Hemingway supposedly said write drunk, edit sober. As a thriller writer, I tend to harness my anxiety for my art. I write caffeinated and edit extra caffeinated. But there’s little I love more than reading on a beach. Writers need to read. To know the market and understand what kind of stories have been told and what still needs telling, we have to read the best sellers in our genre. I don’t read when I am writing because I fear unconsciously appropriating another author’s voice, or that of one of her characters. On vacation, however, I tend to read a book-a-day. I have been on vacation since Friday. Since I write psychological thrillers, I’ve read the following. This is currently my reading view:Read more
Warning: These photos of the places that inspire my fellow Miss Demeanors will cause longing and dreaming (and, we hope, a little fear about the darkness lurking beneath all that beauty). The only remedy is to open up a book. Tracee: First off, I start with Switzerland! Everything about it is special. Kidding aside, when I develop my story I think about places in Switzerland that are special – meaning there is an element of unique to that place. A castle on the shore of Lac Leman? An elite boarding school set in a chalet? The world’s leading watch show? The task is to share these with readers without too much description. What is the essence of the place? Perhaps the people who are there (their behavior, clothing, actions); the smell (fresh air, smell of cows, chocolate); the architecture (new concrete, historic stone). I find myself diving in and then trimming the description, and trimming. People need enough to understand the atmosphere but not build the building. Paula: I fell in love with Vermont many years ago, and so I set A Borrowing of Bones there simply because Iwanted to visit this wonderful place in my mind as often as I could. The research trips where I get to go there in body as well as mind and spirit are a bonus. I put so much pro-Vermont content in the book–food and drink and wildlife and more–that my editor finally said to me, “Does everything in Vermont have to be the best?” Photo Credit: William Alexander Michele: When I try to describe the lush natural beauty of St. John in the US Virgin Islands to people, I tell them if you picked up the state of Vermont in the summer and plopped it into the Caribbean, you’d have St. John. Culturally rich with history, music, art, and literature, the island is blessed with people who know how to live in contradiction. Inundated with tourists, yet juxtaposed in the kind of isolation unique to an island, the people of St. John are its essence. People who choose to live surrounded by water are by definition different. And after Irma and Maria blew through St. John with 286 mph winds, it is the people who are nurturing the island back after near devastation. The photo I am sharing is “my writing spot” under a tree at Hawksnest Beach. The tree no longer stands, but the water is still sparkling turquoise and warm. And I am #stillwriting. Cate: I tend to like contrasts in my settings: a claustrophobic cruise ship cabin surrounded by endless ocean, a crowded beach house beside a vast sea. I use water as a metaphor for escape in a lot of my work and the characters’ inability to enter it as a way of highlighting their trapped situations. There are a lot of moats in my stories. I also like the duality of water, we need it to live and too much of it can kill us. Susan: My Maggie Dove mysteries are set in a small village in the Hudson Valley, partly because I live in a small village in the Hudson Valley, but mainly because I think village life lends itself so perfectly to mystery writing. It’s difficult to be anonymous in a village. People know what you’re up to. Why is your Subaru parked in front of Mr. Andrew’s house? Are you paying a visit? Having an affair? Or killing him? People trust each other, but they’re also a little suspicious, especially of newcomers who’ve only lived here 30 years. I’m attaching a picture of our train station, which looks mysterious to me! Alexia: The Gethsemane Brown mysteries are set in a small village that only exists in my head and on the page. I don’t have an answer for “Why Ireland?” other than, “Because Ireland.” (Because it’s green and beautiful and historic and modern and mythical and mysterious and friendly and familiar and exotic all at the same time.) “Why a village?” is easier. Because crime is expected in inner cities and, to a lesser extent, economically depressed rural areas. But villages and small towns and suburbs are viewed as safe, Norman Rockwellian, havens. Nothing bad is ever supposed to happen there. People flee to these bubbles to escape crime. But beneath their sedate, non-threatening veneers, ugliness and dysfunction and intolerance and evil lurk, waiting to strike and rock everyone’s seemingly happy, safe little world. I (perversely) love the idea of giving people who think they have nothing to worry about something to worry about. I also like the idea of showing the suspicion and mistrust and intolerance that hide beneath the polite veneer of small towns/villages. A result of growing up reading Miss Marple mysteries I guess. I try to communicate the danger underlying the calm surface by painting my village as a beautiful, charming, picture-postcard kind of place, then dropping a murder or five in the midst of it. Robin: What isn’t special about San Francisco?
I love boats. They’re featured in the book out on submission right now and in a short story I’ve just submitted for my local SinC chapter’s anthology. Boats can be tranquil (the gentle roll of golden waves at sunset) or ominous (the setting sun cast shadows like spilled ink across the murky waters). They can be claustrophobic, like Cate said, or they can express freedom. Personally, I just think they’re a fun way to see the City from a unique perspective. It never gets old to me. I have a friend with a historic yacht and every time I go out I see or experience something new. This photo is from one of our trips just before the “dancing lights” came on at the Bay Bridge.
A bottle of beer is just a bottle of beer . . . except when it’s not. Sharing a drink with a friend is usually unremarkable, but if the last time you saw that friend, he was going on his mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that bottle in his hand is a statement. If you’re one of his family and friends who take the sacrament at church every Sunday, the beer means one thing. If you’re the friend who’s holding your own bottle, it means something else. In a world where we can get almost anything from anywhere, items themselves have become less tethered to place. I order my Ritter Sport chocolate from Amazon, but I remember the days when it was hard to find outside of Germany. For writers, that means it takes a little more effort to convey the meaning of things without over explaining. When you’re introducing readers to a new place, those things matter, but having a light touch is hard (at least for me!). As a reader I love it when an author introduces me to something new about a culture I didn’t know without making too big a deal of it. Linda Castillo did a lovely job of this in Among the Wicked with her all-women quilting sessions. Without saying too much, Castillo made it clear that these gatherings were a little less guarded than they would have been with men present. A quilt was more than just a quilt. The same can be said of Jack Reacher’s famous toothbrush, although in that case the thing conveys the lack of connection to place. Any favorite examples of everyday things that take on special meaning in novels you’re writing or reading? Is the thing connected to place or not?Read more
I tend to focus on the visual when I think about place, but I’m entranced by writers who describe a location with the other senses. It’s a skill I’m trying to improve in my own writing. So, here it goes for my trip to Utah: touch, sound, smell, and taste. Please add your suggestions! the chill of the shade on my skin as the sun set the cheering of the crowd a faint whiff of sage brush smoky, fatty pork drenched in mustard bbq sauceRead more
Utahns are friendly and stubbornly optimistic. There’s an open warmth wherever you go in the state. I’d argue that some of that, at least, stems from growing up hearing stories of overcoming unbelievable hardship as a community. The lyrics to the Mormon pioneer song advises that we “put our shoulder to the wheel.” Every person helped out on the trek from the east coast to the Salt Lake Valley—pulling a handcart, or, if you were lucky, riding in a covered wagon—through snow and mud, despite disease and famine, toward an unknown destination. Politeness and friendliness are to Utah what competence and efficiency are to Manhattan, but that’s a superficial description. Cultural setting needs to scrape beneath the surface. Just as some of the nicest most generous people I know are New Yorkers by birth or adoption (meaning you’ve lived in the city long enough to have survived at least one business cycle), there are plenty of Utahns who don’t conform to the branded image of the “I’m a Mormon” campaign. It’s the below-the-veneer characters who make a story interesting: the people who don’t fit in; people who see the world in a different way from the majority; the ones who’ve been knocked around a bit in life. Then there are the people who keep secrets, who lie and cheat. The ones who sometimes make the wrong choice and feel bad about it . . . or don’t. All of them keep a story moving. Some of the scenes I like best are where my characters confront challenging decisions head on. I start writing and I don’t know where the characters will lead me. Will there be a heartfelt apology or a stubborn refusal to admit wrongdoing? Will she choose kindness or cruelty? Honesty or deceit? Love, loss, greed, and generosity are part of being human wherever you live on the globe, but different cultures translate that humanity in different ways. Linda Castillo lets us peak into what it means to be Amish; Dana Stabenow gives us a flavor of indigenous life in Alaska. Then, of course, there is Ann Cleeves, Henning Mankell, James Lee Burke, Hans Rosenfeldt and so many others who set their novels in worlds where we get to learn something about the culture where murder happens. I’m always looking to add to my TBR list. Any suggestions for authors who excel at introducing new cultures?Read more
Snow in the Wasatch Mountains, court-side seats at a Jazz basketball game, a stroll around Temple Square, otherworldly rock formations at Arches, sweeping vistas in Canyonlands, bison and birds on Antelope Island, and the quiet beauty of Huntsville after a treacherous drive up rocky Ogden Canyon. I spent last week in Utah, a place I haven’t lived full time since I graduated from high school. After my son fractured his wrist snowboarding, my family made a quick decision to turn our ski vacation into a hiking vacation. We drove down to Moab. In a delightful coincidence, friends of ours from New York were there for a few days. Over a lunch of green papaya salad, beef noodles and curried chicken (yes, there’s a great Thai restaurant in Moab, Utah), our friends described the immense beauty of my home state. I was about five the first time I remember traveling from our house in the alpine mountains in the north ofthe state to the red rock in the south. My child self assumed that everything I saw was normal. It took my friend, who lives a few blocks away from us on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, to remind me that it was pretty fabulous to be able to drive 45 minutes to world-class skiing and then several hours to spectacular desert hiking. Sitting in a Thai restaurant in Moab, I saw my state through new eyes. When we made our way back through the desolate beauty of southeastern Utah to Salt Lake, I appreciated the astonishing Utah’s topography. I’ve lived a lot of places in my life: Scotland, France, Germany, Russia, Massachusetts and Philadelphia. There’s something wonderfully special wherever you are. Sometimes, though, we get used to it. We stop seeing what makes where we are special. We stop seeing through new eyes. I’m devoting this week’s posts to what makes setting—the people, places and things—compelling and unique. What would Nero Wolfe be without Manhattan and his orchids? Can you imagine Longmire any place other than Absaroka County, Wyoming? Could Jimmy Perez exist outside of the Shetland Islands? My question for you is: what makes your setting unique and how do you describe it to those who don’t know it first hand?Read more
You can’t judge a book by its cover. How often did I hear that phrase as a child? According to Ginger Software, “The origin of the idiom ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ is fairly recent. The phrase is attributed to a 1944 edition of the African journal American Speech: “You can’t judge a book by its binding.” It was popularized even more when it appeared in the 1946 murder mystery Murder in the Glass Room by Lester Fuller and Edwin Rolfe: “You can never tell a book by its cover.”http://www.gingersoftware.com/content/phrases/dont-judge-a-book-by-its-cover/#.WrOogpPwaCQ I confess to being influenced by the covers of books. If done well, a cover conveys a message about the contents of the book in a single image. The old cliché, “ A picture is worth a thousand words,” may be true. I know I fell for the cover of “Before We Were Yours,” by Lisa Wingate even before I remembered reading its reviews. But can you really judge a book by its cover? How much impact does a cover have on the sales of a book? And what about eBooks? I asked the Miss Demeanors to comment and whether they had any say on the covers of their books. Tracee: I think book covers DO matter. Enormously. Particularly for attracting new readers. While I look for the ‘next one’ from authors I read religiously, I buy plenty of books by people I’ve either never read or never heard of. The cover of a book is often what converts me. Had I heard of Anthony Horowitz? Yes. But something about the cover of Magpie Murders caught my eye. Now I’m a huge fan. (Can I emphasize how huge?) Covers set a tone and that’s what we are looking for when we choose a new book. Place, time, tragedy, thriller, romance. You should get a hint from the cover. On the other hand, designing a cover to suit a trend in the market is annoying if the book doesn’t life up to the promise suggested by the ‘following the trend’ cover. (I won’t name names here.) The great team at St. Martin’s Press designed my book jackets. David Baldeosingh Rotstein specifically. The first in the series arrived as a complete surprise. As a former architect I purposefully didn’t imagine what it would be, since once the image is formed it is hard to erase. When I opened the file containing the cover art I was thrilled, possibly because I have a predisposition to blue covers. If I’d been disappointed I feel like we would have worked through it…. but that’s not been put to the test! I trusted that the publisher knew how they were marketing the books and the design needed to fit that end. I imagine there can be a disconnect between what the book is, and what the author thinks it is (it’s not a thriller, it’s a cozy). Robin: I definitely think covers are important. What I’ve noticed is the artwork alone often indicates the genre – thrillers tend to be bold with minimal or subtle imagery. The covers to Cate’s books or Meg Gardiner come immediately to mind. Cozies tend to be less dramatic and more visually descriptive. I know the cover is one of the ways to attract new fans. I can’t tell you the number of people I know who say they buy books from new authors (whether debuts or new to them) based solely on the cover. I’ve also heard a few complaints about ebook titles and authors being harder to remember because the reader doesn’t see the cover very often. As far as input, on the non-fiction books I’ve done, I had input on the second one. Zero say on the other 2. Susan: I’ve been very happy with my Maggie Dove covers. In some ways, the cover of an e book is even more important than of a physical book because you only get one chance to attract the reader’s attention. I feel like the Maggie Dove covers have been warm and whimisical and slightly ominous, which fits the books. However, I’m attaching a photo of the three covers for my first book, The Fiction Class. The one on the left was the American version. The one in the middle is the large print version. And the one on the right was the British version. I liked that one best because it was so blue, but the American one probably captured the tone more. Cate: I think covers definitely matter. If someone is scanning a book store or a list of noteworthy thrillers inn amazon, the cover can pull you in for long enough to read some of the press coverage and blurbs. I loved the cover for Lies She Told. Alison: This is a very good question, and I don’t know the answer. This is my first cover. I knew I wanted the Wasatch Mountains on it, but beyond that I didn’t have a clear idea. My editor and the publicity department were pretty insistent that Abish Taylor be on the cover. I have the feeling that they were going to “guide” me to the cover that was best (read: I had some input, but know that the title and cover design decision were, ultimately, decisions made above my pay grade).As I look at the cover on the ARCs, I think it gives a flavor of the book inside: a female detective looking out onto beautiful mountains under an ominous sky. Alexia: Yes, I judge books by their covers. There are so many books out there, I look to the cover to give me a quick hint about what’s likely to be inside. I know I risk missing out on some great reads this way but I have to narrow the selection somehow.Henery Press has an in-house artist who designs all of the covers. She tailors each cover to the particular series but still gives them all that “Henery Press look”. (In other words, no, I don’t have much input into my covers. My only request was that the Gethsemane Brown covers not be “cute” because I don’t do cute. I get to suggest instruments to include on the cover, but my suggestions aren’t always taken. I actually went back an wrote a trumpet into Killing in C Sharp since there’s a trumpet on the cover.)I don’t think I have a single favorite cover. I like covers with strong graphic elements and a retro flair. For example, The Waldorf Astoria Bar Book and A is for Arsenic, The Disappearing Spoon, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Michele: I love the cover of No Virgin Island, my first book and felt it conveyed the mystique of St. John and island living. It was pure luck. I had little say in it. When I first saw the cover, it took my breathe away and reminded me of being handed a new baby in the delivery room after I gave birth. What do you think? Do you purchase books based on their covers? Share in the comments or join the discussion on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/missdemeanorsbooks/Read more
One of the advantages of being a writer is that you can express yourself, ad nauseam. As I sit watching wet snow fall during the fourth storm in 22 days instead of being on a plane to St. John, I plan to play the writer’s card and do just that. No one reads blogs (or newsletters) anyway.Here’s my list of laments: 1. I miss my dog. Terribly. Cheddar was the last in a line of lovely golden retrievers to join our family. While I loved them all dearly, Cheddar has left a hole in my heart the size of Cleveland. She had the sweetest disposition, gladly joined me on any adventure, and forgave me in a way no human being could ever match. “Want to go for a walk?” got her tail wagging. “Want to go for a ride with Mummy?” made her ecstatic because she knew we were heading for uncharted territory. Maybe a visit to friends who would feed her biscuits without even pretending to consult me. Or a hike through the trail that let to the marsh where she could run wild and flop on her back and scratch against the sea grass in pure dog bliss. As my husband and I travel more, having a dog seems unfair. We’ve opted to go dogless while we traipse around the planet. But sometimes I miss having a dog more than I love to travel. 2. I wish I could figure out how to knit. Well, I can knit and even purl a little. But that damn casting on which is the foundation for knitting confounds me and challenges my dexterity skills. I understand that the first row you cast on is as important as the first sentence you write in a book, which is probably why I am so intimidated by it. I’ve watched countless YouTube videos, read tons of chapters, articles, and challenged a few friendships trying to learn to cast on. The crazy thing is I’m not sure I even want to knit a sweater or any other article. I just want to be able to cast on and have the choice. 3. I long for things to be simple. I know, that makes me sound old. I don’t care. I just want to turn a knob and have whatever damn “device” it is attached to function. I don’t want to worry about blue tooth, Wi-Fi, hot spots, etc. I just want to watch the news (a lament in itself and for another day) or listen to music or a book. I want to call my hairdresser, doctor, or bank and talk to a person, instead of being told to log on to their websites. I want to do laundry without having to read the instruction manual for the washer and dryer each time. Even my freaking toothbrush requires a degree in electronic technology to operate. 4. I’d like to eat food for pure pleasure and sustenance without worrying I am risking death or disease. A small piece of birthday cake shouldn’t invoke terror. Wheat, sugar, butter, we’re all doomed. When did food become evil or virtuous? How did the avocado become a saint and brown rice the arsenic tinged devil? I’d like to stop being fed fear with my food. Well, there. I feel better. It’s your turn.What are your laments? Is writing about them soothing? Share in the comments or join the discussion on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/missdemeanorsbooks/Read more
Distractions! Those pesky interruptions seem to pop up everywhere when we’re trying to write. It’s even worse when we have a deadline, although facing a blank page of the beginning of a story also seems to attract distractions. Distractions come in many forms. Some are more effective than others. Take the roosters in Mexico, where I spent two months recently. I had a book to finish, one that was challenging me as a writer more than any I have written. Now I like birds and roosters are birds, right? In St. John in the Virgin Islands where I normally spend my winters until Hurricanes Irmaria got in the way, roosters crow every morning, kind of a natural alarm clock. I consider them part of the island’s natural charm. I’ve even included them in my Sabrina Salter series set on St. John. But the roosters in Mexico weren’t quite as charming. For eight weeks, they never stopped. Mornings. Afternoons. Evenings. All. Night. Long. There had to be two dozen of them living in the wild below our window perched high on a hill above Puerto Vallarta. I began to be able to distinguish the sounds from some of the individual roosters. There are the young and feisty that engage in an incessant crowing competition. I heard at least one old dude trying to keep up in a pathetic quivering cock-a-doodle-do. Every time I stopped to find the right word or contemplate how my protagonist would react to a particular situation, the crowing would start, irritating my nervous system and shutting down my brain. The bonus was that the roosters incited the neighborhood dogs that were compelled to respond in never-ending choruses of barking. Big deep dog sounds coupled with the yips from the little dogs so prevalent in Mexico. It was the orchestra from hell. That brings me to music. Don’t get me wrong. I love music. It moves me and can bring me to tears, which is why I don’t listen to it when I am writing. I’m fine with other people listening to music, whenever they want, wherever they like. Just don’t inflict it on me, especially when I am writing. It’s not only that I may hate the music you love. Your music can capture me. I’m no rap fan, but the sound of the SZA song in praise of “Drew Barrymore” coming through my window at a volume that made it inescapable took me far away from what I was writing and into another world. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dp45V_M4Akw Of course, the most egregious form of distraction is the one that’s letting you read this blog. Whether a laptop, tablet, or phone, a simple ping or the sight of a banner crossing the screen is an invitation to step away from what you are writing. I tell myself it’s only for a moment. A Facebook message from my friend Karen in St. John. It would be rude not to answer it, right? But shouldn’t I first check out the website for the restaurant she was telling me about so I know what I’m talking about? Wow, that’s a really great menu. I never thought of seasoning swordfish with lime and tarragon. Maybe I should check out some menus. Pinterest must have a few. And into that dark hole I fall only to climb out later ravenous after looking at hundreds of recipes I will never make. Meanwhile, my protagonist grows cold and lonely on the page. Distractions. You know where they drive me? The one place where I know silence is golden and where I can crawl into my own head and write for hours without distractions. A library. What distracts you and how to you deal with it? Share in the comments or join the discussion on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/missdemeanorsbooks/Read more
Why are writers always cautioned to never start a novel with weather? Overdoing weather, I get, especially if it idyllic. But weather is the perfect metaphor for conflict and story is conflict. My mother, who was of Irish descent and not inclined to wear her heart on her sleeve as the family called it, would begin singing the classic song, “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year” from the 1940’s, whenever something took a downward turn or a fight was brewing. I’m sure she was inspired by Deanna Durbin’s version made famous in the 1944 noir crime film, Christmas Holiday, based on the 1939 novel by W. Somerset Maugham. I’d hear her lovely voice, which I didn’t inherit, crooning “And winter continues cold, as if to say that spring will be, a little slow to start, a little slow reviving,” and know something was up. If it was a tiff between my parents, she might segue into, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair,” while he responded with “Bloody Mary is the Girl I Love.” Today, the first day of spring, is frigid here in New England where the fourth Nor’easter since March slammed in like a lion on March 1st is expected to soon blow through. If she were still with us, my mother would be singing “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year.” But I am a writer, bereft of musical talent, so the weather has me thinking about stories, not songs. I’m thinking about how I’ve already postponed my return to St. John in the US Virgin Islands once because of the blizzard last week and how I haven’t been there for the winter season because of two horrific hurricanes, dubbed Irmageddon or Irmaria. I hear my own whining story in my head and then remember there are people in Puerto Rico who have been without power for more than six months. I’m certain they have stories more worthy than mine. I’m reminded about how other people’s stories are affected by weather. The bride and groom during Hurricane Jose waiting on Nantucket for their wedding guests and the officiant, who were stranded in Hyannis with ferry service suspended. Babies born while their parents were trying to get to the hospital. People standing on roofs in Houston, praying rescuers got to them before the rising waters did.I remember the stories of people who were stranded on Route 128 in Massachusetts during the infamous blizzard in 1978, abandoning their cars, seeking shelter with strangers, taking chances only weather could inspire. A man shared with me that he had witnessed a decapitation from a savagely sharp piece of ice. He said he was never the same. Weather is conflict. Man vs. nature, we know that. But weather also inspires conflict. During my years as a domestic relations attorney, I knew if there were a heat wave or a snowstorm, my telephone would not stop ringing. Three days without heat or electricity is more than many healthy relationships can withstand. But toxic relationships during the isolation and intensity of extreme weather, often tinged with a little alcohol for relief, make conflict is inevitable. Yes, spring will be a little late this year and it will inspire more than a few stories. What impact has weather had on your stories? Listen to the lovely version of “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year,” sung by Ella Fitzgerald while you consider weather and stories. And please share in the comments or join the discussion on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/missdemeanorsbooks/Read more