Monday, February 28, 2011

Weekend Writer: Procrastinating or Promoting

This Saturday, instead of writing we had a photo shoot for Sarah's author photo: that all important picture that will appear in her book. You might think that it doesn't take a lot of time to get a picture made, but you'd be mistaken. Sarah had a visit with her hair dresser Saturday morning, and a former Miss West Virginia was brought in as a beauty consultant for make-up and wardrobe. The shoot lasted about two hours and involved several locations around Lexington.

Sunday, Sarah worked on updating my website while I worked on chapbooks for the Emerald Coast Writers Conference goodie bags. I can't attend the Emerald Coast Conference this year, but the chapbooks will be there representing me.

My chapbooks are hand-made, quarter-page books that contain a short Nessa Donnelly mystery story. Quarter-page chapbooks are just the right size to stick in a pocket, which made them very popular with travelers during the 1800's. For me they are a small piece of history that I can share with readers. It is a little something extra that I give to fans when I attend conferences, and sometimes send to conferences that I cannot attend in person. I love doing them, but they take time.

This was my writing weekend. I didn't get a single paragraph finished on my novel. There was probably a little procrastination involved. I am not above goofing off a little after a long week at the office. Still, there was a lot of promotional work accomplished this weekend. I don't feel too guilty about taking a weekend off to promote my book and help Sarah get her own book ready.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Thursday's Thugs: The Femme Fatale

What's not to love about the femme fatale? Therein lies the trap. These sexy, seductive, irresistible bad girls ensnare the lovers into invisible bondage. The hapless fools that fall for their charms will do anything for love. We readers can do nothing to help as good men are led into compromising, dangerous, even deadly situations by the beautiful face of evil.

The femme fatale is the anti-girl next door. There is nothing clean cut about this babe. She is beautiful, well endowed, seductive in every way. Often the femme fatale is foreign, and more exotic than that wholesome beauty down the street. She is a woman of mystery. A guy just can't help falling for her charms. When he does, she will pull him into a life of the most exquisite torture.

A lot of noir mystery novels use the femme fatale as a double-crossing seductress who leads the hero into trouble. Heroes take a lot of beatings and the occasional bullet wound on her behalf. It isn't surprising that Raymond Chandler loved to use these bad girls in his novels. I don't blame him. Done right a femme fatale makes the story. I must admit though, my personal favorite is the satire of the femme fatale, Jessica Rabbit. She wasn't a bad girl, just drawn that way.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Making Kentucky Southern

Before the Civil War, Kentucky was more Western than Southern. When the North and South collided over slavery, the heart was ripped from Kentucky. The state quickly declared neutrality, but neutrality in principle was much easier than neutrality in practice. By autumn, it was clear that the state would have to choose one side or the other. Uncertain of the vote, Union troops surrounded the capitol and refused to allow the legislature to meet until pro-Union forces had strong-armed enough legislators to win the vote. In one case, Pinkerton agents kidnapped a pro-Confederacy legislator and placed him between Union and Confederate lines in the hopes he would become a casualty of the war.

Voting to remain loyal didn’t end Kentucky’s deep divide. Union sympathizers organized Home Guards, Confederate sympathizers organized into State Guard militia units. Both groups poured money and supplies into their causes. Among the casualties of the conflict was the racing industry. Problems for racing interest arose when horse hungry armies began confiscating Kentucky’s beloved thoroughbreds. General Morgan, a native of Kentucky’s Bluegrass Region, was particularly good at finding and stealing the state’s prized racehorses. Racing stables had little redress for their losses.

The government was impotent at preventing the flow of horses and goods to the armies. The state house in Frankfort was surrounded by federal troops, and the legislature was prevented from meeting until President Lincoln was sure the state would not vote for secession. Meanwhile, President Davis and Confederate supporters set up a shadow government in Bowling Green and sent delegates to the southern legislature. Eventually the Union Army moved in to take charge, but dividing lines had already been drawn in each family. Through the long bloody war, Kentucky citizens bled through uniforms of both blue and gray.

Lee’s surrender may have marked the end of the war, but Kentucky’s troubles were destined to erupt in an array of new ways. The state government was in tatters, and readjustment (a word invented for Kentucky to justify martial law in a state that had remained in the Union) devastated the farming industry. Harsh fines and taxes imposed by the federal troops escalated to the point of bankruptcy for many Kentuckians. Washington compounded the problem by treating the state as a conquered territory.

The excesses of the federal government following the Civil War helped transform Kentucky into a solid Southern state. Within ten years of the war, travelers would be hard pressed to find any Kentuckian who admitted fighting for the North.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Weekend Writer: The Agatha's

Malice Domestic, the mystery writer's convention  that celebrates the traditional mystery, is coming up in April. This week the nominees for the Agatha Awards were announced. I have been sending congratulatory messages to several of my Sisters in Crime who have been nominated for Agatha Awards. Getting nominated is a big deal for a mystery writer. One day I would love to make this list, but alas, this is not my year. Considering the quality of the work on this list, I don't envy the job ahead for those choosing the winner. There are some truly outstanding books on the list below:

Best Novel:
Stork Raving Mad by Donna Andrews
Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny
The Scent of Rain and Lightning by Nancy Pickard
Drive Time by Hank Phillippi Ryan
Truly, Madly by Heather Webber

Best First Novel:
The Long Quiche Goodbye by Avery Aames
Murder at the PTA by Laura Alden
Maid of Murder by Amanda Flower
Full Mortality by Sasscer Hill
Diamonds for the Dead by Alan Orloff

Best Non-fiction:
The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum
Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks: 50 Years of Mysteries in the Making by John Curran
Sherlock Holmes for Dummies by Stephen Doyle & David A. Crowder
Have Faith in Your Kitchen by Katherine Hall Page
Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang

Best Short Story:
"Swing Shift" by Dana Cameron, Crimes by Moonlight
"Size Matters" by Sheila Connolly, Thin Ice
"Volunteer of the Year" by Barb Goffman, Chesapeake Crimes: They Had it Comin'
"So Much in Common" by Mary Jane Maffini, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine - Sept./Oct. 2010
"The Green Cross" by Liz Zelvin, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine - August 2010

Best Children's/Young Adult:
Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer by John Grisham
Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus
by R. L. LaFevers
The Agency: A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee
Virals by Kathy Reichs
The Other Side of Dark by Sarah Smith

Good luck to all of you, particularly to my fellow GUPPYS who made the list this year. Have a great time in Washington. 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Thursday's Thugs: The Dark Side of 80's Excess

Not long ago I talked about the sociopath next door. This week in Thursday's Thugs I would like to take that a step further and talk about a fictional sociopath that represented a generation.

The "Me Generation" that came to power in the 1980's wallowed in excess. Yuppie sensibility was at its height. American culture was about style, glitter, flash, power and pizazz. In my opinion nobody captured the dark side of the self-indulgence of the generation better than Bret Easton Ellis in American Psycho. Ellis's Patrick Bateman has all the outward trimmings of a yuppie hero; young, handsome, athletic, and filthy rich. He has climbed to the top of his wall street firm. His life is filled with parties, powerful deals, and all the trappings of success. He was just the sort of man the culture idealized.

Patrick just has one little quirk. For him, the rape, torture, and murder of prostitutes and homeless people is his hobby. He will occasionally expand his hobby to include a cop or even a child, but mostly he sticks to people who won't be missed. If you haven't figured it out by now, Patrick is a raving lunatic. He is very good at keeping up appearances and does a fantastic job of epitomizing manhood in the 1980's.

Taking a close look at Patrick Bateman forces readers to take a look at the dark places inside their own souls. Outwardly he has everything. Inside, though, the American psycho is tormented by his own hollow existence. His life, his success, everything the world admires about him leaves him numb. For him, murder is the only release from the banality of his empty life. It is the quest for something, anything, that will allow him to feel.

Money can't by Bateman happiness, but for a long time it allows him to get away with murder.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Weekend Writer: Writers Group Participation

I usually post this on Sunday evening, but this weekend I was out of town until Sunday evening and decided to catch up on the chores instead of blogging. Real life does get in the way of writing.

My trip out of town was partly for work. On the second Saturday of the month I participate in a wonderful writer's group that is part of our Sisters in Crime chapter. This past Saturday the group was critiquing a few chapters of my work in progress. I left the meeting with lots of positive comments on the work, but also lots of opinions on how to make my story stronger. The opinions are important. It is equally important to me to remember that they are "opinions." In the end, I must look at each comment and decide if I agree or not.

There are countless ways to tell the same story. In each, the essential elements will be the same, but the way they are presented is very different. For instance, a change in whose point of view is used to tell the story changes what is revealed and when. I could hand my plot to each writer in the group, and their stories would be very different from mine.

This is not to say that I am going to ignore everything my SiC writing friends had to say. I am going to make some significant changes based on their feedback. I have lots of work to do between Saturday and the next time I give them chapters. Not all that work is simple stuff like moving a line or rewriting a sentence for clarity. I have a subplot that wants to take over the story--that's no easy fix. There is also a pesky problem of second bookitis (those places where I know the character so well that I don't explain it clearly enough for the first time reader). I need to go in and reintroduce those characters in a way that doesn't repeat what I did in the first book of my series, but still gives someone who hasn't read Circle of Dishonor a feel for who those characters are. Like I said, I have lots of work to do, but in the end the book will be better. That is what this process is all about. I want every book to be the very best story I can write.

Now for the confession: part of what got in the way of writing this weekend was the need for a break. My spouse and I stayed over in Louisville for a nice dinner, a soak in a hot tub, and a little pampering by the hotel staff. I highly recommend getting away from the computer now and then. It does wonders for my outlook on making those revisions.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Thursday's Thugs: The Criminal Mastermind

Anyone who watches the news or reads a newspaper knows that most criminals are not masterminds. In fact, criminals are usually less intelligent than the average person. But don't you just love fiction with a great criminal mastermind?

My personal favorite is Dortmunder. There are others, of course, but none can compare to John Dortmunder in giving his all for a plan that is bound to go wrong. Donald Westlake came up with a wonderful criminal mastermind, then surrounded him with idiots. The Dortmunder capers are fresh and funny. Even though I know that his plans are ingenious, I read each Dortmunder story waiting to see which of his accomplices will screw up the perfect crime, when the other shoe will drop, and how how he will come out of it.

It is no wonder that Westlake won the Edgar for "Too Many Crooks." It is one of the funniest and best plotted short stories I have ever discovered. I deeply regret that Donald Westlake is no longer with us. I could use another fifty years of new adventures for a criminal mastermind doomed to have his brilliant capers go awry.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Weekend Writer: Fighting the Hard Fight

I joined Sisters in Crime several years before my novel was written because their efforts to promote the work of women mystery writers are important. The tendency of the literary world to look down on genre fiction, and women writers in particular, is not new. Part of that is snobbery. There are many genre books that are better written and more literary than reviewers realize. Part of it is sexism. Blind studies have proven that when the gender of the writer isn't known, women rank much higher than when the readers know they are reading a woman's manuscript. Knowing the thinking behind ignoring excellent books by talented women writers doesn't change the fact that no reviews, and bad reviews, hurt.

It is a difficult, often thankless job, to write. Many of us are struggling to get reviews, to have our work noticed, and to carve out a place for ourselves in the writing world. Most of us are working a day job, and juggling our writing and promoting with hectic lives.

For all my hard working Sisters in Crime, I am posting the following review. I found it comforting to know  that long before Sisters in Crime, there were women working to make mystery fiction one of the best selling forms of fiction on the market. They suffered through the bad reviews and continued to work. Thirteen books into her writing career, mystery writing foremother Anna Katherine Green was still fighting the hard fight.
In February of 1895 the following blistering review of Anna Katherine Green's novel "The Doctor, his Wife, and the Clock" appeared in Yale Literary Magazine.  I am including it in my writing blog as a reminder of the need for writers, particularly women writers, to develop a thick skin and keep turning out great books.

The works of Anna Katherine Green are always sought by a large number of readers who care little about how their literary dishes are served up as long as the dishes themselves are good. Anna Katherine Green is perhaps the best story teller in her line--a line which is almost unnecessary to say is neither literary nor intellectual. To make a long railroad journey seem shorter, or to while away a few stray half hours, her books do very well. If one does not get wildly excited over them, one does not at least throw them aside unfinished.

Her latest soar into the realms of literature is called "The Doctor, his Wife, and the Clock." The title is decidedly the most interesting portion of the book, and it certainly stimulates curiosity. The story is vastly inferior to "The Leavenworth Case" and is not equal in continuity or interest to the thirteen other books which have come from her pen. Its redeeming quality is its brevity, for, while one can see into the mystery and beyond very early in the story one is tempted to finish it because it is not long.

Anna Katherine Green never draws characters; she merely introduces a host of people in order that her readers may guess who is the murderer. (Of course there is invariably a murder in her stories.) To anyone who has contracted the very bad habit of persistently perusing her works it must be a constant source of wonder that he himself is alive, for murders must seem an every day and perfectly natural occurrence to him. Of the people in "The Doctor, his Wife and the Clock," the clock has more to do with the story than any of the human beings, and is decidedly more entertaining than the majority of them. The doctor is tiresome, his wife is possible still more tiresome, and the detective was evidently born a fool and apparently never got over it.

The denouement of the story is clever and is well related: it is an oasis in a desert. It is not, strictly speaking a denouement, for the rest of the book was without doubt written around this incident. It goes without staying that the story is wildly absurdly improbable, and this is the reason why it fails of its object, which was presumably to be pathetic. The volume is one of the "Autonym Library Series," heretofore so excellent.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Thursday's Thugs: Bad to the Bone

I have read very few books with bad guys that were utterly without any redeeming qualities. As a writer, it is hard for me to write such a villain without leaving him one dimensional. A classic villain of that stripe, the kind we really want to see get what's coming to them, is rare. Most of the time we see this type of bad guy show up as a nemesis of comic book heroes. But if you look at the book "The Sociopath Next Door," you can get a better picture of how this could be done in a novel.

To be fair, I haven't attempted to write my villains this way yet, but I am considering it as an option. I have done this on occasion with murder victims. In my work in progress, the murder victim is the kind of man that brings out the urge to kill in everyone he meets. It is easier to make such a man the victim, because all his evil is past. Our contempt for him is blunted by the fact he already got what was coming to him. We are free to turn our attention and our emotional responses to the characters that have reason to want him dead. Making such a man the villain gives us a completely different sort of book.

Unfairness and bullying are part of what makes this villain tick. It's easy to have a sneaking sympathy for an underdog, even if he's evil; but when someone starts with all the advantages and uses them to crush his opponents ruthlessly, we delight in seeing him get his comeuppance. That kind of bad guy must be humorless, friendless, and void of both empathy and the ability to love. I think that is the key to villain who is "bad to the bone." He must be someone who has a driving need, nothing exists outside of his personal wants. He will go to any lengths to win.

Why would I write such a villain? Because somewhere in the back of my mind is the nagging question of whether or not I have the ability to do it well. I keep thinking that there must be a way to write someone so clinical, corrupt and utterly ruthless that we have to like him just a little, because he is having so much fun making everyone else suffer.