Thursday, September 30, 2010

Stage 1 : Story Concept : Begin with the End in Mind

By C.L. Phillips


"Knock, knock."

"Who's there?"

"Your subconscious?"

"What do you want?"

"I've got a story idea for you."

Ah, if it were only so easy, right?  Ever have an idea pop into your head, so crystal clear that you start righting, only to finish 80,000 words later?  No, me neither.  I carve big lumps of word stone into story statues.  Clink.  Clink.  I chisel each word into existence by looking at both the positive and negative space.  What is said.  What is not.

Last night, I listened to Gary Provost, founder of the Writer's Retreat Workshop.  Again.  And again.  Gary has a beautiful way of distilling storytelling down to the emotional core.  Something happens to the hero of this story, something significant.  Because it happened, the hero wants something, badly, a prize or a goal.  The hero devises a plan of action, moving closer to the prize.  Forces oppose the hero at every turn.  As the plan of action unfolds, the stakes rise.  Moving toward the goal takes every bit of cunning, strength, and luck the hero can muster.  Still, it's not enough.  The hero hits bottom, emotionally, physically, mentally.  At this bleakest moment, the hero makes a decision to solider on.  The hero learns a lesson, gains more faith, changes internally.  As the hero continues, he's faced with a decision point.  He can gain his prize, his goal, but only if he gives up something he truly loves.  This journey satisfies a need or fills a hole in the hero's psyche.

Every story has each of these elements:
 

Inciting IncidentStory trigger ; what happens to hero
POV Character GoalPrize or Goal
StrategyPlan of Action
ConflictOpposing Forces
Rising Stakes What happens during the journey to make this more important, more meaningful to the hero - internally? Externally?
Bleakest MomentHero is at the lowest point; opposing forces are winning
LessonWhat does the hero learn? How does he change?
Decision PointWhat does the hero give up in exchange for the prize or goal? What is the cost?
HoleWhat need or emotional hole is filled by the decision? The need was there before the story began, and is the backstory.

What need or emotional hole is filled by the decision? The need was there before the story began, and is the backstory.

Then it hit me.  When you can define these elements, you've got your story idea defined.  One table.  With a quick glance, you see, feel and know what happens in a story.  Imagine what it could do for a synopsis or query letter.  You could boil 80,000 words down to a single crisp paragraph.

I pulled out my dog-eared copy of Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly, determined to find each of these elements in the story.  I did.  That wasn't the exciting part.  The exciting part was when I found the main character, Mickey Haller saying, "I had come four hundred miles for five minutes but those minutes were devastating.  I thin the lowest point of my life and professional career came an hour later..."

There it was, the Bleakest Moment, chiseled out of the story stone, exposed for anyone to see.

Gary Provost said, "Do this analysis on fifty books, and then you'll be able to plot."

Sisters-in-Crime is a supportive community for emerging writers.  Let's take this blog one step further.  Join me on this journey of analyzing fifty best sellers.  One down, The Lincoln Lawyer, forty nine to go.

Copy the table, grab your favorite best seller (it can even be your own), and post your analysis in the comments for this blog post.  Let's see if we can hit fifty in two days.

Write on!
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C.L. Phillips writes mystery novels while nestled under a hundred-year live oak tree in downtown Austin. Except in August. C.L writes about the the gap between what people want and what they actually do. Broccoli or chocolate chip cookies, anyone? Check out her web site: http://www.clphillips.com/ or find her onTwitter: @clphillips787

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Never a Dull Moment

By Annette Dashofy

When I joined the Mary Roberts Rinehart (Pittsburgh) Chapter of Sisters in Crime, I really didn’t know what to expect. In the six years since then, that much hasn’t changed. Each meeting and event brings a new experience ranging from parties and picnics to being locked in jail cell.

Every year, one of our members opens their home to our group for a summer picnic. It’s a chance to socialize, eat, and possibly play croquet. Other annual outings include a Christmas Party and the Festival of Mystery where we pitch in as volunteers to help Mystery Lovers Bookshop put on its spring extravaganza.

Some of our meetings include workshops, lead by local published authors and experts. Topics can range from the craft of writing, to publishing, to police procedure. We’ve taken field trips to an area police department (hence the locked-in-jail episode) and to a sportsmen’s club firing range where we had a chance to learn about firearms and then actually shoot a variety of them.

We’ve even taken on service projects by donating and helping to plant a tree at the Mary Roberts Rinehart Nature Park as homage to our namesake.

Some of our biggest adventures, though, have been our writing retreats.

At first, the retreats were held in Deep Creek, Maryland at a home belonging to the in-laws of one of our members. It was a huge lodge on the lake with room for nearly twenty. Unfortunately, that home is no longer available to us, so when members expressed an interest in reviving the retreat, we had to find a different locale. This past spring, twelve of us traveled to Confluence, PA where we took over Paddler’s Lane Bed and Breakfast. Ramona Long attended as our guest presenter for what would be an exciting weekend…for many reasons.

The workshops were interesting and educational. The food was delicious. Chocolate and wine flowed freely. Unfortunately, so did the Youghiogheny River outside our backdoor. You see, we happened to schedule our retreat on the very weekend when the area’s largest snowfall in recent memory happened to melt. The resulting flood covered the only road into Paddler’s Lane as well as several of the main roads in and out of the valley. We worked on our writing while keeping one eye on the river coming closer and closer to the house.

With twelve women mystery writers trapped in a house in a flood, you can well imagine the stories we conjured up.

I’m happy to report the flood waters receded in time for us to depart on Sunday as originally intended.

Next year’s retreat is now in the planning phase. We’re looking for new venue slightly farther away from water.

With this group, no matter what the workshop, party, or field trip, you can expect the unexpected. And you can count on having a good time.

======================

Annette Dashofy is the president of the Mary Roberts Rinehart Chapter of Sisters in Crime. Her short mysteries have been published online at Mysterical-e and Spinetingler. One of them was a nominee for a 2007 Derringer Award. Check out Annette's web site and blog,

Monday, September 27, 2010

Darker Good Reads


by Cynthia Chow

Murder mysteries are, by definition, morbid. However, I admit a preference for the lighter side of death, namely humorous mysteries that refrain from completely glossing over death but do highlight the lighter side of the investigations. So it was with trepidation that I approached Timothy Hallinan’s latest Poke Rafferty thriller, The Queen of Patpong. Despite my having loved his sarcastic and hard-boiled Simeon Grist series and thoroughly enjoyed the previous entries in the Poke Rafferty Bangkok-based series, The Queen of Patpong confronts topics guaranteed to have me shuddering; namely, the sex trade and exploitation of minors.

And yet…The series began with Poke already in a relationship with Rose, a former bar-girl who now owns a cleaning business and raising Miaow, a too-wise-for-her-age street urchin the couple recently adopted. The sudden reappearance of a menacing figure from Rose’s past as a prostitute though, brings to light a life Rose cannot forgot but has amazingly overcome. As the novel shifts to flashbacks to Rose’s childhood and path to prostitution, Hallinan brilliantly explores the ugly history of the sex trade in Thailand without being forced or preachy. In one of the most powerful and haunting scenes a young Rose sits with her parents and teachers as they negotiate her fate. The growing horror as Rose slowly begins to realize that her father plans to sell her into prostitution is so understated and menacing that the reader shares her repulsion, yet the scene is so quiet and underplayed that the scene itself is neither repellant nor exploitative. Perhaps that is why it is so powerful.

The author has obviously devoted much research into the history of Bangkok’s sex trade, a topic that has become something of a joke to Westerners. The relationships between the bar-girls, who create their own families within the brothels, lighten the novel and prove to be both sad and hopeful. Rose’s eventual escape from this world is as well powerful as she shows Miaow that it is something to hold with pride, not shame. Surprisingly, when the novel shifts back to present time and the figure who has come back to claim Rose the reader may feel a little disappointed as it becomes more of the traditional action-packed thriller centered on the charming and protective Poke. However, this is an extraordinarily positive, fascinating, and witty read that is unforced and always entertaining.

Another surprising mystery that I normally would have ignored had it not been for the record of the author was Live toTell, by Lisa Gardner. While violence against children is never a subject I can warm to, violence perpetuated by them is equally unappealing. And yet again…The opening scene that depicts the menace of domestic violence is horrific, made even more so when the identity of the abuser is revealed. Gardner brings back the acerbic Detective DD Warren and introduces two women, one of whom overcame a tragic past that cost her her family and who now works in a unit that attempts to heal similarly damaged children, and the other a woman held captive by her love for the abuser she believes will eventually kill her. Cases involving the murder and suicides of entire families all become tied together, with the detective trying to distinguish the victims from the killers. Normally this is a topic I would avoid like the plague, as children as murderers is a subject so repellant and against nature that it creeps me out and has me avoiding playgrounds. However, like Hallinan, Gardner has crafted a well-written novel that balances fascinating and engaging characters and quick dialogue with a plot that educates and entertains. The suspense is unrelenting with enough twists to mislead and surprise readers. These two authors share a talent for writing about horrific crimes without repelling or manipulating the reader. Despite their darkness, these two novels can be enjoyed even by readers who prefer the lighter side of murder.

===============

Cynthia (Cindy) Chow developed a love for mystery novels after working summers in a failing used book & comic store (there was a lot of free time). Born and raised on the island of Oahu, she balances the librarian lifestyle with obsessions for motorcycles and high heels. Occasionally at the same time, much to the dismay of her parents.

A Brief Talk with Carola Dunn

by Norma Huss
Carola Dunn was born and grew up in England. After graduating from Manchester University, she set off around the world, but only made it halfway, to Fiji, before turning back to get married. Carola lived in Southern California for 20 years, and then moved to Eugene, Oregon, where she lives now. On her website she says, "I love it here, love the changing seasons. Contrary to reports, it doesn't rain all the time, and you don't absolutely have to wear Birkenstocks! I'm not far from the Willamette River, and walk there every morning with Trillian."

Sinc Blog: Carola, you started your writing career with Regencies, then began writing the Daisy Dalrymple series set in the 1920s. Now you have a new series as well, Cornish mysteries set in the 1960s.

 Is there any particular reason that you've chosen those time periods to write about?

Carola:  I started writing Regencies after having read Georgette Heyer's so many times I knew what was coming on the next page. I tried a few Regencies being written at the time (late '70s) and decided they were so bad I could do at least as well, and thereby put off getting a "proper" job after years of part-time and temp work. England's Regency period was very short (technically 1811-1820, or '21, depending on your definition), but for some reason it gave rise to a different sort of romance story from other periods. I was lucky enough to sell my first ms, so instead of looking for that proper job, I went on writing.

My Regencies vary from "comedies of manners" to time travel, via smugglers, spies, real historical events (eg the Battle of Waterloo), ghosts, and fairytales retold with a Regency setting. I wrote for several different publishers, and was writing for two when, within six months of each other, both stopped publishing the genre. I was actually in the middle of a 3 book contract at the time (later I did manage to sell the two unpublished mss to a different publisher and went on writing for them for several years). For some time I'd been thinking I'd like to try my hand at something different, but as long as I was making a living with Regencies it was hard, not to say impossible, to switch. This, obviously, was the moment to give it a go. Thus was Daisy Dalrymple born.

I've been asked many times why I didn't stay in the Regency period when I started writing mysteries. It would have meant a whole lot less research! But, apart from the challenge, I didn't want to confuse readers as to whether they were getting a mystery or a romance. I chose the 1920s because I saw parallels between the two periods. Both the Regency and the 1920s were times of great change, especially for women. Just one aspect: Think of the enormous hooped skirts of the earlier Georgians and comparative freedom of the Empire line dresses of the Regency; regression followed, to crinolines and bustles, and worse, to the "Grecian bend" of the Edwardians, but the first World War brought liberation in clothes as in so many other ways.

As for the Cornish mysteries, I said in a foreword that the setting is "somewhere between my childhood memories of Cornwall and the present reality." The fact is, after 30 years of checking every historical detail, I didn't want to be pinned down too closely. The two books so far seem to have settled more or less in the late '60s, but if readers find bits and pieces that don't quite fit, I disclaim all responsibility.  

SinC Blog:  You are originally from England but now write from your home in Oregon. Do you visit England to see the areas you write about?

Carola:  I go every couple of years. My sister lives in Cornwall, a great help! As for Daisy, some of the books are set in imaginary places; some, for various reasons, are in real places thinly disguised by a name change (usually acknowledged in an Author's Note). When I use the real name of a real place, I've been there and researched it thoroughly. For instance, the next Daisy book, Anthem for Doomed Youth, is set largely in Saffron Walden. It happens that I went to school there, so I was already familiar with the town, but I went last year and walked around all the places I intended to use in the story. I also spoke to library and museum people, got their email addresses, and after coming home pestered them with many questions. It's impossible to be sure in advance of exactly every detail that will come up when writing. Email and the web between them make research much easier than when I started writing 30 years ago. Make that VERY much easier. 

Sinc Blog:  Tell us about the research that enables you to not only find a situation to build a mystery around, but gives you the words and experiences that fit precisely into that time period? And, once you are "in" a time period, how easy or hard is it to change into writing about another time period?

Carola:  At this point in the Daisy series, with 18 published and a 19th in production, finding a situation is largely a matter of trying to work out what I haven't already done! That perspiration/inspiration combination. Apart from research in period detail, I read a lot of novels written during the '20s. They give a better feel for the language of the time than any amount of non-fiction. They also provide a lot of information about the way people thought and lived, the social conventions.

The advantage of the periods I've chosen, obviously, is that there is plenty of contemporary material available, and it's easy to read. Earlier periods would be much more difficult.

Switching periods from the Regency to the 1920s was quite confusing at times. For a few years I was writing both, and I'd find my '20s characters speaking very Regency language. Once I'd stopped writing Regencies, '20s language came easily. As far as experiences--the customs and conventions of the times were not difficult to keep separate. Daily life changed enormously in that 110 years, in so many ways.

SinC Blog:  What is your writing day or week like?

Carola:  I "work" six days a week for about 6 hours a day. That's sitting at the computer. But it doesn't include research done in the evenings and, for example, this interview, which I'm completing on a Sunday. Not to mention that my mind, conscious and unconscious, is working on the story I'm writing 24/7. Sunday is my "day off"--laundry and yard work--but I woke up this morning with several ideas which I had to write down at once, though I won't develop them till tomorrow.  

SinC Blog:  Last question: Will you tell us more about your latest or your favorite book?

Carola:  My latest book, A Colourful Death, is the second in the Cornish Mystery series. The protagonist is Eleanor Trewynn, a widow in her 60s. She spent her life travelling all over the world, working for an international charity. Retiring to a small fishing village in Cornwall, she bought a cottage and turned the ground floor into a charity shop. In this book, her neighbour, Nick Gresham, an artist, is suspected of killing a fellow-painter, so Eleanor tries to find out who really did it. The other POV character is Nell's niece, Megan, a local police detective with an extremely grumpy boss.

Next April, the 19th Daisy Dalrymple mystery, Anthem for Doomed Youth, will be out. It's very much concerned with the after-effects of WWI. Daisy and her husband, DCI Alec Fletcher of Scotland Yard, find themselves involved in two cases that appear to be completely separate, but turn out to be connected--or are they?

I hope readers will visit my blog.  I'm also on Facebook.


SinC Blog: Thank you for visiting SinC into the Depths of Mystery, Carola.

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Norma Huss has been writing mystery for years, but only had her first novel published last year. YESTERDAY’S BODY was published by Wings ePress, Inc. Another mystery, DEATH OF A HOT CHICK is ready to make the rounds of agents. She’s a wife, mother, and grandmother as well as an advocate of a local bloodhound search and rescue unit. Visit her web site.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Special for readers (and remember, writers are readers, too)

Out of all the various kinds (cozy, thriller, paranormal, noir, suspense, something different every time, a mix of which ones, anything else) what kind of mysteries do you like to read?

Friday, September 24, 2010

What Are You Reading?

Sisters in Crime consists of authors, librarians and booksellers and mystery READERS.  (In fact, we're all readers.)  A few of us have compared notes.  We hope you'll take a look and then share what you're currently reading.

Nancy Martin:  I just finished the new Susan Isaacs AS HUSBANDS GO, a murder mystery with snappy dialogue and a peek into upscale suburban life on Long Island. The wife wants to know why her devoted plastic surgeon husband was murdered by--good heavens!---a hooker. Isaacs is always entertaining.

And I'm reading STILL MISSING by newcomer Chevy Stevens, a harrowing story of a woman who is kidnapped and held captive by a man she calls The Freak. My review: OMG.

Mary Jane Maffini:  If summer must end, I suppose I’ll survive because of the crop of books that has bloomed in my ‘to be read’ piles around the house, each one near a prime reading spot. My bedtime book is THE LONG QUICHE GOODBYE by Avery Aames. So far this is a delicious and cozy. Great fun so far.  Meanwhile, down in the living room, I am rereading THE MARX SISTERS, a 1994 book by Barry Maitland. I rarely reread, but this is a chance to see DS Kathy Kolla meet her famous supervisor DCI David Brock for the first time. Although the books have become darker and edgier over time, this remains one of my favorite police procedural series.

Ellery Adams:  I'm reading Catching Fire, the second book in The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Though classified as Young Adult fiction, I'd be wary of letting younger kids read the arena-style gladiator-type killings, but I'm fine with it! For me, it was the voice of the heroine (Katniss) that lured me into the first book and has kept me coming back for more. I will read Mockingjay next and then The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton.

Paige Shelton:  Just started BRIGHT OF THE SKY (Book One of The Entire and the Rose) by Kay Kenyon. Don’t usually like science fiction, but got this one by accident. Not just a bunch of tech-talk. Good characters, good story. 

And from  a couple of the SinC Blog Army Soldiers: 

Norma Huss:  I'm reading Rhys Bowen's FOR THE LOVE OF MIKE, a murder mystery set in 1904, that, besides murder, reveals sweatshop working conditions for immigrant girls in the garment industry. Third of a series I just discovered.  I just finished Sandra Brown's SMASH CUT, a thriller among the privileged wealthy with a ticking clock ending. My review. Hold on to your hats!

And just to prove that great minds think alike:

C.L. Phillips:  I'm reading Suzanne Collins trilogy HUNGER GAMES, CATCHING FIRE, and MOCKINGJAY.  I recommend reading all three back-to-back, after you've sent your husband and children out of the house for the weekend.  Have your meals delivered, and don't answer the phone.  You'll fall into a spell you won't want to leave.   Katniss could take Lord Voldermort any day.

And what are YOU reading?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

SWAT Boot Camp : Object Obstacle Course

 By C.L. Phillips


Attention!

Well novelist, I see you are back for another SWAT Boot Camp session with Sgt. Wordslayer.  Remember what SWAT means?  Stop Withering Away Tension.    Know what else SWAT means?  Stop Writing Average Things.

Grab your pencil and a notepad.  Step back from the keyboard.  What?  You don't have a notepad?  Where do you write down the snippets of conversation you overhear in the coffee shop?  Where do you scribble down all the little ideas you have?  You better have a notepad.  Something small.  Shove it in your pocket or purse, or inside your bra.  I don't care.  But do not ever leave home without it.  If I catch you without your notepad, I'll smoke you.  Ten verbs.  I promise.

Now drop and give me five ordinary objects that serve as clues in your current WIP.  Quick.  Five objects.  Murder and mayhem require physical clues.  Get cracking.  What?  You're not writing that kind of novel?   Tough.  Pretend.  You're a mystery novelist, remember?  Now give me one unusual object.  Hey, you there in the back, stop feigning writer's block.  You're not allowed to think during this exercise, so it's impossible to have writer's block.  Look around the room.  What do you see?  Write down those five objects.

Quick, now drop and give me five outstanding verbs.  New ones.  No cheating by using the verbs you've used before.  Chop, chop.  You're not writing the great American novel.  Verbs, people.  Now.  Got 'em?  Did you write them down?  Or are you simply reading and pretending to follow along?  Don't be a wanna-be.  Writers write.  So write.  NOW.  (This is where you scream at the top of your lungs, YES, Sergeant Wordslayer.)  Good.

Now, pair up the five objects with the five verbs.  And pull one more verb out of your...head ...for the unusual object.  Got it?

Now for the obstacle course....take your object and verb pair, and give it a symbolic meaning.

What?  You don't understand me?  Let me explain.  Make your object mean something more than what it is.  Every great mystery is filled with symbols and deeper meanings.  How in the world do you expect to write the next DaVinci Code or relegate J.K. Rowling to the dust bin with a one-dimensional story?

Oh, so now you're crying, "why didn't you tell me this first?  My object isn't special enough."  That is exactly the point.  Nothing is special until you make it so.  Until you give the reader a reason to care, every word is flat, meaningless.  Anything can be a symbol.  The more common the object, the easier it is to hide in plain sight.  The more common the object, the higher the probability your reader has this same object in their home.

Examples, you want stinking examples?  Okay, I'll give you my examples, but in return I expect you to post your list of objects and verbs in the comments for this post.

Objects:  oak tree, phone, tennis ball, newspaper, door, first edition of Tom Sawyer ( the unusual object)
Verbs :  whistle, row, share, bark, intimidate, sooth
Pairs :  oak tree whistles, phone barks, tennis ball rows, newspaper shares, door intimidates, first edition soothes
Meanings :  oak tree - silent strength, phone - love, tennis ball - adventure, newspaper - insight, door - opportunity, first edition - legacy

Are you ready for the final step?

Pull out your current work in progress.  Today, we're going to Whip that WIP in shape with a little Sniper Object Training.  Grab a chapter or ten pages.  Get out your pencil.  Quickly now, go through the pages and circle all the objects.  OBJECTS ONLY LADIES and GENTLEMEN.  And no, this doesn't mean every single noun on the page.  But it could.  You decide.  Yes, gosh-darn it.  Make a decision.  Circle the objects.

Finished?

Ok, that was the easy part.  Now, go back and write a new verb with each object.  You know what's coming next, right?  Yep, you've got to give the object a meaning. 

Now, I want you to reach inside your brain.  Slap that huge ego of yours.  Repeat after me.  "The only person that cares about my WIP is ME."  Now stand up and scream at the top of your lungs.  "I WILL NOT SETTLE FOR MEDIOCRITY."  Wave your arms in the air.  Get that blood flowing.  Scream, "I AM THE SYMBOL QUEEN."  Or King, as your gender dictates.

And yes, a recipe card can be a symbol.  But it better be a darn good recipe.  Scratch that.  It better be molecular gastronomy.  Remember, you are the only one that cares.

Why are we TARGETING OBJECTS?  Because when objects become symbols, the object transports the reader to the emotions you want the reader to experience.  Symbols are the Humvees of the novelists desert.  Put some gas in your tank and put three symbols in your WIP.

And if you dare to reply to this post, give us your objects, verbs, meanings, and symbols.  Remember, writers write.  Post your answers to this drill.  Get on the SWAT Team.  And at the risk of giving you a fat head, pat yourself on the back.  You've completed the Object Obstacle Course.

Dismissed!
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C.L Phillips writes mystery novels while nestled under a hundred-year live oak tree in downtown Austin. Except in August. C.L writes about the the gap between what people want and what they actually do. Broccoli or chocolate chip cookies, anyone? Check out her web site: http://www.clphillips.com/ or find her onTwitter: @clphillips787

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

More essential sites for writers

By Joyce Tremel

We promised you another installment of writing sites and here it is. This one contains more of the "nuts and bolts" for writers.

If you don't see your favorites listed here, feel free to share them in the comments!

The Graveyard Shift:   “There are no perfect crimes, only imperfect investigations.” Former detective Lee Lofland instructs crime fiction authors on the realities of police work.

Grammar Girl:  Most of us can use a grammar refresher once in awhile.

Publisher’s Weekly:  The latest info on the publishing biz.

Publisher’s Marketplace:  Even the free part of this site has lots of info about publishing, agents, editors, etc.

Query Shark:  Writers can submit their query letter here for critique. Literary agent Janet Reid educates writers on what works and what doesn’t in a query.

Agent Query:  One of the sites where you can search for agents.

Query Tracker: You can track your queries and submissions here in addition to searching for agents.

Preditors and Editors:  Check this site before you submit.

Absolute Write:  Another site to check before you submit.

Novelists, Inc—http://ninc.com—Site for multi-published authors.

Writer Beware blog:  This blog posts warnings about unscrupulous practices and scammers. An affiliated website is http://www.sfwa.org/for-authors/writer-beware.

Mystery Writers of America:  Organization for mystery writers. Presenter of the yearly prestigious Edgar Awards.

And last, but certainly not least—

Sisters in Crime:  Our very own website.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

For a Good Read, Let the Characters Shape The Plot

By Nancy Means Wright

Conflict, suspense, humor, plot, setting, point of view, juicy suspects, pain-in-the-butt adversaries and great writing—all these elements enter the mix for a first class mystery. But the most important of these, I insist, is character. Create a charismatic, dynamic character as protagonist, let the story unfold through his or her flaw, quirk or passion, and you’re off to a flying start!  

In Sophocles’ fifth century B.C.’s Oedipus the King, one of our earliest “mysteries,” it’s the latter’s hubris, and his blind passion to find a killer and rid Thebes of a plague, that leads him to question folk, one by one: Come here…You must answer everything I ask! until he discovers that he himself killed his father and slept with his mother.  Centuries later in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado, it’s Montresor’s obsessive desire for revenge—since na├»ve Fortunato “ventured on insult”—that leads the hapless victim down into the damp bowels of the family vaults and doesn’t let go until the last trembly jingle of bells. And no detectives in the story—just the two unforgettable characters.

In 1868, Wilkie Collins set out in his novels “to trace the influence of character on circumstance,” and let his characters “direct the course” of events. In The Moonstone, for instance, the unrequited love of plain, crippled Rosanna for Franklin, and then Rachel’s stubborn silence about something traumatic she’d seen on the night of the diamond’s disappearance, help in large measure to shape the plot.     

More recently, in Case Histories, Kate Atkinson’s laid-back detective Jackson Brodie reluctantly tries to solve three old murders. The nonlinear plot is spun through several points of view, and the story leaps in and out of time and the characters’ minds. To me the dead bodies are less significant than the three-dimensional characters whom she portrays with humor, humanity, and surprise. The novel is a brilliantly written subversion of the detective-thriller.

As for this humble writer, I can’t help but have my sleuth “direct the course” of the novel. My protagonist is real life, 18th-century Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (her daughter wrote Frankenstein). A conflicted woman who wanted “to live independent or not at all” but who longed for a grand romantic passion, she was both impulsive and rebellious. She once kidnapped her sister from an abusive husband, and ordered a reluctant English sea captain to pick up a boatload of drowning French sailors. I thought she’d make a credible sleuth, and much of what happens in Midnight Fires, the first in my series, stems from her intrepid nature.

So I say: choose a flawed, but passionate character, and let the rumpus begin!

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Nancy Means Wright has published 15 books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. A longtime teacher, actress-director, Bread Loaf Scholar for a first novel, Wright lives with her spouse and two Maine Coon cats on a dirt road in the environs of Middlebury, Vermont. Please visit her web site:  ww.nancymeanswright.com

Monday, September 20, 2010

As The World Turned

By C.L. Phillips

We sat in the living room, I at my grandmother's knee.  We each held a mess of green beans plucked straight from the garden.  Grandma said, "Let's clean up these beans while my story's on."

I couldn't have been more than nine years old, but I was an expert at television.  We watched shows, not a story.  The music came on and the twirling globe introduced my grandmother's favorite soap opera.  Have you guessed which one?  Yep, As the World Turns.  She never missed a day.  From six a.m. to six p.m, the only time my Grandmother sat down was during her story.  The story.

Over the course of ten summer visits to Grandma's house, I learned to care deeply about fictional characters.  I shared their hopes, dreams, and despair.  Every day, Grandma and I would do some type of chore that could be completed in front of the television while we peered into a world of rich business people, doctors, lawyers, heroes and villains.  First for thirty minutes, and then later for a full hour, we rooted for our favorites.

Afterward, Grandma would editorialize about the day's show.  "Lisa should know she can't trust that sneaky John Dixon.  When will she learn?"  And then she'd go off on a story from her life, drawing parallels between the real and fictional worlds.  She told me, "Honey, you don't have to make every mistake in the world to learn from it, you just have to watch other people."  Every day, she could take the main conflict and relate it directly to her life.  You see, in our world, there were no rich business people, no lawyers or doctors.  In our world, you didn't get dressed up to dig coal or potash.  But we watched and  I learned.

The first time I had to write a book report in elementary school, I didn't know what to do.  Then I remembered how Grandma could always explain her story.  She'd dig into the conflict immediately.  She could always distill  a show down into one simple sentence.  It always started the same way.  "Honey, the problem is somebody wants something they can't have."  Is life really that simple?  Sure worked for book reports.

One day, I squeezed into the middle seat on a crowded flight from St. Louis to Newark.  The guy seated next to me asked, "What do you do?"  I gave him a polite, yet evasive answer.  "And what do you do?" I asked.  "I'm a writer for a television show."  Now I'm interested.  "Which one?" I asked.  Yep, you guessed it.  As the World Turns.  Can you see the look on the guy's face when he realized I was a certifiable fifteen year fan?  Over the next several hours he shared how the show came together every day, every week, every month, and every season.  Teams of people working together.  A common goal.  Shared accomplishment.  "Boy, you must really love your job".  His eyes traveled to some far away place.  "It pays the bills," he said.

I didn't have the courage to tell him that his writing not only paid the bills, but it changed my world.  Altered my vision of what I could become.  A quiet voice said, "You could write a story.  You could do that too."  It was the first time I thought seriously about becoming a writer.  The seed took hold.

One of the great mysteries of being a writer, an author, is the knowledge you will touch lives you will never know personally.  You will change the way people think, what they imagine, who they become.  May you have the courage to create a world where you start a conversation with the quiet voice inside your reader.

Last December, CBS canceled As the World Turns after fifty four seasons.  The last episode aired September 17th.  My DVR was ready.  I watched the last episode with a mess of green beans that needed cleaning. As I broke off the end, pulled the string along the side of the green bean, and snapped the bean into smaller pieces, I'll was thinking about the hundreds of writers who touched millions of lives over fifty-four years.  And I thanked them for Grandma.
======================
C.L Phillips writes mystery novels while nestled under a hundred-year live oak tree in downtown Austin. Except in August. C.L writes about the the gap between what people want and what they actually do. Broccoli or chocolate chip cookies, anyone? Check out her web site: http://www.clphillips.com/ or find her onTwitter: @clphillips787

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Brief Talk With Becke Davis

by Janet Bolin

Today, we are pleased to present Becke Davis, moderator of Barnes & Noble's online Mystery Book Club . Becke, when did you first become interested in mysteries?

Becke: I've been an avid mystery fan since I read The Secret of the Old Postbox at age 8. I became hooked for life when I read my first Nancy Drew book at age 9. I was reading Alfred Hitchcock and Twilight Zone short story collections by age 12, discovered Agatha Christie at age 15 and Mary Stewart shortly thereafter. Even though I am an obsessive reader who averages a book a day, my to-be-read pile never seems to go down. At last count, it filled two small bookcases and four bins with over 300 books.

SinC Blog: What keeps you turning pages in a mystery?

Becke: I want to solve the mysteries and find out all the answers. I’m a big fan of romantic suspense, so I’m always eager to see the hero and heroine get their happy ending, too.

SinC Blog: How do you choose which books to feature in the club?

Becke: When the book clubs first started, B&N picked the features, and author visits were rare. At the end of last year, I asked if I could feature more than the standard two books/authors per month and I was told to "go wild" with it.

I read by author, and I feature authors rather than individual books. I think this is more beneficial to both B&N and the author, and our goal, after all, is to sell books. At B&N's Mystery, I've found that readers develop a strong loyalty for authors they feel they know.

I have developed relationships with the publicists at most of the big publishing companies, as well as publicists who work directly with some authors. They send me advance reader copies of books, and emails when they have an exciting release coming up.

If the release sounds interesting, I'll set up an author visit. If I randomly pick up a book and like it, I'll try to find the author online and set up a visit that way, too. Initially, I was looking for big name authors, but I've found that our participants are just as excited to meet debut authors. The most successful visits are the ones where the author has fun - that communicates itself, and it's contagious. I love it when that happens.

SinC Blog: You also write.

Becke:  I'm a freelance garden writer and I blog at B&N's Garden Variety. I started with B&N about nine years ago, writing and teaching courses for the B&N Online University. I'm also a contributing editor at Romance: B(u)y the Book and have written well over 1,000 articles as well as six non-fiction books. I started writing fiction in 2007, and wish I'd started sooner. Those voices in my head just won’t shut up until I tell their stories.
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Becke Davis is vice president of the Ohio Valley RWA chapter and a member of Sisters in Crime. Several of Becke’s stories have finaled in RWA contests and she’s had two stories featured online: a Christmas short story and a short-short that NPR called "the literary equivalent of a basket of late night fried mozzarella cheese sticks." Her website is www.beckemartin.com, and her blogs are The Mysterious Garden Muse and The Family Treethyme. She has completed a contemporary romance RUBY STILETTO BLUES and is currently working on a romantic suspense story called NIGHT VISIONS.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Rule of Threes

 By C.L. Phillips

"Knock. Knock."

"Who's there?"

"Fiction novelist."

Fixin' novelist who?

"Not fixin'.  Fiction."

Raise your hand if you spend more time "fixin'" your work than anything else. We start out with high hopes for our concept only to realize creating the story requires more rewriting than we ever imagined. And does anything suck the life out of you faster than rewriting?

So what do successful novelists do? They work on more than one project at a time.  But you already knew that. Many people say the only difference between a writer and a published author is the published author never quits. But I don't believe that.  I believe published authors master the Writer's Lifecycle and the Rule of Three.

What is the Writer's Lifecycle?  Let's make it simple - four stages, each with entry and exit criteria.  Stage 1 is Storyshaping. Stage 2 is Content Development. Stage 3 is Polishing. Stage 4 is Querying.

You might have a dozen ideas floating around in your head. These are Stage 1 ideas, the concepts you play with and eventually shape into a project you want to move forward. Anything with an outline or more than 5,000 words is a Stage 2 project, one where you develop the content. After you have a completed draft, or better yet, a full second draft, you have a project in Stage 3, the part of the pipeline where you rewrite and rewrite.  Maybe you get reader feedback.  You take a Stage 3 project to workshops and polish the daylights out of the first fifty pages. In Stage 4, you steel your nerves, take a stiff drink of your favorite liquid courage and query until you are successful.

 Here's another way to view the Writer's Lifecycle:

Stage 1 :  An idea; a story concept
Stage 2 :  A story concept with an outline or 5,000 words
Stage 3 :  A completed first or second draft, something you would take to a critque group
Stage 4 :  A query-ready novel, synopsis, and query letter

Stage 1 is your idea sandbox.  You might have a hundred ideas in Stage 1.  But how many of those ideas are you willing to develop? One thing is certain, you won't develop all of these ideas at once, so the other three stages are dedicated to real production.

The Rule of Three says, "Have at least three projects in production."  That means have at least one project in Stage 2, one in Stage 3, and one in Stage 4.  Why?

Because every business has a product pipeline.  Nobody puts all their eggs in one basket, and even if they do, they have new products coming to the market.  Did Facebook claim success when they shipped the first version of their product?  No.  Did James Patterson stop with his first series of books?  No.  And for an author with one series, do they stop with one book?  No.  They keep developing projects.  They keep pushing products into the marketplace.

Businesses either grow or die.  If you don't have a product pipeline, you are doomed to certain death, or you have a wonderful little hobby.  Me, I want a writing career.  This means I must think about my writing projects like a business.  Always have something in development, test, and production.

What would happen if you divided your efforts across different projects, each in a different Stage of the Writer's Lifecycle?  You could easily and intelligently discuss the status of each of your projects to a publishing professional or agent.  You could recharge your creative juices by working on different projects simultaneously without guilt.  You could measure progress and success incrementally rather than reporting the number of rejected queries.

Writers write.  Successful writers keep writing even after an agent or editor says yes.  Outrageously successful writers have a way to spread their precious creative capital across multiple projects.  Do you?  Post your system in the comments for this article. Let's collaborate and find a way to help each other move forward.

The Rule of Three. Try it. Does it work for you?

Write on!
________

C.L Phillips writes mystery novels while nestled under a hundred-year live oak tree in downtown Austin. Except in August. C.L writes about the the gap between what people want and what they actually do. Broccoli or chocolate chip cookies, anyone? Check out her web site: http://www.clphillips.com/ or find her onTwitter: @clphillips787

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Video Forensics -- Just what IS it?

By Edith Maxwell

One of the key tools used to solve the crimes in SPEAKING OF MURDER, my completed (and as-yet unpublished) mystery is video forensics. My protagonist's boyfriend works as a civilian video forensics expert at the local police station. The software he uses is dTective from Ocean Systems, which was developed by Grant Fredericks and is used by police departments around the country to clarify surveillance video and present video evidence in court.

The dTective software just happens to sit on top of Avid Media Composer, for which I wrote technical documentation for 14 years. That's an application for editing film and video used to create many award-winning movies and television shows. Hmm, coincidence? You decide.

I knew I wanted to feature this software in my books. After I was laid off my job at Avid, I finally had time to research it, and to start writing the first in the Speaking of Mystery series featuring Quaker Linguistics professor, Lauren Rousseau. I was fortunate to be able to consult with the Raynham, Massachusetts police department about the dTective program.

Grant Fredericks  generously pointed me to Chief Lou Pacheco of Raynham.  Chief Pacheco developed the Regional Electronic and Computer Crime Task Force (REACCT) and was one of the earliest users of the dTective technology in the country. Now thousands of agencies have followed his lead and use it to help solve the most serious crimes committed in our nation.


Chief Pacheco and his video analyst, Tim, kindly spent a morning explaining the software and how they use it. They gave me a tour of the station and answered my many questions. The chief wanted to know who was going to play him in the movie. I laughed and said I had to write the book first. Kelli Hutchings, the video forensic analyst of the Bristol County District Attorney's office, also spent a half day with me, demonstrating the software and talking about how she uses it.

It was a fascinating look into some of the inner workings of the criminal justice system. I hope I've done justice to their expertise. (Kelli recently reviewed the relevant sections of my manuscript and said I did a good job. Whew!)

Several of the things you can do with this software:

·    Apply a standard to see how tall someone is
·    Lighten a dark image of a license plate
·    Zoom in on a tattoo or other unique physical characteristic
·    Compare a fingerprint left on a counter to one taken after arrest

It's very cool stuff.  Thanks for letting me stop by and share what I know about this technology. Click here to watch a video of just what this software offers.
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Edith Maxwell, a software technical writer in the video-editing arena, lives on the Massachusetts north shore. Her short story, "Reduction in Force,” will appear in Thin Ice (Level Best Books) later this fall; she has three other published short stories, as well. A mother, world traveler, PhD in Linguistics, and Guppy, Edith is on the board of Sisters in Crime, New England, and also tends a vegetable garden and four cats. She blogs weekly at "Speaking of Mystery": http://edithmaxwell.blogspot.com/

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

There's No Such Thing As A Bad Read ... Right?

By Katherine Hall Page

I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know how to read, or a time when I wasn’t enthralled by reading. Nose in a book, curled up in a chair, my mother would tell me to go outside and play, which I did—taking my book with me. If I’m caught in a long grocery line without a paperback tucked in my purse, I get a bit panicky and start reaching for whatever is closest to hand—Soap Opera Digest, Say Goodbye to Cellulite or one of the tabloids screaming “Brangelina Adopts Space Alien Triplets”.

In my book, there’s no such thing as a Bad Read.

There is, however, a Good Read. Neither genre, nor length, matter. What matters are the written words and their ability to take you inside yourself and, at the same time, far away. Summer means more leisure to read for me as I’ve usually submitted my next book in the late spring. This summer I’ve been reading a great number of wonderful British crime writers, having attended Crimefest in Bristol, England in May Colin Dexter was the guest of honor and I’ve been rereading him, as well as discovering a few of his I had somehow missed. Other British writers: Cath Staincliffe’s The Kindest Thing (it may be the best book I’ve read this year), also Matt Hilton’s books and A.D. Scott’s debut, A Small Death in the Great Glen. I stopped in London and went to Persephone Press’s bookstore and walked away with some of their treasures: vintage novels by authors like Nancy Mitford and Dorothy Whipple (available online from their web site). Vintage mysteries are always Good Reads, and I have a stack from the Rue Morgue Press in Colorado (also a great web site).

2010 is the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill A Mockingbird. I reread it and a fascinating biography, Mockingbird by Charles J. Shields that came out several years ago. It answers the question always asked about why Harper Lee never wrote another book.

Summer is also a good time for a certain type of book—family sagas—I’m reading William Martin’s Annapolis—and books filled with humor and colorful characters. I lean toward Dorothy Cannell, Dorothea Benton Frank, and Mary Kay Andrews.

Because I am interested in all things culinary, I read Anthony Bourdain’s new book, Medium Raw and am halfway through Heat An Amateur’s Adventures As Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, And Apprentice To A Dante-Quoting Butcher In Tuscany by Bill Buford.

I live in Maine part of the year and wait for the summer church and library book sales that generate operating funds or money for special projects like a new roof. This is where I pick up vintage children’s books and cookbooks.  I particularly like cookbooks from the 1940’s and 50’s, as well as the ones community groups put together. I came across one published by the Oceanville, Maine Baptist Church for their 200th anniversary a number of years ago. Mixed in with recipes for Salmon Wiggle and Mother’s Molasses Cookies, I came across this prayer:

Dear God:
I thank you for a great day.
I have not gossiped.
I have not lost my temper.
I have not said anything I regret.
I have not had any impure thoughts.
I have not argued with anyone.
I have not disappointed my family
I have not taken Your name in vain.
But in a moment I’m going to get out of bed,
And then I’m really going to need Your help.
In Jesus’ Name.
Amen

No matter what one’s belief, or lack thereof, I think we can all agree, this is a Good Read!
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Katherine Hall Page is the Agatha Award winning author of the Faith Fairchild mystery series. An amateur sleuth, Faith is also a caterer, minister’s wife, and mother. The 19th in the series, The Body in the Gazebo (Wm. Morrow) will be published in early April. Page’s first cookbook, Have Faith in Your Kitchen (Orchises Press) is out now. Katherine welcomes visitors to her web site and enjoys comments from readers: www.katherine-hall-page.org

Monday, September 13, 2010

Two Steps Up, One Step Back -- My Road to Publication

By Lisa Black

My writing career began one night when my mother, who had apparently exhausted her repertoire that particular evening, told me to make up my own bedtime story. It involved a prince, a princess, and a bat (as in the animal). It was my first thriller, the suspense of danger and, of course, the all-important romantic subplot.

Han.Solo Later on I became a prolific letter-writer, and in letters to my favorite cousin I would always include a story—storyboarded with little stick figures (I couldn’t draw). I don’t know how old I was, but I remember that a first-class stamp was 8 cents. It wasn’t until I saw Star Wars in high school that I began to write serious stories—serious meaning they didn’t include pictures. Today they call that fan fiction. To me it was simply another artifact of my serious crush on Harrison Ford.

However, also in high school I visited Washington DC and fell in love with the city, meaning I loved the monuments and the buildings and the marble, not what people did there. What people actually did there bored me silly. I should have been an Stacked books architect but instead I majored in political science, so that I graduated with no marketable skills whatsoever except typing. I became a secretary, which meant I sat in front of a word processor all day. So what the heck, I’ll write a novel.

I wrote six.

By the third book I actually deigned to offer it to an agent, though I felt sure I didn’t really need one. (I opened my query letter with “I don’t think I need an agent….” I’m sure that scored two points in the circular file in record time.)

Woman with microscope After the sixth book I decided I not only needed an agent, I needed a new day job, so I went back to school and got a degree in biology, specifically to go into forensics. I wound up with a pretty cool job but no time to write until my husband shanghaied me to southwest Florida. Now I had no job, no friends and no family. I started writing again just to stay sane, and sensibly applied my new forensic expertise to my mystery stories.

I kept querying. I was quite organized about it—former secretary and all—and had a 6 page single spaced Excel spreadsheet of agents, addresses and pertinent facts along with columns for date mailed and any response returned. With my 9th book—Trace Evidence—I decided to mix it up and start with the Z’s instead of the A’s. Just for fun. Meanwhile, back at the ranch: CSI premiered. Everyone began to look for the next Patricia Cornwell.

Woman_jumping_for_joy Then one momentous day my agent—a K—called and asked to represent me and I said okay, without discussion or negotiation. (I had already vetted via Google.) I did not know her, I had no sort of ‘in’ with her at all. I was just another query letter she received. We hashed out Trace Evidence for eight months before she auctioned it to Hyperion in a two-book deal.
And I lived happily ever after?

Yes, to some extent. But there was still the occasional pothole. 

I wrote most of the second book while we were still working on the first one, and, naive soul that I am, assumed the public had had enough of serial killers killing beautiful young women. What was to be my second published novel involved a dead child and a suburban household. It did have problems, I’m not denying that. So finally the publisher said we really need you to write something else. I had been gathering ideas for what became Unknown Means as the third novel, so I simply moved it up to the number two slot. I wrote the first draft in 3½ months, 4000 words at a time. It was grueling. Unknown Means got great reviews but it was too late. I was not to be the next Patricia Cornwell.

I trod on. I’d already written the next book and my wonderful agent and I loved it, but we knew that even if publishers loved it as well, they would make decisions based solely on the sales figures from Trace Evidence.  Upon her advice I changed my name (from Elizabeth Becka to Lisa Black) and the names of my characters. She sold it to William Morrow (Harper Collins) and I couldn’t be happier with them.

Feet_on_sand Takeover
got a big push, Evidence of Murder has held its own, and Trail of Blood is looking good. But what would have been the sixth book? My agent didn’t like it. The plot didn’t come together as well as it needed to, and she didn’t think meth addicts made sympathetic victims. (After all, everyone in a book has to be young and rich and sexy or no one will care that they’re dead!)

So I threw it out, and started over. Again.

Because even with two steps up and one step back, I’m still moving forward. 
==============================
Trailofblood_16 Lisa Black spent the five happiest years of her life in a morgue, working as a forensic scientist in the trace evidence lab until her husband dragged her to southwest Florida. Now she toils as a certified latent print analyst and CSI at the local police department by day and writes forensic suspense by night. Her books have also been published in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Spain and Japan. Her fifth book, Trail of Blood, involves the real-life Torso Killer, who terrorized Cleveland during the dark days of the Great Depression. For more information visit her website: www.lisa-black.com
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Friday, September 10, 2010

Just who was Anna Katherine Green?

By Leslie Shortlidge

Pennsylvania politics took a back seat to mystery one day in 1878.  Who, asked the state’s legislators, was the real author of the taut, gritty mystery novel The Leavenworth Case? Surely “Anna Katharine Green” was a pen name for someone of the male persuasion. since the story of murder and subsequent detection was considered “manifestly beyond a woman’s powers.”*

The elected officials of PA were wrong. Anna Katharine Green was indeed Anna Katharine Green. Born in Brooklyn in 1846, her father, first reader, and first editor, James Wilson Green, was a lawyer. One has to assume that young Anna was paying quite a bit of attention to the stories her father brought home from work, or been sufficiently interested in criminal law to conduct her own investigation into police procedure and criminal trials. The Leavenworth Case, which was a huge success, immediately assumes a form that 21st century readers know and love: a body, a post-mortem, a locked room, a potential murder weapon, the testimony of witnesses, family secrets. Green puts all of these now-familiar tropes into play very quickly, commanding the reader’s attention and exciting curiosity.

She also introduces the reader to perhaps the most important trope, and that is the canny but eccentric sleuth in the personage of Mr. Gryce, who confounds our expectations from the get-go, as the novel’s narrator explains: 

“And here let me say that Mr. Gryce, the detective, was not the thin, wiry individual with the piercing eye you are doubtless expecting to see. On the contrary, Mr. Gryce was a portly, comfortable personage with an eye that never pierced, that did not even rest on you. If it rested anywhere, it was always on some insignificant object in the vicinity, some vase, inkstand, book, or button.”

The dialogue is sharp – no excessive tag lines clutter up the rapid back-and-forth of these post-bellum Brooklynites. Human nature is on display in the personages of the household staff and the jurors at the inquest. Love shows up right away, unbidden and unhelpful. Secrets are choked back by those unwilling to reveal them. Glances are exchanged.

Green wrote at least 40 other books, and also created detectives Violet Strange (isn’t that the best name ever?) and Amelia Butterworth, characters who perhaps influenced Nancy Drew and Miss Marple.

Judge for yourself the importance of Green’s work:  The first ten people to comment on this blog will be entered to win the just-issued Penguin edition of The Leavenworth Case.
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Leslie Shortlidge is a Guppie and lives in Columbus, Ohio. You can follow her on Twitter, where her handle is Bookorama. Most of her posts are exciting updates on her word count, using the #amwriting hash tag.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Organize the blogs you read with Google Reader

by Lisa J. Jackson

Do you follow several blogs? Do you find that keeping up with a lot of blogs to be time consuming? Google Reader can help.

Google Reader is one of many helpful Google tools that help people with their productivity. It is an automated interface that organizes your subscriptions to news sites and blogs in one place.

You can easily have the news and updates on subjects of interest delivered to your e-mail. You can read through them at your convenience. I find it just as easy to log into Google Reader and view unread blogs and news directly from there.

1. Subscribe to the news feeds and blogs you want, then read the new postings and updates whenever it’s convenient for you. If some content doesn’t interest you after a while, simply unsubscribe.

2. It’s easy to keep track of the feeds you have already read and those you haven’t. Google Reader shows unread items in bold.

3. Whether the site or blog you follow updates daily, weekly, or monthly, you’ll get the notices of new posts right after they happen.

 4. You can also search for new and interesting content through Google Reader without taking hours of surfing the Internet. Let Google Reader do the work for you; even sort blogs and news into categories/folders for easier reference.

If you’re on the go a lot, well, you can access Google Reader from your phone, from any computer, or add a gadget to iGoogle.

If you already have a Google account, you’re ready to go. Sign in to Google Reader with your Google username and password.

Otherwise, getting a (free) Google account is painless. Go to Google Reader and sign up on the spot. Help for Google Reader can be found here.

Google strives to make its interfaces as user-friendly as possible. There are help files and step-by-step instructions available to get you set up and proactive.

If you’d like a hands-on introduction to Google Reader, check out the Google Reader Tour. You can also visit the Newbies Guide to get a handy walk-through of the basics of Google Reader (including shortcuts and scripts) and RSS feeders.

I find it incredibly handy to see all the unread blog posts in one spot. I’m still floored by how much time it saves me on a daily basis.

If you haven’t discovered Google Reader, why not give it a try. If you are already using Google Reader, have you discovered anything you’d like to share with our blog readers?
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Lisa J. Jackson is an editor, author, book coach, consultant, Big Sister, cat owner, and chocolate lover. She writes fiction as Lisa Haselton, has a blog for book reviews and author interviews, and is on the staff of The Writer’s Chatroom where she gets to chat with writing professionals on a weekly basis — and you can too!   Visit her web site!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Mystery and Writing Group Blogs

By Joyce Tremel

This is our first installment of essential blogs for mystery writers covers group blogs. Note that this list only touches on a few of the many wonderful group blogs out there. We will list more in the future. I promise!

Working Stiffs—“Where Crime Writers Talk About Life, Work, and Murder.” Created by Pittsburgh SinC members, it has expanded to include writers from all over. I’m one of the founding members and the current blog administrator.

Poe’s Deadly Daughters—“A Blog For Mystery Lovers.” Posts on PDD are an interesting mix if craft and the writing life and often features visiting authors on the weekends.

Murderati—“Mysteries, Murder and Marketing.” One of the first group mystery blogs. It features a nice mix of craft, books, and personal essays.

The Lipstick Chronicles—“Just keep reading and no one gets hurt.” TLC has undergone many changes over the years but has never lost their focus of entertaining readers. Ask a long time TLCer what IOCHFTS means.

The Kill Zone—“Insider perspectives from today’s hottest thriller and mystery writers.” This is another blog that mixes posts on craft with entertaining stories of the writing life.

Criminal Minds—“A virtual panel.” This blog is a little different. Each blogger answers the same question posed to them that week.

The Cozy Chicks—“Cozy up to some killer books.” The Cozy Chicks post about the writing life. They say, “Grab a cup of coffee, pull up a chair and join the conversation.”

Jungle Red Writers—“Writing well is the best revenge.” You’ll recognize all these Sisters in Crime. They blog about writing—and everything else.

Hey, There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room—“Mystery writing from idea to bookshelf.” Nice mix of posts from writers, booksellers, and even a slithery agent.

Killer Hobbies—These writers write about… what else? Hobbies of course!

The LadyKillers—“An unsuitable blog for a woman…” A blog for readers and writers of crime fiction.

Can you think of any other group blogs? Feel free to share them with us in the comments section.

(Fear not, we'll feature single blogs in the coming weeks.)

Don't miss tomorrow's post, when Lisa J. Jackson tells you how to organize the blogs you read!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Liar, Liar--Pants On Fire!

By Wendy Lyn Watson

Like most writers, I was a reader first, so the prospect of sharing “good reads” with the mystery-writing community thrilled me.  But the minute I said “yes,” the enormity of my task hit me.  How on earth could I whittle down my mental list of killer fiction into a handful of recommendations?

I decided right off the bat that I couldn’t make recommendations in my own genre (cozy mysteries), because I’d have to start with “Hey, if you like cozies, you should check out my new Mystery a la Mode, SCOOP TO KILL, which is out TODAY!”  That would be plain ol’ tacky.  And then I’d have to recommend all my talented friends, and I’d be sure to leave someone off the list, feelings would be hurt, words exchanged ... you get the drift.

Looking farther a field into the darker realms of mystery and crime fiction, my first impulse was to share a book I’ve only recently discovered: DECEPTION, by Denise Mina  (published in the UK under the title Sanctum). The book isn’t new (2005), but I found it as I was plowing eagerly through Mina’s backlist. It was new to me, and perhaps to you, too.

The premise is delicious. Forensic psychiatrist Susie Harriot stands convicted of murdering serial killer Andrew Gow, whom she was treating in a Scottish prison, and Gow’s wife. Lachlan Harriot, Susie’s stay-at-home-daddy and would-be-novelist husband, narrates his own investigation into Susie’s shadowy relationship with Gow, an investigation that allows Lachlan into his wife’s most private space (her office) against her wishes.

Yummy, right?

The cherry on top, though, is Mina’s use of my all-time-favorite literary device: the unreliable narrator. As readers, we depend on Lachlan to perceive and pass along the information we need to suss out the real story of what happened between Susie and the Gows. Yet Lachlan is not neutral in this tale. His relationship with the crime is complicated by his complex relationship with his wife. We are left to untangle whether the story he tells is fact, delusion, or outright deception.

If you haven’t read Denise Mina yet, I highly recommend her entire catalogue, but Deception holds a special place in my heart.

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Wendy Lyn Watson writes deliciously funny cozy mysteries with a dollop of romance.  Her Mysteries a la Mode (I Scream, You Scream, Scoop to Kill, and A Parfait Murder (June, 2010)) feature amateur sleuth Tallulah Jones, who solves murders in between scooping sundaes.  While she does not commit--or solve--murders in real life, Wendy can kill a pint of ice cream in nothing flat.  She's also passionately devoted to 80s music, Asian horror films, and reality TV.  Be sure to check out her web siteWendy also blogs with the Killer Characters on every 3rd of the month.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Create Your Own Yellow Brick Road

By C.L. Phillips

Is there only one yellow-brick road to publication? Methinks not. Just as there is a title for every reader, a car for every driver, there is a path to publication for every writer...who doesn't quit. Sylvia Dickey Smith, winner of the Barbara Burnett Smith Mentoring Authors Foundation Sage Award Winner for 2010, proves where there's a will, there's a way.

Starting in 2006, Sylvia queried a hundred agents. Not one nibble. In 2007, she found an agent who subsequently went out of business. Weary, discouraged, and determined never to be self-published, Sylvia reset her sights on small publishers. She landed a deal, sans agent, with LL Dreamspace. Fast forward three years, and she's published three mysteries - Dance on His Grave, Deadly Sins Deadly Secrets, Dead Wreckoning, and one cookbook Sassy Southern Classy Cajun.

What's unique about Sylvia's journey is how her writing evolved. She's moved into women's historical fiction with her latest book, A War of Her Own, a project she started during NaNoWriMo 2008, soon to be released in September 2010 by CrickHollow Books (www.crickhollowbooks.com). Again, she didn't slow down to find an agent. Instead, she targeted small publishers, negotiated her own contract, and pushed forward with the zeal of a tiger on steroids. Sylvia said, "I came into this world feet-first and left-handed. I'm not waiting for anybody to tell me what to do." Sylvia attacks the writing business like a business, and she is her own entrepreneur.

What I admire about Sylvia's journey is her ability to make decisions that are right for her, and her ability to execute. She created a plan. When the plan didn't work, she changed. When the changes spurred personal growth, she trusted her inner guidance and a new voice emerged. She's following this new voice into a new area, women's fiction. Like any artist, she's experimenting, letting each project or novel play a role in the growth of her craft, her self, and her dreams. When asked why she created A War of Her Own, Sylvia said, "In the 1940's, women were left on their own when they had problems. And women do what they have to do come hell or high water. I wanted to write about that kind of woman." In War of Her Own, the main character, Bea Meade gives a new meaning to personal strength as her life evolves from that of a young, sheltered wife and mother to a divorced working woman, meeting the world on her own terms with a pragmatic view of men, family, and religion.

There are many ways to measure success. Sylvia creates her own measures. Do you? On your path to publication, do you have a plan for evolving your command of craft? Are you building the internal self image to sustain you during difficult times? Do you nurture experiments that could be the key to your future success? Sylvia taught me that the answers will be different for every writer. What's important is that you honestly ask the questions of yourself, and Write Down the ANSWERS. Make a plan. Get out there. Engage the market. Make adjustments. And as always...

Write on!

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C.L Phillips writes mystery novels while nestled under a hundred-year live oak tree in downtown Austin. Except in August. C.L writes about the the gap between what people want and what they actually do. Broccoli or chocolate chip cookies, anyone? Check out her web site: www.clphillips.com or find her onTwitter: @clphillips787