Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Leighton Gage, a Personal Remembrance

At Bouchercon in Indianapolis in 2009, Leighton Gage moderated a panel called Murder at the Edge of the Map. The other writers on the dais included Yrsa and Stan. Since my first novel, out just a month, was set not only far away, but long ago, I was anxious to hear what other, more experienced writers had to say on the subject of stories set in exotic locations. The meeting room was packed with people.

Leighton showed the audience a bracelet he wore, made by a Brazilian Indians, that was a charm to boost one’s creativity. I remember wishing I had such a thing, but I was too shy to introduce myself to Leighton, much less ask him where I could get one. Had I been more courageous, I have no doubt he would have sent me one, if not taken his off and given it to me on the spot. That was the kind of man he was: generous, giving, helpful, encouraging. But I did not know that yet.

Several months later, out of the blue, an email from Leighton arrived in my inbox. He had searched me out to tell me that he had read City of Silver as part of his service on the Edgar Awards jury for best first novel. He had been disappointed that the book had not garnered a nomination, and he was talking it up on internet chat rooms because he knew how difficult it is to get a good book noticed. He invited me to Murder is Everywhere to do a guest post. He stayed in touch, always encouraging, open, warm, and charming.

Then, one day, we found we would both be in Italy at the same time. He came with his friend Jes to visit me in Florence. We had two days to eat good food, drink good wine, and talk writing, books, the biz, life. In those days, Leighton learned of my husband’s Alzheimer’s disease. One of the things I confessed to him was that my weekends were lonely, when I was caring for David on my own and when the love of my life could no longer be a companion. After that, on Fridays Leighton would write me an email posing a subject for discussion, usually one having to do with writing fiction. Then, through the weekend, he would keep me company in long written conversations.

In the past few days, with comments here on Murder is Everywhere and on Facebook, it has become clear how many people Leighton befriended in just such ways. It’s impossible to fathom how he had the time to do all that while being a loving husband and father AND writing such wonderful books—one every year.

The people Leighton gathered around him are themselves a warm, welcoming, affectionate bunch. They are generous and bring out the best in one another. They are different from Leighton and from each other in many ways, but not in all the virtues one would desire in a colleague and friend. He brought out in others what was wonderful in himself. It seems a magic trick, but he performed it. Then he gave us one another.

My gratitude and love and admiration are Leighton’s forever.

Annamaria Alfieri

Friday, July 26, 2013

Serials, Continued

The serial, with its attendant cliff-hanger ending, is as old as Sheherazade. You will recall the story of the sultan's bride, who told him a tale with a cliffhanger every night to keep him from chopping her head off in the morning. In the nineteenth century, and well up into the twentieth, magazines published serial fiction, paying the writers by the column inch (in case you ever wondered why the works of Dickens were so long).

When I was little, serial dramas were acted out on the radio, not only the housewives' soap operas but comic-book style stories for kids, Little Orphan Annie, Sky King, Tennessee Jed, or Jack Armstrong (the All-American Boy). The episodes were fifteen minutes long. Can you imagine? Nowadays it takes fifteen minutes for a TV show to get through the commercials. We would sit transfixed in the big chair in front of the radio, spoiling our supper with handfuls of cookies, waiting to see whether Sky King had rescued Penny and Clipper.

Serials featuring plucky damsels in distress, such as the Perils of Pauline, pulled in many an eager moviegoer in the silent era. Later movie serials appealed to boys. The grim-jawed heroes often served in the armed forces, sometimes flying airplanes, struggling with the customary mad fiend bent on world domination, if not Hitler then Doctor Destruction. Each episode ended with the hero going over the cliff in a car, or falling out of his airplane, or being crushed in a mine explosion. The following episode would begin, "after Captain Bruce Bammer was rescued from the mine, he…"

So the technique is there to be used. Make your audience root for the hero. Involve them deeply in his life. Then do something terrible to him at the end of every episode.

Modern audiences like their serial dramas in bigger chunks than fifteen minutes; an hour or an hour and a half works well on television. And they will wait all summer for the next season of, say, Downton Abbey. But how does this translate into print media? How long should a serial episode be? How many episodes make a story? These questions are still up in the air. Some writers are capable of spinning off an infinite number of episodes of, for example, a sci-fi thriller, and others want to wind it up while the readers are still young. It seems to depend on what the traffic will bear.

How much closure do you need at the end of an episode? That's another question. Some folks are unhappy that the episodes end with cliff-hangers, and to them I say, go read a short story. It's a different form.

It may be that reader input will come to direct the way some of the serial stories will go. There are folks who are horrified by this idea. I'm not one of them. I'll consider suggestions from my friends, so why not from strangers on social media? This is the twenty-first century, after all. How many of us are solitary geniuses cranking out inviolable works of brilliance? As I always say, we'll see how it goes.

Oh, right. I almost forgot to put in a plug for BUCKER DUDLEY.

Kate Gallison

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Writer Prepares (A Nice, Cool Cocktail)

It’s been a brutal summer. Normally, my part of the Northeast — northern New Jersey — rarely gets above the low-80s, and then only for a few weeks late in the season. When I moved up here from Houston years ago, I thought I’d left behind the feeling of breathing through a hot, wet blanket — and the palmetto bugs the size of container ships. The bugs didn’t follow me north, but we've had mid-90s heat and smothering humidity since late June. 

So what does a writer do when she doesn’t have air conditioning in her office? 

What any self-respecting writer does: She drinks.

Okay, not while working. I’ve never believed all those stories about storied writers who were blasted while turning out top-notch prose. So many of them carry the implication that drinking somehow made the writing better, rather than the writing being excellent despite the alcoholism. I know for damned sure alcohol does not improve my writing.

A refreshing summer cocktail, however, can be the perfect end to a sweltering workday. And as we head into August, I thought I’d share a few of my favorites. Among the recipes I had available, I looked for three important characteristics: They had to be intended to be iced; relatively easy to make; and have flavor that popped. No bland or cloying drinks for us. Cool, easy, bracing, refreshing, those are the cocktails for a long, slow, sultry summer evening.

For my final choices, I consulted my über-cool neighbors across the street, who are cocktail enthusiasts (and one is a forensic anthropologist, so I have him on speed-dial for two reasons). They are the ones who introduced me to the work of Tom Richter, a bartender at The Beagle in New York City. My new personal favorite summer cocktail (Saints & Sinners) was passed along from him. [Tom also sells his own tasty tonic for a new twist on that summer staple, the gin & tonic, called Tomr’s Tonic.]   

Before we get started, a note on measurement. Most shot glasses are 2 oz (not 1 oz). You can test that by filling your shot glass with water and pouring the water into a 1/4 measuring cup. If the water fills the cup, it's 2 oz. 

Here are the cocktails my friends and I settled on:

The Dark & Stormy

A writer just has to start here, with that name. This is a Bermudan cocktail created in the early 1900s. Relax and stop worrying about that opening sentence for your book.

Pour over ice in a chilled glass:
3 oz chilled ginger beer (or more if you want to reduce the alcohol ratio)
1 oz dark rum
Stir; garnish with a slice of lime
[Ginger beer is non-alcoholic and available in larger liquor stores and supermarkets.]

The Negroni

Created in the days of silent films (this one's for Kate), this is extra easy to make for more than one person: The proportions are 1-1-1. The shaker also provides a bit of theater if you make this for guests.

The basic recipe for one cocktail (add more ice if you're making a shaker-full):

Place a half-dozen ice cubes in a cocktail shaker. Add:
1 oz good gin
1 oz Campari
1 oz sweet vermouth

Make sure the shaker lid is secure and shake until your hands get icy cold. When they start to hurt, that’s when it’s ready.

Strain into a chilled martini or highball glass (I like mine in a highball glass with ice, but a martini glass — or as in the picture, an old-fashioned champagne "coupe" — makes a nice presentation). Garnish with a twist of lemon or orange. If making a twist is too much trouble (and it can be), forget the garnish. 

Note: You could also muddle (crush) some slices of peeled orange in the shaker before adding the ice for a bit of extra flavor and some light (tasty) pulp in the drink. And a rationalization that you're drinking healthy. 

Saints & Sinners (or Saint & Cynar)

This delectable concoction requires sparkling wine (which won’t keep long in the fridge after opening), so it’s probably best for when you have friends over.

To a tall mixing glass (or a pitcher) with ice cubes, add:

2 oz St. Germaine (which is an elderflower liqueur)
1 oz Cynar
4 oz chilled dry sparkling wine (I recommend Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut; it’s inexpensive and tastes just fine)

Stir to chill well; pour only the liquid into a chilled highball glass with ice cubes in it; garnish with orange slice or orange twist.

Safety Note: Never use a shaker for this drink. We’re talking about a carbonated beverage here, which can explode if shaken in a closed container. (Think about what happens when you shake a carbonated soft drink.)

Enjoy!  Have a refreshing August!

Sheila York

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

How is the Book Doing?

Within a couple of days of the launch of BLOOD TANGO, people not connected with the publishing industry started asking me, "How is the book doing?"  Depending on how much I cared about the person asking the question and, more importantly, how much I wanted that person's approval, I answered with evasions or the truth.

Typical evasions:
"The launch party went well, was well-attended."
"I have bunch of events scheduled and have high hopes."
"It's kind of early to tell, but with the author appearances I have scheduled, it should get a boost."
"I am happy with it so far."

The truth:
"I have no idea.  My publisher will send me a royalty statement in January, and I will find the thousand or so numbers on the page incomprehensible."

More truth:  If the royalty statement comes with even a small check, I will be ecstatic, but I never say that to anyone.  (But I have said it to you.)

For the past ten days, in response to that question, I have brought up the instructive story of J.K. Rowling's experience as an unknown, first-time author and what happened after her lawyer betrayed her, and it became known who actually wrote that now runaway best seller.

In the meanwhile, a mystery writer friend told me how to use Amazon Author Central.  Now I can get news every Friday morning.  Not complete news, but news.  In week one the report was not fabulous, but okay and interesting, especially given the fact that Blood Tango is selling the backlist--a surprise since my books so far have been stand-alones.  In week two it was dismal.
I persist with my promotional activities.  I'll keep you posted.

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, July 22, 2013

How I Got To Be Sam Cabot

SJ Rozan, born and brought up in the Bronx, is, as SJ Rozan, the Edgar, Shamus, Anthony, and various other award-winning author of 13 novels. Feeling like that was a lucky number, she's now taking a break and being the Sam half of Sam Cabot.

…And she's a fair hand in a pickup game of hoops.

Robert Knightly

A book called BLOOD OF THE LAMB is coming out on Aug. 6, by a writer named Sam Cabot. It's a paranormal thriller, full of vampires and the Vatican. Now, the thing is, Sam Cabot is me. Or, half of him is: the Sam half. The Cabot is my writing partner, Carlos Dews. (Get it, Sam = SJ, Cabot = Carlos?) What this means is, I've co-written a paranormal thriller set in Rome. Right in that sentence are four things I never thought I'd do. Co-write, paranormal, thriller, Rome. How did this happen?

I was swept up in a perfect storm.

I'd finished the third book on a three-book Lydia Chin/Bill Smith contract (GHOST HERO) and had not been struck by the lightning of a great new idea yet. A few months earlier I'd a written my first ghost story, "The Path," for the Charlaine Harris anthology HOME IMPROVEMENT: THE UNDEAD EDITION, and found out thereby how much fun, and how challenging, the supernatural can be. The book before GHOST HERO, which I know sounds like a paranormal but is not, was a Bill Smith-narrated novel called ON THE LINE that I'd written as a ticking-clock thriller just to see if I could. And in three of my previous books—a Lydia Chin book called THE SHANGHAI MOON, and my two standalones, ABSENT FRIENDS and IN THIS RAIN—I'd used multiple points of view. So all those ingredients were in place when Carlos Dews, whom I'd met about six months before, announced over drinks with friends one evening that he had a great idea for a thriller, a truly fabulous doozy of an idea, but being a literary academic (he is, classically, an English professor; he teaches at an American university in Rome) he knew enough to know he had no idea how to go about writing a thriller and did anyone know anyone who might want to collaborate? One of the other folks there turned to me and said, "SJ, this is right up your alley, why don't you work with Carlos on this?"

At which point I turned to myself and asked, "SJ, why didn't you leave this party ten minutes ago?"

Yes, I thought it was a terrible plan. Co-write? Me? I hadn't heard Carlos's idea yet, and I didn't want to. I wanted no part of the entire project. But I couldn't say to the guy, "I don't care how &^%#*! good your idea is, it's not good enough for me." I mean, how high-falutin' is that? So I agreed to meet with him over coffee a few days later to hear this idea.

And from that moment on I backed into this project every step of the way. Okay, I agreed it was a great idea, but we couldn't possibly have the same notion of what "working together" would mean. Yes, shockingly, we did; but Carlos, being an academic and not a genre writer, would have no thought as to how much world-building would have to go on before we could even start a paranormal. Well, yes he did, and had worked out most of the answers to my world-building questions already. Fine, but since I'd be the writer on this project and he the research, edit, and co-plot guy, he was bound not to like the loss of control over a story he'd had pieces of in his head for a year, once I started actually bringing the characters to life. We got that far: I sent him three chapters. He was back in Rome by then, so I sat back and and waited for the explosion from across the sea.

He loved them.

So, well, what the hell. BLOOD OF THE LAMB was underway. We sold it on 20,000 words and an outline and the publisher, Penguin/Blue Rider, wanted to know if, one, we were planning it as the start to a series and could we give them a second one if they made an offer; and, two, would we be willing to use a single, pseudonymous name on the book.

And that's how I, and Carlos Dews, got to be Sam Cabot.

Sam's working away on volume two in the Novel of Secrets series, a book to be called SKIN OF THE WOLF. He hopes that you check out BLOOD OF THE LAMB, which, though a paranormal, is really about faith and religion and the differences between them. He really hopes you like it. So does Carlos Dews. And so do I.

SJ Rozan

Sunday, July 21, 2013

He Found Me in the Shopper’s Special

(Names of people and places have been changed because some people mentioned in this piece are sensitive flowers and don’t like me so much anymore. My husband is still pretty fond of me so he appears under his own name.)

My husband and I will celebrate our 18th wedding anniversary tomorrow. That I married at all continues to surprise me. That old cliché about finding someone when you’re not looking turned out to be true.

My friend, Lucy, had been divorced for a while and decided she wanted to start dating again. Years ago the most reliable places to meet men seemed to be churches or bars. Lucy wasn’t religious and she didn’t drink much so she felt her best bet was placing a personal ad. Philadelphia Magazine was filled with ads but placing one cost more than Lucy wanted to spend so she opted for the Shopper’s Special, a publication that folks picked up at the grocery store.

I knew nothing about the details of Lucy’s ad other than it began “Eclectic reader.”

I didn’t think much about this because for some years I had belonged to Single Book Lovers and found that men who read books could be just as boring and thoughtless as anyone else.

Lucy began dating and talked about Bob, a man who had been an archeologist and had spent a lot of time in the Middle East. He spoke several languages and he read a lot. Then there were discussions about Adam who was a helicopter pilot. Lucy ultimately decided that Adam was more interesting to her.

“What about Bob?” I asked.

“Do you want to meet him?”

“Well, I’m really tired of three month relationships. Words cannot describe how much I hate dating.”


“Okay, give him my number.”

I didn’t expect anything to happen. Maybe Bob was devastated that Lucy didn’t want to see him anymore. Bob called two days later.

Bob seemed nice (or at least not an axe murderer) and we agreed to meet at Le Café. I had enjoyed going to Le Café because it was quiet and the service was terrible so one could stay for a long time. It was so dark I once got a free meal because the waitress had put me in a dark corner and forgotten about me entirely. On another occasion, my waiter quit taking my order because another man rushed into the restaurant, hands filled with bills and coins. “We have the money for the phone bill,” he shouted. My waiter joined the money bedecked man in a happy dance around the restaurant. I loved the place. I believed that even if you had a bad date you could have a good meal.

Alas, I had not been at Le Café for a bit and when Bob and I entered the restaurant, I found that it had been tarted up. It was brightly lit and sparkling. The waiters looked like young MBA candidates who could afford to eat on a regular basis and never worried about phone bills.

My fears about the place were realized when our young waiter proved to be attentive. He brought the soup course immediately. The minute I finished it, he came to pick up the empty cup.

“See this man?” I said to the waiter as I pointed at Bob. “I’ve never met him before. This is our first date and we came here in full expectation that the service would be indifferent and we would be left alone for long periods of time.”

I told the waiter that I would nod when he could again approach the table. I went back to the task of assuring Bob that I did not want to marry. He was fine with that.

We had a wonderful first date and many more after that.

I did admit to Bob that I was curious about his dates with Lucy.

“Mostly she spent a lot of time saying, ‘I’m not going to introduce you to my friend, Stephanie. You’ll like her better than me.’”

She was right.

For her good deed Lucy got a bookstore gift certificate, our undying gratitude and a chance to be in the wedding.

Lucy did not attend the wedding, but that is another story.

Stephanie Patterson

Friday, July 19, 2013

It's New! A Crunchy, Whole-grain Serial

A few years ago I whiled away a great deal of time reading stories about the War of 1812, which, by the way, we are still in the bicentennial of, seeing as how that war didn't end until 1814. The conflict fascinated me because it was the Americans fighting the Canadians. My forebears were Canadians. We weren't told much about the War of 1812 in American public schools, other than vague references to Manifest Destiny, which as near as I can tell is the notion that God wanted the White Americans to have everything.

But I didn't come here to discuss politics. I want to talk about serials.

The result of my studies of the War of 1812 was the meticulously researched BUCKER DUDLEY, a long, rambling historical novel about a young orphan girl who dresses as a boy and goes to sea, a common trope or meme in the age of sail (is it a trope or a meme? What's the difference? Do I care?). Polly is caught up in the war, sees action, has astonishing adventures and at last finds true love and her place in the world. I thought it would be great if it could come out for the bicentennial.

The New York publishing community was profoundly uninterested in this book.

Well, shucks, my friends all liked it, my sister liked it, and I liked it. But, alas, it was commercially dead. I put the manuscript in the bottom desk drawer, along with the sixties mad housewife novel and the high school reminiscence I wrote before I got into crime writing. Then last year about this time the New York publishing community started talking about online serials. Like Charles Dickens, you know, how he published his works in pieces in magazines, how everyone flocked to the newsstand to catch up on the latest installment. Once again the serial is hot. (Stephen King tried that without noticeable success a few years ago, but he was just ahead of his time. Right?) Amazon is doing it now. It must be commercially viable.

BUCKER DUDLEY is a natural, I said to myself.

My agent sent me an email saying that St. Martin's Press wanted to offer serials, and was I interested? I said I was, but somehow he never got back to me. Then Amazon put out a call for proposals. I responded with a description of my project. They replied with a request that I send my submission through my agent. By that time I had no agent. I thought, who needs your silly bureaucratic tinkering with my story, anyway? I can put sections of BUCKER DUDLEY up myself.

So I did. The third of five episodes went up on Kindle this week. But I'm not doing it right, as it turns out. The knowing ones are working out rules for success in this endeavor. As I find out what these are I thought I'd share them with you, along with links to various online articles that I should have read before I set out to do this. Who knows? Maybe you'd like to write serial fiction too. Anyway I'll tell you some more about it next week. Meanwhile here are some links:

A WSJ article by Alexandra Alter, "The Return of the Serial Novel"

The Amazon invitation to submit a proposal for a serial novel

Plympton, a site that publishes serial fiction for reading online

Jane Friedman's post on Experimenting with Serials for Fun and Profit

Sarah Kessler's article for Fast Company Amazon Changed Reading, Now it Could Change Writing, on how analytics may change what you write about (I should live so long. Hardly anybody reads my work)

And, of course, links to the first three episodes of BUCKER DUDLEY:
  • POLLY AT SEA, where she ships out on a man'o'war, dressed as a boy,
    and fights in a famous battle,
  • POLLY AT SACKETS, where she serves as a lady's maid to a young woman of ill repute, and they encounter what passes for Society on the Northwest frontier, and
  • POLLY AMONG THE INDIANS, where she goes to live with the Mohawks and begins to discover the secret of her parentage.

Kate Gallison
image by Mike Licht

Monday, July 15, 2013

On Umbrellas, Rule Books, and Other Writing Hazards

Frankie Bailey and I met as members of the National Board of MWA in 2005. She later became Executive-VP of MWA, then President of Sisters in Crime — all while teaching Criminal Justice fulltime at SUNY Albany, and, in her off-hours, publishing five traditional mysteries with her amateur detective, Lizzie Stuart. Her latest, THE RED QUEEN DIES, breaks new ground: a police procedural set in Albany in the year 2019, starring Detective Hannah McCabe of the APD.

Robert Knightly

I am solemn, thoughtful, and prone to worry about anything that one can worry about. I am one of those people who is appointed to committees and given responsible tasks. When I fail to do what I said I would do or what I think I should have done, I suffer from pangs of guilt for days, weeks, months, or even years. I carry an umbrella and check the Weather Channel several times a day. And, yes, I do believe that sensible and fair rules should apply to both me and you. I am what most people would describe as a “serious person”.

However, after study, observation, and reaching the age of too old to worry about what others may think, I decided that a serious person functions much more effectively when she indulges in occasional silliness. Silliness from a serious person can be disconcerting for those who are convinced she has no sense of humor. They may be shocked or even distressed. But they will get over it. And the advantage for the serious person is that after having established in work and social situations that she can indeed tell a joke or engage in an imaginative leap, the serious person can then focus on what needs to be done. A twinkle in the eye, an occasional nod and sly smile, is sufficient to remind others that the serious person can engage in fun.

However, the idea of applying this life lesson to my writing did not occur to me until recently. Not to say that I have never had fun as a writer. But it was quiet, private fun. The kind of fun that a person who loves to do research has when she is reading an old newspaper and finds a wonderful detail that will be perfect for her book. The mouthed “Yes!” because she is in the library and knows that etiquette requires one not disturb other patrons.

When it comes to sitting down at my computer to write, I have often gone about it with teeth gritted, research notes in front of me, eye on clock or calendar. Writing requires discipline. Although it would surprise many people to learn this, I have no discipline. I am an expert when it comes to procrastinating. I would rather sprawl in an armchair, watching a really bad movie, than sit down at my computer to continue my struggle with a stubborn first draft. Having no discipline, I rely on my ability to instill anxiety in myself. I imagine the humiliation and trauma of missing a deadline.

So does Lizzie Stuart, the protagonist in my first mystery series. She is a criminal justice professor/crime historian, and, like her creator, a serious person. Not only because I began by writing what I knew, but because her own autobiography has convinced her that she has no other choice but to be responsible and controlled. She does not want to be her mother’s daughter. Five books into the series, she has loosened up a bit – thinks in part to her lover John Quinn, but also because of her own efforts. A reader once shared her concern that poor Lizzie never seemed to know where her next laugh was coming from. She does laugh more now. But she is always going to be earnest and concerned. That’s who Lizzie is, and neither one of us wants her to change.

But when I had the idea for a new series, featuring police detective Hannah McCabe, I wanted to do something different. Debuting with THE RED QUEEN DIES, the series will be set in Albany, New York in the near future. The first book takes place in 2019. I wanted to move a few years into the future so that I could think about where we might be headed. What will our world be like in a few years with changes in demographics, wars, haves and have nots, climate change, surveillance and privacy issues, and the interactions of humans and machines? I teach a course on crime and cities. I also wanted to think about how a city functions. But some aspects of the future, such as climate change, could be pretty scary. So it occurred to me that I needed balance. I want to write books in this new series that readers will find thought-provoking but not utterly depressing.

When I realized that if I intended to write about the near future in a real place (Albany, New York), I would need to create an alternate (or parallel) universe, my problem was solved. In the opening scene in The Red Queen Dies, the reader learns that seven years earlier, in 2012, the sighting of a UFO in the desert near Las Vegas sent fighter jets scrambling. And then the UFO disappeared in a blinding flash of light. In 2019, my Albany and my characters exist in a post-UFO world. It is a world that is similar to the world we know, but there are also differences in both the past and the present.

Once I had decided to engage in a bit of genre-blending with a UFO sighting in a crime novel, I was liberated. I could play. I love film noir and 1950s sci-fi movies. I love nursery rhymes and Alice in Wonderland. I love it when real life is stranger than fiction – as in the case of Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth in Albany. I decided to put all of this in my book, while writing a straight-forward police procedural. I decided to write a book that I would enjoy reading — and I did.

I don’t know how my experiment in deliberate playfulness will turn out. I hope readers will like THE RED QUEEN DIES and become hooked on the series. But, however it goes, this serious person stood on her head and wiggled her toes. I’m doing it again as I write the second book in the series (working title, COCK ROBIN's FUNERAL). The first draft is still heavy lifting, but I’m having fun.

Frankie Bailey
Twitter: @FrankieYBailey

Author photo by Jeff Foley Photography

Sunday, July 14, 2013

I Miss You, Mitch Rapp...

Sometimes, some of our dearest friends are people in a favorite book. Characters we have met, known, shared life's ups and downs with. I've had three favorites for many years, Nelson DeMille's John Corey, WEB Griffin's Charley Castillo and Vince Flynn's Mitch Rapp.

I never met Vince, but he was so gracious in his fan emails and his guest appearances on Imus in the morning, I felt he and I were friends too. Julie Kramer has written a lovely piece about Vince and the tributes to him at his funeral in a piece with the International Thriller Magazine. (Look it up, if you too were a friend of Vince.)

Mitch appeared in the second book by Vince and from the first page about this guy I haunted the book stores for the next novel.

Along with many of you, I suspect, I cried when Mitch Rapp's beloved wife, Anna, was killed in his book, Consent to Kill. When Mitch was in mourning, and thereafter in each new book I kept hoping Vince would bring in someone else who would heal the wounds in Mitch Rapp.

When the author began to share with all of us, thousands, millions, of readers, the stages of his fatal illness, we all somehow felt that if he could write about such a strong guy like Mitch, he would come through it.

Vince would get well! He would make Mitch Rapp happy again!

At 47 Vince had so many more books in that brilliant, creative mind!

Do you have this kind of relationship with an author you never met, or a character you grew to love?

Please write me and tell me about it, here as a comment or at

Thelma Jacqueline Straw

Friday, July 12, 2013

How to Avoid Writing

Examine writing space. Decide that it's too shabby and rundown to be conducive to good creative flow. Think about redecorating.

Go to paint store. Buy paint for writing space, and as long as you're there for the upstairs bathroom, the hallway, the dining room and the back door to the house.

Realize that it's too humid to paint. Nothing will dry. Store paint in cellar.

Boot computer.

Read email.

Do Facebook.

Play four rounds of Shoo Boo.

Realize that Turner Classic Movies is having a John Gilbert festival. You love John Gilbert. Those eyes. that hair.

Watch three John Gilbert movies.

Turn off television. Make dinner. Eat dinner. Wash dishes.

Boot computer. Realize that it's too hot to be conducive to good creative flow.

Play two more rounds of Shoo Boo.

Realize you're too sleepy to play Shoo Boo.

Brush teeth. Take pill. Resolve to write something tomorrow, or if it's not so humid, to paint something.

Turn in.

Kate Gallison

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Answer and a New Question

Someday I will get the hang of this contest idea.  I keep trying new approaches.  I will quit eventually if it never works, but we all know that persistence is essential to fiction writing and mine is measurable close to, if not at the psychotic level.

In last week's contest--my third attempt--no one was able or cared enough to win a copy of Blood Tango by coming up with the PUNch line of a pretty bad joke.  Not even with hints and begging from yours truly.

The answer is:

....carp-to-carp walleting.

If you never saw the question, I won't tell you where to find it because you'll not only groan (as those in the know just did) , but you will hate me.  Not what I had in mind.  This pathetic behavior is actually my attempt to win friends by being amusing.

So the autographed copy of Blood Tango is still on offer to anyone who can identify the thing in this picture and write its name in the comments.  I wish us all luck.  I know I am going to need it.

PS: I took the picture myself!

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, July 8, 2013

How I Became a Crime Writer, or, What I Did on my Summer Vacations

I met Dennis McFadden five years ago when I joined his fiction writers group here in Albany. He was the dean among a talented bunch. He had been getting his stories published in prestigious literary journals. I noted that he had crimes occurring in his stories; their pace reminded me of the atmospheric style of Louise Penny. After I dropped out to write Memoir (a special kind of fiction), Dennis's recessive crime writer's gene tunneled up (stories in 'Hitchcock' and 'Queen' and appearances in Best American Mystery Stories twice).

Robert Knightly

I must have been meant to be a writer. According to my mother, I was three years old when I looked through the bus window at a busy Washington, D.C., sidewalk and said, “Look at all the pedestrians.” Even then I was a phonetic exhibitionist.

It must have been meant to be, because my upbringing wasn’t much of a factor. Blue collar all the way. There weren’t many books around the house. Nobody in the family had gone to college. Dad told a few bad jokes when he was drunk, but no bedtime stories. I remember getting my hands on some Hardy Boys books (crime novels, now that you mention it), and when I was 15, I picked up a paperback called Boy With a Gun. It was, coincidentally, about a 15-year-old boy. It takes place during the Hungarian uprising, and the kid’s father and brother are killed, he ends up fighting in the revolution, and he and this 15-year-old girl are crazy about each other, but the end left me hanging. The kid was still fighting. The war wasn’t over. He and the girl (with whom I too was in love by then) still weren’t together. What happened? What the hell happened? I had to know.

So I wrote to the author, James Dean Sanderson, and asked him, and he actually wrote back! I tore open the envelope, about to have all my questions answered, all the mysteries revealed. But he didn’t tell me a damn thing. He was flattered, he said, that the book had affected me that way. He suggested I write an ending. I should write the damn ending! I should talk to my English teacher—I might even be able to earn credit for it.

The bastard.

Maybe that planted a seed, I don’t know, but I still never entertained writing, not seriously, until my senior year, when my English teacher spotted my “talent,” and singled me out for high and frequent praise. His name was MacBeth. That’s right. MacBeth.

Bruce MacBeth maybe, but MacBeth nevertheless.

How could I then not go on to college and major in English? I became known as a writer, publishing a couple of stories in the old “lit mag.” I was on my way. Then a funny thing happened. I took 10 or 15 years off after college to drink and party before I finally got around to writing again. My third book was pretty good, good enough to get me an honest-to-God New York City literary agent. But alas. All she succeeded in doing was getting me a higher class of rejections, and she dumped me after a year. In my despair, Irish activism caught me on the rebound, and I spent the next 15 years getting England out of Ireland. All I wrote during that period was propaganda, but I wrote it well and I wrote it plenty. And you know what? It wasn’t bad practice. Some of those satirical pieces were very much like short stories.

As Irish activism fell by the wayside when peace broke out (thanks in large part to me, I like to think), short satire evolved into short stories. Why not back to novels? Maybe because I hadn’t had one published? Maybe because I was getting older now, the green banana syndrome, hesitant to begin any two year projects? Maybe because I loved the high of finishing a story and craved it more often? I became an addict, jonesing for finishes.

One of my first stories was about an old rummy named Doodle O’Hanlon (my stories always start with character, before plot, before anything else), and I put him in Hartsgrove, a little town in western Pennsylvania bearing more than a passing resemblance to my own hometown. Then I wrote about 25 or 30 more Hartsgrove stories, as well as dozens of stories set elsewhere in the universe. I started sending them out, started getting them accepted in literary journals, small ones at first, then bigger. I was hooked. In 2008 I found myself at a writers conference at Colgate, the instructor liked my work, one thing led to another, and out of that happy serendipity, my collection, Hart’s Grove, was born, published by Colgate University Press in 2010.

A few months later, coming back to my desk from a meeting (yes, of course, the old day job), I noticed the red light on my phone. It was a voice message from a gentleman in the employ of Otto Penzler, calling to tell me that my story “Diamond Alley,” from Hart’s Grove, had been selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2011.

I hadn’t submitted the story. A couple of months later I was lucky enough to be able to meet and talk to Michele Slung, the screening reader for the series, at a Sisters In Crime luncheon in Albany (thanks to an invitation from Robert Knightly). She’d noticed an ad in a journal for Hart’s Grove, judged from the copy that it might involve mystery, and ordered it. I’m grateful her radar system is so extensive.

So how does a writer with little knowledge of the genre, who’s never attempted a thriller, a whodunit, or a procedural, end up in Best American Mysteries? No mystery. As I said, I start with character, but given human nature, crime and character go hand-in-hand. And as for mystery, that’s a part and parcel of everyone’s everyday life—mystery in the sense that we can never really know everything that’s happening in and around our lives, or anything that will happen after them. Maybe that’s why I write, why a lot of writers do: the lure of omniscience is hard to resist. It’s a good way to grapple with those everyday mysteries. It’s good to be God sometimes.

This year I had another story selected for The Best American Mystery Stories 2013, “The Ring of Kerry,” which appeared in the “New England Review” in the Fall. This time I did submit. Good radar or no, why leave it to chance? I also have stories slated to appear in “Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine” and “Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.” (I submitted them too.)

This has led my friend Bob to believe I’m a crime writer.

Guilty (appropriately enough). Proud to be.

Dennis McFadden

Author photo by Heidi Brown

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Book Auction

…or Golly, There are People Who Spend Lots More On Books Than I Do!

Though I have thousands of books, I am no book collector. Years ago, I bought a copy of The House of Barrymore at the Atlantic Book Warehouse. I had called ahead to have the book held for me so was perplexed when I went to pick the book up. A very serious young man gave me a doleful look.

“We do not have the book,” he said.

“But I was assured it was set aside for me.”

“The only book we have is flawed.”

Now when I was in grad school I learned about the concept of textual depravity and got a sharp look from a professor when I laughed like a loon at the idea. Somehow I didn't think that's what we were talking about here.

“Well, unless there are pages missing, I think I can cope.”

The young man reluctantly brought the book to me. I examined it closely; it looked fine.

“See here. The front jacket flap does not align with the edge of the book.”

Was he serious? He was.

I insisted that I would take the book; I assured him that as a reading copy the book was flawless. I know he thought less of me as a person but he agreed to sell me the book.

I hadn’t thought of this incident in years until my husband and I attended a book auction at Swann gallery two weeks ago. Bob wanted to see an auction for some research he’s doing and since everything I know about the rare book business comes from John Dunning’s Cliff Janeway novels, I thought this would be fun.

Truly, I expected to be met at the door by someone who would say, “You’re not dressed appropriately for an auction. You’re wearing stretchy leggings and a T-shirt.”

But we were greeted warmly and given lovely catalogs of the books to be auctioned. (My T-shirt came from the British Museum’s “Shakespeare: Staging the World” exhibit so maybe that made a difference.)

I scanned the shelves and then found a seat that put me right next to novels by Dickens and Chandler. The auction was a decorous affair but there was certainly tension as some books elicited fierce bidding between the people in the auction room and those in touch by phone or on the internet. Among the books getting the highest bids:

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (expected to go for between $6,000-$9000, it sold for $19,000) I think if you spend this much money for book you should be allowed a heartfelt “Yippee!” or “Huzzah!” but as this world is not mine, I shouldn’t attempt to dictate behavior.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. (expected to go for between $8,000-$12,000, it sold for $13,000). It was not only a first edition, but had a presentation card that read: “To Miss Ethel, with love, Nelle Harper, September 17, 1960.” I love the book. I own two copies, both serviceable paperbacks.

George Orwell’s Burmese Days (expected to go for between $3,000-$4,000, it sold for $14,000.) Please forgive me when I tell you that my first thought when I heard that astronomical sum was “Gee, I got that as part of a Kindle Featured Deal for $3.99.”

I would hate anyone to think that I left New York City without buying books. I visited Bluestockings on Allen Street where a very enthusiastic young lady assured me the store was the last bastion of radical feminism. Alas, they don’t ship books so I was unable to buy as much as I might like but I came away with The Autobiography of Mother Jones and four packs of feminist playing cards. Then I went to The Mysterious Bookshop (alas, several days before it became a tangoteria) and left a nice sample of my paycheck.

If you’re looking for a bookish night at the theater, may I suggest Matilda: The Musical? I was a touch discouraged when I heard a little girl behind me say, “Well, I guess I like reading books, sorta,” but Matilda herself is wonderful. In fact in a few years maybe she’ll be joining the folks at Bluestockings.

Stephanie Patterson

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Zoner Speaks

As you may know, I serve on the Board of Zoning Adjustment for the City of Lambertville. I did this as an alternate some twenty-five or thirty years ago, until it became more than I could manage with a full-time job and a small child. I re-upped five years or so ago when it appeared that I was needed. We are seven, not counting the alternates. Five votes are needed to grant a variance. We serve without pay, reviewing the submissions of those needing a variance, showing up for monthly hearings, doing the best we can for the people of the city.

Ordinarily the hearings are without drama. News reporters don't even show up to cover them. Every buildable square inch of the town has already been developed, and who cares, after all, if Joe Citizen needs a variance to put an apartment for his mother-in-law over the garage? (An extremely hypothetical example, by the way. Most homes in Lambertville have no off-street parking, still less a garage.)

But every now and then something important comes up. Someone seeks to build on the hillside, for example, which is not buildable, and is protected by the city's steep slope ordinance. To grant a variance in such cases would worsen the already bad storm water runoff problems up there, in the worst case sending a mudslide onto Route 29.

Or someone comes into town with a marvelous plan for turning the old Baptist Church into an exciting music venue where food and alcohol are served.

Since this plan sorely impacts the already difficult parking situation, and since it threatens to draw a crowd not normally seen on this side of the river (or this side of Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras, in the minds of some), passions are running high among the locals. Middle-class people live on the street behind the Baptist Church. The rumors alone are said to be affecting property values there.

Meanwhile the Lambertville Music Hall (a non-profit) has been pouring money into the church building for months now. Repairs and renovation were badly needed. The church looks good.

Members of the Zoning Board have been snowed under with letters begging us to turn their application down, and not just from immediate neighbors and competing restaurateurs. The mayor said at the last city council meeting that the Zoning Board of Adjustment alone was in charge of accepting or rejecting the Music Hall's application, and was free to ignore all the mail.

There are people in town who like the whole idea. Art. Music. What's not to like?

Last week the application came before the board. Actually it was a continuation of the application, which first came before the board last month. Over a hundred members of the public turned out in weather so bad that the board chairman opened the meeting by warning us that it might get worse. We should think, he said, about evacuating safely. But a hundred dripping wet, enraged people weren't going anywhere.

I took my seat on the dais with the rest of the Board, but only long enough to answer the roll call. Since my house is within two hundred yards of one of the parking lots the Music Hall proposed to use, I was forced under the law to recuse myself from the proceedings. So also was another board member, who lives out behind the church. And so was a third member. He had just discovered that he was involved in a business arrangement with one of the principals.

I went to the back of the room, where my facial expressions could not be seen by the other board members and possibly influence their decision. They told us to do that in Zoning Board school if we ever had to recuse ourselves. The crowd fell silent.

The lawyer for the Music Hall appeared nervous. He challenged the credentials of one of the members, who had been appointed and sworn in before the last meeting but had missed that meeting, getting up to speed by listening to the four-hour tape. The lawyer wanted him sworn in publicly and then forced to listen to the four-hour tape again. Our lawyer, the lawyer for the board, pointed out that this was unreasonable. I must explain that the reason we seemed so short-handed was that our chairman died suddenly two months ago and another member moved out of town and was thus unable to serve. And then there were the three of us who had to recuse ourselves.

Seeing that there were, in fact, enough people on the board to legally rule on the application, the Music Hall lawyer asked for five minutes to confer with his clients. They went out in the hall while the people in the room began talking and growling among themselves. When he came back he said that they were unwilling to go forward with the application with so few board members and asked for a postponement until next month. This request was granted. But it came from him, not from the board, and only after an attempt to disqualify one of the members and reduce the board still further.

Newspaper coverage of the brouhaha has been vague and inaccurate. The headline on the front page of the Beacon read, "Zoners unable to hold music hall hearings." Zoners. We're Zoners. I sort of like that. It sounds vaguely sinful. Maybe I'll have tee shirts made.

One of the members of the public asked that the next meeting be held in a larger venue, so that more than a hundred people could attend. The Music Hall offered the church for the meeting, but their offer was met with what I can only describe as a roar of rage from the public. The board chairman made a few calls, without success. The announcement of the next location was postponed. The meeting was adjourned, and we all went back out in the pouring rain.

A few days ago the board secretary emailed all of us Zoners the information that the Music Hall's architect had let her know that they were withdrawing their application. I thought this was interesting news, and I went to the Lambertville Facebook site and posted it, so that interested members of the public might know. It isn't as if they would read about it in the papers anytime soon. Or anyway not the real story, whatever that is.

It was like dropping a piece of meat in the piranha tank. So many with opinions, so few with understanding of the issues. People get really nasty sometimes when they think they're talking to strangers. Social media reminds me of the way some folks drive their cars. If you can't see people's faces it's okay to honk at them and give them the finger.

Anyway, without honking or giving the finger, I'll sign off for now, promising to keep you posted on what happens next, whether our little town collapses into a sinkhole of urban decay for lack of an exciting music venue in the middle of town or suffers a fatal influx of cars and drunken rock fans, putting an end to life as we know it. The Music Hall people may have withdrawn their application but they are still doing major landscaping in the church's back yard, located in the R2 zone. (That's residential.)

Kate Gallison

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A Contest: Win an Autographed Copy of Blood Tango

First the beginning of the story:

Like many of his ilk, Malcolm Tent was a fisherman given to exaggeration.  One day he had an experience he was sure no one would believe so he never told anyone the story until he told it to me.  Now I will tell it to you.
It seems Mal was out in his boat fishing for carp one day.  The fishing was good, and he was reeling them in.  As he was removing a big one from his hook, he pricked the end of his finger, which started to bleed a little.  Mal reached into his pocket for his handkerchief.  As he pulled it out, his wallet fell out of the pocket, over the side of the boat, and began to sink out of sight before he could grab it.

Mal groaned, but he hardly had a second to comprehend the accident when a fish came to the surface with the wallet balanced on its nose.  Soon another fish came to the surface, and like a pair of seals with a ball at the zoo, they flipped the wallet around in a game of catch, and finally back into the boat.
Mal gave up fishing and exaggerating after that.  And he only once described how he became the only human being ever to see ….

A copy of Blood Tango to the first person to guess the ending and write it in the comments below. 

Monday, July 1, 2013

First-Draft Terror

Suzanne Chazin was our Guest Blogger a couple weeks ago. When I asked her for one, she sent me two. The other, describing how she starts a new novel, is a howl. Who hasn't suffered this way?

Robert Knightly

I’m about to start the first draft of a new novel. This instills in me all the self-confidence of two virgins in a MINI Cooper. I’m sweaty and awkward. I don’t have a clue where anything goes. And I’m already questioning whether this was the right vehicle for attempting this in the first place.

I don’t know why first drafts scare me so much. It’s not as if I don’t know by now that I’ll be rewriting it all in a few months anyway. You’d think, with three published novels and a finished fourth manuscript behind me, I’d be like Larry King at the altar: ring in one pocket, attorney on speed dial in the other. I know what’s coming—the revisions, the tossed scenes, the killed characters, the discoveries I won’t make until I’m practically finished with the draft. And yet I will do almost anything to delay the process. This past week alone, I have:

  1. Transferred all of my children’s baby pictures to DVD
  2. Volunteered to be on the interview committee for the new principal of my daughter’s middle school
  3. Filled out my bank’s customer satisfaction survey (probably a first in the history of my bank)
  4. Actually listened to the Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to my door.

I’m so desperate I called up GEICO to see if I could save money on my car insurance. (Don’t let the Cockney accent fool you; the lizard is a liar).

I’m really starting to panic.

I’m stalling by researching stuff I will never, ever need to know. The Internet is great for this. I can start off with a simple question about common Honduran surnames for my new mystery series about a Latino detective in suburban New York and end up two hours later reading the history of the Indian ruler Lempira who fought the Spanish and now has the Honduran currency named after him. (Pause to reflect: would the U.S. be in any better shape if our bills were called “Geronimos”?)

My first mystery series, set in the New York City Fire Department, provided loads of fun researching how to start fires and blow up things. There is nothing like watching a video of a room turning into a solid wall of flame in under three minutes to give one an Old Testament appreciation for how fast things can go wrong. Makes that unexplained clunk in my car and the untraceable leak beneath my kitchen sink feel like good Karma by comparison.

Here’s where a well-conceived outline would come in handy. I love outlines. I really do. Wish I could write one. Typically I start out with three pages of notes for the first chapter and by chapter five, I’m down to descriptions like, “someone dies here” and “they have good sex.” (Is there any other kind in fiction?) The truth is, I just don’t know what’s going to happen until it does. I write great outlines for my second drafts. But that’s like waiting for the medical examiner when what you really needed was the doctor. It’s so much more convenient to catch the problem before the patient stops having a pulse.

I know what I have to do. I have to write something awful—something I would only show to my mother when she was alive, and only then, after she’d had a couple of glasses of good red wine. And then I have to believe that it will get much, much better as I lay down more of the story. To build a smooth road, you always have to start with a pile of rocks.

Chinese Fortune-cookie stuff, I know. But it also happens to be true. I had an art teacher at Northwestern University named George Cohen who once instructed every student to paint the “best” painting he or she could create. In the second class, Cohen asked every student to paint the “worst” painting. Then Cohen papered the room with all of our artwork and asked students to vote on the best pieces. About 75 percent of the pieces voted as “best” were the ones we had painted as our “worsts.” (Makes me wonder about my other decisions in life.)

So I will try to be fearless and not worry about what’s “best” and what’s “worst.” I will try to have faith that over time, there will be a road through the wilderness.

Then again, I could always start another blog…

Suzanne Chazin