30 June 2023

Thinking outside the book signing box

Gift shop at Colonial Williamsburg.

Today I’m revisiting a post I wrote years ago for another blog that now appears to be inactive. I wanted to share this with you because I spent many weeks leading up to Fourth of July on the road, hawking one, then two, and finally three nonfiction history titles.

I learned a lot about bookstores, book sales, and marketing during this period of time. So much so that about a year after the first book pubbed, our small publisher contacted my wife and me, asking if we would speak to the heads of their marketing and sales departments. They had noticed that in the last year or so, they had accrued an impressive number of new accounts. All of them were gift shops at museums and historic sites, and all of them were ordering the same book—ours and ours alone.

“What are you doing to sell these books?” they wanted to know. Until that point they had not really considered historic sites as a potential market for their products, but shortly after this they began acquiring and publishing more nonfiction history titles.

I’m offering this as a case study, more or less. And since I know this does not speak directly to the realm of mystery novels, I’ll offer some comments at the end of the post about how a mystery author (or any other) might put some of this into practice. So please bear with me and try to think creatively about how you might apply this to your work.

We sold books in the Philly cemetery where Ben Franklin is buried...

One of the most humiliating rites of passage for any new author is the book signing.* Despite everyone’s best efforts, you can end up sitting for hours at a lonely table at the front of your local bookstore while legions of potential readers blow past you as if you’re invisible. If anyone dares make eye contact with you, it’s to give you a pitying smile. The same people who will wait hours to have a book signed by a “name” author cannot wait to get out of your line of sight. Why? Because they don’t know you, they don’t know your book, and they don’t know why they should.

How can you make sure this embarrassing experience never happens again? Simple: Stop trying to sell books in a bookstore.

This may sound heretical coming from a traditionally published no-name author, but I think it’s solid advice that can be deployed judiciously from time to time. Seventy percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years. Those who do venture into bookstores are habitual browsers, or else infrequent buyers looking for a specific title. Maybe they read a lot, or maybe they’re just there to pick up a book their kid needs for a class. Bookstore regulars are jaded by the sight of an unknown author sitting a table signing books. The others just want to grab the book they came for, and get the heck out. You cannot move many books in such a tough crowd, all the while surrounded by hundreds of other competing titles.

...we sold in historic churchyards...

If you want to sell books, you must break out of the pack and become the only must-buy book in the store. Consider signing instead at non-bookstores, such as specialty stores, gift shops, galleries, museums, historic sites, etc. My wife/coauthor and I have sold upwards of 100 books a day in some of these places. We were as surprised by this result as our publishers, but we finally figured out that unless you’re a name, successful book signings often depend on reaching shoppers for whom the experience of a book signing is a rare treat.

At non-bookstores, signings are worthy of press releases, cakes, balloons, and hullaballoo. What’s more, gift store browsers have one raison d’etre: they’re looking to shop. The wallets of everyone walking in the door are psychologically cracked and ready to spill cash. If you sell in a souvenir shop, for example, your book now becomes a souvenir-by-association, a relatively cheap must-have from that tourist’s vacation.

Here’s how to turn these events into over-the-top successes.

...we sold at the gift shop at the National Archives in DC, where the Declaration of Independence is housed and displayed.

Get the sales staff involved. Have a staffer greet each person as they enter the store and say something like, “We have a book author with us today. She’s here autographing her book about X.” This primes shoppers, answering the question most are thinking but will never ask: “What’s that lady doing behind that table with all those books?”

Stack your book around the store. Your book should not only be on your table but on every available surface. Place some on a table behind you, so people can walk right past you and inspect the book on the sly, without you hovering over them. (I swear this happens, and results in sales.) A stack of books should be at the cash registers too, and every salesclerk should say, before they ring up each person’s purchase: “Did you see we have an author in today signing copies of their book?” This gives shoppers one last chance to buy before they check out. If it’s a venue such as a museum or attraction that sells admission tickets in addition to having a gift shop, sales clerks will have two opportunities to pitch your book.

Get attention in a fun way. People hate approaching a table where someone is obviously selling something. Help them get over it, and do it in a way that connects with the theme of the store. To sell our history title set during the American Revolutionary War, we targeted gift shops at historic sites—the visitor center in Philly near where the Liberty Bell is housed, for example—and asked an actor friend to dress in colonial costume and read quotes of the Founding Fathers all day long.

The late Scott Sowers was a Broadway actor, audiobook narrator, and character performer who had appeared on Law & Order numerous times. Miss him terribly.

As each new gaggle of tourists flowed into Ye Olde Historick Shoppe, the actor yelled in a booming voice, “Hear ye, hear ye!” and proceeded to read a rousing line or two from the letters of, say, John Adams or Ben Franklin. At the end, our friend joyously yelped, “Huzzah!” Shoppers soon got the idea that this was all part of the fun experience of shopping in this particular store today. They froze in their tracks and listened, they snapped pictures of the dude in costume, they conquered Their Fear of The Table—and they bought a book. At the Old State House in Boston, by the end of the day the sales clerks were even yelling “Huzzah!” as the actor concluded a quote. A clerk confided to us, “I’m really loving my job today!”

Give away something free. Whether they buy a book or not, everyone you meet should get a bookmark or business card depicting the book cover and some info on the back. If they don’t buy the book now, they’ll buy it online later. Tell them how to connect with you via your website or socials. If parents stopped by with kids, we gave every kid a U.S. flag sticker. That single act usually broke the ice with parents. (Avoid giving candy or treats.)

Make eye contact and connect. Every time I see an author with his nose in a book at his own signing, I feel like swatting the tome out of his mitts. Engage your customers! Look them in the eye. Smile. Say good afternoon. Hit them with the pitch: “This is our book about the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence,” we used to say. “The cover unfolds to a copy of the Declaration of Independence.” Then we flipped open a cover to show them how it “worked,” and waited for the inevitable, “Oh, that’s cool!” Then we’d say, “We’re the authors of the book, and we’re autographing copies today any way you’d like.” Sadly, people who don’t buy books often don’t immediately comprehend that authors autograph books, and that such books make a nice keepsake or gift. Be prepared to repeat these lines all day. Getting a book signed by you is, in a way, a limited-time offer. It’s the only reason to buy immediately versus buying the book a month from now online or at another store.

Keep a sign-up sheet handy. Inevitably you will make connections with people who want you to do talks, visit their classrooms, or want to receive your newsletter. Make it easy to collect those names. Collect the contact info and socials of the the gift shop employees as well. You may be hitting them up in the future, and they will mostly likely promote you on their socials.

An impromptu signing on a 2023 visit to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philly.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: I write mysteries, you say. There are no historic site gift shops for mysteries. Well, sure. But with some effort, I think most authors should be able to find suitable non-bookstore venues for their book. We met a photographer selling his gorgeous coffee table book at a busy camera repair shop on a Saturday. Once, while my wife shopped at a Victoria’s Secret in a New Jersey mall, I saw the author of a book on brassieres—I think it was this one—presiding over a hilarious book event, complete with pink champagne and a tempting, boob-shaped chocolate cake. Sheer genius.

Why couldn’t you sell your cat mysteries at a local Petco? Your cozy series about a cupcake-baking sleuth at a local bakery? Your PI mystery set in your small city at the local visitor’s center where tourists come to grab maps and sign up for the trolley tour?

Now, there are some hurdles and challenges with this approach. In most cases, you must a) persuade the managers or owners of these venues to give you a shot, and b) iron out who will order and sell the books. Will the venue buy them from you or the publisher and sell to customers, or will they let you sell direct? And will they ask for a piece of the action? You really have to summon your courage to ask and negotiate—two things authors admittedly hate to do.

Still, using techniques like these we burned through cases of books and have been invited back at nearly all the venues we’ve done. And before someone asks, this all happened years before my wife’s later solo titles hit the New York Times Bestseller List. So, at the time, she and I were just average midlist authors.

Believe me, I’m naturally quite shy. I really prefer sitting at my desk writing. It took all I could muster to convince stores to have us, and to persuade the sales staff to turn their stores into a circus for a day. But it was all in their best interest. The stores profited from every sale, often earning more per copy than we did. At the end of our first Boston signing, the manager told us this was one of the highest-grossing days in the store’s history. He offered us a free shopping spree—I blew part of my credit on a John Hancock Bobblehead—and picked up our dinner tab at a nearby restaurant that night.

That does bring me to the biggest challenge: cost. We did these multi-city trips each Fourth of July Week for three or four years straight. When other people we going to the beach, we were slogging our way up the East Coast of the US, visiting hot, humid, expensive cities such as DC, Philadelphia, and Boston. We visited out-of-the-way National Historic sites run by the National Park Services. Park rangers, not booksellers, presided over many of our signings (and later talks). These were, to be blunt, work trips for which we always took a tax deduction on our federal and state taxes.

Still, we knew that such an effort—complete with meals, lodging, etc.—was not cost-effective in the short term. (Our travel costs far outstripped our per-copy earnings.) Would this investment pay off over time? Well, watch what happened. When we pubbed the second book, the publisher offered us a travel grant—in other words, we did not have to pay it back out of royalties—to do our annual July trip. And one of the venues arranged for free lodging (in Boston!) via the site’s nonprofit foundation. The first book has since sold about 100,000 copies, the second about 30,000, so yes, I do think in the long run, it was worth it to cement the saleability of these books in the minds of the non-bookstores.

* * * 

* Please note: In the parlance of U.S. bookstores, a "signing" is considered different from an "event." The former is just an author autographing at a table placed at the front of the store, the latter is a evening or afternoon presentation where an author is expected to lecture/speak, read from the book, and answer questions from an audience. Most of the ones we did in the early days were signings. As the books became more popular, some of the historic sites invited us to do speaking events. One, a historical society in RI, paid us an honorarium for the talk.

Happy Fourth of July to everyone, and see you in three weeks!


29 June 2023

South Dakota Man

I'm starting to think we here in South Dakota can catch up to Florida.  (And, in the interests of keeping it clean - this time - I've left off all the cases but one of sex crimes.)

Sioux Falls police arrest man who threatened officers with a gun - the officers were standing on the sidewalk, talking to someone who had probably just committed a hit-and-run, when South Dakota Guy came out of his house, told them to get the hell off his property (hey, bright eyes, sidewalks are public property!), and when the police didn't, went inside and came back outside holding a rifle with a weapon-mounted light that made it obvious he was pointing at them, yelled at them some more, and then started running, dropping the gun only when he tried to climb a fence.  Officers subdued him, arrested him, and charged him with three counts of aggravated assault on law enforcement, three counts of attempting to commit a felony with a firearm and possession of a loaded firearm while intoxicated.  (What, you thought he was sober?)  (ARGUS)

Sioux Falls man arrested for backing into police car - the suspect was in a stolen vehicle, two detectives were able to approach the vehicle in their own detective vehicle and activated their overhead lights, at which point the driver put the stolen vehicle into reverse and backed into the detectives’ vehicle - twice - before taking off. (BTW, this is a sure way to get the full attention of the police department.) The suspect was later arrested on two counts of aggravated assault on law enforcement and possession of a stolen vehicle.  Also possession of a firearm which may or may not have been stolen.  (Hard to say - most people up here don't report if their gun was stolen from their car. Too embarrassing?)  (ARGUS)

Sioux City man arrested for throwing knives at Sioux Falls police - 4:21 PM, after threatening people with a knife, the suspect took of on his bicycle. the police quickly intercepted him, and he started pulling knives out of his pocket and throwing them at them. The suspect was arrested for three counts of Aggravated Assault on Law Enforcement, Obstructing Police Officers, Fleeing Police, and was placed on an emergency mental hold. (Dakota News Now)  

Man stabbed, arrested for aggravated assault after attacking man with stick - Two men were smoking meth at a campsite and one accused the other of stealing from him and started hitting the victim with a large stick.  The victim has a pocket knife and stabbed the suspect, then they rolled around on the ground, and the suspect bit the victim in the face, Petersen said. Eventually, the victim told the suspect that he had stabbed him and to get up so he could call the ambulance. (Must have been really tweaked out to not know he'd been stabbed..)  (Argus)

Sioux Falls Man Arrested at Disney World for Slapping Woman's Butt
 - The woman was a security guard at Disney's Coronado Springs Resort, who did not take it as the compliment that Sioux Falls Man (who was stumbling drunk) apparently thought she should.  He was arrested for two misdemeanors.  The world's happiest place is not going to put up with that s***.  (Hot 104.7)

Sioux Falls man arrested after fatally shooting dog - Police say many people in a house on the 3300 block of South Westbrooke lane were "drinking and messing around with guns." Sioux Falls Man loaded one of the guns and accidentally shot and killed a dog, and was arrested for cruelty to animals. (Otherwise, everything was fine, and the evening went as planned.)  (KELO)

Sioux Falls man arrested for following victim, Lyft driver & pulling gun - A Sioux Falls man has been arrested for following a 29-year-old woman and her Lyft driver and pulling a gun on them Saturday night in southeast Sioux Falls. The suspect stated his reason for following the victim downtown and back and pulling a gun was because he believed the victim was connected to knocking he heard on his door earlier, which alarmed him. KNOCKING????? This easily alarmed snowflake was arrested for 2 counts of Aggravated Assault.  (Dakota News Now)

South Dakota State Representative Calls Mt. Rushmore Demonic Portal - “What the Lord has revealed to me is that Mount Rushmore has a direct ley line to Washington, DC.,” Republican South Dakota (R) Joe Donnell said in the podcast clip that was tweeted. “In order to understand the spiritual realm of what we’re facing, we have to realize that in order for the enemy to do anything, it needs the agreement of human beings. In order to be empowered to do more damage he needs the agreement of human beings and oftentimes that comes in the form of an altar that acts as a portal for other demonic things. What we’re really dealing with in that portal is communism. That witchcraft, altar, those things that are happening in the Black Hills, what we’re dealing with is communism. It’s the ideology and all the demonic entities and spirits behind that.”  We're all still waiting for Governor Kristi Noem to comment on THAT one.  Also, many of us want to know where that witchcraft altar actually IS, because that could turn into a whole 'nother tourist attraction. (KELO)

Random South Dakota man strolls into Kentucky store, buys cigarettes, shoots the ceiling and demands the police be called - "When police arrived, the owner says the man was on the ground by his truck, with a gun pointed to his head. After about an hour, police were eventually able to resolve the situation peacefully without the man hurting himself.  They say South Dakota Man intentionally committed a robbery in order to trigger a law enforcement response and attempt “suicide by cop.” (LINK)

And my favorite:

3 Arrested for Stealing Velociraptor in Sioux Falls - This one I can understand - after all who wouldn't think that a velociraptor statue wouldn't be a handy accessory to any home?  But it must have been made out of fiberglass, don't you think? Anyway, the security cameras taped the whole thing, and the Washington Pavilion got it back, but they're trying to figure out how to prevent this from happening again. I don't know... The hunger for dinosaurs knows no bounds...  (ARGUS)  

And one that isn't South Dakota Man, but really, shouldn't it be?

Cow Manure Ponzi Scheme puts California Man in Prison - (LINK)  At least Dark Ally and my idea of Urban Buffalo would have actually provided the manure...  https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2023/05/little-shrimp-on-prairie-return.html 

Well, it could be worse.  Check out this wedding party from 1268:

I think that Doolin' Dalton, Rob Lopresti and I should work together on a "Medieval Man..." piece.  What do you think, guys?

28 June 2023

Dead Man Walking: Prigozhin's Mutiny

For those of you wondering what the hell is going on, trust me, nobody else knows much more than you do. 

A cheat sheet. 

Wagner Group was founded by a Slavic fundamentalist  and neo-Nazi knuckle-dragger named Dmitri Utkin, a former GRU spec ops tactical who later contracted out in Syria as private security.  Back-door finance courtesy of Yevgeny Prigozhin, who maintained deniability while Wagner recruited from Spetsnaz, airborne, and OMON militia assault teams, along with other dedicated special warfare units.  Using regular army logistics and support, Wagner deployed into Crimea and the Donbas, and then to South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Mali.  Often suspected of war crimes, their general M.O. in Africa was to corner the export market in a given natural resource.  Uranium and gold, for example, in Darfur.  Profit aside, this allowed Wagner to maintain the fiction of a private contractor and independent business entity, although it’s common knowledge they operated out of Putin’s hip pocket. 

Prigozhin maintained his distance from Wagner until the war in Ukraine, when it began to suit his purpose to take credit for successes the mainstream Russian military couldn’t claim.  The problem, obviously, is that Prigozhin began to believe his own press – or his own podcasts.  When his enemies in the defense establishment, Shoigu and Gerasimov, effectively engineered a coup against Wagner, by requiring private contractors be subordinated to the Army chain of command (and Prigozhin’s supposed patron Putin signed off on it), the handwriting was on the wall.  Prigozhin moved against the garrison in Rostov-on-Don, and redeployed mobile units toward Voronezh – and Moscow.  It looked like a show of strength, but it mostly served to show Prigozhin had lost touch with reality.  It’s like the guy who climbs out onto the ledge of a tall building and threatens suicide.  If they call your bluff, the only thing left to do is jump. 

I doubt if Prigozhin is dumb enough to take refuge in Minsk.  Lukashenko would happily send his ears to Putin on a string, brokering the truce be damned.  His other options are limited.  He can’t go to any Western capital; it would only be a matter of time before the Hague asked for his extradition.  The former Soviet republics are out, or anywhere that has diplomatic relations with Russia.  And the Kremlin has a long reach, look at Trotsky, or Alexander Litvinenko.  Maybe the Saudis, or the Emirates. 

That’s the trouble with being an apex predator who loses his nerve, or thinks himself safe.  There’s always somebody lurking, in the deep water. 

27 June 2023

Writing an American Novel

Dutch author Anne van Doorn has previously written for SleuthSayers. Today, in the wake of the Dutch publication of the novel he's deemed his "American Project," I'm delighted to welcome him back so he can tell you about this project and possibly provide a blueprint for those who'd like to attempt something similar.
— Barb Goffman

My American Project – The Procedure

by Anne van Doorn

In two previous articles on SleuthSayers, I talked about my intention to write an American mystery novel set in New York City. Since my last post, I’ve done exactly that. Some of you may have heard of The Delft Blue Mystery, the Dutch translation of which was released at the end of May. The first copy was presented to Josh Pachter, to whom I dedicated the book. Since I’m still looking for a literary agent—and subsequently a publisher—the English version has yet to come out.

I dedicated the novel to Josh for various reasons. Basically, The Delft Blue Mystery would never have been written if he hadn’t encouraged me.

Josh contacted me in the summer of 2017 and said he’d heard I had written a short story that could be of interest to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. This initial contact led to the publication of “The Poet Who Locked Himself In” in the September/October 2019 issue of EQMM. Through our correspondence, I have come to know Josh as a true professional. He knows a lot about getting short fiction published in magazines. He told me that my English is probably good enough to translate my stories myself and get them published. He also gave me sound advice to achieve that goal. With that encouragement, I succeeded. EQMM published “The Doctor Who Fell Into Sin” last year. Once I made that sale, I wanted to try my hand at a novel too—and why not write it in English from scratch?

This article is not intended to BSP my novel or my published short stories, but to highlight the procedure I used, which may be relevant to other non-American speakers considering writing an American (mystery) novel. My method could be a blueprint, or at least inspire others on how to go about it.

First two stages

I’m a plotter, and I write plot-driven novels. On my computer, I have a file titled “What to do” that guides me step-by-step through creating a plot and plot structure (stage 1), writing the story (stage 2), and editing it (stage 3). In this post, I will not go into detail about the creation of the plot, but I would like to show you where the procedure for The Delft Blue Mystery differs from what I normally do when I write in my own language—Dutch.

Concerning stage 1, the normal routine didn’t change much, but I read many books by American authors and wrote down words I needed to express my story. I know many English words, but in specific situations, my knowledge falls short. For example, what jargon does a Medical Examiner use? What does slang look like on the page? In my first post on SleuthSayers, I talked about creating a palette file. I used it during the first stage to determine how each character expresses themselves non-verbally.

Stage 2 was easy: write the book! As a plotter, I work with a detailed outline that shows how many scenes there will be, where each scene takes place, which characters are involved, and how the plot should develop. This detailed outline was vetted by a fellow Dutch author, Paul Dieudonné—my soundboard for this novel. I used his feedback to improve the outline.

Writing according to an outline is a routine matter. What differs from the usual procedure is that I utilized my palette file, which helped me decide which words to use. Does a character walk, stride, tiptoe, or move in another way? How does he put something down—gently or slamming it down? What forms of non-verbal communication might I use? The palette file turned out to be a very useful tool.

Third stage – The editing, part I

Most of the additional steps can be found in the third stage. After writing the first draft, I took several steps to improve the manuscript. Most of them I apply to each book: I analyzed and improved plot structure, characterization, and setting. But now on to the additions to my step-by-step guide.

Since I was taught British English at school, I created a file explaining the differences. I used it to weed out British spelling and words with (slightly) different meanings. As I write about the New York City Police Department (NYPD), I have a file of information on how the NYPD operates, and I’ve used it to enhance the story. I collected English words I didn’t know and wrote down their meanings, an example sentence, and synonyms in a file, and then consulted that file to change words in my manuscript where and when needed.

As a daily visitor to SleuthSayers, I have saved some articles on my computer. Leigh Lundin wrote an excellent piece on deadwords. I used the post to weed out overused words. John M. Floyd drew our attention to a similar topic: redundancies. He also wrote the article “Where's A Grammar Cop When You Need One?” Another valuable weed killer!

I know myself. I know I tend to repeat mistakes. Barb Goffman edited “The Doctor Who Fell Into Sin” and two other short stories I translated from Dutch. I collected the kind of errors I might repeat in a file titled “Edits by Barb Goffman.” I went over all my notes in that document to find similar mistakes I made in The Delft Blue Mystery. By the way, Josh Pachter introduced me to Barb, so he facilitated Barb’s involvement too!

Third stage – The editing, part II

Once I was confident I had done all I could, I would normally have sent the manuscript to my publisher. But not now. I added several steps to the procedure.

Josh Pachter told me one day that he uses Google Translate to translate stories from Chinese, Spanish, and other languages, into English. A splendid idea. I used the tool to translate my English manuscript into Dutch. It only took an hour or so. That translation wasn’t too bad. Eighty percent of the sentences turned out to be fine. But I had to edit the other twenty. And the punctuation was off. I created a file with common Google Translate errors for future use. That will make it easier next time.

I finished the Dutch version and sent it to publisher Hans van den Boom. Based on his feedback, I made some changes to the plot of both versions. Then I ran the Dutch text through Google Translate, from Dutch into English, and I used that new version to improve my own English draft. Most of the changes concerned word choice and the sequence of words. Then I ran that improved English text through the free version of Grammarly. That tool helped me improve punctuation—especially comma use—and change wordy sentences.

Third stage – The editing, part III

I’m not an American, and I have never worked for any of the police departments in the USA. While I’ve carefully researched the NYPD (for example, their radio communication procedures; I have two files about this subject on my computer), I can make mistakes. I take certain liberties to create a readable and suspenseful story, but it shouldn’t deviate too far from reality. Therefore, I needed a beta reader who is—or had been—a policeman.

Tom Mead

As far as I can remember, it was (again) Josh Pachter who introduced me to David Dean, a retired police chief, who served with a police department in New Jersey. He’s also a very accomplished short-story writer. I was much impressed by his “The Duelist,” and consider it one of the three best stories I’ve read in EQMM since I subscribed in 2019. I think he’s a far better author than I am.

When I approached him, David was most kind. He was keen on reading my manuscript (which still hadn’t been professionally edited), which he then did, giving me useful feedback. I made a couple of necessary changes to both versions.

British author Tom Mead, writer of Death and the Conjuror—a mystery novel I thoroughly enjoyed—was my second beta reader. I write whodunits and sometimes dabble in locked-room mysteries, which The Delft Blue Mystery is. I needed a beta reader to assess that aspect of my manuscript: the fine-tuning of the plot, the clues, the red herrings, and the final revelation. Tom gave me some ideas to improve the plot.

Third stage – The editing, part IV

At last, I had the story ready for my editor, the aforementioned Barb Goffman. Does she need an introduction? Not only is Barb a professional developmental, copy, and line editor, but she’s also an award-winning short fiction author. She won so many awards and received so many nominations, I should probably go back to school and learn how to count again. What can I say about what she did with The Delft Blue Mystery? Well, a lot had to be done! So much so, that I’m still amazed that David Dean and Tom Mead were willing to read an early, unedited version. It can’t have been easy for them.

Naturally, I’ve updated my “Edits by Barb Goffman” file for future use.

Josh Pachter

Do you think the manuscript was finished now? Almost. Barb’s edits also impacted the Dutch version. Hans van den Boom and his wife, Erna Teunissen, did a final round of corrections of Het Delfts blauw mysterie, as the novel is titled in Dutch. Some of their corrections necessitated changes to the English version as well.

Thus The Delft Blue Mystery is completed (for now). Much of this was made possible by Josh Pachter. Hence my decision to dedicate the novel to him—to express my gratitude and admiration for what he did. The first copy of the Dutch version was handed to Josh by his wife, Laurie Stahl Pachter, whom I had asked for assistance. The photos she took of the memorable event commemorate this high point in my career. I feel very fortunate to have worked with him and with so many other talented people.

Thank you all!

26 June 2023

Déjà Lu: I've read this book before

This post was inspired by author Carolyn J. Rose, who wrote on the mystery lovers e-list DorothyL: "Firmly in the category of things I hate is not realizing I've already read a book."

I agree that it's annoying to spend money on a book—alas, among our vanished pleasures in the electronic age is "plunking money down"—only to find that it's familiar because I already own it. Sometimes, as in Carolyn's example, I forget I've read the book until it starts to seem familiar. I've made my peace with my aging memory. I'm seriously ticked off, however, with publishers who reissue a book under an alternative title without a warning label that's accessible before purchase.

On the other hand, there are many circumstances in which I reread books deliberately. They fall into several categories.

Mystery and suspense to which I can't remember the solution In this case, failing memory is my friend. The mystery unfolds as a surprise that is as fresh the second time as it is the first. Unfortunately, my decades of mystery reading and twenty years writing crime fiction have started to work against this convenient reading trick. I can no longer forget the solution to many fictional crimes, including some fiendishly clever ones that were original in their day: Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent, Dorothy L Sayers's Unnatural Death, Josephine Tey's To Love and Be Wise, Agatha Christie's The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side, Colin Dexter's The Way Through the Woods, to name a few classics.

Comfort reads, subcategory guilty pleasures These are books I reread when I'm feeling so tired and lazy that I have to get into bed and turn my brain off, but I'm not ready to turn out the light. I inherited a complete set of Georgette Heyer's Regency romances, printed in the 1950s and now crumbling past readability, from a maiden aunt who died at 96, and they were already well worn with use. These days, Heyer is damned with faint praise as the author to read "if you like Bridgerton." In fact, you read Heyer if you liked Jane Austen and Heyer inspired a whole genre of romances and romance-laced mysteries with Regency settings, spirited heroines, and a leaven of humor. I seldom read them any more, partly because I've finally tired of the masterful heroes and partly because I know them by heart. I've also stopped rereading Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver mysteries because I already know them line by line.

Comfort reads, subcategory old friends While I've outgrown apologizing for my guilty pleasures, there's a separate category for rereads for which no one need apologize. I've written many times about my very favorite series, Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga. After many reads, I don't need much energy to slip once again into the Vorkosigans' familiar and intriguing world. Make that worlds. Martha Wells's Murderbot series now belongs to this category. What makes such well written books comfort reads? Superb storytelling and exceptionally lovable protagonists.

Series in order In the age of Kindle, it has become easy and convenient to binge on a whole series of mystery novels, in the same way that we binge on TV series. Perhaps my favorite mystery subgenre is the police procedural with a hefty dose of the detectives' personal lives and character development. One of the best is Deborah Crombie's Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James series, now up to its nineteenth installment. I have some of the earlier books in hardcover, some in paperback, and some on Kindle, and I may have given a couple away in a burst of shelf-clearing a few years ago. I thought I'd read them all.

But after reading the new one, when I checked the titles, I found there were some gaps. A glimpse of Kincaid and James's current domestic status made me curious to remind myself how they got there. So I started over, one book at a time. Not only did it feel, as I read the books in order, as if I never really knew Kincaid and James at all, but also that I now have a deeper appreciation of what an excellent writer Deborah Crombie is. This is partly due to the fact that I gave her work a closer reading and partly to the fact that I'm an experienced mystery writer myself. I read the first ten books before I published any fiction at all. This time around, I savored each book as a mystery and as a complex novel, and I thoroughly enjoyed the series as the vehicle for Kincaid and James's story. It's a great example of the essence of a good reread: there's always something new.

25 June 2023

Stagger Lee had a Twin

By the time you read this, I should be out of the neck brace and almost finished with Physical Rehab. That's why I'm running this previously posted blog. Enjoy.

Life and art, sometimes one imitates the other.

St. Louis 1895

It was Christmas night. Two friends, Lee Shelton and William "Billy" Lyons were drinking in Bill Curtis's saloon down at 11th and Morgan Streets. Shelton, known by his nickname of Stag Lee or Stagger Lee, was a flashy pimp, part of a group of pimps called The Macks. He also worked as a carriage driver, was the Captain of the disreputable 400 Club and a political organizer for the Democrats. Billy Lyons worked as a levee hand, was part of the St. Louis criminal underworld and was a political organizer for the Republican Party. After several drinks, the two men began to argue. Some say it was over a gambling situation, some say it was politics and others say it had to do with the Stetson hat Stagger Lee was wearing.

Stagger Lee (#1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1959)
~first written lyrics appeared in 1912

The night was clear and the moon was yellow
And the leaves came tumbling down.

I was standing on the corner when I heard my bulldog bark
He was barkin' at two men who were gamblin' in the dark
It was Stagger Lee and Billy, two men who gambled late
Stagger Lee threw seven, Billy swore that he threw eight…

Kansas City 1973

Twin was standing on the corner with a small group of street gangsters in a bad part of Kansas City on the Missouri side. They were throwing dice for money when an old friend, Thomas, decided to join the group. Thomas was one of our informants against the heroin trade. He had already testified in federal grand jury for a second wave of indictments and was now working on his third wave of smack dealers. We'd arrested the first two groups of dealers and some of them had gotten out on bond. By now, everyone knew Thomas was our snitch, but he was slick enough to make them believe that was "then," in order for him to stay out of jail, and this was "now." Supposedly, he was finished with working for the man and had returned to his old ways of dealing smack. Could have sold sand to an Arab.

Meanwhile, being involved in prostitution, gambling, dope dealing and bank robbery, Twin was a hard-core member of the old Black Mafia, as was his recently incarcerated brother with the nickname of Twin Brother. They'd both been involved in a bank robbery, but Twin Brother volunteered to take the fall, leaving Twin out on the streets to make some money for their future. However on this night, the dice were running against Twin and he was in a bad mood. Some say a killing mood.

St. Louis 1895

The story on Stagger Lee and Billy was first covered by

The St. Louis Globe-Democrat. Allegedly, when Stagger Lee and Billy got into their argument, Billy grabbed Lee's Stetson hat and refused to give it back. It's also possible there was some mutual hat bashing between the two. In any case, Stagger Lee became enraged, pulled his .44 and shot Billy in the gut. He then calmly picked up his hat and left. Billy was taken to the Dispensary where his wounds were pronounced as serious and he expired shortly afterward.

Stagger Lee

Stagger Lee told Billy, "I can't let you go with that"
"You done won all my money and my brand new Stetson hat"
Stagger Lee went home and he got his forty-four
Said, "I'm goin' to the barroom just to pay the debt I owe"
Stagger Lee went to the barroom and he stood across the barroom door
He said, "Nobody move" and he pulled his forty-four…

* * * *

Stagger Lee shot Billy, oh he shot that poor boy so bad
'Til the bullet went through Billy and it broke the bartender's glass…

Kansas City 1973

Back on the street corner, Twin's mood was dark and getting darker. With the dice running Thomas's way, he kept on taking what little money Twin had left. The other gangsters, glad to have someone else as the object of Twin's wrath, slowly backed away until it was only Twin and Thomas in the game. Both men were wearing their pimp Stetsons. Twin angrily accused Thomas of cheating. Thomas loudly denied it as he reached for the money lying on the sidewalk. Twin drew his pistol and aimed at Thomas's face. Still bent over to get the money, Thomas reacted with exaggerated street cool and did the one thing that saved his life. He thrust his index fingers into his ears and screwed up his face as if the loudness of the gun going off would hurt his eardrums. Twin broke up laughing and the crisis passed.

St. Louis 1895 - 1912 The Aftermath

Stagger Lee was arrested, bond set at $4,000 and a grand jury subsequently indicted him for first degree murder. Six months later, pawnbroker Morris H. Smit paid a $3,000 bond and Lee was released. At a July 18th trial, the jury came back with a split decision. Seven voted for second degree murder, two for manslaughter and three for acquittal. In August of 1897, Lee's successful attorney, a morphine addict, died after a drinking binge. Six weeks later during a retrial with a different defense attorney, Lee was quickly found guilty of murder and sentenced to 25 years in the notorious Jefferson Prison in Jeff City, Missouri. The governor saw fit to pardon Lee in 1909, but the die was cast. After two years of freedom, Stag Lee committed a fatal home invasion and got sent back to Jeff City. The governor pardoned him again, but it was too late. This time, Lee left his prison cell in a casket.

Kansas City 1973 Aftermath

Twin went off to federal prison for delivering a quantity of cocaine to a house where my partner and I met him at the door. Happened that a different informant had made a phone call and ordered up the coke. Twin's luck ran bad again.

Thomas went on to be shot a couple of times by his cousin while they were standing on opposite sides of the cousin's screen door. Seems Thomas was upset that his cousin was poaching on Thomas's woman. Thomas, decked out in his best pimp Stetson, showed up on the cement porch and banged on the door. His cousin, whose repose was rudely interrupted that early morning by the loud banging, was clad only in his black, silk boxer shorts during the time that the two men blew holes at each other through the screen. Both combatants came up ventilated, but went on to survive the experience.

Life and Art

Shortly after the latter incident, I left KC for another post of duty. Never did hear what finally happened to Twin and Thomas, though I expect with their life style, sooner or later they were going to come up short.

However, I did wonder about one set of circumstances. If Twin had shot and killed Thomas that night on the street corner, would Twin have ended up with his own folk song? He was already a legend in the criminal world. So, would some blues writer have felt the urge to compose a parallel to the popular Stagger Lee ballad?

Guess we'll never know.

24 June 2023

"So I read your book…" (pause)
Why Giving Books Away Can Backfire

I gave a dinner party last night for friends of my new husband.  Pleasant people.  One was a career librarian (recently retired.)  I looked forward to having a rousing conversation with her.  Authors and librarians tend to sit in a corner and yak for hours about books, in my experience.

What actually happened is rather humbling.  I've won 10 awards for crime fiction, including three big ones, and most are displayed around the condo here.  My newest book (number 17 with a traditional publisher)  has just come out and is for sale in Chapters/Indigo up here, and every Barnes &Noble down there (The Merry Widow Murders.)  Many of my previous books are in every large public library system in Canada.

My husband made the mistake of asking her in front of everybody if she knew my books.  She said she  had never heard of me.  Not only that, she hadn't even bothered to look at my website to see what I had written, before coming to my house as a guest.

It took everything in me not to laugh out loud.  I was humbly reminded that just because newspaper reviewers and professional review sites may rave about your book, and sales may buy you a corvette, a heck of a lot of people simply don't care.

And this is tough on a writer.  Because we care a lot.

Needless to say, I didn't give her a free book.  Perhaps it isn't well known, but author copies aren't free to us. With shipping, my author copies cost almost $15.  And that reminded me that I meant to write this column. 

As authors, our egos can be rather fragile.  I wish someone had warned me of things like this.  So here's my advice to anyone new to this game, or even battle-scarred veterans like me:

Except for your closest friends, don't give away books for free. 

And honestly, if your close friends are kind, they will insist on buying your book, to help with sales.

But - you argue - giving away books gets more readers, doesn't it?  And more reviews.

Here's what I've found:

If people you know want to read your book, they will buy it.  Is their friendship not worth 15.99?  Or even 24.99, if it's a premium trade paperback?  Is there any friend I have that wouldn't think our friendship is worth 25 bucks at the very least?  Do I want a friend who doesn't?

The problem with giving a book away is it forces the receiver to read it. And this is fraught with risk.  Three things have happened to me:

1.  The best reaction:  They read it, like it, and tell you.

Yay for that.  I want to joke and say, "Please, don't sound so surprised."  But of course I'm gracious and thank them.

To be realistic, if it isn't a book they were prepared to buy, probably it's not a book they will love.  In rare cases it might be.  That's what we always hope for.  Alas, just as often, the following takes place: 

2.  They read it, or part of it, and....eh.

There's a lovely phrase I quote regularly.  I call it the 'phrase authors dread the most':

"So I read your book....(pause)"

Yes, I can see many of you authors cringing from here.  We've all had this happen.  It's a sorry return for your investment of fifteen dollars.

3.  They don't read it at all.

Most awkward, of course.  They happily took your gift of the free book.  You wait weeks for some sort of feedback.  And hear nothing.

Did they hate it?  Did they even crack the cover?  Are they being deliberately mean by not saying anything?  Did they resell it on Amazon, for crissake?

I'd rather not know if the book didn't get read - or worse - didn't get finished.  Best not to invite this.

Final advice?

A fellow author friend with multiple bestsellers tells everyone he doesn't buy author copies, and thus has none to give away.  I find that good advice.

But if you do get pressured into giving a book away free, NEVER EVER ask what they thought of it.

Why?  If they love it, they'll tell you.

If they didn't like it, you don't want to know.

If they didn't read it, you don't want to know.

Just consider it fifteen bucks dropped at the side of the road, and forget about it.

And celebrate the many wonderful people who support you at events, buy your books, and tell you how much they enjoy them.  Those are the friends worth cherishing.

What about you, fellow authors?  Have you had similar experiences?  Comments welcome!

It's here!  Book baby 17, THE MERRY WIDOW MURDERS, available at Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Chapters/Indigo, and all the usual places.

“Delightful is one of the first words that come to mind. The 1920s shipboard setting
is beautifully observed; the plot will keep you guessing and the heroine, is ... well ...
delightful. Not to be missed.”
— Maureen Jennings, author of the Murdoch Mysteries and the Paradise Café series

… on Amazon

23 June 2023

Some Favorite Novels

Since posting a list of some of my favorite short stories back on June 2nd, my mind clicked to some of my favorite novels. Many of these books inspired me to write fiction. These are favorite novels, not a best novel list.

In no special order:

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

The Light in the Forest by Conrad Richter

Nineteen Eighty-four by George Orwell

Goodbye Mickey Mouse by Len Deighton

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

The Lord of the Flies by William Golding

The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth

Lucia, Lucia by Adriana Trigiani

The Shoemaker's Wife by Adriana Trigiani

The Frozen Hours
 by Jeff Shaara

Pronto by Elmore Leonard

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Fin Gall by James L. Nelson

New York by Edward Rutherfurd

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson

River Girl by Charles Williams

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

Black Cross by Greg Iles

A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin

White Fang by Jack London

The Cocktail Waitress by James M. Cain

Night and the City by Cornell Woolrich

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Standing in the Rainbow by Fannie Flagg

The Maddest Idea by James L. Nelson

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

A Bullet for Cinderella by John D. MacDonald

Kazan by James Oliver Curwood

Dune by Frank Herbert

The Heydrich Deception
 by Daniel Savage Gray

Ramage by Dudley Pope

His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik

The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico (novella)

Tourist Season by Carl Hiassen

From Here to Eternity by James Jones

The Killing Circle by Chris Wiltz

Fortune's Fugitive by Linda Crockett Gray

The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells

The Wolves of Memory 
by George Alec Effinger

When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger

The Bolitho Novels of Alexander Kent

The Ramage Novels of Dudley Pope

Non-Fiction Novels:

In Cold Blood by Trume Capote

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson


The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

    Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation 

The Century Trilogy by Ken Follett

     Fall of Giants, Winter of the World, Edge of Eternity

I have to stop or I'll go on and on.

That's all for now –