Saturday, October 24, 2009

How Did You Learn to Read for Fun?

by Scott D. Parker

If you’re here at this blog, you are a reader. Primarily you like crime and mystery fiction since that’s the theme of our littler experiment. Someday in the past, however, either distant or recent, you started to read for fun.

Don’t get me wrong: we all have to learn to read. It’s part of our fundamental education. All throughout our primary education experience, we are assigned books to read, some of which are not good. Even the good ones have their spirits stripped away by over analyticals teachers. The experience can be so traumatic for some students that they never read for fun once they leave school. For everyone else, somewhere along the way, something clicked in our minds: Hey, this reading thing is fun.

Chances are, the thing that helped this reading realization click into place was a person. For students, it might have been a teacher who slips an eager young person a favorite book “off the official school reading list.” For adults who stopped reading when they graduated from high school, it might have been a co-worker who always carried a book and shared the joys of reading. Still others might be intrigued by the Harry Potter or Twilight phenomena and decided to try it out. For me, and, likely, many of you, our reading realization started at home.

My parents are readers. Always have been. Mom reads mysteries; not the violent, gory ones like Thomas Harris or noir gems of James M. Cain but the traditional stories of Agatha Christie, Nevada Barr, and Sue Grafton. Dad reads two main genres: westerns and science fiction. Every night, they wind down with books. If Mom picked me up from school, she’d have a paperback with her. On camping trips, Dad would make sure to bring along a couple of books. As I grew up, we’d always visit bookstores. The fun part of those days was when I saw one of them with a book in their hands. If they found a book, I’d get one, too.

You know what the best part of the education was? Their example. They didn’t harangue me to read, Read, READ in order to pass an exam in school. There wasn’t homework every night that required me to read and answer questions on worksheets. There weren’t standardized tests that forced reading to be quantifiable. We even got to read some books (To Kill a Mockingbird; The Hound of the Baskervilles) that were honest to goodness enjoyable.

As of today, I’m the father of an eight-year-old (where did THAT time go?) and I’m doing my best to show him that reading is fun. My wife is, too. We read a lot to him and he’s starting to read by himself. He also writes and illustrates his own books. He’s done about a dozen or more, way more than me. Hmm, maybe he learned the lesson too well.

How did you become a reader and what do you do to spread the joy of reading?

Friday, October 23, 2009


By Russel D McLean

I figure I been writing a lot about writing lately, and since I’m supposed to be doing the writing instead of yakking about it I figured I’d take a break and let you in on what’s been entertaining me during the down time, the breaks between current redtafts…

My obsession of the moment…

French crime movies (and TV shows). I mean, seriously, its getting bad. The French seem to be writing stuff that hits me where it hurts. And yes, Mr White, I watch ‘em with the subtitles on. No dubbing chez McLean.

It started about a year ago with a random purchase of a movie called 36, Quai des Orfèvres. Billed as The French answer to Heat, I think that’s a strange comparison, but what it does do is take two of France’s biggest stars (Depardieu and Daniel Auteil) and put them in one hell of a crime drama as two Parisian police detectives whose personal war starts to bleed over into their professional lives. Its bloody brilliant as a movie, beautifully shot, wonderfully written and has two barnstorming performances in the lead roles.

It was from there, I started seeking out French crime movies where I could. At the moment, they seem to be on a role at taking what might seem typical Hollywood fare and twisting it round to make it pretty damn smart. Even Le Serpent, based loosely (and I mean loosely) on Plender by Ted Lewis, manages to engage the viewer (unless, like my agent, they’re expecting some faithfulness to the original material) through what is a pretty mental and OTT psycho movie. Its something to do with the way that the French ground the spectacular in the mundane. Their films have an undercurrent of reality that seems to play through the most ludicrous plot twists. Which is probably why Harlan Coben’s Tell No One translated so bloody well, despite a third act that was mostly a long explanation of what had happened before.

And then there was 13, Tzameti.

This movie blew me away. Black and white and foreign, it probably put off a whole swathe of people, but 13 is one of the bleakest and most tense movies I had seen in a long time. Its also tough to talk about without giving things away, but once you realise what’s happening, it’s a terrifying ride to the final shot (and yes, the director is Georgian, not French, but since much of the dialogue is in French and it was produced there…)

From here, I was jonesing, finding a whole swathe of stories I’d never considered before. The French crime fiction scene is a broad church, ranging from straight procedurals like 36, through to noir like 13 and even absolutely insane thrillers like the Jean Reno vehicle Crimson Rivers (a fascinating thriller right until the appalling third act where clearly the producers decided to emulate the worst of Hollywood). Even their social movies are infused with crime. L’Haine is precisely the kind of street level examination of culture I love to see, dealing with Paris’s darker side, and even the bizarre Hidden has much to recommend it, although I still don’t know whether I actually enjoyed or understood it.

Its funny, but since I started watching French crime movies – many of them on faith – I’ve started taking more chances with my DVD buying. Right down to trusting Daniel Auteille to deliver the goods in a PI thriller called THE LOST SON, which turned out to be a fairly schizophrenic and uninvolving British thriller with a French actor in the lead.

But the crowning jewel for me has to be Spiral – not a movie, but a TV show co-produced by the BBC, which far outstrips any of the BBC’s own efforts. A gritty French drama that takes apart the justice system and exposes its inherent corruption and self-interest while still delivering a commentary on drugs trafficking and illegal activity that could apply to almost any modern country. Spiral is a kind of beautiful mix between the case of the week crime shows that dominate US TV just now and the ongoing arcs of shows like The Wire which tells one story in a way that refuses to tie everything up in a neat little package. And it is Spiral that has cemented my obsessions with French crime fiction, policiers, as I believe they would call the genre (not noir, as some might expect!). We’re nearly finished season 2 just now, and while I loved the first go round, the writers and the actors seem to have suddenly found their rhythm; for the first time in years, last night I was yelling at the screen as events took a rapid… spiral… towards a violent and inescapable climax.

Here’s a thing, though, the name of the show actually translates (I believe) as gears and not Spiral. Its as good a metaphor, though, for the way in which its shows the characters and their effect on each other and of course the analogy for those gears of justice.

Of course, I know I’ve only been exposed to a cherry-picked selection of French crime and thrillers, but on the evidence of what I’ve seen so far, and given the column inches devoted to Scandinavian crime and thrillers of late, French crime fiction – at least on screen – is certainly, tres-bien.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


by Dave White

I have completely forgotten how hard short stories are to write.

Usually, when I sit down to write something, I have a character, or a line, and I just kind of go from there. I can meander through the piece and figure out where I'm going with it. I can play around and see what works. Eventually, a few months and a few thousand words later, I have a completed draft. I, then go into revision mode and find out why, if, and how the story works.

Not with a short story.

For some reason, I always think short stories should be written quickly. A blur of white hot writing and bam, you have a new story that ready to be sent out for publication. But it never works that way.

In fact, short stories might be harder that writing a draft of a novel. You can't meander through a short story. You can't figure out what it's about. You have to know.

And right now, I don't know.

I have a great opening line. I have a character... and then I've got nothing.

Every morning a new idea pops into my head, telling me what the story's about. And by the afternoon I've rejected it.

But it's been so long since I've completed a short story. Not since "Righteous Son" in the Killer Year Anthology. And thinking back... that was almost 3 years ago I wrote that story.

So it's been a while.

Time to get back into the routine.

Time to take a break from the marathon and go back to the sprint. Just to see if I can still do it.

But man, can I feel my muscles burning as I do.

Pain is a good thing, right?

(This will be my last post published as a man in my 20s... Whoa.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

My Google History Could Get Me In Trouble

John McFetridge

I do a lot of research online. This week it was cocaine smuggling into Canada and I found out that Nova Scotia Power imports low-sulpher coal from Venezuela. And sometimes, there's a little something extra on the freighters.

When I was writing Swap I was digging into the theme of how power shifts in a relationship, how the powerful positions sometimes swap places. It started with how bikers in Canada were used by the Mafia as muscle until there were so many of them and they were so strong they became rivals (and in my books even more, but I may be making that up).

Then I thought it might be fun to take this idea of the relationship swap all the way and I googled "Wife Swapping." The first thing I found out is that people involved in this, um, activity, don't call it that anymore. They call it, the lifestyle. And then I discovered there seems to be a lot of them.

I also discovered on Google that men who go to prostitutes (not on the street, but through escort agencies) called the activity, the hobby.

Of course, I also spend time online on blogs and on book sites, and I have to confess, far too much time on sports sites. If the Maple Leafs don't win a game soon, I may never finish another book.

And on all these sites they have discussion forums which are great for research. I learn a lot in the discussion forums, mostly that no matter what the topic is that gets people there in the first place, they all start to look the same after a while. Politics, movies, sports - there are pretty much the same opinions on the wife swap- er lifestyle sites as there are on the book sites or sports sites. The same jokes get passed around, the same YouTube clips, people are still talking about Balloon Boy.

As weird a place as the internet is (and, wow, it is often very, truly, deeply weird) it's also a good place to remind yourself that there are a lot of normal people in the world. Or, you know, mostly normal given that they spend their spare time with prostitutes or someone else's spouse or explaining in great detail what exactly is wrong with the Leafs' power play and penalty killing.

Lately I have also found bits and pieces of dialogue online.

"A man is only as good as the porn he watches."

Now I can slip that into one of my books easy, I already know which character is going to say it (Felice, a woman who sees many men involved in the hobby ). That came from a fun site called "Texts from Last Night."

Another good site is "F*** My Life" where people post awful things that happened to them. Stuff like, "Today, I watched my boyfriend's band play a gig. I also found out he pulls the same faces playing the bass as he does when we have sex."

I'm not sure who's going to say that, but I'll find a place.

The Overheard sites are good, too. Overheard in New York is my favourite, (Six-year-old boy: Mom, did you know that Elvis Presley died of a drug overdose? Mom: Well, that won't ever happen to you. Six-year-old boy, angrily: How do you know?) but Overheard in the Office is also very good ("How many of these one-a-day vitamins am I supposed to take every day?"

News of the Weird always has some good crime stories.

So, what are some of your favourite places for "research" online?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Guys and Molls

By Jay Stringer

Some debates just bore me. Certain “hot topics” just make me roll my eyes to the heavens and zone out. One of the best examples of my apathy?

Is there a difference between male and female crime writers?

You know what? It just doesn’t interest me. The idea itself seems so silly to me. There’s way too much to take into consideration, too many subtleties, too many different tastes and too few hours. To boil it all down to differences between the sexes has always struck me as over simplification. I don't like to simplify an issue, i like to open the can and tip all of the worms out.

Of all the interesting things to be discussed about the craft of writing, and all the even greater things to be discussed about the joy of reading, I could care less what sex the writer is.

(There’s always one)

I’ve been at two events recently where the topic has been discussed. Both occasions it was by female writers, and I’ve heard some well thought out arguments and some poor ones. It’s been playing at the back of my mind for the last few days now, and so I want to get it out of my head and open up the floor for a discussion. I don’t claim to have any answers here, just a few nagging questions. And it seems to flow naturally from the discussion that Dave started last week. It has struck me that this website can sometimes be very much like a panel, there's the guys sat up here with the microphones but it's rally the interaction that makes it work.

One of the arguments put forward was that women are more sensitive to pain and emotion than men, another was that you wouldn’t find a woman detailing the building of a nuclear bomb in the way Tom Clancy might.

I don’t know that this holds true of any of the books on my shelf, but okay. And this isn’t an attack on the opinions of female writers. Men get in on the act too. Ian Rankin caught a hornet’s nest between his teeth a few years ago when he suggested that female writers –and gay ones in particular- were more violent than their male counterparts. I don’t know that this hold true of my bookshelves either.

Maybe Rankin was taking a poorly worded friendly swipe at the British crime fiction market, which often seems to be dominated by female authors who write forensic procedurals. Well, aside from the fact the market is dominated by Ian Rankin...

Just a scan of bookshelves in my nearest store, or during my time as a bookseller, would support both of those generalisations. The route to success as a female crime writer often appears to be to write a series of novels starring a forensic pathologist/psychologist/ventriloquist that mixes grisly murders with a romantic subplot.

But I don’t like to make snap judgements, I like to get into the cracks and see why something happens. If one type of fiction dominates female fiction, isn’t that far more likely down to a bias in the publishing industry rather than an in built difference between men and women?

And that’s to ignore writers like Helen Fitzgerald who I wrote about last week, who writes dark and humorous stand alone books. And it certainly doesn’t cover Christa Faust or Megan Abbot who have been writing some of the best noir of recent years.

And to get back to looking at the flip side; there sometimes seems to be the idea that men are interested far more in glorifying violence and crime, whereas women look to explore the emotional impact. But that seems to ignore writers like George Pelecanos and Ray Banks. Russel's latest book is a great example of choosing to show the consequences over the actions, and yet there's not a single scene of pathology or the scrubs of a forensic scientist.

The market doesn't seem to have many instances of male writers giving more time to highly researched forensic analysis than to the emotional impact of alienation and social dysfunction. But again, surely that generalisation is more an indication of what publishers are looking for than of anything else? (or even of my own limited scope)

There are some differences between us, sure.

Men and Women will definitely read certain situations differently. I’ve only ever been one of the two, so I’m working on guesswork here. But I’d use that guess to say that a woman’s reaction to an aggressive man would be different to a male reaction. It would be a different emotion that comes from a different place. A man can be just as scared of a dark alleyway as a women, but again the fear might come from a different place, a different instinct. And so -following through- the two sexes may react in different ways to many of the trappings of crime fiction. But isn’t the art of writing to remove yourself from the story and let your characters react in their own way? And in that case it shouldn't make a damn bit of difference whether the author has an outie or an innie.

I reject the notion that women writers are pre-programmed to deal with fall out and consequences any better than men. But to the accusation that men glorify the violence? Well there have been more Mike Hammers than Ms Trees, but again that’s surely down to the market?

And is there anything wrong with trivialising violence? It depends on who's doing it and why, of course, but one of the scariest aspects of real life violence is that it can become casual to the battle hardened. I want to read a book that faces up to this and tries to explore it

I can’t see that there should be any differences other than the ones we choose to see. Are male writers sometimes guilty of not exploring the female point of view? Are female writers sometimes guilty of overdoing things to try and prove a point?

Is the only difference that we think there should be a difference? Maybe when someone starts to list the differences between male and female writers, they’re actually telling you more about their own insecurities and tastes than any larger truth?

I don’t know, obviously, but I’m interested. The floor is open, what do you guys think?

And on a side note; I've said it's the interaction that makes this whole thing work. What issues would you want us to write about in future? Any questions you'd like expanded upon?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Community at a Writer's Core

By Steve Weddle

When people say writing is a solitary life, it’s probably because those people are awkward dorks.

This weekend, fellow writer Chad Rohrbacher and I took our families into the mountains to pick apples. Despite the cold, windblown weather, this seemed to be the popular idea. Minivans and SUVs twisted up washed-out roads and people stood on look-out walks to take cell phone pictures of empty landscapes.

There are many things I’m no good at, probably seventeen or eighteen, at least. One of those things is counting. But I’d estimate roughly seven-hundred-million people were walking around the orchards, wearing their Old Navy fleece and pulling their twins in little red wagons, making videos for Grandma and filling recycled-fiber bags with oddly shaped Fuji apples.

Why would people drive up a mountain and pay for the privilege of picking your own apples? Well, the apples were fantastically good. I had three before we got back to the weigh-in station. (I was a little worried that they were going to figure out how to make me pay for those apples by weighing me, too, and just charge me for however far over 175 pounds I was. Turns out having an apple while you’re picking them is totally acceptable, though eating an apple while you’re in line for the weigh-in is scowled upon.)

The reason folks were doing this was for the experience – the idea of getting back to nature and joining a community of like-minded people on a Saturday afternoon. (I’m sure excellent political arguments have been made about middle-class people doing manual labor for “funsies.” Since those arguments are usually made by middle-class professors looking for tenure, I don’t really see any need to debunk them.)

OK. Where the heck was I? Making fun of the middle-class families? No, after that. Making fun of the people for making fun of the middle-class families? After that. Oh, here we are. Experience. Community.

So all these families descend (um, ascend?) on a mountain, like ugly on my Aunt Bertha and this ties into writing how? Haha. Funny you should ask.
This past weekend mystery writers descended on Indianapolis for the annual Bouchercon conference. Next month mystery writers in another state will converge on a conference. In addition to national groups, mystery writers have state, regional, and local clubs and associations. They have panels at conferences. Meet-ups. Book signings. Blog tours. Wha? You think this is promotion? This doesn’t count? Writing can still be solitary? Bah.

When I write a chapter, I have a handful of fellow writers I can shoot it off to in order to find out what level of stink it has on it. And while they’re reading my chapter or short story, I’ll be reading what they sent me this morning to look at. Do painters do that? “Hey, I bought this canvas and I can’t decide where I should go after I put the orange streak down the middle.” Yeah. Good luck mailing over your sculpture there, art boy. Writers share their work as much as any group I know. From asking for help on early ideas to passing around ARCs, writers use their work to build community, to work together.

And readers are just as active building community. Reviewing books, linking to author interviews, driving two hours across west Texas to a book signing. Sure, when you read it’s just you and book, but you’re part of a community. Just like the writers. Readers pass books on to each other. “You have to read this.” Readers share their favorite books the way writers share their books – with everyone they can. And readers are more and more becoming writers themselves, thanks to Twitter, Facebook, and review blogs.

So that apple orchard on the side of the mountain kinda reminded me of a bookstore, with people strolling around, browsing down the aisles for something tasty (Did I take the metaphor too far? Sorry about that.) with family and friends. A community of like-minded folks.

Then one of them goes home and sits on the back porch, looking out over the sunset and eating an apple while killing off one of the main characters in the new book. Then hitting select, copy, and paste to put that chapter into an email, he sends it off for quick reads to his writer pals, including the one who just went home with $47 worth of apples.

Then the writer sits back to enjoy the rest of his own unbalanced Fuji apple before tossing the jagged core into the woods. You know, now that I think about it, eating an apple is a solitary experience.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Hey, I Hear You Wrote a Book

by Mike Knowles

There are downsides about writing a book. Now I know that when I say this I’m going to get the same kind of looks I would get if I told you that to a teacher there were downsides to getting the summer off. Doesn’t matter if it sounds like I’m whining about my Ferrari being a gas guzzler, there are downsides to writing a book.

The first thing, and this may be only me, is it sounds incredibly lame to explain a crime novel to your friends and peers.

"Hey, I hear you wrote a book."


"What’s it about?"

"A career criminal who suffers a double cross and then has to murder several people to stay alive."

"Oh, like that Schwartzenegger movie."

"Yep, just like that. I saw that one too and thought the concept needed flushing out on the page."

"I like that Stallone movie. The one in the jungle. You ever seen that?"

"I have. In fact, that’s my next book."

I’ve yet to find a way to explain what I’ve written in a short amount of time and make it sound cool. Every time I try it just sounds like I'm explaining the rules of Dungeons and Dragons to the hottest girl in school.

The second thing is the book sales itself. For both books, most people somehow get it into their head that I work for Avon.

"Hey, I hear you wrote a book."


"Neat, I’ll take one."


There is a long awkward pause here. The pause lasts for as long as it takes me to understand that the blank stare on the face of whomever I am talking to is the face of someone who is waiting for their order. It is the same look a person has on their face while they are waiting to pick up a pizza.

"I don’t have any books."

"You don’t? Where can I get one?"


"So it’s like a real book then?"


"What’s it about?"

And we’re back to the beginning. About four out of ten believe that I self publish the books and sell them out of my trunk. This is completely rational because a lot of people know others who have done this. This leads to my next downside.

There are a bunch of people out there who know other people who have written a book or have written something themselves that ended up in print.

"Hey, I hear you wrote a book."


"I have a cousin who wrote a book about plant life in the greater Niagara region. Joe Francisco, do you know him?"

"Yep, I saw him on the weekend at the writer’s meeting. It’s like the Freemasons. I’m new to writing so it was your cousin who presided over my initiation. My butt is still sore."

The answer doesn’t usually faze anyone; they’re too psyched to tell me about their cousin the author. "My cousin is a great guy, he couldn’t find anyone to publish his book so he invested in a laser printer and made his own. Do you have a laser printer?"


"What’s your book about?"

And we’re back to the beginning. This conversation could have gone a couple of other ways too too. I’ve met people who have had recipes printed in work cookbooks, poems in class yearbooks, and opinions in the newspaper that can't wait to spend an hour or two talking about how hard it is to get published.

The last downside I can think of is the readings. I’m from a relatively small city and I write in a relatively underappreciated genre. So when the local author is reading from his new hardboiled crime novel the turn outs are embarrassing. At one event there were two people in a room that seated thirty waiting to hear me read and one of them got up and left after the first three sentences. I have decided to believe that the lady who got up and left thought a hardboiled story was about eggs and figured out she was in the wrong place after I dropped my first F word.

"Hey, I hear you wrote a book."


"What is this reading thing I saw in the paper?"

"I'm going to read my book at the library."

"How much does it cost?"

"It's free. You should come."

"What do you do there?"

"I'm going to read my book and answer some questions."

"You're just going to sit there an read, hunh?"


"How long will it take."

"Half hour."

"Half and hour of you reading a book? I don't know. I might be bored, I already saw that Schwarzenegger movie on cable. I'll come if I can."

They don't, but the next day they will pretend they did because they don't know there were only two people there (I count the lady who left because she showed up and that should still count).

I love writing. I practically do it for free. The downsides are just things I have found I have had to deal with every time my name ends up on a cover. It will happen next year when my third book comes out and I will still be at the empty readings, explaining why I don’t have any books to sell, and trying to explain what my book is about without sounding douchey. I'll do it all and I won't really mind any of the downsides because being a writer is totally worth it.