Sunday, January 21, 2018

Must-See TV for Writers


As a writer, I love TV shows that use intricate plots and settings to show the ups and downs of being human in a less-than-perfect world. As a crime writer, I am especially fond of shows in the mystery genre. Regardless of the genre, the best TV features conflict as a common denominator.

The following are my top picks:

Cast of As Time Goes By from BBC
As Time Goes By (1992-2005) was a BBC-produced romantic comedy of manners about Lionel and Jean, who were lovers in their youth only to be separated due to a communication failure (communication issues dog every relationship, don’t they?). But they meet up again thirty eight years later and resume their relationship, in fits and starts.

As Time Goes By portrayed well-drawn characters in relationships that were very real. The humor was natural and not manufactured. Lionel and Jean loved each other, despite occasional minor conflicts. My husband and I share the same affectionate marital banter that Lionel and Jean enjoyed. Their story has gladdened the hearts of romantics everywhere.

I try to emulate this tone and interaction for my characters. Most stories have a romantic component and my Hazel Rose Book Group mysteries are no exception.

Beck is a Swedish police procedural, based on the novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. The characters are sharply drawn, from the plodding, methodical Martin Beck to his hot-tempered, politically incorrect partner, Gunvald, a loose cannon if ever there was one. The writers allow the characters to grow throughout the series, giving them plenty of opportunities to reveal their humanity, warts and all. There is violence, especially when Gunvald gets involved, but it’s not on a par with the Girl with a Dragon Tattoo series.

Writers can learn much about creating riveting stories and compelling characters from watching Beck.

Downton Abbey Talk about conflict! This acclaimed British period drama revels in it. It’s educational to see how the fast-paced stories keep us glued to our seats. The secret, I believe, is to supply each character with back-to-back personal challenges, whether they be related to money, marriage, death, birth—the list goes on.

Midsomer Murders Don’t be fooled by the idyllic-looking county of Midsomer—its murder rate beats that of any urban area. Passions run high and evil lurks everywhere. Midsomer Murders is a slightly quirky British detective drama based on the crime novels by Caroline Graham. The main characters enjoy satisfying relationships, and the guest characters tend to be eccentric and harbor pasts (and often presents) ridden with secrets and scandals. They are often involved in the arts, academia, and the occult: painters, actors, writers, professors, fortune tellers, etc.

I especially liked the episode “Written in Blood,” where murder took place in a writing group.

Miss Marple Ah, the beloved Miss Jane Marple, created over eighty years ago by Agatha Christie. The elderly spinster lives a quiet life in the village of St. Mary Mead—quiet until a villager is murdered and that happens with alarming regularity. Miss Marple nails the murderer(s) every time, using her powers of observation. Sometimes she disguises her shrewdness with a dithery manner. Living in a village, she is well-acquainted with the vagaries of human nature, and she can always draw a parallel between the latest crime and a villager, or village incident.

There are countless adaptations of the stories and a number of actresses have played Miss Marple. Joan Hickson is my favorite as she best matches my picture of how the character looks, acts, and speaks.

Agatha Christie has influenced many crime writers over the years, especially with plot development. I expect that she’ll do so indefinitely. I think the Columbo character played by Peter Falk often channeled Miss Marple, with his bumbling ways that concealed a sharp mind.

From Wikipedia
Taggart, one of the UK’s longest-running series, is an unflinching police drama from Scotland. I rent the DVDs from my local library. The story lines are intricate as are the personal relationships of the recurring and guest cast members. I enjoy the depictions of the relationships, many of which are unenviable and riddled with friction between characters who are far from perfect. Twists and turns in the plot culminate in the killer, or killers, being identified. More often than not the end comes as a stunning surprise.

These gritty stories are set against Glasgow’s grand architecture.

In my estimation Taggart is a must-see show for crime writers.

Touched by an Angel was a popular American series that ran for nine seasons. I’ve long been attracted to stories of people who have reached turning points in their lives. Sometimes they’re between a rock and a hard place. As they’re grappling with personal demons, conflict, and tough choices, along comes an angel in human form to guide them and impart God’s wisdom.

This show inspired me on many levels. At the beginning of my debut mystery, Murder at the Book Group, the main character, Hazel Rose, is standing at a crossroads. She is at loose ends in her life and is hard pressed to make even the smallest of decisions. Solving the victim’s murder gives her the opportunity to grow and get out of her rut.   

Writers can get inspiration from many more great shows: Brokenwood, Janet King, Inspector Morse, Maria Wern, Wallander, West Wing, and Winds of War/War and Remembrance are just a few.

Tell us your favorites.











Sunday, January 14, 2018

From baking pies in the UK to never sleeping in New York

Last year I ended on a very British note with a recipe for mince pies. I’m going to start this one in New York with shocking revelations. Lovers be warned.
I recently read an article by Ray Setterfield, a feature writer in the UK. You know how we Brits are sticklers for the law.
I love the city that never sleeps and have been lucky enough to visit New York twice so far in my life. I adored Times Square with its apparent no holes barred attitude to street entertainment. We were enticed by cowgirls wearing virtually nothing but…paint, and cowboys with carefully positioned guitars. Of course, our eyes were held by bright lights, impressive NYPD cars and the man in uniform with a gun standing next to one. We were even approached by my all time Super Hero Spider-Man. Unfortunately we weren’t in any danger and I didn’t need saving.

But we were breaking the law.

In January 1902 flirting in public was outlawed. As my partner and I gazed around at all the sites in this wonderful city, we were constantly giving each knowing, even flirtatious, looks as we were getting caught up in the excitement and hoping to have some of our own.
To make the situation graver, I happened to be married at the time. To someone I hadn’t seen for many years. I was in New York with the love of my life, just waiting for a divorce to come through—we’re married now, by the way. It seems adultery was outlawed in 1907. I could have been thrown into jail for upto 90 days!
I was so glad I’d been wearing my old cloak at the time as I went on to read about another law still in place in New York—it’s illegal for a woman to be on the street wearing “body-hugging clothing”.
Perhaps that’s why those girls wear paint, and there’s always a policeman hanging around, ready to pounce on the guilty!
One of the many good things about being an author is the freedom to have your characters break laws and get away with it, or not, as the story dictates. For my research into crime, I have used reports by The Serious Organised Crime Agency, a friend who was a policewoman, and a lawyer I used to work with, among other sources.

Now it looks as though I need to read up on local laws next time we visit a major city, just in case. It would seem we might not all be as innocent as we think.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Don't Think about Your Reader (But Do Care about Them)

During my sabbatical from Novel Spaces I toyed with ideas for a year’s worth of columns – and often resolved to write them while the were fresh in my mind. I did not. And this morning, when I realized my first column for 2018 was due, I was caught completely flat footed.

While flapping in circles wondering what to do, I came across some old advice about never thinking about your audience or market when you write, just write! I realized I had something to add to that. Because, like all absolutes, it’s not really.

My current novel series, Dirt and Stars, is young adult science fiction. The protagonists’ ages are 15 to 16 in book one, Down to Dirt, and age through 16 to 18 over the course of books two and three, Life on Dirt and Rise from Dirt. The market for YA fiction is, of course, everyone, but publishers usually target readers a year or two younger than the protagonists – in this case, 13 to 16. This perception of who will be reading the novel impacts how the editor and publisher feel topics like cursing, sexuality, emotional trauma, social issues, and other potentially sensitive issues are addressed.

And they’re right to be concerned – I live and have taught in a North Carolina county where Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian is banned from public schools and libraries because a 15-year-old boy describes the joy of – not the act of – masturbation. The novel intelligently depicts eating disorders, racism, poverty, alcoholism, suicide, and cultural identity – topics that should be addressed and discussed in middle and high schools. But that one paragraph has kept it out of untold numbers of school districts – which translates to the loss of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of copies sold to English classes.

Dirt and Stars is written in multiple first-person, told through the frequently-intersecting journals of five characters. Mara Duval of Tombaugh Station must write about her visit to dirt (Earth) for academic credit; Jael Alden intends to do great things and her father (half jokingly) told her to keep a record so she’d have the facts right in her memoir; Beth Duval writes because her best friend Jael writes; Lije Bronislav dreams of being an entrepreneur and believes great ideas can come from random observations; and Fatima Kielani has a social communications disorder and records her daily interactions for discussion with her therapist.

For thirty years I taught in an alternative high school, or taught “those kids” – the ones in the self-contained room at the end of the hall – in a traditional school, was a community support case manager, and did in-home and community “coaching” for family preservation services. When you’ve been around teenagers long enough that you’re part of the furniture, they’ll converse about all kinds of things in front of you. (Especially if you cultivate the impression you’re a little hard of hearing.) I drew on the things I learned and observed working with kids in crisis when creating my characters, how they thought and felt and how they spoke. And my first try was pretty upsetting for everyone who saw it. Eventually I figured out that realistically depicting what I’d experienced didn’t work for my story – all of my characters came from stable homes, were clean and sober, and didn’t have kids of their own. I had to draw on what I knew, not reproduce it; be authentic without being graphic; and make my people accessible without being generic.

Cursing, as Maggie King wrote so well about on December 22, Do You Let Your Characters Swear?, was an issue. Science fiction tends to attract younger readers and has a tradition of using made up curses. Firefly gave us gorram an evolution of “goddamn” and Battlestar Gallactica simply replaced “uc” with “ra” to give us the ever-popular Frak!
There’s one actual curse word in Down to Dirt, and it’s there for legitimate effect. The rest of the time the dirt kids say “crap” a lot and Mara says “blow” – which is, you guessed it, a made-up curse word. The trick was making this work without being too cute about it. I imply, but do not explicitly state, that while they only say crap "on camera", they use other words in other situations. And, about a third of the way in, after Mara vehemently exclaims “blow”, I have her explain it in this entry from Beth’s journal.

“Why do you say ‘blow’ like it’s the f-word?” I asked.
Mara looked at me sharply ... then the corner of her mouth twitched. “Because it is like the f-word,” she said. “Only not about that.”
“Oookay,” I said after waiting for her to add something more. “How is it like the f-word only not about that?”
“A blow is a catastrophic decompression,” Mara said. “Like a hull breach, or when you’re outside and your EVA suit is punctured, or the seals on your waldo rupture.”
I didn’t know what a waldo was, but evidently having its seals rupture in space was really bad.
“So you’re saying that if someone in space has a blow,” I said carefully, “they’re pretty much f-worded?”
“Pretty much,” she agreed solemnly.
Jael laughed. “Beth, you are the only person I know who says ‘f-word’ when there’s no one around.”

Conversations about sex can be both realistic and PG if neither character is sure of the other’s limits or expectations (or orientation) and they’re both sounding each other out without being explicit.

Late in Down to Dirt Mara is sexually assaulted. That scene went through more rewrites than the rest of the scenes combined. In the final iteration I describe just enough of the physicality to give context, but focus not on the act but on Mara’s panic—evoking the horror without detail. In the end, I think this worked better than any graphic description would have. And, relevant to the point, it made the scene accessable to the reader who might be overwhelmed (or offended) by a rawer telling.

So. Don’t worry about your reader when you write? Maybe not in the first draft, when you’re getting everything out so you can work with it. But at the same time, you should be mindful of the person listening to your story. Not readers in the generic – that’s the publisher’s concern, when they’re marketing the story you wrote – but that one reader you want to read, remember, and share what you’ve given them.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Reflecting on Two Authors Who Left Us Before the New Year

by Linda Thorne

As this New Year begins, I can’t help but think of my surprise when I heard of the recent death of author Sue Grafton. Her protagonist, Kinsey Millhone had become a well known character worldwide. My sister caught onto her books when the alphabet series first started in 1982 with the publication of A is for Alibi. After my sister read each of Sue Grafton's books, she normally mailed the book to me and that’s how I caught on to this series.


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Also, earlier in the year B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens left this world abruptly. Her latest novella, The Last Blue Glass, still won the 2017 Anthony Award, but she wasn’t there to personally receive the esteemed award. Her family took care of it on her behalf. Her blogspot, The First Two Pages - B.K. Stevens Mysteries started in 2015 and many mystery writers, myself included, were lucky enough to submit and be accepted to appear on her blog. I looked online and saw that her blogspot is alive. Looks like her daughter along with B.K.'s friend and mystery author Art Taylor are working to keep the First Two Pages blog going. 

When celebrity authors we’ve known or followed leave for that big bookstore in the sky or whatever peaceful place they disappear to, not only are we reminded of our own mortality, we feel their absence. At least I do. I know now that I’ll never enjoy reading a new book by Sue Grafton again, something I’d already considered since she’d talked of retirement after Z is for Zero. There will be no letter Z in her series. I will not see new B.K. Stevens stories in the Alfred Hitchcock Magazine I subscribe to.

Life goes on until it doesn’t and I hope all of us go for the gusto and make the most of what we have while here. I think Sue Grafton and B.K. Stevens did just that.

RIP for Sue Grafton and B.K. Stevens. For the rest of us this may be an exciting new beginning or, maybe, just a continuation of grabbing as much of life as we can knowing how limited our time  is here.  

Happy 2018 New Year!

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Of too little reading and drunk men on horses

A fair approximation of my TBR pile 
My TBR pile has reached truly obscene proportions. I suspect I read less fiction this year than any other year of my life: I was way too distracted with the jaw-dropping politics, the death of my favourite aunt who finally succumbed to cancer, moving house (again!), etc. etc. etc. I picked up novel after novel, only to put it down again and return to more fascinating (read 'horrifying') fare.

My disinclination to read fiction began to scare me, so I forced myself to pick up some classic fiction. I re-read Wuthering Heights and realized that Heathcliff, who had impressed me as such a romantic hero when I read some version of the story as a child, was actually a monster. I re-read Jane Eyre after watching the Wide Sargasso Sea film, again having read it when I was very young, and realized that Mr. Rochester, whom I had disliked intensely as a young girl, was actually a very sympathetic figure.


I ventured into the realm of vampire romance with Eugenia O'Neal's Beach Vamp, and was astounded to discover that I could find a vampire character sympathetic. (I should not have been surprised; I absolutely loved William Dafoe's vampire character in Shadow of the Vampire, as well as the classic film on which it is based, Nosferatu.)


The novel that made the greatest impression on me was Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner, first published in 1936. I love Faulkner. Anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the background to the problems with race relations that beset the US would find his work riveting. While The Sound and the Fury was tough going at times, Absalom was not just very readable, but a great page-turner. I could not put it down. I don't think any other novelist captures the ethos of the decaying American South quite as well as Faulkner. I imagine he was not much beloved of his fellowmen from the southland.

The title of the novel is significant. In the Bible, Absalom was the third son of David. He was charming and handsome, and lived in great style. Absalom's sister was raped by Amnon, who was their half-brother. Amnon was also David's eldest son. Faulkner's novel, while an allegory of the history of the American South, mirrors in many ways the narrative arc of the Bible story.

NOT William Faulkner!
When I was a literature undergrad, one of my lecturers told the class this anecdote. Her father was a student at the U of Virginia when Faulkner was writer-in-residence there. He vividly remembers Faulkner riding his horse across the campus on evenings, drunk as a lord. I was thrilled that someone I knew knew someone who had actually seen Faulkner in the flesh--even if Faulkner had been all but passed-out at the time!

I've disappointed myself enough in the past that I stopped making a list of New Year's resolutions many years ago. But I do intend to return to my lifelong bookworm habits. Here's hoping that 2018 is a happy and productive year for all of us. Happy reading, and happy writing!

~Liane Spicer

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

My Favorite Books of 2017

As 2017 draws to a close, I’d like to use my Novel Spaces spot this month to take a look back at some of my favorite titles from the past year. The books are listed in alphabetical order by author and I’ve included the text of the review I wrote for each book.



This is one of the few books I've read recently that has held my interest long enough for me to stay up past midnight turning pages. I was entranced by the descriptions of what life was like in 17th century England, and the author does a superb job of setting up the events of the story against the events of that time in history.

From the Plague to the Great Fire of London, from the goings-on above-stairs to the goings-on below stairs, from the realistic setting to the real-life crimes being committed during that time, I learned an incredible amount about the Regency period. I loved the characters, especially the magistrate (the head of the household in the story), Lucy (the main character), and the other servants. I was pretty sure I knew the culprit behind the murder at Rosamund's Gate several times during the story, and the author surprised me at the end with a fabulous twist I didn't see coming--that's the measure of a great book, as far as I'm concerned. Surprisingly, the only character I couldn't get a handle on was Adam--his quicksilver reactions to the events in the plot are the only thing keeping me from giving this book five stars. In fact, I wish I could give 4.5 stars.



I have read this book with rapt interest and though I haven't had a chance to visit a labyrinth yet, I have a feeling the advice and recommendations given in the book will turn out to be life-changing. The author takes a subject I've seen referred to as "New Age hype" and turns it into something spiritual and beautiful and wholly subjective. I'm eager to learn more about labyrinths after reading this book.



The only thing that could have made me stop reading this book through to the end would have been the death of my Kindle. Once I started reading, the fast-paced plot, the fascinating backstories of the characters, and the way Patricia Gligor deftly intertwined their lives made the book impossible yo put down. My flower beds may have suffered because I spent an entire Saturday afternoon reading this book, but I'm glad I did it. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character, and with that character's thoughts come all the baggage that character carries into the story. I was sure I knew who the culprit was, but I turned out to be wrong, and that's my favorite thing about reading mysteries.



Whenever Hazel Rose gets involved, I want to read about it. Maggie King has done a fabulous job with Murder at the Moonshine Inn. From the twists and turns to the surprise ending (the clues were there all along), this book was a fun read with plenty to keep readers on their toes and turning pages. I'm looking forward to the next installment of the Hazel Rose stories.



I loved every single page of this book and I'm going to get Heroes and Hooligans just as soon as I finish writing this review.

The characters were developed with mastery, the plot never stopped moving, and there are enough laugh-out-loud Southern sayings to ingeniously lighten the mood of this based-on-a-real-event mystery.

The characters are like family, so I hope to meet them again when I visit Goose Pimple Junction--soon.



I have not yet reviewed this book because I’m still in the process of wrapping my mind around everything it says, but I would recommend it to anyone interested in better eating and improved gut health.



This is another book I haven’t reviewed yet, but I will. I’ve become more and more interested in the Mediterranean diet and this book is a great introduction to some delicious, easy recipes. It’s because of this book that I tried Haloumi cheese for the first time and I LOVE it.



I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

From the pirates of centuries ago to the modern-day struggles of the lowcountry shrimping industry, Bob Spearman weaves a tale of greed, fear, and impossible choices set against the hauntingly beautiful coast of South Carolina.

The Dodd family has been a fixture of the lowcountry shrimping community for generations. Harlin, the current captain of the Dodd business, is trying to provide for his family, something that's getting harder and harder to do with each passing year. When the economic stresses of Harlin's day-to-day work combine with his desire to give some financial help to the family of a long-time employee, his daughter's drive to become part of the business, and his son's burgeoning career as a baseball wunderkind, he finds himself entangled in a situation that could prove to be either the family's salvation or its undoing.

This was a well-paced story that resonated with real-life struggles, family dynamics, and crackling suspense. It asks the reader to do some hard thinking about what he or she might do if placed in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation.



I've had this book on my Kindle, queued up on my TBR, for months. And now that I've read it, I'm kicking myself for not reading it sooner. Peopled with a long list of possible suspects, backstory galore, thrilling suspense, and even some romance, this story kept me intrigued from the first page to the last. The characters were well-drawn, the pacing was excellent, and the setting was fascinating. I highly recommend Descent and I'm looking forward to Blaze, the second book in the Stone Mountain series.



The Right Wrong Man hooked me from the very first paragraph and didn't let go until the very last. It's full of twists and turns I didn't see coming, all intricately laid out and presented brilliantly. I was never confused, despite the complexity of the plot, which says a lot about the author's ability to write clearly and with precision. Pamela Wight has a way of putting the reader right in the middle of the action, of making the reader feel all the emotions the characters are feeling. I am so eager to read her next book!


Friday, December 22, 2017

Do You Let Your Characters Swear?

Do your characters swear? Do they swear too much? Not enough? Should they swear at all?

At the end of January I’m presenting a seminar on dialog and I tackle the question of profanity. It brings to mind a discussion I had with my editor (I’ll call her Nancy) about Murder at the Book Group, #1 in my Hazel Rose Book Group series.

Nancy advised me to ditch my swear words. It's not that I had a lot of them, but I was trying for authentic dialog—people swear, some a little, some a lot, some only when “necessary.” We’ve all known colorful folks who liberally season their conversations with salty words. For example, my character Jeanette Thacker is loosely based on a former co-worker who never felt the need to censor her speech. Not a word of it.   





But Nancy said that my story was a cozy and that cozy readers frown on swearing. And then there was all the sex …

Murder at the Book Group does fit into the cozy mystery genre in that the main character, Hazel Rose, is an amateur detective. But I consider it a dark and edgy cozy, what's sometimes called a traditional mystery. The sex I write about occurs off stage and is all talk—remembered sex, reported sex, observed sex, hoped-for sex.

Nancy maintained that sex and swearing were over the top. And I did want to cultivate loyal  readers who I expect, if given the choice, would pick sex over blue language (I've since found out that the same is true of many of my fellow authors). On the other hand, some wonder why a reader who can't get enough dead bodies on the page would be so appalled by cussing.   

I trusted Nancy’s expertise and instincts. With her help my story was blossoming. And so I ditched the cursing and kept the sex. Not wanting to dilute my more colorful characters, I put my creative side to work and came up with euphemisms (including the “okay” swear words) and other tricky ways to simulate swearing. I was satisfied with the results.

If the real Jeanette Thacker reads my tome and recognizes herself I think she’d be pleased but would probably wonder why she’s using words like “frigging” (that's an okay word).

Mystery author Naomi Hirahara is so skilled at suggesting swearing that you know the exact word she’s not using. Another mystery author, F.M. Meredith, has this to say about the lack of salty language in her Rocky Bluff P.D. series: “Oh, the characters do cuss, I just don’t quote them.”

I had a different editor for my second book, Murder at the Moonshine Inn, and he was more lenient. I remembered my readers, but couldn't resist sprinkling a very mild expletive—or three—into the dialogue. So far no one’s objected.

Back to my dialog presentation. This is how I answer the question “To swear or not to swear?”:
  • Know your reader and your genre. Cursing and four-letter words are more acceptable in a thriller than in a romance or a cozy mystery
  • Refrain from profanity in narrative, but an occasional expletive in dialog is acceptable (depending, of course, on genre)
  • Realize that profanity is more noticeable in a novel than in real-life conversation, so limit its use in your writing
  • Use your best judgment
If you’ll be in the Richmond, Virginia area on January 27, 2018, sign up for the Agile
Writers Conference http://agilewriters.com/.