Thursday, November 30, 2017

Going to the dark side of crime writing with Kate Clark Flora

HALLIE EPHRON: Kate Clark Flora was probably the first mystery writer I met when I was publishing my first crime novel. An attorney turned novelist who wrote the wonderful Thea Kozak series, she generously welcomed me to the fold. Her FINDING AMY, a true crime, was an Edgar Award finalist. 

Kate has found a special niche for herself, helping cops tell their stories, both as true crime and in novel form with her Joe Burgess series. 

Her new book, Shots Fired: The Misunderstandings, Misconceptions and myths about Police Shootings, written with Joseph K. Loughlin, is a journey “behind the shield” which highlights the experiences of the real human beings in the line of fire. 

I'm in awe of the authenticity in her work. Today she shares with us where that authenticity comes from.

KATE FLORA: The reading community we write for is an informed and demanding one, so we all have to do research for our books. Because I write police procedurals and about real crime, some of my research tends to be quite dark. 

I was looking for a reference book on my shelf recently, and scanning the contents reminded me that a stranger, knowing little about me and what I do, might be taken aback by my collection. I’m the person who goes to a library book sale and is delighted to score a criminalistics textbook. I read an article in a recent New Yorker and immediately ordered a book about geographic profiling, only to find that I already have David Canter’s Mapping Murder on my shelf. Every book I write has research files, and I have a file of old New Yorker articles on fascinating subjects like using soil to track where a killer has been.

Sometimes these books are things I read out of curiosity; sometimes, they related to the actual work I’m doing. For example, when I was working with retired Portland, Maine deputy chief Joe Loughlin on a book about Amy St. Laurent’s murder, Finding Amy, there was trial testimony from a forensic entomologist about the fly larvae found with the buried body. I had recently read M. Lee Goff’s A Fly for the Prosecution, so I had a great reference for helping me illuminate the expert’s testimony. 

Also very helpful in writing the scenes about the forensic exhumation was an entire notebook about the process put together for me by a police detective down in Delaware. He created it for a fictional mystery that’s never been published, but it was waiting for me when I needed it for a real crime.

Other books on the shelves have come to me through conversations while I’m doing research. Sometimes I have a conversation with a detective, and order up a book he suggests. That happened when a detective in the Miramichi, New Brunswick police department was walking me through the slides he uses to teach interviewing technique at the police academy. Our conversation led me to Mark McClish’s book, I Know You Are Lying: Detecting Deception Through Statement Analysis. Listening to small language choices the interviewee makes can be very illuminating, as in the moment when the suspected killer in my true crime, Death Dealer, speaks about his missing wife in the past tense.
Once, after a conversation with a Portland detective about interviewing technique, I ran into my local police chief. He asked what I was working on, and I told him about the detective and some of the things he’d told me. 

“It’s all flavor of the month,” he said. “I’ll send you a book.” A few hours later, a patrol car stopped and the officer handed me a wonderfully informal, and informative self-published book by a Rochester, NY detective, Lt. Albert Joseph, Jr, called We Get Confessions.

After reading Gavin DeBecker’s The Gift of Fear, I found myself late one night sitting in a jail up in New Brunswick, waiting to do a ride-along, and discussing the book with another officer. It, and the companion book, Fearless, are great books about trusting instinct and learning to be safe and resilient.

Because I write with, and about cops, in my Joe Burgess police procedural series and in my nonfiction, I have an entire shelf about cops. One of the great books is Mark Baker’s Cops, another Adam Plantinga’s 400 Things Cops Know. Another, not for the faint of heart but worth getting from the library, is Practical Homicide Investigation

For anyone interested in police shootings in the cops’ own words, I just finished co-writing, with retired Deputy Chief Joseph Loughlin the book Shots Fired: The misunderstandings, misconceptions, and myths about police shootings.
There are books about the criminal mind, crime scene investigation, and methods of murder. Sometimes, I carry my enthusiasm too far. Once, while I was cooking for a dinner party, my husband suggested that having a book about plant poisons open on the counter when the guests arrived might not be a good idea. Another time, invited by a library in New Hampshire to talk about “The Dark Side of Crime Writing,” I had happily embarked on a talk about dissection of the liver before I realized that readers might not really to need to know all that goes into making the sausage to enjoy it.

I wonder—are your bookshelves as dark as mine? What are your go-to books for crime writing?

Maine native and recovering attorney Kate Clark Flora writes true crime, strong women, and police procedurals. Led Astray is her latest Joe Burgess police procedural; Death Warmed Over is her latest Thea Kozak mystery. Her fascination with people’s bad behavior began in the Maine attorney general’s office chasing deadbeat dads and protecting battered children. In addition to her crime fiction, she’s written two true crimes and a memoir with public safety personnel, and most recently Shots Fired: The Misconceptions, Misunderstandings and Myths About Police-Involved Shootings, co-written with former Portland assistant chief Joseph Loughlin, and a story in a collection entitled, The Obama Inheritance. Flora has been an Edgar, Derringer, Agatha and Anthony finalist and twice won the Maine literary award for crime fiction. 

HALLIE: This sent me scurrying to my office bookshelf where I keep my reference books...
  • Magic and Showmanship: A Handbook for Conjurers by Henning Nelms
  • An Actor Prepares by Stanislavski
  • Whistlin' Dixie: A Dictionary of Southern Expressions by Robert Hendrickson
  • The Handbook of Doll Repair & Restoration by Marty Westfall
Kate will be here today to answer your questions and chat about her passion for telling it like it is when it comes to police and the challenges they face. 

I'm wondering, for a start, what she thinks the biggest misconception is about police work.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Partying thoughtfully with Robyn Harding

HALLIEEPHRON: When I was at Surrey International Writers Conference in Vancouver this year, I met Robyn Harding. It's one of the great pleasures of going to writing conferences, meeting people that you then want to introduce to your friends. 

Robyn is the author of The Party 
(June 2017, Scout Press/Simon & Schuster), as well as four contemporary women's novel, a young adult novel, and a comedic memoir.

Oh, yeah, she's also a screen writer.

...AND the mother of teenagers. 

So she was perfectly equipped to write about a good daughter, caring parents, and the aftermath of a Sweet Sixteen that tears a family apart. The Booklist reviewer called it "a cross between Megan Abbott and Jodi Picoult by way of James Patterson." Not too shabby and right up my alley!

Welcome, Robyn! Please tell this story isn't part memoir.

ROBYN HARDING: When the mother of two teenagers writes a book about an incident of teen drinking gone horribly wrong, readers tend to make assumptions. Firstly, they think the book is about the author and her family. 

“Are you Kim?” they ask me, delighted to think that I am secretly an uptight, semi-adulterous, control freak. “Is your daughter a sneaky drinker? Do you and your husband keep secrets from each other?” 

I assure them that the book is fiction. We are a normal family, and, while far from perfect, we are significantly less messed up than the characters in The Party.

Secondly, readers think that I must have a strong, informed stance on teen drinking, that I must have answersSadly, I don't.

When my eldest became a teen, I was strict. There were no parties under my roof. If my son was invited to a get-together, I asked about parental supervision. I never supplied him with liquor, and I did random sniffs of his breath and his water bottle for telltale signs of drinking. 

When he turned 18, he was accepted into university in Montreal, where the legal drinking age is 18 (it is 19 in Vancouver where we live). I would be sending my baby to a city, 3,000 miles away, where he could legally drink. Where he could go to bars and nightclubs.

Suddenly, I feared my strict alcohol policy had failed him. He should have practiced! At home! Where I was just a phone call away, if he got sick, or needed a ride . . . or bail!

My daughter is in twelfth grade, now. I find myself being slightly more lenient with her. She goes to parties, on occasion. We talk about setting limits with booze, about pacing herself, about eating a substantial dinner, and drinking water between alcoholic beverages (things I learned the hard way).

The scenario in The Party, while fictitious, was inspired by numerous real-life cases where well-meaning parents paid an enormous price when teen drinking went wrong. 

As a writer, I wasn’t sure I wanted to tell such a disturbing tale, to shepherd these characters from one disaster to the next. But I knew this was a book that I would want to read. And I felt it was an issue that would make for compelling drama.

So now, I have written a novel about teen drinking, but I am no expert. I think every kid is different. Zero-tolerance might illicit respectful compliance in one child and drive another one to rebel. Being a “cool” parent might prompt moderation in some kids, while others would take the freedom to extremes. 

I hope that this novel will get parents t
o talk: to each other, and to their teens. . ..

Whether that is over a cup of tea or a glass of wine, is up to them.

I have two daughters so this resonates with me. You do what you can to endow them with common sense and resourcefulness, but then you have to let go and allow them make their own mistakes. Add alcohol to the mix, and all bets are off. 

So what do you think? How did your parents introduce you to alcohol and help you deal with drinking when you came of age (and before)? 

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Steven James, the consummate story blender

HALLIE EPHRON: I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed on  The Story Blender, a fantastic podcast hosted by Steven James and featuring interviews with storytellers of all stripes. 

Steven is a masterful storyteller in his own right. He is a national bestselling and award-winning author of fourteen pulse-pounding thrillers featuring FBI Special Agent Patrick BowersPublishers Weekly calls him a “master storyteller at the peak of his game.” 

He is also insightful about the art of storytelling, and wrote Story Trumps Structure.

Welcome Steven! When and how did you come up with the idea for The Story Blender, and who have been some of your top "gets" in terms of storytellers?

STEVEN JAMES: I think that every great story is a combination of factors: audience engagement, emotional resonance, escalation, desire, causality, and more. The blend of those ingredients differs for different art forms (oral storytelling, film and fiction, for instance) but everyone loves a great, well-told story.

So, The Story Blender has been my opportunity to pick the brains of some of the best storytellers out there and uncover the secrets to what makes their stories so powerful. 

I’ve been really honored by all the guests who’ve joined me. I particularly enjoyed speaking with screenwriter Mark Bomback (from the recent Planet of the Apes movies), sand artist and storyteller Joe Castillo, comedian Bob Stromberg, and international best-selling authors Jeffery Deaver, Sue Grafton, and Sandra Brown.  

And, of course, you, Hallie!

HALLIE: You write pulse-pounding thrillers. And you teach and write about storytelling. What is the one piece of advice you'd give to aspiring thriller writers?

STEVEN: Suspense is created not by what you conceal from readers but by what you reveal to them. Sometimes authors will tell me, “I didn’t want to give too much away and I wanted to create suspense so I didn’t tell the readers about—whatever it might be.”

That’s how you create mystery (and appeal to curiosity) but not how you create suspense (which increases apprehension). When readers are aware of impending peril that a character is not aware of (and they have concern for that character), they’ll feel anxiety. So, let readers see the bomb under the table, the killer lurking in the basement, the terrorist putting on his suicide vest, but keep that information from the characters who might suffer. In this way, you create suspense by revelation of danger to readers, but concealment to characters. 

HALLIE: The title of one of your books on writing is STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE. What do you mean by that?

STEVEN: Regarding story structure, some stories have one act (for instance, one-act plays), some have two (most sitcoms), some have three, others four or five (like Shakespeare’s plays), and so on. For every storytelling “rule” there are notable exceptions. 

All stories involve some sort of pursuit, but how many chapters or acts or pages that takes depends more on the obstacles that the characters encounter and their subsequent choices than it does on a fill-in-the-blanks plot template.

So, rather than teach a plot formula I’m trying to help authors and screenwriters understand the principles of storytelling. 

Also, I write organically, without an outline, and there hasn’t really been a practical book for those who use this approach on how to do it. I believe that the more you understand what lies at the heart of a great story, the less you’ll need to outline and the less you’ll need to write “by the seat of your pants.”

HALLIE: You've written nine books featuring FBI agent Patrick Bowers. The early titles were OPENING MOVES. Then THE PAWN. Then THE ROOK. Can you talk about chess (a sedate game, played mostly while seated) and how that sparked stories packed with riveting suspense and action?

STEVEN: Ha! I’ve never been asked that question before. 

When I was beginning the series I was drawn to the idea of strategy and trying to get one step ahead of your opponent—in chess, as well as in an investigation. Cat and mouse intrigue. Move/countermove. That’s what drew me to the idea.

Also, for marketing purposes, I thought it would be intriguing to write a book for each piece on the board so that readers could try to collect them all. So, it’s been fun to hear from fans of the series as they anticipated what book would come next. 

HALLIE: When you started writing about Bowers, did you have any idea how many books about him that'd be writing?

STEVEN: I had the dream of perhaps completing the chess board, but no real anticipation that I would. As time progressed and readers responded to the series, it grew book by book, chess piece by chess piece. 

I’m now working on a spinoff series of sequels that includes my latest EVERY DEADLY KISS. 

I realized recently that I’ve written nearly 1.4 million words about Patrick Bowers and he’s still an intriguing character to me. 

HALLIE: You teach a writing retreat with Bob Dugoni, one of my favorite authors and a brilliant teacher. How did that start, and where can people find out more about it? 

STEVEN: Many years ago when I first started writing I became a contributing editor to an inspirational magazine. One weekend the publishing company flew eight of us out for a weekend retreat at a bed and breakfast.

In those three days in that small community with an informed and talented editor, I learned more about writing than I ever had before.

After becoming a novelist myself, I decided to try to recapture that atmosphere by hosting a four-day writing intensive for other novelists. I lead the first by myself and it was a crazy amount of work. So I asked Bob--who's one of the best writing instructors I've ever met--if he would team up with me.

Thankfully he did. We've now taught eight of the intensives together and the response has been phenomenal.

The intensives are limited to twelve participants. Bob and I critique up to fifty pages of each person’s work in progress. We rent a bed and breakfast for everyone and spend four days going through the manuscripts and lecturing—nearly 20 hours of teaching. The success stories of authors who’ve been published and signed with agents has been inspiring.

Information on the seminar and how to get on the invitation list can be found at

HALLIE: So what think? Is reading a great suspense novel like watching a brilliant chess match? What blend keeps you turning the pages? 

Monday, November 27, 2017

The way we ate

HALLIE EPHRON: I was in the supermarket last week, loading my cart for Thanksgiving and thinking about the foods I once enjoyed. 

Start with canned soup. 

  • Chicken noodle soup, salt water with very soft noodles and the occasional chicken shred. (37% of DV salt) Still my go-to food (with ginger ale) when I've got a cold. 
  • Canned condensed mushroom soup (9% of DV fat; 36% DV sodium) plus a ton of butter makes the most delicious scalloped potatoes; I made them the first time I cooked for my to-be-husband, and I credit it for hooking him.
  • Casserole of green beans, canned mushroom soup, and canned fried onions (a 2-tablespoon serving of fried onions: 45 calories, of which 30 are fat); sadly this was never a tradition in my family; we gussied up our green beans with a little sugar, butter, and toasted almonds.
  • Cheddar cheese soup on a baked potato (36% DV sodium; half of its calories are fat)
  • Lipton onion soup dip (one serving: 25% of daily sodium allowance, and of course it's best with full-fat sour cream)

Then there's the sweet stuff I once craved:

  • Sweet potato casserole with marshmallows (1/2 cup of miniature marshmallows contains nearly 15 grams of sugar—that's nearly 4 teaspoons)
  • Canned fruit cocktail--should be called sugar cocktail--one serving contains 16 grams of sugar/30% DV.
  • Twinkies (one contains 19 grams of sugar – that's 5 teaspoons)

What are your comfort foods from way back when, and 'fess up: do you indulge when no one's watching?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I used to make Chicken Kiev, my go-to. Fettucini Alfredo. Often served those together! Now they're sort of heart attack food, fried stuff and cheese and cream and butter, you know? 

Cheese fondue! Absolutely. And Beef fondue, with fresh mushroom sauce, which was really reallly reeeaaallllyyy good.  

As a kid, I loved Campbells Chicken Gumbo soup, for some reason, even with the semi-slimy okra. Fritos. OOh, the five layer dip, with salsa, beans, cheese, guac and sour cream. AND Fritos. Triscuits. Cinnamon toast!  I also loved Nehi Grape soda.  AND Bacos.  And Grapenuts.  

Now it's all too carby. Not sure this list makes any sense, and now I don't eat any of it. but it's making me truly hungry.

INGRID THOFT: I still love Grapenuts, although I don’t eat them as often as I used to, given the “too carby” element that Hank noted.  When we were young, my oldest sister would mix up batches of onion dip using the Lipton Onion Soup Mix, and we’d polish off bags of Cape Cod Potato chips without a second thought.  

I also remember having large servings of Brighams chocolate chip ice cream.  I still enjoy the occasional scoop, but it was the sheer quantity that boggles my mind.  

A comfort food that is yummy, but makes my arteries hurt just thinking about it?  Francheesys: hot dogs stuffed with sliced American cheese, smothered in canned tomato soup and baked in the oven.  Yum!

JENN McKINLAY: Used to enjoy? I’m not sure I understand the question. Are we supposed to give up the foods that make life worth living? No, just no. 

I still eat fluffernutter sandwiches (marshmallow fluff and peanut butter), sour cream and cheddar potato chips, and Hostess sno-balls, preferably pink. Essentially, aside from our evening meal served with two veggies and a salad to make sure everyone is getting their greens, I still eat like I’m in middle school. I don’t see it changing any time soon. And now I have Ingrid’s Francheesys to add to the menu!

RHYS BOWEN: Lipton Onion soup dip! Mmmm. Still yummy. I was never a fan of green bean casserole (having not grown up with it) nor of those jello/Cool Whip and fruit concoctions which I was never sure were supposed to be salad or dessert. 

But I do crave fish and chips occasionally, even though it has a week's worth of calories, and a cream tea, and a full English breakfast. I eat one every morning when we stay at our club in Club in London and even sin even more by having an occasional slice of fried bread (fried in bacon fat, of course). But I was never a fan of Twinkies or any of those Little Debbie products my kids used to beg for in their lunches.

John and I eat simply and healthily most of the time so I do allow myself the occasional treat (bacon for Sunday breakfast. Salted caramel lice cream sometimes) As Jenn pointed out, life has to be worth living! 

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I am SO boring. My family never ate much junk food to begin with--my mom and grandmother were both good from-scratch cooks--and by the time I was in my teens my mom had become a certified Health Nut. AND I discovered I didn't get along with MSG. 

Which meant no canned soups or dip mixes or a hundred other things. I did have Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup when I was sick, with ginger ale, and we still keep some in the pantry for under-the-weather emergencies.  And I did adore Fritos. I don't buy them but will give into temptation if they're served at a party!

Rhys, you can't imagine how much I hated Little Debbie anything! Too many years of being called "Little Debbie Cupcake!"

LUCY BURDETTE: Yes on the Lipton onion soup dip only I preferred it with Ruffles. Throughout grad school when I was studying late, I'd live on that dip and chips plus Pepsi. Pepsi! I despise Pepsi now. Sadly can't eat the other stuff because of the salt.

My mother cooked everything with cans or packets of soup. Pot roast (onion), meat loaf (alphabet vegetable), sloppy Joes (tomato). Lots of hot dogs, oh and that reminds me, I used to love salami sandwiches with sweet gherkins and potato chips on them

And sad to say when John and I got married and I inherited his kids, we fed them awful things...rice a roni, many packets of orange mac and cheese, and boboli pizza rounds with jarred sauce. Luckily for all of us, we also had a vegetable garden!

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Boboli pizza rounds! I had forgotten those, Lucy. Shoot, I used to feed my kids that every Friday, also with jarred sauce (and sauted green peppers.) My mother also had a whole repertoire of meals made with canned and dried soups. I confess; I still make He-Man Tuna Noodle Ding Dong with good old Cream of Mushroom soup and sour cream. I do omit the crushed potato chip topping.

My mother has since gotten very into healthy cooking, and I have definitely drifted that way as well. I suspect the junky things we ate as kids were perfectly okay for us - the reason we've set them aside is because we're watching our blood pressure/weight/cholesterol level/stomach acids. Ah, to be young and mainlining Coke and M&Ms with no consequences...

HALLIE: So do canned and packaged soups still have a place in your cupboard and on your table? Do you still crave the occasional Twinkie? And when's the last time you had onion soup dip and you polished off a bag of Fritos?? 

Share fond memories of health-threatening foods.