Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Wednesday's Burning Question

Ellen Hart writes:

Some people think writer's block is an illusion.  I don't agree.  I think it's easy to get stumped when writing a novel.  You may move past your original idea and have nowhere to go.  If you outline and you make an unscheduled detour, perhaps for the best of reasons, you're suddenly dumped into uncharted territory.  And then what?  Add a deadline to the mix and a writer can easily feel as if she's writing with a gun to her

Thus, today's Burning Question is:

Have you ever been seriously blocked on a book, and if so, what did you do to work your way out of it?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Twenty Laws for Writing “Unbelievable” Mysteries

By Lori L. Lake

I’ve been reading adult mysteries since the age of nine, when I first tackled the Perry Mason series. (Encyclopedia Brown probably doesn’t count.) Over the years, I’ve read more than 3,000 mysteries and thrillers, some of them fabulous and some disappointing duds. Over that time, I’ve developed a list of conventions that sometimes work – but that also often spell trouble. 

Here are my thoughts on various conventions in some of the most “unbelievable” mysteries – and you can take that “unbelievable” as a plus or a minus.

1.  Don’t bother to go into the real world and research how cops, investigators, lawyers, and detectives actually do their jobs. This kind of information will only confuse and upset your audiences who already have preconceived notions from TV and the movies which must not be dispelled. Feel free to use terms like “Book ’im, Dano” and LUDS (for phone records), and of course every suspect is, indeed, called a “perp.”

2.  Don’t worry about forensics or technology. Everyone knows that all fluids and substances can be dabbed or placed on a slide, popped into a machine, and spun around by centrifugal force like in the “CSI” TV show, resulting in the emergence of a ticker tape of information that reveals all the chemicals and toxins. In addition, footprints, chips of paint, and tire impressions can be tracked with ease; DNA results from body fluids are obtainable overnight; retinal scans are common; and a fingerprint can be lifted from any surface: Velcro, felt, onion skin paper, etc.

3.  Criminals in league with each other typically spend a lot of time explaining their crimes to one another so the reader will understand what they mean to do. In addition, one of the conspirators is almost always a hot-head who cannot be relied upon to follow the plan. In fact, he is easily distracted, and in a fit of rage, usually kills the key person he and his cronies will need to escape. Example: “Haufsnau! You know we meant to just rob the place, not shoot anyone. You were only supposed to hold the blindfolded guard hostage. He was our ticket out. Now we’re stuck with a dead body and an alarm that will go off when we leave. Idiot!”

4.  Criminals, especially bank robbers, NEVER give themselves up, preferring instead to have major shootouts that are guaranteed to leave them riddled with holes. If, by some strange chance, they manage to be captured alive, they can also be counted upon to brag to those with whom they are incarcerated ensuring their ultimate conviction.

5.  A gun is a gun is a gun. Really classy detectives carry Glocks—with or without safeties—and most criminals (especially drug dealers) carry sawed off shotguns or automatic rifles. Cops sometimes still have to carry those old-fashioned, single-action revolvers. Every shot smells like cordite, and nobody ever has trouble hearing even after firing a weapon within an enclosed space.

6.  Even though danger and possible death is patently obvious to the reader, sleuths or detectives will always take off on their own without telling anyone, usually because they think they won’t be believed or they are positive they are the only ones who can handle the situation. They will open doors they shouldn’t, enter huge complexes where it is easy to get lost, and often become trapped and have to fight themselves out of warehouses, meat-packing plants, or machinery such as presses or crushers.

7.  The majority of supervisors of the non-amateur protagonists are nitwits, personally motivated by greed and desire for wealth and power, or they are political animals who will eat up the detective and spit him or her out. This causes the sleuth to have to hide everything, including legally required reports and evidence. Luckily, such illegal activity rarely gets them fired (Lucas Davenport excepted).

8.  Police experts, the FBI, the Secret Service, and various private detectives and lawyers have studied almost every facet of law enforcement and generally know all there is to know—or they always know who to find it out from—and that person usually works just one office or one street away. Nobody is a specialist in their own little world…except the medical examiner who always looks like s/he’s been up all night drinking, crying, and not sleeping because of the horrid job s/he has to do. If, by chance, the detective does not know some small piece of information about forensics, technology, procedure, etc., s/he will not be given that information until it is too late for it to: 1) make sense, 2) save lives, or 3) keep him or her out of big trouble with the boss. If the detective has to get the information from an expert, usually s/he will have to travel by plane to Quantico or Miami or New York or Hollywood or some other sexy hotspot where people s/he meets there will coincidentally have something nefarious to do with the case.

9.   In order to obfuscate and in an attempt to mislead the reader, make sure to have the protagonist puzzle internally and obsessively over bizarre or weighty red herrings hoping that the reader will lose track of the real clues. Or if that doesn’t work, give the detective some sort of major dysfunction or impossible-to-bear pain (dead spouse, murdered kid, lost sanity, physical deformity, etc.) and focus on that repeatedly whenever possible as a diversionary tactic.

10.  All head wounds render the detective only temporarily out, or, at the very least, groggy, but still retaining most faculties. In addition, despite cranial fracture or concussion, s/he is still able to wrestle the evil villain off the edges of roofs, over small cliffs, in the rain or cesspools of mud, and through fire, explosions, or gunshots.

11. Most gunshot wounds hit the detective in the shoulder or in the “bullet-proof” vest, requiring only a short time in the hospital – if the detective actually allows him or herself to be taken to the hospital. When under medical care, usually protagonists refuse treatment, or they accept treatment and wait until no one is looking, then manage all by themselves to disconnect the oxygen, morphine drip, feeding line, and heart monitors so they can put on their bloody clothes and sneak out of the hospital.

12.  Many sleuths worth their salt have at least one of the following: 1) a shadowy protector good with a gun and his or her fists (ie. Bubba in Dennis LeHane’s books or Ranger in the Stephanie Plum series); or 2) an investigative partner with whom they are supposed to share everything, but from whom they keep key data and information (see most police books); or 3) a spry, elderly man or woman who watches out for them (ie. Sue Grafton’s or Sara Paretsky’s books); or 4) someone at home from whom they keep all their worries, instead choosing to carry the weight of all the pain, anguish, responsibility, etc. right up to the point where their spouse/lover/child/parent is threatened or harmed. The exception to this rule is Robert B. Parker whose girlfriend is a great listener and actually a psychiatrist with whom he shares a lot…however, he DOES have Hawk as a protector.

13. A perky, impetuous, smart, and/or exceedingly clever female sleuth manages throughout the course of an entire novel to unearth clues the men don’t find, put the pieces together, and solve the crime – only to be captured by the Bad Guys before she can arrange their capture. She is very nearly killed. She may also be tortured. Instead of her managing to get herself out of the situation in a death-defying show of pluck, brains, and skill, her sidekick or a cop or a passing homeless guy or some other meaningless bystander pops into the picture and saves her bacon. Instead of being mad as hell, she falls in love with him and lives happily ever after.

14.  It is possible for the average citizen to stumble upon as many as 20 or 30 dead bodies in the course of one series of novels. This even happens with sleuths who are technically criminals (Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr, for instance).

15.  All drug dealers are badly shaven, take drugs themselves, and are ready to kill at the drop of a hat—except the king of the drug cartel who lives in Beverly Hills or some rich part of NYC next door to the mayor or Clint Eastwood or someone else famous, and he is able to order others to kill on command.  Unfortunately, the hired killers are usually inept in some way, leaving vital clues and/or living witnesses which lead right back to the kingpin.

16.  It is almost always necessary for hired killers to use automatic weapons, drive-by shootings, and intentional sprays of gunfire to kill their victims rather than quieter, sneaky, well-planned, and cleverly executed assassinations. The exception to this rule is when the killer is hired by the Mob, in which case, all Mob killings are “execution-style,” a/k/a “double-tap,” i.e. two shots to the head while kneeling. As soon as such a pattern of murder is found, it is always attributed to the Mob and never to anyone else.

17.  A disproportionate number of villains are represented by minorities, especially Middle Easterners, German scientists, Asians, Colombians, and Russians. Most of these villains are intent on taking over the world. Nobody ever explains why they would WANT to take over the world.

18.   Serial killers and psychopathic murderers usually got that way because of poor mothering. Their fathers are rarely, if ever, mentioned. Serial killers usually seem perfectly normal to everyone around them, holding down regular jobs, keeping up their yards, and apparently just enjoying murder and mayhem for recreational purposes…except for when they are caught, in which case they turn to bizarre, frothing-at-the-mouth behavior that is liable to throw everyone into a complete panic. They also become supernaturally strong and can carry dead bodies or passed-out detectives twice their weight right over their shoulders.

19. Sociopaths have problems with their consciences. Psychopaths are clever but crazy and bloodthirsty. Both of the terms are obsolete synonyms for “anti-social personality disorder. Whatever they’re called, in fiction both have a tendency to lurk around in the darkness, just out of the sight or hearing of their victims, thinking bizarre, discombobulated thoughts that show them to be bonkers. But somehow they still manage to carry off their murders without leaving much in the way of clues, and it usually takes 300 pages or more for the intrepid sleuth(s) to catch them. When they get caught, they’re usually either bonkers - or fully aware and laughing maniacally. Or both.

20.  Once the villains have captured the detective or sleuth, they are never in any hurry to dispose of them. Instead, the villains spend considerable time explaining how and why and when they committed their crimes, often exulting in their cleverness. They also often say things like, “I’m real sorry I have to do this, but you just happen to know too much. You should never have seen/done (fill in the blank).”  Even when it is clear that reinforcements are on the way, the arrogant criminal just has to get those last bits of explanation in so he or she can chortle at the sleuth, which inevitably gives our hero just enough time to get free and safe the day.

And those are my “laws” so far. Anybody have others to add?

© 2010 Lori L. Lake,
Lori L. Lake is the award-winning author of Snow Moon Rising and the “Gun” series. She’s published six novels, two collections of short stories, and had her short stories included in The Silence of the Loons and Once Upon A Crime. Now relocated from Minnesota to Portland, Oregon, Lori is putting the finishing touches on the first book in a mainstream mystery series.  Visit her web site at:

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Ellen Hart writes:

At a library appearance this past weekend, someone in the audience asked me if I treated my writing like a job.  I said that I did, that it was not only my passion, but my main means of support.  And then she asked if I wrote for eight hours each day.  My answer was no.  I can't cold write more than three or four hours a day--unless I'm on a deadline and can see the end in sight.

So am I a slug?  Do you all write for a full eight hours?

Monday, June 21, 2010

By Guest Blogger Jeri Westerson

Ah history! I loved history in school. I know some of you cringe at the thought. But I was lucky enough to have parents who also loved history and I suppose I absorbed it my osmosis. To me, history was never a dead story or a bunch of dates to be memorized. That’s the mistake that many a history teacher makes. Yes, it’s good to know what happened when, but the reasons behind what happened gives it the human story.

And that’s what it’s about when you write mysteries in an historical setting. You have to make the human story matter.

But the history is not just window dressing. Readers who like their mystery with history are pretty discriminating. It must be integral to the story, else why put it in that setting? You might as well dress the characters in colorful costumes and paint some cardboard backgrounds. No, the history is also the story.

I write a series of “medieval noir” novels, set in fourteenth century London. And though I call it “hardboiled detective fiction in a medieval setting” that’s not window dressing. It’s taking the tropes of hardboiled fiction and finding those similarities in the Middle Ages and, surprisingly, there were a lot of comparisons. In the Middle Ages, the sense of community was of great importance and anyone who set themselves outside of the norm was bound to be shunned, so having my protagonist, Crispin Guest, an ex-knight turned detective, set apart from his peers because of treason and made a pariah not only follows the dictates of the history but sets him up as the hard drinking, chip on his shoulder, lone wolf detective found so often in hardboiled tales.

In an historical, there is a special set of challenges. It involves a lot of world-building to allow the reader a soft landing into the time and place you are writing about. You can’t just dump all the info about the period in their laps. It requires a more subtle progression. The reader needs to be made aware of the mores of the time, the clothing, the food, what the culture was like and how the detective does or does not fit into it. What is his struggle along with the other characters who inhabit the plot?

Is he a man of his time or can you substitute any timeframe? That’s always a danger, making the character too modern. But your hero should definitely be a man of his time, that his circumstances couldn’t have happened in any other time period (except for those very human emotions that we can all relate to: love, hate, humiliation, loss) and that his socialization is firmly entrenched in his era. That might mean imbuing your character with certain prejudices that rub you the wrong way but it could also mean creating the circumstances by which he can change his mind by story’s end without compromising the time period.

Yeah, did I say challenges?

And then there is the research. In this internet age we live in, there is no time or place we can’t research. But the internet is no substitute for good old-fashioned book reading. I still find myself in libraries, usually university libraries and archives, reading big textbooks for the information I need. But the internet does offer almost instantaneous access to places and people you wouldn’t have had before. I can reach people in specific archives across the pond and have received generous help that way, even articles and Xeroxed copies of floorplans and such snail mailed to me from afar. I can talk to a whole group of medieval scholars, professors, and historians around the world on one email list I belong to, gleaning research recommendations, translations of phrases into Latin and medieval French, and posing seemingly innocuous questions that turn into treatises (you can’t take the least bit of everyday life for granted. You’ll stumble where you least expect it).

If you start with the internet, there are a few caveats. Never use information from a website that doesn’t offer a bibliography for further research. While researching my third novel that’s coming out in October, THE DEMON’S PARCHMENT, I had to look into the blood libels against medieval Jews. The blood libels concerned the Christian belief that Jews killed children by crucifying them and drinking their blood for the Passover in retribution for all that the Jews suffered. Many innocent Jews and whole neighborhoods were wiped out because of these false accusations. But while scanning the net for more reading material, I came across what seem to be a very literate site about the blood libels, intimating that some of them might be true. I found this curious as I had not come across this sort of information before and I read the site and their list of citations. Finally, it gave a few links to other sites for more information and when I clicked on to the next link all sorts of swastikas and Arian Nation stuff popped up and I thought “Oh. That’s why I never heard of these before.” So, always check your sources.

Why write stories in an historical setting? I think that the distant past seems a bit exotic and even romantic to us. I think that readers, including me, like to get lost in another place and time when people acted and thought differently, where the clothes they wore and even the food they ate informed their every move and philosophy.

As for me, chivalry is not dead but it is also not polite Dutch-boy coifed knights and velvet gowned ladies in sunlight groves. It’s a gritty time of hardship, of love and loss, of just trying to get by. And let’s not forget, it’s also about murder and solving it the best way my detective can without benefit of a bevy of scientists and police. He’s a man alone in more ways than one.
Jeri Westerson makes her “man alone” come alive in her Crispin Guest Medieval Noir novels. Her latest, SERPENT IN THE THORNS, has her ex-knight detective in a suspenseful fight to stop the assassination of King Richard II while fighting his own demons and his past. Read an excerpt on her website         

Jeri is president of the Orange County chapter of Sisters in Crime and a member of Sisters in Crime Los Angeles.

And, compliments of Jeri ... free chocolate cake (with raspberries).  Yum!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Ellen Hart writes:

I knew an author once who'd gone for an early morning run.  On his way back home,he stopped into to an Uptown library to find a book.  You have to get the picture here.  He looked awful.  Sweaty.  Hadn't shaved.  Had on grungy clothes.  Hair windblown. While he was wandering the aisles, he noticed a woman holding one of his books. 

He paused next to her and said, "I wrote that book." 

She looked up at him and deadpanned, "Sure you did."

Now, my author friend knew what he looked like, and figured she didn't believe him. But he couldn't help himself.  "No, really, I'm M.D. Lake.  I wrote that book."

The woman inched away.  This time, her voice took on a pacifying tone.  "Of course you did."

"Really. I'm the author."

At that point, the woman turned and headed for the check-out desk, leaving my friend to ponder the vicissitudes of the writing life.

Here's this Wednesday's Burning Question:

Have you ever seen a stranger reading one of your books?  In an airport? A coffeeshop.  On a bus?   And if so, did you introduce yourself?

Monday, June 14, 2010

So, Where do you get your ideas?

By Guest Blogger Carl Brookins

That’s the marvelous cliché that purports to drive authors crazy because it’s asked so many times in a variety of ways. All right, let’s examine the question. A friend of mine once said she thought that writers are like cosmic vacuum cleaners. They suck up all sorts of dust and detritus from the universe, massage it, group, list and categorize it, and store it until a good use for it shows up.

I do that. A few years ago, as I was wandering through some buildings at our Minnesota State Fair, I saw a man demonstrating some really sharp knives. Of course, I thought about how easy it would be to slice some flesh with one of those things. A little while later I was in one of the food buildings and a man at one of the counters was just starting to cut into a round of cheese. You know, those things that are usually round with a hard waxy covering? They come in all sizes, but these were about as big as a hockey puck, maybe a little larger. As I watched him—he had a really sharp knife too—it occurred to me that those rounds might make ideal containers. If they were carefully hollowed out you could transport a small measure of powder in them. You know, like talcum powder?


Now you take a common Aussie and British phrase meaning it’s tough, old stick, or words to that effect, and what do you get? Maybe you get this:

So there’s just one example. Places sometimes suggest stories. “Devils Island,” for example. “The Keep.” Doesn’t that sound a little ominous? What’s a “keep” anyway? I don’t know but I bet if I look it up something will come to me that might be made into a story. How about “Vermillion Drift?” Is that a place or an activity? Is it dangerous, like “Wicked Games?”

So the answer to the question is that authors get their ideas from almost any and every-where. Do you ever get the feeling when you are around an author that he or she is listening and observing you? I’ve noticed that some really good authors in a crowd of people seem to spend more time listening than they do talking. I think they are cataloging ideas and language from the people around them. Now, I wouldn’t want you to get paranoid, dear reader, but sometimes there is somebody following you. Thankfully, she isn’t green.
Before he became a mystery writer and reviewer, Brookins was a freelance photographer, worked in public television and cable TV, and was a counselor and faculty member at Metropolitan State University in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He has reviewed mystery fiction for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press and for Mystery Scene Magazine. His reviews also appear on his own internet web site, and on others, including Books n’ Bytes and ReviewingtheEvidence. Brookins writes the sailing adventure series featuring Michael Tanner and Mary Whitney, the Sean NMI Sean private investigator detective series, and a series featuring the adventures of a mid-level administrator, Jack Marsden, at an unusual urban college.

Visit Carl's web site:

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


Ellen Hart writes:

As writers, we all do research for our stories. What has been the most interesting research you've done? Did it help you shape the book? Or did it all end up on the cutting room floor?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Murder As Therapy?

By Eve Sandstrom  / Joanna Carl

I collect the books of Patricia Wentworth, a British writer of the 30s, 40s and 50s. In some ways her books are dreadful, but I think they are perfect bedtime reading. Her characters and plots are so predictable that they're as comforting as macaroni and cheese with a chocolate bar on top, and I've read each of her books so often that a single chapter knocks me out for at least eight hours.

I am currently reading one that I remember checking out of the library when I was in high school. My mother and I both read it, and I remember we laughed together at the solution to the crime. The reason? In Patricia Wentworth the reader can absolutely rely on one thing -- the villain will not turn out to be a sympathetic character. And this book had only one unsympathetic character, and that character was the victim. My mom and I were both stumped. (Spoiler: It finally turned out that the victim tried to kill someone else and accidently killed herself. Not very believable, but believability isn't the reason you read Mrs. Wentworth.)

Rereading this book made me think a bit about how victims should be selected.

On panels I often mention the emotional satisfactions of killing people fictionally. For example, I say, everyone who has e-mail has some so-called friend who daily sends us 'special' items -- jokes, political comment, cartoons, or poems.

The sender sees these items as inspirational or amusing.

I can guarantee that those items will not amuse or inspire the person who gets them. They will annoy and anger the recipient.

I continue this panel comment by saying, "In one of my books, I killed that person."

The panel audience never fails to respond with loud and prolonged applause.

Like Patricia Wentworth, I prefer to have both villain and victim be obnoxious -- people for whom the reader will feel no particular grief or sympathy. Does this prove I'm a mean, rotten person? I hope not. I think all it means is that I'm writing mysteries that depend on the puzzle to keep the reader interested and, yes, entertained. If the reader my books attract gets bogged down in the psychological aspects of grief, or of villainy, my mysteries are not going to be fun for them to read. If, for example, the detective's favorite uncle is the victim, he has to have died long ago, long enough ago that the viewpoint character has dealt with her grief and can get down to solving the mystery. I admit, I hate books where someone wonderful is killed and nobody seems to miss them.

Another writer, writing another type of book, may emphasize thought-provoking situations my readers would find too heavy. She may need a truly pitiful victim, maybe a child, to show how heartless the villain is. Or perhaps a cruel drug dealer who needs to be killed to justify her tough detective taking care of the matter. Or a serial killer for a serial killer who kills serial killers (sound familiar?) to handle. You gotta write what you gotta write. Each of us is different, as a reader and as a writer.

But there are still people I'm considering for the role of victim in future books, people my escapist readers would enjoy seeing dead.

How about those people who talk on their cell phones loudly in public places? Oh, sure, this is a minor annoyance. None of us is really going to kill somebody over this. Except in fiction. (The caller is overheard calling the wrong person, see? So the bad guy has to shut him up before he can reveal what he asked. Bingo! Down the elevator shaft.)

How about those guys with the loud cars who roar up and down the collector street near us in the middle of the night? No, annoying as they are, I don't intend to dig a ditch out there and flip their roaring cars over. Not in real life. But I could do it in a book.

How about snotty writers who tell others how to pick their victims. They probably deserve to face the fictional blunt instrument, too.

How about a writer who's getting a lot of hype for a first book, and thinks she/he deserves it because of its literary excellence. Almost always the book lacks literary excellence and the writer has been singled out for some other reason. I remember one who was the publisher's darling because of his unusual research technique. He's no longer publishing at all, but that first book had a heck of an ad budget, and he preened his feathers at every convention that year. When we meet these people we have to smile graciously, but it's sure fun to kill'em when we get back to the computer.

( I don't think this is simply jealousy on my part. I don't begrudge success for fellow writers most of the time. It's something about the way these particular writers handle it. Does anyone remember the New Yorker cartoon of the writer telling his girlfriend, "The worst part of my never making it big is, I could handle it." That's me.)

Anyway, when I disguise these people and shoot'em dead, it doesn't hurt them at all. And it makes me feel deeply satisfied.
JoAnna Carl is a pseudonym for Eve K. Sandstrom, who early in the present century was president of Sisters in Crime. She writes the Chocoholic books, which feature as a detective a young woman who is business manager for a chocolate shop in an exclusive Lake Michigan resort. The ninth book will be The Chocolate Pirate Plot, due out next October. In this one the victim was not selected according to the suggestions in the preceding blog, but it you want to live, she suggests that you don't tick her off.  Check out her web site here.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


Ellen Hart writes:

Even though ebooks are only a small percent of the books being sold today, sales are trending strongly in that direction. So here's this weeks burning question:

Have you ever taken one of your books and put it up on Kindle or Smashwords? If so, did you do it yourself or have someone else do it for you. you find the process difficult? Has it been worth your time and effort? Do you have any tips or words of wisdom for others who might be thinking of doing the same thing?