As you may have noticed, I've been on a bit of a hiatus since the last time I posted on my blog....
But I am working on a new series for Minotaur, set in a 1929 Chicago speakeasy...and yeah, it'll be the bee's knees...
Just don't get too squiffy...there's a murder to solve!
See you soon!
"How do you write about a world you haven't lived in?"
This is the question posed by my guest author, Christina Hoag, a journalist-turned-novelist as she discusses her latest thriller...
From the official blurb:
Los Angeles homeboy Mags is desperate to get out of gang life, but the only exit is through sacrificing everything – and everyone - he loves. He must make the difficult choice, and soon, or have it made for him. Based on extensive interviews with street gang members, this noir crime novel explores a poor immigrant family’s struggle to survive in a gritty world where gangs appear to offer youth a way out but instead ensnare them in a tangle of deceit and betrayal.
Just think how boring literature would be if writers just wrote what they knew. You could basically throw out historical and science fiction, for starters, plus a whole lot else. Just how many authors, screenwriters and TV writers have been serial killers?
But how do you write about a world you haven’t lived in? Write what you’re passionate about, what intrigues you, and prepare to do a lot of research. You’ll also need your novelist’s imagination, a healthy dollop of intuition to fill in the gaps, and plenty of confidence that you can pull it off.
My novel “Skin of Tattoos” is about an immigrant family who leaves a war zone of guerrillas in Central America and ends up in a war zone of gangs in Central Los Angeles. Much to his family’s dismay, the protagonist Mags gets involved in a gang with some inevitable consequences, such as a prison stint. When he gets out, things really go sideways for both himself and his family.
How did I delve into this foreign world? First, I should say that I was a journalist, and the idea was sparked by my interviews with former gang members in El Salvador for a magazine story. I lived in Latin America for nine years so I knew that culture pretty well and speak Spanish.
Years later, when I moved to Los Angeles, I worked for The Associated Press and my urban affairs beat involved writing about inner-city neighborhoods. I remembered my idea for a novel about the trap of gang life, and was amassing knowledge.
I interviewed people involved with gangs in various aspects, plus people who were directly affected by gang activity. One of those interviews led to a nonfiction book about community peacekeeping in gang neighborhoods. “Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence” involved even more interviews with experts and former gang members. As I drove around these neighborhoods as a reporter, I absorbed details like the proverbial sponge.
To get more personal details about this culture, I read every memoir written by former gang members I could find. They were a fantastic firsthand source. I read books about gangs themselves, devoured news stories, watched movies and TV shows about gangs, which were great as visual and dialogue aids. I found online dictionaries of gang slang.
I stopped and started the novel many times, repeatedly losing my confidence as I began to realize the depth of the venture I’d taken on. But in the end, I persisted, and I’m glad I did even though it took years to finish the project. I love that book and all the characters.
Maybe I’ll even do a sequel.
Christina Hoag is a former journalist for the Miami Herald and Associated Press who’s been threatened by a murderer’s girlfriend, had her laptop searched by Colombian guerrillas and phone tapped in Venezuela, hidden under a car to evade Guatemalan soldiers, posed as a nun to get inside a Caracas jail, interviewed gang members, bank robbers, thieves and thugs in prisons, shantytowns and slums, not to forget billionaires and presidents, some of whom fall into the previous categories. Kirkus Reviews praised Christina as a “talented writer” with a “well crafted debut” in Skin of Tattoos (Martin Brown Publishing, 2016), a noir crime novel. Her thriller Girl on the Brink (Fire and Ice YA, 2016) was named to Suspense Magazine’s Best of 2016 YA list. She also writes nonfiction, co-authoring Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence (Turner Publishing, 2014), a groundbreaking book on violence intervention used in several universities. Christina makes her home in Los Angeles and lives on the web at www.christinahoag.com.
I'm delighted to host J.L. Delozier, author of thrillers TYPE AND CROSS and STORM SHELTER on my blog today. From the blurb:
Dr. Persephone (Seph) Smith is a psychologist with enhanced empathy, allowing her to feel the emotions of others.
But her gift comes with a price. Plagued by nightmares and insecure in her work, Seph absorbs the suffering of her patients by day and swills tequila by night.
When Seph is deployed to an abandoned air hangar turned medical shelter during a massive hurricane, one by one, as the wind howls overhead, staff and evacuees disappear into the dark recesses of the vast space. The missing return as mutilated corpses. The living, trapped in the shrieking metal structure by the storm, descend into varying levels of paranoia and madness. Seph, as both counselor and detective, must determine who, or what, is preying on them.
Is the panic and mayhem “shelter shock,” as the lead physician, Anne Parrish, insists? Or is everyone, Seph included, in danger of losing their minds—and their lives? Storm Shelter is a prequel to TYPE AND CROSS (WiDo Publishing, 2016) which features an older, wiser Dr. Persephone Smith. TYPE AND CROSS was recently nominated for International Thriller Writer’s “Best First Novel” of 2016.
"Write what you know.”
That tired, yet ubiquitous advice haunts first-time novelists and stifles the creativity of even advanced writers. Without dreamers—think Jules Verne and Arthur C. Clark—certain genres such as scifi, which relies on imaginative world-building, would be boring indeed.
That said, when I committed to writing my first thriller, Type & Cross, I succumbed to the comfort of what I knew—science, medicine, and psychology. No research required, right?
As I wrote, I soon realized I’d entered Michael Crichton territory: a story built on a foundation of scientific fact, but with details so twisted and warped, I’d entered the fringes of possibility. I’d created my very own Jurassic Park, and I needed to do some research.
For me, research meant digging out my old, dusty medical textbooks and boning up on hematology and virology—the study of blood and viruses, respectively. I had the added pressure of knowing my medical colleagues would be lying in wait, scalpels in hands, ready to shred my science to bits. I had to make the details genuine, but also salient and accessible to the average reader (i.e. not boring!) The science needed to drive the story, not drown it. Dr. Crichton was a master of this delicate balancing act. I was a newbie. Did I accomplish the task? You be the judge. I’ve had reviewers comment both ways.
When I started book two, Storm Shelter, I swore I would make it easier on myself. No international hijinks (thank you, Google Maps.) No bizarre medical conditions. This time, I would write what I know. The end result: Storm Shelter takes place almost entirely within a single air hangar-turned-hurricane shelter in San Antonio and is based upon my real-life experiences as a disaster physician for the federal government.
I’ve been in three such scenarios, and I merged the people, locations, and situations into one authentic and terrifying wild ride—no research required. Much of what you read in Storm Shelter actually happened in one form or the other (up until the grisly murders, that is!) It’s as close to a biography of those years as I’ll ever write, with details obscured to protect the innocent. Storm Shelter is available now on Kindle and releases in print on June 28th.
But now I’m onto book three, the sequel to Type & Cross. And guess what? I’m in the Basque community of Spain (research) running through the medieval streets of Bilbao (research) while chasing a mad scientist who’s attempting to genetically modify people’s blood types in order to create a master race (research, research, research!) I am not writing what I know.
I’d like to think Michael Crichton would approve.
J. L. Delozier spent the early part of her career as a rural family doctor and then later as a government physician, caring for America’s veterans and deploying to disasters such as Hurricanes Katrina, Ike and Gustav. Throughout it all, she quietly absorbed the sometimes fascinating, often heartbreaking and always dramatic life stories of her patients. She currently lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and four rescue cats. Learn more at her website jldelozier.com.
After a too-long hiatus from my blog, I am delighted to be joined today by Sherry Knowlton, author of DEAD OF SPRING (2017). I asked Sherry to talk about how she researches her novels, and below she shares some terrific insights into how she balances authenticity and readability.
(Basically, how to keep your reader entertained while being accurate at the same time!)
In popular culture, authors are often portrayed as brooding figures who seethe with creativity. After long, pensive walks along a cliff (or dock, or meadow), the authors return to their garrets and type pages and pages of inspired prose.
For me, it doesn’t work quite that way. You’re more likely to find me writing in my sunroom in winter or in the gazebo on a nice summer’s day. And, I like to take walks, but I work out most of my plots in the car while I’m driving to yoga. Yes, there’s certainly a large element of creativity and inspiration involved in writing my Alexa Williams suspense series. But, much of my process involves a more mundane – although often fascinating-- task: research, research, research.
Some genres of fiction might not require much, if any, in-depth research. (Certain fantasy novels spring to mind.) But, I write contemporary suspense, and each of my novels also include a historical story that parallels and intersects with the main plot. So, I want the background details in both stories to be as accurate as possible to enhance the novel’s “believability” and credibility. Plus, I don’t want my readers to drift away from the suspense, distracted by a historical anomaly or incorrect fact. (Wait a minute. Would that Depression-era character really have said, “Awesome, dude”?)
I rely on some of my own experiences and knowledge of a topic or place as I write. But, often, I need to do further research to refresh my memories or obtain more specific information. My research follows two broad paths: learning from written, video and audio sources; and, interviewing experts.
My new book, Dead of Spring, deals with fracking and politics. The historical story takes place during the Three Mile Island nuclear crisis in 1979. The setting for the contemporary story is Southcentral Pennsylvania, but my protagonist, Alexa, also travels to Tuscany and Umbria. I live in Southcentral PA. I worked in Pennsylvania state government. I’ve been following the politics of fracking for years. I lived through the Three Mile Island crisis. And, I’ve spent time in Italy. Still, that experience was not enough. I needed to review a lot of source material to fully capture these topics in my book. These sources ranged from technical articles and regulations on fracking to news clips and newspaper articles from the Three Mile Island event to Italian justice procedures.
I might be able to get away with just delving into books and relying on the Google for my information. But, experts always add so much depth to my understanding of a topic. The acknowledgement sections in my novel are quite long because talking to experts has become a key pillar of my research process. And, I’ve been lucky to find subject matter experts on a wide variety of topics who have been very gracious with their time and expertise.
For Dead of Spring, I relied on a State Police trooper and several other law enforcement officers, a judge, a historian responsible for the preservation of the Pennsylvania State Capitol, staff from Pennsylvania’s Lt. Governor’s office, a regulator in the state’s Department of Environmental Programs, gun experts, and more. One of the most helpful experts I interviewed was a landowner in northern Pennsylvania who leased his land to a hydraulic fracturing company in the early days of the state’s fracking boom. He took me on a tour of both his lands and other fracking sites at different stages of development. He also walked me through his personal experience by showing me his photographs of the transformation of his property. A beautiful woodland that step by step by step turned into an acre of gravel and machinery. Pristine drinking water that now requires constant filtering just for showers and bathing. Battles with the energy company about compensation for various problems. His fracking tutorial was eye-opening.
Of course, research is only one aspect of the writing process...
Recently, I was honored by the City of Highland Park with the Mayor's Award for the Arts.
What a thrill!
The candle on the cake was receiving the award on my birthday, the day that all of Chicago seemed to be celebrating the Cubs win.
And of course I owe to all my dear alpha reader, who nominated me for the award!
I'm so thrilled that my very first short story--The Trial of Madame Pelletier-- was selected for inclusion in Malice Domestic 12: Mystery Most Historical (Wildside Press, 2017).
Like my Lucy Campion novels set in 17th century England, this short story stemmed from research I did in graduate school a zillion years ago. (And yeah, that's pretty fun for me to get to use another chunk of this doctoral research in a new way!)
I won't say too much about my story other than it features the trial of a presumed poisoner in a small town in France, in 1840. The trial was a cause celebre--a trial of the century--which played out as much in the court of public opinion and in sensationalized newspaper accounts, as it did in the assize court in Limousin.
I remember being struck too, not just be the trial itself, but how the woman at the heart of it--the Lady Poisoner--was being tried both as a criminal and as a female. While my story differs dramatically from the trial that inspired it, I did want to convey that same sense of a woman being tried on many levels.
Moreover, ever since I read Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution, I have wanted to try my hand at a courtroom drama. So this was such a fun piece for me to write overall. I'm really excited to read the other stories in the volume!!!
The selected stories are:
"A One-Pipe Problem" by John Betancourt
"The Trial of Madame Pelletier" by Susanna Calkins
"Eating Crow" by Carla Coupe
"The Lady's Maid Vanishes" by Susan Daly
"Judge Lu's Ming Dynasty Case Files-The Unseen Opponent" by P.A. De Voe
"Honest John Finds a Way" by Michael Dell
"Spirited Death" by Carole Nelson Douglas
"The Corpse Candle" by Martin Edwards
"Mistress Threadneedle's Quest" by Kathy Lynn Emerson
"The Black Hand" by Peter Hayes
"Crim Con" by Nancy Herriman
"Hand of an Angry God" by KB Inglee
"The Barter" by Su Kopil
"Tredegar Murders" by Vivian Lawry
"The Tragic Death of Mrs. Edna Fogg" by Edith Maxwell
"A Butler is Born" by Catriona McPherson
"Home Front Homicide" by Liz Milliron
"He Done Her Wrong" by Kathryn O'Sullivan
"Summons for a Dead Girl" by K.B. Owen
"Mr. Nakamura's Garden" by Valerie O Patterson
"The Velvet Slippers" by Keenan Powell
"The Blackness Before Me" by Mindy Quigley
"Death on the Dueling Grounds" by Verena Rose
"You Always Hurt the One You Love" by Shawn Reilly Simmons
"Night and Fog" by Marcia Talley
"The Measured Chest" by Mark Thielman
"The Killing Game" by Victoria Thompson
"The Cottage" by Charles Todd
"The Seven" by Elaine Viets
"Strong Enough" by Georgia Wilson
Well, we've finally reached the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London (Well, sort of. We're on a different calendar now, but I guess it doesn't really matter really). The dome of St. Paul's is all lit up...
....and London--or at least a replica-- is about to start burning!
The Great Fire has served as the main inspiration behind my Lucy Campion mysteries. When I was working as a PIRATE aboard the Golden Hinde in London, I was always so fascinated by the incredible changes wrought by both the plague and the Great Fire. I was even more intrigued by the so-called "Miracle of the Great Fire" too.
My first book, A MURDER AT ROSAMUND'S GATE, ends with London in flames. My second book, FROM THE CHARRED REMAINS, picks up two weeks afterwards, when Londoners are wearily starting the massive clean-up of the City, and the Fire Courts are established. The aftermath of the inferno continues in THE MASQUE OF A MURDERER and A DEATH ALONG THE RIVER FLEET.
For those who survived the plague and Fire, London was a very different world--frightening on the one hand, but rife with opportunity for commoners and criminals alike....
On my recent vacation, I finally got a chance to delve into a novel I've always wanted to read: THE MOONSTONE (1868) by Wilkie Collins, often considered the first modern detective novel. It also caused me to reflect a bit on my writing, and how important it is to consider the heart of each scene.
The story is told through multiple narrators, including Gabriel Betteredge, the septegenarian steward of the household, charged with detailing the loss of the diamond--the mystery at the center of the novel.
As a writer, I was immediately amused by the way that Betteredge set to writing his account. First, he consults his trusty ROBINSON CRUSOE, opening it at random as others might seek insights from a religious text:
"In the first part of ROBINSON CRUSOE, at page one hundred and twenty-nine, you will find it thus written: 'Now I saw, though too late, the Folly of beginning a Work before we count the Cost, and before we judge rightly of our own Strength to go through with it.'"
A prophecy? he wonders. How could he set to writing such a momentous task? Could he see it through? Questions surely every author has pondered when staring at that first blank page before the story has begun.
He then proceeds to speak at length at how well ROBINSON CRUSOE can answer all life's great mysteries. After a time though, he finally realizes he has not yet started the story he was tasked to write:
"Still, this don't look much like starting the story of the Diamond--does it? I seem to be wandering off in search of Lord knows what, Lord knows where. We will take a new sheet of paper, if you please, and begin over again, with my best respects to you."
So he begins his story again, this time how he came to serve in his lady's household, where the diamond was destined, and about how he came to marry his wife and have a daughter. Again he goes on at length, until he gets to the end of the passage:
"My daughter Penelope has just looked over my shoulder to see what I have done so far. She remarks that it is beautifully written, and every word of it true. But she points to one objection. She says what I have done so far isn't in the least what I was wanted to do. I am asked to tell the story of the Diamond and, instead of that, I have been telling the story of my own self."
Already off track, he then ponders further that idea that many authors probably think about:
"I wonder whether the gentlemen who make a business and a living out of writing books, ever find their own selves getting in the way of their subjects, like me? If they do, I can feel for them."
Then he starts the story one more time, this time with a little more desperation:
"In the meantime, here is another false start, and more waste of good writing paper. What's to be done now? Nothing that I know of, except for you to keep your temper, and for me to begin it all over again for the third time."
This may be surprising, but I think THE MOONSTONE offers an important lesson in finding the heart of a scene.
In some ways, what the narrator Betteredge is doing is the kind of throat-clearing we often see writers do, particularly those with less experience. (To be clear, I am focusing on the words and thoughts of the character, not the actual author Wilkie Collins, who I think is brilliantly setting up the characters and the narrative).
One of the things I've observed when critiquing the work of others--and this is certainly something I've struggled with myself--is how often writers (especially less experienced ones) do not start and end scenes in a particularly effective manner.
Many writers seem to just meander into a scene, as if they are strolling to an important event in town. Along the way to this event, they greet people, pop in and out of stores, talk on their cell phones, watch their dogs play, chase after kids, look at shapes in the clouds. Others meander away from an important event, without any plans on what they intend to do next. This may be fine in real life, but in writing, a scene should be more focused.
I try to encourage writers to ask themselves questions: What is the goal of this scene? Does it advance a plot or subplot? Is it intended to reveal or continue a conflict? Is it meant to force a story forward? Is it intended to show a response to a conflict or dilemma? Does it indicate a decision or resolution (or even a seeming stalemate)? For me, even though I am a 'seat of the pants' kind of writer--a pantser--I find that asking these kinds of questions help me think through my intentions even as I go.
This is not to say that scenes should follow some sort of template. One of the fascinating things about THE MOONSTONE is its unusual narrative structure (perhaps more common now, but certainly uncommon in its day). The scenes, though offered in a meandering way by the narrator, actually quite purposefully lay out the far-larger story of the diamond, dropping clues and intimations in a rather remarkable way.
Getting to the heart of the story, by getting at the heart of each scene--is crucial. Otherwise, we'll be flailing about like Betteredge, "wandering off in search of Lord knows what, Lord knows where."
And when your meandering tale can not be saved, pick up your quill, lay out a new sheet of paper and now, "refreshed in hope," re-start your story again.
I invited debut novelist Radha Vatsal on my blog today, to share how she came to pick the 1910s as the backdrop for her Kitty Weeks historical mysteries.
Now that I've got a little summer reading time ahead of me, I'm definitely looking forward to diving into this new series....I think Kitty and Lucy, my printer's apprentice, would have enjoyed hanging out!!!
The first season of Downton Abbey ends in August 1914 with Lord Grantham announcing at a country party that World War I has begun. (Or rather, that England was at war with Germany—since no one knew just yet what kind of war it would become.) While we tend to associate World War I with Europe and think that America’s involvement in it was short-lived and only began when the US joined the fighting in 1917, life in the United States changed dramatically between 1914-1918, which is why it seemed a perfect era in which to set a mystery series.
I find that so many people know about the “Gilded Age,” the period from about the 1870s to the 1900s with its fabulous wealth and “Robber Baron” businessmen. Through novels like The Great Gatsby, we’re also very familiar with the 1920s Jazz Era. But the period in between, the 1910s, remain largely uncharted in popular fiction and film—and so much happened then. The US went from a second-tier nation to the economically most powerful and culturally dominant country in the world. Women went from second-class citizens to finally winning the right to vote. Much of what we associate with modern life—cars, movies, even national boundaries—took their current form during that period. It was a transformative moment in history, which is why I explore it through the eyes of the protagonist of A Front Page Affair, Capability “Kitty” Weeks, a young woman journalist based in New York City.
A Front Page Affair, the first in the Kitty Weeks mystery series, takes place during the summer of 1915, in the aftermath of the sinking of the Lusitania and an attack on financier, J.P. Morgan. As the series unfolds, Kitty will confront the many social and political changes taking place in America in the course of her investigations.
Radha Vatsal grew up in Mumbai, India, and came to the United States to attend boarding school when she was sixteen. She has stayed here ever since. Her fascination with the 1910s began when she studied women filmmakers and action-film heroines of silent cinema at Duke University, where she earned her Ph.D. from the English Department. A Front Page Affair is her first novel. You can email her directly at: radhavatsalauthor (at) gmail (dot) com. You can also connect with her on Tumblr, Facebook and Goodreads
Someone asked me recently what goes into promoting a book. I'm sure really savvy best-selling authors do really smart important stuff, but this is a run-down of what I've been doing since my fourth historical mystery, A DEATH ALONG THE RIVER FLEET (Minotaur, 2016), came out in mid-April. (I should add that this is all on top of a full-time job, teaching, and 2 kids, so there's that...).
But, basically I've been...
Writing a whole bunch of blog posts...
....like what being nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark means to me (Femme Fatales)
& What Would Mary Write? (Jungle Red Writers).
Partying at the Edgars Banquet....
(Some people would probably refer to this as 'networking,' but I call it making friends and having fun...)
Paneling at Malice Domestic...
And writing MORE pieces in which I...
...discuss how murder ballads inspired my novels...
("A True Account of a Most Monstrous Act, and Other Strange Happenings…" over at Criminal Element)
... and co-interview my college pal Duane Swierczynski (Edgar-nominated author of CANARY)
about our time writing for the La Salle Collegian and stalking, er, talking to Clive Barker...
[In a pretty rare event for me, I even reviewed Duane's book at Criminal Element!]
...And Scottish Whiskey...
Check out this cocktail
"A Death Along the River Peat"
Love it! Recipe included!!!
(Thanks Criminal Element!)
Completing a few interviews, in which I share:
And of course, speaking at a bunch of fun book talks at local book stores and other venues:
[Of course, posting these pictures makes me realize that I wear the same outfits to all my book signings!)
So clearly, another day I should write about how to balance all this craziness, but putting this post together was probably the most exhausting thing I've done!
And now, back to writing novels!!!
Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.