Saturday, December 16, 2017

Weekend Guest J.A. Hennrikus

I'm delighted to welcome my friend J.A. Hennrikus to Type M. 

Julie writes the Theater Cop series for Midnight Ink. A Christmas Peril came out in September. As Julianne Holmes she writes the Clock Shop series. Julie can be found as on Twitter as @JHAuthors, and on Instagram as @jahenn. Julie also blogs with the Wicked Cozy Authors <> and Killer Characters<>.

In her post, Julie shares with us the inspiration for her holiday novel. 

The Spark

“How do you get your ideas?” is a favorite question at reader events. For my new Theater Cop series, with A Christmas Peril as the debut, the answer is complicatedly simple. 

The premise of the series, which is a soft-boiled traditional, is that Edwina “Sully” Sullivan was a cop for a long time, happily married to a lawyer, living in Boston. Five years ago, Sully was forced to retire from her job, found out her husband was having an affair, and had to move home to take care of her dying father. Home is Trevorton, MA, a (fictional) town on the north shore of Massachusetts. Sully decided if she couldn’t do her job in law enforcement, she was going to walk away. And so, she became the general manager of a small theater company. At the beginning of A Christmas Peril, Sully is trying to keep their production of A Christmas Carol on track, while at the same time dusting off her investigative skills to help exonerate her friend Eric, who is accused of killing his father. 

So how did I come up with all of that? 
I had a friend who had to retire as a state cop. I asked her if she was going to become a PI, and she told me if she couldn’t wear the badge, she wasn’t going to do the job. I’ve never forgotten that. 

I work in theater, so talking about that world is easy for me. I also love it, and love the folks I am blessed to work with every day.  And choosing to focus on a production of A Christmas Carol? Well, I’d suggest you do a search on theater companies in your area around the holidays. Here in Boston there are at least a half dozen excellent productions going on right now. But more than that? I love the story of A Christmas Carol. I read it every year, have watched dozens of movie and TV versions, and gone to many theatrical productions. The story resonates with me, more and more as I grow older. 

This entire series was born from a conversation with a friend who was heartbroken at having to retire. One idea that provided the gravitational pull for an entire series. 

Friday, December 15, 2017

Roles and Soundtracks

I've find this week's discussion fascinating. As someone who is an introvert and inclined to be a worrier, I am more negative than positive. But because I need to interact with people and connect -- and because I've become convinced I do no one any good by acting negative -- I've learned to engage in mood-shifting. This goes to sociologist Erving Goffman's theory about the roles we play in everyday life. As I experiment with showering the world with positive vibes, I've been dressing for my performance. This week, on a day when the weather was cold and raw, instead of dressing in all black and gray (my winter comfort colors), I put on a blue top and added a big blue and white silk scarf under my jacket. Sure enough, several people I met during the day glanced at the abstract scarf with its moon face and smiled and commented.

What I find as fascinating as people who create beauty or act in pro-social ways while being vile human-beings, is how much time we as humans spend engaged in impression management. We may feel gloomy or negative, but when we become socially savvy, we learn how to stop when the horrible tale we are telling the strangers we're chatting with at the holiday party is leaving their faces blank or an uncomfortable silence has fallen. We may not be a natural at chatting with people in check-out lines, but -- if we're lucky enough to grow up in a small town or in the South -- we learn what a social lubricant a comment can be. I saw this in action on Tuesday afternoon when the students in my class were standing at their stations waiting for people to come in and see their exhibit. The student nearest where I was sitting turned to me and asked about my cat -- Harry, the rescue Maine Coon who I had mentioned in class one day. It was a quiet exchange, but we started talking cats. And the other students began to join in with their own stories of cats and dogs. Our laughter floated down the hall. Hearing the laughter, the people coming to see the exhibit walked in smiling.

This brings me to what I've been thinking about my protagonists. Both Lizzie Stuart, crime historian, and Hannah McCabe, police detective, are introverts. They are self-protective. But Lizzie has learned to laugh, and Hannah appreciates humor. She can make a joke. But I'm finding that in my 1939 book, both my protagonist (who starts out believing in democracy and all of the virtues) is sliding toward the negative and my villain (antagonist) is wearing a mask of civility. But somewhere in that dark soul of his there is pain and sadness.

Last weekend, I made the mistake of beginning the day with the news. Luckily, as I was flipping through TV channels, I happened to re-discover all of the music channels (TV radio) at the top of the dial. I spent 5 minutes and then 10 and then half an hour dancing to reggae.
Now, I not naturally coordinated. I can only waltz well (because I imagine myself in a beautiful gown at a ball). But bopping around the room to reggae brought me right up.

As I was dancing, I also started to think about soundtracks. What kind of music would shake my characters in my 1939 book out of their gloom? What would make them smile? What would inspire them? And what is the soundtrack of the book itself? I don't know the answers to these questions yet, but it has shaken me out of my own down mood to think about it.

Does anyone else have a soundtrack for your book in progress? For your protagonist?

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Art, Actions, and Morality

Richard Wagner

Like Rick (below), I have been pondering conundrums lately. I don’t usually express my opinions online. I have found that when it comes to the internet one is well advised to keep her private thoughts private. But lately I have been thinking about the implications of recent events,

Many years ago, a local radio program held a contest to determine which classical composer was the most disgusting excuse for a human being. The station played a well-known piece by each composer, counting down to the number one sleazeball. I don’t remember the vices of all the composers they rated, but it was quite a list. I do remember that Mozart was a compulsive gambler who died in debt and left his family destitute, and that Beethoven was a xenophobe who never took a bath. The “winner” was flaming racist Richard Wagner.

All very amusing. And food for thought, as well. Because Wagner was such a poor example of humanity, does this mean that no one should listen to his music? That is exactly what it did mean in Israel for many years until one brave conductor decided that the man’s art stands apart from his morals. If someone is a homophobe does that mean he should condemn Michelangelo’s art? What does it mean if you hate Wagner’s attitude toward Jews, but the beauty of The Ride of the Valkyries inspires you to write a book that changes someone’s life for the better?

Is art different from direct action? Maybe not. A movie can do more than make you cry. A book, a painting, a movie, a piece of music, all can inspire people to action. Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense roused many American colonists to demand independence. Internet videos can rouse young people to shoot up a school, or malcontents to commit acts of terrorism.

You know where I am going with this, Dear Reader. How do we reconcile a person’s creations with her character, good or bad? If a person does good works that help everyone in the world but is a racist/sexist/homophobe at heart, should s/he be banned from public service? Does it depend just on what the person says, paints, or writes, or whether he acted on his unlovely beliefs?

Bill Clinton was a raging horndog, but the economy boomed and the United States was the admired leader of the world during his tenure. We all know what a dichotomy Thomas Jefferson was. He owned slaves, but wrote the Declaration of Independence. He admired the character of Native Americans, but after the Louisiana Purchase he wrote that they should all be driven out of U.S. territory. One can argue that Clinton and Jefferson were men of their own era, and today neither would get away with behavior that was tolerated or overlooked at the time. Or would they? Are we now less willing to overlook unsavory behavior? I wish it were so, but I have my doubts.

I admire my own Arizona senators, Jeff Flake and John McCain, for their honesty, integrity, and strength, but I don’t usually agree with their politics. I didn’t like George W. Bush’s politics at all, but I never thought he was a bad or immoral man. It worries me that there are people who would support someone with dodgy behavior and iffy morals just because of his political beliefs. I liked John Edwards’ politics when he ran for president in 2008, but once I found out about his loathsome behavior I wouldn’t have been able to get past it, even if it hadn’t scuttled his campaign. I could never vote for someone who behaved so abominably.

Where should we draw the line?

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The horror of it all

Barbara here. Reading the last few posts has left me with a cascade of mostly disjointed thoughts, which I will try to pull together to make some sort of useful point. Rick wonders about the predominance of "negative" characters in crime fiction and Aline was pleased to discover that despite their very negative public image, most politicians are actually committed, hard-working people whose efforts deserve respect (in the UK, at least).

Negativity is everywhere. Social media feeds on it. Facebook is full of posts about personal tragedies and links to horror stories reported elsewhere. In their quest for market share in our distracted and inattentive world, the news media have become increasingly sensationalist in their "if it bleeds it leads" mantra. We can rail against this trend all we like, but we can't fight human nature. People will walk past a world-renowned violinist playing exquisite music in a subway station, but will stop to gawk in fascination at a traffic accident. Negativity sells. There is nothing new or profound in this observation. Philosophers have been probing this question of morbid curiosity since the dawn of time, and more recently, psychologists have been putting the seemingly universal, very human impulse under a microscope in the lab.

Theories abound. Some argue witnessing someone else's moment of terror or tragedy is a kind of dry run for facing future terrors of our own. It helps us prepare and feel more confident; like little children playing superhero, we vanquish the scary monsters lurking in the shadows of our minds. Others believe seeing someone else suffer brings a feeling of relief that at least it's not us; "there but for the grace of god do I." Still a third school of thought has it that suffering is the yang to joy's ying; both heighten the feeling of being alive. And yet another theory is that we are driven by a biological imperative to feel connected to each other, to share in the emotions of others, in what is the cornerstone of empathy and ultimately morality. And to these theories, add the insights of recent lab studies that show that we pay greater attention and remember better when an emotion like fear or disgust is stirred up, which has benefits from an evolutionary perspective as well. We really need to pay attention and remember things that pose a threat to survival.

This is by no means an exhaustive analysis, it's merely my biweekly blog. Here are some links if anyone wants to explore further. There are plenty more but these summarize some philosophical and psychological insights, as well as one scientific study

All these theories help to explain the enduring popularity of crime fiction. There are few things scarier than murder, and like gawkers drawn to an accident scene, many people are fascinated by it. What are murderers really like? Are they just like us, and "there but for the grace of god go I?" What drives people to murder? What is the nature of evil? And most importantly, perhaps, can we defeat it? And as for the ying and the yang, a crime story goes to the darkest depths in order to soar towards the light again once the world is set to right at the end of the book.

People vary in their tolerance for fear, anxiety, and distress. Some cover their eyes in the scary scenes and prefer their murders off-stage and bloodless, while at the other extreme are those who want every detail of the spilled guts and spraying blood. Some want to plumb the depths of the psychology of evil while others only want to see the bad guy get it, preferably in an adrenaline-pumping car chase or shoot-out. So another allure of crime fiction is that there is something for every taste and inclination in the exploration of evil. From the safety of our armchairs, we can stare down our particular choice of evil, walk in the footsteps of the superhero sleuth, feel the full range of horror, fear, and triumph, and ultimately cheer that the forces of good prevailed.

All to say, crime fiction not only offers valuable insights on the nature of good, evil and justice, but it also plays an important role in our mental health. I guess that's as useful a point as any.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Are you a “plus” or a “minus”?

by Rick Blechta

My wife and I have a theory about people. A person who overall has a positive outlook on life is a “plus”, and one who tends towards the negative is a “minus”. You can’t be in the middle on this. Years of observing people confirms our suspicions. You don’t need to be around someone for very long to be able to categorize them.

That being said, there are certainly gradations in the two categories. It is possible to be slightly positive or sort of negative. The people to watch out for are those who seem to have the ability to suck all joy out of a gathering with seemingly little effort. Fortunately, I’ve only run into a few of those. Being an empath — which I am (clinically proven when I was in university) — I can tell pretty quickly where people fall. I only have to interact with someone for a few moments to know if their glass is half full or half empty.

What the heck does all this have to do with crime writing, you ask? Well, there’s this: Why do so many protagonists in crime writing have more negative tendencies and outlooks than you would find in real life? Sure, most are crusading do-gooders, brave and generally forthright, but they have an overall negative view on life.

Take Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch. Whoa! Major negative energy there. Rebus? Ditto. Even in cozies which have a lighter touch, you don’t find too many protagonists who are high on the positive scale.

The next question to ask is why. Are negative people more interesting to read about? Does someone have to be populated with inner demons to get the job done? There’s a saying that goes “for every positive, there is a negative”. I find in life, that’s true, why doesn’t it happen in crime fiction — or any fiction for that matter? Are only negative people interesting enough to carry the weight of a whole novel?

Looking back on my own writing, literally every protagonist I’ve used has been a negative. True, some of them have been low down on the minus side, but they are definitely the sorts of people who light up every room they enter. Why do I, as a positive person create characters who are different from me?

I’m still in the process of thinking through this conundrum, so I can’t give you any answers at the moment.

Anyone out there want to put forth a theory?

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Mother of Parliaments

I had a fascinating experience last week. As one of the current directors of the Crime Writers' Association, I was invited to not one, but two award parties in the Palace of Westminster, the home of the British Parliament.

Under the shadow of Big Ben, the famous clock – currently shrouded in scaffolding because of repairs – we walked along to the visitors' entrance, where the security would put any airport to shame, and found ourselves at last admitted to the huge,amazing space of Westminster Hall. It is the oldest part of the building, erected by the son of William the Conqueror in 1097 and still in almost its original form.

I think the thing that surprised us most was the freedom we then had to move about. I had thought we would be shepherded to the rooms where the parties were being held and then escorted out again, but far from it. We had an hour between the two events and were able to go first to the House of Lords and then to the House of Commons (not quite the same as your Senate and House of Representatives but with some similarities) and watch ongoing debates from the Strangers' Galleries – quite compelling.

When we arrived at the first of the parties to present awards for contributions to literacy – promoted with some passion by winner Cressida 'How to Train Your Dragon' Cowell – and found we had our own little drama. One of our members has a husband who, though he doesn't write crime himself, is fascinated by guns, knives, and all sorts of weapons of destruction and is liable at any time to have examples about his person. He discovered to his dismay that he had in his pockets several folding knives of different sorts and though he did of course immediately disclose them, the bobbies on the Westminster beat weren't remotely amused.

He was hauled off immediately and we all, not least his wife, waited in some suspense to find out whether his address for Christmas was to be the Tower of London. However, they were merciful and even agreed he could get some if not all of them returned later, after signing something that he claimed said that he acknowledged he'd been a very naughty boy and wouldn't do it again.

Our second event was to award the prize for the Parliamentary Books of the Year. This was fertile ground for spotting politicians who were surprisingly chatty and friendly in the social setting and were amusing speakers too. The most emotional presentation was to Brendan Cox for his book about his wife Jo, an MP murdered by a right-wing extremist.

Westminster is a romantic place, so full of history, so beautiful in its site on the River Thames. But our most lasting impression of the place was the work that was going on long after office hours in both Houses, and the painstaking and exhaustive research that the speeches we heard displayed, as well as the genuine passion for policies that will improve the lives of the poorest in our society.

It's very easy for us to be cynical, sneering and dismissive about our politicians. I think we shouldn't be.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

A Bookish Tradition with Cookies!

By Vicki Delany

Last week, Barbara encouraged you to check out the Crime Writers of Canada annual catalogue for tips on your holiday giving. After all, books make great presents, and Canadian mystery writers really, really need your support if we’re going to be able to keep on writing.

Before that Rick reminded us of the Icelandic tradition of giving (and then reading) books on Christmas Eve.

As it happens, I am just back from a trip to Iceland. Here’s a photo of the tree in our hotel lobby. Isn’t it fabulous? And, yes, those are all real books. The bottom picture shows stockings hung on the wall. 

Tomorrow (Sunday) I’ll be on my local radio station talking with writers Janet Kellough, J.D. Carpenter, and Ken Murray about books we’re giving for Christmas. Tune in online to following the news at noon to hear our picks.  Because I want to keep it for the show, I won’t reveal my selections here. We came up with quite the variety.

And what goes better with a book than a freshly baked cookies?  Here's a reprint of the recipe for my very popular molasses spice cookies.


·         2 cups all-purpose flour
·         1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
·         1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
·         1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
·         1/2 teaspoon salt
·         1 1/2 cups sugar
·         3/4 cup (6 oz) unsalted butter, room temperature
·         1 large egg
·         1/4 cup molasses
1.       Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. In a shallow bowl, place 1/2 cup sugar; set aside.
2.      With an electric mixer, beat butter and remaining cup of sugar until combined. Beat in egg and then molasses until combined. Reduce speed to low; gradually mix in dry ingredients, just until a dough forms.
3.      Pinch off and roll dough into balls, each equal to 1 tablespoon. Roll balls in reserved sugar to coat.
4.      Arrange balls on baking sheets, about 3 inches apart. Bake, one sheet at a time, until edges of cookies are just firm, 10 to 15 minutes (cookies can be baked two sheets at a time, but they will not crackle uniformly). Cool 1 minute on baking sheets; transfer to racks to cool completely.

Speaking of holiday giving, right now Penguin Random House is having a sweeps contest for all three of my Year Round Christmas mysteries, including the brand new Hark the Herald Angels Slay, the third in the series. 

If you want to enter, here’s the link. (Let's not point out that they spelled my name wrong)


And a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Sorting Books

There's no longer any rhyme or reason to my books. Not any more. When I lived in Western Kansas I had solid walls of bookcases in my finished basement. I knew exactly where everything was.

But after two moves my books are in total disarray. When I lived in the apartment in Loveland I didn't have any storage. My books were in five different locations: the shelves I managed to squeeze into my office, basements or workshops at the three daughters, and, of course, crates and crates in a storage shed.

Since I've moved to Fort Collins, I have a lot more storage space. It's a mixed blessing. Books breed. In another life they were rabbits. They multiply.

My difficulty is compounded by the fact that I can't donate used books without carrying more books home than I took to the facility.

Yesterday I began the difficult sorting process. I took a number of books to a really safe disposal place. Loveland Friends of the Library has a terrific used book sale every year. The have a unique method for collecting books and have a large device like a weatherproof outside postal mailer that can be used 24/7. It's perfect for me! I open the little slot and shove in a book. It clanks shut and I can't see any other books inside the dark building where they prepare books for the next sale.

Moving right ahead to my daughter's home, I took a couple of empty crates down to her basement. Because of the strength involved with moving books I'll tackle her place a little at a time. Unfortunately the process was complicated by a rediscovery process.

Such wonderful books! Surely worth rereading. A huge stack went into that pile. Such treasures as James Michener's The Covenant. I collect Pulitzer Prize winners and Gone With the Wind caught my eye immediately. When one of the winners is also a best seller, there is something to gain by looking at it again with a writer's eye.

Then there is special place in my heart for autographed books. Especially if the authors are friends. It's more troublesome if I love the person but really don't care for their books. I can't bear to let them go but there's not a chance I will ever look at these books again.

There's another stack of books that were given to me at conferences or when I have been a judge in contests. Some of these find a new home as soon as the responsibility is over. Especially the ones I didn't care for at all. But a few stay.

There's a plaguy little pile of either academic books and books I feel like I really, really should read for my own good. Will I live long enough to tackle this assortment? For my own good. For my own good.

Then there's gift books from relations or friends. Some are beloved and some are not.

Happily the biggest pile contains books that I have loved all of my life. I'm going to reserve a special shelf, a place of honor for books that I treasure.

Someone else can figure out where to put them when I die.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Who's Awed by Virginia Woolf?

I read Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse twice this fall, once alone and once with a class of high-achieving Advanced Placement students. I was wowed the first time I read the book, but taking a second look –– reading it to teach it –– forces one to take a closer glance under the hood, so to speak. This is particularly good for a writer –– the chance to study a master at her craft.

Now I’m a huge Virginia Woolf fan. Among the things she does fascinatingly well in the book is her manipulation of the point of view. And, yes, I use the word manipulation intentionally. The full-omniscient point of view allows her to accomplish things (in only 209 pages) that us mortals simply cannot achieve. One is the book’s ending: Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision. The writer in me (and the teacher) asks how the sentence changes if you switch the verb tense. Have had is past perfect. Something happened before something else –– a brilliant way to conclude a novel about feminist themes. What is to follow? What will come next? And this speaks to the book’s precision.

Point of view is where many writers begin when they settle into a project. I’m working on the second draft of a book that took far too long to write. The point of view was a struggle. I wrote the first 30 to 50 pages three times, using three different points of view. Finally settling on one that felt right –– present tense, first-person.

My friend (and former professor) Rick Demarinis, author of The Art and Craft of the Short Story and numerous novels, used to say when a scene is going nowhere change point of view. He used this as a way to jump start a piece of writing that seemed to have no energy. One thing he did was to take a random (or seemingly random) photograph of people in interesting states and write a scene about it. If the scene was a dud, he’d change the energy of the scene by writing the same story from the point of view of another character in the photo.

Here are two pictures.

Think about how the scene changes depending on whose perspective you choose and whether you use first-, second- or third-person point of view. Give it a try.

And read Woolf’s To The Lighthouse.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Nancy Drew and World War II

I spent some time with Nancy Drew over the Thanksgiving holiday. I read all of the ND books when I was a kid, but I don’t remember much about them so I’ve been gradually rereading them and discovering all kinds of stuff all over again. You might remember some of my previous posts on my ND adventures, Books That Last and the Stratemeyer Syndicate
This time I learned the following about Nancy:
  • She can play guitar 
  • She knows Spanish and can even speak several dialects 
  • She is shy about singing in public, but will do it if encouraged. This time she sang in Swahili!
 When I was growing up, I didn’t care when the books were published. I probably read more of the ’60s and ’70s versions, but I did occasionally find one from the ’30s and ’40s. As an adult, I admit to a preference for the earlier versions.

In the 1939 version of The Mystery of the Brass Bound Trunk I found this interesting note on the title page: “This book, while produced under wartime conditions, in full compliance with government regulations for the conservation of paper and other essential materials, is COMPLETE AND UNABRIDGED.”

That got me curious so I put on my Nancy Drew hat and did a little investigatin’.

From Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak, I learned that the Stratemeyer Syndicate that produced ND had to give up all its old book plates as scrap metal during WWII. There was also an interesting note on BBT: originally Nancy took a trip to England in the story, but because of the situation in Europe, it was changed to Buenos Aires.

I was also curious about the restrictions placed on publishers in general during WWII. Starting in fall 1942, American publishers could only use so much paper. To start, they were allowed to use 90% of the paper they used in 1941. That fell to 75% in 1944. Britain suffered much greater restrictions: beginning in 1940 it was 60% of the paper they used in 1939. It went down to 37.5% in 1942.

But it wasn’t only paper that was being saved. The use of copper, cloth, lead and chlorine were also restricted. All of these things were used in book production. Plus there was also a shortage of printers and binders since many had been drafted.

So the paper for books became cheaper and thinner and typefaces and margins smaller. Britain had strict typographical standards.

Grosset & Dunlap, who published ND, started using pulp paper in 1942 and the “wartime conditions” notice I found in BBT was placed in books from 1943 to 1945. Because of the differences in paper and covers, the Nancy Drew books shrunk. In 1941 and 1942, a typical ND book was 2 inches thick. By 1945, they’d shrunk to about 1 inch.

What is especially interesting to me is that the demand for books actually went up during the war. Due to rationing of gasoline and other wartime restrictions, more people spent time at home so more people started reading. Plus soldiers read during their down time.

Those are just some of the tidbits I learned in my investigation. I hope you found this an interesting foray into the past. If you have a craving to learn more here are some interesting links I found that go into more detail:

LibraryThing – A discussion about publishing in wartime

Article from the Journal of Publishing Culture – This one focuses on Britain in WWII.

Publishing in Wartime: The Modern Library Series during the Second World War

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Something to tickle your funnybone

by Rick Blechta

I’m really pressed for time this week and was hoping to find a bit of it to write my post but the day is already half-gone and it’s time to come up with a Plan B.

I’ll resort to my usual fallback and give you a few cartoons I’ve put aside over the past few months.

Hope you like ’em, and I’ll see you next week with a proper post!

Until then…

Monday, December 04, 2017

Water Under The Bridge

Last week a reader took a fierce dislike to a writing colleague's latest crime novel and told her so on Twitter. It was an all out, prolonged attack. My colleague was left stunned and bewildered. This was not a normal reader disliking said novel for whatever reason, which is perfectly fair in writing – after all, we can't please all of the readers all of the time. No, my colleague was being trolled. Trolls are nasty people who abuse their online anonymity by purposely sowing hatred, bigotry, racism, misogyny, or by creating tension and anger between others. I sympathised. I've only been trolled once. As soon as I realised what was happening, I blocked the troll and heard no more from her or her friends. I tried not to let the experience bother me. But while I know sticks and stones may hurt my bones and names will never hurt me, the experience left me feeling anxious and sick. But then survival mode kicked in. No troll was going to stop me doing what I wanted to do. My writer's thick skin got that bit thicker. If there was a next time, I would be ready. As we've talked about on this blog already, writing is not for the faint-hearted and trolling seems to be just one more thing we writers have to learn to endure on the emotional Rocky Road to writing success. When I think of the writer's journey, I often think of the New Guinea pidgin expression throwim way leg. I used to hear it a lot when I lived in Papua New Guinea – I told you I worked in Papua New Guinea for a few years, didn't I? The phrase literally means to throw your leg away and start walking. I always chuckle when I hear the phrase. It sounds so innocuous and downright silly. However, in reality it is anything but. Throwim way leg actually means to take the first step into the unknown and on what would very probably be a long and very hazardous journey.

You see, New Guinea is after Greenland the world's largest island and home to 1000 languages, that's one-sixth of the world's total – pidgin is one of the three most spoken languages between the various tribes. The topography of New Guinea is so rugged that until the arrival of aircraft, tribes in adjacent valleys were often completely isolated. Just a few generations ago some of the peoples in the highlands of Papua New Guinea mounted well planned raids on villages, kidnapping children and killing and even eating their parents. Yes, I said eating! You can imagine, going on a journey was a fearful, perilous thing, rarely done. It meant abandoning the safety of your village, putting yourself at risk, without knowing where the journey would lead or if you would ever return to the safety of your village. 


At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I think we writers emotionally throwim way leg when we embark on a career in writing. We have no idea where it will lead us and the trip is full of pot holes, distractions, dangers, disappointments frustrations and trolls! We will probably never return to the warm, cosy comfort of the life we had before becoming a writer, at the same time there is absolutely no guarantee we will ever get to the promised land of “making it big”. But for some of us, as we've also said on this blog before, there is nothing we'd rather do. We meet lots of lovely people on the way and have the enormous satisfaction of knowing that total strangers all over the world are reading our stories and enjoying them. And, yes, while we writers may have to put up with trolls when we embark on our writing journey, at least there is very little chance we will get eaten. Trolls? They're water under the bridge.

Have you ever been trolled? 

Friday, December 01, 2017

Weekend Guest: Paul Doiron on Research into his Novels

John here. Our guest blogger this week is fellow Mainer, Paul Doiron, author of the Mike Bowditch series of crime novels set in the Maine woods. His first book, The Poacher’s Son, won the Barry Award and the Strand Critics Award for Best First Novel and was nominated for an Edgar Award, an Anthony Award, a Macavity Award, and a Thriller Award. PopMatters named it one of the best works of fiction of 2010. His second novel, Trespasser, was an American Booksellers Association Bestseller and won the Maine Literary Award. The eighth book in the series, Knife Creek, has just been published. His novels have been translated into eleven languages. Paul is Editor Emeritus of Down East: The Magazine of Maine, having served as Editor in Chief from 2005 to 2013. A native of Maine, he attended Yale University and he holds an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College. He is a Registered Maine Guide specializing in fly fishing and lives on a trout stream in coastal Maine.

When people ask me what sort of research I do for my Mike Bowditch novels, I say there are three different kinds: reportage, first-person experience, and my own life.

Reportage is the easiest to explain because it’s what we think about when we hear the word research. Do you want to know how an autopsy is performed on a person who has died from a gunshot wound to the head? You interview a medical examiner. Or you buy a medical textbook like Dr. Vincent J.M. DiMaio’s excellent, expensive, and graphically gory Gunshot Wounds: Practical Aspects of Firearms, Ballistics, and Forensic Techniques. Ideally, you do both of these things.

First-person experience is reportage of a different kind. When I wanted to include a scene in my novel Widowmaker that takes place in a helicopter used by wildlife biologists to conduct an aerial survey of Maine’s moose population, I talked my way into riding along with scientists on one of their excursions. (I subsequently cut the scene, but used what I’d learned as backstory). I still thrill at the memory of watching enormous bull moose explode through snowbanks as the chopper swung in. I could have interviewed a wildlife biologist or a pilot to get a sense of the experience, but I had a chance to see, hear, and feel everything myself, so I grabbed it. When I say I use my own life as research I mean that my novels are outdoor mysteries set in the Maine woods and waters. As a professional Maine Guide, I have spent many hours in canoes, carrying rifles, and climbing remote mountains. I don’t need to look up the difference between a red spruce (which makes for passable, if fast-burning firewood) and white spruce (which emits a foul odor like cat urine when burned). I already possess that knowledge.

But my life has been far more than one long lesson in bushcraft. Like everyone, I’ve worked different jobs, lived different places, known people very different from myself. So if I need Mike Bowditch to take a vacation, I am likely to choose southwestern Florida because I have visited the area many, many times. If I need to give a minor character a profession, I might make him a pharmacist because my father-in-law used to be one. Your life is stockpiled with this kind of good stuff. You might as well use what you already know.

Aspiring authors are often told not to indulge in “notebook dumps,” which is writerly slang for trying to show off your research by larding your stories with exposition. It’s good advice.

My counterargument is that research can be woven into stories unobtrusively if it leans more toward the experiential and away from straight reportage. The trick is to use sensory details — or interesting bits of trivia — to heighten the verisimilitude of the fiction. That said, never shoehorn something into a story that doesn’t want to be there. Everything in a novel must exist to serve the story.

I cut a whole chapter set in a freezing helicopter full of biologists counting moose from the air. Was I sad to cut it? Yes. Am I glad that I did? You bet. Do I regret the hours I spent flying above the snow-capped treetops, scouting for a moose, a waste? Not on your life.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Holidays Are Upon Us

Thanksgiving is over for both the U.S. and Canada, which means that the holiday season is officially off and running. My husband and I had our traditional vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner with a friend who has no family locally and doesn't object to eating Quorn turkey roast. We have been doing this for years. It has become our ritual. for the past many years, our Christmas ritual entails a giant brunch with another friend who invites several family-deprived persons over to her house on Christmas morning. We are happy with the holiday traditions we have developed over the last quarter-century.

But it was not always thus.

Every family has its holiday traditions, and it is always a wrench the first time you are separated from your ancestral table and are forced to eat something that your mother or grandmother would NEVER have served. But even in your old age, you look back with fondness on the Thanksgivings and Christmases that you had at grandma's house, and all others pale in comparison.

Of course I'm not talking about the Christmas or Hanukkah where your uncle and brother-in-law got into a fistfight over politics or the Thanksgiving when grandma was too drunk to finish the turkey and the kid had an allergic reaction to the sweet potatoes.

I'm talking about the many Thanksgivings and Christmas dinners I had at Grandma Casey's house. The ones where she started cooking the turkey the day before, and when the hour came to eat, the bird had practically fallen off the bone. My aunt always brought a Jello salad, which was really a casserole dish full of diced apples and pecan halves with just enough red Jello to hold it together. The stuffing was really stuffed in the bird, but no one died of salmonella. Grandma put something different and interesting in the stuffing every year. She liked oysters, which tasted like rubber bands to me. I really liked the roasted chestnuts, though, and the years she used walnuts or pecans. Oh, and in Boynton, Oklahoma, the dressing is always made of pure cornbread. No soggy wheat bread for us.

And it wouldn't be Thanksgiving without the pies. My mother always made a pecan pie (lots of native pecans in eastern Oklahoma.), always a fruit pie, and a couple of pumpkin, naturally. Pumpkin pie with lots of whipped cream. I do mean lots.

My late cousin Craig is the one who began the more-whipped-cream-than-pie ritual in my family. It didn't take too many years before it became tradition to always serve the pie in a bowl, the better to hold the cream. So here's to you, Craig, and to all the family rituals that we simply cannot do without. It wouldn't be the holidays without them.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The future as we know it...

Reader beware: Barbara's rant.

On Monday, the big Canadian headline was the news of a deal between two media giants that decimated the local print media in Canada, mainly in Ontario. Postmedia and TorStar made a deal to "swap" about four dozen newspapers in smaller cities that they had previously bought up, and immediately closed down three dozen of them, throwing hundreds of people out of their jobs and silencing the voices of local communities.

Print media has been under siege as the news industry goes digital and global companies gobble up more and more of the market. Media consolidation has been going on for years as newspapers try to cope with declining ad revenues and readership, with the result that citizens now have almost no choices when it comes to sources of news in their area. Those papers that have survived, usually by cannibalizing their competition, has been slashed to a fraction of their previous size and offer almost no local or "niche" news, opting instead to rerun "big-money" features generated by the powerful multinationals. For the art world, including books, this has had the devastating effect of reducing features and reviews about Canadian or lesser known creators and replacing them (if at all) with reviews on the latest blockbuster Hollywood movie or John Grisham novel. And if you don't think that influences our attitudes and buying habits, just consider the latest Globe and Mail top ten best selling crime books, which contained nine American male mega-authors, and one lone Canadian male (yay, Linwood!). No women at all.

In September, the Canadian government, after a lengthy review that recommended greater subsidies for print media, announced that it was not going to prop up failing business models, thus ensuring the further collapse of professional and local reporting. Although newspapers are a business and need cash to survive, they are much more than just a business; at their best they are a source of information on our democratic institutions, a watchdog of private industry, and a source of local community cohesion. Without the eagle eye of investigative reporting, both private and public institutions would have free rein to pursue their own interests with impunity, to the likely detriment of the public good. If the Canadian government is not prepared to "prop up" this failing business model, who is left to do that vital civic role? TV reporting, which delivers news in sound bytes and is engaged in a similar struggle for survival? Online news sources, which are popping up to fill the gap but which lack the funds to support professional investigative reporting?

The Globe and Mail, itself owned by yet another media giant, reported on this latest "swap and close" move yesterday, in an analysis worth reading. It made the following key point:

"The bigger challenge is that even large media companies are dwarfed by both the scale of digital giants such as Google and Facebook – and also by the amount of data those giants have on their users. The massive aggregation of people's personal information is a gold mine for those digital behemoths, because advertisers demand greater levels of detail to help them better target their ads."

Google and Facebook... our sources of information. What a comforting thought. We know that both target not just their advertising but also their information articles to our particular interests. So increasingly we will end up in echo chambers of our own views, with thousands of articles flung at us willy nilly with no ranking as to their professionalism, objectivity, or indeed veracity. Certainly not the way to ensure the informed and discerning citizenry needed to maintain democracy.

To these two digital behemoths I would add a third – Amazon, the online giant that is driving many smaller competitors out of business. Vertical and horizontal monopolies are alive and well in the digital world. Choice and diversity of opinion are on the chopping block all across the business world, all in the pursuit of financial greed, or as they claim, survival. Many educational institutions in Canada have decided they no longer have to pay Canadian authors for copying their work, because it costs too much. Similar violations of copyright are occurring in other countries. Publishing houses are consolidating into a small group of multinationals, gobbling up national and regional houses, culling authors who are not huge money-makers and cutting the advances of those they keep. The result is fewer authors, fewer unique books and voices, and more books targeted to "the masses". Artists in all disciplines are struggling to make any kind of living wage, and while a few make millions, most make peanuts. Before he won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada's richest literary prize, Michael Redhill reportedly had $411 in his bank account. Michael Redhill is an established poet, playwright, and novelist with an impressive list of publications.

The decline in number and choice of books and newspapers should alarm us all. As information becomes more controlled in the hands of a few, and more difficult to find and evaluate even if we go searching for it, informed voting will become endangered and the critical thinking, diversity and tolerance of our society will be eroded. "Fake news" has already become the proud rallying cry of the ill-informed.

It's easy to blame the greed of faceless corporations, but we must also look in the mirror. How many of us check out the wares in local stores and then buy them on Amazon because they're cheaper? How many download music, books, newspapers, and TV shows from "free" or pirated sites, often bragging about how we never pay? How many of us shop at discount stores to buy cheap goods from developing countries with dismal environmental and labour standards, including forced or slave labour, thus driving local manufacturing out of business?

It costs money – our money – to maintain the society we have built. We need to think of the local businesses who create jobs and pay taxes in the community before we buy that $5 pair of leather gloves at XMart. We need to think of the local creators before copying or pirating their work. If we don't support them, they will not be able to continue. Our loss.

So as we all go about our holiday shopping this year, consider the small businesses who depend on our support. And if you're Canadian, buy a book from a Canadian author. There are many excellent ones, probably by authors you've never heard of. Crime Writers of Canada is a good place to start!

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

I Like Iceland! (or Giftgiving Made Easy)

by Rick Blechta

Before I get up on my Type M soapbox (always at the ready in a corner of my studio), you must read this article (Literary Iceland Revels in Its Annual Christmas Book Flood). Relax. There’s no test at the end!

I’m assuming that if you’re here, then you’re a book lover like the rest of us. And that being the case, the story linked above warmed the cockles of your heart as much as it did mine.

Iceland, from all I’ve heard, is a very civilized country and the way they feel about buying and receiving books during the holiday season proves it. A book flood indeed! I can think of no better holiday tradition than giving books on Christmas Eve.

Now you’re probably rolling your eyes. I mean I’ve definitely got a vested interest in the purchasing of books. But if I stopped writing tomorrow and all my publsihed books just went poof!, I would still feel the same way. Books are A Good Thing. They nourish your brain and soul, and the fact of the matter is, in many countries (probably most), per capita hours spent reading are way down and still falling precipitously. Is there a corollary between that and the rise in the amount of ignorance in modern society? I think so.

Okay, let’s bring this closer to home. My family has decided that the adults don’t really need to get presents from everyone this year so we decided on a “secret Santa”-type system. We’d come with a list: A gives B a present, B gives C a present, and so on. Everyone will have one present to open and then all can sit back and watch the youngsters open theirs. It makes sense and it’s certainly less expensive. My next thought (since I’d come up with the idea) was what do we give? Do we leave it open or set a theme?

And that’s when I read about Iceland’s book tradition at this time of the year. At that point I thought about the people in my family. To the best of my knowledge, at least three of them seldom (or never) read books. That’s a depressing thing to consider. One of them (and you know who you are) has only read one of my novels, and they’ve always received them as gifts every time one of them is published. (That’s even more depressing.) This person also has no magazine subscriptions and doesn’t generally read the paper.

In North America, I don’t think that’s far out of the ordinary. According to an article I found in The Smithsonian, 25% of Americans didn’t read a single book in 2016. Think about that.

On the flip side, a reason for hope is that 75% of Americans did read a book in the past year. Sales of books went up by 17 million to 571 million. Still, the number of people who read nothing troubles me — and I have some of them in my family. The percentage of people in Canada who did not read a book in that period is 12. ( Yea Canada!

I’d like to leave you with a thought. Give books to whomever you can this year. Sure, a crime fiction novel by one of us would be great, but to give any book would be great. I’ll bet you could find something for everyone on your list. Just go into a bookstore and browse. Your brother loves cars. Buy him a book on that subject. Your mom loves to knit. There are plenty of books on the subject. And so on.

If you really want to be cool and start a great tradition, do what the people of Iceland do: Give a book on Christmas Eve. If you celebrate something else or nothing at all, you can still start a tradition. Maybe we should just call my suggestion End-of-Year Book Giving.

Regardless, the more people who are reading regularly, the better. The world will thank you — eventually.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Books Do Furnish a Room

I am rather taken by an expression, much used by the younger members of my family, 'Is it a thing?' Or perhaps, since I've never seen it written, 'Is it a Thing?'

I had probably heard it before without paying particular attention, but when I first noticed it was when my recently-married son gave his wife a six-month anniversary present. Yes, I know — mine neither. Those costs could fairly mount up in forty-seven years.

His sister's husband, definitely upstaged, asked in alarm, 'Is it a Thing?' That, apparently, is the standard question to establish whether it could be discounted as merely an ignorable random act of chivalry (or madness, depending on which way you look at it — heaven help him if he forgets next year), or must be taken seriously as a new standard expectation.

There has been a lot of surprise in the past two or three years that the predicted eclipse of paper books by eBooks hasn't happened. Inches of newspaper columns have been written about the reasons for that — some very scientific, pointing out that the absorption rate from reading on line is a third less, others going on the psychological satisfaction the artifact gives.

But apparently, the sales of real books have had a recent boost because posting a photograph of yourself with your bookshelf has become a Thing — Shelfies, as opposed to Selfies. Even if your eBook is stocked with James Joyce and Thomas Aquinas, for all anyone knows your choice of reading might be Dan Brown and Fifty Shades of Grey. Real books can say something about your excellent literary taste without your having to work the conversation round to obscure literary topics to let you establish your credentials. 'This is who I am,' your Shelfie is saying.

And having books there on display is a bonus, even if you leave aside what's inside them. Their presence creates an atmosphere of quiet enjoyment. They have colorful jackets to brighten a room and they have an inimitable, delicious inky-papery smell. So if they've become a Thing it can only be good news.

And they hold their value too: I still haven't got over seeing a book I bought as a student for three shillings (the equivalent then of about fifty cents) in an antiquarian bookshop for two hundred pounds.