Sunday, April 13, 2014

OOPS! The Wrong Things to Say to Mystery Readers

So Isobel Allende caused a bit of a stir earlier this year by aiming slighting words at mysteries as she was promoting her first foray into the genre—sort of. I’m not going to get into the whole controversy, but despite a bookseller sending back her autographed copies to the publisher and the reported outrage of mystery readers and writers, Ripper seems to be selling quite well. Of course if you’re going to raise a controversy regarding books, it’s a good idea to do it on National Public Radio since their audience is filled with people who buy books.

I’ve found that many writers can get themselves into trouble as they move from writing to talking, especially when they free associate about mysteries. At a Bouchercon years ago, a writer on a panel announced herself as winner of some book award for her first mystery. The panel went on pleasantly enough. It was the Q&A where it all went wrong. Someone in the audience asked the new award winner what advice she would have for aspiring mystery writers.

“Well, she offered, “can I just say I don’t read mysteries; I don’t like them. Somebody giving out awards decided my book was a mystery. So I got invited to this conference.”

The audience was quiet. And may I say I do not remember what the panel title was, but she repeated the phrase I’ve grown to loathe: “I don’t know why I’m on this panel.”

I wanted to rise from my seat and yell: “You’re on the panel so you can promote your book, but you’ve just blown that opportunity by telling a room full of people who have paid significant money to hear mysteries discussed that you don’t like the genre. Nice work!”

Reginald Hill, whom I still miss, was once on a panel with John Banville/ Benjamin Black. John Banville, the literary novelist, talked about how much easier he had it as Benjamin Black, mystery writer. “Banville produces 200 words a day; Black, 2000.”

Hill responded, “Yes, when I get up in the morning I say to my wife, 'What should I do today? Write a Booker prize winning literary novel or a best selling mystery?’”

Mystery writers write some of the best novels around today; there just happens to be a dead body at some point in the plot.

If you doubt me, try Reginald Hill’s Death’s Jest Book.

© 2014 Stephanie Patterson

Friday, April 11, 2014


Nearly everyone I know who uses Yahoo! for an email provider has had the Yahoo! mail account hacked sometime in the last couple of years, strangers sending out messages over the rightful owner's signature. Russians (okay, Russians and others, let's not be bigots) get hold of the password and use the email account to distribute spam and malware. But you don't have to be on Yahoo!. It can happen to anybody. It happened to me, just last week, on my Host and Store account.

How I knew that this was going on was by the messages that bounced back from the "postmaster" of email, undeliverable, sent from my address. All in Cyrillic. The Russians, those clever devils, are at it again. Actually one of the messages was in Italian, but it was addressed to Yuri somebody-or-other. The message was clearly spam, couched in the form of a job offer: click here to get a good job and turn your life around. Right. I'll be sure to do that, right after I send the Nigerians my bank account number.

Anyway, as a result of having my email account hacked last week I changed my email password. It's a good idea to do that at regular intervals anyway, for all your passwords.

Then the news broke about Heartbleed, which isn't even a hack, or a virus, but a back door that somebody left open when they put the open-source security code together that's supposed to keep the hackers out of many sites. What it does is enable knowledgeable hackers to steal your passwords, maybe your Social Security number, maybe your bank account number, maybe your phone number. Does Host and Store use this open-source code for security? I don't even know. They were too small to be interviewed. I do know that they haven't re-upped the security certificate for my website, not since they've been handling it, so that I get a warning message every time I go to open my mail. But I digress.

Heartbleed. It's everywhere, almost. If you want to know about a particular site, here's a link you can use to inquire: Although it might not be entirely effective, given that it says that Host and Store's web site doesn't even exist. Bottom line, you might want to stay off the internet for another few days, and then change your passwords. If you change a password before a patch is in place, the hackers can get it right away anyhow, if they want to, or so say the knowing ones.

As for me, I recommend putting nothing out on the internet that you wouldn't want to see on a billboard in Times Square. That includes birthdays. You won't find my birthday on Facebook. I assume you wish me a happy birthday, whenever it is. I wish you one too. It'll be happier if criminals aren't stealing your identity.

Yours in paranoia,

Kate Gallison

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Where my characters tread

A friend recently described the characters in my novels as “treading a liminal path.”  Since I know my imaginary friends so well, I thought I knew what she meant, but I looked up the word.  Depending on what dictionary one uses, it has a number of meanings, but it always implies “at a threshold,” “between two worlds,” “between two states of mind.”

Once my friend raised the issue, I began to see that many of my characters live with one foot in each of two worlds.  Evita Duarte (later Peron) who figures prominently in Blood Tango, is a case in point.  Powerless as a child, a starving would-be actress until a few months before the story begins, Evita first appears in my story with her soul still angry at the deprivation she has had to bear.  But she is, at that point, also the mistress of the most powerful man in the nation, a successful radio personality, and a woman who has her clothes made by the most elegant modista in Buenos Aires.  Through the story, she struggles to keep her balance as the action shifts her from one foot to the other, as it were.

In my upcoming series, which begins with Strange Gods, due out in June, I consciously invented characters who did not fit easily into any group around them in the conflict fraught land they inhabit—the Protectorate of British East Africa, beginning in 1911.  The British have just begun to move in, with hopes of adding to their widening empire.  The local tribes have been at each other’s throats for eons.

Here is how my characters fell into my head when I first started to think about who they would be:

·      Captain Justin Tolliver, British constable—an idealistic but somewhat na├»ve, English policeman who will be the series detective.  He is bright, good at heart and very determined, but his British assumptions, his exaggerated sense of fair play and gentlemanly conduct, his knee-jerk belief in the superiority of the British way of life will get in his way.  As the series progresses, he will develop and mature and become more African than English.  This will jeopardize his position with those above in the British Administration.
·      Vera McIntosh (later Tolliver), his love interest in Book One, later his wife, the daughter of Scots missionaries, born in BEA, raised with black African children by a Kikuyu nanny.  She speaks Kikuyu and some Maasai.  She is very intelligent and logical, but often bungles relationships with the white settlers.  She is warier and more suspicious than Tolliver and often right about what is really going on.  But she is impatient.  Sometimes her headstrong belief in her own conclusions leads Tolliver’s investigations astray, just as Tolliver’s Anglo-centric assumptions trip him up.  Through the series she will have children and struggle with how to raise them as white Africans, but she will always wind up taking an active role in Tolliver’s investigations because he will rely on her superior knowledge of African ways.
·      Kwai Libazo, Tolliver’s top black African lieutenant.  Though he is very intelligent and often is the first to see the path to the truth, he is conflicted in that his allegiance is now supposed to be to the Brits and Tolliver, but his instincts are with the African tribesmen.  No one who knows what job he holds trusts him, not the Whites because he is black and not the Blacks because he represents British rule.  This position interferes with his ability to discover information, but because he is black and not known outside Nairobi or Mombasa, he can go undercover among blacks or get a job as a houseboy and spy on some suspect.

As I wrote the first story, my knowledge of the characters broadened and deepened.  And, without my knowing how, they became more and more people with one foot in each world.

Every once in a while, but only briefly, I wonder what it means about me—that my main characters always turn out to be so unsteady on their feet.   I can tell you this—when I talk about myself being in two worlds I often say that when I am in the USA, people think of me as Italian, but when I am in Italy, they  think of me as American.

I find I am not much motivated to analyze myself further than this.  I much prefer to put my fingers on my keyboard and see what kind of story my characters have to tell me about themselves.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Memoir: Remembering Dad

Mike Welch, our resident memoirist, returns with slices of life dredged up from the movie, Nebraska.

Robert Knightly

Nebraska is a black and white movie that portrays the colorless life of a character who rages against that lack of hue with all his considerable, if addled, might. In the movie, there is an interminable, bleak stretch of RTE 90 between Billings Montana and Lincoln Nebraska that Woody Grant (played by Bruce Dern) and his son David (played by Will Forte) traverse on a Quixotic quest to collect one million dollars that the geriatric but extremely combative Dern thinks he has won from The Publisher’s Clearinghouse. It’s a long road, but at the end there is something of a reconciliation between the two, although coming back together implies once having been together, which these characters had never really been. My Dad and I were never really together, either, at any time during our journey or at the time he died in 2006. I’m now in the process of seeing if you can reconcile with someone who isn’t there, which is perhaps possible, or maybe can only be contemplated, like one hand clapping.

Dern and Dad. Dad and Dern. David realizes his dad is losing it when the cops call him after finding Woody feebly wandering down the road in Billings, insisting that his destination is not the grocery store or a bar, but Lincoln. I realized my Dad had lost it (he always had seemed to be in the process) when my brother called me to report the police had picked him up in the dead of night, dead of winter, walking down Main Street in Bay Shore, Long Island, in his bare feet. This was in the late 90’s, and I was not really surprised, knowing that when my Dad was in the manic stage of his manic depression, he did some pretty weird stuff. I hadn’t talked to Dad in years, having handed him off to my brother when I went to college, having carried him for much of my childhood. Now I was pulled back into the drama.

By the end, Dad loved only Louie Prima, Mickey Mantle, Paul Robeson and Winston Churchill. You’ll notice that there isn’t anyone on the list that he actually knew. Actually, he also loved his nurse at the mental hospital in New Jersey he ended up in when he lit his room on fire in the halfway house we had gotten him into (I didn’t mean to be incendiary, he said tearfully, but it was hard to believe he didn’t, knowing him), but he didn’t really know her, either. She made the mistake of smiling at him, is all, inspiring him to write semi-pornographic love sonnets to her.

It’s hard to say why Dad was the way he was. Like Mickey Mantle, who could hit home runs and bat for average, and who could drive in runs, Dad was a triple threat—he was annoying due to his bi-polarity, his personality and because he was, at the end, having multiple infarcts, or little strokes, that “disinhibited” him, as if he was not enough lacking in inhibition in the first place. My brother and I go back and forth about how much he was responsible for his behavior, but it’s ultimately not one of those questions you can answer.

Dad and Dern. By the end of their lives, neither liked much. Both could barely walk. My Dad, who did the barefooted trick “just to see if I could do it,” tried that summer to take a long walk on a hot afternoon, got dehydrated and took a seat under a tree to rest. He then found he didn’t have the strength to get up. A cop saved him again.

I took him to the theater to see the heartbreaking and funny Life is Beautiful, thinking that it was intelligent enough and grim enough for his taste, but he complained that it sucked, so loudly that I had to hustle him out of there before our fellow, irate moviegoers strung us both up. Not that he cared. Not for the movie, and not for the offended patrons of the theater, or for much else. To be fair, Dad did also like Cool Hand Luke: “Gentlemen, what we got heeere, is a failure to comyoonicate,” as the prison warden says in that movie, and that failure afflicts Dern and his son almost as much as it afflicted me and my Dad.

Nebraska is funny, in a savage way, and my Dad would have liked that. David’s brother gets into a silly fight with two very weird cousins over the dispensation of Dad’s (imaginary) fortune and their childish, kind of feminine flailing at each other is at once hysterical and pathetic. Humor just the way my Dad liked it. Grotesque, sad, bizarre—bring it on. Dern’s wife, the mother of the boys, visits the grave of an old suitor, and pulls up her skirt and yells at him across that border between life and death “Look at what you could have had if you hadn’t been so damned boring!” Dad would have fallen off his seat.

At the movie, Life Is Beautiful (which I watched to the end on video years later), the father (Roberto Benigni, no problem walking for him) is killed, but not without having saved his son from realizing the horror and despair of the death camp they had been in. Maybe that triumph of love and will was too much for Dad. In Nebraska, the reconciliation and resolution is much less clear and satisfying, but it exists. The son buys Dad a used pick-up truck, and for a short drive down the street where he grew up, Dern is greeted as a winner, having hoodwinked his hometown into thinking he bought the truck with his winnings. And Dern is happy, kind of, for a little while, and so is his son.

I couldn’t find that conciliatory gesture, or that gesture that would heal things, or perhaps the gesture that would have made my Dad sit up and take notice of me. For at the end, he dwelled on all those he felt had betrayed and humiliated him, and I was just his audience, not a player in the theater that was his life. Oh, that we could have gone on a quest, even a silly one, but we didn’t.

At the end, he was obsessed with what he termed the “humiliations of my pitiful life.” He set about redeeming himself, I think, by annoying people. I would take him to dinner when I visited, and we would eat steaks (he ate his with his bare hands) as he talked about what a horrible shrew my mother was, and his mother was, and how he wished he knew where his father was buried, so he could dance on his grave. I don’t want to dance on his. Really, I don’t.

He would rant and ramble, or sit silently and weep. He had a wild crush on that Filipino nurse, and talked about a preacher he had met and to whom he was going to bequeath his money, for some kind of People’s Church. When I tried to dissuade him of this, he informed me I just wanted the money for myself. He reminded me that I’d been a lousy adolescent athlete, a poseur whose only weapon was an intensity that better ballplayers were not intimidated by, and when I showed him a paper on Metaphor I’d written in grad school that was praised by my professor, he said it was “felicitously written, but basically bullshit.” And so it went, and so it goes sometimes still for me, when his voice visits me from across that aforementioned divide. Maybe I should have bought him a fucking truck.

© 2014 Mike Welch

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Triss Stein Scores Again in Brooklyn

Increasingly invaluable to the New York Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, Triss Stein contributes her considerable intellect and organizational talents to the wide American mystery writing community.

She has carved out a considerable niche for her writing in the increasingly popular Brooklyn series with
Brooklyn Bones and Brooklyn Graves, published by Poisoned Pen Press.

A member of the 2014 Board of Directors of MWA-NY, she directs the lively MWA/NYPL monthly library programs, as well as the partnering with libraries in the NY/NJ/CT/PA area.

Her stories have appeared in three volumes of the SINC Anthology—
Murder New York Style. She blogs on Women of Mystery and Poisoned Pen Press Authors. Previous books include Digging Up Death and Murder at the Class Reunion. Not long ago she managed a SINC research report on mystery readership, has served on the MWA-NY Mentor Program and chaired an Edgars Awards Committee.

"What do you think is the first thing a crime writer should nail down when starting a new novel?" I asked her.

"Character/voice. I think people like that/remember that/relate to that more than the plots we work so hard to dream up," she replied.

I agree with her—I may forget most of the plots in my own reading, but if a character draws me in—I'm a captive/fan for a long, long time!

Triss, welcome back to the home of Crime Writer's Chronicle!

T. J. Straw

Thank you, Thelma for inviting me to be a guest and write a little about how I work as a writer.

I have been asked before about writing routines, methods, process, schedule, and I am tempted to say, "What is this language you are speaking?" While I am a person who in real life makes lists, uses calendars, keeps addresses, labels freezer packages (and harasses my family to do likewise), my writing life only works when I lean back and let it happen. This is not the same as waiting for inspiration, though. Professionals show up ready to work.

What it is about is learning that writing, for me, does not start with an outline.

It starts with a wisp of an idea. A crime in a cemetery. (Brooklyn Graves) A body behind a wall. (Brooklyn Bones) An ambitious girl from the projects with a bright future, found beaten into unconsciousness. (Work in progress)

Because I am also writing about the fascinating history of Brooklyn’s diverse neighborhoods, there is a bit of history in my mind too. A gentrified neighborhood in its pre-gentrified days. Tiffany studios and Tiffany windows at the cemetery. The New York mob that wasn't the Mafia.

After that, I wait to see who shows up, but I also scrawl a lot of random ideas in a notebook or on scrap paper to prime the pump. Eventually, the ideas lead to more ideas and the characters start talking to each other when I put them in a scene. Then I get sort of organized and make a list or even a spreadsheet to keep track of the details.

I certainly don't recommend this as a way to write a mystery! It is disorganized, not my usual style. And it wastes time, as rewriting is inevitable. I always swear the next one will be thoroughly outlined, but I usually lose interest as soon as I try. I begin with a situation, some characters, and usually I know where they will end up. Everything else is a journey without a map. I am encouraged by the words of the great E.L. Doctorow who says it is like a journey at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

I try to have a routine, though. Ideas and words flow best in the morning, as soon as I am adequately caffeinated, so I try to head for the computer right after breakfast and get in a few solid hours before a late lunch. After lunch, my concentration is blown away and that is a good time to edit, make phone calls, answer e-mail. Do laundry or errands. The tricky part is ignoring that little voice—it is an evil imp—that says, "You will concentrate on your writing more successfully if you clear all those little chores off your desk and off your mind." And then it is lunchtime!

Brooklyn Graves began a long time ago, when I read some news items about thefts at old, neglected cemeteries, and I thought that had mystery story potential. I live near a famous cemetery, not at all neglected but potentially fascinating to write about. And then I went to a museum exhibit about the newly discovered history of the all-women design studio that was once part of the Tiffany Company. I was fascinated and moved and it gave me an idea or two.

Who would I need to tell this story, in addition to Erica Donato, my protagonist, a Brooklyn girl who is juggling grad school in history, a job and raising a teen-ager? The first victim came into focus. A few characters showed up and led to some story lines I hadn’t planned. I needed another victim, a few possible criminals, a lesser problem or two.

Could I put it all in a cocktail shaker and come out with a book? It turned out to be Brooklyn Graves, a story with a charming (I hope) historical mystery, a heartbreaking (I hope) modern one, and a few interesting (I hope) detours.