Thursday, April 19, 2018

Keeping Up With the Times

I’ve started a new novel and am slogging along in the jungles of the first draft. When I’m trying to get a first draft to look like something and having a tough time of it (which is always), I often wonder why I put myself through it. But then if I didn’t have a first draft I wouldn’t have anything to revise. I much prefer doing revisions to writing the first draft of a novel. In my metaphorical little world, writing the first draft is a coarse, rough, sweaty process. You slap that gesso on the wall by the bucket load and slather on the background paint. It’s messy and hard and, for me, a daily act of will to accomplish. But rewriting takes skill. It requires a true eye, real delicacy and finesse to shape that big old expanse of plaster into a work of art.

With rewrites, you get to see the story change shape and, if you’re lucky and skilled enough, grow into something beautiful. Of course, there are those horrible moments when you realize that you’re going to have to lose a scene that you really liked, or that word of which you are so enamored because it no longer fits the picture. I think perhaps that’s when you know you’re a real writer, when you can cut good stuff for the greater good of the story.

I must comment about Barbara's post, below, about how a writer faces the end of her book. I totally relate to her fear of not being able to pull it off. It's really horrible to know exactly how you want it to come off and not be sure you have the chops to do it. I never quite achieve the brilliant, knock-your-socks-off triumph that I had envisioned, but I'm usually pleased enough in the end. I often don't know exactly how it's going to end, myself, until it does. Once I do finish a book, I love to go back over it and fiddle with it, changing a word here, a sentence there, like polishing a new-made piece of furniture. Pulling off a great ending requires not only skill, but insight and not a little luck!

And one last word about computers (see Rick’s cautionary entry, April 17, below). I’m about twenty years behind the times when it comes to technology. I wonder if the reason isn't because I have no kids to shame me into keeping up with the times. For those of us who attained majority before the advent of the computer age, it just ain’t fair. We aren’t stupid. But we grew up in a world that required a whole other set of skills.

I hate to sound like an old curmudgeon who goes on about how she used to live in a shoebox in the middle of the road and eat mud for supper when she was a child, but that’s not going to stop me. I write a historical series, but I don’t think the past was better than the present.  Far from it.  I’m not nostalgic for the past. I don’t rue the fact that the world is changing. That’s the way it is. But it does seem that I hardly recognize the planet I grew up on any more. I don’t value the things that most of society seems to value.

I expect this happens to everyone, and has since the beginning of time. I wonder sometimes about those souls who manage to live to be 100 or 110. How must they feel about the fact that everyone else who understood their world has entered the choir eternal? How must they feel when the very world they knew how to live in is gone, when they find themselves on what amounts to a different planet, and they are the only ones of their species left in existence?

Hmm, there’s a plot in there somewhere. And now I beg to be excused so that I can go back up all my work.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Leaping into the abyss

John's post of last Thursday struck a chord. For me, writing the end is one of the most challenging aspects of creating a novel. Some people struggle with the mushy middle - pacing, twists, how to fill 200 more exciting pages. However, for those of us who fly by the seat of our pants, figuring out how to end the book is what keeps us up at night and fuels many an argument on a solitary walk.

There are actually two parts to the end: the climax, when the hero solves the crime and catches the killer, and the denouement, where everything is explained and loose ends are tied up. Gone are the days of the sleuth gathering everyone in the library (or courtroom) and talking to one suspect to another until he reveals the killer. Nowadays, even in gentler cosy mysteries, readers expect some drama to keep them on the edge of their seats. The climax is usually an action scene that pits hero against villain.

When I write a novel, I don't know whodunnit, why, or how the hero is going to figure it out. I plow ahead from scene to scene, unrolling more twists and complications and putting more balls up in the air. About two-thirds of the way along, I start to panic. Enough complications and balls up in the air! How am I going to land this sucker? I need to keep the hero (and the readers) in the dark, chasing suspects and red herrings, until the last possible minute, when they have an epiphany and go after the right suspect. I also need to have them capture that suspect in a reasonably dramatic scene, to keep the excitement and suspense going to the final moment.

It's a very intricate, high-stakes dance that requires quite a few pieces to come together in exactly the right way. Sometimes I don't even know for sure who my villain is until the final climax, when I have an epiphany of my own. As in "Ahah! This is the perfect villain to pull the whole story together!" Oh, the stress of standing on the edge of the abyss, knowing the end of your novel waits on the other side but with no idea what it is and how you're going to get there. Or indeed whether there is another side.

Tying up loose ends actually plays a role in figuring out the climax. Loose ends are those dozens of balls I have thrown up in the air during the story. Each one of them is a question that need to be answered. Sometimes after days of pacing in front of the abyss, asking "What do I do now?", I list all those questions on a sheet of paper and stare at them, like pieces of a puzzle, asking how they can best fit together, do I need them all, and what if I do this instead of that. Usually out of all this hair-pulling and what if's, the kernel of a solution emerges. A key piece, around which I can start to fit the others.

Once I've written this hopefully spectacular climax, I breathe again. I have a book. Rewrites will focus it, sharpen it, and get rid of the inconsistencies and rough bits. But it works! After this, the denouement is a time to breathe again, to address most the questions as yet unanswered and to hint at the future. The hope is to leave the reader satisfied with the story rather than thinking "But what about...", but also intrigued enough by the characters and the lingering questions to pick up the next book. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The thing about computers

by Rick Blechta

I read Aline’s post yesterday, and contrary to what she said about my anticipated response, I  felt only sympathy.

Computers remain a mystery to those of us who grew up in an age where these mystical machines filled whole rooms and the biggest job of a programmer was to produce punch cards, those mysterious things that told computers what they were supposed to do.

We now have mobile phones that can do everything those room-size computers did back in the Dark Ages. Think about that for a moment. Technology has advanced to the point that you can slip a formerly room-size machine into your pants pocket, and contrary to making out those very abstract punch cards, my 4-year-old grandson can operate our modern devices. More about this later.*

The thing we oldsters can’t seem to get through our antiquated skulls is that computers have been and always will be Very Complicated Machines. I’ve actually seen the computer code needed to operate (what we call) a simple word processing program. Suffice it to say, it is voluminous, and to the non-programmer, completely impenetrable. Seriously, do not even contemplate trying to understand how your computer program does what it does.

Most of the time our amazing machines cooperate and run splendidly, but like any complicated piece of machinery, things do break down over time.

During the course of my work life I’ve had to learn a number of complicated programs, things that can do really amazing things. There are music scoring programs (3 of those so far), music recording programs (2), graphic design programs (3), photography (1 — thank the Lord!), web design (2), word processing (4). Literally, the instruction manuals for these take up over a metre of shelf space in my office.

Being a musician, one thing that’s been pounded into my head is that you must understand your instrument. In the computer sense, that’s the software you’re using (plus how to do various things on the computer itself). Did I spend a lot of time learning all these programs? You bet! Far too many hours gone forever but it has been of benefit.

Most people don’t  bother to reallylearn more than the bare minimum needed to operate their software. Some don’t even bother doing that. They just learn by the seat of their pants.

Blechta’s Computer Rule #1: Spend time learning your software. Like, actually read the manual first. Don’t use it as a tool to bail yourself out. It pays off in the long run. Oh, and those tutorials actually can help!

The next thing to understand is that because computers are so complicated, there are many more opportunities for them to break down. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. With that in mind, you need to take steps to protect yourself and all your hard work. If it’s a good idea to run maintenance programs on a regular basis — do it! Don’t put it off, don’t ignore it. Your computer will eventually bite you in the patootie. Count on it! (And usually at exactly the wrong time.)

Your hard drive is the heart of your machine. Think of it as your memory. What happens if you lose your memory? You’re in real trouble. Plan on your hard drive breaking down. It. Will. Happen. How do you get out of this conundrum? Back up your files regularly. You cannot be too careful about this. Offsite back-up is the best. If you, say, back-up to a hard drive you bought that sits right next to your computer, what will you do if your house burns down, or somebody robs your house while you’re out? Bet you all the computer gear will disappear. If you have offsite back-up, all you need is to download files to your new computer or hard drive, and away you go. If you’re paranoid like me, you have both a spare hard drive and offsite back-up.

Blechta’s Computer Rule #2: Always plan for the worst when it comes to computers. They will break down and you must have offsite storage or you will lose your work — or risk having to pay thousands of dollars to get it back.

Because computers are complicated, unless you’re a heavy-duty, experienced technician, you’re probably going to be stumped on how to fix it. That’s why it’s so important to cultivate a working relationship with a good and reliable computer technician. Believe me, they can be life savers. At the very least, ask around and see if you have friends or relations who Know About Computers. They can often get you out of a tight spot, and direct you to further resources if they cannot help with your problem. And don’t discount those far younger than you. *Twelve-year-old computer genius’s do exist — and one might live just down the street from you.

Blechta’s Computer Rule #3: Know where to get help before you need it.

So go forth and work with your computers in happiness and contentment — and may your hard drives never fail!

Monday, April 16, 2018


I have an ambivalent attitude towards my computer. Actually, that's not strictly speaking true. Most of the time I mutter at it in a surly way and if I tell you I refer to it as Beelzebub it might give you a more accurate picture.

It has nasty habits, like suddenly freezing when I've written a long and tricky email. It refuses to accept my decisions; it likes my documents to have 'mark up' and even when I set it to 'no mark up' and save it, when I next go to the document, 'mark up' is back. Sometimes. Other times, it does as it's told for a bit and gets bored and reverts.

When it underlines a word and I click on 'ignore all' it does, but then next time I open the document the underlining comes back. Only sometimes, and only with certain words it irrationally takes against; I click 'Ignore all' again but then whoops! back it comes, next time.

It installs updates to do extra things I don't want, and even whole new systems without my consent – yes, Windows 10, I'm talking about you – which make my life more difficult and awkward. Sometimes it decides it doesn't want to print right down to the bottom of the page and even with visible formatting it's impossible to see a reason for this. (This has defeated several experts and I gather I'm not the only one with this problem.) Its 'help' program has yet, even once, to be helpful.

I know I'm incompetent too, of course, and sometimes whatever is irritating me is my fault because I've accidentally touched a key with mysterious effects. Rick is probably even now shaking his head and muttering, 'Silly woman!' But it's just, well, unfriendly. When my first computer went to the place where far too soon (NB Microsoft) tired computers go, I almost shed tears. I certainly shed tears, but of frustration, with the new one.

It's undoubtedly easier to click on Google than to schlep up to the library for a reference or hunt through every poetry book you own for a quotation. And I'm old enough to remember having to type with carbons in, and using industrial quantities of Typex – not to mention having to retype a clean copy after revision. Not fun. But I was fond of my typewriter; you knew where you were with it and mine still lurks at the bottom of a cupboard, just in case the Russians decide to close down the whole system because they're feeling cross.

Oh, I know it has transformed my working life, so I'm grateful for it, of course. It's nice to be grateful and I was very well brought up. But my gratitude to Beelzebub tends to be of the 'Do I have to say thank-you?' sort.

However, today I am genuinely grateful. Not long ago, some of us were talking about the pet phrases we regularly use, more or less without being aware of them, that can easily catch the reader's attention in an irritating way. This time, revising a new book, I realized the way to control them.

The first time I come across one, I type it in and the lovely Find button immediately parades all the shaming repetitions. I can then work through them all with a triumphant cry of 'Eradicate! Eradicate!'

So a real thank you for this, Beelzebub. I'm not ready to rechristen you – you'll have to do a lot better for that – but I'm prepared to soften my voice when I mention you, instead of snarling.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Beware the Hoodlums!

Ann Parker--science/corporate writer by day and crime fiction author by night--writes the award-winning Silver Rush historical series, featuring saloon-owner Inez Stannert, set in 1880s Colorado. The newest in the series, A Dying Note, brings Inez to the golden city of San Francisco, California, in 1881. Publishers Weekly calls this latest addition to the series "exuberant" adding that it "...brims with fascinating period details, flamboyant characters, and surprising plot twists."

Hoodlums in 19th Century San Francisco by Ann Parker

As a writer of historical mysteries, I'll admit I am a fool for period slang, intriguing turn of phrase, and the etymology of words. Language-related trivea is a rabbit-hole I disappear down time and time again when I should be doing other things. . .such as putting words on the page of whatever book I'm working on. So, it was with great delight that I sumbled across the background of the word "hoodlum" during my research for A Dying Note, the newest book in my Silver Rush historical mystery series.

Hoodlum is hardly an uncommon word, even today. In fact, you can view its image over time with a neat-o-Google algorithm called the Ngram Viewer in Good Books. (NOTE: The Ngram Viewer graphs the frequency in percentage terms, of the text being searched, over the time period being specified.)

As you can see right away, "hoodlum" first cropped up around 1870 and ascended in popular usuage from then. However, were you aware that the term was originally coined in San Francisco?

I wasn't!

That is until I stumbled across an online SFGate article titled "'Hoodlums,' a distinctive San Franciso product of the 1870s," by Gary Kamia.

For more historical edification, I turned to (take a deep breath, here comes the title) Americanism, Old and New: a dictionary of words phrases and colloquialisms peculiar to the United State, British America, the West Indies, &c., their derivation, meaning and application, together with numerous anecdotal, historical, explanatory and folk-lore notes. This vastly entertaining reference book by John Stephen Farmer was published in 1889, and you can read it, and download it from the Internet Archive here.

Farmer's definition of hoodlum is a whole lot shorter than the title of his book:

Hoodlum.--a young rough. The term originated in San Francisco, but is now general throughout the Union. 

For a historical perspective on hoodlums and hoodlumism, check out Lights and Shades in San Francisco by Benjamin E. Lloyd published in 1876, which has an entire chapter on the subject (and yes, you can view and download the book with this link I've provided).

A couple of passages from Lights and Shades involving hoodlums caught my eye. The first--quoted below--discusses the sorry state of San Francisco's "corner groceries," which, as it turns out, are not at all what I initially thought they were (i.e., local stores to buy canned goods, mild, cheese, what-have-you):

Of evenings, these corner grocery bar-rooms are largely patronized as "loafing places," by the mechanics, laborers and idlers, whose home are in the neighborhood. A simple lunch is set out here, and also a card table is provided. Here young men and middle-aged men, boys and grey beards congregate at night, to talk vulgar slang, play cards for the "the drinks," and smoke and chew--to go home at a late hour with heavy heads and light purses. It is at these places that the youthful San Franciscan Hoodlums are developed.

This second excerpt is the opening of the Lights and Shades chapter on hoodlums:

THE Hoodlum had his origin in San Francisco. He is the offspring of San Francisco society. What particular phase in social life possesses the necessary fertility to produce such fruit is not obvious. It is certain, however, that the seed has been sown in productive soil, for the harvest is abundant.

The hoodlum has been called a "ruffian in embryo." It would be a better definition to call him simply a ruffian. He has all the essential qualities of the villain. He is acquainted with crime in all its froms. The records of vice are his textbooks. He is a free-born American in its widest sense...

If these passages pique your interest, I encourage you to wander on over and read the rest of Lights and Shades, which offers an intriguing perspective on the world of 1870s--1880s San Francisco (and proved a very useful reference to me for A Dying Note.)

Finally, I just have to add a coda to this post. Th illustration below is from a book titled Quad's Odds by M. Quad 9 (publication date 1875). Here is the text that accompanies the picture:

It requires nerve and courage to be a hoodlum. The boy has got to have the heart of a man, the courage of a lion, and the constitution of an Arab. Only one in a hundred gives him credit for half his worth. No one cares whether he grown fat or starves: whether Fortune lifts him up or casts him down; whether night finds him quarters in a box or a comfortable bed. He's a hoodlum, and hoodlums are generally supposed capable of getting along somehow, the same as a horse turned out to graze. Not one boy in ten can be a hoodlum. Nature never overstocks the market. If left an orphan the average boy dies, or has relatives to care for him, or falls in the way of a philanthropist and comes up a straight-haired young man with a sanctimonious look. The true hoodlum is born to the business. He swallows marbles and thimbles as soon as he can creep, begins to fall down stairs when a year old, and found in the alley as soon as he can walk.

Beware the hoodlums! (The title of this illustration from Quad's Odds is, believe it or not, "The Future Presidents." I shall refrain from political comment, difficult though it is...)

For more information about Ann and her series, chick out

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Writing the end: How much detail do you really want?

Writing a novel is never easy, no matter how many times you’ve done it. We hear so often the first 50 pages must establish conflicts and grab the reader by the throat; the middle develops characters and the plot; and the ending must not be predictable but also provide a satisfying solution.

When I work on the ending of a book, I’m usually thinking about pacing and twists. What must logically take place? Where can I offer an unexpected event that also makes sense?

With this in mind, setting details often take a hit. My agent pointed this out the last time I turned in a manuscript. She told me there were fewer setting details at the end of the book. She was right. There were, and that was by design.

I tend to write novels in which the action takes place in several repeated locations. For instance, my current project is set at a New England boarding school. This provides a contained locale. It also allows me to not waste the readers time by describing the setting more than once. I can focus on using setting details to establish tone within each scene. Dialogue drives my writing, and this consistent setting allows me to focus on that. It was Hemingway, after all, who said writing is architecture, not interior design.

The end of the novel, then, often feels like a sprint, which is what I believe my agent was saying. How sparse should the text be? How much detail does the reader really want at the end of a novel? I can answer for myself. As a reader, at the end of a novel I enjoy, I've got my head down, and the pages are turning. (I'm not even aware there are pages.) The awkward silences that existed in the opening moments of this first date with this novel have long since passed. By the time I reach the end of the book, the relationship is well established and we’re way beyond awkward silences.

I hope the ending of the novel I'm working on right now provides the reader with both an unexpected and logical solution. I also hope the climax and resolution of the novel were like being at the top of a roller coaster, teetering, just before the final descent. Because when the roller coaster starts down, you're not looking at what's around. You're concentrating only on what's coming at you, and the pages are turning on their own.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

National Library Week

I’m at the tail end of my first round of edits for Designed For Haunting, the next book in my Aurora Anderson Mystery Series, but I’ve come out of my writing cave long enough to discover this week is National Library Week.

This is the 60th year of the celebration sponsored by the American Library Association. This year’s theme is “Libraries Lead” and its Honorary Chair is Misty Copeland, principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre. She is also the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, Life in Motion.

I’m lucky to have many, many libraries within a reasonable distance of my home. That’s the good thing that comes out of living in a densely populated county. I’m a 15 minute walk from my hometown library in Manhattan Beach, a branch of the Los Angeles County Library system and named one of the most beautiful libraries in Los Angeles, and a short drive from several others. Right now I have four library cards. And, yes, I use them, some more than others.

I’m aware that libraries offer more than just books, e-books and movies these days, but I didn’t realize how much more until I read this article. Drones, vegetable seeds!, violins are all available from some libraries somewhere. I think that’s pretty amazing.

As We Love Libraries Coordinator for Sisters in Crime, it’s my pleasure every month to notify a library somewhere in the United States that they’ve won a $1000 grant to purchase books and audio books for their library. Any library in the U.S. is eligible as long as they haven’t won before. Please encourage your local library to apply for the grant. Simply have them go to, fill out the form and include a photo of a library staff member with at least 3 books in the library’s collection written by Sisters in Crime members.

Well, I need to get back to my changes. If you’re attending Malice Domestic this year, I’ll be there too! I’m participating in the Malice Go-Round this year. I’m also on a panel Saturday morning 9-9:50 a.m. called The Art of Murder. Also on Saturday, I’ll be doing a Facebook Live interview with A Cozy Experience around 3pm Eastern Time. The interview will go live through their Facebook page