Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Espionage Thriller: Post-War and Post-9/11

Al and I have been friends for two decades; we met in a writer’s group (where else?) along with Theasa Tuohy. Being a newspaper man by profession, Al’s a fast writer and with an imagination that works at warp speed, he already has a back list awaiting publication. 

After serving with the Army overseas, Albert Ashforth worked for two newspapers. He is the author of three books, numerous stories and articles. His espionage thriller, THE RENDITION, was described by a reviewer as "smoothly written, fast-moving and suspenseful." He is a professor at SUNY and lives in New York City. -Robert Knightly

The espionage novel is a relatively narrow literary genre, and as the world political situation over the last 70 years has gone from bad to worse and back again, the fortunes of the espionage novel have also see-sawed up and down – but with a difference. When the world’s political situation takes a turn for the worse, the situation of espionage novels takes a turn for the better. And vice-versa.

During the 1920’s the State Department established an office responsible for breaking codes and reading messages sent between other nation’s embassies and their capitals. It was our country’s first attempt to establish an intelligence agency. But when Henry L. Stimson, then Secretary of State, learned what the office was doing, he immediately had it closed down and famously said, “Gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail!”

Espionage novels could hardly be written in a time when national leaders regarded one another as gentlemen. Needless to say, things changed with the arrival on the world stage of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin, both of whom began throwing their weight around during the 1930’s. It was hardly a coincidence that three early and successful writers of espionage novels, Eric Ambler, Helen MacIness and John Buchan, also emerged around this time.

Before the 1930’s, very few espionage thrillers were written, and it is easy to see why. In order to have spy novels you have to have spies, and the United States didn’t establish the OSS, the precursor of the CIA, until 1944. Something else you need is a tense international situation. You need a foreign government readers really dislike in order to make the gritty, distasteful job of spying acceptable. First Nazi Germany and then Communist Russia filled that bill very nicely. The Cold War provided both spies and a fierce rivalry, and as the United States and Russia competed against each other with every means at hand short of going to war, espionage – the KGB versus the CIA – was the obvious way to try and beat out your rival. The result was that the last six or seven decades have been a truly great time for the writers of international spy thrillers.

Although Ian Fleming’s charismatic James Bond is the best known intelligence agent of the Cold War years, John le CarrĂ©’s rather drab George Smiley is the most realistic.

Alex Klear, the hero of my novel, The Rendition, also began his career during the Cold War, and he is closer to Smiley than to Bond. He recalls spending much of his time doing the same gritty, dangerous job that many of our intelligence people stationed in Europe did during those years: recruiting and running spies behind the Iron Curtain. Although governments sanctimoniously maintain that the spies they recruit from the other side are motivated by ideological beliefs, the truth is that most come over because they’ve had their arms twisted – in other words, they’ve been blackmailed. Alex and his partner, Buck, often acting on information supplied by the National Security Agency, did the twisting, first recruiting and then running their agents for as long as they could provide useful information. But Alex, who is fluent in German and knows some Russian, finds he is an anachronism after November 1989, the month in which the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. With Russia no longer an enemy, Alex realizes he is no longer needed, and decides to retire.

Although the world cheered the disappearance of the Wall, which was the perfect symbol of Communist oppression, espionage writers didn’t. One espionage writer, Len Deighton, was forced to make last-minute changes to a novel about Berlin, Spy Sinker, but he wasn’t the only espionage writer caught by surprise by this sudden development. The blunt truth is, when world tensions decline, so do the fortunes of spy novelists. During the 1990’s, with borders now open and old rivals becoming trading partners, there were no jobs for spies and no enemies to justify the betrayals and dirty tricks which are part and parcel of espionage thrillers. During the 1990’s, espionage writers had to find new topics to write about.

But with the attack on the World Trade Center things changed yet again. Not since the demise of Hitler and Stalin have espionage writers had such a hated figure as Osama bin Laden. Once again, the end could justify the means, and we could again start opening each other’s mail.

In the years since 9/11, one development in particular has helped make espionage thrillers more popular and more significant. Our government has become tight-lipped. Although the public knows we are fighting a war on terror for which we are spending hundreds of billions, there is very little information about it in the newspapers. Savvy readers are discovering that one of the best sources for finding out what’s going on is the spy thriller, which can take them places even newspaper correspondents can’t go.

For example: Let’s suppose the American ambassador to Afghanistan were to meet with President Karzai to discuss some kind of crisis. If news people are denied access, they can only report that the meeting took place. They can’t make up quotes or write anything they don’t know to be true. The writer of fiction, however, can imagine what the two men might have spoken about and describe a stormy exchange with the president raising his voice and the ambassador storming out of the palace. If the writer has done his job well, he might well have given a roughly accurate representation of what actually happened, and there is nothing to prevent him from connecting the meeting to a subsequent real political development which might involve his hero and heroine. And he could go on from there. The thriller writer is limited only by his imagination and his knowledge of the topic.

And believe me, most thriller writers are experts in the areas they write about.

Since the publication of The Rendition, I have had any number of people ask me, “Say, what is a rendition anyway? Isn’t that when somebody sings a song?”

Well, it used to be, but now the term has an additional meaning, one coined by our intelligence agencies probably because of its lack of either good or evil connotations.

Since 9/11, our government has unleashed a bag of dirty tricks aimed at making life miserable for those who would do us harm. One trick involves kidnapping a terrorist from a foreign country where he might be strolling around openly and enjoying life to the fullest, secure in the belief he is beyond the reach of the American government. A “rendition” takes place when the terrorist, against his will, is snatched off the street or perhaps even grabbed in his home, as one target actually was. In all likelihood, he is transported to a nation friendly to the United States, where he is subjected to “enhanced interrogation,” which means his captors use methods for extracting information that are not permissible in the United States or under the Geneva Convention. Probably the friendly nation passes this information back to us, and we go after more terrorists.

Although Secretary Stimson would be in shock were he to see what’s going on today, we thriller writers are in seventh heaven. In addition to carrying out renditions, our government attacks other nations with drones, hacks into other nations’ computer systems and conducts “black ops.”

When the government doesn’t want to be held responsible for undertaking certain kinds of dirty tricks, it sometimes sanctions a “black” operation, in other words an operation that lacks all traces of government involvement. This is fine as long as things go smoothly, but when they go awry and the government invokes “plausible denial,” it’s nearly always our intelligence officers who find themselves holding the bag. In such cases, they have roughly the same standing with a foreign government that a bounty hunter might have -- in other words, none -- and this is the predicament in which Alex finds himself when the rendition he is involved in goes off the rails.

In the course of the story, Alex bugs a phone, breaks into someone’s home, helps a guy escape jail and of course takes part in a couple of renditions. Although under Secretary Stimson’s definition, he would hardly qualify as a “gentleman,” he makes the grade as a warrior and a survivor.

Albert Ashforth

Friday, October 26, 2012

Your Home Page Needs These Links

After straightening out my thoughts on social media last week I ran out and got a severely short haircut, so short that almost everyone I met on the streets of Lambertville that day remarked upon it, most of them favorably, bless their hearts, one or two saying that I must be very brave. It's a Scorpio thing, I told them. We Scorpios like to completely reinvent ourselves every so often.

Now, however, my web site is obsolete. That woman has hair down to her shoulders. Like my head, my home page must now be reinvented. By me, since I'm my own web designer. So the appearance of the thing needs to change. I'm going to play around with different backgrounds, colors, fonts, and graphics for a while and see if I can come up with something I'm pleased with before I go completely blind. There are elements I won't change, though I might move them to a different place on the page. These are links to various sub-pages. A home page without these links isn't doing its job.

ABOUT (or Bio, or All About Kate, or whatever.) Clicking on this should take the viewer to a short bio, a long bio, and a head shot.

BLOG A link to Some writers run a journal on their home page. I like Blogger because it accepts comments and tracks page views.

SCHEDULE (or Appearances, or Public Appearances.) This links to a calendar or a list of signings, conferences, and lectures. That way folks will know when you'll be in town.

BOOKS (or Works.) Everything I ever wrote that made it into print, with pictures of covers and short descriptions.

MEDIA KIT This should link to a page full of classy, hi-res photos suitable for inclusion in newspaper articles and the cover of MYSTERY SCENE (I should live so long). Now I have to get new pictures taken. My hair is all cut off. Bummer. Maybe that's what they meant when they told me I was brave.

CONTACT This can bring up your email address, or show a page with your email address, your post office box if you have one, and your twitter handle. I'm thinking a post office box might be a neat idea in case fans want to send me gifts of jewelry or shoes. It's also useful for dealing with correspondence from convicts. If you want to do that.

You might also include a link to reviews, if you have a whole bunch of nice ones, a link to free stories and chapters, and a link to your book trailers. But the first six links I mentioned, or five links, if you don't keep a blog, are the most important.

It is also interesting to note that a page without text on it tends to be ignored by search engines. So put some text on your page. Kate Gallison – World's Greatest Writer. Something along those lines.

Anyway here goes. I'm going to shoot for something pretty.

Kate Gallison

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Day in the Life of NYC

Sometimes essays about life in this poetic city write themselves.  This past Monday was one of those days.

I woke up happy, having spent the day before at the wedding of two people so delightful and in love that it made one feel the whole world could be a loving and benign place.  By late morning, it was time to cross town and take my new granddog Peter the perfect puppy for his midday constitutional.  What a pleasure on a day gorgeous as Monday was.  As I left home, my block was crowded with movie makers, their trucks, their food tent, and enough black electrical cables to stretch from Broadway, around the moons of Jupiter and back to University Place.  The filming was going on in a flower shop, life as usual in this neighborhood where they can shoot in any time period from 1887 till sixteen years from now. 

As I started across the street, I heard passerby say to his companion, “There’s a body just lying on the sidewalk.”  Ah, I thought, they're making an episode of the latest Law and Order spinoff.

Peter was his usual essence of cuteness and attracted admiration from men, women, children, and other beasts on his walk in the far West Side.  On the way back across town to pick up the evening’s dinner ingredients in the Union Square Green Market, I passed three people looking into the window of an optometrist’s shop, pointing at the eyeglass frames and talking about which ones might look great on whichever one of them was in need of new specks.  That set me to thinking, as I threaded my way through the throngs on Sixth Avenue and across 15th street: At any given moment in my town there are people buying eyeglasses, falling in love, hammering a nail to hang a picture, making an investment, planning a business trip, having a baby, changing a tire, paying the electric bill.  It’s wonderful to feel a part of all of that humanity.

The green market was beautiful in its harvest plenty.  Purchases in hand, I then headed down University Place for home and came upon cops and crime scene tape.  The movie makers?  But no.  A dead person, an actual person lay on the sidewalk covered with a blanket, blood beneath the head.  A real body.

I have lived in and loved New York for almost fifty years.  I had never before seen a dead body on the street.

A small knot of onlookers had gathered outside the yellow tape.  I did not join them.

A block and half away, around the corner on my block the shoot in the flower shop was still going on.

A couple of hours later, when I had to go back out for another errand, the police were removing the body.  A suicide, a witness who had just been released from interrogation told me.  A young girl, maybe twenty.

She dropped from the building.  He pointed up.  Horror.  Horror.

All human experience surrounds us here.

Some of us try to make sense of the senseless by writing stories about it.  Some console ourselves by playing with puppies.  Or by cooking and sharing good food with our loved ones.

Some are inconsolable.

Annamaria Alfieri 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Guest Today: Alafair Burke

Here we give you the delightful Alafair Burke, not only a delightful writer but also a gracious and delightful colleague.  This is a post from her the past from her own blog, which you can find at:

Go there.  You will find not only her blog and much more about her, but also a photo of Double-Bogey Duffer Burke Simpson.  I would nickname him Mr. Cuteness, a name I would otherwise reserve only for my own family's new puppy, Peter King-Steen.

Annamaria Alfieri

I promise this next sentence is an honest intro to today's post, not just BSP: This weekend I officially joined the board of directors of Mystery Writers of America and became President of the New York chapter. (Pause for applause.) In preparation for the annual MWA board funfest (aka orientation day), the unparalleled Margery Flax requested a biography to distribute to fellow board members. I sent her the usual jacket copy:
A formal deputy district attorney in Portland, Oregon, Alafair Burke now teaches criminal law at Hofstra Law School and lives in New York City. A graduate of Stanford Law School, she is the author of the Samantha Kincaid series, which includes the novels Judgment Calls, Missing Justice, and Close Case. Most recently, she published Angel's Tip, her second thriller featuring Ellie Hatcher.
Her response was polite, quick, and resoundingly clear, something like, "Are you sure that's all you want to include? This is usually a longer fun one, only for internal board distribution." In other words, Yawn, Snore, Zzzz....
I can take a hint, so I gave it another try. Borrowing in part from my website, I allowed myself thirty minutes to hammer out something that would give those who hadn't met me yet some sense of who I am and where I've been. Margery's assurance that this was purely internal was freeing. After I submitted my specially-designated "MWA board bio," I couldn't stop thinking about the sterileness of those book jacket author bios, scrubbed clean of all personality. As writers, we're committed to exploring the human stories that lurk beneath the superficial, but when asked to describe ourselves: Yawn, snore, zzzz..... I've spoken a few times during author appearances about a hypothetical world in which books (like the law school exams I grade as a professor) would be published anonymously, their authors known only by a randomly assigned number that readers could use to "identify" the authors they consistently enjoyed. After all, what separates reading from television and film is the active role of our mind's eye. To read books without knowing an author's age, gender, race, religion, region, education, attractiveness, or work experience might truly unleash our imaginations. Despite my musings about a utopia of anonymous publishing, I've come to realize why publishers emphasize (and readers desire) personal information about authors. The most delightful unexpected benefit of writing has been meeting some of my favorite authors. I already read these folks religiously before I met them, but I'll admit that I read them differently -- and more richly -- now. I recognize the wry winks in Laura Lippman's most leisurely paragraphs. I hear Michael Connelly's quiet voice in Bosch. I think I really know what Lisa Unger means when she writes on Ridley Jones's behalf that she's a "dork." And those short, little, maddeningly frustrating sentences from Lee Child are now sexy as hell. But I didn't get any of that from the book jackets. As the traditional print media and personal appearance opportunities for authors to introduce themselves to readers continue to dry up, many of us have taken to the Web. We do that not only to get our names out there, but also because we recognize that readers are more likely to experience our written work as intended if they come to it with a sense of who we are. (For example, an online reviewer once dissed a line of Ellie Hatcher's, something like "kicking it old school." The fact that it's corny to talk that way is of course precisely why she'd say such a thing. And if the reader "got" Ellie or anything about my work, he'd know that's -- ahem -- just how we roll.)
So as we're knocking ourselves out to convey our souls to readers, maybe we should take another look at book jacket bios. The publishers are going to type something beneath that favorite photo: It may as well be interesting. And so, even though Margery promised to keep this unsanitized bio a secret, I've decided to blast it out to the world:
Alafair Burke is the author of six novels in two series, one featuring NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher, the other with Portland prosecutor Samantha Kincaid. Although reviewers have described both characters as “feisty,” Alafair might accidentally spill a drink on anyone who invokes that word to describe her or anyone she cares about.
Alafair grew up in Wichita, Kansas, whose greatest contribution to her childhood was a serial killer called BTK. Nothing warps a young mind quite like daily reports involving the word, bind, torture, and kill.
From Kansas, Alafair dreamed of fleeing west. Fearing their daughter might fall prey to a 1980’s version of the Manson Family (um, Nelson?), her parents prohibited her from attending school in California. Ironically, she ended up at Reed College, where the bookstore sold shirts that read "Atheism, Communism, Free Love," and Alafair found herself (lovingly) nicknamed Nancy Reagan and The Cheerleader.
From Reed, Alafair went to the decidedly less hippy-ish Stanford Law School. Although she went with dreams of becoming an entertainment lawyer so she could make deals at the Palm and score seats at the Oscars, she eventually realized she had watched "The Player" one too many times, and instead decided to pursue criminal law because she was obsessed with the Unabomber.
Most of Alafair’s legal practice was as a prosecutor in Portland, Oregon, where she infamously managed to tally up a net loss on prison time imposed during her prosecutorial career. (Help spring two exonerated people from prison to put a guy called the Happy Face Killer behind bars, and it really ruins your numbers.) As hard as it is for her to believe, she is now a professor at Hofstra Law School.
When Alafair is not teaching classes or writing, she enjoys rotting her brain. She runs to an iPod playlist with three continuous hours of spaz music (think "It Takes Two" by DJ Rob Bass, "Smooth Criminal" by Alien Art Farm, and "Planet Claire" by the B-52's). She insists that Duran Duran, the Psychedelic Furs, and the Cure hold up just as well as the so-called classics. She watches way too much television, usually on cable. She wants Tina Fey to be her BFF. She likes to drink wine and cook.
She discloses TMI on the Interwebs, blogging regularly at Murderati and logging teenage-territory hours on Facebook. She will golf at the drop of a hat even though she’s bad at it.
Most importantly, Alafair loves her husband, Sean, and their French bulldog, The Duffer. She also loves her parents, but if you ask her about them, she’ll ask you about yours.
What do you think? Should all authors let loose on their jacket flaps? Would it affect that crucial decision of whether to purchase? Would it change how we read? If you're a writer, what should your author bio REALLY say? And if you're a reader, what would you like to know about some of your favorite writers?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Jim Fusilli's Thoughts on The Writing Life

Jim Fusilli, multi-published novelist, also serves as rock and pop music critic for The Wall Street Journal. A native of Hoboken, New Jersey, he has set many of his novels in this area, called "Narrows Gate." A graduate of St. Peter's College, Jim began his career as a journalist and has achieved acclaim in this field, as well as in fiction. His novel, "Hard City," was named Novel of the Year in 2004 by Mystery Ink.

His short stories are delightful. I love especially "Digby, Attorney at Law," which was nominated for both an Edgar and the Macavity in 2010.

As a long-time friend and admirer of Jim's fiction, I invited him to share his ideas with The Crime Writers Chronicle.

Here are a few comments on Jim's work:

  • "A courageous and original writer" …The Boston Globe
  • "Fusilli is simply incredible!"…
  • "Jim's noir prose is peerless" …Kirkus Reviews
  • "If you've ever been in love with New York City - this book is for you!" …The Washington Post

Jim's combination of professionalism and graciousness can be seen in his replies to my questions.

– Thelma Straw

Why do you write novels?

I think the format suits my strengths as a writer: rhythm and tempo; the opportunity to develop many nuanced characters; and the use of setting, both in terms of time and place. I love how the novel promises an extended, intimate experience with readers. We can collaborate with readers and let the novel play out in their minds.

What triggers you to start a new novel - a character? a place? an idea? Other?

My novels tend to revisit the same themes – dysfunction in the family, the value of friendship, identity and alienation. So I look for setting that will encourage the exploration of these themes. With “Narrows Gate,” I had the setting well before I had developed a single character. Until they’re fully drawn, characters are function and representation. After a while, they become people who are like the rest of us: in conflict or in harmony with others who share our setting. Then the adventure begins.

How do you combine your job as journalist and fiction writer?

I plan my activities around my weekly column and other duties for The Wall Street Journal, so I set aside a good amount of time for research, interviews, concerts and performances I’ll be attending, travel, etc. After I have all the data at hand, I try to write the column in one long burst so it has the energy and excitement of the music I’m covering. The rest of my time is dedicated to my fiction.

Do you prefer to write short stories or novels? What are the factors you like in each medium?

I like both. Short stories were a challenge for me and I couldn’t find my way until I began to utilize techniques we see in other media like fast-cutting in film or the way varying motifs work independently yet coalesce in a complicated piece of music. Now I enjoy writing them, though they take an extraordinary amount of time to do well. But as I said earlier there’s something about writing a novel that’s so satisfying. Once I can see the world I’m creating in a novel and can occupy the minds of the characters as they engage it, I’m very content.

What was your best preparation as a child or student or in former jobs for your career as a novelist?

Given my themes, I suppose my childhood in Hoboken was the best preparation. My parents were loving and encouraging in their way, but our extended family was a mess and Hoboken was a dangerous and dying town. Early on I began to go off on my own and reject the conventions of the culture in which I was raised. Not in an aggressive way, but I was determined to become something different than what was expected of me.

Do you work alone, or do you have a partner, team, etc. With what kinds of people do you discuss your ideas and progress on a new book, if any?

I work alone and never discuss works-in-progress in any detail. I’ll say to my writer friends that I’m working on this or that, but I’m pretty vague about the details. I don’t believe a work of art exists until it’s done. By talking about it, you can spend all the energy that should go into the work. When I was stuck on a draft with “Narrows Gate,” I shared the manuscript with two publishing executives. I’d never done anything like that before but “Narrows Gate” was such a different project for me – a big epic that spanned decades and had several independent but ultimately interlocking storylines. I felt I need some guidance. Now that I’m working on a sequel, I’m on firm footing so I doubt anyone but my wife, agent and editor will see it before it enters the pre-publication editing process. Until I shared it with my agent, no one saw or even knew about “Road to Nowhere” except for my wife and one writer friend.

What do you say to neophyte fiction writers - if they want to write a saleable story?

I say: Don't worry about publication. Focus on doing something only you can do. Develop your craft until it raises your work to the level of art. All sorts of rubbish gets published, and it was always thus, even before self-publishing e-books was possible. Try to be great, to write something that will last. Do that and everything else follows.

Is there any novel you wish you had written? Or author you look up to?

I admire many novels, far too many to mention, and many authors I admire for their craft, vision, determination and courage. I’m not the kind of person who wishes for things, but I do read with an admiring eye and I often find myself thinking that a sentence or a phrase or even a single word was so precise and so perfect for the moment that I’m inspired to try to work at that level.

Can you share with us your writing habits - your schedule, methods, oddities, quirks, etc.

I’m very disciplined. I write every day for many hours whether I’m in my office or traveling. It’s my profession. I want to be good at it and if you have any talent, you improve by doing. You have to be relentless. There’s no other way. I can write anywhere; within reason, it doesn’t matter to me where I am. I’ll start writing in an airport, continuing writing after I board and until the cabin door is shut, resume writing at 10,000 feet and keep writing until I’m told to power down. I have a few quirks, but nothing very meaningful. I color-code my To Do list so I can keep track of my progress. That’s a quirk, I guess.

Tell us something about you as a writer we would not know otherwise!

I suppose because I’m the Journal’s rock and pop critic people might assume that I listen to music while I write my fiction. I used to, but I don’t anymore. I can pay close attention to what I’m writing, but my subconscious becomes occupied with the music and I lose that resource. Later, when I’m decompressing and the subconscious should be revealing solutions to problems with my day’s writing or suggesting where my story can go, instead it’s filled with ideas about music. I’ve wasted a writer’s valued resource.

I understand you have a new book coming out in November. Can you tell us something about it and why you wrote it?

It’s the launch of a new series. The debut novel is “Road to Nowhere.” It’s the story of a drifter who witnesses a violent crime against a young woman. He becomes involved, if only briefly and without much passion. Nothing is what it seems, though, and events intensify. When his estranged daughter is threatened, he’s drawn in and finds himself up against some powerful forces.

Though “Narrows Gate” was a success and it sent my career in a new direction, which is what I was hoping it would do, I wanted to do a series again. I like the mystery, crime and thriller communities. I thought I’d learned enough during the past few years about craft and technique to do something interesting – quick and facile and suspenseful, with a balance of violence and wry humor. We’ll see if that’s correct. The main character is mobile – people who remember “The Fugitive” and “Route 66” will recognize the technique of thrusting a character in a new setting in each story so that he becomes involved repeatedly in different worlds while still dealing with his own situation. The response within the industry has been positive to “Road to Nowhere” and the series concept, but it’s up to the readers now.

Our thanks to Jim for sharing these inspiring thoughts!

Thelma J. Straw

Friday, October 19, 2012

Riding the Beast of Social Media

The cool weather is back. I wake from my long summer's torpor and pick up my Authors Guild Bulletin. It says here that other writers are prospering in their careers through skillful use of social media.

How does one do this? A couple of years ago I got some advice from Janet Reid, the Query Shark, who gave me tips on improving my web site (, told me to post on my blog three times a week, and guided me onto Twitter. My Twitter handle is @kategallison. Oh, please follow me. I still don't have many followers. On the other hand I don't tweet much. But this is about to change.

Alafair Burke's Puppy
Alafair Burke (@alafairburke) is good on Twitter, Janet says. I follow her, and it's true. She shares personal stuff without grossly invading her own privacy, a fine line to walk, and interacts gracefully with other tweeters. Besides being a lovely person and an engaging writer, Alafair has a really cute puppy.

J.T. Ellison (@thrillerchick) was mentioned in the Authors Guild article as having an excellent Facebook presence. I looked, and it's true. Odyl helped her design the application, and Involver handles her mailing list. Constant Contact is one of many other services that will do this for people. The mailing list is used to direct the newsletter.

Maureen Johnson (@maureenjohnson) won an award for her Twitter activities. She's a lot of fun to follow. Her web site is very nice, having been developed over a period of years. The visual design is gorgeous, and the functions work well.

All of these women are writers of enviable success, and owe some of it to social media. What are they doing that the rest of us can emulate? Here's a plan.

Write a really excellent book. (Hey, I did that. A couple of times.)

Choose your social media venue carefully. Don't overextend yourself. Nobody does everything. Remember you're going to have to update early and often. Here's what's out there that's been useful for reaching readers:
  • Your web site. You have to have one. I'll tell you what needs to be on it in my next post, and suggest ways to put it together whether or not you have technical expertise. Meanwhile check out the above links to other people's sites.
  • Your blog. That can be the same as your web site, with a little tweaking. Blogger supports custom URLs, and a number of other platforms probably do too. (If you don't know what any of  that means, don't worry about it. We'll talk later.)
  • Your newsletter. You will write this at regular intervals and your mailing service will mail it out to the people who gave them their emails and said they wanted it. (I haven't been doing one. Maybe later.)
  • Facebook. You can put up an author page on Facebook, which is different from the "wall" you use to send baby pictures to Aunt Fanny. It can, and should, be beautifully decorated and fancy.
  • Twitter. Post short, clever observations here, hang around to see what goes on, and become involved in conversations. Post links to items of interest.
  • Goodreads. You should explore that. I'm no good at it.
  • Youtube. You can put book trailers up, if you have the skills or the money, or you can post home movies of your puppy.

There are others. These are the most popular right now. I don't understand the usefulness of LinkedIn to writers unless they're looking for day jobs, but there are groups on LinkedIn where you can talk to other writers.

Be open to hiring help. (For setting up pages and mailing lists, that is, not for writing tweets, blog posts, or Facebook remarks. That's supposed to be you talking.)

So here I go, all set to drum up a little interest before the next book comes out (MONKEYSTORM, or maybe BUCKER DUDLEY.) I'm going to try out some of the things mentioned in the Authors Guild article as well as the things I talked about here. I'll let you know how it goes.

I am not going to get a puppy.

Kate Gallison

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Can Statistical Analysis Tell Us If Our Writing Is Interesting?

For many years, I traveled all over the US and sometimes internationally teaching training programs in corporations.  Some of that time, a great deal of it in my early years doing that work, I was teaching business writing in manufacturing, package goods, advertising , pharmaceutical, and financial companies.  Teaching engineers, financial analysts, and marketers to write clearly and concisely helped develop me as a writer.  Every once in a while, one of my students would give me and article or copies of pages from books that he or she thought would help me make my points or teach my subject in a new way.  At one point, an advertising account executive gave me a couple of charts he found instructive.  They offered ways of counting certain types of words and then using scales to determine if a certain piece of writing was easier or more difficult to read and also if it is interesting or not.  When they turned up in a recent attempt to make room in the file drawers, I looked at them in a different light and wondered if they had any use in the writing of fiction.  Here they are:

The reading level scale, if it actually works, might have some relevance to writers who are hoping to break in to the children's or young adult market.  It might also be useful for people who are looking to break through to the mass market paperback market.

The scale that measures how interesting the prose is never made a whole lot of sense to me as it applied to a chemical researchers progress report or a financial analysts conclusions, but writers of murder mysteries might actually use such a tool.  Suppose one used it, not about the personal connection to the author, but the personal connection to the characters.

What do you think.  Could/should a writer of fiction use such a scale to measure his or her own work?  

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, October 15, 2012

Why New York Mystery Series Travel

Our guest today is the multi-talented Elizabeth Zelvin, a New York City psychotherapist whose mysteries feature recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler. Death Will Extend Your Vacation is the latest in the series, following Death Will Get You Sober and Death Will Help You Leave Him. Liz is a three-time Agatha Award nominee and a Derringer Award nominee for Best Short Story. Her stories have appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and various anthologies and e-zines.Outrageous Older Woman, her CD of original songs, was released in 2012.  On top of which, Liz is a dear and supportive colleague; I am very happy to call her my friend.

Annamaria Alfieri

I love New York. I’ve lived here all my life—if you count growing up in Queens, which my husband, a Manhattan native, insists doesn’t count. I adore my city with its rainbow population, 24-hour energy, and kaleidoscopically innumerable, bright, and constantly shifting little worlds. But sometimes I hunger for fresh air, quiet, and more green leaves and blue water than Central Park provides. I maintain that “out of town” is an essential part of the New York experience. How do you think those of us who live in the Big Apple stand it but by getting out of it once in a while? I leave exhausted, and I come back refreshed and ready to plunge in again.

As a reader, how do you feel about series that jump around? When you open the latest James Lee Burke, would you feel cheated if you didn’t find yourself in steamy Louisiana? Or if William Kent Krueger took Cork O’Connor out of the Minnesota wilderness and popped him into New Jersey? I know readers who were outraged when a recent book by Nevada Barr took National Parks ranger Anna Pigeon onto the streets of New Orleans.
In today’s market-driven publishing industry, editors can sometimes get a bit narrow-minded about where a mystery series is set. If it’s a South Florida series, by gum, they want every book to take place in South Florida. If it’s a Las Vegas series...well, what’s set in Las Vegas had darn well better stay in Las Vegas. The Big Six publishers in particular are wary of anything that might be labeled “regional” or as appealing only to a “niche” market, in spite of plenty of evidence to the contrary. “No one wants to read about Canada” (cf Louise Penny) or “No one wants to read about Italy” (cf Donna Leon), for example. On the other hand, I’ve heard of a New York series set in the music world being dismissed as “niche” by a prestigious smaller publisher located in another part of the country.

The more popular the author, the more latitude in this regard. For example, Laurie King’s Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes get to San Francisco; Margaret Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott gets to Manhattan. But midlist writers like me are expected to keep a New York series firmly within New York. I didn’t know this going in. I originally envisioned my series about recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler and his friends, world-class codependent Barbara and computer genius Jimmy, alternating between books set in the city (as we New Yorkers call it, as if no other existed) and books set “out of town” (as we characterize all other places from Boston to LA and mountains, lakes, and prairies from sea to shining sea).

My original editor nixed that right away. But I got the last laugh in the long run. Death Will Get You Sober and Death Will Help You Leave Him, the first two published novels made good use of the New York setting. I had fun writing them. But Death Will Extend Your Vacation, my Hamptons mystery—oh, aren’t the Hamptons part of New York City?—came out this year. And while I can’t give details yet, I’ll be signing a contract soon for publication of my novella, Death Will Improve Your Relationship, set at a New Age intentional community in the country that’s known to the locals as Woo-Woo Farm. Writers know the importance of conflict in any story. Hey, take New Yorkers out of the city and put them anywhere else, and you’ve got conflict built right in.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Truth about Fiction

I was in the writers group with Theasa Tuohy as she wrote and rewrote and wrote again ‘The Five O’Clock Follies’, her debut novel of the Vietnam War from the viewpoint of a female correspondent with her boots on the ground. The writing is so visceral and detailed that through freelance journalist Angela Martinelli, you stew in the caldron of Saigon — benumbed by the boredom of waiting for the next lead, then dropped into the chaos of the Tet Offensive and the Seige of Khe Sanh. 
Amazingly, Ms. Tuohy did not experience the War first hand: you’d not think that from her narration.
 – Robert Knightly

This business about truth is confusing. Novels should be truer than life? Heightened reality? I spent my early working life as a daily journalist, and truth was truth and facts were facts. And anyone who strayed from that was soon on the carpet, or more likely out the door. Or should I say, anyone who got caught. So when I began struggling to write my first novel – set in Vietnam, of all places – I did one whale of a lot of research. I didn't have to research the main character's dilemma: She was a journalist in the late 1960s trying to prove to the all-male cast of characters that she could do the work. I'd been there done that, all I had to do was teach myself about Vietnam and the "American" war. And as I got rejection after rejection on my early novelistic attempts, I couldn't grasp the meaning behind the comments.

They all were a variation on the same theme: The setting, the characters were mesmerizing, spellbinding, couldn't-put-it-downable. So why didn't they want to buy my book? Because the story didn't work.

I had a hard row to hoe, to figure out how one makes fiction real, breathing of life, yet … what's that extra magic ingredient? At one point, my novel, published this month as "The Five O'Clock Follies," was called "How the Weather Was." I guess I'm into obscure titles, no one knows what "Follies" means either. That's what the reporters in Saigon called the 5 p.m. daily press briefings held there by the military. The "Weather" title came from Hemingway: "All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened … the people and the places and how the weather was."

That's what I was trying to do: Let the reader get a feel, know what it was like to be under fire one minute and drunk at the Continental Bar the next. How the weather was for an unsung hero with notebook and pen or camera. Someone who wasn't drafted, could go home whenever he or she wanted, but was inexplicably there anyway.

I journeyed to a writers workshop one summer at "Sewanee," the University of the South, because Tim O'Brien (“Going After Cacciato”) was there. I didn't find my answer to what was wrong with my "story," but did get a pink T-shirt with an O'Brien quote printed in black on its back: "Just because it never happened, doesn't mean it isn't true." He later said that he never said that, or was misquoted, or something, but I've still got the T-shirt. And am still trying to puzzle out how to answer the question of what is "true" fiction. I think I've learned the answer in my bones, or typing fingers, perhaps, but still not at all clear how to articulate it.

"Follies" is totally historically accurate. The reporter in me made sure of that – the date of every battle, the number of bullet holes in the fuselage of a C-130 limping back from the siege of Khe Sanh, the view from the window of the Givral Cafe across the street from the Continental Hotel. I still have the creased and crumpled copy of a map of 1968 downtown Saigon. I photocopied it from "Big Story," a 529-page tome published by Yale University Press written on a grant by a former newsman, Peter Braestrup. He basically set out to document that the press had caused the loss of the war for the U.S. by overreacting during the Tet Offensive. I didn't realize until sometime later that I was reading the abridged version. Gad, one can only imagine how detailed the two volumes must have been.

I only point this out as documentation that I very well did my research. I read everything I could get my hands on about the war. Strange thing, no one had written fiction about the press and what their daily lives were like. The fiction was all written by grunts, by GIs. The press detailed their experiences as memoir, or reporting. If nothing else, I have filled a hole, a fictionalized account of those undocumented scribes. When I finally travelled to Vietnam some years later to double check my research, I had a bit of a set-to with a guide. When he pointed out what he said was the Opera House, I blurted out without thinking how rude it sounded: "No, that's not the Opera House, it's the National Assembly building." Fortunately, we'd been touring together for several days, and he knew my mission, and just laughed. "You might be right," he said, "that's probably what it was in 1968. But I'm too young to remember."

One critic, Charlene, said: “I had a hard time believing this was a fictional book, as the writing and detail were so great."

I've heard it said that you can't teach talent, I don't know about that. But it's clear to me that it took a long time for me to learn what makes a news "story" different from "true" fiction. I've since finished a second novel and begun a third. It feels like I've finally grasped the concept.

-Theasa Tuohy

Friday, October 12, 2012

Not Talking about Politics

See no politics, hear no politics, speak no politics
I've taken a vow to stop swearing and to stop talking about politics in public. It's tough.

I mean, really tough. The politics part, that is. As for the swearing, #@!*.

Why would I take such a vow? Well, aside from the utter futility of talking about politics and swearing, I'm trying to project a certain image here on the internet. Professional, you know. Cool. Artistic. Above the fray. Okay, so it's fake. Maybe I can live into it.

I was raised to be political. My side of the family were political from their cradles. My grandfather managed the campaign of his cousin, Burton Hill, who served two terms in the Canadian parliament in the nineteen-thirties. My father ran for the Maine state legislature and lost by thirteen votes. (He could have been Ed Muskie.) As a child I was lulled to sleep by the sounds coming over my parents' radio of politicians speechifying at the national party conventions. Large echo chambers. Loud cheers. It was somehow soporific. Both parties, because politics was a sport then, and conventions had uncertain outcomes. My parents weren't activists by the time my sister and I came along, but they were keenly interested spectators.

The night of the Kennedy vs. Nixon election I retired to the rec room with the boy I was dating to hold hands and listen to music. "Aren't you going to watch the election results with us?" my mother said. "No," said my date, "It doesn't matter which one of them wins. They're both the same." My mother was outraged. Later she managed to break us up.

Time passed. (Rather a lot of time.) For many years now I've been married to a nice man who puts up with my morning rants and curses, delivered at the breakfast table while reading the political news in the paper. I'm not an activist, except every few years, when extraordinary circumstances compel me go to Trenton or Washington and march and chant with a group of like-minded people. Those of you who know me well know that I have very strong views. I must confess that I thoroughly enjoy the political Facebook postings of most of my friends. But I don't repost them because everyone has already made up his mind about the coming election and nothing I might have to say will sway them. Not even cursing will help now.

I will say this: Get your #&& to the polls on November 6 and vote. And now I'll be quiet.

Kate Gallison

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

How Cool and Amazing is the Internet

A lot of what is said about the internet has sounded like hype.  No so to me anymore.  Not recently.  Here are two cases in point that seem to confirm what media people say about the internet being akin the harnessing of electricity in the effect it is having on the world. 

 Just yesterday, while researching my next book, I googled a question that had stumped me: In what month do the coffee trees bloom in Kenya?  The first page to come up on the search engine offered no answer to my question.  All it gave me was coffee-of-the-month club companies and sellers of gift baskets containing coffee.  Below those, it listed the websites of various other marketers who thought my question meant I wanted to purchase a 2014 calendar or to book a hotel in Nairobi or to send a bouquet to my Aunt Myrtle.

But then there on page two was this:

I figured a commodities dealer in Kenya would know the answer to my question.  “Contact us” got me an email address so I sent this:  

On Tue, Oct 9, 2012 at 9:44 AM, Patricia wrote:
Mr. Moledina, I write fiction and am working on a book set in Kenya.  Can you tell me what time of year the coffee plants bloom in Kenya?  I would appreciate knowing to make my story authentic.  Thank you, Annamaria Alfieri

Look at the time on my request and the time on this response:

From: Mohamed Moledina
Sent: Tuesday, October 09, 2012 11:07 AM
To: Patricia
Subject: Re: A quick question

There are 2 flowerings in each season, the first after the long rains in March or April and the second and smaller flowering comes with the short rains in October or November. Hope this is helpful.

Good luck,
Mohamed Moledina

p.s. Let me know the title of the book when it is published as would be interested in reading it.
When I thanked Mr. Moledina for his trouble, he told me this:
Hi Patricia:

I am glad the information provided was helpful. And, yes, you may use my name in your blog.

Best wishes,
Mohamed Moledina

p.s. My son, Jamil Moledina has written his first science fiction novel, "Tearing the Sky". I am copying him on this e-mail. Perhaps, you can share your success experience with him to promote his book too?

What else would I do; I googled Jamil’s book.    Jamil is actually ahead of me.  He has a book promo on YouTube!  If you are into SciFi you should check out his book.  The YouTube is worth a look even if you are not. It’s like the trailer for a new episode of Star Wars.

Okay, you say, but this one connection does not confirm all the hype about the internet transforming society.  
Here is another proof:
I am friends on Facebook with two young teenage girls.  One lives in Hollywood, is the daughter of a very successful screenwriter and the granddaughter of a woman who has a PhD in classical languages.  This fourteen year old goes to the Lycee Internationale de Los Angeles.  Her Facebook page says she is married, but that is patently not true.  The other girl is close in age to the first, lives in a hill town in Sicily, is the daughter of a housewife and a blue-collar worker, and the granddaughter of a housewife and a blue-collar worker.  Her Facebook page says she studies philosophy at the University of Oxford. The truth is she goes the local public school in her obscure Sicilian town. Clearly they are both telling fibs on Facebook.
These two girls do not know each other, have no connection on Facebook with one another.  I am undoubtedly that only person in the universe who has met both of them.  YET, a few weeks ago, within less than an hour of each other, they posted the very same picture of a fashion item on their Facebook pages.  It could be just synchronicity.  It looks like a whole more than that to me.  I think it means that all the high and mighty talk that the internet is making us a global village might actually be true.
Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, October 8, 2012

Stanley Trollip on African Beauty

Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip

Our guest post today comes from Stanley Trollip, who, along with Michael Sears, is half of the writing team of Michael Stanley. This weekend Michael Stanley won the Barry award for best paperback novel at Bouchercon for DEATH OF THE MANTIS, latest in the Detective Kubu series, set in Botswana.

Both are retired professors who have worked in academia and business. Mr. Trollip is an educational psychologist, specializing in the application of computers to teaching and learning, and a pilot. Mr. Sears is a mathematician, specializing in geological remote sensing. They were both born in South Africa.

Over the past couple of years, I have gazed in awe at the beautiful and spectacular buildings that my fellow bloggers have written about on "Murder is Everywhere." I’ve been blown away by pictures of monasteries on hilltops and by soaring churches and their stained glass windows. When I travel I’m always amazed by the beauty of buildings that are thousands of years old – the Roman and Greek temples and amphitheatres, the pyramids and temples of Egypt, Angkor Wat, and so on. And I’ve wondered why there are no equally beautiful indigenous buildings in sub-Saharan Africa.

Certainly most sub-Saharan countries have beautiful buildings, but they are almost always European in design and function, as in some of those that Leighton Gage has shown in Brazil. But the ruins of ancient buildings in sub-Saharan Africa, although fascinating archeologically, are not as attractive as their similarly aged counterparts elsewhere.

Why is that?

Is it because gods or spirits were worshiped through dancing and singing rather than at a church or temple? That there were no archbishops or high priests? Is it because the great leaders of African tribes didn’t arrange for huge memorials to be built in their memory? Is it because power was diffused more into communities than centralized? Is it because day-to-day structures were made from wood and grass and not more enduring stone or brick?

I’ve no idea what the answer is.

So where is beauty to be found in Africa other than in its landscapes, people, and wildlife? It is found in its art, particularly in its three-dimensional art – its figures and its masks, usually carved from wood, but sometimes of stone, and occasionally molded from clay. Two-dimensional art is rare, other than the rock art of the Khoi-San peoples.

Although I admire the great European and Eastern sculptures, I have always had a greater emotional affinity to the art of Africa –despite my upbringing being very Eurocentric. The only European style I have a passion for is Cycladic art, particularly figures and faces.

Cycladic face

Cycladic face

Cycladic female figure

The inherent lack of realism in African masks (and African art in general) is generally attributed to the fact that most African cultures distinguish the essence of a subject from its looks; the former, rather than the latter, being the actual subject of artistic representation. This means that African art depicts what the artist feels about a subject rather than what the subject looks like. Consequently African art is about emotion rather than realism.

I have a decent collection of African masks and figures, some of which are, to Western eyes, very weird, particularly the spirit sculptures of the Makonde people of southern Tanzania or northern Mozambique. Yet they have always talked to me. It’s their message that I get.

Here are some examples of African art. Remember much of it is relatively recent (about 100 years is regarded as old). This is because most carvings are made from wood and are susceptible to rot, borer beetles, and decay. African art older than 100 years is rare.

Nok (Nigeria) - 1500 years old

Nok (Nigeria) - 2000 years old

Ife (Nigeria) terra cotta - 300 years old

Benin leopard pair (bronze) - 300 years old
Bwa (Burkino Fasso)

Baule (Ivory Coast)

Makonde (Tanzania) spirit sculpture

Makonde (Tanzania) spirit sculpture

Benin (Nigeria)
Songye (Democratic Republic of the Congo - Kifwebe mask

Bambara (Mali)  Chiwara

Fang (Cameroon and Guinea) mask

Needless to say, I have collected African masks and figures for many years. Here are a couple of photos of my Minneapolis apartment. Very African.

Stan's Minneapolis Apartment

Stan's Minneapolis Apartment

Stan's Minneapolis Apartment

Stanley Trollip

Sunday, October 7, 2012

I Remember Liz… Elizabeth Daniels Squire

Bouchercon Sunday is a fitting time to recall a shining star of the mystery world, a first-rate American writer, who won a prestigious Agatha Award and was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame.

Who left a huge hole at her sudden death in 2001, while on a book promotion tour to Alaska.

An esteemed leader of the Southeastern Chapter of MWA, national SinC, and Carolina Crime Writers, Liz began her career as a book writer in 1960 with Fortune in Your Hand, a history of palmistry, with intriguing data on hands of celebrities such as Dali, Sandburg, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Helen Keller.

PW wrote: "Forceful and engrossing!"

Kill the Messenger was her debut crime novel, about a newspaper publisher killed by cyanide poisoning in his bourbon and the menace of corporate takeovers.

Then Peaches Dann hit the world of mystery with a bang! A Southern amateur detective with a memory problem - who dazzled readers for several books: Where There's a Will, Whose Death Is It Anyway?, Memory can Be Murder, Remember the Alibi, Who Killed What's Her Name? and Is There a Dead Man in the House?

Kirkus Reviews wrote: " A talent to watch!"

I knew her as Dizzy, before I knew Liz the famous author!

A warm, gifted person, devoted wife of Chick Squire, New York Times correspondent, and the mother of three children, Jonathan, Mark and Worth.

Though she ranks high in the pantheon of America's crime literature, Dizzy's pride was in her boys.

One summer, when a group of us were having fun on the beach at Nag's Head, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, she announced — " I am the mother of THREE sons!"

Vibrant, witty, often self-effacing, Liz came from an illustrious literary family.

Josephus Daniels, her grandfather, founded the renowned Raleigh News and Observer, served as Secretary of the Navy and Ambassador to Mexico, and was a friend of Franklin Roosevelt.

Jonathan Daniels, her father, was a famous and prolific author, who also served as Press Secretary to Harry Truman.

A journalist in Beirut and Connecticut, Dizzy was also invloved in the family business in Raleigh.

She graduated from Ashley Hall in Charleston, South Carolina, where Barbara Bush was also a student, then from Vassar.

I remember Dizzy for many little things:

  • Her zany earrings, her prized bargain clothes from Carolina outlets, her unique salads from her own garden.
  • Her prim and proper front parlor in the house at Weaverville, next to the enormous and friendly kitchen, where we were all welcome from morning to night!
  • Her genial hospitality, where friends brought their friends, whatever the occasion.
  • Visits and walks by Connecticut lakes, Carolina beaches, Weaverville woods, shared birthdays in Manhattan, drinks on the lawn .
  • Sharing the mystery galas, the Toronto Bouchercon, the Florida Sleuthfest, the Edgars receptions, the unique SinC celebration at St. Bart's Episopal Church in NYC, where she introduced me to a new writer in a blue silk dress named Annette Meyers, the MWA Symposia at Vanderbilt Hall at NYU.

One special memory - I wish I had a picture of this - took place one Thanksgiving Day. There were four of us, Dizzy, her roommate from days at Ashley Hall, Chick and I - sitting by a picture window in rural Connecticut. We looked out - and watched to our delight - a deer and her fawn, like two silent but majestic ballerinas, tiptoe daintily across the lawn, giving us a private performance!

We can only guess what memorable volumes remained in her brain, when she was taken, so suddenly, from all of us — her family, her friends, her colleagues, her fans.

As they said about John Kennedy… "Liz, we hardly knew ye."

Thelma Jacqueline Straw