Photo from World War II: A soldier returns home



Maurice-soldier-1941-smallerForWebMy wife and I found this picture from World War II—it’s 75 years old! I wish I had found this photo years ago, before I published the first edition of Army of Worn Soles.

This is a picture of my father-in-law, Maurice Bury, on the day he returned to his village of Nastaciv, Ukraine, after escaping from the German POW camp in late 1941. The woman beside him is his cousin, Tekla, who was named after her aunt, Maurice’s mother. Tekla was the first family member who met Maurice on his return home.

Here’s the story as told by Maurice, years ago

Even though it was wartime, the market bustled as farmers sold the last of their harvests: corn, wheat, parsley, apples, pears, onions and beets. Townspeople pressed through the stalls, haggling over vegetables, chickens and animal feed. Behind a stall selling eggs stood a slim woman whose dark brown hair threatened to burst the knot in her kerchief.

Maurice tapped her on the shoulder. “Hello, Tekla.”

The woman spun to face him, expecting trouble. She glared at him for several seconds before her eyes widened. “Maurice? My god, I cannot believe it.” She wrapped her arms around him and squeezed tight. She had to lean over her table of eggs, but she held on. Maurice hugged back, wary of knocking eggs down. When she let him go, she looked at him as if she were afraid he was about to vanish again. “What are you doing here?”

Tekla was his cousin, daughter of Myhailo Kuritsa, his mother’s brother. She had been named after her aunt.

“I’m coming home. Can you give me a ride?” he asked.

She threw her arms around him again. “Of course, Maurice, of course. Oh, I can’t believe it. We heard you’d been…been killed.” She held him at arm’s length. “You’re so thin. You must have been starving.” She called to the woman in the stand next to hers, who had been staring at them. “Hanyah, please, sell the eggs for me.”

“Of course, dear. Take the young man home and give him something to eat. Right away,” Hanyah said. She was older than Maurice’s mother, and Maurice did not know her, but she smiled at him as if he were a grandchild she had not seen for a year.

Tekla re-tied her scarf and pulled on her gloves, took Maurice by the hand and led him out of the market. “My wagon is over here,” she said, then stopped. “You know what we should do, Maurice? Let’s get a picture together.”

“Can’t we…”

Army of Worn Soles cover

Army of Worn Soles

But Tekla interrupted, took his hand and led him through the market to a small shop, where she paid a few rubles for a picture. The photographer had Maurice sit on a stool in front of a cloth draped against the wall, and posed Tekla standing next to him. Tekla could not stop smiling, nor babbling.

“I can’t wait to see Auntie’s face when she sees you standing on her doorstep. Oh, and my father, too. It’s too bad your father is not here, Maurice. He would be so relieved, so happy to know you’re home safe. Are you sure this is my better side?” She asked the photographer as he adjusted the camera. He smiled, nodded and calmly pressed the shutter.

“The print will be ready on Thursday,” the photographer said and handed Tekla a ticket. “Welcome back, friend,” he said to Maurice.

The print promised for that Thursday, 75 years ago, is the one at the top of this post, and we found it in a box of Maurice’s old things in our basement last week.

I am thinking of incorporating it in a new edition of Army of Worn Soles, or maybe I’ll use it as part of the cover design for an Eastern Front trilogy boxed set.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Live blogging from my event



 

 Here I am at the Coles The Book People location in the Billings Bridge plaza in Ottawa for my second-ever book signing event. On the table, I have the three paperbacks in my Eastern Front trilogy: Army of Worn Soles, Under the Nazi Heel and Walking Out of War. 

Traffic isn’t all that heavy—it’s mid-day at the beginning of what looks like a beautiful long weekend. This might have worked better outdoors.  

It’s interesting to watch the shoppers go by. They seem to come in waves. The babies come in groups—one moment, the mall is quiet; the next, three squalling babies in a phalanx of strollers are crowding the mall in front of my table. 

Most people just walk by, not even looking. They’re not here for books. Some people slow down and look at the books on my table. Occasionally, one will stop and talk.

People seem delighted to meet authors, and eager to share what they know about either the war, history or even books. And a few buy books. One lady even bought the whole set, since I’m offering a special price for all three.

It’s a very different experience than marketing e-books online. I like talking with people interested in the subject, or history. And the tactile aspect of a paper book, rather than the virtuality of e-books, well, satisfying.

I may try this again some time.

Writing tips: What is style?



Creative Commons: dbdbrobot

I’ve been thinking a lot about writing style lately. Actually, I’ve thought a lot about it for a long time — as long as I’ve been writing, which is most of my life.

I find that my response to a book or to a writer, no matter what the subject is, depends a lot on style. I like an author who is original, who does not just try to copy a best-seller or the current trend in books you can pick up at the drug store.

But there is also something else that determines how well I like a story, something about the way the writer uses language.

I’ll give you an example: Margaret Atwood is generally accepted as one of today’s greatest writers. She has written a great many books in of a range of types — I am trying to avoid using the word “style” in different ways here — and, it could be argued, in different genres. Alias Grace could be called “historical fiction,” set in 19th century Upper Canada and based loosely on real events. The Handmaid’s Tale is a set in a dystopian future and, while it doesn’t have a lot of sci-fi tropes, it won the Arthur C. Clarke award for best science fiction.

Atwood is both accomplished and unarguably a master of the writing craft, but while she writes about many different subjects, there is something about her manner of writing that puts me off a little. The only word I can use to describe it is heavy. Her writing is heavy — I don’t read it quickly or easily; on the other hand, I can’t put it down once I start, either.

One writer whose style I really admire is Mark Helprin’s, particularly in his Winter’s Tale, a fantasy set in New York City. In addition to his ability to meld fantastic elements, humour and action into a setting simultaneously believable and fantastic, Helprin also manages to be very descriptive as well as economical with prose. It’s as good an example of magical realism as any I’ve ever read.

But what is it that determines the style? Word choice? Sentence length? Description? Active voice? Those are just a few items in the writer’s toolbox. Also critical are creating realistic, believable and interesting characters, pacing, mixing action and pathos and so much more.

The accepted good

There is a tension between popularity and what is accepted as “good writing” by the publishers and the leading literary critics of any time.

For instance, today, “good” writing is usually characterized by lean prose, active voice, realistic dialogue and sparse description. Writing coaches keep advising us to avoid adverbs in favour of more precise verbs, except when it comes to describing dialogue. We should only use “said,” and not try to change that around with “exclaimed,” or “replied.”

Crime novelist Elmore Leonard came out with ’s 10 rules of writing a couple of years ago; he admitted that he was at least a little facetious at the time, but now he says he seriously believes them. Okay. And Leonard is a great writer, and changed the literary world, and sells zillions of copies, okay, okay — but is he the arbiter of the English language, now? What if something happens in a sudden way? Elmore, what is wrong with the word “suddenly”?

The exemplars of great writing are still supposed to be Fitzgerald and Hemingway. I love their work, but again — should we all try to emulate their styles?

On the other side of that tension is writing that flies in the face of those rules, yet sells millions of copies. The current target of criticism is EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey. Here’s a passage:

I watch José open the bottle of champagne. He’s tall, and in his jeans and T-shirt, he’s all shoulders and muscles, tanned skin, dark hair, and burning dark eyes.

Descriptive, yes. Also clichéd — it’s been done so many times. “Burning dark eyes”? While we can all imagine what those must look like, couldn’t the author have thought of something original?

And yet, millions of readers ate that up, burning eyes and all. Did the burning eyes cause heartburn, I wonder?

Description

Writing coaches also tell us not to use too much description. Hemingway and Fitzgerald did not describe what their protagonists looked like. Okay, but Dashiel Hammet did.

I agree that too much description can get in the way of the story. There is a lot of material for people to read, that communication of any kind must compete for an audience’s attention with so much more material than there ever was before, so we writers should always try to get as much information across as efficiently as possible — fewer words, more information. I get that.

Efficiency is the goal! (Photo: The Pug Father/Creative Commons )

But we do need to describe some things, some times. And occasionally, an adverb is the best way to do that. See?

Who says so?

Watch this space. Last week, children’s- and middle-grade author Roger Eschbacher opined about writing style. In future, other bestselling authors will weigh in on the subject. So watch this space, and leave lots of comments and questions for the guests, please. Maybe we can finally determine exactly what writing style is, after all.

How you can win four mystery novels



But first, the third book in the trilogy looms

Walking Out of War, the third volume in the trilogy that began with Army of Worn Soles in 2014 and followed with Under the Nazi Heel in 2016.

ArmyofWornSoles-smallerRegular readers of this blog will know that I had promised to publish Volume 3 by the end of last year. But it just plain took longer than I anticipated.

The good news is that the outstanding editor, Gary Henry, has done his usual great work on it. The matchless David C. Cassidy has delivered another stunning cover concept and is now working on the final design.

It shouldn’t be much longer before you can read the final stage in the story of Maurice Bury’s war. In fact, the almost-final version is in the hands of some faithful, helpful beta readers, and if any readers want an Advance Review Copy (ARC) and are willing to write an honest review on Amazon, Goodreads or any other book review site, I’ll be happy to send one. Just use the contact button on this blog.

What took so long?

Maurice Bury after the war.

Maurice Bury after the war.

The journey to publication started many years ago, when I began talking to Maurice about his wartime experiences. I thought, “This would make a great book.”

Writing the story, though, took years. I ran into a real roadblock almost at the outset, when I was trying to create an outline. I thought for a while of writing parallel timelines, comparing various parts of Maurice’s journey by juxtaposing them in prose. I wrestled with the order literally for months, writing separ
ate chapters and then transitions that I ended up throwing away. Finally, a friend suggested that I just write it as it happened. In other words, linearly. First one thing happened, then the next, and so on.

It’s amazing how we need another party to tell us the most obvious things.

That was when I decided to break the story into three books, one for each phase of his experience:

  • Army of Worn Soles tells of Maurice’s experience as an officer in the Soviet Red Army officer
  • Under the Nazi Heel describes his time as an insurgent fighter against the German occupation of Ukraine
  • and finally, Walking Out of War is the story of Maurice fighting as a foot soldier, walking with the Red Army across Eastern Europe to Berlin for the fall of Nazi Germany.

Even though I had the whole outline completed before I published Volume 1, and had several chapters of Volume 3 complete, finishing it took longer than I thought it would. Months longer.

There were some little details that required more research, which was time-consuming—like what the machine gun that Maurice’s unit operated looked like. Or just when the Red Army reached the Niemen River on the border between Lithuania and East Prussia.

Maurice isn’t around to ask anymore, so I had to turn to history books, including Professor Orest Subtelny’s excellent Ukraine: A History, the Ukrainian Encyclopedia published by the University of Toronto, other books and, of course, Wikipedia.

tdbnletterAs those of you who read this blog will know, I finally found one little bit of evidence that somehow became a keystone: a letter of recommendation for Maurice and his friend, Basily, signed by a Lieutenant John Gardner. Brigadier General (Retired) Michael Joregensen of the Canadian Armed Forces interpreted some of the abbreviations at the top of the letter, which helped me identify the U.S. Army unit that Lieutenant Gardner belonged to: the 692nd U.S. Tank Destroyer Battalion. That little slip of paper, with its faded, misspelled typewritten message, put Maurice in a specific time and place. Suddenly, I saw how the stories he had told me, the notes I had taken and the historical information I had researched all fit together.

Finding that, I was glad I had taken longer to write this book.

When will it be done then, Scott?

As I mentioned, David Cassidy is working on the cover, and a few beta readers have the almost-final draft now. I hope to have their comments in my hands by mid-January, and then I’ll send it to some beta readers for feedback. And barring any disasters, I’ll be able to send advance review copies by mid-February for publishing on the anniversary of its predecessor, Under the Nazi Heel.IMG_0020.jpg

The next projects

Fans of my Lei Crime Kindle World stories featuring FBI Special Agent Vanessa Storm will be happy to learn I’m well on the way to a new Hawaiian crime story, and I think this will be my best yet.

A yet unnamed, this novel will reveal more of Vanessa’s youth and also an old flame with a huge problem, one that will make Vanessa choose between her old life and her new career.

Following that, I’ll be working on a new #SydneyRyeKW novella, featuring, once again, the irresistible Van Freeman and Earl LeBrun. I’m aiming to publish that on the next surge of Sydney Rye Kindle World books at the end of April.

How to get all the Vanessa Storm #LeiCrimeKW novellas FREE

Read the first two chapters of the new story, “Soft Summer Rain.” Watch for the clues that will tell you which two 1970s songs inspired it, and you’ll win four mystery novels. That’s right, I’ll send you all the Vanessa Storm e-books for free, including the upcoming volume. To get the story, all you have to do is subscribe to my advance information newsletter, Forewords. Once you fill in the information and confirm your identity, you’ll get a link to download it.

Don’t miss out—four e-books for making a good, informed guess and filling out an online form. You can’t go wrong!

Send your guess to me by email (contact@writtenword.ca)

  • Torn Roots

  • Palm Trees & Snowflakes
  • Dead Man Lying.

How can you not be inspired by fall?



img_0864Autumn is my favourite season. I love the cool air and the lower light come as such a relief after the heat and humidity of the summer — especially this past summer with its long drought. And of course, the colours of the leaves.

I’ve heard people say “Fall is the season when everything dies.” But the cool air energizes me. Fall is the season of the harvest, of pies and soups and my favourite sweaters and leather jackets.

Fall is also the season of Hallowe’en, the funnest holiday of the year.

To me, fall is the best time start new projects. Let’s face it: 17 years of my own schooling, and a further 17 for each of my children has conditioned me to consider the autumn as the beginning of new chapters in life.

A spot on my daily ride along the Ottawa River.

But I think the one aspect of fall that is most inspiring to me is the colours of the leaves.

I wasn’t able to ride my bicycle all summer, since I tore my quadriceps tendon in May. I was only able to get back to it in September, and after just a couple of days of riding 25 kilometres to the office, I noticed my mood getting much better. Being outdoors gives me a boost.

My biking route is spectacular in the fall. This year, the colours of the leaves seem especially intense, with lots of red and orange. They look brighter when the sunlight hits at a low angle, early in the morning or later in the afternoon — when I’m on my bike.

Last week, I took a trip to the Finger Lakes region of New York to see the area and also sample the wines I had been hearing so much about. When my wife and I got there, we found the leaves were just starting to turn colour. But each day, there was more red, orange and yellow on the vine- and forest-clad slopes.

dscf9733

In New York’s Finger Lakes, when the autumn leaves were just starting to turn.

Inspiring? Definitely. Driving, viewing, tasting wine, relaxing in cafés, chatting with other guests at our B&B — somehow, that allowed my brain to put some vague ideas together. Over four days, I worked out the plot for a new novel, and it’s going to be my best yet.

For a long time, I’ve had the idea to write a novel that uses two songs as a starting point: Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland” and the Clash’s “Guns of Brixton.”  But I couldn’t even get to an outline. Until, strolling along the edge of a Finger Lake in New York, I had a flash: “What if I made this a new Vanessa Storm, and Vanessa was the Barefoot Girl?” This book would be something of a departure from the previous Vanessa Storm books, but it would still fit within the Lei Crime Kindle World.

This new will tell two parallel stories: about Vanessa as a teenager, wondering which direction to go in life, about whether to go to university like her parents want her to, or to ride off with the bandit with a heart of gold; and then today, dealing with the consequences of the choices she and others made. It’s more than a typical action-thriller or mystery. It’s more about what makes us who we are, and how we change the others around us.

In the meantime, I am finally making progress again on the third volume of the series about my father-in-law during World War Two. I have one last chapter to finish now before I start with the second draft. Here’s to hoping that I’ll finish before the end of the year!

What do commercial publishers really want from new writers? Not what they tell us



Photo by Wonderlane on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

Surfing social media a few weeks ago, I came across a reference to an article from Penguin Random House, one of the Big 5 worldwide publishers called “What Our Editors Look for on an Opening Page.”

It was advice for writers who wanted to have their manuscripts published by a big commercial publisher like one of Penguin Random House’s imprints. But rather than advice, it’s really just reinforcing the narrative that the big publishing houses put out good books — when the truth is that they don’t take chances on good books from new authors. As proof, let’s look at the opening pages of the latest releases from Penguin.

Let’s look at what they say they look for in a manuscript from a new writer

1.      “A powerful opener”

is the most important thing, because it’s the first thing that editors see. If the opening doesn’t grab them, they’ll move onto the next submission in the slush pile.

For example, consider Robert B. Parker’s The Devil Wins. It was published last year by G.P Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of the Penguin Group, which is a subsidiary of Penguin Random House:

Jesse Stone no longer felt adrift. No longer a man caught between two coasts, he had finally left his days as an L.A. homicide detective behind him. If not his private shame at how his life had gone to hell. He was chief of police in Paradise, Mass. This was his town now. Yet there were still some things about the East Coast and the Atlantic he had never gotten used to and wasn’t sure he ever would. Nor’easters, for one. He found the brooding, slate-gray clouds and rolling tides a little unnerving. These late-fall or winter storms seemed to blow up out of spite, raking across whole swaths of New England or the Mid-Atlantic, leaving nothing but pain their wake.

As was his habit, he drove through the darkened streets of Paradise in his old Ford Explorer before heading home. He wanted to get a few hours’ sleep before going back to work. Maybe a drink, too. The storm wasn’t supposed to make landfall until about midnight, but the winds were bending trees back against their will, sleet already pelting his windshield. Jesse shook his head thinking about that. About how storms in the east warned you they were coming. About how they told you when they were coming and then kicked your ass.

Sorry, this doesn’t count as powerful. It’s an info dump, paragraphs of back story — exactly the kind of opening all the advice blogs and creative writing courses tell you not to write. Get to the story.

For all you writers out there, this opening breaks one of Elmore Leonard’s famous 10 Rules: “Never start with the weather.”

Of course, The Devil Wins was not written by Robert Parker, who died in 2010. Reed Farrel Coleman, a successful mystery novelist in his own right, won the contract to continue the Jesse Stone series.

Homecoming

Speaking of information dumps, consider the opening of the newest volume in the Boys of Fall teen romance series by Shannon Stacey, published by Jove, another Penguin imprint.

Sitting in a hospital waiting room with a pack of scared and sweaty teenage boys while wearing a little black dress and high heels wasn’t Jen’s idea of a fun Friday night.

Nothing could have dragged her out of there, though. Not even the promise of flip-flops and her favorite yoga pants. The police officer leaning against the wall and staring at the ceiling was Kelly McDonnell, one of her best friends. Kelly had been the first to arrive when the 911 call came in from football practice. Kelly’s dad—Coach McDonnell—had collapsed on the high school’s field and they were afraid he was having a heart attack.

When Kelly called her from the emergency room, Jen had been in her car on her way to a second date with the first guy in a long time who actually had potential to make her forget the man she spent too much time thinking about, but she hadn’t even hesitated before cancelling. Kelly needed her.

That’s a lot of data crammed into three paragraphs, and there’s been no action, yet. Just a girl in a party dress, sitting in a hospital waiting room.

2.      Unique perspective – ““What is one thing this book does better than any other book?”

Consider The Madmen of Benghazi, by Gérard de Villiers.

Ibrahim al-Senussi was stark naked when he stepped out of the shower, and he stopped dead at his bedroom door. Cynthia was sitting on the edge of the big bed, making a call on her cell phone. That wasn’t sexy in itself, but between the lapels of the young woman’s Chanel suit—his birthday present to her—he could see her nipples straining against the raw-silk blouse.

Cynthia’s shapely legs were bare from her upper thigh to her tawny, very high-heeled boots. The length of her skirt had once been quite proper—until she had the hem raised.

Al-Senussi felt the blood rushing to his crotch.

This does not do anything better than thousands of other books out there. In fact, it’s just plain bad writing. Who isn’t stark naked when they step out of the shower, other than drunks?

3.      Attention-Grabbing Characters

Consider the opening of Danielle Steel’s Rushing Waters, published August 30, 2016:

Ellen Wharton was pensive as she studied the clothes she had hung on a rolling rack, and the folded items she had laid out on the bed for her trip to New York. Organized, impeccable, meticulous, she was a woman who planned everything and left nothing to chance—her business, her menus, her wardrobe, her social life. She was consummately careful and precise about everything she did. It made for a smooth, order life, with few surprises, but also very little opportunity for things to go awry. She had been planning this trip to New York since June, as she did every year, to see her mother. She also went on Thanksgiving every other year, and she usually went once in spring. She intended to do some shopping for two of her clients, and she had an additional purpose to her trip this time.

Ellen ran a successful interior design business, with three assistants, a color specialist, and clients in several cities in Europe who loved her work. She created beautiful environments for them …

For decades, Danielle Steele has been on bestseller lists with title after title. She’s popular. But that opening does not portray an attention-grabbing character. She strikes me like any number of uptight business people who think they can control the universe.

This opening also breaks a rule from all the creative writing classes: “Show me, don’t tell me.” If I submitted this to an editor, I’d be told to describe how she carefully folded every item of clothing, how she entered appointments into her daytimer, how she checked her airline tickets for Thanksgiving. But Danielle Steele has enough bestsellers behind her, and enough of a fan base to write whatever she damn well wants.

But they sell

Yes, they do. The success of these books supports arguments I have been making for years:

  • The accepted tropes of creative writing classes do not translate into sales. Readers don’t care about Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. Only writers and editors do.
  • Commercial publishers do not necessarily publish quality fiction.

“But you can’t blame a commercial business for making money.”

I don’t. What I blame the commercial publishing industry for is their snobbish pretense that only they can produce quality prose. And for not pushing for better, fresher, more innovative fiction and non-fiction. And for contracting a writer to continue a dead writer’s series, instead of publishing that living writer’s original work.

Some of the Big 5’s titles are examples of great writing. The Girl on the Train is a timely example. But some of the most innovative and gripping work is published by individual, independent, self-publishing authors.

What I want you to do

Don’t settle for commercial quality. If you like good books, look down the lists for independent authors. And if you want to find some of the best, check out these two independent authors’ groups:

And tell me what you think of the books on those sites.

 

What book reviewers want: An interview with Janie Felix



bookstack

Once again this week, Written Words turns the tables on the book reviewers by asking them questions. In this instalment, Janie Felix agreed to let us in on the secrets of book reviewing.

What genres do you review?

I review most all genres — whatever I read, because I find it helpful when I read others reviews.

I like mystery/police/ action genres.  They challenge my mind, hold my interest and allow for escape from normal life.  I like some romance, but not ” bodice ripper” types.  I like reality in romances, not necessarily happily ever after … realism.  I enjoy some sci-fi if it is relatable.

What do you look for in a book that you review?

What I look for in books is believable character development by the author.  I like surprise twists.  I also look for good beta reading (I really hate misspelled words, poor grammar and bad syntax.)  When I find an author whose style I enjoy, I veraciously read their books.

What is the worst mistake that an author can make in a book?

The worst mistake and author can make: boring, long convoluted explanations by a character.  And shabby proofreaders.

What is the worst mistake in your opinion that an author can make when trying to promote a book?

Promoting a book can be tricky. I’m not sure I dislike most book promotions. I really LIKE when an author of e-books offer their first one free. Very often if I like their style or characters, I will continue to follow them and buy more just by the “credit ” of their name alone.

Which is more important to you: the plot/story, characters, or the writer’s style?

Characterization is probably the most important part of a book for me.  If the characters become real, you can put them in most any plot and they survive.  ‘Course that all goes back to the author. So it is circular.

Name a classic book in the genre you favour most that you think today’s writers should aspire to equal.

The Stand is a book with great characters the writers can aspire to.

Desert island question: name three record albums you would take with you if you were stranded on the island from Lost (where they had vinyl records and diamond-stylus record players).

Albums: David Brubeck’s Take Five,  the 1812 Overture or any Tchaikovsky work and anything by James Taylor.

All about Janie

 IMG_1051Janie has been married for 52 years to her best friend, Gary. She is a mom of four a grandmom of seven, a Wiccan High Priestess, a clinical herbalist and an avid reader.  She is 72 years young and loves to quilt, preserve what her husband grows and teach others about her knowledge of Wicca and herbs. 

Two First Chapter awards in one week



2-FirstPlace-Mystery-page-001My thanks to the East Texas Writers Guild. This year, I entered two books in their First Chapter awards, one in each category: Published Work and Work in Progress.

And this week I learned that both won!

IMG_0020.jpgUnder the Nazi Heel: Book 2 of Walking Out of War, earned Second Place in the Nonfiction/Memoir category.

Dead Man Lying - 529x800And my newest Lei Crime Kindle World entry, Dead Man Lying, won First Place in the Works in Progress category!

At the time of the contest deadline, June 1, Dead Man Lying was indeed in progress. My proofreader, the stalwart Typo Detective, Joy Lorton, had sent me the corrections, and I was still polishing a few items noted by beta readers. I published the story on June 27, in time for a major Facebook launch party along with several other new Lei Crime books.

Two awards in one week — I feel blessed.

Thanks to everyone who helped: beta readers, editors, proofreaders, other writers in the Lei Crime world, and especially all the readers who have pushed Dead Man Lying into bestseller status.

When life trumps writing



May and June have not been kind to me.

I was planning to write a post on how the past twelve months have been so productive: six titles published! And another one well on the way to being finished before then end of the calendar year.

But these last few weeks have been brutal — I can’t help but wonder what forces are moving against me.

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know that about three weeks ago, I fell four steps on my staircase, landed on my heel, hyperextended my knee and completely tore out my quadriceps tendon, and broke a small bone behind my kneecap. That pretty much made travel impossible, other than to the hospital. I’m now in a leg brace, and will remain in it for at least another eight weeks.

If you’ve ever been in a leg brace or cast, you’ll know how impossible it is to bend low and pick up things from the floor. And how fraught are such activities as climbing stairs. Luckily, have taken the opportunity to do more writing. While waiting in the hospital for … well, whatever hospitals always keep you waiting for, I managed to finish the final draft of my new Lei Crime novella, Dead Man Lying. I also worked out the outline for the sequel to my first book, The Bones of the Earth. I’m calling the next part of the story of Javor, the seventh-century warrior, The Triumph of the Sky.

But I have found that little disasters get in the way of writing. After that hospital-bound spurt, I’ve been writing the same chapter for two weeks.

The gods of calamity are having a great time with me

Train_wreck_at_Montparnasse_1895The next problem was that the home WiFi network decided to go wonky. I called my ISP, Bell Canada, to fix it. Their first response was that it was all my fault.

Have you ever noticed that? Whenever you ask an IT person what’s wrong with your computer technology, the response boils down to this: “These computers would work just fine if you didn’t keep using them.”

Now, my main computer is in my home office. But because of the vagaries of how we use the Internet, the WiFi router is in the family room. So troubleshooting the network requires me to go back and forth from office to family room. It seems simple until you factor in a leg brace and crutches.

On my third hour-long call to tech support, the techie and I succeeded in completely discombobulating the WiFi network. That finally convinced Bell that we needed a technician to come and fix the problem professionally. A techie showed up and fixed the WiFi network, but disconnected all the telephone extensions. And none of the shows recorded on our PVR would play.

I called Bell again, and another techie showed up the next day — but not before a call from the dispatch office, who wondered why we wanted someone to come out when we had just had a service call. I had to convince “Jay” that it wasn’t my fault, and indeed, the phones did not work. “Then how are you talking to me right now?” Jay asked.

“You’re calling my mobile phone,” I answered, successfully suppressing the word “dumbass.”

Thankfully, the second technician managed to fix everything. It wasn’t hard — it’s just that the first guy was sloppy.

I know, first world problems

The same day the WiFi decided to stop working, the basement refrigerator, which we use for beer and less important things, just died. No warning. My wonderful wife opened it, noticed the light wasn’t on, and came back an hour later to verify that it was indeed getting warmer. We managed to stuff the essential contents in the main upstairs refrigerator, but tragically, the beer is not at the optimal temperature.

I’m not just sitting on my butt

One thing about me that drives my kids nuts is that I almost never do nothing. Weekends are opportunities to tackle home repairs and improvements, days off are times to move the writing projects forward, vacations are times to start writing a new book.

So while I’m at home dealing with this injury, I decided to take a break from elevating my leg (really, how can you spend all day sitting on your butt with one leg up in the air? It’s aggravating.) to look into why the toilet in the ensuite bathroom leaks water from the tank into the bowl. It seemed that the flapper, a rubber seal, had deteriorated. I sent my younger son, Super Nicolas, to the hardware store for a replacement.

JetWBottomImageTornRootsBadgePTAS-800x500IMG_0020.jpgWifeLine-final-smallHe brought back the right one. It looks right, and according to all the hardware stores nearby, it’s the only one. By now, that toilet is old fashioned. And the new flapper just doesn’t fit properly. Water flows even faster because it doesn’t seat properly over the valve.

Time for a painful trip to the home improvement store

At the big box hardware store which I will not name (but rhymes with “Shalom repo”), the helpful plumbing “expert” recommended some parts. But when I got them home, I realized that I would need some other gaskets. When you take apart plumbing that’s 30 years old, you can’t expect rubber seals and gaskets to survive. So I had to go back the next day for yet more parts. The same “expert” recommended some that he said would be compatible.

So with my elder son, the Blond Ravin’, doing the heavy lifting and difficult wrenching, we went to work.

And found that the new parts weren’t really compatible. By that time it was well past closing time for Shalom Repo. So it’s one more day without that bathroom being functional.

The little fall

Oh, yah. I got the 34 staples taken out of my knee on Tuesday. That was a relief — when it was over. As the nurse pulled them out of my flesh with what amounted to hospital-style staple removers, I managed to grunt only three times. After she put iodine on the scar, she told me “This will sting.”

“I know,” I said through gritted teeth.

Eventually, the surgeon came by to pretend to look. He told me to start walking and putting my full weight on the injured leg, but keep the brace on for at least the next six weeks.

That’s what I was doing the next evening, spreading grass seed in the back yard. I lost my balance and went down. The pain in my knee spiked to 10 out of 10 for an instant.

Luckily, there doesn’t seem to be any extensive damage. No swelling and the pain isn’t unmanageable.

Enough, already

Okay, I get it. The deep powers of the universe have shown just how they can push me around. I hope they’re having a good laugh.

But all good things must come to an end.

Right?

Right?

“Good” always depends on your perspective.

Chandler had it easy



I’ve been re-reading Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels in a probably vain attempt to capture the mood and inspiration to write my own crime fiction, and when I compare Chandler’s prose to 21st-century mystery, thriller and crime fiction, it seems that Chandler’s challenge was less than today’s writers’—or at least, very different.

The Big Sleep was Chandler’s first full-length novel, and the first to feature the tough, cool and sarcastic private eye, Philip Marlowe. The book became a bestseller quickly, and I think part of the appeal was the titillation factor: Marlowe finds the daughter of his client drugged, sitting nude in front of a camera. In 1939, drugs and pornography was very racy stuff, stuff not talked about in polite society. So racy, in fact that in the movie version made in 1946, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, that the Carmen character was wearing a “Chinese dress.” There was no mention of pornography, and the homosexual relationship of two minor characters was completely left out.

In a time when people make their own sex videos and publish them on social media, naked pictures are no grounds for blackmail. Today, it’s almost impossible to shock or titillate an audience merely by hinting at a character’s homosexuality.

Shockers sell books

The Big Sleep movie poster

No, this is not a Nicholas Sparks “white people almost kissing” theme. This is as steamy as Hollywood got in 1946.

New writers who reach bestseller status often do so with a taboo subject. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo launched Steen Larson into international fame with its depiction of Nazis in modern society, child sexual abuse and a main character with Aspergers Syndrome. To Kill a Mockingbird wrote honestly about racism in the American South. The Virgin Suicides’ eponymous theme was something that no one wanted to talk about in the early 1990s. All these books were the first novels published by their respective authors.

The problem with shock as a literary device is it only works the first time. Writers of popular fiction have to keep upping the ante. Occasionally, I toy with the idea of writing a noir detective novel for the 21st century. Which means I would have to trawl the seedy underside of a big city and bring to light the dirtiest laundry of wealthy society, and the desperation of those clinging to the edge of their economic class.

But for shock value, it’s hard today to expose sins worse than what we read in the news: sexual abuse of children by clergy; self-proclaimed moral guardians having sex with strangers in public washrooms; institutional racism and sexism; wars being fought over made-up crimes. And of course, the biggest and most damaging sin of all: the manipulation of the economy to impoverish a once thriving middle class by transferring their wealth into fewer and fewer pockets.

How to shock?

I could probably dream up some horrible new crimes, something to surely shock or perhaps titillate an audience. Beyond the potential damage to my own psyche, I hesitate to inspire some twisted reader to emulate my fictional horrors.

And that brings up another question: should I write to shock? I write to tell stories, to present characters reacting to situations, not to horrify my readers.

Raymond Chandler, author of hardboiled detective fiction.

Raymond Chandler. Image courtesy Venture Galleries.

Does the noir mystery translate to the 21st century? Sure. Plenty of writers have published these dark, moody mysteries with flawed characters who succumb to all sorts of temptations since 2000. But it seems to me that the crimes are grislier, the suckers more depressed, the gangsters more bloodthirsty and the femmes even more fatal.

Which means today’s noir writers are spending my psychic time in deeper, dirtier dungeons than ever before, writing about more damaging sins.

I was right. Chandler had it easy.