Month: February 2014

The Joy of Rewriting

As a general rule, you shouldn’t find a corpse laying about in the morgue, days after it’s been buried. It is entirely possible that you’d spot a corpse in the morgue prior to a funeral, but, after the funeral, that would be unusual. And yet, that’s what I did. I set a scene in the morgue several days after the funeral. And I didn’t notice that the dead body didn’t belong there.  Fortunately, my editor did.

That is just one of the many useful things about having a good editor.

I’m spending this week, and probably next week as well, rewriting my latest manuscript to address this, and other astute comments from my editor. And, as soon as the contracts have been executed, I’ll have something more to say about the stand-alone mystery with the working title, Death and White Diamonds.


Courtship in the Age of Viagra (A Valentine’s Day re-post)

Sy looked up from his linguini and white clam sauce and asked, “So ladies, vhat do you t’ink?”  His aging fingers fumbled at his jacket pocket, revealing a bottle of little blue pills.
Avoiding his lecherous gaze, the twins giggled and continued eating their lobsters.
“But don’tchou never t’ink you vould vant to try somet’ing just a little different?”
The twins hid behind their lobster tails, giggling with restraint.  Helen, the older of the two, dressed in a conservative wool skirt, cotton blouse and orthopedic shoes, her silver hair tied up in a bun, was embarrassed by the audacity of her sister’s dinner companion.  Widowed three years, Helen had been married to the same man for almost five decades.  They had made love one way for all those years and never once discussed whether or not either of them ‘vanted to try somet’ing different.’  And now, her sister’s dinner date seemed to be suggesting some as yet unspecified sexual adventure.  And at their age, no less.  It was undignified.
Ellen, younger by ten minutes, wearing her best lavender polyester pants suit and gold stick pin, melted butter on her chin sparkling in the candlelight, found Sy’s suggestion exciting.  Ellen had never been married.  She was seventy-five years old and had never made love, except one time that didn’t count, she told herself, one time, lasting nearly a decade, with her sister’s late husband.
She looked Sy over carefully before responding.  He was an attractive if somewhat flamboyant man, healthy and robust for a man approaching eighty, still with his own teeth, a full head of hair and a handlebar moustache.  He was wearing green plaid slacks, a green shirt, green blazer and bright red bow tie.
“I know what you mean Sy.  We’re not supposed to feel anything at our age, and most of the time I don’t, but every now and then I still want to feel…”  Ellen’s voice trailed off, barely a whisper now, “a man inside me.”
Helen was aghast.  “Wha…wha…,” she tried unsuccessfully to form a coherent thought.  Events rolled on without her.
“Oy, vell I hope, if I may be so bold, you vould maybe feel that vay tonight?”  Sy struggled with the pill bottle.  “I can still stand erect maybe one time each month, but I t’ink tonight maybe I should take two pills.  In case your sister vants to join us.”
“No Sy, my sister won’t be joining us.  Just talking about it, you’re going to give poor Helen a coronary.”  Ellen smiled coyly.  “Here, let me help you with that.”  She reached across the table, unloosing the cap.  “Happy Valentine’s Day, Sy.”

It’s almost like an airport

There are two planes, I texted. It’s almost like an airport. Trenton-Mercer is a general aviation airport that has long flirted with commercial opportunities. Only one commercial airline operates out of Trenton, flying to a limited number of cities, with flights scheduled only a couple of days each week. In light of the havoc that weather has inflicted on air travel this winter, it was risky to book this particular flight from Trenton to Chicago. But everything went off as scheduled, and on Thursday night, I was safely in Chicago, sipping scotch and eating a braised short rib crepe, served in a cumin and red pepper broth, topped with a poached egg.

I was in Chicago for Love is Murder, one of my favorite mystery writers’ conferences. It’s a three-day conference, but I would be in Chicago for only a day and a half. Still, I had enough time to attend a couple of excellent panel discussions on the art and the business of writing, to catch up with old friends and new and to discuss the path to publication for my new manuscript.

By Saturday, I was back at the airport, destination Washington D.C.  It was snowing at O’Hare. Whatever I saved on Thursday flying from Trenton to Midway, I gave it back and more on Saturday, flying from O’Hare to Reagan. The good news is, the ticket was so expensive it only cost an extra $50 to upgrade to first class.

I landed at Reagan at 6:30. At 7:00, I walked into Blues Alley. Carol and Josh were there already. I had time for a drink and a plate of jambalaya and then, at 8:00 for an extraordinary evening of jazz from the Kenny Garrett Quintet.

Today, we took the train home to New Jersey. Tomorrow, I go back to work as if none of this ever happened. And then Wednesday, I’m back at the airport, en route to Clearwater Florida.  Forty-eight hours later, I’ll be back in New Jersey.

And what of my trip to Chicago, of the reason for my trip to Chicago, the “path to publication” of my new manuscript? I hinted in my last post that I might have an announcement when I got home from Chicago.  And perhaps I do. For now I will only say that I had a productive and promising meeting. I would tell you more, but then I’d have to kill you. And, after a visit to Love is Murder, I am equipped with an array of new and exciting ways to do exactly that.

Goin’ to Chicago

Nine years ago today I made my first visit to Chicago for Love is Murder. Actually, it was my first visit to Love is Murder, not my first visit to Chicago. My first visit to Chicago was August 8, 1974. I remember the date because, as it happens, that was the day that Richard Nixon resigned the Presidency. Anyway, nine years ago today I made my first visit to Love is Murder, a wonderful mystery writers conference held annually in Chicago.

I wasn’t sure whether it made sense for me to go, to pay the airfare, the hotel room, the conference registration, but a friend of mine offered the following advice.  “If you want to be a real writer,” he said, “you have to start going to the places that the real writers go.”

So what did I learn on that visit to Love is Murder in February, 2005.

1.  94% of all books sold are sold by 6% of all authors.
2.  What good writers share is a passion for the written word and a commitment to quality (of course, it helps if your story has a clever premise and an engaging character facing a difficult challenge, told in a way that’s fresh).
3.  Even well-established authors have moms who are put off by the sex, or the violence, or the language in their books.
4.  Most writers have day jobs.  Smart writers have day jobs as editors, publishers and booksellers.  Apparently, I’m not a smart writer.

But the most important thing I learned was that my friend was correct. It was at Love is Murder in 2005 that I met the acquisitions editor for Five Star mystery. That meeting led to my first traditional book contract, my first advance against royalties, the 2006 hardcover release of A Minor Case of Murder and the subsequent release of the hardcover edition of It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Murder in 2009.

I have gone back perhaps five or six times in the last nine years.  I have gone back even when things didn’t turn out quite so well.  I posted this after my visit in 2010 –

“Are you killing time?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, “and I’ve got the bar tab to prove it.”

“Would you like some company?”  She sat down on the stool to my right without waiting for an answer.

She was not what you would call a pretty woman, but sitting in the bar at O’Hare, two hours to kill until boarding, she was pretty enough.   “What are you drinking?’ I asked.

“Vodka martini.”

I don’t normally drink martinis, but what the hell, I figured, how often does a middle-aged man, balding and slightly overweight, get a chance to sip martinis at an airport bar with a strange woman.  So I ordered two.

And then two more.

And then.. well, to be honest, at that point, things start to get a little fuzzy.  At some point, I do remember excusing myself to use the men’s room and then staggering through the terminal, making my way to the gate.  I was relieved, finally, to board the plane and sink into my window seat.  It had been a long day.

Not twelve hours earlier I had been sitting at another window seat, on another plane, making the flight in the other direction, from my home in New Jersey, to Chicago.  My workshop on developing characters that readers care about had gone well.  I sold a few books and made a few new friends.  It had been a good day.  But I was tired and grateful to be on my way home.

The crew was preparing the plane for departure when the Air Marshals came on board.  In this day and age, that’s not a good sign.  Still, I was kind of curious; I think we all were.  Was our flight about to become the lead in tomorrow’s news?  Who were they looking for?  I felt a vicarious thrill when they came up the aisle.  Apparently, I was sitting next to the woman they were after.

No.  Evidently she was sitting next to the man they were after.  I would not make it home that night.  Without an explanation, the Air Marshals led me off the plane.  Did you know there’s a jail, of sorts, in the bowels of O’Hare International Airport?  I didn’t, either.  But there is.  And it was only after we’d entered the secure facility that the reason for my detention became clear.

“A woman has been found dead in the men’s room,” the Air Marshal said.  In her hand, she clutched a bookmark promoting one of my books.  It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Murder, it said.  And it was.  A helluva lot like murder.  My name, of course, was printed on the bookmark.  And my phone number, in lipstick, was scribbled on the back.

It had been a long day.  It promised to get a lot longer. 

I will be back in Chicago this week-end for Love is Murder. It will be a quick visit; I have dinner plans on Saturday in Washington D.C.  But even a quick visit can yield remarkable results.  Perhaps I will have something more to tell you when I get home.

Writing from my female side

I hear sometimes from readers who are surprised that the main character in my mystery series is a woman. As readers, we accept without question when the writer adopts the perspective of a savage killer, a hobbit, a medieval king, or a child studying at a school for witchcraft, but we seem to have trouble believing that a man can write a female character.  Are women really that much harder to understand than serial killers?  (Please put down your weapon before answering).

In 2009, I did a guest blog for Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Books about writing from a female perspective.  Here’s what I had to say on the subject –

I hear sometimes from readers who are surprised that the main character in my mystery series is a woman.  One reader explained it this way.  “Many men write superficially convincing female characters and if the plot is good enough, well cool. But very, very few write women whose character can carry the story.”  So I am gratified when my readers, particularly my female readers, tell me that they find Cassie O’Malley to be a believable character who can carry not only a story, but a series.

Genre fiction has not always treated women kindly.  For many years, female characters in genre fiction (and, to be honest, in most other fiction) existed in order to be rescued, and to admire the male characters doing the rescuing.  Genre fiction has always loved the “damsel in distress.”  But the truth is, the mystery genre would not be thriving today if mystery writers weren’t writing characters, both male and female, who are three-dimensional, men and women who may sometimes be larger than life, but who are never written “smaller than life.”

Readers of mysteries want stories that keep them guessing, that are marked by unexpected twists and turns, but it’s not the mystery that hooks them and keeps them coming back.  It’s the characters.  It’s important for me to remember that the story I’m telling is Cassie’s story.  The murder mystery is just the vehicle to tell her story.

Cassie O’Malley is a woman whose life has not lived up to her expectations.  Let me share a little bit of her back story (Authors love back story).  As an undergraduate at Princeton University, Cassie had her life’s plan neatly mapped out in a three-ring binder.  She was going to be an investigative reporter, walking the halls of power in Washington, a force for truth, beauty, and the American way, holding politicians to their promises by the power of her words, exposing the hypocrites and the cheats and, along with her equally successful husband, becoming rich and famous in the process.

Shortly after graduation, she marries her college sweetheart and less than a year later, he dies in his sleep.  When we meet Cassie, she’s in her mid-thirties, widowed nearly fifteen years, living alone in a condo at the edge of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, her dream of becoming a big-time investigative reporter having been replaced by the reality of her job writing about space aliens and sea monsters, psychic spies and Siamese triplets, for a barely reputable tabloid magazine.  And she’s good at it.  She’s successful, but hardly happy.  My editor refers to Cassie as a “semi-depressed, semi-alcoholic journalist.”

The question, however, remains.  Why did I decide to make my protagonist female?  The first book in the series opens with a character, alone, on a back road in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, in the hour before the sun comes up.   Perhaps you’re thinking that putting a female character into that desolate environment heightens the tension right from the opening scene.  And that may, in fact, be the result of my decision, but it has nothing to do with my decision-making.

I don’t want my characters to see the story through my eyes.  If the story is going to work, I have to see it through their eyes; I have to see the story through Cassie’s eyes.  In some ways, it was easier for me (at that point in the development of my craft) to maintain this separation with a female character.  Certainly Cassie and I share some personality traits, for example our love of jazz (and whiskey), but she is her own person, more clever than I am, more assertive, way more interesting.  If there has been any “bleeding” of personality, after six years writing Cassie’s story, it is that perhaps I have become more like Cassie, rather than Cassie becoming more like me.