Friday, June 23, 2017

The New Religion

My father used to say: "A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still." Wise words.

We all know better than to talk about religion or politics unless we want to start a fight. But I've discovered a new hot topic that will raise the hackles. Nutrition!

Recently when I was at a garden party a man we all respect and admire was holding forth on the merits of a low-carb diet. Since I share his views I was nodding in agreement on most of his beliefs. Since I'm diabetic I know the importance of limiting carbs.

He and I and possibly a few other were in the Paleo Adkins diet belief spectrum. On the opposing side, of course, were the low fat whole grain junkies. And another group believed that weight control, terrific health, etc., was simply a matter of calories. It was science. The tension was obvious.

Actually what I really believe is what works for one person will not work for another. This week I'm at the Western Writers of American conference in Kansas City. We're having a great time. I've never attended a writers conference where I didn't learn a lot and make new friends.

However, the methods used by writers to create books vary enormously. I like the general classification that we are either plotters or pantsers. Plotters outline everything and pantsers write by the seat of their pants. I'm sort of a combination of the two. I begin as a pantser then outline each chapter after I've written and tack this chain of events on a wall. If there is no chain of events or movement within a chapter I face the bitter truth: There is No Movement Within a Chapter. That means it's impossibly dull.

This is just part of my method. I wouldn't dream of trying to persuade anyone else that they should adopt it. In fact I've given up on trying to pass along writing advice. Having published six books now, a historical novel, an academic book, four mysteries, and having been included in a number of short story anthologies, and created oodles of published articles and encyclopedia entries, I feel that by virtue of my variety of experiences I know a lot about the business.

I would love to help budding writers avoid some of the pitfalls. But creative people are so resistant to advice. It's part of our psyche. After judging books in contest recently, I was struck by the number of books that could be taken to a much higher lever with better editing or if the authors would correct a major writing flaw. A fellow judge assured me that he had been an editor at a major publishing house and also at one time had a "book doctoring" business and that no one would listen.

They had to figure it out for themselves, he assured me. Some do and some don't. It's like finding the perfect diet and approach to food.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Visual Rhetoric: Where does inspiration come from?

Writers find inspiration in many places. In my next two posts, I’m going to share some of my ideas on the issue.

I teach a rhetoric course. It’s a nonfiction course similar to the composition course we all took in college. Except the study of rhetoric has changed a lot since I went to college. Where I wrote only papers, and “texts” were only written, now students listen to and produce podcasts and view visual rhetoric.

Rhetoric, by definition, is the sending or receiving of messages. These may be written, spoken, or viewed. One of my favorite exercises (to do and to assign) is to have students view a work of art and write about it –– a reaction, a description, or a riff.

Consider the “Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch. This painting says so much about humanity (not much good) and its creator and even history (something brought this out of Bosch in circa 1500).

So what do you see? What images speak to you? How might this painting motivate (or distract) you if it hung above your desk? Now’s your chance to riff.

Visual rhetoric can offer inspiration. It will also play a large role in what “writing” looks like in 15 years. As a teacher, I’m seeing that students grasp narrative structure (certainly long form) from episodic TV shows. They are more likely to understand narrative from a visual mode, such as a Netflix show, than a written mode. They grasp argumentation and persuasion from things like this Direct TV Commercial.

Hopefully, books are still being read, but inspiration can come in other forms, including art, episodic TV shows, and even commercials. Where do you find yours?

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

CCWC 2017 Recap

I recently attended the California Crime Writers Conference here in Southern California where around 200 like-minded individuals got together and talked about writing and the publishing biz. Let me tell you. The conference just keeps on getting better and better.

Over the years, I’ve attended a number of fan-focused mystery conventions, but this is the only conference geared toward writing I’ve been to. I’ve attended every CCWC since its start in 2009 and co-chaired the one in 2011. I credit the 2013 conference with helping me get published since it’s where I met the managing editor of Henery Press who now publishes my Aurora Anderson mystery series.

CCWC is put on every two years by the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime and the SoCal chapter of MWA. It takes lots and lots of volunteer hours to put together. My hats off to everyone who contributed, including this year’s co-chairs Sue Ann Jaffarian and Rochelle Staab.

The two days were jam-packed with information and opportunities to mingle with other crime writers. Attendees could pick from workshops in four tracks: Writing Craft, Industry/Business, Law Enforcement/Forensics, and Marketing. I spent most of my time in the marketing track because I feel like that’s where I need the most help. Still, my favorite workshop was the mock crime scene. We learned all about how the FBI processes a crime scene. It was fun and educational.

The crime scene

Volunteers suited up to investigate the scene

This was also my first foray into moderating a panel. It was titled Obi Wan Kenobi: Veteran Authors’ Strategies to Survive the Publishing Force with panelists Sue Ann Jaffarian, Patricia Smiley and Jeri Westerson. We had a great conversation, talking about how to survive the ups and downs of the publishing industry.

Obi Wan Kenobi panel

The conference fee included breakfast and a sit down lunch both days. Saturday, the keynote speaker was Hallie Ephron and Sunday was William Kent Krueger’s turn. Both were great speakers and left us inspired. The event closed with a short interview with Hallie and Kent, as he likes to be called.

Both of the keynote speakers also put on workshops on writing. Hallie’s was on harnessing characters to drive plot and Kent’s was on how to build suspense. I didn’t get a chance to attend either one, but those who did go told me they were wonderful so I purchased the recordings of the workshops. Yep, every session was recorded. CDs and mp3s were available at the conference. You didn’t have to wait and order them afterwards. Though you can. Here’s the link in case you’re interested:

There was also a cocktail party on Saturday evening where I had some wonderful conversations with people I’ve known for a while and some I just met.

Overall, it was a great event. Sure, I was tired afterward, but I met some great people and came away inspired to write. Isn’t that what a conference is all about?

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Is crime fiction the “comfort food” of literature?

by Rick Blechta

Yesterday, I was listening to The Next Chapter, a weekly radio show on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) hosted by Shelagh Rogers. She convened her usual summer mystery panel, who made some very interesting recommendations — which actually included some Canadian books for a change.

While interesting, that segment of the show got me thinking in another direction entirely.

Around this time of year, I’m sure we’ve all seen folks at the cash with a stack of crime fiction. You only need to ask and uniformly be told that these fine folks are heading out on vacation. Heck, I’m sure most of us have done this exact thing. I certainly have. My good friend, Marian Misters of the (fabulous) Sleuth of Baker Street bookstore here in Toronto sees a steady stream of these large-volume book buyers every Friday over the summer months. And that’s a very good thing.

What do these people read? Usually something new Marian has told me, so she’s busy making recommendations. “But then there are some who buy older books, one’s they’ve enjoyed in the past and no longer own.” In other words, we’re talking about something people find familiar and enjoyable to read at least a second time. And isn’t that sort of like literary comfort food?

Me being who I am, I started thinking of my favourite places to read, and if I were there right now with a complete crime fiction library of old series, what would I reach for in order to spend an enjoyable afternoon?

For me, I would have to say it would be Nero Wolfe novels. I first discovered crime fiction through the works of Agatha Christie, but one summer, I got a job as the pool boy at a resort in Bridgton, Maine. The place wasn’t very busy and had an older clientele, so I had long days of sitting beside an empty pool, and even if some folks toddled down, it didn’t take a lot of time to fetch fresh towels, a soft drink or cocktail, or send up for food from the kitchen. (I also was expected to save folks from drowning, which fortunately never came up.)

Not knowing about the empty hours when I took the job, I arrived without reading material. Fortunately, the resort had a fairly large library of donated books (or ones left behind), and there were at least two dozen of Rex Stout’s novels and short story collections featuring his corpulent detective, ably assisted by Archie Goodwyn, his man-about-town — as well as a recurring cast of great supporting characters. I found and devoured those books like candy over the first two weeks of my summer, and then scrounged some more in local libraries.

After all this time, put me in a cabin in the woods for a week, hand me a few Nero Wolfe books, and you’d have a very happy reader on your hands.

Now, here’s the thing: I’d like to know what book series (that you’ve already enjoyed) would like to have in your reading pile while enjoying some much-needed time off — and what is it about this series that attracts you?

Please answer! I’d really like to know and I’m sure Type M readers would, as well. Come on. All we need is a couple of quick sentences and that won’t take you long, will it?

Monday, June 19, 2017

Wonder Woman: The Bechdel and Delany Tests

By Vicki Delany

Way back on New Years Week 2015 I discussed the Bechdel test, which is applied to movies, and invented my own test which I call the Delany test.

Image result for wonder woman

The Bechdel test:

To pass the test the movie must fulfill three criteria:
  • ·         It has to have at least two [named] women in it
  • ·         Who talk to each other
  • ·         About something besides a man

The Delany Test:
  • Female characters must be portrayed as people, not just women.

Both tests, we realized, are surprisingly hard to pass in movies.  TV shows and books are much more likely to pass both tests.  Probably because of the long plot lines in most TV shows today as well as the rich ensemble casts.  Books, frankly, are a lot more realistic than movies anyway and thus their portrait of women’s relationships with each other and their lives are more realistic.

What prompted me to return to this subject is that last week I went to see Wonder Woman.  First of all, just going to the movies is an unusual outing for me.  I probably see one, maybe two movies a year. Not much appeals to me (see above Blechdel and Delany tests). And I certainly don’t go to superhero movies.  

However, with all the attention and praise Wonder Woman is getting, I thought I’d see what it’s all about.

My thoughts, briefly, are that the beginning is great.  I loved the Amazons.  The middle (when they are in London) was amusing and well done.  The second half of the middle, particularly the battle in the trenches of WWI was thrilling.  And then it all fell apart when we had the climactic battle between WW and the ultimate baddie.  Much destruction ensues. Yawn.

As for the Bechdel test and Delany test?

The first part (on the Amazon Island) passed both with flying colours.

Image result for wonder woman amazons

The London part sorta passed the Bechdel test when the secretary and Diana interact. (Although why a spy and airman has a secretary is never mentioned).  Unfortunately they mostly talked about womanly things, like dressing.  Although, and good for the movie producers, the secretary is a robust middle-aged woman, not some sexy Hollywood thing.

Unfortunately, from then on, the Bechdel test fails. Once they leave London, Diana interacts with no other women and she is surrounded only by men. (Hey, it’s a fantasy: if WW can dodge bullets why can’t French village women at least ask her what’s going on here, if not charge the trenches behind her?)

Image result for wonder woman amazons

It does pass the Delany test, in that the evil scientist is played by a woman, in a role that could very easily have been done by a man. Meaning the character is a person, who just happens to be female.  

And WW, despite her skimpy costume and love interest with Chris Pine could be, and has been many, many times, a male role.

For what it’s worth, there’s my analysis!

Do the Bechdel test and the Delany test matter to you? Let me know in the comments.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Characters and Seasons

Donis's blog yesterday about summer reading reminded me of what I've always liked about summer. As a child (student) and as an adult (teacher), I have three months of "summer vacation." Of course, now that I'm a grown-up, I do need to use my summer to get some work done. But summer is the time when I can stay up late reading a book or go to a matinee in the middle of the day (Wonder Woman is at the top of my list).

What has changed is that I don't go outside as much as I did when I was a child. Of course, I've never been a fan of summer heat and bug bites. But growing up in the country in Virginia with a big back yard and paths through woods and dogs, I would never have thought of wasting a summer day inside. Nowadays, living in a house in the city, I've been contemplating setting up my empty (until winter) garage as an "outdoor" space. The problem with the grass in my small yard is that it might have ticks. And, besides, even with sunscreen, I could get too much sun. Grilling -- I remember those wonder family barbecues in the front yard under the big old tree. But I could blow myself up trying to start a grill and what about the health risks of hot dogs?

My seasonal preferences have carried over to my characters. My Southern-born protagonist, Lizzie Stuart, loves the South but hates heat and storms. Hannah McCabe, my police detective, lives in Albany, New York, and is dealing with the sizzling summers produced by climate change. I've set some books during the summer, but haven't had to think like a "summer person".

That brings me to my challenge with one of my major characters in my 1939 historical thriller. He lives in Georgia, and summer is his season. The heat and the sun. The smell of his own sweat. He stands out in a field watching the black clouds roll in. Then he sits on his porch with a drink watching the storm erupt.
He loves the land and the smell of the soil. If I don't capture this part of who this character is, then his motivation for the things he does will fall flat. But I need to step into his work boots.

So in answer to Donis's question about summer reading, I'm heading South with books (fiction and non-fiction) written during the 1930s. Books about summer, with heat and sweat and storms. And I'm hoping that the weather here in Albany will not echo what I'm reading.

Does your character have a favorite season? A time of year that he or she loves, but you don't?

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Summer Reading

My latest Alafair Tucker novel, Forty Dead Men, is in the can, as they say, and I await my editor’s final approval. I’ve already begun researching my next novel, but the major thing I want to do before I get deep into writing again is really clean the house—and maybe do some summer reading. I read a lot, but I don’t often get to read what I want. Most of my reading is either a novel for review or something that will help me prepare to teach a writing class.

Since I live in the Phoenix, Arizona, metro area, summer is NOT the time for reading a good book out by the pool. That pleasure is reserved for any other time of year. In the middle of summer, the best one can do is close all the curtains, crank up the A/C (and hope that the electricity doesn’t go out), drink lots of water, and lie very still. And if you think I’m kidding, the forecast temperature for the weekend is 116º F, and a projection of 120º F by Tuesday (close to 49º C). As I write this, it’s a reasonable 104º, which by the end of next week will seem almost chilly. All we can do is pray that the National Weather Service prediction is wrong.

In short, when it’s summer in Phoenix, don’t go outside. Stay inside and read a good book.

I have a tendency to choose works by author rather than random title, though a few really great titles have drawn me in. Allow me to list a few authors for your summer reading consideration, present Type M company excepted, because really you can’t go wrong with any of the contributors to this blog. Otherwise:

I love the Hamish Macbeth Mysteries by M.C. Beaton. Her latest is Death of a Ghost.

Mark Pryor’s The Paris Librarian is entertaining and a great way to take a cheap trip to Paris. His latest, The Sorbonne Affair, won't be out until August.

Charlaine Harris’ Aurora Teagarden Mysteries feature a Georgia librarian who is recently married to a mystery novelist. This series is back after a long hiatus. I like them because they have a certain depth and humanity without being ponderous about it. The latest is All The Little Liars.

Any Louise Penny book will take you away to a  mystical world in Quebec. Inspector Armand Gamache is an amazing creation. I find this series rather uneven, but the village of Three Pines is such a nice place to visit that it doesn’t really matter that much. The first novel in the series, Still Life, is the place to start.

If you’re into Regencies (which I can take ‘em or leave ‘em, as a rule), I was impressed with A Useful Woman by Darcie Wilde. Wilde’s description of the haute monde in early 19th Century London is fascinating, and her characters seem like real people.
I also like biographies and non-fiction, and I really thought The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown, was exceptionally good.

Do you have a delightful summer reading suggestion for me, Dear Reader?