Miss Demeanors in Toronto! Come find us.

 Five of the Miss Demeanors, along with Paula Munier, better known as the glue that binds them together, swarm the city for the weekend. While you will certainly find them in the bar or roaming the halls to see friends, visit panels and chat with readers, there are times when you can count on finding them! Thursday kicks off with Michele Dorsey and Tracee de Hahn on competing panels (wander from one to the other and they promise not to object as the door opens and shuts): Michele’s panel is in Sheraton A at 4 pm. She joins fellow beach lovers Ryan Aldred, Baron R. Birtcher, David Burnsworth, Mike Martin and moderator Kay Kendall talking about “Coastal Crimes: How does living on the Water’s edge drive crime?” Meanwhile at 4 pm in Sheraton C, you are invited to “Read the World: Discover mysterious characters travelling through multiple counties.” Tracee de Hahn will sell you on the merits of a vacation in Switzerland, or at least a good read about that country, joined by panelists Cathy Ace, Annamaria Alfieri, Barry Lancet, Chris Pave and moderator Puja Guha, chatting about their respective destinations. Michele and Tracee will sign books immediately following their panels in Osgoode. 7:30 am and Friday starts bright and (too?) early for Tracee at the New Author’s Breakfast in Grand East where she has her one minute of fame. She will follow that up at 10 am in the VIP Room Concourse Level as a 20 on the 20s. Stop by and talk about ANYTHING. Really. She will be signing at 11 am. Saturday is another early day for the Miss Demeanors as they swarm the Sisters in Crime Breakfast to help celebrate 30 marvelous years. 7:30 am in Grand East (reservations required). Dashing straight out from breakfast, Alexia, Cate and Paula offer another chance to run between panels to catch all of the action. At 10 am in Sheraton A, Alexia Gordon with co-panelists Christine Cabo, Allen Eskins, Thomas Mullen, Lisa Turner and moderator Katharine M. Nohr, represent the US contingent in “North vs South: An American Panel, with authors setting their work at either end of the contiguous states.” Going head to head at 10 am with Alexia are Cate Holahan and Paula Munier in Grand West. Paula moderates this panel on “The Twisted Panel: Plotting, how to keep them interested….. and guessing.” They are joined by Jane Cleland, Ragnar Jónasson, Linda Landrigan and Felicia Yap. Alexia, Cate and Paula, will sign books immediately following their panels in Osgoode. Closing out a great day, at 4 pm Susan Breen and her co-panelists Scott Adlerberg, Terry Shames, Randall Silvas, Robin Yocum and moderator Valentina Giambanco share thoughts on “Pacing a Mystery: the keys to pacing from writers of a variety of mystery styles.” Immediately afterwards, Susan will be signing at Osgoode. On Sunday, you have a chance to quiz Michele to your heart’s content from 9:20-9:40 while she holds forth as a 20 on the 20s in the VIP room. At 10:30 she’ll be signing in Osgoode. Whew, we will leave tired, but rejuvenated! Hope to see many of you there! And thanks to Alison and Robin for staying behind to hold down the fort below the border. For all the Bouchercon details list the official website here. 

Read more

DON’T BOTHER ME, I’M NOT WRITING

Author Ellen Byron joins the MissDemeanors today to share her thoughts on mindless creativity. Don’t miss her new mystery, A Cajun Christmas Killing, available now. Here’s Ellen: I spend a lot of time when I’m not writing, writing. It may look like I’m getting dinner together or doing the laundry, but I’ve found  that when I’m engaged in some mindless task – and if you ever ate at my house, you’d know my cooking is mindless – I have some of my most creative thoughts. It turns out I’m not alone in this. Google “mindless creativity” and you’ll get pages of articles proving this really is a thing. I found an article in Nature magazine about a study that showed “simply taking a break does not bring on inspiration — rather, creativity is fostered by tasks that allow the mind to wander.” A piece in Inc. Magazine was titled, “Want to be more creative? Do something mindless.” In a recent post on the Chicks on the Case blog, Lisa Q. Mathews shared this tidbit: Dame Agatha Christie herself claimed that she did some of her best plotting while doing the dishes.  Around the time I was thinking about this topic, the inimitable Dru of Dru’s Musings posted a picture from work showing a table filled with cans of Play Doh. I asked her about this, and she said, “Playing with Play Doh breaks up the monotony of the day, allowing you to relax and set your mind free by escaping with something fun.” Exactly.  Photo courtesy of Dru I’m now a fervent proponent of the Mindless Creativity Movement. Okay, there isn’t a movement, I just made that up, but there should be because we often feel guilty when we step away from our computers to do a task or errand or even something fun like play with Play Doh, and we shouldn’t. I’ve had so many brainstorms pushing a shopping cart through Target that I actually thanked them in the acknowledgments of my second book, Body on the Bayou. I’m not kidding. It reads, “And finally, a big thank-you to my local Target stores. I do some of my best thinking aimlessly wandering those jam-packed aisles.” I even wrote a blog post about the most mindless task of all. It’s titled “The Zen of Picking Up Dog Poo.” https://chicksonthecase.com/2017/07/17/the-zen-of-picking-up-dog-poo/ One drag about mindless creativity is that our nearest and dearest often don’t know it’s going on. They see us cleaning out the pantry or organizing the recycle bin and think, “Oh yay, she’s finally off the computer. I can talk to her.” I’ve lost some gems this way and snapped at the poor person who interrupted my creative process. When I shared an apartment with a particularly chatty roommate, I actually made a sign that read “Still Working” that I wore around my neck when I wasn’t literally writing. Another potential problem is the thin line between mindless creativity and procrastination. I have to be honest with myself and acknowledge when a midday trip to my favorite clothing store is the latter. But sometimes the two work hand-in-hand, and procrastination actually turns into mindless creativity. I ruined two pots when I chose to procrastinate by cooking, then had a brainstorm about my current book, A Cajun Christmas Killing, and ran back to the computer, totally forgetting about what I’d left on the stove. So next time you’re stuck on something, whatever it might be, trying getting your mind off the project and onto a mindless task. Even if you don’t have a breakthrough, at least your spice rack will be organized and your backyard poo-free. Your fearless MissDemeanor again. Forget the spice rack; go pick up a copy of Ellen’s new book, A Cajun Christmas Killing.  Here’s a peek (It’s okay, I won’t tell Santa):  Maggie Crozat is home in Cajun Country during the most magical time of the year. But the Grinch has come to stay at the Crozat Plantation B&B, and he’s flooding travel websites with vicious reviews. Maggie ID’s him as rival businessman Donald Baxter –until Baxter is found stabbed to death. With her detective boyfriend sidelined as a suspect, Maggie must catch the real killer or it will be the opposite of a Joyeux Noel for her. Books make much better presents than slipper socks and fruitcake. So grab copies now for everyone on your nice list. And on your naughty list, too. Beat the holiday rush. Ellen Byron writes the Cajun Country Mystery series. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called her new book, A Cajun Christmas Killing, “superb.” Body on the Bayou won the Lefty Award for Best Humorous Mystery, and was nominated for a Best Contemporary Novel Agatha Award. Plantation Shudders, was nominated for Agatha, Lefty, and Daphne awards, and made the USA Today Bestseller list. She’s written over 200 national magazine articles; published plays include the award-winning Graceland; TV credits include Wings, Just Shoot Me, Fairly OddParents, and pilots. Ellen lives in Studio City with her husband, daughter, and two spoiled rescue dogs. https://www.ellenbyron.com/https://www.facebook.com/ellenbyronauthor/https://twitter.com/ellenbyronla    

Read more

Writer's Retreats. To go or not to go.

 We’ve talked about conferences now and then, but writer’s retreats are a different matter entirely. Retreats are about writing, or at least should be, while conferences are more typically about networking and pitching and learning about publishing and craft. If you’re thinking about a retreat, first decided what you want to accomplish. Do you need a leader, or are you working on a place to finish (or start) a project? Is this also a ‘get away’ from daily life and a chance to recharge (i.e do you need a beach or spa or fine dining)? Do you have a weekend or a few weeks? Don’t forget that you can make your own retreat…. Borrow a friend’s vacation home, book yourself into a hotel, or simply send the family away to relatives so you can write. Bottom line, even a short retreat can help a writer accomplish a great deal. Two or three days to work on difficult issues in your manuscript may work wonders.  If you want a ‘learning’ retreat, investigate the package. How are the days/hours structured? What will be ‘taught’? Will there be classes (on plot, character, even getting published) or prompts? Or, are you working on your project, using the instructor as a critic? Do you go alone or take a writing buddy for moral support? Bottom line, taking time to focus ONLY on writing can work miracles, but to benefit you have to set goals and match the experience to your goals. Writing miracles benefit from planning…. That said, any experiences to share? Any cautions or success stories (come on, you’ve led a retreat where a student wrote a break out novel or wrote one of your own!)?  

Read more

Giving Back

The writing community has been very good to me. At the suggestion of one of my mentors I began volunteering at conferences. My first stint was a timekeeper at a California Crime Writers event a couple of years ago. Since then, as I’ve gotten more attention I volunteer to speak at conferences, I mentor aspiring writers, and I shamelessly promote fellow authors every chance I get. Volunteerism is in my blood, literally – I gave blood in a hurricane relief drive earlier this week. I also regularly donate time & money for causes near and dear to my heart like Alzheimer’s and cancer research. Volunteering with and for writers is one thing, the other forms of giving back I do are my little candle in the dark, gestures to try to make the world a better place, one humble effort at a time. My question this week is, how do you give back? Susan: I hope you don’t mind if I turn the question around, Robin, but only yesterday I learned that the woman I considered my mentor, died, and so it’s been very much in my heart how blessed I was to be on the receiving end of her guidance. Jane Carter was one of my students, though a far better writer than I will ever be. She revered language and expected, or possibly demanded, the best from me and she did not hesitate to tell me when I was being flippant. At the same time she had such a kind and loving heart and she read everything I wrote and adored it. She loved Nabokov, and gave me a copy of P’nin, which I treasure, though have never enjoyed as much as she did. Toward the end of her life, after a very circuitious route, she wound up in a homeless shelter in Harlem. I went to visit her. You would think she would be bitter and angry at that point and she certainly had cause to be, but when I walked into her room she grabbed me and said, “Susan, come here. You have to hear this man’s story!” She’d talked to every single person there and knew each person’s story and she wanted to set up a writing class, which she did. The last time I saw her was at the Harlem Book Festival, which was a fantastically hot day, and I have to confess I left behind my booth and went off with her to have Cuban food and ices and we talked for hours. I guess I would hope to be irreplaceable in someone else’s life the way she was to me. Paula: Great story, Susan. Everyone needs a Jane Carter in her life.I know this may sound strange, but I try not to talk about it. Not that I do any more or less than anybody else, but it’s that one part of the Sermon on the Mount that I actually took to heart. Mostly thanks to a novel recommended to me by my catechism teacher when I was girl: Magnificent Obsession, by Lloyd C. Douglas. (They made a 1954 movie adaptation with Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman.) This book had a very strong impact on me, a good Catholic girl who like all good Catholic girls of a certain age wanted to be a nun. I outgrew that part, at least. Tracee: Here’s to the Jane Carters. I love that this illustrates the breadth of giving back. Teachers who stay those extra minutes to encourage a student, high school athletes who mentor their younger almost-peers. Children who travel great distances to spend time with parents. I was a professional fund raiser for years, both as director of a non-profit and as an assistant vice president at a university. I spent a great deal of time emphasizing that we really did value time, talent and treasure. Too often people think that if they can’t give cash then they aren’t giving anything of value. Being a mentor is a sharing of time and talent (buying that coffee to spend time over is also sharing treasure). When I was head of a non-profit we depended (that’s an understatement) on the contributions of time by our museum docents, of talent by those who helped curate new exhibits and, of course, treasure to pay the lighting bill. Each of those contributions played an equally integral role. I found that when people give from the heart to something they value then they feel the good they’ve done and want to do more. For some that means a shift in the how (from time to treasure) or an increase in their financial contribution. For others it means that they forgo their financial contributions while on a fixed income in retirement and give the time that they didn’t have while working. A natural evolution is a mutual link that creates goodwill on both sides and is irreplaceable. Perhaps because I was a professional fund raiser I see the many ways people are asked to give today. Sometimes I think that every time I check out in a store I’m being asked to donate a dollar or round up for a charity. I feel guilty when I say no. It is the public nature of these gifts that disturbs me. Why should a person who has just written a thousand dollar check to a local nonprofit feel guilty for not giving another dollar at the check out stand to that same organization that same day? I would like to suspend judgement about “giving” and simply encourage people to be involved. That is a true gift. Michele: To me, the question how do you give back begs a bigger question. How do you live? What I have learned is that the simple practice of kindness is the answer to all things, whether it is by digging into your pockets, volunteering, speaking in a gentle tone, smiling at a scowling stranger, or speaking out on behalf of those without voices. Kindness breeds generosity, which breeds kindness. Kindness is truly the gift that keeps on giving. Alexia: Now that I’m at a point in my life where my income actually has a “discretionary” portion, I’ve tried to increase the “treasure” part of my giving. I’m someone who thinks “social justice warrior” is a compliment, not an insult, but I’m not really a get-out-in-the-streets-with-a-banner type so I make monthly donations to some organizations dedicated to pursuing social justice. I also donate to symphonies and libraries because I believe books and music are vital. I donate to a historical foundation that is making deliberate efforts to portray a more inclusive story–history for all of us instead of the select few. Time-wise, I volunteer on the Altar Guild at church. Not just so I can collect hysterical wedding stories. I find setting up and breaking down the altar to be a peaceful, spirit-filled exercise. Talent-wise, I’ve forgone the prestige and glamour (and, let’s be honest, money) of private practice and opted, instead, for a career in public service. I wasn’t destined to take up arms in defense of the Constitution but I serve the same goal (and actually had to swear an oath similar to the one uniformed officers swear) as those who do–to uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic–by providing medical evaluation (at various points in my career) to those in uniform, those who’ve taken off the uniform (veterans), and those hoping to wear the uniform. Alison: Every one of these stories is inspiring, in the textbook definition of the term: to exert an animating, enlivening, or exalting influence on…I echo Paula; donations are not something I feel comfortable discussing. I also echo Michele; I think small kindnesses make a big difference. Something as apparently trivial as holding open a door can change a person’s perception of the day, which then alters the way that person interacts with the next person they encounter. This ripple effect is so cliché, but I have been on the receiving end more than once. The tiniest thing can transform my outlook and my ability to pass on compassion to a fellow human being. I’m raising a glass to everyone who tries each day to pass on some kindness in this world, however they choose to do it, even when it’s hard, perhaps, especially when it’s hard. Cate: I try to give back to writers by blurbing their books when asked because other writers who didn’t know me were kind enough to take time read and comment on my books. It’s the kind of giving back that our community does routinely. I just did this and it fit with the theme. I went to my daughter’s school Thursday and taught for 45 minutes about how to write better stories. I spoke to them about creating a problem and complications to the ultimate solution, rising action, falling action and the all important twist.  We created our own story in class about two brothers, Jack and Mack, who have a disagreement while playing chess. Mack, the little brother, loses the game and throws all the pieces on the floor, in full view of the baby monitor that their mother uses to keep an eye on them when they are in their room alone. Jack, the calm, older brother, asks him if he wants to play again and promises to go easier on him. Mack says no and, like a sore loser, tells him that he cheated. Jack tries to convince Mack he played fair, only to have Mack storm off to their mother with his assertion that Jack cheated. Jack convinces the mom that he didn’t cheat. Then, the TWIST, Mack brings in the baby monitor that recorded the whole thing. Jack totally cheated. Jack gets time out and the brothers hug it out in the end and resolve to play fair.  Robin: These are all such great stories. Have I mentioned how proud I am to be a Miss Demeanor? How about you, dear readers? Any stories to share of giving back, whether on the giving or receiving side?   It was giving back, to an extent, but also the most rewarding thing I’d ever volunteered to do for any of my kids’ classes.

Read more

All about short fiction with Art Taylor

I’m delighted to be joined today by Art Taylor. The short version of his bio is that he’s a great guy and a great writer. He’s here today to talk about one of his specialties – Short Stories.  A more complete version of his bio would include Art’s credits as the author of On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. He has won three additional Agatha Awards, an Anthony Award, a Macavity Award, and three consecutive Derringer Awards for his short fiction, and his work has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories. He also edited Murder Under the Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015, winner of the Anthony Award for Best Anthology or Collection. He is an associate professor of English at George Mason University, and he contributes frequently to the Washington Post, the Washington Independent Review of Books, and Mystery Scene Magazine. With that out of the way, and before I go on to novel length, let’s get to the good stuff. Short stories. TdeH: Thanks for joining us today. I live a little in awe of great short stories. They are like Japanese sushi knives. Precise and well honed. You’ve made a name for yourself as a writer of short stories. What drew you to this form?  AT: Thanks for having me, Tracee! Always enjoy the chance to chat about short fiction. TdeH: Ah, short fiction! I like that, much more evocative than short story. Sorry to interrupt, now back to your answer… AT: Either name works for me! To answer your question. Part of being drawn to short stories as a writer is having been a fan of them as a reader first. The Encyclopedia Brown mysteries were one of the first series that I followed—such gems those stories—and later, when I sold magazine subscriptions door-to-door as an elementary school fundraiser, I ended up ordering a subscription myself to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (maybe the only one I “sold”!), which introduced me to short mystery fiction at a much more advanced level. I used the word gem above, and I think that’s an accurate description of the best short fiction—something that’s perfectly, precisely cut (echoing that knife simile of your own, I guess), something that can marvel from various angles, and something brilliance is in inverse proportion to its compact size. (Did I carry that metaphor through OK?) TdeH: Gold star for metaphor continuity.  AT: As a writer—and one working often in a workshop setting in high school and college—I ended up trying to emulate the writers I was reading and admiring, whether Ed Hoch or Hugh Pentecost or others in EQMM or Hemingway or O’Connor or Welty in the classroom, and that included writing short instead of long. The workshop process in classes does, in fact, lean toward shorter fiction—something that can be read and critiqued in its entirety—and so that probably led me to feel more confident in writing short too, to develop those skills more. TdeH: Do you find that short fiction exercises a different part of the creative process than longer works? AT: I do—and in fact, while I’ve heard short story writers saying they struggle to write novels, I’ve heard the same thing in the opposite direction: novelists who struggle to write a short story. While some aspiring writers might think of the short story as a stepping stone toward writing novels, they do require different approaches. Short stories involve concision and subtraction and efficiency—cutting down a paragraph to the key detail or gesture or image that suggests larger things—rather than addition, with novels obviously involving more characters, more subplots, more… everything usually, a broader scope generally of character, plot, setting, and time. This is not to say that writers can’t do both, of course. But I do think that the best short stories can represent worlds as large as novels; they just do it in different ways. TdeH: Do you find a common thread binding your short fiction? AT: This is an interesting question, and one that I (honestly) struggle with myself. Ed Aymar, a good friend, once asked me if it was a challenge to my career that I wrote in such a variety of styles and subject matters (traditional here, noir there, etc.) since it all seemed antithetical to developing a brand. It was a revelatory question for me—not necessarily in a good way. And yet at the same time my writing group—and my wife Tara Laskowski too, always my first and finest reader—have emphasized that they can always hear my voice at the core of whatever I write, no matter how distant one story may be from the next in other ways. TdeH: I appreciate the idea of voice over brand. And I believe that you can have continuity of voice across genres. After all, most people read in a variety of genres – even if it is technically within one, say, from cozy mystery to hard boiled thriller. AT: I do think that my stories tend to revolve around several key themes, specifically relationships, the ties that bind, the responsibilities inherent in relationships, and the fall-out from not living up to those responsibilities in one way or another.  TdeH: You’ve already hinted at your answer, but I want to ask it straight out: I’ve often heard short stories lauded as a way into publishing. What’s your opinion about this?  AT: This takes some of my comments above in a different direction, of course. Before I was focused on craft, but from a business angle… well, I do think that short fiction publications might help toward other publishing opportunities, and I know it helped me specifically. Having some stories published, getting some attention for those stories, gave me a place in the mystery community that I wouldn’t have had otherwise and brought me to the attention of my publisher, Henery Press, and then to the publication of On the Road with Del & Louise (and from a craft angle, that story is a novel in stories, so there was actually an aesthetic component to all this too). So it’s possible to… I hesitate to say leverage but certainly it’s possible to build on success in one area toward success in another. TdeH: But not necessarily the path that is right for everyone? AT: Correct. I’ve heard from an agent friend that she’d rather start with a complete unknown when she’s trying to pitch a first novel to a publisher—someone to discover and debut. Many ways of looking at this, seems like. TdeH: Any advice for someone attempting their first work of short fiction – tips on story structure, theme, plot points? AT: My good friend and fellow short story writer Barb Goffman has said that a short story is about “one thing”—and keeping focus on that one thing may well go a long way toward making those moves I mentioned before, making those cuts to anything that’s not integral to the story being told. In my own short fiction workshops, I often talk about narrative arc in similar ways—using Janet Burroway’s discussion of Cinderella and her charts of the Cinderella story—to show how closely the movement of plot and of conflict relates to that “one thing” that the story is about, and I think that can be a good model for writers trying their hand at short fiction for the first time. What does a character want? What’s standing in the way of those desires? How do you navigate that character through that obstacle course—whether they reach the end of all those obstacles successfully or not? (And failure or disappointment can also be satisfying resolutions, of course. Compare the traditional Cinderella to Anne Sexton’s poem by the same name.) But that’s just a starting point, of course. In those same workshops, we also look at modular storytelling, at experiments in structure and form—at the many shapes a short story might take. Constraints may be part of the challenge in writing short—but finding ways around those constraints? What fun! What pleasures for both writer and reader too! TdeH: Art, thanks for spending time with us, and for sharing your insights into the world of short fiction. And congratulations on ALL of your awards! Learn more about Art and dip into his writing at arttaylorwriter.com, follow him on Twitter @ArtTaylorWriter, on Facebook at ArtTaylorShortStories, on Pinterest at arttaylorwriter and Instagram at arttaylorwriter

Read more

In It To Win It

When I started taking writing seriously I studied. What I researched was other writers. How did they achieve success? I admit, my definition of success is lofty. I aim high and always have. So what I set about learning was beyond “everything will be rainbows and unicorns once I get an agent.” First, because that’s just not true. Second, I mean this to be a career. There are plenty of career authors in the world, especially in crime fiction. I wanted to know how they got there. What I learned is an “overnight success” takes roughly 3 books in an average of 6 years. Readers generally discover authors around the 3rd book and then go back to the first 2. Authors with loyal fans keep that loyalty by continuing to produce. Some authors are machines who write 2 books a year. Most genre authors put out a book every 12-18 months. So, what I learned is, like anything personally rewarding, it’s a marathon not a sprint.   

Read more

How I Got An Agent

Since I’m spilling some of my secrets this week I thought I’d share one that’s on the minds of a lot of aspiring writers, how I got my agent. The short answer is, I just kept going. That’s not helpful so to elaborate, I kept going to workshops on the craft of writing for commercial markets, critique boot camps, and conferences. Then I kept going back to my writing hidey hole to apply the lessons I learned. Along the way I earned a mentor. I say “earned” because I’ve found that no matter the career, there are always people willing to take a person under their wing but it’s a relationship that works only when the mentee acts on the time and effort graciously provided by the mentor. My early mentor, Michael Neff, is the director of Algonkian workshops and conferences, one of them being the New York Pitch Conference (https://newyorkpitchconference.com/). Michael invited me a year before I actually took him up on the offer. Why did I wait? Because I didn’t want to blow it. I wanted to walk in confident that both my manuscript and I were ready.An unrelated aside, you’ll note my fellow Miss Demeanor, Susan Breen, is also on the faculty at the New York Pitch. If you check out the website you’ll see this particular event is something a lot of us have in common 🙂 But I digress…. In the run-up to my trip to NY I studied the faculty that would be there, the agents, editors and authors who would be helping attendees hone their pitches throughout the event. Each genre has a leader and mine was Paula Munier. Something I’ve learned throughout multiple careers is that when someone you respect is willing to give you their time and energy, you listen to what they have to say. In addition to being an excellent coach, Paula has a pedigree that opens doors. I gave her my full attention. As a result, at the end of the long weekend I received read requests from every agent and editor I pitched. Was that all Paula’s doing? In large part, yes, but also it was my approach. I took this event seriously and treated it like a job interview. In essence, that’s exactly what pitches are. Like job interviews, I’m not only hoping someone finds me suited to them. It’s a 2-way street. I look for fit & chemistry, too. It’s not that I had any issues with the other agents I met but Paula and I hit it off right away. When I got her call, I didn’t hesitate. I signed with her immediately. So I guess the secret is, there is no secret. I got my agent through hard work and careful selection. And I just kept going.  

Read more

Mystery Week 2017

We’ve blogged about attending conferences. But we haven’t talked about speaking. Public speaking is a common fear. It’s anathema for most writers. We tuck ourselves away in our writing corners with a laptop or notebook. Maybe there’s a window. But there’s definitely not an audience. And that’s how we like it, right? Not if you intend to sell books.  Once a book is written, a contract is signed, and the book gets published, that’s when the “work” begins. I put “work” in quotes because, to me, writing is fun. Promotion is the part where we need to step out of our comfort zones. One form of promotion that’s never too early to start is building your brand. A great way to accomplish this is speaking at conferences.  It’s no secret I know a lot about cyber crime and technology. Thus, I look for opportunities to share my knowledge. This year, in particular, cyber-y things are a hot topic. I belong to Sisters In Crime, Mystery Writers of America and International Thriller Writers and each of those organizations hosts author events throughout the year. They send out emails and calls on social media for participants in these events. If I see any inkling of interest in educating my fellow writers about cyber crime, I raise my hand and volunteer. Heck, even if I don’t see a specific call for experts I’ve pitched ideas to conference organizers. As a result, I’m on panels at 3 conferences this fall and I’ve been invited to 2 more (so far) in 2018. I didn’t start out comfortable speaking to sometimes large groups. I have my day job to thank for helping me learn ways to get past the inevitable stage fright. I’m not shy among friends and co-workers so I’ve been tapped many, many times to give presentations on a variety of topics. It’s like anything else, the more you do it the easier it gets. I’ve learned a couple of secrets along the way. My first rule – know the subject matter inside and out. At 20 years and counting living & breathing all things cyber, I’ve got that one down. The only variable is whether or not I need to have something prepared or if the format is Q&A. I actually prefer the latter. Then it’s less like “public speaking” and more of a conversation. Some speakers don’t like being caught off guard by doing Q&As but I enjoy directly addressing what’s on the minds of participants. If I don’t know the answer to a question, which happens from time to time, I commit to find out and follow up with whoever asked. If I have to have something prepared, then I adhere to my second rule – make it fun. I’m a storyteller so this part is easy. I try to use animated images in slides rather than words (this is possible with both PowerPoint and Keynote). That probably seems counterintuitive for a writer but wordy slides put me to sleep so I create an experience that I’d find entertaining myself. Since I’m my own toughest critic, if I pass that test, I can feel good about what – and how – I present. The whole idea of speaking at conferences is to make a connection. That’s why we attend in the first place, right? Network with each other, meet agents and publishers, see or even get to meet our heroes. Participating is a great way to reach a lot of people all at once. Speaking of which (see what I did there?), you can see me during the NorCal MWA Mystery Week on October 16 and at the New England Crime Bake Nov. 10 -12 in the “Ask The Experts” session. If you attend either of these, or see me at a future event, please say hi. I’d love to meet you. 

Read more

Use Your Words

I’m making a slight departure from our usual writing & reading theme today to make a special plea. The last few weeks have brought a nauseating amount of pain and suffering to multiple parts of the United States and the world, between hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and now the worst mass shooting in US history in Las Vegas, NV. Many of us are angry, frustrated or feeling helpless. We’re all looking for answers, or to our leaders. That’s all well and good but, if you’ll forgive me, there’s no time for navel-gazing right now. People are suffering. We, as authors and public figures, have platforms. Please join me in using those powers for good. Given the perfect storm of events emergency supplies are stretched beyond thin. I can’t be the only one thinking “I HAVE to do something.” So I am. And you can, too. Here’s a handful of organizations that need our help to help others: https://www.oneamericaappeal.org/One American Appeal is an organization established by the 5 living former US Presidents. Cash donations ensure the right help reaches the right people to bring aid to Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, all of whom are still reeling and face monumental tasks in providing basic necessities and restoring services to those hardest hit. https://www.redcross.org/ns/apology/disaster_homepage.htmlThere was a nationwide blood shortage before any of these events occurred. Please find a blood drive near you. Giving blood is easy and – I speak from personal experience as a needle-phobe – painless. https://www.crowdrise.com/o/en/team/salmaSalma Hayek has started a Crowdrise campaign to provide aid to UNICEF’s relief effort in Mexico following the recent earthquakes. Ms. Hayek will match the first $100,000 in donations. This is but a small sampling of the number of individual and institutional efforts underway to help the millions, yes millions, of people currently impacted. Please give what you can and help spread the word through your social networks, platforms, and professional networks to address the crucial, immediate needs. 

Read more

A conversation with Jonathan F. Putnam

 I am delighted to host Jonathan F. Putnam today. I had the great pleasure of meeting Jonathan at Bouchercon in New Orleans last year where I snagged a signed copy of his first book. Since then, I’ve been a big fan of his Lincoln & Speed Mystery Series, perhaps because they feature places in and around where I grew up in Kentucky, Illinois and points farther afield. The Lincoln & Speed books feature the young Abraham Lincoln and his real-life best friend, Joshua Speed, as a kind of Holmes and Watson of the American frontier.  The series includes 2016’s These Honored Dead (starred review by Kirkus Reviews) and 2017’s Perish from the Earth.  The third book in the series, Final Resting Place, will be published next summer. Jonathan’s latest book is Perish from the Earth.  In Perish, Lincoln is faced with a fateful choice on which the future of the nation may hang, if his own client doesn’t hang first.  Lincoln and Speed must work together to free Lincoln’s client and ensure that justice prevails. And you don’t need to trust my judgment. MyShelf.com wrote of Perish: “One of the best books I have read in a long time. I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you are either a mystery buff or a history buff, this book is for you. If you happen to be both, I’m certain you will be captivated by its raw and honest look at this part of American history and by the beauty of the language used to portray the people, both real and imaginary.”  Enough background, let’s hear from Jonathan. Historical fiction, particularly a series that features a well-known character, relies on accuracy. What role do primary sources play in your research? Or are secondary sources adequate? JFP: My books are the product of substantial original historical research.  I’ve visited the locations where my books are set; read lots of documents from Lincoln’s real-life legal cases; read innumerable first-person accounts from the 19th century about Lincoln; read the substantial extant correspondence between Lincoln and Speed and other members of Speed’s family, and conducted additional original research on Speed, who is a much less well known figure in history. One set of sources in particular that I’ve mined are contemporaneous travel diaries.  Westerners at the time, like Lincoln and Speed, were mostly concerned with survival.  Life on the frontier was hard.  They tended not to write down a lot about their everyday lives.  But lots of Easterners and Europeans traveled to the Mississippi River Valley to see first-hand what was then the “Wild West”.  It was sort of the European Grand Tour in reverse.  Many of these travelers kept diaries, and I’ve tracked a lot of them down.  They provide an unmatched record of the details of daily life on the frontier in the 1830s, and I’ve relied on them to create in my books what I think is a very realistic portrait of Lincoln & Speed’s life and times. TdeH: I remember having a conversation with you at Bouchercon about word choice and how it is a fine line between writing for a 21st century audience and maintaining accuracy in the historical context. JFP: The travel diaries and other 19th century primary sources also help make my books sound like they were written in the period.  Speed is my first-person narrator, and he tells the reader the story with a real immediacy – as it’s happening to him and around him.  To make the reading experience fully immersive, I need to make sure the vocabulary, metaphors, etc. Speed uses in telling the story are ones that would have been available to a storyteller in the 1830s. At the same time, I’m always aware that readers are reading my books in the 2010s.  So I try to make them accessible and easy to read, though with enough of an antique patina that you can imagine taking a trip back in time with me and Speed. TdeH: How much research did you do to set the series versus what you do to continue with the various books? JFP: By the time I published my first Lincoln & Speed book I had done a ton of research on the two protagonists and their life and times.  That research is in the bank, so to speak, and I continue to draw upon it.  But I also do original research for each new book.  For example, Perish from the Earth, my most recent book, is set along the Mississippi River, in Alton, IL, St. Louis, and on-board steamboats.  For the book, I traveled to Alton and St. Louis to see first-hand the places where my scenes were going to be set, as well as rode up and down the Mississippi on a steamboat. TdeH: I’ll interrupt here and say that I was born in Cape Girardeau, Missouri and love reading anything set on that river! But you are talking about points farther north from my part of ‘the cape.’ JFP: I was actually going to set a scene in Cape Girardeau, but I kept misspelling it in the draft manuscript and finally decided it was too much trouble.  Kidding. Seriously, during my visit to Alton, I discovered an unexpected piece of Lincoln history: the actual two-story brick building, perched on a hillside overlooking the river, in which Lincoln tried cases when he came to Alton.  In Lincoln’s time it was the shipping office of a Captain Ryder, who loaned his building to the judge whenever the court came to town.  Today it’s a popular lunch spot called “My Just Desserts”.  Ann, the owner of the restaurant, sat down at my table amidst the lunch rush and told me all about the history of the place.  She couldn’t have been nicer.  If you’re ever in Alton, I recommend the All-Star Sandwich.  And a slice of Peanut Butter Pie if you saved room for dessert. TdeH: Restaurant advice duly noted. Any advice to authors of historical fiction about trimming the amazing facts you’ve learned and keeping only some? JFP: I was a trial lawyer for two decades before I became a writer.  “Libel law” covers false and defamatory statements that one person makes about another.  In libel law there’s a well-known saying that ‘the truth is a defense’ – in other words, if you say or print something nasty or derogatory about someone, if you prove that the statement is true that’s a complete defense to any claim against you, even if publication of the statement is hurtful, etc. In the course of writing my historical fiction I’ve come up with a related catechism, which I remind myself and other writers of frequently: ‘the truth is not a defense.’ In other words, just because something actually did happen in real life isn’t a good reason to include it in a historical fiction story.  In my view, the history you use needs to serve your narrative.  If the actual history gets in the way of the narrative, then you need to change to the narrative, or alter the actual history just enough to make the story work. TdeH: Excellent advice! And a reminder that whether it is historical or contemporary fiction writing is about distilling and editing. Related to this, how do you play with historical fact? Is it an inevitable part of translating the time into fiction? JFP: For the two characters at the core of my story, Lincoln and Speed, I stay completely true to their actual biographies.  In real life, the two men shared a room – and, indeed, a bed – in Springfield, IL during the period when my books are set.  Lincoln worked as a lawyer and served in the state legislature, while Speed ran a general store.  As accurately as I can portray them, my characters Lincoln and Speed are identical to the actual Lincoln and Speed of the time period in question.  My books also have a number of other well-known historical figures portrayed true to their actual selves.   For example, Robert E. Lee makes a cameo appearance in Perish.  Lincoln and Speed encounter Lee in St. Louis in November 1837 while he’s working on fixing a problem with the city’s river port, which is exactly where and what Lee was doing in November 1837. As I get further away from well-known historical figures, I feel more comfortable allowing myself degrees of imaginative freedom.  For example, one of the main supporting characters in my books is Speed’s younger sister Martha.  In my series, Martha lives in Springfield near Lincoln and Speed, and she is kind of a spunky younger sister who helps out in the crime-solving, while giving her older brother a suitably hard time.  Her presence as an independent-minded young woman in the narrative also lets me raise what I think are very interesting questions about what women were and were not allowed to do at the time. In real-life, Speed did have a younger sister named Martha, although I’ve made my Martha a few years older.  But virtually nothing is known to history about the real Martha Speed – and I would know, because I’ve researched her exhaustively, tracking down census records, old family histories and the like.  So other than the name, approximate age, and younger sister relationship to Speed, the Martha character is entirely my creation.  A lot of people tell me she’s their favorite character in the books. TdeH: Now when I say that Martha is my favorite character you won’t believe me. JFP:  No, I do believe you.  Really. TdeH:  Jonathan, we’ve appreciated having you spend time with MissDemeanors today. I’ve enjoyed reading These Honored Dead and Perish from the Earth and will click on the Amazon link now to pre-order next summer’s Final Resting Place. Hopefully Martha continues to play a role.  For more about Jonathan and the Lincoln & Speed mysteries visit jonathanfputnam.com or follow him on Facebook at Jonathan F. Putnam, or on Twitter @Speed_Lincoln

Read more