Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Can't count down to Christmas without the Grinch

We really can't count down to Christmas with the Grinch. Now, I admit that he's not my favorite Dr. Seuss character. That would have to be Yertle the Turtle, which I has pretty much memorized when my daughter was little (On the Far-Away island of Sala-Ma-Sond, Yertle the Turtle was King of the Pond. The water was warm. There was plenty to eat. The turtles had everything turtles might need.)

But every Christmas, we pull out the old video and watch the Grinch turn his dog Max into a reindeer (he's hilarious!) and slide down that mountain to take Christmas away from the Whos. And then when he realizes he couldn't steal Christmas, it came anyway, his heart grew three times its size and he brought everything back.

But my favorite song is the one that's sung while he's slinking around, stealing trees and ornaments and even that last can of Who Hash and a final crumb off the floor:

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Bruce sings Christmas

We've got two radio stations here that have been playing Christmas tunes constantly since even before Thanksgiving (which was a little ridiculous, actually, but now that it's the season, I don't care anymore). There's nothing like Frank crooning out a holiday classic, but I'm in the mood for a little Bruce today. One of my favorite holiday tunes is his Santa Claus is Coming to Town.

Check out the video, and you gotta love Clarence and especially Stevie's head attire for this one:

Saturday, December 18, 2010

More Christmas Countdown with Frosty

Last night we caught FROSTY THE SNOWMAN on TV. I'm not sure what it was with Rankin Bass picking unusual looking male performers as narrators: Fred Astaire for SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN, and Jimmy Durante for FROSTY. But irregardless, it works. Durante has a distinguishable voice as well as nose, and his rendition of the song is very good. My husband was surprised our daughter knew Durante, but he forgot that Durante is featured in a favorite I LOVE LUCY episode, and we have all the I LOVE LUCY DVDs and she's got them memorized.

I always liked FROSTY because of the little girl Karen. She's feisty and empathetic, and we share a name.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Walter Brennan Christmas

My friend and former newspaper colleague Fran Fried is out in California now, but when he was here, he used to deejay a show on Bridgeport's WPKN radio station called the Sleep Deprivation Experiment. The show ran from 2 to 6 a.m. every couple of weeks. At Christmastime, Fran would play Christmas songs. When I was working nights on the copy desk at the New Haven Register, I'd come home and listen to his show while wrapping presents.

The thing is, Fran wouldn't play just any ordinary Christmas songs. He found some of the most obscure, but really cool, songs to play on his show. Who knew that Walter Brennan put out a Christmas album? Walter Brennan of "The Real McCoys," some of you might remember that TV show or some might not, but it was a Western. Don't see many of those these days. Walter Brennan is also the only actor to ever get three Oscars for Best Supporting Actor roles, according to his IMDB biography. And he also had four top 100 single records.

Here's his Just 3 Letters for Christmas:

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

House Without a Christmas Tree

Last year I found a DVD at my local video store for a made for TV movie that I loved when I was in middle school. HOUSE WITHOUT A CHRISTMAS TREE came out in 1972, and even though it was set in the 1940s, I could relate to Addie, the young girl whose mother has died and is growing up with her dad, played by Jason Robards, and her grandmother, played by Mildred Natwick. They don't have a Christmas tree because her father is still grieving for her mother, and Addie brings a tree home and stirs up a lot of trouble.

The DVD isn't the best quality, but watching it again brought back a lot of memories. Check this little montage out to get a sense of it, and then if you like it, see if you can find the DVD:

Monday, December 13, 2010

Christmas in Connecticut

The day we put up our Christmas tree, we fished out the holiday movies and realized that last year we hadn't watched CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT. I'm not quite sure how we missed this last year, but we chalked it up to the silly seasona and how crazy it can get. So since we missed it last year, it was the first video we popped in last week.

Now, this is not the remake version with Dyan Cannon, but the original with Barbara Stanwyk, who plays Elizabeth Lane, a woman who writes a food column for a magazine based on Good Housekeeping. Problem is, she can't cook, doesn't live on the farm she talks about in her column, and has no baby or husband, either. So when her publisher tells her he's sending her a war hero to host for Christmas, she has to scramble to create the life she's pretended to have. What ensues is a lot of fun and romance and holiday cheer.

And for those of you who notice these things: It seems that Hollywood decided to use the same house that's in Holiday Inn for this movie (or the other way around). Might as well not waste a good set.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

In the days before Pixar, there was Rankin Bass. They produced Christmas shows on TV when I was a kid, and I'd rather watch those than some of the shows they've got on now for kids. The characters are sort of a cartoon-puppet hybrid. Compared to today's animation technology, this is pretty basic stuff, but isn't any less entertaining.

One of my favorites of the Rankin Bass productions is Santa Claus is Coming to Town. The Burgermeister is a good villian, and the little penguin a good sidekick for Kris Kringle, who is voiced by the late Mickey Rooney. Mrs. Claus starts out as Jessica, the school teacher, and she plumps up quite nicely by later in the show when she takes on her new role. And who doesn't love the Winter Warlock, who melts into a nice guy with just a little magic left to make reindeer fly. As with my favorite holiday movie Holiday Inn, this one features Fred Astaire, although in a different form than in the film. But they got his long chin just right:

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Feliz Navidad

Growing up in the 1960s, because my parents were in their twenties, I wasn't immediately exposed to the Rolling Stones or the Beatles or The Doors. The records I remember from my early childhood were the Four Freshmen, the Kingston Trio, Fats Domino, and Jose Feliciano.

My husband first remembers Jose Feliciano because he sang the theme song for the early '70s show "Chico and the Man," with Freddie Prinz and Jack Albertson. Loved that show, too, but I'd already been listening to him by that time.

One of our all time favorite holiday songs is Feliz Navidad. We play it every year while we're putting up the Christmas tree so we can get into the holiday spirit.

Here's Jose Feliciano in a live concert in Denmark in 1973 performing it:

Friday, December 10, 2010

I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas

One of our favorite holiday movies of all time is HOLIDAY INN, with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. They play two entertainers who part over a woman, and Bing Crosby goes to the country in Connecticut and buys a farm. He turns it into Holiday Inn, open on all the major holidays of the year. It's a glamorous place, despite being in the country, and he manages to put on magnificent productions with sets and an orchestra and fabulous costumes. Fred Astaire's dancing is amazing, and Bing Crosby croons. It's a love story and a musical and a comedy, and if you haven't seen it, you should definitely check it out.

One of my favorite lines in the movie is when the manager goes to the flower shop and asks for "orchids. Loose, looking like they don't care."

In the 1942 film, Bing and Marjorie Reynolds sing "White Christmas," which is one of the best parts of the film:

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Christmas countdown

The silly season has begun, and with it all the Christmas specials and movies that we all know and love. And besides Charlie Brown and Frosty, some new shows are getting in on the holiday bandwagon. This week Glee had its holiday special episode, with some great music and a hilarious Sue Sylvester version of the Grinch.

One song, though, that was resurrected by the Glee cast was by one of the '80s groups: WHAM! I admit to having at least one WHAM! album, and my sister actually met George Michael in a club in London. Before the scandals. And whatever happened to the other guy?

I thought that between now and Christmas I'd post some videos from some of my favorite music performances and movies and TV shows that celebrate the holidays. So I'll start with WHAM!'s Last Christmas (and I'll throw in the Glee version, too, although it's just audio, no video):

Monday, November 22, 2010

Coming June 2011

Amazing illustrator Craig Phillips has done it again. I have to admit that when I started this series, I wasn't quite sure just what my covers would look like. There is a sort of same-ness about some of the cozy mystery covers, which is most likely very comfortable for readers. But considering that this is a series about a crime-solving tattoo artist, it's a bit different than the typical cozy that features an amateur sleuth who might knit or crochet or hang out at the local library. It's got more of an edge to it. So when Penguin found Craig Phillips, it was a match made in heaven.

What do you think?

Monday, November 15, 2010

From the mountains of North Carolina to the streets of Boston

Vicki Lane is one of my favorite authors. She writes the wonderful Elizabeth Goodweather series set in the mountains of North Carolina. The books are lyrical, evocative. They all have several layers overlapping each other, each more mesmerizing than the last.

Vicki and I were on our very first Bouchercon panel together back in Chicago in 2005, the one that spawned my previous blog endeavor, the First Offenders. Alison Gaylin, Lori Armstrong, and Jeff Shelby rounded out our "first novel" panel, and while Vicki didn't join the First Offenders, she and I have kept in touch and her books are always must reads for me.

I ordered her latest book THE DAY OF SMALL THINGS with a little bit of trepidation, however. This book does not feature Elizabeth Goodweather, rather Miss Birdie, a secondary character in previous books. This is Miss Birdie's story, and while I've enjoyed the character, I wasn't quite sure how I would like a whole book about her.

I loved it.

Miss Birdie starts out as "Least," the youngest child of a rather formidable, angry woman. She is called "quare" and her mother tells everyone that she is simple and can't handle going to school—so she doesn't. But when Granny Beck arrives to live with them, the older woman sees that Least has the Gift, and Granny Beck teaches her about that as well as teaches her to read. There is a bit of woo-woo in this book, with Least having a mystical power that carries her through the first part of her life. But mostly it is Least's story, how she gets through those first years of her life, how she survives when Granny Beck is gone, how she meets Young David and manages to survive.

I have to say, though, the first part of the book was my favorite. In the second part, Least has become the Miss Birdie of the Elizabeth Goodweather books, and she is drawn into the kidnapping of her friend Dorothy's grand nephew Calven and goes back to her Gift for the first time in a very long time to try to save him. While it's interesting, and the chapters from Calven's point of view are well done, I'm not sure that adding a crime like this to this novel was really necessary. It's as though this novel is actually two books. That said, I still recommend it, because it's still an amazing story. Vicki also uses the local dialect in telling the story, which works beautifully.

Another book I've read in the last week is Dennis Lehane's MOONLIGHT MILE. This is his much-anticipated return to the Patrick Kenzie/Angie Gennaro series, which ended several years ago with PRAYERS FOR RAIN. This book is a sort of sequel to GONE BABY GONE, in which a four year old girl is kidnapped and Patrick and Angie are hired to find her. In MOONLIGHT MILE, that little girl is now 16 and is again missing, and Patrick is hired to find her.

It's a classic crime novel. Lehane's style is easy to read; the plot is a basic one. However, the book didn't stand out for me like his earlier series books. Maybe it's because Patrick and Angie are now married with a four year old of their own, and there are a lot of references to how "old" they're getting and how they can't do what they used to be able to. Well, I didn't much care for whining about that. They're also supposed to be a little softer around the edges because of the passage of time, but I liked the grittiness of the earlier books. It's sort of like how on soap operas they could never let anyone get married and be happy because it would get boring. While I can appreciate how Lehane sees his two characters now, I agree with Sarah Weinman's assessment that it was like meeting up with friends at a high school reunion: You enjoy their company for a couple of hours but you probably don't have to see them again.

Perhaps it's because Lehane hasn't written about these characters in a long time that the gap is too noticeable. Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone has changed over the course of 20 books, but Muller has never taken a long sabbatical from McCone so the growth is gradual.

What have you read lately?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

How much of human life is lost in waiting?

I had a conversation with my daughter yesterday about book series. She's 13, soon to be 14, and she was lamenting how that by the time the next book in a new series would come out, she might have outgrown it.

She was talking in particular about Rick Riordan's new Lost Hero series, a sort of sequel to the Percy Jackson series. The Lost Hero just came out last month, and it seems she'll have to wait a year until the next one is released, since the second in his Red Pyramid series will probably be out first. But because these books are leaning more toward middle grade readers, she sees that while she loves the characters and the stories, they could soon be "too young" for her.

It's something that as a writer who has published two adult mystery series, I just never had thought about. I don't have to worry about my audience growing too old for my series. They were adults when they started, or maybe teens, in the case of my tattoo shop mysteries, and they will be adults when the series are over.

But as someone who's recently written a young adult novel, my conversation with my daughter struck a chord.

I tried to envision who my readers would be if this book is ever published. My main characters are three teenagers who are sixteen years old. I've investigated the middle grade vs. young adult thing: it seems that most of those books are categorized based on the ages of the protagonist(s). But I do know that while mine are in high school—and late high school—the book might be better suited for ages 12 to 15.

Now, with that in mind, I will reveal that I'd planned a trilogy when I wrote the first book. Granted, it can't be a trilogy if no one buys the first one, but if someone does, then I would like to pursue two more books. But I then face the dilemma of my audience outgrowing them before the next ones are released.

It might be a good idea if middle grade and young adult authors wrote faster. In fact, my daughter is really on board that bandwagon. She thinks there should only be six months between books, and, in lieu of conversation, she's right. As a parent, I'd like her to enjoy a series as long as she can, and as a writer, I'd like her to read all my books without abandoning them halfway because she feels too "old."

As a mystery writer who has written four books in one series in the last two years, I know that this is possible. I know that I could definitely write two more books in my YA series in the next year, maybe less. But in the case of Rick Riordan, who's got two series he's balancing, it might not be so easy. He's just going to have to rely on even younger readers growing old enough to read his series all the way through.

Do you think writers of middle grade and young adult books should try to push the envelope and get their series books out to their young readers more quickly? Do you think adult series writers should step it up a little, too?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Harry Potter back on the big screen

You know what's coming this month, right?

No, not turkey and stuffing.

The Harry Potter movie.

In order to make more money, the last Harry Potter book is being split in two, so the first film will be out Nov. 19, and the second in July 2011.

I'm re-reading the book now, in anticipation of the first half. But watching the trailer for the movie, I have a sneaking suspicion that they're showing clips from both films. Things in the trailer don't happen in the first half of the book, which is actually a little slow moving. Harry, Ron, and Hermoine hide out at 12 Grimmauld Place, trying to figure out their next move, how to stay out of sight, in order to collect the five remaining Horcruxes that will help destroy Voldemort for good. They end up leaving more than 200 pages in, and then the action begins, albeit still a bit slowly.

I can't figure out where they're going to end the first film and start the second.

But it doesn't much matter. I'll be at the theater with my daughter to begin the last Harry Potter adventure together. Will you?

Here's the trailer. What do you think? Do you think there are scenes from both films, too?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Some thoughts on two books

I've read two mysteries in the last month that kept me thinking after I finished them.

My daughter's violin teacher is a huge fan of Lawrence Block. In particular, Block's Matt Scudder series. So when I was at Bouchercon last month and my friend Alison Gaylin said she'd gotten an ARC for the latest Scudder book, A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF, I talked her into giving it to me so I could give it to Miles.

I had never read a Block book. But since it was in my bag on the plane, and I had three hours to kill, I pulled it out and began to read.
I am kicking myself for never picking up a Block book before. It was amazing. A relatively quiet mystery; a flashback to the year after Scudder stops drinking; a case about an old friend who is violently murdered; a slow, languid pace that just sucks you in and keeps you thinking long after you finish the book. I have lived with recovery in my life, not my own recovery, but in my family, and Block gets it all right. A scene where Scudder comes back to his room to find a glass of bourbon on his desk waiting for him is one of the strongest in the book. The temptation is clear, his resolve uncertain. The mystery takes a back seat to his struggle.
I'm now going to seek out more Block books. Better late than never. Sadly, though, you'll have to wait for this latest, since it won't be released until May 2011. But it's worth the wait. My daughter's violin teacher was very happy he could get this sneak peek!
The other book is one I just finished, and I admit that I'm not exactly sure what I think about it. Either it was brilliant, or it was ridiculous. But I can't make up my mind.

I have loved Louise Penny's Three Pines mysteries. Her chief inspector, Armand Gamache, is wise and clever. The setting is what drew me initially and has kept me enthralled: a small town just outside Montreal that's not on any map. My family has been to Quebec and Montreal a few times, so the setting speaks to me.

Her new book, BURY YOUR DEAD, is set in Quebec City. I absolutely loved following Gamache around there, since I could close my eyes and picture exactly where he was at all times. The city within the walls is not that big, and since we explored every inch of it, it was easy to picture.

The problem with the book is that there are basically three plots going on simultaneously. The first is the initial one: Gamache is in Quebec City and has stumbled across the murder of a man who has spent his life searching for the remains of Champlain, the founder of Quebec. Penny addresses the problems between the English (Anglophones) and French (Francophones) in Quebec in this plot.

While Gamache is investigating, however, suddenly we get snippets of conversations he has with a young agent named Paul Morin. And as the book progresses, we realize something has happened to Morin, that Gamache is "recuperating" in Quebec City, and his right hand man, Jean-Guy Beauvoir has also been wounded.

We then move into plot No. 3: Gamache sends Beauvoir to Three Pines to see if Olivier, the bistro owner, (SPOILER HERE) actually did kill the Hermit in the previous book. Now, I had huge problems with that last book, and I wasn't sure I was going to read this new book because of that. I never once believed that a beloved, recurring character had become a murderer. Perhaps Penny knew all along that perhaps he wasn't, and that's why she revisited that in this book. But it still feels wrong.

So all three plots are intertwined in this one book. While I got used to the conversations between Gamache and Morin interrupting the flow from time to time, it was an odd device to use. I found myself rating the three plots as to their importance to me: 1) Morin and what happened to Gamache and Beauvoir; 2) Three Pines and Olivier; and 3) Champlain's body. Sadly, I think Penny meant that I should be more interested in the third since that took up the majority of the book, but I found myself skimming a bit to get through all the history to find out just what happened with Morin.

Like I said, either this was brilliant or it was silly to take on three complicated plots at the same time. I'm not quite sure which.

What have you read lately?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Reflections, or Why Things Have Been Thrown Out

I'm one of those people who actually throws things away. I don't like clutter around my house, although I'm afraid that those spaces behind closed doors tend to get a bit crowded with things. But I've been on a getting-rid-of-things streak the last month or so. I went through my closets and put tons of old clothes and shoes into a big garbage bag and brought it down to the Goodwill. This morning, I went through all my jewelry, weeding out horrifying 1980s earrings and cheap necklaces and earrings that have not worn well with the passage of time. My next project is the basement—a huge undertaking since we've got all my daughter's old toys and books and some of my grandparents' things that really do need to get tossed.

This is not to say that I get rid of everything. I do keep things for sentimental reasons: the box of dishes my grandmother gave me when I moved into my first apartment; books of all kinds that have touched me in one way or another; old dolls that I spent hours playing with.

I'm not sure why I'm on this big kick, except that I've been feeling a little bit like I'm going to be moving into a new phase of my life. I turned 50 in August and am dodging the AARP, my daughter will be going to high school next year, and my husband is facing a change in his career. I just finished the last of my tattoo shop mysteries, and it's the last in my book contract with no new contract in sight.

Rather than feel uncertain and anxious about all of this, though, as I would have when I was younger, I'm pretty okay with all of it. I've been very lucky—in love, since my husband is pretty amazing; in being a mom, since my daughter, despite being in her sullen teenage years, is turning into quite a remarkable young woman; with good friends; with my newspaper career, which spanned more than 20 years, and now my job editing a medical journal; and with my writing, having now seven published novels, with one more set to be published in June.

The closet purge is what the professionals would probably say is preparation for this next phase in a very literal sense. Like how women who are bringing a new baby into the house "nest" right beforehand.

Do you find yourself doing a purge when you need to sort other things out in your life, too?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

I didn't leave my heart there, but I love San Francisco

So I'm back.

I seem to be saying that a lot lately, but this time I was truly away. I was at the aforementioned Bouchercon in San Francisco, the premiere convention for all of us mystery folk. As usual, it was a blast. And as usual, I kept running into the same people and totally missed seeing some people I really wanted to see. This is the way it is when there are upwards of 1,500 people attending the same convention. It is also not as easy to see everyone when you're not staying in the convention hotel.

When I got home, I realized I'd taken a lot of touristy type pictures and only a few of actual people. I am not used to whipping out my camera and taking pictures in a bar or restaurant, unless I'm with my family. Although I do wish I'd taken pictures in Alfred's, the steakhouse I went to Saturday night with Clair Lamb, John Connolly, Declan Hughes, Mark Billingham, and Chris Mooney. The steaks were bigger than the plates and fantastic.

Here are a couple of pictures I did manage to get, however:

Keith Raffel, Lori Armstrong and I ended up having sandwiches for dinner in a pub near the convention hotel Friday night. Being in the financial district, many places closed early and it wasn't easy to find food. Lori and I were having visions of our White Hen experience in Chicago as we wandered around looking for dinner.

Lori and I took off Thursday and played hooky from the convention. We found a fabulous wine bar in Fisherman's Wharf and had a total non-Bouchercon moment when we had a champagne tasting.

Lori, Reed Farrel Coleman and I had a leisurely two hour breakfast on Saturday, discussing the YA book THE HUNGER GAMES. Among other things. Reed and Lori and I hung out a lot when we were in Denver in 2007 for Left Coast Crime.

Other friends I managed to snag some time with were Alison Gaylin, Judy Bobalik, Steve Hamilton, Dana Cameron, Hank Phillippi Ryan . . . in my current still jet lagged state I can't think of everyone. But like I said, Bouchercon is huge, mostly everyone tries to make it each year, and it's always a good time.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Bouchercon, or Why Conventions Should Be In Places You Don't Want To Go

So tomorrow I leave for Bouchercon.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, Bouchercon is the largest mystery convention in the country. It's named after mystery writer Anthony Boucher and each year is in a different city. This year, it's in San Francisco.

I'm a firm believer that conventions and conferences should take place in places you don't want to go. Last year it was in Indianapolis, and at risk of pissing off people who live there and love their city, it really is one of those places that you don't want to go. So you spend the whole time at the convention hotel, hobnobbing with other writers and going to all the panels. That's what you're supposed to do.

But this year, well, I'm torn. I want to get out of the hotel and see the city. I was in San Francisco five years ago, right before my first Bouchercon in Chicago, and the city is pure magic. So much to do, so beautiful. We took a tour of Chinatown, went to Alcatraz, Coit Tower, Golden Gate Park, Sausilito, Japantown . . . I can't even remember everything we did. We spent five days there, soaking in the local scene.

I will have three full days in San Francisco this week. Already I'm planning to take Thursday off from the convention. I've got a breakfast to attend, but after that, I'm stealing away with my friend Lori and we're going to be tourists, not mystery writers, for the day. While perhaps I should feel guilty about this, I will be at the convention most of Friday and Saturday and will still be able to hit up a few panels and meet up with friends I never see except at Bouchercon. But you really can't go to San Francisco and not take some time to enjoy it.

Have you ever been to San Francisco? A convention? Do you think all conventions should be in places like Hartford or Harrisburg or Toledo?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Guest blogger: Reed Farrel Coleman on Titles

Today I have the pleasure of having my good friend Reed Farrel Coleman guest blogging. Reed, who's won the Shamus Award three times and the Anthony and Barry awards, writes the amazing Moe Prager series. The sixth, INNOCENT MONSTER, is just out now from Tyrus Books. Reed and I became good friends during Sleuthfest in Florida in 2006, and when I picked up my first Moe book, I was totally hooked. Moe is a complex character, and Reed takes him to the edge and back again in every book.

Reed is talking titles today, something I know he's really good at, since he came up with title for my third book, DEAD OF THE DAY. So here's Reed:

Innocent Monster: What’s With That?

Titles are important to me. They always have been. Even before I studied poetry at Brooklyn College, titles mattered. The first editorial conflict I ever had was over the title of my first published poem. I was a sophomore in high school and submitted a poem for publication in the school literary magazine. Of course the poem was what most high school poems are about—unrequited love. The original title of the poem was “Monopoly—Maybe Not To You, But To Me.” Man, I thought that was about the cleverest title ever. Problem was when I got my contributor’s copy later that year, the title had been changed to “Monopoly.” Talk about mixed feelings. There I was delighted to see my name in print for the first time and fuming because the cleverest title ever had been changed without my permission. Now that was an abject lesson about publishing that I should have paid attention to, but I never believed writing would be my career. I got my revenge, because by the time I was a senior I was named the editor of the school literary magazine.

When I got to Brooklyn College, I studied writing poetry with Professor David Lehman. He taught me two of the most important lessons I would ever learn. First lesson: If you want to be a writer, you have to think of yourself as a writer. It seems so obvious, but it isn’t. He actually made us raise our right hands and take a pledge to think of ourselves as writers from that day forward. You know what? Since that day I raised my hand, I have never stopped thinking of myself as a writer. That pledge got me through a lot of miserable, hateful jobs. Second lesson: If it’s worth writing, it’s worth a title. I drank the Kool-Aid on that one. The two poems I got published while in college were titled “Commentary, Sorry” and “They Don’t Play Stickball in Milwaukee.” Yes, I stole my own title for the title of my third novel. Something else Professor Lehman did was tell anecdotes. One of my favorites was about the poet WH Auden. Auden was approached by a woman who was sure her son could be a great writer. When she asked for the great man’s sage advice on behalf of her son, Auden said that if the son loved playing with words, he had a chance.

Okay, let’s fast forward a couple of decades. I still love titles. I have helped several authors with titling their novels. I consider that a great honor. They don’t always take my suggestions, but my methods usually un-stick them. Sometimes, they actually use the titles I suggest. For me, I couldn’t write a novel without having a title for it first. What I found in poetry was that a good title could help you eliminate a first stanza. For a novel, the title can perform several functions. As I don’t outline, the title helps set the tone and helps me focus on where I should be going. Rarely, the title suggests the plot of the book. Innocent Monster is a case in point. The phrase just popped into my head one day and it forced me to conceive a plot that would deliver what the title promised. So although the juxtapostion of the words innocent and monster might strike you like the oxymorons jumbo shrimp or elevated subway, they are so much more.

I hope you agree when you read the book.


It is not a comfortable feeling, being manipulated like a knight in a game of chess,

Everyone one close seeing the masterful movements with the exception of you

A late model vehicle; her new mode of transit.

Strange though, my need ran out before the guarantee.

There is an emotional cavity in my ego now—as though I’ve been cheated.

The pain or embarrassment does not plague me,

Rather the unoriginality of the bait and the ease of the capture and canning.

Sealed and vacuum packed, ready for female consumption.

The question is raised,

How can one allow himself to tread on such a web?

This once, love is neither answer nor excuse

For there was no truth in her and no real affection in me.

— Reed F. Coleman (at 15 years old)

Check out Reed's website at NPR’s Maureen Corrigan has called Reed a "hard-boiled poet," and the Huffington Post calls him "the noir poet laureate." In addition to the Moe Prager books, he's published two under his pen name Tony Spinosa and the stand-alone Tower co-written with award-winning Irish author Ken Bruen.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Happy birthday, John Lennon

So John Lennon would've been 70 years old today. It definitely makes me take pause. As one of the four Beatles, he was my second favorite, next to Paul McCartney. I remember listening to Beatles albums with my best friend Alison Prendergast when we were in elementary school, lipsincing to the words, pretending that they were our boyfriends. Alison somehow always managed to nab Paul, and I got stuck with John. When perhaps that should've been just fine.

Google is celebrating Lennon's birthday today with an incredibly clever logo. Click on it and you'll see this:

I remember where I was the day Lennon got shot. I was studying for a journalism final at Roanoke College when we got the news — the old-fashioned way: on TV. No Internets or Facebook or Twitter then. I felt as though someone I'd known had died.

And I had known him. Through his music, which will last forever. Just imagine...

Monday, October 4, 2010

They're only words

I made a concerted effort when I started this tattoo shop mystery series to keep anything that might be perceived as "offensive" to a minimum. I got, and still get, emails from people who've read my Annie Seymour series and have issues with Annie's language. Annie, if you're not familiar with her, uses incredibly salty language—none of it is gratuitous, however, since she's a police reporter and talks the way a real police reporter would talk. But because I was tired of being scolded, I decided that I wouldn't have my tattoo shop owner cuss. At all.

But because I've made such an effort to steer clear of all that in the tattoo shop series, a review of THE MISSING INK on the website of a small Tennessee paper left me scratching my head. Don't ask me what paper it was, I don't remember, and I'm too lazy to go back and look. But the two reviewers who reviewed my book, after saying how wonderful it was, put a disclaimer at the end, noting that "sexual language and profanity may offend readers."

I couldn't believe it. I quickly shot off an email, asking what they meant by that, since I knew I'd only used the word "ass" a couple of times (and to describe the body part) and there was no sex in the book. This was their reply:
With regards to your use — or lack thereof — of profanity, we warn readers of any and all profanity, no matter how mild; so 'ass' does qualify. Perhaps it would have been better if we had specified 'mild profanity'; we apologize for not doing so.

You also said you didn't use sexual language because the book 'has no sex whatsoever'; however, we describe 'sexual language' as not merely a description of the sexual act, but of sexual feelings. To wit, on page 204: 'He ran a hand through his hair and gave me another intense look, one that I felt between my legs.' This, along with his hand beneath her breast, bodies pressed close together, etc., is the sort of thing we meant by 'sexual language.'
Really? I think they're a tad sensitive. And perhaps a bit repressed.

But it's not just them. Over the weekend I got my editor's notes for INK FLAMINGOS. I've been going through the manuscript and making changes as she suggests. But I found two that baffle me.

I describe a very voluptuous woman getting out of the shower and wearing only a small towel, which shifts at one point, "flashing a little nipple." She took that phrase out. As if the word "nipple" is one of those words we just whisper in private company. And in the second instance, I have someone getting a tattoo on her lower back and tugging her jeans and underpants down to get it. My editor took out "underpants."

I think this is going a little too far.

Are you easily offended by language in a book? Or do you take it all in context?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Hungry for more

I hate it when I read a book I wish I'd written.

I just finished THE HUNGER GAMES. I'm a little late to the party on this one, since the third in the trilogy, MOCKINGJAY, came out last month. But I've been a little busy, what with writing my own series and then writing and rewriting a YA of my own. Oh, and right: the day job and the kid and the house and the husband.


It's a pretty simple story, actually, and we all learned it in history class: The Romans threw the Christians into the arena with the lions to see who'd win. THE HUNGER GAMES twists it around a little and sets it in the future that looks remarkably like the past and throws 24 kids into the arena—although this one is a lush landscape with forests and ponds and lakes—and the last one standing is the winner. That's right. They have to kill each other to win.

It's GLADIATOR meets SURVIVOR. It even has alliances, which, of course, don't work here, either, because there can only be one winner.

One thing I've discovered with YA books is that they don't shy away from showing the reader violence and gore and the dark side of human nature. Once I started reading books like THE HUNGER GAMES and GONE and UNWIND, I wondered what my audience, the cozy mystery audience, would make of these books. I am constantly hearing about how writers can't kill off pets or favorite characters. YA books have no such restrictions. Characters are killed. Animals, too. No one is safe in a YA book.

And then I began to wonder about my daughter. She's 13, in eighth grade, and she is the audience for these books. What darkness is lurking in her head? But when I try to discuss these books with her, she is oddly not disturbed by any of it. They're stories that have been told. I can't blame it on the TV or movies she watches—we spend a lot of time watching Food Network and The Amazing Race, we usually rent Hitchcock or Marx Brothers movies on the weekends and we own five seasons of I Love Lucy and she watches them over and over. So I'm flummoxed.

The darkness aside, though, Suzanne Collins tells a good story. One that kept me turning the pages so quickly I read the book in two days (see earlier reference to how I don't have much time and this can be impressive). And one that made me wish, when I closed the book for the last time, that I had come up with this idea, that I had written it, because despite the darkness, a good story is a good story.

If you've read THE HUNGER GAMES, I'd love to hear your thoughts. And if you haven't, well, you should.

Monday, September 27, 2010

I've been gone, but now I'm back

So you might be wondering what I've been doing for almost two weeks, since I last posted.

Not a whole lot.

Of course that's not exactly what you want to hear, right? You want to think that I'm so busy that I just don't have time to post. But that's just not the case.

I basically have taken some time off writing.

I sent my YA book, working title THE LEGACY, off to my agent and was waiting for word from him. It didn't take too long for him to get back to me. He used the words "wonderful" and "delightful" and I couldn't be happier, especially since the first version of this manuscript didn't get such a glowing review (not even close) and I had to totally rewrite it. I'd been nervous, especially since I added something to it that I wasn't quite sure I'd be able to pull off. But I did. And I'm a happy camper.

Problem is, now that it's going out to editors, I have to start thinking about my next project. So we're back to what I've been doing for the last couple of weeks. Trying to figure out just what I want to do next.

I have an idea for an adult thriller, but I need to do some serious research. That shouldn't be a problem, you might think, for a former journalist, but this sort of research will be a little complicated and perhaps confusing since it's not exactly my field. And the research needs to happen before I can fully figure out the plot and the characters.

It makes me tired just thinking about it.

So when I was walking to my bus the other day after work, something else popped into my head: the voice of a fifteen year old girl who's having some trouble with her mother and then she meets a boy. And that meeting changes her life. Sure, it sounds like every other boy meets girl coming of age story, doesn't it? Well, there's a twist that I'm not ready to reveal yet. The more I heard her tell her story, the more I began to think that this could be my next book.

I truly had no plans to write another YA, but it might be the natural course of things right now. And my agent thinks the idea "is promising."

So today is my official I'M BACK day. Here, and on my laptop.

What have you been doing the last couple weeks?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Making a case for the cold case

When I wrote SACRED COWS, I decided that there would be two murders in it. The first girl killed, Melissa, is dead on the first page of the book. The reader never meets her while alive, only learns about her after she's dead. The second girl killed, Allison, is a friend of Melissa's, and Annie Seymour interviews her for the newspaper about her friend. Allison is killed later, in a very different way than Melissa.

I did not want to solve Allison's murder.

The heart of the story would be finding Melissa's killer. Allison's death seems to be connected, because they are friends and the two girls are escorts. But when I wrote the book, I had decided that Allison's death was random, that the police would not find out who killed her at all. It would be one of those cold cases, the ones that are never solved.

We know that crimes are not always solved. We know that there isn't always a reason for a crime, but sometimes it's just a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not every killer is caught. I wanted to show the reader both a crime that's solved, a killer brought to justice, and a crime that remains a mystery.

My editor didn't like that. Mysteries have to have all the i's dotted and the t's crossed, I was told. I had to solve Allison's murder just as I had solved Melissa's. The book would seem unfinished if I didn't. So, because I was so happy to actually have finally sold the book and it would be published, went along with it. I wrapped up the mystery of Allison's death just as nicely as I did Melissa's. I don't think the book suffered for it; I made the reason for the crime plausible, the killer plausible.

But I still wish I could've left it open.

Just as I wish Chevy Stevens had left her crime random in her splashy debut STILL MISSING. I read this remarkable book yesterday. The plot, about a woman Realtor who is abducted at an open house and held captive for a year by a man she called The Freak, sped along at a breakneck pace. It was the story of a woman who survived physically, but emotionally she is still facing the demons of what happened. I was riveted.

Until the last part of the book. When it seemed that perhaps Ms. Stevens' editor said the same thing to her as mine did to me: Give us a reason for the abduction. Someone has to be to blame. Solve the crime.

So she did. And I felt it was wrong. I didn't believe any of it. Because it stretched credulity. The suspense was gone, and what was left was merely "You've got to be kidding me." She should've left it alone. The reader would not have minded. In fact, many of the book's reviews indicate that.

Do you think a mystery writer has an obligation to always solve the crime?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

DRIVEN TO INK out today!

DRIVEN TO INK is officially out today! It's the third in the tattoo shop mystery series. In this adventure, Brett Kavanaugh discovers the body of a Dean Martin impersonator in the trunk of her car, a tattoo machine clip cord around his neck. She goes undercover with her nemesis, Jeff Coleman, to a drive-through wedding chapel to hunt down the killer.

For anyone out there who's in Connecticut, I'll be at RJ Julia Booksellers in Madison, CT, tonight at 7. The rest of my schedule is at my website at, and there are links to order the book as well.

Hope you pick up a copy!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Discovering Louisa May Alcott

I didn't realize I was taking the month of August off until I just now noticed that my last post was August 2. It was a month full of activity, a lot of pool time, a milestone birthday, and a blissful week in Maine. My husband had never been to Portland, and I had never been north of Portland, so we spent a couple of days enjoying the city before we drove up to Boothbay Harbor, a lovely little village mid-coast.

We decided not to do the six hour drive home in one fell swoop, however, so we booked a room at the Best Western in historic Concord, Massachusetts, about half way. I was the one to settle on Concord for two reasons: 1) my daughter will be studying American history this year and that's where the Revolutionary War began so we could take her to the battlefield; and 2) we could visit Orchard House, home of Louisa May Alcott.

My husband has never read Little Women, and my daughter, sadly, never got into it. But when I was 9, I immersed myself in it. I felt I knew Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy as if they were my own sisters, and of course I identified with Jo, the sister who wrote stories, like I did. My parents gave me a copy of the book, and I read it so many times the binding broke and the cover eventually fell off it. I've still got it in a box somewhere, although I bought a new copy for my daughter, hoping she'd see the magic in it as I did.

While I knew everything there was to know about the Little Women, I didn't know a lot about Louisa May Alcott herself, the writer, preferring to enjoy the fictional depiction of her own growing up and her own sisters. But a PBS documentary produced last year portrayed a fascinating woman who joined the army as a nurse during the Civil War, enjoyed fame at the level of JK Rowling, and died too young from what was possibly mercury poisoning as a result of medication taken during an almost fatal bout of scarlet fever.

For the first time, I saw the writer behind the story, and when faced with the possibility of seeing Orchard House, where she'd penned her most famous work, I was almost giddy with excitement.

It's a typical New England wooden house, right by the road. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a family friend, lived down the street, and he visited frequently, along with Henry David Thoreau. Alcott's father, Bronson, was a bit of a layabout, a philosopher who fashioned a school using his own educational theories. The house is very much as it was when the Alcotts lived there, even down to the furniture and a chest in May's (Amy's) room with costumes from the plays they'd perform for family and friends, just as the sisters in Little Women did. May was an artist, like Amy, and her drawings are throughout the house. In fact, she had a studio and in the 1980s, it was discovered that behind the plaster on the walls were her sketches of her students. While Louisa's desk where Little Women was created is a focal point of the house, so are May's drawings, paintings and sketches.

Louisa May Alcott came alive for me in our visit to Orchard House, and it brought back hours of joy reading her books, because I didn't stop with Little Women. I read Little Men, Jo's Boys, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom.

I don't think that it's a coincidence that I decided to become a writer the year I read Little Women.

If you're a writer, what book or books helped shape your dreams? And if you're a reader, what book from childhood do you remember reading over and over? Do you feel about Little Women as I do?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Bieber fever

Having a teenage daughter in middle school, I know who Justin Bieber is. For those of you out there who are not quite so privileged, Justin Bieber is the newest teen singer sensation. For those of you who are older, like me, he's like David Cassidy of the Partridge Family, Leif Garrett, or Bobby Sherman. One of his concerts in Australia was canceled because of rioting tweeners. Really. He has been on Saturday Night Live (with Tina Fey). According to reports, he's 16 years old, and here's the link to the scant details.

And now he's publishing his memoir.

Yes, you read that right. His memoir.

Of course, precedent was set when teenager Miley Cyrus "wrote" her memoir. But I have serious issues about children writing memoirs when they have nothing yet to say. Okay, so Bieber got his start on YouTube, and he sports a hairstyle that seems to defy gravity. But beyond that, what has he really done that justifies a memoir?

I have said for a long time that he's an E True Hollywood story waiting to happen. You know who they feature: Scotty Schwartz, from child star to porn star; Britney Spears; Lindsay Lohan; Angelina Jolie; The Kardashians. These are people who have earned their scandals. Bieber hasn't had a scandal. Yet.

Of course Harper Collins, which is publishing the book, due out in October for anyone who wants to put it on their calendar, doesn't care. They see dollar signs. But for parents who are used to spending at most $17.99 for a hardcover YA book, the $21.99 cover price might be a little hard to swallow. Apparently it will be illustration heavy, which will make up for the lack of an actual life to follow.

Harry Potter it is not. It's not even Twilight. It's a ridiculous money making project, that sadly will make loads of money.

Who was the big teen sensation when you were a kid?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Tapping into my inner teenage boy

Writing from a teenage boy's POV is a little challenging, to say the least. I live with a teenage girl and at one point about a hundred years ago I was a teenage girl, and it's a very different thing. I admit to checking out my nephew's Wall on Facebook to see the sorts of things he and his friends are saying. He's almost sixteen, which is just a tad younger than Phinn, my protagonist.

I hadn't started out writing completely from Phinn's point of view. There is also a teenage girl in my WIP, Jess, and in the first incarnation of this novel had her own POV. I'd written alternating chapters from both points of view, in third person. But when I started to rewrite the book, I had to twist around my whole original vision, and I wrote five pages to get into it. And it was first person, all from Phinn's POV. I considered—briefly—still doing the alternate chapter thing using Jess, maybe in first person, maybe third, but abandoned that idea when I merely continued to write from Phinn's POV without even taking a breath.

On the most part, I think I've got it. I've had a friend read the first 100 pages, and she concurred, for the most part, but pointed out a couple of things that she didn't really think Phinn would say, and I agreed and changed it appropriately.

To get a little more into a teenage boy's head, I picked up a book by John Green, PAPER TOWNS, which won the Edgar award for Best YA mystery in 2009. It's the story of Quentin Jacobsen's obsession with his neighbor, Margo, who appears at his window one night and their antics as they play pranks on Margo's boyfriend and her best friend, who fooled around with her boyfriend. And then the next morning, when Quentin wakes up, he discovers that Margo has gone missing. It's not the first time, but a series of clues she leaves behind leads him on a quest to find her.

I loved the voice, I loved the relationship Q had with his friends and how he comes to terms with how he feels—and has always felt—about Margo and his perception of her.

Because I loved PAPER TOWNS, I turned to another John Green novel, his first, LOOKING FOR ALASKA. Miles leaves his Florida home and unpopularity behind to attend an exclusive private boarding school in Alabama, where he meets his roommate, Chip, aka The Colonel, and Alaska Young, a wild girl who swings back and forth from fun and flirty to bitchy to sullen to depressed. Miles's fascination with Alaska, his relationship with the Colonel, and his ruminations about his favorite class, Religion, are compelling. I can't say much more about the plot without giving it away, but the book raises interesting questions for the reader as well as for Miles.

Since John Green used to be a teenage boy, I believed in both Q and Miles's characters. They are typical teenage boys, much like Phinn.

I do know that some women writers have had to use initials in their names if they've written books with male protagonists, such as J.A. Jance, who writes the excellent JP Beaumont series, or JK Rowling—not that I have to tell you she writes about Harry Potter. I'm not sure that ploy really works, since we all know they're really women writing about boys, and people read them anyway.

What about you? Does the gender of the author make any difference if that author has created believable characters, whether male or female?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

They really needed a bigger boat

Ah, summer. Beaches, swimming, ice cream. And movies.

I've been a little disappointed this summer in the movie selection. There's not a whole lot out there I'd like to see or seems worth seeing. I took my daughter and her friends to see TOY STORY 3, and it was fantastic, but other than that, the movie scene this summer seems a bit of a dud so far.

So that's why when I noticed JAWS was on cable last night, I hunkered down with a strawberry popsicle to watch it.

It's the quintessential summer movie.

The musical score alone sends shivers down my spine, and when we see the swimmers from the shark's point of view, it's terrifying. We all know the backstory: the fake shark didn't work very well, so director Steven Spielberg ended up not using it quite as much. Which, since it wasn't planned, was brilliant. Not seeing the shark means it's all that more scary.

And scary it is. I hadn't seen the whole movie in one sitting in a long time. I figured I'd make it about halfway, or maybe through the part where Quint tells the story of the USS Indianapolis, but I was with it the whole way. Even though I knew what was going to happen, I still sat with my heart pounding. This is still my favorite line:

I first saw JAWS the summer it opened: 1975. I was almost 15. My friends Donna and Bruce and I rode our bikes to the little movie theater in the center of town in the middle of a sunny, hot afternoon. We lived in a beach town on the Connecticut coast that was very similar to the island in JAWS, a small community that relied on summer residents and visitors. The movie terrified us. Especially afterward, when we rode our bikes to the beach. I remember sitting on my towel, not wanting to go in the water. Because Spielberg's great white could be out there. Even in Long Island Sound.

I'm not much of a beach person. Not into all that sand, and the salt water clings to you like a second skin. And after seeing JAWS last night, I'm happy that I belong to a pool club, where there are no possibilities of any shark attacks. Except during a harmless game of sharks and minnows.

What's your favorite summer movie?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

First hurdle is "delightful"

My agent has declared INK FLAMINGOS "delightful." Even though I have had two first readers on the book, my agent's opinion is always the first professional one that I get on my manuscripts and he's always been very blunt and honest with me. So when he calls a manuscript "delightful," I know that it must be true. He also said that it "reads like the wind," which is one of the things I strive for when I write a book: make it move as fast as possible so the reader doesn't want to put it down.

Now it goes on to my editor. I can only hope she has the same opinion.

In other news, DRIVEN TO INK has received its first review by the ubiquitous Harriet Klausner. She says: "Karen E. Olson provides a refreshing mystery with a touch of whimsy."

The words "whimsy" and "delightful" are interesting ones, considering that the books are murder mysteries and there's at least one dead body in each. But since these are technically considered cozies, although I like to call them cozies with an edge (I mean, it's tattoos in Vegas, they can't be too cozy), then that's where the whimsy and delightfulness can come in.

Are you a cozy reader? Do you think a tattoo shop can be whimsical?

Monday, July 12, 2010

What did we do before Food TV?

My name is Karen and I am a food TV addict.

I'll watch pretty much anything: Hell's Kitchen, Top Chef, Chopped, Dinner: Impossible, Man vs. Food, Kitchen Nightmares, No Reservations, Iron Chef America, Food Network Challenge, the Next Food Network Star, Chefs vs. City. Although I haven't yet watched Cupcake Wars. I do have to draw a line somewhere.

I admit to being particularly partial to Top Chef, but Chopped is a close second. Chopped really shows whether a chef can cut it or not: the contestants are given a basket with different items and have to create a dish out of it. Sound easy? Well, not so much if you get the trout, the maple syrup and the popcorn basket. And then they only have 20 minutes for the appetizer and half an hour for entree. Why some think they can make a risotto or a stew in that time, well, don't they ever watch the show?

Gordon Ramsay is one crazy guy and what's with all the shouting? He shouts and cusses on Hell's Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares, and he's got a new Master Chef show starting at the end of the month, so I'm wondering if he'll shout and cuss during that one, too. Although the commercials show perhaps a kinder and gentler Gordon.

Top Chef is our antidote to Hell's Kitchen, which my husband always says makes him want to take a shower afterward. Top Chef is civilized, with actual, real chefs who have some real talent. Although we can't figure out how Padma got involved.

Tony Bourdain has been a favorite since I read Kitchen Confidential. I loved his show Cook's Tour on Food Network and watch No Reservations on the Travel Channel religiously. I saw Bourdain speak at RJ Julia Booksellers in Madison when the companion book for Cook's Tour came out. He was hilarious in person and talked about how in every country they'd find a little kid and make him tell the camera "I hate Emeril," and then they'd send the tape back to Food Network, which never mentioned it.

The Travel Channel also features Man vs. Food. Adam Richman can't keep this up, though. I mean, those food challenges will kill him. A ten pound omelet? With hot sauce? Sushi that's so hot he's sweating with the first bite? We watch, riveted by his stamina and iron stomach. I always wonder what's going on after the camera stops rolling.

I know I'm not the only one watching these shows. They're hugely popular, and now cable has even introduced the Cooking Channel. I haven't watched much on that, yet, except for a show about drinks. But it didn't have the same appeal.

Do you watch food TV? What's your favorite show?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

All's well that ends well

I'm finishing up the final tweaks on INK FLAMINGOS. This book is the fourth in my tattoo shop mysteries, and most likely the last one. Who decides that? The publisher looks at the sales numbers and decides whether it's profitable to continue. Sadly, while I haven't gotten the "official" word on that, it's not looking good for my series.

That said, I'm really proud of these books. I wasn't sure that I even wanted to write them at first. My then-editor had told me that the publisher didn't want any more Annie Seymour books (see reason above) and suggested that I write another series. After coming up with some lame possibilities, she said she was looking for a tattoo shop mystery series. I pointed out that I had no tattoos, that I was not privy to that world. But she said she was confident I could do it, so after some soul searching, I decided to give it a try.

Research for this series has been fun: talking to tattooists, tattooed people, reading about the history of tattoos, watching YouTube videos and, of course, those two trips to Vegas. I have grown to really love my characters: Brett has grown, albeit slowly, but you'll see some real changes in her at the end of DRIVEN TO INK and especially in INK FLAMINGOS. Bitsy, Joel, and Ace are fun supporting characters, and I have had a real hoot writing Sylvia Coleman. Jeff Coleman was the biggest surprise. He wasn't even included in the first proposal and has grown to be a character I would love to keep learning about.

So finishing up INK FLAMINGOS is rather bittersweet. More so than just finishing another book. It's finishing a series, saying goodbye to a world I've created and enjoyed immersing myself in.

I get a lot of emails asking if Annie is coming back, but like Brett, I've said goodbye to her, too. It took a while to get over that; Annie's world was much closer to my heart, although Brett's showed me that I am not just a one dimensional writer, that I can write about something other than my own hometown and my own profession. I've learned a lot writing these two series, but as with Annie, in this last tattoo shop mystery, I have left Brett in a good place.

Do you read series? How do you feel when you know a book will be the last?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Let's talk serial killers

I've never been one for a serial killer book. I'm uncomfortable getting into a killer's head, and most of the serial killer books do give us the killer's POV so we know who they are, what their motivations are. I've never been that curious, since serial killers are, despite what we may see in books, TV, and movies, rather rare in the larger scheme of things.

That said, I have read two serial killer books recently that I found incredibly compelling. Both were written by friends, in full disclosure, but I am always happy to be able to like books written by my friends.

Kevin O'Brien recommended FINAL BREATH to me at the Mystery Lovers Bookshop's annual festival in early May. He said I might like it because it has a reporter character in it, and since I spent a long time as a newspaper reporter and editor, I decided to give it a go. Admittedly, it sat next to my desk for several weeks before I picked it up, uncertain again about the serial killer theme.

I was wrong. Really wrong. The book is intriguing and suspenseful, and I found myself caught up in Sydney Jordan's investigation into who is killing the heroes she'd interviewed. She is a hero herself, having saved a young kid from a fire just as her figure skating career was about to take off. Because she was badly injured, she now has a limp and her dreams never attained. There is a subplot with her son, who is trying to find out about the previous inhabitants of their apartment, victims of a suspected murder suicide. All the characters come alive, and I can see why Kevin has been on the New York Times bestseller list. I am definitely going to check out his latest book, VICIOUS.

I met JT Ellison in Denver at Left Coast Crime in 2008. She's a vivacious woman with a wonderful smile and a warm personality. She's also a wine snob, which in my book is a very good thing. I had never read one of her books, although I'm not quite sure why, until I snagged a copy of THE COLD ROOM at BookExpo America in New York at the end of May.

I'm not sure exactly what I expected, but I did not expect a serial killer book. And a very good serial killer book. JT writes a series featuring Nashville lieutenant/detective Taylor Jackson. Even though I didn't read the previous books in the series, it didn't matter. I was quickly introduced to the main players and got little tidbits of background that only intrigued me to check out the other books. I love Taylor, she's a very black and white person, it's all about right from wrong with no middle ground. That said, however, she has a complex personality and mixed feelings about her parents and upbringing. Her fiancee, Dr. John Baldwin, is a profiler with the FBI, and in this book, we meet her new partner, Renn McKenzie, who turns out to be far more well rounded a character than it seems at first glance.

Taylor and Baldwin are hot on the trail of a serial killer the media has dubbed The Conductor because of the classical music playing at the very staged crime scenes. Young woman are being starved to death, the killer then has sex with the body, and then carefully poses the body in a way reminiscent of a famous painting. This is not for the faint of heart or anyone who's got issues with necrophilia, but I was pleased to see JT didn't shrink from descriptions that were necessary for the story.

Do you read serial killer novels?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Film exposure

One piece of advice I always give to expectant parents is that they should go to the movies. A lot. Because once baby comes into your life, going to see grownup movies in the movie theater is a very rare occurrence for several years. You end up seeing lots of Disney and Pixar movies, I sat through ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS (my husband refused, he can't stand the voices), and when my daughter got older I was relegated to sitting alone while she and her friend sat together on the other side of the theater to see 17 AGAIN. I felt like a total loser: a middle aged woman alone watching a Zac Ephron film.

Now that my daughter has hit her teens, we still aren't going to the movies all that much but we've decided she needs to be exposed to some classics, movies made in a time when you didn't really have to worry about ratings too much. (Also, I remember a teenager saying at one point she would never watch a black and white movie, something I never want to hear my daughter say.)

To my husband's delight, she loves the Marx Brothers. So much so that she's downloaded one of their songs into her iPod. Don't ask me what it is, I'm not a Marx Brothers fan, except for the I Love Lucy episode with Harpo. She loves musicals, especially Fred Astaire films. One of our favorite holiday movies is HOLIDAY INN with Astaire and Bing Crosby. (And even though it's not an old movie, one of her absolute favorites is BRIDE AND PREJUDICE, a Bollywood film based on the Jane Austen book with lots of fabulous colors and musical numbers.)

We're also thrilled that she enjoys film noir and Hitchcock films. Her first was NORTH BY NORTHWEST, and she was riveted. We've also watched TO CATCH A THIEF and DIAL M FOR MURDER. One night we caught LAURA on one of our movie channels, and she loved it, and not long thereafter we rented REBECCA.

I have never read REBECCA, but after watching it for the umpteenth time and seeing my daughter mesmerized by it for the first time, I decided to finally pick up the book. It's in my summer reading pile, and I'm hoping she'll want to read it with me. My favorite character is by far Mrs. Danvers, who is one of the creepiest women villians of all time:

What's your favorite classic movie?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Killing my babies

I've finished INK FLAMINGOS. Well, at least the first draft. I'm giving it a little time to breathe, you know, like a fine wine needs a little oxygen infusion before it tastes perfect. In a couple of weeks, I'll tackle it, tweaking here and there, making necessary revisions, making sure the timeline works, that sort of thing.

In the meantime, I'm back to my YA book. My agent informed me early last month that it needs something critical for a book: A plot. After a long discussion with him, I realized he was right. The book as it stood was merely a sequence of events with no clear purpose, nothing that held the story together.

This is the kind of criticism that I need, that every writer needs. Showing a manuscript to a spouse or a good friend might just get a "yes, it's very good." You're not going to get that really critical eye, that feedback that you need to make the book better.

So while I worked on INK FLAMINGOS, I let the YA percolate a little. I tossed ideas around in my head during my morning run, trying to piece it all together more coherently, giving the characters a more definite purpose. A quest, you might say.

And I had an idea. An idea that I'm not really ready to share, because I'm not sure I'll be able to pull it off. But if I can, I think it's exactly what this book needs.

One thing I can say is I've changed the third person POV to first person. In the original, I had alternating third person POV in each chapter. In this one, so far, I hear only Phinn's voice, even though Jess is there. But I've added a character who will round out my adventurers, and my villian? Well, he will be who he was before, but different.

Now I've really confused you, haven't I?

It took a little bit of time to wrap my head around the rewrite. I had written an entire book one way, but now I'm taking it apart and killing my babies and trying to look at it in a whole different way. But I think it will be a much stronger book when I'm done, and I'll be a much better writer for having to do this.

If you're a writer, do you like to rewrite? And if you're a reader, have you ever read anything that is a little low on plot?

Friday, June 18, 2010

A Man's Gotta Have a Code

The crime fiction community is small. Mostly everyone knows everyone else, or if you don't know someone, someone you know does know him. It's like the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon thing. This is what makes conferences like Bouchercon and Malice Domestic so much fun. You get to meet readers, booksellers, librarians . . . and see all your friends and make new ones. I met my First Offender friends Alison Gaylin, Jeff Shelby, and Lori Armstrong at my very first Bouchercon in Chicago five years ago. We've stayed really tight through the years, and we've met other friends through each other: Jim Born, Megan Abbott, Toni McGee Causey, JT Ellison, Harlan Coben, Trey Barker, Neil Smith, Victor Gischler, Sean Doolittle, Laura Lippman . . . the list goes on and on.

But because it's such a tight-knit community, sometimes we forget that we don't know everyone and everyone isn't a good friend. There should be a code for writers, some rules that should be followed across the board, sort of like Omar's code in THE WIRE:

These would be on my list:

  • Don't compare what's going on with you with what you hear from other writers. The business is different for everyone and not everyone might be honest (This comes from my agent)
  • Don't ever review a friend's book, unless you're willing to disclose that the author is a friend
  • Don't review a friend's book and trash it, unless you're willing to lose a friend
  • Don't check your Amazon numbers and compare them to other books
  • Google yourself only when you've got a new book out and you might need to cull some blurbs from blogs or online sites for your website
  • Don't promise to blurb a book you think you might not like, and if you do promise and then don't like the book, see if you can find something nice to say about it
  • If you get a blurb from someone, don't rewrite it to make it sound more like what you want
  • Ask only people you know well and trust to be honest to read your manuscript
  • If you get a bad review on Amazon or another site, don't respond to it publicly, if at all
  • Don't poach anyone's ideas, even if they say they're not going to use them. Because they might want to someday
  • Don't ask a writer to recommend you to his agent or editor unless you are a good friend, and even then it should come from the writer, who should be familiar with your work
  • Downplay misfortune with anyone you're not really close with and don't take advantage of a friend's misfortune behind his back
  • Don't drink too much at conferences. You don't want to be the person gossiped about afterward
  • If you promise to have someone guest blog on your blog, then honor that in a timely manner
Would you add any others?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Almost 800 page book comes up short

I have finally finished THE PASSAGE.

Well, sort of.

First, a little background. THE PASSAGE is an almost-800 page book by Justin Cronin, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award. He is no schlock; he's a literary writer who is acclaimed. But he decided to go off the reservation a little and write a vampire book, which is much more commercial. He also got a commercial rate: Random House paid him $3.75 million for a trilogy and Ridley Scott paid him $1.75 million for the film rights. Justin Cronin is sitting on easy street, something a literary writer usually doesn't do.

Because of all that, this book, which came out June 8, had big buzz. For months. I think I first read about the book six months ago, and in the week before the book came out, the New York Times wrote at least two stories about it and Cronin.

So I put the book on hold at my local library. I couldn't help myself. I was curious. I wanted to know what a $3.75 million vampire book would offer me as a reader.

I got it on Friday, and while there was one hold ahead of me, I wonder if that other person actually read the whole book or did what I did.

I skipped 250 pages in the middle of the book.

Honestly, for the first 250 pages, I couldn't put the book down. It was compelling. Cronin clearly can write, and his use of language made up for the fact that this was a book about vampires. In the future. A dystopian community. Two of the biggest cliches you can find these days, especially in Young Adult fiction. But the characters were fascinating, their backstories carefully revealed, the plot curiously riveting.

And then, suddenly, on page 249, the book became something completely different. New characters, new setting, in a different future time than previously. I read about 20 to 25 pages about new characters, but the writing became very dense to me, and because I was missing those other characters, I couldn't get into it.

I put the book down for a day.

When I picked it back up last night, I fast forwarded 200 pages. I started again about page 550. There were the characters I didn't spend any time getting to know earlier, but it didn't matter at all. Suddenly I did know them, and a character from the beginning was back, and then what happened in the beginning started to come full circle.

I finished the book and felt it was a fair and satisfying ending. Although I doubt I will pursue any of the rest of the trilogy. This book could've easily been a trilogy in itself. The length felt self indulgent, and the fact that I didn't have to read 200 pages in the middle of it violated one of Elmore Leonard's rules of writing:

Leave out all the hooptedoodle, or, all the stuff no one reads.

Are you like me? Will you read a book just to see what all the buzz is about?

Changing it up

So I'm playing around with Blogger's new templates. Let me know what you think. Do you like this one, or did you prefer the previous template? This one seems to have a little more pizzazz.

I've also added a visitor counter. Visit me often so I don't look like a loser.

I'm adding new blogs to my blog list and new writers to check out. Visit them often, too!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Going from dark to light

Even though I'm putting the final touches on INK FLAMINGOS, I still have time to read on my daily bus commute to work. I've read two books lately that couldn't be more different, but I enjoyed each of them.

I've been a huge fan of Faye Kellerman's Rina Lazarus and Peter Decker mysteries for years. I love the way their relationship has developed through the books, and now their children are grown up, too. I haven't read any books by Jonathan Kellerman, Faye's husband, however. But their son, Jesse Kellerman, is now also a writer. I read and enjoyed his first book SUNSTROKE but did not read the next two. But I have just finished his most recent book, THE EXECUTOR, and it blew me away.

There is something about Jesse Kellerman's style, his use of language, his detailed descriptions, his clear understanding of his story and backstory, and his subtle manipulation of characters that makes this book stand out.

Joseph Griest is a languishing philosophy graduate student, 800 pages into a PhD dissertation his adviser declares isn't worth it at all. He gets thrown out of Harvard, his girlfriend throws him out of their apartment, and he begins to couch surf but isn't too amibitious about finding a new direction. He answers a classified ad for a "conversationalist" and meets an elderly woman who brings him into her life and her home. But what seemed to be an easy way out for Joseph may not be so easy after all . . .

I am reluctant to say more about the plot. You need to read it and savor it and find out the books secrets yourself. All I will say is, I read the last 100 pages in one sitting at a breakneck pace, my heart in my throat the entire time. And when you finish, you will feel exhausted and you will see that the story ends the only way it can.

After reading THE EXECUTOR, I decided I needed something considerably lighter, so I picked up BUNDLE OF TROUBLE, a Maternal Instincts mystery, by Diana Orgain. I met Diana at the Mystery Lovers Bookshop's annual festival in Pittsburgh in May, and she was so delightful I bought her book.

While I don't generally read cozies, I found BUNDLE OF TROUBLE to be exactly what I needed and then some. The writing is smooth, easy, and the characters likeable. When the book opens, Kate Connelly is very pregnant and actually gives birth in the second chapter, after finding out her brother in law might have been killed and dumped in the ocean. Once she's out of the hospital with baby Laurie in tow, Kate manages to steal a wealthy client from a private investigator and begins her own investigation into the murder.

While I did suspend my disbelief that a brand new mom with a brand new baby would be able to do the things Kate did (I was annoyed that she went alone to accuse someone of the crime . . . this is what we call Too Stupid To Live), most of it was as believable as it could be and Kate's voice is very engaging. If you're into cozy mysteries, this one should be added to your list, although I'm curious about the fact that Kate is now training to be a private eye. Most of these amateur sleuths stay amateur and never investigate professionally.

What have you read lately?