A place to talk about books, publishing, things that amuse me, and the occasional rant.
It took over a year to do, but my 50 Free Tips for Fiction Writers is finally complete. You can find them over at Pinterest. They're also scattered among my blog posts over the past year, but they're all together in order here. Here's what they look like:
My favorite of the Ellie Foreman series is available free for a limited time. Both Ellie Foreman and Georgia Davis work together to solve the murder of a young woman caught on surveillance tape.
If that interests you, here's where to go:
Soft release August 15, 2014
Formal Release, September 2, 2014
A New Crime Thriller from Award-Winning Author Libby Fischer Hellmann
A bloodstained note left for Chicago PI Georgia Davis reveals the shocking existence of a half-sister she never knew about. That sister, Savannah, is pregnant and begging for Georgia’s help. Determined to track her down, Georgia finds herself heading deep into the dangerous underworld of Chicago’s illegal sex trafficking business. She soon discovers that trafficking is just a small part of the horrifying and deadly situation in which her new sister is caught up. Even worse, as Georgia tries to extricate Savannah, she comes up against an old enemy determined to make sure neither woman will escape alive. In the fourth novel of the Georgia Davis series, she faces her toughest challenge yet—and one she might not survive.
NOBODY’S CHILD is award-winning author Libby Fischer Hellmann’s eleventh novel and fourth in the hard-boiled PI Georgia Davis series.
Praise for The Georgia Davis Series:
"Hellmann brings to life the reality of bullying among teenage girls with enough twists and turns to keep you reading. Highly recommended."
-- Starred Review, Library Journal, Easy Innocence
"There's a new no-nonsense female private detective in town: Georgia Davis, a former cop who is tough and smart enough to give even the legendary V.I. Warshawski a run for her money." --Chicago Tribune on Easy Innocence
"DOUBLEBACK moves with twists, insightful juxtapositions, and many layers. Hellmann doesn't need to "doubleback." She's indisputably crossed the line into the realm of great crime fiction writers." --Crimespree Magazine
"Hellmann writes in many genres, but her Georgia Davis series may just be one of the best crime thriller series being written today." -- The Dirty Lowdown on ToxiCity
"Hellmann writes with the economy and emotional punch of classic crime novelists like Lawrence Block. And she has created a perpetrator who is complex, realistic and completely unexpected." Peg Robarchek, on ToxiCity
Trade Paperback ISBN: 978-1-938733-46-8; $16.99
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-938733-47-5; $4.99
Audio ISBN: 978-1-938733-75-8 (Various)
Available through Ingram, Amazon, and more
FICTION/Thriller 6” x 9” – 350 pages approx
The Killer Femmes “bundle” (also available on Nook, Kobo, and iBooks) is special because I’m sharing space with some of my favorite authors in the crime fiction community. They are all terrific writers, and I gobble up their books as soon as they come out. But I realize you w might not know them… so today I’m taking a peek behind their curtains to bring you their thinking about the novel they included in the collection. I hope you’ll get to know them better. First is my contribution.
Some books come from a vision. Others from personal experience. EASY INNOCENCE came to me out of fear. My daughter was starting high school, I was recently separated, and I doubted my ability to be the single mother of a teenager. A hazing incident at a nearby high school had just occurred -- it made the national media -- and several teenagers ended up in the ER. I started to wonder what would have happened if a girl had been killed during the hazing. Why would she be murdered? Who would do it?
That’s where the story turns to teen prostitution—but with a twist. It turns out that girls from seemingly stable middle-class families—not drug addicts or runaways—were (and are) hooking for money to buy designer clothes, toys, and gadgets that their parents can’t afford. Most of it is motivated by the need to be accepted by their peers by owning shiny new toys. But what does that say about the values we're teaching our daughters? EASY INNOCENCE explores that… and more.
In late November, 2000, the Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez was found clinging to an inner tube off the coast of Florida, and there was a great controversy over whether or not he should be returned to Cuba or allowed to stay in the US. At the time, I was teaching high school, and I had many Haitian students in my classes. I listened to their stories of arriving in this country as boat people. I often wondered how Elian’s story would have played out differently had the child been Haitian. Then, one day I saw an image in my mind of my character Seychelle alone in her boat on a flat calm sea. I watched as she raised the binoculars to her eyes, and I felt her surprise when she realized she was looking at a little girl. My novel, Cross Current, is the result of what happened when this writer started wondering, “What if . . .”
I was fortunate enough to live in Japan for two wonderful years during the 1990s. Every day felt like an adventure, and I traveled throughout the country from my home base in the beach town of Hayama, an hour south of Tokyo. One of my weekly activities was ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) a very old art I studied both in teachers’ homes and the headquarters of the Sogetsu School in Tokyo. Most of the teachers were aged 40 and up, hailing from a generation who were not supposed to work outside the home. Ikebana was an area where women could achieve high “professional” rank—although men were typically school headmasters. As a result--there were some rather competitive individuals in the business.
I also wanted to write about the toxic costs of beautiful flowers shipped to us from Latin America, the world of tea ceremony, Japanese restaurants, poetry and kimono fashion. If you want to know what happens to Rei after this exciting cherry blossom spring, The Floating Girl is next in the series.
I’m Julie and I’m a serial serialist—the author of four mystery series. Evidently I have a little writing problem. The downside is no vacations—but the upside for you, I hope, is there’s a lot to choose from. The Talba Wallis PI series, represented here, is a spinoff of the Skip Langdon series, which features a New Orleans cop. Then there’s Rebecca Schwartz, the funny San Francisco lawyer, and Paul Mcdonald, the clueless almost Bay Area sometime PI. Actually, don’t choose—read them all!
If you’d like a free review copy of any of my books, write me at email@example.com . By the way, I’m a publisher as well as an author, so that goes for all the books I publish. Would you like to know about new ones? Visit our website, www.booksBnimble.com and sign up for our mailing list. I’m on Twitter as @booksBnimble, and you can find me here on FaceBook: https://www.facebook.com/julie.smith.1671897
This is the first book in the Charlie Fox series, so it seemed logical to introduce her to readers not familiar with the character right back at the beginning of her story. When you have a series character you have to decide early on if you’re going to keep that character static, unchanging from book to book—hardly even ageing—or whether to let them grow and evolve as time goes on.
Keeping the character unchanging has its advantages. New readers can pick up any book without wondering what came beforehand, or what they’ve missed. But for me as a writer I like to constantly challenge Charlie, to put her in new and difficult situations to see how she copes. And, equally, to see what experience and even damage she carries forward with her from one story to the next.
In KILLER INSTINCT, although Charlie is not yet working in close-protection, she certainly shows the early signs of what she will become. And she learns what is perhaps her most important lesson—about what she is really capable off, when her back is against the wall and a life other than her own is at stake.
We have some exciting things to tell you about later this week, including a contest where you could win $150 Gift Card to the Bookseller of your choice, and a Google Hangout that we'll be doing on July 1. As Ahhnnold says, "I'll be baaack..."
My friend and colleague, author Sujata Massey, posted this, and I know she won't mind if I share it with you...
Come in out of the rain and make yourself comfortable. I’ll hang up your wet trench coat on the rack next to Libby’s Burberry. Watch that you don’t get clipped by one of the zippers on Zoe’s motorcycle jacket. The weather is wretched–shall I make us both a cup of tea? Really? You’d rather have a bourbon?
Actually, Killer Femmes is my summer literary release–a bundle of 5 mystery novels by 5 different authors: Libby Fischer Hellman, Zoe Sharp, Christine Kling, Julie Smith and me. Coming together on this project has been really cool. It’s meant reading each others’ work and brainstorming promotion. In a way, it’s been like working in a newsroom again, something I occasionally miss.
Our collection is formally titled Killer Femmes: Five Irresistible Crime Novels From Around the World. It is ONLY in e-book form, but as you know, anyone with a laptop or mobile phone can read an epub or mobi file using free downloadable apps. The online bookshops carrying our book are Amazon, Barnes&Noble, iBooks and Kobo. We’ve priced the whole thing at 0.99 because this special release is not about getting rich–it’s about finding new readers.
One thing we have in common is that we all started our novel-writing careers working with agents and editors in New York and London. But as time passed and e-Books became popular, all five of us developed hybrid careers where we do some self-publishing on the side. Speaking for myself, it’s great because I can keep publishing different kinds of books (like some in India and others in Japan) and can also release shorter works such as novellas. PLUS I can run with spur-of-the-moment, fab collabs!
Now you know who the Killer Femmes are…what are the books like? Libby’s novel Easy Innocence is the first in the Georgia Davis PI series, featuring a smart young Chicago PI hunting for the murderer of a suburban high school girl. In Christine Kling’s Cross Current, you’ll meet Seychelle Sullivan, a sexy salvage boat captain who rescues an orphaned Haitian girl in the waters of South Florida. Zoe Sharp’s hardboiled thriller Killer Instinct introduces Charlie Fox, a beautiful but lethal ex-soldier who rights wrongs in Lancaster, England using semi-legal methods. Julie Smiths’ Louisiana Hotshot sends hip young poet Talba Wallis deep into New Orleans’ rap scene to unmask a killer.
I’m including The Flower Master, because it’s the earliest Rei Shimura book to which I hold full copyright and the book’s emphasis on the darker side of ladies works nicely with the theme of Killer Femmes. Rei Shimura is sent to flower arranging school in Tokyo and gets tangled up in the murder of a snippy teacher. Things look bad for Rei’s Aunt Norie, as well as a Korean-Japanese potter, and an elderly doyenne of the school. To break up all that estrogen, there’s a new character called Takeo, a hunky young flower arranger, who can’t decide if he despises Rei, or is falling in love. This book is one of the most light-hearted and funny in the Rei series and won the Macavity Award for Best Mystery of 2000. If you missed it first time around, now’s your chance.
I hope that Killer Femmes keeps you up late–and gets you interested in our collective work.
I was watching Saving Mr. Banks last night when I saw something I’ve never seen in a film before. It’s something I did as a little girl when I was playing by myself, and frankly, I thought it was unusual. Now I’m not so sure.
The little girl who grows up to be P.L. Travers (and wrote Mary Poppins) is playing in a field, and she’s building tiny structures and houses out of sticks and leaves, like this:
I was taken aback, because I used to march over to the school playground, where dirt berms lay adjacent to the asphalt. I would collect rocks, pebbles, sticks, and leaves, then crouch or sit on the ground and create campfires and huts, too.
Did you ever do this? Is it more common than I thought? If not, what did you do when you were outside playing by yourself?
About six months ago, the Mystery Readers Journal edited by Janet Rudolph (Btw, if you don’t get these quarterly magazines, you should) released a “Chicago Mysteries” edition. An essay I wrote—well, actually it’s a love letter—was included. I’m reprinting it here, so you understand my love affair with this city. I’m also including the video trailer for the Chicago Blues Anthology. Ben LeRoy and I shot, produced, and edited the trailer waaay back in 2007. Again, if you haven’t read the stories in the anthology, you should. They rock.
(URL for video is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=OuiNatpZPo0)
I moved to Chicago for the weather.
Um… actually, that’s a lie.
The truth is I moved to Chicago for a job. However, the weather is never far from Chicagoans’ minds. In a word, it’s frightful, especially from November through March, when the sun rarely shines and snow piles up higher than parked cars (or used to before climate change). It’s also pretty lousy in July when summer punishes the prairie with hot, arid days and nights. Nelson Algren said it best:
“Chicago is an October sort of city even in spring.”
Chicago: City on the Make
It’s an apt metaphor. Chicago is an inherent paradox: all bluster, business, even bombast on the surface; underneath, though, it’s a place where darkness creeps in around the edges. June may be busting out all over Chicago during the day, but you don’t want to be in the wrong place on a cool June night. Even during Chicago’s fleeting midsummer, there’s an uneasy recognition that as the days get shorter and the nights blacker, the dark can swallow you whole.
I’m not sure I understood the depths of that darkness when I moved here thirty-five years ago. At the time I thought Chicago was the best-kept secret in the country: a city with a stunning lakefront nestled in the shadows of skyscrapers… a terrain so flat you could ride a bike for miles… a place where the Blues poured out of bars as freely as the beer. I loved the city’s beauty, its bluntness, its energy, even its hokey parochialism, seen on TV news via Bill Kurtis’s raised eyebrow, Fahey Flynn’s equanimity, or Walter Jacobsen’s perpetual fury. The city boasted two baseball teams, a decent football team, and Michael Jordan. Second City began here. Work was king, and people got up early. They stood in line, and when you went into Marshall Field’s, someone actually asked, “May I help you?”
It’s one of the only big cities through which it’s easy to drive, and the view of the skyline driving into town from the north or south is still magnificent. For me Chicago was a place of possibilities. Despite the Old Boy’s network, I had the sense that if someone had a good idea and was willing to work for it, they could make it here. And on clear, crisp days with the city spread out before me, it seemed like a sure bet.
It wasn’t until I ventured out of my geographical comfort zone that I began to hear and see the stories Chicagoans don’t like to talk about: the despair and isolation in Uptown where diversity may be king, but most of the people are paupers… the ruthless segregation on the South Side that breaks Chicago into two separate cities… the homeless curling up in cardboard boxes on Lower Wacker Drive… the never-ending cycle of graft and political corruption that, while it has put four governors in jail, still underlies everything that gets done or doesn’t get done in Chicago.
I have felt that hopelessness first-hand, tutoring eight and nine year olds, all the while knowing that a year or two hence, the girls will be selling their bodies and the boys their souls to the gangs. Chicago can break your heart that way. People who arrive here optimistic and eager never get the break they need. Others come seeking refuge but find only terror. People with good intentions see those intentions thwarted and manipulated.
Crime-fighters are supposed to protect the vulnerable, but there’s a thin line between law enforcers and law breakers. Everyone knows someone who can fix a ticket. And most know someone who’s connected. People understand that you can indict a ham sandwich in Chicago if necessary. Everything is political, even the pizza.
Is it unique to Chicago, this struggle between the light and the dark? Of course not. Most urban areas face the same issues. But Chicago is bigger and louder and more brazen than other cities, so its struggle seems more intense, more consequential.
In fact, the noir soul—or should I say soulessness—of Chicago has settled in my soul, and I feel compelled to peel back its layers like the onion for which the city was originally named. Why? Because the struggles that define Chicago make for extraordinary conflict. And conflict is the essential ingredient of good fiction.
So my Muses lurk below the surface in the back alleys, blue-collar haunts, and dive bars of Chicago. I gravitate toward settings and time periods where dreams fail, lovers cheat, and money is short. I am drawn to the fear, the despair, the shards and detritus of those who tried and failed, and those who never had a chance. And when I hear about the heartbreak and desolation, or, occasionally, the dazzling redemption, I try to work them into my writing.
Since 2002 I have published ten novels and at least a dozen short stories that are set in Chicago. My first four crime novels, the Ellie Foreman series, are set on the affluent North Shore of Chicago, where darkness hides underneath the soccer fields and manicured lawns. But each of Ellie’s stories also takes place in a Chicago neighborhood you don’t want to end up in after dark. My subsequent three thrillers, featuring PI Georgia Davis, begin in Chicago but one ends up in Wisconsin and Arizona. My three stand-alone thrillers are largely set in Iran and Cuba, as well as Chicago in 1968, but even the foreign-set novels use Chicago as a “home base.”
It’s strange. I moved here from Washington, DC where I worked in broadcast news. Over the years I would meet transplants from Chicago who invariably told me how much I’d love it here. That I was the kind of person who would appreciate and thrive in the city. At the time I thought they were just full of hometown braggadocio, and I didn’t take them seriously. But it turned out they were right. I know without a doubt that had I not moved here, I would never have become a writer. Chicago has sucked me into its maw. It’s my kind of noir.
Confession: I am a Valentines Day cynic. Not for me the cards, roses, candy, and romantic dinners. In fact, for me Valentine’s Day is a Hallmark holiday that breaks up winter. It’s also a merchandising opportunity for florists, candy stores, restaurants, and jewelers.
I mean, really, why do we only express our love on February 14th? As decent human beings we’re supposed to do the love, support, and devotion bit every day, not just once a year. And who invented Valentine’s Day anyway? What’s so bad about being loved-up on the third of May, or the fourteenth of June? No doubt someone has the answer.
But that’s not the point of this post. If you’re a fellow cynic, this one’s for you. Call it a twisted Valentine’s Day gift if you like: a list of novels that combine love and crime. None of them are typical love stories, and there’s no mushy stuff. These are books with twisted or tainted love at their heart. So if you’re looking for a HEA (Happily Ever After), it’s time to leave the room…
You’re still here. So let’s go. Btw, this is just a small sample. I’ll need you to fill in what I’ve missed.
Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives edited by Sarah Weinman
I love this collection of short stories by female suspense writers who were once prominent but have fallen out of fashion in the past fifty years. All mini-masterpieces in ‘domestic suspense’, they weave stories of murder and betrayal centering around crimes committed in ordinary homes by ordinary people. No gangsters, criminals, spooks or spies, just a look at the dreadful deeds normal folk carry out when their safety, peace of mind, home or family, or clean kitchen is threatened.
Double Indemnity – James Cain
Double Indemnity, written in 1943, is by the journalist-turned-novelist James M. Cain. That was REALLY twisted, so I am giving a tip of the hat to noir with him. As you may already know, insurance agent Walter Huff falls truly, madly and deeply in love with Phyllis Nirdlinger, a married woman who comes to him to buy accident insurance for her husband. He’s basically a decent man. But his passion leads to his seduction, and he ultimately helps Phyllis her kill her husband for his insurance money. Tainted love at its best.
There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself – Love Stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Described as “sly and sweet, burlesque and heartbreaking” Petrushevskaya’s twisted love stories have been compared with the work of Chekhov, Tolstoy, Angela Carter and Stephen King. Expect one-night stands, awkward couplings, office romances, crushes, elopements, courtships, and infidelity, all luridly violent and about as dark as it gets. She has also written also another anthology, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales. Nasty… but in a good way.
“A Temporary Matter” is a short story that was originally published in The New Yorker but then folded into Lahiri’s anthology, Interpreter of Maladies.
The story is about Shoba and Shukumar’s spiral into darkness as they confess parts of themselves to each other during a recurring power black-out. They begin with rather superficial admissions, but as the black-out continues, their confessions turn much darker. The story has been billed as one of the most “quietly disturbing” modern love stories ever. The anthology as a whole won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award in 200. Since then it has sold a remarkable 15 million copies, was chosen by the New Yorker as Best Debut of the Year, and featured in Oprah’s Top Ten Book List.
Here’s part of what Publishers Weekly said about this tale of sexual obsession by the best-selling UK husband and wife team.
Alice Loudon has a wonderful boyfriend; a nice apartment in London; good friends; and a satisfying job… On her way to work one morning, she locks eyes with a handsome man dressed in black, and cannot get him out of her mind. Later that day, she finds him waiting for her and she plunges into an affair of such intensity that she leaves Jake, neglects her friends and her health and even puts herself in great danger. However, after she meets… women from Adam’s past, she pieces together his secrets, and sees his overwhelming love for her in a more sinister light…Every decade or so a psychological thriller appears that graphically recounts an intelligent woman’s willing sexual subjugation; this gripping novel joins that group.
What about your favorite anti-romance?
I’d love to know which twisted love and crime stories get your juices flowing, and why. Feel free to comment – let’s get a discussion going.
I started reading spy thrillers around the time of Watergate (Hmm… think there’s a connection?). The first two I read were The Wind Chill Factor by Thomas Gifford and The Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett, and I was blown away by them both.
The Wind Chill Factor – Thomas Gifford
I love this political thriller with a difference, centered around a group of Nazi survivors who viewed their WW2 defeat as a temporary setback rather than the end. They have plans. They have people waiting to spring into action in powerful corporations and capital cities across the world. And the world will soon be theirs… unless someone can stop them. Enter John Cooper, who holds a secret too explosive to be kept as he races against time to redress the balance of good against evil. Classic political suspense from an excellent storyteller.
Eye of the Needle – Ken Follett
Eye of the Needle is a spy thriller without equal. It’s set during WW2 again, this time the story of an enemy spy who knows about the Allies’ greatest secret, a ruthless aristocratic assassin called The Needle, who holds the key to Nazi success. One Englishwoman stands in his way, and she’s in danger of falling for the killer who has entered her life. Suspense, intrigue, love and danger… what else could a nice girl who does noir girl want?
All the L’s
Inspired by these two novels, I worked my way through most of the good old household name standards like John Le Carre, Robert Ludlum and Len Deighton… whom I call the “L’s”. Unsurprisingly, all the authors I read were men except for the marvelous Helen MacInnes (who is definitely not an “L”).
After a steady diet of these authors, though, they all started to sound the same: the world was about to blow up, the hero saved the world from blowing up, then he walked into the sunset with his girlfriend. Looking back now, after publishing ten books of my own, the writing—except for Le Carre—wasn’t especially gripping, either.
So I stopped reading them, and broadened my reading to include mysteries.
But that was then.
Things have changed. Like the TV show “Homeland,” thriller authors have learned to appeal to women in their stories. It’s about time—we make up 80% of the reading market. As a result, the espionage authors I enjoy most today feature strong women as protagonists and/or major characters. These protagonists do everything (and more) that men do, and there is often a complicated romantic thread that makes the stories even more compelling. Here are just a few of the authors I’m loving now.
I’ve mentioned him before, but Daniel Silva is so good it’s worth repeating. If you’ve read all his excellent Gabriel Allon books, we’re on the same page. But have you checked out his earlier novels featuring Michael Osbourne and his lawyer wife Elizabeth? They’re a bit wordier, but still excellent stories. And since the introduction of Chiarra and Dina, his women characters play more prominent roles. Frankly, he still has a way to go on that score. But his plots are grounded in reality, his prose is elegant and easy, and Gabriel Allon is a hero we can admire. His novels tend to come out in July (can you tell I’m ready now?). Here’s a link to Silva’s books on Amazon.
Christopher Reich is new to me, but he’s a seriously good New York Times best-selling writer who creates top notch stories. I’ve only read two of his so far, The Prince of Risk and Rules of Betrayal—yes, I know I read out of order—so I’m excited to dive into the rest. His pacing is excellent, his prose as well, and I enjoy the twists and switchbacks in his plotting. Most of all, though, I am fascinated by his female characters. His “Rules” series is practically a role-reversal, as you can see in Amazon’s synopsis of Rules of Deception:
“Doctor Jonathan Ransom thought he knew everything about his wife Emma until she was killed in a tragic skiing accident in the Swiss Alps. They had been married for eight years, eight blissful years in which they had travelled the world together. But the day after her death a mysterious letter addressed to her arrives at their hotel. When he opens it, his beliefs begin to unravel — fast. .
In the envelope is a railway baggage check to a suitcase that reveals an Emma far removed from the down-to-earth nurse who has been his constant and loyal companion all those years. In it he discovers the clues to a double life. Was she having an affair? When is your wife not your wife? And when she is not your wife, who is she?
In The Prince of Risk, his latest novel, a female FBI agent takes center stage. Talk about difficult to put down! Here’s a link to Christopher Reich books on Amazon.
Jason Matthews wrote the superb novel Red Sparrow, his first so far, and it has just been nominated for an Edgar. Like Reich, Matthews gives us both a male and female protagonist who, of course, become lovers. But just to throw in a major obstacle, the man is a CIA agent, but the woman is a Russian spy, who may or may not be a double agent by the end of the story. Can you say “suspense?”
The two young intelligence officers, trained in their respective spy schools, collide in a charged atmosphere of tradecraft, deception, and inevitably, a forbidden spiral of carnal attraction that threatens their careers and the security of America’s valuable mole in Moscow. Seeking revenge against her soulless masters, Dominika begins a fatal double life, recruited by the CIA to ferret out a high-level traitor in Washington; hunt down a Russian illegal buried deep in the U.S. military and, against all odds, to return to Moscow as the new-generation penetration of Putin’s intelligence service.”
But where are the female thriller writers?
Even though women are featured more prominently, there’s still a problem. As you have undoubtedly noticed, all the authors I’ve mentioned are male. So where are the female thriller writers? And are they writing strong female characters?
There’s Gale Lynds, who fell cracked the genre’s mostly-male bias when the female president of a New York publishing house agreed to buy her debut spy thriller, Masquerade, then changed her mind because “No woman could have written this novel”. This was despite the fact that Lynds used to work at a Government think-tank and had Top Secret security clearance. She eventually found another publisher for Masquerade, which became an instant bestseller. Here’s a list of her books:
There’s Stella Rimington, the first ever Director General of MI5 who worked there between 1992 and ’96 and based her books on her experiences. And how about Leslie Silbert, a Harvard graduate whose debut novel The Intelligencer connects Christopher Marlowe’s 1500s spying with an international conspiracy set today? She works as a private investigator in New York, guided by a former CIA officer mentor. Like Lynds, she walks the walk as well as talking the talk.
Sure, there are female thriller authors like Jamie Freveletti, Zoe Sharp, and yours truly, but it says something that I’m having trouble finding female authors who write spy novels. And it’s even more interesting that the three women I did mention have all worked in the field, living the life before writing about it.
What about your favorite espionage or spy novels? Especially those who feature women in key roles? I know I’ve missed some.
I just finished my latest Georgia book. Now, understand that when I say finished, I mean the first draft is done. It has been through my writers group, and right now several people whose opinions I trust are reading it. Which means it will go through several more iterations and drafts before it’s ready to be published.
Still, the heavy lifting is done. The story has been told, and my emotional investment in the book has peaked. In fact, I’ve said many times that writing a novel is like a marriage (compared to short stories, which are like an affair). This marriage has reached a plateau, and I’m ready to move on.
But not immediately. Whether it’s taken me three years or three months to write a book, I usually take a breather between novels. I realize that in some quarters that’s anathema and an author jumps right to the next novel, but I can’t do that.
I used to. When I had a contract with a Big Five publisher, I produced a book a year—no exceptions. Curiously, when I worked in TV news, I lived for deadlines. Didn’t mind them at all. But for writing fiction? Not so much. I think that’s probably because of the emotional investment we writers make in our stories. There wasn’t much of that in TV news. You got the story. Got it fast. Put it on the air. It was just news. If anything, a cerebral event.
Not so with writing fiction. I fall in love (or sometimes hate) with my characters, laugh or cry with them, fight with them, watch them as they grow, seek justice, or sometimes die on me. Not to mention Writers Insecurity, which plagues me every day. Did I use the most beautiful language I could? Could I have set the scene with more accuracy? Was the action compelling? Will anyone care about the characters besides me? So for me, and I suspect other writers too, writing is an emotional roller-coaster.
What I Do Between Books
Which is why I need a break between books. Not that I’ll fritter my time away, although I’ve been known to do that. I’ll be refueling, restocking my emotional closet. I’ll do research, catch up on my own reading, and watch tons of movies on Netflix and Amazon. I used to write a short story or two, especially to test out a character or scenario I’d been contemplating. This time, though, I’ve got too much going on: trips to Florida, Arizona, and California… and in the spring I’m going on the trip I didn’t take last year to Prague, Berlin, Vienna, and Budapest. Plus my non fiction column and blog.
Unfortunately the idyll between books doesn’t last long. After a week or so, I start to get an itchy feeling, a restlessness, that can only be scratched by—yup—diving back into writing. I’ve been lucky for the past few years in that I’ve known the gist of the next book before I’ve finished the current manuscript. In those cases, I try to open myself up to possibilities and “what-ifs.” I make notes, think about the plot points, talk to people, and brainstorm. If I don’t know what I’ll be writing next, I’ll try to open myself up to possibilities and “what-ifs.” I make notes, think about the plot points, talk to people and brainstorm. ☺
So what’s next?
My next thriller will be an Ellie Foreman mystery—she’s been on vacation for the past 5 years—and I am eager to get back to my old friend. It’s going to be an espionage thriller with a story in the present as well as a parallel story from the 1930s. Naturally, they will intersect. I think I know how, but things always have a way of changing.
Bear in mind, though, that the book you’re not working on is always the best thing since sliced bread, while the book you are working on is the “blankety-blank manuscript.” So Ellie is calling, beckoning, and luring me with her siren song. And I’ll let her seduce me… as soon as I finish revising Georgia.
What about you? How long a break—if at all—do you take between books? Reading or Writing?
"Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader - not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon." E. L. Doctorow
I love that definition. Sensory detail succeeds when a writer uses the senses of touch, taste, sight, smell and sound to create a visceral, emotional reaction from the reader. In a way, you could think of sensory details as a black and white movie. Without them the film may still be complete, logical, even compelling. But when you add them, everything turns to stunning color.
Despite the fact that sensory details are an important tool, if you take them too far you drift from storytelling into prose or even poetry. So how much is enough? Can you pin it down to a certain number per page, per paragraph, per scene, per chapter? And is such a thing as too much sensory detail, If so,how do you know?
Other Authors on sensory detail
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose is a great place to start. (Btw, I don’t normally suggest writers read books on writing—I think writers should write. But I make an exception for her.) An excerpt from a review in The Guardian, a respected British newspaper, says:
“Where this book really takes off is with Prose's quite brilliant analysis of the power of detail in fiction. Turning to Kafka, she unpicks the famous opening of The Metamorphosis to show us that what makes us believe that Gregor Samsa really has turned into an insect is not the description of his armour-plated back but the picture that he has hung on his wall, of a lady in a fur stole. "Believing in this picture, we begin to believe in Samsa and in the possibility that he could turn into a bug." It is the ordinary that makes us believe the impossible.”
So, less is more. To back up her message, in chapter eight Prose explains how just one or two important details can make “a much more memorable impression than a barrage of description”.
In her book Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway says, “If you write abstractions or judgments, you are writing an essay, whereas if you let us use our senses and form our own interpretations, we will be involved as participants in a real way.”
True, but a post by scientist turned science writer Jyoti Madhusoodanan on The Open Notebook site says you can mix abstract ideas and sensory detail. “Memorable stories captivate not only because they hold our intellectual attention, but also because they grab us by the senses, weaving smell, touch and taste through abstract concepts.”
And according to C. S Lakin, “Novelists can evoke smells and sensations in a way a movie can’t. Sure, a movie can show a plate of mouthwatering pizza, and that visual can set out stomach growling. Yet, a novelist can express from the character’s POV how that pizza smells and looks and makes her feel. If done well, our mouths will water as well while we read the passage, and we may even need to get up and raid the refrigerator.”
Each writer above adds something important to the mix. You don’t want readers to drown in fine detail, or lose the plot because you are too busy describing the sunset. And yet, there are times when an abstract idea should be expanded through sensory detail. And I’m all for raiding the refrigerator.
So... how do I use them?
First and foremost, whenever I find myself telling a character’s thoughts or emotions, I try to show them instead, using sensory details. Instead of saying, “she was confused” I’ll change it to something like “She tilted her head to the side” or “Her brow furrowed, and she took a few aimless steps.”
OK, that’s pretty common. Most writers do the same thing.
Second, I use sensory details to support action and plot. When lyrical writing is used out of context, it’s irrelevant. But when it’s germane to the action, it can bring the scene to life. For example, if someone’s about to get shot, who cares what color the flowers are? But if the flowers are poisonous and someone is about to eat one, you can afford to wax a little lyrical.
Third, occasionally I’ll use sensory details as a metaphor to suggest a deeper meaning for the reader. As an example, using a brief but powerful description of a storm to hint that stormy emotional times are on the way. A cautionary note: you need to take care that you don’t overdo it.
Finally, I use them to make a setting more intense and vivid. Maybe it’s the smell of woodsmoke on a fall day. (Smell is probably the most underrated sensory tool, I think). Or the fishy goop in the waves crashing onto the shore. Again, it’s a balancing act how far to go.
How much/how often?
How many descriptive details can you use in a particular scene, page, or paragraph? There are no hard and fast rules. Sometimes you only need one beautifully chosen detail in a scene, particularly in genre novels. Other times you’ll want to explore all five senses. But when it’s the “first” time I’m dealing with a significant situation, action, place, or character, I try for three sentences of description, each using a different sense, each a little more distinctive than the one before. And when I can make that third phrase a simile or metaphor that reveals something unique about the character or situation, I’m a happy camper.
As I said, though, there are no rules. Here is one of my favorite passages in crime fiction. It uses sensory details (and rhythm… and language… ) in every sentence.
"I like bars just after they open for the evening. When the air inside is still cool and clean and everything is shiny and the barkeep is giving himself that last look in the mirror to see if his tie is straight and his hair is smooth. I like the neat bottles on the bar back and the lovely shining glasses and the anticipation. I like to watch the man mix the first one of the evening and put it down on a crisp mat and put the little folded napkin beside it. I like to taste it slowly. The first quiet drink of the evening in a quiet bar—that's wonderful." Raymond Chandler, THE LONG GOODBYE
What, Me Worry?
Btw, most of the time I can’t come up with every detail on a first draft. When I’m concentrating on developing the story, cogent words or images are sometimes the last thing on my mind. I’m learning not to worry about it. In fact, I know some writers who don’t even try to add sensory details until they’re revising. Bottom line: it doesn’t matter when in the writing process you do it. As long as you do.
What do you think? Do you have any rules? Or do you just let them emerge when they do?
I’ve been in a writing group for 16 years. I joined way before I was published, and they deserve most of the credit for the fact that I did get published. It was in my group that I learned most of the craft of writing crime fiction as well as what works and what doesn’t. And while there are certainly times I haven’t brought my best thinking to the group, it has become a good way for me to ‘give’ back to other members in the group.
Why? You see, most of the members in our group have had exceptional success. After being with us for several years, over 75% have inked publishing deals on their own. Of course, some leave the group after they publish their first book, but others stick around for decades. I can say this: If you stick with us, you probably will get published.
Still, a writing group isn’t for everyone. How do you decide whether or not to join an existing writing group or even form your own? The most important question to ask yourself honestly is whether you can take constructive criticism.
If you have a chip on your shoulder, or you think your prose is perfect, don’t join a group. It won’t go well. The following is a true story. When I first joined the group, It became quickly evident how little I really knew about the craft of fiction writing.
Our group works like this: everyone brings 8-10 double spaced pages, usually sequential, and we read them to the rest of the group. Everyone takes turns reading, and while one writer is reading, the rest of us take notes.
I’ll explain later why we read out loud. Anyway, after I finished reading my pages, the group started in on me. EVERYONE had something critical to say, and usually two or three different somethings. When they were finally finished and I’d finished furiously noting down everything they said, I thumbed through my pages and said, “I don’t think you guys missed a single line.”
Sensitive types might find that daunting or upsetting. Others might find criticism makes them angry. But I loved it. How often do you get personalized critique? The group members took the time and effort to listen and comment in fine detail. Weeks of the same process eventually helped make me a better writer. I learned point of view, why to delete adverbs, the way to transition between chapters, the basics of police procedure, and much, much more.
On the other hand, when, two years later, after three unpublished novels, I finally discovered Ellie Foreman and brought in the first chapter of what would become AN EYE FOR MURDER, there was absolute silence after I finished reading. I was sure I’d done something wrong. This was it, I was thinking. They’re going to kick me out.
Instead, as I looked around, the woman who’d been hardest on me, said, “That was amazing. You found your voice.” Her comment is still the most flattering thing anyone has ever said to me about my writing.
So, in the spirit of all of us becoming better writers, here’s what our group does, and why. As long as you can take the rough with the smooth, I think these guidelines will provide the foundation for a long-lived strong writing group.
1. Create a good mix of writers but in the same genre
A mix of men, women, different ages and occupations works best. But, and this is important, all the writers in a group should be in the same or similar genre.
Why? First, a mix of different types of people means you will get a variety of opinions, which is more useful than one-dimensional criticism from a bunch of people who all think the same way. We have a criminal defense lawyer in our group who lets us know when we get court procedure wrong. We also have a former priest, a police officer, an environmental lawyer, and a former bus driver.
Second, while I continue to think crime fiction is one of the most flexible, and interesting genres around, there are conventions in a mystery or a thriller that are unique to the genre. Mixing science fiction and horror in would muddy the waters a bit— their conventions are slightly different. And romance? Well, that would change the dynamics even more. So I recommend you stick to the mystery, crime, and thriller genres for your group.
2. Read aloud
Reading aloud brings a story dramatically to life. It helps you spot areas that don’t flow as well as others, and it helps identify inconsistencies—there’s no place to hide. Plus, there should be a built-in rhythm that surfaces when you read aloud that you might miss if you’re reading on the page. If it’s not there, you need to tend to your prose. For example, run-on sentences are clearly “outted” when you read aloud. If you can’t finish a sentence in one breath, it’s too long.
Finally, reading from fresh material means the listener experiences them for the first time, and can react honestly without any preconceptions. In other words, you benefit from people’s gut feelings.
3. The basis of critiquing should be “What Stopped Me…”
Often when you start out in a group, you know something someone reads is wrong, but you don’t know why. That’s okay. Usually someone in the group will know why, but if no one does, it doesn’t matter. We just know that it stopped the reader. And that is an excellent starting point. Any time a reader is taken out of the story, whether it’s due to purple prose, point of view mistakes, or run on sentences, the writer needs to know that. If not, the writer may lose the reader permanently.
So we tell our members, just say “A and B stopped me.” If you know why, great. If not, it’s still a valuable tool.
Btw, if more than one member of the group calls attention to the same thing by saying “I have that too” or “that was what I was going to say”, it’s a pretty good indication the writer SHOULD revise that passage.
4. The person being critiqued should NOT defend themselves
You’re not in a group to defend your writing. You’re in the group to improve it. So becoming defensive or trying to convince other members why the passage was there or why it should remain isn’t going to help your writing. It’s only going to produce tension and stress. As the person being critiqued, you are totally free NOT to take other members’ advice. It’s your book. But listen to what they are telling you. They’re not trying to sabotage you. They’re trying to nurture you. They may not express themselves as nicely as you want, but arguing just isn’t productive. Sometimes a writer in our group will say “Thanks. I’ll take it under advisement.” That usually means they don’t want to change the passage. OK. As we say, it’s your book.
5. Park your prejudices at the door
You need an open mind. You might not like female detectives, hate too much violence and gore or dislike it when people write in the first person. You might love legal thrillers or hate serial killers. But you are not there to express your personal prejudices, you’re there to help other writers become the best they can. In fact, if your writing group is working as it should, everyone will feel safe to put forward their ideas and opinions without being shot down, or shooting the author down in flames.
Do you belong to a writing group?
Are you in a writing group? If so, what is your most important tip for success? And how do you find the experience?
Not finished yet, but I finally did settle down with Red Sparrow. It's pretty good... a CIA male agent and a female Russian agent are trying to recruit each other. Nice writing.
I like that my latest release, Havana Lost, hit the shelves around the same time a little miracle happened. After decades without an English language bookstore, one has opened in Havana. It’s the first one since the revolution.
Does the new store, aptly named Cuba Libro, mark the start of Cuba’s eventual re-entry into the English-speaking world? Or is it just a coincidence? Only time will tell. But I was floored and excited by the news.
A mini Cuba Libro revolution
The new bookstore, which incorporates a café and literary salon, is run an expat originally from New York, Connor Gorry, who is married to a Cuban and has lived there for years. She confirms that Cuba Libro does not offer counter-revolutionary literature, but points out that the books currently in the store do include views not usually expressed on the island, where almost all the media output is controlled by the government.
As well as back issues of the New Yorker and Rolling Stone magazine, the controversial ‘Dancing with Cuba’ by the Mexican journalist Alma Guillermoprieto is on the shelves, a warts and all memoir of her experiences as a ballet dancer in 1970s Cuba. Just one example of a book that, not so long ago, would probably have been considered too dangerous to be read.
Supported by a used book sales license
Cuba Libro operates on a special used book sales license and runs as a kind of co-operative, selling donated books, and because of laws both in the US and Cuba, it is owned by Cubans, not Ms. Gorry.
Cuba has a 100% literacy rate, and literally millions of Cubans flock to the annual Havana Book Festival each February to buy Spanish-language books. (I was there in 2012 with my daughter). But English is becoming increasingly important for Cubans where it is essential for careers in computing, medicine and tourism.
English classes and library services
The new store plans to hold English classes, and people who cannot afford to buy books will be able to borrow them. And because it’s so difficult to import books into Cuba, Connor’s team are asking diplomats, tourists, and other foreigners in the country to help her build the store’s stock through donations, focusing on quality literature.
I have already exchanged emails with Connor, and have sent her a copy of Havana Lost – it seemed appropriate. But it takes forever for something to get to Cuba, and then there are the inspectors. The book might arrive safely, it might not. Either way, I’ve started to daydream about going back to the Havana Book Fair one day to sign copies of my book at her booth.
Good luck, Connor!
I've started about 5 or 6 books recently, and can't get invested in any of them. And they're all great novels:
AND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED by Khaled Hosseini
RED SPARROW (I am getitng fonder of that) Jason Matthews
SWEET TOOTH by Ian McEwan
REDBREAST Jo Nesbo
The SECRET KEEPERS Kate Morton
THE CUCKOOS CALLING (We all know who wrote that...)
It must be the moon or the tides or something... because these are all acclaimed books...
Does that ever happen to you?
Havana Lost has launched at last. Feedback has started to roll in. And I’m fascinated by how many readers say they are ‘disturbed’ by Frankie Pacelli’s transformation from a young vulnerable likeable girl into—well (spoiler alert averted), what she ultimately became.
My response? She had to.
When you lose the things you love most, it turns your life into a completely different direction. It changes the way you feel about your world. One day the future looks clear and rosy, the next day all hell lets loose and your dreams are destroyed. Today you have a home, a family, a lover, support, freedom. Tomorrow it’s all gone. One minute you’re good. The next day your world falls apart and you’re on the road to something else.
The noir side of revolution
In that sense Havana Lost is the noir version of A Bitter Veil. Everyone who reads Veilloves the fact that Anna is brave, courageous, clear-sighted, and tolerant. In other words, she is a heroine. Some of the other characters in the novel, characters whom you’d least expect, turn out to be heroic as well. In Havana Lost, however, it’s the opposite. People you might want to root for turn ugly. And misfortune claims some of the “good guys” who are or could be heroes.
The unpredictable effects of extreme conflict
That was no accident. The whole point of my so-called ‘Revolution Trilogy’ (Set the Night on Fire, A Bitter Veil, and Havana Lost) is that extreme conflict turns some people into heroes, others into cowards… even evil-doers. That’s what revolution does. It’s not a tidy package where the men (and women) in white hats overcome the black-hatted oppressors and everyone rides into a Technicolor sunset. However noble the cause, however positive the eventual outcome, the revolutionary process is messy, ugly, chaotic, brutal.
People aren’t clear cut either. Very few of us are wholly evil or wholly good. Most of us come in shades of gray: we respond well to some challenges, badly to others. We make good and bad judgment calls. We choose the wrong and right sides, love the wrong and right people, make mistakes, change our minds, change direction, fall by the wayside, commit random acts of cruelty, as well as bravery, honor and valor.
At the same time, some of us are more resilient than others. Some bend, others break. Most of us muddle along, doing our best to cope with a completely unpredictable future. And we never really know how we react to disaster until it strikes. Would you stay strong or go under? How much pain, danger and loss would it take to drive you to acts of which you’re not proud?
Are you ‘disturbed’?
Actually, I am pleased people are disturbed by Frankie’s evolution, and I’m glad readers are disturbed by the behavior of other characters in Havana Lost who don’t react as expected. I enjoy surprising readers, and they seem to enjoy being surprised. In my view that’s what thriller writing is all about. The unpredictable is more thrilling than the predictable.
If you want a predictable thriller whose characters behave consistently throughout the story arc, step away from the ‘buy’ button! But if you want to read a thriller whose characters are as flawed and human as you or I, you can pick up a copy of Havana Lost here and lose yourself in something subtler.
How would you react if you were Frankie?
Let’s do a straw poll. How do you think you would react in Frankie’s circumstances – would you change and if so, how?