Saturday, January 18, 2014

Why We Write Books

Scott D. Parker

I had a couple of great things happen this week. First, Joelle Charbonneau landed here in Houston and had an author event at Murder by the Book. As always, it was fantastic to see her and hear her talk about her book, her writing processes, and the path she took to get there. Among my DSD colleagues, we communicate mostly via email, developing friendships along the way. It's rare, so far, that any of us get to meet and see each other in person. I've met Joelle three times now, and each time is better than the last. Makes me wanna meet all the other folks, too.

I got a real treat at the same event. A friend of mine has a daughter who is an avid reader. Turns out, she--and the mom--both love dystopian stories. A last year's Super Bowl party, I told the mom about Joelle's THE TESTING. The mom read the book and loved it. So did the daughter. And, when I let the mom know about the signing, both mother and daughter made the trip across Houston to attend. What made this wonderful to experience was the daughter's reaction. This is the first author she's met and she was really, really excited. Remember when you were twelve and discovered that book, that author, or that genre that just spoke to you? I know I do (Star Wars does make it easier for me despite the fact that it's a movie and I'm talking books). It was just great to see the pure joy of a young person discovering and meeting an author. Helps me remember that, beyond all the talk about the business, the way things are changing, the need to do all the things one does to prepare a book, when you get right down to it, you are touching people's hearts and emotions. That's what makes it all worthwhile.

Album of the Week

Bruce Springsteen's High Hopes. Seriously, was there ever a question? I went ahead and ordered mine via Amazon because of their limited edition extra DVD of the 2013 concert where the band did the entire Born in the USA album live. As to the new material, I really like it. All the songs are definitely Springsteenian. They're an eclectic bunch, the songs. "The Wall" is a return to Vietnam as a source and is truly a heartbreaking song. The title track has always been one of my favorite non-album tracks from the 1990s (along with "Without You," "Back in Your Arms," and "Happy," among others), but the addition of Tom Morello, guitarist for Rage Against the Machine, as lead guitar, brings a much harder edge to the song. It's still light and frolicky, but just more rock and roll. But the true standout, for me, is the new, full-band version of "The Ghost of Tom Joad." Here, Morello shares lead vocals duties with Springsteen, but his blistering lead guitar work throughout and especially the closing minutes is awesome. I'm a big fan of slow beat/fast solo songs and this version has this in spades. I very much look forward to this tour, especially since the E Street Band skipped Texas last year.

Friday, January 17, 2014

A Room of One's Own

By Russel D McLean

Finally, me and the Literary Critic are settled in The Gothic Monstrosity. Our new place is a huge change for both of us. We've both come from our own flats into this shared place, and we're having to get used to changes in routine. But it's working well.

One of the things that has changed most for me is a new writing space. And what I'm finding is that I can actually get more done now that I have a dedicated space. The new office has taken a while to get right. I have a desk with my PC (I still love a desktop for writing - and especially editing - and I hate the current trend towards laptops - -which can, of course, be very useful) and several bookcases which are already overflowing. I have a stereo system and of course an old fashioned 1929 retro phone set up. On the walls are posters for Woody Allen's Shadows and Fog (the French version - - I do like a little pretension) and a print by a Spanish artist depicting a man who could very well be Raymond Chandler getting slugged across the back of the head by the butt of a gun. There's a sofabed (the office doubles as a guest bedroom) for reading on, too. But only when its in sofa form.
(this photo of the phone was taken at Christmas, hence the advent calendar... things are now much tidier)

I should point out that the Literary Critic has taken her own space, too. Our living room is larger than we ever expected and she has sealed off a corner specifically devoted to work. Again, like my area, its designed around her need and working habits. It also means she has a far better view than I do.

Its a far cry from the old flat where I wrote in a tiny corner of the bedroom indistinguishable from the rest of the room. I had a desk there and some of the same prints, but somehow, I could never quite get the same head of steam up in there as I can in the new office.


I think part of it is psychological. I work a day job. I go out and do that job and then I come home in the evenings. Coming home to face revisions/first drafts/etc etc is daunting enough but when you're writing right next to the bed you sleep in, well, its easy just to think you'll have a nap for five minutes. It is. That used to be my downfall when I had a day off. I would get up with the best of intentions and wind up having a mid afternoon nap that stretched on far longer than I ever intended it to do. The new office feels like a workspace. Its a place designed specifically to work in. It also has a door halfway up the wall that leads nowhere, but that's a whole other story.

I have said before that I can write anywhere. And that's true. The laptop has come with me to hotels and on on trains and on lunch breaks. But there's only so much writing you can do in that fashion. For editing in particular, I need a space where I can wholeheartedly focus. Its why having a desktop is important to me. Even if it was a corner of the bedroom and close to the temptation of sleep, that little area was the place where I worked. It was the place where my thoughts could focus. Transferring that to a whole room has worked wonders for productivity and motivation.While I advocate that you can write anywhere if the need is strong enough, finding a space that works for you is vital for more in depth and detailed work. I can write a first draft anywhere I like. It might even be quite good. But to polish it up and make it shine the way I want, I need a room of my own. And I think, finally, I might have found it.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Devil They Know?

Guest post by Jim Winter

A few years back, I read an interesting theory about The Great Gatsby that suggested Jay Gatsby might have been black trying to “pass” in the more racially rigid 1920’s. It was an interesting theory, but I wish I’d read the novel before the article as it changed my perceptions of the story. Then again, there also was nothing in the book suggesting Gatsby resembled Robert Redford, so my perceptions were already altered by Hollywood. 

However, that idea played into a story I wrote for Spinetingler a few years later. “Profiled” told the tale of an undercover cop born in Tehran. In the post-9/11 era, if Gatsby were black, he would not have had to pass himself off as white. If anything, he would get called out for fostering the same prejudice that would have made his charade more acceptable in the twenties. It’s easier to call people out on racial bias, and these days, gays are finding it much easier to be open about themselves. But are there some groups that, no matter what, are going to draw suspicioin? In “Profiled,” Eddie Soroya tackles this very issue.

When we meet him, he’s sitting on a commuter train in a Midwest city posing as a homeless man while watching for trouble in our terror-panicked world. When a woman calls him a “raghead,” Soroya swears at her in Spanish. In a city with a large Mexican population, the perceived insult would warrant a harsher response. As he rides from the city’s lakefront to the airport, watching a suspicious duffle bag, we find out he is actually from the Middle East, that speaking Spanish becomes a defense that not even a badge can give him. People – black, white, Hispanic – are paranoid since those planes crashed in 2001. Unfortunately, that means people are automatically suspicious of entire groups.

When dealing with people’s biases, you have to walk a thin line. Despite what some of the more hysterical pundits on 24-hour news like to tell us, we aren’t quite in 1930’s Germany. But you hear the slurs, the misconceptions, and the outright hatred that seems to have found a new outlet.

In a way, though, Soroya is between a rock and a hard place. We also live in a nation wary of illegal immigration, so posing as a Mexican to keep people from flagging the nearest TSA worker or FBI agent is a double-edged sword. Without a badge, he’s still likely to get pulled over. He faces a different kind of harassment from what he would get if he were open about his Iranian origins. Granted, it’s easier to fight by simply sliding into his normal accent, a Rust Belt twang I myself have not been able to get rid of after 22 years, but it’s still more than most people have to deal with in this day and age.

It goes back to a conversation I once had (and was part of the impetus for “Profiled”). A friend and I were discussing, of all things, the bias against obesity. At one point, I said, “You know, most of the bullshit you have to deal with everyday stares back at you from the mirror in the morning.” And it’s true. Race, gender, weight, age, physical imperfections, and even disabilities all come back at us when we look in the mirror. Things like sexual preference, religion (or lack thereof), and politics (a stupid bias since that one causes most wars) are all internal aspects of who we are. We can hide those. We can act straight or gay. We can keep our religion and politics to ourselves. But the things that define us physically to other people are there in the mirror, which means they’re out there for all the world to see. Being a straight white male is, as John Scalzi puts it, playing life on the lowest difficulty setting. That’s not to say life is easy for anyone. We still have to deal with our personalities, and we still need to have a strong sense of self. We also need to be aware that, over time, it’s how we react to the world around us that ultimately determines how we get by in the world.  The question “Profiled” asks, and leaves hanging, is whether Eddie Soroya made the right choice about it.


Born near Cleveland in 1966, Jim Winter had a vivid imagination – maybe too vivid for his own good – that he spun into a career as a writer. He is the author of Northcoast Shakedown, a tale of sex, lies, and insurance fraud – and Road Rules, an absurd heist story involving a stolen holy relic. Jim now lives in Cincinnati with his wife Nita and stepson AJ. To keep the lights on, he is a web developer and network administrator by day. Visit him at , like Jim Winter Fiction on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter @authorjimwinter.

Pick up some Jim Winter right here.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Bryon Quertermous in Conversation with Holly West (Part 2)

In last week's post, I published part one of a conversation I had with Bryon Quertermous, commissioning editor at Exhibit A Books. This week, we finish up with a candid discussion about digital publishing and other titillating topics.
BQ: You're on a digital-only publisher and for some people that represents a failure. I remain bullish on digital publishing and think places like Carina Press can provide some opportunities for stories that might not be a good fit for print or mass market publishing. Do you feel like you failed by not getting a print deal?
HW: It’s a complicated thing. Yes, there is a part of me that feels that failure. I can’t sit here and lie and say I didn’t want a print deal. However, I’ve been happy with Carina Press and am currently working with them on my second novel, Mistress of Lies.
BQ: I think it's okay to admit those feelings. But you did choose to go with them over self-publishing or a micro press and I'm curious about that reasoning. (Look at me going all Barbara Walters with the hard questions).
HW: My reasons for going with Carina over self-publish are that I didn’t want to self-pub, not for my first book. I’m not a publisher. I wanted a real publisher behind me, digital or not.
BQ: People get so attached to the idea of print that they'll choose a crappy print publisher over a solid digital publisher.
HW: Oh, good point. I didn’t want to go with a very small print publisher for precisely that reason. Carina has a track record and they’ve got Harlequin behind them.
BQ: Okay, lets get back to talking about me.
HW: Are there any authors you’re hoping to work with in the future? Besides me, of course.
BQ: Well, of course I don't want to hurt any feelings by leaving some people out I might forget, but I will say that I've already been shocked at the quality of authors and submissions I've been getting for Exhibit A. There a a couple of people I'd really like to work with who aren't big names, but I feel deserve a chance to be published and, for whatever reasons, haven't had that chance yet. I don't see Exhibit A doing a Hard Case Crime and getting Stephen King to write a book for us. There are other established authors out there writing very mainstream stuff that I would be interested in getting to write something a little off for me, but we'll see how all of that works out.
HW: This is all very exciting. I say that sincerely, by the way. It must feel a little surreal to think you’ll be shaping the future (not sure how to say this) of the imprint. Defining it, for lack of a better word, mapping it’s direction. That’s a lot of power, BQ. Think you can handle it?
BQ: Not at all. It is surreal and a little freaky at times. But I'm lucky to have friends like yourself to keep me grounded. I also look to people like Ben LeRoy from Tyrus books and Terri Bischoff from Midnight Ink who have done a great job of building publishers in the mystery community without tearing down other companies or other authors.
HW: I’m intrigued by Polis Books, Jason Pinter’s new venture. I think projects like that help to elevate digital publishing. What say you?
BQ: I agree. It's like the early days of webzine publishing where there were ton of outfits out there but most of them were garbage. The ones that elevated the form and helped it gain respectability treated it professionally and either had a big name on board as publisher or editor or had big names within their pages. Jason has both with Polis. I also think it helps that Jason has the cache of a print background as well. He's not some tech upstart or one of these goobers who forms their company with a mission statement that denigrates every other kind of publisher. I'm very interested to see where he goes with it. I'm also really intrigued by and Open Road Media that are combining the digital only stuff with trade print editions that still have some of the respectability (and advances) of the major print operations. It's a very exciting time and I wish more people saw it that way.
HW: I certainly see it that way, for all of the reasons you’ve mentioned. And I didn’t say this before but digital is the way publishing is heading. It might not be all there yet but 99% of the books I read are eBooks. I rarely pick up a print book anymore. That was another major reason I went with Carina--if all I read are eBooks, why isn’t a digital deal good enough for me as an author?
Is there anything else you’d like to say about Exhibit A?
BQ: I think I've said plenty, but I'm curious what else everyone would like to know about Exhibit A. We're still so new that a lot of people don't know anything about us. Most people know Angry Robot but don't know we're associated with them. So is there anything else YOU'D like to know?
HW: Right now you only accept agented submissions, but your website mentions an open submission period coming up. Any idea when that might be?
BQ: Not yet. It's such a huge undertaking and they just finished up the latest Angry Robot Open Door so it probably won't be until later this year. But that doesn't mean unagented authors are out in the cold with me. While I won't take unagented submissions blindly, I will be on the lookout for good work. I've already reached out to a couple of unagented writers I know about novels they've written and I'll be traveling to a number of conferences that have pitch sessions to hear about the books that are out there. I know the submissions I get from agents will also be sent to the big New York houses where I won't always be able to compete for them, but I can leverage my editorial input and personal involvement by finding the great books before they get to that stage.
HW: Everything in publishing takes FOREVER. Is that the case with Exhibit A or does the fact that you’re a smaller house make things a bit more expedient?
BQ: To a certain extent we can be more flexible and get books out quicker, but the biggest problem is the huge lead times the distributors need for getting these books into the stores.
HW: I was mainly talking about submission turn-around times, at that sort of thing. It makes sense that you’d have a little flexibility there.
BQ: Unfortunately, with a smaller operation the response times tend to be even longer because none of us have assistants to take care of a lot of the busy work. The day-to-day operations of the publisher consume most of the official work day so submission reading and manuscript editing come on nights and weekends.
HW: I feel sorry for anybody employed as your assistant. (I had to end this with some snark, of course).
My thanks to Bryon for taking the time to chat with me. And be sure to check out Exhibit A's releases, it's a great list. I'm definitely looking forward what's in store for this publisher.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Celebrity Mysteries


There’s one of those “Little Free Libraries” on my street and this week I picked up a couple books from a sub-sub genre I’m going to call celebrity-mysteries.

Both books are written by someone known for something other than writing and “with” a writer.

The first one is called Toss and it’s by Boomer Esiason and Lowell Caufiel.

untitled (5)


It was published in 1998 and Publisher’s Weekly called it, “passable but undistinguished,” and the Amazon reader reviews range from, “lots better than most people would expect,” to the, “literary equivalent of an interception run back for a touchdown by the other team” (what I believe the kids now call a pick six).


The other book is actually the second in what may be a series by Richard Belzer and Michael Black (actually in this case the credit reads, “with” not “and”).

untitled (6)


The first one in the series is called I am Not a Cop and this one is called I Am Not a Psychic. It was published in 2009. Again the reviews are mixed. Publisher’s Weekly takes the middle ground, saying, “Despite a deus ex machina, snappy dialogue and solid pacing makes this a success on its own terms,” and the reader reviews range from five stars to one star.


Toss is a straight ahead, third person narrative with the main character being a rookie quarterback on the New York Stars. Looks okay.

I Am Not a Psychic’s first person narrator is Richard Belzer, star of a hit TV cop show, stand-up comedian and author of, UFOs, JFK and Elvis; Conspiracies You Don’t Have to be Crazy to Believe, so this kind of mixing of fact and fiction is more interesting to me.

This is a sub-genre I haven’t really been familiar with, the celebrity-mystery, but it seems like there’s a lot of potential.

Have you read anything that would fit in this genre that you would recommend?

Are there some celebrity-mysteries you’d like to see?

Monday, January 13, 2014

My Top 10 Noirs By Women of the Last Ten Years (or so)

A couple of years ago I wrote an article called My Top Ten Noirs of the Last Ten Years (or so) over at the Mulholland Books site. I love all of the books I chose but it was a total sausage party. So this will be an attempt to rectify that especially since one of the foundational modern noir books, Miami Purity by Vicki Hendricks, was written by a woman.

So what is "female noir" (as it has sometimes been called)? Well, for starters it's no one thing. Some of these books take a look at uniquely female issues, others offer a female take on more universal issues.  Some of them, in that great crime fiction way, just put a gun in a female character's hands. Regardless of the approach these books are all worth your time. 

Megan Abbott has said female crime writers are often "made to justify their interest in the genre -- to explain it away, or to somehow make it seem like play, or a dalliance". Hopefully in the wake of books like Tampa and Gone Girl this will change.

J David Osborne had a post on Facebook yesterday about crime fiction and some its long standing  issues with female characters. This post is, partially, in response to that.

The usual concession needs to be made. My definition of noir may be loose here. But who cares. This isn't about noir, just about helping readers find books. 

Out by Natsuo Kirino (1997) - Kirino gets compared sometimes to Jim Thompson. It's been said that Out is "a taut and unforgiving thriller that unfolds as darkly as anything from Jim Thompson, if Jim Thompson was a cold-eyed feminist."

Come Closer (2003) - Dope deserves a mention here also but I've always been partial to Come Closer, which is darker and more complex.

Billie Morgan by Joolz Denby (2004) - No less then Sarah Weinman said that Bille Morgan was "pretty much female noir 101"

The Singer by Cathi Unsworth (2007) - What I appreciate most about Cathi Unsworth is that she sets up a dark story and then follows through with it.

Money Shot by Christa Faust (2008) - Yes, Faust may be more hardboiled then noir but of course Angel Dare deserves a place here.

I-5 by Summer Brenner (2009) -

Bloody Women by Helen Fitzgerald (2009) - Fitzgerald sometimes gets forgotten about in these noir discussions, but when she goes dark, she goes full dark (think an Allan Guthrie novel with ovaries). Often with a dark sense of humor and a twist. Also check out The Devil's Staircase.

Driving Through the Desert by Dona Lynch (2012) - A mournful and elegaic dark night of the soul.

Die, You Bastard! Die! by Jan Kozlowski (2012) - A very grind house/exploitation type story. Yes, its violent. But you want it to be because it totally fits the story.

Megan Abbott - How can I just pick one book? I will confess to liking her later works more then her earlier works, where she, at times, seemed constrained by her influences. But as far as noir written by women goes you can't go wrong with Megan Abbott.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Forensics/technology is making my life miserable

Today, I am flying from Washington, DC to Austin, Texas for the next leg of the INDEPENDENT STUDY tour.  For the next couple weeks, while I'm bopping around the country, three fabulous authors are going to step into my blogging shoes.  First up, the amazingly talented author of suspense with the occassional hint of romance - Donnell Ann Bell.  I encourage you all to check out her work!  And, if you're in Texas (Austin or Houston) please come out and say hello.  

Take it away Donnell.....

Does anyone remember the day when you could Google, check out research material at the library, and have a pretty good idea how to write a believable plot?  I’m sure it happened once upon a time.  I can’t imagine Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler and other greats had to worry too much about DNA evidence, bloodstain pattern analysis, 3D printer guns, CODIS, IAFIS, LEDS databases and a multitude of other technologies that have ballooned seemingly overnight.

You might argue that technology has made our lives simpler, so why am I whining?   After all, these people used type writers with carbon paper for crying out loud.  They mailed their novels to their publisher in manuscript boxes.   
I’m whining because technology refuses to stand still while I finish my book.  Someone opened the door to the Information Age, created an avalanche and laid me out flat.  Oh, sure, I enjoy my laptop, smart phone, tablet as much as the next impatient person, but for a contemporary crime fiction writer, it’s a disaster.  For instance, say you start your book in January and finish it the following September, you’d better go back and check your facts, AGAIN, because during that short amount of time, based on today’s technology, your research has probably changed. 

Think I’m exaggerating?  Are you ready for what I learned last night?  Last night at Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers of America, our guest speaker was Greggory LaBerge, Director-Forensics and Evidence Division, Denver Police Department.  Along with learning that if a person breaks into a home and leaves his DNA evidence (blood, saliva, or hair) in Colorado and his DNA is left at another crime scene across the country in Michigan, that bad guy, once he is located, is going to jail. 

I also learned that DNA technology has gotten so sophisticated that if your detectives are having a conversation over the body, (which we’re known to do when writing a book to advance the plot and cue the readers in on possible clues) they’re contaminating the crime scene.  I like to think I don’t spit when I speak, but evidently we human beings do.  That’s how accurate scientists have gotten at identifying our DNA.

I didn’t even fret about ballistic fingerprinting or the fact that every automobile out there can be identified by the make and color of its paint. (And you can’t even confuse the issue by taking it to one of those autobody paint stores because forensic analysts can break it down by layers.)  Quite frankly, it’s getting darn hard for criminals, and for that matter, us writers.

The truth is I love storytelling too much to give it up, so I’ll keep learning and doing my best to stay ahead of the ever-changing curve.  But for you technology/forensic people out there so proud of the progress you’re making, would it hurt you too much to slow down? 

And they say writing historical fiction is hard.  
I’m curious, if you’re writing a contemporary crime novel, have you had to go back and make changes because the technology has advanced?  Have fun on your tour, Joelle!

Donnell Ann Bell is the author of three books, The Past Came Hunting, Deadly Recall, and her newest release, Betrayed.  Her debut and sophomore releases have been e-book best sellers and Deadly Recall is a 2014 EPICON nominee for best thriller/suspense. She co-owns Crimescenewriters with retired Veteran Police Officer Wally Lind.  Check out her webpage at