Thursday, May 17, 2012

Turkish Oddities

As I traveled through Turkey, I ruminated about the plot for The Man on the Istanbul Train. I knew I'd need to go to the Haydarpasa station, take photos, and swipe a train schedule. I knew I'd need to take notes on the tram lines in Istanbul and on any archaeological sites we encountered in the Anatolian Plateau. I didn't know the Egyptian Spice Market would play such an important role so I didn't take nearly enough photos there. (Thanks, YouTube)

I did get some great shots of things I'll bet you've never seen.

How about an exploding cucumber?  Ecballium elaterium grows wild there. If you touch its spiny seed pod with a credit card or something it explodes, sending a poisonous mixture of seeds and gunk about 10 ft into the air. I got a glob on my shirt.

How about a huge, disc-shaped boulder tucked into a slot in an underground city? In Cappacodocia, we walked through the narrow passages of an entire, multilevel underground city used by early Christians when their new religion was still outlawed. These boulders, rolled across the passages would wall invaders out, or maybe in, horrors! Guaranteed. It reminded me of a scene from Indiana Jones. In this photo you have to look closely at the top center and find the curved edge of one on the left side of the passage.

When they want to unwind the nearly invisible silk threads from a cocoon, the rug weavers dunk the cocoons in hot water, then poke at the mass with a sort of whisk broom, The broom picks up several dozen threads which are then spun into a . . . thread. A bigger thread, but still almost invisible. They use natural plant dyes, which fed beautifully into my story because my protagonist, Lacy Glass, is a botanist who specializes in plant pigments.

Have you learned something today?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Cost of ePubbing

Five minutes ago I put The Man on the Istanbul Train on Amazon Kindle. It will be "In Review" for a day or so, then "Live" and available for $3.99. This morning's action cost me nothing, but getting it to this point has cost me $1500. I'm posting this for other writers, not for sympathy.
You don't have to spend a penny to ePub but the end product will likely show it. Here's how my expenses break down:  Editing-$900, Cover design-$400, Formatting-$200.
I did not skimp. I retained the best editor I know and the best cover designer I know. You gets what you pays for. The result is a novel I'm proud of, but which will need to sell for some months before I break even.
Authors? Readers? Leave me a comment. Worth it?

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Preparing for a long flight

I fly to South Africa next Saturday. Well, actually Saturday and Sunday because I leave Washington on Saturday evening, change planes in Amsterdam Sunday morning, and arrive in Capetown Sunday evening, 23 hours later. A flight of this duration can bring on deep vein thrombosis (DVT), dehydration, red eyes, jet lag, and increased susceptibility to scores of airborne diseases. So I'm girding my loins for the long haul.

Why can't it be like it used to be? Back in the 60s, it was fun and luxurious and cheap. Was it really? In the 60s you could fly from New York to San Francisco in 6 hours for about $326. Your seat probably boasted a 34" pitch. That's the distance from your seat to the one in front of you.

Today, New York to San Francisco, Economy, will set you back about $550. The flight still takes about 6 hours and your seat will have a 31" to 33" pitch. You could fly business class and get a seat with 37" pitch, but that'll cost about $3150.

Wait a minute! Corrected for inflation, that $326 in 1965 would be $2230 today. Not much less than business class today and your seat would have been considerably smaller. And that $550 we pay today would have been $80 back then. So airline prices haven't really increased over the past forty years or so. It's just that, in the 60s all seats were like the ones in the front of the plane today. So how did the average person swing it? They didn't. They went Greyhound.

Are the seats really that much smaller or are we just larger?

Let's not talk about that. Preparing for this flight, I have purchased compression socks, an inflatable neck pillow, and a Nada chair (a device that moves the stress on your back to your knees.) I'm going to hydrate like hell ahead of time, and I've loaded my iPod with sleepy-time music. Forget the melatonin pills. I have them but they don't work on me.  I will blog occasionally while away and let you know whether any of this stuff worked.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Guest blogger today is mystery author, Susan Oleksiw.

Beginning the Next Book

Over the last few years I’ve become very conscious of the little habits I have that get me into the next book. I don’t like to think that I rely on these—it makes me sound superstitious, but in all honesty writers often are superstitious. We have our little tics, like wearing our favorite yellow sweater when we write to our agent, or only using a certain kind of notebook (I favor Moleskins) when we travel. My habits when I begin a new mystery make sense, but they are compulsions nonetheless and help me get into the story.

I like to bring out a few photographs of the area where I’ve set the story, and in particular a house of other location that I plan to use. This is often a place I have seen a number of times and I know who is going to live in it, and which important scenes will take place there. Using real locations is one of the ways I ground a story. I believe strongly that something in a story must be real—a location, a particular crime or event, a character drawn from real life. A story that is one hundred percent fiction will feel thin. I use real locations and places to give the story greater heft.

Sometimes a story idea includes questions I can’t answer, and I head to the library (or the Internet) to do some basic research. This impetus to get answers must be controlled, or I’d spend my entire life doing research and never writing. I do enough to answer my basic question (when did a particular historical event occur; how does a particular bit of machinery work), knowing I can go back later if necessary.

The beginning of the story is also not quite the beginning—it is, for me, the odd bits of dialogue and visuals that start popping into my head. A character who is as yet unnamed, and barely visualized, will suddenly start spouting lines of dialogue or revealing phrases or expressions. I don’t know yet where they will go in the story, but I know I will use them. I jot them down in the file I’ve set up for this book. I call this part “keeping the story warm.” It’s one thing to get an idea—writers get those all the time. But getting an idea that keeps returning again and again means you’ve got a good one, one that will work. And once that becomes evident, the characters start emerging, throwing out their sparks in lines of dialogue or sudden tumbles into a crowd, or some other distinctive act or behavior. These too I write down. Sometimes I only have an impression of what a scene will be—one character stops at a fish store but instead of buying fish overhears a conversation that changes what she plans to do, or the fish seller warns her against a particular purchase. There’s more to the scene, but I won’t know that until much later. Right now I’m just recording the odd bits that come to me, knowing their place will become evident later.

After a few days or even weeks of this, I understand what the story is about. I have a sense of the whole. This can’t be forced, or induced. When I have a vision of the entire story, I write a single paragraph of the story’s “aboutness.” Sometimes this reads like a very brief plot summary, and if so, then I set it aside. The story isn’t quite ready. But usually, the paragraph is a brief synopsis of the entire novel. It’s important for me to remind myself here that this is a beginning, a vision of the distance to be traveled, and it does not preclude changes, additions, or discoveries that will lead me to rewrite that paragraph as I move along. The sense of the “aboutness” of a story gives me something coherent to work within, but it is malleable.

Will all this preparation, the story is warm and growing. The characters are alive in my imagination every day, jostling for attention, eager to get into life. This is when I begin writing, which for me sometimes feels like a form of transcribing. I know the characters, I know much of what they’re up to, and I know where they live. The rest is discovery.

Susan Oleksiw’s next book, The Wrath of Shiva: An Anita Ray Mystery (Five Star/Gale, Cengage), will be available in June 2012. She is also the author of the Mellingham series featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva, who first appeared in Murder in Mellingham (1993). Her Reader’s Guide to the Classic British Mystery (1988) is, well, a classic.

Your first narrator has a catchy slogan this month. "Thank your first narrator." They're referring, of course, to Mother's Day this Sunday, and suggesting that an audiobook would be a nice gift.
This started me thinking about mothers (and fathers) as first narrators. As a former public school teacher, I believe one of the most important things a parent can do is read to their child. And you can't start too early. A kid doesn't have to be old enough to understand the words to enjoy sitting on Mom or Dad's lap and listening to a story. It establishes a link in the child's mind between a book and comfort. This becomes a love for books which tends to translate into success in school.
My mother sat on the sofa, my brother on one side me on the other, and read us bedtime stories. I'll never understand why she loved reading us The Five Little Peppers (boring) and hated Winnie the Pooh. I loved Winnie the Pooh, but she wouldn't read it unless I insisted. It's taken years of therapy, but I have my own copy now.
That said, I know a lot of my friends listen to audiobooks on road trips. It's a safe alternative to texting or phoning. But I've discovered a new use for writers or those who'd like to become writers. I don't know how it works, but listening to a book on audio helps me to see its construction better. Maybe it's because my mind isn't occupied with turning pages and not dropping the book. I'm not good at multi-tasking.
If you've any thought of buying or gifting an audiobook, may I suggest the newly released Death on the Aegean Queen, narrated by the wonderful Karen Krause, or Death of an Obnoxious Tourist, narrated by the equally wonderful Connie Terwilliger? They're on iTunes,, and Amazon.
And if you know anyone expecting, buy them a book for the new baby.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Do you need an editor?


I don't care how smart you are or how brilliant your use of the language may be, you need an editor. I consider myself  pretty adept at English grammar, punctuation, and sentence construction. My mother was an English teacher and she had thumb screws at home for any child caught committing a grammatical error.

Look at this randomly selected page from my latest book, The Man on the Istanbul Train after my brilliant editor, Chris Roerden, got through with it. I thought it was perfect when I sent it to her. She strikes out superfluous words, reorders clumsy phrases, and reminds me to make ellipses non-breaking. Most people don't know what a non-breaking ellipsis is, let alone how to avoid breaking one.

But more important, an editor sees where you need a sensory image, where a character isn't behaving as that character would, and where someone's using a cell phone he lost in the last chapter. An editor will tell you you have too much backstory when your best friend won't.

I think we, who are moving into the world of epub, must be careful. When the publisher of my Dotsy Lamb Travel Mysteries, Five Star/Cengage, produces a book, they do the editing for me. I pay nothing for that service. Writers, let's not let the standard slip. Cough up the money and get your book edited. Polish it until it shines.

BTW, the preceding blog wasn't edited by anyone.

Friday, May 4, 2012

New ITW Anthology: Love is Murder

The International Thriller Writers association is one of the best resources out there for writers of mysteries and thrillers. I'm tempted to call it our best-kept secret, but it isn't a secret. It's easy to join and the benefits are many. So I'm excited to tell you about their new Anthology, Love is Murder, not to be confused with the annual mystery conference of the same name, which is a fun weekend, by the way.

You can read all about it at:

You get 30 original short stories by wonderful writers like Lee Child, Heather Graham, D.P. Lyle, William Bernhardt, Andrea Sokoloff and (Golly. Now that I've started naming names, I hate to stop because I'll be leaving out  brilliant writers.) This volume is edited by Sandra Brown and if you pre-order by May 28 through any of the sites on the link above, you'll also get a free excerpt of Sandra's soon-to-be-published, Low Pressure.

You may want to check it out. I certainly will.