Monday, October 14, 2019

Who Do You Write Like?

RHYS BOWEN: One of my favorite stories was Robert Crais telling about his experience signing books in a Costco store. (Can you imagine it?) A man came up to him and demanded "Who do you write like?"  Bob replied, without batting an eyelid "Michael Connelly."  Then the man said, "Who is he?" which is reassuring to all of us who have experienced someone saying "Should I have heard of you?"

So I've thought about this. Who do I write like? I'm not sure. In my early days of mystery writing I was always compared to M.C Beaton. But I'm not sure who else does a historical humorous mystery series. My stand-clones are, I suppose, is the same vein as Kate Morton--at least I like to think they are!
And more than that. As I approach a lifetime of having written: which of my books might possibly endure. Wouldn't it be nice to have that one definitive book, that one "To Kill a Mockingbird" for which one would be forever known. Oh, Rhys Bowen, didn't she write The Tuscan Child?  I can't think that any of mine are more than entertainment. None of them delve into the depths of the human condition, and let's face it, none of them are depressing enough to be called great literature!

 Which leads me to thinking about the book I wish I had written. Pride and Prejudice?  The Lord of the Rings? The Handmaid's Tale? These are my absolute favorites. Would I like to have written the first Poirot? The first Miss Marple? All of the above.  And how about Winnie the Pooh? That's certainly one book I wish I had written, but then my son was not Christopher Robin, and having seen the movie, I would not have treated my son the way he was treated.

So I'm throwing out the questions to the Reds. Who do you write like? And which book do you wish you had written?

HALLIE EPHRON: At my best, I like to think that I channel Ruth Rendell. If only! And the book I wish I'd written? Definitely GONE GIRL. Word for word, sentence for sentence, Gillian Flynn is a terrific writer. And that story was so original. Though truly nasty -- that part I could never do, but I wish I could make that kind of money off a single piece of work. Imagine!

LUCY BURDETTE: Oh I love the idea of Winnie the Pooh or The Wind in the Willows! Those creatures were so wise and I still remember and treasure entire scenes from those books. I would have liked to have written Barbara O'Neal's THE ART OF INHERITING SECRETS, or Juliet Blackwell's THE PARIS KEY, or Ann Mah's THE LOST VINTAGE, or Ann Cleeves' RAVEN BLACK. And it goes without saying that I would happily be compared to any of the Reds' writing! I certainly haven't and never will write high-brow literary fiction. If I can develop a character whom readers love and feel touches their lives in some way, then I will be happy.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Who do I write like? Ah--huh. One wonderful reviewer said:  "If John Grisham and Lisa Scottoline had a book baby, The Murder List would be it." SO, yeah, those two.  Scott Turow.  Edith Wharton. Yes, I know, it's crazy, but if you read The Age of Innocence, now, its astonishing. Powerful, and sinister, and shocking. That's what I'm going for, at least. I wish I had written PRESUMED INNOCENT. Can you imagine writing the first Poirot? Or Sherlock Holmes? Brings tears to my eyes.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: My books are often compared to both PD James and Ruth Rendell, but although I'm flattered, I honestly don't think I write like either. I would like to think my writing was half as sharp and witty as Dorothy Sayers, or that my prose was as brilliant as A.S. Byatt's or Reginald Hill. As for books I wish I had written, Lord of the Rings would probably top the list. I'd add in Sayer's Gaudy Night, and Reginald Hill's On Beaulah Height. And Deborah Harkness's A Discovery of Witches!

RHYS: Thank you for reminding me of two of my favorites, Debs. On Beulah Height--one of the best mysteries ever written. I'd put it right up there with Dreaming of the Bones by a certain Red!
And A.S Byatt. Brilliant! I wish I'd written Possession.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Who do I write like? Debs! Seriously, you'll find her books and mine on many "read-alike" lists. Which is the only way I can answer the question - I have no idea what my writing, per se, is like, so i can only suggest "If you like my books, you'll like..." Kent Krueger, Steve Hamilton's Alex McKnight series, and Jenny Milchman's stand-alone thrillers, in the "Places where the weather can kill you" genre. If you like the strong romantic storylines in my novels, try Tasha Alexander's Lady Emily series, Dana Stabenow's Liam Campbell books (which also fall under the Terrible weather umbrella) and of course, the grandmother of us all, Dorothy Sayer's Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane novels. I'm so glad I never read them until after I had launched by own series; I would have been too intimidated to even start my first book.

And what would I have liked to have written? Richard Russo's EMPIRE FALLS. Decaying mill town, complicated romantic relationships, a's just like my books, except, you know, it won the Pulitzer.

HANK: Julia! That is so brilliant. I just went to amazon, and it says: Customers who bought The Murder List also bought: Shari Lapena, Ruth Ware, Lisa Scottoline. YAY. Love that.

So dear fellow writers and readers: What book do you wish you had written?

Sunday, October 13, 2019

How Crazy Is Your Research?

Hank Phillippi Ryan:  I'm not even gonna look. But I think if I went into my Google search history, it might say: how to set a spinnaker, drowning in salt water, life vests, how to save a drowning person, what does broad reach mean. Pretty benign, if I'm about to go sailing. Until, you know,  something happens. And might become a bit suspect. So, just as in life, it depends. And the fab Thomas Kies knows if someone looked at HIS search history--well, there'd be some 'splaining to do.
How Crazy is Your Research?
                    by Thomas Kies
From nine until five, Monday through Friday, I’m the President of the Carteret County Chamber of Commerce.  We’re right on coast of North Carolina and we’re blessed with beautiful beaches, world class cuisine, and some of the best fishing you’ll ever see. I’m the head cheerleader for one of the nicest places on earth.

Being the head of the Chamber of Commerce comes with a reputation that’s wholesome, upright, and good for the community.  Heck, when the sun’s shining, it’s called Chamber of Commerce weather.  Who else has their own damned weather?

But on weekends and after work, I think about and write things that are dark and, according to my wife, deeply disturbed.  I write mysteries.

That requires certain tidbits of knowledge that others may not have, and certainly nothing that a president of a chamber of commerce should be harboring.  For example, in my first mystery, RANDOM ROAD, a swingers’ club figures prominently in the plotline.

I’ve lost track of the number of people who’ve read the book and asked me how I know what the inside of one of those clubs looks like.  Because I worked in newspapers and magazines for over thirty years, I have the inside dope on a lot of stuff.  It doesn’t mean I was a member.

In my second book, DARKNESS LANE, there’s a creepy scene that takes place in an exclusive diamond merchant’s shop.  It’s expensive, well-secured, hard to find, and by-appointment only.  Yes, that’s based on a genuine jeweler’s establishment.  Full disclosure, in real life, the owner was murdered there.

The theater and haunted mansion scenes in DARKNESS LANE?  Based on real locations in Fairfield County, Connecticut where the book takes place.  I have pictures on my phone. I can share if you like. 

In my latest book GRAVEYARD BAY, that was just released in September, there’s a scene in a professional dominatrix’s BDSM dungeon.  Have I actually seen one?  Oh, yes. Was I a client?  Hell, no.

But then there’s the stuff I don’t know or haven’t seen.

Let me digress for a moment.  When I attended my first Mystery Writers Conference, there were multiple workshops given by authors, publishers, agents, cops, ex-FBI agents, forensic specialists, and physicians. We discussed everything from how to kill someone, to hiding the body, to what the body would look like after being in the water for a week. Questions were asked and answered.  Will someone die after eating ground glass?  What is a fatal dosage of Fentanyl?  When someone is killed and thrown into the water, how do you keep them from floating to the surface?

If you were someone off the street just wandering into one of those workshops, you’d think you’d stumbled onto a coven of psychopaths.  Weird? Certainly.  Scary? Maybe.  Fun?  It is if you’re a mystery aficionado.

So, doing research at home is very similar.  If someone were to look at my browsing history on my computer (my home laptop, not my work computer…oh, no—that would be wrong), they’d be tempted to call Homeland Security or the FBI.  Let’s take a look at some of the topics I’ve Googled or YouTubed:  The Russian Mafia, Los Zetas, M-13, explosives, pill mills, assault rifles, handcuffs, sex trafficking, ice pick murders, samurai sword, killer clowns, theater make-up techniques, Aryan Brotherhood, and hypothermia.   

Some of the headlines of articles I’ve downloaded:
Garage owner charged with selling drugs.
Prominent developer killed by train.
Real estate agent charged with home burglary.
Florida nanny found dead in woods reportedly tortured before her murder.
Body found in floating barrel identified, but name is withheld.
Students mine data to find where unfaithful husbands live.

Those are actual headlines!

So, speaking of data mining, you can only imagine what Facebook has on me.  And the ads that pop up unbidden on my computer screen.  There’s an algorithm working overtime that’s dropping the weirdest advertising possible in my emails and on my newsfeed.

But then there’s the old fashioned way of doing your research—feet on the street. This is where I get a feel for a scene or the flavor of the action.  This is where I talk to the experts.  I have friends in law enforcement that help keep me on track (what happens when someone goes missing?)

  Some of them are avid readers so I want to get it right.  There are doctors (so what does that broken arm look like?) and attorneys (walk me through a plea deal) in my Rotary Club who are fans as well.  They don’t mind that I ask them questions, even if their answers never make it into a novel. 

I’ve also spent time in police headquarters, hospitals, prison (not much time), and courtrooms.  It gives you a chance to see, listen, feel, and smell the scene.  I love researching my books.

And while knowing your subject matter is a good thing, Stephen King writes, “You may be entranced with what you’re learning about the flesh-eating bacteria, the sewer system of New York, or the I.Q. of potential collie puts, but your readers are probably going to care a lot more about your characters and your story.”

I try to tell the best story I can, but I also try to make it as realistic as possible I research some pretty strange stuff…just don’t tell my Chamber of Commerce board of directors.

 HANK: So how about your search histories, Reds and readers? What would we find? And a copy of GRAVEYARD BAY to one lucky commenter!

                    Time is running out...
The nude bodies of a corrupt judge and a Jane Doe are found under the icy, black waters at Groward Bay Marina, chained to the prongs of a mammoth fork lift. A videotape points to Merlin Finn, a ruthless gang leader with a proclivity for bondage and S&M who had recently broken out of prison. In the videotape, he's wearing a black leather bondage mask.
With the newspaper she works for about to be sold and her job in jeopardy, journalist Geneva Chase investigates pill mills, crooked doctors, and a massive money laundering scheme in an attempt to identify the murdered woman and find the killer. Along the way, she finds herself working with a disgraced New York cop and a host of other unlikely characters with ties to the criminal underworld.
Geneva is clearly hot on the killer’s trail, but when she is kidnapped and held at the mercy of the criminals she hoped to stop, it looks like her chance to uncover the darkness that has seeped through her hometown may be lost forever.
About the Author:
THOMAS KIES lives and writes on a barrier island on the coast of North Carolina with his wife, Cindy, and Lilly, their shih-tzu. He has had a long career writing for newspapers and magazines, primarily in New England and New York.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

The Three Big Tasks

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Catriona McPherson is so insanely perfect that I don’t even wanna take time away from letting you get to her post (but I will ) to tell you  how endlessly brilliant and fabulously wonderful and ridiculously talented she is and yes, I am totally gushing, punctuation be damned, because truly, she is a force of nature. Maybe she IS nature. Who knows. But she’s incredible, and her new book (more below) is thrilling and here’s how it all happened.
Part of it, at least.

Strangers at the Gate

Q: What’s in a name?
A: Everything. Literally everything.

There are three big naming tasks associated with any book. In ascending order of significance  and capacity to drive me crazy these are: naming the places (if I’ve made them up); naming the characters; naming the book.

Naming the book should be the easiest, because it’s the one I get help with – my agent, her staff, my UK editor, her staff, my US editor, her staff, the sales teams, the publicity departments, my friends, family, random strangers, and unsuspecting readers of blog posts (this is fair warning of what’s coming, okay?) – all get roped in. Also, it’s the one that’s not even up to me in the end. The book title isn’t a bit of the book; it’s a marketing tool for the book, and the thoughts of publishing professionals weigh heavier than the thoughts of a frazzled author who’s far too close and has never worked in marketing.

But that’s for later. The first and easiest (for me) task is naming places. There’s abundant help here, in the form of the Ordnance Survey Land Ranger maps of the real bit of Scotland I’m writing about (even if I’m putting a fictitious setting there). Because every hamlet, farm, hill, valley, trickle of water and bump in the grass throughout the UK has a name. And every one of these names is dutifully printed at one and a quarter inches to the mile.

Also, in the land of Drumnadrochit, Auchtermuchty, and Ecclefechan, no made-up name is implausible. That takes the pressure off marvelously.

So, in Strangers at the Gate, I’ve got: Simmerton – a town in a deep, dark valley that only gets sunshine in the height of summer (or “simmer” as it’s pronounced in Scots); Jerusalem – a house with its face turned (giro) to the sun (solem); Widdershins – a house not as unlucky as it sounds, because its name is nothing to do with walking anti-clockwise round a church but is rather a corruption of “widow’s portion”. In other words, it’s a dower house. And that gave me an idea for a cottage called Bairnspairt – literally ‘the child’s part’ – a house given to an heir under Scots Law.

So far, so low-stakes. Because it doesn’t even matter if the place names don’t resonate with readers. At least I don’t think so. After all, if I had set the book in a real place, as I sometimes do, I’d be stuck with whatever names I found there.

It’s a different matter with characters. I think the names of the people matter a great deal. They have to bring to mind the right era, the right social class, the right ethnicity, and beyond all that they have to “fit”. But why do they have to fit? Why should they? In real life, we get our names as tiny babies and don’t often change them no matter whether they suit us or not. I don’t know the answer to this, but I’m a slave to the truth of it, with multiple discarded character names and a finely-honed “global search and replace” habit.
(By the way, when changing a character’s name from Olive to Nora, watch out for scenes with pizza.)

So, in Strangers at the Gate, I’ve got: a young couple, Finnie and Paddy Lamb; Paddy’s mum, Elayne Lamb; Finnie’s parents, Eric and Mary Doyle; an elderly couple, Lovatt and Tuft Dudgeon; a single woman in her thirties, Shannon Mack; and a pair of retired church volunteers, Sonsie and Adam Webb.

What I don’t have are any Mcs and Macs. I always try to keep them down lower than they would be in real Scotland, because a novel populated by an authentic serving of MacToggles and McToories would be hard on the eye and the memory. (I might have gone too far this time, in cutting them out completely.)

As for the rest, Lovatt and Tuft are posh; Shannon isn’t. The Doyles are Roman Catholics of Irish descent; the Lambs could be, but not necessarily. Elayne, with her Y, has social pretensions. And Sonsie – it’s short for Sonia – is exactly the sort of woman who wouldn’t mind a pet-name drawn from a poem about a haggis.

I got very fond of them all. Which is just as well, because it stopped me paying back the advance, deleting the drafts and forgetting about them, instead of slogging my way to a title for the finished book.
While I wrote it, it was called The Cuts, after the very deep, very narrow, side valleys around Simmerton (and after some of the details of the murder). I loved that title. My propensity for typos was a worry – Can you imagine??? – but otherwise I loved it.

I was alone.

So the process started, trying to find the book a new name. A squad of us brainstormed and brainstormed and came up with:

The Cuts – still no
A Walk in Darkness – too generic
Take One Step – sounds like a recipe
Every Step You Take – Great! Oh wait. Wasn’t that a song?
A Step in Darkness – Didn’t we already-? Oh, that was “walk”. Well, no.
At The Edge of the Wood – sounds too similar to other books
In The Dark Of The Wood – sounds even more similar to other books
A Walk in Shadow – worse than a step in darkness
A Walk in The Shadow of The Valley of Death, Through a Wood – let’s take a break, eh?

Until finally, April, my US editor, came up – apparently out of nowhere – with Strangers at the Gate, and we all went “Oooooooh!”.

I hope the inside of the book makes everyone go “Ooooooooh!” too.

And if anyone reading this blog has a brainwave about a good title for a murder mystery set in Dundee, in Scotland, in 1937, concerning a Punch and Judy Show and a women’s magazine publisher, I’d be enormously grateful.  Because it’s that time again already and I got nothing.

This is so fascinating--and I so agree. I made up a town for Trust Me, a suburb of Boston called Linsdale. Because it seemed like linden trees, which are beautiful but don't they whisper mysteriously? And they are thin, and elegant, but vulnerable. (Don't tell me if I'm wrong, this is how I felt about it.) And dale because is sounds like a pretty place. (Cypressdale sounded made up.)
And when a main character in The Murder List was Gianna Delaney, she was a total lump. When she became Rachel North--well, watch out, sister. Attitude. Why does that happen?
Tell us a terrific name, title, or place--and one lucky commenter will win a Catriona book! 

CatrionaMcPherson is the national best-selling and multi-award-winning author of the Dandy Gilver series of preposterous detective stories, set in her native Scotland in the 1930s. She also writes darker contemporary suspense novels, of which STRANGERS AT THE GATE is the latest. Also, eight years after immigrating to the US and settling in California, Catriona began the Last Ditch series, written about a completely fictional Scottish woman who moves to a completely fictional west-coast college town.
Catriona is a member of MWA, CWA and SoA, and a proud lifetime member and former national president of Sisters in Crime, committed to advancing equity and inclusion for women, writers of colour, LGBTQ+ writers and writers with disability in the mystery community.