people would light bonfires on Samhain eve to guide the souls of loved ones, and make lanterns out of hollowed out turnips to lead the dead home for their annual visit.

My husband remembers that every Halloween, his father would dig a pit in back of the house, line it with bricks, fill it with wood, and light what they called a "bonfire", though it was more like a good sized campfire. The family would sit around it and roast wieners and marshmallows on sticks and stretched-out hangars. He has no idea where the family tradition came from, but I'm guessing it was passed down through the family from the misty past, for such traditions are remarkably enduring. So, if you live in the country or don't worry about being fined for building an open fire in your back yard, stretch out those hangars and get yourself a bag of marshmallows, and take a trip into the past with some campfire s’mores. Put a slab of Hershey bar on top of a Graham cracker, put a melty-hot roasted marshmallow on the chocolate, top with another Graham cracker, and enjoy.

And while you’re at it, be sure to light a candle to guide your loved ones home.