Friday, December 30, 2011

More on Vera Caspary

By A. B. Emrys

I have published a great deal about Caspary's appreciation for the novels of Wilkie Collins, the Victorian author often considered to have launched the mystery novel, and Caspary's adaptations of both his The Woman and White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868). In addition to Laura, she went on to rework Collins' plots and characters in Stranger than Truth (1946), set in Caspary's familiar world of ad agencies, and The Mystery of Elizabeth, about an amnesiac who's claimed by three sets of people, all of whom want to lock her up.

She was one of the most innovative of Collins's many adapters, who range from Bram Stoker to Elizabeth Peters - and the most successful one I've found at modernizing the character narration of his novels of testimony. Among other changes, her principal female characters tell their own version of the story. Collins' wide experimentation with having characters tell all or parts of the story blended perfectly with Caspary's instincts as playwright and scriptwriter, and her use of voice in novels flowered from Laura (1942) through the rest of her career.

Three Caspary films are available to see - and the best of these is Laura. Caspary fought with Preminger for her positive view of the title character and the film ultimately captured it. Note that in the chief setting, Laura Hunt's apartment, she lives alone with a large portrait of herself. This backdrop wordlessly conveys Caspary's independence theme.

The other two films are A Letter to Three Wives and Blue Gardenia. A Letter to Three Wives, which the New York Times called one of the top 10 films of 1949, was based on a script Caspary adapted from another writer's novel. The plot is about three wives tormented by a local siren who claims to have run off with one of their husbands. Among Caspary's additions to the story were strengthening the women as they find out the truth, as well as the use of the taunting voiceover. The Fritz Lang film, Blue Gardenia, adapted by others from her screen scenario tells the story of a telephone operator so desperate for affection that she goes out with the company seducer. Little of this study of a lonely single woman comes off in the film, but Nat King Cole does sing the title song.

Two of Caspary's novels, Laura and Bedelia (The Feminist Press, 2005) and a collection of stories are in print now. The stories collect several of her best 1940s and 50s magazine pieces, especially "The Murder in the Stork Club" (Crippen & Landru, 2009), about an upper-class woman who writes radio mysteries and is married to a working-class detective. When she's a suspect in a nightclub killing, he puts aside their quarrels over her mink coat to clear her name.

Most of Caspary's novels can be found through online sources, chiefly in old library editions that are further evidence of how well-known she was as a writer. Several articles on her (including my own) have appeared in Clues: A Journal of Detection. The Vera Caspary Papers, an archive she created, resides with the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research in Madison, housed in the Wisconsin Historical Society. The archive includes unproduced scripts (Illicit was bought for Marilyn Monroe, who killed herself before production), movie scenarios (including Gardenia), book manuscripts, revisions and a great deal of correspondence about her work.

In writing about Caspary, it's my hope that readers will rediscover and enjoy her writing and more scholars will comment on her long career as novelist, playwright and scriptwriter.

A. B. Emrys is the author of Wilkie Collins, Vera Caspary and the Evolution of the Casebook Novel and professor emeritus of English at the University of Nebraska - Kearney.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Vera Caspary: A Lost Sister in Crime

By A. B. Emrys

When Vera Caspary died in 1987, every major newspaper ran her obituary, and they had plenty of information to cite. Over half a century, she had published 17 novels plus novellas and short stories. In addition, 20 films were credited to her as adaptations of her work, or were based on scenarios or scripts she wrote. The play she adapted from her most famous novel was still staged (and is today).

Her last novel, The Mystery of Elizabeth, came out in 1976, followed by her critically-praised autobiography, The Secrets of Grownups, in 1979. She was best known then, and only known now, if at all, as the author of Laura, her 1940s mystery about an ad executive targeted for murder. The novel was filmed by Otto Preminger as one of the first movies called noir.

I've been helping to get Caspary's work back into print and I made her a major focus in my book, Wilkie Collins, Vera Caspary, and the Evolution of the Casebook Novel (McFarland, 2011). In doing so, I've met a fascinating character and discovered books and movies I now recommend to others.

Caspary's unflinching spirit made Sojourner, in a review of her autobiography, call her "a natural and unabashed female rebel." Part of her rebellion was her determination to be a professional writer. When she got turned down over and over for business writing jobs, she took what she could get and finagled her way into writing ads, much like her character, Laura Hunt.

Her early novels veered from fantasy (the tale of the daughter of side-show performers who flees to avoid becoming a tattooed lady in Ladies & Gents), to stringent analysis of class, race and gender-bashing (in The White Girl about a black woman who passes for white) to a family epic about class prejudice among a clan of Portuguese-descended Jews much like her own family (Thicker Than Water).

The Depression and her membership in the Communist Party strengthened Caspary's focus on serious issues. Yet it was murder plots, the first of which was Laura, her fourth novel, that offered the fresh vehicles for her to continue analyzing the dynamic between independence and the temptation to cling and possess, something both her male and female characters have to confront to survive.

Even her most classically-plotted murder books deeply embedded other crimes. In one of her most chilling plots, Bedlia (1944), a black widow novel, the tables are turned on the serial bride in a scene so callous it generates some sympathy for a killer.

She became one of the mid-century writers of what were dubbed "psychothrillers," and an older colleague of Patricia Highsmith. Fans of Highsmith's conundrums (and I'm one) would also enjoy Caspary's The Weeping and the Laughter (1950), whose lead character may have been attacked by one of her greedy relatives or may have tried to kill herself; The Man Who Loved His Wife (1966), in which a disabled, angry man keeps a deliberately false diary that accuses his wife of wanting him dead - and then becomes a corpse or Final Portrait (1971) in which an actor turns down the part of Hamlet only to play it in real life.

To be continued tomorrow ...

A. B. Emrys is the author of Wilkie Collins, Vera Caspary and the Evolution of the Casebook Novel and professor emeritus of English at the University of Nebraska - Kearney.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Touring: Worth the Price?

By Jeri Westerson

[Originally published at Poe's Deadly Daughters,]

Since my newest book, Troubled Bones, came out in mid-October, I’ve been on the road touring. And I think if I never saw another airport, it couldn’t be too soon.

My husband actually looks forward to the early part of the tour that I do in Arizona, because this becomes a long weekend for us both, driving from our home in southern California to cross the deserts and slip over the Colorado River into Arizona. A weekend of sitting around pools with the occasional stint at a bookstore or library doesn't sound too bad.

This year, I asked my publicist at St. Martin’s to set me up on a multi-state tour. The company is happy to do that for me. Of course, they don’t actually pay for any of it, they just make the phone calls and set it up. It’s up to me to get there.

Is it worth the time and expense for an author? In this age of social media, can one get away with simply tapping away on the computer to get attention? To sell books, authors have to get their name out there. And even with all the Facebooking and Twittering one can do, I believe there comes a time when you still have to step out of your front door and go out into the world, meeting people personally and connecting with librarians and booksellers.

I do events all year. I’m lucky to live in southern California where there seems to be lots of avenues for me to get myself out into the public eye, from the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books to the smaller but no less high profile literary gatherings like Literary Orange and luncheons sponsored by various women’s professional organizations, as well as library appearances. And once the word gets out that you’re halfway entertaining, you get recommended all over the place. That’s how I roll these days, through recommendations, through the speaker’s bureau at my Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime, and through my publicist with my publisher.

But that only gets me connected in California. I wanted far more coverage than that and this year, I pulled out the stops—and my credit card—to hit the road. (You can see pictures of my adventures at

Before any official book tour, I began the year in January with a couple of panels at the ALA Midwinter Conference in San Diego. And then I got invited to Murder on the Menu, a grand panel of authors sponsored by the Cerritos Library in southern California. So far so good. I could drive to these and they required no overnight stay.

In February, I was invited to Birmingham, Alabama, for the weekend of author panels and events in Murder in the Magic City. Now I needed to shell out airfare and hotel. They managed the ferrying around and the meals, so that helped. Also in February, I flew up to San Francisco for a day to the Oakland Library to participate on a panel with other mystery authors. Airfare only, as one of my critique partners, Ana Brazil, who lives in the area, offered to drive me around (when I came off the plane she was holding up one of those signs with my name on it, as if she were a limo driver. Funny!)

In April, I hit Literary Orange on a panel with fellow author (and personal idol) Barbara Hambly, and made all sorts of connections with librarians, scoring more gigs for later in the year. There were no fees accrued there and I got a free lunch, to boot. Also in April, San Antonio College invited me to speak as part of its writer’s week (they heard about me through acquaintance with another mystery author). They paid me to be there. (That's what I'm talkin' about!)

At the end of April, I skipped the free LA Times Festival of Books to attend the mystery fan convention, Malice Domestic, in Bethesda, Maryland, where I hosted a banquet table with fans and fans-to-be and also sat on a panel. I paid a conference fee, airfare, hotel and meals, as well as dosh for giveaways to my tablemates.

I taught a workshop on researching the historical novel at the California Crime Writer’s Conference in Pasadena, for which I only shelled out for the hotel room (which I really got free with my points from Best Western).

In June, I attended and was empaneled at the Historical Novel Society Conference in San Diego (I paid a conference fee, which they cut in half since I was a speaker, hotel expenses, and gas to get there. Meals were included.)

In September, I went to Bouchercon in St. Louis, moderated one panel, sat on another, was snuck into the Library Breakfast by my publisher, and attended an outside event under my pen name at a local bookstore. In October I was on a panel at the West Hollywood Book Fair as my alter ego, and then began my medieval mystery book tour with my book launch in Pasadena (hotel, meals and party expenses for the launch, including sword-fighting knights, who don't come cheap!)

The following weekend, my husband and I headed out for the Arizona leg of the tour, which was driveable (gas, food, lodging). But the weekend after that, I was flying out to Texas to hit a bookstore each in Houston and Austin. The next weekend, I was in North Carolina, hitting two libraries and two bookstores, and this last weekend wrapped things up in Wisconsin having been invited to Murder and Mayhem in Muskego, another weekend full of panels with 14 other mystery authors.

This last stop in Wisconsin was the only event I attended all year where all expenses were paid by the sponsors (except that my flight out of Milwaukee was delayed and I missed my connecting flight to California which ended up in an overnight stay in Chicago, which I paid for). Otherwise, I was all in for conference registration fees, hotels, car rentals, gas, airfare and meals. And let me tell you, all told for the year, that is a very, VERY BIG bill for a mid-list author with only four books released (six if you count the others under my pen name). If you think it's glamorous being an author, let me show you my credit card bills.

So, am I just going to complain about it or has it been worthwhile? On a human level, it was very worthwhile. Going to meet the readers personally, giving readers face time--and connecting in person to all those Facebook friends--leads to even more loyalty and to talking me up to other readers. Same thing at the bookstores. Sure, I sell a few right then and there, but now you’ve got the bookstore owner on your side, hand-selling when a curious and eager reader shows up and just has no idea what to read next.

But how does one quantify it? Do I have to sell X number of books on my tour to pay for it? Does it even work that way? Can it?

The answer, I believe, is not really. It’s truly impossible to quantify how many books I will eventually sell by these out-of-pocket efforts.

Touring is not for everyone. And because of the expense involved, I doubt I will be doing much traveling at all next year (see me and Crispin on Facebook!). But I’m glad I gave it a push this time around. And, as many of the librarians and new fans told me, “You weren’t on my radar before, but you are now!” Maybe that says it all.

(Pictures, from top: Jeri and the Giant Peach outside of Birmingham, AL; the costume parade at the Historical Novel Society Conference; the town called Hope in Arizona I passed through.)

Jeri Westerson, the president of the Orange County chapter of Sisters in Crime, is the author of the Crispin Guest medieval mysteries. The newest title in the series is Troubled Bones. The previous title, The Demon's Parchment, was nominated for the Reviewer's Choice Award for Historical Mystery from Romantic Times magazine and the Bruce Alexander Award for Best Historical Mystery. For more information, see

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Considering the MacGuffin

[Originally published in a longer version at]

By J. J. Murphy

Have you ever heard of a MacGuffin? And, no, it’s not a new breakfast sandwich at McDonald’s.

If you’re a movie buff, you probably know this term. It was used by film director Alfred Hitchcock to explain a certain kind of plot device. Specifically, a MacGuffin is a valuable item that both the heroes and the villains are desperately trying to obtain. It’s often used in thrillers or mysteries, but it can appear in other types of films or books as well.

One classic example of a MacGuffin is the black bird statuette in the film, “The Maltese Falcon.” Another is the Ark of Covenant in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Yet another is the sled, Rosebud, in “Citizen Kane.” A MacGuffin is a kind of holy grail, sometimes literally, as in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” or “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”

The MacGuffin is often an object that has no meaning other than simply being valuable. It’s sometimes just a thing that the story revolves around, something that moves the plot forward. For example, we never find out what’s actually on the secret microfilm in Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.”

But this object, because it’s pursued by many people, becomes the repository of their hopes and desires.

“The stuff that dreams are made of,” said Humphrey Bogart (as Sam Spade) in “The Maltese Falcon.”

Tell us, what’s your favorite MacGuffin – and where can it be found?

Photo: J. J. Murphy and spouse.

J.J. Murphy writes the Algonquin Round Table mysteries, a humorous historical series that features Dorothy Parker as a witty sleuth in 1920s New York. The most recent title in the series, You Might As Well Die, focuses on the tale of Ernie MacGuffin, a second-rate artist and a first-rate nuisance who jumps to his certain death off the Brooklyn Bridge. It takes Parker, the other members of the famed Algonquin round table and master magician Harry Houdini to determine what really happened to him.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Letting Go In Order to Write

By Ellen Byerrum

[Originally published online at]

Every book gets written in spite of fear, anxiety, and the world at large - or maybe they are written in spite of ourselves, when we manage to get out of our own way. And so there comes a point in every mystery novel where I have to let go of my fears and preconceptions about what it should be and who it has to please, and simply write the story. I have to let go in order to reach a new and different level in my writing.

That seems self-evident, and yet it's easy to allow little things to stump me and stop me. I have to remember what I enjoy about writing. That often seems impossible. And it means kicking all the invisible critics off my shoulders and ignoring the visible ones. It means I have to remember why I like my characters and their stories in the first place. Why I started writing in the first place.

After writing the Crime of Fashion mystery series for eight books, it becomes way too easy to get wrapped up in conflicting expectations. The geometry of the plot, for example. How many suspects should there be? Where and who are the red herrings? What is the story arc? Where do I introduce a new character? How do the mechanics work? Am I ignoring regulars in the series that people love, but who just don’t have a big role in this book? How do I make room for new characters I'm excited about bringing to life?

And then there are the ... Fashion Bites! Believe me, including "Fashion Bites" in the books was never my idea in the first place. In my first novel (Killer Hair), I included a few tiny snippets of the reporting and fashion columns written by my heroine, fashion reporter Lacey Smithsonian, just enough to give a flavor of her writing and her job at her newspaper. But my editor at the time (a terrific editor I'm still friends with, by the way) eagerly suggested how much fun it would be to turn these snippets into full columns in the books.

Fun?! The last thing I think about when I write them is fun. I worry if I have enough of them (four or five per book). I worry if they're smart and funny. Are they useful as actual fashion advice? Do they reflect the plot and move it forward? Are they in the right places, right order, right mood? Do they carry Lacey's unique voice and viewpoint? Do they work? Do they bite? (Yes, they often do.)

All those things can get in the way of the story. They can drain the energy, the spontaneity and the zest of the book. The story needs to spring to life as if it can't wait to be told. When the dialog is just okay and the opening is top-loaded with exposition, it reflects too much attention to the geometry and the plot set-up to make it enjoyable.

Overall, I have to remember that a mystery, though plotted carefully, is not an algorithm. In my experience, writing the required outline can strip away the moment-to-moment surprises like nothing else. Can you really write well if you’re burdened by some formula? If a = suspects, b = complications, c = corpse and d = detective, do you add blind alleys and red herrings, and divide by y (means, motive and opportunity) in order to find x (the culprit). Or does that just make it stale?

You may solve the mystery that way, but it does not necessarily add up to a good mystery. Formulas and algorithms for writing do not account for the effervescence, the will o' the wisp, the life and soul of a book. If you write it to a formula, it will read like a formula.
  • “Couldn’t you add a cat? Mystery readers love cats!” Don’t think so. I’m allergic to them in Real Life, so I can’t conduct the proper research.
  • “Have you considered a crime-fighting parrot?” Please, I’m trying to write. Although, in comic terms, the parrot is intriguing. Polly, want a clue? Wait, don’t distract me!
  • “This is too gritty/dark/light/comic for your readers.” Really? How do you know? Are my readers so delicate, so Victorian, they can’t take a touch of gritty realism? Will they faint if Lacey Smithsonian finds herself between a murderer and a hard place or investigates a skin-crawling, heartbreaking crime? Do they never laugh through the tears in Real Life? I suspect my readers are made of sterner (and deeper) stuff than formulaic mysteries. And I hope I am, too. And even though my books are comic, they are not fluffy. They have subtext. They have life.
So I am reminding myself to enjoy the process, to let the characters have their way and their say. I have to trust that the book is there within me. Yes, I am writing a book for my readers, my agent, my editor and my publisher. But I’m also writing it for myself. I can’t cram my mysteries into a preconceived idea. The bottom line is: First, I have to like it! I have to please myself. That means I cannot please everyone. And letting go of too many expectations is the first step.

So why is that so hard to remember?

Ellen Byerrum is the author of the Crime of Fashion mysteries. Two of her books -- Killer Hair and Hostile Makeover -- were adapted for film by the Lifetime Movie Network. The seventh and latest installment in the series is Shot Through Velvet.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Arizona Celebrates 25 Years of SinC

By Kris Neri

When Sandy Parshall, Chapter Liaison for Sisters in Crime, asked me to host one of the SinC 25th anniversary parties at my bookstore, The Well Red Coyote in Sedona, Arizona, I jumped at the chance. Throughout my own writing and publishing career, I’ve owed such a debt of thanks to Sisters in Crime that the party seemed a good way to express that and to introduce the organization to our customers.

Joining us in hosting the party was the SinC Desert Sleuths chapter of Scottsdale, Arizona, which has also scheduled parties in other bookstores around the state including The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale and Clues Unlimited in Tucson.

Appearing on a mystery panel at our event were L.C. Hayden from Texas, whose latest book is Bell Shaped Flowers, and Tom Griffith of California and Arizona, who has published The Burger Barn on Sunset. Also participating were Arizona authors and SinC members Shannon Baker, author of Ashes of the Red Heifer; R.P. Dahlke, author of A Dead Red Cadillac and A Dead Red Heart; Lori Hines, whose first mystery is The Ancient Ones, and Maria Grazia Swan, a published nonfiction author and a longtime SinC member in California and Arizona.

We received terrific raffle prizes from authors throughout the U.S., including Darrell James, who donated copies of his books Nazareth Child and Body Count and t-shirts; Sally Carpenter, who offered a copy of her book, The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper; M.M. Gornel, who donated copies of her books, Reticence of Ravens and Death of a Perfect Man, as well as beautiful bookmarks and L.C. Hayden, author of the Harry Bronson series, who donated an adorable personal grooming gift basket. Our grand prize was a lovely vase donated by author and potter Bette Golden Lamb who, with her husband J.J. Lamb, wrote Sisters in Silence.

We had hoped the mild weather we’d been enjoying would hold a bit longer — we’d had another author’s reception on the patio outside our store just two days before. But a freak storm blew in, bringing the cold, and forcing us to move everything indoors. The store made for quite a cozy setting, filled as it was with so many sisters, brothers and customers. All came together quite nicely in toasting Sisters in Crime’s illustrious milestone and wishing the organization another 25 years.

Photos by Joe Neri.

Award-winning author Kris Neri is the owner and operator of The Well Red Coyote, a general interest bookstore voted "Best Bookstore in Sedona" for six years in a row. She is the author of the Lefty Award-nominated Magical Mystery series. The newest title in the series is the recently-released Magical Alienation.

Friday, December 9, 2011

SinC Offers Two Hours of Video on the Latest Publishing Trends

For the first time ever, Sisters in Crime (SinC) is offering a series of video presentations of a SinC-sponsored writers’ workshop.

The video content, available online at no charge to members and non-members, includes more than two hours of information on the latest trends in publishing presented by crime fiction industry leaders specifically for crime fiction authors. The sessions were taped during Sisters in Crime’s annual “SinC Into Great Writing” workshop in September 2011.

The free video content includes:

Meg Gardiner: Lying for a Living
Award-winning thriller author Meg Gardiner speaks about the craft of writing and the key elements of a good read. (21 minutes)

Ellen Hart: E-publishing 101
Award-winning mystery author Ellen Hart provides an introduction to the first steps in e-publishing your novel. (9 minutes)

Libby Fischer Hellmann: To E or not to E
Award-winning crime fiction author Libby Fischer Hellmann presents the pros and cons of traditional publishing and e-publishing options. (20 minutes)

David Wilk: Trends in Publishing
Booktrix CEO David Wilk offers a look at a variety of issues facing authors today, from social media to the best materials to e-publish. (22 minutes)

Marcia Talley: Look Ma! I've Been Kindled!
Award-winning mystery author Marcia Talley provides a tutorial on publishing a manuscript for the Kindle and Nook platforms. The PowerPoint slides for her presentation are posted online with the video file. (15 minutes)

The Business of Print Publishing
Award-winning authors Cathy Pickens and Jim Huang present an overview of the business side of print publishing. (12 minutes)

Brazen Hussies Present: A Colloquium on Marketing
Marcia Talley leads a discussion of marketing possibilities. The panelists include Libby Jordan, marketing consultant for Open Road Media; Gina Panettieri, President and Executive Editor of Talcott Notch Literary Services and Debbi Mack, independently-published author. (19 minutes)

The seven-video series is available to Sisters in Crime members online at in the Members Only section at the Promoting Yourself area. Members will need a username and password to access the videos here. In addition, the video files are available to non-members online at in the Recent News section linked here.

Sisters in Crime was founded in 1986 to support the professional development and advancement of women crime fiction authors.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Finding Their Place in History

by Sandra Parshall

Authors of historical novels have all of human history, and a world of settings, to choose from. Have you ever wondered why a mystery writer decides to place a series in an earlier era – and what draws him or her to a particular time and place? We asked four authors of historical crime series what led to their choices.

Stefanie Pintoff, author of Secret of the White Rose, latest in the Simon Ziele mysteries:

“I was drawn to setting my historical series in early 1900s New York City for two primary reasons.

“First, there was never a question but that New York City would be a central setting in my books. I’m one of those people who became a New Yorker the moment I set foot here – and I find the city and its history to be endlessly fascinating.

“And second, I was drawn to the forensic innovation so prevalent during the time period. By 1905, more forward-thinking criminal scientists were beginning to challenge the prevailing opinion that criminal behavior resulted from a flaw of nature – a view popularized by Lombroso’s theory of the ‘born criminal.’ Scientists like my Alistair Sinclair sought to disprove these notions by interviewing and learning from a variety of violent offenders. This practice was not uncommon, but it was highly controversial: people worried that if we came to understand the criminal too well, then we might excuse (and not punish) his or her behavior.

“This led me to the challenge of creating an imperfect profiler. Someone who had many of the same questions we do today – but access to less sophisticated answers. Someone who would be brilliant and passionately devoted to his subject – but egocentric to the point of folly. Someone who would be just as enamored of New York City's high society as he was his academic passions. Through this scientist and my lead detective, Simon Ziele, I have introduced elements of ‘new’ science in each book – fingerprinting in the first, graphology in the second, and ballistics testing in the third (experts had just discovered that it was possible to match a particular gun to the bullet it had fired). I love the zeitgeist of this era, characterized by a tremendous faith in possibility – and the sense that the next big discovery was just around the corner, certain to change everything for the better.”

Kelli Stanley, author of City of Secrets, latest in the Miranda Corbie mysteries, and the Arcturus Roman noir mysteries:

“I grew up feeling like I secretly belonged in another era: the 1930s and 40s. I watched classic films, listened to radio shows (it helped that I was a kid in the nostalgia-crazed 70s) and devoured issues of a well-loved magazine called Nostalgia Illustrated, which covered popular culture of the 20s through the 50s.

“Call it Kismet, call it fate, but my fascination with the 30s and 40s – the period before my parent's actual memories, as they were both born in '39 – was always there, from the earliest age I can remember and, once I decided to become a writer, setting a series in the period between the wars seemed inevitable.

“As for San Francisco, though I didn't grow up here – and therefore don't share personal memories of Playland-at-the-Beach and other fondly-remembered landmarks – I did visit SF fairly regularly from the age of 10. I fell in love with it. I always sensed an electricity, a crispness, a clarity that other places and other cities lacked, a kind of devil-may-care danger and a celebratory sort of mad but innocent hedonism.

“Once I became an adult, it also seemed inevitable for me to live here (I have since 1985) and write about the City by the Bay... I may not be a native – indeed, I'm not a California native – but my heart is certainly in San Francisco, particularly in the rollicking, wide-open, cosmopolitan but small-town-generous city that she was in the 30s, 40s and 50s.”

Jeri Westerson, author of Troubled Bones, latest in the Crispin Guest medieval noir mysteries:

“The ‘Middle Ages’ spans some 1500 years, so I had to narrow it down from that. I picked that particular time in the 14th century to write about because it came some 40 years after the Plague that took out a third of the population of Europe: a third of the merchants, farmers, nobility—no one was spared.

It is also the age when the 10-year-old Richard II took the throne and began his intrigue-embattled reign that concluded at the end of the century with his being deposed and murdered. It is the time of the Hundred Years War and chivalry in its prime, with jousts and armor-plated battles. And it is the era of Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote the first important literary works in English (and who also appears as a character in my latest book, Troubled Bones).

When William the Conqueror came to England three centuries before, he kicked out all the Saxon (English-speaking) nobles and placed his own in their place and, for centuries after, the nobility of England only spoke French. But, in the late 1300’s, even the king is speaking (Middle) English and this is the beginning formation of the sense of Englishness that culminates with Henry VIII two centuries later. It’s a fascinating time to write about.”

Carola Dunn, author of Anthem for Doomed Youth, latest in the Daisy Dalrymple mysteries, and the Cornish mysteries:

“I chose the 1920s for the Daisy Dalrymple series because it was a time of change, when women were taking advantage of opportunities opened by the huge loss of men in WWI. I didn't want to deal with the horrors of the war directly, though the lingering shadows play a part in most of the books.

“My Cornish series is set about 1970. I didn't actually choose the date – after 30 years of writing historical fiction I thought I'd give myself a break and be vague. I said in a foreword to the first one that it's set "somewhere between my childhood memories of Cornwall and the present reality." But somehow it's got pinned down to the late '60s, early '70s.

“Almost all my books are set in England (Daisy does venture to America in one, and several of my Regencies are set elsewhere) because I'm a Brit in exile. After over four decades in the U.S., I still sound just about as English as when I landed on
these shores.”

Sandra Parshall is the award-winning author of the Rachel Goddard mystery series. Her latest book is Under the Dog Star, published this month by Poisoned Pen Press.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Aiding and Abetting

By Julie Tollefson

One of the things I value about members of Sisters in Crime is their willingness to aid and abet -- not in a criminal way, but in many generous and unselfish ways that help others build careers.

As a beginning fiction writer, the best career decision I’ve made was to join Sisters in Crime and its Border Crimes and Guppies chapters. The opportunities to grow as a writer and the camaraderie of the members are outstanding.

The monthly meetings of the Border Crimes chapter, which draws members from both the Kansas and Missouri sides of the Kansas City area, feature a programming mix that serves the interests of both writers and readers. In the past year, we’ve had visiting authors and book signings, as well as discussions with a homicide detective, a financial crimes investigator and experts in the psychology of anger. If that’s not enough, the chapter offers something special the second Saturday of every month, when the fabulous Nancy Pickard leads a book dissection workshop for writers to explore the techniques and skills of mystery writing. So many benefits for the low, low price of SinC membership!

Not long ago, I read a post on the Escaping Mediocrity blog describing crabs trapped in a bucket dragging each other down every time one tried to climb out. The author of the piece, Sarah Robinson, imagined a different scenario in which helpful crabs came to the rescue of their trapped brethren, aiding their escape from captivity. She suggested that in our lives and careers, we should look for the helpful crabs, the individuals who have successfully traveled a path similar to the one we are on and who are willing to lend us a hand on our journey.

“Because they’ve tasted freedom and they know your struggle, they are putting energy into aiding and abetting your escape. I believe that for those of us determined to get out of the bucket, such a group exists,” she wrote. (Read the entire post here).

Without a doubt, Sisters in Crime is such a group.

William W. Warner borrowed the name of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Beautiful Swimmers, from the translation of the Atlantic blue crab’s scientific name, Callinectes sapidus. (Callinectes = beautiful swimmer, sapidus = tasty.) The name also aptly describes the helpful members of Sisters in Crime. The established writers who willingly mentor others. The Sisters who commiserate and offer advice when the business of publishing seems overwhelming. The authors who volunteer information and guidance, swimming alongside colleagues through the challenges and joys of bringing a book to market. The result is a strong community that aids and abets all members in pursuit of their goals.

Sisters in Crime is a special group, and I feel unbelievably fortunate to be a member. I’ll wager every member has at least one story of a Sister (or Mister) who has gone above and beyond to lend a helping hand. Let’s show what great people belong to this organization. Give a shout out in the comments section to the good crabs, the beautiful swimmers, you’ve met through Sisters in Crime.

Julie Tollefson spends her days overseeing communications for an academic research center and her nights writing fiction. She can be found online at

Photo by David Gnojek.

Friday, December 2, 2011

New SinC Membership Options

by Elaine Will Sparber & Beth Groundwater

What gets you eight editions of inSinC, 24 editions of SinC Links, 24 editions of e-Book SinC Links, and two SinC Summit Reports? The new two-year membership option offered by SinC! Make all of those unlimited, add a spiffy lapel pin, and you’ve got the benefits of a lifetime membership.

Of course, both options, like the one-year membership, also offer a cornucopia of local chapters, a couple of online chapters, discounts to a variety of SinC events around the country, access to our book club database and networking and mentoring with fellow members, including an email discussion list.

The two new categories were unveiled this month for the 2012 membership year. Dues for the two-year option are $80/$70, professional and active respectively; the lifetime, $400/$350. One-year dues are unchanged.

With these choices, how do you decide which is right for you? Author Beth Groundwater, inSinC editor Molly Weston and aspiring fiction author Elaine Will Sparber sat down recently to figure that out.

Elaine Will Sparber (pictured at left): One thing to consider is how long you’ve already belonged to SinC. When did you first join? Where were you in your life?

Molly Weston: I first joined SinC nearly 20 years ago. I was then, as now, a voracious mystery reader and reviewer.

Beth Groundwater: I joined SinC in 2003, the local Rocky Mountain Chapter in 2004 (it disbanded at the end of 2009), and the Guppies online chapter in 2004. In 2003, I was an aspiring author with some unpublished short stories I was submitting to magazines, a practice novel-length manuscript that would never be published and one of many manuscript iterations for A Real Basket Case that I was starting to shop around.

EWS: I joined SinC in 2004. I was a writer and editor specializing in nonfiction, but my first love was always fiction and I hoped SinC would help me move in that direction. I also joined the New York/Tri-State Chapter and the Guppies. It took a while, but I learned to craft a novel-length piece of mystery fiction. Through SinC, I learned how to revise, pitch, promote and just generally slap my manuscript into shape and shove it out my door. How has your membership benefited you?

MW: Learning about what was going on in the mystery community—mystery conferences, Books in Print, and member contact information—was critical before the Internet. Networking among members has given me many opportunities to bring authors to my area.

Beth Groundwater (pictured at left): I’ve made personal contacts with many types of people who have helped me in my career: writers, readers, bloggers, librarians, bookstore owners, agents, editors, etc. Fellow Guppies helped me research agents and hone my query letter—through a Guppy contact I found my first agent. Local chapter meetings and workshops offered more help such as police, coroner and pi investigative techniques; how to plot, to develop characters, to promote and much more.

I attended the local Sheriff’s Department Citizen’s Academy with a group of Sisters. Then I branched out to mystery conferences where I met even more Sisters. I know that, without SinC, I would not be a published mystery author now and I would not have had the success that I’ve had to date.

EWS: Something else to consider when weighing dues options is where you see yourself in the next few years. I hope that in the coming year, I’ll finish one, if not both, of the fiction manuscripts I’ve been writing. In five years, I hope to see them published, and in 10 years, I hope to be publishing steadily.

BG: I will always be a mystery reader no matter what happens in my writing career. As for writing, I’ll have a book in each of two series released in 2012, two more are scheduled for 2013, and I hope to continue both series for many years. Five or 10 years down the road, who knows? I can dream of bestseller lists and other fantastic career goals, but I’ll continue to work hard on the manuscript for each book I write. I hope to never stop learning and improving, and SinC will help me in that.

MW: I suspect I’ll be reading mysteries as long as I can see—and I’m sure I’ll continue recommending those I like. I just hope that I’ll still be able to edit inSinC that long!

EWS: So, which dues option will you choose for 2012 and why?

MW: I’ll choose the lifetime or two-year option, mostly because I hate having to pay bills! I’m always looking for ways to simplify my life.

BG: I’m choosing the lifetime option because, no matter what happens with my writing career, I will always be a mystery reader. I will want to find out new-to-me mystery series and meet new-to-me mystery authors. And, as long as readers and publishers are interested in my mystery books, I expect to continue writing them. So, I plan to hang around with SinC for a long, long time.

EWS: I’ll most likely go with the two-year option. I’ve gotten so much from my SinC membership and I continue to learn things. One of these years, I’ll spring for the lifetime membership but, until I start earning money from my fiction, I’m trying to control my expenses.

BG: If you see yourself in 10 years still wanting to be a SinC member and still benefiting from that membership and you have the means to make that large commitment to the organization this year, then I suggest signing up for lifetime membership. You’ll be helping SinC build a reserve fund that will ensure the stability and strength of the organization in the future. Like the founding Sisters and past presidents, you’ll have raised your hand as someone who believes deeply in SinC and its goals and as someone who will rally ‘round the cause when needed. Plus you’ll get a snazzy pin to wear proudly, and you’ll never have to wonder again if you’ve sent in your membership!

For more information about the new dues options, see

Elaine Will Sparber, Beth Groundwater, and Molly Weston are members of the SinC Membership Committee.