Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Bouchercon 2018: Thursday's Panels

Bouchercon is the crime fiction devotees’ Christmas. Doesn’t matter whether you’re a reader, writer, or those wonderful folks who don’t have a title yet act as the magnets and lubricants that draw everyone together and make things so easy. Bloggers, reviewers, podcasters, interviewers, everyone’s there, and everyone’s been looking forward to it since last year. This year’s conference was in St. Petersburg FL September 6 – 9. What follows here and over the next several blogs is one man’s experience. First, the panels. Later, the extracurricular activities.

(Editor’s Note: The comments attributed to each writer here and in the accounts to come are from the best of my recollection, taken from notes scrawled at the time. I am not a journalist, and I apologize to anyone whose quote I didn’t get right. I only claim to have made every effort to capture the spirit in which the remarks were intended.)

I knew this would be an exceptional conference when I scored copies of Lou Berney’s and Sam Wiebe’s books from a trade table before the first panel even began. I just feel badly for the poor unfortunates who don’t realize what a mistake they made by not keeping them.

10:00 AM Just the Facts—Getting Law Enforcement Details Right
George Lichman (Moderator), Colin Campbell, Deborah Crombie, Margaret Mizushima, Danielle Ramsey, Leo Maloney

Colin Campbell referenced Joseph Wambaugh’s The Choirboys as addressing the elements of police life that interest him most: how they get through the day.

Margaret Mizushima: There are a wide range of things dogs can be trained to do. Most dogs are specialists but some can do nearly everything.

Campbell: Dogs will bite whoever is in the way, cops included, especially if they’re holding a weapon.

Mizushima: Dogs do occasionally turn on their handlers.

Leo Maloney: There’s a TV series being made of his books and he retains control of what goes into them. His hero is him and he doesn’t want what he does dismissed or disparaged. (Put me in mind of the scene where Lee Marvin turns down a job in a Wild West show in Monte Walsh.)

Campbell: There are as many reasons people become cops as there are reasons people become criminals.

Campbell: It’s surprising how often bad guys’ heads don’t quite clear the police car door when the cops’ frustrations run high.

12:00 Moonlighting—The PI Tradition
Ted Hertel (M), Matt Coyle, Ted Fitzgerald, Cheryl Head, Chris Knopf, Michael Wiley

Ted Hertel has seen some who think Chandler was being sarcastic when he wrote the “mean streets” section of “The Simple Art of Murder.” (Editor’s Note: How anyone could read the whole essay and know Chandler’s work and think that is beyond me.)

Ted Fitzgerald: Because the PI moves through all levels of society, these stories can be about more than just the crime.

Fitzgerald: If you have a story you want to tell by leveraging certain things, these are traditions. If you’re just trying to recreate something you’ve read—essentially checking the boxes—they’re clichés. In short, if it works, it’s a tradition. If it doesn’t, it’s a cliché.

1:00 BANG! POW! How Much Violence is Too Much Violence?
Neliza Drew (M), Matt Phillips, Linda Sands, Kieran Shea, Wallace Stroby, Frank Zafiro

Frank Zafiro: Eric Beetner is the Kevin Bacon of crime fiction. (Editor’s Note: And the James Brown.)

Frank Zafiro: The trick today is not so much to get published as it is to get noticed.

2:00 License to Snoop—Attending PI School
Michael Pool (M), Donna Andrews, Sean Chercover, Michael Koryta, Jack Soren

Sean Chercover told the story of working as a PI in New Orleans. He checked in with the police before starting the surveillance but they still rousted him, blowing his cover. He told the client he’d done everything he was supposed to do, then the client corrected him. In New Orleans, you’re also supposed to come by with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and say you’re turning it in, you found it in a parking lot. Chercover wasn’t surprised about the graft, just that it took so little.

Donna Andrews: A female PI can hang around places men can never get away with because people may assume she’s just waiting for her kids.

Michael Koryta: PIs dread the “off the street” client. They want lawyer referrals.

Chercover seconded the notion. He only had one or two clients come to him directly. He worked mostly for lawyers and insurance companies. He even used to investigate lawyers’ potential clients before the lawyer would take the case.

Both Koryta and Chercover emphasized that everyone lies to you. Koryta went on to say that it may be a trope or it may be a cliché, but a detective cannot trust his client’s version of the truth.

Koryta: Stationary surveillance is a great way to spend time in the PI’s head. Moving surveillance is truly exciting.

Andrews: Carrying a gun mostly just adds another level of liability.

Koryta: Readers like elements of realism, so what might be boring—such as sitting on a house where nothing happens or trailing the wrong guy—can be made to sing if done well.

Andrews: Always check out the client. Told a story of a PI who was hired to remove some bugs supposedly planted by a business competitor only to find out they were the FBI’s.

Andrews: PIs understand no one can do it all. If you’re a generalist you know who the specialists are who can help you. An amateur may not understand that.

Chercover: When writing an amateur, let them run into their limitations.

Koryta: Anyone with an iPhone and $100 can do more than anything he had gadgets for ten years ago. Don’t worry about how current the technology is. It’s the writing and the characters that give a story staying power.

3:00 Small and Mighty—Small Press Publishers
Reavis Wortham (M), Eric Campbell, Kat Georges, Bob Gussin, Lloyd Otis, Chris Rhatigan

Bob Gussin can’t imagine publishing romance. The best part of publishing crime is he can tell within 10 – 15 pages if it’s worth messing with.

Worst query Kat Georges ever received: “I wrote a great book. Here’s the link.”

Georges: An often overlooked means of promotion is to write reviews for other outlets.

Gussin: The best blurbs are from the biggest authors. At least meet them to say hello at a conference, after which you can write to them to ask for the blurb, reminding them of your meeting.

Reavis Wortham: Best way to build relationships is to go to the bar and stay there.

Georges: The key advantage of a small press over self-publishing is the ability to leverage the small press’s reputation and infrastructure.

5:00 From Badge to Page—Ex=Cops Talk Writing
Danielle Ramsey (M), Bruce Robert Coffin, Colin Campbell, Tom O’Mara, Lissa Marie Redmond, Bernard Shaffer

Danielle Ramsey: Graham Greene once said “Every writer needs a heart of ice,” by which he meant an ability to look dispassionately at the most horrible or intimate things.

Lissa Marie Redmond: Male cops often have this attitude toward a female cop who’s being abused: “If you can’t handle your shit at home, how can you handle it on the street?”

Bruce Robert Coffin: Cops are used to things and people getting in the way when they’re trying to work a case.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Interview with Sandra Ruttan, Author of The Spying Moon

Sandra Ruttan is a walking disaster. She has been hit by a car, had a foot partially severed, fell down a waterfall and survived a car crash in the Sahara Desert. There is absolutely no explanation for how she's managed to stay alive as long as she has. Ruttan has five published mystery novels, including Harvest of Ruins, What Burns Within and Suspicious Circumstances. Her next book, The Spying Moon, is due out September 2018 from Down & Out Books. Get the latest news from her author Facebook page @sandraruttanauthor or her website

That’s the official bio. The Sandra Ruttan people meet in real time is a tireless supporter of writers on multiple levels with no mean level of talent herself. How she finds time to do all the things she does is imposing enough, but she still found time to sit down with me and talk about The Spying Moon.

One Bite at a Time: First, welcome to the Down & Out Books family. I hope you enjoy working with Eric and Lance and everyone as much as I have. How did you get together with them?

Sandra Ruttan: Sandra Seamans posted on her blog about Down & Out being open for submissions a few years ago. I took the deadline as a challenge and submitted. I got an offer for publication and it’s been a fantastic experience. Really wonderful working with people who are committed to the genre and making each book shine.

OBAAT: Give us the meat and potatoes of your new book, The Spying Moon, in a hundred words or less. (And I will count.)

SR: Constable Moreau is stuck on an assignment she doesn’t want, with a bunch of colleagues who want nothing to do with her. Even the case she’s supposed to be working is hijacked by the death of a local teen. When everyone seems to have an agenda or a bad attitude, it’s hard to know who to trust, and that already isn’t easy for Moreau. As an orphan she’s been isolated her whole life and she has to learn to trust her instincts, as well as some members of her team, to solve this case. (Editor’s Note: 94 words. Well done.)

OBAAT: The Spying Moon takes place in a small town in southern British Columbia. You’re a Canadian expat living in the United States now, but I believe you’re a Toronto native. What made you choose this location?

SR: I’m not quite a Toronto native. I grew up in Muskoka, which is a district north of Toronto. It’s cottage country. Sixteen hundred lakes in an area that’s 2500 square miles. Most of my life I’ve been a rural girl. As an adult, I moved out west. I spent three years living on a Gulf Island, several years living in Calgary, and I also lived in the Greater Vancouver Area for a few years. I’ve driven through British Columbia many times. It’s such a great province, but it has some unique challenges. Weather, mountains, First Nations land… There’s also a rich history of smuggling across the 49th parallel. British Columbia makes a little more sense than Alberta for that type of story because of the ports and proximity to Seattle. Think about when the G8 summit was in Kananaskis. I love Kananaskis. One of my favorite places to go hiking, between Banff and Calgary. But they were able to shut down protesters because it’s harder to get to a place like that without going through airports. British Columbia has a long coastline. And a history of feet washing up on shores without bodies. How can I not set crime fiction there?

OBAAT: The Spying Moon’s protagonist of RCMP Constable Kendall Moreau. She’s the child of a white father and an Aboriginal mother who raised Kendall along until she disappeared and the child was whisked into a series of foster homes. Where did the idea for her come from?

SR: I went to school with kids who lived on what we then called Indian Reservations. One of my best friends in high school was part Native. There’s a lot of prejudice and a real lack of understanding about Native cultures and communities. Did you know that the most at-risk group in Canada is Native women? Nobody is more likely to be murdered than they are.

The fact that so many have disappeared or been denied justice because of indifference to the issue is Canada’s shame. It’s also a motivation for Moreau. Her mother disappeared on BC’s Trail of Tears. It’s a real place and real problem, although Moreau’s mother is a fictional character. The fact that anywhere from 19 to 40 or more women have gone missing or been killed there and there has only been prosecution in one case is staggering. The police can’t even verify all the potential victims. And we’re wondering why First Nations people might not trust the government? The list of injustices is too long to cover. We can’t fix everything from the past, but we can stop perpetuating the injustices in the future. If we don’t do that every apology is just words.

With Moreau, I wanted to be able to touch on these issues. At the same time, I wanted Moreau to have her own alienation. Her father (a white man) raped her mother. She doesn’t know him. Her very origins stem back to the abuse of Native women.

Then there’s the whole residential school issue. Native children were stripped from their families and lost their sense of identity and cultural heritage. Moreau isn’t taken in the same way, but when her mother disappears she’s lost in the system. This book is very much about her starting the journey of finding out who she is. In no way would I ever be so arrogant as to say I understand what Native children who were residential school victims went through. Moreau can only highlight how being denied your history and heritage can damage you. Think about it. We’re sending our DNA to Ancestry and searching for long-lost relatives to connect. These people lost their lands, their families, their cultural identity. It was stolen from them. In her own way, Moreau is lost and she represents things in my own life in a symbolic way. She’s the protagonist I feel closest to, of all the ones I’ve written, and yet she’s the hardest to know because she’s been victimized in a way that cuts right to the core of understanding who she is as a person.

Sadly, Moreau’s state at the start of the novel means that I don’t get to use her as a conduit for referencing great Aboriginal music. While I’m listening to A Tribe Called Red, Susan Aglukark, Iskwe and others, she isn’t. Yet. I’ve got Prolific the Rapper with A Tribe Called Red Black Snakes playing right now. Burn Your Village To The Ground is next. Iskwe did a song called Will I See that was a response to the murder of a 15-year old First Nations girl. ( It feels like this should be in the background, but it would be a cheat because Moreau has only thought of finding out what happened to her mother for her whole life. She’s held on to what little she remembers about Willow Moreau and the kind of person Willow was raising her to be. She hasn’t been able to let anything else in. This is why she puts her personal issues aside and focuses on the case, and it’s really hard to get much insight into how she thinks and feels because she isn’t putting on music or talking about movies or friends or sharing personal details. She just buckles down and focuses on work. Her whole life has been about one thing. What happens if she never gets the answers she seeks? Can she survive that?

OBAAT: Cultural appropriation is a hot topic lately, especially in Canada. What concerns did you have and precautions in writing did you take when writing a protagonist who is First Nation?

SR: "The act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture." That's how the Cambridge dictionary defines cultural appropriation. I think the key starting point here is with the definition. Moreau is mixed race, which puts her in a slightly different category. The other consideration is intent. If I have a mission, it's to raise awareness for how Indigenous people have been mistreated and the issues that are facing Indigenous people. And what I lack in understanding I hope I make up for in respect.

Cultural appropriation can be a real issue. It can also be a deterrent that keeps people from including characters of different ethnic backgrounds in their works. I would never say that a man can't write a story from a woman's perspective. Some men might betray some of their own... misunderstandings about women, but that's down to how an individual man deals with the issue. Same with women writing men. We don't live in androgynous, monochromatic worlds. In order to truly represent society we need to be able to incorporate people with different backgrounds.

With Moreau, I'm coming at this from a place of wanting to know more. When I researched one of my novels 13 years ago, one of the RCMP officers I was able to learn from was part Native, part French. I've been fortunate to have people talk to me that could help me prepare to write different characters. The biggest issues I see are with writers who bring in Indigenous people or people from different ethnic groups to make them the obvious bad guy, or people who write about different ethnic groups with a clear bias against them. I've been fortunate enough to travel widely. I've been to over 25 different countries on four continents. I've tried to maintain a respectful attitude in those travels. If it was offensive to the local people to show your knees then I made sure to wear a skirt that covered my knees. I never traveled with the attitude that I was there to stuff my culture down anyone's throat. You travel to learn and experience different things.

Stories are another way of traveling. We can go places we might not otherwise visit and experience things that aren't part of our everyday experience. In my travels I've been fortunate enough to visit the Northwest Territories, Yukon Territories and Alaska. I've been to Tuktoyuktuk. I've seen beluga meat being stripped and smoked to prepare for winter. Do I understand what it is to live there year-round? No. Can I enrich someone's understanding of different cultures and customs by sharing about what I've seen or learned?

I really, truly hope that I write my characters in such a way that it honors Indigenous people. I hope we see more Indigenous crime fiction authors we can enjoy. We do have a tendency, as a society, to commercialize cultures and limit them. Ask Adrian McKinty how he feels about leprechauns and Lucky Charms representing Irish culture. Ask a Canadian how they feel about being mistaken for being American. (I have to be honest - most Americans can't tell with me.) Ask a New Zealander how to they feel about being mistaken for being Australian. I met a gal once and I'd recently been traveling and inside of a minute I put out my guess on her accent and she was shocked that I didn't say Australian first. It really pleased her that I recognized where she was from.

I think... I hope... that everyone feels positive when someone is trying to present their race positively and with respect. It's like kids with Cabbage Patch dolls, wanting to adopt one that looked like them. I hope people feel they can go into a bookstore, pick up a book, and identify with characters that are in the story. That they don't pick up book after book and see that all the characters are white. If we really believe in diversity we have to use our platforms to support it.

Also, initially I thought about doing this as a series that switched protagonists in different books. It was going to be tied to cross border policing. That would mean having American cops as well as Canadian cops. The trouble is, Moreau is so compelling for me that I don't feel her story is finished.

I may be at equal risk of backlash over a short story I wrote called Crossing Jordan. Jordan is a post-op trans woman. I am not. Part of the reason I wrote the story was because I have a member of my immediate family who identifies as a different gender than the one they were born with. Fiction gives us a chance to see the world through different eyes. I can be braver than I am through a heroic character. I can be down and dirty and break the law with a criminal protagonist. I can step outside the limits of my own life experience and step into someone else's shoes. I take the philosophy that at the end of the day, we're all people. Everything after that is degrees of differences. Not all Scottish people think the same way. Not all Canadians share the same views. Not all Americans voted for... Well, you get the idea. While cultural appropriation can be a legitimate issue, my fear is that if people stop incorporating different characters in their works then we're imposing fictional segregation.

OBAAT: Among the things I liked about The Spying Moon is that the investigation that dominates the book is peripheral to the putative reason for Moreau to be in Maple River, which is as part of a drug task force. It’s a nice bit of misdirection and shows how cops never get to work just one case at a time like they do so often on TV and the movies. Was that something you planned from the outset, or did things just go that way? Either way, was it hard to keep things balanced?

SR: I have such a strange mind that I’m always connecting random things and thinking big picture. I have a system for trying to keep track of my storylines. In truth, this is the first book I’ve written that has one single POV character. The challenge for me was making sure I only put things on the page that she was supposed to know at that point in the story. My idea had always been to start a series, and putting in this other case that ended up being in the background to some extent originated from that plan. The thing is that big cases with task forces don’t get solved in short periods of time. They’re the type of investigations that can go on for months or even years. Moreau wants to be done with it, so she hopes it can be wrapped up quickly, but other cases get in the way of making any progress at all. She’s stuck with Duncan on one case and McIver on another and isn’t happy about any of it. Everything in the story mirrors her isolation. She’s shut out by most members of her team. She’s shut out from the actual investigation she was sent there to work on. She’s facing roadblocks in town and derailed by construction inside and outside of the police station. She drives down a road as part of her investigation and it’s blocked and closed. She wanted to investigate her mother’s disappearance and was barred from doing that. It’s obstacle after obstacle in this story.

OBAAT: You’ve had a long-time presence in the short fiction/review/magazine realm, first with Spinetingler and now with Toe Six. Where did the idea for Toe Six come from, and what does the name mean?

SR: One of my favorite books is The Chrysalids by John Wyndham. In this post-apocalyptic world, anyone who isn’t made in the image of God, with five fingers and five toes etc. etc., is a mutant and must be sterilized and cast out. When it’s discovered that David’s new friend Sophie has six toes, all hell breaks loose, and that’s not even the worst of it.

The sixth toe is the catalyst. It’s the discovery of that toe that kicks the story into high gear. That’s why I went with Toe Six. There has to be a reason for a story. And nobody else was called Toe Six Press. I want to keep publishing short fiction and also start publishing novels. I’m working on it, and hoping to take things to the next level very soon.

OBAAT: Does the Hamburglar still haunt your dreams?

SR: My husband just bought me a retro glass with Hamburglar on it. The family got me a stuffed one years ago. I hide clowns in their rooms and they inundate me with Hamburglar. There’s no escape. Honestly, he’s creepy. The real question is why he doesn’t cause more kids nightmares.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Dietrich Kalteis, Author of Poughkeepsie Shuffle

Dietrich Kalteis is the award-winning author of Ride the Lightning (bronze medal winner, 2015 Independent Publisher Book Awards, for best regional fiction), The Deadbeat Club, Triggerfish, House of Blazes (silver medal winner, 2017 Independent Publisher Book Awards, for best historical fiction), and Zero Avenue. His novel The Deadbeat Club has been translated to German, and 50 of his short stories have also been published internationally. He lives with his family on Canada’s West Coast.

Dietrich and I have been friends since we got together at Bouchercon several years ago. (Exactly which Bouchercon is lost to the alcohol-shrouded mists of time.) It’s always a treat when he stops by the blog. His blog, Off the Cuff, is also a pleasure, especially the multi-person discussions he runs from time to time, which I can’t think of any other blogs doing.

One Bite at a Time: Let’s get this out of the way right at the start so it doesn’t hang over the entire length of the interview: With a title like Poughkeepsie Shuffle, people are going to want to know if anyone picks their feet. You know, they’re in a hotel, they sit on the edge of the bed, take off their shoes…

Dietrich Kalteis: Man, I like the way you think, Dana, but no, there is no feet picking going on in any hotel. But, funny that you mention it because there is a scene where a couple of the main characters drive down from Toronto and end up picking up a couple of hookers in a hotel, the two women in the late-night bar calling themselves Miss Right and Miss Right Now. Of course, things don’t work out as planned in the hotel room when instead of getting their rocks off, our boys get ripped off.
OBAAT: Jeff Nichols is described as “a man strong of conviction but weak of character.” There’s a hint of cognitive dissonance there. Tell us a little about him.

DK: J Jeff’s likable, but somewhat bullheaded, the kind of guy who refuses to let the lessons of past mistakes get in the way of a good score. He sees what he wants and goes for it, the kind of underdog we’d like to see succeed. After getting his release from the infamous Don Jail, he tries to rekindle a relationship with his ex, Ann Ryan, making his way in the world by taking a job at a used car lot in a part of town called the Junction. But, it soon proves to be not enough to keep them afloat. So, when the lure of easy money comes along, he gets himself mixed up in a gun smuggling ring, smuggling guns across the border.

OBAAT: Your previous novels have focused on Canada’s west coast, around Vancouver, mostly, and dealt a lot with drugs. This time we’re in Toronto and it’s guns. Why the move?

DK: I grew up in Toronto, and I usually go back once a year or so, and I’m amazed at how much the city has changed since I lived there. Urban expansion, taller buildings springing up along the 401 and the Gardner, with roadways around the city expanding to extra lanes, some that didn’t exist at all when I lived there. It’s still a great city, but, it’s sad in a way to see some of the places l remember torn away. So, I wanted to bring some of that back and set the stage for Poughkeepsie Shuffle, weaving in those sights and sounds and bringing back a grittier, but character-filled Toronto, the way I remember it back in the mid-eighties, back when nobody knew what a condo was.

And it’s just across the lake from Niagara and Buffalo, with easy access to the US, making it the perfect setting for a story revolving around gun smuggling. What sparked the gun angle was an article I read about a gunrunning ring that operated between upstate New York and Ontario, eventually being taken down by the OPP, working alongside several U.S. law enforcement agencies. Another element that worked into the story was the increasing gang violence that I remember hearing about on the radio and reading about in the paper. 

OBAAT: We’ve talked about our admiration for Elmore Leonard before and the synopses of your books could very easily have been Leonard stories. The affinity is in the writing, yet you never sound as if you’re knocking him off. How are you able to show the debt without falling into imitation?

DK: It’s flattering to be compared to somebody you admire, and no doubt, I’ve been both inspired and influenced by Elmore Leonard’s work, along with other greats like George V. Higgins, James Crumley, Charles Willeford, Donald E. Westlake, and Hunter S. Thompson. To me, reading the greats is about inspiration, not imitation. It’s about transcending those influences, developing my own style and voice, honing strengths and knowing weaknesses, and finding what works.

OBAAT: Another thing you share with Leonard is strong female characters. Frankie Del Rey was the core of Zero Avenue. What’s the deal with Ann Ryan?”

DK: Ann Ryan’s tough like Frankie del Rey, but she’s more of a home body, and her fuse is longer. She’s better at taking the crumbs, at least at first, believing in Jeff to make good on promises to give her a better life. She wants to believe one of his schemes is going to pay off. Of course, everybody’s fuse is only so long, and when she tires of Jeff’s schemes, she puts her foot down, and she’s pretty tough. Frankie on the other hand, never relied on anybody to give her what she wanted, always ready to kick down some doors and just take what she was after. 

OBAAT: Time for a hard question. Two things come to mind when I think of controversies in writing nowadays: diversity and cultural appropriation, which can be like the proverbial rock and hard place. As a white man, you earn kudos for your strong female characters. (At least you should.) Do you ever wonder, “I’m not a woman; how can I write this scene from her point of view and not be accused of writing what I can’t possibly know?”

DK: I wasn’t sure I could pull off writing a female lead character before I started writing Zero Avenue, but since I write about people, and since half of them are women, I thought I’d give it a shot. I liked that Frankie, being a woman in the late seventies, seemed more challenged than a male getting into the music business, that is until you get to know her. Once I got going, it seemed to work, so I just kept going, writing from her perspective, revealing my inner Frankie.

For Poughkeepsie Shuffle, I wrote it in first person from Jeff’s POV. So, Ann is largely seen through his eyes. Writing in first person did have limitations, mainly I couldn’t shift from one character’s perspective to another’s. But it allowed for Jeff’s biases to come through, and that often made it funnier, like when her family comes to visit, all those thoughts in his head. But, again, once I got rolling, I liked the way writing in first person was going.

OBAAT: Let’s talk about point of view a little. How did you decide to write Poughkeepsie Shuffle in first person? When you write in third, what are the things you consider when decided whose POV to choose for a scene?
DK: I hadn’t written a novel in first person before, and I wanted to try it since it’s primarily Jeff’s story, and it just seemed to be the way to go. Usually, I like to write in third person, it’s like being the camera in a movie. It’s flexible and lets me move around and offer more insight, get into different heads by switching the POV from one character to another. 

OBAAT: Dieter, it’s always fun to chat with you. What’s on the horizon now that Poughkeepsie Shuffle has made its appearance?
DK: The next one’s done and with my publisher. It’s called Call Down the Thunder, and it’s set during the late 1930s. The story centers around a married couple with some unique ways of surviving the dustbowl days of Kansas. And I’ve got a short story called “Bottom Dollar” included in the Vancouver Noir anthology by Akashic Books, coming out this November. Right now I’m working on a new novel about a guy who’s on the run after stealing a gangster’s money and making off with his woman. 

Monday, August 27, 2018



People say the word like it’s dirty. “He’s a lucky sumbitch.” “If it wasn’t for bad luck I’d have no luck at all.” It’s as if anytime a person one feels is undeserving of any accomplishment, for any reason, he was lucky. It’s the favorite word of the envious and bitter.

Branch Rickey had it right. The legendary General Manager of the Cardinals and Dodgers (and not-so-legendary GM of the Pirates) famously said: “Things worthwhile generally don’t just happen. Luck is a fact, but should not be a factor. Good luck is what is left over after intelligence and effort have combined at their best. Negligence or indifference are usually reviewed from an unlucky seat. The law of cause and effect and causality both work the same with inexorable exactitudes. Luck is the residue of design.” (Emphasis added.)

There are other ways to say it. “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.” “The harder I work the luckier I get.” “You make your own luck.” All of those are true to some extent, but it cannot be argued that serendipitous good fortune plays a role in all success. The trick, said Jonathan Maberry at last year’s Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity Conference, is to do something with luck when it finds you.

How does one create luck? Mostly by getting off one’s ass. (Or sitting it in a chair to wrote; “Getting off one’s ass” is figurative.) Black Velvet whiskey used to run a magazine ad with a photograph of a drop-dead beautiful blonde wearing a black velvet dress (the fabric, not the booze) with this caption: “The woman of your dreams is out there, but you’re going to have to leave the house.” She’s not going to knock on the door, and, if she does, you’d be wise not to answer it in your underwear with three days’ stubble and a mustard stain on your wife beater.

Luck manifests itself in many ways. Reed Farrel Coleman worked at JFK airport and had thoughts of being a poet. He decided to take a class to fill a dead hour in his schedule and the only English class they had at the time was a survey of American detective fiction. That was three Shamus Awards ago. William Vacchiano played principal trumpet in the New York Philharmonic for 38 years. If you hear a recording of Leonard Bernstein with the NYPO, it’s Vacchiano playing first trumpet. His father sent him to the music store for a clarinet and young Bill forgot on the way and cornet sounded close enough so he got one.

Even someone of my limited accomplishments has been uniquely lucky. Harper Collins ran a contest about fifteen years ago to win an ARC of Elmore Leonard’s The Hot Kid. I scored a copy and wrote a review I sent to the editor of the New Mystery Reader web site, Stephanie Padilla. She liked it enough to make me a regular reviewer, which led to doing interviews, which led to a friendship with Charlie Stella, the Godfather of Mob Fiction.* Charlie took a liking to my writing which led to my getting a contract with his publisher, which didn’t work out as well as I would have liked but also gave me the visibility to come to the attention of Eric Campbell of Down & Out Books which is a situation I could not be happier with. Eric might not have been as interested had I not had two Shamus nominations, which I would not have had were it not for the time and effort the late and sorely missed agent Pam Strickler invested in teaching me to self-edit. Sure, I busted my ass in between all those steps, but winning that stupid contest any reader could have won teed me up for it.

What I might like best when listening to highly successful crime fiction writers is how often they acknowledge the role luck has played for them. It’s not false modesty; they know they’re good. But they also never forget there was a time when they could have ended up in the mass of young writers who came along at the same time they did, and that talent is not always the determining factor in who gets ahead. It is the determining factor in who stays ahead, but a lot of other stuff can happen along the way.

On the other hand, few things are more off-putting than those for whom luck was largely a circumstance or birth or privilege, as these are often the least likely to admit its effects. It’s what I call the Ann Richards Syndrome, after her famous line about George H. W. Bush being “born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.” (The comment is a little unfair, considering his history of public service, but it’s still a great line. I like to think she was prescient enough to predict the current inhabitant of Bush 41’s former office.) These are people who forget the simplest effects of good fortune because they think it somehow makes them less admirable, failing to understand that what makes them less admirable is their refusal to credit anything but themselves for their “success.”

To paraphrase Churchill, I am a writer with much to be humble about. Beyond the unique good fortune mentioned above, I was born a white male in the richest country the world has ever known at a time when an affordable college education was considered to be a sign of national pride. With luck, I’ll never forget that, nor fail to act accordingly.

(*--Charlie says only I call him that, but I swear I read it somewhere.)

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

What's the Deal With Bouchercon?

I re-posted some thoughts about Bouchercon last week, which got me to thinking about the conference in more detail. With this year’s event beginning two weeks from tomorrow, this seems as good a time as any to share thoughts I’ve had about more than why it’s a fun opportunity.

Not that it isn’t a fun opportunity. It’s safe to say that for The Beloved Spouse™ and me Bouchercon is the social event of the year, to the point where I save up time off from work so we can make a road trip of it. Two years ago we drove to New Orleans from the Baltimore-DC area. Last year we took a couple of extra days to go to Niagara Falls and the Hockey Hall of Fame. This year we’re making three stops along the way to visit family and friends, plus a day at Busch Gardens. We’re already thinking of driving to Dallas next year. We work our annual schedules around it.

It’s obvious that we have our own agenda when going each year. We’ve made enough friends over the years that it has in many ways become more of a social event than anything else for us. Yes, I still wait with growing anticipation for the panel announcements to come out and I attend as many panels as I can, notebook in hand, soaking up as much information and good writer vibe as I possible.

When one is trying to make a go of it as an author it’s easy to get caught up in the authorly aspects. (Yes, that’s a word. I just made it up, and I’m a writer, so I have what’s called license.) It’s fashionable among writers to kvetch about our panel assignments or any of the various social issues authors get involved with; diversity is big this year, and rightly so. We’d all like to make a good impression and sell some books in the process, which is another thing I like about Bouchercon: the attitude is less to sell books than to get readers interested in you. It’s a soft sell.

I’ve been involved in some discussions about how we as authors can make changes to improve either the diversity of panels, or support the #metoo movement. I’m all for both, but there’s one thing that keeps me from taking a more active role in either when going to Bouchercon.

It’s not a writers’ conference.

It’s a readers’ conference that I attend as a writer. I am their guest, and, as such, I’m grateful to have been invited. That doesn’t mean I’ll stand by if someone is being harassed. Nor will I reserve my opinion about any conference-related issue if asked.* I’m just not going to impose my opinions on anyone. It’s not my house. The organizing committees—composed mostly of readers and those who run web sites and magazines and hold the entire community together the way mortar binds brick—do an outstanding job year after year. They have more competing priorities than I want to think about, and the last thing I want to do is tell them how to run their conference.

What I will do is whatever I’m asked. I will be just as gracious if assigned to a panel of supernatural animal cozy writers for whom English is a second language as I would be if I sat next to Michael Connelly, Laura Lippmann, Megan Abbott, and Reed Farrel Coleman. If an organizer asks me to help out with something, I will. If a reader wants to talk to me, just come on up, so long as the standard rules of civility are observed. There are more writers looking for exposure than there are slots for them. I’ll never take such an opportunity for granted. The best news about Bouchercon is that the vast majority of the writers have that same attitude, and that includes those at the top of the profession. It is as egalitarian an occurrence as any you will find.

So, at the risk of sounding like I’m sucking up (which I’m not, as I already have my panel assignment and it’s a peach), thank you to everyone responsible for pulling this year’s (and last year’s, and the year before that, and next year’s) conference together. From finding the hotels to getting us good rates to finding sponsors to organizing the peripheral activities to setting up the schedule and assigning panels, what I think of most when pulling up to the conference hotel is how my work is done; everything that happens for the next four days has been taken care of. All I have left to do is to make sure I enjoy myself and, for that, I’ll do whatever the readers ask.

(* -- A “politics-free zone” extends for three feet in every direction from my center of mass. I’m not saying you can’t talk about politics; it’s a free country. Just don’t be distressed or think me rude if I walk away. These four days are for the books.)

Friday, August 17, 2018

Historical Research; A Guest Post by Dorothy Anne Spruzen

Thank you, Dana, for inviting me to contribute to your excellent blog. I thought I would share some of the tips I pass on to my creative writing students concerning historical research for writers of fiction. I know some of you are readers rather than writers, but I hope this will nevertheless prove interesting.

I’m not going to give a discourse on how to perform historical research in the broad sense, but rather to point out some of the ways in which one might avoid embarrassing little blunders. Some reader, somewhere, will pick up your errors with a malicious sense of glee and self-congratulation.

For me, and I think for most people, if I spot an egregious error, my train of thought is
broken, I’ve fallen out of the story, and I’m irritated. We need to get it right. There is usually a historical element in my novels, so here are some of the errors I have come across over many years of reading and writing such books.

My novel The Blitz Business is set in World War II England. Jamie, a fifteen-year-old mildly intellectually disabled boy, loves red fire engines; close to the beginning of the novel, he is found by air raid wardens wandering the streets in the middle of one of the most devastating raids of the Blitz. He is taken to a large fire station that is being used as a headquarters for the rescue services. Imagine his excitement to find so many beautiful red fire engines ready for action.

Only I discovered, quite by chance, that they were all painted gray during the war so as to avoid easy detection from the air. The fact did not come to light during the course of research, per se, but through reading fiction set in that time period and written by a credible source—R.F. Delderfield (The Avenue, God is an Englishman), a well-regarded British military historian who also wrote fiction.

My fix? Jamie still had a red vehicle to admire because, as luck would have it, the station had run out of paint before finishing the last one!

But, be careful. It is unwise to depend entirely on secondary sources; further research was needed to confirm the fact.

In my first novel, Not One of Us (featuring a female serial killer), I had a young girl in New York City dial 911 in about 1950. The fact that the emergency number did not yet exist in New York City may be old news to many of you, but not to me, as British cities and towns had already had an emergency number (999) for years. An American reader in my critique circle picked it up. Critique circles are invaluable, as every member brings his or her own experience and knowledge to the table.

Language usage is another issue. I bought a historical mystery set in the Victorian age, written by a Texan man and wife team who visit England regularly. The language errors are numerous; here are some of them:

Someplace else
I guess
Fix you something to eat?
Doctor’s office (referred to as “surgery” in the U.K.)

The authors had not recognized these idioms as being either American or modern,
perhaps because many of them are often used by the British these days. They have failed to absorb the speech patterns of whatever historical works they might have (should have) read.

I was born in England to a father who was born the year after Queen Victoria died and who had relatives and friends much older than he. I remember their speech patterns, the formality of their oral exchanges, not to mention the written ones, and so I developed the “ear” to recognize these missteps. Imagine my annoyance, when I read:

(Husband in the 1880’s) “What time is it my dear?”
(Wife) “It is three thirty-five, Stanley.” (Maybe she was looking at her Swatch!)

This is a modern Americanism. Even an American would have phrased it differently in those days. As recently as when I was a child (!), we would have said, “five-and-twenty to four” instead of “three thirty-five.”

What would have saved the authors from these errors? A critical reader who knows the speech patterns, and reading novels not only written about that period, but written during that period. And there are plenty of books written during the Victorian era.

Now, one must be careful reading dialog in old fiction, whether English or American, with a view to your own writing set in the same era. Written work, even for dialog, was typically much more elevated than everyday spoken language, even at a time when spoken English was, by our standards, very formal. You will need to modify so your readers won’t be tempted to skip!

For British writers, American usage can be a minefield, too. For example, whether you refer to Pepsi as a soda, pop, or cola, depends which state or city you are in. And I guess most people know now that Americans correct their work with erasers rather than rubbers, unlike the Brits. I had a very embarrassing experience before I learned that one! And let’s not forget slang, which evolves like fruit flies.

Technology is the greatest trap for many writers, especially our younger colleagues. We forget just how recent technology and medical treatments we take for granted are. Take the Internet, for example. In the 1950s, could they analyze blood samples from a pillow? And how precise was that analyses? Was it admissible in court in the 1960s? When was DNA accepted as evidence in a court of law? And is it likely that kid would have had a cell phone at his disposal in 1995? Was that vaccine available in 1975?

Every country has its unique legal system. Saudi Arabia follows strict Islamic law, but Egypt’s law is based on the French civil code while still accommodating national mores. In America, state law varies from one jurisdiction to another, even while Federal law takes precedence. Not only that, but laws are continually being changed or modified, so be sure you know the relevant local situation in the 1940’s or even last year, as it may differ considerably today.

My novel Lily Takes the Field (the sequel to Not One of Us, featuring a female serial killer) is set in Toronto, Canada. It is set in the late 1990s, so fairly contemporary. At one point my protagonist is sitting in the Art Gallery of Toronto enjoying lunch in its charming restaurant, looking out at the garden and admiring the statuary dotted around. She was eating from a menu that featured French cuisine, reflecting a current major exhibit. Not too much later, the whole gallery closed down for about three years while major renovations took place. Sadly, that lovely restaurant is no longer there. I would have had significant egg on my face had I set that scene a few years later.

What saves the day? Research all contexts of your story. Do not rely on the unreliable. Encircle the subject, even using movies and other fiction. Look at the author’s intent (bias, misinformed, shaping to their story). Even encyclopedia entries may be biased and are to be verified. And we have all heard about recent history textbook scandals! I wonder how text book sections on the Civil War might differ from Alabama to Maine? Double check everything!

Remember, social history is part of our game. It is a context for people’s lives and actions and provides connections between different events. It sets your characters onstage against a particular backdrop: other cultures; social strata; the kind of things they use and how they use them (clothes, food, utensils, tools, housing); their speech patterns and slang; and, how they are affected by social and political upheavals.

Always ask the hard questions: Who said that and why? Has anything changed? (Just because the town hall is there today, doesn’t mean it was there fifty years ago.) When, where, why, whom, and how did it change?

I hope some of this has been helpful, particularly to those who write historical fiction. Thank you for taking the time to read my piece!

** ** **
D. A. Spruzen, grew up near London, U.K., graduated from the London College of Dance and Drama Education, and earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte; she teaches creative writing in Northern Virginia when not seeking her own muse. In another life she was Manager of Publications for a defense contractor

A historical novel The Blitz Business was published by Koehler Books in August 2016. Long in the Tooth, a poetry collection, was published by Finishing Line Press in July 2013; her poems and short stories have appeared in many online and print publications. She self-published the first two novels in the Flower Ladies Trilogy—Not One of Us and Lily Takes the Field—and Crossroads: Two Novellas.

Dorothy has served on the boards of many nonprofit organizations, including ten years with Langley Residential Support Services, which provides services for the intellectually challenged. Dorothy is also a visual artist, working in acrylics, watercolor and pastels.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Why Go to Bouchercon?

(What follows is a lightly edited post from March of 2017 when the Anthony Award nominations went out and I got to thinking about Bouchercon. With this year’s conference on the rapidly approaching horizon I realized I don’t have anything more profound to say about the conference this year, but not everyone has read this, so here you go.)

Readers are, by and large, introverts. By definition, introverts expend energy around other people and recharge when alone. That doesn’t mean introverts don’t like other people, though we may be somewhat more discerning than extroverts when it comes to who we choose to be around. It’s not that we don’t like spending time around people who share an interest, but we’d have to leave the house to meet them and that cuts into our reading time.*

Bouchercon is the perfect place for such a person. True, it’s close to two thousand people in relatively confined quarters, but it’s not just that. It’s hundreds of people who are geeked up about the same thing you are, and are often hungry for others to talk to about it. Even better, it’s not just the thousand-plus like-minded readers you’ll see: you’ll also be tripping over the people who write the books you’re so revved up about. What could be better?

They’re glad to see you, too. I’ve been to eight Bouchercons in the ten years since I discovered them. I’ve made friends there, cemented acquaintances with people I came to know online, and have created enough of a footprint myself that some people actually recognize me. I have never once been treated other than civilly, and far more often than not people have gone out of their way to be friendly.**

It can be an expense, but it’s a bargain compared to many other conferences. The conference fee itself is always reasonable and I’m constantly surprised when I see the room rate the committee gets at the host hotel. The only complaint I’ve had is the hotels rarely appreciate how much readers and writers drink and fail to put enough additional staff on the bar. Doesn’t mean I don’t socialize; I just don’t drink as much. The hotel’s loss is my liver’s gain.

So, dear readers, if you’re curious to see what over a thousand readers and several hundred crime fiction writers look like in the wild, there’s no better place to find out than Bouchercon.

* -- The Sole Heir™ was pre-teen when my tenure at Castle Voldemort ended and I was the classic single divorced father again. We used to have this conversation fairly often:

TSH: Do you ever go out?
Me: Not much.
TSH: Why not?
Me: If I go out I’m going to see a lot of people I don’t know.
TSH: What’s wrong with that?
Me: I hate people I don’t know.

After a year or so she came up with the next logical question.

TSH: Why do you hate people you don’t know?
Me: It saves time.

** -- My favorite Bouchercon story. Baltimore, 2008. My virgin appearance. Standing on the walkway between hotels with Peter Rozovsky, one of about three people I actually knew then. He asked was I having a good time.
Me: Sort of.
PR: What’s wrong?
Me: I don’t really know anyone here. (See above statement about people I don’t know.)
PR: (Looks around) Do you know Scott Phillips?
Me: I know who he is….
PR: (Waving) Scott! Come here a second! (Scott Phillips comes over.) Scott, this is Dana King. Dana, this is Scott Phillips. He wrote The Ice Harvest. (Peter does not know I am head over heels for The Ice Harvest.)
SP: (Extends hand) Hi, Dana.
(We chat for five minutes and Scott has to go to a panel.)
PR: See? Now you know Scott Phillips.

One year later. Indianapolis. I’m on the periphery of the crowd at the bar looking for anyone I know. I see Scott with a group of people, but he’s someone I’ve met for five minutes a year ago, not someone I know. Scott notices me and waves me over.

SP: Dana, we’re going to get something to eat. You want to come?

That’s what Bouchercon is like. If in doubt, go. Look me up. Mention this post and your drink is on me. I’m not paying for it. I’m just clumsy when I get excited.