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.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The devil's in the details

Barbara here. Aline's Monday post about setting serves as a springboard to mine. Great minds think alike! I too want to talk about setting, and more specifically about the setting of my Inspector Green novels, which are set in Ottawa, Canada's national capital and my adoptive home.

Write what you know, we writers are advised when we first set pen to paper. Really? What a bore that would be. I’ve led an uneventful life. I grew up in Montreal – not in the exotic, fast-paced downtown but in a nice, safe, leafy suburb – went to university, married, had three kids, worked for a few decades... There were a few heart aches, but not much drama or conflict that is the meat of good stories. Moreover, I live in Ottawa. Not London, or Rome, or even the Virgin Islands. Ottawa is a great city if you want to raise a family but not if you want to plot murders. It has roughly 12 murders a year; Baltimore has 350. In Ottawa, a sink hole is the lead news story for over a week.

Although Ottawa readers love the Ottawa setting, whenever I do events elsewhere, I have to downplay it. Canadians sometimes joke that Ottawa is the place that fun forgot, the city of gray civil servants scurrying home at 5 pm before the sidewalks are rolled up. I didn’t know this when I blundered into the Inspector Green series. I was just finishing eight years of graduate school at the University of Ottawa and I was ready to kill someone, so I bumped off a graduate student. What better place to set it than the place I knew so well – the University of Ottawa.

 Then two amazing things happened.

First, I realized how important setting was to the telling of a story. It’s more than just a static backdrop to the ongoing plot; it’s part of the drama. It’s the autumn leaves crunching underfoot, the sunset in your eyes as you drive down the Queensway, the musty smell and dark shadows in the library stacks where I put my first body. Writing is about drawing the reader into a story, making them feel they are walking in the footsteps of the characters. In a film, we see these details through the camera lens, but in a book, we see them through our own imagination.

I discovered that although I thought I knew Ottawa well and could use my memory for many details, I had to revisit all the places I was describing. When I wrote Do or Die, I prowled the library stacks (again!), I walked through the lobby of the Chateau Laurier and into Wilfred's Restaurant so that I could describe the sound of shoes on the marble floor and the smells of garlic and wine.  I took copious notes and photos. I needed all these details to bring the scene to life for me, even if I only chose to put a few into the actual book. Readers don’t want a whole page of detail; they want a few choice hints so they can imagine it themselves. The sparkle of candles on wine glasses, the soft murmur of conversation.

The second amazing thing that happened was that readers were surprised at the Ottawa I had brought to life. I got emails from readers who commented they didn't know the city was so diverse, or beautiful, or multi-textured. 
If you scratch beneath the surface, Ottawa actually has everything you need to create dramatic stories. It has a spectacular physical setting – three major rivers, a canal, and a lake in the centre. It has lots of parks to hide bodies in, ravines and bluffs to toss victims over. It has all the diversity of a big city - biker gangs, immigrants, rich, poor – but it also has farmers, cows and little river villages with secrets as old as time. Ottawa also has diversity in weather and seasons. It’s never predictable. Snowstorms, bodies buried by snow ploughs, floods, sweltering heat, blinding downpours. Even fog! I’ve used them all.

So over ten books I’ve explored just about every nook and cranny of Ottawa, in all its seasons. Mystery writers are a really nice, friendly bunch of people but we have some peculiar quirks. We’re always noticing interesting ways to kill people and interesting places to put bodies. Ottawa is filled with such places, and they have inspired the start of many of my books. The spark for Fifth Son began with a particularly spectacular country church that I drove by all the time on my way to the cottage, and each time, I thought; that needs to be in a book. That tower is a great place to toss a body from. And every time I stood at the edge of Hogs Back Falls and stared into the roiling water, I thought, boy, what would happen if you fell in. Thus Dream Chasers was born.

So in the end, I’ve come full circle back to the advice “write what you know”. Setting does not have to be flashy and world-renowned. Every family, every street and village has the seeds of intrigue and hidden secrets around which to spin a story. Every city, even one that on the surface appears grey and dull, has its nuances of colour and texture if you shine a clear enough light on it. Get up close and personal with the neighbourhoods, the geography, the changes of weather and season. The power is in the details; if they are vivid and specific enough, the story will come to life as the reader walks through it. Our own neighbourhoods, our streets, our schools and workplaces– none of these places are dull. They can all serve as settings for the very human stories we choose to tell. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Lark Ascending

by Rick Blechta

This is where we encountered the lark (before the dog arrived).
This past Saturday, CBC radio had a special Remembrance Day show mostly featuring music composed during the First World War. One of the pieces played was “The Lark Ascending” by Ralph Vaughan Williams, arguably the most famous of all of them, and an especial favourite of mine and coincidentally the title of my second novel.

Listening to it brought back a lot of memories, both of our several visits to the UK and also to writing my novel. I’d like to share one memory that joins both.

First, though, a story — but be warned: it may be apocryphal.

“The Lark Ascending” was originally a poem by George Meredith which in turn provided the inspiration for Vaughan Williams’ composition for solo violin and orchestra. In fact Vaughan Williams quotes some of the poem on the flyleaf of the published version.

The composer began the composition on the eve of the war, although it wouldn’t make its debut until 1921.

“What is known, however, is that Vaughan Williams was holidaying on the coast in Margate in Kent on the day Britain entered the first world war (4 August 1914). The resort was not an embarkation point, but ships were engaging in fleet exercises. The composer later told the story that the tune came into his head as he walked the cliff, at which point he jotted down the notes. A young scout then made a citizen's arrest, assuming he was scribbling details of the coastline for the enemy.” (From The Guardian)
Another musician suffering for his art. (But fear not! Vaughan Williams was immediately released by the authorities once they realized he was writing music and not secret code — although I suppose it could have been both.)

Being from this side of the pond, I had no familiarity with the bird in question, and since the internet was in its early days, it wasn’t easy to find out information, so everything I knew about (British) larks came from Meredith’s poem. On one of our visits, we were walking on Hathersage Moor in Derbyshire when someone with a dog approached us.

A small bird shot up maybe 100 feet in the air and began singing a mellifluous song filled with trills and utterly lovely. My wife and I knew immediately what it was and stopped, completely enchanted. Vaughan Williams had captured the song amazingly well. (We were also amazed at the bird’s ability to hover in the air.) Not only was the dog distracted, but we were too. I wish I’d had that experience before my novel was published because it would have made a difference. However, I was certainly satisfied by how well I’d chosen my title.

The Vaughan Williams composition was a huge part of my novel on a plot level since the protagonist plays it at the climax of the story, but in my mind, she'd also become the lark, so its tendrils weave deep in the book.

Several people, including a bookseller went out to buy my recommended recording (The Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields with Iona Brown playing the solo violin) so that they could more fully enjoy the story.

And that is the nicest compliment I have ever gotten for one of my novels.

Sidebar: That’s my wife the flutist on the cover. She’s the only one I could think of who’d be perfect to stand in for Victoria Morgan, the novel’s protagonist. We had a violinist-friend off-camera who would set her up to look like she knew what she was doing and then step back as the photo was taken. While she looked great and very convincing as a concert virtuoso, the sound she made on the violin was pretty horrendous!

Monday, November 13, 2017

July Weather in December

It's a fine, crisp autumn day as I write this. The sky is clear, azure blue and the recent early morning frost has turned the leaves still on the trees to vivid shades of bronze, red and yellow. The Japanese maple outside my window is working on producing the extraordinary shade of pink it likes to treat us to just before the leaves fall.

The only slight problem is that the book I'm working on is set in July with weather that is really hot, humid and unpleasantly sticky.  It was fine when I started it, in summer, but now I have to keep thinking myself back into what that felt like and since I'm cold enough to have an extra heater on in my study today and even then the tip of my nose feels chilly, this is a constant feat of imagination.

To make things more difficult, that is also the time of year in the north when there is light almost all the way through the night, so I can't have anyone commit their nefarious deeds under cover of darkness, or talk about anyone watching a sunrise or sunset - unless it's between 11pm and 2 am.

Because my books have rural settings, there's another problem too when it comes to the scenery.  I always do research visits to the area I'm writing about, taking copious notes on the scenery to help me in describing it for the reader, but of course it constantly changes.  When, exactly, does the heather start blooming on the hills and when does the bracken  turn from green to brown?  Are the kittiwakes still nesting in July or are there only herring gulls on the cliffs?  How long is the flowering season for pink thrift or harebells?  Which is the prevailing wind at that time of year?  What sort of cloud formations are usual in high summer?  Questions, questions.

At least, in northern and western Scotland you can be quite sure of one thing - if the sun's out, so are the midges.  In fact, you can be pretty sure about insects generally if you're looking for that sort of local colour, so that's a help.

I love writing about the countryside, but there are times when I think it would be very restful to have a city setting and just say it was raining or it wasn't raining, or even that the sun was shining.  Grey buildings in July are still grey buildings come November!

Saturday, November 11, 2017


By Vicki Delany

In the past I’ve jokingly written that my friends and I have been to a writers retreat at someone’s vacation home or cottage. I say jokingly because although we might have good intentions to write, and we might even manage to get an hour or two of work in, the real purpose is to read and walk and swim and eat and drink and most of all talk.  Fun, but not really an occasion for serious writing.

I had never been to a real writers retreat until last weekend. I was invited to be the guest author at Turning Leaves, a weekend retreat put on by the incredible author/editor/teacher/broadcaster duo of Gwynn Scheltema and Ruth Walker of Writescape. (

Image may contain: indoor

As the guest author, my job was to give a Saturday morning workshop on writing effective and realistic dialogue, and leading a discussion on Friday night. Otherwise, my time was my own.

Image may contain: sky, tree, outdoor, nature and water
The view from my room in the morning
The weekend was organized as a mixture of free writing time and planned classes or exercises. Participants were encouraged to do as much or as little private writing as they wanted. Some buried their heads in their projects, others participated in all the group efforts.

I loved meeting the 12 enthusiastic, keen, and very talented writers at different stages in their writing process. I sat in on some of Gwen and Ruth’s creativity sessions and think I learned a thing or two. I got a lot of writing done as well, and also spent some time thinking up ideas for a forthcoming book. 

It was great fun to start that process out loud, in front of a group at the dinner table.

One of the highlights of the weekend was the meals. Yes, the food was good, but that's not what I mean. Simply sitting around the dinner table together gave everyone a chance to exchange news, discuss tricky plot points, get ideas for submissions, and learn some tricks of the trade. 

The retreat was held at Fern Resort, on Lake Couchiching, north of Toronto. It was cold and rainy (it is November in Ontario, after all), but I got in one nice walk in the woods.  My room overlooked the lake and had a fireplace, which was lovely.  The food was fabulous!

Image may contain: living room, table and indoor
My room
All in all, I enjoyed the weekend very much, but what’s more it gave me an insight into the concept of a retreat. I don’t have a busy life outside of my writing, but many people do. These women were able to take three days away from their families and their jobs to simply write and (perhaps most important of all) talk about writing.  They all left inspired and eager to dive back into their writing.

I was too.

Sharing what "wisdom" I have at the fireside chat

Giving a workshop

Gwen (L) and Ruth (R) with Lori Twining

With some of the enthusiastic writers

Thursday, November 09, 2017

The Plot Thickens . . . and Thickens

I got some interesting feedback from my agents this past week when I sent them a novel I recently finished. The writing process was different this time around –– as I worked, I received feedback along the way –– and my agents noticed a difference in the finished product, liking some things, but the major criticism was unexpected: they found the plot to be too complicated.

It got me thinking about the process I used to write the book. I have three dear friends who read the book as I wrote it. I had assembled a dream team of advanced readers. One is an avid reader, who offers excellent feedback regarding the overall storyline; one is a former writing center director, who line edits as well as anyone I’ve worked with and calls me on any and all grammar bluffs; and the third is a librarian, who knows my work and falls somewhere between the other two in terms of the feedback she offers. As I wrote –– on a live Google document –– I noted their feedback in the margins and their running commentary, including guesses at what might happen in the text next.

When I got my agents’ feedback –– noting the complexities of the plot and wondering if I’d gone too far for readers –– I had second thoughts, not about the advance readers and their respective talents, but doubts about the way I used them.

I worked hard on the book. It was a much slower process than any book I have written: 18 months, total. Too long for a 75,000-word manuscript. Stephen King in On Writing says three months is his max. (I do, however, have a day job.) But I think I did spend too much time on the draft. I also think that was due to my decision to ask for feedback as I worked. I noted the commentary and the guesses at where the story was headed. Admittedly, there was a lot of going back and widening the web and adding subplots.

And the plot in this opening draft probably got away from me.

The book is the first in what I hope to be a new series. I thoroughly enjoy the characters, a husband and wife team, and the setting. As I go at the second draft, I’m working alone. No one will see it until it’s done.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

The Responsibility of Writers

Last weekend I participated in a cozy mystery panel with Sue Ann Jaffarian, Jane DiLucchio and Diane Vallere at the La Mirada Library in La Mirada, CA. We’re all members of the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime and have all known each other for quite a while. It was quite a fun panel to be on.

Several of the attendees didn’t know what cozy mysteries were so we talked about some elements they usually include. When asked why they read cozies, one audience member said it was for the escapism, another because justice always prevails in the end, something that doesn’t always happen in the real world.

The phrase “the lighter side of mystery” was bandied about. People who read extensively in the mystery genre know what this means, but I admit that it is kind of an odd phrase to use. After all, someone was murdered or some other crime occurred that affected characters lives permanently.

As writers, we have to remember there are people in the real world who are murdered. This was driven home to me recently when someone in a cozy group I’m a member of told us a friend had been murdered and they couldn’t face reading mysteries, even cozy ones right now. I suspect I’d have the same reaction if someone close to me was murdered. I hope they’ll eventually be able to enjoy reading cozies again, but I’d understand if they couldn’t.

While we, as writers, have fun devising plot points and ways to “creatively” murder someone on the page, we have to remember in our creative zeal that people actually are murdered in the real world. We need to treat the crime respectfully. I can’t really think of a book I’ve read that doesn’t, but I still think it’s important to remind ourselves of this every time we sit down to write.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Weasel words

by Rick Blechta

I have a good friend (and excellent editor), Cheryl Freedman, who is kind enough to look over the final versions of my novels and novellas before they’re hustled off to the publisher. Early on she took me to task for my use of what she calls “weasel words”, meaning words or phrases that add a “waffle factor” (my term) to my writing.

“First, come out and say what you want to say. Do it directly. There’s no reason to beat around the bush. Second, this tendency you have gets irritating after awhile.” That last part really caught my ear. The last thing any writer wants (except for internet trolls) is to be annoying.

In looking over her page-by-page remarks, I had to agree Cheryl was 100% correct. I did weasel far more than I should, and it would get irritating after awhile. But I also pointed out that sometimes ambiguity is needed in a novel, especially in a crime novel. “If you actually wish to inject some ambiguity into dialogue or description, there are better ways of doing it,” were Cheryl’s wise words.

Overnight I became a convert (zealot?) and now I ruthlessly throw this junk out of a manuscript long before Cheryl gets a peek at it. Example: the minute I see the words “sort of”, I know I’ve done it again.

But because I’m more attuned to weasel words, I notice them more in day-to-day life. As you might expect, politicians are champions at using them, closely followed by corporate heads, PR flacks, journalists, etc.

However society as a whole has succumbed to this sorry trend, as well.

Take death, for instance. People seldom “die” anymore, they “pass on”, “pass away” or just “pass”. What’s wrong with saying someone died? Someone dying is not a pejorative. Face it, “pass away” is just a euphemism for dying, so why not come out and say that in the first place?”

People who work in stores are now known as “sales associates”, likely in an attempt to make them feel more important in the company. They’re not. Work at a big box store and you suddenly become a “team member”. You’re not. In both cases you’re likely a low-level employee who’s generally expendable, underpaid, and probably not full-time, either.

Those are just two examples of how “weaseling” has become part of everyday speech. In the end it doesn’t make anything clearer or even more kind.

Be like Cheryl. Don’t weasel!

Monday, November 06, 2017

Step away from the keyboard!

I love walking. Not your power or ultra extreme stuff, just your straightforward amble in a wood or meander along a shore. But until not so long ago, I used to feel guilty whenever I set off. If I was walking, I wasn't writing. This meant valuable creative time was being wasted. Now I know this was the thinking of the ill-informed. 

Let me explain. As you all probably know, walking makes the heart pump faster. The faster the heart pumps, the more blood and oxygen is sent to the muscles and the organs, including the brain. This helps keep us fit and healthy, and fit is always good. But guess what? Regular walking also promotes new connections between brain cells. These connections stave off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age and increase the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), elevating levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them. What’s not to like about preventing brain tissue from withering at any age, but especially if you are a tad older, like me?

And there's more. As we saunter alongside that murmuring brook, or stroll through that wooded glade, our mind is free to float from one sensory experience to another and our “attention” is replenished. You see, it turns out that “attention” is a limited resource. It drains throughout the day, and especially after concentrated effort, like writing a book for six hours. Sleeping helps replenish attention, of course, but so does walking, especially walking in a park or forest. In Japan they call walking in green spaces ‘Shinrinyoku’ or ‘forest bathing’. It’s a recognised relaxation and stress management activity. 

Better still, allowing our mind to wander and drift, or daydream, is also believed to stimulate our slumbering creative subconscious, the place where ideas come from. It's got to be one of the great paradoxes of being a writer that while it involves hard work and concentrated effort, the light bulb moments tend to come when we are are not focusing on being creative. Ray Bradbury explained this rather neatly in his book, Zen in the Art of Writing, when he said you have to treat the finding of ideas in the same way you treat cats: “If you try to approach a cat and pick it up, hell, it won’t let you do it. You’ve got to say, ‘Well, to hell with you.’ And the cat says, ‘Wait a minute. He’s not behaving the way most humans do.’ Then the cat follows you out of curiosity.” 

So, it turns out that stepping away from my keyboard and going out for a walk is as helpful for my writing as keeping the seat of my pants to my writing chair. To be honest, I'm not surprised. I've always known that if I go for a walk, especially when I'm stumped, ideas will suddenly appear. As Henry David Thoreau once famously said, “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”

What about you?  Do you turn to walking for inspiration or do you prefer to stay put and daydream, or something else?

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Guest Post: Nancy Cole Silverman

Please welcome Nancy Cole Silverman back to Type M. Nancy and I share the same publisher, Henery Press, and are also both members of the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime. We've had many wonderful and interesting conversations over the years. Take it away, Nancy...


by Nancy Cole Silverman

I live in Hollywood, and when allegations film producer and former top studio exec Harvey Weinstein had sexually assaulted a number of Hollywood stars, women started talking. And not just about Harvey Weinstein, but about a cadre of studio execs and men in power in various industries who viewed women as fair game.

Women, particularly those of us who came of age during the civil rights movement, understood that our jobs and access to better positions with more money and power depended upon our not only doing a good job but pleasing those at the top as well. And sometimes that meant keeping our mouths shut.

If that sounds surprising to a younger generation of strong, independent women, consider this: A smart woman didn’t rock the boat. She didn’t have a human resources department to complain to. If a man insisted she have dinner with him, offered her a promotion in exchange for intimacy or locked the door to his office and chased her around his desk, she was on her own. If she complained, more often than not, the old boys’ club would rally ‘round the accused man and suggest she must have asked for it. After all, for the most part, those at the top viewed women in the workplace as an expendable commodity. In short, they could be removed, transferred or fired with little or any backlash to the man.

Simply put, women had to go-along-to-get-along. Or seek employment elsewhere.

I must have been channeling this when I sat down to write Room For Doubt, book four of The Carol Childs Mysteries. Women, the choices they make, their strengths in the workplace and their balancing act are a core aspect of all my novels. As a former talk radio exec, I pull a lot of my stories from headlines and those radio stations where I worked. But the theme for Room For Doubt, while very real was unlike any I’d ever read about or witnessed first hand because those stories are deeply buried. Yet I knew it innately. I felt as though I heard the hushed voices from another group of Me Too women. Women whose stories were even darker.

In Room For Doubt, my protagonist, Carol Childs, is called to the scene of a murder. A man’s body has been found hanging from the Hollywood Sign. The police have ruled the man’s death a suicide. But Carol doesn’t think so, and neither does Chase, an unruly private investigator. Chase’s theories run the gamut from an extraterrestrial killing to a gangland-style hit, and he wants to use Carol’s late night radio show to encourage listeners to call-in and talk about it. Carol refuses. She’s not about to open her show to a bunch of crazy conspiracy theorists. But when an anonymous caller named Mustang Sally calls in and confesses to the murder, things change, and so will Carol’s understanding of right and wrong.

The theme for Room For Doubt was a familiar one. A story that we as women all know. A story that has become part of our psyche. A story about a friend or relative who had disappeared, been murdered or was estranged from friends and family. Abuse takes many forms and is deadly.

I applaud those women who have found their voice and joined the Me Too Movement, and I hope those sisters whose stories are even darker, who hide in the shadows afraid to speak, will find their voice as well. Because, like Mustang Sally said, “Women are mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore!”

Nancy Cole Silverman credits the fact both she and Edgar Allen Poe share the same birthday, along with her twenty-five years in talk radio, for helping her to develop an ear for storytelling. After writing everything from commercial copy to news Silverman retired from radio in 2001 to write fiction. Today, Silverman has written numerous short stories and novelettes some of which have been produced as audio books. Silverman's new series, the Carol Childs Mysteries (Henery Press) takes place inside a busy Los Angles Radio station. Silverman lives in Los Angeles with her husband, four adult children, and thoroughly pampered standard poodle.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Writing Different

As I mentioned, this year I'm taking part in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I'm not sure if I'm going to reach the 50,000 words, but I am now looking for time when I can write each day. I do write every day, but — because I'm trying to finish a nonfiction book — I haven't carved out a time each day to work on my historical thriller. Instead, I've been doing research.

I've done research on the mood of America in the 1930s. Research on fashion and houses and Gone with the Wind. Research on the 1939 New York World's Fair, J. Edgar Hoover, Eleanor Roosevelt, the Great Depression, and the cost of living. I've done research on train schedules and the details of the tasks performed by sleeping car porters. I've watched films released in 1939 and listened to popular music. I've watched video tours of Washington, D.C., New York, and Atlanta. I've also watched a video showing how to drive a 1936 Ford. I know a lot about some things and a little about others.

The question — the real test — is whether during this month of focused writing I know enough to make it through the first draft without stopping to do research. Can I insert a question in brackets to remind myself to fact-check later and keep moving? That is not the way I normally write. I don't like to fill in information later. But this is my month of challenging myself to write different.

Writing different means that instead of working on my novel on weekends, I will get up a couple of hours earlier and start writing. I will write the entire two hours, not go back to read what I wrote the day before and edit. I will keep moving forward, working toward a first draft that is sure to be horrible.

But writing a horrible first draft may be what I need to do with a thriller. I need to feel the forward motion.

Right now, I'm going to bed. Getting up at 7 am is a shock to my system. I will keep you informed about how my attempt to write a novel in a month goes. If nothing else, I think it will force me to stop researching everything that crosses my mind, and instead focus on what I need to know.

Is anyone else doing NaNoMoWri? How did you prepare for the month of writing?

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Awards, love 'em or hate 'em?

Recently the Globe and Mail published an article about the plethora of literary awards springing up in Canada, often with a large amount of money attached. Large, that is, for writers, who often labour below the poverty line. Topping the list at $100,000 is the Scotiabank Giller Prize, but many of the lesser prizes also run into the five digits, and the Ottawa Book Award gives $10,000 to the winner and $1000 to each shortlisted (at least it did when I was nominated). The more money, the more the media hype. They may not be the Oscars, but they're the literary jackpot.

Some of the awards are regional or limited to a particular subject or genre, such as political writing, but most rarely include genre fiction on their shortlists, except when it's dressed up as "literary". Thus crime writers are shut out of the big awards and the associated media attention. The Arthur Ellis Awards are juried awards given out in seven categories by Crime Writers of Canada, but with the exception of nominal honoraria in a couple of categories, there is no money attached to the award. No $100,000, even for Best Novel. And media coverage, despite all the efforts and press releases of CWC? Virtually none.

Instead, we get this quirky statue to startle guests who come to the house.

We crime writers are fond of grumbling about the "lack of respect" afforded us by the CanLit establishment (other genres receive even more distain), but after reading this article, I'm left wondering - is this such a bad thing? The more money and publicity attached to an award, the greater the competition and the more devastating the fall-out if your precious book, to which you devoted years of your life, is not on a single shortlist. Sales of your book may sink like a stone, while those of the shortlist soar. Authors may begin to second-guess their talent, play it safe, write an "award-worthy", probably derivative book, or give up altogether. Publishers may select books based on their potential to please the CanLit juries, thus ignoring unique or edgier stories. Or they may choose not to pick up the next book by an author who failed to make the all-important shortlists the last time. Yet we all know that agents and publishers often fail to recognize talent and turn down a book that later becomes an international hit. JK Rowlands, anyone? Or closer to home, Louise Penny?

With so much riding on these nominations, there can't help but be competition and backstabbing among both authors and publishers. And an overarching anxiety among authors about their fate in a process over which they have no control. In such a toxic environment, how can creativity soar free and full of promise?

It is certainly an environment I would not want to write in. There is precious little to encourage us to write a book in the first place, beyond the desire to tell the story in our heads and the joy of finally seeing it in print, that I'd hate to have that joy crushed as soon as the award chatter begins. In this sense I'm grateful for being a crime writer, writing under the radar and enjoying the emails and reviews from fans and fellow writers who like my books. The mystery community is a supportive, friendly community. Both readers and writers like one another and share recommendations freely. We laugh at our "black sheep next to the kitchen at the literary banquet" status, knowing that's where all the fun and the best jokes are.

This is not to say awards are of no importance to us. I think we Canadian crime writers do think about the Arthur Ellis Awards and hope to make the shortlist when our work is eligible, and there's no doubt making the shortlist is a thrill and an affirmation of our skill. But we recognize lots of other good books did not make the shortlist because of the essentially subjective tastes of the judges. Athough winning the Best Novel award adds credibility and gravitas to a writer, it does not really affect sales and it does not end careers.

And as far as I know, no writer has ever stabbed another writer in the back to get their hands on that statue.