31 March 2017

A Pause

By Art Taylor

Last weekend's Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville was lush with great authors, and I was grateful for the chance to spend time with various friends from the mystery community: seeing Steve Weddle first thing and at various points throughout the day; catching up at lunch with Michael Sims; moderating a panel with Megan Abbott, Bill Beverly, and John Hart, and then joining all of them along with Meredith Cole and Laura Lippman for drinks afterwards; enjoying Lippman's talk the next morning at the brunch, and then attending panels later with Leone Ciporin, Diane Fanning, Con Lehane, Steph Post, Bradley Spinelli, David Stewart, and David Swinson; and spending much of Saturday at the Sisters in Crime table at the Lit Fair, along with Val Patterson and Rosemary Shomaker. It was star-studded start to finish and great fun all around.

But it was a conversation with a woman named Sandy who stopped by the Sisters in Crime table that stands out as a highpoint.

Sandy is a friend of the former director of the VA Festival of the Book, and while she has a home in Charlottesville, she has lived most of her life in France, where she moved after graduation from college. I don't recall how we got on the topic about the busyness of schedules, the busyness of life, but I think it started with something about email and then some discussion about the recent French law giving many workers the "right to disconnect" from email, helping to build a separation between work life and private life. Sandy began chatting about the differences in the French schedule vs. the U.S. one, and about the built-in "pauses" in the day, whether time for coffee mid-morning or afternoon or for lunch—an actual lunch, with people and conversation—at mid-day. I nodded along in agreement, eagerly, even while I couldn't help but admit that most days (OK, every day) I eat lunch at my desk, working right through, hardly slowing down at all, and my own "pauses" usually never take me from the computer screen—simply a brief graze through Facebook before turning back to work at hand.

My wife and I—like so many people we know—often feel overwhelmed by all that we have to do, between our day jobs, our writing aspirations, our parenting, and then the never-ending list of chores and errands and.... The first thing we do each morning is to check our phones, a check-in of the calendar ahead, already trying to map out some strategies to navigate the to-do list, and a glimpse at the fresh onslaught of emails waiting to be answered (or the backlog of emails unanswered, as many of my own friends and colleagues know too well about me). And I hate to admit this, but our son Dash often get caught up in the busyness of those schedules too. I don't know how many times I tell him each morning something along the lines of "Ok, let's go" and "Time to get ready" and "Please eat the rest of that toast" and "Seriously, Daddy's got to get to work"—the clock ticking, frustrations building.

This isn't a woe-is-us post, I should stress—again, these are experiences I think most of us have had—but I just wanted to offer a bit of context for my appreciation of what Sandy was sharing with me. And I shared in turn with her a recent column that cookbook author Dorie Greenspan published in the Washington Post, echoing much of what Sandy and I were talking about. The column showcased a recipe for Cheesy Bacony Quick Bread, but it was Greenspan's commentary that had stuck with me as strongly—and I'll quote the opening of it here:

I’m in Paris a whole less than I’m in New York, yet I see my French friends a whole lot more. It’s not that I prefer the French set. It’s not even that I’m more gadabout here. Nope, I think it’s because there are so many more opportunities to see friends in Paris, and they’re all built into the rhythm of the day.
In addition to breakfast, lunch and dinner, there are three other let’s-get-together moments:
Pre-work. The cafés open before the crack of dawn, and sharing the first coffee of the day with a friend at your regular place is simple. (My husband and our friend, Bernard, meet five days a week at the Petit Suisse, where the waiters start making their espressos as they see them coming down the street.)
At about 4 p.m. for goûter. While the word “goûter” is pretty much reserved these days for kids’ afterschool snacks, the practice of stopping for something sweet continues among adults, giving all of us grown-ups a kind of bonus: the chance to see friends and to be indulgent.
“L’heure de l’apéro.” The cocktail hour.
This is, I should also stress, not a post about how the French do it better.

I mentioned in my St. Patrick's Day post at SleuthSayers that I'm no fan of over-inebriated crowds, but I do take an evening cocktail fairly seriously as part of a demarcation between the work day and more personal time, and a full year before that French law, I made a New Year's Resolution to put my phone away each night at 6 p.m.—I even have an alarm set to remind me—to try to avoid being pulled into email or news or whatever, another demarcation. After reading Greenspan's column, my wife Tara and I made a batch of that quick bread, and we now have slices of it in the freezer to take out from time to time as part of our own heure de l'apéro—and the emphasis on that word hour leads me to quote from another writer, Bernard DeVoto, whose ’40s-era classic The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto originally cemented for me some of these ideas of marking the end of the workday, the beginning of time with family and friends or time for self. Here's a sample from DeVoto's book:

I will inquire into no man's reasons for taking a drink at any hour except 6:00 p.m. They are his affair and he has a rich variety of liquors to choose from according to his whim or need; may they reward him according to his deserts and well beyond. But when evening quickens in the street, comes a pause in the day's occupations that is known at the cocktail hour. It marks the lifeward turn. The heart wakens from coma and its dyspnea ends. Its strengthening pulse is to cross over into campground, to believe that the world has not been altogether lost or, if lost, then not altogether in vain. It needs a wife (or some other charming woman) of attuned impulse and equal impatience and maybe two or three friends, but no more than two or three. These gathered together in a softly lighted room and, with them what it needs most of all, the bounty of alcohol. Hence the cocktail.... When we summon life to reveal forgotten benisons and give us ourselves again, we do so peremptorily. Confirm that hope, set the beacon burning, and be quick about it.
The emphasis here has been on food and drink, I recognize—in my conversation with Sandy and in the passages I've quoted. But I should stress here too that this is not a post on cocktails or small bites. In fact, what prompted me to write this column has little to do with any of that and more about the pause itself—the moment of appreciation.

As another, not unrelated, New Year's Resolution this year, my wife Tara and I began to make notes at bedtime each night about the highpoints of our day—some good thing that had happened, some moment of joy perhaps—a resolution I know I've mentioned in this space already, but I don't think I've mentioned how difficult it's been some days for both of us to recall a highpoint amidst the busyness and duties and all. Wednesdays are my busiest days of the week this semester, teaching from morning until 10 p.m. at night and often pushing right up to class time to finish reading and prep and grading for each course. On these Wednesdays, Tara has been picking up our son Dash from school, and I've been working in my office not just through lunch but through dinner as well—long days, as I've said.

On Wednesday of this week, however, my wife was running late with work herself, and I walked to pick up Dash at his pre-school here on campus and let him visit my office until Tara could pick him up.

I still had dinner in my office before class, still had a long night ahead and didn't get home until past 10:30—but first Dash and I strolled across campus, and I let him lead the way, following both his path and his pace as we talked about his day and about what he wanted to see in my office and about his plans with Tara for the evening ahead. In my office he played with a toy I have here (a Lego he'd made and that he'd let me take to my office and that he took home again) and he met a couple of other professors. As we walked up and down the stairwell we played a game of hello and goodbye that he'd enjoyed in the past and remembered, a big grin spreading.

It was, at most, about half an hour together between pick-up and hand-off, but it offered the much-needed pause.

Later that night, after class, I wrote about our time together among those notes about small moments of joy.

And then the next morning, amidst the "Ok, let's go" and "Time to get ready" and "Seriously, Daddy's got to get to work," while I was getting that lunch packed and prepping Dash's snack and gearing up for everything, Dash stepped away from that toast he wasn't eating fast enough. Just as I was about to ask him to please go back and finish his breakfast, he handed me a picture he'd been drawing while he ate.

It was, of course, another pause worth savoring—and forget that toast, no food or drink required here either.








30 March 2017

Bleeding, Sweating, Purging

by Eve Fisher

Or, as some people call it, the good old days of holistic medicine.

Seriously, these were all the standard medical treatment from ca 200 AD until the first use of antibiotics in the 1940s.  Nostalgia isn't what it's cracked up to be.  The truth is, standard medical practice between those dates probably killed more people than all the wars in history.  And it certainly makes for some interesting possibilities as far as historical murder, because how would you tell a homicide from a treatment?

The reason bleeding, sweating, and purging caught on was because of Galen, the most famous Greek physician of the Roman empire.  A legend in his own time, his writings survived the wholesale wreckage of ancient books and learning of the Dark Ages:  they were the major source of medical information for Byzantium and the Arabic Abassid Dynasty, and got reintroduced to the West in the 11th century as part of the treasures that the Crusaders brought / sent back to Western Europe.  His influence was so great that, when 13th century anatomists found differences between, er, actual anatomy and Galen's theories, they explained that the human body had obviously changed since the ancient world...

Anyway, Galen practiced medicine by humors, which has nothing to do with jokes.  According to this theory (which probably started back in ancient Egypt), humans are divided into four types:


18th c. woodcut - Wikipedia
  • Sanguine (enthusiastic, active, and social) - ruled by their blood, which Galen believed was manufactured in the liver.  Element, air; season, spring, infancy - warm and moist
  • Choleric (short-tempered, fast, or irritable) - ruled by yellow bile, which came from the spleen.  Element, fire; season, summer, youth - warm and dry
  • Melancholic (analytical, wise, and quiet) - ruled by black bile from the gallbladder.  Element, earth; season, autumn, adulthood - cold and dry
  • Phlegmatic (relaxed and peaceful) - ruled by phlegm, made in the brain/lungs.  Element, water; season, winter, old age - cold and wet  

(There were also astrological aspects to all of this).  

Anyway, all your ills, moods, "humors", etc., were based on an imbalance of the blood, bile, phlegm. So the obvious thing to do was the cleanse you so that your body could rebalance.  (A lot like the eternal craze for juice fasts, fad diets, and high colonics...)  Thus, bleeding, sweating, and purging.

Folks, all I can say is that we are living in the best time to be ill in history.  Back during the plague years, one physician infamously said, bleeding patient after patient, "Plague, I will cure you by bleeding!"  All the patients died, but he soldiered on, knowing that eventually it would work.  And doctors continued on the same path until very modern times.  Louis XIV's oldest son, the Grand Dauphin, grandson (the Duke of Burgundy), and his wife, the Duchess, and their oldest son, the Duke of Brittany, all died within a year and a half because their doctor tried to cure smallpox and measles with bleeding.  The result was that two entire generations of the royal family were wiped out and the future Louis XV became the Dauphin at the ripe age of five.  (This was, in case, you don't know it, a disaster:  "Apres moi, le deluge".)

Throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th century, heart attack patients were bled; young girls suffering from "green sickness" were either bled or advised to have sex; Marianne Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility was bled when she obviously had pneumonia.  And, aside from illness, it was largely believed that everyone should be bled regularly, to help balance their humors:  monks and nuns were bled about four times a year. The only real change over the centuries was that, instead of using leeches, doctors actually performed a phlebotmy using special lancets or knives.

Photo of Bloodletting in 1860 -
Wikipedia
By the 19th century, "One British medical text recommended bloodletting for acne, asthma, cancer, cholera, coma, convulsions, diabetes, epilepsy, gangrene, gout, herpes, indigestion, insanity, jaundice, leprosy, ophthalmia, plague, pneumonia, scurvy, smallpox, stroke, tetanus, tuberculosis, and for some one hundred other diseases. Bloodletting was even used to treat most forms of hemorrhaging such as nosebleed, excessive menstruation, or hemorrhoidal bleeding. Before surgery or at the onset of childbirth, blood was removed to prevent inflammation. Before amputation, it was customary to remove a quantity of blood equal to the amount believed to circulate in the limb that was to be removed." (Wikipedia, Bloodletting)  

There are fewer references to sweating than to bleeding.  The main one I can think of is in Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, where a naughty little boy gets stung by a whole nest of wasps, and is slathered with mud, and bound up in sheets and left to sweat the poison out.  It apparently worked, because he survived.  When I was a child, if I had a fever, I had blankets piled up on top of me to make the fever break by sweating it out.  And, of course, sweat lodges, hammams, and saunas all operate on the theory of making you sweat, thereby cleansing you, both inside and out.

And purging is everywhere in the literature, from diaries to novels.  My mother, born in 1917, believed that in spring you need to eat purging foods and/or take a thorough laxative to cleanse the body.  In Jack Larkin's invaluable The Reshaping of Everyday Life 1790-1840, he describes a world of hard work, much fun, and horrifying medicine.  "Bleeding and blistering, purging and puking" were the standard remedies for EVERYTHING.  And they were the kind of thing that your average frontier citizen in America could do at home, for themselves, using plants, herbs and (sometimes) kerosene.  (No, I am not kidding.)  Thus when Zadoc Long's wife suffered what was probably a nasty gallbladder attack, he gave her a strong emetic made of thoroughwort to "puke her".  (88-92)

What about medicine?  Well, there wasn't much.  Quinine did work on malaria, but it was also given for almost any "ague", or recurring fever.  One of the most widely used drugs was calomel, mercurous chloride, which was used for such things as syphilis and yellow fever.  It didn't cure either of them, but it gave wonderful proof that it was strong medicine:  mercury [poisoning] made people salivate like a mad dog, then lose their teeth, and perhaps their hair.  A thorough purging indeed.  And let us not forget alcohol. Whenever you read in the literature about someone being given "cordials" that is some form of alcohol.  A lot of people died in a prescribed drunk.  Supposedly Oscar Wilde, being prescribed champagne on his deathbed, said, "I am dying as I have lived, above my means".  

There were a few things that worked:   As I mentioned in a previous blog ("Arsenic and Old Lace") there was opium in its various forms, especially laudanum (alcohol and opium combined - the pause that refreshes and the mother's friend).  Cocaine was used as a numbing agent, a stimulate, and even, apparently as a cure for dandruff.  There was an effective smallpox inoculation, using live disease material.  This was risky, because many patients got smallpox from the inoculation, and some died.  Even more effective was Dr. Jenner's vaccination using cowpox, which ran far less risk of infection and death.  While smallpox was never eradicated (not enough people were either able to get the vaccination or were willing to run the risks), at least it became rarer.

Basically, before 1945, the best thing to do for your health was to choose your parents wisely.  And not get in accidents, wars, or be pregnant.  If you could survive birth, infancy, early childhood (all of which wiped out about 50% of the population), and then could manage to not die in accidents (a simple scratch could give you blood poisoning or tetanus), childbirth, epidemics or war, you could become very, very old.  And be remarkably healthy the whole time.  Eleanor of Aquitaine had 10 children, a complex and busy life, and still managed to live active and healthy until she was 82.  The philosopher Fontenelle (1657-1757) was known for his intellect and his womanizing.  (He said to Madame Helvetius, when he met her in his late 90s, "Ah Madame, if only I were eighty again!")  A medieval letter from a visiting priest to an abbey offered birthday wishes to Brother Narcissus, on the occasion of his 116th birthday.

Good genes?  Undoubtedly.  And darned little bleeding, sweating, or purging.




 




29 March 2017

Beyond the locked gate

by Robert Lopresti

Saturday will be April Fool's Day, which makes this an excellent opportunity to talk about Mulla Nasrudin.  I am amazed to find that in all my years of blogging I have only discussed him once, and  that, in passing.

The concensus is that the real-life Nasrudin was a Sufi born in Turkey in the 1200s.  But since he is known in folklore from the Middle East all the way to China there is obviously much debate about that.  (Also about his name: Molla Nasreddin, Nasr Eddin, Nasrudeen Hodja, or just the Hodja, to name a few variations.  The catalogers at the Library of Congress settled on Nasreddin Hoca.)


What is certain is that the character belongs to the tradition of the wise fool: the spiritual leader who passes on his message by behaving in eccentric ways, perhaps on purpose, perhaps not.

I don't claim to understand Sufism at all but I think it is a mystical tradition within Islam which believes enlightment cannot be achieved by study or words alone.  It requires long-term commitment to a great teacher and one learns from the behavior of the teacher as well as from texts.  There is an interest in achieving the conditions necessary for grasping truth, not in merely sitting down with a text.  Everyone who has actually studied Sufism is now welcome to explain in the comments that I am full of beans.

Remember the old joke about the man who lost his keys at Point A but looked for them at Point B because the light was better there?  Classic Nasrudin.  And, if you think about it, clearly an allegory for the pursuit of truth (although, in proper mystical fashion, the message itself is debatable).

I had a friend who spend a year in Afghanistan several decades ago and he said that a day never passed without someone telling him a Nasrudin story. They were always told to make a point but they were so far from Western thinking that my friend sometimes could not tell when the punchline had arrived.

Here are a few stories relevant to crime fiction.  As far as I know they are all ancient and in the public domain.  Whether they have deep meaning I leave up to you, but the last story makes an interesting argument about the administration of justice.  (By the way, there is no relation between the books shown and particular stories.)

The Detective

One day Nasrudin bought three pounds of meat.  While he was out his wife cooked it and ate it.  When he came home he asked where it had gone.

"The kitten ate it."

Nasrudin pulled out a scale and found that the kitten weighed three pounds.  "If this is the cat, where is the meat?  If this is the meat, where is the cat?"

The Victim

One night Nasrudin found a burglar in his house, stuffing objects into a sack.  Nasrudin immediately began to add more to the bag.

"What are you doing?" asked the burglar.

"I thought we were moving," said Nasrudin, "so I was helping you pack."

The Criminal

"Mulla, you are so wise!  Has anyone ever asked you a question you can't answer?"

"Only once.  It was: 'Why are you sneaking through my window in the middle of the night?'"

The Judge.

A woman came to Nasrudin's court and complained: "My son is addicted to sugar.  I can't make him stop eating and he is spending all my money.  Please order him to stop."

"This is a very difficult case," said Nasrudin.  "Come back in a week."

She did.  "This still requires more work," he said.  "Come back next week."

This happened twice more.  Finally Nasrudin called the boy before him.  "You are making your mother's life a misery!  I order you to stop eating sugar or you will be severely punished."

The mother thanked him.  "But Mulla, why couldn't you have done the same thing weeks ago?"

Nasrudin shrugged.  "How could I know it would take so long for me to give up sugar?'

****************************************************

There is a beautiful tomb in Aksehir, Turkey, supposedly that of the great Mulla.  It is guarded by a gate, sealed with a great padlock.

There are no walls connected to the gate.







28 March 2017

How to be a Hero: Debra Komar



Trigger warning: sensitive souls should not read this. [NSFW. NSFL.]

Dr. Debra Komar spent over two decades investigating war crimes as a forensic scientist for the United Nations and Physicians for Human Rights. She testified as an expert witness in The Hague.
In other words, she’s a smart, hard-working, funny and unflinching real-life hero who now writes historical crime fiction.
Capital Crime Writers featured her as a speaker this Fall. I wrote as fast as I could, but I still couldn’t get everything down. I recreated it as best I could, in an interview format, to give you three simple lessons on how you can be a hero too.


1. Work hard.
Melissa Yi: I’m an emergency doctor, so I know how to work hard. But I have no idea what it’s like to do a genocide investigation. What does it involve?
Debra Komar: “Start with witnesses and aerial photos. Go in. Exhume. Take photos. Identify the remains. Return them to families. Create the narrative.”
So when you’re on the ground, what is your day-to-day life like?
“In Iraq, there were shipping containers around us, 75 people in a room. Only eight of them were the scientific team, but you need that many to get you out safely and back in. For six months, you work twenty hours a day, in the desert, with people shooting at you, emptying graves and doing autopsies all night.”
That sounds…
“Soul-destroying.”
I’m not sure  I could do that.
“It was the same 19 of us who’ve shown up for the past 20 years. You’re considered retired after ten missions. I did 18.”
Debra Komar and Melissa Yi. Photo by Patricia Filteau.


2. Learn how to laugh.
How did you deal with it?
“A lot of people in my industry drink too much. My way was to turn off emotion…and [use] morgue humour.”
Komar teaches forensic science, and she has some popular sessions like Museum (autopsy lockers full of interesting specimens. One of them was filled exclusively with rectal foreign bodies, i.e. items pulled exclusively from a rectum).
They also played Spot the B.S. They’d play a clip from TV, and students would call out the errors.

3. Learn how to leave.
How did you become a writer?
“I always wanted to write. I had a quiet agreement to myself: I’d do this work as long as I could, and then retire.”
So you’re retired now?
“It’s hard to retire. I still have students, and I appear in court.”
Was it hard to make the transition from genocide investigation to writing?
“When you work in a morgue, you realize life is short. I was prepared to fall on my face and fail, but I wasn’t willing not to try.”

When Komar started writing true crime books, she chose to write historical crime. Which doesn’t mean she pulls her punches.

For example, in The Lynching of Peter Wheeler, she describes the Nova Scotia case of 14-year-old Annie Kempton in 1896: someone clubbed Annie with a piece of firewood and slit her throat three times with a kitchen knife, then sat down and ate a jar of homemade jam, leaving a spoon covered in bloody fingerprints, before abandoning her body.
Peter Wheeler, a “coloured” man, found her body when he came to the house to buy milk in the morning. In this book, Komar explains why Wheeler was innocent and how racism, the court system, primitive forensics and the media played a role in convicting and hanging him. {Publisher link; Amazon link}
In her most recent book, Black River Road, Komar follows teenaged berry pickers in Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1869, to discover the decomposing body of Maggie Vail and her child. The accused? John Munroe, an architect, the lover of Maggie Vail and father of her child, who claimed he was innocent because his character would not permit him to commit such a heinous act. Komar explores the role of character in the court of law in a world before forensic science became the star witness. {Publisher link; Amazon link}
*
After I met her at CCW, Komar generously agreed to read an excerpt of my novel, Human Remains. In the second chapter, Dr. Hope Sze and her boyfriend Ryan confront a dead man, thanks to a Rottweiler named Roxy.
Komar wrote, “It's clear you are a doctor, not in a bad way.  You keep it simple and define terms were necessary - all very good.  You also do a great job of capturing the naïve enthusiasm of a resident - wanting to help, even in the face of a clearly deceased individual.  We've all seen (and been) overanxious eager residents that think they can bring people back to life.”
She explained that Hope shouldn’t disturb the scene and the forensic evidence, but the operator would defer to Hope’s medical expertise in resuscitating, because saving a life takes precedence over preserving evidence.
I should mention that she said the operator wouldn’t normally put Ryan on hold to debate the point, but I kept that bit in as creative license. All this to say that Komar was exceedingly generous with her time, and I am grateful to Capital Crime Writers for the opportunity.
*
Komar recently completed a writer-in-residence position at Pierre Burton House in Dawson City, Yukon, in preparation for her next book. If you follow her on Twitter, you can see some photos of dogsledding and a thermometer hitting almost -40 in both Celsius and Farenheit.
In other words, when you’re a hero, you may never stop creating adventures for yourself and your readers.

Long may she reign.

Melissa Yi is an emergency physician and award-winning writer. Find her on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.
Dr. Debra Komar is on Twitter.

27 March 2017

Writing Like a Girl with Gayle Lynds

My inspiration for this column today is a post by Gayle Lynds which she posted to Rogue Women Writers yesterday and gave me permission go use here.

Today I was thinking about how mystery writing has changed and one big change that is one I welcome as more and more women are writing big thrillers and they are outstanding books. One such writer is my guest poster, Gayle Lynds. We don't often hear, "You write like a girl anymore." Or as my friend, and a previous fellow SleuthSayer, Susan Rogers Cooper, who got a letter almost daring her to prove she wasn't a man. He didn't think a woman was capable of writing a male protagonist like Milt Kovacks. Yet Susan still writes Milt novels and he is very definitely a strong male character.

Here Gayle Lynds talks about her inspiration.
— Jan Grape

Gayle Lynds
How The Jackal Became My Writerly Inspiration
by Gayle Lynds

In the mid 1980s I was writing and publishing not only literary short stories but books in a genre the industry considered among the lowest of the low — male pulp fiction.

Some called my ability to do both artistic range. But it puzzled and slightly offended others, and after a while I began to wonder myself — was there something wrong with me? Maybe I was literarily schizophrenic. Okay, let's ask the real questions: Who was I? What in heck did I think I was doing?

And then I got lucky and was able to dig deep. I found my muse, my inspiration, maybe it was really my siren's song — I stumbled on The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth.

What follows is a tale of hubris and, perhaps, redemption.

Published first in the United Kingdom in 1971, the novel dramatizes the desperate hunt for an international assassin hired by a secret paramilitary organization to kill French president Charles de Gaulle in 1963. The assassin is so clandestine even his employers know him just by a code name – the Jackal.

From the French police inspector under unrelenting pressure to stop the Jackal, to the young war widow who seduces an elderly government bureaucrat to extract from him the inspector's plans, the author guides us unerringly into the hearts and fears of the story's characters – on both sides of the political drama.

In the end we resonate with all of Forsyth's characters not necessarily because we approve but because he reveals each's humanity, and once we understand we can't help but care at least a little – a feat of high artistic skill.

I'd avoided reading The Day of the Jackal when it was first published because, although many attempts were made on De Gaulle's life, he died quietly, a private citizen in his own home, in 1970 — seven years after the novel's purported events.

The daring of Forsyth's concept and marvelous conceit that an author could create not only believable but compelling fictional suspense about an assassination that never happened had been lost on me. Instead, it buttressed my naive arrogance – if the book was a hot bestseller, it couldn't be good.

Fast forward to the mid 1980s: I'd begun writing pulp adventure novels and experimenting in them with literary techniques from my short stories. At the same time, I had two young children to support, and words-on-paper isn't a food group. (The literary journals paid in copies, while the pulp fiction paid in checks just large enough I could buy extra copies of the journals.)

That was when a paperback copy of The Day of the Jackal stared at me from the shelf of a thrift store. It had been read so many times the spine was cracked and the pages tattered. Obviously it had riveted readers. I wondered why. I bought it.

As I read, I felt as if I had finally come home. Forsyth's prose was rich and smooth, often lyrical. The characters were memorable. The insider details of the workings of the French government were not only accurate but, under his hand, fascinating. The Jackal's violence was remorseless, as it should have been.

My love of history, culture, geopolitics, and fine writing had finally come together in the pages of this exemplary novel. I was more than grateful; I was inspired. My future in international espionage was sealed. Thank you, Mr. Forsyth.

Thanks so much to Gayle for allowing me to use her blog posting on Rogue Women Writers.

List of some of Gayle Lynds Books:
  • Masquerade
  • The Coil
  • Mosaic
  • Mesmerized
  • The Last Spymaster
  • No Rest For The Dead
  • The Book of Spies
  • The Assassins
  • Covert One books with Robert Ludlum.
    • The Hades Factor
    • The Paris Option
    • The Altman Code

26 March 2017

While We're at It

by R.T. Lawton

Most of us would agree that we're not in this for the money. We would prefer to say that we write because we love to write, or to have written (not quite the same thing), or to have an outlet for our creativity, or to entertain others. Take your pick. At various times I have fallen into each of the four categories. You may even have another reason, one which is all your own. Regardless of why we write, money still becomes a factor of some consideration. In which case, it's a good thing I have a nice pension to live on. Thus, when I hit the streets for research, I don't have to live there and spend the night huddled in the doorway of some downtown business.

Jan/Feb 2017 issue contains
the 9th story in my
Holiday Burglars series
Okay, I'll admit I'm a slow writer, plus I probably don't spend as much time at it as I should. But, I've also been told by fellow authors who write novels for small, but well-known publishing houses, that I probably make more money from just two short stories sold to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in any one year than they make from their one novel's advance, plus royalties (if it earns out) in that same year. Many of these novelists end up spending their advance for marketing and publicity (because their publishing houses don't do it for them), hoping  to make up their net profit  later on their second or third published novel. Unfortunately, the Death Spiral often kicks in and it's time to start writing under a different name because publishers know the statistics for an author's name.

For those of you who haven't heard of the Death Spiral, it works like this. Say you got a print run of a thousand books and you had a sell through rate of 80%. Sounds like a high rate, but for the second novel, as it's been explained to me, the publisher looks at the figures and decides to do a second novel print run at 800 books. After all, that's what the first novel sold. If that second novel gets a sell through rate of 80%, then the third novel gets a print run of 640 books. At an 80% sell through rate, there won't be a fourth book.

Me, I don't write novels, except for that one completed novel still in the desk drawer where it truly belongs. Too much time invested for a potential rejection, whereas if one of my short stories gets rejected, well, it's merely less than 6% (on average) of the words invested in a novel. I can write 3-10 short stories a year (hey, I'm not as prolific as John Floyd), which is still less than the number of words I'd need for that one novel a year like the publishing industry wants. The problem with my situation is there are only about four top paying mystery markets out there for short stories. If I were to become really ambitious, I'd have to branch out into the sci-fi short story market.

For the basis of this argument, here are the numbers, strictly for my AHMM market.

36 Accepted   15 Rejected*   70.6% Acceptance Rate   $15,516 Money Earned for just those stories, plus $750 for reprint rights on 8 of those AHMM stories  $16,266 Total for only AHMM stories (I'm not getting rich, so you know I'm not bragging.)
          * Most rejections were early attempts as I learned my way in, but yep, I still get rejections.

Many of the small publishing houses only pay about a $500 advance for a novel, whereas I've been making about $900 average for two AHMM stories in any given year out of which I have to spend no money for marketing or publicity. Those 36 short stories I sold to AHMM totaled to about 190K words, which for me would make about three short novels over a several year period.

MY Conclusion: For time spent, money received and interest of mind, Guess I'll stick to short stories for as long as my market lasts, even though there is less prestige in them than in being known as a published novelist. And, if I did spend the time needed to write a novel, it would have to be good enough to sell to one of the big houses, with a much, much better advance than $500 (which incidentally is the payment for one 700 word mini-mystery for Woman's World magazine), else it's not worth the effort for me. No offense meant to anyone out there, because I'm talking about me and how I think about my situation. Plus, I couldn't write a novel a year.

So, that's my story. Everybody wants something different, has different circumstances and/or sees the business in a different way. What's your take on the money side of the business we're in?

Personally, I hope you're one of those novelists getting great advances, high figure print runs and  excellent sell through rates. And, if you operate as an e-book author, I hope you have a great marketing platform that's working for you. Find whatever edge you can get.

Best wishes to you all.

25 March 2017

Advances and Royalties and Agents, oh my! A Primer on Traditional Publishing

by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl, who is being especially good today)

Many here know I teach Crafting a Novel at Sheridan College in Toronto.  In weeks 13 and 14 of the course, we talk about the business of publishing.  I’ve prepared the following primer on traditional publishing to bring new authors up to speed on the basics, and thought it might be of interest to readers here.  (Insert caveat here: this is a general primer. Your deal or experience may be different.)

Advance:

…is just that.  It is an advance against the royalties the publisher expects you to earn.

If your book cover price is $10, and your royalties are 10%, then you can expect to make $1 per book sold at that cover price.  (Often, your publisher may sell for less when in bulk. And when that happens, you make 10% of the amount the book sold for, so a lot less.)

So…if you receive an advance of $5000 (which would be considered a nice advance in Canada from a traditional publisher) then you would have to sell 5001 books before you would start seeing royalties.  (At least.  It may be more like 7500, if they’ve sold some of your books below cover.)
In Canada, royalties are supposed to be distributed quarterly, according to standards set by TWUC (The Writers’ Union of Canada).  But this standard is not law; often, publishers ignore these guidelines and pay royalties semi-annually. 

Royalty Example:  Melodie sells 1200 copies of Rowena Through the Wall from Oct. 2015 to Dec. 2015.  She has already ‘sold through’ her advance in previous quarters (see below for an explanation of sell through.) The royalties on these sales will appear on the March 15 royalty statement.  So in fact, for a book sold Oct. 1, she won’t see her $1.50 until March 15, nearly 6 months later.  And that’s with the best kind of publisher.

Sell Through:

This is the term to describe if you have ‘made up’ your advance.  If, in the top example (advance of $5000,) your book has sold 5001 copies, you have ‘sold through’ your advance.

This is a key event in the life of your book, and a critical thing for your book to achieve.  If your book doesn’t sell through, then you are unlikely to get a new book contract from that publisher.

You can see why a large advance comes with stress.  The smaller your advance, the easier it is to sell through. 

(Even if you don’t sell through, you keep the full amount of the advance.)

Agents:

An agent handles the business side of your writing (contracts, etc.)  Agents typically take 15% of your income. 

So, if you got an advance of $1000 (a not unusual advance for a first book in Canada) an agent would take $150 of your advance.  Now you can see why it is so hard to get an agent.  They don’t want $150 for all their work – they want $1500 or more!  So until you are getting advances of $10,000, it is hard to get an agent.

Why you would want an agent:

Agents get you in the door at the big 5 publishing houses.  Most of the big publishers will only take query letters from agents.  If you are a published author already with a house, the main reason you would want an agent is to ‘trade up.’  i.e. – move from a smaller publisher to Penguin. 

Time from sale to bookstore with a traditional publisher:   
Usually 12 months to 18 months.  15 months is typical.

Deadlines: 

Miss your deadline with a traditional publisher, and you are toast.  This means deadlines for getting back on publisher edits too.  Production time in factories is booked long in advance.  If your book isn’t ready to go on the line in its slotted time, then your publisher loses money.  Say goodbye to your next sale.

Print on demand publishers: 

Some smaller traditional publishers have let go of production runs and are now using print on demand technology via Createspace.  Usually this means shorter time from sale to bookstore.  (i.e. a book sold to a publisher in March might be for sale by June.)

How bookstores work:

Bookstores typically buy books from the publisher or distributor at 60% of cover.  So the bookstore makes 40% (less shipping costs).  Usually the shipping costs are born by the retailer, but sometimes publishers will have specials.

BUT – if a book doesn’t sell, the retailer can rip off the cover, send the cover back to the publisher and get a full refund for the book.  The coverless books are then destroyed.  (Yes, it’s appalling.  It all has to do with shipping costs.  Not worth it to ship books back.)

Problem – this doesn’t work with print on demand books.  You can’t return anything to Createspace.  So retailers are reluctant to stock books that are not from traditional publishers using the traditional print-run method, because they can't return books that don't sell.

How long is your book on a shelf:

In a store like Chapters (the Canadian big-box equivalent of Barnes & Noble), if your book doesn’t sell in 45 days, they usually remove it.  Gone forever from the shelves, unless you become a NYT bestseller in the future, and they bring back your backlist.  Yes, this is unbelievably short.  It used to be 6 months.  The book business is brutal. 

I think the third word in that last line is the key.  The book business is a business.  It’s there to make a profit for shareholders.  We are in love with our products, so we find that hard to face.  I saw a study that said approximately 40% of writers are manic-depressive.

The rest of us just drink.

Melodie Campbell does her drinking in the Toronto area, where she writes funny books about a crime family.  Is it any wonder?  www.melodiecampbell.com

24 March 2017

Now for Something Different ...

by
O'Neil De Noux

Adventure novels, always loved them. From the Doc Savage - Man of Bronze books to H. Rider Haggard to David Dodge's PLUNDER OF THE SUN ... I could go on and on.

Secret Agent Spy novels, always loved them. From Ian Fleming to Len Deighton to Adam Hall to John le Carre ... again I could go on and on.

Adventure novels, always wanted to write one. So I wrote one with secret agent spies. Most fun I've had with a computer since I discovered the Bettie Page page. It started with an oil painting my artist-daughter Dana painted for me for Christmas or maybe my birthday.


The characters came next and as soon as I created them, they let me know they needed to be different from other secret agent spies. They needed special powers so I gave them super powers, which took the novel into the realm of the paranormal. All right. I grew up with SPIDER-MAN and DAREDEVIL and THE FASTASTIC FOUR ... I could go on and on.

OK, when does the story occur? I just finished my historical mystery THE FRENCH DETECTIVE (set in 1900), so let's go back in time, but not that far. As I kept looking at the tiger, I started thinking INDIANA JONES and the ultimate villains of the 20th Century - Nazis. Hey, I have all that research from my historical novel about OSS assassins set during World War II - DEATH ANGELS. So I set the book in 1936.

OK, where? Some place different. I know - Macao (now spelled Macau). And that's how it began. I put a character in a tuxedo, another in an evening gown and have them run into each other in a giant casino where there's a gunfight with Nazis and Japanese agents (can't leave out the villainous Japanese of 1936).

So where does the tiger tie in? Easy enough. India. So we're off to India. I gave my characters their super powers, added a mysterious stone with special powers and followed them from Macao to India to Goa and into the Indian Ocean to a secret island where Nazi scientists are experimenting on tigers.

Here's the result:

Here's the promo:

IT IS 1936 and the world is on the brink of war -

An American with special talents is sent to the Portuguese colony of Macao to discover why Japanese agents are frantically searching for a mysterious stone called the Blaer. Murder quickly follows as the American stumbles on a vivacious brunette who needs rescuing. Or does she? This audacious woman has her own special talents.

The chase is on as Japanese spies and German thugs pursue the American secret agents who turn out to be superheroes with super powers. Against a backdrop of exotic locales - a giant gambling casino in Macao, a voyage through the South China Sea through the Strait of Malacca into the Bay of Bengal to mainland India before our heroes travel to a lost island in the Arabian Sea to battle Nazi SS troop and evil scientists. The two Americans are drawn to one another on this plush island and become enmeshed in a struggle between good and evil.

What diabolical plan do Nazi scientists have for tigers? The perilous adventure becomes a deadly game of cat-and-mouse in the realm of the ultimate predator - the tiger.

Here is the link to the paperback and eBook: https://www.amazon.com/Lucifers-Tiger-paranormal-secret-agent-ebook/dp/B06XCQS4CL/

Can't wait for the 1-star reviews on Amazon. "Hey, what the hell is this?"


I'll close with a quote from William Sydney Porter - better known by his pseudonym O. Henry (who lived in New Orleans for a short while). He once said, "Write what you like; there's no other rule." Not sure he said this. I got it off the internet. But I hope he did.
www.oneildenoux.net


23 March 2017

Cliffhangers

by Rob Lopresti

This appeared on a different blog seven years ago and was one of my most popular pieces.   I figured many of you haven't read it and the rest have forgotten it, so....

LOOK OUT!
 
Don’t you see that car fishtailing up the road, barely staying on the pavement? It’s heading straight to the cliff, zooming like the brakes have been cut, and it seems that in just a few seconds it will crash to certain doom. We may have just enough time to figure out what kind of a novel we are in …

If the driver is the local aristocrat that everyone in the village hates and has reason to kill, this is a cosy.

If the driver is a young punk who has just realized, too late, that the beautiful woman he slept with last night had no intention of sharing the dough with him, this is a noir.

But if that punk has in his pocket a compromising photo that implicates a millionaire’s daughter in a vicious murder, we’re in a hard-boiled.

If the driver and passenger are currently engaged in an activity that might feature in a compromising photo, this could be pornography. The Supreme Court will know it when they see it.

If the driver is in a mad rush to get Scruffy to the vet, and Scruffy will eventually have to drag his master out of the burning wreck with his two remaining teeth, this is a dog novel.

If the driver, nursing deep scratches on both arms, is steering with one hand while trying to stuff poor kidnapped Mitzi back into the carrier case, this is a cat mystery.

If the driver is attempting suicide because he just discovered (on the day he got his license!) that his sexy driver’s ed teacher was only pretending to like him to get the attention of the hateful football coach, this is a coming-of-age novel.

None of the above.
If the driver is scrabbling at the door handle, clawing at it with both hands in a desperate attempt to throw himself out before it’s too late, this is a suspense novel.

If he took the wrong road because he just heard his wife being interviewed on the radio, and he thought she died in South America ten years before, it is psychological suspense.

If the handsome young man races up in a jeep at the last moment to pull the beautiful driver out the car, it’s a romance.

But if she realizes that that handsome young man had been tinkering with the car just before she got in it and she has to decide right now whether she trusts him or not, this is romantic suspense.

If the only one who had the chance to tamper with the brakes was the handsome young man’s insane mother, it’s a gothic.

If the car is being chased by a crack squad of militant monks because the driver is in possession of the only extant copy of the Perth Amboy Codex, an ancient manuscript that claims St. Paul was a woman, this is a religious thriller.

If the car is being chased by a tank, it’s is a war novel.

But if the tank is full of Confederate soldiers, this is alternate history fiction.

And now the car is flying off the cliff…

If the driver, an elderly Byelorussian, uses his last strength to toss from the car a blurry photograph with the words “Storm Captain, Morocco” scribbled on the back, this is an espionage novel.

But if, on the other hand, the driver, a handsome man with a ruthless expression and an ironic smile, jumps out the window and, by pressing the right lapel on his tuxedo, turns his pocket handkerchief into a fully-functional parachute, then this is a spy novel.

If the car suddenly emits a pale green light and takes straight off into the sky, it’s science fiction.

If little Maisy in the back seat prays really hard and the car lands, unharmed, in a tree, this is inspirational fiction.

If the driver manages to scrabble out to safety but the car, weighted down by a trunkful of gold bullion, sinks forever into the swamp, it’s a caper novel.

If that same driver lands safely in a pile of pig manure, it’s a comic caper novel.

Attribution below.
After the crash …

If the brake cable was sliced exactly 17 centimeters from the pedal with an Entwhistle Model 22K cable cutter, which is sold only by three hardware stores in the northeast, this is a police procedural.

If the car crashed because of a design flaw which only one engineer in the whole world can detect, and he is a drunken has-been, living on hand-outs from the company that made the mistake in the first place, this is a legal thriller.

If the driver is found to have a temperature of 105 degrees, green splotches on his skin, and breath that smells like nutmeg and old firecrackers, we’re in a medical thriller, and I hope you had your shots.

If it turns out the driver, alone in the car with all doors locked and windows closed, was stabbed through the heart with a dagger which is not even in the car, this is a locked room mystery.

If it turns out the driver died for no reason and everyone spends the rest of the book feeling very, very sad about it, this is mainstream literature.

If the driver turns to ashes as the sun comes over the horizon, this is a vampire novel.

If the driver turns out to be the president’s best friend, who hasn’t been seen since the day after the election, it’s a political thriller.

If the driver’s sister discovers a tragic secret in the wreckage, and has to decide whether to share it with the family, this is women’s fiction.

If the driver got the heel of her Manolo Blahnik caught in the gas pedal, this is chick lit.

If there is no driver, it’s a ghost story.

If the trunk contained forty-seven jars of homemade jelly which were intended for a tasting at the new gourmet food store in town, this is a novel with an amateur detective.

If this is the fifth car to zoom over a cliff in the last two years, it’s a serial killer novel.

If the pulverized remains of the murdered driver meld with the shattered remnants of the ruined auto and together they go in search of vengeance, this is a horror novel.

If, on closer examination, the car turns out to be a Conestoga wagon pulled by a team of horses, this is a western.

If the Conestoga wagon was pulled by a team of llamas, this is a very badly researched western.

If the car bounces, it’s fantasy.

Did I miss any?

Photo: By Matchstik (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

22 March 2017

TOM & LUCKY

David Edgerley Gates



In early 1936, the racket-busting New York prosecutor Tom Dewey went after the Mafia crime boss Lucky Luciano. They convicted him, and Luciano drew thirty to fifty. Ten years later, his sentence was commuted and Luciano was deported. Luciano's lawyer in the 1936 trial is a guy named George Morton Levy, not mobbed up by any means, but a regular Joe and a straight arrow. His legal notes, from a long and storied career, have gone unexamined since his death. The writer Chuck Greaves - a former lawyer himself - got access to Levy's papers. And thereby hangs a tale.

Chuck Greaves has two trains running. He's written a series of legal thrillers (three so far, very funny books), Hush Money, Green-Eyed Lady, and The Last Heir, and as C. Thomas Greaves, the noir historicals Hard Twisted and Tom & Lucky.

Tom & Lucky is, you guessed it, about you-know-who. Not to mention George Levy and a soiled dove called Cokey Flo Brown. Each of them gets a turn at bat, the novel told in multiple POV, winding the clock. The book's third act is the showdown in court, which is hotter than a matchhead. Hot enough, as Cokey Flo puts it, in a somewhat different context, that the people in the adjoining rooms could light up cigarettes.

Wait a moment, and savor that turn of phrase. The voices in Tom & Lucky are nothing if not engaging.  Cokey Flo tells her own story, first-person, third person for Dewey, Luciano, and George. That omniscient third is different for each of them, Dewey's reserved, a little chilly, even, Luciano's more interior, but not inviting (he's a moral leper and a psychopath, after all), and George's, finally, one that shares confidences, along with his humanity. Levy is the center of gravity, here. And regarding the voices, or the collective voice of the book, the effect is specific and immersive, a particular time and place.

Not that this is easy to do. In fact, the opposite. It's easy to trip yourself up. Inhabiting the past is tricky. Too much effort, and it shows. The smell of the lamp. You want to bait your hook with the evocative detail, but almost an afterthought, seemingly accidental, something thrown up by the context, yeast working in the dough. The casual aside, overheard, the careless glance. The other device in Tom & Lucky is the use of pulp conventions, again without breaking a sweat. Not just for momentum, or atmospherics - although they happen to work that way, too - but because they're familiar landmarks. Like compass points, they help orient us, both to the period and to the principal relationships. Everything's a transaction. It's about leverage and opportunity, palms and grease.

That said, Tom & Lucky is actually sort of counter-generic. The material is pulpy, the tabloid headlines at the time wrote themselves. Nor can you do a book about this kind of thing without getting into the down and dirty - and of course enjoying it. It's too juicy. George Levy gets his shot at defending Lucky? He'd be crazy not to. Nobody stays home on this one. At the same time, as sensational as all of it is, you don't have to add extra relish. Lurid is as lurid does. For my money, the real trick Chuck Greaves pulls off is that he reimagines the whole event, and doesn't take any cheap shortcuts. The tension is all in the telling. The people sound and seem entirely genuine, to the circumstances. They're not caricature. They're not noir tropes, or conveniences. They're immediately recognizable, their weaknesses, their heroics, their ambitions, their folly. They're in their native element, fully fleshed, and not as if they're posing on the horizon line of history, looking over their shoulder.

Chuck Greaves is published by Bloomsbury and by St. Martins's. The paperback edition of Tom & Lucky (and George & Cokey Flo) comes out April 11th, 2017.
http://chuckgreaves.com/



21 March 2017

Be They Sinister or Sleuthy, Seniors Have a Place in Short Stories

by Barb Goffman

Looks can be deceiving. No one knows that better than people who try to slip something past you. Con artists. Murderers. And sometimes even wide-eyed children and little old ladies. When you appear nice and innocent, folks will let you get away with murder.

I've written before about using teenage girls as protagonists. They work well as evil-doers or crime-commiters because no one suspects them. They're young and peppy and can come across as sweet if they try. They're also fearless and their brains aren't fully developed, so they'll do stupid things few adults would. Today, I'm going to focus on the other end of the age spectrum: the senior set. (I know some people don't like that term, but I mean no animus, so please bear with me.)

Imagine you come home to find your house burglarized, with your files ransacked and your computer--with all your notes--stolen. In real life, you'd call the cops, never thinking you personally could find the culprit. It could be anyone. But things are different for fictional Amateur Sleuth Sally.
Sally knows she's been investigating the arson death of poor Mr. Hooper, who owned the corner store. So with the neighbors leaning on their porches or whispering in small groups on their lawns, watching the police spectacle (it's a small town so there's spectacle), Sally goes outside and studies her prime suspects in the arson murder and her own burglary: those very same neighbors.

Is the culprit Oscar, the grouchy guy in the green bathrobe across the street who puts out his trash too early in the morning? Sally heard he owed Mr. Hooper money. Or is it Maria, the skinny lady who works at the library? She lives two doors down, and Sally has heard she spends time with Mr. Hooper when Mrs. Hooper is away on business--or at least she used to until Mrs. Hooper put a stop to it. Or was it Mrs. Hooper herself, the betrayed spouse? Sally has lots of questions and suspects, but she never stops to think about kindly Katrina, the grandmother who lives next door. Surely a woman who bakes cookies and serves as a crossing guard couldn't have done in Mr. Hooper.

You all know. Of course she did. And Sally Sleuth's failure to recognize that appearances can be deceiving will almost be her undoing. (Almost. This is a cozy novel I'm outlining, so Sally must prevail in the end.)

But things don't always tie up so neatly in short stories. In short stories, the bad guy can win. Or the ending can really surprise you. Or both. And kindly Katrina could end up pulling one over on Sally Sleuth. I've made use of this aspect of short stories in several of my own, particularly my latest two.

Everyone loves
cabernet

In my newest story, "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?," seventy-year-old Myra Wilkinson is in her final week of work. She's retiring on Friday after working for forty-five years as a law firm secretary, forty of them for the same guy, Douglas. But as her final day looms, Myra isn't as excited as she anticipated because Douglas has chosen Jessica, a husband-hunting hussy, to replace her. Jessica doesn't care about doing the job right, and this is bothering Myra to no end. Then something happens, and Myra realizes that Douglas has been taking her for granted. So she comes up with a scheme involving Douglas's favorite wine to teach Douglas a lesson and reveal Jessica for the slacker she really is.

The beauty of the plan is no one will see Myra coming. On the outside she's kind and helpful. She calls people "dear." As one character says, she's "the heart of this department." Myra's nice on the inside, too, but she also has sass and a temper, which come into play as she hatches her scheme and it plays out.

Another great thing about Myra is she's known Douglas for so long that she knows his weaknesses, and she makes use of them. (This reminds me of a wonderful scene from the movie Groundhog Day. Bill Murray's character says of God, "Maybe he's not omnipotent. He's just been around so long, he knows everything.") The older a character is, the more knowledge she'll have--information she can use against others.

Towanda!
An older person like Myra also might be willing to throw caution to the wind, seeing she's made it so far already. (That reminds me of a wonderful scene from the movie Fried Green Tomatoes in which Kathy Bates's middle-aged character is cheated out of a parking spot by two twenty-something women, one of whom says, "Face it, lady, we're younger and faster." Kathy Bates goes on to repeatedly ram her car into the the other woman's car, then says, "Face it, girls. I'm older and have more insurance." Granted Kathy Bates's character wasn't a senior citizen, but she had reached the point where she wasn't going to just take things anymore.)

Anyway, so what happens to Myra and Douglas and Jessica? You'll have to read the story to find out. You can read "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?" in the new anthology 50 Shades of Cabernet, which was
published last week by Koehler Books. It includes seventeen stories of crime and wine and is available in hardcover, trade paperback, and e-book. Most of the stories are set in Virginia (where most of the authors live). Why is a book of wine mysteries set in Virginia? Well, our great commonwealth has a thriving, but perhaps not well known, wine industry. We hope to change that.

Getting back to seniors, Myra isn't my only recent senior character. In my story "The Best-Laid Plans" Eloise Nickel is a mystery writer, a grande dame of her profession, and she's being honored for her lifetime achievement at this year's Malice International convention. (Does this convention's name sound familiar? Good.) It's too bad for Eloise that the convention's guest of honor this year is Kimberly Siger, Eloise's nemesis. Then, to make matters worse, a few weeks before the convention, Kimberly insults Eloise in Mystery Queen Magazine. Eloise isn't going to take that, so she plans to make Kimberly suffer during the convention. Because she's known Kimberly for many years, Eloise knows Kimberly's weak spots. And because she's thought of as a nice, aging lady, she figures no one will suspect her of any nefarious doings. Do her plans work out? Read "The Best-Laid Plans" to find out. This story, published in the anthology Malice Domestic 11: Murder Most Conventional,  is a finalist for this year's Agatha Award. It's available on my website: www.barbgoffman.com/The_Best_Laid_Plans.html

So, fellow mystery authors, when you're thinking about your next plot and want a bad guy or gal who can hide in plain sight, think about a senior citizen. The same goes when you're devising your sleuth. A bad guy may not spill his guts if thirty-something Sally Sleuth is nearby, but he certainly might if Grandma Greta is. He thinks she's so innocuous, he won't see her coming--until she pulls a gun on him.

Do you have a favorite character--good gal or bad--who's a senior citizen? Please share in the comments. We can never have enough good short stories and books to read.

20 March 2017

Bad Review Blues

by Steve Liskow

Many years ago, when I could fit my theater resume on a matchbook, a local director asked me to produce his next play. He had years of experience so I thought I'd learn a lot from him, and I was right. Alas, when the play opened, we received a review that shredded the show inch by bloody inch. when I calmed down enough to read it with an open mind, I realized that the critic pointed out several bad choices we had made--updating the play made the mindset of the characters anachronistic, for example--and supported his opinions with facts and quotes. I learned more about theater from that bad review than I'd learned in the past year from friends and family telling me how wonderful I was.

Jump ahead thirty years...


A few months ago, someone on a writing group list complained about receiving a bad review for one of her books, and several other members of the group commiserated. They suggested reasons for the reviewer's bad opinion ranging from stupidity to prejudice about the genre to anger about the results of the November election. I didn't read the book, and what's even more interesting, I didn't get the impression that any of the dozen or so people who responded did either.

Even though I didn't read the book, the review struck me as possibly accurate because it included specific examples and passages. It also reminded me of a comment Chris Offutt made at the Wesleyan Writers Conference when I attended it: A hand-holding group is not really a group. It's a club.

You can learn more from a bad review than you can from a good one--assuming the review is legit and you're willing to polish your craft, both of which I admit are iffy.

Long-time agent Peter Riva wrote in Publisher's Weekly a few months ago that Amazon reviews are useless, and I'm willing to agree with him. If you're interested, here's a link to the article:


I get few reviews on Amazon so maybe this whole discussion is moot, but bad reviews aren't the end of the world. It that's all it takes to ruin your day, you need to get out more often. Let's look at the whole pie.

If you're a writer, you are selling your books. You're no different from a baker, tailor, carpenter, car mechanic or anyone else who provides goods or services for pay. If someone buys your product, they have the right to expect quality and also have the right to complain if they don't believe they got it. You should look at their complaint and learn why they're dissatisfied. Maybe their reasoning is weak or they misunderstood something, but you need to make sure. If they do have a reasonable case, you need to do better next time.


Restaurants come and go, and there are only three reasons for this: bad location, bad food or bad service. The first one is unalterable, but the others can be fixed. If many people say the fish is overcooked or they waited a long time for someone to take their order, the restaurant needs to do better. If they don't the word will get around and people will go elsewhere for that fish. It's the same with clothing, plumbers, tune-ups or books. Critics--the few who remain--are supped to help people spend their entertainment dollars wisely, so if they don't like a film, play, CD or book, they will say so. They should explain why (not), too.

This is where writers miss the gifts in a bad review. What they do well will never keep them from succeeding. When someone points out something they (read, "you") do poorly, they're doing you a favor. They're showing you what you need to fix. 

Granted, Riva's comments about useless reviews are easy to support. No one-sentence review is worth the second it takes to read it. No review that lacks details or examples can tell anyone anything. The more details and examples, the more valuable that review might be. 

Ignore the five-star reviews. That's easy for me, and you already know you're wonderful. But if you get a three-star review or lower, read it and see why the person gave you that score. If there's no reason or it doesn't match their details, ignore it. But if they offer details, maybe even quoting a passage or discussing a character, they're showing you how to improve your writing.

Don't worry about the idiots who give you one star because you write romance and they don't like romance. That just means you shouldn't offer more free downloads. Ditto if they don't like profanity and your characters curse a lot. That's their effing problem, not yours. 

But if someone points out that your character's behavior is inconsistent or hard to explain, maybe you should think about it. If they say they can't follow your plot because the events don't seem to lead from one to another, consider that, too. If someone says that she's never heard anyone speak the way your character does (Clockwork Orange is an exception), you need to write better dialogue.

Put simply, a review is a beta reader. It comes too late to help this book, but if someone points out something you do poorly, you owe it to yourself, your craft and your future sales to do it better next time.

When I send an MS to a beta reader, I tell them "I don't care what you like. Tell me everything that bothers, confuses, or upsets you, no matter how minor, even down to the type font. If they say something positive, I skim over it because I don't need to fix it.

But the beta reader who told me that Run Straight Down had "too much description and teacher routine in the first chapter" saved me from a bad review saying the same thing. Explanations and back-story belong later, after the plot and conflict gain some momentum. The Night Has 1000 Eyes made one beta reader say, "I wonder if this scene would have more impact if you put it in the other character's point of view."

Those comments helped me make the books better. What could I have done with "Gee, this is really great and I love your writing"?

Yeah, good reviews make us feel good, but they don't spur us to improve. I think I know my main weakness and I'm still trying to make those less visible, but someone has to remind me about them, preferably beta readers instead of reviewers.

If you don't want to get better, why are you writing in the first place?