Showing posts with label reading. Show all posts
Showing posts with label reading. Show all posts

15 May 2017

The Ties That Bind

  Family Fortnight +   Today, the 15th of May, marks the International Day of Families. For the past two weeks, our mystery writers have written of kith and kin, of loved ones and dear ones, and we have more articles to go plus some follow-ups. We’re happy to invite David and daughter to celebrate this world holiday. Settle back and enjoy!

by David Dean and Bridgid Dean

Today is International Family Day, an occasion that I was unaware of until Leigh Lundin made me so. He also asked if I would consider writing an article on the subject. Being an internationally recognized expert on the subject of families, this was agreeable to me.

Most of us have families, whether through blood, adoption, or, in some cases, through convenient, and hopefully beneficial, social arrangements. I wouldn't be going out on a limb if I also added that most of us have, or have had, conflicting feelings about these same families. It's safe to say that much of the stress, anguish, and worry we experience in our lives comes as a result of these unruly, and often ungovernable, social units. Growing up we can hardly contain our exuberance when thinking of that blessed day when we, too, will be adults like our awful parents… and free! Then, for reasons both unclear and diabolical, we finally do leave home, find a mate, produce children, and become truly awful parents ourselves. Maybe not every moment of every day (we do have to sleep after all), but in the invisible yet meticulously maintained ledger of infractions kept by all children, we are judged sadly lacking in all the important categories. Clearly, the only thing learned from our own awful parents was to reproduce their sad failings. And then there's adolescence…

When children enter into this infernal stage the very gates of family hell swing wide emitting foul odors and spewing forth imps and devils, artfully, and awfully, disguised as your own issue. Entering into this dark region slays and tramples all remaining hopes but one– that someday, and God willing, someday soon, those children of the damned will also be visited with adulthood and leave the family manse… if it still stands!

And yet, for reasons that are mostly unreasonable, we find ourselves dreading that day, as well, and saddened when it finally does happen; comically nostalgic for the days we were a young family. Even those children turned adults, having now tasted the dubious freedoms they once longed for, purr like contented kittens during visits home. It has even been remarked by my children that their mother and I have grown more intelligent and reasonable with the years, a possibility none of them had foreseen.

So how did we weather the tumultuous years that we now look back so fondly to? There were two methods employed to save us from the lengthy prisons terms we all contemplated from time to time. The first was a dog. Not just any dog, but a Welsh Corgi. We are a Celtic-derived family and therefore must have a Celtic canine. Silke, as she came to be called, fit right in, being both untrainable and demanding. She was just as uncompromising as the rest of us, only probably smarter. Yet, the kids adored her, and their mother and I were roped in as well.

Corgi
In a very Celtic way Silke became our sin-eater. No matter how badly we behaved toward one another, she was always available to be stroked and petted, somehow soothing and calming us in the process of tending to her unending need for affection. By being so needy and demanding, she drew us out of our own selfishness. And because she was inadvertently comical and endearing, she was a subject we could always talk about. Silke was a movable conflict-free zone.

But it is the second method--reading, that is more germane to this blog site. The family I grew up in did not often indulge in the written word. My parents were not well educated and, having grown up working, had never had the leisure time for recreational reading. It was my good fortune, and through their hard work, that I was provided with that very luxury– a gift beyond rubies. Not that they encouraged me to read, but seeing that I had a knack for it, they did not oppose it. In fact, when they observed that I was becoming a voracious reader of stories, novels, newspapers, and comic books, they were mildly amused, if somewhat cautious, being unsure of the results of such indiscriminate mental activity.

At greater family gatherings it was sometimes pointed out with a certain pride that I read a lot of books. My relatives' reaction to such an announcement ran the gamut from mild astonishment as to why anyone would do such a thing, to concern for my mental health and spiritual well-being. Still, I pressed on, and many years later looked about me one day to find that all of my own progeny had picked up books from somewhere and were reading them. It must have been the silence and unaccustomed peacefulness of my suddenly unfamiliar surroundings that tipped me off. I had failed to notice the start of this phenomenon and was, like my relatives before me, mildly astonished at the development. Could it be that my children and I shared some common thread beside DNA, I asked myself. Was it possible?

Like an animal trainer that's been bitten and mauled, I proceeded with caution, gently inquiring as to the subjects of their readings, while sliding books of my own choosing through the bars of their theoretical cages. Mostly, after a sniff or two, these were rejected– though not with snarls or bared fangs, just shifted back to me without comment. I was encouraged and found that with patience and literary forbearance we soon began to use the spoken word to discuss authors and stories, even progressing to the ideas and inspirations that might have motivated them. And all of this without heated argument or emotional eruptions! I questioned my own sanity. Could this really be happening? My wife assured me that it was all real.

Julian and J. Joyce in Dublin
Oh, how I wish I could say that the Dean household's serenity was nevermore disturbed by a voice raised in anger, or shrill with indignation. Alas for all you hopeful young parents out there, it cannot be done. We devolved on more occasions than I would willingly recall… but now there were bright oases that we arrived at from time to time in our family journey, like restful, green isles scattered across a turbulent, grey sea. Just when it seemed that my mutinous crew would finally toss me overboard, we would wash up onto a wide, warm beach and peace be restored with the opening of a book.

Many years later, I still discuss stories, books, and writers with my adult children. And it's rare I come away from visits to their homes without a book selected from their shelves.

Our son, Julian, is turning his love of reading into a profession, having just been accepted into Notre Dame University's PH.d program for literature. He will be specializing in Irish works. It seems Ireland has produced some decent authors over the years. Who knew?

My eldest girl, Tanya, still waxes nostalgic over our reading of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia when she was but a child.

Her sister, Bridgid, not only retained her appetite for literature, but has become a writer, as well, having produced her first novella, The Girl In The Forest. (You'll hear from her in just a moment.)

So here you have it, on this International Family Day, all of my wisdom and experience contained in these two exhortations: Get a pet and scatter books about like landmines! It worked for us and could for you.



Bridgid’s View of Things

While it is hard to argue with the notion that my parents have grown more reasonable over the years since we've left home (probably because they didn't have us kids around, irritating them to distraction!) I would like to point out that I always thought they were intelligent. This point was particularly impressed upon me when, at the age of eight, I heard that my dad was going to have a story published for the first time.

My sister was already in college and my brother was only five, but I was at home and just old enough to be in the midst of really discovering reading for myself. I recall eight as the age when the books no longer had pictures, becoming, instead, thin novels with exciting covers, full of amazing plot twists. They were peopled with characters that made you wonder who you might one day be, what you might do in those unfathomable years ahead. I was probably in the midst of devouring yet another John Bellairs book when I heard the news of the my dad's first story being published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magzine. And, as though someone had opened a window in the house, a fresh breeze scented with possibility wafted through, rifling the pages of my book.

This was also the year in school when we first had to keep a journal as an assignment, writing for some designated period of each day. It soon became apparent that I loved to write; my classmates would gladly close their notebooks once they had completed the minimum requirement but I kept going, filling page after page, stopping only when the teacher said we had to move on to something else. Later in the year, while talking about occupations, my teacher said she could see me becoming a writer. Right then and there I decided that that this was exactly what I wanted to do. Quite thoughtfully, my dad had just begun proving that this was an achievable goal for readers like us.

As my dad mentioned, books were always present in our house. Book shelves were stocked like bomber pantries, the library was visited twice a week, and favorite books were passed between us like sacred gifts. My sister's gift of the Hobbit, decades later, still sits on my shelf, read many times. From my dad I got Graham Greene, from my mother, Jane Austen. To my brother I bequeathed Anne Rice, though he might not care to admit it to his fellow doctoral students.

Happy International Family Day
Even when distance or time kept us from discussing a book that we had shared, the act of sharing it always felt significant. My older sister is the fantasy reader amongst us, with the Hobbit she offered me a doorway into a world to which I had not yet entered, but one that I knew was very significant to her.

Books felt, sometimes, like keys in this way. Keys to the inner worlds of our family members, keys to what they loved, and a means of sharing in it. Books have provided a common ground, a shared interest, and, at times, something else to argue about. What could be more significant?

Well… okay. Maybe a Corgi.

04 May 2017

My Husband, the Writer

 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the sixth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
by Robyn Thornton
In honor of the fast-approaching International Family Day, I asked my wife, Robyn, to write something up for this week's blog entry. This is what she came up with. Thanks, Honey! One thing, though: see below–all the way at the bottom of this page–for pictures from our ACTUAL honeymoon, lest you think the ONLY honeymoon my wife got was getting to tag along while I pressed the flesh at B'con!
— Brian
On our first date, Brian brought me a signed copy of his Lincoln biography.  I thought it was one of the coolest gifts I had ever received.  We discovered that we had a lot of other common interests, but our love of all things related to books and the creation of them was certainly one of the first threads in our shared tapestry.  I soon learned how much dedication and headspace was needed to weave together those stories as I spent many weekends both in awe of Brian’s discipline and wrestling with my jealousy over the amount of time that he needed to focus.  It was difficult for me to understand in the beginning of our relationship, but his determination to persevere in chasing his passion for writing was inspiring.

When we knew that our relationship was getting more serious, his writing took a back seat to making sure I felt I was a priority.

For my birthday that year, Brian took me on a trip to Oregon.  As I slept in the hotel, Brian stayed up all night to finish a book deadline. He wanted to make sure I got a good night’s sleep, so he had set up his laptop on the sink in the bathroom.  I remember waking up several times in the night to see the light streaming from under the door.  His kindness and compassionate spirit were more reasons why I was falling in love with him.

So, when Brian and I got married, I thought I knew what to expect.

I was so wrong.

Brian worked hard to finish a book to take me on a mini-honeymoon to San Francisco (We took the
My husband, flashing his "convention smile."
real one in the UK the following Summer).  Bouchercon was in that city the week after we tied the knot, so our trip served a double purpose: both as a mini-honeymoon and for Brian to attend panels and to network.  It was there that I learned that it’s not just about what you write, but how you market. And then there’s the networking: one of the most important tools in a writer’s toolkit.  I’ll admit that the shop talk at the time was not as captivating as I now find it and we had to learn how to balance our leisure time with business objectives.   But I found myself wanting more of his time and it proved to be harder on both of us.

It was one of the first lessons we had to learn as a newlywed couple.  We planned a big wedding, got married, and bought a house, all in the same nine month period.

Brian continued to juggle his book projects with us moving in and getting settled.  I recall one Sunday night in particular that makes us laugh now.  I was assembling a couple of kitchen stools while Brian was frantically reviewing final edits (the “galleys” as he called them) on a book whose deadline was 9 AM the next morning.

I had asked him to take a break and tighten one bolt and when he refused, I said in frustration, “Fine, why don’t you just work on your stupid book!”

Boy, do I regret that now.

What I also now realize more than ever, is that it’s not easy.

It’s not easy juggling two full-time careers, a young son with boundless energy, taking care of the day-to-day responsibilities and finding time and headspace to write every day.  Brian’s been able to do this.  And he’s now inspired me to start writing too.

And I now understand the sacrifices that he made and what it takes to commit and stay on track.  I get how satisfying it is to be able to devise plots and character arcs and stories that just need to be told. And as you continue to work and rework and distill and then rework again, the elation of knowing that someday, there’ll be readers to enjoy and discover what you’ve created.  And there’s nothing like seeing Brian’s face after he’s completed his word count for the day and the joy that this accomplishment gives him.


For that, it makes it all worth it and I wouldn’t trade one moment.

(And now, UK honeymoon pics!)




05 January 2017

Gifted

by Eve Fisher

Necklines plunged further, needing a chemisette to be worn underneath. Sleeves widened at the elbow, while bodices ended at the natural waistline. Skirts widened and were further emphasised by the addition of flounces.
Victorian Ladies, a/k/a Wikipedia
I trust that everyone had a Merry Christmas,  Happy Hanukkah, Silly Little Solstice, a Happy New Year, survived the holidays (this is harder for some than others - come to an Al-Anon meeting over the holidays some time and I'll show you), and were/are/will be gifted with good things.  We had a lovely time, thank you.

Other than the fact that our furnace went bad on Boxing Day, and we had a couple of days of Victorian temperatures in the house (50s and 60s) while waiting for parts to arrive. (BTW, now I understand completely why Victorians wore 37 pounds of clothing.  It wasn't all about modesty.)  We were lucky.  Considering it was 14 degrees outside, with a windchill of minus 5, when this happened, we were VERY lucky. Our plumber showed up by 8 AM, and our furnace, thank God! is fixed!!!  Huzzah!!!!

I did almost no writing over the holidays - too much going on for concentrated work, and when I did sit down at the old computer (or even the old pad and paper), I managed to distract myself really well. But I did get a lot of reading done.  I always get a lot of reading done.  I have a gift for reading.

I am very fortunate.  I started early.  My mother taught me to read when I was three years old.  (She always said she did it because she got sick of reading the same story to me every night before bedtime, and I believe her.)  One of my earliest memories is sitting on the floor of the old living room in Alexandria, VA, with an array of word flash cards that my mother made out of plain index cards.  I specifically remember putting the word "couch" on the couch.  I don't know how long it took me to actually learn to read, but I know that by the time I was four, I was reading [simple] fairy tales on my own.  I can't tell you how magical, how full, how rich, how unforgettable it is to read fairy tales at the right age, all by yourself.

Someone once said, they liked books rather than TV, because books had better pictures.  When you start reading young enough, they do.  Then and now.  I can still remember the worlds that those fairy tales created in my mind - so real that I shivered, walking down a snowy lane.  I could smell the mud under the bridge where the troll lived.  The glass mountain with the glass castle on top of it, and the road running around the bottom.  And it only increased over time.  I know the exact gesture that Anna Karenina made as she turned to see Vronsky at the ball; have heard the Constance de Beverley's shriek of despair, walled up in Lindesfarne; have seen the drunken Fortunato bouncing down the stone walls of the tunnel to the wine vault; have shivered slightly as drops of cool water fell upon the sunbather. For me, reading is a multisensory experience.

And I get drunk on words.  Let's put it this way:  when I read John Donne's poetry, I fell in love with a dead man, and cursed my fate that I never, ever, ever got to meet the man who wrote such burning words...  And I've had the same experience with others:  Shakespeare, Tennyson, Chaucer, Cavafy, Gunter Grass, Dylan Thomas, T. S. Eliot, Laurie Lee, Rostand, Emily Bronte, Dickinson, I fall hard and deep and willing into words.

My office.  And this isn't the only wall covered with books.
When something gives you this much pleasure, you get good at it.  For over fifty years I've read every day, obsessively, compulsively, constantly. When I was a child, I knew that reading was the best thing in life, and there were too many books and too little time.  So I taught myself to read faster - not speed reading, I don't skip (although thanks to graduate school, I do know how to gut a book) - but I can read every word at an accelerated pace.  (My husband says I devour books.)  And I remember what I read. My mind has its own card catalog, dutifully supplying (still) plot and main characters (sometimes minor ones, too), as well as dialog and best scenes from a whole roomful of books.  And I think about a book, while I'm reading and afterwards.  I analyze it.  I synthesize it with other readings.  I'm damn good at reading.  It's probably the thing I'm best at.
BTW, this was one reason I really enjoyed graduate school, because (in history at least) you spend most of your time reading books - a minimum of 1 per class per week - and then writing an analysis to present to the class, as well as reading everyone else's analysis and arguing away about it.  I was in my element at last.  
Scenes from a Marriage DVD cover.jpgAnyway, constant reading as a child inevitably led to wonder about writing my own.  The real breakthrough into writing came when I realized that the Laura Ingalls Wilder who wrote the "Little House" books was the same as the Laura Ingalls character in the "Little House" books.  Wow!  Real people actually wrote these! So I started writing.  I wrote very bad poetry on home-made cards for my family, and I wrote short-shorts (now called flash fiction).  I tried writing novels, but as a child I thought that you had to start at the beginning and go straight through until the end, without any changes or editing, and it never occurred to me that people plotted things out.  So I was 24 before I wrote my first novel (a sci-fi/fantasy that has been sitting on my shelf - for very good reasons - for years).  

Before that, I went through a folk-singer / rock star stage and wrote songs.  I wrote my first short story in years because someone bet me I couldn't do it (I won that bet), and then many more short stories that were mostly dull.  Until I had a magic breakthrough about writing dialog watching - I kid you not - Bergman's "Scenes From A Marriage".  I stayed up all night (I was so much younger then) writing dialog which for the first time sounded like dialog and realized...  well, I went off writing plays for a few years.  Came back to writing short stories.  Along with articles, essays, and blog posts.

And here I am.  Good to see all of you, damn glad to be here.

Meanwhile, Constant Reader (thanks, Dorothy Parker!) keeps on reading.  And re-reading.  Speaking of re-reading, I don't see why people don't do more of it.  I mean, if you like going to a certain place for lunch, dinner, picnics, weekends, or vacations, why not keep reading stories / books that do the trick?  If it's a real knock-out, I'll read it a lot more than twice.  By now I've practically memorized the "Little House" books, "Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass", "David Copperfield", "The Left Hand of Darkness", "Death of a Doxy", "The Thin Man", "Pavilion of Women", "The Mask of Apollo", "In This House of Brede", "The Small House at Allington", "Cider With Rosie", "Nemesis", "Death Comes for the Archbishop", "The Round Dozen", and a whole lot more, not to mention a few yards of poetry. Because I want to go to the places those books and stories and poems take me, again and again and again...  Or I'm just in the mood for that voice, like being in the mood for John Coltrane or Leonard Cohen or Apocalyptica, for beef with broccoli or spanakopita or lentil soup.

So, this Christmas, I reread some Dickens, Miss Read's "Christmas Stories", "Hans Brinker & the Silver Skates", and Dylan Thomas' "A Child's Christmas in Wales".  BTW, I have "A Child's Christmas in Wales" in the collection "Quite Early One Morning", available here, which includes "How To Be A Poet", the most hilarious send-up of the writing life I have ever read.  Excerpt:
"The Provincial Rush, or the Up-Rimbaud-and-At-Em approach.  This is not wholeheartedly to be recommended as certain qualifications are essential...  this poet must possess a thirst and constitution like that of a salt-eating pony, a hippo's hide, boundless energy, prodigious conceit, no scruples, and - most important of all, this can never be overestimated - a home to go back to in the provinces whenever he breaks down."  [Sound advice for us all...]
Reading, writing, good food, good company, good conversation...  life doesn't get much better than this.  I've found my calling, which makes me a very gifted person indeed.

Happy New Year!







24 December 2016

My Christmas Wish: Literacy for All

Melodie’ll be right with ya. Christmas Eve and there I am at the shop and whadya know. In drops Santa. Seems in Brooklyn, somebody stole the hubcaps off his sleigh, knowhatimean? So just happened to have a set in stock, came in fresh this afternoon, a perfect match, indistinguishable from the originals, if you get my drift. Vinnie slapped them on while Solly helped cinch down the loot, er, gifts in the back. Solly didn’t do so good ’cause when Santa lifted off, whadya know… there’s a few items what fell off the back of the sleigh.

We was real heartbroken about that, especially when Gina and Velma walked in and gave us hell. Don’t mess with Velma. My coglioni still hurts from last year when I told her, “Baby, I got yer yule log right here.”

Gina was a little mollified when Santa sorta dropped his December issue of Ellery Queen and there was a Steve Steinbock report all about her. Well, not exactly her, but her mouthpiece. Ya got to add the word ‘mouth’ to that or she gets all unaccountably insulted. Anyways, this is what the review gotta say:
Melodie Campbell, The Goddaughter Caper, Raven Books, $9.95. Gina Gallo tries to steer clear of her family's questionable business dealings. But when she discovers the body of a local Peeping Tom in the alley behind her shop, fate forces her hand. She and various cousins find themselves in a topsy-turvy mess of missing bodies, a surplus of coffins, and geriatric misbehavior. Campbell's writing is always funny. The Goddaughter series, of which this slender novella is the fourth volume, is part of Orca Books' Rapid Reads imprint, making it a fast, fun read.
That put her in a lot better mood and she didn’t dislocate no more body parts. She thinks you might enjoy it too, maybe find one in your stocking, capisci?

— Pietro ‘the Limp’ Peyronie (as dictated to Velma)

My Christmas Wish: Literacy for All

by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl… only not so bad today)

Last year, I had the honour of being guest speaker at the Hamilton Literacy Council AGM.  This wonderful organization provides one on one tutoring to adults in Hamilton who don't know how to read.  The teachers are marvelous.  They are mostly volunteers.

The theme for the AGM was all about wishes.  Dream Big.  That sort of thing.  And so the staff came up with a brilliant idea for centrepieces for the AGM.  Each table had a crystal globe in the centre of it, like a snow globe.  Each globe had a different note inserted into the middle.  And on the note was the dream of one of the students from the literacy council.

I picked up the globe on my table. The note inside it read:

"I want to work in a store someday."

I felt my throat constrict.  My eyes started to tear.

Many of us work in stores when we are in high school or college.  It is our 'starter job' - the one we can't wait to leave after graduation from school to get the better job for which we trained.  I remember working at a mega grocery store.  Eight hours on my feet, unrelenting noise, and lots of lifting.  I was so grateful to leave it.

I thought about our student who wrote that note.  What she wanted most in the world was to become literate so she could work in a store.

Because she couldn't work there now.  She couldn't read labels.  She couldn't read sales slips.  Most stores have computers.  She couldn't read the text on the computer screen.

She couldn't even fill in the application form to work there.

Literacy has always been a cause dear to my heart.  I write a series of crime books for adult literacy students who are reaching the advanced certificate stage.  I donate all the proceeds from my book launches to the literacy council.  But at the AGM, this student opened my eyes and reached my heart.

In our society, we expect everyone to be able to read.  Jobs today require it.

All my life, I have imagined how sad it would be to be unable to read a book.  Imagine how it would feel to be unable to fill out a job application.

My fervent wish this Christmas is the gift of literacy for everyone.  May everyone in my town, Hamilton, and my country, Canada, be able to read.  May everyone in the world have the chance to learn, and may teachers and tutors everywhere continue to make it happen.

Merry Christmas to all.

14 October 2016

Reading Here, There, and Everywhere

By Art Taylor

Earlier this week, Cynthia Kuhn wrote a fun post at the Henery Press blog: "Professor X, In the Conservatory, With a Book," which looked at many different ways to read, places and times to read, and even types of books to read, or maybe the better word there would be editions or conditions, since she talked about the differences between brand new books versus used ones. I was struck particularly by Cynthia's observation that "many people are fond of reading in bed, snuggled under a cozy blanket with a book to send you gently off to dreamland. (Or, if you’re like me—routinely jarred awake when the book falls onto your face—not so gently.)"

I read each night before going to bed—and yes, more than once, I've had the book fall on my face, waking me up. (And then, instead of putting the book down like a sensible person might do, I just shuffle myself up a little higher against the pillow and settle in for a few more pages...until it happens again.)

I often find myself wishing I had more time to read—and while that was one of my first reactions to Cynthia's post, my second thought was sharper and maybe more in tune with what she was saying: I am always reading. Not only is it the last thing I do at night, it's also the first thing I do in the morning—scanning the top news stories from Washington Post on my iPhone there in the darkness, and then later reading the paper itself, and sometimes sneaking in a few pages of whatever else I'm reading in between parts of the morning routine. One of my New Year's Resolutions this year has been a chapter a day of War & Peace, as I've mentioned before, and I'll sometimes knock that out first thing, then throughout the day, it's reading at every turn—though not always traditional kinds of reading, I guess: emails,  Facebook status updates, stories linked to those FB updates, blog posts here and there; then the stories and essays and books I'm reading as part of lesson prep for class, and the student essays and exercises that I'm grading, of course; and somewhere in there, some reading for myself, dabbling in any number of stories and essays and books I have in various corners of my life.

I read in in bed, at the breakfast table or standing in the kitchen, in my office, and (yes) in the bathroom. I have read in the spare moments while waiting to meet someone or waiting at other appointments (haircut recently, for example). I've even read while waiting at stoplights—pulling out my iPhone and opening the Kindle app to sneak in a few pages; we're in Northern Virginia, after all, and that's a lot of time that could be, should be, used well! (No reading while the car is actually in motion, of course, at least not while I'm behind the wheel—though you won't catch me in the passenger seat or on public transportation without a book nearby.)

While I could go back through that list and those moments above and qualify that much of it isn't what I want to read, reading solely for pleasure—and isn't that at the core of the wish for "more time to read"?—I realized looking around today that I've actually surrounded myself with reading that's not assigned and not part of daily chores and routines (not part of staying plugged into email and the web), reading that is, in fact, just for me.

Maybe it's the distracted nature of our lives these days, but I'm usually juggling several books at one time—even not counting those I'm pacing out on my syllabi for class. I've got bookmarks in several titles I'm working through, reading a bit at a time depending on what calls to me most at a given moment, and I often read aloud to my wife Tara in the evenings, so we're frequently in the middle of a story from one anthology or another—and all these books stay within easy reach. 

For example, here's what you'll find on my nightstand right now (and a hat tip to Patricia Abbott, whose semi-regular feature on this also inspired me here):
  • Ian McEwan's Nutshell
  • Sarah L. Kaufman's The Art of Grace
  • Tolstoy's War and Peace—both a big hardcover copy of the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation and then the Maude translation on my Kindle
  • The Kindle itself—and tops on recently accessed titles, both War & Peace and Anna Katherine Green's The Golden Slipper (I taught one of the Violet Strange stories in class and I'm now reading/rereading others for fun)
  • Several single-author short story collections, including Ann Beattie's The New Yorker Stories, Ellen Gilchrist's Acts of Gods, and B.K. Stevens' Her Infinite Variety (hi, Bonnie!) 
  • Several anthologies, including The Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries, In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, In Sunlight or In Shadow, and The Folio Book of Ghost Stories 
  • The new Best American Mystery Stories anthology and the November issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, since I have stories in each myself and want to read the stories by the other contributors (hi, Rob Lopresti!)
  • Another EQMM, from December 2015, that I've already read and should put away somewhere
  • Sophie Hannah's Closed Casket that Tara passed my way with some enthusiasm, even though I still haven't read the first of Hannah's mysteries with Christie's Hercule Poirot (I'm behind)
  • Lisa Lutz's The Spellman Files, which I pulled out because I was considering teaching it and need to revisit again anyway, even though I didn't add it to the syllabus

And as you can see, the list quickly gets qualified and commented on and... and why don't I have more time to read?

Just to round out the listing of books close at hand, here are the ones physically on my desk from my office on campus—not counting the ones I'm reading for class:
  • The first volume of the new seven-volume Collected Millar: The Master at Her Zenith, and those first pages of Beast In View really draw you right in, don't they? 
  • 100 Dastardly Little Detective Stories, which a friend dropped off to me and which I've already dived into
  • The July 2016 and September/October 2016 issues of EQMM (hello sometimes-SleuthSayer David Dean in each of those!)
  • The July/August 2016 issue of AHMM (hello to SleuthSayers Terence Faherty, Eve Fisher, Janice Law, and R.T. Lawton!)
  • Karen Huston Karydes' Hard-Boiled Anxiety: The Freudian Desires of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald and Their Detectives, which I've read and still need to review
  • The Describer's Dictionary: A Treasury of Terms & Literary Quotations... which reminds me, I'm supposed to be writing too in the middle of all this reading. (Where's the time for that, huh?)
Whew!

What are you reading? And when, where, how do you read?

Top of my reading list next (I promise!): any comment you leave here. :-)

23 April 2016

Where have all the Readers gone? (in which our Bad Girl gets serious for a change...)

Read interesting stats today from Kobo.
Apparently, 75% of ebook readers are women.

(Back in the days when I first started teaching about writing, the early 90s, the stat was 60%. That is, 60% of readers were women .)

Back to the Kobo study:
Of that 75% of readers who are women, 77% are 45 and older.

The largest single group (30%) are 55-64 years old.  (I now fit in that age group. Curses.)

The reports states that the typical prolific reader (that would be me) buys on average 16 print books a year and 60 ebooks.

For all you math types, that's a total of 76 books.

Back up to my college class two weeks ago.  I ran a quick poll.  "How many books do you read in a year?"  I asked.

The poll was confidential.  I ripped up pieces of paper and had them write down their total.  They dropped the anonymous slips on a table on the way out.

The results were shocking.  Let me state first that this is a college credit continuing education class, so we have students of all ages in it.  Crafting a Novel is at the top end of the Creative Writing Certificate - most people take it last, because it is rigorous.  (You have to write a full synopsis and many chapters of your novel by the end.)  So these aspiring novel writers would be avid readers, right?

Books Read in a Year:

Most number of books read:  26
Average number of books read:  7
Least number of books read:  1

Yes, in a writing class of 20, only one person reads 2 books a month.
And one fellow manages to read one book a year.  But he wants to write a novel.

By now, if you are a writer, you should be hitting your head against your desk.

So who is reading books out there?
Women
Aged 55-64

And what are they reading?
Romance
General Fiction (whatever that is)
Mystery
(But twice the number of romance books as the other two categories.)

I have 20 students in my Crafting a Novel class.
No one is writing romance.
No one is writing mystery.
Almost everyone is writing a Hunger Games clone.  (Not the exact title. You know what I mean.)

Stephen King said it best.  "If you want to be a writer, you have to do two things: read a lot and write a lot."

If you are an established writer, reading is part of your professional development.  Every published novelist I know reads several books a month.  I read an average of two books a week.  That's over 100 books a year.  (One hour a night, people.  That's seven hours a week.  Not unreasonable.)

I weep.  I weep for the waste of time, effort and paper.  Can somebody please tell me why anyone would set out to write a novel when they don't read and read and read as a hobby?

(Bad Girl isn't usually this grumpy.  But it's marking time.  I may just kill someone.  I may kill myself...)

www.melodiecampbell.com







22 February 2016

Too Many Cooks...er,Uh...Characters

by Jan Grape

I love to read good books with characters I can care about, root for or at last give them a chance to grow on me enough to keep turning pages and finish the book. Sometimes I think an author gets carried away or else so many characters keep talking that he has to write them all down before they quit talking and he doesn't know what to do.

There are many, many books that have characters that I like so much I'll keep buying that authors books forever. Even in hardback because I can't wait for the next installment. Lee Child's books starring Jack Reacher is one. Child starts off many times giving you a bit of background, a bit of scenery or immediately telling you the problem that Reacher is facing. You may read twenty or thirty pages with only three or four characters introduced. There might be two or three other names mentioned but they probably aren't going to be major...like a sheriff who picks up the walking Jack Reacher or Navy lieutenant who will escort Reacher to a private jet. Before long you've read the aforementioned twenty or so pages and you are right there into the story and know what is going on.

I looked at a half a dozen books on my shelf and discovered that was more or less exactly what Harlan Coben, Sara Paretsky, Michael Collins, Marcia Muller, James Lee Burke and Bill Pronzini do. In the first twenty or thirty pages they will introduce their main character and perhaps two or four other characters that may have something major to contribute to the story. They may even mention three or four other characters who probably only have a walk-in part but are necessary.

Recently, I read a book by an author I admire very much but had not read in years. Everything was fine in the first twenty-five or thirty pages but suddenly a new scene opened up with two new characters. Okay, I guess these two were necessary. Turned out they were what I might call minor/major characters.

They showed up every so often and were important to the story but before I could turn around twice another major/minor showed up and then three more major/minor folks and this happened in the first fifty pages. And the real major character was lost in the shuffle in my opinion.

Honestly, it seemed to me as if the major character should be the one introducing in these other characters and not handling them all out at once. I more or less got so lost that I lost interest in the book. It took me weeks to finish it. And in between I read three other books.

No, I can't say I enjoyed that book as much and I doubt I'll ever purchase another by that particular author. The author did connect all the dots at the end but I mostly didn't care one way or the other. I may be the only one who feels this way but I don't think so. After thinking about it this week, I remembered when we owned our bookstore there were a few customers who complained about too many characters dumped on you immediately. I don't mind if you wind up with 79 characters but please don't dump them on me in the first forty or so pages. I confuse easily.

Which in turn led to my title...too many cooks spoil...er...uh too many characters spoil the book.

Let me know what you think. See you on down the road.

27 April 2015

What Are You Reading?

by Jan Grape


As soon as I saw my fellow SleuthSayer, Dale C. Andrews post for Sunday, I knew I was on to something. I'd been wracking my brain for days to come up with something to write about today. Suddenly, I found myself staring at a stack of books on the lamp table next to my perch on the sofa. I'll tell you my reading pile this week and you tell me yours, Just a quick note on this Mother's Day to clue everyone in on what a fantastic and versatile group of writers who keep this site going each day. I knew there are award nominees and winners here and I thought it might be high time we tooted our own horns. So in no particular order check out these your daily sleuth sayers.

Eve Fisher: Her short story, "A Time to Mourn" was shortlisted for Otto Penzler's 2011 Best American Short Stories.

John Floyd: won a 2007 Derringer Award for short Story"Four for Dinner."
Nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize "Creativity" 1999 for Short Story
"The Messenger 2001 for Short Story and for a poem "Literary vs Genre" 2005
Shortlisted three times for Otto Penzler's Best American Mystery Stories, "The Proposal," (2000)
"The Powder Room," (2010), "Turnabout" (2012)
And "Molly's Plan" was published in 2015 Best American Short Stories

Nominated for an EDGAR AWARD for the short story "200 Feet" 2015

Janice Trecker: Nominated for an EDGAR AWARD for Best First Novel years ago,
A Lambda award for Best Gay Mystery Novel for one of the Bacon Books a year ago and a
nomination for Best Local Mystery book on the History of Hampton, CT now my home town.

Dale Andrews: My first Ellery Queen Pastiche, "The Book Case," won second place in the EQMM 2007 Reader's Choice and was also nominated for the Barry Award for Best Short Story that year.

Rob Lopresti: I've been a finalist for the Derringer three times, winning twice.
I won the Black Orchid Novella Award.
I was nominated for the Anthony Award.

Paul D. Marks: won the SHAMUS AWARD for White Heat.
Nominated this year for an ANTHONY AWARD for Best Short Story for "Howling at the Moon."

David Dean: his short stories have appeared regularly in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, as well as a number of Anthologies since 1990. His stories have been nominated for SHAMUS, Barry, and Derringer Awards and "Ibraham's Eyes" was the Reader's Choice Award for 2007. His story "Tomorrow's Dead" was a finalist for the EDGAR AWARD for Best Short Story of 2011.

David Edgerley Gates: has been nominated for the SHAMUS, the EDGAR (twice) and the International Thriller Writers Award.

Melissa Yuan-Innes: Derringer Award Finalist 2015 for "Because" Best Mystery Short Fiction in the English Language
Roswell Award for Short Fiction Finalist 2015 for "Cardiopulmonary Arrest."
Won the Aurora Award 2011 Best English related Work and her story " Dancers With Red Shoes" is featured in Dragons and Stars edited by Derwin Mak and Edwin Choi. Her story "Indian Time was named one of the best short mysteries of 2010 by criminalbrief.com
Year's Best Science Fiction, Honorable Mentions for "Iron Mask," "Growing up Sam," and "Waiting for Jenny Rex."
CBS Radio Noon Romance Writing Contest- Runner-up
Melissa has also won Creative Writing contests and Best First Chapter of a Novel in 2008 and second place for Writers of the Future and won McMaster University "Unearthly Love Affair" writing contest.

Melodie Campbell: is the winner of nine awards: 2014 ARTHUR ELLIS award for (novella) The Goddaughter's Revenge. which also won the 2014 Derringer.
Finalist for 2014 ARTHUR ELLIS award for "Hook, Line and Sinker" and this story also won the Northwest Journal short story.
Finalist for 2013 ARTHUR ELLIS award for "Life Without George." which took second prize in Arts Hamilton national short fiction.
Finalist 2012 ARTHUR ELLIS award for "The Perfect Mark" which also won the Derringer award.
Winner 2011 Holiday Short Story Contest for "Blue Satin and Love."
Finalist for 2008 Arts Hamilton award for national short fiction for "Santa Baby."
Third Prize 2006 Bony Pete Short Story contest "School for Burgulars"
Winner 1991 Murder and Mayhem and the Macabre, "City of Mississauga, 2 categories
Third Prize 1989 Canadian Living Magazine, Romance Story "Jive Talk."
Melodie is also a finalist for the Arthur Ellis Award for best short story for 2015 which will be announced on May 28th.

Robert Lawton: nominated for the Derringer Award for "The Right Track" in 2010
Nominated for the Derringer Award for "The Little Nogai Boy" in 2011.

Jan Grape: Nominated along with my co-editor, Dr. Dean James, for an Edgar and an Agatha Award for Deadly Women for Best Biographical/Critical Non-Fiction. 1998
Won the mccavity award along with my co-editor Dr. Dean James for Deadly Women for Best Non-fiction.
Won the Anthony Award for Best Short Story, 1998 for "A Front-Row Seat" in Vengeance is Hers anthology.
Nominated for Anthony for Best First Novel, 2001 for Austin City Blue.
Jan will receive the Sage Award from the Barbara Burnet Smith Aspiring Writers Foundation on May 17. This award is for mentoring aspiring writers.

We all have to admit, our SleuthSayer authors are a multi-talented group.

On this Mother's Day, one little personal note, my mother, PeeWee Pierce and my bonus mom, Ann T. Barrow, both taught me to be a strong, independent, caring woman and I was blessed to have them in my life and I still miss them. Both were able to read some of my published work and I'm glad they were.

Happy Mother's Day, everyone.


07 April 2015

Because Something is Happening Here But You Don’t Know What it is, Do You, Mister Jones?

by Paul D. Marks

One of the things that scares me most as a writer is an illiterate society. Not only illiterate in the sense of people being unable to read and write. But “illiterate” in the sense that, as a society, we have touchstones that everyone or at least most people are familiar with. Or I thought we did at one time. I’m not so sure anymore.

Let’s start with plain literacy on a personal and anecdotal level.

When my wife and I were looking for the house prior to our current house we noticed something odd, at least odd to us. We’d go in various houses in different parts of Los Angeles. But, unlike some of the shows on HGTV, you could still see the real people’s stuff in their houses. Their junk, ugly sofa, hideous drapes and kids’ toys strewn all over, laundry baskets, cluttered closets, etc. One thing we didn’t see much of were books. Sure, a house here or there had them, but the majority didn’t. And if they did they had a coffee table book or two of some artist they thought would make them look chic or intelligent or maybe a book of aerial views of L.A. One place we expected to see lots of books was in kids’ rooms or a potboiler on their parents’ nightstands. But, alas, the “cupboards” were bare.
This was twenty or so years ago, so well before smart phones, Kindles and e-readers. So, it’s not like all their multitudinous libraries were in e-form. No, there just weren’t many books to be seen.
We found this odd, as we have books stuffed to the rafters, as do most of our friends. Here, there and everywhere, in the living room or the dining room, library, the hallway, and even shelves upon shelves in the garage.

Flash forward: Cultural Literacy

29291When we went hunting for our current house, about ten years ago it was more of the same. By then there might have been some e-books and the like but the real revolution still hadn’t hit full bore yet.

Again this seemed odd. But more than odd, it’s scary. Especially for a writer. Because a writer needs readers. And if people aren’t reading, I’m out of a job, and maybe likely so are you. Even scarier though is the fact that, imho, we are becoming a post-literate society. And we are losing our shared background, some of which is gotten through books. Aside from the greater implications of that in terms of the country, it makes it harder as a writer because when we write we assume some shared cultural background. And we make literary or historical allusions to those ends. We mention composers or songs or symphonies. Books, authors, “famous” or “well-known” quotes that we assume most readers will be familiar with, some foreign phrases, even biblical references. Hemingway and even Bob Dylan songs (and I’m talking those from the 60s before he found religion in the 70s), as well as other writers, are filled with them. But often these days readers are not familiar with these references, so they miss the richness of the writing. So then we begin to question whether or not to include these references and sometimes end up writing to the lower common denominator. And that diminishes our works and our society, even if it sounds pompous to say that.

Maybe people won’t know who Rudy Vallee is, and that's understandable, but many also don’t know who Shakespeare is in any meaningful way.

743625500929_p0_v1_s600When I would go to pitch meetings in Hollywood I would often have to dumb down my presentation. I would try to leave out any historical or literary allusions. Hell, I’d even leave out film allusions because while these people may have heard of Hitchcock, few had seen his movies. And they were mostly from Ivy League type schools, but they didn’t have much of a cultural background. So when you have to explain basic things to them, you’ve lost them. They don’t like to feel stupid. And sometimes they’d ask me to explain something to them about another script they were reading by someone else. One development VP asked me to explain to her who fought on which sides in World War II, because she was reading a WWII script someone had submitted. The writer of that script already had points against him or her since the development VP didn’t even know the basics of the subject matter. And I would have thought before that incident that just about everybody knew who fought on which side in WWII. And this is just one example. I have many, many more experiences like this.

After college, the stats show that many people never—or very rarely—read another book. Literacy rates in the US are down. A lot of young people aren’t reading, but they think they’re smart because they look things up on Google. But looking something up on Google isn’t the same as knowing, though it’s better than nothing, assuming people do look things up. See: http://www.salon.com/2014/10/12/google_makes_us_all_dumber_the_neuroscience_of_search_engines/
Hw-shakespeare2
I’ve seen several authors, some very well known, ask on Facebook if they should include X, Y or Z in a novel because their editor says no one will get the references, even though the references aren’t that obscure. But even if they are, what’s wrong with using them and having people (hopefully) look them up. Isn’t that how we expand our knowledge? But nobody wants to challenge anyone in that way anymore. We’re dealing with generations now that have been told how wonderful they are without having earned it. So when we unintentionally make them feel stupid by using references they’re not familiar with, they turn off. Is it just me or does our society seem to have no intellectual curiosity, no interests or hobbies other than texting or watching the Kardashians? They don’t have the will to look further than the screens of their smart phones?

I know I’m generalizing and that there are pockets of intellectual curiosity (like the readers of this blog!), but I feel like we are becoming a minority.

And when you do a book signing or a library event, do you notice the average median age and hair color of the audience? More times than not they’re older and grayer. And where are the young people? That’s scary.

I wish more people would make New Year’s resolutions to improve their minds as well as their bodies, to exercise their brains as well as their muscles. So maybe we should do yoga for the brain as well as the body.

At this point I’d even settle for grownups reading comic books or graphic novels as long as there’s words in them.

All of this scares me, not just as a writer, who might not have an audience in the future. But for society as a whole. We need to have a shared background, a common knowledge, a literate society of people who are engaged. Not everybody can know everything, of course. But there should be some common background that we can all relate to.



Shakespeare picture: Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hw-shakespeare2.jpg#/media/File:Hw-shakespeare2.jpg
Blonde on blonde album cover: "Bob Dylan - Blonde on Blonde" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bob_Dylan_-_Blonde_on_Blonde.jpg#/media/File:Bob_Dylan_-_Blonde_on_Blonde.jpg

14 March 2015

A Note of Their Own

by Melodie Campbell

A serious post from me (don’t everyone faint….)

Sometimes a simple sentence can make you gulp back tears and realize how lucky you've been.

I received the following note from the Hamilton Literacy Council re the donation of sales revenue from the launch of The Artful Goddaughter mob caper:

"As I write this note to thank you...I am reminded of the dream of some of our clients that they will one day be able to write a note of their own."

The Hamilton Literacy Council is my charity of choice.  I first came across them when I worked in health care at an urban hospital.  We had an Out of the Cold program that treated homeless people with health problems, and provided people with blankets and extra clothing to keep them warm on the streets.

Warm on the streets…I should mention here that I live south of Toronto in Canada, where we have winter for four months of the year.  Real winter.  This year we have had 38 days in a row below freezing.

I won’t describe the health problems suffered by people who live day and night on the streets, under bridges, and in bus shelters.  That is a topic for an even more serious post.

The person I am thinking of now is a woman I met during that time.  She was middle-aged, which at the time I thought was forty-five.  (My guideline has changed since then.)  We gave her care, for which she was grateful.  And for that care, we required her signature on a piece of paper, in order to please our sponsors.

She stalled.  We pressed again, in plainer English, in case it was her second language.  It wasn’t.

We were baffled. She looked away and then she told us.  She couldn’t write her name.

It’s an odd thing.  When I think of someone being illiterate, I think of them not being able to read books and newspapers.  It wasn’t until this moment that it dawned on me that being illiterate also meant not being able to write.

At SleuthSayers, many of us make at least part of our income from writing fiction tales.  We produce reams of manuscript pages, year after year.  We may labour over the perfect sentence.  We grumble when editors try to change our words.  We joke (at least I do) about putting a mob hit on said editors, or at the very least, killing them off in our next book.

Writing is my therapy.  Reading is my escape from the real world.  I can’t imagine enduring the calamities of life without that escape.  And I don’t live under bridges or in bus shelters.

Next year, I will have a book launch again, and I will donate the sales from that launch to the literacy council.  It’s so little to do, when compared to those who actually volunteer as tutors.  I will continue to write books that are easy to read, and hopefully, entertaining for those who are acquiring the skill of reading.

Learning to read as an adult takes concentration, determination, and immense courage.  I think, perhaps, that no one understands the value of the written word more than those who have struggled to master it.

This is my salute to the men and women who dream of writing a note of their own.

Melodie Campbell occasionally writes serious stuff, but her books are mainly comedies. This is probably a good thing.

The Artful Goddaughter on Amazon
www.melodiecampbell.com

05 January 2015

Old Odds and New Ends

Jan Grape
by Jan Grape


Good grief, Charlie Brown where did 2014 go to? Seems like it was here and it was, until it wasn't. Now how long will it take me to remember to write 2015 on my checks instead of 2014? The year ended here in central TX with cold and sleet, but much more of the country had heavy snows, ice and tornadoes as they bid farewell to the old Year. Maybe it's time to let such a wild crazy year be on its way and welcome the New Year.

Did you finish all your projects? I didn't. I come from the school of Never Do Today What You Can Put Off Until Tomorrow. It could be that I'm lazy, but I honestly think it's just my born nature. I have a To-Do list about five miles long. I'll probably never live long enough to finish them, however, I do keep trying.

One thing I'd like to know from my fellow writers and readers, and please answer in the comments: Do you ever stop reading a book that you just flat-out don't like? Or do you trudge on until the very end?

Personally, I don't keep reading a book if I find that I don't care if these characters live or die or get together or whatever. I remember years ago, everyone was talking about a book that was on the New York Times bestselling list. I got a copy of the paperback when it was published and began reading it. I thought it was terrible, nothing really happened and I was bored. The characters were non-entities and I sure didn't care if they lived or died. But I kept reading and you know what? The book never got any better. And when I finished it, I was mad at the author for writing this nonsense. I was mad at whoever decided this was a must-read book. But mostly I was mad at myself for not throwing that book across the room and forgetting it. I decided I wouldn't do that again.

A few years after that I tried to read a book that is currently popular in the movies, something about Hobbits and the underworld. The books and movies have been highly successful. I read about 75 pages and that was my line in the sand. I gave the book back to my friend who had lent the book to me. "I just can't get interested in it." My friend said, "You have to read about 100 or so pages before it begins to get good." Thanks, but no thanks. I'll never live long enough to read all the wonderful books by people that I want to read.

This sounds like I won't read new authors but that's not so. I love to discover new writers but I'm just careful to choose a book that I think I'll like. Since I owned a bookstore for nine years, I learned the old trick that most readers use in a bookstore. First they pick up a book with a jacket or title which intrigues them. Then they'll read the back cover or the inside jacket cover to see if there is a plot synopsis. Then they will open the book and read the first page or two.

One nice thing about the bookstores online (the devils) have a few reviews, or at least allow you to read a bit of the first chapter. A review can't always sell me but I can usually tell from the reviews if I might or might not like the book. And if I read a few pages or a first chapter on line and I want more then I know I'll most likely enjoy that book and will often buy it.

Personal recommendations always play a big part. When a bookseller tells you about a particular book it helps. The Indie bookstore (which is quickly fading away) is great for this. Because they get to know their customers and know if they like Jim Doe that they will probably like John Doe also. I often suggested a customer read an anthology, especially a theme anthology, to find new authors. Many times they'd say, "Oh, I never read short stories." And I'd counter with: just think how you'll discover many new writers. The author may write a short story with the same characters they use in their books. Or they might write a new set of characters that you really like and want to read more about. Just no way to go wrong that way.

My final notes here, Do you make New Year's Resolutions?

I read somewhere that a study at a University has discovered only 8% of people keep their New Year's Resolutions. It's been suggested that maybe we aim too high. Resolving to quit smoking and lose weight at the same time, to organize your desk or office and to quit drinking too much wine
is likely too much for your brain's willpower to handle at once. Might be smart to try only one at a time.

I heard some people on TV the other day talking about this and one professor said January is just another month. One person countered that she liked to make a small change in January, then in Spring make another small change as a time of renewal. She also made a small change the end of September because that was the fiscal year where she worked. Her idea was to just make small resets all throughout the year. Smart lady.

Here are my Resolutions: I saw this on Facebook and then now when I want it I can't find it, so if someone you know came up with this, I'll credit them. I also can't recall the full list of 10, but it goes something like this.
  1. Buy more books.
  2. Read more books
  3. Build more bookcases to hold more books.
  4. Work to make more money to buy more books.
  5. Rearrange schedule to make more time to read books.
  6. Read more books.
Have a Fantastic New Year everyone and please buy and read more books.

16 September 2013

Baker Street Irregular

I keep a framed photograph of Jeff Baker in my desk drawer and sometimes I get all weepy. A lifelong native of Wichita, Kansas, Jeff learned to read from the comics page sometime around preschool and graduated to comic books, Robert Arthur and Thorne Smith shortly thereafter. After a misspent youth getting a B.A. in Communications and performing comedy in local clubs, he settled into a life of day jobs driving delivery trucks and writing stories spare time that have found their way into such venues as Over My Dead Body and Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. Happily ensconced with his significant other Darryl Thompson, he is a near-constant reader of sites like SleuthSayers. You can find Jeff on his Facebook page. Read him and keep.
— Velma

Jeff Baker
Jeff Baker
Sleuthing and Saying


by Jeff Baker

I’ll start with something both writers and readers know, a cliché: “Has it really been two years?” (Spoiler alert: it has!)

SleuthSayers began two years ago. From the start, it launched as a blog for both writers and readers. Being both, a neophyte writer and a long-long-time voracious reader, the daily dose proved advantageous and fun from the very beginning.

SleuthSayers (the name always makes me think of Dorothy L. Sayers) began life as a successor to the much-missed pro blog Criminal Brief” which featured a rotating set of seven mystery writing professionals including, at one time or another, blog founder James Lincoln Warren, Melodie Johnson Howe, Steven Steinbock, Angela Zeman and SleuthSayers regulars John Floyd, Leigh Lundin, Deborah Elliot-Upton, Janice Law, and Rob Lopresti. Each one posted one column a week on subjects as varied as procrastination, anthologies, movies, and of course the craft of writing itself.

SleuthSayers doubled the number of columnists and changed the gestation period for a column to two weeks, giving the busy writers a breather and giving the readers a wider variety of experience and opinion. Contributions have varied from R.T. Lawton’s 25 years in law enforcement, Dixon Hill’s knowledge of explosives, and Jan Grape’s encounters with a live-in “alien.” Blended in are the wonky realities of writing and reading in the digital age, plus the ongoing saga of bizarre news from Florida.

Acceptances, rejections, book signings, publications, awards, and stumbling blocks have all found themselves subjects for columns over the past two years. Everything from professional to personal triumphs and tragedies have been laid bare daily for the site’s rapt readers.

From the beginning, the blog has not just entertained but served as a writer's resource. Speaking as a beginning writer myself, the site has served as a source of encouragement and enlightenment in my own attempts to put a good story– not just any story but a good one– on paper. Sometimes nothing helps as much as the knowledge that I’m not alone doing this. The advice and knowledge of our shared passion for the written word has shown itself invaluable. Reactions range from “omigosh! I didn’t know that!” through “Hey, I tried that!” or “I gotta do that!” and “Geez, that sure didn’t work when I tried it!” but the bulk of the knowledge brings about “I gotta write this down.”

So much for the past, onward to the future. Further columns (and deadlines) await the lucky reader or writer who scrolls by accident or design to SleuthSayers. The future looks bright and not just because the screen is glowing! Here’s to another year, another two years and more to SleuthSayers!

05 August 2013

What R U reading?

Jan Grape by Jan Grape

With the current heat wave in TX there's only one thing you can do to stay cool. Find a comfortable chair and a good book.

For some strange reason, my favorite thing to read is a mystery. Honestly, I don't try to figure out whodunit, I'm more interested in the characters. I have many favorites. If I start listing them, I'll get carried away and even then I'll leave off someone. Then I will get upset with myself because I left off one of my all time favorites, so I won't name names.

However, I recently read an ARC, titled The Last Whisper In the Dark by Tom Piccirilli. The book just came out from Bantam.  Unfortunately, I had not read the previous, The Last Kind Words, I will be purchasing it soon. It's the story of the Rands, a family of criminals...but not your usual criminals. They are creepers, cat burglars, grifters, con artist .It's in their blood and what they do is just their destiny. And to add to the strangeness they're all named after dogs.

Our protagonist is Terrier, father is Pinscher (who is creeping up on Alzheimer's,) grandfather, Shepherd, who is in the latter stages of the disease and who Terry calls, Old Shep. There is a brother, named Collie, who for some strange reason, (if you haven't read the first book you don't know why,) goes on a killing spree and has been executed for his crimes. Terry's sister is named Airedale, he calls her Dale. There are two uncles, Mal (amute) and Grey (hound.)

Terry is in love with Kimmy, who now is married to Terry's one-time best friend, Chub. And I think Kimmy's little girl, Scooter, is Terry's biological child. I don't think I was ever sure about that but it's obvious he loves her and her mother dearly. The locale is Long Island, NY but that is incidental to the story.

Mr. Piccirilli has written an unusual cast of character who slowly become real folks as you continue to read. The mystery is not so much who does what, although there are twist and turns as Terry becomes involved with his estranged maternal Grandfather. Terry's mother was disowned when she married Pinscher and Terry doesn't know any of the maternal side until the man calls and wants to see his daughter before he dies. The old man is on his deathbed. Mother Rand goes but Terry goes with her and it soon becomes apparent the old man wants to talk to Terry too, and he wants Terry to steal something for him.

If that's not complication enough, Terry's sixteen year old sister is involved with some hooligan thugs and looks as if she could be in big trouble almost immediately if not sooner. And Kimmy's husband Chub is involved with some really bad guys and Terry's got to try to save Kimmy and his daughter.

Some reviewers compare the writing to Raymond Chandler and call The Last Whisper very dark. I suppose it is more in the noir category than anything else but it's such an intriguing cast of characters that all I could do was keep turning pages to see what would happen next. It's also probably much better if you read Last Kind Words first because without that background you're a bit lost until about a third of the way into it.  But it is definitely worth your time, especially if you like that sort of thing. Great characters and a well-written story, I mean.

The other ARC I read lately is NOT exactly a mystery. It's A Wilder Rose, by Susan Wittig Albert. It's the surprising true story of Rose and Laura Wilder and the Little House on the Prairie books. I'm not going to review it here as Susan is going to write an article in my place in the very near future and I don't want to step on her toes, but is a fascinating story within a story of the collaboration of a mother and daughter and the blending of facts and fiction unraveling the mystery of these books.

So what are you reading?

22 April 2013

Reading To Learn


Jan Grapeby Jan Grape

Like most writers I love reading. I guess I could be perfectly happy reading all day every day. I loved reading so much that my late husband, Elmer and I opened a bookstore in Austin in 1990. We titled it Mysteries and More. The "more" part was because we also had science-fiction, western, and general fiction. But all of those genre were used books. The new books were all mysteries and we had a huge number of used mysteries. I used to say we had 75% used and 25% new books. That was probably accurate. M & M was only the second mystery bookstore in Texas. Murder by the Book was the first and I think it's the only one currently still in business.

It wasn't too long that I realized that we had more books than I could ever read even if I live to be a hundred. That was a sad realization. When we liquidated the store in 1999 we had had nine years of great fun and great adventures, met a large number of mystery authors and had read a great number of books. However, we had decided to realize our dream of traveling the USA and my husband was ready to retire. We took a lot of books with us to read in the late evenings when we couldn't go sight seeing. Both of us loved to read.

I learned a lot about writing by reading. I read books about how-to-write and books about how to market and how to find an agent. I had reference books galore when I still had my house. But after three summers of RV traveling we decided to live full-time in our fifth-wheel, RV. That meant I had to give up about three thousand books I had kept from the store. It was sad to leave "good" friends and I do mean friends because books have always been my friend.

Books took me to far-away places that I'd never be able to travel to and I learned how to do so many neat things from my friends. Besides how to write, I learned how to collect depression glass, old mason fruit jars, stamps and coins. I learned how to make quilts, make cookies & candies, how to make jelly and jam and how to make a Better Than Sex Cake. I learned how to identify wildflowers, how to look for constellations in the stars and the capitols of every state in the union. As Elmer used to always say, "You can learn how to do almost anything, if you can read."

The intriguing thing to me is how you can learn many things about writing from reading other writer's books. I often stop and marvel at a well-turned sentence that somehow seems to say so much. It might be a character description or the way a place looks that immediately puts you there. I don't copy them down but I know they park themselves in the file cabinet in my mind. Not to plagiarize but to remember that there are way to construct a sentence or to construct the character who always lies or the construction of the faded dress worn by the mother of your suspect.

To remember "good" writing especially when you think yours is lacking. I remember a writer friend who wrote children's mysteries telling me once that you must engage the senses on every page. Sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste because that will capture a child's imagination. It will also capture the imagination of anyone, no matter their age.

When I first saw the Mississippi River, I was in my thirties and my mind went back to reading Huckleberry Finn. That mighty old river had been so strong in my mind, the sound, the sight, the smell that Mark Twain brought to the pages of his book made me catch my breath. That old river was familiar because I had read so much about it.

Another way to learn from reading is to volunteer to read for awards or contests. The Edgars and the Shamus nominees and winners are books read by writers who themselves have been published. By a jury of peers as it were. There are contests given by the Private Eye Writers, by the Agatha writers, by the Thriller writers and probably even by the Romance writers. Those contests often offer a prize of publication. If you belong to one of these organizations, volunteer to read for the awards or contest. You might be surprised at how much you learn.

Another opportunity might offer a chance for a writer to help an aspiring writer. Our local Sisters-in-Crime chapter has a mentoring program for aspiring writers. This program is to honor Barbara Burnett Smith, who was tragically killed in 2005. She often mentored aspiring writers and each year aspiring writers can turn in a couple of chapters and a synopsis. These partial manuscripts are read by published authors from our chapter and critiqued. Then after our May Mystery Month meeting the author and aspiring writer have a chance to talk and sometimes the mentor will continue to help the aspiring writer complete their work. No prizes are given but just having your work critiqued by a published author is priceless.

Through the years I've read for awards, contest and for our mentoring program. You read the opening of a book and realize how a writer has "hooked you." Right from the first paragraph. Suddenly you realize what's wrong with your own work in progress. You haven't hooked anyone in the first paragraph or even the first page. Wow. I've always known this, but somehow forgot it when I started this manuscript, you tell yourself.

More likely you'll read a character description that blows you away. Maybe it's short but, so pointed, so precise that you can actually see that character walking down the street. And you see what you need to do to a character who moves the plot along. Maybe a fight scene comes to life and helps you understand your own scene.

There is so much to learn from reading. In fact, I'm going to sign off and get back to the book I'm currently reading, one that I'm sure will help me with my own. I suggest y'all go and do likewise.

08 October 2012

Great Sentences

Jan Grapeby Jan Grape

When you're reading a book that you really enjoy, do you sometimes find that you STOP and reread a sentence? Maybe it's simplicity caught your eye. Maybe you know that it completely conveys the character, the scene, the motive, that it just rings as true.

I was rereading a book by my friend Susan Rogers Cooper last week. The book is A Crooked Little House," published in 1999. Now, I've read Susan for years, actually since 1990 when we had our mystery bookstore and she came out for our Grand Opening. I had not met her before but we had a hard copy of her second book Houston In The Rearview Mirror. I asked her to sign it and from that point on Susan and I became friends. I read everything she wrote usually before it even came out. I tell you all this to let you know that just because I know and love her like a sister, it has no bearing on the sentences in CLH that grabbed, and gave me the idea for this article. It's actually three short paragraphs, but it conveys the geographic location so vividly.

"I love a good storm. I always have. It energizes me--the drama of it, the excitement of it. Rain without lightening and thunder is just wet, but put the three together, and you have a night's entertainment a hell of a lot more stimulating than dinner and a movie. And sex during a storm is nothing to sneeze at--in case you weren't aware of this.
Since we'd moved to central Texas, there was a certain sadness for me about storms. In Houston, where I was born and raised and where I gave birth to my children, you can expect rain just about anytime. Droughts in Houston are such a rarity as to be laughable.
Not in central Texas. Each storm of spring could be the last one until fall;enjoy the one coming because you may forget what it's like before the next storm."

It's words like that which make me want to be a writer. To be able in a few words to convey a feeling of storms, of living where there are few storms. To feel the heat on your skin and body for weeks and months and the longing for a good rain. Many writers can do this and I admire each and every one of them.

David Baldacci's latest paperback, Zero Day gives a description of a woman that is excellent in my opinion.

"Samantha Cole was not in uniform. She was dressed in faded jeans, white T-shirt, a WVU Mountaineers windbreaker, and worn-down calf-high boots. The butt of a King Cobra double-action .45 revolver poked from inside her shoulder holster. It was on the left side, meaning she was right-handed. She was a sliver under five-three without boots, and a wiry one-ten with dirty blonde hair that was long enough to reach her shoulders. Her eyes were blue and wide; the balls of her cheekbones were prominent enough to suggest Native American ancestry. Her face had a scattering of light freckles.
She was an attractive woman but with a hard,cynical look of someone to whom life had not been overly kind."

Wow. Short but so powerful. You know you'd know Samantha if you met her anywhere. There's no reason to describe someone with sentences and paragraphs and words and words. Just find the important little details that can make a character a real person to the reader.

One more example and it's a song lyric, which might sound strange but it's just one that really grabbed me. The song is "Utopia" written by John Greenberg & Bill Murry and is sung by singer/song writer, john Arthur martinez. jAm came in 2nd on the TV show Nashville Star, a few years ago and is a friend and neighbor of mine.

"For 15 battered years we lived out of a pick-up truck. When she told me to make my bed I'd just put the tail-gate up."

Okay, maybe it's just me, but those twenty-five simple words convey so much. I know each of you have favorite sentences and paragraphs that move you or excite you or inspire you. I've shown you some of mine and now you can show me some of yours.