Thursday, November 29, 2012

Have You Got a Clue?

RHYS BOWEN: One of the fun things about writing The Twelve Clues of Christmas was that I had to include some real and fair clues for each day of my story. And as I wrote I realized that the whole concept of clues in mystery novels has almost vanished from the genre.

In the early days of mystery novels the clue was everything--Sherlock Holmes would pick up a spent match and declare that it had been used an hour ago by a one armed sailor from Malta who had a black beard. He'd work out how the speckled band came through the keyhole. But in today's crime novel the focus has shifted from the whodunit to the whydunit--to the psychological aspect of crime.

I suppose we still have our clues but they are more of a forensic nature--more CSI evidence than spent matches. I don't know about you but I miss clever clues. I liked the aspect of mystery reading that pitted my wits against the writer. I liked to figure out whodunit, didn't you?

So what do you think, Reds? Have clues really vanished from our current writing? Do you wish writers would use them more?

LUCY BURDETTE: Writing your book sounds like so much fun Rhys! I love clues too, and I don't think they've gone out of style. Maybe changed a little to suit the times. I don't do much with forensics since all of my books involve amateur detectives--they have to make clever observations and connect the dots rather than study scientific evidence. And for me, it's challenging and fun to layer in details early in the book that will become important later. Also fun to mention details that SEEM important at the time, but turn out to be unrelated to the solution of the mystery. And what's especially rewarding is to realize I put something in that I will need later but didn't "know" it at the time.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Rhys, your clever clues were one reason I enjoyed your Twelve Clues of Christmas so much! I love clues. Reading an old young adult mystery from the early sixties that I found in my bookcase has been a good reminder as well. For most of us, wasn't it the clues that hooked us on the genre?

Although I write contemporary police novels, I try to write around forensics. Forensic evidence can be used as backup, but I want my detectives to solve the crimes using observation and their skill at reading people.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Oh, I'm all about clues. Since I work without an outline, I have no idea what will become a clue, so it's always a surprise to me to see how the puzzle pieces come together. Especially pieces I didn't know were the puzzle!

So I think...and just contemplating this now..."clues," for me at least, come not from knowing a result and then putting in clues to get me there, but a result of creating the story as I go, like real life. And in real life clues appear--but at the time, you don't know they're clues.

So in writing a mystery, you take what you have, and make those the clues.

Because they ARE, you know? Because what happened is what happened. And that's
what you can use to solve the crime.

And as a result of THAT--it doesn't feel like heavy-handed
foreshadowing--because it can't be foreshadowing if you don't know what's going
to happen!

Ah. See what I mean?

HALLIE EPHRON: Oh, this is bringing back one of my favorite quotes from all of crime fiction. “Another clue!  And this time a swell one!" (Joe to Frank in The Tower Treasure, the first Hardy Boys mystery)

I don't think about clues as I write but they're there. I think of them as "the thing that's there that shouldn't be" and "the thing that's not there that should." Of course some of clues turn out to be red herrings, outsmarting even me.

My favorite clue from "Come and Find Me" is the cardinal that's on the fence every time Diana looks out through her security cameras.

JAN BROGAN -  I tend to read mysteries for character and less for the puzzle. And while I don't tend to read for clues, I appreciate that they are there where they should be when I look back after the resolution.

RHYS: Jan, I think some of my favorite clues are in the behavior of a character. I sometimes wonder whether I would be able to detect a real-life murderer. I'm usually quite accurate when I watch someone on TV and they are pleading with someone to return a kidnapped child--and I absolutely know that they are responsible and the child is dead. Or a husband lamenting that his wife has run away/been kidnapped. And I knew OJ was guilty--didn't you?

I do enjoy the new Sherlock and the way the internet and smart phones have been introduced into his detection methods. But I'm glad that my mysteries take place in the past so that I don't have to worry about updating CSI and know about blood spatters.

So all you mystery readers out there--what do feel about clues in our novels? Do you miss the clues of Sherlock Holmes and Dame Agatha? Do you get annoyed when authors don't play fair?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Makings of an Audio Book, with Katherine Kellgren

RHYS: When I heard that the first Royal Spyness book was going to come out in audio I was apprehensive.  American actors have not always been successful with British accents (think Dick Van Dyke and “Oye say, Mary Poppins”) But then I got an email from Katherine Kellgren, telling me that she was going to be reading the book and asking me how I wanted various things pronounced. Then I heard the first recording and I was thrilled.  She got it absolutely right. Other people obviously thought she did too, as the audio got nominated for an Audie award that year.
Since then Katy has been the reader for each book in the series, receiving another Audie nomination for Naughty in Nice. Not only does she get Georgie’s upper class English voice right but is deliciously accurate with all the other characters—Georgie’s waspish sister-in-law Fig, Queen Mary, and the cockney grandfather.
As I celebrate the audio release of the latest book I wanted to introduce our readers to Katy and to show another side to the book publishing industry and one that is growing by leaps and bounds.
So welcome Katy, I’m so pleased to have you as our guest today. Let’s start off with your background. You have to be English to get all those accents so right.
KATY: Well, I was actually born in New York City, but spent a hefty chunk of my life living in London. I was there for 12 years and did quite a bit of my schooling there, including 3 years spent training at The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Hence I record books in both English and American dialects, though I would say the majority of them are still English. I even did a book all in Welsh dialect last year, which was utterly terrifying!

RHYS: Did you always want to be an actress?

KATY: I would have to say yes. When I was three years old I remember lobbying to play the Big Bad Wolf in a school production of the Three Little Pigs because I thought that part would present the greatest opportunity to display dramatic range, not to mention have the most stage time!

RHYS: What brought you back to America? 

KATY: An important factor in my final decision to move back to the States was that my father was ill back in New York. In the year before I left the UK though, I recorded my very first audiobook because of him. He was a great fan of the mystery author Freeman Wills Crofts, and at his request I got Crofts' 1929 novel The Box Office Murders out of the library and recorded it for him myself using a hand-held tape recorder. Although I had been working in audio doing numerous radio plays, it wasn't until I moved back to New York that I recorded my first professional audiobook. The idea of really pursuing that line of work was largely spurred by reading to him, both in person and on tape!

RHYS: So how did you move on from reading for your dad to becoming the star book-reader that you are today?

KATY: You are really being too kind saying "star" reader (though my actor-ly ego thanks you a thousand times)! It's fair to say that I spent a large part of my teenage years (and ever since then, come to think of it) listening to truly huge stars on audio. I was quite obsessed with old Caedmon recordings of John Gielgud, Edith Evans, Ralph Richardson et al reading plays, poetry and prose, and would spend hours at a time closeted in my room listening to them. When I was older and started reading to my father because he will ill, I began thinking about my ongoing love for those recordings and how important they had been to me growing up, and I determined to try to find work doing audiobooks, - which slowly but surely (with luck) I managed to do. Incidentally, one of my absolute favorite recordings as a child was The Importance of Being Earnest featuring Edith Evans giving her legendary Lady Bracknell, so when you wrote in The Twelve Clues of Christmas that Fig's mother, the formidable Lady Wormwood, utters certain words "in the same tones Lady Bracknell used regarding a handbag in the Oscar Wilde play" the thundering syllables of Evans instantly leapt to mind. Such bliss!

RHYS: What preparations do you make before you read an audio book? What is the hardest thing about doing it? (I was once asked if I'd like to do one of my books. I've read a short story for a pod-cast and that was quite enough for me. It's hard not to let my attention wander, then feel that I want to cough, swallow or choke). 

KATY: After carefully reading through the book at home (during which time I make elaborate notes about any descriptions the author has given concerning the characters' voices / dialects, flag words whose pronunciations I must look up & etc.) I go back through the text and highlight the dialogue of each character in a different color of pen. My recording script for The Twelve Clues of Christmas ended up quite rainbow-hued indeed, what with all the various guests at the house party chatting with each other! Then I think about the character voices, trying to get as close to how I imagine the author envisioned them as I possibly can. I draw on all sorts of sources for help and inspiration. For The Twelve Clues I kept up a pretty constant listening diet of Noel Coward recordings since he is a character in the book (luckily I already had lot of them, as he is an old favorite of mine) but of course came to the immediate conclusion that his diction is a thousand times more exquisite than mine could ever hope to be in that regard, so I would just have to make do and hope the listener will be forgiving. I often work with a dialect coach if I feel I need to brush up on anything (I'm working with a brilliant man right now who held my hand through the German and Romanian in A Royal Pain and Royal Blood). Then I'll go through and find the tunes to any songs the characters sing. This happens more than you might think - I do one series that always involves at least a dozen sea shanties per installment! In the case of The Twelve Clues it was easy, as I already knew the Christmas carols in question! I generally do as much specialized research as I can, and each book is different - a while ago I had a single book in which I had to speak in Urdu, French and Italian and sing in Spanish, this year opened with a book in which I had to reproduce the warning cry of an ostrich (actually that was quite fun). The hardest thing about doing audiobooks is also part of what makes working on them so exciting, you don't get to rehearse, and when you go into the studio if you're not ready or you let your concentration waver for a moment it will show in the finished product. I try to do everything I can to prepare, then when I go in to record, I know I have to take a leap of faith and let go and allow the author's words carry me along.

RHYS: Being so much in demand for your audio readings, do you still find time to do acting work?

KATY: Well I consider reading a book aloud sort of like being in a play in which I get to do all the parts - a tremendous amount of fun for any actor! Though I did do theatre, some film & etc. after I left drama school, once I started doing audiobooks I became more and more focussed on them alone. As I said before, recordings have always been hugely important in my life, - I think there is an experience you get from being read to that you can get nowhere else. I know I still listen to audiobooks read by great narrators all the time and draw inspiration from them. I'm totally focused on audiobook work now, and I'm so proud and grateful to be in the profession that I'm in!

RHYS: What do you miss about England? And since this is a Christmas book, can you share a favorite English Christmas memory with us?

KATY: Principally I miss all my friends there. I try to keep in close touch with many of the dearest ones, but there's so much you miss in daily life by simply not being there. I miss my old neighborhood in Primrose Hill in North London, where I lived for a good many years. The thought of the grilled halloumi cheese at Lemonia Restaurant there often fills me with a nameless longing... The London Library, Pleasures of Past Times bookshop in Cecil Court, - oh, really too many things to mention! My most distinct memory of Christmas in England is the lazy afternoon sensation of lying on the carpet playing dominoes and eating Quality Street in front of holiday TV after a glorious lunch. Not very picturesque but very comforting.

RHYS: Thank you so much, Katy. Now we are all more aware of all the hard work and background preparation that goes into an audio book. Anything else you’d like to add? 

KATY: Only that it is a true pleasure for me to be able to record your deliciously written books - wonderful writing makes my job as a narrator not only much easier, but also an absolute joy! 

RHYS: I look forward to hearing you read the rest of the series, until Georgie and Darcy are collecting their old age pension one day! 

And dear Reds and friends—Katherine Kellgren doesn’t just read my books. I believe she received seven Audie nominations last year. So if you see her name on an audio recording you know you’ll be in for a treat.

Here’s a link to Katy’s wonderful audio version of The Twelve Clues of Christmas.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Elaine Viets on Bloodthirsty Cozies.

RHYS:  Today I'm delighted to welcome my good friend, bestselling author and former Lipstick Chronicle blogger par excellence ELAINE VIETS. Elaine has two fun cozy series going and this month celebrates the publication of her latest Josie Marcus, personal shopper book called MURDER IS A PIECE OF CAKE.

And she reveals some surprising things about cozy fans. Take it away, Elaine:

          “I hear Josie Marcus gets married in your new mystery,” a reader said. With her stylish silver hair, mild blue eyes and fluffy pink sweater, she looked like Miss Marple’s younger sister.
          “Sure does,” I said. “Josie marries Dr. Ted Scottsmeyer in ‘Murder Is a Piece of Cake.’”
          “And he dies, right?” Now the light in those blue eyes wasn’t quite so mild.
          “No,” I said. “In fact, he looks quite handsome in his tux.”
          “But he turns out to be a total rat and she divorces him.”       
          “Er, no,” I said. “They’ve been dating for three books now. Josie  knows him well. He’s still the same Ted.”
          “She dies!”
          “No,” I said. “Josie is the protagonist. If she dies, so does the series.”
          “Then Ted cheats on her and she kills him.” A gentleman joined in the conversation, also demanding blood.
          “Certainly not, sir!”
          I edged away from these two bloodthirsty fans. A third woman stopped me, “I know,” she said. “They get married, but Ted dies in the next book.”
          I heard the hope in her voice and crushed it.  “No,” I said. “Ted and Josie have a happy marriage. In the next book, they’ll move into their new home with Josie’s daughter, Amelia.”
          Jeez. I thought cozy readers were supposed to dislike violence.
          But ever since “Murder Is a Piece of Cake,” my eighth Josie Marcus Mystery Shopper mystery, was published readers have been hot for Ted’s head.
          Cozies are supposed to be mysteries in the tradition of Agatha Christie with no gruesome scenes, foul language or bloody bodies. So why are my not-so-gentle readers demanding Ted’s death?
          Can’t Josie have a happy marriage to her veterinarian, Dr. Ted?
          I understand that a contented married couple can be a challenge for mystery authors. Even Sue Grafton said she won’t marry her Kinsey Milhone because she doesn’t want to write Nick and Nora Charles dialogue.
          And I gave into temptation in my Dead-End Job series. Helen Hawthorne was supposed to marry Phil Sagemont in “Killer Cuts.” But when the minister asked, Does anyone know why this couple should not be joined together in matrimony?  I had a surprise guest say I do.
          Many mystery writers see that “till death do us part” vow as an opportunity.  Thriller writer Ian Fleming turned James Bond into a widower on his wedding day, when his new bride, Tracy, was killed by the spy’s archenemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
          James Patterson gleefully murders the bride and groom in “1st to Die,” but there was nothing cozy about that book.
          But cozy culinary cook Diane Mott Davidson went on a killing spree on Goldy’s wedding day. The priest is killed and Goldy’s fiancĂ© is kidnapped in “The Last Suppers.”
          I could have had Ted kidnapped on the way to the wedding. His family has money. Lenore, Ted’s mother, married a big-bucks Boca plastic surgeon. Josie could have killed her meddling future mother-in-law after Lenore flew in on her private plane to “help with” – read “control” – Josie’s wedding. Josie wished someone would lock up Lenore, and she got her wish. 
          Lenore is arrested for shooting a crazed woman who’s been stalking her son. Josie has to find the real killer so she and Ted can marry. It’s not easy, but she does.
          The wedding takes place at the Jewel Box, an art deco conservatory in St. Louis, beloved of brides for generations. The newly married couple drive away in Ted’s vintage orange Mustang without a hail of bullets. They survive a romantic honeymoon in the islands – another fatal time for wedded bliss in mysteries.
          When Ted and Josie were happily hitched, I kissed good-bye four  books worth of deadly plots: Ted could have been killed before, after or during the wedding in one book. Josie would have spent the next book solving Ted’s murder. In the third book, Josie would fall in love with the police detective investigating the case. Finally, she’d marry the detective.
          See what I gave up for you? Now, readers, tell me, please: Why do you crave a wedding murder? Is killing husbands your secret fantasy?
          I’m dying to know.
          Elaine Viets is the author of two bestselling mystery series, the Josie Marcus Mystery Shopper mysteries and the Dead-End Job mysteries. “Murder Is a Piece of Cake,” her eighth Josie Marcus mystery, is available as an e-book and a paperback from Obsidian. Elaine has one the Agatha, Anthony and Lefty Awards. Visit her website 

And Elaine will be around today to answer questions on JRW.

And a message from Jan.




have won copies of Michael Sherer's thriller, Night BLIND! Please email Jan at so she can send you your copies.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Preserving Traditions

RHYS BOWEN: One of the reasons for writing my new Lady Georgie book, The Twelve Clues of Christmas, was a chance to relive everything about the classic old English Christmas that I remembered from my childhood—singing carols around the village, being invited in for hot sausage rolls and mince pies,  Christmas pudding with the silver charms inside, each of which meant something, and you were careful not to swallow them. Then there were crackers, silly family games, snow houses and a simple, non-commercial enjoyment of the holiday that I really miss these days.

I’ve tried to recreate some of it with my own family. We have crackers at the dinner table—not the type of dry things you eat with cheese but the paper tubes that you pull and they go pop and disgorge presents and riddles and silly paper hats. We have a Christmas pudding though I confess I buy it at the store. I make mince pies and sausage rolls and my daughters have started doing the same.
So I wondered what family traditions, not necessarily holiday ones, you’ve kept and passed along to the next generation.

 One of ours is teatime. My kids say it’s in the genes that I have to have tea at four o’clock every afternoon. And we’re still particular about our tea. We buy it loose, not in tea bags, and John mixes his own blend of Darjeeling which is mild with  a strong Indian tea and just a touch of Keemun, a smoky Chinese tea. We make it properly, in a pot and we found a brilliant one in England this year that has a cylinder in the middle to make removing the leaves easy.
Tea has to be accompanied by a little something to eat. On formal days I’ll make scones, ideally to be eaten with cream and jam. On rushed days it’s only a gingersnap. But teatime is always a break from a hectic day, a time to sit down for a few minutes, to enjoy afternoon sunshine, to chat and enjoy company. 
So now we're in the holiday season, which is all about traditions, what about you, dear Reds and Readers? What family traditions have you kept? Which ones have your children adopted?

LUCY BURDETTE: I would say our biggest tradition is the Christmas stockings. My mother used to collect things all year long to fill them--they were hand-knitted by my aunt and had a lot of room for goodies! When I got married, I sewed a set of stockings for my new family. They are not as beautiful as the originals, but we love to hang them from the mantle and stuff on Christmas Eve.

HALLIE EPHRON: My kids (2 grown daughters) are usually home for Christmas and I make crispy potato latkes and a savory pot roast regardless of when Chanukah is. Christmas morning we open stocking stuffers and a few gifts, and by the end my daughters are wearing all the ribbons and wrapping paper.
One Christmas I made cinnamon rolls and they were SO delicious... and SO MUCH WORK that I never did it again but it's become a tradition that every Christmas someone remembers how great they were.

JAN BROGAN - When the kids were little, I established a tradition of lighting the advent candle every Sunday evening in the four weeks leading up to Christmas. My mother was not super-religious and we never did anything with Advent when I was a kid, but when I was raising my kids I got so freaked out about the materialism of Christmas, I started this tradition  as an anti-dote.   Kids love tradition. So even though we are not a super-religious family, the kids still  usually insist we light the advent candle at least once.

HANK PHILLIPI RYAN: Hallie, I am laughing and laughing about the tradition of talking about something that you DON'T do. I LOVE that.
We have the tradition of telling the story of my mother's stuffing secret.
Every year, she'd make two holiday turkeys, on with oyster stuffing for the grownups (YUCK, we thought), and one with plain for us kids. Which we loved.
After years and years and years of this, when I was about 25, I was in the kitchen while she was stuffing the turkeys, and was terrified to see her put yucky oyster stuffing into BOTH turkeys.
AH! MOM!  yelled. You're putting..
Of course I am, she said. You think I'd actually make two kinds of stuffing? Never! And you kids had no idea.
And now the tradition is kept, yet again. Thanks, Reds.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Hank, laughing about the oyster stuffing. My family had two separate dishes, too, although in Texas it is "dressing", not "stuffing." But I LIKED the grown-up one with the oysters, so I don't know if my grandmother/mother/aunts cheated and put oysters in both!
Traditions, Rhys... We do stockings. Not as elaborate as the stocking of my childhood, which had apples, oranges, mixed nuts, and those wonderful hard curly or stripey candies (does anyone see those anymore?) as well as little treats. My daughter does my stocking now:-)
We do crackers, one of our adopted British customs. I try to read Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales on Christmas Eve. I used to read that and The Night Before Christmas aloud to my daughter, merging both sides of the Pond, but now I read to myself.

But for me, the big thing is the tree.  A real tree, please. Every year I have the plastic vs real argument with my hubby, but I won't budge. Christmas is not Christmas without going to the tree lot, finding the perfect tree, bringing it home and decorating it with all the sentimental ornaments collected since I was a child.  I love the twinkling lights, and the smell of fresh evergreen. Although I must say trees have improved a lot since the prickly, dried-out Scotch pines of my childhood.  Now we get beautiful firs that are so fresh that if we buy them the first weekend in December, they are still beautiful at New Year's. (Kept in water, of course.)

So who else would like to share a tradition, Christmas or otherwise?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Michael Sherer

JAN BROGAN - Please Welcome Michael Sherer today. After stints as a manual laborer, dishwasher, bartender, restaurant manager, commercial photographer, magazine editor and public relations executive, he decided life should imitate art. He’s now an author and freelance writer. Mike has published six novels in the award-winning Emerson Ward mystery series and a stand-alone suspense novel, Island Life, which was a USA Book News “Best Books” award-winner in 2008. Night Blind is the first of Mike’s new thriller series set in Seattle featuring Blake Sanders, and he’s working on the fourth in the series now. He’s also completed the first book in a YA thriller series.

He is giving away two free signed copies of NIGHT BLIND to two JRW blog readers chosen at random from the comments page and asks only that you check out his "Win a Kindle Fire HD" contest on his  website. www.

He'll also donate $1 for every copy sold as a result of reading the JRW blog to Sandy relief. Purchasers can message him on Facebook or Twitter to let him know.  His twitter handle is @MysteryNovelist. and Facebook subscribers can go to his author page: Michael W. Sherer, Mystery Author.

Mike grew up on a farm in northern Illinois, went to prep school and college “back east,” and lived in Chicago for 20 years. He and his family now reside in the Seattle area. You can also visit his web site d

Words Photo Credit: Manoj Vasanth, Flickr

The Power of Words
By Michael Sherer

Not long ago, I volunteered to give several presentations about writing to students at the local high school on career day. My own writing experience ranges from magazine features and public relations to novels and screenplays. I wanted to impress upon the students how many opportunities exist for them to find a career as a writer if that’s their interest or passion. Almost everything, I noted, from the instruction manual for their smart phones to the ingredient list and copy on a box of corn flakes uses written communication.

But I also wanted to imbue them with a sense of the importance of words, the power of language.
Listening to the radio one day a few weeks before my presentations, I heard a series of stories about words so captivating that I parked in a grocery store lot and sat there until the show ended.

The first segment, the story of how a deaf man discovered language for the first time at age 27, brought tears to my eyes. The second segment took the story in a new and fascinating direction. A researcher in England put rats into a white rectangular room and placed food in one corner. Before the rats were allowed to look for the food, however, researchers spun them around to disorient them. When they were released, they found the corner with the food in it about 50 percent of the time, which is what they expected.

Next, they painted one of the four walls blue, thinking that perhaps it would give the rats a visual cue, a navigational clue, such as, “the food is left of the blue wall.” When researchers repeated the experiment, however, the rats still chose the correct corner only half the time. Rats can see colors and have an excellent sense of direction, but they couldn’t put the two concepts—“blue” and “left”—together.

Another research scientist here in the U.S. took the experiment a step further. A Harvard psychologist specializing in children, she wondered if babies would be any better than rats at navigating using spatial cues. To her surprise, they weren’t. Like rats, young children understand what blue is, and they know one direction from another, but they can’t link the two concepts. She continued the experiment, progressively using older children and discovered that at about age 6, kids could solve the problem.

She theorizes that age 6 is about the time that children start using phrases like “left of the blue wall,” and that the act of using language links the two areas of the brain that understand the words “blue” and “left.” (Researchers confirmed the theory by taking the ability to use language away from adults in the same experiment—they performed the same as the rats and babies.)

The Old Library, Munmuseum of Utrecht, The Netherlands
What’s astonishing about research like this is that it suggests language doesn’t just allow us to communicate with each other. It also allows one part of the brain to communicate with another. Language, in other words (pun intended), allows us to talk to ourselves—to think. Without language, we would have perceptions, but no thoughts.

For a writer, that’s an extraordinary notion. First of all, language is a combination of words, and by combining words in new and different ways, we can not only communicate new ideas to others, but also influence the way they think. Talk about power… Shakespeare, for example, mashed words together in combinations no one had ever heard or seen before. (Many examples are given in another segment of this wonderful radio show.) And a large number of those word combinations are still commonly used today.

Can you imagine a world without words? A world without language?

The podcast is on Radiolab. If you haven’t heard it before, I highly recommend it.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Pauline Rowson

JAN BROGAN:  Please welcome Pauline Rowson to Jungle Red today. She is the 
 the author of two thrillers and the contemporary series of mystery novels featuring the flawed and rugged DI Andy Horton set in the Solent area on the South Coast of England. Her crime novels have  have been hailed as the ‘Best of British Crime Fiction’. They have an international readership and have been translated into several languages. Before becoming a full time writer she ran her own successful marketing, media and training company.


PAULINE ROWSON: Are crime writers psychopaths?

The relationship between writers and their characters takes many forms. Some of my characters irritate me, others entertain, some make me feel cuddly and comfortable, while others I positively loath. And some I love warts and all even my alpha male Detective Superintendent Steve Uckfield, head of the Major Crime Team, with all his disgusting habits.  But whatever the relationship between the creator and characters it should never be dull.

It’s easy to become a little bit obsessed with your characters. Oh, alright very obsessed and more so when writing a series because the main cast of characters are with me all the time, they are as much part of my life as real people, they occupy my thoughts throughout the day, but strangely enough I never dream of them. Perhaps there is hope for me yet and I’m not about to be carted off to the insane asylum.

I think about my characters a great deal. Where are they? What will they do next?  How will they react to this or that situation?  What is happening in their private lives as well as in the job?  What is their relationship with their colleagues? This is all good stuff because their actions, feelings and motivations drive the plot, which can be annoying especially if I think I’ve got the plotline all nicely worked out. They have the habit of throwing me right off course even to the extent that often when I thought I knew who ‘done it’, I discover the killer is someone completely different.  Do I hear the distant siren of an ambulance approaching? 

Thinking about your characters is not the same as thinking about your ‘real’ friends or the people you know because with your characters you are in control, you create their lives. Although, as I said, they can develop a habit of doing something that surprises you. Many writers are familiar with the old adage plot is character and character is plot, which makes it almost impossible to answer the question readers often ask me, what comes first plot or character? The two are inevitably and intrinsically intertwined.

So before you call for the men in white coats I assure you I am quite sane, well as sane as any writer (and especially a crime writer can be – after all we kill people for a living). Creating characters and their lives is a fascinating game, as many children know, and perhaps that's what a lot of us writers are - kids at heart. It’s either that or we’re closet villains or psychopaths. I know which I’d prefer.

While I don’t believe I am mentally deranged others might beg to differ, because … well, OK, yes I admit it I am a little in love with my fictional detective DI Andy Horton who is fair, fit, flawed and almost forty. But if this means I’m psychotic then where does it leave the mystery novel reader? How consumed are you by the characters you read about?  How real are they to you? Let me know because I might need to book you a space on the psychiatrist’s couch alongside me!

JAN: For more info on Pauline and her books, visit her website at
You can also follow Pauline Rowson on Twitter
Or visit her Marine Mystery Facebook Page

Friday, November 23, 2012

JAN BROGAN -   So this, the day after Thanksgiving, there are really only two things to talk about:  What to do with leftovers  - which we did yesterday, and Black Friday Christmas shopping.

Let me begin by saying, I am the world's worst shopper.  I am also the world's worst planner. This has always made Christmas difficult.  I could never get it together to start shopping today. Basically, I developed a holiday system that goes like this:  

1. No matter what the date, pretend Christmas is months away
2. When daughter complains it's getting late, allow her to do all the Christmas decorating.
3. Mean to send cards, but put it off so long that it becomes beside the point.  If someone I haven't heard from in years from sends me one, rush to store and buy one single Christmas card to send in reply.
4. Ritualize Christmas tree shopping so that it is always done on daughter's birthday. This way she either reminds me or offers to do it herself.
5. Agree to make Christmas candies at the very last moment at daughter's urging.
6.  Wait until the week before Christmas to start shopping. Thus run out of time before running out of money.
7. Recover from the materialism of Christmas by cooking a lot on Christmas day. For some reason it seems the perfect balm.

The system is not for everyone,  but it works for me.  But as you may imagine, this system does not allow for Black Friday shopping.  

So my question for you all is twofold: 

Have you every gone Christmas shopping on Black Friday and if so, why and was it worth it?
 Or do you have an alternate holiday system you'd like to share? 

LUCY BURDETTE: Oh Jan, your system would make me so anxious! What a lucky thing to have such a daughter to take over:). We are often traveling to see family or going to Key West or somewhere around the holidays, so that my preparations have contracted. One thing I can count on to help with the shopping list is the annual RJ Julia Booksellers member sale in November. I love this bookstore and love this sale, so a lot of presents are taken care of then! And I do collect stocking stuffers all year.

Black Friday shopping? Never! Hate those frantic crowds...

JAN: Yes, Lucy, I am extremely lucky to have such a daughter, for many reasons. Not least of which - besides her love Christmas and willingness to carry much of the burden, she is insanely organized all year round. (still trying to figure out how that happened.) 

HALLIE EPHRON: Shopping, sigh. Did you have to bring that up (she said, after returning from four trips to the grocery store and still needing to go back for another pint of heavy cream for Thanksgiving)?

Black Friday. I have never, will never ever shop it. First of all, I hate crowds. If I have to go to the mall, ever, I go on a Monday morning when the place opens. And I'm home no more than an hour later. 

Plus our Christmas exchange is very modest -- mostly stocking stuffers which I try to pick up through the year, though this year I have almost nothing in reserve. My husband told me what he wants and sent me the link. It's purchased. And like Jan, I make candy.

My son in law, whose family does exchange gifts, has a great system. He waits until Christmas eve and then heads out at dinner time to blitz it. It's like that old game show Beat the Clock -- what happens happens.

JAN: He sounds sounds like my kind of guy.

RHYS BOWEN: Life is much smoother since I discovered online shopping. Not only is it painless but they ship the presents to the right address. But I do send cards, around 100, since I like keeping in touch with friends around the world, and I love decorating. I have to confess that we finally got a fake tree. It looks wonderful but I miss the smell of fresh greenery. 

I also usually collect stocking stuffers all year but this year I have nothing! And it really bugs me when people want gift cards as presents. Nothing beats unwrapping a strangely shaped package, does it?

And John is one of those who can't get into the holiday spirit until about December 23. Then he asks "What does everyone want for Christmas?" and by then it's too late to buy it at a good price online.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Here's my 9-step system.

1. Buy Christmas cards. 
2. Plan to mail them.
3. It's too late.
4. NO! They can be New Years cards, all the better.
5. Missed that deadline, too.
6. Look on bright side, now I have cards for next year.
7. Put cards in safe place.
8. Forget where safe place is.
9. See number one. 

DEBORAH CROMBIE: You mean it's Christmas already??? I'm not ready! I'm never ready! And I never never never ever shop on Black Friday. I can't think of many things I would less rather do. I don't go in department stores very often under ordinary circumstances--they make me feel overwhelmed by STUFF--so I can't imagine doing it on that day. I like to shop online or in my small local stores, and we don't usually buy big gifts.

The Christmas cards are the tradition in our house.  I think Rick and I have made our own cards every year since we've been married. (There was the year I'd had dental surgery and, totally snockered on Vicodin, hand-stamped a gilded pear--from a handmade woodblock--on a hundred cards...) Then we started doing photo cards, and not the family grouping, but really beautiful photos. The last couple of years we've moved the photo card tradition to digital and are using Paperless Post.  I still buy a few paper cards to send to friends who don't have email.

Who knows what we'll do this year?  Maybe take up Hank's system?  

JAN: Hank, except for actually buying the cards, I totally endorse this system. 
Anyone else willing to share the holiday system that works for her/him?  And whether it includes  Black Friday shopping?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving - it's all in the writing!

JAN BROGAN:  As some of you may know I'm working on a historical novel and so, I'm a little obsessed with history these days. Still.. I thought on this national day of Thanksgiving, you might be interested to know that if it weren't for another writer -- the holiday might not exist.

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I know,  it was all the Pilgrim's idea, what with the three day feast with Wampanoag tribe who kindly, if perhaps not wisely, befriended them and showed the colonists how to grow corn and tap maple trees.  But that was 1623.  It didn't really become any kind of real holiday until New York became the first of several states to adopt it in 1817.  But even then, the random states that did celebrate it, celebrated on a different day and the southern states were pretty much in the dark about it.

 It wasn't until a noted magazine editor and "prolific writer' Sarah Josepha Hale, who apparently wrote the nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb" (which I had always assumed was British in origin) launched a campaign in 1827 to make Thanksgiving a national holiday.  What I find amazing is that she stuck with this mission for THIRTY SIX YEARS.  She wrote countless editorials and sent tons of letters to governors, senators, and presidents.  It wasn't until 1863 - in the height of the Civil War - that Abraham Lincoln decided she had a good idea.  In part to help "heal the wounds of the nation." Thanksgiving became a national holiday, set for the final Thursday in November.  Franklin D. Roosevelt would mess with the exact timing a century later.

So when you are giving thanks today,  send some to Sarah Josepha Hale's way and when you clink wine glasses today may one of your toasts be to the power and purpose of good writing! 

For more detailed info: check out

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!!

And if you have any good ideas for what to do with leftovers, please add them in the comments page!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Barbara Hambly on Naming Names

JAN BROGAN _  Since Barbara Hambly's  first published fantasy in 1982 – The Time of the Dark – she has touched most bases in genre fiction: her most recent vampire novel is The Magistrates of Hell (Severn House, 2012) and her most recent historical whodunnit, Ran Away, continues the well-reviewed Benjamin January series. She also writes historical mysteries as Barbara Hamilton (The Ninth Daughter, and its sequels A Marked Man and Sup With the Devil). In addition – when she can – she writes short fiction about the further adventures of characters from her fantasy novels of the ‘80s and ‘90s.


            How is it that the villain’s evil henchmen are always named things like Ugmush and Weevil?
            Did Mr. and Mrs. Orc, gazing adoringly upon their little hatchling, exclaim, “How cute he is! How dimpled and sweet! Let’s call him Ugmush!”
            Or is “Ugmush” Orcish for “Bright Hope”?
            (How would you tell?)
            I’m as guilty as anyone else in this department. I spend a lot of time over the names of my characters, trying on one after another, as if the names were reflections of – and clues to – their personalities.
            Villains are easy. You can tell Charles Dickens had a lot of fun in that department: names like Skimpole and Krook, Bumble and Scrooge and Dedlock, all reek of petty viciousness. Dickens had a beautiful knack for making extremely English-sounding names that were sly digs at those who labored under them. I try to do the same, with occasional (I think) success. In the Benjamin January series, I generally thumb through my well-worn glossary of archaic colonial English, to find words for vile things which I then make the names of slave-dealers in the stories, names like Gleet (a genital sore caused by venereal disease) or Mulm (the disgusting green amalgam of algae and fish-poo that develops at the bottom of an aquarium if you don’t clean it often enough).
   Heroes, sidekicks, and secondary characters (whom I persist in thinking of as “guest stars” thanks to WAY too much television as a child) require a different combination of euphony and likelihood. Though in Real Life people generally receive their names completely at random, in a novel, a hero has to sound like a hero… or at least not sound trivial. For whatever reason, and I’m not sure why, some names sound stronger than others. Not many people would take seriously a spy named Clarence Bond. Or Ted Bond. It could be done, but the writer of the book had better be damn good to carry it off. Yet Clarence, or Theodore, are perfectly good English names (along with such other rejects as Evelyn, Wilf, Howard, and Alfred).  And in fact they’d be fine for a secondary character – a cab-driver, or the friendly shlub that the villain kills in Chapter Two just to prove what a rotter he is.
            But not for the hero.
I have a whole shelf of name-the-baby books for this purpose, the best of which is Peoples’ Names, by Holly Ingraham (MacFarland Press), which was written for role-players and divides them up by nationality, gender, and, wonderfully, time-period. In the Middle Ages, nearly everybody was named Henry or Matilda. I’ll admit I’m a perfectionist, but nothing drops me out of a romance quicker than twelfth-century heroines named Brittany. When writing about that time-period, one has to work with a fairly small list of female names, though after the Protestant Reformation you get a slew of Biblicals and with the Renaissance you acquire all sorts of classical Greek and Roman options.
            The book also has typical last names (for those eras that used such things), but often I’ll either comb through research books for the names of contributers or archivists (Guillenormand       sounds, for some reason, a lot more authentically French than the usual fallbacks like LaSalle and Dumonde), or I’ll do what Georgette Heyer did, and look for place-names in an atlas. How much more English can you get than Marden or Kinver? Some people simply use telephone directories. I am frequently reminded of that scene in The Mighty Aphrodite, where Woody Allen and Helena Bonham Carter are trying to come up with a name for their adopted infant: Eric? Groucho? Phileas? Phileas is a guy who forecloses on a mortgage
            It’s a comfort to me to know that Dickens occasionally did what I do, and named all the major characters in the book names which start with the same letter (my editors are always getting on me for that): Smallweed, Snagsby, Summerson, Skimpole in the same tale. I catch myself doing that and then I have to fumfer around looking for another name that has the same “ring”. (My current project, one of the “guest stars” has gone through about seven different names. Either they just don’t sound quite right, or they’re too similar to somebody else’s in the same story.) (Or else I discover – with the same sort of “unconscious plagiarism” suffered by George Harrison when he wrote “My Sweet Lord” to a tune that turned out to be the old Chiffons hit, “He’s So Fine” – that the name that sounds so right, sounds so right because I’ve heard it someplace else, like Robert Morley or Thomas Wyatt or, famously, Ford Prefect. That’s where a quick pass through Google really helps).
            And of course, once you get into fantasy, all bets are off. Though I will say that random name-generators that simply mash letters, more often than not produce things that don’t sound like names. One can’t – or at least I can’t – imagine anyone’s friends really saying, “Hi, Mrsquipx, how’s it going?” Anyone who hangs out long enough on World of Warcraft is familiar with this phenomenon. Again, it’ll work occasionally for cab-drivers but not for the hero. And anyway, the last time I was putting together ideas for a fantasy, an editor told me that people seem to prefer those sort of almost-English names (like Bilbo, Frodo, Pippin and John Stark) that are easier to remember, rather than Azathoth and Frasticarion.
            Are other writers as OCD about their characters’ names as I am?
            Do other people fret and fuss and try them on and off like sweaters, trying to get them just right? (Margaret Mitchell called her heroine Pansy O’Hara all the way up to the final draft of Gone With the Wind… PANSY???)
            Often when I’m putting together a new story, the first day consists of just writing lists of names: Who ARE these people?
            Pansy O’Hara, meet Wilfred “Skippy” Bond…
            Where do you get your character names from? How important are names, anyway?

Barbara's short fiction  can be purchased via download from her website, She teaches History part-time, and if you’re interested in her views on the weather, her cats, World of Warcraft, and sometimes writing, you can read her blog at barbara_hambly@ She also does Twitter. Now a widow, she shares a house in Los Angeles with several small carnivores.