Category Archives: Guest Blogger


L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist, editor, and occasional standup 
comic, based in Eugene, Oregon. She is currently writing a second Detective
Jackson story, Secrets to Die For. When she¹s not plotting murders, Sellers
enjoys hiking or cycling through Oregon¹s beautiful Willamette


A Day in the Life of an Aspiring

L.J. Sellers

9:42 am: As I write page 162, I
realize that an entire investigative thread in my new novel is not quite
logical. And there’s no way to massage it or spin it. So I go back to the
beginning and try to pick out and rewrite every reference to this line of
inquiry. Did I get them all? Or did I leave a little silver of foreign material
that will pop up and irritate readers? Now I have doubts about other plot
threads. So I decide to print out all 162 pages and read through them before
continuing to write the story. How many trees have I killed in my career as a
writer and editor? 

12:29 am: Another writer posts on
my Facebook page, “Congrats on the review in Mystery Scene. ‘A thrilling, eye-opening read.’” I am excited. I
haven’t seen this review, and it will make a great blurb. I search Mystery Scene’s webpage, but I can’t
find the review and I don’t have a copy of the magazine. So everyone in mystery
world knows what this review says, except me. And, of course, I worry that the
one line I know about may be the only positive thing the reviewer said. 

3:10 pm: After months of waiting,
my beta reader sends an e-mail with her feedback on the first 50 pages of my
new story, Secrets to Die For. After
commenting, “This is a very worthy story, a page-turner with great potential,” she says, “Try to
SHOW rather than TELL.” Aaaghhhhh! I
like to think that I live by this ubiquitous writing rule. But now I wonder: Do
I even know what I’m doing? 

6:17 pm: After months of waiting, the
book trailer for my recently published novel, The Sex Club, arrives via e-mail. I excitedly click open the file,
ready to be thrilled and amazed. But no, the trailer is weird and confusing.
The girl in the last scene is at least 20, dark-haired, and kind of heavy. She
doesn’t  even look dead. The victim in my novel is 14 and blond and thin and very
dead. I show the trailer to my husband. He hates almost everything about it and
cannot stop talking about how much he dislikes it. I am crushed. I spent the
last of my promotional money on the trailer, and I counted on it selling a few
books. Now I have to compose an e-mail that diplomatically says, “Start over.”
It takes an hour that I don’t have. 

9:05 pm: I receive an e-mail from a
mystery book club leader named Ruth Greiner, who apparently does have a copy of
the Mystery Scene review and says
she’ll never read The Sex Club no
matter how great all the reviews are. She does not say why, and she does not
have to. Just seeing her name horrified me. The antagonist in The Sex Club is a very nasty woman and
her name is Ruth Greiner. How was I to know? Now I have to write an e-mail that
explains how I chose the name—Ruth is Biblical and strong, Greiner is the name
of a street in my old neighborhood. I also try to carefully expresses my
concern for her feelings, but without admitting any liability. I offer to send
her a free copy of my next novel, then feel lame about it. 

10:16: Yet another fun-filled e-mails arrives. This one is from a local author
whom I met at a book fair and exchanged novels with. He says he’s quite sure
he’ll find a publisher for his new novel and wants to know if I’ll read his
book and write a blub for the front cover. This is the first time anyone has
asked me for a blurb, and I’d like to be excited. I’m flattered that he thinks
I have any clout. But I didn’t get past the first page of his other novel
(which started with a rectal search by a large German woman), and this one, he
says, is much more sexually explicit. How did get so lucky? Oh yea, I wrote a
novel called The Sex Club, so he must
think I’m a sex fiend. (It’s a mystery/thriller, really!) So far, his e-mail is
just sitting there, unanswered. But tomorrow is another day, and I’m a creative
person. I’ll think of something.

So…tell us about YOUR day!



What the hell is a literary thriller, anyway?

Once again, please welcome our guest blogger, Derek Nikitas.



I’ve been trolling.  Saw some blog chatter re: the endless debate over literary fiction versus genre fiction.  (What’s to debate, except that lit fiction gets more prestige, genre fiction sells more books; seems to me an even tradeoff.)  One guy’s got this long-winded theory about literary fiction being all logical and grownup and staid, while genre fiction is primitive, ritualistic, fantastic, appealing to the child-mind inside us all.  This was his advertisement for genre fiction:  reintegration of the child with the adult to become the fully self-actualized self, or something like that.  I didn’t get it.  He quoted Freud; I tuned out.  Also, he’s wrong.

This literary vs. genre smackdown debate irritates me, though I’m oddly compelled by it.  I understand distinctions, but those distinctions get blurred so often, there’s no point in nitpicking.  I’ve claimed before that the best fiction is the kind that blurs literary and genre, but that’s because I’m a “literary thriller” writer, according to my press kit.  Some will argue that I’m elitist because at heart I don’t think plain old blueprint mystery writing is good enough; it’s got to be hijacked by a literary stylist to be legit—but I’m just talking about my process, and my taste.  If you can diversify, why not diversify?

Why not, indeed.  Eddie Muller’s wonderfully humbling positive review of my novel Pyres in the San Francisco Chronicle suggested that my book might suffer on the market because it’s too schizo, even though he liked it that way.  He says, “For an author, the dilemma of the literary thriller is that many critics don’t take such books seriously enough. They suspect the author of pandering to reach a broader market. The irony is that the ‘broader market’ comprises a majority of avid genre readers who tend to favor easily digestible fare and often scoff at efforts to transcend the form’s beloved tropes.” Readers pick sides, apparently, which frankly seems idiotic to me, no matter what camp you’re from.  Good writing is good writing.

Well, all right, I admit it—good writing’s in the eye of the beholder.  And there are distinctions that separate readers from readers and writers from writers.  Those of us “literary thriller” writers who try to blend the distinctions meet resistance from some readers on both sides of the spectrum. But another kind of resistance happens long before the novel ever gets to the reader.  This resistance is within we writers ourselves, a war between two kinds of writers going on within each of us.  Even in my own head, there’s always a negotiation between techniques that separate some of the things people talk about when they talk about “literary versus genre.”  I try to marry them together, but sometimes it’s a shotgun wedding.  Sometimes somebody gets a couple fingers blown off.

So I don’t want to blabber about literary vs. genre as if one’s the devil on your shoulder and one’s the angel.  I indulge them both.  But I can maybe point out some of the battlegrounds where these two kinds of writers go to war when I write. 

Language is one.  Some folks believe plain, utilitarian language is best.  Subject verb object.  Short declarative sentences, grammatically complete (unlike this one).  Figures of speech and turns of phrase that are likely to be relatively familiar to the reader.  One of Elmore Leonard’s ten rules for good writing clearly shows his allegiance.  He says if it sounds like writing, he takes it out.  On the first page of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code we get: “Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars.  He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair.” 

This is workmanlike language, useful because it coveys information clearly and calls no attention to itself.  The description is familiar because it is bad-guy iconic, the sinister albino!  Big things are mountainous, of course.  Pale things get compared to ghosts, of course.  The virtue here is invisibility; the writing is so familiar and predicable that it fades into the background, allowing the reader to forget that there are even words on the page.  This is the basis of good storytelling.

But another kind of writer revels in language, plays with it like poets do.  The idea here is to compel the reader with unique diction, unique turns of phrase, acrobatic sentences.  Language that calls attention to itself conveys mood and a psychic rhythm in its very utterance.  In Blood Meridian, a Western of sorts, Cormac McCarthy writes stuff like:  “a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.”  He could’ve written, “there were some barbaric Indians coming toward us,” but what he did write is more fun—and, by the way, chock full of horror-genre evocations, despite its supposed “literariness.”

I have to admit that for me, the stylist usually wins out over the stoic word-worker.  It dominates my writing and my reading because stylized writing sounds prophetic, almost superhuman in its scope.  Sure it stops the reader short, causes him to dwell a bit, but heck, the human mind is supple enough to imagine a fantasy world and admire language, both at the same time.  Stylized language is perhaps the most direct reason why I take so long to write.  I can’t be satisfied with “her back was killing her.”  I have to labor a few minutes to get: “Her spine throbbed like the vertebrae had crumpled zigzag along the hot electric line of the cord.”  Write one single page of sentences like this and four hours have passed. 

This language issue doesn’t cause much of a fight between the two writers in my head because I simply don’t believe stylized language is antithetical to genre writing.  Some of the best literary stylists, Raymond Chandler chief among them, were and are mystery/thriller writers.  And some literary writers, like Hemingway and Richard Russo, are as workmanlike with their words as you can get.  But clearly, many readers disagree with me, and the quality of language often has nothing whatsoever to do with the mass appeal of a book.  Dan Brown and James Patterson are both superb storytellers, but both have a dull sensibility for language and a tin ear for rhythm.  And they’re two of the most popular writers in the country, suggesting that many people consider stylized language either a mere embellishment or an annoying nuisance.  I sure as hell could save myself  a lot of time and grief if I agreed.

Character emotion is another problem.  It’s the lifeblood of fiction because fiction exists for readers to feel these emotions by proxy.  One part of me thinks intense emotion is the most dramatic emotion because it is the most visceral and the most overt.  Readers want to have their blood pressures raised, want to know what it feels like to be caught in the middle of a firefight or to discover that you’ve killed your own father and married your mother by accident.  This is spectacle, and its virtues are its thundering pomp and brilliant gleam.  Since genre fiction usually relies on big events that evoke big emotions, intensity gets a lot of play in thrillers and horrors and fantasies.  It’s that feeling you get at the theater during the b
ig battle sequence, or the rush you get on a hairpin turn in your Corvette.  It’s adrenaline, but it’s fleeting.  The reader’s sense of intensity fades fast and can’t be reached to the same degree when a reading experience is repeated a second time.

The other way is subtle emotion.  This writer wants to explore a psychological state carefully and exactingly, in order to get a sense of its textures and contradictions, its surprising insights.  If we go inside the head of a spy hero who’s just defused a nuclear bomb by cutting the right cord, that’s intense emotion.  Subtle emotion is evoked when we explore a young man’s impulsive decision to drop out of college and become a dockworker.  Not because he’s lazy, but because he wants to know what it’s like to suffer.  Not because he has proletariat leanings, but because he wants to replace physical suffering with emotional suffering.  Not because his emotional suffering is too strong, but because he thinks it’s frivolous, even though he can’t help it.  Not because he’s a depressive, but because…

You get the point.  My example is terrible, but that’s because this kind of character exploration takes a writer with intense concentration and awe-inspiring insight.  The virtue of subtle emotion is that it’s complex and requires the reader to reenact nearly the same kind of concentration and insight that the writer mustered to create it.  It resonates and often lasts in the reader’s mind well beyond the reading, even compelling a second or third read.  It’s elusive and suggests unanswerable questions, like real life does.  It is very much like looking at an ordinary object through a microscope and discovering a fascinating world of microbes you did not know was there.

But many readers have no patience for this stuff.  They come to fiction to escape the complexities of their real relationships, to dispel boredom, to simplify and magnify life through grand actions and intense emotions.  What’s more, the stories a thriller writer usually tells do not lend themselves to subtle emotion.  Subtleties come from magnifying the mundane, from noticing the energy encapsulated in a moment of stillness.  Thrillers are all about blasting away from the mundane and going on the run.  There’s no time or space for careful scrutiny.  Plus all the plot twists are going to strike the characters hard enough to elicit only various kinds of unsubtle screams.  The more intense the emotion, the less nuance it has, probably. 

Negotiating an interaction between subtlety and intensity is no easy task, but I often feel it’s necessary to give characters the depth and the resonance they deserve, to prevent them from becoming “types.”  And, quite frankly, some of us writers have this crazy whim to shoot for insight and profundity just as much as we want to spin good yarns.  Both impulses come from the exact same place: the desire to show off one’s skills.  In practice, this means moments of stillness where character’s minds are dissected for three or four paragraphs at a stretch, just the sort of thing that kills plot momentum and bores readers who want constant unrelenting suspense.       

Endings tend to exacerbate this tug-of-war between subtlety and intensity, especially when big revelations are about to go down.  Think of all the mysteries you’ve read where the killer, unmasked in the last few pages, turns out to be a close friend of the protagonist.  Or a shadowy character in the wings who’s had no development so far.  Generic structure dictates that the whammy should hit as close to the end as possible, because everything afterward lacks the same slam-bang intensity.  After the city fireworks grand finale, nobody wants to stick around to see a one-man sparkler show. 

But often these whodunit revelations leave huge gaps in characterization that have to be fulfilled by hasty psychobabble exposition about why such-and-such killed Mr. Mustard in the study with a candlestick.  These summarized pathology reports rarely give the character more dimension.  Instead, they tend to flatten the character and his motivations into a brief newspaper clip, much like obituaries do.   

More emotionally stimulating would be a deep, gradual exploration of the character that revealed his intricacies and subtleties.  But there’s no time for that.  Too much character study after the climax will bore the reader to tears because the suspense is gone.  But too much character study before the big reveal will necessarily ruin the revelation.  If we knew what was truly in his heart, we’d know he was the killer.  What ends up happening, then, is the reader gets short-changed on one of the most intriguing characters in the book.  Some of my favorite novels and movies suffer this rather unavoidable flaw, despite their brilliance otherwise: Michael Connelly’s The Poet, Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River, not to mention Psycho.  Thrillers—where the killer is already known—fare a little better in this regard because the writer can explore the killer’s psyche without giving anything away.  Although, how subtle can a killer’s psyche really be? 

Endings enact yet another battle between the two kinds of writers in my head.  One writer wants to be meticulous about tying up loose ends.  The bad guys (and there should be clear bad guys) should be caught and punished.  The good guys (clear, again) should be rewarded for their efforts, or mourned for their sacrifices.  Narratives have endings, and plots should feel conclusive.  Why?  Because most readers come to fiction for a sense of completeness and symmetry and tidiness that the chaos of real life does not offer.  Readers are willing to feel a bit of discomfort along the way for the sake of suspense, but endings should be eminently comfortable and clear.  Few people want to read three hundred pages only to meet a cliffhanger ending.

But, of course, there’s a devil in my head that loves inconclusiveness.  Not for its own sake, but because inconclusiveness suggest other moods and world views that tidy plots simply cannot.  Often, elusive endings will shift the emphasis from plot to character, so we see a character at his most revealing moment, rather than at his most final and conclusive moment.  Or elusive endings will shine some light on a truth—the kind of truth a lot of readers go to fiction to escape.  No Country for Old Men had this quality; it was a fundamentally cynical book and movie, and it deliberately undermined the audience’s desire for closure.  Why? In order to highlight its cynicism about the nature of evil—its relentlessness, its incomprehensibility, its unpredictability.  Consequently, the movie irritated lots of people while delighting a few with its audacity.

One of my teachers once quoted a friend of his as saying, “there are two kinds of books: those that confirm reader’s prejudices, and those that challenge them.”  I don’t like the simplicity of this aphorism, since it sounds too much like that artificial divide between literary and genre all over again.  But I do agree there are at least moments inside of individual books that either confirm or challenge.  Either the style seems familiarly invisible or it seems weirdly attention-grabbing.  Either the emotion evoked seems familiarly singular and intense, or oddly complex and contradictory.  Either the structure is comfortably fulfilling, or frustratingly open-ended. 

As an entertainer, I’d like to suggest that confirmation gives the reader what she paid for, though confirmation runs the risk of dull commonality.  As an artist, I’d like to suggest that challenge giv
es a reader more than she could’ve expected, though challenge runs the risk of obscurity or downright resistance from the reader.  I don’t want to champion one merit over another, nor do I think I could.  This unwillingness to choose, I suppose, is exactly why the battle rages on inside my head.


Tales from the Bowery

Okay ya”ll,  listen up, ’cause this one’ll make you think.   

Today’s Guest Blogger is Elizabeth Zelvin. Elizabeth is a New York City psychotherapist whose debut mystery, DEATH WILL GET YOU SOBER, will hit bookstores next week. Her  story, “Death Will Clean Your Closet,” has been nominated for an Agatha award for Best Short Story. Liz ran an alcohol treatment program on the Bowery for six years. She currently practices psychotherapy online.  Publications include two books of poetry and a book on gender and addictions. Liz’s author website is .


I’ll start with the one I usually tell. It was 1983. I had just walked down the Bowery for the first time, south from Astor Place past the invisible line that separated middle class New York from the most famous skid row of them all. The Bowery is just a New York street, but in those days it was also a community with a culture and rituals and an argot all its own. It was a destination for chronic alcoholics from all over the country, made up of bars and flophouses and stretches of gutter the way a small town would have houses and playgrounds and avenues of elms and oaks.

The fourth floor of the notorious Men’s Shelter had housed an alcohol detox unit since 1967. Four New York City cops were assigned to the agency that ran it. In the old days, their job had been to round up guys and throw them in the drunk tank in the nearest slammer. Now they were called the Rescue Team. The cop of the day and I drove slowly down the street. Ten-thirty in the morning. The streets were deserted. Nobody knocking back Thunderbird or Ripple from a flat pint bottle. No one passed out on the curbs or in the doorways. The cop said, “They’ll all be in the bars.”

The bartender knew his cue when we stepped through the doorway, the open door casting a shaft of sunlight in which dust motes danced and the row of men at the bar blinked bleary eyes.  “Fourth floor, fourth floor! Who wants to go?”

In 1993, I came back to the Bowery to run the same agency’s outpatient program. I inherited a program in which some homeless alcoholics had managed to get clean and sober, but nobody ever moved on. Some of them, with two or three years of sobriety, were still attending treatment daily. Among  other innovations, I instituted a graduation.

One of our first graduates was Isaiah. He was a tall, emaciated black man who was a natural leader.  He had a gift for inspiring others, and he took no crap from anybody. Before getting sober, he’d been a drug dealer and a scam artist. To say he’d turned his life around was no platitude, but the truth about what addiction treatment professionals like to call a f***ing miracle.

Isaiah had AIDS. After graduating, he hung around the program as a volunteer, continuing to help and inspire other alcoholics and addicts. His health became increasingly fragile, and eventually he died. We all went to the memorial service at a dinky little mission church where he had volunteered several times a week at the soup kitchen that had kept him alive more than once while he was living on the street. Person after person got up and spoke eloquently about how much Isaiah’s friendship or his example had meant to them. The young white pastor gave the eulogy.
    “I knew Isaiah for many years,” he said. “He’d stand on line and I’d hand him a bag of sandwiches, knowing with absolute certainty that he would go right around the corner and sell those sandwiches to buy drugs. I would ask myself, Why do I bother? Looking around today, seeing the tears in all your eyes, hearing the stories people have told about his struggle, his courage, and his generosity, I finally understand why.”

This is a story about recovery from alcoholism, a treatable illness. And that’s the kind of story I wanted to tell in DEATH WILL GET YOU SOBER. Bruce, my protagonist, has plenty of intelligence and cynicism. He does his best to maintain an ironic distance. If he heard Isaiah’s story the way I’ve just told it, he’d probably start playing air violin. Hearts and flowers, he’d say. Thank you for sharing. But dammit, I’m the author; he’s just the character. Bruce does and will recover. DEATH WILL GET YOU SOBER  starts with Bruce waking up in detox on the Bowery on Christmas Day. He is not pleased. As he puts it, “My mouth tasted like a garbage scow, my memory was on lockdown, and I bitterly regretted not being dead by thirty the way I’d always thought I’d be.” But that’s just the beginning.

In my experience, readers tend to bring their own history and preconceptions to a book like DEATH WILL GET YOU SOBER. What are your beliefs about alcoholism? Have you ever known anyone whose drinking bothered you? Have you ever known anyone in recovery? How much do you drink, now and in the past? Have you ever considered it a problem? Has anyone close to you considered it a problem? To what extent do you believe that people can change in any fundamental way?

Thanks, Elizabeth, for being our guest today.
                                        -JD Rhoades

which he sought so hard we’ll tear apart

We’re delighted to have Derek Nikitas join us here at Murderati for two Tuesdays in April, while Ken Bruen is off being fêted and wined and dined as Guest of Honor at Noir Con, and Nominee for Best Novel (Priest) at the Edgars. Derek’s first novel, Pyres, also nominated for an Edgar this year, was published in 2007 and met with rave reviews. "Nikitas’ stellar first novel isn’t just one of the best genre debuts of the year, it’s one of the best releases — period," said Paul Goat Allen of the Chicago Tribune. We agree. But let’s see what Derek has to say about it.

– Murderati

By Derek Nikitas

When Murderati asked me to substitute-blog for Ken Bruen, I feared at first that I’d have to feign Catholicism, use Irish slang, write in prose-poetic lines, and evince a hearty blend of ruffian and gentleman.  Instead I’ll save us all the embarrassment of a bad impression.

But to evoke Bruenesque brutal honesty, I’d like to discuss literary failure, not a popular subject among writers.  The role of published novelist is new for me, and it’s been wrecking havoc on my precious inferiority complex.  My first novel Pyres dropped only five months ago, but in the two years since I finished it, I’ve reflected a bit.  Since Pyres has been on sale, I’ve heard other people’s reflections, mostly positives, a few humbling negatives.  And I’ve had time to write more and, I like to think, improve.  All this reflection had shed a few stark lights on Pyres

I’ve occasionally heard veteran writers with decades of writing credits voice disappointment with a phase or two of their careers.  In On Writing, Stephen King admits displeasure with The Tommyknockers and Insomnia (he also admits he can’t remember writing most of Cujo because he was too drunk at the time).  Even James Ellroy, the most cocksure writer to crow his own work, concedes to steady mediocrity before his breakthrough, The Black Dahlia. 

Writers are notoriously self-critical, it’s true.  Some Greats, like Hemmingway and Plath, have critiqued themselves literally to death.  We suffer writer’s block and revise ourselves into full-blown Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.   We kill darlings and later lament.  We battle a version of post-partum depression over the copyeditor’s notes.  But all that hemming and hawing often goes silent when the book hits the shelves.  The time to gripe is gone.  Rarely will a writer publicly chastise his own published work—and when we finally fess, we wait for the Fiftieth Anniversary Career Retrospective: “oh, yes, my late-70s output could’ve used more polish, indeed.”

Zip it, crybaby—you’re saying to yourselves.  I don’t blame you.  Compelling reasons to shut up abound, the foremost being: nobody like a sourpuss.  And bemoaning one’s product has never been the big secret of salesmanship.  Coyness is nice, but who buys a book because the author panned it in print?  Plus, the self-effacing author has others to consider: agents, editors, publishers, sources, friends and family—every advisor who helped shape the book.  And now you want to claim that shape is cockeyed?  In my own case, bashing my own firstborn risks second-guessing those genius, gorgeous, charismatic Edgar judges (whoever they are).  Their other nominations are bulls-eyes, so who am I to rain on the parade?  What a mope.

Maybe the best reason to muzzle is this: why dwell?  If you’ve upped your game, go write a better book and quityerbitchin.  All excellent points, thank you very much.  Such poignant points that this blog should probably close right here, full stop.

Buuuut… I can’t help myself.  Recently, my mentor and former professor subjected her current crop of students to a mandatory reading of Pyres.  As part of their discussion, they produced a series of questions, which my mentor emailed to me, and which I then answered.  The first couple questions were congenial, as with most interviews (just once I’d like to see an author interview start with: “so what is your deal, anyway?”).  A few questions down, the subtle critiques set in.  The tone was still friendly, but the undercurrent seemed to ask: “don’t you realize you royally screwed the pooch here?”  Paranoia, one of my muses, read between the lines. 

What’s weird is this: I don’t think they ever expected me to acquiesce.  I think maybe a healthy population of readers, myself included, harbor odd misconceptions about how writers stand in relation to their own work.  Do readers think writers see their novels as beyond reproach, that every verb zings and every adjective glows—and if not, then, heck, the failing must be with the reader?  Are readers emotionally invested in this ruse as part of the greater illusion of fiction, ye olde “willing suspension of disbelief?”  Would huge fissures crack through the middles of all our Hobbitons if Tolkien admitted—from the grave, I s’pose—that he should’ve made Frodo a girl?   

Me, I went at it with gusto.  Another of my muses, Shame, took to the helm.  Until these emailed questions, I’d never had the opportunity or inclination to voice my self-reflexive discontent.  It was lovely to be able to say, yes—in retrospect, there are parts of Pyres that suck rotten eggs.  I don’t know how your average reader would catch such a curve ball.  They were probably expecting some clever explanation of mine to obliterate their naïve sense that something was wrong with the book.  They seemed to want me to set them straight.  Maybe now what they’ll want is their money back, or at least some in-store credit.   

In Pyres, one of my characters gets head-injury amnesia.  (I suppose I should’ve given a spoiler alert warning, but this whole notion of showmanship makes me dyspeptic.  It’s just my own silly imagination I’m spoiling on you.  I feel like P.T. Barnum or some street vendor hawking fake jade bracelets that will tint your wrist green.  I was quietly freaked out when one reader told me, “I totally fell in love with Tanya; she made me so sad.”  I’m delighted, but Shame at the helm of my mind chants: “Tanya’s just words! Tanya’s just words!  And some of those words are wrong!”  I must’ve believed and loved Tanya myself when I was writing her, but the flame dies when the book is done.)    

Anyway, amnesia.  Some readers have suggested amnesia is a cop-out, a bad soap opera plot fix.  I wholeheartedly agree.  That amnesia crap is the major weakness of the novel—followed by other minor weaknesses, like clunky point of view shifts, the pretentious fairy-tale tone of the climax, the overkill of similes and adjectives in general.  The amnesia thing is far too convenient and contrived.  It artificially boosts the drama where the drama lags.  It comes as a result of a decision made by a non-viewpoint character, so it’s weak as a plot point—an action for my heroine to react to, rather than a result of her actions. 

But, despite its obvious faults, the amnesia thing became so integral to the plot that it couldn’t be removed.  I tried to compensate by researching real amnesia and its causes, the result of which is slightly more authenticity, but dull pages of a talking-head doctor yammering on about amnesia.  I can imagine a much better novel where Blair (the character in question) doesn’t get amnesia and instead we undertake an in-depth exploration of her psyche, without sacrificing plot.  Oh well.

As a writing teacher, I’ve noticed how often writers are aware of their own mistakes and shortcomings.  But we gloss over them with rose-colored denial or laziness or, frankly, a very good reason: we must let go at some point.  We’ve all got to balance perfectionism against progressing to the next project, particularly when deadlines are involved.  Only a few writers like James Joyce and Harper Lee seem dedicated enough to let one or a couple books constitute a whole brilliant career. 

If your book is good enough to be published, the glasses get an even rosier tint.  All that amnesia stuff seemed just fine to me when St. Martin’s signed on, but time and progress removes such euphoria.  I’ve re
alized, for instance, that a publishing house banks on promise, not fulfillment.  The harshest lesson I’ve learned, yet have known in my heart all along is this: a book good enough to publish is a far, far cry from a book good enough to call a lasting masterpiece for posterity, for immortality.   

I should really shut the fuck up now.  I haven’t finished my second book, no version 2.0 to tout in lieu of the old model.  And worse: readers don’t want to hear this bunk, especially ones who’ve read and enjoyed your book.  They might even read your genuine regret as an attempt to fish for compliments.  “I look fat in this, don’t I?”  This is no pity party, really.  I know there’s stuff to admire in Pyres, and self-criticism should be kept to oneself.  Put on a happy face, and all that.  Readers like to be lured by fantasy, by worlds total and perfect unto themselves.  They don’t want some jerk whispering nearby: “it’s all smoke and mirrors, just some schmuck behind the curtain.”   

Aw, heck—can I go so far as to suggest that a writer’s negative self-critique might be of value?  After all, it’s tied to a vow to do better next time.  It’s an indication against stagnation, against “phoning in” the next book by ceding quality to formula or an impending deadline.  You might think this talk is rather self-defeating and morbid, and you might be right.  It’s a terrible marketing scheme.  But let’s face it, I think The Secret is the biggest load of crap I’ve ever heard, so I don’t know jack about the market.  Admitting to recent past failures liberates, since the alternative is to admit my best is behind me.  Recognizing my literary faults is how I improve.  It’s how I can hereafter stand guard against plot contrivance and excessive figures of speech and description, among the thousand other faults that my prose is heir to.  It’s what keeps me reaching for better than before.

So how about it?  Any confessions regarding past sins of prose, even minor ones?  Or virile roars from those who’ve sired only the most pristine of literary offspring?  Or perhaps renewed vows not to dwell on the past like this here slouch?  Dig in.   Oh, and in the tradition of Ken, your title has been brought to you today by the poet John Berryman.


Welcome Guest Blogger Libby Fischer Hellman!!

Going to the Dark Side

They say that if you keep writing crime fiction, you will
inevitably write darker. But they never tell you why. As someone who’s gone
down that road, I’d like to try out an explanation.

But first, thanks to the Murderati gang, especially J.T., for
this opportunity.

Over the past 6 years I’ve written four books that – while
not cozy – feature an amateur sleuth who’s a video producer. The situations
Ellie Foreman finds herself in aren’t light, but she has a dry sense of humor
that helps keep her grounded. More important, she has a support system and
family structure that, in some ways, curtail her behavior as well as the arc of
the plot. The danger and chaos she confronts — whether it’s neo-Nazis, the Russian
mob, or terrorists – are short-lived. By the end of each book, her world order is
restored. She goes to sleep without any demons plaguing her or her family.

In my third book, AN
, I introduced a character from a different world than
Ellie’s. Arin was from Eastern Europe, and her life fell apart when the Soviet Union collapsed. Her husband became an arms
smuggler and disappeared. Her best friend was drawn into sexual trafficking. Arin
was forced to make choices just to ensure her survival. She became an illegal
diamond courier who ended up making a good living from illegal activities. Anything
to feed her son and herself. At the time I thought Arin was an anomaly. A one-time

She wasn’t.

As I read more about crime, both true crime and fiction… as
I watch the “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” news stories, I’ve come to believe that the
act of bad things happening to good people – like Arin —  is more random than not. Victims of crime become
victims because they’re simply in the wrong place at the wrong time – not
because of some grand design.

Sure, you can argue that someone who lives in a gang-infested
neighborhood is more prone to a drive-by than someone in the affluent suburbs…
or that the house with snowbird owners is more likely to be robbed than a house
whose occupants are present. But the selection of the person who is shot, or
the home that’s targeted, is essentially a random act. It depends on a number
of factors, any one of which might suddenly change. The drive-by victim might
be at the grocery store, rather than on the street, and thus survive. The home targeted
for a robbery might be occupied by a son or daughter home from college and so
escape theft.  The actual doing of the crime
can be as flimsy as a feather quivering on air currents.

Even orchestrated conspiracies — the stuff of great
thrillers – in which plans are conceived over months, years or decades – are
often thwarted at the last minute by a random event or observation. Remember
the film (the original version) of The
Day of the Jackal
? De Gaulle turns
his head just as sharpshooter Edward Fox lets loose with a shot. A random head-turn
vanquishes the evil and saves France.

The fact that disaster is only a hairs-breath away… that the
worst could happen to anyone at any time, given the circumstances, is a powerful
driver, and I realized wanted to explore a character who understands that.Easy_innocence_cover1

Enter Georgia Davis, my protagonist in EASY INNOCENCE.
A cop for
years (Like Arin, she was introduced in AN
), she’s now a PI. She has baggage. And secrets I’m just
learning about. But her greatest strength is that she implicitly recognizes the
fragility and vulnerability of life.

My friend (and fabulous writer) Michael Dymmoch likes to quote from the film Shakespeare
in Love
. She always says that everything will work out if you persevere, work hard, and are talented
enough. Although Michael is talking
about writing, Ellie subscribes to that theory. She’s an optimist. She even
tries to control her universe. She would never dwell in the dark. For her everything
can be fixed.

Georgia doesn’t have any illusions. She knows it’s useless to try and control life. Of
course, it helps that she has a less than sanguine view of human nature. She
doesn’t doubt the cruelty that goes on behind closed doors — even in beautiful
surroundings. She realizes that because it’s random, evil can never be
destroyed permanently. In fact, she embraces that randomness. She is still committed
to fighting it and railing against the injustice it triggers, but knowing it
will always be there in one form or another is part of her world view.

It’s a dark view of the world. But it’s a compelling one. After all, we are all
gapers, aren’t we? What’s the first question we ask after a senseless crime or
accident? Why? How did it happen? When we hear the answer, maybe we shiver, or our
stomach lurches, or we give our kids an extra hug. But we know, at a very basic
level, that life is random. That we don’t have control. That we can’t prevent

That’s why I’m writing darker these days. To plumb the
depths of that randomness – to see how it affects characters in my imaginary
world. Maybe it will even teach me how to accept it in the real world.

But enough from me. Readers, why do you read dark? Or not?
Writers, why do you write it?


Libby’s 5th novel, Easy Innocence is a “spin-off” of her award-winning Ellie Foreman series. Libby also edited the acclaimed anthology Chicago Blues. Originally from Washington DC, Libby has lived in Chicago for 30 years and finds the contrast between the beautiful and the profane in that city a crime writer’s paradise. She lives on the North Shore. Her next work, a stand-alone thriller called Set the Night on Fire takes place in part during the Sixties.

P.S. — A wine suggestion, from a friend of Murderati — Chateau Souverain Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2004. Yum! Coppola bough the Alexander Valley vineyard in 2006. I’m not sure how that will change the appellation, but it’s worth a try in the later years as well. Many thanks to fellow scribe Chuck Driskell for the suggestion.

And a boatload of thanks to Libby for standing in today. Don’t forget, Simon Wood joins us next week!


Welcome Guest Blogger Cara Black!


Springtime on Canal Saint Martin in Paris
we see the buds sprouting on the trees lining Canal Saint Martin, the
folks still in winter coats but far as I’m concerned it’s springtime
in Paris and time for crime. I have to say this canal, a wonderful thin
weaving stretch of water carrying barges to the Seine and site of
Georges Simenon’s ‘The Headless Corpse’ an Inspector Maigret novel,
sparked the idea for Murder in the Rue de Paradis, the eighth Aimée
Leduc Investigation. An evocative setting, dark water shimmering at
night, rain soaked cobblestones on the quai. But my editor wagged her
finger, ‘You don’t need to do a copycat killer of Simeon’s famed
Maigret. Not to mention most American’s haven’t heard of Canal Saint
Martin. Aimee, your detective can stretch more than that. Think,’ she
said, ‘of the darker side of the City of Light.’

about the Gare du Nord I thought, the bustling train station where the
Eurostar disembarks from London and the glass awninged roof resembles a
smudged glass umbrella..surely Americans would know the Gare du Nord? I
could set a murder there, use that for the title.

editor seemed ok with that. And me too until scouting around the Gare
du Nord one winter day for a murder location, I thought I’d found the
place. A little frequented corner near the tracks, quiet, a perfect
location to slide a knife in someone’s back ..most of you are crime
fiction readers and writers who probably think the same strange way I
do. But as I reached for my notebook to draw a map for this ‘perfect’
murder site content with Murder in the Gare du Nord as the title for
the book…who walks around the corner but a trio of CRS riot police in
full jumpsuit gear and with Uzi’s slung over their shoulders? No good,
the station was patrolled tighter than a shut Breton oyster and that
title now felt as good as a plastic bag popped on the tracks leading to
the netherworld of northern France. What to do…how could I find a
title for this book in this off the beaten track of Paris that
fascinated me?  And a place American readers might know or could
identify with. ‘After all’ my editor said, ‘Americans have heard of the
Marais, Montmartre even Ile Saint-Louis but the 10th arrondissement?’
An arrondissement called by a French writer ‘a quartier of poets and
locomotives’, an area rich in small little jewels of belle epoque
theatres, an artisanal district which below the surface was still rich
in the theatre arts; fan makers…


and feather ateliers for theatre and haute couture, a once thriving fur
district, small manufacturers who still exist like the buckle factory
in the same family for 110 years. But for les Arts de la Table,
everyone in Paris goes to rue de Paradis, the well known street of
porcelain and crystal shops, once the site of the Baccarat museum and
the street name struck a chord with my editor. And me.


when I researched in the archives and discovered the old name for a
sliver of rue de Paradis…the rue d’Enfer – the street of hell – so it
would encompass Aimee’s journey in this book from paradise to
hell…and it all jelled after that. and with passage like this Passage
du Desir


and little squares tucked in the warren of streets like this


or this


and those forbidden areas

and always with a little retro fashion a la Givenchy Aimee wears involved


and of course the police get involved


and the fireman go on strike in the Bastille…of course, this is France and people go on strike all the time


and the best part of my research is that I get to ride a motorcycle sometimes

and find spots like this


it was when I took a short cut through the 10th arrondissement en route
to the archives, I noticed the cluster of small cafes, the men smoking
hookahs and drinking those potent little cups of Turkish coffee that I
realized I’d stumbled into Little Istanbul. And nearby by the
storefront mosque and the Kurdish Cultural Institute. But when a
policeman told me about his experiences investigating the August 1995
Metro bombing of St. Michel, the bombing that rocked France, the story
formed. In this pre-9-11 time the authorities had one take on the perps
while my take, given what we know today, differed. And that ‘what if’
buzzed and took off in my head. My editor, ever the wise one, was
right. I had a whole quartier with Kurdish freedom fighters, Turkish
militants, bourgoise bohemians – or bobo’s as the French call them –
taking over lofts in the old warehouses, ateliers specializing in hems
for haute couture, and Aimée on the hunt for the murderer of her former
boyfriend. Seems a chador clad figure was seen leaving the crime scene.
I didn’t need a headless corpse found in the Canal Saint Martin.


you, does the plot spring fully formed in your head, or does it take
thickening and time to jell? Does it come from a name, a place or
perhaps a first line that sets you on your path?

photo credits
Saint Martin — Adrian Leeds
all others Cara Black

Cara Black lives in San Francisco with her husband, a bookseller, and their teenage son. She is a member of the Paris Sociéte Historique in the Marais. Loves photography. Cara, like Aimée, once had a moped and appreciates their tempermenal  tendencies. She also, like Aimée, likes dogs and owns a Coton de Tulear. Unlike Aimée, she has never owned an apartment on the Ile St. Louis but feels she will someday when the lottery smiles on her. She is currently working on the new book of the Aimée Leduc series.

Thanks for being here today, Cara!!!

P.S. Cara is the first of three wonderful guest bloggers who are kind enough to stand in for me while I catch up on some book writing and do some more promotional travel. Next week, Libby Fischer Hellmann joins us, and the following, our dear friend Simon Wood will be back. I’ll be back with lots of new wine selections and fresh blogs April 18. À bientôt!

Interview — CJ Lyons

Toni here — I’m winging my way home from the wonderful Left Coast Crime and had interviewed the wonderful CJ Lyons for today’s blog. Please give her a warm welcome!

First off, CJ, congratulations on the wonderful debut this week
of LIFELINES—which I not only read and loved, but I see a lot of people agreed
with me. Cjs_book_cover

Publisher’s Weekly describes it as a “spot-on debut….a
breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller,” Lisa Gardner called it a
“pulse-pounding adrenaline rush” and our own friend of ‘Rati Allison Brennan
said that LIFELINES is “A fantastic and wild journey through the fast-paced
world of a big-city ER…an all-around great read.”

Let’s start off with a little about the book – can you tell
us the premise? What was the inspiration for the story? Is LIFELINES a
stand-alone or will there be more books in this fantastic world you’ve built?

>>LIFELINES is the first book in a series centering on
the women of Pittsburgh’s Angels of Mercy’s ER. It deals with the most dangerous day of the year: July 1st—Transition

You see, for teaching hospitals, our calendar starts on July
1st. That’s when the new interns—yes,
the bumbling fools who were mere medical students on June 30th—hit the
hospitals and start taking care of patients.

Add to that the age-old American traditions of drinking
yourself stupid and blowing up explosives and/or guns while celebrating
Independence Day and you have a sure-fire recipe for disaster.

I remember my own Transition Day. Brand new, still not unpacked or moved in,
barely finding the hospital parking lot (it was two blocks away in a
gang-riddled, not-so-nice neighborhood) much less figuring out my way around
the hospital and I’m suddenly on call, responsible for three floors worth of
very sick kids!

No one died that night, not on my watch….for which I’ve
forever been eternally grateful. I don’t
take credit for it—I think it was more likely because of the always-excellent
nurses who were well aware of the dangers July 1st posed their tiny patients.

Of course, in my novel, things don’t go quite so well for my
main character. She loses a patient—the
wrong patient, the Chief of Surgery’s son. And she has no idea why he died….


I know that you are an ER doctor as well as a writer – and
clearly, you capture the entirety of that world so crisply, that anyone who
wants a behind-the-scenes look would dearly love. If there’s anything you miss
about medicine, what is it? We can see how the world of medicine has influenced
you as a writer… but how has the world of writing influenced you as a doctor?

>>I miss my patients—there’s something pretty
fulfilling about working with kids. They’re so resilient! Leaving my
practice to make the leap of faith and follow my dream of becoming a writer was
probably the most difficult decision I’ve made.

Medicine has been very good for my writing. Despite working three jobs (I put myself
through med school) and the crazy hours, I really got serious about my writing during
medical school, joining my first writer’s group and attending my first writing
workshop. I was actually able to finish
a science-fiction novel during medical school—now safely tucked away until I
have the strength to read it and see just how bad it is!

But writing was also been wonderful for my practice of
medicine. Knowing the importance of
asking why, of understanding the motivations behind patients’ actions, how to
tell a story—and listen to a story—all made me a better doctor.


Tell us a little bit about how you started writing? Do you
write fiction, non-fiction… both? And if both, tell us a little bit about the
other writing projects you’ve done.

>>I’ve been writing pretty much all my life. It’s an addiction and I’d need a 12 step
program to stop <g> Being a
doctor, I’ve had to write a lot of non-fiction, everything from peer-reviewed
research articles to paramedic protocols to grant proposals and textbook

Right now, in addition to my fiction, I’m writing a lot of
patient education articles and have even done several patient education
DVD’s. It’s a nice way to stay up to
date on current research and give something back now that I’m not practicing
medicine right now.



Tell us a little about your writing world and habits – what
kind of schedule do you keep? How do you handle juggling more than one project
at a time? What inspires you?

>>I’m totally undisciplined as a writer—rebelling
against all those years of carrying a beeper and being forced to follow a
strict schedule as a physician, I guess! But those years also taught me how to write quickly when I do have time
to write, so it all evens out.

As for juggling things—multi-tasking and taking control of
chaos is the definition of emergency medicine <g> I get bored easily and so, always have
several projects going at once. For me,
it helps me maintain my focus—for others doing that might be distracting and
overwhelming. You need to figure out
what works for you.

What inspires me? Waste. Injustice. People taking the gifts they’re given in life
for granted.

As much as I enjoy writing about relationships and falling
in love and nice things like overcoming great obstacles, most of my work is
about wanting to fix things, to change the world.

So when I get angry about something, that sparks my passion
and inspires my work.



And finally, what’s the best life advice you’ve been given
or that you like to pass along?

>> To paraphrase Tim Allen and Winston Churchill:
Never surrender, never give up!

Whatever your dream is, believe in yourself and go for it!

If you’re a writer, forget about what other people tell you
to write or what’s selling. Find your
passion and follow your heart—that’s the story readers want. One filled with passion, one that reveals
your heart. 


Where’s the funny part?

by Steve Brewer

When I was in high school, I was friends with the starting center on the basketball team, a perfectly nice guy who’d somehow been born without a sense of humor.

He wasn’t stupid or slow. He just didn’t get jokes. You’d tell him some joke you’d heard on TV, and deliver the punchline just right, and he’d stand there blinking, while the silence grew more awkward. Finally sensing the joke was over, he’d say, "Where’s the funny part?"

Every time.

We all deluged him with jokes, trying to find one that would crack him up, the one that would hit whatever funny bone everyone else had missed.

And he’d always say, "Where’s the funny part?"

I think of that guy sometimes when I’m writing. Not as an imaginary target audience; Lord no, I’m sure he still doesn’t know where the funny part is, and who needs that? But I look at what I’ve put on the page and I think, "Where’s the funny part?"

Usually, there’s something. Some little wordplay, a snip of dialogue or a twisted image that makes me smile. Once in a while, something that makes me laugh out loud. I’m always my first audience and, naturally, I think I’m funny as all hell. Probably no one but me gets all the intended jokes, but readers sometimes cite funny stuff in my books and invariably they’re things I’d meant completely seriously, so it all evens out in the end.

I try to write the type of books I like to read (and doesn’t that shift subtly from year to year), and the books I most enjoy tend to have funny parts. So I slip humor into my stories, especially my seven-book series with private eye Bubba Mabry, and my scores of loyal fans seem to appreciate it.

I’ve written a lot of standalones, some funnier than others. My most recent, "Whipsaw" and "Cutthroat," are corporate thrillers set in the San Francisco Bay area. Very little comedy leaked into those stories. I thought they were pretty good tales, fast-paced, me trying something new, spreading my wings, blah, blah.

Reviews and reader reactions were mixed. Nothing wrong with these stories, but (you guessed it): "Where’s the funny part?"

Who am I to argue? Not everybody can throw comedy into the mix and get away with it. Not everyone can vent in print and make people laugh. I should count my blessings.

There’s a lot of humor in my latest thriller ("Firepower," currently being shown around by my agent). And I’m working on a hillbilly noir that features a flying Corvette, a kidnapping gone wrong, in-laws, tattoos, sex, a lot of marijuana and a bar called The Busted Nut. The novel is set here in Redding, in what I like to call the Ozarks of California, and my wife assures me it will get us tarred, feathered and run out of town on a rail.

Some people have no sense of humor.

An Interview with Allison Brennan

One of the best things about being a member of Murderati is getting to get to ask other writers questions about how they work, generate characters, etc. This week, I had so many questions I’d been wanting to ask Allison Brennan, one of my favorite authors, and I thought you’d all enjoy her answers as much as I do, so I’ve asked her permission to post this Q & A here. Please come ’round and give a hearty welcome to Allison and tell us whether you start with character, ideas or some combination, and as an added bonus, everyone posting in the comments will be up for a drawing for her last trilogy and her new paranormal out Dec. 26th. That’s four terrific books! Comments open until next Saturday at midnight and I’ll announce the winner next Sunday!

And on to the interview:

1)      I’ve got to tell you, that from the first sentence of your story "Deliver Us From Evil" in the What You Can’t See anthology (out Dec. 26th), I was utterly riveted and it made me want to pick up the book right then. Tell me a little bit about what inspired the story.

Back in August of 2003—before I sold, before I even had an agent—I had an idea for a supernatural thriller series. I started writing it, but it was shortly after this that I found an agent and sold THE PREY to Ballantine. So the supernatural was put on hold for awhile. I sold in romantic suspense, a different genre, and I was very happy to do so. I love romantic suspense. It’s the best of both worlds, as far as I’m concerned.

But I still thought about this series and told my agent about it. She loved it—but because of my contract, I couldn’t sell it yet. Then an opportunity arose to be in an anthology with two people I adore, Roxanne St. Claire and Karin Tabke. My agent said, “What about the paranormal?” And I said, “Well, it’s a series but . . . let me think.” Five minutes later I came up with the idea of a prequel to the series. I know how the first book of the series starts, but I had been stumped on the hero’s back story which made getting past page 100 really difficult. The novella is the prequel to my series. It stands alone. The hero of the series is in a coma the entire novella, but at least now I have his back story and I’m happy with it.

2)      "Deliver Us From Evil" is a departure for you in that you’re dealing with an aspect of the paranormal, and with pure evil. Were there any differences to writing a supernatural thriller vs. a suspense-thriller? If so, how did you handle those differences?

I found writing supernatural to be very freeing. I love everything supernatural. Growing up, I read Stephen King, John Saul, Peter Straub, Edgar Allen Poe, and many more. Remember the television series “Friday the 13th: The Series?” I loved it. But for me, I wanted my paranormal to be grounded in reality. Meaning, I wanted to write about supernatural things that I thought really could happen. There are so many unexplained things in our world, exploring the good and evil in them is enticing.

In paranormal, you get to make up the rules. Rather than writing about a human being who is evil, I could explore the roots of evil itself, as well as the human fascination with things like the fountain of youth, power, immortality. Because ultimately, no demon would have any power if we humans weren’t flawed and desiring more: more life, more wealth, more stuff. It helps that I believe in ghosts and demons and things that go bump in the night. So I thought, what would scare me the most? And I started writing about it.

My mom just read the ARC of WHAT YOU CAN’T SEE. She doesn’t read much paranormal anything, but loves crime fiction. She called me excited. “I loved it. It was still a crime story, but with a demon.” Exactly. It was what I wanted to accomplish. A supernatural story set in our world. BTW, my mom didn’t tell me she loved it just because she’s my mom. Believe me, I know exactly which books of mine my mom didn’t like as much, and if you ask her she’ll tell you exactly why she didn’t like them, as well as which of mine are her favorite.

3) I know some writers love the short-story or novella length, while others grip onto the novel length with every survival instinct they have. You’ve done all three: novel, short story (a fantastic tale in the Killer Year anthology), as well as the novella length. Were there challenges to writing something shorter than what you’re used to? And if so, how did you handle those challenges?

Hell yes. It took me longer to write a 39,000 word novella than it took me to write my last 100,000 word novel. Every word matters more when you write short. In the KILLER YEAR antho, they wanted 3-5K stories. I wrote a 7,500 word story and it took me a week to cut it to 5,900 and then I emailed JT and begged for those 900 extra words. She said fine, because Gregg came in short (Thank you Gregg! Oh, and his story is incredible. Makes me feel completely inadequate that I needed three times as many words as he did, and he packed a bigger punch.)

I didn’t handle the challenges all that well, but in the end, I loved the shorter stories so much. I think writing short taught me a lot about brevity. (Aside: When I was a junior in high school, my American History teacher gave me an ‘A-minus’ on my final essay. He wrote, “You brilliantly wrote in ten pages what could easily have been said in five.”) Needless to say, short is not my strong suit. And even though I kept the novella to under 40,000 words, I still went waaaaaaay over the 30,000 words my contract specified.

The KILLER YEAR antho was my first short story ever. I’m writing another now and already, I can see I’ve improved in how I approach writing short—more action, less back story, fewer characters, and no subplots.

4)      You always have fascinating characters, and I know you write three books a year, plus the other works (short stories, etc.) Finding a character and getting the details are generally different for every writer, so I’m curious: how do you brainstorm characters? Do you write out descriptions, do a dialog with the character, chart them, or something else? What inspires you, character-wise?

(blushing deeply) Thanks Toni. I think your phrase “finding a character” is how I do it. I find out all about them as I write the book. I generally know a little bit about my characters, but not much. I don’t really know enough until I get them on the page. I don’t write out descriptions (which really screws me during the copyedits sometimes), I don’t dialog with them, chart them, or anything that would considered “plotting” (shivers.)

What I do is start with the idea. Like, “Earthquake under San Quentin.” I knew from SPEAK NO EVIL that Theodore Glenn had been convicted of killing four strippers in San Diego, but it was a throwaway line to get Will Hooper out of town because I didn’t need him in the story at that point. But when I started my prison break series, Theodore became my villain. I wrote the scene of the earthquake and put Glenn there. What was he doing? He had something in his hand. It was a letter. To Robin. Who the hell is Robin? Right—she testified against him. Then he shreds it in anger. Wow, he has some emotion there—the only emotion he has. So you can see I learn about my characters as I write. They sort of tell me. Usually when I get stuck writing it’s because I start telling my characters what to do rather than letting them do what they need to do.

I did know that Glenn came from a good family, wasn’t abused as a child, and he isn’t a traditional serial killer. Usually when I get in their heads I figure them out. Sometimes they come fully formed, like Joanna Sutton my heroine in TEMPTING EVIL. Sometimes it takes me a little digging, like Kate Donovan in FEAR NO EVIL. She was such a tight-lipped bitch, er, heroine, it took me awhile to figure out what made her tick. Anthony Zaccardi in the novella came fully formed, it was the heroine Sheriff Skye McPherson that I had a bear of a time with. Again, because she’s a closed, private person and just didn’t want to open up.

5) I’m blown away by your descriptive prowess–I can see the places and feel as if I’ve been there after reading your books. I know you haven’t traveled to every place you’ve described, nor seen all of the crimes. How do you research the locations and details? Do you spend a lot of time researching ahead of time, or on the fly? Do you map your world out and use only real-world details, or do you fictionalize parts? And how do you ultimately decide where your next series will be set?

(Blushing again—the check’s in the mail, Toni.) I’ve always felt my descriptions were lacking. I get bored easily, so I don’t like to over-describe anything. In fact, I usually layer in description after I write the book. Like—during editor revisions. I research most everything on the fly. Major story plot points I usually know ahead of time. For example, before I started writing KILLING FEAR, I talked to a former corrections officer who worked on death row to find out where my prisoners needed to be to escape, what wall needed to come down in the quake, etc. I couldn’t start without having that information. But like now—I’m 60 pages into book three and I found a body submerged in a river. Okay, I knew the guy was dead, but I had no idea anyone was going to find him. So I stopped writing and did some research on underwater forensics just to make sure that my cops weren’t being stupid in how they retrieved the body and vehicle. In FEAR NO EVIL, my last book, I had to understand how webcams worked and how they could be masked. Well, no one (okay, I don’t) want to be bored with pages of explanation about how packets are sent and bounced around satellites and given false DNS numbers or whatever (that was a year ago, I pretty much forget everything I learned.) So I talked to an IT friend of mine who explained ad nauseum everything I needed to know. I wrote two pages where my heroine explained this to the hero. Boring. I cut and cut and trimmed and got it down to the basics—two short paragraphs and then a couple well-placed sentences further along. I wasn’t bored, my hero wasn’t bored, and hopefully my readers weren’t bored! I sent the paragraphs to my IT guy and he said, “Yeah, that’s exactly it.”

As far as setting—after getting knocked when I got something wrong about Seattle, I’m tickled to be writing a book set in Sacramento, where I’ve lived since 1989. When I write about places I haven’t been or haven’t been for a long time, I try to contact locals for big picture questions. The rest I get from maps and photos. It’s the map I was using of Seattle that screwed me up, though.

In TEMPTING EVIL, I actually planned on going up to the Centennial Valley to visit for a long weekend, but with five kids it’s really hard to just drop everything and go on a trip. So I ended up talking to two people who live there. One in particular was a huge help to me getting a sense of the area and what to expect. For THE HUNT, which was set in Bozeman, I relied a lot on my husband who went to MSU, and my brother-in-law who is a wildlife biologist.

6) After the two anthologies you have another series coming out, starting January 29th which follow three stories after a disaster frees prisoners from San Quentin. Tell me a little bit about this trilogy, what inspired it.

Well, I needed to come up with an option book idea. I panicked—I had no ideas. Okay, that’s not true, I had a lot of ideas, but none of them were romantic thrillers like I’d been writing. In fact, one of my ideas is a western-set historical crime novel centered around pre-1900 San Francisco. Then I read a newspaper article about the latest seismic report for San Quentin at the same time as the Gov started transporting prisoners out of state because of prison over-crowding AND an article about some legislators talking about selling San Quentin because it’s on 437 acres of prime California real estate. Earthquake. San Quentin. Story.

Well, it’s funny how our muses work at planting clues to future books. I had never planned on writing about any of the characters from my NO EVIL series again. As far as I was concerned, they were over and done with. But I got a lot of mail about characters from those books and if they were going to get books of their own. Then I remembered that in the middle of SPEAK NO EVIL, Will Hooper—my heroine’s partner—had to go to an appeal court hearing to testify against Theodore Glenn, who he had put in prison for murdering four strippers. I read that scene again and Glenn was incarcerated in San Quentin. Wham! He became one of the escapees. It just sort of came together and that’s KILLING FEAR.

As far as books two and three go, the second book I had a one-liner: two escaped convicts trapped with romance writer in the middle of a snow storm. In book three (PLAYING DEAD), the last escaped convict is innocent and he has to convince his daughter, who testified against him for murdering her mother, that he’s innocent and to help him find out what happened fifteen years ago. That’s the book I’m writing now, and to be honest—though I have some ideas about the story—I have no idea who did it. That’s half the fun of writing.

7) Do you start your story with the characters, the ‘what if?’ or some combination? And how do you know when you’ve hit on "it" — the idea that will sustain a trilogy?

I start the story with a situational premise and characters. Sort of. Kind of. It really depends. Since I always believed that “story is character,” they develop simultaneously. I don’t always know when an idea will sustain a trilogy—I had three different ideas and my agent picked the earthquake story. And she was right—the other two weren’t bad, they just didn’t have the punch of the prison break trilogy.

8) You’ve got a terrific panel you teach on being a "panster" instead of a "plotter." While I know you can’t go into a panel’s worth of detail here, tell us about what it is about ‘pantsing’ that you like so much, what it brings to your writing, and how you handle foreshadowing and pay-offs if you haven’t plotted out where you’re going. (Because clearly, you handle these well.)

Stephen King said in his book ON WRITING (which I love, and it’s even better on audio) why should we be control freaks? All stories have to come out somewhere. I’ve found that I don’t like to plot because if I know what’s going to happen, I get bored with the story.

I like the discovery of character and story as I go along. I have the premise—I know the external conflict (i.e. escaped prisoner seeking vengeance on those who put him behind bars), but until I get in his head I don’t know why. What makes him different than all the other vengeful serial killers out there? What makes him tick? Why should I tell this story? Why doesn’t he just go down to Mexico and disappear? The guy has money, why is he risking his life and freedom for revenge? It’s these kind of questions I answer as I get into his head. But I don’t know them when I start writing. It’s like a puzzle without having a box. All the pieces are in my head somewhere and as I write, I start putting them together and seeing the big picture. I’m also not scared of writing crap. I dump the story out there the way it unfolds, then I can go back and layer in foreshadowing and all that other stuff. Usually, it’s already there and I just have to clean it up—I just didn’t know it when I was writing. The muse is scary sometimes.

9) I have yet to fathom how you write three books, plus short stories, plus a novella, plus regular blog entries at Murder She Writes and Dishing with the Divas, plus your own website and still have time to raise five kids. I am pretty certain there are four or five of you running around out there somewhere. So how do you do it? What sort of writing habits do you have?

First, I gave up cleaning. It was a huge sacrifice, but it had to be done. My minions, er, children pitch in and help (I pay my minions well, so no calling child protective services on me!) I used to love cooking, but I have six picky eaters (five kids and a husband) so now quick and easy is always on the menu. I cook extensively and bake only three days a year—Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Easter. The other 362 days it’s 20 minutes or less . . .

It helps that all my kids are in school—the youngest is in preschool. So I write five days a week from 9-3. I have to stay disciplined, which is hard because I’m the world’s biggest procrastinator. This means that inevitably, about two weeks before deadline, I’m writing several nights a week (Starbucks is open until ten in my town—11 on the weekends–and there’s a bar open until after midnight . . . ) and I’ll write Sunday afternoons. Afternoons during the week and Saturdays are usually full of kid stuff and lots of driving.

10) What’s the best writing advice you’d like to pass along? And what’s the best "life advice" you’ve ever received?

The best writing advice I ever got was from Stephen King’s ON WRITING. I’ve read it twice and listened to it twice. I highly recommend it, even though I still have a love affair with adverbs. They are a perfectly acceptable part of the English language, I don’t think they should be banned. King reminds us that it’s all about the story. The story comes first. Everything else is secondary. When I get stuck or worried that I’m not any good or it’s all been a fluke, I remember that it’s about the story—my story—and I have to write it my way.

As far as life goes, don’t sweat the small stuff.

Guest Blog — Lori Armstrong

A Ginsu Knife To The Temple or Why I Prefer The Hands-on Approach

I hate research.

There. I said it.

If you mention that factoid (or something like you also hate Springsteen) within earshot of other authors, they will argue with you. “But honestly, don’t you just love?…” NO. “Wouldn’t you rather?…” NO. I like making things up.

But sometimes you do have to see things with your own eyes. I like the hands on portion of research, mostly because it doesn’t seem like research.

A few years back before my first mystery novel was published, I had the opportunity to take a 10-week course through the Rapid City Police Department. The course, entitled, yes—you guessed it—Citizen’s Police Academy, delved into the aspects of the inner workings of the local police department. I don’t know what the intention was for the class, but it affected me profoundly as a citizen and as a writer.

Quite a bit of the course was classroom time. Learning the differences between the city/county/state/federal/tribal jurisdictional breakdowns. Officer’s education and extra training. We took a field trip to the detox center. Another field trip to the juvenile detention facility. Visited the booking and cells of the county jail. One on one instruction with the range-master at the indoor gun range in the basement of the police department. An afternoon at the state-of-the-art crime lab. All important things for me to see firsthand, especially since I’d chosen to write about this area, western South Dakota.

Then came the opportunity to sign up for ride-alongs. The Saturday night slots filled up fast, so I ended up with the 10-6 am shift on a Friday night. My instructions were to report to the department. So we headed downstairs for the shift briefing (nothing like roll call on the cop show Hill Street Blues, which up until that point was my only reference point) and I was assigned an officer, I’ll call him C. The shift supervisor told C he’d be checking AOBs (Adult Oriented Businesses) which I thought was totally cool, because it was out of the realm of my real life as a housewife/mom, and hey, I do also write erotica.

So we’re walking out to the street where Officer C shows me how they check the cop car before taking it out, removing the seat so if someone is stupid enough to shove a baggie of dope in the seat crack, it was verified and documented it wasn’t there at the start of shift change. I also saw the bag of riot gear in the trunk, and he let me sit in the backseat and rattle the cage (because really, I’ve never been arrested) and showed me how to work the radar device. We talked about guns—with my husband and his brother owning a firearms business, I get that “how cool” thing a lot.

I had no idea these officers have a laptop, and a cell phone or two in addition to the radio and paraphernalia in the front seat of their cars. C is guzzling Mountain Dew, apologizing as we’re driving around, saying it’ll probably be a quiet night, when he gets “the call” – a stabbing at a local bar. In his jurisdiction.

This was ten minutes into the shift.

He hits the lights and we haul ass to the scene. We pull up in front, he’s first on scene, which means he’s primary, so the other officers pull up in the alley. C says to sit tight…and he jumps out, gun in hand, and locks me in the car. Media vans show up. I’m like, “shit” trying to keep my face out of the camera shot because HELLO – I’m in front of a crime scene… in a cop car.

Twenty minutes later C returns to the car and we drive around to the alley behind the bar, to the apartment where the incident took place. “Your lucky night,” he said. “They just took the victim to the hospital and they’re cataloguing the crime scene. You get to be in on this from start to finish. Ah. You don’t have a weak stomach do you?”

I’m thinking, “Yes,” but I said, “No.”

“Good, because this guy was stabbed in the temple with a steak knife.”

I said, “A steak knife?”

“Yeah, a Ginsu, and there’s lots of…well, you’ll see.”

I didn’t have to put on booties or latex gloves. I was warned not to touch anything, not to talk to anyone, to be as unobtrusive as possible when we entered the apartment. There were cops all over, but the first thing I noticed was all the blood.

Blood was splattered all over the table, the floor, a thick trail led to the bathroom, it dripped off an old fashioned leather suitcase, it was smeared on the shower curtain, chunks congealed on the tub, splotches were on the toilet and an actual pool of blackish goo had puddled on the dirty white floor. My first thought, beside – Eww – was, no way would this guy survive. By the time I’d arrived, the victim was gone; the two witnesses had been separated and taken to the station for questioning, along with the alleged perpetrator. Then C started the actual police work.

The photographer snapped a billion pictures, and chatted with me about what he was looking for. I tagged along with C and listened in while he questioned witnesses inside the bar – mostly the bartender who’d made the decision to stop serving alcohol to the inebriated couples, hence the reason they’d left to drink elsewhere.

Then we moved to phase 2, which was a trip to the hospital to see if the victim was coherent. Nope – we didn’t expect otherwise, but C cautioned me stranger things had happened. The emergency room doctor was waiting on blood test results before he started the surgery to remove the remaining piece of the knife, so he showed us the X-rays of the knife lodged in the guy’s sinus cavity. We found out during the altercation, the handle had snapped off. Yes. The guy had been stabbed with such ferocity, the stabber had snapped off the black plastic handle.

Not a good testimonial for the Ginsu knife company.

After the hospital visit, C and I returned to the station. I expected he’d conduct the interviews. Wrong. Here in Rapid City, my understanding was, all cops rotate into the detective positions, so the cop on call had to come in at 1:00 in the morning to conduct interviews. I got to sit in, and listen to what went down from the point of view of the perpetrator. Most of it was drunken gibberish, which was just plain sad. Not only didn’t the guy remember stabbing the victim, he didn’t even know who the hell the victim was. They’d just met that night. The detective made the decision to arrest, and C and I took the male down to booking.
It was around 4:00 am by the time this all was finished. I had to be back at the station the next morning at 8:00 am for the defensive driving skills seminar (another time perhaps, I’ll talk about the joys of being in the driver’s seat of a cop car, next to a cop, with said cop telling me to “punch it and see how fast this mofo will go”) so C suggested I go home. As he walked me out to my car, I asked if he thought the stabbing victim would die. He didn’t know.

Surprisingly enough, the guy survived. Oddly enough, that same night, another guy fell off a curb at a downtown bar, whacked his head…and died.

Because my ride along experience was out of the norm, the instructors allowed me do another one, a different shift, with a different cop. No head stabbings, but I did get to see firsthand how an I-bar works on a belligerent shoplifter, take a guy to detox with a blood level alcohol limit near the fatal range, pull over a couple of people for suspicion of DUI, take an escaped runaway back to juvenile. Invaluable hands-on research for me, but all in a day’s work for the police in this town.

Any interesting research stories you wanna share?

Bio –
Lori G. Armstrong left the firearms industry in 2000 to write crime fiction. Her first mystery novel, Blood Ties, published in 2005, was nominated in 2006 for a Shamus Award for Best First Novel by the Private Eye Writers of America. The second book in the Julie Collins mystery series, Hallowed Ground, was released in November 2006 and was nominated for a 2007 Daphne du Maurier Award for Best Mystery, a Shamus Award for Best Paperback Original of 2007 by the Private Eye Writers of America, and was recently named the winner of the 2007 Willa Cather Literary Award for Best Original Softcover Fiction, by Women Writing the West. The next book in the series, Shallow Grave, was released in November 2007. Armstrong lives in Rapid City, South Dakota, with her family.

Recent News:

“Former firearms industry professional Lori Armstrong’s RITUAL SACRIFICES, the first in a new mystery series featuring an Army sniper who has returned home to run her family’s South Dakota ranch, to Trish Lande Grader at Touchstone Fireside, in a good deal, in a two-book hardcover deal, by Scott Miller at Trident Media Group (NA).”