Thursday, September 30, 2010


I posted a fortnight ago about the new TV season. Now, two weeks into it, I realized what I love about the show Chuck. The plotting.

The main plot is always some sort of spy story--whodunit, howdunit, howcatchem, whatever. There's always a great moment of epiphany that allows the protagonists to solve the case. We mystery fans LOVE great moments of epiphany. Put in the action, danger and suspense, and that's all you need, right?

But Chuck always has a great comic subplot, too, usually having to with the quirky sidekick, Morgan, and the big box electronics store that's the home base setting for the series. Yes, these comic plots are usually completely off the wall, sometimes bordering on Three Stooges humor, often going off into Get Smart farce. But hey, they make me laugh. And like Shakespearean comedy, they provide relief whenever the main plot and the love story have to get serious.

The love story? An ongoing subplot between the two protagonists, Chuck and Sarah. Several other series characters also have their own subplots. This week, I counted three subplots in addition to the main and comic plots. Five tales, all within 43 minutes of storytelling. And not one of the plots was disappointing or felt like extra weight.

Balancing subplots is a tightrope walk. You have to move from one to the other smoothly. You have to tie up all the extra loose ends created by them. You can't spend too much time on subplots and make the main story weak. One other show last week did just that, trying to catch the viewer up on all the individual character lines, but failing to bind those stories together with a main plot that was suspenseful and satisfying. Even the subplots were anemic in their development.

My Possessed novels each contain a present-day mystery and a historical mystery as main plots, but I'm often asked about the character subplots. Will Pat and Hugh get together? Will Miss Maggie survive her nineties? Will Beth Ann ever become a psychic sleuth in her own right? And since it's fun to give each of my suspect characters a secret, that creates another possible subplots to be resolved. In POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, I actually had to cut one subplot because the book was getting too long.

As a mystery reader, I hate books that are too thin plot-wise (especially if they aren't physically thin). Give me my money's worth. If I slap down fifteen to thirty bucks for a novel, it had better be stuffed full of good stories. I should come away wanting more NOT because the plate served to me was nearly empty. Rather, a great novel ought to be like a yummy dinner with an array of tasty side dishes. If I enjoy every bite, I'll be back.


Friday, September 24, 2010

A Parody For My Sisters & Brothers in Crime

(Messrs. Bernstein & Sondheim probably had days like this but I'll apologize anyway. Sing to the tune of "Tonight.")

To write, to write,
I don't have time to write;
To write I need at least half a day.
My home's a fright,
My budget's always tight
Things to fix, stuff to clean, bills to pay.

To write I need some peace and quiet,
Good sleep and healthy diet,
(So still my screen is white).

Oh, brain, ignite;
Ignore email and each social site.
Just write!

To write, to write,
When will I ever write?
My day job takes up hours each day,
I'll write tonight,
I'll leave work while it's light
And I'll hash out the plot on the way.

I'll wait until my family's sleeping
Late hours I'll be keeping,
Until this story's right.

Oh, Muse, alight,
Don't make my late night prose sound too trite,
But write!


Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Writer on TV

Next week a new season of network TV begins. I admit to an addiction to a few good shows: Chuck, Bones, and Castle.

I grew up watching a slew of great mystery/spy shows--Nero Wolfe, Ellery Queen (photo), both the Man and Girl from U.N.C.L.E. (why was he a "man" and she a "girl"?), Get Smart, The Avengers, MacMillan & Wife, Burke's Law, Ironsides, The Rockford Files, and later on, Matlock, Murder She Wrote, Magnum P.I., The Scarecrow & Mrs. King, and Cagney & Lacey.

What did they have in common? A good story, a little (or a lot of) humor, characters, directors and writers who didn't take themselves too seriously, who knew how to play. How to be creative.

But today's blog isn't about those old shows. It's about how mystery writers are portrayed on TV.

In Castle's opening, we always hear how writing pays better than crime. I'm always tempted to hit "mute" on that part. The writer lives in an apartment or condo bigger than most houses, presumably in Manhattan, since he never seems to be late because of being stuck in a tunnel or on a bridge. In Manhattan, living space that size probably doesn't exist, but if it does, you'd run through a cool million each quarter renting it. Even that I can overlook--maybe Castle inherited his bucks from his family--but what's most unbelievable is his lack of books. The writers I know (self included) have books lying around everywhere. Boxes of your own books for promos, stacks of novels other author gave you, stacks of freebies brought home from conventions, stacks of research books, and stacks you actually want to read for pleasure. The realistic thing about him is that he hangs out with other authors. He plays poker while he talks shop. My writer friends and I eat.

Jessica Fletcher and Ellery Queen are probably most like writers I know. Their wardrobes were (for the most part) modest. I don't remember much of the Queen household, but Jessica's digs were small and cozy. But I don't remember stacks of books with either of them, or piles of research materials, or even a handy dictionary or thesaurus next to their typewriters. I do recall Jessica standing in front of a bookshelf for one of her author photos, but the books behind her? No modern mysteries, no torn, sensational jackets, no paperbacks, not even a tome on forensics or bullet calibers or undetectable poisons.

Most true-to-life about all TV mystery writers is how they avoid writing. Of course, they do it by solving murders--the rest of us avoid writing by, say, cleaning out the garage. But the sentiment is the same. Said best, perhaps, on one Castle episode where he answers the phone with something like "Please tell me there's been a murder or I'll have to write."

Happy viewing,

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Happy Birthday, Dame Agatha!

AGATHA CHRISTIE was born 120 years ago today. Too bad she couldn't join us for her celebration, but I'm guessing, at 120 years, she wouldn't be able to eat much cake and ice cream anyway. Still, we can raise a glass or two to the legacy she left behind.

Lots of folks will be extolling Christie's novels today. Let me be the one to say a word about her short stories. She wrote more than 160 of them, and some, in my opinion, show her best writing. If you haven't had the pleasure, try these collections:

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION -- A varied collection of stories widely touted to be Christie's best. If you've never read a Christie short, start with these.

PARTNERS IN CRIME -- Sleuths Tommy & Tuppence Beresford learn the art of detecting from the best fictional detectives of the day. Christie's funniest writing.

THE MYSTERIOUS MR. QUIN -- Stories with a touch of the paranormal, featuring Mr. Harley Quin and Mr. Satterthwaite. The latter went on to help Poirot with a couple cases.

MR. PARKER PYNE, DETECTIVE -- A government statistician turns private consultant. Both Miss Lemon and Ariadne Oliver make their debuts in this collection.

THE TUESDAY CLUB MURDERS -- Miss Marple's only full collection.

THE LABORS OF HERCULES -- In my opinion, the best Poirot stories and some of Christie's finest writing.


For a complete list of Christie's short stories and collections, and more information about each story, check out DAME AGATHA'S SHORTS.

Happy Birthday, Agatha, and many, many thanks.


Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Author As Cover Artist

One of the questions I'm always asked is some variation of "How much input do you have in the cover designs for your books?"

The short answer is, most authors have no say at all. Often we'll get a mock-up of the cover a couple of months before the book is published. By that time it's too late--they can fix a misspelling of the title or author's name, but the art is set.

I saw the cover for the hardback edition of BY BLOOD POSSESSED the day my first author's copy arrived. The cover design I'd been shown earlier--the design that went into the catalog--was very different from what ended up on the book. Thing was, my editor had specifically asked me to change the title to "something that tells the reader this is a mystery novel," and I'd driven myself insane until I'd come up with one. Good thing, because the cover art wasn't mysterious at all, just a person looking out of a window.

In HANG MY HEAD & CRY, the hardback design was much better, with a girl looking out through doorway to a dream image of a Civil War cannon. Problem was, the book wasn't about the Civil War and had no cannons in it.

Bella Rosa Books publishes the trade paperback reprints of the above novels, as well as my Christie short story companion, DAME AGATHA'S SHORTS. They do ask for my input and I think their covers are much more indicative of what you'll find inside. DAME AGATHA is, I think, an especially lovely cover and I've received many compliments on it (see photo above).

A few weeks ago, for the first time, I uploaded a previously published short story to the Amazon Kindle Store. I got to the part of the form that said "upload cover image." Whoa! I had to come up with a cover? My first few uploaded images weren't great (though they are suggestive of the story), but I've gotten creative since. Here are a few samples:

My software's primitive and my brain is more geared toward music than art, so I'm not thinking of a new career. But I'm having fun with it. And isn't fun exactly what the creative mind craves? Plus I get a real sense of satisfaction knowing that's my mirror, my locket, and that I took that photo.

So far, ten of my short stories are now available for Kindle, each for less than the price of a dollar hotdog at a Phillies game. Tell your friends to stock up.


Saturday, September 4, 2010

Old Faithful

August was the month where I reconnected with an old, dear friend. I've come to realize that I was a fool to shun this relationship, but what can I say? Like so many others, I thought I wanted sophistication. I was seduced by power. I thought more and more money equaled more and more desirability. I was so wrong.

I don't care who calls me old-fashioned, I've returned to my roots. I've resurrected my fondness for...the notebook.

Yes, you heard me. Not the mini-computer of the same name. I mean the kind of notebook with lined, blank pages that just beg you to scribble on them.

Okay, so I'll admit my age here--when I started writing, the only computers were big hunks that took up entire warehouses. One summer--I was maybe 13--I found a pristine steno pad lying around the house. (Footnote to youngsters: a steno pad is a small notebook bound at the top.) My parents said I could have it (if Ma had known what it would lead to, she'd have given me a prescription pad instead). I started writing all kinds of stuff in that tablet--sappy poetry, a corny musical, the beginning of a mystery story.

When I filled that pad, I procured another (I don't remember how). I kept writing. I switched to sidebound, college-ruled notebooks, so I could fit more inside, but I still liked the small size. By high school, I had one notebook for stories and another for poetry and adolescent angst (i.e. venting about life). My favorite places to write were out on the porch on nice days or up in my bedroom before sleep. In college, I kept at least one notebook in my nightstand all 4 years.

As soon as I got a job after graduation, though, even before I bought a car, I treated myself to a Commodore 64 (to youngsters: It's a computer. Really. 64 stood for "K" RAM. No hard drive.
Hamsters probably have more mental capacity). I never admitted it to anyone, but I bought that sucker so I could write more. I pictured pretty printouts of my stories and no writer's cramp.

But I STILL kept a notebook. No way could I lug the 64 with me everywhere I wanted to write. I still loved working on the porch. I belonged to a swim club and, despite the splashing and noise, I wrote there. Evenings, I'd type my notebook scribbles into the 64. I actually finished two novel-length mysteries (albeit definitely student works).

Even after I switched to a PC, I kept to my notebook method. For my first published novel, BY BLOOD POSSESSED, I'd get up early, and write in my notebook for 2 to 4 hours. Then I'd get breakfast, go upstairs and type in what I'd written, doing a first-pass edit on it. Sometimes I'd do research in the afternoon and evenings, or I'd write more in my notebook. I kept a steady flow of words going this way and got that first draft done in a little under 4 months.

A few years ago, I got a laptop. Okay, I thought, now I can write anywhere. Thing is, I didn't. My writing slowed down considerably. I just couldn't seem to visualize and get the story down. I felt like I had less time to write, and when I did have time, I couldn't seem to be creative. At the same time, I was dealing with things like aging parents, so I diagnosed the problem as stress.

A couple weeks ago, I went on a writing retreat (see my blog RETREAT). I had to bring my laptop, of course. While I was grocery shopping for food to bring, I saw and fell in love with the puppy in the photo. And the cool thing was, he was on the cover of a small, college-ruled notebook that cost a mere buck, forty-nine. I adopted him on the spot.

On the retreat, I went back to my notebook-first method. And I averaged about the same number of words per day as I did on BY BLOOD POSSESSED.

Since I've been home, I'm not quite as prolific, but when I make myself use that notebook, I find I'm writing more and better. Something about a plain lined page and mechanical pencil stimulates my mind more than a keyboard and glowing screen.

I named the puppy Scratch.



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