My Life of Crime

As an author, one of the best compliments you can receive from a reader is they really appreciated the way you “Got into the heads” of the characters, especially the criminals. Since I write thrillers and procedurals, there’s no shortage of bad guys doing bad things. The follow up question is usually something like, where did that familiarity with the criminal mind come from? While I point to my nearly thirty years immersed in that world, I know, deep down, that my understanding of the criminal world comes from something much darker…

I was a criminal

Sort of. Let me explain.

One position I held in my prison career was outside the walls in a regular office building in downtown Sacramento. During the respite from the cellblock without the chance of having urine tossed at you when you walked down the tier, I joined a commuter vanpool to make the hour and a half drive into the city. The van was ecologically friendly and allowed me to catch up on reading during the trip.

The problem was the vanpool driver was a bit of an officious jerk. As a minor functionary in a state department where he counted fruit flies in agricultural samples, he ran the vanpool like his own personal rolling gulag. Among his rules were no music, no talking, and we had a schedule to keep, so there would be no waiting for you at your stop. If you weren’t there for the evening pickup, he would not wait. I wrote the last point off as bluster until one evening he pulled away when a woman was a half a block away from her designated stop.

We yelled, “There she is!” as we spotted her running to the street corner. He didn’t care and drove off. This happened more than once, abandoning riders in the city, miles from home.

One evening, a meeting in the Governor’s office ran late. I’m watching the clock like a kid in high school waiting for the bell. It wasn’t like I could stop the meeting and say, “Sorry, gotta go.” When the meeting ended, I had less than two minutes to make it to my designated street corner for pickup, so I started hoofing it.

I’m less than half a block away and a white commuter van pulled to the curb. I speed up my pace and as I’m almost there, the van pulls away. I’m waving, trying to get the driver’s attention. He’s not so much as tapping the brakes.

A car pulls to the curb, and the driver lowers the window. “That your van?” After I told him it was, he told me to hop in. He explained he’d been in a vanpool before and knew what missing the connection was like. He stepped on the gas and shot down the street after the van.

I told him where the next stop was and the way he was shooting in and around traffic we could get to that pickup spot before the van. This guy nodded and channeled his inner Starsky & Hutch and overtaking the van. He drove alongside the white beast for another block. He’d honked his horn trying to get the driver’s attention, but nothing. The windows were blacked out, so I couldn’t see if the other passengers were signaling him to stop.

I explained how this jerk didn’t wait when passengers ran late. He tightened his grip on the wheel and told me to hang on.

In a move my rescuer must have practiced on a video game, he shot past the van and slid his car diagonally in front of the van, forcing the driver to slam on the brakes and stop the runaway commuter van. I was getting on this van.

I thanked my champion, hopped from his car, and trotted to the van.

The faces peering out from the van’s front windshield bore all the marking of shock, surprise, with a bit of fear mixed in for good measure, especially from the driver. Good.

Except for the fact this wasn’t my van. I didn’t know any of the people staring out at me. The people I’d just carjacked. I took down the wrong van.

I waved to my rescuer, and he drove off. Then a tossed a casual “Hi there,” to the confused van driver and my kidnapping victims. I shouldered my messenger bag and strode on past the van, never turning back.

A block ahead, I spotted my van pulled to the curb, waiting at my designated stop. So, I trotted to the van and climbed aboard. Never mentioning my crime spree to the occupants.

So, when readers say I’ve captured the criminal mind. I thank them, and they are content to believe it comes from my time working in and around the convict population. But you and I know, it comes from something a little more personal—when I resorted to carjacking a van full of commuters.

James L’Etoile uses his twenty-nine years behind bars as an influence in his novels, short stories, and screenplays. He is a former associate warden in a maximum-security prison, a hostage negotiator, facility captain, and director of California’s state parole system. He is a nationally recognized expert witness on prison and jail operations. He has been twice nominated for the Silver Falchion for Best Procedural Mystery and Best Thriller, as well as The Bill Crider Award for short fiction. His published novels include Dead Drop, Black Label, At What Cost, Bury the Past, and Little River. L’Etoile’s Black Label garnered a Silver Falchion Award for the Best Book by an Attending Author at the 2022 Killer Nashville Conference. Look for The Devil You Know in the summer of 2023. You can find out more at www.jamesletoile.com 

Setting: Real or Fictional

By Brian Thiem

My wife and I were on vacation last week, and whenever I visit new places, the writer in me can’t help but think about using these settings in stories. The ideal setting for my characters’ romantic getaway, or the perfect place for a murder (I do write crime fiction after all).

We were at a mountain resort on Lake Lure in North Carolina. Much of the movie Dirty Dancing was filmed here, even though the story took place in a fictional resort in New York’s Catskills. The resort had a lake, large mountain mansions, lake-front homes, condos along the golf course, and a quaint town nearby. Everything necessary for fictional characters to run wild in stories. Perfect places to dump a body. Secluded spots to plan killings. Unique places to murder—beating to death with a golf club on the 16th green, where a Dirty Dancing scene was shot; stabbing through the neck with a broken pool cue in the clubhouse; weighting a body and dropping it off a pontoon boat in the lake; pushing the victim off a cliff on a Chimney Rock hiking trail.

My first series took place in Oakland, California, a city I knew well after working there as a cop for twenty-five years. I find most police procedurals are set in real places. Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch feels incredibly authentic partly because it takes place in the actual Los Angeles. The stories of triller writers such as Brad Taylor and Mark Greaney feel so authentic because they’re set in locales around the world that the authors actually visited.

Cozy mysteries are usually set in fictional places, possibly best epitomized by Cabot Cove, the fictional Maine coastal village where Jessica Fletcher solved hundreds of murders. I just sent a manuscript to my agent about a story taking place on a fiction island in coastal South Carolina. Although it was fun creating my fictional locale, creating a fictional setting was also more work than I had imagined.

A writer friend recently called me for some cop-stuff advice. She wanted to write a story where a detective resigned from policing in one state and took a job as a cold case investigator in Atlanta. Of course, a fiction author can write whatever they want (it’s called fiction after all), but large police departments don’t hire cops from another state as detectives. They must go through another academy then work uniformed patrol for years before they can get assigned to investigations. All cops know this, as do many readers.

If I were to write a novel about a detective working at Atlanta PD, I would need to do extensive research about the department before writing. As an alternative, I might change the setting to a fictional small town. A small department might more likely hire an experienced detective from another agency as a detective.

Although there is more flexibility when setting a story in a fictional locale, unless it is fantasy or such, real-world rules still apply. For instance, it must still be hot and humid in August in my fictional coastal South Carolina setting, and although I love a romantic scene of a white Christmas sitting in front of a roaring fire, if my characters want to experience that, they must head north or into the mountains for the holidays. And even in a fictional setting, an NYPD detective won’t be directly hired as a homicide detective in California.

When writers consider whether to set a story in a real or fictional place, they must choose between research and designing. Both methods require work. Although I spent thirty years in law enforcement, I did a few “ride alongs” with detectives from a local South Carolina police department and worked with the sheriff’s cold case team, because policing is not the same here as in California. What I learned allowed me to not only ensure my police characters acted authentically, but it also helped me “design” a realistic fictional sheriff’s department in which my main character works.

Although many writers enjoy creating a fictional local and like the freedom it gives the story, in many ways it’s less work to set a story in a real place. I remember sipping my morning coffee on the back porch of our rental condo overlooking Lake Lure last week, as the sun rose and birds woke. It was still chilly enough that I had to pull on a fleece jacket. In my fictional South Carolina locale, my character will have to settle for overlooking the salt marsh and will have to wait for October before it’s cool enough to wear a fleece jacket in the morning.

Murder Books Interviews James L’Etoile

Please join me in welcoming Sacramento based crime novelist James L’Etoile to the blog, literally. Occasionally, we at Murder Books will interview a favorite author in order to help get the word out about a new book, but this interview is even more special because Jim is joining our Murder Books team! Beginning August 14th Jim will post the first of what we hope will be many blogs for Murder Books.

Jim spent twenty-nine years behind bars. Okay, full disclosure, he is a former associate warden in a maximum-security prison, a hostage negotiator, facility captain, and director of California’s state parole system. He is a nationally recognized expert witness and consultant on prison and jail operations. Jim uses those twenty-nine years behind bars to influence in his novels, short stories, and screenplays.

L’Etoile’s crime fiction has been recognized by the Creative World Awards, Acclaim Film, and the Scriptapalooza Television Script Competition. His novel BURY THE PAST was a 2018 Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Award finalist for best procedural mystery of the year. He is a frequent contributor to top short story collections. Jim’s most recent novel, Dead Drop, was released on July 19th. And as I can attest—thanks to an early reading—it is superb.

First off, Jim, congratulations on your latest release and welcome to the blog!

Thanks for hosting me today and I’m honored to be a part of this incredible blog. Who knew, some guy fresh from the slammer would get to come and contribute?

1. I know there has been a lot of attention paid to immigration issues over the past decade. What made you decide to set your mystery novel at the southern border?

Immigration policy and border politics are certainly in the news. There was one event that stuck with me which eventually turned into Dead Drop.

There is prison near San Diego, California, and it’s so close to the international border, you can see the wall from the prison yard. Migrants making their way north used mountain trails to the east to avoid roadblocks and immigration checkpoints. During one visit to the prison, there was a bit more frantic energy around the place than usual because the early morning count didn’t “clear.”

Prisons run on a regular schedule of counts—it’s one of the basic missions of an institution—knowing how many prisoners you are supposed to have and account for every single one. In this instance, the prison’s minimum facility couldn’t clear their count because the number of inmates in their bunks didn’t match central control’s count. Escapes from minimum facilities are common, but they come with inspector general investigations, initiating escape protocols, and notifying local law enforcement and stakeholders all the way up to the governor’s office. It’s not a warm and fuzzy experience…

After a series of re-counts using photographs to identify every prisoner, the problem was found and it was a bit unusual. The minimum facility’s count was “Plus 1”—there was one more body in a bed than they were supposed to have.

As it turned out, an undocumented migrant on the trek north was so cold and hungry that he “broke into prison” for a place to sleep. That set of circumstances settled in my unconscious mind and eventually led to Dead Drop. The journey over the border must be grueling if going to prison is the best option.

2. You have written both a series and a standalone. Is Dead Drop the start of a new series?

I have written series and standalone novels. They both have their benefits. I do enjoy a series because you really get to open up the characters and dive a little deeper into their stories. Dead Drop is the first book in a new Detective Nathan Parker series. I’m looking forward to seeing where the series takes him.

3. I am always happy to see a fellow law enforcement professional successfully transition from behind the badge onto the page. How long have you known that you wanted to write professionally?

I didn’t begin to write commercial fiction until after I retired from the prison system. Two roadblocks stopped me—one, I didn’t think I had the chops to write the kind of stories people would want to read, and two I didn’t think I had the time to sit down and write.

I was wrong on both counts. I thought back to one of the first jobs I had as a probation officer where I’d prepare pre-sentence reports for the sentencing judge. I interviewed the convicted person in jail, talked with the detective, read all the investigative reports, spoke with the victims, and cobbled all of that together in a narrative for the judge, recommending a sentence. I didn’t realize it then, but I had been writing crime stories all along. I knew how to do this. As far as not having the time to write—that’s a priority issue. Watch fewer episodes of Stranger Things and go write. I needed to make writing a priority and carve out the time to make it happen.

4. I very much enjoyed your Dead Drop protagonist, Detective Nathan Parker. Where did the inspiration for Parker come from?

Thanks, Nathan was fun to write and his story came out of a few people and events from my past. Part of Parker’s backstory, and we learn this early on, so it’s not really a spoiler, is his partner was murdered and Parker’s sense of justice and survivor’s guilt takes a toll on his life. Unfortunately, I’ve known too many officers who’ve witnessed their partner being assaulted, stabbed, or killed. That’s something that never goes away and how you deal with an all-encompassing darkness is no easy task. And it isn’t for Parker either.

5. Your vast knowledge of the inner workings of the prison and probation systems is impressive. How much of a leap was it to embark on a border novel? Did you avail yourself to fact checkers from ICE or CBP?

I do use sources to fact check. Some of the details relating to immigration and border management came from as assignment I had in the prison system, overseeing the system’s “Deport Units.” In the 1990’s we had over twenty-thousand inmates serving time for various felonies, but they all had one common factor—they were also foreign nationals who entered the country illegally. They came from every country on the globe, but California being a border state meant a large majority were from Mexico, Central, and South America.

The Deport Units were within prisons located in Southern California (Calipatria, Centinela, and San Diego) where inmates transfer to in the last month of their sentence. Immigration Judges at these facilities held hearings to decide if the inmates would be deported after their prison terms expired, or released on parole.

The stories these men told were harrowing, but they weren’t the same people we see in the news being separated from their families. These were violent felons who had also broken federal law by illegally entering the country. Still, they had the same hopes, dreams, and ambitions to make a better life up north. They chose to do it with a gun, or with violence…

6. Every novel comes with its own unique challenges (at least mine have). What were some of the obstacles you faced when writing Dead Drop?

There were a couple of challenges presented with this book. The first was the setting, in and around Phoenix and the Sonoran desert. I’m up in Northern California, so I can’t look out my window for desert inspiration. I spent a lot of time in Arizona over the last few years, driving around to some of the more remote desert locations. The highway between Phoenix and Tucson is particularly stark. The other challenge was maintaining the storyline—Parker, Billie and what they encounter. I didn’t want this to become a co-opted tale of the migrant experience. That’s not my story to tell. I’ve observed the impact of undocumented migrants firsthand, including a mother who was prepared to surrender her “green card” expecting to face deportation because her daughter was arrested for shoplifting. We can all identify what her fear, hopelessness, and resignation felt like.

7. Do you have any words of wisdom to share with others who might be thinking about wading into the deep end of the literary pool?

Get a snorkel and dive in. I’ve found a number of writers who believe they are destined for overnight success. Lo and behold, instant gratification isn’t bestowed upon them and they become disillusioned and give up. Writing is all about the long game. You need to put in the hours, learn the craft, and put yourself out there. Nothing happens quickly, except maybe rejection. Coming to terms with rejection and not taking it personally is key.

8. Is there anything you did early on in your writing career that, now armed with hindsight, you would have done differently?

I wish I had started earlier. There are so many stories and characters out there, and I won’t have the time to capture all of them…

9. Which authors would you say have had the greatest impact on your writing?

That’s a tough one, because I’ve learned so much from reading great authors. As a writer, I read differently now, looking at structure, character development and dialogue. I appreciate the work that goes on behind the story. I’d have to say Joseph Wambaugh, Elmore Leonard, and Michael Connelly were initial influences. Jennifer Hillier, Karen Dionne, and J.T Ellison are masters of the thriller genre and I learn something every time I pick up one of their books. But there’s one author who shall remain nameless who pushed me to write because it was while reading their book (it was awful) that I told myself, “I can do better than this.”

10. I’ve read many different mystery/thriller series over the years and, for me, keeping the characters fresh and interesting over the long haul seems to be a major consideration in maintaining readership. What’s your secret?

As a reader, I know what I’m drawn to. It’s all about character. I try to give readers a character they can get invested in. They want to see how things turn out for them. I’ve found that readers in general (me included) won’t remember a plot months after reading a book, but when a character sticks with you—that’s magic.

11. You’ve had success both as a novelist, a short fiction writer, and a screenwriter. Is there one format that brings you the most joy? Or do you find them equally gratifying?

Wow. Each format presents its own challenges. I’d have to say the novel is the most rewarding. Telling a story with depth and nuance over 400 pages requires a real investment from the author. When it all comes together and that book goes out into the world, it’s a feeling of relief, pride, and accomplishment.

12. What can readers expect to see next? Are you working on any other projects? Is there a movie in the works?

Dead Drop just hit the shelves and I’m revising the sequel (as yet untitled) now. I like where the second book in the series takes Parker and how he responds to the new challenges coming at him. I have two novels out on submission, so we’ll see where they end up. I’m always working on a project, a short story, or a novel or two. While I’ve had some talk about movie options, nothing’s stuck yet. Fingers crossed.

Jim, thank you so much for taking the time to give us the benefits of your thoughts. Best of luck with your new book, Dead Drop. And most importantly, welcome to Murder Books!

James L’Etoile is a member of Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and the International Screenwriters Association.


To learn more about Jim, visit his web site at http://www.jamesletoile.com.

James L’Etoile was interviewed for Murder Books by Bruce Robert Coffin.

The Leading Cause of Murder

By Brian Thiem

I’ve spent most of my life dealing with murder. Thirty years working in law enforcement and now writing novels about the subject. As a homicide detective, I was mostly concerned with who (the identity of the killer), and the evidence (how) to prove he did it. During my preliminary investigation, motive (the why) only mattered to me when it helped point me to “the who.”

But most people are fascinated by “the why.” Readers of crime novels and viewers of movies and TV shows, demand a logical “why” for the murder. In the real world, however, clear and rational motives for murder don’t always exist. Demanding a logical explanation for what is typically an irrational act is often futile.

In the fictional-world murders we read about in novels and watch on our screens, the motives for murder are often clear and logical. Readers and viewers demand it. They often stem from the 4 L’s:

  • love,
  • lust,
  • loathing, and
  • loot.

I’ve also heard mystery writers concoct their fictional murders based on motives of:

  • sex,
  • secrets,
  • money, and
  • revenge.

When the motive is over money (or loot), we authors make the story big. Often the bigger the better. The president of an international pharmaceutical company kills a whistle blower to prevent his company from losing mega-millions in a lawsuit. If it’s over sex (love/lust), or secrets, the U.S. Senate candidate’s wife kills the high-class call girl who threatened to expose the candidate’s past history of paid dalliances.

Real world murders are seldom that big, and their motives are rarely something that would inspire a bestselling novel. When I commanded the homicide unit in Oakland, I had to classify each murder my investigators handled into one of the following categories, based on the primary motive:

  • Robbery
  • Burglary
  • Drug Related
  • Sex Offense
  • Gang
  • Accidental
  • Retaliation/Revenge
  • Child Abuse
  • Argument
  • Domestic
  • Financial Gain
  • Murder for Hire

Three quarters of the murders were classified under drug related, retaliation, and argument. And the vast majority of those actually stemmed from disrespect.

There was the murder over potato chips. Two men (A and B) hanging out on the street corner. A had a bag of potato chips. B tried to grab a potato chip from A’s bag, but A wouldn’t give him one. So B killed him. B was at a higher level in the street corner hierarchy, so A “dissing” him by refusing him a potato chip could not go unanswered.

We had another case were a man (A) stole a cocaine rock and $14.00 from a man (B) on the streets. B got his friends (C and D), found A, and beat him, kicked him, and stabbed him to death. When we arrested those responsible, their explanation was that they had no other choice but to kill the man. You cannot allow someone to “diss” you by stealing your drugs and money without consequences if you want to be able to hold your head high in the neighborhood.

Many of the most tragic murders I handled stemmed from disrespect. I investigated a murder where a 14-year-old street-corner drug dealer (A) got into an argument over a bicycle with two other kids. The two kids beat up A. So, A got his friends and cruised around looking for the kids. They thought they saw them on a street corner, so they did a drive-by and emptied a gun at a crowd of young people. A 13-year-old boy was killed, and a 14-year-old girl and 14-year-old boy were wounded. The two kids who had beat up A were not even present on the corner.

Disrespect seemed to be the catalyst for most murders in Oakland back when I worked Homicide, and I imagine it’s the same for most large cities today. The one thing that hasn’t changed over time is that real-world murders are mostly senseless, irrational acts. As crime fiction writers, it is our job to try to make sense out of these irrational acts for our readers.

Two Rules of Writing

By Brian Thiem:  I was working on a cop-related blog post today, but it kept veering into the “political” realm. It’s hard to avoid that these days since it seems nearly every discussion about policing can be controversial, and since we at MurderBooks try to avoid things “political,” I’ll instead talk about writing.

I’m in the middle of revising (sometimes called rewriting or editing) the first draft of a thriller WIP (work in progress). It’s a slog and I was wishing I had made a tee time at the local golf course today.

One of my students at WCSU (where I’m an adjunct in the MFA program) recently wrote a book response on Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, which took me back to my two favorite rules of writing that Leonard laid out:

  • Leave out the part that readers tend to skip
  • If it sounds like writing, rewrite it

Like many authors, I had read a great many books before I ever tried my hand at writing one and sat through many English literature and creative writing classes. I read and studied the masters: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charlotte Bronte, John Steinbeck, Pat Conroy, and many others. I listened as teachers and fellow students oohed and aahed over long, vivid descriptions of characters and settings and spoke adoringly over their use of metaphors, similes, and other literary devices.

For a while, I thought to be a great writer I needed to write like them. Although I still admire the classics, the truth is few readers want to read books like that today. Fiction readers want good stories about interesting characters. While readers of past generations may have relished multiple pages of character’s internal dialogue—inner thoughts about how their feelings, the conditions of the human experience, or deep philosophical issues—readers today tend to skip over those parts to get to what’s happening in the story.

Likewise, readers were entranced when reading page after page describing Paris or California farm country. But today, readers have been to those places or seen them in films. When I’m reading a book, I find my attention begins to wander if a description of a place or a character extends much more than a paragraph.

As I go through my own manuscript, I try to keep a critical eye toward long, drawn out descriptions or excessive character “naval gazing,” where the character is looking inward and reflecting too much. When my manuscript is ready to be seen and I send it out to my beta readers, I ask them to note any places where their mind wandered and wanted to skip forward.

I often warn writing students about overwriting. Sometimes they say the same thing several times because they don’t trust their readers to get what they’re saying, often because the first sentence was not clear and concise. Other times, they throw in awkward metaphors because they’ve been conditioned that good writing requires literary language. Or they write long, beautiful sentences full of five-syllable words that readers must reread several times to figure out the meaning.

I still sometimes write longer sentences than necessary, so my agent has suggested I carefully look at any sentence longer than two lines to see if I can cut it or make it into two sentences. I believe most readers today prefer clear and concise language. When I try to write pretty sentences to impress readers of my writing ability, I often end up sacrificing clarity.

Therefore, along with the myriad other things I try to address in my rewrite, I strive to focus on cutting out the boring parts and to write in a style that does not sound like writing.

Interview With Hannah Mary McKinnon

Please join me in welcoming bestselling author Hannah Mary McKinnon to the blog. Hannah Mary is an accomplished novelist who specializes in psychological suspense. She is the author of Sister Dear, Her Secret Son, The Neighbors, and Time After Time. And coming May 25th from MIRA (HarperCollins NA) You Will Remember Me, a novel that New York Times bestselling author Lisa Unger calls: “Riveting, smart, and utterly diabolical.”

Born in the UK and raised in Switzerland, living in Ontario, Hannah is the former CEO of an IT recruitment company, mother of three, wife of one, and co-creator of First Chapter Fun with Hank Phillippi Ryan.

Forget the truth.

Remember the lies.

He wakes up on a deserted beach in Maryland with a gash on his head and wearing only swim trunks. He can’t remember who he is. Everything—his identity, his life, his loved ones—has been replaced by a dizzying fog of uncertainty. But returning to his Maine hometown in search of the truth uncovers more questions than answers.

Lily Reid thinks she knows her boyfriend, Jack. Until he goes missing one night, and her frantic search reveals that he’s been lying to her since they met, desperate to escape a dark past he’d purposely left behind.

Maya Scott has been trying to find her estranged stepbrother, Asher, since he disappeared without a trace. Having him back, missing memory and all, feels like a miracle. But with a mutual history full of devastating secrets, how far will Maya go to ensure she alone takes them to the grave?

First off, congratulations on your upcoming release, Hannah Mary. It must be gratifying to see the early praise You Will Remember Me is getting.

Your life has taken you on a number of journeys. When did you first know you wanted to be a writer/novelist?

Writing novels wasn’t on my radar until we moved from Switzerland to Canada in 2010. When we arrived here, and my HR start-up company failed, it catapulted me into deciding what I truly wanted to do, and whether I would seize the opportunity to reinvent myself. After a long while (with a lot of moping about) I realized the answer was to become an author, and I got to work, making a ton of mistakes along the way (more on that later…).

What made you decide to write psychological suspense novels?

My debut was a rom com called Time After Time (2016) a light-hearted story about paths not taken. When we were out on submission with that book (i.e. my agent had sent it to publishers to see if there was interest), I started writing The Neighbors. I soon realized it was darker, far grittier than Time After Time, and that things may not work out for everybody by the end of the story, which I found more compelling and interesting to write. I didn’t worry too much about switching genres because Time After Time hadn’t sold at that point.

Once I’d finished writing The Neighbors I knew my move to the dark side was permanent. I enjoy putting ordinary (fictional) people in extraordinary circumstances and exploring what might happen to them, and what they might do. I’m not quite sure what that says about me…

Your books are full of twists and turns. One would think it might be difficult to keep things straight when plotting. Do you create a detailed plot line of the story ahead of time? Or are you more of a seat of your pants author?

Oh, I’m 100% a plotter. I’m very structured, and the more I write, the more I plan. My novels start with an idea—something that pops into my head such as a news story for You Will Remember Me, or a radio segment for Sister Dear—maybe a discussion I overheard. I noodle the thoughts around for a while as the main characters take shape. The next step is to write an outline. I start by jotting down the big picture plot points, which I then use as stepping-stones to build and write the rest of the outline. I fill out personality questionnaires for my main characters to understand them better, and search for photos on the internet to build a gallery I stick on my pin-board. By this point I’m raring to go.

At first, I write a basic manuscript that’s a little over two-thirds of the final word count, then layer and develop until I’m happy calling it a first draft, and send it to my wonderful editor, Emily. That’s when the real editing work begins, which is incredibly exciting because I know the story will become a thousand times better with her expert input.

Just thinking about pantsing an entire book makes me shudder, lol.

Favorite book?

No way! I can’t answer that question. There are far too many too choose from. Recent favorites include Caz Frear’s Shed No Tears and Karma Brown’s Recipe for a Perfect Wife.

Can you give us examples of authors who have influenced your writing? How so?

I’ll tell you a story about my great friend Jennifer Hillier. While waiting for my son at our local library I spotted her debut Creep on a shelf. Intrigued by the cover, I picked it up, read the blurb, took it home and couldn’t put it down. It was a turning point in my writing career. When I was younger, I mainly read thrillers, but after a personal tragedy in my early 20s, I could only stomach light-hearted reads. Creep reminded me of my love of thrillers and gave me that final push I needed to cross over to the dark side while writing The Neighbors.

Fun fact: a few years later I met Jennifer at Boucheron and had a total “fan-girl-moment” which led to us meeting for coffees and dinners, and a wonderful friendship ensued. We live in the same town, which is amazing. Jennifer is an inspiration, fiercely talented, and I devour her books. I’ll read anything she writes!

What advice do you have for authors who are considering writing a psychological suspense novel?

Whatever the genre, I’d advise you to read as much and often as you can and listen to audio books. I wrote an article about how the latter make you a better author here. Write, even if you think it’s rubbish, because an empty page is impossible to edit. Another tip someone once suggested was to skip ahead if I couldn’t get a grasp on a chapter or scene, that I should focus on another part of the manuscript and trust myself enough to backfill later. It was revolutionary, and it beats the heck out of staring at a blank page or shoving my hand in the cookie jar. Also, I was advised to read my manuscript out loud. Every. Single. Word. Doing so helps avoid repetition, improves cadence, and zaps stilted dialogue. And share your work. It can be scary, but it’s the only way you’ll get feedback and improve your craft.

I was going to add specifically for psychological suspense, that you should make sure you’re driving the plot forward with every scene and end each chapter on a mini cliff-hanger. Mind you, that’s true for every genre, isn’t it? Whatever you’re writing, give the reader every reason to keep turning those pages, and zero reasons to put the book down.

You embarked on your writing career in 2011. Is there anything you did early on that, given your later experience, you would have done differently?

Honestly, at the beginning I had no clue what I was doing. I had an idea for a novel and I went for it. I made a ton of mistakes along the way (submitting to agents way too early, and not being patient are just two examples) and I should have taken creative writing courses far earlier to hone my craft. It probably would have saved me a lot of time and quite possibly rejections from agents. I was naïve in my approach, but I think not knowing how hard it would be was beneficial. If I’d known, I may not have continued, although I’ve always been determined (my mum would have said “bloody-minded”…).

As a series writer I find it pleasant to revisit my characters and locale with each new novel. I would think that the most difficult part of writing stand-alone novels, as you do, would be getting to know the characters. Do you find that to be the case? Do you have any plans for a series?

I do a lot of character backstory development during the plotting stages and because I write in first person, I really get into my characters’ psyche. It takes well over a year from initial idea to 100% finished product, time interspersed with working on other novels that are at different stages, so I do find I get to know my cast well. I haven’t written a series thus far, mainly because I feel my stories are complete when they end (although I’ve had multiple requests for a sequel to Sister Dear). I enjoy creating new characters and the worlds they live in, how they’ve become who they are when their story starts. It’s a fun process I don’t think I’ll ever tire of. Will I ever write a series? I’m not sure but I’m certainly not ruling it out.

You’ve had success both as a novelist and a short fiction writer? Which format brings you the most joy? Or do you find them equally gratifying?

Definitely novels. They’re a thousand times harder but the satisfaction is immense. I wrote the majority of short stories during writing workshops, and had fun doing so, but all of my time is now devoted to my novels.

Worst writing advice you’ve been given? Best advice?

Worst: write what you know. It’s incredibly limiting and that’s what we have our imagination for. It’s my job to make stuff up. For example, I know nothing about murdering people (I promise!) but I do so all the time in my books. That being said, you have to research what you don’t know, ask the experts for input, and be very careful and respectful when dealing with characters who have a different background to your own. My motto is: if in doubt, leave it out.

Best: write a “puke draft” first and don’t show it to anyone until you’ve cleaned up the mess. It’s liberating to write knowing nobody will ever see that particular version.

About a year ago you and Hank Philippi Ryan started a fun promotional opportunity for authors called First Chapter Fun. I and many others have enjoyed watching you both read from other author’s novels. You’ve got quite a following now. Did either of you ever imagine it would become so popular?

No, and it’s been an absolute joy to see—one of the good things that came from the pandemic. I’m beyond thrilled by how it’s grown considering it all started on a whim. Back in March 2020, when Covid first hit Canada, a group of us were discussing how we could help promote one another and give our books a boost. I half-jokingly offered to read the first chapter of their novels live on Facebook and Instagram, and within a few days I had over 40 daily readings lined up and officially launched First Chapter Fun. I read for 53 days in a row (didn’t think the “must do hair and make-up” thing through very well), introducing viewers to a new novel and author each day.

In May 2020, I teamed up with my partner-in-fictional-crime, powerhouse author Hank Phillippi Ryan. We created a new Facebook group www.facebook.com/groups/firstchapterfun and www.instagram.com/firstchapterfun. We read twice a week, every Tuesday and Thursday (the days with a “T) on both platforms simultaneously at 12.30 pm ET, and already have readings scheduled until the end of 2021. All the previously aired episodes are saved and can be viewed at leisure.

It’s a wonderful community where we share the love of books and introduce new and/or new-to-you authors twice a week. Our goal is to keep your “to be read” pile completely out-of-control and, or so we’ve been told, we’re succeeding.

The one thing that surprised me the most about the writing industry is how genuine, welcoming, and helpful authors and readers are. This project is a way of paying it forward.

You can have a drink with any writer (living or dead) who would you choose? Worry not. If you choose a dead one, we’ll reanimate them for you.

Can we all have drinks together at an event like Bouchercon instead, please? That would be my wish, but if you’re forcing me to choose one person…it would be Michelle McNamara, author of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, and who passed in 2016. Her research into the “Golden State Killer” was incredible. Most of all I’d love for her to know he was caught, and her work is considered instrumental in that.

You have another novel coming in 2022. Can you give our readers a glimpse of what that one will be about?

Book 6 (as yet untitled – I find titles are harder than writing the entire book) is in my wonderful editor’s hands. It’s written from the anti-hero’s point-of-view, which I’ve never done before, and is the story of Lucas, who hired a hitman to kill his wife. A month later, Lucas receives a partial photograph of his wife in the mail. Who sent it? What do they know? And, more importantly, what do they want? I can’t wait to introduce you to my characters (and thank you, Bruce, for helping me get away with fictional murder…again!).

Hannah Mary, thank you so much for taking the time to give us the benefit of your thoughts and experience. Best of luck with your new book, You Will Remember Me.

Hannah Mary McKinnon is a member of International Thriller Writers, and Crime Writers of Canada.

To learn more about Hannah Mary, visit her website at: https://hannahmarymckinnon.com

Hannah Mary McKinnon was interviewed for Murder Books by Bruce Robert Coffin.

Interview with Anthony Award Nominee Gabriel Valjan

Please join me in welcoming Boston-based crime novelist Gabriel Valjan to the blog. Gabriel is the author of the Roma Series, The Company Files, and the Shane Cleary mystery series. His second Company File novel, The Naming Game, was a finalist for the Agatha Award for Best Historical Mystery and the Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original.

Gabriel’s most recent novel, Symphony Road, was released earlier this week. It is the second installment in the Shane Cleary mystery series and—as I had the privilege of an early reading—it is highly recommended.

1. First off, congratulations on your latest release, Gabriel. It must be gratifying to see Shane Cleary back on the case. What made you decide to write a historical mystery series set in Boston?

Thank you for having me, and I’m happy to have Shane out there in the wild again.

Writing history is fun, for one thing. There’s a certain safety with chronological distance, and the research is easier. Also, unlike literary fiction, where you read hundreds of pages and nothing ever happens, a good mystery introduces readers to complex social issues. A mystery invites readers to participate in the story. As for my choice of city, that’s a harder oyster to shuck because there’s no getting around Boston’s Trinity in crime fiction: George V. Higgins, Robert B. Parker, and Dennis Lehane. I set myself apart from them by my choice of street corner. I write about Boston’s South End in the Seventies. It’s a neighborhood that’s ripe with forgotten history and local color.

2. You now have a number of series to your credit. Do you maintain a series bible to help you keep the details of character and setting and history consistent from book to book? Or is there another method you use to keep things straight?

I don’t keep a series bible. My creative mind doesn’t work that way. Once I’ve established the first book in a series, the characters and their personalities are inside my neural network. I hear them talk. I know their fears and desires, their strengths and weaknesses. What I do, however, before writing the next installment in a series is spend time reading the previous books, so I can fall back into the tempo and the world of the characters.

The way I keep matters straight is with the writing style. Each of my series has a Voice. The Roma Series is a contemporary story and therefore more expansive and descriptive. The Company Files, because they’re anchored in the Fifties, have echoes of Chandler and Hammett without being either Chandler or Hammett. The prose in the Shane Cleary mysteries is spare, cut to the bone, and with an undercurrent of dark humor. Hardboiled. I wrote the Shane series that way so the stories would sound different from The Company Files. My hope is that readers see I have range in my writing. I want them to be able to recognize me the minute they read a page.

3. Did you have a series in mind when you conceived of the story for Dirty Old Town? Or were you thinking strictly standalone?

I did have a series in mind, and writing Shane was an experiment for me. I wrote the first book, Dirty Old Town, in 2014, and then I proceeded to write the next four in 2016 BUT those four books, which were about 50K words each, had intentional holes in them. I returned to Dirty Old Town in 2017 and then proceeded to arc out each character and take the long view as to what I wanted to accomplish with each book in the series, and where I wanted each character to be by the fifth book. The objective was to give the reader a thorough journey.

In the first book, Shane is an idealist, a romantic, and there’s an undercurrent of grief in his life. He has walked away from his job as a police officer, fallen into PI work to pay the bills, and is haunted by his father’s suicide. In the subsequent books, I mine those themes, while I try to upend the tropes within the genre. What makes Shane unique is his clientele, which includes a mafioso, an arsonist, a mercenary, and so on. The twist is that the people he shouldn’t trust, he does, and the folks he should trust, he can’t. As for the long arc, the Shane in The Big Lie, book 5, is a very different man from the one the reader met in Dirty Old Town.

4. In my opinion, you have a real gift for writing historical fiction. Your sense of place, dialect, and events of the day all blend seamlessly. Has history always been a passion of yours?

Thank you for the compliment and I apologize for the long response here, but there is a lot for me to unpack in order to answer your question. I think what you perceive as seamless integration can be explained by how I work as a writer. My mind knows how to organize and order things; it understands the architecture inherent to storytelling from decades of reading. I know how to build the scene and a world. Then there’s my use of language. I can describe a lot with few words and, occasionally do it with a compelling turn of phrase. I don’t set out to do any of this. It just is.

As for my conveying sense of place…I’m originally from New Jersey, and the Garden State has character and characters. It’s a real greenhouse and it made me acutely aware of place. Know the Jersey expression, ‘I know a guy’? In certain parts of Jersey, everyone knew a guy. Sure, you can read Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguys, the basis for the movie Goodfellas, and get a feel for the place but experiencing it is another thing altogether. If you want a similar story—and if you can find a copy— read Paul Hoffman’s To Drop A Dime.

Then there’s the fact that I was a kid in the 70s and a teen in the 80s. Interesting times, but I didn’t know it then because I was busy being a kid. I remember the South Jersey-and-Philly mob war because it colored everything. I remember the day George Franconero, Connie Francis’ brother, was killed in his driveway, up the street from where I lived. New Jersey can be a vivid place. Neighborhood loyalties are real. Also, I used to go into Manhattan. A lot. Like Pete Hamill’s essays on Manhattan, The City I knew then is long gone. Brooklyn. The Bronx. Chelsea. The Village. Almost all of it is gentrified now. Vincent Gigante mumbled and stumbled around the Upper East Side in his ratty bathrobe and bunny slippers, to fake insanity and beat a couple of indictments. Little Italy was a very different place then. All the mafiosi would congregate at The Ravenite on Mulberry Street. Back then, Gotti would strut down the street, the brightest peacock of the brunch. Sammy Gravano hung back, a few steps behind him or at his side, sullen as a teenager. Like I said, a bygone era and I don’t miss it. The older generation died off, and those who replaced Gotti and his ilk send their kids to Wharton, the London School of Economics, and Bocconi in Milan.

As for dialect and dialogue, there’s another personal matter. I’m hard of hearing, and it wasn’t discovered until much later, after all the compensatory measures took hold. If I can’t see it, I can’t hear it. I can’t, for instance, hear anything behind me. I don’t have stereophonic hearing. My impairment places a premium on observation and intuition, which are invaluable to a writer, especially for dialogue. Think of it as encountering a text in a foreign language. You search for what you know, in terms of cognates, and figure out the rest by context.

The reason I brought up these colorful details of my personal history is that I listened to the way wiseguys used language, the cadence to their speech and thinking, how they connected the dots. It’s a real masterclass in psychology. The one trait that all of them had in common is that they could rationalize their behavior and convince you that they were the victim, the good guy doing you a favor! Unfortunately, give or take sophistication, education, and vocabulary, it’s the same sociopathic mindset you’ll encounter in white-collar criminals, corporate America, and politicians.

Don’t get me wrong, you can teach yourself a lot about writing from reading, but you need humility to get out of your own way in telling a story. You also need a capacity for analysis to understand what a writer like George V. Higgins and his idol John O’Hara are doing on the page. An example of analysis? We can agree that Elmore Leonard wrote great dialogue, but I’ll argue that he would’ve made one hell of a hostage negotiator. He used a lot of ‘mirroring,’ which is when you take snippets from the other person’s speech and throw it back at them so you can milk them for information without giving them anything out of your own pocket, and yet you are listening to them, still the good guy doing them a favor. If you want an example of mirroring, watch the movie Midnight Run. Listen to how all the characters talk to each other. Listen, observe, and try to discern motivation. We think we talk to each other to impart information. No, we talk because we need something from the other person, or we want them to do something for us.

5. When writing your novels, do you ever find yourself accidentally shifting from the historical to present day? I might be tempted to have Shane pick up a cellphone. What are some of the challenges to writing historical fiction?

Writing historical fiction does have its mousetraps, doesn’t it? A writer must do the research, all the due diligence. I can’t imagine doing the legwork without technology, though I tell people that that the internet is not the gospel truth. You the writer might have to consult with subject matter experts. Still, you have to get it right. The readers of your time period are often hardcore geeks about the era, so you’d better have the fashion right, and if you mention a song, then make sure you know when it was on the Billboard Hot 100 and for how long because you will be called out on mistakes. It’s always easier to be a critic.

I don’t think the cell phone is the problem. My worry is that nobody remembers a payphone. I’ve been pretty good at dodging anachronisms, although I almost experienced a public faceplant while writing The Good Man. The story was set in 1948 Vienna. I had my German shipshape, the Viennese desserts right, but…a character called another character, a single woman, Ms.

I could hear Harry Burns from When Harry Met Sally in my head. ‘Ehh. I’m sorry. I need the judge’s ruling on this.’ While the term Ms was used in the early twentieth century, it meant Mistress. Originally, or so I was told, Ms meant a young woman, 16 years old or younger. An unmarried woman by the mid-20th century was called Miss and it was sometimes spoken, with an edge of judgment. Nonetheless, a proofreader had chastened me and saved me from a public flogging. Take-away? Do your research.

6. What advice do you have for writers who are considering a historical novel?

First, find the era that you are passionate about because your enthusiasm will be contagious to the reader. When you’re really into a certain time period, you will venture beyond the dates and major events of the day. LA Chandlar, for instance, loves Art Deco and the Gotham that Mayor Fio La Guardia ruled as benevolent dictator, so her books are rich with details about architecture and art, cars and clothes, furniture, etc. Her imagination synthesizing all the details to make her Lane a compelling character. Susanna Calkins does the same thing with two characters in two disparate eras: her Lucy Campion in seventeenth-century London, and Gina Ricci in the 1920s. I also advise writers to watch films and listen to music. Say you’re interested in the Eighties and want to understand the Cold War. Watch the series The Americans because it integrates music with political events, while giving you the Zeitgeist.

When you do your research, look for WHAT spoke to people then, HOW it spoke to them, and WHY. When you connect those elements to Plot and Character, the writing becomes more vivid and vibrant.

7. Is there anything you did early on in your writing career that, given your later experience, you would have done differently?

Oh boy, where do I start? Hindsight is everything, isn’t it? I would say I didn’t trust my instincts. My first novel was Roma, Underground. I wrote what I thought readers wanted to read. What I mean by that is I felt that I needed more description in order to make a foreign culture come to life (the novel is set in Rome). One the other hand, in retrospect, it was a necessary part of my evolution as a writer, in improving my chops. I made mistakes. In Wasp’s Nest, the second book, I was heavy-handed with foreshadowing. Another mistake. Sometimes I’m too subtle with subtext in dialogue. Another mistake. Look, I can beat myself up all day long, better than any critic could, so I have to accept the bumps in the road. I still don’t have a line on marketing and visibility.

8. I’ve read a lot of series fiction over the years and, for me, keeping characters fresh and interesting over the long haul seems to be a major consideration in maintaining readership. What’s your secret?

My answer goes back to what I did with Shane. Like I said, it was an experiment, and I think my approach remains sound, but you have to have patience and think the long game. Think long character arcs. Create a character but have them have something missing. Shane doesn’t have love in his life. He doesn’t think he needs it. He is wrong. The question he thinks he has answered he hasn’t (no spoilers, sorry). My strategy with Shane is to have him (and his friends) have their own stories. A series is like calculus, you see a part of the story with each book, but the integral is the sum of experiences over time. Like Life, ups and downs. The “mystery” is a means to an end. We learn from conflict, not when everything is picture-perfect.

9. You’ve had success both as a novelist and a short fiction writer? Which format brings you the most joy? Or do you find them equally gratifying?

Intriguing question. I like short stories for reasons that may surprise you. I’m just not convinced people read them. One, I like the challenge of a call and a set word limit. It’s fun. I wouldn’t be writing if it weren’t fun. Short stories have taught me to write only what is essential to the story. You don’t have that with novels. Long fiction gives you more breathing space, more canvas. A short story is a distillation, often at the expense of something. The common complaint about short stories is there isn’t enough room for character development, or the plot might feel rushed. A great short story has a feeling of inevitability, and the last line should click like the clasp on a box.

There’s another benefit to the short story that nobody discusses s that it’s perfect for testing an idea out. The format, because of its compression, can tell you whether the idea is worthy of a novel. Roma, Underground began as a short story.

My preferred format is the novella. I can create a full experience, whatever the conflict, and present round characters, within 20,000 words. I did just that with five novellas in Five Before Rome. The novella offers that sweet spot between the confines of the short story and the endurance inherent in the novel.

10. What can readers expect to see next? Will there be another Shane Cleary mystery? Are you working on any other projects?

Level Best has scheduled Hush Hush, the third Shane Cleary mystery, for January 2022. A murder in the Combat Zone lays bare Boston’s class system and unapologetic racism.

Diminished Fifth, the third novel in the Company Files series, is slated for release on April 21, 2021 from Winter Goose Publishing. The Rosenbergs have just been executed. Senator McCarthy said Communists have infiltrated government agencies. Roy Cohn wants revenge, and J. Edgar Hoover sees an opportunity to damage The Company. Oh, readers meet an ambitious lawyer named Robert Kennedy.

Several of my short stories are out there working the streets.

Thank you for having me, and I hope everyone goes out and reads Symphony Road.

Thank you so much for taking the time to give us the benefits of your thoughts, Gabriel. Best of luck with your new book, Symphony Road.

Gabriel Valjan is a member of the Historical Novel Society, International Thriller Writers, and is a lifetime member of Sisters in Crime.

His second Company Files novel, The Naming Game was a 2020 Agatha Award nominee for Best Historical Mystery, and a 2020 Anthony Award nominee for Best Paperback Original. Gabriel’s short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies. He has been listed three times for the Fish Prize, shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, and received an honorable mention for the Nero Wolfe Black Orchid Novella Contest in 2018.


To learn more about Gabriel, visit his web site at: http://www.gabrielvaljan.com.

Gabriel Valjan was interviewed for Murder Books by Bruce Robert Coffin. http://www.brucerobertcoffin.com

True Crime vs. Crime Fiction

By Bruce Robert Coffin

I’m often asked whether any of the crimes I’ve written about in my novels are based on actual cases. The short answer is no. Not yet anyway.

When I retired from law enforcement in 2012 I had no idea if my writing career would take off or not, but I did know that I was putting my police life behind me. I had no desire to write true crime, mostly because I’d lived it. But also because—unless there was a beneficial reason for doing so—I worried that my stories would only cause additional pain for the victim’s family and friends.

You might wonder how I happened to choose crime fiction as my genre if I was trying to move on from my days of police investigations. Truthfully, it wasn’t a choice I made. Crime fiction found me. But, oddly enough, writing crime fiction isn’t the same as writing true crime. I’m making up characters and crimes to populate the pages of my novels, and there’s something cathartic in that. Perhaps it’s because they aren’t real and, unlike real life, I get to make the rules and control the outcome.

On the pages of my novels John Byron, Diane Joyner and the rest of the fictional 109 crew experience many of the things that I and my fellow officers experienced on the job. They feel the same emotions and experience the same struggle to maintain balanced between their personal and professional lives. They witness horrific events, tragedy, and the worst of the human condition. But they also experience hope, camaraderie, and the chance to make a real difference in the lives of those they come into contact with in their fictional world.

In books, good can triumph over evil. But in the police investigations of real life there are simply too many variables, too many things out of the investigator’s control. Hopefully, if I’ve done my job well, each of the Detective Byron novels provide the reader a with a glimpse into what the job is really like.

On behalf of my fellow Murder Books bloggers I’d like to wish you all a safe and healthy new year. Sláinte!

***

Bruce Robert Coffin is the bestselling author of the Detective Byron mystery series. A former detective sergeant, with more than twenty-seven years in law enforcement, he supervised all homicide and violent crime investigations for Maine’s largest city. Following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, Bruce spent four years investigating counter-terrorism cases for the FBI, earning the Director’s Award, the highest award a non-agent can receive.

His novel, Beyond the Truth, winner of Killer Nashville’s Silver Falchion Award for Best Procedural, was a finalist for the Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel and a finalist for the Maine Literary Award for Best Crime Fiction. His short fiction appears in several anthologies, including Best American Mystery Stories 2016.

Bruce is a member of International Thriller Writers, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. He is a regular contributor to Murder Books blogs.

Bruce is represented by Paula Munier at Talcott Notch Literary.

He lives and writes in Maine.

To learn more about Bruce, please visit: http://www.brucerobertcoffin.com

Judging for the Edgars Best Novel Award

By Brian Thiem

A year ago, author pal Susan Breen told me she had been asked by Mystery Writers of America to chair the Edgars Best Novel selection committee and asked me to be one of the seven committee members.

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Although I’m a newbie in the mystery writing world, I’ve been familiar with the Edgars Awards for some time. The Edgars are the most prestigious awards for mystery authors. When the nominations come out every year, I head to the library and local bookstore to grab copies of the books that Mystery Writers of America has determined to be the best. And like most mystery authors, I dream that one of my books might someday make the list.

Being asked to be part of the process was a true honor, so, not fully comprehending the enormity of the task, I agreed.

The books started trickling in. Brand new hardcover novels shipped directly from the publishers. Books written by my favorite authors. Authors I’d never previously read but always wanted to. Traditional mysteries, thrillers, procedurals. All mine to keep. It was like Christmas every day.Edgar Books 4

I started reading.

Then more books arrived. I’d get home in the evening and find several boxes of books on the porch. I’d watch the UPS guy and postal carrier plodding up my driveway carrying heavy boxes, obviously hating my decision to join the committee. In no time at all, my home office had piles of books on the coffee table and more on the floor. Soon, stacks twenty-books high covered an entire wall. I emptied half the shelves on my four bookcases to make space. But that wasn’t enough.

Susan had warned us the previous year’s Best Novel committee received more than 500 books, and we needed to find our own system to plow through the books and come up with our committee’s five nominees. It became obvious that even if I did nothing but eat, sleep, and read for the next year, I couldn’t possibly read 500 books beginning to end.

I remembered the semester in my MFA program when I interned with literary agent extraordinaire Paula Munier and was assigned her electronic “slush pile” sent by authors who dreamed of landing an agent. I quickly learned to read for “rejection.” As calloused as it sounds, I was searching for a great book by a great writer, and anything less, I had to reject.

I began doing the same with the Best Novel submissions. But it was tough. All the books came from traditional publishers who had qualified for MWA’s approved publishers list. The authors had already made the cut by attracting an agent. Their agents thought their books were great enough to pitch to publishers. The publishing houses thought the books were great enough to send out to the world and be profitable, even after the advances they paid out and the costs of editing, publishing, and marketing. All the books I received were worthy.

Many evenings, I sat in my office and stared at the twenty or more books sitting on my coffee table. Sometimes, I would read the first few pages, acknowledge it was a good book but not a winner, and put it aside. I’d read three chapters of others and think, “maybe,” setting it aside to read more. And some I read to the end over the next few days. Some of those made my list. I began whittling down the pile. Then the dreaded UPS guy came again.Edgar Books 1

The committee was comprised of avid readers and successful authors: Gray Basnight, Susan Breen, Tracy Clark, Tracee de Hahn, Mary Feliz, and Jeff Soloway. Our backgrounds and writing subgenres were different. We had different opinions about what made a “best” novel. Over the year, we traded hundreds of emails, discussing what we liked and why. We were often passionate in our opinions. But our diversity in background, voices, and beliefs turned out to be our strength.

I had only met a few of the committee members in person before we were selected, but by the end of the year, I felt I had six close friends. They’d share a book they loved, and I sometimes had to pull it from my “no” pile and give it another look. I’d tell them why I like a particular book. We’d sometimes argue over—I mean discuss—the merits of different books, but it never got personal, and I learned more about writing from this group than I thought possible.

We’re all sworn to secrecy about the inner workings of our committee and how we came up with the winners, but I will say, there’s no magic formula to what makes the best novel (or if there is, it still eludes me). If there was, every author could write the next bestseller.

Once we selected our nominees and winner, we all felt like we deserved a celebration. Too bad we lived in different parts of the country. I began boxing up my books. Some of the 540 books I had received I already gave away to friends. About 60 books—those that were not winners, but books I loved them enough to want to finish—remained on my shelves. I delivered the rest to the local library. The branch manager was thrilled. SomeEdgar Books 3 would go into their circulation, others would go to other branch libraries in the county system, and some would be sold by the Friends of the Library to raise money for library programs.

It was an honor to be part of this process. I’m in awe of the talented authors who wrote hundreds of amazing mystery, thriller, and crime novels in 2019. I offer a huge congratulations to the nominees. I’m equally in awe of my fellow committee members. You guys are awesome.

The winner of Best Novel and the other categories will be announced at the Edgars Banquet in New York on April 30.

 

Writing Spaces and Places

By Brian Thiem: Last week I posted a photo of my writing desk on social media and received a lot of comments. I’ve also been following my many author friends during their jaunt to Dallas for Bouchercon, where their writing juices are being replenished to help them crank out the successive thousand word days when they get home. It got me thinking about our personal sacred writing spaces and places where we create the stories others love to read.

I’ve written on my back porch, in the family room, on the kitchen counter, and countless other places in my house. I’ve also written during travels from the west coast to the east and countless foreign countries. Wherever I go, I normally take my laptop so I can write.

Although all I need to write is my laptop, the screen isn’t large enough for two windows opened simultaneously, and after a few hours of work, my old body, plagued with plenty of military and cop-career injuries, is feeling it in the neck, back, and hands.

I prefer writing in my own space, where I have everything at my fingertips—reference files, notes, books. Where I can control my environment and shut out distractions when necessary. I do most of my writing at my desk, where my laptop (a 13-inch Lenovo ThinkPad) snaps into a docking station that’s hooked to two external monitors, a quality keyboard that actually makes an audible click when a key is depressed, a LaserJet printer, and mouse. The external monitor is large enough to show my working manuscript on the right and my plot outline on the left side of one screen. I often bring up my character list (because I forget character names sometimes.) I can use the other monitor for reference and research. I have room to scatter papers and notes all around me on the computer table and desk. At my desk, I sit up straight with everything in the right ergonomic position.

After an hour or two at my desk, I try to take a break, and will often find myself in my reading chair. That’s also where I normally begin a new project, brainstorming and jotting down ideas that will eventually become a plot outline. That chair is where I frequently read one of the many novels on my TBR (to be read) pile that resides on the coffee table. I’ll admit I might also lie on the sofa to read, but somehow that position seems to make my eyelids heavy.

Annie, who’s been my writing companion for seven years, her own spot in the corner of my office. She’s not much of a critic though—she’s just as content watching me write garbage as a potential bestseller.

So, fellow writers, where do you write? Tell me about your space. Attach photos.