Tuesday, December 31, 2019

An Unexpected End to the Year

For the last few months I've been posting once a month on Ladies of Mystery, which has introduced me to several writers new to me as well as new readers. But this meant that I have sorely neglected by own blog. Today was meant to be a stab at catching up, abandoning bad habits and establishing a new practice for the coming year, but instead I find myself thinking of what a sad ending this year is for me and many of my friends.

Last week a writer on the North Shore who should have been much better known outside of this area died after many years of work and community activity. Peter Anastas had unappreciated gifts as a novelist, and gave generously to up and coming writers as they set out on a path he knew well. He also worked in social services at Action, Inc., known for his commitment to those less fortunate than the rest of us. I've read several of his books, and enjoyed his lectures and reminiscences of the poet Charles Olson and poet Vincent Ferrini, whom I also knew. He wrote incisively yet lovingly of Gloucester, his hometown, and the literature created by others in this area.

And then yesterday I learned of the death of another writer who wasn't known as a poet because he didn't publish much poetry but was nevertheless a writer and thoughtful reader of others. We were in the same book group for the last few years, and I learned a lot from him. His wife, Ellen, and I taught at the same college for a while. Doug Guidry listened and shared ideas about books, literature, ideas, and more. His comments were always intelligent and insightful, and he listened carefully to the rest of us.

This is not the way the year should end. We should be celebrating our achievements, the simple and not so simple--living another year; grappling with a knotty literary problem and confident in a new essay on a favorite writer; planning a trip to enjoy more of the world and meet new people; finding new challenges; settling down for a quiet afternoon of iced tea and family stories. Instead I look at the new year as unexpectedly bleak, bereft of two who contributed so much to so many in every conversation, every meeting.  I know we get over losses and move one; new writers come along to replace those who have left us. But some loom larger than others, and in the coming year I know there will be moments when I'll think, "Oh, Peter would know the answer to that," or "That's just what Doug was talking about," and I'll catch my breath and feel a twinge and my thoughts will wander to earlier times and lively conversations. And then I'll remember. 

It's too simple to say I hope all of us will have a year without sorrow and loss, but it's a human  even if it's a naive wish. And so I hope the new year will bring less pain and more joy to everyone.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Piracy and Copyright

Storytelling by Tumisu from Pixabay
At least twice a week, often more, I receive a Google Alert about the availability of one of my books, most recently titles in the Anita Ray series. Below the title might appear a web address that is unrecognizable (numitas.ga; gadsnela.cf; zilibega.gq, and more of the same) or the name of the supposed website that holds the book or even the edition. Apparently, there is a French edition of some of my books. I've had hundreds, perhaps thousands, of these Alerts, and I ignore them.

More recently I've been learning about piracy sites that hold copies for sale or loan. Open Library is one, and Kiss Library is another. I've sent take-down letters to the first one, and when I checked back, they had complied. When I returned later, some of the books were back up as eBook loans.

The first time I came across a piracy site and found my books there I was understandably upset. When I wracked my brain for how to counter this, I got a headache. Now, when I read threads with posts from writers who've just discovered this worm in the book pages, I recall how I felt but rarely engage. 

Most of the Google Alerts are, in my view, forwarding an effort to install malware on my computer. If out of curiosity I click on any of the fields, I'm sure I'll go to a nonsense page and, frustrated, log off, but by then it will be too late. The worm will be inside my computer. If I actually do reach a site with a pdf of one of my books, I expect it will be riddled with errors from some auto-correcting program, perhaps missing chapters, and be overall unreadable.  Any reader who goes this route in getting free novels deserves what they get--mostly nothing.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately because of the failure of the powers-that-be, mostly Congress, to take any action to protect the work of writers (and other creative workers). But I'm no longer surprised, not because they're incompetent (which may be true but is not the issue here) but because as lawyers (and so many of them have law degrees) they learned early on that the intent of the founding fathers was to keep the stream of knowledge, books, etc., flowing into the United States. The founding fathers believed that a new country desperately needed to have new ideas and ways of doing things accessible to the young citizenry. Hence, in the beginning, only books produced in the US had copyright protection, and even that was weak. Anything published overseas (with rare exceptions) could not be copyrighted in the US.

This may be the thinking (or lack thereof) behind the failure to regulate early on the social media sector before each company/platform became such a behemoth that it may now seem un-regulateable.

Those who write the law to protect writers and others are by training predisposed to doing as little as possible, believing it is better to have ideas flow freely, disseminated widely, than prevent citizens from having access to them in order to benefit one person, the creator of those ideas. The mindset of Congress does not favor the creator.

I don't know what can be done about this, but like most things, a growing rejection of the current thinking in Congress on these issues may wake up individual senators and representatives to eventually take action. But I'm not holding my breath.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Advice, the Long and the Short of It

By the time one of us publishes a novel, we’ve been fortunate enough to receive a fair amount of feedback from other readers and writers. Sometimes this advice takes the form of extensive, detailed notes, and at other times it’s a general reaction of liking or disliking the story or how it’s told. An early reader of my first mystery, Murder in Mellingham, said simply, “Could we get to the dirty deed sooner?” As an editor, she knew that merely moving up the murder would require a lot of other changes, all of which would improve the story.

Another of my first critiquers, Jim Huang, gave me several pages of single-spaced, typed comments. Yes, I was intimidated, but it was an enormous help. He gave me a lot to read and ponder, specific passages to rework or excise, and questions to answer. But one comment that I’ll never forget was ultra simple. “What’s this scene doing here?” Apparently, nothing useful.

Over the years I’ve learned to expect certain reactions from certain readers, and I look forward to those because I know they’ll put me on the right path and save me a lot of embarrassment. One friend can deliver the most important message in the shortest sentence. She once said, “It isn’t finished.” This stopped me in my tracks because, of course, I thought it was, as did several other readers. But I trusted her, so I thought about her comment at length, and she was right.

In Below the Tree Line, I was dealing with a new setting and new characters. Several Beta readers talked about the plot, when certain scenes should be beefed up or a character fleshed out. All of this was useful, but the best comment, at least for me, came from one reader in particular. The story revolves around Felicity O’Brien, who has recently taken over the family farm now that her father is too frail to do the work himself. She knows this land, has grown up here and worked the farm, all of which rests in the background. Then a friend said, “What is her life really like?” Out of that question grew an understanding of the role of the farming background. This had to be more than window dressing, a pretty landscape. I thought I knew this, but the reader’s comment indicated that I had failed to convey it well. Out of her comment came a change in how Felicity spent her days with an intent of showing the obvious to those who might know nothing about farms.

The more short stories or novels I write, the better I become as a writer, but also the more I understand that the length of the critique doesn’t matter. Sometimes the shortest critique contains the single idea that I need most. The fault in a story can usually be distilled into a few words, and understanding this can open up a raft of possibilities. As I choose one, I eliminate one problem but I may encounter others. Thinking about this reminds me of something Walter Mosley said during a talk at Crime Bake 2018. He said he knew a manuscript was finished when he identified a problem he couldn’t fix. But it was something he could get right in the next book.

Like many other writers, I usually want to make one more pass through the manuscript, but that isn’t always necessary. Sometimes the story really is complete. Being told when to stop is also an important comment from a reader.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Rob 4 Now in the Neighborhood

My husband and I have lived in this house over thirty years, during which time I’ve watched the neighborhood change in the usual ways—older folks moving on and younger families moving in, new houses on once-empty lots, repaved streets and new sidewalks, and more trees. I knew my immediate neighbors and knew about others farther out. But since our beloved dog died in May 2018, I’ve expanded my view of this community.

My husband prefers the name Rob for every dog, so we’re now on Rob 4. But before that he bonded so completely with Rob 2 that we were both devastated when he died. He was a rescue dog who was four or five years old when we got him, from a foster parent who thought we were too old for him. He was sweet, good-natured, and rarely ate my shoes. But he was a handful. When he died, we tried replacing him but Rob 3 bit someone, and needed massive amounts of training, which we helped arrange. The crisis included a broken arm for my husband, followed by PT. It also meant waiting quite a while for his arm to heal before getting another dog.

For the last twelve months people have stopped him every day, sometimes three or four times a day, asking about Rob 2 and Rob 3 and his arm. These people are sometimes neighbors down the street, at the other end of the neighborhood, from across town, or out of town. But all saw him walking the dog day and night (and that means sometimes at three in the morning). Where was the dog, what happened to Rob 2, and when will there be a new one? (My favorite was a young woman who turned her car around and came back to say, My mother wants to know about your dog.)

Well, we’ve had Rob 4 less than two weeks, and now I know what Michael was going through. I walk the dog occasionally, and almost every time someone asks, Is this Rob 4? Young men in their twenties stop mowing the lawn to take a look, women wave from across the street, and men and women slow down while driving past so they can ask, Is this Rob 4? Smiles and waves follow.

Who are these people? I’ve never seen most of them before, and I had no idea so many people were following the ongoing saga of my husband and his dog. They all seem to know who I am, but even so, I’m thinking of getting a t-shirt suggested by a friend, which would read: 

Susan 1
Mother of Rob 4

What does this have to do with crime fiction and writing? Well, if you insist . . . 

Consider how hard criminals try to conceal what they’re up to, and consider the number of people (probably in the hundreds by now) who kept track of a man whose last name they didn’t know while he recovered from a broken arm and searched for a new rescue dog. It’s enough to make an honest person out of anyone considering a life of crime.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Historical Mysteries and the Perfect Detail

For a recent TBT I pulled out a couple of photos from my childhood, in the 1950s. This reminded me that novels now written about that period are considered historical fiction. I’ve written only one historical mystery story, which was set in the mid 1800s featuring a writer famous at the time, Lucy Larcom, as my protagonist. I had to look up a few details for my story and got some others wrong, but since I lived through the 1950s, I wondered what I would look up to ensure accuracy for that, more recent period.

According to an old definition, a time period is only considered historical if it predates the life of the writer. Choosing the 1950s, for me, wouldn’t count as historical fiction. Perhaps the definition is influenced on whether or not the writer is writing from inside the time period, and thus wouldn’t include explanations for aspects she thought were obvious. 

When I read stories set in an earlier time the historical markers I notice most are music and movies, or if the story in question is pre World War One, then perhaps dress and language or etiquette. The writer also has to cover issues like transportation and diet.

There are some practices that never seem to show up in 1950s stories that come to mind first for me. Some of these are probably specific to New England and our Puritan heritage. First, no one cut the lawn on Sunday. Even if you didn’t attend church, you maintained a proper respect for the day and kept down the noise and labor. On Sunday you went down to the drugstore to collect the Sunday papers even if you had the newspaper delivered every day for the rest of the week. And often you didn’t collect the paper until after the first church service whatever the denomination.

The hour for some Protestant churches bowed to the summer interest in sailing, in certain parts of New England. Church services moved from 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. so sailers could get out on the water sooner.

Good historical fiction depends on the wisely chosen detail integrated into the story. Lucy Larcom may have been a real person, one of the first American women to make a living as a writer, but readers today probably wouldn’t enjoy her poetry. She’s been largely forgotten. And the music of the 1950s won’t come readily to mind for those whose musical experience and interests don’t go beyond Elvis Presley or the Everly Brothers.

What will trigger a memory in someone raised in that time period and what will seem to authenticate the illusion of the period for someone born much later can be two very different historical details. Finding the right one no matter how the writer relates to the period is the key to a persuasive, immersive setting. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2019


In revising my current work in progress, I found I focused more on the way a character slips a clue into the conversation or drops a telling point while engaged in an irrelevant activity and less on the dialogue itself.

In every conversation, in life and in fiction, two interlocutors have different goals. They could be lovers or best friends or enemies or co-workers—any two individuals—and no matter their relationship, each wants something different. This may not be spelled out for the reader, or even for the writer, but if the character has authenticity he or she will want something specific.

Consider a conversation between two co-workers who are on a team to develop a program for a fundraiser. They both want the fundraiser to succeed because if it doesn’t, each one will look bad but also their jobs may be in jeopardy. But under that umbrella are hidden other interests. One may be acutely aware of his subordinate position on the committee and want desperately to show what he can do. Another might be aware that there is a general air of competition around them, and this makes her nervous. She wants to focus on the work, and not on the interpersonal problems. Another member of the team may be struggling with a crush on one of the others and think twice or thrice on everything he says in order to not make a bad impression. And together they and the rest of the team have to come up with a plan. They agree on the over-arching goal but nothing else.

Two women have lunch together, and both work as editors in different publishing houses. But one wants to quit and find something less stressful to do, while the other is hankering after a raise and ways to impress her boss. As colleagues, it’s important they get along, but they are at opposite ends of the professional spectrum now.

One of the ways I ensure my characters sound different as they work their way through the dialogue is to match their vocabulary with their feelings. Of the two editors, only one will feel “trashed,” her suggestions “ripped to shreds,” and her editing “picked apart.” The other woman will hear instead which passages “missed the mark in her comments to the author,” and look for more sensitive phrasing she can use in her work. In her conversation, she wants “possibilities,” but not “dead ends” or “corners” with no way out.

The competitive co-worker on the fundraising team may be looking for a colleague’s weak spot by listening for “not sure that will work” or “we haven’t tried that before for a reason,” all those phrases that suggest timidity. This is his opening, and he’ll take it with “we can make this work” and “I’ve got a great strategy for this” enthusiasm.

For a mystery writer, any dialogue can be an exchange of significant information between a character and the reader, but it is different between the characters themselves, and that’s what I try to keep in mind as I write and revise.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Naming Characters

Revising my current work-in-progress requires one or two new characters, so I’m trying to come up with names that suit their role and personality. This is a task that is both fun and important. The wrong name can make the character feel like a misfire in the story, and throw off the reader.

Some years ago I submitted a manuscript to an editor I knew who had accepted other work from me, and when she returned it she pointed out that all the character names began with the letter P. Until she wrote that, I hadn’t noticed. How had I missed that? I was clearly in a rut.

Over the years I’ve tried whatever name comes to mind, which is what often leads to characters with the same initial letter, the same cultural background, or names so similar that they confuse the reader. Then I tried a couple of name generators, but they tended to produce names all from the world of WASPs.

Like any writer I have various print resources, including a book that brags it has 15,000 baby names organized by language, ethnicity, gender, and including definitions and some famous individuals by them. Reading through these lists can be fun and distracting, and not always productive.

Did you know that Mhairie, Scottish from the Hebrew Miryam, means “bitterness,” “rebellion,” and “wished-for child.” The last definition is lovely, but a child carrying the first one could resent her parents mightily. Dyami means “eagle” in a Native American language, and would perhaps carry the child to great heights.

Most of these techniques or devices didn’t satisfy me. When I used what I thought was an easy to accept but unusual name, one of my Beta readers struggled with it, so out it went. And yet I see more and more in print names that I’ve never encountered before and whose origins I can't begin to identify—a sign of our expanding world and cultural environment but one that doesn’t really help me.

Instead of looking around me for the perfect name I’ve taken a closer look at the character and tried to get a name that seems to speak about who he or she is. Hence the main character in the first book of my new series, Felicity O’Brien, is both Irish and endowed with happiness and occasionally bliss, but also with a love of knowing. She is the daughter of women who also bore unusual names that spoke to their character. Her mother, Charity, is shown to have an especially generous heart in the first book. Not every character has an unusual name, but I enjoyed calling the owner of the local sawmill Dingel Mantell, and his daughter Padma. 

Names that were once common seem unusual to us now, even idiosyncratic and peculiar, and among these I often find just the right one for a particular character. This is a task in the writing of a novel or short story that seems obstructive when I want to get writing, but in the end I generally feel so comfortable with the person I've uncovered with the appropriate name that I count the time well spent.