Category Archives: Zoë Sharp

The end of an era

Zoë Sharp

On Sunday, the British movie director Tony Scott jumped to his death from the Vincent Thomas Bridge across Los Angeles harbor. He was sixty-eight years old.

Scott was, by all accounts, a human dynamo of a man, often juggling multiple projects, radiating energy and enthusiasm. His movie career really took off (pun intended) with the highly successful Top Gun of 1986. He’s been making money and movies ever since.

And yet, on Sunday, he took his own life.

Jumping off a suspension bridge 185 feet into the water is a dramatic way to go. It is not a cry for help. It offers no second chances, no last-minute reprieve. It is the act of a man who has come to a decision from which there is no turning back.

This is not a eulogy to Mr Scott, nor is it supposed to be. I was not intending to incite a discussion on the subject of his passing. Indeed, I did not know him beyond having seen a fair amount of his work and I claim no association beyond that. To express anything other than the natural sympathy of one human being for the plight of another would be hypocritical and insincere on my part.

I heard the news in passing. It gave me momentary pause and a twinge of incomprehension. Why would a man who apparently had it all ― loving wife, children, career, acclaim ― decide to cut short his life? Many people endure daily lives of enormous suffering with great fortitude. What could have been so dreadfully wrong that this seemed like the only logical solution?

By Monday, stories were emerging that Scott had inoperable brain cancer. It seemed to offer a rational answer.

Today, however, I wake to news reports from the LA County Coroners that no trace of the disease was found during the autopsy. His wife claimed he had no health problems that she was aware of, so was he sick or not?

Some would say he must have been ill in some way, mentally or physically, to be driven to such an extreme act. But what actually made him jump? And what passed through his mind as he climbed that safety fence?

Pictures taken only a couple of days before Scott’s death show a man who seems, to all intents and purposes, to be full of the joys of life and living.

We may never know the full story behind this, and that in itself is a kind of tragedy.

Suicide is a deeply selfish act, but at least one could say that in making his such a public event there would be no doubts over it. He was clearly shown on CCTV footage as being alone and unaided. There was little delay in the discovery of his body, and his close family were not the ones to do so. That onlookers reached for their cameras rather than going to his aid is a sad comment on society today. That these people are now trying to flog their macabre video clips to the news agencies is shameful but comes as no surprise.

Perhaps, on reflection, it is the rest of us who are sick.

But the motivations of people under duress, whether physical or psychological, are fascinating in a somewhat horrifying way. When faced with desperate situations—even if they are not immediately apparent to outsiders—what governs the choices people make?

When I write I am always trying to provoke my characters into doing something extraordinary, good or bad. But I am aware that at the end of the book you close the cover and they lie down again to await the next reading. Their journey is a circular one, but like the arc of the sun we only see part of it before it drops beyond the far horizon out of view. What happened to those people before the opening page, and—of those who make it to the final chapter—what happens to them afterwards?

This week’s Word of the Week is procerity, which simply means tallness.

And here’s a beautiful piece of classical guitar from Vasco Martin, which I heard on radio yesterday. I include it for no other reason than it moved me.

What’s In A Name?

Zoë Sharp

How influenced are you by the author’s name on the cover of a book? I’m not talking about the latest bestseller, or those authors you pre-order before you even know the title. I’m talking about new-to-you names. People you’ve never heard of before.

I had the pleasure of interviewing fellow crime author Jaden Terrell for my WildCard Tuesday slot at Murderati this week. Jaden’s real name is Elizabeth―and I’m not letting any cats out of bags with that, as she talks about it on the blog. As an alternative, she chose Jaden from a list of baby names used for both boys and girls. It actually means ‘bravery, fighter and believer’, so it’s a great choice for a writer as well as being non-gender specific.

Elizabeth, as Jaden points out, is a very feminine name, and potential readers instantly pigeonholed her as a cosy writer because of it. I wonder if people did the same thing to Queen Elizabeth I of England when she rode out to make her famous speech at Tilbury before the imminent arrival of the Spanish Armada?

Hmm, maybe not.

Still, with publishing these days seen as much from a marketing-the-author point of view as marketing the book itself, possibly alienating a large section of your possible readers before they’ve even picked up your novel might be seen as unwise.

When I first started writing my Charlie Fox crime thriller series, it never occurred to me that anyone would take my name—or my gender, for that matter—into account. Surely, I thought in my naivety, it’s the book that counts. People either like your voice, or they don’t. They like your characters, or they don’t. They like your stories, your eye on life, your descriptive narrative, or they don’t.

But time and again in the eleven years since I was first published in fiction, I’ve heard opinion voiced such as these:

“Oh, women can’t write thrillers.”

“My husband won’t read female authors.”

“What can a woman possibly write with authority about cars/guns/fight scenes?”

Now, I have always hated being told I can’t do something based on nothing more than the fact I have lumps in the front of my shirt. But, on the other hand, I don’t want to be given artificial prominence (if you’ll pardon the phrase) for the same reason, either.

(Great this, isn’t it? Want one? Find them here.)

I recall having a bit of a verbal set-to in the bar at CrimeFest last year with a particular author who was campaigning for positive discrimination for ‘us wimmin’ and seemed totally taken aback that I would not welcome or accept such help.

OK, so I’d be very upset (think the same kind of ‘very upset’ as Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible I, right before he blew up the aquarium) if I thought I’d been excluded from some prize shortlist, for example, solely on the grounds that one of the judges didn’t like—or somehow disapproved of—female crime thriller writers. But then again I’d be equally annoyed if I thought I’d been included purely because the judging panel felt they needed a token women to round out the numbers. If my work doesn’t stand on its own merits, why would I want such consolation praise?

When I first looked at expanding my repertoire outside the current Charlie Fox series, it was suggested that I might need to use a different pen-name. My first inclination was to plump for something non-gender specific. Not initials, necessarily, but a perhaps name like Jaden which doesn’t give any immediate clues.

After the confusion that the name ‘Zoë’ frequently causes—not to mention the irritating extraneous ‘e’ that people often graft onto the end of ‘Sharp’ like some mutant extra limb—the prospect of a more simple name was quite appealing.

And something short because—as PD Martin pointed out in her comment—it takes up less space on the cover and therefore can be writ larger if necessary. And possibly something that placed me differently on the shelves.

But now I rather think I’ve changed my mind. (Female prerogative, perhaps?)

Some of the comments on Jaden’s post vocalised why.

You see, I don’t really want to succeed in my chosen profession by pretending to be something I’m not—i.e. a man, or at the very least some androgynous entity. Yes, I can shoot, and sail, and ride a motorcycle, and strip an engine. But that doesn’t make me a bloke in a skirt, as this pic perhaps demonstrates.

If, as Jaden mentioned, I was writing a first-person male character, maybe that would be different. I loved Robert B Parker’s books, but the Sunny Randall ones were my least favourite, and I think that had a lot to do with the first-person female protag/male author combination.

But Charlie as a character spoke to me in first-person, so that’s how I wrote her. Other characters are talking to me in close-third, so that’s how I’m writing them. And if I’m going the ‘digital original’ route—a wonderful description for which I can thank ex-Murderato colleague, Rob Gregory Browne—then sticking with my existing name is a positive advantage.

Providing I describe the book clearly, so readers know if it’s part of the Charlie Fox series, a new standalone, a supernatural thriller or the first of a trilogy, does it matter?

What do you think, ‘Ratis? Should authors make their gender plain? Does it matter? Do you find yourself leaning towards reading more male writers, or more female writers? And should authors write under different names if they’re crossing different genres or different series, even?

This week’s Word of the week is cavillation, meaning a trifling objection, from cavil, to make petty objections or to quibble.

Hardboiled Hero, Softboiled Heart ― Jaden Terrell’s Jared McKean mysteries

Zoë Sharp

I’m delighted to welcome to Murderati the talented Jaden Terrell, author of the Tennessee PI Jared McKean books. Her debut was RACING THE DEVIL, published in January this year. Book two in the series, A CUP FULL OF MIDNIGHT, is hot off the press now!

Zoë Sharp: For people not yet familiar with Jared, how would you describe him?

Jaden Terrell: At 36, Jared is divorced from a woman he’s still in love with and coming to terms with his unjust termination from Nashville’s Murder Squad. He’s loyal and stubborn, an animal lover and horse whisperer with a soft spot for kids and for women in jeopardy. He’s the guy who will move your furniture three years after you break up. And did I mention that he’s hot?

ZS: What made you want to write crime, and what was your path to publication?

JT: When I started writing, I thought I’d write epic fantasy trilogies like J.R.R. Tolkien. Then I saw an ad for the St. Martin’s Press First Private Detective Novel Contest and thought, “I’ve always wanted to write a mystery. I think I’ll try it.” I received the submission guidelines six weeks before the deadline and turned it in right under the wire. Of course, it didn’t win, but the judge sent me an encouraging note saying my work was publishable but that she’d gone with something more cleverly wordsmithed. By which I’m sure she meant “edited.” In the process, I fell in love with Jared and knew I wanted to write more about him. I took the looooooong path to publication. The short version is, a friend of mine published the first book, which later came to be RACING THE DEVIL, through iUniverse for me as a gift. After a long learning curve and an extensive edit, it was eventually picked up by a micro-press called Night Shadows Press. Shortly after that, I met my agent, Jill Marr, at the Killer Nashville conference and signed A CUP FULL OF MIDNIGHT, the second book in the series, with her. Within a few months, she sold that book to Martin and Judith Shepard of The Permanent Press. They asked to see RACING THE DEVIL, and after reading it in one weekend, asked if I could get the rights back from Night Shadows. I could, and The Permanent Press contracted for that one as well. Basically, my path to publication was writing the same book over and over until I finally got it right!

One of the things that draws me to crime fiction is that, in real life, justice isn’t always served, and often we’re left with questions that will never be answered. When I was 18, my father was killed, supposedly by his own hand. The more we learned, the more likely it seemed that his new wife was the one who pulled the trigger. We’ll never know for sure, and if it’s true, we’ll never know why. But in a mystery, the killer is always revealed and punished, and you always find out the “why.”

ZS: Wow, that makes my own catalyst for writing crime seem very mild by comparison! You have said that when Jared McKean first introduced himself to you inside your head, you immediately abandoned the feisty female detective you were writing at the time to give him a series of his own. What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing across gender for you?

JT: Well, it wasn’t exactly immediate. I argued with him about it at first, but he waited me out. One of the advantages of writing a male character is that, even though we have some things in common, he’s clearly separate from me. One of the problems I had with the feisty female detective was that she was either so different from me that I couldn’t identify with her, or so much like me that I couldn’t make her plunge into dangerous situations (“What? Are you crazy? You go in the basement, and I’m just going to lock all the doors in this car and dial 911.”). But I’ve always had a lot of male friends, and I immediately understood Jared and his need to be a hero, even if he couldn’t articulate it to himself. There’s only one disadvantage I can think of, which is that some people, once they know I’m a woman, can’t stop looking for all the ways I got him wrong. One woman gave me a list of things that men don’t do, say, feel, or understand. The very next book I read was by John Sandford—a man’s man if there ever was one—and he did every single one of the things on the list. Once I was told, “Men don’t know what a doily is. They’d call it a coaster.”

I said, “Men call things what they are—and every southern man knows what a doily is!” But the next time I was out with my husband, I happened to see one, and I said, “Honey, what would you call that?”

He looked puzzled and said, “It’s a doily. Well, I guess you could call it a . . . what is it? . . . A coaster, but that’s not exactly right.”

As my husband says, “Men are not monolithic.”

ZS: I know my name has caused me problems in the past—nobody has any idea how to cope with the umlaut over the ‘ë’—but you have also been through a name change. What’s the story behind that?

JT: When my friend published the first book for me, we used my real name, Elizabeth—a very feminine name. Booksellers would try to hand-sell it to readers they knew would like it, and the readers would point to the name and say, “No, look, it says Elizabeth. I don’t read cosies.” Nothing anyone could say would convince the reader that it was a gritty detective novel. On the other hand, people who picked it up because it said Elizabeth were looking for a cosy and were disappointed that it wasn’t one. I was completely missing my market. It doesn’t help that I look like a kindergarten teacher. My real name and a typical head shot would completely misrepresent the book. I found Jaden in the unisex section of a baby name book. [I didn’t even know there were such things! I must get one—ZS] Loved it. My agent loved it. We found an ambiguous but dramatic-looking photo to complete the image. And the funny thing is, people like this book much better by Jaden than they did by Elizabeth.

ZS: Did Jared McKean arrive fully formed, with his Down syndrome son, horse-riding abilities, and complicated relationship with his ex-wife, or did you discover his backstory slowly?

JT: I knew a few things about him—that he had horses and that he had a leather bomber jacket that had belonged to his father in the Vietnam War. I worked the rest of it out over a couple of days. It started out as a methodical process of discovery—what did I know, love, or do that he might also know, love, or do? I had a red belt in Tae Kwan Do, so he has a black belt. I gave him my 12-year-old Akita and my elderly quarter horse (he’s 32 now). I gave him a son with Down syndrome because I taught special ed. for twelve years, and I knew that having a child with a disability would give him depth and make him more than just a typical tough guy. I had recently lost a close friend to AIDS, so I gave him a friend with the disease. I thought it would be interesting to have a tough guy from the Bible Belt torn between what he’s always been taught about homosexuality and the fact that his best friend is gay. It quickly became clear that Jared’s defining characteristic is he never, ever lets go of what he loves. Once I knew that about him, everything else fell into place. There’s a lot I don’t know about him though. Early on, when I was asking all these questions, trying to figure out who he was, I asked if he had any siblings other than his older brother Randall. I got the sudden sense that he didn’t know, but that there was something unresolved in that area. When I started to write book three, there it was.

(ZS: and just in case you were wondering, Jaden has sent me a pic of Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Wadau, who she swears IS Jared McKean. And having seen him and read the book, I could second that …)

ZS: A CUP FULL OF MIDNIGHT is full of nice dialogue between McKean and the other characters. I particularly liked a snippet of this conversation between McKean and his former police partner, Frank Campanella:

I leaned forward, put my hands flat on his desk, and said, “Frank, I need to see that file.”

His eyebrows bunched together, wild silver bristles that made him look like a disgruntled badger. “I just told you, I don’t have it.”

“But you could get it.”

“Sure, if I wanted to spend my golden years saying, ‘Welcome to Walmart.’ ”

Do you have a file called ‘Nice Lines’ which you add stuff like this to?

JT: I wish I did. Sometimes I get ambitious and decide I’ll carry a notebook around and write down all those fantastic lines that pop into my head at odd times. It usually lasts about two days, and then I lose the notebook.

ZS: I lost a notebook like that while I was in NYC a few years ago. I’ve no idea what anybody might make of it if they found it! How did the storyline form for A CUP FULL OF MIDNIGHT, with its black magic overtones and which delves into the Goth subculture? Is this a subject that’s always interested you?

JT: In 1996, a group of teenagers inspired by a vampire role-playing game murdered the parents of one member of the group. Their leader claimed to be a 500-year-old vampire and had crossed the line from playing the game to living it. There were several other “vampire” murders around that time, and I was both appalled by the violence and intrigued by how someone so clearly evil and disturbed could exert so much control over others. I’ve been a role player since college, (Dungeons & Dragons, Rolemaster, Call of Cthulhu, and yes, VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE), and so I wanted to explore the line between gamers—people playing a game about vampires—and people who are playing at being vampires. I’ve also always been interested in magic and the occult, not in practicing it, but in what draws people to it, what they expect from it. There’s a line between dark and light, and it’s the line that I wanted to explore.  

ZS: What’s next for Jared McKean?

JT: In the third book, his former partner on the Murder Squad asks him to come and identify the body of a young Asian woman found in the dumpster behind Jared’s office. In her hand, she was holding a picture of Jared’s father taken during the war in Vietnam. There’s a Vietnamese woman and two small children in the picture, and Jared’s office phone number is scrawled on the back. The book will take him into the world of human trafficking, and secrets from his father’s past will come back to haunt him.

ZS: And what’s next for Jaden Terrell? You are one of the contributors to NOW WRITE! MYSTERIES and also have an online writing course on your website. More how-to books? Teaching? Or do you fancy going with a standalone novel?

JT: Everything! I love to teach and hope to start teaching workshops soon, and I have a how-to book in the works. The third Jared McKean book is in the revision stage, and the fourth is in the research and planning stage. There’s also a standalone thriller that I hope to finish sometime in 2013.

ZS: What question do you always hope to be asked in these interviews, but never are?

JT: What does it feel like to be so ravishingly beautiful and obscenely wealthy?

ZS: LOL. Good answer! Jaden, thank you so much for stopping by. Lastly, what’s your favourite word or phrase? And your least-favourite word or phrase?

JT: My favorite word is skulduggery. My least favorite word is one I can’t say in public. It starts with a “c.”

Intrigued by Jaden’s work? Here’s the skinny on A CUP FULL OF MIDNIGHT:

At thirty-six, private detective Jared McKean is coming to terms with his unjust dismissal from the Nashville murder squad and an unwanted divorce from a woman he still loves. Jared is a natural horseman and horse rescuer whose son has Down syndrome, whose best friend has AIDS, and whose teenaged nephew, Josh, has fallen under the influence of a dangerous fringe of the Goth subculture.

 When the fringe group’s leader—a mind-manipulating sociopath who considers himself a vampire—is found butchered and posed across a pentagram, Josh is the number one suspect. Jared will need all his skills as a private investigator and former homicide detective to match wits with the most terrifying killer he has ever seen. When he learns that his nephew is next on the killer’s list, Jared will risk his reputation, his family, and his life in a desperate attempt to save the boy he loves like a son.

Read The First Ten Pages

ZS: So, over to you Murderatos. Questions for Jaden? And what are your favourite and least-favourite words?

What happens at Harrogate (stays at Harrogate)

Zoë Sharp

This is a two-part post, really. The first part has to be about last weekend’s Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, part of the International Festivals and one of the biggest literary events in the UK.

And a hoot. An absolute hoot.

I didn’t go to take part this year, although I’ve been lucky enough in the past to be on several panels. This time, as they say, I went purely for the craic.‡

Rather bizarrely, most of the photographs from Harrogate have me cuddling other authors. It was purely platonic, honest! But it does show in general what a terrific bunch crime writers―and readers―are.

I could mention all the fun stuff that went on, like everybody at our table in the restaurant on Saturday night trying on Russel D McLean’s rather splendid hat. And that included the waiters, too 🙂

I could also mention that I was adopted as a surrogate mum by Katherine Heubeck, Adele Wearing and I think possibly by Vincent Holland-Keen as well (who took the pic above, by the way). Be nice to me kiddies, or everything goes to Battersea Dogs’ Home …

Just in case the tax man is reading this, it was not only great fun, but also an incredibly useful event from a networking point of view. I now have a promised blurb and a swap excerpt for the new series book, DIE EASY: Charlie Fox book ten, which is out in the UK in Oct; I have some terrific advice on graphic novels from Gregg Hurwitz, (pictured with fellow thriller author KD Kinchen) who has a wonderfully British sense of humour; I was asked for several review copies of my books and short stories to be sent out; and I received invites to do five guest blogs or interviews. How lovely is that?

In particular, I found reaction to the news I’d penned a supernatural thriller, currently being test-read, very interesting. Some people were more intrigued than they’ve ever been by my crime thrillers.

Hmm, what does this tell me?

Well, following on from David’s blog of yesterday, it tells me I should spread my wings more. The supernatural story is one I’ve been bursting to tell for years, but something always got in the way. And besides, I was always being told “you’re a crime writer” so I was always careful not to step on the cracks in the pavement, just in case Something Bad happened.

Now, to be frank, I’m not sure I care. I simply want to tell stories about characters in conflict, regardless of whether the cause of that conflict is supernatural, futuristic, psychological or straightforwardly criminal. And when you take the constraints of a specific genre away, the freedom is like a shot in the arm.

My question to you is, what was the last thing that gave you a burst of renewed enthusiasm for what you do? What effect did it have? And why?

And for all of you who heard various things about the ‘Wanted For Murder: the e-book’ panel at Harrogate, which I attended, here’s Stephen Leather’s take on what happened.

The debate is still raging …

Craic is this week’s Word of the Week. It means news, gossip, fun entertainment and enjoyable conversation, particularly used in Ireland, having been borrowed from northern English crack, meaning news or conversation, and then reimported with the far more attractive spelling of craic. This also helps differentiate it from the new slang meaning of crack, as in crack cocaine

And finally, our own talented PD Martin, writing as Pippa Dee, has penned a spooky new tale:

A tortured face, a haunted hotel and an obsession to solve the mystery. GROUNDED SPIRITS is part ghost story, part mystery and part historical fiction—set in Ireland in both the current day and the 1820s. For the next two days, it’s free on Amazon! 

The story is based on a real hotel in Ennis, Ireland, that is rumored to be haunted. The painting described in the story does, indeed, exist—a photograph of the tortured face is included in the book and that face appears on the book’s cover (to the left).

Download it quick while it’s free!

Amazon US

Amazon UK





Modern Manners

Zoë Sharp

My parents brought me up to be polite, and most of the time that’s stuck.

I automatically hold doors open for people, write thank you-letters, and let other drivers out into traffic. And if I’ve never actually helped a little old lady across the road, that’s only because I’ve never encountered one who needed — or would have welcomed — such an impertinence.

Don’t get the idea from this that I spend my evenings sitting at home polishing my halo — far from it. I’m sure there are plenty who would tell you I can be as stubborn or downright bloody-minded as anyone else. But being simply pleasant to people creates a kind of calm. It gives me a sense of balance in an otherwise mad world.


Maybe this is a result of having done self-defence training. Knowing that — as a last resort — I could take somebody on physically makes me less inclined to prove it by doing so.

But I also find these days that I am much less inclined to take somebody on at the ancient art of Black Catting.

Never heard of Black Catting? Well, I’m not surprised if the name is unfamiliar, as I believe it may well be something my sister invented, but even if you don’t know the name, you’ll recognise the concept.

We all know Black Catters. We come across them every day — and not simply because they cross the road in front of us. (Old lady optional at this point.)

Black Catters are the ones who just HAVE to get one over on you, no matter what you say, or what you have done, or where have been. They’ve always done it first, faster, bigger, more expensively. Or occasionally you meet reverse Black Catters. “You’ve been ill? Well so have I, and my illness was FAR more serious than yours …”

In other words, “My cat’s blacker than your cat. It is, it is, it bloody is. So there.”

The internet, sadly, is overflowing with Black Catters of all types.

Sometimes I think social media should be renamed socially awkward media, with its false intimacy and anonymity. Throwaway comments can be so easily misjudged because we lack the additional markers of facial expression, body language, and tone of voice. Someone once told me that there are six ways a person can read a letter, from joky or sarcastic to downright offensive. I know I shouldn’t use so many smilies (as opposed to similes) when I post or comment, but it’s the only way I know to show people I have my tongue firmly wedged in my cheek most of the time.

On the social media sites, when someone Friends or Follows me, I try to find out a little about them, visit their website and/or blog, before I follow or friend them back. Not only does this allow me to decide if I’d like to be friends with — or followers of — these people, but I’m then able to make some kind of relevant comment, too. (Usually tongue in cheek.)

I do not say, “Thanks for Friending/Following me. Now go check out my book and BUY IT NOW!”

Amazingly, this is exactly what some people do.

I can appreciate that, as an author, my job is to sell books—

No, that’s not true. While it may be part of my job to sell books, my ‘core activity’ (Gawd, don’t you hate management-speak?) is to write books. And, more specifically, to write the very best books I can possibly craft.

I am not a writer from choice. I am a writer by nature, by obsessive compulsion, by instinct and because I cannot envisage ever letting go of the urge to connect with people through the images created inside my head and blurted onto the page in a swirl of words and ideas, dancing together in the spotlight.

I write not because it is what I am.

I write because it is who I am.

So, if I occasionally neglect my Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads pages, or don’t respond to email like a swinging door, that’s probably because I’m clinging for dear life to that basic tenet.

Nevertheless, I am constantly surprised and delighted to receive emails, posts and messages from people who have read and enjoyed my work.

Last week I came across  Judith Baxter’s excellent blog in which she discovered Charlie Fox through FIRST DROP and wrote about how much she’d enjoyed the book. How lovely is that? So, naturally, I posted a comment to thank her. When I stumble across these mentions, I always try to post a response. Not to do so would be rude, in my opinion. But this was obviously something that not many authors do. Judith was so delighted by this that she posted a follow-up blog. And when I commented on that, too, Judith’s reaction was to post another review, this time of HARD KNOCKS.

I’m absolutely blown away by this enthusiasm and generosity.

Now, I know there’s been a lot of talk on Murderati lately about marketing your work — and particularly marketing your digital work. How you have to make social media work for you, but I honestly didn’t have that in mind when I responded to Judith’s blog(s). I was genuinely over the moon that she loved the series enough to say so, and because that was the way I was brought up. It’s completely ingrained.

I know personally that I will go a long way out of my way for a simple thank you.

And it would seem that others feel the same.

But the other side of the coin is when I Friend or Follow or Like someone only to be subjected to the immediate Hard Sell I mentioned earlier before I’ve had a chance to take my coat off.

I confess that Hard Sell tactics bring out my stubborn side.

Or I find their only posts are their five-star reviews or links to Buy My Book pages. Yes, it’s lovely to blow your own trumpet occasionally. But if that’s all you do then it starts to hurt people’s ears!

What are your views about the Hard Sell and Modern Manners, ‘Rati?

Oh, speaking of blowing trumpets, I’m happy to blow other people’s FOR them, occasionally, particularly writers of the calibre of our own Gar Anthony Haywood, whose Aaron Gunner novel, IT’S NOT A PRETTY SIGHT has just been released by Mysterious Press/Open Road at the bargain price of $3.99 until Tues, July 17th.

And another author friend, the excellent historical crime writer Michael Jecks (he’s also a Morris Dancer, but you can’t hold that against him) has just released a short story anthology, FOR THE LOVE OF OLD BONES — which you can buy in the UK, or US.

If you’ve never read Mike, you’re missing a treat!

And finally <shuffles feet awkwardly> might I mention that the UK mass-market paperback of FIFTH VICTIM: Charlie Fox book nine is hot off the press with a spanking new cover design, and is Allison & Busby’s Book of the Month?

Right, I’ll put this trumpet down now …

This week’s Word of the Week is exoculation, the action of putting out the eyes; blinding.

A Box of Memories

Zoë Sharp

Where do you keep your memories? How do you anchor them to the framework of your life?

Those questions have been very much on my mind this last week. I’ve been away in Somerset, helping an old friend pack up his house in preparation to moving into a single-storey home. He’s now in his late seventies, no longer entirely steady on his feet, and with a tremor in his hands that makes labelling boxes a tiresome task, never mind actually putting stuff into them.

Andrew is a retired pilot. He’s flown just about everything—either fixed or rotary wing—in all conditions, all over the world. The stories he tells of hairy landings in Africa at night, or airborne rescues in South America, would fill several books. I’ve been trying to persuade him to set some of it down for years.

When I needed authentic information about crashing a helicopter for the new Charlie Fox book, DIE EASY, who else would I turn to but Andrew? After all, he’s actually crashed them and lived to tell the tale. So, as a thank you I made him into the laidback ex-military pilot in the book.

A secondary reason for my visit was to coincide with the Air Day at the Royal Naval Air Station at Yeovilton. This year’s event had some fabulous flying displays, from the Red Arrows to a massive Russian Antonov heavy transport plane, aerobatics aircraft, and classics like the Swordfish, the Meteor, and the Spitfire. There were also numerous helicopters flying manoeuvres that I really didn’t think it was possible—never mind advisable—to perform in rotary-wing machines. And being able to get up close and personal to a wide variety of different aircraft is invaluable research, of course.

All in all, a very memorable day.

But five years down the line—or ten years—how will I remember it? I don’t mean my impressions, which were of stunning skill and a boundless enthusiasm, of power and speed and a kind of lethal excitement.

I mean where will I place it against events of my life that came before and after? Unless something dramatic happens in a certain year—and unfortunately dramatic often also equals traumatic—the order of things very quickly begins to blur.

I don’t know if everyone does this, but I have always had a mental image of the days of the week. They are laid out like a letter ‘D’, with the weekend stacked at the left-hand side and the rest bowing out at the right. Whenever I have appointments or it’s my blog day, or whatever, this is the mental image I pin those facts to.

With years, it’s different. I have never pictured a year like the calendars you get in the front of a diary, with each month laid out in a box of days and dates. To me, each year snakes backwards in single file, a day at a time, tilting as it goes like one of those optical illusion paintings, so that it’s always downhill towards winter. I’ve just booked my flights for this year’s Bouchercon mystery convention in Cleveland OH in October. In my mind, October is over the crest of the light summer months and heading downhill into the darker end of the year.

But when they asked me the security questions of where I flew to in the States last March, I struggled to remember my exact itinerary. And the only reason I would have a note of it is because I usually create a document for each trip with a list of addresses and confirmation numbers, and probably I have yet to delete that from my computer.

Am I missing out on something?

After all, I have no children who might be interested in what I did with my life, so I do not feel the need to preserve a little personal history for future generations. And having been a photographer for years I now take very few pictures that are not work-related, although since I got my new cellphone with a decent camera on it, I confess to being a little more snap-happy.

And yet I am fascinated by other people’s history. Leafing through Andrew’s albums of family photos going back before the First World War, I am enthralled by the clothing, the stern faces, the little glimpses into character that people unknowingly show when faced with a camera.

One of the boxes I labelled for him was simply called ‘Dates and Memories’. Into it went all kinds of tickets, letters and cards. The anchor points of his life.

I am also faced with the prospect of moving house at some point, and it would have been my instinct to use it as an excuse to de-clutter. When the time comes I may well still do just that. But this experience has certainly made me pause and reflect. Do I really want to get rid of all those little aide-mémoire items. The ones that give structure to the good times, and put the bad times into perspective?

So, ‘Rati, my question is, how do you remember your memories? And where do you keep them? And if you only had space left in your box of memories for one more item, what would it be?

This week’s Word of the Week is anchorite, or anchoret, which means a man or woman who has withdrawn from the world especially for religious reasons; a recluse, from which we get anchorage, a recluse’s cell or a place to withdraw from the world.


Never give up! Never surrender!

Zoë Sharp

Rejection is a constant part of life. And we writers have to face more of it than most. In fact, I read somewhere recently that authors take more criticism in a year than do most ‘normal’ people in a lifetime. And while that may be an exaggeration, so often it doesn’t feel like it.

As Bruce DeSilva pointed out in his Wildcard interview on Tuesday: “The great James Lee Burke’s first novel, THE LOST GET-BACK BOOGIE, was rejected 111 times before it was finally published—and then went on to be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Rejections have more to do with whether agents and publishers think a book will sell than about whether they think it is good.”

I came across a recent article in the Huffington Post about famous rejections—or rejections of the famous. Because it’s not enough to be simply turned down, but sometimes an author receives such a damning comment about their work that they could be forgiven for throwing in the towel.

It’s only later, after their books have become prize-winning bestsellers, that these rejections stop stinging and become rather funny. So, here’s some of the best of the bunch:


Anne Frank’s diary only found a publisher successfully after being featured in a newspaper article. Before this, the famous memoir was rejected repeatedly, with one publisher saying, “The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.”



William Golding’s LORD OF THE FLIES

Presumably not foreseeing Golding’s classic novel becoming a schoolroom staple, 20 publishers rejected it. One with the damning comment, “an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.” Try writing that on a GCSE English paper.



Vladimir Nabokov’s LOLITA

Eventually published in Paris (where else?), LOLITA was rejected by Viking, Simon & Schuster, New Directions, Farrar, Straus, and Doubleday. Originally cast away as, “overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian … the whole thing is an unsure cross between hideous reality and improbable fantasy. It often becomes a wild neurotic daydream … I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.” The American version of the novel went on to be a bestseller, selling 100,000 copies in the first three weeks.



It’s not unusual for first novels to be rejected, but John le Carré’s went on to make TIME Magazine’s All-Time 100 Novels list. The publisher who passed on the author with the comment, “You’re welcome to le Carré – he hasn’t got any future,” presumably didn’t imagine this.



F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY

Fitzgerald’s principal character is arguably as famous as the novel he appears in, yet one publisher advised the author in a rejection letter, “You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character.”

For myself, I had the usual run of rejections for the first novel in my series. One publisher told me that although they very much liked Charlie Fox, they “didn’t see where you can take this character to get more than one book out of her.” Book ten, DIE EASY, comes out in October (UK—Jan 2013 US).

And when I was contemplating bringing out my backlist last year in e-book format, I was strongly advised by one publisher against going the indie route. “She will sell 17 copies to friends, and that will be it.” The books sell more than that every hour of every day since.

So ‘Rati, want to share your best/worse pieces of criticism or rejection with us? And all the sweeter if they’ve subsequently been proved wrong!

This week’s Word of the Week is elocution, which when coupled with lessons is often taken to mean to learn to speak without an accent, or to mask one’s original accent, but it actually means the art of effective speaking, especially public speaking, in terms of enunciation and delivery; eloquence.

Oh, and if anybody is near The Gallery at Bank Quay, Warrington on Friday evening (7-9pm) I shall be giving a talk hosted by Wire Writers and the Warrington Writers’ Group. Hope to see you there!

Please welcome Edgar and Macavity Award-winning Bruce DeSilva!

Zoë Sharp

I’m honoured and delighted to welcome Edgar and Macavity Award-winning author Bruce DeSilva to Murderati for today’s Wildcard.

Bruce DeSilva worked as a journalist for 40 years before retiring to write crime novels full time. At the Associated Press, he served as the writing coach, responsible for training the news service’s reporters and editors worldwide. Previously, he directed an elite AP department devoted to investigative reporting and other special projects. Earlier in his career, he worked as an investigative reporter and an editor at The Hartford Courant and The Providence Journal.

Stories edited by DeSilva have won virtually every major journalism prize including the Polk Award (twice), the Livingston (twice), the ASNE, and the Batten Medal. He also edited two Pulitzer finalists and helped edit a Pulitzer winner. His crime fiction has won the prestigious Edgar and Macavity Awards and has been a finalist for the Shamus, Barry, and Anthony Awards.

He has worked as a consultant on writing and editing at more than 50 newspapers including The New York Times and The Dallas Morning News, and he has been a sought-after speaker at professional gatherings including the National Writers Workshops, the Nieman Foundation, Thrillerfest, and Bouchercon. His reviews of crime novels have appeared in The New York Times book review section and continue to be published occasionally by The Associated Press.

He is currently a masters’ thesis adviser at The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Bruce and his wife Patricia Smith, an award-winning poet, live in Howell, NJ, with their granddaughter Mikaila and two enormous canines, a Bernese Mountain Dog named Brady and a mutt named Rondo.


Zoë Sharp: Bruce, welcome to Murderati! You won the Edgar and the Macavity Award for ROGUE ISLAND, your first crime novel about old-school investigative journalist, Liam Mulligan. Did you fear a sophomore slump—‘Jaws 2’ after ‘Jaws’, or ‘Scarlett’ after ‘Gone With The Wind’? Just how daunting was it to write the sequel, CLIFF WALK, with that kind of expectation hanging over you?

Bruce DeSilva: When my first novel was published, I had no expectations one way or another about how it would be received. Then the professional reviews poured in, and they were all raves. I was gratified that so many people who know the crime fiction genre loved the book, but some of the reviews were so over the top that they were a bit embarrassing. The Dallas Morning News, for example, declared that “ROGUE ISLAND raises the bar for all books of its kind.” Hey, I thought it was pretty good too, but I didn’t think I’d done THAT. If I had, Dennis Lehane might never forgive me.

I’d already finished writing CLIFF WALK by the time the ROGUE ISLAND reviews appeared, and the awards weren’t announced until months later; so the acclaim for the first book had no affect on me as I wrote the second. But with many reviewers calling CLIFF WALK even better than ROGUE ISLAND, I feel a touch of pressure these days as I work on the final revisions for the third Mulligan novel, PROVIDENCE RAG. I’ve got some loyal readers now, and they’ll take me to task if I let them down.  

Still, there’s nothing like being married to a woman who writes better than you to keep things in perspective. My wife, Patricia Smith, is one of our finest living poets. I won the Edgar and the Macavity? SHE’s won two Pushcart Prizes, the Paterson Poetry Prize, Rattle Poetry Prize, the National Poetry Series Award, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. I was a finalist for the Shamus, Anthony and Barry Awards? SHE was a finalist for the National Book Award, which is a much bigger deal. I get invited to speak at Thrillerfest? SHE gets invited to read at the Sorbonne. And now she’s even invaded my turf, editing the forthcoming STATEN ISLAND NOIR for Akashic Press.

Lucky for me, my genius-in-residence edits every line that I write. Having her at my side keeps the pressure at bay.

ZS: In his review of CLIFF WALK, prominent writing coach Don Fry said, “One of the reasons to write a novel is to attack all the things that drive you crazy. … He attacks child molesters, pornographers, sex peddlers, corrupt politicians, drug dealers, prostitution, and the stupid owners of newspapers who are destroying journalism.” Did you set out with an agenda before you wrote this book?

BD:  Fry also said that another reason to write a novel is “to celebrate the things you love”―and I did that in CLIFF WALK, too. I don’t want people thinking that it’s just an angry book.

I began CLIFF WALK with two notions in mind. The story would contrast and compare the extremes of Rhode Island’s culture—its thriving sex trade and Newport high society. And Mulligan would try to figure out why Rhode Island politicians kept screeching about the shame of the state’s prostitution business while doing nothing to close the loophole that made brothels legal. (As I wrote the book, prostitution had, in fact, been legal in the state for more than a decade.) With nothing more than that in mind, I set my characters in motion to see what would happen. A lot did.

However, I believe that the best crime novels are always about more than a detective pounding the pavement in search of clues. Writers such as James Lee Burke, Laura Lippman and George Pelecanos, to name a few, use the popular vehicle of the crime novel to examine the social and moral issues that keep us up at night. Pelecanos’s novels, for example, are great crime stories; but they’re also serious explorations of the urban landscape, and they deal unflinchingly with the volatile issues of race and ethnicity.

To make this kind of thing work, the writer mustn’t preach; a crime novel’s serious intent should go down so easily that the reader barely notices—until he finds himself pondering the weight of it all after closing the book. 

I want my novels to be a blast to read, but I also want them to be ABOUT something. In ROGUE ISLAND, Mulligan tracked down a serial arsonist who was torching the working class neighborhood where he grew up. But the novel also took a hard look at the high price the American democracy is paying for the decline of its great metropolitan newspapers.  As readers saw the skill and determination with which Mulligan pursued his investigation, I hope that they acquired a greater appreciation for what we are losing as newspapers fade into history.

In CLIFF WALK, Mulligan journeys through the underbelly of the state’s sex trade. What he finds there takes a toll on him, challenging his whatever-gets-you-through-the-night attitude about sexual morality and shattering his already tenuous religious faith. The novel is both a riveting slice of hardboiled fiction and a sober exploration of sex and religion in a society in which pornography is ubiquitous and anyone can log on to a website, punch in a Visa number, and order up an underage hooker.

(Lawrence Block stunned by CLIFF WALK)

ZS: Aren’t you worried you’re going to run out of things that really piss you off?

BD: Not gonna happen. There’s no shortage of things that gnaw at my innards.  I’m angry about the know-nothing strain in American culture that devalues science and education. I’m angry about the persistence of racism in our society. I’m angry at the way cable news networks have deteriorated into lying propaganda tools of the left and right. At the moment, I’m also angry about a loophole in Rhode Island law that could force the state to release a convicted serial killer—a fact at the heart of the next Mulligan novel, PROVIDENCE RAG. I’ve also worked up a serious dislike for the arrogant Miami Heat, who just knocked the noble Boston Celtics out of the NBA playoffs. I hope the Oklahoma City Thunder rips their hearts out. 

Of course, I’m not going to run out of things that I love, either.

ZS: You were a journalist for many years before turning to fiction—something I believe is a great training ground for the novelist as it teaches you to write to topic, to length, deadline, and forces you not to be too precious about your work as the subs are likely to hack it to pieces anyway.

BD:  I’m not as sanguine as you are about the value of journalism as a training ground for novelists. Daily journalism is peopled by stick figures instead of flesh-and-blood characters. It is filled with quotes (words sources say to journalists) instead of dialogue (words people say to each other.) Too often, it uses street addresses in lieu of creating a sense of place. And it is filled with turgid “articles” and “reports” instead of stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. Only the rarest of journalists rise above that, writing real stories that bring people, places, and action to life on the page.

The main thing journalism does teach a future journalist is that writing is a job―something you do every day whether you feel like it or not. You do not wait to be inspired. You do not search for your muse. You are not allowed to have writer’s block. Journalists know that writer’s block is for sissies. You put your butt in the chair and write.

ZS: Had you always wanted to write novels? What prompted the career change?

BD: For most of my journalism career, writing a novel never occurred to me. I did start playing around with one in the 1990s, but soon abandoned it―a story I’ll expand on later in response to another of your questions. But by 2009, after 40 years in journalism, I’d grown disillusioned with the profession I’d always loved. Newspapers were circling the drain. The quality of local and national TV news was in sharp decline. And online news organizations were doing little original reporting of their own, getting most of their news from dying newspapers. I deplored the trivialization of news and the way it had become more of a commodity than a public trust. Even my venerable employer, the Associated Press, was devoting more resources to entertainment news than to investigative reporting.

The way I feel about it now is that I wasn’t leaving journalism; journalism was leaving me. It was time for a second act.

ZS: CLIFF WALK is a wonderfully intertwined and complex story. How did you go about constructing it?

BD:  I don’t outline. I begin with a general idea of what a book will be about and then turn my characters loose to see what they will do and say. I enjoy discovering the story as I write. And I believe that if I don’t know what’s going to happen next, my readers probably won’t either. Half-way through CLIFF WALK, I wrote Mulligan into a corner and had a heck of a time figuring out how to get him out of it. So I got up from the keyboard and spent a couple of weeks thinking about it before the answer came to me. Thinking about who my characters are and what they will do next is the essence of my writing process.

ZS: Mulligan and his supporting cast of characters, from neurotic ex-wife Dorcas, to the newspaper owner’s son who bears the terrific nickname of ‘Thanks-Dad’, and even Mulligan’s (t)rusty old Bronco ‘Secretariat’, are beautifully observed. I was kind of rooting for the thing with Yolanda to work out, but somehow I knew it wasn’t going to. Is Mulligan ever going to catch a break?

BD: Thanks for the compliment. I do love my supporting characters, including Mulligan’s mobbed-up bookie, Domenic “Woosh” Zerilli; Fire Chief Rosella Morelli, the real hero of ROGUE ISLAND; and Rhode Island Attorney General Fiona McNerney, a.k.a. Attilla the Nun, who plays a pivotal role in CLIFF WALK. I spend a lot of time getting to know them, and it pained me deeply when I had to kill one of them off. You’re quite right that Mulligan gets his heart broken in the first two books.  As the next one, PROVIDENCE RAG, begins, he’s contemplating getting a dog—a big one that would jump all over him when he comes home from work, curl up beside him when he roots for the Red Sox on TV, and snore contentedly every night at the foot of his bed. As the novel puts it:  “After several recent disappointments, he’d come to believe that the love of a dog was preferable to the love of a woman. Dogs were unwaveringly faithful, and not a one had ever lied to him.” Will he ever find a soul mate? I don’t know. Will the soul mate have fur and fleas? That’s something he and I will have to discover as we continue on our journey together.

ZS: What’s next for you—and Mulligan? Do you plan to write more in the series next, or try a standalone?

(Newark Mayor Corey Booker engrossed by Bruce’s prose)

BD:  PROVIDENCE RAG, the third Mulligan novel, will be published sometime next year. This summer, I’m helping my wife with her next project, a biography of Harriet Tubman. When that’s done, we hope write a crime novel together. It will be based in her native Chicago around the time of the 1968 riots and will have two alternating narrators, a white Chicago cop and a black hairdresser from the city’s tough West Side. After that, Mulligan will be back again.

ZS: I’m a sucker for a good opening line or good opening paragraph. CLIFF WALK’s is a doozy:

‘Cosmo Scalici hollered over the grunts and squeals of three thousand hogs rooting in his muddy outdoor pens. “Right here’s where I found it, poking outta this pile of garbage. Gave me the creeps, the way the fingers curled like it wanted me to come closer.”

(I mean, how can you not read on after that?) For me finding the right entry-point in the story is one of the hardest parts of writing. What are your own personal Room 101 elements of writing?

BD: Whenever I pick up a crime novel by an author I’ve never read before, I give it the first paragraph test. If I don’t see something that grabs me, I toss it and try another author.

The first time I picked up a book by Andrew Vachss, for example, I found this opening line:

“The sun dropped on the far side of the Hudson River like it knew what was coming.”

I knew immediately that this was a writer I wanted to read.

So, yeah, I pay a lot of attention to opening lines when I write. When I started CLIFF WALK, the first words that spilled from my keyboard were these: 

“Attilla the Nun thunked her can of Bud on the cracked Formica tabletop, stuck a Marlboro in her mouth, sucked in a lungful, and said: “Fuck this shit.” 

I knew immediately that I would be able to write this novel. As it happened, those lines became the opening for Chapter 5, but writing them first established the hardboiled tone I was looking for.

ZS: I’ve been researching recently about the rejection letters famous writers received for what would go on to become their best work. How was your own path to publication?

BD:  First of all, let me urge aspiring authors not to take rejections personally. The great James Lee Burke’s first novel, THE LOST GET-BACK BOOGIE, was rejected 111 times before it was finally published—and then went on to be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Rejections have more to do with whether agents and publishers think a book will sell than about whether they think it is good. You don’t really think anyone believed that Snooki from Jersey Shore could write, do you?

As for me, the path to publication was greased by good luck and connections. Here’s what  happened:

Way back in 1994, when I was working for a Connecticut newspaper, I received a note from a reader praising “a nice little story” I’d written. “It could serve as the outline for a novel,” the note said. “Have you considered this?” The note was from Evan Hunter, who wrote literary novels under his own name and the brilliant 87th Precinct police procedurals under the penname Ed McBain. I sealed the note in plastic, taped it to my home computer, and started writing. I was only a couple of chapters into the novel when my life turned upside down. In my busy new life as a husband, father, and senior Associated Press editor, there was no time to finish a novel.

Years streaked by. Each time I bought a new computer, I taped that note from Hunter to it, telling myself I would get back to the book someday. But I didn’t. Finally, a few years ago, I found myself dining with Otto Penzler, the dean of American’s crime fiction editors, and happened to mention that long-ago note from Hunter.

“Evan Hunter was a good friend of mine,” Penzler said. “In all the years I knew him, he never had a good thing to say about anything anyone else wrote. He REALLY sent you that note?”

“He really did,” I said. “I still have it.”

“Well then you’ve got to finish that novel,” Otto said, “and when you do, you have to let me read it.”

So I went home and started writing again. I wrote at night after work and all day every Saturday; and six months later, ROGUE ISLAND was finished. Otto read the novel and loved it.

“Do you have an agent?” he asked.

No, I told him. I didn’t even know any.

“Then let me make a call for you,” he said.

The next thing I knew, I was represented by Susanna Einstein, one of the best in the business. As she pitched the book to publishers, I was befriended by Jon Land, a crime novelist who lives in Rhode Island, where my books are set. Jon urged his editor at Forge to dig ROGUE ISLAND out of the big stack of submissions on his desk. He did, and promptly bought it.

ZS: And finally, do you have anything to say in your own defense?

BD: I adore my dogs, I’m a long-suffering Red Sox fan, I smoke cigars, and my wife says I clean up pretty well. What’s not to love?

The gen:

CLIFF WALK, the sequel to the award-winning ROGUE ISLAND, once again revolves around the tumultuous life of Liam Mulligan, a wise-cracking investigative reporter for a dying Providence, RI newspaper.  As the tale opens, prostitution is legal in the state (which it really was until two years ago). Politicians are making a lot of speeches about the shame of it, but they aren’t doing anything about it. Mulligan suspects somebody is being paid off.

As he investigates, a child’s severed arm is discovered in a pile of garbage at a local pig farm. Then the body of an internet pornographer turns up at the bottom of the famous Cliff Walk in nearby Newport. At first the killings seem random, but as Mulligan keeps digging, strange connections begin to emerge.

Promised free sex with hookers if he minds his own business—and a savage beating if he doesn’t—Mulligan enlists the help of Thanks-Dad, the newspaper publisher’s son, and Attila the Nun, the state’s colourful attorney general, in his quest for the truth. What he learns will lead him to question his long-held beliefs about sexual morality, shake his tenuous religious faith, and leave him wondering who his real friends are. CLIFF WALK is at once a hardboiled mystery and a serious exploration of sex and religion in the age of pornography.

Publishers Weekly gave it a coveted starred review, saying, “Look for this one to garner more award nominations.” Booklist also gave it a starred review, calling the plot “exquisite” and saying it is “terrific on every level.”

So, ‘Rati, now’s your chance to ask questions of Bruce. Treat him kindly―or at least buy him a cigar. He likes El Ray Del Mundo maduro’s  🙂

This week’s Word of the Week is vibrissa, meaning a tactile bristle, such as a cat’s whisker; a vaneless rictal feather, or a hair as in the nostril.

Gadding about

Zoë Sharp

You may have noticed that I’ve been somewhat absent from the T’interweb in general for the best part of a week … Oh, so you hadn’t noticed? Ah …

Anyway, I’ve been gadding about somewhat, taking advantage of the several days of hot weather that I fear will constitute summer this year.

As well as teaching a crime writing workshop at the Central Library in Derby on May 19th, and talking to two combined local writing groups over an extremely fine lunch at Soulby Village Hall on May 29th, I’ve been at the CrimeFest conference in Bristol.

This year was the fifth anniversary of the event, which grew out of Left Coast Crime in Bristol back in 2006. This year was the busiest yet, with sold-out tickets and standing-room-only panels. No doubt this was helped by the stellar line-up co-chairs Myles Allfrey, Donna Moore and Adrian Muller had organised.

And here are the CrimeFest Angels (left to right) Adrian, Donna and Myles, looking, I suspect, as you may not have seen them before …

As always, conferences like this are a heaven-sent opportunity to network and exchange information, as well as gossip, drink, and giggle. It was a great chance to catch up with old friends, like Lee Child, and Jeffery Deaver, and meet other favourite authors like Frederick Forsyth, Sue Grafton and James Sallis for the first time.

I was lucky enough to be on two panels at CrimeFest, one moderated by Stanley Trollip (one half of the writing duo the Michael Stanley with his partner Michael Sears) on Law or Justice? How does your Protagonist Choose? Also on the panel were Gerard O’Donovan, James Sallis and Andrew Taylor. In the emails that circulated afterwards I commented that I was honoured to be among such distinguished writers and felt I must have been included for light relief. To which Andrew Taylor responded that he felt I was there to add gravitas. (Nice sentiment, Andrew, but I know my role is simply to lower the tone …)

The second panel was the one that had me just a little nervous. I was tasked with moderating Lee Child, Sue Grafton, Brian McGilloway and Jacqueline Winspear on the topic of Kicking Ass: Spirited Protagonists and Tricky Situations. It was only as I was putting the panel info together, using my moderator’s Word doc from last year as a guide for layout, that I realised the format my introduction would take, listing the connections between the five of us.

(left to right: Brian, Sue, Lee, Jackie, & me, pic courtesy of Kate Kinchen)

It was a fun panel, absolutely packed out, and nobody objected when I warned before the audience Q&A that anyone mentioning a certain Mr T Cruise could pick a window because they would be leaving.

On the Thursday evening — and against my better judgement after dire performances in previous years — I was suckered into joining the quiz team of Faber editor Katherine Armstrong. Along with fellow authors Chris Ewan, Tom Harper, Claire McGowan and Tom Wood, I persuaded them to moderate our expectations by picking a suitably downbeat team name — The Greek Ministry of Finance. But to our amazement (well, mine anyway) we were a close second on the night, winning a bag of books and the DVD of Jim Sallis’s movie, Drive. All the more exciting for being totally unexpected.

It was a relief to meet my fellow judges from the Flashbang Flash Fiction competition and discover that they almost all agreed with my choice of winning entry. We had an entertaining dinner out on Friday night during which we all of us foolishly agreed to come back for a second attempt next year.

Of course, when it comes to what really goes on at such conferences, you have to be there. So, if you want to know why Simon Kernick is denying the comment he made to me in the bar on Saturday night, even though I took a photo specially, or why Adrian Magson won a Man-card (provided by Kate Kinchen) for his sterling moderating performance, or even who had the most awkward panelist going and how they avoided fisticuffs, you’re going to have to go along and find out. I should also mention that Peter Guttridge celebrated his birthday in fine style at CrimeFest, not only with cake and candles, but also by winning the Criminal Mastermind contest on the Sunday.

Finally, in what was to be a complete contrast to all the rushing about, I stayed with friends in Wiltshire on the way down and went out for a very stately and sedate pub lunch in their 1912 FN. All that and sunshine, too. Who could ask for more?

So, ‘Rati, what’s your favourite conference or convention? What makes it so special? If you haven’t been to one, why not and would you consider it? And if you are a regular, what do you feel you gain from the experience — besides a large bar tab and a lack of sleep?

This week’s Word of the Week is comity meaning courteousness or civility, from which we also get comity of nations, Latin comitas gentium, the international courtesy between nations in which recognition is accorded to the laws and customs of each state by others; a group of nations adhering to this code of behaviour.

What you bring and what you take away

Zoë Sharp

It’s the goal of any writer to engage the reader in the story to the point where they forget just about everything else. One of my biggest thrills has always been receiving emails or comments from people that go something along the lines of: “You cost me a night’s sleep—I just couldn’t put the book down!”

Trying to create characters that readers can sympathise or empathise with, be repulsed or engaged by, is what we strive for. People tell me they’ve cried over some of the things that have happened in my books. I confess I’ve shed a tear or two myself while reading something that I can really connect to on an emotional level.

But it seems there’s much more to it than that.

Research by the Ohio State University has recently identified what they call “experience-taking” from works of fiction. Basically, this is what happens to people who find themselves closely identifying with and responding to the emotional thoughts and beliefs of characters. In the right circumstances, experience-taking may lead to real changes—albeit temporary—in behaviour and attitude.

In one study carried out by the university, seventy male heterosexual college students were asked to read a Day In The Life Of story about a fictional student. There were three versions of this story—one where the character was revealed to be gay early on in the narrative, one where this reveal happened late in the story, and one where the main character was heterosexual.

The results showed that these test readers reported higher levels of experience-taking from the version in which the sexual orientation was revealed later rather than earlier. It seems that if the students knew almost from the beginning that the character was not like them, it prevented them from really identifying with that character and experience-taking. But those who learned this fact late were just as likely to experience-take as those who read the heterosexual version.

And not only that, but they also reported what is described as “significantly more favourable attitudes towards homosexuals”. Similar results were recorded if the character was of different racial background to the student readers.

Experience-taking can have other subtle side-effects, according to Ohio State. Another experiment involved a story about a student encountering various obstacles—such as car problems, weather, long queues—on his way to vote. The different versions varied by having first-person or third-person narratives, as well as having the student attend either the same university, or a completely different one.

It possibly won’t surprise you to learn that the first-person account by a student from the same university had the highest level of experience-taking.

But it may surprise you to hear that this experiment was carried out on the run-up to the 2008 presidential elections. The participants were all eligible to vote, and when questioned later it was revealed that sixty-five percent of those who read that first-person/same-university story voted, compared to only twenty-nine percent who’d read a different version.

But experience-taking doesn’t happen every time you sit down to read. It only happens when the reader is able to fully immerse and lose themselves in the story, including to a certain extent putting aside their own identity while they’re doing so.

In one example, students were unable to experience-take if constantly reminded of their own self-image by the introduction of a mirror in the cubicle where they were reading. In these instances they were more likely to “perspective-take” instead, meaning they could understand what the character was going through, but without losing sight of their own identity.

Nevertheless, the university concluded that experience-taking could be very powerful because it was an unconscious process.

This information was particularly interesting to me as I write a first-person narrative with my Charlie Fox books and people have always told me how much they identify with the character. Charlie is a survivor, who’s come through some nasty experiences and developed inner strength from them.

I’ve always written primarily to entertain. But if people can take something of this inner strength of character, this determination not to be a victim, to walk tall and equal in an unequal world, then my work here is done.

What about you, ‘Rati? Have you ever found yourself experience-taking or perspective-taking from books you’ve read? Or books you’ve written, for that matter?

This week’s Word of the Week is eidolon, meaning a phantom or apparition, a confusing reflection or reflected image. From the Greek eidos form, from idein (aorist) to see. Also with the same derivation is idol, which has the archaic meaning of a phantom or a fantasy.

Finally, just to let you know that fellow ‘Rati PD Martin has a brand new book out today. HELL’S FURY, book one in her new spy thriller series. Buy it today for $3.99 or £2.55