Bouchercon Goals

Bouchercon, the largest gathering of mystery and thriller writers in the United States, can be an overwhelming experience. Every hour, there are panels filled with successful, interesting and respected writers. There’s the bar where most folks hang out until the wee hours of the morning. There are lunches with publishers, meetings with editors, and drinks with agents. What do you go to? How to spend the time? Obviously, any meeting with a writer’s agent or publisher is a must. After that, I prioritize lunches and dinners with fellow authors, ideally ones that either write similar stories (domestic suspense, for me), have experiences with similar people (same publisher or editor, for example) or have advanced from where I am and can offer sage advice.  As much as Bouchercon is a place to promote my work, it’s also a place to get out of the writing cocoon and meet people who can relate to the process of crafting a novel, working with a publisher, and promoting a book. These people have invaluable insights into the business. They can let me know whether my experience with a publisher is par for the course, exceptional, or worse than anticipated by relating their own experiences. They can provide insight into what I may have to contend with five, ten or fifteen years into my career. Most importantly, writers can help other writers feel less insecure.  Everybody needs coworkers–particularly people who work alone.      

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Swag or No Swag

 The thriller and mystery writer community’s biggest annual bash starts tomorrow in New Orleans. In the midst of packing for my 7a.m. flight today I made a big decision: NO SWAG. At last year’s Bouchercon, I brought a suitcase full of free giveaways to promote my first novel, Dark Turns. Bookmarks. Stress balls with my blue-hued book cover on them. Folders with a sticker advertising my personal Web site. Three boxes of business cards. I was cheap by comparison to some of the swag-laden authors that I encountered. Some writers splurged on custom printed pens. I saw t-shirts with pithy quotes from novels. A few scribes that I knew splurged on custom canvas bags with their book covers emblazoned on the front.  Aside from the bags and perhaps pens, I’m pretty sure most of the giveaway items ended up in the garbage. People fly to these conferences with carry-ons to avoid checked bag fees. The last thing most authors want after shelling out a bunch of cash for airfare and hotels–not to mention drinks at the bar–is to pay more to bring home additional luggage. It’s enough that authors tend to end conferences with a bunch of books that must be shoved into their bags or shipped home.  This year, I am bringing myself, one box of business cards and two copies of my book, which I’ll likely gift to friends. That’s it. The Widower’s Wife took a year of my life to go from first draft to finished product. In my opinion, it’s pretty valuable and so is everyone else’s book who will attend the conference. Authors and fans know better than to expect a writer to giveaway a year’s worth of their time for free. And I highly doubt that a stress ball will sell my book any better than a business card with some of my reviews featured on the front, the book cover and my photo–so whomever I passed my card to can remember who I am among the many, many people he or she is sure to meet.  Am I making the right decision? I don’t know. What is your opinion on swag? Wonderful or wasteful?    

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Book Promotion = More Writing

When I’m working on a novel, I write everyday. When I am promoting a book, it feels as though I’m writing every minute.  Why am I spending more time tapping away on a keyboard after finishing my latest novel than I did when I was working on it? In two words…guest blogging. For a debut or little-known author, guest blogging is a key tool in getting the name of your book out there. Sure, we mystery writers are all hoping that stellar reviews will sell our work (and they do). But unless you’re fortunate enough to have landed national press through your publisher, few people will visit your Amazon page to read any of that glowing critical praise. Folks need to either hear about your novel from a friend or read about it on a site that they regularly visit. In the month since The Widower’s Wife came out I’ve written: 2 posts for Booktrib.com (One story has yet to be published. Here’s the story that ran:How I Made Two Cinematic Book Trailers Each For Less Than $500) 1 post for Jungle Red Writers on why a horrible cruise inspired me to write my last novel. It’s scheduled to run on September 21.  1 post on How I Got My Agent for Writer’s Digest.  1 Q&A for Bookhounds. There are pictures of my dog in this one. 1 Q&A for MRS. MOMMY BOOKNERDS 1 article for Medium.com completely unrelated to my latest novel but, hopefully, enjoyable enough that people who like my writing style will consider visiting Amazon. 6 Pitches for articles in newspapers and blogs that would include my bio with a link to my book. 10 Letters to local libraries suggesting that they carry my book and volunteering to come speak. Dozens of book-related Facebook posts and tweets. All this writing is in addition to what I normally do here blogging with my fellow MissDemeanors and working on my next novel. Does all this blogging pay off? Well, I can’t know for certain. But I do know that I didn’t write nearly as much when my debut novel, Dark Turns, came out and I didn’t make any lists, despite pretty good reviews. I didn’t realize that I was supposed to write about writing or that there are so many books out there that writers have to assume much of the promotion themselves. The Widower’s Wife, as of this writing, is ranked in Amazon’s top 100 for all Mystery, Thriller and Suspense books. So I’m guessing that the blogging is having an impact. At the very least, all this writing lets my publisher know that I’m willing to do the hard work of promotion. And if they know I’m working, maybe they’ll work a bit harder getting the attention of other people who will write about my book.        

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Pitch Not-So-Perfect

             I tell long stories. Shortening them has always been a struggle.            From the time I was a child, I’d go on and on with details, trying to give a sense of place and character, while my overworked parents begged for the bare facts. Later, I became a newspaper reporter and the scourge of copy editors. Daily, I’d beg for another inch of newsprint to include a detail that I felt crucial to my story as the higher ups dismissed my pleas as trying to include needless, scene-setting “color.” Things weren’t much better when I moved to writing for business magazines. Serious people, I was told, didn’t want to know that some tech giant had twenty kinds of cereal in their cupboards. Such “fascinating” details were superfluous.            Eventually, I left daily journalism for fiction writing. Doing so felt like moving from a cramped New York city studio to a New Jersey McMansion. I was loaded with space. Finally, I would have eighty to a hundred thousand words to tell a story.           Imagine my disappointment when I learned that nearly every long-form writer needs to pen a pitch.            Pitches are the universe’s way of checking my ego. All the pride I feel after finishing a novel tends to dissipate when I’m forced to write the one page summary. In some ways, writing the pitch is worse than writing a short article. At least when I was a newspaper reporter I hadn’t already crafted my perfect story and then been told to write the Spark Notes version.            Thankfully, my agent has given me some sage advice on writing pitches. She’s told me not to try to get in every character arc or plot point. Agents and editors want a sense of the protagonist and the main problem. Maybe they’ll read about a subplot if its truly germane to the main action. They want a taste of my writing style. The pitch itself should leave the person pitched wanting to read the book, not feeling as though they already have.            Perhaps my favorite piece of pitch advice was to answer the questions: What If and So What. I used the technique to pitch my latest published book: The Widower’s Wife. WHAT IF a young New Jersey housewife fell overboard on a cruise ship with a large life insurance policy and an investigator must decide whether her death was an accident, suicide or murder. SO WHAT? And the life of her young daughter and others hang in the balance of his decision.  Here’s how the pitch came out:   Ana Bacon, a beautiful young housewife, tumbles off a cruise ship into dark and deadly waters, leaving behind a multi-million dollar life insurance policy for her small daughter. Investigator Ryan Monahan is a numbers man. So when his company sends him the Bacon case, he doubts that her death is the tragic accident that it seems. Initially, he assumes suicide. But the more Monahan uncovers about Ana’s life the more he realizes how many people would kill to keep her secrets hidden and that his ruling on the payout could leave a murder free to kill again.  What do you think about pitches? What is your favorite method?

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 Let me be clear. This is not a criticism of or rant against technology. I am thrilled to be living in an age where there are computers, cellphones, the Internet, and Bluetooth. Admittedly, there is a learning curve for someone my age. I remember identifying with Dave Barry who wondered how they got the ink through the wires of a fax machine. But it has been worth every effort I have made to hang on, clinging to my devices by my fingernails declaring, “I will not be left behind.”            I am particularly smitten with Google. There is no place you cannot go with this wonder of wonders. Just within the past 48 hours, I have explored how to defer federal jury duty, how to fix a dropped stitch, what the weather will be in New Orleans and Italy this month, and who is the better candidate for state senate in my community. When the students I teach at a law school told me I should stop struggling with Westlaw, a complex legal software program, and just use Google, I was relieved to know I was actually in the know.            So when a number of my writing colleagues began to rave about how productive and organized they had become by using a writing software program that was becoming increasingly popular, I thought, why not? Combining my busy day job as a lawyer with a writing career made finding time to write challenging. I quickly purchased the Scrivener software, signed up for a training session, and purchased the Dummies manual. The program is not as easy as some say, but it is definitely doable and appeals to those of us steeped in traditional ways of organizing writing. A writing program that included use of virtual index cards appealed to my love of stationery supplies.            Off I went to St. John for a three-week writing vacation on the island where my mystery series is set. (And yes, three weeks of writing is a vacation when your other job involves divorces, custody battles, and disputes about who gets the Shih Tzu.) I set down at my table, cracked open Scrivener, and set off to write the second book in the Sabrina Salter series.            Much of the writing process for me takes place long before this moment when I sit down to actually write. I plot, ponder, ruminate, and even obsess in my head long before. Call it the gift of insomnia, but there is nothing like a couple of sleepless hours in the middle of the night to debug that plot glitch. Some writers will tell you that the time you spend in your head isn’t really writing, but to them I say B.S. When my fingers finally hit the keyboard, I may not have an outline like the plotters ( I am a pantser of sorts), but the story seems to flow from my brain to the keyboard as if I’ve opened a vent.            So that first morning when Sabrina and her cohort, Henry, didn’t show up for work, I was a little surprised. I thought they were just being a little shy, you know, with the new writing program. By the end of the first week, they had punched in but with little of the spit and spunk I have come to expect from them. As I was winding down my second week, I began to panic. What was wrong? I’d never had writer’s block before. I’d even heard it was just a myth. How could this be happening when I knew my story and who my characters were and where they were headed?            I felt as if I were stuffed into a cardboard box, you know the kind that kids make a fort out of when their parents get a huge shipment from Amazon. I was was suffocating. Writing felt as foreign to me as if someone had handed me sheet of music and told me to sing an aria. I stood up at the table and said to my husband I was done with it. “Writing?” he asked, looking very concerned. Everything I have done in recent years has been focused on creating more time and space for my passion: writing.            “No,” I said. “Writing programs. They are not for me. I know they are wonderful and have helped many writers, but I am not one of them.” I felt glorious, as if I had punched out the paper walls and pushed up the ceiling of my cardboard box to let the light and air in. I could breathe.            The next my morning, Sabrina and Henry arrived on time and ready to roll. I hit the keyboard and my fingers began to dance while the story that became the book, Permanent Sunset, emerged. I was happy. They were happy. I thought about that quote from another writer. “To thine own self be true.” Writing is an art. Pen, paper, keyboard, writing programs. They are all tools.  The artist gets to choose which tool to use. 

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  Note:  I wrote this post a year ago before I attended my first Bouchercon in Raleigh and thought it might be helpful to share with this year’s new batch of Bouchercon virgins.  I’ve been a mystery lover since I was a kid reading Nancy Drew.  I still love reading mysteries, have taken to writing them, and have always wanted to go to Bouchercon, which I picture as a long weekend party for mystery lovers. This year I am finally attending Bouchercon.  Here are ten reasons I have been longing to attend this fabulous conference:  1.         Bouchercon is a fan conference. Fan is spelled R-E-A-D-E-R! I love readers. I am a reader. A reader is the acorn from which the writer-tree grows. There is nothing more delightful than being in the company of fellow readers who understand and share their obsession with mysteries. While I love a conference where craft is the focus, I am looking forward to lots of discussions with and recommendations from my fellow book lovers. 2.         I am unabashed about being in awe of the authors who write the books I read and love. I look at the list of authors who will appear and see names like Lawrence Block, Meg Gardiner, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Karin Slaughter, Joseph Finder, Rhys Bowen, and I could go on and on.  These authors not only will be present, but also will appear on panels where I can hear them recount their stories about writing. 3.         Speaking of panels, where else would I ever be able to attend panels like, “What the Dog Knows: The Science and Wonder of the Working Cadaver Dog,” “Jewish Noir,” or “Criminally Young at Heart”? The biggest challenge is which ones to chose from a schedule twenty-four pages long.  It’s like being at a smorgasbord, trying to figure how high you can pile food on your plate.  4.         Books, lots of books. They sell books at Bouchercon! They have something called “The Book Room,” which I’m fairly certain will become very familiar to me. There are at least five bookstores selling mysteries.  Two are local, but the others come from quite far. Mystery Mike’s comes from Indiana. Ryan Books travels from New York City. And the winner for farthest distance is Scene of the Crime Books, which travels all the way from Ontario.  I have a feeling my “To Be Read” pile is about to get higher and my wallet thinner.  5.         Awards. The Anthonys are awarded by attendee vote at Bouchercon. There are a number of categories. The books written by nominees for Best Novel happen to sit on my bookshelf with only one left for me to read before the conference. Looking at the nominees and winners from Bouchercon over the years, I see the names of authors and books I have relished. I’m routing for hometown author, Hank Phillip Ryan, this year, not just because she’s from Boston. Truth Be Told was a fabulous book. But all of the nominees are terrific writers. 6.         Meeting social media friends in person. I admit that I love how Facebook and Twitter have managed to make the world smaller and easier for me to get to know so many writers and readers I otherwise would never get to know. But now that I have been introduced to so many new friends, I cannot wait to meet them in person. 7.         The “Goodies.” Okay, I admit being a tad jealous when one of my writing buddies shows off a clever key chain from an author and brags she “got it at Bouchercon.” It’s not the keychain; it’s the Bouchercon experience I want.  Well, maybe it’s the keychain a little. 8.         The food and drinks. Most of the tales about Bouchercon are prefaced with a setting, just like in the books we all love. The setting invariably includes scrumptious food and drinks, often associated with the location of the conference. 9.         Getting out of Dodge. Bouchercon always occurs in exciting cities, like San Francisco, Anchorage, Chicago, and next year, New Orleans. I’ve never been to Raleigh before other than for a flight stopover.  I‘m looking forward to stealing a few hours and exploring Raleigh. 10.       Time for my little confession. The part of me that is somewhat introverted has been a little intimidated by the vastness of Bouchercon. But I’m ready to dive in and enjoying the “Bouchercon experience,” and to no longer being a Bouchercon virgin.      

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  Sometimes being on social media makes me feel like I am back in high school. That is not good. I found high school to be like a four-year dental appointment. And I was considered “popular,” whatever that means. I can’t imagine the pain if you were a nerd.
    “Like” me is now the unembarrassed beg on Facebook. Was your post “shared”? How many “friends” do you have? Dear lord, not that again.
    But still, I engage. I’d love to blame it all on being a writer just following Jane Friedman’s latest advice (which is right on), but the truth is I get sucked into the vortex. I want to play with the big kids, be part of the fun, and sell a few books along the way. I’ve trying “getting in” with the other crowd, you know, those Twitter folks, but so far they’re not sure about me. I’ll keep trying, though.
    Okay, I’ll admit it. I can actually have fun on Facebook. It’s just short of miraculous to be reconnected with people I haven’t seen or heard from in years. I love seeing photos of new babies, weddings, and puppies. Celebrating new books is like an online party. Sharing joyful news is a huge draw to social media, but so is the ability to talk about sad events and loss. A new community has been born. How can that be bad?
    Enter the inevitable meanies. Remember the girl who was sitting at the popular table in the cafeteria, whispering into the ear of the prom queen while pointing at your knee socks and laughing? I’d love to hear what the guy-version of this is, because I’m sure it exists. Anyway, the meanies are back, alive, and have infiltrated social media.
    Witness one poor woman who made the mistake of warning her fellow town-folk on Facebook about the price of a fish platter at a local restaurant if you customize your combo order. She went from being anti-the-restaurant to anti-commerce to anti-American in twenty comments. The vitriol in the remarks was so over the top, I winced reading them. Her reaction was to recoil, explaining she was only trying to help people avoid the same experience.
    Don’t even start me on the nastiness about the political scene. I wish I could say it’s limited to my “friends” on the right, but some of the most condescending disdainful posts I read recently actually were delivered by those I consider political allies. Can’t we disagree without becoming mean and personal?
    As a lawyer, I have long mourned the loss of civility in my profession. We have lost the art of advocacy without evisceration. Social media is rapidly becoming no less contentious, I fear. One person “unfriended” me when she learned I was a divorce lawyer. For that reason only. Ouch.
    Come on! Why can’t we all just get along? I’ll defend your right to say what you want to the mat, but can’t you say it without trying to bully others into silence?
    I didn’t have the guts not to be mean in high school and for that, I am sorry. I’ll be damned if social media makes me repeat my mistake.


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Were Rules Really Made to be Broken?

Rule breakers make me crazy. Oh, not the ones who do something so blatantlyagainst the norm, there’s a number for it in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, for those of you who have managed to escape this psychiatrictome). Perhaps there will someday be a diagnosis for writers who gomad deciding whether to follow “The Rules” or to break them. I imagine I willqualify. It’s not that I don’t know the rules. I have bookshelves filled with writingbooks containing them according to various authors. The first problem is thatthere are lots of rules, many of which contradict one other. Words like, “never,”“always,” “do,” and “don’t,” remind me of being in parochial school where therules were easy. Someone else told you what to do and if you did it, you’d stayout of trouble. Of course, you’d never have an original thought, but that’s a topicfor another day. Elmore Leonard shared ten great rules for writing in a often- quoted NewYork Times article, “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and EspeciallyHooptedoodle.” It’s hard to argue with a writer as terrific and prolific as Leonard,especially when his tenth rule is to leave out the part that writers tend to skip. Buthis admonitions to “avoid detailed descriptions of characters” and not to “go intogreat detail describing places and things” are easily argued against when yourecall books where doing both of those things resulted in great pleasure anderudition for the reader. If I didn’t describe the natural beauty and cultural charmof St. John in my books, I think I would be cheating my readers. Stephen King’s memoir On Writing is one of my favorite writing books.King has listed twenty rules for writing. All of them make sense to me. Who canargue with Stephen King? Then there are those authors who say there are no rules in writing. Myfavorite gem is from Ernest Hemingway. “There is no rule on how to write.Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and thenblasting it out with charges.” I like the notion I can be liberated from rules, until Ifind myself in a tough spot where I don’t what to do and resist taking chances.Maybe that comes from years, more than a decade really, of trying to getpublished. I heard more advice from agents, editors, and published authors aboutwhat I needed to do to get published than could fit in one book on writing, if Iwere ever inclined to write one. Now that I am published, I still struggle with the question about whether tofollow the rules, especially when authors manage to leap to the top of the bestsellers’ lists by breaking rules. Gillian Flynn (You’ve heard of Gone Girl?) andWilliam Landay (Defending Jacob) both created unreliable narrators and flew offthe charts. Now, use of an unreliable narrator is not only acceptable, it hasbecome a norm if you look at what books are selling big and being made intomovies. The Girl on the Train is the best example. I recently read The Widow by Fiona Barton (not to be confused with TheWidower’s Wife by our own Miss Demeanor, Cate Holahan), a very clever debutthat made the New York Times bestseller list and earned a blurb from StephenKing. Barton wrote from the point of view of four characters (the widow, thedetective, the reporter and the husband), which is not uncommon, but two of thecharacters were in first person and the other two in the third. I can see editorsshaking their heads. What Barton did next would give an editor a neck rotationout of the Exorcist. She jumped back and forth from 2006 to 2010, chapter tochapter, challenging her readers’ concentration at the very least, but risking thecriticism of writing authorities everywhere. As I read the book, I was reminded of the time my first agent “suggested” Irewrite the protagonist’s story in the third person rather than the first person. Shegave her reasons, including citing some “rules.” I complied, wanting desperatelyfor my story to be published, gritting my teeth as I became distanced from acharacter I had previously felt close to. The book never sold, and although I cannever be sure why, I do wonder if it became a different book when I acquiescedto a recommendation so intrinsic. To break the rules or not? How many writers have their books sitting inslush piles because they ignored the rules? I think it may come down to knowingthe rules and being able to recognize when the risk presents a genuineopportunity to be creative, rather than a gimmick. Gimmicks don’t last. Goodwriting does.              

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No, I didn’t have too much to drink at the Labor Day barbecue, thank you. I’m just celebrating what I believe Labor Day really is to me, and to many, if not most other people.  It is the beginning of a new year.            I am not trying to diminish the significance of Labor Day, which according to Wikipedia “honors the American labor movement and the contributions that workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well being of the country.”  Nor, will I start a conversation about what’s happening today to workers in our country, although that’s a topic worthy of discussion.            I’m simply acknowledging that for most of us, the end of the summer and the beginning of a new school year marks what most of us consider a new year. Ingrained in us since we were students, reinforced when we send our own children to school, that back-to-school fever is more about new beginnings, fresh slates, and starting over than the 31st of December ever was. Kissing goodbye the celebration of summer and all the gifts it brings is not without sadness. Who won’t miss fresh blueberries, carnivals and county fairs, beaches, lakes, and pools? But admit it. If you pause and peek inside, there’s a little excitement that comes with a new year.            What do you plan to do during the seasons to come? Will you look for that new job? Finally take the art class you’ve wanted to take? Go back to the gym? Maybe put those words that have been swirling around your head and filling your heart to paper? Will you give yourself permission to take a break from shopping for school supplies, stocking up on peanut butter and snacks, and put down the catalogues telling what you must wear this season? Will you let the new year be one when you embrace the passage of the luxurious laziness of summer and open your heart and life to all that is yours if you only let it be?            My Happy New Year includes a few resolutions, of course. I will defend the time I set aside to write against all distractions, external and internal. I will honor the gift that has been given to me and find joy in doing it. I know I will still complain about deadlines, edits, and what point of view I should write in, but I am determined to focus on having gratitude for what I have and not whine about what I don’t have. I am excited to meet September and the months that follow with a renewed commitment to a new life I have chosen. (More on that later this week.)            How about you? What do you plan to do with your new year? You don’t have to be a writer or an artist to jump in. All you have to do is begin.               

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Take a little trip

( picture by http://www.geographicus.com/mm5/cartographers/deveer.txt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)  I love traveling. By car, train, airplane, it doesn’t matter as long as it gets me from home to someplace else. Sadly, actual travel isn’t always possible. I have a job and I’m expected to show up more often than not. And I’m not on anybody’s richest people list. But I’m determined not to let the practicalities of real life hold me back. I can always travel in my imagination.
Between books, movies, television, and the internet I can virtually visit any place in the world. France, Spain, Iceland, Croatia, Fiji, Antarctica, anywhere. All I have to do is turn a page, click a mouse, or change a channel and I’m there. Given the choice, I’ll take an actual trip over a virtual one but sometimes I have to make do.
Virtual travel does have one advantage (besides no lines at airport security) over actual travel, an insurmountable advantage. You can’t actually travel to a place that doesn’t actually exist. No trains stop in Wonderland. No buses run to Oz. You can’t buy a ticket on Southwest to Tatooine, even on sale. And no roads lead to Hogwarts. (You can drive to Universal to ride the Harry Potter ride but that’s not the same thing.) However, through a page or a screen you can visit any place not of this world as well as every place in it. Far off planets, underground kingdoms, fairy realms, undersea metropolises are yours for the adventure and you don’t need a passport.
If you prefer your fictional road trips closer to home, pack up your invisible Woodie and turn on your imaginary GPS. Visit an idealized town, a Norman Rockwell painting, a place that didn’t exist but should have. Go to Pleasantville or Lake Wobegon. Stop in Hill Valley, California on the way.  Fictional road trips don’t have to make geographical sense. Drive to Shermer, Illinois and indulge in a little suburban angst then head down south and stop a spell in Yoknapatawpha or Maycomb County. If you seek small town charm with an edge, detour to Cabot Cove, Maine or to Midsomer County where villages are replete with murderers, blackmailers, and other deviants. And don’t forget to add Castle Rock; Twin Peaks; Eerie, Indiana; Sunnydale, California; and Cicely, Alaska to your itinerary. Not everyone’s into small towns, not even the fictional kind. If that describes you, head for the big city. The bright lights and dark corners of Basin City, Metropolis, Dark City, and Gotham await your arrival. Fiction is a travelogue who’s “only boundaries are those of imagination.” Where do your fictional travels take you?

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