Category Archives: Guest Blogger

Welcome Debut Author Stephen Blackmoore!

The Scene of the Crime:  Phoenix, Arizona, the Biltmore Hotel Bar

July 2006

Hundreds of milling authors, agents and publishers, all gently perspiring in the blowtorch like heat, crowd into the tiny Biltmore bar, clamoring for drinkies. Smack dab in the middle of that insanity sits a man with black hair, a glass of scotch and a wide smile. His name? Stephen Blackmoore. I knew of him through Bryon Quertermous, editor of the dear departed ezine DEMOLITION. He is funny. He makes me laugh. He makes Brett Battles and Robert Gregory Browne laugh, though I suspect they’re faking it. We all become friends, as people in bars in sweltering heat are bound to do. Blackmoore is a great short story writer, and is working on a novel. He fits in perfectly.

After all of that, you can imagine my sheer joy when I saw the Publishers Marketplace announcement that my Phoenix friend just sold not one, but two books to DAW (Penguin). Stephen gutted it out for a long time, never giving up, always moving forward with his work. His tenacity impressed me, and his deal is so well deserved I felt it an absolutely necessity to have him here to Murderati to celebrate. Since half of the participants that sultry night in Phoenix are now Murderati members, it seems only fitting that we give Stephen his coming out party.

So sit back, enjoy the show, and please, don’t forget to tip your waitresses.

Welcome, Stephen!


Tell us about your book.

It’s called City of The Lost.

Joe Sunday’s dead.  He just hasn’t stopped moving yet.

Sunday’s a thug, an enforcer, a leg-breaker for hire.  When his boss sends him to kill a mysterious new business partner, his target strikes back in ways Sunday could never have imagined.  Murdered, brought back to a twisted half-life, Sunday finds himself stuck in the middle of a four-hundred-year-old revenge plot centered around an ancient stone with the power to grant immortality.  With it, he might live forever.  Without it, he’s just another rotting extra in a George Romero flick.

Everyone’s got a stake in finding the stone, from a psycho Nazi wizard and a razor-toothed midget, to a nympho-demon bartender, a too-powerful witch who just wants to help her homeless vampires, and the one woman who might have all the answers—if only Sunday can figure out what her angle is.

Before the week is out he’s going to find out just what lengths people will go to for immortality.  And just how long somebody can hold a grudge.

How did you get the news that you had sold?

I’m with Allan Guthrie at Jenny Brown Associates in Scotland, so our conversations are over email or Skype and occasionally Twitter.  He sent me an email saying that DAW wanted to pick it up.  There were more exclamation points than I thought were possible for a Scotsman to use. 

Before that one email, though, I had an idea where we were going.  Al’s great and he kept me in the loop as it was coming together but when we finally got confirmation it was still a surprise.

Did the Snoopy Dance and everything.  After my wife made me.  I have some dignity.  Somewhere.  I think.  Anyway, it was more like the White Man’s Overbite, and I’m told I wiggle my ass too much, but I do what I can.

You’re a short story guru by trade, what made you decide to shift to the long form?

Wow, you make me sound like I know what I’m doing. 

Actually it was the other way around.  I originally saw writing and publishing short stories as a stepping stone to writing and publishing a novel.  Bullets on the resume as it were.  Something to put down on a query letter.  Something that says, “See all the stuffs I written?  I writes good!”

Then I discovered I really like writing short stories.

I tend to underwrite so they work for me.  And I don’t spend so much time on them that I get bored.  Short stories have to make an impact fast.  You’ve only got a few thousand words to work with.  I can’t worry about greatly detailed descriptions, long bouts of exposition.  There’s no room.  The constraints help keep me focused.

But I kept coming back to wanting to tackle a novel.  So I finally did.

Then I discovered something else.  Novels are not long short stories.

Yeah.  Duh, right?  You’d think that’d be obvious.

When I’m writing a short story I don’t plan much.  Most of the time I don’t know what it’s about until I’m halfway through.  And that’s how I tackled City of The Lost.

Which meant a lot of rewrites to fix scenes that were all over the place or led to dead-ends.  There were too many characters, too many things happening, not enough setup, poor motivation.

Learned my lesson.  The next one’s already got an outline.

I’m sure there will be just as many rewrites, though.

How long did it take, start to finish, for you to get a publishing deal?

About four years.  Not including all the time the book sat in my head before I started writing.

I wrote a short story in 2006 that was the basis for the novel.  Finished the first draft of the book in October, 2007.  Shopped it around to a few agents and finally hooked up with Al in August 2008. 

Then there were more rewrites.  Lots and lots of rewrites.  Al’s a great editor and it’s a much stronger book than when I first gave it to him.

Bouncing it around to editors took about a year and a half with some possibilities that never quite panned out and some very positive rejections.  I think only one person said they flat out hated it. 

And then I got the deal with DAW a few weeks ago.

So, yeah, four years.  Damn. 

Talk a bit about perseverance. Your deal didn’t happen overnight. What gave you the courage, the drive and the guts to keep trying?

I think it’s important to have a support team. 

I am one lucky sonofabitch.  I’ve had a tremendous amount of support.  My wife, who kept me writing when I didn’t want to, my friends, random people who just pop up out of nowhere.  People on the internet, folks I met through Sisters In Crime and the MWA.

A chunk of the Murderati crew, actually.  Brett, Rob, Dusty, JT, Toni.  And more people than I can list here.

That’s the thing about writers.  They’re immensely supportive of each other.  I know there are those out there that aren’t, but I haven’t run into them.  I just hope I can give back as much as I’ve gotten.

Do you have any advice for upcoming writers who may be getting discouraged?

This whole experience has been, and continues to be, an education.  I’ve learned a lot of lessons at every step and probably missed even more.  I can’t imagine what I’m going to get next.

I don’t know if any of these will help anyone else, but a couple things come to mind.

Be patient.  Nothing moves fast.  If you haven’t heard anything chances are there’s nothing to hear.

Don’t take any advice as gospel.  When my manuscript was going out to editors I was lucky enough to get feedback from several of them.  Every single one of them had a different reason why they didn’t want it.  Some made no sense.  Some had great ideas but I wasn’t about to go changing the book at that point so I filed them away for the next one.

Mostly they just contradicted each other. 

Don’t be a dick.  I think that one’s pretty self-explanatory.

Do you think your blog was a factor in keeping your name current within the industry?

Yeah, which is kind of funny because 99% of it has nothing to with writing.  LA Noir ( is almost exclusively about crime in Los Angeles. 

I think more importantly is that it’s given me a place to have an online presence.  People can find me.  They can see my writing. 

The thing about blogs, Twitter and Facebook that’s good is it allows you to have a conversation and be part of a discussion.  Even if it’s just slinging crude jokes around at each other for everyone to see they still help create community.  And even the introverts need community.

What’s the best thing to drink at a conference? Scotch? Wine? Beer? What brand and why???

Depends.  How obnoxious do you want me?

Scotch.  Macallan 18.  Because you can be really hammered and still pronounce it well enough to order.  Try that with Laphroaig some time when you’re seeing double and the floor’s 30 degrees off kilter.  It won’t be pretty.

If you could be just one, which would it be, and why? Zombie, Vampire, Shapeshifter, Pirate.

What?  No monkey robot ninjas?  Let’s see.  Zombies smell funny.  Vampires burn too easily.  Shapeshifting would be nice.  Big skull crushing jaws with fangs would be mighty useful.  But then so would a thirty gun brigantine and a cutlass.

I’ll go with pirate.  I appreciate their culture of rampant drunkenness.

Thank you for playing, Stephen, and congratulations again! We’re all thrilled for you!

Wine of the Week: Heck, let’s have some scotch to celebrate: one of my favorites, a Bunnahabhain 12

(Because I’m not a fan of Macallan, no matter how old, and I like watching drunk people trying to order it…)


(Please give a warm welcome to friend of Murderati Robin Burcell, who is standing in for Toni today.)


In how a writer of international thrillers about covert government agencies and conspiracy theories discovers a dark secret… about herself.

It’s the beginning of March and I have already failed at my New Year’s resolution.  

For this reason, I am coming out of the closet, and I am willing to admit my grave secret to the world: I am a horizontal filer. Before you pull out your can of Lysol, rest assured that it isn’t highly contagious—unless you get bitten. Horizontal filers, if you don’t know, are people who usually place important things in the open, because if they file it vertically (as in a real file) they fear they will forget about it. Horizontal filers tend to fall into the out-of-sight, out-of-mind type.  And, as you are wondering if it can get any worse (it can), they are probably procrastinators.  Which is why they have the IRS.  The IRS, as you know, is that not-so-covert government agency that forces horizontal filers like me not only into putting little pieces of paper into a vertical file, but also into sorting them out into organized groups.

This is completely unnatural. If you haven’t guessed this by now, horizontal filers have messy desks.  And probably messy countertops.  And they hate tax time, which is coming up very quickly.

I’ll wager that horizontal filers who are also writers probably have the same #1 New Year’s resolution. Most of you are thinking that would be to clean the desk, but you would be wrong.  It is to find that receipt from your last purchase at Walmart before the 90 days expires and they force you to accept a discounted return price on a Walmart gift card, which, thankfully, has no expiration date, even if you are only getting ten cents to the dollar. 

Every year I resolve to turn that clean-the-desk resolution into a routine.  And ever year I fail. I clean off my desk, and it stays that way for maybe a day or two at the most. My thinking is that if my desk is clean, I can write books much faster, because it will free my imagination.  I suspect, however, that this is an elaborate government conspiracy to get me to clean off my desk before tax time, so that I can find my checkbook to write the IRS a check.

What keeps me from maintaining a clean desk is the piles of papers, magazines I intend to read, business cards from conferences, and everything else that doesn’t get handled that month (like any bill that doesn’t have a late payment penalty). All of these things get shoved in a pile, with the thought that if I didn’t need it this month or next, it can be moved to the side of the desk instead of right in front of the computer in the priority pile. And that is how I discovered the dual purpose of drawers. You can pull them out and use them to pile even more papers on top, like an extended desk shelf. 

If the stacks of paper get really bad, I might grab a file box, and shove everything in that, fully intending to go through it before it gathers dust beneath the desk. It may even be how I discovered the plot to my last book, THE BONE CHAMBER, because when I do get around to attempting to clean, it’s a lot like archeology. Layers of things that you can decipher by month and year. Old photos, bank statements, catalogs, conference programs, etc., etc. And sometimes, like in my book, I discover treasures that may actually be dangerous to all of mankind. Unlike my book, anything found on my desk is not several hundred or even two thousand years old.  I’m not even that old.  Even without Adobe Photoshop.

Every so often, I whittle that mountain of papers down to a short stack maybe an inch thick (which, considering this year started off as two file boxes of stuff, is pretty darn good).  It’s that little bitty pile left over that keeps me from succeeding, which makes me wonder if there is the precursor to the zombie virus on my desk, because that pile of papers has a life of its own.  I can separate it, move it, bury it in a box and it always comes back. I have not yet tried to fire bullet rounds through it, because there is a law about this in city limits, because the city council has not yet recognized the dangerousness of such a virus. And yet each time, I find myself putting aside the very same pile of leftover stuff as the time before:  In it are two Christmas cards circa 2002/03, one to an editor who left the business several years back, and one to my agent.  The cards never made it to the mail, and I figured I’d send them the next year.  (I haven’t sent out cards since the twins were born in 1995, so the fact I actually partially addressed two envelopes is pretty amazing.) With them are a stack of cards or letters I’ve received, dating as far back as 2000, from people I had always planned to write back to—and clearly never did—perhaps with the idea that I’d let them know about my latest book.

What’s a horizontal filer like me to do?  I keep that little pile of things clipped to a clipboard, put it aside—never to be revisited until the next time I attempt to clean the desk. Problem is that the pile on the clipboard grows, propagates, breeds like dust bunnies atop and beneath the desk, and I have to get another box, sometimes even a shopping bag to catch the spillover. Now before you get any bright ideas, I have already tried putting money on the pile to see if it would grow.  It does not. The IRS has infused money with the anti-zombie virus—a good thing to know should the zombies attack.  Most recently as I worked my way through the papers, all the way down to the annual stack from the clipboard, I ruthlessly tossed those cards and letters. Just threw them all away. They went into the recycle bin with the catalogs and the junk.  It wasn’t easy, but I did it. And if my friends and relatives haven’t figured out that I have a new book out by now without me sending notice, they never will.

We’ll see if that keeps my desk clean, or if it’s just wishful thinking on my part.  How about you? Horizontal filer?  And if so, what is the secret to keeping your desk clean?


Robin Burcell, an FBI-trained forensic artist, has worked as a police officer, detective and hostage negotiator. The Bone Chamber is her latest international thriller about an FBI forensic artist. Visit her website at:


Please welcome Michelle Gagnon!

Today I’m – thrilled is the word – to welcome one of my favorite author colleagues, sister thrillerchick Michelle Gagnon.   Michelle is not only a kick-ass writer, she’s a hell of a good time at conferences – from 8-hour bike rides through the Alaskan wilderness to truly appalling after-midnight karaoke (and all on the same day, mind you…), Michelle is about the total experience, and her take-no-prisoners approach to life is reflected in her page-turning, keep-you-up-all-night books.

Alex:  The Gatekeeper is the latest in your Special Agent Kelly Jones series, after The Tunnels and The Boneyard.   What’s this one about?

Michelle:  The Gatekeeper has two parallel storylines-one for each of my main characters. FBI Special Agent Kelly Jones starts off in Phoenix, where a right wing Senator is found brutally murdered in front of the State Capitol building. The method of his dismemberment points to a gang that might have been angered by his anti-immigration stance; although Kelly suspects there’s more to it, since it all seems a bit too pat. Meanwhile, Jake Riley is trying to track down the sixteen year-old daughter of a nuclear physicist who has been kidnapped. The ransom demand is not monetary, however- it comes at a cost that no American can afford.
Alex:  That’s kind of a big departure in arena and style of thriller for you.   What possessed you?

Michelle:  The initial idea for the story came to me while I was having dinner with a veteran FBI agent. Ho said that he thought it was more likely that there would be another terrorist attack along the lines of the Oklahoma City bombing, rather than another 9/11. Hate groups have doubled their membership in the past decade, but after 9/11 most of the resources allocated to monitoring them were diverted to watching foreigners on US soil. So: twice as many people, but no one is keeping track of them. I found that terrifying, especially when I started to dig deeper and discovered that one source of low level radioactive waste (the kind the could be incorporated into a dirty bomb) is lost, stolen, or abandoned, EVERY WEEK in this country. That all ended up coalescing into the plotline.

Alex: Yike, that is terrifying.  Perfect story seed!

This is something I’ve always meant to ask you, so just pretend we’re in the bar at Thrillerfest or Bouchercon and have been drinking for a while, now.   (I know it’s a stretch…)   You have about as eclectic a background as I do – modern dancer, dogwalker, personal trainer… So what the hell made you start writing to begin with?   And I want real details.   What was the “click”?

Michelle:  I’ve always written- in fact, for years I made a living as a freelance journalist. I worked on fiction on the side, mostly short stories. In 2000 I set out to write a novel. My original idea was to write a college coming of age story- but I kept stalling out twenty pages into the book. One night I was typing away, and suddenly (inadvertently) killed off my main character. I decided to see what happened next- and THE TUNNELS spun out from there. I finished the first draft in a little over a month.

Alex:  Okay, now I’m going to ask you the question I always get:  Why are there so few women out there writing thrillers successfully?  

Michelle:  I actually think that recently, there have been a lot of truly impressive entries in the crime fiction field written by women. Tana French, Gillian Flynn, and Chelsea Cain are masters of dark storylines and intricate plots, and they have all proven that you don’t have to go by your initials anymore to get men to read your books. However, in terms of true thrillers, there is still a deficit. I’m not sure why, but it’s an interesting question. And even when awards are handed out (with the exception of your win for best short story last year, Alex!) I find it depressing that women tend to be underrepresented in the thriller category.

Alex:  I completely agree – I have many more favorite women thriller authors than men, and yet you look at the awards lists…  and reviews… depressing is the word.

So in a vaguely related way, here’s a dreaded topic – marketing and promotion.   What are you doing these days that feels like it’s working for you?   What have you given up on?

Michelle:  I honestly wish I knew. I’ve done something a bit different with each book, and I can never tell what works and what doesn’t. I think that especially for a mass market paperback, what matters most is distribution-if your publisher gets behind the book, and puts a lot of copies out there, it will sell well. I don’t honestly know that anything a writer does makes much of a dent when you’re talking about a five figure print run. However, this time around I am running a drawing for a MacBook laptop computer. So far I’ve received a lot of entries, so it seems to be working. (By the way, the contest runs through Dec 31st- more entry details are available on my website).

Alex: Does blogging actually work?   Enquiring minds want to know.

Michelle:  I know that by blogging on The Kill Zone with six other talented writers, we’ve built up a shared fan base of people who might not have discovered us otherwise. I think it’s a great blog, with lots of excellent posts on craft, marketing, and the life of a writer. Plus we’ll be selling a collection of short stories on Amazon soon, which we hope will bring more people to the blog.

Alex: What’s the next book?

Michelle:  The next book is tentatively entitled “Racing the Devil” (although I suspect I’ll have to change that- I usually do). It takes place in and around Mexico City, and is based on the real life kidnapping of the world’s foremost Kidnap and Ransom expert Felix Batista. Last December he was the keynote speaker at a security conference in Mexico City. He walked out of a restaurant, was pushed into the back of a white van, and hasn’t been heard from since. He’s personally responsible for negotiating the release of more than 100 kidnap victims, and now he’s a victim himself. I’ve based the story largely on that incident.

Alex:  And what are you reading now, for yourself?

Michelle:   Currently I’m reading Dark Places by Gillian Flynn. I’m in awe of her writing skills, it’s an amazing book.

Alex:  Oh, agreed – what  a great heroine!

Since it’s – yike – December – what are you looking forward to in the New Year?   Do you have any resolutions?

Michelle:  As far as New Years, no plans- but if it turns out to be anything like the past few years, I’ll be in bed by ten 🙂 And I have the same resolution every year—to learn something new. One year I learned to knit, the next to ride a motorcycle. I’m not sure what to put on the docket this year, although I’ve been considering taking up the piano again.

Alex:  Hmm, the piano is one of my resolutions, too… something in the air, I guess.

Thanks a million for stopping by, today, Michelle – and I’m sure the Rati have other questions.
 Michelle Gagnon is a former modern dancer, bartender, dog walker, model, personal trainer, and Russian supper club performer. Her bestselling novels have been published in North America, France, Spain, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Australia.  In her spare time Michelle runs errands and indulges a weakness for Sudoku and Hollywood blockbusters. She lives in San Francisco with her family.

A Post-Thanksgiving Catch-Up with an Old Friend

Happy Black Friday! I am so excited to have our dear friend Simon Wood here today! We miss his wit and wisdom. Without further ado…


So Simon, what have you been up to since you left Murderati?


Working harder than ever, I think.  I left Murderati to concentrate on writing and leave a little room for myself.  The free time I thought I’d have on my hands has gotten overwhelmed with projects long and short.  It seems if I give myself an inch, I’ll fill it with words.  A number of opportunities have come my way and I’m a girl who can’t say no… 


I’ve done very well over the last year with anthologies.  I’ve gotten into over half a dozen of those and I’ve been developing my pen name, Simon Janus.  I’ve had two releases, The Scrubs and Road Rash, released under that name.


I’m standing for election at the moment.  I’m running for president of the NorCal Chapter of the MWA.  I’m not sure how I got talked into that…


I’ve gotten into my cycling.  I’ve always been a pedaler.  I love the freedom of cycling.  It’s the only mode of transport that isn’t regulated.  I can ride as fast as I like and where I like.  I find it therapeutic.  It lets me relax and I get to think stories through on my rides.  Stephen King walks.  I cycle.  I’ve taken my cycling to another level recently by competing in local events. 

What kind of research have you been doing?


The kind of research that gets me into trouble.  At the moment, I’m making my Google search history even worse adding how someone can cheat a polygraph.  I’ve speaking to some cops recently about investigation techniques and the subject of polygraphing witnesses came up and it’s become an interesting plot point.  A friend of mine is a military interrogator and he’s been giving me some tips on interviewing tactics and strategies.  The next step is put practice into action and take a polygraph myself.   The idea spooks me a little.


I’m also looking to be hypnotized at the moment.  Another project I’m working on deals with the issue of memory loss.  I lost six months of memories after being hit by a car and the whole issue of recovered memories came up.  Do I actually remember or do I remember because people keep telling me what happened…


I had a nice time at on a weapons handling class.  It was supposed to be a sixty minute class that turned into 6hrs and we still weren’t finished.  I feel I’m getting my feet under me gun-wise but the engineer in me wants to be left alone in a fully stocked gun store with a range and a set of tools so I can experiment.  I’m very hands on when it comes to research.  I like to know what I’m talking about.  I think that kinda shows, doesn’t it.  :-/


What’s on your docket at the moment?


A couple of things.  With some of my titles going out of print lately, I’ve been resurrecting my backlist as eBooks.  The works still stands up and the reader demand is there, so I’ve brought back Dragged into Darkness and Working Stiffs as well as a number of my out of print articles from Writer’s Digest.  All of these are available from the Kindle Store and  I’m interested to see how my eBook experiment works out and this may be an interesting outlet for less marketable works such as novellas and novelettes.


I also have a story exclusive to audio called, Tenths of a Second.  It’s about a struggling young racecar driver who is given the chance to get an edge on the competition.  Because of the style of story and the audio format, I had to do a fun little rewrite.  The story can be checked out at

Have you gotten yourself into any trouble lately?


I was taking part in the Tour of Woodside cycle race this summer and I missed a turn marker and ended up going twenty miles off course before the mistake was realized.  I found my way back, but I was a little dehydrated by the end.   I hadn’t bargained for the extra distance liquids-wise.


I also lost Julie’s wedding ring.  This is the second one we lost, but the first I lost.  She found a temporary one, but I now have to find a new one.

Are you still writing copious amounts of helpful non-fiction?


I’m still doing bits for Writer’s Digest.  This year marked the release of my first nonfiction book—which was different.  I thought I could approach promotion for a nonfiction book the same way as I could with a novel.  I couldn’t.  Dealing with the media is a lot different and the readers themselves are a lot different.  I felt like I was learning all over again. 


I have a couple of nonfiction projects on the boil.  The closest to my heart is a memoir on being dyslexic.  It’s something that came up and it’s been interesting writing about it.  I hope I land a contract for it soon.

What’s next for you?


My next thriller, Terminated, comes out in paperback next June.  It focuses on workplace violence.  The story came about after I learned that some high profile companies are combating workplace violence with the use of private security firms.  I saw how that situation only works if everyone plays ball.  In Terminated, the system set in place falls down.  🙂


I’ve also completed a novel called Did Not Finish.  It’s a mystery set in the motor racing world.  I’m mining my own experiences in the sport.  I hope to do for motorsport what Dick Francis did for horse racing.  Did Not Finish is the first in a series of stories and is a fictionalized account of a driver that I knew who was murdered.


Visit Simon at Ask him about those earrings while you’re at it. Also, Simon’s previous Murderati posts can be found here.


Wine of the Week: In the spirit of Thanksgiving, let’s have some (really, truly, fantastic) 2006 Louis Latour Beaujolais-Villages Chameroy.  We also had a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau, the traditional wine for the third week of November. Read why here.


The Writer’s Dilemma

by L.J. Sellers

Please join me in welcoming what will probably be our last guest blogger at Murderati (since we have so many writers here now, we’re opting for a little predictability). An award-winning journalist, L.J. Sellers is also an editor, novelist, and occasional standup comic based in Eugene, Oregon. She writes the Detective Wade Jackson mystery series. Two are in print, The Sex Club and Secrets to Die For, and two more are in the works. A standalone thriller, The Baby Thief, will be released in August 2010. When not plotting murders, L.J. enjoys cycling, gardening, social networking, attending conferences, hanging out with her family, and editing fiction manuscripts.

About ten years into my fiction writing adventure, I read an interview that changed my life. The featured scriptwriter had recently sold his first screenplay, which was made into a blockbuster movie. When the interviewer asked him if he would do anything differently, given the chance, he said, “If I had known it would take ten years to sell a script, I would have found a better day job.”

That hit home with me, and I knew I had to make a change. At the time I had been waiting tables for years while my kids were young (for the flexibility), and I was starting to really hate it…and myself. Novel writing in my spare time was all that kept me sane. I had also recently failed to sell a novel even though my agent told me we had an offer. In that somewhat despondent frame of mind, I decided I needed a better day job. One that would put my journalism degree and inquisitive mind to work—for pay. I realized that the time I spent at work also counted on the happiness meter and that working a job I hated and that made me feel bad about myself was not in my best interest in the long term. 

So I stopped living for the future—that day when a novel would sell and my life would change. I found a job on a magazine, and I accepted, on some level, that magazine writing and editing would be my career and that it would be enough if that’s how it all worked out.

It was a great job with eventually great pay, and it led to even better jobs with better pay. It was the best move I ever made. Or maybe it was the worst.

Of course I kept writing novels. For many of us it’s like a drug. Once you’re hooked, there’s no stopping, no true happiness without that fix. But over the years of working for various nonfiction publishers, I wrote less and less in my free time. It took longer and longer to finish a novel. I wrote screenplays for a while because they were easier and needed fewer words. So it took another ten years to finally get a contract and get the first two novels in a mystery/suspense series published. And I had to lose my job first.

Looking back, I see that the only prolific novel-writing periods I’ve had were during layoffs. I wrote The Sex Club after the magazine moved to NY, and I wrote Secrets to Die For and most of the third novel in the series after my lay off last year when the recession hit. I’ve come to conclude that I have a limited number of words I can produce each week or month, a finite capacity for intellectual creativity.

Now I’ve come full circle. I’m writing for a newspaper and working more hours than originally expected. (Unemployment doesn’t last forever, and it’s tough to make real money as a new novelist.) The newspaper job is ideal. All I do is write feature stories; I have no other responsibilities. I don’t even have to attend meetings, and my boss thinks I’m terrific.

Guess what? My novel word count has slowly plummeted, and I’m feeling a little cranky about it.  (I started the fourth story in the Detective Jackson series in June, and I’m only at 15,000 words!) I think sometimes that my novel-writing career would be better served if I worked a job that didn’t require me to write. But I’m afraid that any other kind of job would make me feel like I wasn’t living up to my potential, that I was wasting my education and skills.

What will I do? Beats me. I know I’m not going back to waiting tables! If I stall long enough on making a decision, the paper will make it for me and lay me off. We’re down 150 staff members, with only 250 to go. I’m almost hoping it will happen sooner rather than later.

Many other novelists are also journalists or technical writers or they work in communications of some kind. I suspect they also face this word-count conundrum, and I sympathize.

Have you faced this situation? How did you resolve it? Share your experience.

Bleak is the new black

Murderati Readers,

Please join me in welcoming Timothy Hallinan today.
Timothy is the author of nine novels published under his own name and several more under other names. His current series of thrillers is set in Bangkok, and the first two novels, A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART and THE FOURTH WATCHER, received rave reviews and were named to several “ten best” lists, both here and in Asia. The newest book in the series, BREATHING WATER, will be published (by William Morrow) on September 4, 2009. Hallinan divides his time between Santa Monica and Southeast Asia.

Two things mystify me, and I’m going to use this opportunity to talk about them.

First is the tendency of so many writers of “literary fiction” to assume that futility and despair are the primary components of the human condition, and to crank out books that end with symphonic stretches of bleakness, disappointment, disillusionment, and bereavement. Oh, and the corollary – the idea that any book that dares to venture a happy ending is Art Lite, not worth printing, and probably made possible by a secret grant from Hallmark.

Second is the reaction of people who, when they meet me and find me to be a reasonably normal human being without obvious scales or talons, say, “How can you write about all that darkness? Doesn’t it frighten your wife?”

These two things may not be obviously related, but they’re actually first cousins, at least in my mind. I write mysteries and thrillers. Mysteries and thrillers obviously contain dark elements – that’s part of what keeps readers turning the pages – but in the end, mysteries and thrillers are optimistic books, almost by definition.

A mystery or thriller begins with a world that’s out of order, broken somehow. The action of the book is the restoration of order, putting the world right again. Someone has done something terrible – how do we find out who it is and prevent its happening again? That’s the basic mystery structure. Someone is in a horrific position, facing overwhelming odds – how do we get him or her out of it? That’s the basic thriller structure. Both kinds of stories move from a broken world to a whole one.

This earns them the scorn of much of the “literary” world. Eeeewwwwww, a “happy ending.” Eeeeeeewwwww, formula writing. Eeeeeewwwwww, (dreaded phrase) genre fiction.

Here’s a secret. Both happy and unhappy endings are just literary conventions. Neither is truer to human experience than the other. They’re fiction, remember? They’re a matter of taste, not truth. Too many people in the lit-fic camp seem to believe that unhappy endings are somehow more realistic. They remind me of the film bores who praise the “realism” of black and white photography which, if color had been developed first, would strike us all as an interesting abstraction.

Ultimately, I think the basic problem is that the idea of an “ending” is itself a literary convention. In the real world, all stories are part of bigger stories that are in turn part of still-bigger stories, all the way up to the level of cosmology. There are no real beginnings and endings in life other than birth and death, and there’s plenty of disagreement about that. One of the things fiction does is say, okay, this little fragment of the story is the one we’re going to tell, which means it needs an arbitrary beginning and ending. We’ll put them here.

So what’s so unrealistic about the kind of happy ending we all experience thousands of times in our lives: the medical test comes back clear, the passing truck that’s in our lane at the top of the hill misses us, the person you love actually does fall in love with you? Is it more “realistic” to ignore those endings and keep writing the story until the cancer appears, until the wolf blows the house down and eats us?

I believe it requires a certain kind of valor, in a doomed universe in which all things are mortal and which is itself probably hurtling toward death in freezing darkness, to say, “This part of the world is broken or disordered, and it’s worth fixing. This wrong has been done, and it’s important to right it. This person is in peril and we should care whether he or she escapes it.” That’s what thrillers and mysteries do. They don’t claim to make the entire world whole and perfect, just to fix one little part that’s gone wrong.

When they don’t, people notice and react. In my first Bangkok book, A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART, the story of one of the characters that readers liked most comes to an equivocal end. I got almost 350 e-mails and letters about that character from people who wanted to learn what happened to him. Nobody wrote about any of the people whose stories were tied up satisfactorily. In the new book, BREATHING WATER, I bring that character back, but I think some people will be unsettled again because the book’s story takes place against a background of deep-seated corruption and political unrest that can’t be resolved in this sort of book. (Or in real life, apparently.) So at the end of BREATHING WATER, some of the villains are still rattling around and will undoubtedly continue to behave in a villainous manner.

But the other characters’ stories – most of them, anyway – end well. The disorder in the world that affected them most directly has been resolved. And even though they know the larger world hasn’t been miraculously made whole, and that they’re going to get old and die one day, perhaps painfully, they’re willing to accept what they’ve been given, and to accept it with happiness. For now.

That’s good enough for me. I like stories like that.


Hey all,
Next week I’ll have two great announcements. Hope to see you then.

Food on the road

Hi there, ‘Rati readers!

Please join me in welcoming Rhys Bowen today. Her three series have been nominated for every major mystery award and she’s won quite a few of them. Whether it’s Constable Evans solving crimes in the mountains of Wales or the feisty Molly Murphy sleuthing in turn-of-the-century New York City, Bowen’s protagonists are both memorable and believable. Her newest, The Royal Spyness series, features Lady Georgie — a minor royal in 1930s England. Royal Flush is in bookstores this month. 
See you next week,


Book tours always sounded so glamorous: being whisked across the country, staying at first class hotels with an escort and an expense account. I would fantasize about them back in the days when I drove myself, and a couple of fellow fledgling writers, from town to town, staying at El Cheapo motel and eating at the local sandwich shop.

But the reality is that the hotel breakfast buffet may be extraordinary but the car comes for me at four thirty a.m. and the only breakfast I grab is a bagel after I pass through security. I long for a nice leisurely lunch but my escort reminds me that we have four more stores to hit before my evening event and they are quite a distance apart. (In Dallas last year we put over 200 miles on the clock in one day of signing at chain stores). And as for dinner, forget it. I don’t feel like eating at five, which is before I get ready for my evening event, and I am too wiped out to each much when I return to the hotel at nine-thirty, or, worse still, find myself back at the airport for yet another flight.

And those elegant hotel rooms? They may have antiques and a powder room to die for but I’m only interested in a hot shower and a bed. And quiet outside. I wish they’d rate hotels by noise level. Last year I was a block away from a baseball stadium and they finished up the evening with fireworks. At first I thought that a gang war had erupted but then the whole sky lit up for half an hour.

So I’ve learned to stash power bars and bananas in my suitcase and to seek out sushi when I have a chance to snatch a bite. Sushi tastes clean and refreshing and it slips down easily when I don’t want to eat anything.

And I think back to those days when my signing tours were long car trips. My husband John and I crossed the entire country three times, once returning across the whole of Canada. And each of those trips was chock-full of experiences, including gastronomic ones. Along the way I discovered that lattes vanish at the Nevada border, that food outside of metropolitan areas becomes cholesterol suicide. All that chicken-fried steak and biscuits with red gravy and salad that is iceberg lettuce hidden under glops of thousand island dressing are certainly bad for the arteries. But there are great experiences too—eating fish fry at Alice’s restaurant in Charleston, SC, where we were the only white diners and everyone made us welcome, eating lobster on a rain-soaked dock in Maine, soft shelled crab and a three dollar bucket of clams on another dock in Maryland.

The point is that these trips were always adventures. They always involved meeting people very different from me, seeing sights I would never have sought out—the corn palace in South Dakota, an Amish gathering in Pennsylvania, a lone horseman moving through bleak high country in Wyoming. Or how about the hour-long radio interview I did from a Ford dealership in Fostoria, Ohio, being constantly interrupted by messages on the loudspeaker saying that Mr. Soandso was wanted in the service bay, or the mystery train in Wisconsin, trying to talk to a carriage full of people while I fought to keep my balance as we bounced and rattled along the track?

Too bad I don’t write about the USA, because I’d have plenty of material.

Many thanks to Murderati for letting me visit your blog. This month I’m celebrating the publication of my new Royal Spyness book called Royal Flush. I’m also running a contest for those who read this blog and respond via my website: basket of English teatime goodies and other great prizes. Visit


The drama of a dress

Let’s give a big Murderati welcome to guest blogger Julie Kramer. Her debut thriller, STALKING SUSAN, won the RT Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best First Mystery, the Minnesota Book Award for genre fiction, was a finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award and is also an Anthony nominee for Best First Novel.

Lucky for us, her sequel MISSING MARK will be released tomorrow, July 14, from Doubleday.

A wedding dress is the most sentimental garment a woman will ever own. What would it take to part her from it? Economics? Anger? Grief? Space?

I’ve always been curious about the wedding dresses advertised for sale in the newspaper want ads and now on the internet.. Each dress held a potentially riveting backstory…perhaps of pain, perhaps of relief.

Writing my second book, MISSING MARK, I asked myself the question that sets many authors on the path to plot: what if?

In MISSING MARK, my TV reporter/heroine answers an ad reading “Wedding Dress For Sale: Never Worn” and is drawn into a dangerous missing person case. She meets a bride not only left at the altar, but left with many unanswered questions about her errant groom.

In real life, I’m a journalist. And we’re very nosy. So recently I’ve been calling the wedding dress ads and asking the brides or almost brides ‘what happened?’ The answers ranged from ordinary to fascinating. Although none was as wild as what happens to my fictional bride.

Some women simply need the money. Times are hard. Sacrifices need to be made.

One woman was almost killed by her ex-fiancee (now in prison) and doesn’t want any reminders of the relationship.

One became pregnant and the dress won’t fit on her wedding day.

Another simply wasn’t sentimental. The dress was just old fabric that took up a lot of closet space.

One bride found a dress she liked better than her first pick.

A couple women preferred not to answer. I suspected their stories might be the most interesting of all. But then I do have a vivid imagination.

No wonder, tales of weddings gone wrong have long been a stable in literature. Whether you’re looking at Shakespeare, Jane Eyre, or Nancy Drew…a wedding dress is certainly worth a thousand words. Often even 80,000.

My book also deals with issues of the media and missing people, along with a rare medical condition, but I imagine when book clubs sit down to discuss MISSING MARK, the big question will deal with whether they still own their wedding dresses. If not, why not? If so, what would it take to make them part with the gowns? And is a used dress from a bad breakup tainted?

Twenty years later, I still own my wedding dress. It’s boxed in the basement. I’d never sell it. But I’d give it away. Nothing would please me more if a young friend or relative wanted to take it down the aisle again. I think wearing a wedding dress from a happy marriage might spell good karma, but most brides these days seem to want to start fresh. And the brides I phoned about their want ad gowns hadn’t had many callers eager to write checks.

How about the rest of you? Wives, would you ever sell your wedding gown? Husbands, would you care if your wife did?

Wasn’t Julie a beautiful bride?

Hey, all, Pari again. If you want a real kick go to Julie’s book trailer for MISSING MARK.
And join us next week for Rhys Bowen.

Series Characters


Please join me in giving a warm Murderati welcome to Carolyn Haines, the author of the Sarah Booth Delaney Mississippi Delta Mysteries from St. Martin’s Minotaur. GREEDY BONES, her newest book, will be released July 7.
See you next week,

Readers frequently fall in love with a character and want to know more about him or her, and it’s the same for authors. Having written both standalone and series characters, I find great joy—and sometimes sorrow—in both types of books.

One of the real pleasures of writing a series is the ability to see the characters grow and change over a lengthy period of time. To get to know them in a multitude of situations. I’m now writing the tenth book in a series, and in that time, my protagonist, Sarah Booth Delaney, has grown up a lot. Not physically, but emotionally. Sarah Booth is an amateur sleuth, but over the past nine years, she’s developed some skills at the profession she fell into by stealing a friend’s dog and ransoming it back (in her defense, she was about to lose her family home, Dahlia House, and she suffers a lot for this betrayal). The dog’s owner, a woman Sarah Booth perceived as somewhat shallow, shows real heart and courage in the books and eventually becomes Sarah Booth’s partner. This isn’t necessarily the kind of change that can occur in the span of a single novel. But in a series, there’s room enough to let this happen naturally.

I’ve spent such a long time with the Zinnia, Mississippi, characters, that they’re like old friends to me. That familiarity is wonderful. Each year, the “friendship” with these characters deepens. They still do things that surprise me—just like real friends—but I know and understand their motivations.

The downside is that throughout the nine finished books, a lot of things have happened, and I am the “keeper” of all the facts about made-up characters and a fictional town. The geography of the town can be troublesome. In prior books I’ve established where the bank, the café, the beauty salon are all located. This “world building” affects every other book. It’s a lot to manage, and with each additional book written and published, it becomes harder and harder. Consider, too, that I do a lot of re-writing, so things are cut—but three years later, I’m not sure what was cut and what was left in. I’ve tried different tactics for handling this, but it’s just plain difficult any way I tackle it.

A writer still has to attend to these world-building details in a single-title book, but there is less to remember. And think of the time that’s passed since THEM BONES first came out—a decade. That’s a long time ago. My brain has only so much space. When new stuff is added, old stuff is pushed out.

Aging the characters is another consideration. Different authors handle this challenge in a variety of ways. In my world of Zinnia, Sarah Booth has aged only eighteen months. She was thirty-three when the series started, and she’s about to turn thirty-five. That creates some difficulties, as you can imagine. I’ve made the choice to include new technology as I learn how to use it (not at a very fast pace, I fear). But some authors keep their character in the same decade the first book took place in. Either choice has benefits and drawbacks.

When reading books, particularly mysteries, do you like growth in the character? Or do you prefer the character to remain somewhat unchanged? What are some of your favorite characters in either mode?


Bad Haircuts

by Stacey Cochran

Hey, ‘Rati readers. Join me in welcoming this week’s guest, Stacey Cochran. Stacey is a go-getter suspense writer whose new book CLAWS was published last month. An avid proponent of self-publication, Stacey has been a frequent visitor to our blog and always has something interesting to say.

In his first post here, he’s decided to lighten things up a bit and have some fun . . .

Today I’d like to talk about a topic of eminent importance to us all . . .

Bad haircuts and worst fashion trends!

Seriously, I’m on tour for CLAWS and I’ve done, like, fifteen guest blogs in a row. So I thought I’d write about something other than my little-engine-that-couldn’t book.

Let’s talk about the worst fashion mistakes of our lives.

I had a rattail.

You remember those really bad redneck haircuts of the mid 80s where you would cut your hair in the back so that it hung down in a single line meant to resemble (like the name suggests) an actual rat’s tail. I recall my sixth-grade teacher very sincerely threatening to lop it off herself. In retrospect, maybe she should have.

That was probably the worst haircut of my life . . .

With the possible exception of the time I cut my hair in the seventh grade, by myself, with a pair of Mom’s orange-handled sewing scissors. That one was pretty bad, too, because I cut the front of my hair down to a nub while leaving the sides and back at varying lengths.

And then in high school, somehow I let my older brother at my hair with electric clippers. He started with a Mohawk, but it eventually led to a bald cut. This was, like, a month before prom and I was quite possibly the most awkward looking guy in my entire high school.

Rail thin (I think I weighed 135) and bald is a strange look for a seventeen-year-old. Talk about embarrassing.

Probably the worst fashion disaster of my life was my “camo” phase. Remember when camouflage was in? People would wear Army fatigues like they were jeans. I confess I had three pairs . . . and they went right alongside my parachute pants! (Those synthetic nylon pants that felt like you were wearing wax paper.) They always had zippers. Only my parents couldn’t really afford the trendier kind so I had to settle for the bargain bin version from K-Mart on Western Boulevard in Raleigh.

Oh . . . my . . . God! Picture a rail-thin kid with a bald head in a pair of camouflage pants and, usually, a football jersey that hung over my frame like a bed sheet. That was me!

And don’t forget the braces.

How do we ever make it out of that period in our lives? How did I not end up the Unibomber?

What about you? What was the worst fashion trend you’ll confess to? What was the worst hair mistake of your life?


Come back next week for guest blogger Carolyn Haines. See you then.