Wednesday, October 26, 2016

California Assembly Bill 1570

I’m back from vacation. Not the best time to schedule a trip to Florida as it turns out. We did a 2 week driving trip so we just avoided the parts of Florida Hurricane Matthew was expected to reach and spent more time in Alabama than we originally planned. That meant we missed the Keys and the Everglades, our primary intended destinations.

We did find lots of interesting things to see in Alabama. Every time I notice my name on something when I’m traveling (a rare occurrence) I have to check it out, even if it’s not spelled the same way. In Birmingham, Alabama we found the Temple of Sibyl. It originally was on the grounds of someone’s house. The owner intended to be buried under it. But he was buried elsewhere and, when the property went up for sale, the “temple” was bought by the local garden society and moved to where we found it. It’s now used for weddings.

Sybil at the Temple of Sibyl
When I’m on vacation, I only occasionally check email. This time around I noticed a flurry of messages on one of the lists I’m on talking about a bill recently passed by the California state legislature, Assembly Bill 1570. This bill was meant to tighten restrictions on memorabilia dealers, but has unintended consequences for bookstores and author signings. It goes into effect January 1st of next year.

If you want to read the actual bill, it’s here.

Michael Hiltzik, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, wrote a very interesting article that talks about the possible consequences of this bill for book sellers in the state.

Basically, the bill requires certificates of authenticity for autographed memorabilia sold in California or to Californians. It wasn’t meant to apply to bookstores and author signings, but from what I’ve read, unintentionally does so. According to Hiltzik’s column, “Sacramento experts say the law doesn’t apply to bookstores selling author-autographed books, but the text itself is vague on the issue.”

No matter what those experts say, if I were a bookseller I’d probably be a little nervous. As Hiltzik points out, it’s the booksellers that bear the legal risk if a judge decides the experts are wrong. I personally haven’t heard of any bookstore doing anything differently based on this upcoming law, but it’s early days and it’s causing quite a kerfuffle among authors in the state.

The issue has been pointed out to the appropriate parties and a fix may be in the works “if it’s needed.” Only time will tell what the consequences are.

In the meantime, Dru’s book musings ( is doing a cover reveal for the next book in my mystery series, A Palette for Murder, on Sunday, 10/30. Drop by and check it out.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

I have a confession to make

by Rick Blechta

Since Vicki featured the second book in her Year Round Christmas series yesterday  (and an interesting discussion it was), I thought I’d give a bit of coverage to my latest novella, Rundown — which, coincidentally has its official release today! In my case, though, I have something to reveal which my readers might find shocking.

There is absolutely no musical component to the plot. No musicians appear in it, are harmed in it, in fact there’s not so much as a drum stick anywhere in the book’s 160 pages, zilch, zippola.

Every single other publication with Rick Blechta on the cover has a main character or two who is a musician or in the music business. Music is always front and centre in my books.

What happened?

It’s nothing as sensational as I’ve sworn off music or that the contract for the book stipulates in paragraph 1: “No music shall appear anywhere in this story.” The lack of music in Rundown has two specific causes — and I should say that it surprised me as much as anybody when it all went down.

First, the book’s contract does say that the ms as delivered by me shall contain between 14,000 and 20,000 words*. While I didn’t obsess about this while writing, I did begin keeping my eye on the word count as I approached the halfway point in the story. Three quarters of the way through, I realized I had a large problem: I wasn’t going to finish the story without going maybe 2000 words over the limit. Not a good thing.

When this came to light, I immediately went back to what I’d already written to look for economies. Were there scenes or plot threads that could be removed. For the plot to be understandable and satisfying, there weren’t, but for some of the character development things there were. Front and centre in that was the “musical thread”. It revolved around the protagonists (Pratt & Ellis) getting into a (sometimes heated) debate on current musical tastes. Pratt loves jazz and Ellis hard rock and grunge (as befits their ages).

After a few hours of cogitation, I realized it all had to go. Yes, it made the characters more defined and real, but it was also a chance for me to grind a few axes on both points (ie: be a bit self-indulgent). The bottom line was that it wasn’t really needed. And while it’s difficult to present well-rounded characters in a constrained setting like this, it is something a writer has to face and make the best of it.

The end result was, I managed to cut out 1500 words of witty repartee. And guess what? With a bit of massaging in other spots, I managed to add a bit of meat to these two characters’ bones in other ways.

The book came in about 100 words over the limit and all of these (and more) were lost in the editing process.

So, today you can order Rundown at all the usual places (or visit your favourite independent bookstore) and you’ll have Blechta’s first music-less publication — which should also make it extremely collectable.

If you’re in Toronto on November 5th from 2-4, you can also drop by Sleuth of Baker Street and purchase a signed copy (which might make the book less collectable), and enjoy a glass of wine and some nice sweet or savoury nummies.

And for those of you who are disappointed over the lack of music in this book, the full-length novel I’m working on will be back to the musical beat — although the protagonist isn’t a full-time musician.


*I’ve often wondered why word counts are always used. I don’t get it. Obviously words are of varying lengths and this makes word counts extremely un-predictive as to the length of a work and how much paper it will take to print it. Computer software such as MS Word — which is nearly ubiquitous in the publishing biz — can count characters just as easily as it counts words (or paragraphs). Wouldn’t it be far more sensible (and accurate) for publishers to stipulate character counts in their contracts?

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Fun of Creating a Whole New Town

By Vicki Delany

Barbara talked last week about setting in her books, how she’s been exploring remote Canadian locations in person and by map searching for good settings.

I on, the other hand, sometimes just make it all up.

Case in point: my Year Round Christmas Series from Berkley Prime Crime. When I was tossing around the idea of a cozy Christmas-theme-shop book, the first thing I had to consider was if it would be a shop in a nice, typical town. Or in a town totally dedicated to Christmas.

It didn’t take long to decide on the latter, and Rudolph, New York was born. In Rudolph, they love Christmas so much they celebrate it all year round.

Now, I had my town, so I had to fill it with something.  Mrs. Claus’s Treasures sells everything you need for decorating your home, as well as toys and jewellery, and many of the goods are locally made.  Victoria’s Bake Shoppe is famous for its gingerbread.  There’s Candy Cane Sweets, the North Pole Ice Cream Parlour, The Elves Lunchbox, Cranberries Coffee Bar, Touch of Holly Restaurant, The Yuletide Inn, the Carolers Motel. The possibilities are endless.  (Looking at this list it seems as though the residents and visitors to Rudolph like to eat a lot.)

Then we need people.  Merry Wilkinson is the owner of Mrs. Claus’s Treasures.  Merry’s father, Noel, is the town’s Santa Claus. Merry knows her dad isn’t really Santa, but sometimes she does wonder how he knows what people want before they so much as say so.  Merry’s best friend, Vicky, owns the bakery.

The fondest wish of the residents of Rudolph is to be known officially as America’s Christmas Town. But they have tough competition from the likes of Snowflake, Arizona or North Pole, Alaska.  In the first book of the series, Rest Ye Murdered Gentlemen, they’re delighted when a reporter from an international travel magazine arrives to do a feature he is going to title “America’s Christmas Town”.

Delight changes to something else when the reporter dies from eating a poisoned gingerbread cookie baked at Victoria’s Bake Shoppe. And rivals from a nearby town begin to whisper the worst: Christmas Town or Horrorville?

The second book in the series will be released on November 1st, and it’s titled We Wish You A Murderous Christmas.

This time there’s a Grinch in town when the owner of the popular Yuletide Inn takes ill and his son, Gord, arrives to take over. Gord, unfortunately, isn’t exactly imbued with the Christmas spirit.

The joy of writing cozies, I have found, is the pure fun in it.  I’ve had great fun creating Rudolph and its inhabitants, and I hope you enjoy reading about their adventures. 

We Wish you A Murderous Christmas is now available for pre-order in mass market paperback and ebook at your favourite independent bookstore as well as Amazon, B&N, and Indiebound 

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The other side of the desk and making enemies

As a writer, I know full well the sting of rejection. In fact, the fear of rejection is what keeps writers from putting their work out. We comfort ourselves by saying getting rejections is part of the game, that every great writer had their share of rejections, that a rejection is just one step closer to a "Yes!" and on and on. But rejections suck. Always. Even the most reassuring and empathetic rejection isn't as good as a lukewarm "You're in." Editors can be so stupid.

Recently I found myself on the other side of the submissions process and it was my job to be telling other writers, "Sorry, but no thanks." I was the co-editor for a forthcoming anthology, Blood Business, from Hex Publishers. This submissions process was straightforward as we accepted work by invitation only, mostly from established writers. As an editor this gave me the opportunity to see stories in a rawer state, and I was curious to see just how good even these good writers were before their work had been edited. What I kept in mind was to stand back, put aside my own my prejudices for technique, and try to take in what the writer intended. At the same time, I had to be cognizant of my role as an editor. If something didn't work it was my responsibility to say so. The results were all over the place, and we (the senior editor and I--the royal we) tended to draw the same conclusions on every work. One writer--a former editor, not surprisingly--submitted a story that was perfect both in terms of content and copy-editing. The others stories needed developmental work, sometimes a few tweaks and sometimes a lot of revisions. We felt that a couple of submissions missed the mark completely from the point of basic story telling, disappointing since we had solicited pieces from proven writers in the genre.

We shared our editorial comments and interestingly, we learned who the real professionals are in this writing business. One of the bigger name authors took our input without hesitation and trimmed and honed his narrative into an exceptionally sharp story. Another writer took what we thought was a loose and flabby plot and tightened it into a really trim and muscular piece of work. In fact, his reworked story really nailed his premise.

I also had my turn as The Editor, the mo-fo in charge for another anthology, Found, the fifth such collection from Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. The theme was pretty catchy:

Sometimes things are better off lost,
and sometimes they were never meant to disappear. 
Either way, when they're found, everything changes.

Since the anthology was to promote RMFW, we accepted works only from members and through an open submissions process. The first lesson I learned was that the guidelines for word count had been much too broad, with the upper limit as 15,000 words. Besides making it more of a chore to read those longer works, it also meant that from a logistical perspective, I might have to choose less stories. We received 89 submissions. The formatting rules were detailed and conformed to industry standards. Unlike the situation at Hex Publishers, where I had leeway in how to interpret the rules, I felt that I didn't have that option with Found. If a writer thought I had been arbitrary and unfair, then they could appeal to the RMFW board and I'd have that mess heaped on top of my other duties. So I stuck to the rules. Unfortunately, being so draconian forced me to reject some stories out of hand and there were several I was looking forward to reading. But rules are rules. The plus side was that this allowed me to whittle the list down to 54 stories. Luckily, I had 11 readers--all volunteers like me--who helped cull through that pile, and without them, my job as editor would've been a summer-long ordeal. Sorting through the works was a double-blind process as the readers didn't know who the author of the work I had passed along. Each story was read by two readers. The scoring was simple. Two meant Yes. One meant Maybe. Zero, the dreaded No. My big takeaway was learning how subjective the selection process is. Out of the fifteen stories that were chosen, I could have easily picked another fifteen that were just as good. Them's the breaks. Then came the time to send out the notices about who was in and who was out. I gave each rejection a reason about why the story fell short. Some writers replied back with thanks. But others didn't and that led to yet another lesson: As an editor you make enemies. At the RMFW Gold Conference, several of those writers whose work I had rejected and people who usually made time to catch up now gave me the cold shoulder. Seriously, I got freezer burn.

Besides selecting works, my other tasks were copy-editing, selecting a cover, formatting, and getting published through the various venues: CreateSpace; Ingram; Kindle; Smashwords; and Kobo. Fortunately, the editor from the previous RMFW anthology stepped up to copy edit, and a writer friend with considerable design experience handled the cover and interior layouts. Both did great jobs.

The launch signing took place during the Gold Conference. Another lesson, since this was the one location were most of the contributors would attend, Take lots of pictures! Which I spaced out. Our public reading was sponsored by the Tattered Cover bookstore at the Great Hall of Denver's Union Station, a swanky and popular after-work hang out. Not everyone there was for our reading, but I like to think that we provided a bit of literary culture to go along with their cocktails. I know I was drinking.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Characters, Ideas, and Settings

The posts by my colleagues this week has been so thought-provoking, I had a hard time deciding what to blog about today. Characters who take over? Where ideas come from? Setting as character?

I have experienced that phenomenon of a character who refuses to do what he or she was intended to do. In my third Lizzie Stuart book, Old Murders, the character who was to have been the killer refused that assignment and insisted on having a subplot. In the fourth book, You Should Have Died on Monday, Lizzie's mother, Becca, made an appearance that threatened to upstage Lizzie, my first-person protagonist. Becca is still out there and now that I've returned to the series for a new book, I'm sure she will be making another appearance. I hate to have her ruin Lizzie's wedding, but I'm pretty sure she will show up during the honeymoon. And when she reappears, I will be torn. She is the most take-no-prisoners character I have ever created. A femme fatale who disrupts Lizzie's life, but shouldn't overshadow her.

The idea for my historical mystery came to me when I was thinking about 1939 and the events that symbolized the struggle in America between past and present, inequality and justice. In 1939, Marian Anderson performed at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, the New York World's Fair opened that summer, Billie Holiday performed "Strange Fruit," a song about lynching, at Cafe Society in NYC, and that December, Gone with the Wind premiered in Atlanta. This idea -- even more than most of my ideas -- has required a lot of thought to get to workable plot.

On the other hand, the idea for my sixth Lizzie Stuart book, now in progress, came to me as an image of a woman running out of her house toward her car. I wanted to try my hand at a flash story for the New England Crime Bake contest. It wasn't a great story -- I needed more words -- but I did discover where that woman was going. She drives up into the mountains to rescue her child, who is being held hostage by an old enemy. The story was pure noir. In my head it played out like a graphic novel. And my protagonist Lizzie Stuart was nowhere in sight.

But that dark, rainy night wouldn't go away. When I was ready to start my new book, the plot changed and the characters changed. But the book begins with Lizzie, driving home on a rainy night in Gallagher and coming upon a car by the side of the road. A woman is trying to change a tire. . .

The book begins there. But the next day, Lizzie and her fiance, John Quinn, fly off to Santa Fe to spend Thanksgiving with his family.
Lizzie has never met his family and wants to make a good impression. But now she is distracted by what is going on back in Gallagher. A woman is missing. Her car was found by the side of the road. . .

Since the murder mystery is back in Gallagher, I might have done some reading about Santa Fe and watched some YouTube videos. But my Thanksgiving gathering -- when Lizzie meets Quinn's family, all of whom have been mentioned in earlier books -- is important to readers who have been following the series. I'm curious about Quinn's family, too, and I want to do those scenes justice. Lizzie and Quinn will soon be on a plane back to Gallagher, Virginia, but I want the family gathering to ring true. So I'm going to Santa Fe for three days in November to find the neighborhood that Quinn's half-sister lives in and the street where her art gallery is located. I'm going to do the tour of the area that Lizzie will have when she goes there. I want the setting to have as much significance in the story as Gallagher.

I have one other idea that I'm playing with, but need to work out. I need to resolve a series arc from my two Hannah McCabe police procedural novels set in Albany. The two books, The Red Queen Dies and What the Fly Saw, are set in 2019 and 2020, respectively. My Lizzie Stuart series is set in the recent past. The year in the sixth book is 2004. But Lizzie is an alum of the University at Albany, School of Criminal Justice. I've been thinking of a cameo appearance by a professor in Gallagher, Virginia, who Detective McCabe contacts to ask a key question about the threat that she is facing in Albany, NY in 2020. Lizzie would be in her 50s, and I wonder what would be going on in her life and how she would be different in McCabe's alternate universe. Just playing with the idea. . .

Thursday, October 20, 2016

An Idea Worth Pursuing

I have a good idea for a story. One of the cliche questions authors are often asked is where the story ideas come from. After Bob Dylan received his Nobel Prize last week, 60 Minutes (click on to see the interview) showed a brief clip from an earlier interview with Dylan in which Ed Bradley asked him that very question. The answer is: who knows? Dylan said it was rather like magic, and I can’t argue with that. I think sometimes you just achieve the right state of consciousness, and the ideas are bestowed upon you out of the aether. In my series, I’ve used ideas that have come to me in every conceivable fashion.

A recurring character in the series came to me in all his fully realized glory several years ago when I was at a concert of the Black Watch and Cameron Highlanders Massed Bagpipe Bands and watching a very young, very serious, athletic, rose-lipped, red-cheeked Scottish sword dancer with dewy black eyes and a shag of black hair.

The murder in The Drop Edge of Yonder is based on an actual incident that happened to one of my great-great-grandfathers on my mother’s side during the Civil War. (A lot of the incidents in my books are inspired by my own and my husband’s wild and wooly family backgrounds.)

The Sky Took Him began with an idea that came to me while I was on the Oklahoma leg of a book tour for Hornswoggled in 2006. I had set up an event in Enid, OK, which is my husband’s home town. I was sitting with my husband and his sister in a restaurant called Pasttimes, the walls of which are covered with historic pictures of Enid. I was facing a 1915 print of a street scene showing two women going into Klein’s Department Store on the town square. You know how they sometimes do the opening of a movie by starting with a still photograph that dissolves into a moving scene? As I sat there and looked at that picture, those two women became Alafair and her daughter Martha on a shopping spree. What, I asked myself, are Alafair and Martha doing in Enid, of all places?

One great thing about writing historical fiction is that when you do your research, you discover that what really happened is often better than anything you could make up. I decided to set the sixth Alafair Tucker mystery, The Wrong Hill to Die On, here in Arizona, where I live, rather than in Oklahoma, where Alafair lives. I figured this would be a nice little diversion for Alafair, and for me as well. But Alafair has ten kids and a large farm, so there are a couple of problems I had to solve before I even begin: 1. Why on earth would Alafair go to Arizona in the first place? 2. Once she gets there, what is going on that she could get herself involved in, how, and why?

So I hied myself off to the Arizona State University library here in Tempe and begin perusing the files of the Arizona Republican newspaper for March of 1916, the date I intended to set the novel. I knew I’d find something really good, for after five previous novels set in the 1910’s I’ve learned that life in the early Twentieth Century Southwest was nothing if not action-packed. Was I ever right. Plot points and atmosphere galore, and all I had to do was spend an afternoon unspooling microfilm.

Hell With the Lid Blown Off  is about a tornado. Because, I thought, I can’t write a series set in Oklahoma and not write about what life is like in tornado alley. I didn’t need to make anything up. I used some incidents from my sister’s experience in the Joplin tornado and some very strange tornado experiences from other relatives and even some pretty odd ones of my own. But it’s impossible to exaggerate reality when it comes to what a big tornado can do.

My upcoming book, The Return of the Raven Mocker (January 2017), revolves around the flu epidemic of 1918. No one knows for sure how many died in the flu pandemic, but modern estimates put the number at somewhere between thirty and fifty million people worldwide. More than six hundred thousand of those were Americans. Twelve times as many Americans died from flu in 1918 than died in battle during World War I. In early 20th Century America, every housewife had her arsenal of remedies for common ailments, and many of were quite effective. Even so, it is likely that more than a few people died from unfortunate home remedies such as turpentine, coal oil, and mercury. Some scientists think that many who died during the epidemic were killed by aspirin poisoning rather than the disease. In the book, I used a story about the curative power of onion, told to me many years ago by the person to whom it happened. My friend was a young boy, he developed such a severe case of pneumonia that the doctor told his mother to prepare herself for his imminent demise. In an act of desperation, his mother sliced up a raw onion and bound it to the bottoms of his feet with strips of sheet, then put cotton socks on him. In the morning, his fever had broken, his lungs had cleared, and the onion poultice had turned black. Is that what saved him? I don’t know. But that didn’t keep me from using the idea.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The inspiration of setting

Barbara here. Aline's post about how spectacular settings inspire an author's imagination is very timely. I am in the very initial stages of imagining my next book and I know almost nothing about it besides its setting. A lot is made of character and plot in the creation of a successful story, but setting is the third pillar upon which great story telling rests. Setting is the cradle of a story, background to the sparkle of characters and action but the supports that hold the story up to the light and allow its facets to show through.

A setting is more than just a place; it is the season, the time period, the weather, the people, and the history. Story grows out of such fertile soil. In fact, a great story could not truly have been told in another place and time.

In my Amanda Doucette series, I deliberately chose to change the setting for each novel in the series. The first, Fire in the Stars, is set in the rugged, beautiful wilderness of Newfoundland, land of brooding forests, crashing surf, soaring cliffs, and stubborn, feisty island people who take on the world their own way. The second novel, The Trickster's Lullaby, is set in Quebec's Mont Tremblant during the winter, and the cold, the blizzards, the stunning monochromatic beauty of winter wilderness are like characters in the story, challenging the players and directing the course of the action.

The nitty-gritty of winter camping

This latest book was just submitted to the publisher this past weekend, and so now I turn my thoughts, and my imagination, to the third book in the series – Prisoners of Hope. It is set during a summer kayaking expedition in the gorgeous granite islands of Georgian Bay. I have some vague plot ideas – wealthy island mansion owners, domestic foreign workers, local villagers, frightened fugitives washing up on remote island shores – but beyond that I will have to explore the setting to find the essence and shape of the story I want to tell. I have topographical maps, maps of Killarney Provincial Park, and several pamphlets about the area spread out on the dining room table. During the long winter, I will immerse myself in them, and in the memories of a previous kayaking trip made to the Georgian Bay Islands some summers ago.

The granite shores of Georgian Bay

But although the internet, maps, and books can tell me a lot about a setting, I believe there is no substitute for visiting the location, ideally in the season I am writing about, because without wandering the place, seeing the sights, listening to the sounds and feeling the breezes, I don't feel I know its secrets well enough to write about it. Visiting the locale is about more than feeding the five senses; it's about finding inspiration. From standing on the top deck of a fishing boat, I get inspiration for a scene in my book, and nothing creates a feeling of authenticity like sharing the same footsteps and struggles as your character.

For Fire in the Stars, I spent weeks in Newfoundland and walked many of the same paths as Amanda. If I hadn't done that I would never have discovered the tuckamore forests which played an important role in the story.

Tuckamore forest with its secret opening into its underworld

For The Trickster's Lullaby, I even took a winter camping expedition. In preparation for Prisoners of Hope, I visited Georgian Bay this summer and walked its pink granite shores, its marinas, and its little villages. In the spring I will make another visit and probably a kayaking trip for further inspiration.

For me, I love exploring setting, bringing it to life, and travelling to distant locales while I write. I hope readers will enjoy the trips too!