Sunday, June 30, 2013

How Mystery Writers Can Use Pacing as a Tool

"Who's Got the Money?"

Morgan St. James has the answer… Did you know federal prison factories manufacture $800,000,000 of merchandise every year? Read this amusing crime caper by Morgan and her co-author Meredith Holland, and find out how some sharp women make the bad guys pay.

The authors toured prison factories and military warehouses, then wrote this amusing novel. The book is fiction, but a former FBI Agent and NYT bestselling author wrote that "It really could happen."

This book tells us about million dollar greed and ironic justice in an industry few of us know even exists.

Please welcome mystery writer, speaker and columnist, Morgan St. James.

Thelma Jacqueline Straw

Pacing is a tool for aging characters or holding them at certain places in their lives, showing how events impact the plot or how timing affects a particular event. How fast or how slow should parts of the story unfold? What does it take to pull the readers through the events, hold their interest and keep them turning the pages? When have you revealed enough and when is it too little?

Think of pacing as the act of changing gears. If you’re driving a manual shift car or watching the gauges, the car tells you when it’s time to shift from second to third or gear down. The same holds true for fiction. The story is moving along and you become aware that something has to slow down or speed up to maintain the effect you envisioned.



If you leave something unresolved or hint at something yet to come in the next chapter, that’s called a cliffhanger. It is one of those devices that naturally picks up the pace and compels the reader to turn the page. After all, they have to find out if something happened. One good way to accomplish this if the scene ends with dialogue is to have a character say something cryptic that foreshadows eminent danger, fulfillment or any other number of events. If you are using an omniscient or third person narrator, the same opportunity exists. Example: If Martin had even a slight suspicion of what awaited him, he might not have taken that fateful step into Joan’s house.

Tools for speeding it up

As a writer, your arsenal is filled with many tools proven to speed up the action. Action is best written in short and medium sentences that move the story along. Some of those sentences might be as short as one word like Run! or Stop! You get the idea. The short bursts heighten the anticipation and, if appropriate, the fear or elation.

When writing action, long descriptions or expository speeches just don’t work. All they do is distract the reader from the purpose of the scene. They rarely resonate as real. That doesn’t mean the scene should be bland—not at all. But stay on point. For example, the person must get from here to there to find the bomb and defuse it. They aren’t going to stop to look in a store window and admire the merchandise. They are going to do anything and everything possible to get there, and that establishes a heart-pounding scene. Obstacles are good because they increase the tension.

Keep it entertaining or heart-pounding

In my upcoming Silver Sisters Mystery Terror in a Teapot, the protagonists, twins Goldie and Godiva, are desperate to get to a house where their mother and uncle are in danger. Stuck in a traffic jam, Godiva tries to change lanes and hits a truck in the next lane. This delays the action (getting to the house), induces tension (they are trying to do whatever they can to get back on the road), and creates the fear that something will happen to the oldsters before the twins can reach them.

One tool is to draw from things that happened to you and make them fit your scene. We used this: Several years ago Phyllice clipped a car at a strategic point that caused our front bumper to fly off, sail over the truck next to us and land on a median strip. Seeing how upset we were, after Phyllice and the fellow we hit exchanged information, he retrieved the bumper of the rental car from the median strip and fitted it into our back seat so we could be on our way. It was hanging out the windows on both sides, but we were back on the road! When we turned the car in, eyebrows raised when we said they would find the front bumper in the back seat. In Terror in a Teapot, a version of this happens to the twins.

Keep it real

By all means don’t put long thoughts in your character’s head when they are working on sheer willpower. Think of what you would do in a life threatening situation. Would you have the presence of mind to think in beautifully constructed sentences and map out what you had to do point by point? Of course not, unless you are one of the few who actually think like that. More often, thoughts are static and disjointed when faced with these situations.

Using scene cuts

Scene cuts are sometimes called jump cuts. Without explanation, the story is moved to a new location or time, and the characters might even be different ones than in the previous scene. This has to be done carefully so the reader is not confused. The main purpose of a scene cut is to speed up the action. Back in the days of heavy movie censorship, the actor Andy Griffith put out a comedy album and in one track he summed up scene cuts neatly. He said something like: He kisses her with passion and just when he is ready to make his next move, time passes and the scene changes. In this case, the viewer was expected to fill in the details between the cuts with their own imagination.


While it is great to have a story that keeps zooming along, sometimes it makes good sense to slow it down—let the reader catch their breath and put everything into perspective. This technique will also serve to build tension. Slowing down the pace is one way to let it layer, leading up to the maximum payoff.

After the cliffhanger

Okay, assume the last chapter ended with your version of “The Perils of Pauline,” or the pretty woman tied to the railroad tracks as the train speeds toward her. What next? How do you slow something like that down unless Superman puts out his hand and stops the train? The answer is to prolong the outcome. If you stretch it out instead of giving the instant outcome, the end result is that it actually speeds up in a way. The reader rushes ahead to find out what happens, reading as fast as possible but not wanting to miss a word. So, how do you slow it down?

Some types of scenes that could benefit from a slowdown:

Romantic interludes

Everything has been happening at breakneck speed for your male and female protagonists. Maybe the detectives are attracted to each other, but who has time to find out? We see this all the time in TV shows. The tension is kept alive with the “will they, won’t they” question. All of a sudden it happens. Do we want to speed past this as well? If the plot calls for it, slow things down. Let the reader enjoy the scene where they kiss...and more.

Emotional decisions

Give your characters ups and downs. Vary the scenes so intense emotions don’t dominate every single page. Let them be confused, afraid or undecided about something. Are they reluctant to take the next step? Why? Does something stop them in their tracks? All of these things can slow the pace but leave the door open for picking it up again anytime you want to. If you give the reader some low moments, they will savor and enjoy the high ones even more.


Descriptions are good devices, but there is a narrow path to be walked here. Too much description and it becomes snooze time. Too little, and the reader might feel cheated. Like they were just beginning to get a sense of the overall picture, but it wasn’t completed. Evaluate how much description you need, and where. Ask others to read these scenes and listen to their reactions. You have lived the scenes over and over and have probably become jaded, but they will read it with fresh eyes.


Flashbacks always slow the action, either in a major or minor way depending upon the content and how long the scene lasts. Again, just as with descriptions, be careful with flashbacks and moderate how you use them. Good flashback scenes will fill in the details and help deliver the backstory, but too many or too long, and you might lose the reader. They begin to flip pages to revisit some of the things they’ve read, because they might have lost the thread of the story. Flashbacks are like having a franchise to peek into the past, but franchises can only be exercised a certain number of times.

Let your protagonist make mistakes

You’ve heard the often-used expression: One step forward, two steps back. If circumstances undo some of what the protagonist has accomplished and another way has to be found, the story is going to slow down for the period of time they are getting back on track. It can be short or drawn out. In either case, mistakes work. The same goes for unexpected events. The protagonist approaches their destination holding a paper with the address. But the building has been torn down. Where do they go from there? Whether pursuing a lover, an opportunity or a killer, this is an opening where you can choose the pace.

Morgan St. James

Friday, June 28, 2013

Grounds for Sculpture

You have almost certainly seen the sculptures that Seward Johnson makes, life-sized people in various walks of life, painted with weather-resistant automobile paint in almost life-like colors, standing, sitting, or horsing around in almost life-like attitudes in every kind of weather. There are two of them right on Bridge Street in New Hope, one a Bohemian-looking plein air painter engaged in his craft and the other a pained-looking woman of a certain age carrying packages and apparently waiting to cross Bridge Street. Don't stop for her, if you see her. She's, um, a sculpture.

In fact, they're everywhere. But soon they will gather at the Grounds for Sculpture, where a Seward Johnson retrospective is taking shape even as we speak. I visited the Grounds for Sculpture yesterday and saw many interesting and wonderful things, some of them sculptures by Seward Johnson. The gardens are lovely. A number of the art works are moving and arresting. But the most arresting image I saw was in the parking lot as we were leaving. It was a cowboy leaning nonchalantly on a fence, traveling across the parking lot on the horns of a fork lift. No doubt he was one of the first arrivals at Mr. Johnson's retrospective show.

Kate Gallison

Thursday, June 27, 2013

My Fungi-side

Ah, finally done. 

I've just wrapped up two intense weeks tackling the edited version of the next Lauren Atwill mystery, No Broken Hearts (coming in late spring 2014). So I'll have a social life again, as much I ever have one. As soon as I returned the manuscript, David and I threw a BBQ for a couple of dozen friends. The simple pleasure of eating off a paper plate and not a keyboard. 

When you're up against the return-the-manuscript deadline, you don't get many breaks. But it's important to squeeze some in. They refresh your imagination. 

But sometimes they don't make you feel better. Case in point: I was cruising an entertaining editor’s blog and on her site is a picture of her office. 

I started feeling a bit grumpy, because I always want my office to look like this:

Editor A. Victoria Mixon in the office I dream about

But instead, it looks like this:

Note that I do have the 4 basic food groups for writers (clockwise from far left): Water (glass), coffee (cup), wine (bottle), takeout (box). 

I kept this shot dark on purpose. The dust doesn't like the light.

As I snapped this, I began to think about pictures I've taken that looked (lots) better. And about how most of those pictures are yet to be organized. 

As you can see, organization is not my strong suit. 

So, once I'd sent the edited version of No Broken Hearts back, I began a search through my folders (and folders) of pictures from past vacations, and came across shots I’d taken when David and I hiked in the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York

Just looking at them, I felt better. I was outdoors again, not stuck in the office for weeks listening to a neighbor's constantly yapping dog while trying to rework dialog. [My neighbor believes the dog protects her, barking at intruders. But if it barks all the time, how is that protection?]

As I said, I felt better. I love hiking, and over the last couple of years have rarely got to do it, with the demands of the other career and writing two books. 

Okay, this is sort of embarrassing — but we're all friends here. I enjoy taking pictures of, well, fungi. Not the kind that sprouts under your camellias after a week of rain, and looks like a nasty aspic. The kind that surprises with shape, color and its artistic harmony with its surroundings. And in the Finger Lakes, just off the woodland paths, you can see the most wonderful examples. And no one disturbs you. In fact, I've found that when other hikers realize I'm photographing fungi, they move on pretty fast.  Here are just a few shots I found in my folders.

Maybe I should get these printed/framed. 

Just to the left of the pizza box, I have nice blank strip of wall.

I don't know why I'm so attracted to fungi.

Maybe because writers often feel as if they're stuck in the dark among detritus.

At any rate, it might explain the condition of my office.

Sheila York

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Dancing to Promote Blood Tango

Last evening was the launch party for Blood Tango at wonderful Mysterious Bookshop on Warren Street in New York.  Among the dear friends who attended was Dan Gaba, photo editor for The Wall Street Journal.  Here is the photo you get when a consummate professional attends your launch.  THANK you, Dan.

I am really too distracted by the events of this week to write a cohesive sentence, much less a whole blog.  In fact, i am on my way in just a couple of hours to Dag Hammarskjold Park near the UN, where my Daughter is staging a tango flash mob to promote the book.  I am bringing the rented generator to run the sound equipment.  It is strapped into the passenger seat of my tiny sports car.

So in anticipation of my own flash mob to share, I am posting a couple of tango from YouTube.  The one I like best is the on of Florence in the snow.  All that snow is an extremely rare sight there.

Once the Blood Tango Flash Mob is edited, you will see it here.

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, June 24, 2013

Hey, I've Got This Great Idea!

Janet Reid is a literary agent who drinks scotch and stalks Jack Reacher. Her progress on both counts can be followed on her blog and on Twitter @Janet_Reid. She's the first agent to be a guest blogger on Crime Writers' Chronicle, and we're very pleased to have her here.

Robert Knightly

Back in the day—before I met that guy down at the crossroads and became an agent—I worked in book publicity. A lot of my time was spent at readings with Q&A segments. One of the worst questions a lot of authors got asked was "Where do you get your ideas?"

The answers ranged from the serious: "I write about what I'm interested in knowing more about" and "I write what the voices in my head tell me" to what I was told Walter Mosley reportedly answered once: "Montgomery Ward."

Now that I'm an agent, I hear from writers who have ideas but are afraid they'll be stolen. One querier emailed me several times concerned about how we disposed of rejected pages; was our garbage collected in a secure fashion? (I howled with laughter at that. NYC Sanitation dudes move too fast to be reading much. The lady who does sort through our trash is looking for something with more immediate cash potential than an unpublished, rejected manuscript.)

Some writers still attach copyright notices to their queries just in case anyone has an inclination to lift their pearls of wisdom and wit. (This is a VERY bad idea. Don't do it. Don't let anyone talk you into/scare you into doing it. All it does is mess up the copyright application when your book is sold and published.)

But those are the flakes and the fodder for cocktail party gossip and writers conference panels. In the reality of an agent's daily grind, we do talk about ideas with authors, particularly authors who have been on submission for awhile and not sold.

While I don't like it if a project hasn't sold, I do like being able to come up with new ideas for my clients. It's fun. And the best part is, I don't have to do any of the work!

Last Friday morning I read an article in Shelf Awareness about people who "bookshop sit"—they tend the store for indie bookstore owners who need to be away for more than a day. My mind immediately turned to murder. What would happen IF… the owners never came back? What would happen IF… the sitter discovered a body concealed in a window seat that had clearly been there for more days than she'd been sitting?

My great good fortune is that I can send these ideas to one of my authors who is looking around for fodder. If it resonates, great. If not, well, back to Montgomery Ward!

I also talk to my authors about ideas for plot and character. When Stephanie Jaye Evans was finishing her second book SAFE FROM HARM, naturally I had the book and characters on my mind. One morning I was standing in the shower thinking about her protagonist Walker "Bear" Wells, and a scene came to me that was so vivid it could have been a projection on the wall. I leaped out of the shower and ran to the phone. I called Steph and shrieked "Eureka!" Fortunately she has caller ID so she didn't hang up.

Some time later, the first 100 pages of Book Three arrived in my in-box. The "shower scene" wasn't the first one, but it was the second. It was very very cool to see my idea there on the page in the hand of a great writer, I must confess.

Not all of my clients want to toss ideas around. Some of them have very fixed notions of what they're going to write, and that's it. Some like to toss a lot of ideas around before settling on one. And some just get calls from their agent, wrapped in towels, announcing they've had a vision!

What does this mean for you if you are unpublished? Think about how you work. Do you like to consider many ideas and get feedback before starting? Do you want an agent who will call you with ideas or do you just want to be left alone to write. Knowing how you work best will help you pick the right agent. ASK as you're interviewing the agents who've offered you representation. We know how we work; we'll be glad to talk about this with you.

What does this mean for if you are published and agented? Don't be afraid to ask for help if you think you need some. Most agents are willing and eager to help their clients with developmental work. I've heard clients of other agents say things like "I don't want to bother her (the agent)." In fact, this is NOT a bother, this is the actual woof and warp of the job. And if you do want help and your agent isn't eager or willing to do that, well, then you have some information you didn't have before, and that's good to know.


Back in the day when I worked in PR, another least favorite question was "Hey I've got this idea. How about you write it and we'll split the money." There was no way to respond with anything other than a less stark version of "You've clearly never tried to write a novel or you'd know how stupid that idea is."

Now when I have an idea I tell someone "Hey, I have this great idea. How about you write it and I'll take 15%!" **

**well I'll also sell it, help you edit it, help you develop your online presence, help you manage your career, and get the next book done too. All for that same percentage!

Janet Reid

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Book Shelves and Their (Dis)Contents

I have just finished Susan Hill's excellent bookish memoir Howard's End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading From Home. If I wrote my own version of such a memoir, it would be called Stephen Sondheim is on the Floor And He Has Lots of Company. Ms. Hill wrote this book because she discovered, while looking for a copy of Howard’s End, that she owned many books she had not read.

I took up her book because I needed solace as I once again try to tame my own collection. My husband has announced that we need new carpets and that the books and shelves will have to be moved. He has also suggested that I might think about getting rid of a tome or several.

I am a bit daft when it comes to buying books. I once told Robin Hathaway that if authors knew how easy it was to sell me a book, they would fight to sit next to me at mystery conferences.

Alas, books require housing. When I lived at Coles House, I was the only boarder to be allowed two book shelves. The good folks at Coles House initially felt that I should make do with one and put any overflow in the basement.

“The basement!” cried a friend of mine who threw herself into the discussion. “That’s like asking Stephanie to put her closest friends in the basement.” I nodded solemnly in agreement and the second bookcase was mine.

When I moved to a studio apartment in Center City, I bought sturdy canning shelves that were wide enough to allow me to put two rows of books on each shelf. But they filled up over the years and pretty soon my books were read and returned to the shopping bags in which I brought them home.

Then I married and my husband cheerfully moved all my books to our condo. Now I had more than one room to fill with books. Joy unrestrained filled my breast. I could not only put the books on shelves but also impose some sort of order on them.

Then we planned the move to Collingswood. My mother in law agreed to talk to the movers when they came to do their estimate.

“What about the books?” I asked her

She chuckled softly. “They say you have 90 boxes of books here. It’s $1,500 just to move the books.”

So my husband decided he would move the books. He would call me at work and leave messages: “Dickens is in Collingswood." or “Ian Rankin is in his new home.”

We’ve lived in Collingswood for almost 10 years now and the books again overflow the shelves. I thought my acquisition of a Kindle would mean fewer traditional books.

I’m sure the Kindle has made a difference but when people come to work on the house they still say, “Gee, I guess you folks really like to read.” A friend of mine who came to visit looked at my shelves and said to her husband, “See, you complain about all the books I have. Doesn’t this make me look like a model of restraint?”

Each Sunday I spend just a bit of time going through my books So many of them bring back memories because of where I bought them or where I was when I first read them. Some of them remind me of the people who recommended them or of people to whom I lent them.

I own a very battered copy of Anna Karenina. It’s a mass market paperback that was produced when PBS did a dramatization on Masterpiece Theater. It strikes me now that the translation isn’t very good and the pages fall out as I turn them. But I can’t get rid of it. It was given to me as a Christmas gift by a woman I met at Coles House. We were both serious readers and delighted to find each other. She had a job but certainly was not making much money. I was so touched by her thoughtfulness. I took the book on my train ride home to see my mother. Amtrak was doing major work along the Northeast corridor at the time and I still remember the bumpy ride as I read.

What people have in their medicine chests is of little interest to me but I always check out their bookshelves. Susan Hill manages to find on her shelves just 40 books that she could be contented with for the rest of her life. (Though it’s not clear that she’s sending the rest to the local church jumble sale).

Maybe some day I’ll be able to show similar maturity, restraint and self-sacrifice, but not just yet.

Stephanie Patterson

Friday, June 21, 2013

Sorting Through my Misspent Youth

As you know, I have been cleaning my attic for some weeks now, in the attempt to put it in shape as a comfortable guest room for company we're expecting this summer. Lambertville is a tourist town. We should have a guest room. What I didn't tell you is exactly what this exercise involves, and how it's not really about Martha Stewart's idea of a guest room, or even the guests, or having an orderly room up there.

No. It's about sifting through every item of memorabilia from my past and choosing what to keep and what to throw away.

I told you about editor Ray Roberts' exhortation to keep the original manuscript of UNBALANCED ACCOUNTS, my first published novel, in a safe place because it would be worth money someday. Or scholars would come around looking for it. I didn't tell you how disappointed he was with my second effort, how he made me rewrite it completely, which took so long that it didn't meet Little, Brown's publishing schedule and had to be postponed for months. THE DEATH TAPE in its final, approved form finally came out in July of 1987, somehow a bad month for a book release, and was reviewed only once, by Henry Kisor of the Chicago Sun-Times (Thank you, Henry). At least he liked it. I liked it, too. In fact I completely forgot about the crappy job I did on the first pass until I came across it yesterday morning while rummaging through the stuff in the attic.

I decided to keep it, just to remind myself. Or maybe I should pitch it out. Why am I hanging onto my old failures? What about this pile of Christmas cards from people who are now dead? Here's a first draft of the autobiographical novel I started. Some of the stories in it are killing. The time I mustered out for the interview for a job as a guard at Trenton State Prison, at a fighting weight of 107 pounds. The time I went to New York City disguised in a gray wig and a funny-looking polyester shirt to eat a steak dinner with my Manhattan bachelor lover. The time I sat up all one foggy night in a car with a private detective outside the apartment where my first husband and his mistress were living.

What rich fare that manuscript would offer the scholars. But there are no scholars interested in my work. The price of that manuscript Ray Roberts returned to me wouldn't send a dog through obedience school, much less put the baby through Harvard. As for the autobiographical novel—THE BODICE RIP'T, I called it; at least it had a great title—nobody is going to want it, no matter how funny it is. Or how horrifying. Mostly it's a horror story. My first agent said, "Katie, no one is interested in reading about your divorce unless you're Nora Ephron or somebody famous." So. Pitch it out? I do have children, after all. There's a lot of stuff in that book I'd just as soon they never found out about.

And so it goes. I really, REALLY want to get rid of the detritus in the attic, but as time passes it looks more and more likely that I'll put it in cardboard boxes and hide them out of sight for another twenty years.

Kate Gallison

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Trip So Far

On the road again.  I left New York on Monday for Matlacha (pronounced mat-le-SHAY), Florida on my way to the Historical Novel Society Conference in St. Petersburg.

My first surprise was the brand new Delta Airlines terminal at LaGuardia.  The space at the gates, rather than being filled with quasi-comfortable chairs, is almost entirely taken up with one-person booths, each one equipped with an iPad on which you can check the status of your flight, order food and drinks to then pick up at the bar, read uninspiring internet newspapers—like USA Today, or play hangman.  There is almost no place else to sit while one is waiting for a flight, except for a tight row of chairs along the windows, almost all of which are marked as reserved for the handicapped.  The whole place carries the air of that interstellar cafĂ© from the first Star Wars movie, and you expect to see large hairy creatures with yellow and green striped horns playing music through their clarinet-shaped noses.

But I came prepared.   I had begun to read Deadly Harvest, Michael Stanley’s latest Detective Kubu novel, as soon as I laid my hands on it at CrimeFest at the beginning of the month.  But though it took a LOT of self-control, I restrained myself and saved the last half of it for the plane ride to Florida.  Good thing too, as the flight was awfully bumpy and only by putting my head in Botswana with Kubu and his new colleague Detective Samantha Kama could I maintain my cool with no one to hold my hand.  Kubu did NOT let me down.

The blue dot is the middle is Matlacha
Here I am now on a relatively unspoiled part of the Florida’s west coast, visiting my friend and fellow writer, Marta Rangel Gibbons.  Marta and her husband Michael are recent transplants to these precincts from up north and in addition to their home, own two cottages, which they rent.  They took me on a tour of them and ever since I saw the smaller one, I have been fantasizing how perfect it would be as a writing getaway when the snow starts to fly in New York round about next January.

View from the back deck of Green Cottage
Marta kindly arranged three appearances for me, the first of which was at a meeting of The Pine Island Writers, which took place just hours after I arrived.  I will go on to speak at the Lehigh Library on Wednesday and the Pine Island Library on Thursday, just before Marta and I set off for the HNS conference.

 It will be my first attendance and I am looking forward to it beginning on Thursday evening.   More about which I will post at some point soon.

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, June 17, 2013

The People Behind the Stories

Suzanne Chazin (rhymes with raisin) has written three novels,The Fourth Angel, Flashover and Fireplay; short stories, essays and magazine articles. She was Senior Editor at Reader's Digest for ten years, and has taught fiction and non-fiction at NYU, the New School and Sarah Lawrence, in the City.

I met Suzanne when I moderated a panel at an MWA dinner (I forget on what). I was intrigued that she wrote about firemen, in and out of the firehouse. I wondered if she were one of those hardy pioneers who had broken into the ranks of the FDNY in the 1980s, then put her experience into books. Not so: her husband is a Chief in the FDNY, but she definitely knows her way around a firehouse. I appreciate her eye and the voice, as I think you will.

Robert Knightly

I’m reading a really great mystery novel by Paul Levine at the moment called Illegal. But what first struck me about the book, before I ever got to the story, was the dedication:

To the woman carrying a rucksack, clutching her child’s hand and kicking up dust as she scrambled along a desert trail near Calexico, California.

I love that dedication because it reminds me that sometimes an inspiration for a story is nothing more than an image you can’t shake. The only way to make sense of it is to write about it.

My first three mysteries were set in the FDNY where my husband is a chief. Yet ironically, the image I couldn’t shake didn’t come from him, perhaps because I was too close to the story to see it. It was the late 1990s. I was working as a writer for Reader’s Digest and my editor asked me to spend three or four shifts (called “tours”) riding with the FDNY for a day-in-the-life story for the magazine.

I got clearance to ride with a rescue company—an elite unit that handles large fires and rescue operations throughout the five boroughs of New York City. As the only woman in an all-male firehouse, I got a quick education in how to “blend in:” get in and out of the bathroom quickly (and don’t put too much faith in the latch on the door). Get comfortable with being dirty and tired. And make sure you’re not the last one on the rig when a run comes in.

I did four night tours—6 p.m. to 9 a.m.—over the course of two weeks and developed a reputation for being “a white cloud.” That’s what they call a firefighter who never seems to catch a job. All the major fires and emergencies kept happening when I wasn’t there. But this gave me a chance to get to know the men and hear their stories.

I soon learned that one of the officers in the company had lost his firefighter brother, a father of three, in a deadly blaze in Queens two years earlier. On one of those long, sleepless “white cloud” tours, the officer opened up to me about the night he was yanked from duty, informed of his brother’s death and then asked to break the news to his brother’s wife. He showed up at their house in the middle of the night and found the whole place lit up like a Christmas tree.

She already knows, he thought. Why else would all the lights be on at 2 a.m.? And then he realized something worse: his sister-in-law kept all the lights on every night his brother wasn’t there. She couldn’t bear the darkness when he was gone. And here he was, standing on her doorstep, bringing her a lifetime of darkness.

Even though I was married to a firefighter, I had never allowed myself to picture such a moment. But that image of the house lit up like a Christmas tree spoke to me deeply, both as a writer and the wife of a firefighter. I knew I had to tell that story—not directly perhaps, but in a way that would capture the uncertainty firefighters and their families face consciously or (in my case) unconsciously every day.

I ended up writing three mystery novels about life and death in the FDNY. Now I’m working on a mystery series that concerns undocumented immigrants in suburban New York. This series also began with a moment. For several years, I had been working with immigrant outreach organizations near my home, helping to write the real-life stories of undocumented Latinos. During this time, I was introduced to a Guatemalan man in his late 20s who had nearly died of dehydration on two separate border crossings. I found myself riveted by his description of those harrowing journeys. Machetes held to his throat. Pistols pointed at his head. Desperate moments in the desert when he was reduced to drinking his own urine to survive.

But what really struck me were the circumstances that led to his second border crossing. He and his kid brother were living in suburban New York at the time. It was winter. Jobs were scarce. A garment wholesaler offered them temporary work in New England sewing clothes. After two weeks, with their wages in their pockets, they were ready for the trip back to New York. To celebrate, the kid brother ordered Chinese takeout—chicken and broccoli—to be delivered to the motel where they were staying. By the time the food came, the brother had fallen asleep so the man went downstairs to pay for the food. Instead of a Chinese delivery clerk, he was met by immigration agents who arrested him, shipped him off to a detention center and eventually deported him back to Guatemala. (His brother, by the way, slept blissfully through the whole ordeal and never got arrested or deported).

Imagine your whole life being upended over an order of Chinese takeout! Imagine having the courage and determination to undertake that dangerous, brutal, near-death journey all over again. (Not to mention still being on speaking terms with your brother afterwards.)

There are writers who could think up these situations out of thin air. Maybe it’s because I started out as a journalist, but my inspiration almost always comes from real people. Their stories keep me honest. And forever indebted.

Suzanne Chazin

Sunday, June 16, 2013


Do You Ever Experience Rejection As a Writer?

Not long ago I read a blog by the crime writer Connie Archer titled " Rejection" and it occurred to me this was a topic the readers of Crime Writers Chronicle might find helpful, perhaps a tiny ray of light on a dark and stormy day, when you just got " that letter " from your agent or publisher. I got in touch with the author of the blog and invited her to lend her article to us here. I hope this will help you feel your are in good company - we all have to experience rejection - it is as common as the air we breathe…

Thelma Jacqueline Straw

Rejection… that thing we all dread—not just those of us who are writers, but every soul on earth. That cold dismissal, or the possibility of it, strikes terror into our hearts. How do we deal with it? How do we recover? As writers, we send our creation, our baby, out into the world to be possibly torn to shreds and rejected—the product of our blood, sweat and tears, the story we have labored over for months, perhaps years. How do we pick ourselves up and continue? Do we toss our manuscript in the rubbish heap and nurse our wounds? Curl into a fetal position and crawl under the covers? Weeks later, are we able to return to the keyboard to peck away at a new idea?

I came to writing rather late in the game after years of working as an actress. That craft was my first love (notice that I use the word craft, not business). But I’ve always been an avid reader and a rabid mystery and thriller buff, and finally worked up the courage to try my hand at one myself. Grinding out that first book took me a long time—a few years in fact. It wasn’t easy. It was terribly hard, but I was very lucky indeed because I was offered a contract with a wonderful agent. In fact, at the time, even though I was thrilled and over the moon, I really didn’t grasp just how fortunate I was.

During that time, I had a phone conversation with my new agent who, bless her heart, cautioned me that (1) there really wasn’t a whole lot of money to be made and (2) there was always the possibility, likelihood in fact, of rejection. Well, since I was amazed I had managed to not only finish a book but find an agent, I wasn’t too put off. My instinctual response was to say, “Rejection? Are you kidding? I’ve been an actress for years. I could write the book on rejection!” But for once I wisely kept my mouth shut.

I’ve heard from and read about writers who were devastated by rejection. Okay, that’s tough, I thought. But suck it up! Make your book better for heaven’s sake and stop whining about it. Rejection is when you finally get the interview with the theatrical agent you’ve been struggling to meet and at the end of the session, she says, “Thanks, dear, but I’ll pass. You’re different, but you’re not that different. I love the bracelet by the way, you can drop it on the desk when you leave.”

Disappointment is when you’ve signed with your next agent, then discover he’s been arrested for sexual assault—only on non-union women I might add. He didn’t want any hassle with SAG or AFTRA. Devastation is when your agent goes bankrupt and didn’t bother to tell you. In fact, they were holding your residual checks and now you can just get in line with other creditors for your money. Rejection is when you’re halfway through that riveting monologue you’ve worked on for weeks, paid a coach for direction, and a flat bored voice calls out “Next!” from the back of a darkened theater.

When I received my first rejection from a publisher, I was amazed! Okay, they didn’t go for my idea, thought it wouldn’t sell. But they WROTE BACK! I actually heard from someone that they didn’t like my book! Wow! Amazing! They responded. More than I ever got as an actress. Rejection always came in the form of deadly silence—the phone refusing to ring. For days you delude yourself that it’ll probably take a while for the powers that be to make a decision—after all there were only three people called back to the producer’s session. Surely I stand a good chance, don’t I? When in reality the producers made the decision three seconds after the last actress left the room. No one ever bothers to tell you or your agent.

I received a call one day from a good friend who was on a studio lot after an audition and had suddenly become incapacitated by depression.

I asked, “What happened? Didn’t it go well?”

He said, “Oh, yes, it went fine. But I was walking back to my car and passed a dumpster. A HUGE dumpster and guess what it was full of?”

“What?” I asked.

“Eight by tens. Thousands and thousands of 8x10’s. All those hopes. All those dreams. A dumpster full of them.”

Another friend once said, “The best reading is the one you give in the car on the way home.” She was referring to the phenomenon of kicking oneself in the backside for hours after the audition, wondering why you weren’t as brilliant in the casting session as you now are in traffic.

As an actor, you’re lucky if you have the script a day or two in advance. You memorize the lines, you research the show, catch an episode if you can, suss out the style, the pacing, second guess the producers and directors as to what they might want. Do your best not to psych yourself out that you’re not right for the job, fight the waiting room nerves, and when you’ve spent anywhere from twenty minutes to (I’m not exaggerating here) two hours to hear your name called, you walk through the door and face the firing squad. You’re being judged the second those people lay eyes on you. You must, you absolutely must, exude confidence. You’re prepared, you can do this, you have just a few seconds to slip into that character, cry, laugh, convince them that you are the person they need to hire. And then the director’s cellphone rings. He says, “Excuse me, it’s my location manager. I have to take this.” How rude, you think. And you know in your gut it’s more likely his wife calling with a grocery list.

So how do you deal with it? Rejection? Is there an easy answer? If there is, I certainly don’t have it. The only thing I’ve ever found is to do the very best job you can—no matter what the medium. Listen to criticism with an open mind. If it’s valid it will ring true. If it’s not, then trust your instincts and your hard work and keep on believing that what you have to offer is worthwhile.

We can’t control the marketplace. We can’t be all things to all people. Not everyone is going to love us, or love our work. But what we can do is to do the very best job possible, not be thrown off base, not be sabotaged by someone else’s ego or judgment. Know in your heart that your idea, your plot, your book is the very best it can be. The only true solace is to know you did the very best work possible. (And sometimes that even works in traffic.)

A well known director once said to me, “Always remember this. Those people on the other side of the table can’t do what you can do. They wish they could, but they can’t. There’s no reason to be intimidated by the ones who have the power to hire you. After all, they’re really just hoping you’re perfect because they want to break for lunch.”

Connie Archer

Twitter: @SnowflakeVT

Friday, June 14, 2013

Ghosts in the Attic

I'm cleaning our attic.

Guest room from Coastal Living.
Not my attic.
Guests are coming, and the finished, air-conditioned attic is our guest room. Ideally, it should look like something dreamed up by Martha Stewart, with fresh flowers, bottles of mineral water, plump pillows, chocolates (why should the hotel-goers have all the fun?) and a general atmosphere of restful sweetness. The reality in our attic is somewhat different. We have lived in this house for thirty years, accepted a number of unwanted gifts, taken up and abandoned many messy hobbies, and raised a son to manhood while heaping him with toys and enshrining all his schoolwork and youth baseball trophies. All this stuff finds its way to the attic.

Then there are my papers. When I heard some years ago that Toni Morrison's house had burned with all her old papers, causing her unutterable distress, I thought, Lady, you don't know how lucky you are. Of course, scholars want her papers. They don't want my papers. I'm going through my papers right now, throwing out things. I found a padded brown envelope from Little, Brown with the original manuscript of UNBALANCED ACCOUNTS, together with a little note from Ray Roberts, my first editor, may he rest in peace. It read:

October 31, 1986

Dear Kate:

Here's the original manuscript of UNBALANCED ACCOUNTS. You must be sure to put this in a vault. It will put the baby through Harvard one day.


I did not put the manuscript in a vault. Eventually I put it in a box under the guest bed with some early drafts of various books I wrote later. Nor did the baby go to Harvard. Now I have dug out the box and thrown the drafts away. I'm keeping Ray's note, and the manuscript from Little Brown. But not in the attic.

A list of things to address is posted on my old sewing project bulletin board up there. The papers came first. Next comes the sewing. I once used the attic for a sewing room, collecting attractive dress patterns and beautiful lengths of fabric until I had more than I could do anything with in several lifetimes. Eventually one faces this. I have an absolute maximum of ten more projects left in me. So now I have to select ten patterns and ten hunks of yard goods and let all the rest go, probably to the church flea market, along with most of my knitting yarn.

Thymes Frasier Fir:
a Really Good Air Freshener
After that I tackle the toys. I'll hang onto enough to keep visiting little ones amused, but most of the toys will have to be given away. Perhaps I'll paint the walls, hang a few more pictures, make curtains. Already it smells a lot better up there than it did, what with finding and cleaning up the cat dump under the bed and putting out a really good air freshener.

You might say, all this is too much trouble for a few overnight guests, Martha Stewart to the contrary notwithstanding. Perfectly true. The guests create a more or less artificial deadline for a task that has to be done. You see, I have to clear all of this crap out of the attic so that my heirs don't have to. No, it's okay, I'm not sick or anything, but who wants to wait 'til they're sick to clean the attic? This way I get to linger over all the old bits of my life, find a place for them or throw them out, get comfortable with the past.

When I'm finished with this work I'll scatter sea salt on the floor and say some prayers to take care of the ghosts. One of my friends told me there were actual ghosts up there.

Kate Gallison

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Sweet Mysteries of Life

Today, I am happy to introduce Charles Salzberg, author of the Swann series of novels about a finder of missing persons.  Charles  is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in New York magazine, GQ, Esquire and the New York Times Book Review.  He is the author of Swann's Last Song, nominated for a Shamus Award for Best First PI Novel, the sequel Swann Dives In, and the upcoming Devil in the Hole. He has also been a Visiting Professor of Magazine Writing at the S.I. Newhouse School for Public Communications, and teaches writing at the Writer's Voice and the New York Writers Workshop, where he is a Founding Member.  You can find out more at

Annamaria Alfieri

A few years ago I found myself on a panel with several other mystery and crime writers, most well-established.  I was pretty much a novice, recently having published my first detective novel, Swann’s Last Song.  In a way, I felt like a fraud, since I had spent a couple decades writing non-fiction books and magazine articles, while always thinking of myself as a “literary” novelist, whatever that was.  After writing a few novels with nary a crime in sight, other than the “personal” crimes we commit each day, I had tried writing a detective novel merely as an exercise, to see if I could write something where a tightly woven plot was critical.
            When it came time for questions from the audience a woman asked, “what’s the different between mystery writing and any other kind of writing?”  Without thinking, I blurted out, “there is no difference.”  Quickly realizing I had to back this up, I added, “every good novel is a mystery.  If not, why would you bother turning the page to find out what happens next?”
            A couple of the other panelists nodded in agreement, and then we went on to the next question.  But later, when the panel was over, I couldn’t help coming back to this question and my answer.
            I hadn’t really considered it before but what I’d said was not only true but essential for me as a writer.  It brought to mind other questions I and no doubt other writers have been asked over the years, namely, do I write from an outline and do I know the end of a novel before I get there?
            The answer to both is, no.  For me, an outline would not only be scary and inhibiting, but also confining.  When I write mysteries or in my case detective novels, I think my plots would suffer terribly if I knew where I was going.
            Especially in fiction, I think it’s essential to keep the reader guessing.  I’m afraid if I know where I’m going, so will my reader.  And so, not only don’t I know how, where and when my novel will end, but I don’t even know what’s going to happen on the next page, often even the next sentence.  For me, this keeps the writing fresh and if it’s fresh for me I’m assuming it will be for my reader, as well. 
            Another way to accomplish this is to constantly do the unexpected.  It’s what I tell my students to do all the time.  When they get to a point where things seem to be going swimmingly toss in a hand grenade to shake things up.  It’s similar, perhaps, to a plot twist, but it’s really more than that.  To me, it’s a matter of setting up a roadblock that the character, or really the author, has to overcome.  It’s like those speed bumps meant to make drivers slow down, and slowing down means having to think more about what you’re writing. 
            For instance, in my last Swann novel, Swann Dives In, in his search for a missing coed, skip tracer Henry Swann comes across a beautiful college professor.  The temptation was to have them get together, she seducing him or vice versa.  But this seemed stale and predictable to me and so, with no prior planning, I made her a lesbian.  Suddenly, the whole arc of the story changed, as did their relationship.  It made me a better, more creative writer, because I had to think of my feet.  I had to make it work.  This is far more like life, which can be unpredictable, capricious and uncontrollable.  Just when we think we’ve got it whipped, we’re thrown a curve when we’re looking fastball, and if we don’t adapt we’re done for.
            Of course, there is no right way or wrong way.  Other writers need to know just where they’re going and how to get there.  The two schools of thought are personified by two talented immensely talented, but very different kinds of writers.  Truman Capote claimed he couldn’t write the story unless he knew the ending, while Norman Mailer claimed he couldn’t write the story if he did.  I’m with Mailer.  Why would I even bother writing it if I know how it ends.  The thrill for me is in the discovery of what’s going to happen, how the characters will act and react.  And if you’ve created “real” characters they will react in real ways, ways that you don’t have to manufacture. 
It’s a clichĂ© that they take on a life of their own, but it’s true.
And so, each time I approach the computer there is a sense of dread, but also the excitement of not being quite sure of what’s going to happen next. 
That’s the real mystery.

Charles Salzberg