Friday, February 17, 2017

Year of the Rooster




2017 is the Year of the Rooster according to the Chinese zodiac. There is something about this that appeals to me. My sign is the Dragon and this year the prediction is very optimistic. So much so that I ran right out and bought this glorious gaudy ceramic rooster to set on the windowsill in my kitchen.

2016 was a very tumultuous year. Good and bad and good and bad and all of it wildly unpredictable.

I worried about my editor's reception of Fractured Families. As it turned out she liked it more than any book I've written. To her (and my) relief, it received excellent reviews from Kirkus, Publisher's Weekly, and Library Journal. It's way my darkest mystery so I'm still surprised. It will be released March 17th.

The horoscope warned me that my success would depend on hard work. When does it not? Luck counts, but not for much.

Here's what's true (at least for me)

There is no substitute for writing everyday. Even if it's only one page. That practice starts a mental process like setting yeast a-working. Plots, people, bubble away in the background even when you're tending to other matters.

No one really understands the writing process. Don't try. Just do it. Writing is best learned by writing and by going to other writer's books for instruction. Study how they get people in and out of a room. Why have you remembered a book for years? Why are these characters memorable? What makes you stop reading half-way through?

Write a manuscript twice before you show it to anyone. You know darn good and well what's wrong with your book when you've finished. Go through it again and fix it. Fix the plot, the characters, the grammar, and then, and only then, throw it to the wolves. Then pay attention to what they say.

This is short list. I'll save more for another blog. But it all boils down to the same thing. There is no substitute for self-discipline and putting your shoulder to the wheel.

I'm going to stop admiring my rooster and head for my not-so-lovely computer.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Story Arcs and Trump

Last week, I was asked to create a list of talking points for a television producer to use while pitching a would-be Peyton Cote TV show. The gist was to offer a season-long story arc.

Not an easy task for me. For a few different reasons. First off, I don’t watch a lot of TV. (I’ve read a few scripts then watched the shows to study the craft of scriptwriting.) Second, I’m not big on outlines. When I write a novel, I write a page or two of character sketches before I begin, mostly coming up with motivations and backstories. Sometimes, I write what amounts to the description you’d read on the dust jacket. Then I go –– and follow the story where it leads.

One thing I do have going for me is that I write series fiction. Always. (Even my one stand-alone, This One Day, has a protagonist I’d like to return to.) This speaks to my love of the dynamics between characters and the relationships in the books and also to how and why the crime is always secondary for me.

So thinking in terms of a multi-episode arc and how a larger mystery looms in the background of each episode was a fun and interesting challenge.

It makes me wonder, though, would that work in book-length fiction? Could you have an ongoing unanswered mystery in the background of each book, while characters solve another crime? Ed McBain’s Deaf Man never gets caught in the 87th Precinct series. He never outright succeeds, but he never gets caught. So maybe it’s possible that readers would buy in.

I’d love to hear my Type M colleagues’ and our readers’ thoughts on this.

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Food for Thought: Trump

One thing on my mind often of late is this question: What does a Trump presidency mean to publishing? Lots of articles are being written about it. Here’s one. While many are calling this a time of anti-intellectualism and thus a threat to publishing, most believe this is a time when literature is needed more than ever, particularly works celebrating diverse voices. Perhaps this will be a time when inde presses are celebrated more than ever. Houses like Akashic, which has a rich and diverse list.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Creating Interesting Characters

I’m in the beginning stages of the next book in the Aurora Anderson mystery series so I’ve been thinking a lot lately about creating characters. As a writer, I want to create characters that are memorable enough that readers will keep coming back to my books. But what makes a character interesting or memorable?

I’ve read a lot of writing books that talk about creating well-rounded and interesting characters. In one of them (don’t ask me which one, I’ve read a bazillion of them), the author talked about giving a character an “obsession” like loving chocolate ice cream. They also noted that whatever interest you give them, it should be there for some reason. e.g. she loves ice cream because she has fond memories of eating it with her mother when she was growing up.

The shredder
Most people have some sort of obsession. It might be as small as loving ice cream or it might creep into the realm of stalkerville. I’ve talked before on Type M about my love for the Great British Bake Off and may also have alluded to a slight obsession with Celtic Thunder. Even our cats had their own little quirks. The oldest loved shredding paper with her claws. Any piece of paper that landed on the floor was fair game. Leave paper too long and she’d methodically rip it to shreds. The other cat loved tearing down towels from the bathroom towel racks. He would systematically move around the house, from bathroom to bathroom, reach up and bring down every single towel with his claws. He wasn’t satisfied until they were all on the floor. Then he’d just walk away. He didn’t do anything with them. For some reason, he wanted them all on the floor. After awhile, I just left them there and he eventually grew out of that obsession. I adored my cats. Their quirks made them more interesting to me.

The towel puller
The same goes with characters in stories, I think. As an added bonus, you can use those obsessions for and against them. In an episode of the TV show “Rosewood”, the detective knew someone was lying because of her love of a particular brand of pretzel. Because of it, she knew exactly where in the local mall the store was located, which told her the person she was talking to was lying. On the “Big Bang Theory”, Sheldon loves trains. Besides showing a different side of him, it’s also been fun for the writers to work with. I can also see a character using another character’s obsession against them, perhaps to lure them into a trap.

So, Type M readers, what makes a character stand out to you? Do you find it interesting when a writer gives them an obsession?

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Considering the aftermath of murder

by Rick Blechta

My post this week sort of riffs off Vicki’s post from yesterday.

Every crime writing author has to face how they deal with violence and death, because let’s face it, that’s what our books are about at their roots. I won’t go over the same ground that Vicki has already covered so ably about her personal choices as a writer when her stories face and describe violent death.

I want to cover how we writers deal with something further down the line: the effects of violence and death on those unfortunate souls who are the “collateral damage” when someone’s life is taken: the families, the loved ones, friends, colleagues. Those effects can be horrible and long-lasting as well as wide-ranging. They can completely ruin lives. It takes a very strong person to put it all behind them and carry on.

In a previous post here on Type M, I touched on this. It must be pretty far back because I can’t find it in the past 4 years of our little blog. (Sorry!)

I have some personal experience with this. A high school friend had to face something beyond comprehension when his son was tried and convicted because of his involvement in the brutal death of a woman in her home. I’m not going to go into any detail about the actual crime, but instead how the son’s actions affected his parents.

Their support for him was unwavering, and since this was a crime that garnered national attention, the media presence was intense. All they said (stripped down) was that they loved their son and felt horrible about the death of the woman. I cannot imagine having to run the gauntlet of reporters shouting questions at them as they arrived at and left the courthouse every day of the trial. Knowing my friend (a kind and gentle person), it must have been unbearable. (I’m sure equally so for his wife.) I was so heartbroken for them. They didn’t deserve any of this.

A lot of crime novels can get pretty violent descriptively. These are ones I usually put down. I’m not squeamish, but I just feel that violence can be done in the setting of a novel without choreographing it exhaustively. It’s the difference between seeing the “results” of an attack as Hitchcock did in Psycho or actually watching each knife stroke in full gory detail — as it most likely would be shot in today’s world. Which is better? Which is stronger? I think you know where my choice lies. Knowing about murder is bad enough. My imagination is very good and I don’t appreciate having my face rubbed in it.

But we writers don’t often delve into the aftermath of violence such as I described in my personal example above, primarily because our plots are focused on the catching of the criminal(s) responsible, but we should at least think about the personal aftermath as we work through our plots, even if we don’t describe it. It can only make our other writing stronger.

Deliberate murder is an ultra-violent act, and we should be very respectful in our treatment of it. It’s not a plaything for us to use in a careless or frivolous manner. It is a tool, certainly, that must be used for us to tell our story, but we need to be mindful of its potency as a depraved human act.

We owe that to the dead — but also to those unfortunate souls left behind, sucked into a vortex not of their own making.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Light vs Dark: Writing in different sub-genres

By Vicki Delany

Crime novels fill the entire spectrum. Everything from the lightest of cozies to the darkest of noir.

Most writers stick to the style that they like, and that they know they are good in. Some readers do also but many like to try new things.

I like to mix up the moods and styles I write in. I’ve written psychological suspense (Scare the Light Away), modern Gothic thrillers (More than Sorrow) historical fiction (the Klondike Gold Rush series), gritty police procedurals (The Constable Molly Smith series) and cozies (The Lighthouse Library series by Eva Gates and the Year Round Christmas mysteries).

I’m now pretty much established writing cozies, and will continue to do so mainly because I enjoy writing them. They’re light and funny, and they take me into a good place, rather than spending a lot of time in a dark and frightening world.

I’m glad I’ve written about dark things though: it’s important that we all (readers as well as writers) get out of our comfort zones.

When I say dark and frightening, I am not talking about graphic violence. If anything, I believe that in the world today we are in danger of becoming immune to the effect of violence by the plethora of it, in books and certainly in movies and TV. It’s the aftermath of the crime or the situation that can be the deepest and the darkest. How people, – victim, family and relatives, police, even the perpetrator – react is what interests me.

I’m not interested in writing or in reading or in watching torture porn, thank you very much.

I’m very lucky to be able to continue mixing up styles and sub-genres.  Case in point: I have two new books coming out soon. Elementary, She Read is a light, funny (I hope) cozy set in a Sherlock Holmes bookshop and it’s been enormous fun trying to write a Sherlock-ish character. It will be out on March 14. Then in April, the Rapid Reads imprint of Orca Books is publishing Blood and Belonging, the third Sgt Ray Robertson novella. These books are most certainly not light. They’ve dealt with some dark topics (again, nothing graphic on the page. It’s not needed and can be counter-productive). In Blood and Belonging, Ray, an RCMP officer working for the United Nations in developing and dangerous countries, is on vacation in Turks and Caicos. Needless to say, his peace and tranquility is interrupted.

I’d be interested to know what sub-genre our Type M readers like. Do you have a preference or do you love them all?

Saturday, February 11, 2017

This weekend's guest blogger: Lisa Black

Type M would like to welcome back novelist Lisa Black for a second visit!

Lisa Black has spent over 20 years in forensic science, first at the coroner’s office in Cleveland Ohio and now as a certified latent print examiner and CSI at a Florida police dept. Her books have been translated into 6 languages, one reached the NYT Bestseller’s List and one has been optioned for film and a possible TV series. Visit her website: www.lisa-black.com and follow her on Twitter: @LisaBlackAuthor

OOPS!

by Lisa Black

Research is a wonderful thing, except when a pesky fact gets in the way of something you’ve already written. Ever set a heartbreaking scene among the weeping willows at the city park and then, just to gather added atmosphere for some last finishing touches you decide to actually visit the park only to find that the trees have been cleared out for a children’s wading pool? And they had been birch trees anyway? And the park is right next to an off-ramp so the hero’s fervent proposal would have been drowned out by engine noises?

Sometimes reality sucks.

Yes, you’re writing fiction, so you could erase this picture of the real park and recolor it in your preferred images. But we write mysteries, hard gritty things in which gunshots don’t smell like cordite and heroines aren’t stupid enough to wander around dark basements unarmed and DNA results aren’t back in an hour. We want the details to be right.

I’ve run into this more than once.

In Takeover I had planned a bank robbery to set up the rest of the plot, then on a whim decided to set it at the gorgeous Federal Reserve Bank in downtown Cleveland. However, Federal Reserves don’t function like your corner S&L and besides, the ground floor of the Fed had been turned into a tourist attraction. I kept it at the Federal Reserve and used all my erroneous preconceptions in the story.

I had planned to end Takeover with the criminals faking their own death by driving a car off the end of East 9th street into the cold waters of Lake Erie. I lived there, right? I knew the street came to an end at the pier that used to have the fabulous seafood restaurant at the end of it. I dragged my always-supportive mother along and we did a little photo shoot at the Cleveland Public Library and the Fed, checked out their lobby displays, and as an afterthought drove to the end of East 9th. Which now terminates in a pretty park area rimmed with large, concrete—you couldn’t even call them posts. More like rotund bollards. Any car trying to reach the water would end up with a badly crumpled front end and quite dry.

In Unpunished, my last murder would have been dramatic and quite bloody, a body hacked to pieces in the printing press of the Cleveland daily paper. I envisioned huge blades clamping down to cut through several reams of paper, and what that would do to a body—eek. But when kindly staff members gave me a tour of the Fort Myers News-Press building, I discovered that newspaper are cut, a sheet at a time, by a round blade smaller than what Domino’s uses to slice its pies. A person tossed into that machinery would get no more than a boo-boo. Oh, if the rollers caught an arm he might have a few crushed bones, but still nothing that would kill him. I stood among the clacking mechanisms and stared in horror and the completely unhorrible tableau.

But, the printing supervisor comforted me, there’s this method…different means, but able to produce an equally grisly corpse. I looked. I listened. And I rewrote the end of the book.

Things usually work out.

Friday, February 10, 2017

A Visual Aid

Yesterday was a snow day here in Albany. My driveway was covered and the streets (according to local news) were treacherous. I slept in and then spent the rest of the day working. Around mid-afternoon, I was deep into what I was reading, completely focused, when I heard a bump in the kitchen. I got up to see what had happened. Harry, my 16 pound cat, had managed to leap from the counter top to the top of the refrigerator. Forty-six perpendicular inches according to my tape measure -- twice his 21 inch length. I was dismayed because (a) he has taken in the past couple of months to prowling across and perching on my kitchen counters. I've been wiping them down with disinfectant cloths before preparing every meal, and (b) the jump he had made was the equivalent of a roof-top leap by a movie action hero. It scared me to think of what would have happened if he hadn't nailed his landing (hampered by an ornamental mug, a bunch of bananas, and the container of oat grass that had motivated his leap). But I sure wished I had seen him do that because when I adopted him two years ago, he was chubby even for a Maine Coon and preferred to stay close to the ground. His diet is working. I would also like to have seen that leap so that I could describe it in a book or short story one day.

I am a visual writer. I need to see the scenes play out in my head like a movie. I also write best when I have seen what it is that I'm describing. Last week I discovered a wonderful new visual aid --
Pinterest.

Last week was not the first time that I'd used Pinterest. I opened an account three years ago when I wanted to do a photo essay of Albany, New York  locations (the setting for my Hannah McCabe police procedurals). Since posting the photographs, I haven't used my account. Until last week.

Last week, a speaker visiting UAlbany mentioned how powerful the use of a vision board had been in staying focused on his goals. I've flirted with vision boards before, but never really completed one. This time, I decided to make it easier by giving myself access on all my devices. Didn't work. Fortunately, the website I had signed up for offered a 60-day-money-back guarantee.

That was when I thought of Pinterest -- except I didn't want to have my vision board on display. It turns out -- I must have skipped the tutorial when I set up my account -- it's possible to make a Pinterest page "secret" and designate people who are allowed access. That solved my problem. But when I was about to start selecting images for my vision board about life and career goals, it occurred to me that Pinterest would be perfect for visualizing my books.

I'm now using it for both the nonfiction book about dress, appearance and criminal justice. It's really helpful to be able to "pin" both images of the clothing (colonial era to present) and the memory joggers about the cultural themes that I want to include. I'm doing it chapter by chapter.

I've also set up a page for my 1939 historical thriller. The images that I'm pinning (searching by keywords) come with page links. I now have 240 items related to that year, people, settings, and events. Some of the pins that I've pulled are linked to YouTube music or videos. I'm really excited about the music because I'd thought of using a song for each chapter and now I can incorporate that into my research and plotting.

I'm sure some of you are already using Pinterest for marketing. You may be way ahead of me when it comes to using Pinterest for your writing. But it you haven't tried this other use, I recommend it.

And Harry just leaped from counter top to refrigerator again, and I missed it. Maybe I need to set up a camera to catch him in motion. Or, move that oat grass in case his feline agility is rusty.