Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Ellen Hart writes:

How do you know when you’ve got a good idea for a mystery? Does a choir of angles start singing in your head? Do you feel as if you’ve been struck by lighting?

Monday, April 26, 2010

I'm Erin Hart, and I write slowly.

By Erin Hart

My name is Erin, and I’m a slow writer.

We’re talking tortoise-speed. Molasses-in-January slow.

I don’t suppose that comes as a complete surprise to anyone who knows me well. In medieval history class years ago, each student had to come up with an emblem for a personal coat of arms. Mine featured a snail couchant (how else?), and the motto, “L’escargot, c’est moi.”

I could make up a whole lot of excuses, or tell you that I work slowly on purpose, deliberately honing and shaping language, setting up a strong sense of place, developing three-dimensional characters, gathering up and tying all the disparate plotlines into a delightfully satisfying knot. I’d like to say that I’m just that choosy about what I put down on the page.

But the plain truth is that I have no idea how to write any faster.

One of the main reasons that I’m so slow is that I have no idea who the killer is when I begin writing a book. Seriously. (And by the way, that’s true of about ninety percent of crime writers I’ve polled over the years.) I may have some theories about whodunit, but sometimes I’m completely off the mark.

As a result, my novels develop at a pace that is somewhat leisurely (some might even say glacial), but it’s a fact that seems quite beyond my control. So when people ask, “What’s your typical writing day like?” I’ve taken to quoting Oscar Wilde:

“I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”

Some days are like that. Or worse. All right, so a lot of the agony of creation is just second-guessing oneself, riding the see-saw over every adverb and pronoun, endlessly tweaking dialogue and description, tossing out page after page of drecky first, second, and third drafts, and re-reading prose that seemed so brilliant yesterday only to find that it’s turned to absolute rubbish in the space of twenty-four hours.

I first heard the story that inspired my first novel, HAUNTED GROUND, in the summer of 1986: two brothers cutting turf in the west of Ireland stumbled upon the perfectly-preserved, severed head of a beautiful red-haired girl. Although my first instinct said that I’d just been handed a perfect opening for a mystery, I didn’t write a single word of that story for a full decade. In my own defense, there was a hurdle. Just a minor thing, really—I wasn’t a writer. Had never written anything except a few angst-ridden songs as an angst-ridden teenager, plus all the usual term papers for school. I never had dreams of becoming a writer. I always read like a fiend, but somehow writing books was outside the sphere of possibility. Until I heard the story of that red-haired girl. She continued to haunt me, eventually forcing me to try my hand—even ten years later.

I began writing HAUNTED GROUND in 1996. As I recall, Frank McCourt had just published ANGELA’S ASHES, which won huge critical acclaim and became an instant bestseller. And as I also recall, my wonderfully patient agent kept urging me to hurry up and finish my novel before all things Irish went out of fashion. (Not realizing, I guess, that thanks to the Famine and resulting diaspora, Irish-ness has never gone out of fashion, and probably never will.)

So HAUNTED GROUND came along at its own pace, which turned out to be roughly sixteen years from initial idea to publication. There are probably several main reasons for its long gestation: I was pretty busy, working full time, and freelancing as a theater critic and writing teacher. I had never written a novel and had to learn how to construct a mystery as I went along. (In this one respect, ignorance was my friend—I didn’t know that I couldn’t write a novel, because I’d never tried.) On top of all that, I also had to do an awful lot of research—reading dozens of books, interviewing experts on wetland and dryland archaeology, forensic science, museum preservation, antiquities, Irish history, architecture, police procedure—the list goes on and on. Finally, there was that pesky streak of perfectionism that made me re-work the manuscript over and over again, trying to make the story on the page at least approach the complex, utterly brilliant story that existed in my imagination.

Some writers can actually make a plan and churn out so many hundred words a day. Or they schedule six months for research, three months for a first draft, and three months for revision, and voilá—at the end of a year they have a finished manuscript. Although writing is my full-time job these days, my so-called “process” is completely unpredictable and organic. The initial idea generates the first few chapters, and (ideally) a setting and a theme to explore. The setting and theme in turn trigger the research; the research scours up all sorts of interesting details and connections that go back into the story through the plot and characters. Eventually, the process becomes ever more circular: one thing feeds the other, to the point that the writing and the research become virtually inseparable. For me, there’s no other way to fashion the many layers necessary for a satisfying story.

“Surely it gets easier with the second or third book?” hopeful readers sometimes ask. “Once you get the hang of it.”

In fact, LAKE OF SORROWS, my second book, seemed to follow directly on the heels of the first—it was published just eighteen months after HAUNTED GROUND, even though it actually took three years to write, most of that time that was invisible to readers, since it was masked by the two full years of editing, design, promotion, and marketing that it takes to launch a debut novelist these days.

FALSE MERMAID, the third and latest in the series, also had quite a long gestation—five and a half years from inception to publication. To be honest, the third book was a real struggle—partly because it was such a different animal from the first two: much more psychological, and much more focused on the experiences of a single character, pathologist Nora Gavin. I struggled with the fragments of backstory I’d set up in the previous books—Nora’s sister Tríona had been murdered, most likely by her husband, but I didn’t want to make it an open-and-shut case. If it were that simple, I told myself, the crime would have been solved long ago. No, there had to be something extra mysterious about Nora’s sister and the circumstances that led to her terrible death. And then there was my own penchant for parallel mysteries, one contemporary and one historical, that would somehow come together at the end of the book. It also didn’t help that most of FALSE MERMAID was set in Saint Paul, Minnesota—my wonderful home town, but far from the exotic and other-worldly Irish locales that usually get my creative juices flowing.

So it took a while. And people started to get impatient. In the last few months before FALSE MERMAID was finished, I was out weeding the garden, and a neighbor’s car came screeching to a halt at the curb. She rolled down the window: “Where’s the new book?”

A few weeks later, just before the first frost, I was painting the trim around our new garage door. Another neighbor, out walking her dog, stopped to ask, “What are you doing out here? Why aren’t you inside writing?”

When at last I had galleys in hand, and began making calls to bookstores, Sara Barnes from Booked for Murder in Madison, Wisconsin, said she got questioned fairly often about when I’d have a new book out: “I try to explain that you probably have a personal life. No one gives a rip. Sorry, but they want you chained to that desk.”

After FALSE MERMAID was released on March 2, the most wonderful (and depressing) reader response went something like this: “I gobbled it up in a single sitting! When is your next book out?”

I guess I still don’t have the hang of writing novels on a tight schedule. I’m beginning to get the feeling that I never will. For now, I just have to accept the way I work (see escargot reference, above) and continue to forge ahead.

I’m thinking of starting a support group for slow writers.

Here’s hoping that in Book Four, I’ll find out whodunit sooner rather than later. I’ve got a killer opening: a man driving a backhoe discovers a car buried in a bog... with the body of a ninth-century monk in the boot. “How on earth did a ninth-century monk get into the boot of a car?” I hear you ask.

Honest answer? Right now, I haven’t the foggiest. But I’m planning to have fun figuring it out!

Before straying serendipitously into crime fiction, Erin Hart worked as an arts administrator, editor, copywriter, journalist and theater critic. Her debut novel, HAUNTED GROUND (Scribner, 2003), introduced Irish archaeologist Cormac Maguire and American pathologist Nora Gavin. In addition to being included on several "Best" lists, HAUNTED GROUND won the Friends of American Writers award and Romantic Times' Best First Mystery, was shortlisted for Anthony and Agatha awards, and translated into eleven foreign languages. LAKE OF SORROWS (Scribner, 2004) was shortlisted for a Minnesota Book Award and also published around the world. FALSE MERMAID, third in the series, was published by Scribner in March 2010 to broad critical acclaim. Erin and her husband, Irish button accordionist Paddy Orien, live in Minnesota and travel frequently to Ireland. Visit her website at:

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Did Someone Say Free Money?

By Ellen Hart

Yup, Sisters in Crime did. And not just any free money. I’m talking about the We Love Libraries Grant. Many of you already know about this program, but for those who don’t, this is the lowdown.

From January through December of 2010, Sisters in Crime will award a $1,000 grant. At the end of each month, a winner will be drawn from entries received at our website, Only U.S. libraries may enter the drawing.

To enter, each library must complete the entry form and upload a photo of one or more of their library staff holding three books in their collection by Sisters in Crime authors. Libraries can find a list of our members by choosing the word Resources in the side menu on our web site, and then clicking on SinC Authors.  (Click here for the link to the entry form.)

After the random drawing on the last business day of the month, the winning library will be contacted and announced. And then we’ll all pop corks to celebrate the winner! What’s not to celebrate about free money for books?

All branches within a larger system may enter. However, once a library in any given system wins, no other libraries within that system can win the grant. Those not successful in one month will automatically be entered for subsequent drawings. Grants must be used to purchase books and may not be used for general operating expenses. Book purchases are not restricted to the mystery genre, nor to those by Sisters in Crime members. All we ask is that we be allowed to post the winners photos on our website.

Where do individual members of sisters in crime come in? Most of us live in cities or towns with one or more libraries. Why not visit those libraries and give each one the message about the We Love Libraries Grants in person. You’ll not only look like a star, but you might get one of your books into the library photograph. To me, this is what Win/Win looks like!

Here are the winners so far.

January: Kingstowne Library in Alexandria, Virginia

February: Kraemer Family Library, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Colorado

March: Pineville-Bell County Public Library in Pineville, Kentucky

In just a few days, our newest library winner will be announced, so stay tuned.

We all know that librarians rock. Without a vibrant, active library system in our communities, all of our lives would be greatly diminished. So lets get out there and spread the word. Sisters in Crime loves libraries!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Ellen Hart writes:

In the late eighties, when I was first published, I had my reasons for deciding to write under a pen name. For one, my last name is almost unpronounceable. I chose a pen name because I didn’t want to spend the next year or two of my life listening to people people murder the pronunciation. My friend M.D. Lake chose his pen name after his publisher encouraged him to write under one to obscure the fact that he was a man.

Today’s burning question is: Did you ever consider writing pseudonymously? If so, why. Are you happy with your decision to write-- or not to write--under your own name?

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Origin of Ideas

by Jane K. Cleland

Where do ideas come from? Do they come to you fully developed or do they start as a tiny kernel and grow? Different authors take different approaches.

For instance, Ellen Hart says, “I write to a title—it always comes first. The title helps me think my way into the story thematically.” She explains that for an idea to translate into a novel-worthy plot, it has to resonate with her. “It seems that if the story doesn't bubble up from inside me, from my own interests and passions, it doesn't take hold.”

Louise Ure also writes the title first, and uses it to inspire her novel. “I only get one idea per year,” she says. “For me, everything starts with a title ... those strange collections of overheard words that twist in my mind. Forcing Amaryllis was a gardening tag that blossomed into a story of rape. The Fault Tree was part of the radio announcement about the Challenger spacecraft disaster that turned into a place for the punishment of a young girl. Once I've got the title, the rest is easy.”

Several authors, like Louise, get ideas from the news. Hank Phillipi Ryan, for example, uses her background as a journalist to inspire ideas. “I’m a reporter, so my life revolves around breaking news stories,” she says. “For the last thirty years, I’ve thought ‘is this a story?’ at every overheard conversation, newspaper article, magazine cover, airplane trip, or random encounter at a cocktail party. Finding a good story—whether for TV news or for fiction—requires curiosity. You have to think, ‘What if he’s lying?’ It requires cynicism: ‘What if that system doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to?’ And it requires confidence: ‘What if I can find out what really happened?’ In other words, everything is the beginning nugget of a story. You just have to see the world as full of possibilities. It’s all about ‘what if?’ Taking a step into ‘what if’ is a taking step into your next adventure.”

Rosemary Harris also uses the news as a source of ideas. “Where do I get ideas? The newspaper. As long as people keep doing stupid things I will have plenty of ideas.”

Some authors rely on personal experiences. Carolyn Hart says, “Book themes and many scenes often flow from a remembered event, emotion, person, or place.”

That’s how it works for me, too. For instance, about twenty-five years ago, when I was in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, I visited a woman’s house. It was a business call—I owned a rare bookstore and she wanted to sell her books. I was there to look at them and make an offer. She was older, about 75 at that time. Her house was distinctly middle class, but her decorations were anything but. Every inch of wall space was covered with oil paintings. I spotted a Van Dyke, two Renoirs, and a Matisse. They weren’t arranged artfully; they were wedged in, one on top of another. She mentioned that her brother had brought them home from the War. More than twenty years later, I read an article about how Holocaust survivors and their heirs were suing for the return of the art the Nazis had methodically ripped off the walls of Jewish homes. For me, it was an epiphany—it was as if someone had slapped me awake. The art on that woman’s walls weren’t the carefully chosen objects of a devoted art collector; they were the bounty of a thief. And that’s the origin of the plot of Consigned to Death, the first Josie Prescott antiques mystery.

The lesson here is there’s no one way to come up with ideas; there are lots of effective approaches. Whether from personal experiences or newsworthy events; whether you plot from a title or an actual event, the overarching message seems to be that the best ideas are those that touch your heart and fire your imagination.

Jane K. Cleland’s multiple award-nominated and IMBA best selling Josie Prescott Antiques Mystery series [St. Martin’s Minotaur] has been reviewed as an Antiques Roadshow for mystery fans. “Josie” stories have also appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Jane chairs the Wolfe Pack’s literary awards, which include the Nero Award and the Black Orchid Novella Award, granted in partnership with Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. She is a past chapter president and current board member of the Mystery Writers of America/New York Chapter.  Visit her website:

Friday, April 16, 2010

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Ellen Hart writes:

Social networking. Facebook. Twitter. Linkedin. MySpace. Yup, it’s here to stay.
Social networking
Is it worth the effort?

Is it a black hole, sucking our time and our brains into the abyss?

Wed Burning Question Is it the wave of the future that we can ride to publishing success?

Is it something in between?

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Doings of Breaking and Entering

By L.C. Hayden

Never in my wild dreams did I ever think that Sisters in Crime would ask me to compile the next edition of Breaking and Entering. I eagerly accepted.

I studied the two previous editions, the first one compiled by Jan Burke and the second one by Denise Swanson. Then I spent two sleepless nights wrestling with various ideas before deciding to have three sections: The first would deal with pre-writing concerns. How do you get organized? What tidbits of knowledge will help the will-be author’s writing career? What decisions should be made?

The second section would deal with decisions encountered after the work is completed. Do you need an agent? What are the publication options? How do you get your name out there? What are some of the things you shouldn’t do?

The last section would focus on the writer’s career.

The response from Sisters to submit was generous. Kelly Nichols (half of the P.J. Parrish team) agreed to design a knock-out gorgeous cover (actually, three covers for us to choose from). In the midst of promotional work for releases of two of my books this spring and dealing with a serious computer crash, I made it through the last-minute editorial changes authors wanted to make on their articles and the editorial committee’s changes.

With my computer finally fixed and B&E in print, I can let out a great big yahoo (—hey, that’s allowed. I’m a Texas gal.)

It’s now April 12—the official release date for Breaking and Entering: The Road to Success—and my heart swells with pride. As with any project, this is the effort of many people, but I would like to specifically thank my two right-hand ladies for their tremendous help and advice, Marcia Talley (who spent days formatting it for upload) and Cathy Pickens, along with the rest of the Sisters in Crime board.

For those attending Malice Domestic, we’ve got great news. The trade paperback edition will be available to members only for the special introductory Malice Domestic price of $10.

The trade paperback edition is also available at Click on members and look for Publications on the drop down menu. Cost is only $11.99 plus shipping. An electronic version is also available for only $1.99.

L. C. Hayden is the author of the popular Harry Bronson series. Her newest release is When Death Intervenes. Her previous Bronson mystery, Why Casey Had to Die, was an Agatha Finalist for Best Novel, received the Best of the Best Award, and was a Pennsylvania Top 40 Pick.  Hayden is also a popular speaker. She presents workshops, speaks to clubs, and major cruise lines have hired her to speak about writing while cruising all over the world. From October 2006 to October 2007, Hayden hosted Mystery Writers of America’s only talk show, Murder Must Air.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Pssst! It's a secret (at least until tomorrow)

Sisters in Crime is pleased to announce the release of the revised, completely updated edition of Breaking and Entering: the Road to Success. Edited by L.C. Hayden, this tradepaper edition contains articles by 27 Sisters in Crime, including Donna Andrews, Lee Goldberg, Carolyn Hart, William Kent Krueger, Margaret Maron, PJ Parrish, and Elaine Viets, among others. Beginning tomorrow, April 12, the trade paperback edition will be available at . Click on members and look for publications on the drop down menu. Cost is only $11.99 plus shipping.

Or, if you prefer, send your name, address and email address, along with a check for $14.99 ($11.99 plus $3.00 postage and handling) to:

Sisters in Crime
P. O. Box 442124
Lawrence, KS 66044-8933

If you'd rather have the electronic version, that is also available at for only $1.99.

Are you attending the Malice Domestic Conference? Then we have great news for you. The trade paperback edition will make its debut at the conference and will be available to members only for the special introductory Malice Domestic price of $10.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Chesapeake Crimes: They Had It Comin’ Launch Party

Join members of the Chesapeake Chapter on Saturday, April 10, to celebrate the publication of Chesapeake Crimes: They Had It Comin’, the fourth volume in the Chesapeake Crimes anthology series. Bring your family and friends to the launch party from 2 to 5 p.m. at Southgate Community Center, 12125 Pinecrest Road, Reston, VA.

The book features stories by chapter members Donna Andrews, Karen Cantwell, Trish Carrico, Mary Ann Corrigan, Carla Coupe, Meriah Crawford, Barb Goffman, Sasscer Hill, Mary Ellen Hughes, Smita H. Jain, B.V. Lawson, Audrey Liebross, C. Ellett Logan, Debbi Mack, G.M. Malliet, Ann McMillan, Bonner Menking, Helen Schwartz, Shelley Shearer and Lisa M. Tillman. Most of the authors are expected to attend and will talk about their stories and sign books. Mystery Loves Company will have books for sale.

No reservations necessary. Light refreshments and merriment begin at 2pm. No need to RSVP.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Ellen Hart writes:Writing coffee shop

I have a dear friend who writes everyday in a coffee shop. When he starts a new project, he always buys himself a new Mead wire-bound notebook. He sits in a booth, takes out his Bic pen, (always a Bic) and the magic flows.

Lighted candle When I write, there’s always a cup of coffee next to my desk. I often light a candle. I move into my writing day the same way every day. We all have rituals. Some of the more neurotic among us (I’m raising my hand here) even have superstitions. We have the same goal--to get to that place where we do our best writing.

Wed Burning Question How do you get there?

Monday, April 5, 2010


By Sandra Balzo

This morning someone asked me, “How’s the book going?”

When I was writing my first book, UNCOMMON GROUNDS, that question always elicited an eager, detailed response. Certainly more detailed than the poor questioner probably wanted or expected. Five years later, with that book still unpublished, the question would make me want to turn tail and run. Two years after that, the people asking it started to do the same.

Now, fourteen years after I wrote UNCOMMON GROUNDS, “How’s the book going?” just confuses me.

“Which book?” is what I want to say, but that sounds like I’m pretty damn full of myself. God knows this is EXACTLY what I’ve always wanted to do, from the time I picked up my first DICK AND JANE book. I am not complaining.

Fact is, though, I have a contract requiring a book every six months (I know, I know—I was caught up in the excitement of the moment). The sixth of my Maggy Thorsen books is coming out in September, and I have a second series in the works. That means I’m promoting FROM THE GROUNDS UP, even as I’m proofing galleys of A CUP of JO, while working on the manuscript for the first book in a new series (I’d tell you the name if it had one yet).

Like I said, I’m not complaining. I did find, though, that -- especially in promotion -- some things are worth my time and others aren’t. With that first book, I did everything I could think of – and I’m a public relations person/publicist by trade. Publicity eventually became a black hole, eagerly sucking away as much time and money as I was willing to pitch into it, but with nebulous (sorry, space-dust joke) results.

At the risk of BSP (Blatant SinC Promotion), I have to tell you that one of the best promotional tools I’ve found is our own organization’s Mystery Book Club Database. Lorraine Bartlett (, bless her, provides the list to you in the form of an Excel spreadsheet. Group names, contacts, email and snail-mail addresses – everything right down to what type of books the group likes to discuss and whether they welcome author participation. But what makes this such a good list is that the clubs have asked to be on it. Of the 120 personalized emails I sent out, nearly thirty-five percent were opened. That’s a five percent higher open-rate than my own fan (read: friends and family) newsletter.

Not only that, but I got a ton of replies -- thank you’s, no less. And invitations to speak. Wow. I was so impressed I did a book giveaway to library-based book clubs on the list. Not only did the libraries benefit, but I introduced new readers to the first book in the series and cleaned out my closet. A win-win-win!

Well, speaking of black holes, I’ve often feared blogging could become one for somebody like me. Best I get back to work on the book.

Any book.

Wishing you all the best on yours.
Sandra Balzo turned to mystery writing after twenty years in corporate public relations, event management, and publicity. FROM THE GROUNDS UP, Balzo's fifth Maggy Thorsen mystery, was released in the United Kingdom this past December and the US in March. A CUP OF JO will follow later this year. The first book in Balzo's second series will be out from Severn House in 2011. Visit her web site at: