This was the first Inspector Alleyn novel I read. While clearly upper crust and possessed of impeccable manners, Alleyn brings a very pragmatic approach to his investigations. By that I mean he lets the suspects think he’s playing along with their nonsense while he seizes the available opportunities to gather the information he needs. Among the artists involved in this crime is Agatha Troy, a famous painter who captures Alleyn’s heart while he’s trying to figure out if she’s the one he has to arrest for murder. As the sixth case in the series, this story presents Alleyn in a new light with a depth of characterization that compelled me to read all thirty-two of his adventures.
The first of the Miss Marple novels, in this story I discovered the world of the quaint little English village and what a fierce combination of deceit, resentment, and violence seethes just below its proper public face. A cranky, abrasive churchwarden is shot in his office at the vicarage. A total of twenty-one characters dilute the main story a bit with subplots, but the red herrings do keep you guessing. The characters are so realistic and well-drawn I can read this book again and again.
Nordic Noir is quite a reading experience. Scandinavian landscapes, brooding police protagonists, and crimes of dark and twisted violence. I admit I wasn’t prepared for that last one. Even so, the brilliance of the writing and the intensity of the characters make for a thrilling read. Harry Hole is the Norwegian detective in Jo Nesbo’s series.
There’s trouble brewing in Uberwald, a dark, spooky country where power is split between the vampires, the werewolves, and the Low King of the Dwarves. A new Low King is about to take charge in a turn of events that will affect the reins of power all over the Disc. Lord Ventinari intends to protect the interests of Ankh-Morpork and its allies by sending Commander Sam Vimes of the City Watch. Vimes also happens to be a Duke, which makes him the perfect copper for the diplomatic mission. Vimes is anything but diplomatic, guaranteeing a bumpy time will be had by all. The plot concerns a theft that leads to murder surrounded by lies, lies, and more lies. Great stuff!
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
Philip Marlowe’s first novel-length case takes him from blackmail and a gambling den to drugs, murder, and madness. General Sternwood hires him to solve the problem plaguing his younger daughter Carmen. The cynical way way General Sternwood talks about both Carmen and his elder daughter Vivian as corrupt and “having all the usual vices” signals just how far down such high class socialites can fall. The movie version starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall is excellent, directed by John Huston with William Faulkner himself working on the script. Hollywood did sanitize the story a bit. For the complete story with every sordid detail, read the book!
It’s taken me more time than usual to recover from the wonders of BayCon. This year’s amazing spectacle had so much going on I wanted to be in at least two different places in every time slot. Here are the highlights of one of the better con weekends I’ve enjoyed.
How diverse is diversity?
Gregg Castro (Salinan T’rowt’raahl) (M), Dr. yvonne white (Hayward High School), Lillian Csernica (Sense of Wonder Press), Jean Battiato
I added another layer to the definition of diversity by speaking for those who have disabilities, whether physical or psychological. While some physical disabilities are obvious and others are not, most psychological problems are not immediately apparent. Thanks to the expanding realm of neurodiversity, more and more people are aware of the prevalence of autism, of clinical depression, of chronic pain, and other conditions that create daily challenges on several levels.
John wanted to attend this event. He’s been drawing for years and has taken at least two ceramics classes in school. Now he’s interested in learning how to tell a good story to go along with his illustrations and sculptures. Margaret did a wonderful job of explaining the techniques of oral storytelling. There was a young lady present as well. Margaret encouraged both John and this young lady to use their own original characters as part of practicing the techniques she discussed. I am delighted to say I learned quite a lot also! Margaret’s techniques came in very handy for the Spontaneous Storytelling panel on Sunday.
Werewolves and other shapeshifters in mythology and literature.
Kevin Andrew Murphy (M), Lillian Csernica (Sense of Wonder Press), Pat MacEwen
I have written and published three stories with Kevin and one (so far) with Pat. We all have extensive libraries on folklore and shapeshifters, so we took the audience on a round-the-world tour of the beliefs and manifestations of the “werewolf” tradition.When we three are together, you will hear some of the weirdest facts and fancies you could imagine!
Panelists developing a story developed by multiple choice suggestions from audience members.
Jeff is brilliant. Get somebody who was in the audience for this panel to tell you about the illustrations he drew while the story evolved, most notably The Harmonicat. This critter has now entered into the annals of A Shot Rang Out folklore right up there with Darth Tetra. I found a way for our protagonist to speak Japanese to the cat. David Brin picked right up on that and easily blew my tourist doors off with his accent and much better grammar. Mark Gelineau caught some of the stranger audience suggestions and turned them to his advantage. A good time was had by all!
The Ink That Rushes From Your Heart
Dorothy Parker wrote “Never never dip your quill/In ink that rushes from your heart.” Being willing to do exactly that is what will bring the deepest meaning to our writing. How do we bring ourselves to be that honest and vulnerable in our stories?
Lillian Csernica (Sense of Wonder Press) (M), Jay Hartlove (JayWrites Productions), Ms. Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff (Book View Café)
It’s not easy to talk about one’s creative process, but the three of us gave it a solid try. Jay described how the combination of his acting training and his directing skills help him render authentic emotion on the page. Maya gave us some very personal insights into how she transforms personal pain into dynamic action in her stories. Me? I keep digging deeper and deeper into the hearts of my characters to find the pain that drives them onward, that won’t let them sleep, that gives them strength in the face of crushing opposition. Pain is supposed to be Nature’s way of telling us to stop doing something. For writers, it’s what keeps us writing.
When I think about the word vintage, I most often associate it with clothing. I love Jazz Age fashions. The wardrobe is one big reason why I love to watch the Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries. Phryne looks good in anything.
Vintage is a word that pertains mainly to wine. I am not all that fond of wine. Merlot is nice. Port can be good during the holiday season. One glass of champagne always has its merits. Otherwise wine just gives me a headache.
Imagine my surprise when I looked up the definition of vintage for today’s post and discovered the term applies to me.
1. Too old to be considered modern, but not old enough to be considered antique. Often used to describe items for sale online such as ebay auctions or craigslist posts though may also be found in printed listings such as classified ads. Can also be a euphemism for “heavily used” items.
2. Retro, recently out of style with potential to make a comeback
“Too old to be considered modern, but not old enough to be considered antique.” I’m now in my fifties, so I suppose this is true. I am now in my “Get off my lawn!” years.
Maybe this is why I’m so fond of history. Knowing that there are people, places, and things so much older than I am makes me feel better. Knowing that I live in a time period with flush privies and antibiotics definitely makes me feel better!
If one believes in astrology, this time of life is supposed to be the best for Capricorns. I was born in the dark of winter, four days after Christmas. People say I don’t look my age. I say it depends on the day. I’ve heard 50 is the new 30. Does that mean I’m still middle-aged? It would be nice to think so.
There will come a day when my hair is all silver and I slow down. Until then, I’m vintage, baby!
People sometimes ask me where I get my love of costumes, my pleasure in performing, and my goofy sense of humor.
I get it all from my mother.
Many years ago, Mom pondered how to dress up for Halloween. She was determined to win the costume contest where she worked.
Mom is also where I got my fondness for superheroes. Mom read the original Wonder Woman comic books. Thanks to her, I started to read Wonder Woman. I also discovered Batgirl thanks to Batman, the 1960s TV series. Many women credit Nichelle Nichols, Lt. Uhura of Star Trek, with being their first positive female role model. I’d agree with that. I also credit Yvonne Craig in her role as Batgirl. This was the first woman I ever saw put on a costume, ride a motorcycle, and kick ass on the bad guys.
So Mom came up with a hot idea for the Halloween costume contest. It started out with a Batman costume. She added a red wig underneath the cowl, then a more feminine mask over the front of the cowl.
Then Mom put together her Utility Belt. Instead of Batarangs and Bat sleep gas and those universal antidote pills, Mom included Pepto-Bismol, Fixodent, tea bags and hemorrhoid cream. In place of her name sign on her desk, Mom put a sign that read:
Sociopaths are scary people. They are cold-blooded, their conscience is weak, and they do not play by the rules most of us learn early on. What’s worse, they are often attractive and can pass themselves off as perfectly wonderful people.
Sociopaths make useful characters in stories. In real life, they can be terrifying.
When I was still a teenager, I worked for a man who seemed like a lovable teddy bear, a great father, and a fun boss. Bit by bit I discovered the truth he kept hidden behind this lovely front. The man was a sexual predator, a child molester (his own), and he let his girlfriend deal drugs out of what amounted to the “back room.” I consider myself very fortunate to have gotten out of that situation in one piece.
Writing about someone like this man is not simply a matter of devising some well-deserved and precisely constructed karmic annihilation. Sociopaths know how to spot the types of people who will play right into their hands. Sociopaths can make you feel wonderful, get you to open up about yourself, and then they will use all of that against you in the most heartless, vicious, and efficient ways possible.
If you want to create a sociopath in a story, bear in mind that a sociopath has Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD). This can present with a variety of symptoms. The particular symptoms an individual shows will vary according to genetics, the family environment, and other factors such as alcoholism or substance abuse. One of the most common traits is expert manipulation of other people. This is where the weak conscience is a factor. Sociopaths might know what they’re doing is wrong, but they don’t care. They will use and abuse other people to whatever extent is necessary just to get what they want.
It’s easy to think of sociopaths as being monsters. They can be, but they’re not always the worst sort out there. People sometimes confuse “sociopath” with “psychopath.” I once attended a lecture by the psychologist and profiler who worked with Ted Bundy. It was that man’s opinion that psychopaths are made, not born, through key events in their lives. This is even more true of sociopaths, because they are more common and the psychiatric “starter kit,” so to speak, can be shaped by a wider variety of influences.
A character with sociopathic tendencies can make an excellent good guy, if only in the antihero sense. Take a close look at the classic noir detectives such as Dashiell Hammett’sSam Spade or Mickey Spillane’sMike Hammer. They have their own codes of conduct. They might acknowledge the authority of police and the courts, but they play by their own rules and deliver the punishments they believe are deserved.
Once upon a time, I had the pleasure of meeting Roger Zelazny, author of The Chronicles of Amber and creator of Dilvish the Damned. I love his writing style. It’s dense and rich and such a pleasure, much like flourless chocolate cake.
Mr. Zelazny had a book signing scheduled at one of my favorite local indie bookstores. Quite a few people turned up. I was in line for an hour or so. I spent the time thinking over the one question I most wanted to ask this Grand Master.
At last my turn came. This is the question I asked:
“When you do your daily writing, what method to you use to reach your target?”
Mr. Zelazny put down his pen and mulled that over. His reply:
“I sit down at my desk four times, and each time I write at least three sentences.” He smiled. “Something usually catches fire.”
I have kept this in mind, especially on the days when the words just will not flow. Keep at it. This is not an all or nothing situation. If you have to take a break, walk away, drink more coffee, whatever, then do it. Then come back and try again.
Keep it up until the daily quota is met. You never know when something will catch fire.
“Now!” is a powerful statement. Immediacy is what brings fiction to life on the page and in the mind of the reader. You don’t have to write in the present tense, but you do have to keep the writing stripped down, streamlined, and precise.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received about strong plotting came from Weird Tales then-editor Darrell Schweitzer. He stressed the importance of asking, “Why now?” Why is the problem situation the main character faces happening at that time and in that place?
In Maeve, John Fenton has car trouble on a lonely road in the Irish countryside and takes shelter in a pub before a big storm hits. Only by being in that particular pub on the right kind of stormy night does John have the opportunity to meet the local legend known as Maeve.
In The Family Spirit, it’s Christmas Eve and Ben is meeting Janice’s family for the first time. He has no idea just how many of the family he’s going to meet, and what kind of distance some of those distant relatives have traveled to be there.
Knowing the answer to “Why now?” will get your story off to a much stronger start!
One of the key ideas in retail success is “Location, location, location.” Put your business in the right place, where the right customer base will find you, and you stand a much better chance of making a profit.
When writing stories, your setting is a vital element. I see a lot of stories with complex worldbuilding, but the setting is more like stage scenery or a rack of props. Where you locate your story, or which locations appear in your story, can be just as powerful a story element as plot or character.
The physical location is very limiting, requiring quick thinking and immediate adaptation.
The main character is trapped in that setting. There is no easy way out.
The stakes are life or death.
When I write historical fiction, location encompasses not just the physical setting but the time period as well:
Fallen Idol starts out in a mall food court, an ordinary, modern, nonthreatening setting. The main character, a photographer, notices a girl with elaborate and dramatic makeup. The rest of her skin is completely covered up by layers of clothing. The photographer follows this girl to a creepy abandoned factory, full of strange foreign folk art, where the rest of the story, rooted in a famous historical conflict, takes place.
Saving Grace is set in a chateau on a pilgrimage route in 14th Century France. The main character fled Russia during the Tatar invasion. She is a vampire. That makes daily living hard enough. She is also a member of the Russian Orthodox Church. At this time most of the Western world was controlled by the Pope of Rome. That puts my heroine in constant danger of arrest as a heretic and schismatic. That meant being burned at the stake.
The Kyoto Steampunk stories take place in Kyoto 1880. Dropping a Victorian physician into an Oriental environment where he can’t speak the language and knows nothing about the social protocol makes every problem I give him twice as difficult.
Make the most of your fictional location. It can make a huge difference!
In the UK they have a saying. “More haste, less speed.” Sounds paradoxical, right? The meaning is simple. The faster you rush through a task, the better the chances of making mistakes. You will then have to go back and correct the mistakes, slowing down your overall progress.
Way back at the beginning of my efforts to write stories for publication, I was so excited I would blaze through my drafts. I really didn’t have a solid grasp of proper story structure, and it showed. Oh boy, how it showed. I was also impatient to fire those stories off in the mail, hoping for my first acceptance letter. What I got was a lot of form rejection letters.
Don’t be in such a hurry. Take the time to learn your craft.
Here comes another paradox: Go ahead and power through that first draft. Don’t think too hard, don’t worry too much. Just get the story down on paper. The creative rush that makes you want to write a story is one of the best parts of this business.
Now that you have something written down, you’ve got something that can be pondered, expanded, rewritten, and cut back.
Back in the beginning of my career, I wanted to dive right into writing a novel. I had no idea what I was doing. I tried to build a plot by reading how-to manuals and piecing together my ideas. What I quickly learned was how big and how daunting the work of writing a novel really is. It takes a lot longer than people realize, even when you know what you’re doing.
You want to be a writer? Write. You want to be a published writer? Learn how to tell a story. Respect the art you want to create. Respect the craft that has been practiced, explored, and improved upon by great minds for centuries.
“Angle” is a term used by journalists when referring to the focus of the article they’re writing. It means which aspect of the subject matter they intend to emphasize as a means of making the article more relevant and interesting to the readers.
The concept of angle is quite useful to fiction writers. As the indie publishing market has exploded and competition for readership continues to increase, it’s becoming more and more essential to find a fresh approach, some new aspect of the stories we want to tell.
In my Kyoto Steampunk series, I chose to leave Victorian England behind and take my protagonist Dr. William Harrington to Kyoto, Japan. Once the Shogunate fell and the Meiji Emperor opened Japan to the West, Japan experienced its own Industrial Revolution, making it an excellent setting for steampunk stories.
Dr. Harrington’s adventures are a mixture of historical science fiction and Japanese fantasy. When I go to conventions to promote the anthologies where my Kyoto Steampunk stories appear, people are often surprised to hear I’ve chosen Japan for my setting. This fresh angle has resulted in a total of seven short stories so far, along with the novel that is my current work in progress.
Find that fresh angle! It will help you on your road to success.
I'm a professional writer living in Northern California with my husband and two sons. Fantasy in various forms is my reading and writing pleasure. I'm a history buff, a Japanophile, and I love to learn about language(s). I enjoy making jewelry, using natural materials such as wood, bone, semiprecious stones, and seashells. I collect bookmarks and wind chimes.