Friday, December 17, 2010

Nuggets of Wisdom

Since it’s the holiday season, I’m talking about gifts today—the metaphysical rather than the paper-wrapped kind.

The late Fred Myrow, a brilliant composer and dear friend, once told me that before starting a new film score or instrumental piece he would spend days doing mundane chores—shop ‘til he dropped at the supermarket, hang out at the mall, clean house, read junk mail, anything but write music. Only when his boredom meter was in the red and about to explode would Fred get to work, and inevitably inspiration would come.

Over the years I have learned to “put the top down and throw the car into neutral” before starting a new book or writing a series of poems. I’ve always been grateful to Fred – who I worked with in the recording studio, where he regularly performed miracles – for sharing this wisdom, along with many other things he taught me about writing and performing music. As I write this, I am listening to Brad Mehldau playing "Goodbye Storyteller (for Fred Myrow)" - - so expressive and beautiful.

What nuggets of wisdom have you been gifted with from friends and fellow writers or artists?

Don’t be shy. Please share!

Friday, December 10, 2010

How We Imagine the Real

Although the American Heritage Dictionary defines imagination as “the formation of a mental image of something that is neither perceived as real nor present to the senses,” my favorite poet, Wallace Stevens, has a completely different view. In his book of essays, The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination, Stevens maintains that “The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real.” These words have followed me throughout my writing career and encouraged me to search out telling details and sensory stimuli that lend vitality to the products of my imagination and hopefully provide a rich and accessible experience for my readers.

In his poem Anecdote of the Jar Stevens shows us how powerful one “real” object can be in conveying an idea:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,

And sprawled around, no longer wild
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.

The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
In my mystery novel, THE LAST MATRYOSHKA, I use the nesting doll to symbolize how pieces of the past can gain power over time and come alive to motivate actions in the present—in this case the relentless pursuit and persecution of a man accused of committing a crime fifty years ago.

What powerful symbols have you recently employed in your writing to lend vitality to your imagination? I can’t wait to hear!

Friday, December 03, 2010

Mystery Novels Set in New York City

Mystery writers all have their favorite settings and today I’d like to kick-start a discussion about writers who set their mysteries in New York City and how they create characters who embody that upscale yet gritty setting—from Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy, an early 20th-century immigrant who wants to be a private investigator to Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr, a burglar and bookseller, in New York City.

In the late 1980’s, when I first read Greenwich Killing Time and When the Cat’s Away, I had no idea that someday, like Kinky Freeman, I would have a hyphenated identity as a singer/author. Friedman’s books delighted me with their quintessential New York flavor, irreverent humor, and day-glo colorful characters.

Walter Mosely’s Leonid McGill, a black ex-boxer and old-school private investigator, is an outsider in today’s glitzy New York. In these books, Mosely uses the city as a foil for his struggling hero. Here, McGill describes himself at the beginning of The Long Fall:

I was wearing a suit and tie. Maybe my shoe leather was dull, but there weren’t any scuffs. There were no spots on my navy lapels, but, like that woman in the corner, I was obviously out of my depth: a vacuum-cleaner salesman among high-paid lawyers, a hausfrau thrown in with a bevy of Playboy bunnies.

I no longer live in New York City, but I visit as frequently as I can, especially when working on a new book.. I thought I knew the city until I began to write about it (both Ask the Dead and The Last Matryoshka are set at least partially in New York) but it would take more than one lifetime to plumb these depths. Still, I try not to be intimidated by what Agatha Christie had to say on this topic: It is ridiculous to set a detective story in New York City. New York City is itself a detective story.

Visitors – please share your own experiences writing or reading mysteries set in New York!



Friday, November 26, 2010

Driving a Story with Political and Social Issues

With our country so dramatically divided along political lines, I’m wondering how many of us are exploiting this rich source of conflict in our storytelling. Of course, there are many reasons not to do so, among them the danger of including time-stamped references that annoy our readers and the trap of using today’s headlines to drive a story that may not be published for years to come. So are there perennial political and social issues that can drive a story without running the danger that a book will become obsolete?

I would say ‘yes,’ based on how Raymond Chandler wrote about corruption and racketeering in southern California in the 1930s and '40 in The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely--books that became classics that are avidly read today. Another example of using current events to write a timeless story is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which he calls a ‘non-fiction novel’. In this case I think the timelessness of the book comes from Capote’s masterful portrayal of the psychological relationship between two murderers who commit a horrendous crime that they might not have been capable of as individuals.

In my own work, I strive for a balance – for example, there are some current events, such as Russia’s interference in the government of Chechnya, that I used to drive elements in the plot of  The Last Matryoshka. My reasoning was that this was a persistent conflict that might change but unfortunately will not disappear overnight. In Ask the Dead, one of the antagonists is an anarchist, whose misguided idealism and thoughtless actions have a domino effect that harms several innocent characters in the book. In this case, the material was not time-sensitive and will hopefully pass the test of time.

Using political and social issues to drive a story is a big topic! So please - fellow readers and writers – join this discussion and share your own favorite “political” mysteries or examples from your own writing if you would like to do so.



Friday, November 19, 2010

Writing and Reading International Mysteries

In both Jo Epstein mysteries, Jo travels outside the US to work a case. In ASK THE DEAD, she tracks a suspect to a fictitious Caribbean Island—St. Dominic—and in THE LAST MATRYOSHKA Jo tangles with the Russian vory in Russia.

So what is the best way to introduce a foreign setting that our protagonist is visiting for the first time? How can we best take advantage of a new and strange environment for our story in order to foreshadow dramatic events and set the scene for conflict?

For the sake of discussion, here are two short excerpts in illustration of this:


The yellow rental jeep, with its light metal frame and canvas top, seems more appropriate for Disneyland than this rugged countryside. Heading south from the airport on the coastal road, the cliffs are on my left – the same side I'd better not forget to drive on – and the proximity of empty space is both terrifying and exhilarating. When the road curves, I'm so close to the edge that I can see the roots of the palm trees growing out of the rocky cliffs. Down below, the waves of the Atlantic crash onto black sand beaches, while up here the salt spray gently stings my face. I'm entranced by the sounds of cadence-lypso on the jeep's radio, a heady mixture of calypso, rhythms from Haiti and down home funk from the U.S. If only this were a vacation.

Maybe it was the grime on the cab window, but the outskirts of Moscow seemed to project the persona of a crumbled empire, tired of keeping up appearances, with only the occasional Georgian mansion or gilded church dome breaking the monotony of socialist cement. Then, as we crossed the river and drove down Tverskaya Ulitsa into the city center, the wide sidewalks began to fill with people. Even at a distance I could see that many in the crowd out-dressed the most elegant Fifth Avenue shopper. As if on cue, the haze lifted, and I found myself in a sunlit, prosperous European-style city, bustling with energy.

Our creep slowed down to a crawl, and although the streets were so wide they made the Avenue of the Americas look like a hiking trail, I felt we were in danger of being spotted by the occupants of the BMW.
If you are a reader or writer of international suspense, please share your thoughts here!

Monday, November 15, 2010

From Torture to Art Appreciation – Vladimir Central Prison

On my tour of Vladimir Central Prison, to research material for THE LAST MATRYOSHKA (the follow up to ASK THE DEAD), I saw many things on exhibit in the prison museum that I expected: weapons confiscated from prisoners, books written by writers who served time at Vladimir, medieval instruments of torture, photographs of Japanese visitors whose POW ancestors were buried near the prison. But the paintings lining the hallway were the big surprise! I knew that Russians were generally well-educated in the arts, but it had never occurred to me that this would extend to their prison population.

Mounted in the hallway leading to the prison museum, the prisoners’ paintings were beautifully rendered and told powerful stories, such as the one shown below – a prisoner shot during an escape attempt.

Vladimir Central is a working prison, located only 45 miles from Moscow. After a visit to the prison museum, I was taken to an “art therapy” room where both guards and prisoners come to “express themselves.” My guide said this was one of the many reforms that have taken place at Vladimir Prison in post-Soviet times. In stark contrast to this are the allegations of torture at Vladimir made by prisoners as recently as 2008. Once again, Russia proves to be the center of the ironic universe where contradiction seems to be a way of life.

Please share your own most intense travel experiences – either as writers or avid travelers – in your comments.



Saturday, November 13, 2010

Phillip Marlowe vs. Super Hero

FC Etier, talking about Jo Epstein - the protagonist of my mystery series -  on Blogcritics said:

"Can she kick your teeth in? You bet! And as she walks away, leaves an impromptu haiku to savor while you lick your wounds."

I was gratified to hear that Jo's combined literary and crime-fighting skills appeal to my readers but I'm wondering - why are so many writers creating protagonists with super powers and the gift of invincibility? Is it the challenging times we live in that make these mega-heroes appealing?

In his essay, The Simple Art of Murder, Raymond Chandler describes the ideal gumshoe as follows:

"Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it."

I love that last phrase - "without saying it." My vote is that we continue to create characters who embody the best qualities in all of us without bragging about it - whose "super-powers" are subtle and admirable.

What do YOU think?

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Writing "to picture"

The wonderful thing about taking pictures while traveling to research settings for your books, is that you can bring these photos home and paste them on the wall in front of your writing space. I've found that frequently a picture will connect with a story I'm working on weeks, months, even years after it is taken and that's the point  where the setting then finds its way into the book.

Pictures can also help a writer keep track of themes or intentions within a book. For example, this photo - taken in the NY subway, constantly reminded me that the goal of the protagonist in The Last Matyroshka was to exonerate her Russian emigra step-father, in spite of her negative feelings towards him.

What photos do you keep in your writing space and why?


Sunday, October 24, 2010

Suspenseful Places

A little announcement before I get started. The first book in my Jo Epstein series, ASK THE DEAD has been published by Ampichellis Ebooks for both the Kindle and the Nook. If you have a reader, you may want to check out these links:
OK - enough promotion!

Today I'm writing about how choosing a particular setting for your story can create a suspenseful atmosphere from the "get go."

Alan Furst is a master at evoking the dark atmosphere of Europe during World War II - a place and time so fraught with tension and danger that the reader is immediately drawn in, even before the action starts. For example, "The Foreign Correspondent" opens on a rainy street in Paris in 1938. A Lancia rolls to a stop and then the chauffeur drives a few feet further and stops in the shadows between two streetlamps. Who could possibly stop reading at this point?

But what if you’re writing a story that is set in a more commonplace, less resonant setting than WWII—how can you make the setting work for you from the start? My own way of dealing with this dilemma is to ask myself, “What does my protagonist care about? Fear? And what setting is most likely to threaten or arouse a feeling of dread within her?”

It can be subtle—for example, a scene set in an apartment building in New York might include a burnt-out light bulb in the hallway or a window off an airshaft through which we can hear the sound of neighbors quarreling. Or it can be blatant—for example, your protagonist is on the run and is forced to sleep in a car under a viaduct in a strange city, waking up every few minutes to check her surroundings, clutching a can of pepper spray in her hand. In either case I think you’ve done your job is the reader feels apprehension and if the story is propelled forward both emotionally and physically.

I’d love to hear from my readers about their favorite openings—whether written by their favorite author or themselves. So please comment away!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

What I Learned from The Novel: Live

This past week I participated as a managing editor at a remarkable event - The Novel: Live. Thirty-six prolific Northwest authors took turns on-camera at Hugo House, in two-hour writing stints, to contribute chapters to what is now a completed (but not yet edited) book that exceeds 70,000 words!

The writers worked from a bare-bones, but extremely well-structured outline that contained information on the protagonist and some of the main characters (whose names were sold at a fun, pre-event auction).

It was fascinating to see each author at work - bonding with a particular character, writing in a new voice, moving the plot forward in unexpected ways, while doing their best to maintain story continuity. Some writers focussed on moving the storyline forward, others dug deep into a particular character's history and motivations. They took occasional suggestions from the audience in the Hugo House Cafe or from the online chat that went on for six days. I found the whole experience to be inspiring and would love to see it happen again next year.

As a writer, participating in this event reinforced my belief that a strong story structure gives us the freedom we have to stretch its boundaries and take the reader into new territory.  I also learned that many writers love to "perform" their writing - that writing in public seems to heighten creativity (the pressure of writing a chapter in two hours definitely contributed some adrenalin too).

This event benefited the Writers in the Schools program and was organized by Seattle7Writers who did a great job recuriting volunteers and involving the Seattle writing community. You can go to the Novel Live web site to learn more (and even make a donation!) - at

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Day 4 of The Novel: Live

Deb Coletti is writing away. The novel is really coming together here at Hugo House - lots of great characters, conflict and action.

You can read individual chapters by these amazing authors at

As a managing editor, I've had lots of fun passing suggestions to writers from the audience and occasionally researching on the web at an author's request as they write "under the gun" for a steady two hours each.

I'll add some pix later. Tune in and enjoy.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Novel:Live - Day one

I'm here live, at The Novel:Live event and Jennie Shortridge, the first "writer up" is making great headway on the first chapter of the book! She is writing from an outline, but suggestions are also funneled through the managing editor (in this case, me) and are posted on butcher-block paper in the Green Room here at Hugo House.

The event is streaming live from

When Jennie has put in her two hours, the next "author up" is Teri Hein and then comes William Dietrich. For a full schedule see:

As a mystery writer, I'm especially excited to see that Elizabeth George is writing on Saturday!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Novel:Live

I've signed up to volunteer as a managing editor for The Novel:Live, a wildly creative event here in Seattle. 36 writers will collaborate on writing a book on one week's time - each contributing 2 hours of writing time starting tomorrow - Monday, Oct. 11th. I plan to share my experiences here - will take some photos and post them.

The event wil be streamed live and you can follow it from

More as it happend!!

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Characters Who Reflect Their Settings

Sometimes a writer has a chance to draw a direct parallel between a character and his or her environment – Kate Atkinson does this brilliantly in One Good Turn, clueing us in to Louise’s character and the nature of the city of Edinburgh simultaneously:

Louise was running. Louise hated running but it was marginally preferable to going to the gym. The gym involved regular commitment, and outwith her job, she as crap at regular commitments. Go ask Archie. So, all in all, it was easier to grit her teeth and throw on her sweats, than jog sedately around the estate to warm up before heading off over the fields and, if she was feeling virtuous, or guilty (the other side of the coin), then up the hill and back again. The one good thing about running was that it gave you the space to think. That was the downside as well, of course. Dualism, the Edinburgh disease, Jekyll and Hyde, dark and light, hill and valley, New Town, Old Town. Catholics and Protestants. A game of two halves.

Kate Atkinson, One Good Turn

Can you think of some settings you have used in a similar way? Please share!

Monday, September 06, 2010

Writers Framed by Place and Places Framed by Writers

I’ve been asked to present a workshop on The Place of Place in Mystery Writing at the Write on the Sound Conference ( October 2nd and 3rd – Edmonds, WA). Since I’m in the midst of researching material and creating writing exercises to expand the workshop into a series of classes, this seems like a good opportunity to share ideas and invite feedback – so here goes!

Raymond Chandler is so strongly identified with the settings he choose for his stories that these places are now defined by him. Chandler’s books are synonymous with Los Angles and a mini-industry has sprung up in L.A., taking mystery fans tours of places that he used as settings or as haunting images to plant in the reader’s mind:

Mars flicked the Luger out again and pointed it at my chest. "Open the door."

The knob rattled and a voice called out. I didn't move. The muzzle of the Luger looked like the mouth of the Second Street tunnel, but I didn't move. Not being bullet proof is an idea I had had to get used to.

From The Big Sleep

Chandler made the Bryson Tower Apartments famous too:

He drove down to Wilshire and we turned east again.

Twenty-five minutes brought us to the Bryson Tower, a white stucco palace with fretted lanterns in the forecourt and tall date palms. The entrance was in an L, up marble steps, through a Moorish archway, and over a lobby that was too big and a carpet that was too blue. Blue Ali Baba oil jars were dotted around, big enough to keep tigers in. There was a desk and a night clerk with one of those mustaches that get stuck under your fingernail.
From Trouble is My Business

Try it!

Describe the setting of your short story or book as if it were a person. Describe her…How does she walk and talk? Dress? Interact with people? Is she transparent or does she hold secrets? You get the idea…

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Eye on the Starting Gate

A month ago you started browsing several branches of the local library by day and exploring the recesses of your fevered brain by night, in search of a seminal idea for your new book or short story. You find it’s impossible to guess, let alone decide, what to write about, although you do have ideas about what you should do—that high concept thriller that might bring in some cash, that paranormal high school tennis club that could make you a fortune. Still, something is holding you back.

You find yourself discarding each logical choice in turn and then, if you’re lucky, something unexpected happens. A seemingly random connection—let’s say between a salsa dancer and an Eskimo—scores a direct hit, demolishing the competition and leaving no choice but to tell this particular story, set in that particular place.

Has this happened to you?

If so, please share. If not, please share your own “starting gate” process.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Flash Forward

I can't believe that 4 years have passed since my son Ian and I traveled to Moscow and stayed with Lena in her 3 bedroom apartment that was once occupied by three families!

In November, the book I hoped to write after my research trip to Russia will actually be published - title: "The Last Matryoshka" / Publisher: Five Star/Cengage.

In the coming weeks I will continue this blog by discussing how many of the places we visited in Russia worked their way into The Last Matryoshka. I'll also be exploring how writers I admire, such as Walter Moseley and Michael Chabon, use telling geographical and cultural details to reveal personality traits and create atmosphere.

 Stay tuned for a virtual trip through La Alpujarra and Ceuta, the places in Spain that inspired me to write Zahara and the Lost Books of Li...