For Love of Libraries

Today, at 7p.m., I am speaking at THE RAMSEY PUBLIC LIBRARY in Bergen County, NJ, where I grew up and now live. I am so thankful that they invited me and that I live in a place with wonderful local libraries.   Librarians rock. By and large, they are amazing sources of information. Most read constantly and pride themselves on acquiring good books and then recommending them to their visitors. As a result, a strong library system can be the difference between a wonderful work of fiction getting discovered by the masses.  One of the most well read people in the mystery, thriller community is librarian and author Jeff Ayers. Track him down at the next mystery conference and ask about a book that you enjoyed which no one has been able to talk to you about. Chances are, Jeff will know it. Chances are, he’ll even personally know the author. The library was where I discovered my own love of reading. My mom would take me several times a month to the TEANECK PUBLIC LIBRARY to stack up on new books. I loved holing away in a corner of the building, surrounded by the sweet, faintly earthy smell of paper and ink, and getting lost in a fictional universe for hours.  When I had my first interview for BusinessWeek, a magazine where I would later work for several years, it was in the Teaneck Public Library. I applied right out of college, before I had enough experience to warrant the job. The editor decided that I deserved some encouragement and met with me at the library to talk writing, journalism, and books.  Now a mom, I take my kids to the TENAFLY PUBLIC LIBRARY every month. They love picking out new books, though they have a bad habit of pretending they own them and integrating them into their own bookcases. The children’s librarian there has turned my kids on to some wonderful series that I would not have otherwise known about.  Do you visit your local library? What is your favorite library memory?    

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Writing is rewriting

“By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.” — Roald Dahl  I find myself repeating such sage advice lately as I am in the midst of rewriting my fourth book.   Some authors swear that they write just one draft. I wish I knew their secret. My process, despite extensive plotting, seems to demand that I write a draft (which I believe will be my final at the time) and then nearly destroy all of it.     Then, having a better sense of my characters due to writing through my story, I re-plot my tale and rewrite my story. Afterward, I work with my publisher and rewrite some more. Every book, by the time it is published, is three or more books.  For me, this writing and rewriting is necessary to tell my story in a way that grows organically from the characters while still exploring the themes that drew me to the story in the first place.  Though, when in the midst of it, I wish my process was a bit more streamlined. What’s your writing process? Are you one draft and done, save for copy edits? Or does it take multiple drafts? 

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Taboo Topics

Some years ago, my fabulous Gotham boss, Kelly Caldwell, wrote an article about writers’ taboos. Were there any topics you just would not write about? I was thinking about that article the other day when I was at my daughter’s bridal shower. I adore my daughter, I loved everyone there, and yet the mystery writer in me could not help but think that it would be a perfect set-up for a murder. I began to plot, but then pushed the idea away. It was my daughter’s day and I didn’t want to appropriate it. (Not now, anyway.) That led me to wonder, however, what topics my fellow Miss Demeanors find taboo. This is what they said: Cate: I don’t consider any topics taboo in a suspense or thriller. Maybe that’s because I started sneaking my mom’s V.C. Andrews books right after I finished reading The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe. Alexia: I can’t think of any subject I consider taboo–off limits, would never, ever go there. (Never say never.) However, I don’t care to write about subjects that I wouldn’t read about. Not because they’re verboten, just because I’ve gotten to a point in my life where I’m okay with not spending my limited time on things that hold no interest for me. Stories about not-too-bright submissive women involved with wealthy, sexually sadistic psychopaths come to mind. Also stories where sex and violence are gratuitous, just there for the shock value, not to serve a plot purpose.I would love to read a murder mystery centered around a bridal shower, unromantic cynic that I am. “Bridezilla Gets Her Due.” How’s that for a title? The caterer did it. D.A.:  I absolutely write about the taboo … in the textbook definition of a social or religious custom forbidding discussion of a particular practice.  My books are about what many Latter-day Saints consider sacred. There are particular challenges to writing about what you’re not supposed to write. It’s easy to understate, exaggerate or avoid. I think readers sense when a writer’s not being honest or fair, and the story suffers. When I’m dealing with a taboo subject, I’ve found the best way to ensure accurate and respectful treatment is to let my characters be themselves. My detective has left the church and her father is a devout and active member. I defer to the characters’ intelligence and let them wrestle with the taboo topics. They do a much better job than I could. The reader then is left to sort things out on his or her own, which really is what you want to happen when you read suspense anyway. As a nod to the taboo, I’ve attached an image of the Salt Lake temple, a structure where sacred covenants no one is supposed to discuss take place.   Michele: My answer to the question of the week is that I could never write about explicit violence to children. I can allude to it, but I can’t even bear to read details about children being hurt, let alone consider writing them. As much as I love Elizabeth George and have read just about every word the woman has ever written, I had skip sections of In the Presence of the Enemy. I didn’t want to experience what Lottie had to endure. But I also believe writing about the abuse and harm to children can raise awareness and help to prevent it. There’s a delicate balance between letting readers know about the cruelty children suffer from and including such graphic details that they recoil from them and stop reading as I do. Tracee: Children and animals are two hurdles I treat carefully. I agree with Michele that awareness can be raised if done correctly but I can’t write about them explicitly. I have a part in a current manuscript where the heroine tries to abandon her dog to a good home and some Beta readers balked – even though she and the dog are re-united a half page later and bond permanently soon after!I’m a big fan of Martha Grimes and she’s raised awareness of cruelty to animals with plot lines involving testing, I thought she handled it well. Revealing enough for awareness without making the reader want to flip though the chapter without reading. Of course I also don’t write about serial killers or other situations which require descriptions of torture or other physical horrors. Robin: I embrace taboo topics a little too readily (ask Paula about that :)). There is one thing I will likely never write, though, and that’s anything involving harm to an animal. Maybe I got scarred by reading Old Yeller in grade school. There are books I love that handle such things artfully without feeling contrived or manipulative, like James Herriot’s books and Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing In The Rain, but I sometimes have to take breaks after scenes I write involving humans; jeopardizing an animal would bring me to a full stop. I’m too much of a sucker for fur babies. Paula: I won’t write about anything I won’t read about. Which means sadism or torture or harm to kids or animals. There are dog heroes in my books, and I worry about the challenges they face just as much as I worry about those my human heroes face–from flying bullets to n’oreasters. As an agent, I know that selling stories  where a child or an animal is killed is very difficult, if not impossible, especially for debut authors. To pull it off requires great craft and greater luck. So if you’re looking to get published for the first time, you might want to avoid these kind of storylines. Then a further thought from Alexia, to our agent: As a tip for aspiring authors who read our blog, does that include child murders that occur “off-screen” (say as part of a character’s backstory or something that happened before the action began)? Or only child murders that occur on the page?Any other topics aspiring authors should think twice about including in their debut effort? And Paula’s reply: Probably best to avoid altogether. Those are the biggest issues. But many editors shy away from graphic violence, rape, incest, and the like. It’s also true that some are avoiding sex trafficking, drug trafficking, serial killers, and terrorism, as they’ve been overdone lately. So if you’re including any of this plot elements you need to find a fresh take…. And here’s the link to Kelly’s article: https://www.writingclasses.com/toolbox/articles/the-care-and-treatment-of-sacred-things-part-i  

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Of Cockapoos and cars

When I was young, I desperately wanted a Peugeot sports car. I kept talking and talking about it until finally my dear friend said, “You don’t even know what a Peugeot is. You just like the name. ”   She was right, and I thought of her when I acquired two cockapoos, for much the same reason. How could you not want something called a cockapoo? Every time I say the word, I laugh. My phone keeps auto-correcting it to cockatoo, which I don’t think is nearly as funny. So I have two of these silly dogs. The oldest, Buster, is very nervous. He’s a very gentle soul, but watchful. He keeps his head still and his eyes just follow me wherever I go. He’s also very flexible, and when he’s tired, he stands like a tripod and slowly sinks to the ground. He also tends to tilt. He always makes think he looks like he’s on the Titanic, sinking. He’s the sort of dog who’s perfect with kids. You can do anything to him, and my son has, and he doesn’t get upset. He just looks forlorn, as though in a perfect world, such things would not happen. My younger dog, Bailey, is much more high maintenance.  When we went to pick her up at the breeder, my daughter said, “Give us your most lively one.” That dog never sits still. She’s always twitching about, scratching and licking. She’s probably not the most attractive dog. Her face always makes me think of a revolver, and yet she has very high self-esteem. She’s also devoted to me, and follows me around no matter where I go. My two little friends keep me company when I write, which can be a lonely occupation. They are also great to practice dialogue on. Mainly they are my cheering squad. Whatever I do, they think it’s fabulous.

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Mentoring

During the summer I don’t go into NYC to teach for Gotham Writers, which is what I normally do. Instead I work for Gotham’s Mentoring program, which is to say I work one-on-one with students over the phone. Every Monday at 6:30, for example, I talk to one writer from New Hempshire who’s working on a cozy mystery. She’s just getting started, so we’re at a brainstorming stage and if anyone were listening to my side of the conversation they’d find me insane.   Does her uncle have a reason to kill her? Does that poison cause you to have convulsions? Could he secretly love her? Is there money involved? He seems nice, but who is he really? We spend our time speculating over murderous topics, and I feel like our energy feeds off each other. I always feel inspired about my own work when I’m done talking to her, and judging by how many pages she’s written, she’s inspired too. Then there’s an older gentleman from California, who’s been working on a short story for some time. Anyone who doubts whether writing can be taught should read his work. He’s gone from being somewhat long-winded to writing something that’s really good and he’s going to be sending out to literary magazines. Not all my students are published, but some are, and it’s always a triumph. Today I’ll be talking to a new student, and that’s always exciting. Who is this person and what are her dreams and what can I do to help her? It’s always a bit of a puzzle to figure out. A little bit like constructing a mystery.     

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Cosima

So, as I mentioned yesterday, I’m writing a story about a woman who is the daughter of a serial murderer and I needed to think of a name for her. She’s very well-educated and her father, in addition to being a killer, or perhaps because of it, was a great pianist. I considered Aria, which I think is a pretty name, but I was concerned people would confuse her with Arya Stark, and also it seemed somewhat playful and I did not picture her father as being playful in any context.  Then I thought of Cosima Wagner, a woman I’ve always found fascinating. She was born on Christmas Eve 1837, the illegitimate daughter of the great pianist Franz Liszt. Her name derives from St. Cosmas, the patron saint of physicians and apothecaries. She was not a great beauty. She’s always reminded me a bit of Wallis Simpson, another interesting woman. When Cosima was a young woman she married pianist Hans von Bulow, who was Liszt’s most devoted student, but perhaps not the most exciting and romantic individual. During their honeymoon, they went to visit the German composer Richard Wagner, a very exciting and romantic individual, with certain major personality flaws. The next year they visited him again, and at the end of her visit she threw herself at Wagner’s feet and kissed his hands. As Wagner wrote afterwards, “I pondered the mystery, without being able to solve it.” A few years later, Cosima began an affair with Wagner, and had  two children with him, and when she finally asked von Bulow for a divorce he said, “You have preferred to consecrate the treasures of your heart and mind to a higher being; far from censuring you for this step, I approve of it.” On the first Christmas of their marriage, Cosima woke up and heard music. Wagner had set up an orchestra on the stairs and played for her. She went on to become a really terrible person, an anti-semite and her family became friendly with Hitler,  but in the romanticism and cruelty of her history, I felt I’d found  a good name for my character. So that’s how I came up with Cosima. Now for the last name!

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Serial Summer

This is the Summer of my Submission, which is to say this is the summer when my fabulous agent is working to sell my new mystery novel and I am working very hard to manage my anxiety. I considered taking up drink, and have not ruled it out entirely, but for the time being I’m channeling my anxiety into writing short stories. Which is to say I am now in the midst of writing four short stories.   I’ve never done anything like this. Usually I’m a very focused one-at-a-time sort of person. I explore, I take notes, I cogitate, I excavate and then hopefully something emerges. But at the moment I’m more in a machine-gunning frame of mind. I’m spewing one idea after another onto the page, and it’s sort of fun. Perhaps it’s the writing version of going onto Tinder and dating four guys in one week. (I can hear my son groaning as I write that sentence.) One of the most exciting parts of this speed-writing is that I’m developing characters I normally wouldn’t write about. One particular one that intrigues me is the daughter of a serial killer. I’ve always been interested in what it would be like to be related to someone truly evil. Could you be a good person and have those genes inside you? Would you worry all the time that something evil might emerge or would you just shut the whole thing down, and not think about it at all? Would you love your father? Would you visit him in jail? Would you hesitate to get married because you’d worry that your children would be evil?  So many questions! Which is always a good thing. One thing I absolutely know is what her name will be, but I’ll write more about that tomorrow. Stay tuned.     

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Meet D.A. Bartley

 We are thrilled to have D. A. (“Alison”) Bartley join us at Miss Demeanors and wanted you to get to know a little more about her, so we interrogated her for you. She sat unflappable under the hot lights for hours while we grilled her. She’s going to fit in just fine here at www.MissDemeanors.com Miss Demeanors:   When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?  Alison: I should have always known, but I didn’t. It was only after I started writing my first mystery that I realized how much I loved being a writer.  I’m a lifelong mystery reader, so my mind gravitates towards puzzles. I started writing when my mom was in the final stages of Alzheimers. I was flying back and forth between New York and Utah all the time. On one of those trips I visited a friend in Pleasant View, where there was an enormous, brand-new house that was completely empty. I couldn’t get the house out of my head. One day I started writing about it. I had written about seven chapters when my daughter got a moderate concussion playing lacrosse. (She is completely fine now!) She had to stay in a dark room without a computer or books while she recovered. She didn’t like the audio books I got her and asked me to read what I was writing. When I finished reading everything I’d written at that point, she asked, “What happens next?” I told her I didn’t know. She asked me to go write some more. So I did. That story became Blood Atonement, which is scheduled to be published by Crooked Lane in 2018. Miss Demeanors:   What other careers, jobs have you had? Alison: I was a litigator with a large international law firm in Manhattan. Then I was a research scholar. My area of interest was state sovereignty and international law. I have a Ph.D. in political science and a law degree. In both fields your writing and ideas are constantly critiqued. You learn not to get too attached to words or thoughts because, generally, the critiquing process makes your writing and thinking better. In retrospect, it’s probably not a bad background for a writer. Miss Demeanors:   Who has influenced you as a writer?  Alison:   First and foremost, Agatha Christie. My mom and grandma were big mystery readers. Agatha Christie was at the top of their lists, so she was at the top of mine, too. There are so many other great writers who inspire me. On my nightstand and Kindle right now there’s some P.D. James, Terry Tempest Williams, Harold Evans, Elizabeth George, Linda Castillo, Craig Johnson, Dana Stabenow and Zygmunt Miłoszewski. I recently finished my first Tana French and can’t wait to read more.   Miss Demeanors:    What is your debut novel about? Alison:    Unquestioning faith. My protagonist, Abish Taylor, grew up in Utah, but moved away after high school. She has returned to work as the sole detective in a small town in the north of the state. Her father is a well-respected Mormon historian and Chair of the Church History and Doctrine Department at Brigham Young University. Abbie doesn’t go to church, so there’s tension between father and daughter. Both Abbie and her dad want a close relationship, but neither is very good with interpersonal connections.  Of course, there’s a body (maybe more than one), and it has hallmarks of a ritual dating back to the days of Brigham Young. Abbie starts investigating and uncovers a dark side of the quiet town of Pleasant View…  After that, I can’t say.  Miss Demeanors:    What is something about you that would surprise us? Alison:   I spent my junior year studying in Leningrad/St. Petersburg because I thought I wanted to be a Sovietologist. On second thought, maybe a better answer is that I completed Improv 101 at the Upright Citizens Brigade. I heard an interview with Amy Poehler where she spoke about how the world would be a better place if everyone learned the skills that make for good improv. I thought, “Wow, I don’t do any of those things very well.” I signed up. The two most important practices I learned there were how important it is to really listen to other people, and that it’s much better to say “yes, and” than to say “yes, but.” I wish I could say I’ve mastered those skills. I haven’t, but I know when I follow the improv rules, life flows a little more smoothly.  So now you’ve met our newest Miss Demeanor. Please stop by and ask a question we may have missed.      

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Why do you write suspense?

As someone new to writing, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I’m drawn to write mysteries.  So, I thought I’d ask the experts: why do you write what you write?  Cate: I write suspense because I love the feeling of surprise when I learn something unexpected about a person, that in retrospect makes sense. I am also fascinated by the justifications people have for doing badthings. I like creating flawed characters that you feel for. Some of my favorite suspense writers are Gillian Flynn, Dennis Lehane, Ruth Ware, Stephen King, Fiona Barton, Herman Koch and Patricia Highsmith. Susan: I think I like mysteries so much because the writer has to interact with the reader. You’re always thinking: Will the reader guess this clue? Will she be surprised? Is it satisfying? There’s something about that interaction I find very appealing. I’ve heard some authors say that they write for themselves and don’t care if anyone reads it, but I’ve never felt that way. I also love the whole idea of good versus bad, even if there are lots of shades of gray. Tracee: I fell into suspense through old fashioned mysteries. I confess that I am still not ready for hard core scary (I recently saw a preview for the movie It based on Stephen King’s book and that couple of minutes was almost enough to make me leave the theater…. and this was at a matinee!). My preferred suspense writers are in the vein of Patrica Highsmith and more recently Lisa Lutz’s The Passenger. I suppose that I am driven to write in the mystery/suspense genre because that’s what I return to consistently as a reader. I like reading and writing about what people do, what they conceal and why, and how choices sometimes lead people away from their ‘ordinary’ lives.  Robin: I wrote my first ghost story at 8 years old, the cleverly titled “Haunted House on the Hill.” I don’t recall what inspired that particular story but my parents saved it because I also illustrated and hand-bound it with a cardboard-and-construction paper cover complete with spine title and back jacket copy. I think it’s somewhere in my attic now. Later in life, meaning junior high, I fell in love with Stephen King’s work but what drove me to start writing suspense myself was reading Dean Koontz’s Strangers when I was 20-something. Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances seemed like a revelation. I wanted to see if I could write a novel-length page-turner. My first couple of attempts weren’t terrible but weren’t very good. They were great learning experiences, though. Something I didn’t expect was how much fun they are to write. I’ve been honing my crime-writing craft ever since.  Michele: I have always loved police procedurals, but for many of them the methodical, sometimes plodding unraveling of the mystery, is the draw. Not so for Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, which while challenging my skills at deductive reasoning, somehow rivet me. French’s lyrical writing lures me into her stories about ordinary people who find themselves tangled in awful circumstances that slowly become riveting. Without a contrived twist, French delivers a punch to the gut at the end that stays with me long after. Her writing inspires me to want to share that same kind of adventure for my own readers. “In the Woods” was her first book. Seven years later, I still wonder about what happened to – no, wait, no spoilers here. But wouldn’t I love to think I had a reader still challenged that many years later. I call that writing that stays with you and that is what I want to write. Alexia: Had to think about this one. Why crime fiction as opposed to other genres? I think because of my sense of justice. Every day I see real world examples of injustice, towards people, animals, the environment. Horrible people get away with being horrible and there’s nothing I, nor anyone else, can do about it. We can (and should) donate to causes, march in protests, sign petitions, rescue animals, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, heal the sick, soothe the afflicted, comfort the dying. Yet, for every good work we do, we turn around and see some gazillionaire put people trying to eke a living on minimum wage out of work so the gazillionaire can increase his profit margin and bring home a $50 million bonus instead of a $30 million bonus. Or sneak them across the border to do his laundry or pick his fruit then have them thrown back to a country they haven’t lived in for 10 or 20 years once he’s done with them. Or we see someone beaten up or shot or fired or evicted or denied the right to marry the person they love because someone else doesn’t like their skin color or religion or gender or sexual orientation. Or one puppy mill or dog fighting ring is shut down and 3 more pop up or some demonoid tortures a cat and posts the video online–and gets likes. Or school girls are kidnapped by fanatical creeps who think women shouldn’t be allowed to read– and then some newspaper reports our government has been funneling arms to that particular group of fanatics because they were more sympathetic to our agenda than the opposing group. Or some honest, hardworking person is denied health care because someone decided they weren’t worthy of not having to choose between rent and medicine or, let’s face it, that they weren’t worthy of living. And instead of sticking up for that person, narcissistic jerks take to social media to trumpet about how they’ve got theirs so they don’t give a fuck about anyone else and expect to be applauded for being cold-blooded vultures. Or someone has to travel for miles to get drinkable water because the stuff from their tap is loaded with lead or live in the shadow of a pipeline that won’t benefit them but will certainly poison them if it leaks, all because they’re too poor to buy the political clout to send the mess to someone else’s neighborhood. Or they lose the home that’s been in their family for generations because people with more money suddenly decide their neighborhood is the place to be–as long as the original residents are forced out with sky-high property taxes and restrictive ordinances. We fight and fight and fight and bleed and fight some more and help the ones we can, maybe even save a few but, at the end of the day we have to accept that some things are beyond our control. Except in crime fiction. In crime fiction, I control the world I write. I can create justice. The unrepentant bad guy will go down. The underdog will have his day. Revenge will be had on the cat-torturing, woman-hating, narcissistic, bigot. In crime fiction, the devil may think he’s gotten away with something but by the last page, the angels will have the last word. (Here ends the rant.)      

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Popcorn and Mysteries

Okay, I admit it. This blog is not about writing or reading. It is, however, about something critical to the creative process: what you eat while you watch your favorite mystery. My taste in mysteries and suspense runs the gamut. I have a special place in my heart for the BBC. I’ve watched all 19 seasons of Midsomer Murders. I love Endeavor, Shetland, Loch Ness, Luther, Inspector Lewis, Foyle’s Wars, Wallander, Agatha Raisin, Inspector Lynley, Father Brown, Jonathan Creek, Zen and anything Agatha Christie old or new. I also happily watch Winter and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries for a taste of Australia. New Zealand has The Brokenwood Mysteries.  Then there’s Elementary, Psych, Longmire and Bosch for something with an American accent. I could go on, but I won’t. While the shows may change, my snack of choice does not. It’s always popcorn. If I’m watching by myself, the topping will be whatever strikes my fancy. If I’m curling up to watch a mystery with my daughter, we tend to top our popcorn with truffle butter and parmesan. If I’m watching with my son, it’s frequently butter mixed with hot sauce from Belize. (My sister-in-law is Belizean and introduced the family to Mary Sharps. Our lives have never been the same.) If I’m making popcorn for the entire family, I usually stick to the classic butter and salt. I find high-fat, cultured butter is best because it has, to my taste buds, the right ratio of fat to milk solids. Vermont Creamery Cultured Butter is one of life’s true pleasures. My salt of choice is Baleine coarse salt ground in a salt grinder, but I’ve had great results with black salt from Maui and pink Himalayan salt, as well. I use an old air popper, carefully drizzling the  melted butter on the popcorn as it drops into the bowl. When all the popcorn is popped, I add eight to ten turns of ground salt and place another bowl on top so that I can shake the popcorn until the butter and salt (or parmesan) are evenly distributed. For me, there’s nothing better. It can be a meal in itself…and has been more times than I should confess. Having said that, I’m always on the prowl for both new mysteries and new snacks. So, what do you watch, and what do you eat while watching it?   

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