Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The horror of it all

Barbara here. Reading the last few posts has left me with a cascade of mostly disjointed thoughts, which I will try to pull together to make some sort of useful point. Rick wonders about the predominance of "negative" characters in crime fiction and Aline was pleased to discover that despite their very negative public image, most politicians are actually committed, hard-working people whose efforts deserve respect (in the UK, at least).

Negativity is everywhere. Social media feeds on it. Facebook is full of posts about personal tragedies and links to horror stories reported elsewhere. In their quest for market share in our distracted and inattentive world, the news media have become increasingly sensationalist in their "if it bleeds it leads" mantra. We can rail against this trend all we like, but we can't fight human nature. People will walk past a world-renowned violinist playing exquisite music in a subway station, but will stop to gawk in fascination at a traffic accident. Negativity sells. There is nothing new or profound in this observation. Philosophers have been probing this question of morbid curiosity since the dawn of time, and more recently, psychologists have been putting the seemingly universal, very human impulse under a microscope in the lab.

Theories abound. Some argue witnessing someone else's moment of terror or tragedy is a kind of dry run for facing future terrors of our own. It helps us prepare and feel more confident; like little children playing superhero, we vanquish the scary monsters lurking in the shadows of our minds. Others believe seeing someone else suffer brings a feeling of relief that at least it's not us; "there but for the grace of god do I." Still a third school of thought has it that suffering is the yang to joy's ying; both heighten the feeling of being alive. And yet another theory is that we are driven by a biological imperative to feel connected to each other, to share in the emotions of others, in what is the cornerstone of empathy and ultimately morality. And to these theories, add the insights of recent lab studies that show that we pay greater attention and remember better when an emotion like fear or disgust is stirred up, which has benefits from an evolutionary perspective as well. We really need to pay attention and remember things that pose a threat to survival.

This is by no means an exhaustive analysis, it's merely my biweekly blog. Here are some links if anyone wants to explore further. There are plenty more but these summarize some philosophical and psychological insights, as well as one scientific study

All these theories help to explain the enduring popularity of crime fiction. There are few things scarier than murder, and like gawkers drawn to an accident scene, many people are fascinated by it. What are murderers really like? Are they just like us, and "there but for the grace of god go I?" What drives people to murder? What is the nature of evil? And most importantly, perhaps, can we defeat it? And as for the ying and the yang, a crime story goes to the darkest depths in order to soar towards the light again once the world is set to right at the end of the book.

People vary in their tolerance for fear, anxiety, and distress. Some cover their eyes in the scary scenes and prefer their murders off-stage and bloodless, while at the other extreme are those who want every detail of the spilled guts and spraying blood. Some want to plumb the depths of the psychology of evil while others only want to see the bad guy get it, preferably in an adrenaline-pumping car chase or shoot-out. So another allure of crime fiction is that there is something for every taste and inclination in the exploration of evil. From the safety of our armchairs, we can stare down our particular choice of evil, walk in the footsteps of the superhero sleuth, feel the full range of horror, fear, and triumph, and ultimately cheer that the forces of good prevailed.

All to say, crime fiction not only offers valuable insights on the nature of good, evil and justice, but it also plays an important role in our mental health. I guess that's as useful a point as any.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Are you a “plus” or a “minus”?

by Rick Blechta

My wife and I have a theory about people. A person who overall has a positive outlook on life is a “plus”, and one who tends towards the negative is a “minus”. You can’t be in the middle on this. Years of observing people confirms our suspicions. You don’t need to be around someone for very long to be able to categorize them.

That being said, there are certainly gradations in the two categories. It is possible to be slightly positive or sort of negative. The people to watch out for are those who seem to have the ability to suck all joy out of a gathering with seemingly little effort. Fortunately, I’ve only run into a few of those. Being an empath — which I am (clinically proven when I was in university) — I can tell pretty quickly where people fall. I only have to interact with someone for a few moments to know if their glass is half full or half empty.

What the heck does all this have to do with crime writing, you ask? Well, there’s this: Why do so many protagonists in crime writing have more negative tendencies and outlooks than you would find in real life? Sure, most are crusading do-gooders, brave and generally forthright, but they have an overall negative view on life.

Take Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch. Whoa! Major negative energy there. Rebus? Ditto. Even in cozies which have a lighter touch, you don’t find too many protagonists who are high on the positive scale.

The next question to ask is why. Are negative people more interesting to read about? Does someone have to be populated with inner demons to get the job done? There’s a saying that goes “for every positive, there is a negative”. I find in life, that’s true, why doesn’t it happen in crime fiction — or any fiction for that matter? Are only negative people interesting enough to carry the weight of a whole novel?

Looking back on my own writing, literally every protagonist I’ve used has been a negative. True, some of them have been low down on the minus side, but they are definitely the sorts of people who light up every room they enter. Why do I, as a positive person create characters who are different from me?

I’m still in the process of thinking through this conundrum, so I can’t give you any answers at the moment.

Anyone out there want to put forth a theory?

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Mother of Parliaments

I had a fascinating experience last week. As one of the current directors of the Crime Writers' Association, I was invited to not one, but two award parties in the Palace of Westminster, the home of the British Parliament.

Under the shadow of Big Ben, the famous clock – currently shrouded in scaffolding because of repairs – we walked along to the visitors' entrance, where the security would put any airport to shame, and found ourselves at last admitted to the huge,amazing space of Westminster Hall. It is the oldest part of the building, erected by the son of William the Conqueror in 1097 and still in almost its original form.

I think the thing that surprised us most was the freedom we then had to move about. I had thought we would be shepherded to the rooms where the parties were being held and then escorted out again, but far from it. We had an hour between the two events and were able to go first to the House of Lords and then to the House of Commons (not quite the same as your Senate and House of Representatives but with some similarities) and watch ongoing debates from the Strangers' Galleries – quite compelling.

When we arrived at the first of the parties to present awards for contributions to literacy – promoted with some passion by winner Cressida 'How to Train Your Dragon' Cowell – and found we had our own little drama. One of our members has a husband who, though he doesn't write crime himself, is fascinated by guns, knives, and all sorts of weapons of destruction and is liable at any time to have examples about his person. He discovered to his dismay that he had in his pockets several folding knives of different sorts and though he did of course immediately disclose them, the bobbies on the Westminster beat weren't remotely amused.

He was hauled off immediately and we all, not least his wife, waited in some suspense to find out whether his address for Christmas was to be the Tower of London. However, they were merciful and even agreed he could get some if not all of them returned later, after signing something that he claimed said that he acknowledged he'd been a very naughty boy and wouldn't do it again.

Our second event was to award the prize for the Parliamentary Books of the Year. This was fertile ground for spotting politicians who were surprisingly chatty and friendly in the social setting and were amusing speakers too. The most emotional presentation was to Brendan Cox for his book about his wife Jo, an MP murdered by a right-wing extremist.

Westminster is a romantic place, so full of history, so beautiful in its site on the River Thames. But our most lasting impression of the place was the work that was going on long after office hours in both Houses, and the painstaking and exhaustive research that the speeches we heard displayed, as well as the genuine passion for policies that will improve the lives of the poorest in our society.

It's very easy for us to be cynical, sneering and dismissive about our politicians. I think we shouldn't be.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

A Bookish Tradition with Cookies!

By Vicki Delany

Last week, Barbara encouraged you to check out the Crime Writers of Canada annual catalogue for tips on your holiday giving. After all, books make great presents, and Canadian mystery writers really, really need your support if we’re going to be able to keep on writing.

Before that Rick reminded us of the Icelandic tradition of giving (and then reading) books on Christmas Eve.

As it happens, I am just back from a trip to Iceland. Here’s a photo of the tree in our hotel lobby. Isn’t it fabulous? And, yes, those are all real books. The bottom picture shows stockings hung on the wall. 

Tomorrow (Sunday) I’ll be on my local radio station talking with writers Janet Kellough, J.D. Carpenter, and Ken Murray about books we’re giving for Christmas. Tune in online to following the news at noon to hear our picks.  Because I want to keep it for the show, I won’t reveal my selections here. We came up with quite the variety.

And what goes better with a book than a freshly baked cookies?  Here's a reprint of the recipe for my very popular molasses spice cookies.


·         2 cups all-purpose flour
·         1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
·         1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
·         1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
·         1/2 teaspoon salt
·         1 1/2 cups sugar
·         3/4 cup (6 oz) unsalted butter, room temperature
·         1 large egg
·         1/4 cup molasses
1.       Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. In a shallow bowl, place 1/2 cup sugar; set aside.
2.      With an electric mixer, beat butter and remaining cup of sugar until combined. Beat in egg and then molasses until combined. Reduce speed to low; gradually mix in dry ingredients, just until a dough forms.
3.      Pinch off and roll dough into balls, each equal to 1 tablespoon. Roll balls in reserved sugar to coat.
4.      Arrange balls on baking sheets, about 3 inches apart. Bake, one sheet at a time, until edges of cookies are just firm, 10 to 15 minutes (cookies can be baked two sheets at a time, but they will not crackle uniformly). Cool 1 minute on baking sheets; transfer to racks to cool completely.

Speaking of holiday giving, right now Penguin Random House is having a sweeps contest for all three of my Year Round Christmas mysteries, including the brand new Hark the Herald Angels Slay, the third in the series. 

If you want to enter, here’s the link. (Let's not point out that they spelled my name wrong)


And a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Sorting Books

There's no longer any rhyme or reason to my books. Not any more. When I lived in Western Kansas I had solid walls of bookcases in my finished basement. I knew exactly where everything was.

But after two moves my books are in total disarray. When I lived in the apartment in Loveland I didn't have any storage. My books were in five different locations: the shelves I managed to squeeze into my office, basements or workshops at the three daughters, and, of course, crates and crates in a storage shed.

Since I've moved to Fort Collins, I have a lot more storage space. It's a mixed blessing. Books breed. In another life they were rabbits. They multiply.

My difficulty is compounded by the fact that I can't donate used books without carrying more books home than I took to the facility.

Yesterday I began the difficult sorting process. I took a number of books to a really safe disposal place. Loveland Friends of the Library has a terrific used book sale every year. The have a unique method for collecting books and have a large device like a weatherproof outside postal mailer that can be used 24/7. It's perfect for me! I open the little slot and shove in a book. It clanks shut and I can't see any other books inside the dark building where they prepare books for the next sale.

Moving right ahead to my daughter's home, I took a couple of empty crates down to her basement. Because of the strength involved with moving books I'll tackle her place a little at a time. Unfortunately the process was complicated by a rediscovery process.

Such wonderful books! Surely worth rereading. A huge stack went into that pile. Such treasures as James Michener's The Covenant. I collect Pulitzer Prize winners and Gone With the Wind caught my eye immediately. When one of the winners is also a best seller, there is something to gain by looking at it again with a writer's eye.

Then there is special place in my heart for autographed books. Especially if the authors are friends. It's more troublesome if I love the person but really don't care for their books. I can't bear to let them go but there's not a chance I will ever look at these books again.

There's another stack of books that were given to me at conferences or when I have been a judge in contests. Some of these find a new home as soon as the responsibility is over. Especially the ones I didn't care for at all. But a few stay.

There's a plaguy little pile of either academic books and books I feel like I really, really should read for my own good. Will I live long enough to tackle this assortment? For my own good. For my own good.

Then there's gift books from relations or friends. Some are beloved and some are not.

Happily the biggest pile contains books that I have loved all of my life. I'm going to reserve a special shelf, a place of honor for books that I treasure.

Someone else can figure out where to put them when I die.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Who's Awed by Virginia Woolf?

I read Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse twice this fall, once alone and once with a class of high-achieving Advanced Placement students. I was wowed the first time I read the book, but taking a second look –– reading it to teach it –– forces one to take a closer glance under the hood, so to speak. This is particularly good for a writer –– the chance to study a master at her craft.

Now I’m a huge Virginia Woolf fan. Among the things she does fascinatingly well in the book is her manipulation of the point of view. And, yes, I use the word manipulation intentionally. The full-omniscient point of view allows her to accomplish things (in only 209 pages) that us mortals simply cannot achieve. One is the book’s ending: Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision. The writer in me (and the teacher) asks how the sentence changes if you switch the verb tense. Have had is past perfect. Something happened before something else –– a brilliant way to conclude a novel about feminist themes. What is to follow? What will come next? And this speaks to the book’s precision.

Point of view is where many writers begin when they settle into a project. I’m working on the second draft of a book that took far too long to write. The point of view was a struggle. I wrote the first 30 to 50 pages three times, using three different points of view. Finally settling on one that felt right –– present tense, first-person.

My friend (and former professor) Rick Demarinis, author of The Art and Craft of the Short Story and numerous novels, used to say when a scene is going nowhere change point of view. He used this as a way to jump start a piece of writing that seemed to have no energy. One thing he did was to take a random (or seemingly random) photograph of people in interesting states and write a scene about it. If the scene was a dud, he’d change the energy of the scene by writing the same story from the point of view of another character in the photo.

Here are two pictures.

Think about how the scene changes depending on whose perspective you choose and whether you use first-, second- or third-person point of view. Give it a try.

And read Woolf’s To The Lighthouse.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Nancy Drew and World War II

I spent some time with Nancy Drew over the Thanksgiving holiday. I read all of the ND books when I was a kid, but I don’t remember much about them so I’ve been gradually rereading them and discovering all kinds of stuff all over again. You might remember some of my previous posts on my ND adventures, Books That Last and the Stratemeyer Syndicate
This time I learned the following about Nancy:
  • She can play guitar 
  • She knows Spanish and can even speak several dialects 
  • She is shy about singing in public, but will do it if encouraged. This time she sang in Swahili!
 When I was growing up, I didn’t care when the books were published. I probably read more of the ’60s and ’70s versions, but I did occasionally find one from the ’30s and ’40s. As an adult, I admit to a preference for the earlier versions.

In the 1939 version of The Mystery of the Brass Bound Trunk I found this interesting note on the title page: “This book, while produced under wartime conditions, in full compliance with government regulations for the conservation of paper and other essential materials, is COMPLETE AND UNABRIDGED.”

That got me curious so I put on my Nancy Drew hat and did a little investigatin’.

From Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak, I learned that the Stratemeyer Syndicate that produced ND had to give up all its old book plates as scrap metal during WWII. There was also an interesting note on BBT: originally Nancy took a trip to England in the story, but because of the situation in Europe, it was changed to Buenos Aires.

I was also curious about the restrictions placed on publishers in general during WWII. Starting in fall 1942, American publishers could only use so much paper. To start, they were allowed to use 90% of the paper they used in 1941. That fell to 75% in 1944. Britain suffered much greater restrictions: beginning in 1940 it was 60% of the paper they used in 1939. It went down to 37.5% in 1942.

But it wasn’t only paper that was being saved. The use of copper, cloth, lead and chlorine were also restricted. All of these things were used in book production. Plus there was also a shortage of printers and binders since many had been drafted.

So the paper for books became cheaper and thinner and typefaces and margins smaller. Britain had strict typographical standards.

Grosset & Dunlap, who published ND, started using pulp paper in 1942 and the “wartime conditions” notice I found in BBT was placed in books from 1943 to 1945. Because of the differences in paper and covers, the Nancy Drew books shrunk. In 1941 and 1942, a typical ND book was 2 inches thick. By 1945, they’d shrunk to about 1 inch.

What is especially interesting to me is that the demand for books actually went up during the war. Due to rationing of gasoline and other wartime restrictions, more people spent time at home so more people started reading. Plus soldiers read during their down time.

Those are just some of the tidbits I learned in my investigation. I hope you found this an interesting foray into the past. If you have a craving to learn more here are some interesting links I found that go into more detail:

LibraryThing – A discussion about publishing in wartime

Article from the Journal of Publishing Culture – This one focuses on Britain in WWII.

Publishing in Wartime: The Modern Library Series during the Second World War