Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Stuck in the Middle with You...

Most books are published for the entertainment of the middle class. There's nothing wrong with that, as they are the largest market. And at least in the United States, most people consider themselves middle class whether they are or not. But just because most readers and writers are middle class doesn't mean we don't get stories about the working class or those in poverty. We get a lot, good and bad. Much is "regional" as the city-centric would say, or rural noir, which can be great or it can wallow in squalor porn. No matter what the setting, all too often, the characters who aren't middle class are the villains, whether they be rich or poor.

Now, I like seeing a smug powerful fool get his or her comeuppance as much as the next reader, but this is a myopic view of the world. Not every trust fund baby is a psychopathic monster, and not every street kid wants to shoot you for your iPhone. The struggles of the middle class exist, but they are not universal. A car accident might ruin your day if you're financially stable, have good insurance, a job that understands when you're late, and so on. For people without those safety nets that many of us take for granted, a fender bender can make them jobless and homeless or put them in jail if they're on their way to see a probation officer. It can spiral their life out of control if they're driving thirty miles to the nearest methadone clinic, because we can't have pharmacies dispense the medication, which gets prescribed for non-addictive reasons from pharmacies all the time.

As Anatole France said, "In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread." We think the playing field is level because we've always been on the pitcher's mound.

Why do I bring this up? I was reading The Jealous Kind, an excellent novel by one of my favorite authors, James Lee Burke. It has one misstep, when a somewhat sheltered teenager in the '50s not only knows all about illegal drugs but moralizes about it. If you've been around people who abuse opiates, or if you've taken them yourself, hopefully you don't buy the line that it's a moral failing. You don't take horse tranquilizers unless you are in some sort of pain, of the likes that I hope you will never experience. Now I don't condone Trainspotting as a lifestyle (choose life, yo) but neither will I sneer and tell them to 'just say no'. I find it a greater moral failing to assume you know how someone else got to where they are, than to ease your pain with a soporific substance. There are plenty of reasons not to use illegal drugs, I'm not here to argue it, but the no pun intended "high horse" attitude comes from a place of privilege, a place without misery. And if you need to feel better about yourself by denigrating those who succumbed to that misery when you didn't, you're hooked on another drug, sanctimony.

This can of course go the other way in crime fiction, when we care too much about "street cred." While I admire many writers who know crime first hand, writers deal in empathy, and while experience can help, it is not necessary. I don't look for blue collar backgrounds on jacket copy. Stewart O'Nan was an engineer, yet he writes some of the best stories about workers trying to get by, such as Last Night at the Lobster. I do look for characters who work for a living. One good example I read recently was Libby Cudmore's The Big Rewind, a hipster mixtape murder mystery set in Williamsburg; the main character is a temp who gets corralled into doing degrading odd jobs for her boss, which gave it the perfect verisimilitude to explain why she has time to sleuth around.

Another great recent use of class was in Megan Abbott's You Will Know Me, where the blue-collar parents of a gymnast prodigy struggle to give their daughter all the advantages that better-off parents can. They feel like frauds about to be exposed, and the tension is fierce and on point. Abbott grew up in the Detroit suburbs, but she knows noir--she has a PhD in it--and the class clash is often an integral part.

There's another book I won't name because I'm ruining the ending, where the sleuth slums with street kids and smokes pot laced with embalming fluid, but decides that the teenaged murderer of a pederast must serve his time rather than skip because... we demand justice for middle class victims, even if they molest teenagers. I threw the book at the wall, but I suppose that was honest to her character. She believed in the system, as a middle class kid; it had always served her well, why should that boy have something to fear from it?

What we do as writers is put ourselves in imaginary people's shoes; if they are always just like us, maybe we are squandering our ability. We should know our limitations and write what our heart tells us to write, but as the best crime fiction tells us, the heart may not always give the best advice. It might tell us to hate someone before we step into their shoes to see what stones we find.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Night Of

by Scott Adlerberg

It's been interesting reading the reactions to The Night Of.  Does anything provoke high expectations like a crime series, with a mystery at its core, that begins well?

The Night Of starts beautifully, and it had me hooked from the first episode. By the time I reached the conclusion of the last episode, well...

Can a single person be a hung jury?  A mixed reaction to the series is what I came away with in the end.

For starters, I'm glad I watched it and it played as compelling television. As you would expect of anything Richard Price has a hand in, the writing is sharp, precise, and detailed. The acting is excellent.  I loved the way it had a modulated tone throughout and those early scenes in the police precinct the night the police bring Naz in after the murder were gems. John Turturro's character was totally believable; even after countless courtroom dramas on film and TV, it's still rare to see the portrayal of a lawyer working at John Stone's grubby (but honest) level.  Lawyers almost always are shown as brilliant and very skilled or as fallen but seeking redemption (like Paul Newman in The Verdict).  Here we get an unglamorous working lawyer who hangs around the precinct picking up clients and who has advertisements for his services pasted up in subway cars.  

Stone's constant admonition to his clients to "say nothing" and "keep your mouth shut" is dead on, and so is the way he describes what happens in court.  He's less interested in what actually happened, in finding the truth, than in the presentation of a narrative.  As he puts it, the prosecution gets to tell their story, the defense tells their story, and the jury then decides which story it believes. The defense doesn't need to know what truly happened and may not even want to know. Having knowledge of the truth may not help the defense present its case at all. From the defense's point of view, the only thing that matters is what the jury hears and whether the defense can forge a narrative that sows doubt in the jury members' minds.  This is obviously what happens in every criminal case that goes to court, but again, it's seldom that you hear this point stated so bluntly in drama.   

I didn't mind that the last episode, in its 90 plus minutes running time, crammed in one or two late trial twists that damaged the carefully calibrated sense of realism.  And that the series ended on a somewhat ambivalent note was fine.  You're left strongly suspecting that one particular person was indeed the killer, but you don't know this for sure. Why should you? That's how a show that goes against the notion of certainty being an expected trial outcome should end.  

So what are my reservations?  Mainly, and I know I'm not alone here, it's in how the women characters are portrayed.  As others have pointed out, the show is in fact yet another crime drama where a woman's death kicks off a story about how that woman's death effects the lives of the main male characters.  I didn't get the sense that the victim, Andrea, was a seductress who lures Naz into a night of debauchery. It's clear he makes his choices in deciding to let her stay in his cab and then go with her to her house and then party with her. The choices he makes are on him.  But once Andrea is dead, she is, yes, pretty much a cipher. We learn next to nothing about her.  

And then there's the handling of these characters:

1) Naz's young attorney, who seems level headed and intelligent and does a good job presenting the defense's case until, inexplicably, she falls enough for Naz to kiss him in a prison jail cell and then smuggle drugs in to him.  This old saw of the woman professional who goes soft for a man (in this case going so far as to break the law for him and risk her career) comes out of left field and doesn't help anything in the story. Plus, after presenting a solid case that may give Naz a chance for acquittal, she pointedly ignores Stone's advice and puts Naz on the stand. This decision is a terrible one and winds up hurting her case.

2) The prosecutor, competent at her job but who in the last episode is painted in such a way that it seems she'd send a man she thinks may well be innocent to prison for a long time. The information she gets about the new lead comes before Naz's trial's ends, and when she hears about it, the look on her face, though somewhat ambiguous, indicates that she probably believes the new information. She makes no effort to pursue it until later, though, when much damage could have been done to Naz. So her main priority in life is her conviction rate, truth be damned?  She has to have believed the new information or she wouldn't easily let the jury's verdict stand and decline to re-prosecute. That prosecutors like this exist is no surprise, but in The Night Of it merely seems as if it's only the men, like Detective Box, doggedly pursuing the truth after his retirement, who have rectitude.

3) Of Naz's two parents, it's his mother who's the one who comes to think he may in fact have killed Andrea.  His father never wavers in his belief that his son is innocent.  The story could be written of course that both parents, or neither, or just the father, have their doubts about Naz, but in this case, it's the mother alone, which somehow seems of a piece with the slippery quality given to at least four (including Andrea) of the women characters in this story.

Anyway, despite my reservations, I don't feel I wasted my time watching The Night Of.  I hope HBO renews the series for a second season, preferably with a new case.  The second season of Criminal Justice, the British series The Night Of is based on, centers around a pregnant wife and mother who murders her abusive husband, a successful barrister. Maybe HBO will follow that story line next. It sounds promising, so let's see.  In the meantime, actually, I may go watch that second season, the British version, on Hulu.  

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Thief of Time

The life of a writer can be one of extremes. There's the hyper-socialization at events like Boucheron, and the countless hours of tucking oneself away to live in your head and flesh out the story you're trying to tell.

I think that blogs were initially a great experience for writers because they enabled us to connect, and that made the process of writing a little less lonely at times.

However, back when blogs were all the rage and everyone except Dennis Lehane had one to three they were posting on regularly, it was easy to get sucked down into the black hole of time theft.

And it's still easy to do that, just in other ways.

While I appreciate the support and motivation that comes from other writers at time, there came a point this summer when Marietta Miles summed up an issue for me; too much talk about writing instead of writing.

It's important to make sure that you balance your priorities, and that you don't let the sometimes fun activities get in the way of actually writing. Nobody needs to belong to five critique groups. Nobody needs to attend every marketing seminar. Nobody needs to take course after course when manuscripts are sitting unfinished, gathering dust.

At some point, we all have to put our big girl or boy pants on and get down to the business of being a serious writer if we want to be taken seriously. That doesn't mean don't socialize. It doesn't mean you have a support group you can be accountable to or run things by as needed.

It just means that your top priority remains the writing.

I had to shut off the world a bit this summer in order to get a manuscript done. Due to the fact that I did have a support group, and I was challenged by Mindy Tarquini to push myself out of my comfort zone, I ended up making significant changes I'd never expected to make. A month ago I wasn't even close to done, but over the past month I cut down my input and focused on the output.

Last night, I put the final touches on this manuscript and in a rare moment for me, I walked away happy with the ending and with a sense of satisfaction that I didn't think possible weeks ago.

I wouldn't have reached this point without motivation, but I also wouldn't have reached this point without prioritizing my time.

A person I knew (not an author or part of my network, but a schoolteacher) once got really snippy with me because they asked for a blog post and I wasn't able to produce one immediately. They pointed to another writer who'd come through when I hadn't, and they were a "bigger name."

I pointed out that they write full-time and that I balance full-time work and a family with my writing time. It's important to remember what your life responsibilities are when you commit your time to things. Prioritize. You don't need to take every publicity opportunity offered and you don't need to feel guilty for sometimes saying no.

You do need to make sure that you stay on track with your writing goals. After all, what's the point of every publicity opportunity if you never have anything ready to publish?

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Magic of Scrivener for iOS

Scott D. Parker

Today I want to talk about piece of technology that was years in the making but well worth the wait.
For many writers who use the Macintosh, it is quite possible that Scrivener is their word processor of choice. This writing program, which came out in 2007, is, in this writer’s opinion, nothing less than the best writing program available. What makes Scrivener unique is that your document is not one long file. Instead, it is broken down into individual components that are compiled into a final format. This makes it easy to change items in multiple places as opposed to working with one 400-page document. The multitude of other features—including a virtual corkboard with index cards, being able to export to just about any file format, and a bunch of other features that I frankly don’t use too often—make Scrivener all but essential for professional writers.
But the one drawback has been a dedicated iOS app. Up until this summer, there were only certain programs that you could sync with Scrivener. One of them is my favorite notetaking app, Simplenote. But even though Simplenote was able to sync its contents directly into Scrivener on the Macintosh or into the Simplenote app on my iPhone, it was never meant to be the place where you actually wrote content. I always used this synchronization feature for the brainstorming sessions, the research part of a novel where I would write out the beats and the scenes and the character descriptions. This was an effective workaround, but it was still a workaround. My on–the–go writing process was to use Google Docs. This process included me writing on the Macintosh in Scrivener, copying the newly written text into my Google Docs file, writing on my iPhone or my iPod touch in Google Docs, coming back home, and then copying and pasting the new text back into Scrivener. It sounds complicated, but it really isn’t. The only issues I ever encountered were is when Google Docs wouldn’t sync with itself and I would actually get some missing text every now and then. But that was the way I worked.
Until July.
The day before we took our trip to Big Bend Texas, the good folks at Literature and Latte released the scrivener for iOS app. They must’ve heard all the grumbling from dedicated Scrivner users who were pining for an iOS app. They kept users software as up-to-date as possible with the progress of the iOS app development, but the nuances of the program, the iOS environment, and how users interacted with the app both made the process delicate. But all that waiting is now over. Scrivener for iOS is magic. I have only had a smart phone for about three months now and some of the features still seem like magic to me. Scrivener iOS app is one of those.
Seamless. Invisible. Those are two words that come to mind when I think of working with the Scrivener for iOS. Now my process is much more streamlined. I write in Scrivener on the Mac. When I launch the iOS app, it asks me if I want to sync the content. Click sync now. The iOS app then reads the Scrivener file, which is stored in Dropbox, and determines what is updated. Within, say, 10 seconds or less, the app is ready for writing. Then, I simply open up the last working file, and move forward. All of my segmented chapters are available. All of my research notes and the scene breakdowns are available. And perhaps the best feature of all is when I need to go back to an earlier scene and put in a detail that only came to my mind after I had passed that point. In my old system, I would only keep a note in the Google Docs file but didn’t bother going and adding the new content in the Google Docs file. It was just too much of a hassle. Now, it is, well, seamless. When I open the Scrivener file on the Macintosh having worked on the file on the iPhone, there is no sync involved. All the new content is simply there. All the magic technology gets out of the way, and what I’m left with is simply writing. It is a dream app. It may have taken them years to develop this piece of software, but it was so worth the wait.
The price is $20. For some people, that’s probably a deal breaker. Not for me. The retail price of the Macintosh software is $40, and I would have been willing to shell out an equal amount to get this iOS app. What’s even better is that the main Scrivener file in Dropbox also works on my PC. Yes, I have all three versions. That is how much I like this piece of software. The only thing I’d like to add to the Mac/PC versions is the ability to dictate directly into the program via Dragon NaturallySpeaking.
So if any of y’all are wondering what software to buy and use on your iPhone or iPod touch, I cannot recommend Scrivener for iOS highly enough. It has increased my productivity and made the craft of writing as straightforward as possible. Nothing stands in my way of writing a good story. Well, other than time, and there’s never enough of that, is there?
Here's the overview video.

Friday, August 26, 2016

On Rape in Fiction

Guest post by Rebecca Jones Howe, author of Vile Men

I've written a rape scene. 

Okay, more than one rape scene. There, I said it.

In recent years, or at least since that awful scene in Game of Thrones  aired, rape scenes have been very talked-about facets of the literary world. Before writing this article, I asked Google, “What is so bad about rape scenes?” and was given a myriad of answers. I'm sure you've read some of the the articles that make note of the answer. I'm sure you already understand why rape scenes are problematic. Long story short, this post isn't going to be another rehashing of the “graphic rape scenes are terrible” argument, because there are plenty of writers out there who have explained it much more succinctly than I ever could.

As a feminist, I often read articles criticizing rape scenes and always end up taking a long and hard look at my writing. Often times I feel like I've committed some kind of special feminist sin. A few years ago I had a writer friend casually ask me, “Why do you write so much about rape?”
It was a question I couldn't provide an answer to.

My writing, at its core, has always dealt in some sense with sexuality. My short story collection is called “Vile Men”, and whenever I tell people about my writing career and they ask me for the title of my book, I always cringe before saying it. I know that I'm going to have to laugh awkwardly, and then that I'm going to have to explain it, and then that hidden part of my psyche will fester within the  real world and all of my new co-workers are going to buy my book and read it and then not want to talk to me about what they thought.

People definitely internalize the concept of rape in different ways. As a woman who grew up being told to be wary of strangers, I can say that it doesn't take long to learn that “stranger” really meant “bad men”. It also doesn't take long to learn what it was those bad man do. The concept of rape becomes a thought that never goes away. And instead of fearing it all the time I tried to understand it, tried to play with it, tried to brush it away, tried to overpower it.

Sometimes it was through fantasy. I'd like to say that the fantasies were ones where I'd get that whole “wolverine keys between your fingers” tactic actually worked, but they never were.
Sometimes it was through writing. And that writing always involved rape scenes. Sometimes they were violent. Sometimes they were erotic. And therein lies the problem.

Unfortunately there aren't as many articles about rape fantasies as there are about why rape scenes are lazy writing. Most women hide that kind of stuff, mainly because the rape fantasies are believed to stem from some age-old beliefs about the way women should act in the confines of societal standards, as this article states. Women have and still want to be desired, and women have and still are raised believing that any sort of sexual desire is something to be ashamed of. Those messages are internalized and manipulated. Even if a woman has a rape fantasy, she's still the one in control.
That's why it's a fantasy and why most women are hesitant to talk about them. It's personal stuff.
There's a whole genre of erotic fiction about rape and kidnapping fantasies, but I often find most of them unreadable, even if written well. Most of the plots end with some kind of Stockholm syndrome brand of happily ever after. They're never grounded in any sense of realism, and I prefer my fiction to exist in some facet of reality when it comes to human nature. I once wrote an erotica short under a pen-name that I published on Amazon, about a woman who posts a Craiglist ad asking a man to break into her house in order to engage in some rape-fantasy play. It was at least taking the “home invasion” plot but making it consensual. It was rapey but it was also fun, though there was one review I received that criticised the protagonist's decision to let a man break into her house as neither safe nor sane and that the story was horrible for that reason alone, and that criticism just bothered me. If you can't tread those safe and sane borders in fiction, then honestly, what is the point? One could argue that I'm basically making the same argument by taking issue with the “happily ever after” kidnapping storylines, so I'm not exactly one to judge here.

            Nevertheless, that's why I have a difficult time writing “erotica”. Fantasies usually make for trashy fiction. That isn't inherently a bad thing, but because I like to keep my fiction within the realms of literary, I often have a difficult time articulating my perspective on the issues with rape directly. Instead, I do it through my fiction. I tell my perspective through my stories.
Rape isn't about sex. It's about power.

Vile Men is a collection about sex and power. It's about how the genders handle that power, depending on the situations the characters are placed into. Most of the stories are told from the female perspective, but there are a handful of stories told from a male POV as well. Both genders have their handle of power. Most of the sex is consensual, though the collection has two stories that deal with rape. The first, titled “Better Places” is told from the female perspective. The other, “Grin on the Rocks” is told from an insecure male's POV.

“Better Places” is my zombie story, which a lot of people take as being a metaphor of the awful things humans do to each other and how they become real-life zombies. When I wrote it, I wanted the antagonist, Judah, to represent the arrogance people attain when they believe they hold all the cards. When the story's unnamed female protagonist finds Judah's fortified B&B on the side of the highway, she is desperate for safety, and is willing to give him exactly what he wants. Later, when the B&B is raided by bandits, Judah offers up the woman in lieu of shooting them dead. The story takes on an element of ridiculousness when the bandits return day after day, trading Judah luxuries from the outside world for another lay with the woman. Judah dons a silk bathrobe, drinks Chianti, and sprays the woman with expensive perfume. He revels in his vanity and forgets about the world outside. It's a story about entitlement and how it affects those who are alienated by it the most.
My other rape scene exists in the story, “Grin on the Rocks”. The original draft of the story was about a sociopath character and the unhinged life he lives. That draft was what I would classify was “edgy”. Most of the scenes existed for the purpose of being edgy, and I spent a couple years after penning the story trying to tame its message down. It wasn't until after the Isla Vista mass shooting in 2014, and after Elliot Rodger's unhinged manifesto was published online that I picked up the inspiration for the story. I became obsessed with the insecure male conscious and the stereotypes of sexuality that build men like the shooter of that tragedy. “Grin on the Rocks” is about an attractive young man named Jonah who seemingly has no trouble attracting the opposite sex. Women throw themselves at him, and he is powerless to turn away their advances. While he often feels alienated by female sexuality, he is told by his male co-worker that his position is one to be envied. The hyper-sexualized culture of modern society grips Jonah's daily life in such a way that he is unable to understand women and unable to establish a meaningful relationship with one. He sees himself a victim of female sexuality, and ends up reacting in the worst possible way.

“Better Places” and “Grin on the Rocks” are the two stories I'm often asked about in Vile Men. The response is usually positive, and usually incites elaborate discussion that I enjoy taking part in. All I can say is that I never intended to write the rape scenes within those stories from an objective or a violent perspective. I wrote them to examine what rape meant to me. The scenes are intense, but I wrote them with the intent to convey the emotion behind the action, as opposed to just the event of rape itself.

I suppose readers can decipher what they want from those scenes. I've had some feedback from readers who felt the stories leaned more towards trying to be deliberately edgy than insightful. While it can be frustrating as a writer to hear from a reader who didn't understand the point I was trying to get across, I also understand that fiction is subjective. People will write articles about the Sansa Stark rape scene forever, and they are definitely free to do so. Originally I liked the fact that I didn't have to experience that scene though Sansa's perspective, but some of the articles criticizing it have helped me feel otherwise. It still wouldn't have been a great scene had the camera held Sansa's gaze that whole time, but if you compare that scene with rape scenes from Mad Men  or Orange is the New Black, for instance, you can see how those rapes impacted the characters in such a way that charged their characters after.

Honestly, I'm not the ideal person to “defend” rape scenes, because at times even I have issues with the fact that I've written them, and the fact that I will likely still write more in the future. I can't say for sure whether I will or won't. I just write what I write. Most of my fiction stems from some deeply-routed issue I'm dealing with. I don't believe the I write for the purpose of shocking people, or for the purpose of being edgy.

But every so often I'll be walking alone and a man passes me a glance that makes me crawl inside. Every so often I'll have a fantasy that borders on the edge. Every so often I'll hear a story on the news that makes stomach turn over. I'll just say that as a woman and as a creative, that I don't have a lot of ways to deal with those feelings that emerge.

All I have is my writing. So I write.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Double-Booked Tour: Shannon Baker Interviews Jess Lourey

Guest Post by Shannon Baker & Jess Lourey

Holly's note: I'm very happy to host Shannon Baker and Jess Lourey on the blog today, because in the world of delightful authors in which I'm fortunate to reside, they are two of the delightfulest.

Shannon here: Thank you, Holly, for clearing some space on your virtual couch for me and Jess Lourey to plop down for a chat. I’ve poured some virtual bourbon and we’re settling in for some fun.

Let me introduce you to Jess Lourey, in case you haven’t met her, which would be a real shame. Jess has published 13 books, and might be best known for her award-winning and gut-bustingly funny Murder-by-the-Month series. By my count, she’s got two more months to go there, but we’ll get to that. In 2014, she released the most amazing magical realism book, CATALAIN BOOK OF SECRETS, that you should all read. But today, she’s going to tell us about her newest thriller, SALEM'S CIPHER. It hits the shelves September 6 but is available for preorder now.

And I’m Shannon Baker. My debut book in the Kate Fox mystery series, STRIPPED BARE, is also due to release on September 6 and is also available on preorder. (Thus the Lourey/Baker Double Booked Tour) It’s been called "Longmire meets The Good Wife," featuring a woman sheriff in rural Nebraska. I also wrote the Nora Abbott mystery series, a fast-paced mix of Hopi spiritualism, environmental issues and murder.

So let’s get going on the interview.

SB: First off, I’ve made my bourbon into a delicious Sazerac. Jess, I understand you aren’t fond of this heavenly mixture. Care to elaborate?

JL: I have a fun story about Sazeracs. I was in New Orleans, and I tried one, and it was gross.

Haha! I just made myself laugh out loud. That’s actually a true story, but to elaborate, I was in the French Quarter, relaxing after leading a writing workshop, and sitting across from David Morrell (who wrote FIRST BLOOD) and lots of other great writers. One of them suggested we try a Sazerac, a drink I was told was born in New Orleans. I am fond of alcohol. Some of my favorites are dirty martinis, red wine and whiskey ginger with three limes. The Sazerac, not so much it turns out. It tasted like Nyquil with a dirty diaper twist.

Why don’t you explain what it is you like about this drink, Shannon?

SB: *shaking and pouring over ice* What’s not to love? Bourbon, a little sweet, a whiff of absinth and lemon. *slurp* 

What drove you to write SALEM'S CIPHER?

JL: I wrote SALEM'S CIPHER inspired by three motivators: an offhand (I think) Facebook post Chelsea Cain made about how she wished there were more female thriller writers, a desire to explore the ramifications to a child of one of their parents committing suicide and a deep wish to finally make money off of my books. How about you, Shannon? What led you to write STRIPPED BARE?

SB: I’ve been thinking about writing a Nebraska Sandhills book for a long time. I lived there for 20 years, always an outsider, and left because my husband had an affair and didn’t seem inclined to give it up. The Sandhills is a unique place, in many ways still the old west. But I didn’t want to go back there while I felt bitter (and I felt bitter as scorched coffee). Time really does heal, and finally the clouds lifted high enough I could write about it with humor. For instance, I can have Kate have a cheating husband and not kill him, and actually give him some admirable qualities.
But what really prompted me to write this book is you, Jess. You were in Denver to give a writing workshop and we were heading to hike at Chautauqua in Boulder. We were talking writing and books, of course, and I told you about wanting to write this one set in the Sandhills. You encouraged me to do it. And I did. So, if I haven’t said it before, thank you! 

JL: Hearing that makes me feel so warm inside. You are an amazing writer, Shannon Baker, and all the credit for that goes to you.

SB: Jess, I love the CATALAIN BOOK OF SECRETS. Do you believe in magic?

JL: I absolutely, truly do. I see it all the time. For example, last April, I put my house on the market. A couple days later, walking to work, I thought to myself, what would be the absolute best day to close? After May 28 so my kids would be done with school, after June 22 so I wouldn’t have to move before I gave my TEDx Talk, and if we’re staying that long, why not until the day after the 4th of July because my house is a block from the best fireworks in this part of the state.

My realtor had emailed me on my drive, and I read it when I got to work. She had an offer on my house, and they wanted to close on July 5. A week later, I was worrying worrying worrying because my fiancé had been laid off, we didn’t know if we could sell his house, and I wasn’t getting an offer on the book I had out on submission. I was walking at the time of the worrying, and a fortune cookie fortune blew across my path. I picked it up. It said, “Don’t worry. A life of luxury is on its way.”

Wonderful, magical moments like this happen to me all the time, and the more I look for them, the more I see them. And that’s not even talking about the magic that brings two people together, or that blesses us with amazing children, or that helps us to evolve every day. Uff da. I get worked up talking about magic. Do you believe in it, Shannon?

SB: I believe in something like magic. Or maybe it’s Santa Claus. Because when my daughter was 6 and probably her last year of believing in Santa, she wanted the toy of the year, a PJ Sparkles doll. We lived in the Sandhills, where the nearest K-Mart was an hour drive away, and way before Amazon carried anything but books. Online shopping was a fantasy. I shopped everywhere in a 150 mile radius. I started calling stores from Cheyenne to Rapid City. No PJ Sparkles.

Then, on Christmas Eve, a friend called me from the town next to ours, population 250. Mable’s was a dry goods store, with a plank floor, only the front windows, which hadn’t been washed since the Eisenhower administration, run by Mable, who wore glasses so thick she had to anchor them to her head with duct tape.
On a back shelf near the ceiling, in the darkest part of the store, my friend spotted the last available PJ Sparkles doll in the western hemisphere. I drove there like Santa’s elves were chasing me. Mable had no recollection of ordering that doll, and frankly, I doubt she did. But because of PJ Sparkles, I believe anything is possible. 

Jess, you’ve got ten books in the Murder-by-the-Month series, are we going to see March and April? 

JL: If PJ Sparkles will help me to write them.


Jess and I are giving away a copy of SALEM'S CIPHER and STRIPPED BARE. For a chance to win, just leave a comment.

And wait, there’s more:
If you order SALEM'S CIPHER before September 6, 2016, you are invited to forward your receipt to to receive a Salem short story and to be automatically entered in a drawing to win a 50-book gift basket mailed to the winner's home!

If you order STRIPPED BARE before September 6, 2016, you are invited to forward your receipt to to receive a Kate Fox short story and be entered for a book gift basket mailed to your home.

Jump on the side car as we strap on our helmets and swing over to chat with Diana Belchase on Book Smart TV, where we’re going to do a woman protagonist throwdown.


Shannon Baker moved seven times in less than ten years, from the Nebraska Sandhills, to Boulder, CO, Flagstaff, AZ, back to Boulder and a short stint in southwestern Nebraska. It might be schizophrenic, but helpful for writing great western settings. She’s hoping to let a little moss grow on the rolling stone, as she’s settled in Tucson with her favorite person, and her dog, Jezebel, the crazy Weimeraner. Visit her at

Jessica (Jess) Lourey is best known for her critically-acclaimed Murder-by-Month mysteries, which 
have earned multiple starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist, the latter calling her writing "a splendid mix of humor and suspense." She is a tenured professor of creative writing and sociology, a recipient of The Loft's 2014 Excellence in Teaching fellowship, and leads interactive writing workshops all over the world. SALEM'S CIPHER, the first in her thrilling Witch Hunt Series, hits stores September 2016. You can find out more at or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Surprise, Despair, Perfection

by Scott Adlerberg

I was discussing Brian De Palma's Blow Out the other day, and the talk about it turned to what a great ending it has.  It's a film that has one of the most devastating, sad but perfectly set-up endings you're going to find anywhere.  It's the kind of ending that I find occurs rarely, one that follows a story of tension and suspense, that could believably end well for the main characters, but that concludes on a note of surprise, ruthless logic, and complete despair.  

"It's a good scream.  It's a good scream," says John Travolta's character to finish the film, and this simple line hearkens back in a bleakly ironic way to the very first scene in the movie. Except what was amusing to open the film, after all that has gone on during the course of the narrative, is no longer amusing at all.

Talking about De Palma's movie got me thinking about other films with endings that have hit me with the same force Blow Out's does.  What's another film with an ending you didn't see coming and that leaves you reeling in darkness but that, as soon as it falls, strikes you as absolutely perfect?  

The one that occurred to me is Georges Sluizer's 1988 Dutch film, The Vanishing.

Adapted from a novella called The Golden Egg, The Vanishing involves a young Dutch couple, Rex and Saskia, vacationing in France.  It's clear they are in love and relaxed with each other.  Needing gas for their car, they stop at a rest area gas station, and afterward they play catch with a Frisbee and bury two coins by a tree to mark their feelings for each other. Saskia walks back to the rest area to pick them up some drinks. From that rest area she will never return, and the story goes from there, with Rex starting what will become a three year search for her.

It's difficult to talk about The Vanishing's plot without giving too much away. Suffice it to say that Rex is obsessed with discovering what happened to Saskia.  He feels he must stay true to his promise never to abandon her.  In time, he encounters the man responsible for her disappearence, and Rex's chilling odyessey will indeed lead him to the place where, as her abductor promises him, he finds out exactly what happened to her.  He experiences her fate for himself, and in fact, as horrible as this fate is, he even perhaps achieves a certain satisfaction imagining himself reunited with Saskia. As he swore to her the last time he ever saw her, he has not left her alone.

Not unlike with Blow Out, The Vanishing's denouement echoes something seen at the film's opening, in the very first shot.  Everything comes full circle in a manner that's not predictable but seems to have been inevitable.  With both Jack Terry (Travolta's character) and Rex, it's a case of be careful what you wish for, because what you get may be the product of your worst nightmare. This is narrative irony of the purest kind.  And the sensation it creates, at least for me, is positively thrilling. There's sadness and despair over what happens but appreciation for the story's formal brilliance.  The contrast provides a potent kick, a supreme sort of aesthetic excitement. It's a combination you don't find too often, but when you do, it's storytelling gold.

Monday, August 22, 2016

In memory of Jon Tuska

Short post today, just something quick to say.

It's no secret that for the last year plus, I've been reading primarily westerns. Western novels, short stories, cowboy poetry, non-fiction, analysis and criticisms. One person has been a constant touchstone as I've interrogated, thought about, and had conversations with the genre.

Jon Tuska.

One of my most heavily thumbed through books has been the Encyclopedia of Frontier & Western Fiction by Jon Tuska and Vicki Piekarski. I often refer to its entries and consult it often.


Because Jon Tuska was likely the greatest western fiction scholar of the last 50 years. There are two traits that are worth mentioning. First, the amount of research, reading, and watching he did was immense and it was obvious he had a love for the genre and loved writing about it. Second, his writings were easily accessible. They weren't locked up in academic or dedicated journals, they were available to readers in readily available books, introductions to anthologies that he edited, talks that he gave.If you thought about westerns at all, there was a good chance you came across his work.

The Encyclopedia is an interesting book. It was published in 1983, a year before Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy and Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry were published. It's interesting, unintentional, timing to say the least. Two atom bombs went off in the genre and this is a book that doesn't deal with them because it can't. 

I would have liked to ask Tuska about that timing, and what his opinions were of those two books. It was that stray thought that made me wonder if any contact info was out there for him, and sent me to Google. Which is when I discovered that Jon Tuska died earlier this year.

I don't always agree with some of Jon Tuska's conclusions (I think he was, perhaps, more of a traditionalist than I was), and sometimes he was just wrong ("I seriously doubt that Clint Eastwood will have Duke Wayne's staying power")but I continue to respect his opinion and the work that went into forming it. There have been times when I have formed an opinion or drawn a conclusion, only to discover that Tuska got there first

I'll leave you now with Jon Tuska, in his own words, on the Western.

The story of the American West, truly, has nothing to do with heroes and romance; it is rather a question of human endurance in the face of tragedy and defeat. But in tragedy combined with human endurance, in spiritual resilience in the face of disaster, as writers since Aeschylus and Sophocles have known, there is the potential for human nobility. Most of the best fiction about the American West is about man in nature, not the denatured, mechanical, sterile world that has come increasingly to serve as a backdrop for human activity in other kids of fiction. Indeed, in finding some  good in our American past, albeit in these more realistic terms, we might well entertain some hope for the future. In this way the American West remains what the Native Americans always thought it to be; the land beyond the setting sun, the Spiritland. The Delphic γνῶθι σεαυτὸν [know thyself] is deepened and broadened by the new experiences on a new continent; our collective idea of humanity is strengthened through a more truthful understanding and assimilation of our historical past.  -- From Jon Tuska's introduction to the Encyclopedia of Frontier & Western Fiction (1983)
 And finally:
I suppose the Western motion picture symbolizes and compresses a basic view of the changing morality, ideals, ambitions, , aspirations, and the fears, insecurities, doubts, and self-interrogations of the American people. In the end, the Western may indeed propound the American philosophy of life and the manner of confronting adversity amid hostile elements of raw nature and human evil. The conquest of a continent and the conquest of the personality are, to me, the Western's most dominant themes. it isn't reality, nor has it ever generally pretended to be. The Western is a living legend of our frontier history, altered to meet the differing needs of changing times. It frequently represent an innately heroic concept of man and his possibilities. The Western, even in its latest evolutionary forms, captures the game atmosphere, the optimism toward life true of our adventurers, the mythical cowboys of the great Southwest, the easygoing and capable fashion with which frustrations are met and solved, or the anguish with which the self-divisions and despair at the barren futility of an unsympathetic environment threaten, even destroy, but cannot extinguish the integrity of the individual's right to be himself. For me, the Western is the infusing of the human soul with the expanding and always imperiled vision of liberty. -- From Jon Tuska's The Filming of the West (1975)
 I just wanted to take a moment to point out the passing of a great writer. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Life is Like a Bowl of Tomatoes

Where I live, summer is measured by two things: the number of days that are 100 degrees or hotter, and the quality of your tomato crop.
This year, we’ve had 23 triple-digit days so far. We complain, but that’s about average for a California Central Valley summer. I don’t mind too much, because it’s the perfect weather to hole up indoors and write.
The other summer obsession has the opposite effect, however. Tomatoes make you go outdoors. They also make you crazy – at least this year.
The tomatoes in the above photo? Not this year’s. These were big and fat. Heck, last year, I got heirloom tomatoes so big, one slice would do you for a whole sandwich. This year, doing the exact same thing, I have produced this:
Not a sandwich-worthy one among them.

But I’m not the only one. In talking about tomatoes – which a ton of people do, starting about mid-summer – I’ve found that other people also have experienced late blooms, cracked fruit, and various other calamities. The newspaper even did a story on it.
This made me feel much better. Knowing there are others in the same gardening boat really helped. And the same holds true for everything else in life, really. Finding someone who knows what you’re going through – whether it’s a health scare, car trouble, a tricky writing plot problem, or anything else – makes it more bearable. So here’s hoping you have a support group, and a tomato big enough to make a BLT.