Thursday, October 11, 2018


I will not be posting for a while due to a couple of knee surgeries and healing time. I expect this to last into the spring of 2019. When I am back, I will announce on FaceBook that my blog is open again for my usual irreverent remarks and pseudo-writing wisdom...

In advance, may you enjoy the harvest festivals and your December holidays with friends and family be filled with joy. My very best wishes for a happy 2019. May we all enjoy a world filled with greater peace, compassion, and understanding of humanity than we endured in 2018.

Monday, October 8, 2018


Dialogue is fun, useful, and educational. Were it a food, it would be a miracle, including every significant nutrient.

How better to understand your characters than to slip into the phrases and word choices, jokes and images he/she uses? Someone even said that understanding a nation’s humor teaches us most about the culture. It is the same with characters. How does the character refer to others, perceived as not quite like himself? What jokes does she find funny? What symbols do they all use to explain life and its vagaries? All these things let both reader and writer understand possible motivation, or lack thereof, for what the characters do in the story.

Dialogue speeds action. Pick up any novel where there are at least two or more pages of dialogue and consider just how fast that scene went. If you want tension, have an argument. If you want a seduction scene, you can raise the steam level and omit the mechanics of specific body parts, should you so wish. You can set time, place and other details in the first chapter without one paragraph of description. That technique grabs attention and keeps up the pace. Bet that’s a book a reader will buy.

And finally, to keep this fairly short, dialogue is a wonderful place to hide clues. What did the witness say—or not say? Want to check out how this is done? Try The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie. Or even consider that infamous Holmes detail about whether or not the dog barked. Or go back to The Murder of Richard Ackroyd and that odd blank in the story. A really skilled use of story-telling that hides clues right in front of you is Lehane’s Shutter Island. Many do not like the book, but Lehane’s ability to manipulate what the reader sees through the way the character tells the story is masterful.

As for learning the art of dialogue, I go back to plays. Reading them is not the same as watching how actors use ordinary words (OK so Shakespeare’s speech wasn’t everyday stuff…) to convey all sorts of emotional shadings, but some playwrights do have that gift of writing clever lines that is worth studying by novelists. Think about Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Oscar Wilde, or Shaw. Just a few. There are many more.

In any case, dialogue is the vascular system of any book. Have fun with it.

Monday, September 24, 2018

The Book I Want To Write

The book I really want to write is the next one.

An odd choice? Well, I could hope for one to be a NYT best seller (not without a movie deal, which ranks up there with hen’s teeth) or to become a classic (hen’s teeth with diamonds). All quite reasonable “wants” for any author. So why….

Easy peasy.

The next book is always perfect, a shining light, the ultimate dream. It is, in short, Author’s Fantasy Work. It has not yet been shoved in front of the reviewing wolves to be torn apart, revealing all the faults and glitches. It has not yet garnered reviews from readers who say they did not finish because it was boring or so disgusting it ought to be burned. Or worse, it has not generated a note from someone who says, “On page X, you said Y, and you are wrong because…” (signed: Revered Expert in All Things Mentioned on Page X).

So what’s an author to do? Write it? Bronze it? Dream on?

Write the book. It will be wonderful in places (yay), not so hot in others (live with it), contain groaners (groan) and garner both praise and blame. The main thing is that, like babies, some progeny will be wonderful, others not so much, but they are all our books and we love them. If we could stop writing, we would. There are less angst-filled jobs after all—telemarketing comes to mind. Instead of changing professions, we learn to live with imperfection.

And, in the meantime, the book I really want to write is the one just after…

Monday, September 10, 2018

Blending Genres

Blending genres? Why not? You’re asking that question of one who cut her college teeth on genre smashing things like Nouveau Roman, Gertrude Stein, Happenings, and foreign films at the Surf Theater in San Francisco.

My brain awakened in the 60s, but my feet were also firmly planted in the immediate post-WW II era, a time when any belief in reason, justice, or humanity was blasted into micro-bits of dust. Neat, logical boxes were bad jokes at best, obscenities at worst. The world had to be reformed out of chaos, and many believed that was no longer possible.

Of course, the world has been reformed in ways or we wouldn’t even be having this discussion of blending genres. And, being a person owning many decades beyond my college years, I have some thoughts, pro and con.

The concept of “genre” has merit. Cutting up bookstore stock into divisions of form, style and subject matter is good business. Since I don’t understand most poetry, I rarely read it. Much modern American “literary fiction” doesn’t grab me for a variety of reasons so I skip past that segment. But label a section “biography”, “plays”, or “mysteries” and I come running.

Besides, who has time to wander along the walls of an unlabelled bookstore, picking up books because something just draws you? Yet I remember when it was fun. I even picked up some poetry that way as I browsed through the City of Paris basement (when I could still read French) and those rickety-staired or below-the-sidewalk bookstores I haunted in my youth.

So, from a business perspective, keeping to the defined genre is good. From an artistic or intellectual point of view, it is deadly. So what’s a curious soul to do in an era when business loves boxes, but brains don’t?

Take the mystery. Make it a puzzle, as in the Golden Age, and it is the literary form of the New York Times crossword, a challenge and a delight. Turn it into a novel, like P.D. James, and you are reminded that murder is brutal, ugly, and terrifying. Add the concise word choice and poetic lilt of language, in the manner of Ken Bruen, and you face the insanity of violent death and smell the foulness with the intensity of walking into the face of an ice storm.

In short, the mystery is rarely just one genre. As a blend of story, poetry, theater, and puzzle, it makes us think about justice, society (ours and others), the lessons to be learned in history, and, like biography, what forms one person into the creature they become. This blending has captured me because it shakes up my preconceptions and makes me ponder stuff I might not otherwise question. It is why I have learned to love mysteries best.

Monday, August 27, 2018


Let’s talk character evolution.

Part of the fun of a series is how events change a character. As a reader, I want to settle in with my favorite fictionals, find out what life flings at them, and learn how they handle it all. I care—passionately. That is one reason I love long series, each book being just a chapter in a very big novel. Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks is a good example. Each book is a small step in Banks’ evolution. We see the break-up of his marriage, the growing up of his kids, the various love affairs and how he handles the relationships afterward. There are lots of secondary characters we care about. How will they change and will he ever get back together with… Well, that’s a spoiler. And we care about the small stuff. I got upset when Banks gave up (with good reason!) his favored whiskey, and, from the way Robinson has handled that detail, I wasn’t the only one.

Sometimes a writer makes a mistake with a character, giving them some quirk or past that doesn’t really work long-term. Even the best do this. When I suspect this has happened, I want to see how the author gets around it and applaud clever handling. Ian Rankin first drew Rebus as a detective with a Bible always close to hand. For some reason this very Scottish Protestant detail never rang true to me with the rest of Rebus. I don’t know if Rankin began to think the same, but the book disappeared early on. This was linked to Rebus’ growing disillusionment with the world, and that worked for me.

Minor characters are very important in this process as well, not only in their relationship to the main guys but just for themselves. When I started my own series, I peopled it with ongoing fictionals and some that show up occasionally. As a reader, I often wonder whatever happened to “X”. Sometimes it is good to let the reader fill in the blanks. Sometimes it is fun to bring the character back. I have an anchoress who was introduced in the second book, shows up again in the fifth, and may well drift through again.

Secondary characters take the heat off the main ones, and good writers know how to do this. Other than Sherlock Holmes, most primary characters welcome it when the spotlight shifts a bit to another intriguing storyline. Pointing to Rebus again, he has no problem with his former sergeant, now outranking him as an inspector, Siobhan Clarke taking front stage from time to time.

I’m always disappointed when the author rushes character development. Maybe that is why writers should plan a series arc. Even though I love long ones, I am satisfied with a three or six book series if the character has evolved fully. Sadly, series are so often dropped after just a few books that authors are almost driven to trying too much in too short a time.

Finally, there is an equal problem when character evolution stalls but the series goes on. That is a subject I want to tackle but will put off to another blog.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Writing Routine

OK, now I’m embarrassed. Just how many of us want to admit that we (male or female) write in our nightgowns (loose waist = creative freedom) or have a wee quart, near to hand, of a libation with an alcohol content banned during Prohibition? Do we become the Mr. Hyde of Creativity, snarling at loved ones and demanding trays at our locked door, which are often ignored because we are chained to the Muse? Or must we confess that… Oh, you mean “how do you schedule your day”?


With a few books now under my preferably very loose belt, I have developed a comfortable routine. I must know location, theme, and a first scene plus last scene as well as whodunit/whydunit before starting any new book. A quote to give the story focus and a title come next. Then I scrape parchment, sharpen quill, and spend one to two months scratching out a chapter-by-chapter synopsis without regard to logic, grammar, or even any changes of names in minor characters. In short, if I die during this process, even the computer on which the thing has been composed must be burned.

I own some pride.

This mess does have value. The chapter-by-chapter synopsis is an outline of the book for both me and my editor. (Her idea. A bow of gratitude.) Before sending it off, I move chapters around, add chapters to fill plot holes or adjust tension, fire pointless characters, correct names, and otherwise strengthen the story bones. Once the synopsis returns, I make my editor’s suggested changes in the synopsis itself. Thus I end up with an outline from which a mystery can be crafted.

The remaining process takes six to eight months. I am an excruciatingly slow writer, sweating blood to reach the 65,000 word publisher minimum while knowing I must still cut. If interrupted in mid-scratch, I must restart two or three chapters back because I have lost the flow of the story. Unfortunately for the family member who cooks, I work in the kitchen with a view of the untamed backyard. Unfortunately for my waist, I work near the refrigerator, requiring that need for little binding about the middle. Part of my routine is to diet after a book is done and ban Mr. Hyde style howling except during football.

Much has been made of a daily routine. In principle, I agree. In practice, I’m flexible. I write between lunch and dinner or four to six hours. There are days I write myself into corners or toss dreck into the computer. Conventional wisdom says to write through this. I opt for lunch in the wine country. There is merit in shutting off the louder brain and delegating work to the sub-conscious, a function often ignored in a 24/7 world. Some of my best solutions have come when I was falling asleep.

Bottom line: find a routine that works for you, keeps you creative, and keep to it. As for other quirks we have, I suggest you always thank the loved one who leaves that tray by your door…

Monday, July 30, 2018


I’ve never liked the term “good vs. evil”. Not that I don’t want justice to be rendered, the world freed from violence, or wish I didn’t have to lock my door at night. But I worry that “good vs. evil” is misleading, luring us into believing that “evil” is easily recognizable and that the child-abuser or murderer couldn’t possibly be a pillar of his church or that lovely lady who bakes cookies for the neighborhood. And, of course, the person I see in the mirror every morning would never commit a violent act…

I wish violence and villainy were that simple, but, if the reasons for violence were clear, why would we write books that ask why murder happens? Now that I have perhaps presented myself as a (name your coffee store) card carrying, latte liberal (actually prefer mochas, full-fat, with whipped), let me also say that I do not think murderers just need a group hug to resolve their issues.

But despite our rather odd legal definition of sanity, I think any act of violence is a moment of insanity, whether the pressure has been mounting for decades or the impetus occurred five seconds ago. Villains run a range of types including the ethically challenged (OK so gang-bangers have a code but let’s leave that to another time), the emotionally disturbed, and the nice guy/gal suffering unendurable stress. In short, they are complicated people, not just mustachioed fellows who tie Pauline to the railroad tracks and sneak off, saying hee hee. That doesn’t excuse them from punishment, although some violence may qualify as self-defense, but it does suggest that we cannot be simplistic in how easily it is recognized or defined.

But enough rant—hope this elicits some good debate!