Something new is always a good idea

I’ve been enjoying learning the ropes from a cool bunch of writers on Facebook who are dedicated to writing LOTS of books. They say the more books you have out, the easier it is for readers to find you and thus, the better your revenue stream will be. That means money, to the writer. Crass and commercial as that may seem to some writers and readers, it’s impossible to not think about money. It gives the writer space to be creative, time to dream, and a reason to write another book.

Frenchman announcementAs my fifth book in my Bennett Sisters Mysteries launches I feel this effect. When I run some cheap ads on Facebook for the new book, people discover the whole series. Now at five, there is some heft, some reason for people to think about connecting long-term to these characters.

I’ve also been doing a blog tour for The Frenchman, the new one, and wrote this guest post about how the characters have changed, and I’ve changed in my understanding of them over the years. (See Beth’s post on Shelf Rider.)

As I launch the fifth installment in the Bennett Sisters Mystery series it occurs to me that one of the joys of writing a long series is the chance to really dig deep into the personalities of the characters. Although I originally conceived of the series as linked stand-alones about each of the five sisters, the first book, Blackbird Fly, centered on the middle sister, Merle. When I eventually continued the series, I continued Merle’s journey of self-discovery after the sudden death of her husband. It just made sense that one summer sojourn in France wouldn’t cure all her problems, lovely as France might be.

discoverFranceagainSo Merle has a Frenchman. Initially, like Merle, I didn’t see how a long-distance relationship with a man who lived across an ocean would work. How could she work in New York City and Pascal work all over France’s wine country and they continue a romance? Because, although I didn’t write the series as a romance, women have love affairs— have you noticed? And they like to read about them. Merle’s affair with Pascal might have just been a fling, a curative, that first summer. But as the series goes along it’s obvious that Pascal thinks of it as something more. Although Merle isn’t sure what he thinks— he’s a Frenchman and you know how they are— her feelings mature, especially in this fifth book.

Their relationship is an underpinning in the novels to intrigue, sisterhood, and the joys and trials of mid-life. The sisters range in age from 40 to 55, or so, and I try to find aspects of women’s lives that are interesting and challenging. Life can be hard but reading about how other women make choices and navigate the pitfalls is helpful and revealing to me, and I hope to readers.

As a writer you never know how readers will react to your characters. Will they think them weak and stupid for their choices? (Yes, I’ve had that review.) Or will they identify with them, cheer for them, hope for them? That’s what I live for, that identification from the reader. I am not an Everywoman myself. I am opinionated and cranky and sometimes not that nice. Also, funny, a good friend, a loving parent— I hope. We all have so many aspects. I see some of myself in each of the five Bennett Sisters. I am a middle sister myself though, that’s why Merle appeals to me.

I recently had a review of Blackbird Fly that made all the writing worthwhile. (I love that readers are still discovering the series.) A reader said “The main character, Merle Bennett, could have been me, though I’m not a lawyer, have never inherited a house in France, and never had her problems. The writing puts you in the book.”

Right there, that’s why I write.

Then, if you love France like I do, the reviewer says that for her, at least, I got something right: “I’ve spent enough time in France to know that Albert, Mme Suchet, and the others in the village who snubbed, helped, or sabotaged Merle are just so … French. The story unfolds just as it should along with Merle’s self-discovery and personal regrets.”

And so Merle’s journey continues in The Frenchman. Who is the Frenchman, you ask? There is of course Pascal, Merle’s Frenchman. But there are many more in this book, policemen and old villagers, young punks and charming neighbors. And in Merle’s novel, chapters of which are included in the novel, there are Frenchmen from the Revolutionary period: farmers and rebels, nobles and royals, villagers and strangers. I had such fun writing Merle’s novel— which will be fleshed out and published separately as well— about a goat-herder who flees the terror in Paris for a farm in the Dordogne. Merle calls it ‘Odette and the Great Fear,’ and it will be available soon as an e-book.

I hope your writing and reading goes well as we ease into chilly weather– the best time to read and write! Happy autumn.

Lise

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We’re Not Making This Up

Miramichi 018Kate Flora: Of course, as fiction writers, we are making some of it up. You all know that. What many readers don’t realize, though, is how, even in midst of creating fictional characters and fictional crimes, we’re constantly doing research to try and make it realistic.

I was thinking about research and reality this morning as I’m preparing to do a workshop for aspiring crime writers next weekend on guns and violence. As a desk-bound suburban woman well into her middle years, I have to work hard at writing realistic police procedurals featuring male cops. Along the way, I’ve taken a citizen’s police academy and a police taught RAD self-defense class. During the part of our police academy where the students were the cops and the cops played bad guys, I got a ton of insight into a rookie’s first days when I tried to do a traffic stop, caught my baton on the door handle, and slammed face first into my own car window in front of my entire class.

img_0995I’ve attended the Writers’ Police Academy http://www.writerspoliceacademy.com (described as Disneyland for Crime Writers) started by the wonderful Lee Lofland http://www.leelofland.com/wordpress/ and wish I could go back every year. I’ve hung around with evidence techs apparently instructed to show me the worst pictures they could, just to see how I’d handle it. At a national writer’s conference, I’ve played at being an evidence tech myself, learning to lift fingerprints off a glass.

I’ve done a lot of riding around in police cars, late at night, talking quietly with officers about what they’re seeing, trying to see the streets through their eyes. Had those fascinating conversations as they read the streets and houses like a roadmap of crime and interpersonal violence. The body in that basement, the murdered girlfriend, the killer who ran down that alley and shot himself right there. I’ve sat through traffic stops where I watched the officer’s wary body language, and later debriefed about the process and why it is so important to see the person’s hands. I’ve gone on a stakeout where I spotted the bad guy. Interviewed a witnesses’ husband and got a detail the police didn’t know.

I see police officers and stories about the police through different eyes now.

And then there are the books. In Finding Amy: A True Story of Murder in Maine there was img_0997fascinating entomological evidence, which led me M. Lee Goff’s book, A Fly for the Prosecution. Working on a story about an excavation where bones are found led me to a whole host of books about bones and forensic analysis. Trying to make my cops feel authentic was helped by Lee Lofland’s book, Police Procedure and Investigation. Trying to make the crime scenes feel authentic led me D. P. Lyle’s Forensics.

Since we can’t make our bad guys obvious or one-dimensional, understanding human psychology becomes surprisingly important. Yes, much of what we write we know from observing the people around us. Deviants, psychopaths, and sociopaths can be found anytime we drive on the highway or stand in a airport line. But books can be helpful in developing them and understanding how bad guys are shaped by their families and childhoods. There’s no better dark reading than any of the books by FBI profiler John Douglas and cowriter Mark Olshaker.

img_0996I even have two criminalistics textbooks, scored at library yard sales, and my own copy of Vernon Geberth’s Practical Homicide Investigation. That last comes with this story: I decided to preview investigation textbooks, and so I borrowed a copy of this through my local library. When the book arrived, the male librarian was reluctant to give it to me. “Are you sure you want to see this?” he said. “It’s pretty graphic.” I said I did and he reluctantly handed it over. It is pretty graphic. It also have fabulous checklists which help make my fictional investigator better at his job.

Our mystery reading audience can be a pretty tough crowd. And we sometimes have to do some tough work to be sure we meet their standards.

 

That Old Autumn Feeling

tumblr_maiujcqypo1r3sm6co1_500As writers we sometimes feel blessed — or cursed — with a continuing education. Every day we write we are on some learning curve or other, struggling to remember what happened yesterday in the story, where it’s going, what the research says, and how to put the perfect sentence together. The advent of brisk fall weather reminds us of back-to-school, even though most of us haven’t been to actual school for decades. Autumn is a time of endings, but also beginnings. New pencils, new friends and old, clean reams of paper, spotless notebooks ready to be scribbled in: this is autumn.

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This 9/11 we remember the victims of the terrorist attacks as well as honoring the first responders and those who still suffer physical and psychological trauma from that time.  And here’s to us getting out of the Big Muddy to paraphrase Pete Seeger.


On a happier note, I am glad to be attending this year’s Bouchercon in New Orleans doing a couple of panels, celebrating Down & Out Books’ 5th anniversary, and participating in group signings for anthologies I’m in – The Highway Kind, Echoes of Sherlock Holmes, Crime + Music, Occupied Earth and Blood on the Bayou.

Lise McClendon

img_2048Lise is not happy about NOT attending this year’s World Mystery Convention, Bouchercon, in New Orleans. It’s always a blast, a sort of writers high school reunion. So she adds this silly photo from last year’s event in Raleigh, NC, to remember the good times.

Katy and Lise hope there are some big chairs in New Orleans. Because what is a convention without giant seating?! Laissez les bons temps rouler!

This August marked the release of Lise’s newest Bennett Sisters novel, The Things We Said Today. The third full-length novel (there is also a novella) comes two years after the last things-we-said-webone, The Girl in the Empty Dress. To mark the occasion and thank readers she is giving away copies of Blackbird Fly, the first in the series. Click here to get the details. 

The new one finds the five sisters in the Scottish Highlands for the oldest sister’s wedding. But does she even want to get married at the ripe old age of 55? Weather, whisky, and intrigue threaten to shatter the happy day.

Lise also refurbished her website at lisemcclendon.com and would love to hear what you think of it. Also check out how to join her review team. Free books: were two better words ever combined?

J.D. Rhoades

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J.D. (aka Dusty) will also be at Bouchercon in New Orleans this week, September 15-18.  Come by Mardi Gras “D” at 4:30 Thursday for the panel “Telling Lies”, moderated by the extremely funny Johnny Shaw. See if you can separate true stories from lies told by professionals!


He just turned in final edits on a new Jack Keller novel, HELLHOUND ON MY TRAIL. Check out the cover!

Kate Floraimage003


Here is the cover for Kate’s soon to be released 5th Joe Burgess police procedural, Led Astray. Watch for it on Amazon.

In other news, A Good Man with a Dog, the memoir Kate co-wrote with a retired Maine game warden, won second place in the 2016 Public Safety Writers Association annual writing contest.

May your pencils be as sharp as your mind! Happy autumn 🍁🍂

Tricksters and Pranksters

The origins of April Fools’ Day are shrouded in a bit of mystery but probably hark back to the time when, in the Middle Ages, the calendar was changed. March 25 had been the beginning of the new year and in some places in Europe it touched off a weeklong celebration, ending on April 1. Whatever the beginnings, April Fools’ Day or something similar, has a long tradition in many cultures around the world.

Loki
Loki

Why would a practice of scamming somebody, embarrassing them and making them look ridiculous, be so popular, you ask? We have only to look at the long list of tricksters and pranksters in mythology and literature to see that playing jokes, taking authority down a peg, and generally creating a little chaos where the heavy hand of tradition rules, have always been widespread practices. They make us laugh, they lighten the heavy load of life— which was much heavier in the Middle Ages when most of us would have been peasants or slaves— and gave hope that the future will be brighter than the present.

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La Chat Botté, or Puss ‘n Boots

Famous tricksters include the Norse god, Loki, whose tales helped explain natural phenomena like earthquakes while providing a naughty, often nasty foe for Odin and Thor. In many Native American cultures Coyote is a trickster who can shape-shift as man or coyote and is often portrayed as being part of creation myths.

Some pranksters are helpful, some harmful. Often they are mix of both. Puss ‘n Boots, a French-Italian character, helps his master, the third and lowly son in the family, find wealth and love through deception. A German trickster, Till Eulenspiegel, was possibly a real vagrant and highwayman whose wicked ways became the stuff of legend, even though many of his pranks were scatological in nature (involving tricking people into touching, smelling, or even eating his… poop.)

Till_Eulenspiegel
Till Eulenspiegel

[When I read about Till Eulenspiegel I thought of the scene in ‘The Help’ when a disgruntled maid tricks her uppity employer into eating a pie made from— spoiler alert— excrement. She deserves a special April Fools Award, no? Shall we call it Der Eulenspiegel? Jawohl!]

Speaking of the South, the tales of Br’er Rabbit circulated for centuries before they were written down, told on plantations among slaves, and originating in Africa. While the Uncle Remus versions may be distasteful today the originals had a purpose, to create laughter, release stress, and show that sometimes you have to use your wits to get out of the sticky wicket. Algonquin and Cherokee tales incorporated many of these same stories of the trickster rabbit, taken from slaves.

Terrorized by Kitsune
Terrorized by Kitsune

Tricksters aren’t limited to the Western Hemisphere. In Japan a nine-tailed fox called Kitsune was originally a Chinese creature. The Japanese lived in close proximity with foxes and during their superstitious periods believed the fox was magical and slightly evil.

Reynard the Fox
Reynard the Fox

Another fox of trickster lore is Reynard who appears in early French tales. His name became so synonymous with ‘fox’ that the French word for fox, goupil, is now archaic. From the Alsace-Lorraine region straddling France and Germany, his stories first appeared in the 12th Century in Latin poems and spread throughout northern Europe.

Doctor Who, Shape-Shifting Thru Time

There are so many more from around the world: Kuma Lisa, a trickster fox of Bulgaria, the Curupira, a red-haired jungle genie in Brazil, and Maui, a Polynesian trickster who hauls islands out of the sea.

We see them regularly in books and on screen: Captain Jack Sparrow, an amoral ‘bricoleur’ who can take a messy situation and somehow make it right, The Doctor in ‘Doctor Who’, the ultimate shape-shifter, and those prankster brothers from another mother: Dennis the Menace and Bart Simpson.

In books and stories we are often drawn to the most colorful characters. Whether we’re writers or readers, villains and jokesters can make or break a book. We love when the hero’s perfect day is shattered by something funny or humiliating, when the heroine is shocked by a little mayhem. Is it any wonder we are fascinated with bad boys, motorcycle gangsters, despicable rich assholes, and the ultimate chaos-creator, the serial killer?

Trickster Russell Brand as Puck

The comical sidekick, or someone like Shakespeare’s Puck, the shrewd knave from Midsummer Night’s Dream, offers a break from the grim business of murder, or falling in love with an ass. Shakespeare knew the incredible value of comic relief in any story. And so did generations of lovers of a good tale before and after.

 

April Fools! Go out and do some dirty work. I’ll be there right after I finish these ‘Kick Me’ signs…

PS: Send nominations for your favorite trickster. Der Eulenspiegel 2016 is on the line.

The Writer’s Journey is a Bumpy Ride

Kate Flora, here, on a frigid New England day with temperatures hovering around zero anGood Man with a Dog Cover-2 a wind chill factor predicted to be around minus thirty. Not a good day to be outside tramping around in the snow, but as writers know, bad weather is just another reason to be at our desks. Right now, I’m sitting at mine, doing a form of mental triage as I sort out the months ahead.

Perhaps you’re wondering about that bumpy ride I mentioned? Well, there’s the long story, involving ten years in the unpublished writer’s corner and the ups and downs ever since. And the short one. I’ll tell the short one. When I looked ahead at 2016 from the middle of 2015, I was looking at a very rosy year, a year that was going to carry me from fourteen published books to seventeen. The arrival of each new book is a special moment, and 2016 promised to be full of excitement and the challenge of a whole lot of book promotion for very different books.

What was on the horizon? A book due out in April, A Good Man with a Dog, a retired Maine game warden’s memoir of twenty-five years in the Maine woods that I co-wrote. http://amzn.to/1mz0End A fascinating project. A 2 ½ year process. And finally, a story that surprised both me and co-author Roger Guay. That book, thankfully, is still on track.

And that would have been enough. Except that there was supposed to be another book in May (that is, finally appearing in May after two previous delays). I was looking forward to that book because it was the long-delayed eighth book in my Thea Kozak series, Death Warmed Over. Writing a series with a returning set of characters over many years is like occasional get-togethers with good old friends. When I decided to revisit Thea, after a few years between books, her voice just jumped off the page, she came alive, and it was like getting a chance to catch up with someone I really liked spending time with. Her ironic sense of humor, her world view, and her deep compassion for the little people make her an excellent companion.

2013 Best Crime Writer in Maine
In Maine, you win a literary award and you get a blue balloon!

The book went to my editor a couple years ago and then sat, in limbo, for nine months of silence. Finally, there was a request for revisions, and it went back to the editor’s desk with a plan, first to publish last year, then to publish it this May. It has languished again in limbo ever since and another silence has fallen.

This is not news. Nor a tragedy. In the writing business, we go through this a lot. Books and authors get orphaned. It’s embarrassing to have told readers the book was finally coming, but writers rarely die of embarrassment. It does mean that now I have to find the book a new home or decide to publish it myself.

Which would have been enough. Two books in a year are plenty. Except for the fate of the third book. That one was supposed to publish in November, right on time for our regional mystery conference, The New England Crime Bake. Only, after waiting nine months for a contract, what I got was an e-mail saying the publisher was discontinuing their mystery line. Now my fifth Joe Burgess, And Led Them Thus Astray, is also an orphan.

So here I sit with two books that suddenly have no publishers–and a lot to ponder on. At times like this, after thirty years on this bumpy road, giving up can seem tempting.

I remind myself: In 2014, I had two books published. The non-fiction book, Death Dealer: How Cops and Cadaver Dogs Brought a Killer to Justice, was an Agatha and Anthony nominee and won the Public Safety Writers Association award for nonfiction. My fourth Joe Burgess won the 2015 Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. It was a great year. And now this. If there’s a message from the universe, it is clearly along the lines of “sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re down and you have to keep on writing.”

I’m going to listen to that message from the universe. The last time I had a series get

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Accept rejection or be open to what comes next?

dropped, after I got over the initial despair and floundering, I was led into some fascinating adventures. Starting a police procedural series. Saying “yes” to the invitation to help form Level Best Book, a venture into publishing crime story collections that put over a hundred authors in print and led to a project that continues today, though I have long since retired. Deciding to take chances and say “yes” instead of wallowing led me to writing nonfiction, which has been an incredible journey.

Where the bumpy ride will take me next, I don’t know. What I do know is that when I shove self-pity aside and open myself to adventure, it becomes a fascinating journey. I don’t know what lies ahead, but I can’t wait to see what is around the next corner.

Are You Writing a Novel in November? Really?!

There are so many ways to write a novel, or jump-start yourself from a state of inertia on your novel. The one of choice this month is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, where some 300,000 writers have signed up to keep their word count honest, to keep their butts in the chair, to get to 50,000 words by the end of the month.

I have signed up before. I have tried NaNoWriMo. But I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t really make me write a first draft. For one thing, I’m not compulsive enough to report my word count each day. (I am too busy actually writing for that!) Also, 50k words isn’t really a novel in my book, so a whole lot of editing, adding, subtracting, plumping, and excising would be required down the line. At the end of a frenzied flurry of work (if you wrote every single day of 30 (including Thanksgiving and Black Friday and the day you get that dreaded cold) you “only” need to get down 1667 words each day, about six or seven pages double-spaced, you are left with what? Months of organization. And frustration.

FullSizeRender-3Of course if you planned your November Attack ahead of time it wouldn’t end up such a pile of dreck. Maybe that’s how you’re doing it; if so, kudos to you for forethought. I confess to being a former pantser, that is, someone who writes from the seat of their pants, who doesn’t know where their novel’s plot is going, someone who wrote her first mystery not knowing who the killer was. [Note: this didn’t go well. Cue another 12 months of rewriting the book from scratch.]

I wonder how many of the NaNoWriMo crowd have outlined their novel ahead of time. This would make sense, if they did. Then you could actually write 50,000 words (if not a novel) in four weeks, by following your step by step breakdown.
Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 10.13.53 AMI have written out elaborate outlines, pages and pages of where I thought the story might go, sort of a short story or what they call in film, a treatment. “Might go” being the operative term, as these outlines rarely held up past the midpoint. Back in those days I knew where the novel started, the inciting incident, and how it would end, more or less. Definitely who the villain was after that first mess of a first draft. I almost always had to knock off a character at midpoint to get past that dreaded quagmire.

Now I use Scrivener, an outlining program with visual bulletin boards with note cards (you can do it yourself with real objects) and a template overlay that tells me basically where my plot points should be, where the midpoint is, keeps all my setting and character info and research in one place, and keeps me looking at the big picture of where my story is going. (I blogged about Scrivener and my love for it here.)

It’s easy, especially as a beginning writer, to get tunnel vision about your story. You fall in love with a character, with a scene, even though you have no idea what it means in the grand scheme of your story. Outlining really helps with this. You may think it takes the magic out of writing, and you may be right. It is less right-brained than the whole “the story came to me in a dream” thing (which does sometimes happen but usually goes nowhere.) But here’s the thing. You need both sides of your brain to write a good novel, the magicky-woo-woo side where deep emotional drama lives and breathes, and the cool, organized side that evaluates what level of crap you’re throwing down.

You can write a novel with only one side of your brain. But don’t expect fireworks. Just a whole bunch of rewriting.

I’m including these words of wisdom from Michael Crichton because I just read his last, posthumously published book, Pirate Latitudes. I’ve been on a pirate kick lately for some reason, and in general I find Crichton’s books fun, inventive, and well-written. But this book was found in his files after his death. It reads well, there is nothing glaringly wrong with it. But, as Entertainment Weekly said back in 2009, “If nothing else,  Pirate Latitudes is a reminder of the importance of picking an ironclad password for your computer.”

It reads like a young adult adventure novel, which isn’t a bad thing. I’m sure many 14-year-old adventurers-to-be will enjoy and have loved it. Crichton fans were thrilled when a last novel was found, no doubt, despite a sea of pirate sailing jingo like ”Mizzen top blown!”

But there is a reason Crichton never released it. And it probably starts with “re” and ends with “write.”