Saturday, December 18, 2010

Pretzel S'mores

My S'mores -- Messy, Not Elegant, but Crowd Pleasers
You may be asking yourself, "Isn't she going to blog about the craft and business of writing?"  Yes. Later. I write in the mornings and, from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day, I spend a lot of time happily baking and cooking which to me is the Anti-Writing. I guess it's not really the opposite of writing but it's more of a complement to it. Still creative, but in a different way. There was a brief period in my young adult years when I considered going to culinary school.  I've been cooking and baking since I was a little kid--the same time I started writing. I share a passion for each.

So, on to Pretzel S'mores. An easy and messy recipe with a completely addictive result. I love the combination of salty and sweet.

I've obtained some of my favorite recipes from the backs of boxes and bags of sugar, flour, chocolate chips, etc. and from product ads. I saw this recipe for Pretzel S'mores in a Rold Gold Pretzel ad. I looked on the Net for the recipe and couldn't find it. It wasn't even on the Rold Gold site.  What's up, Frito-Lay marketing geniuses?  I'll help you out.  Here it is, as printed with my notes:

ROLD GOLD Pretzel S'mores

Break apart a 16 oz. semisweet chocolate bar. (I used a bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips.) Set some aside for grating over finished s'mores. (Unnecessary. See my later comment.) 

Place chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl and heat until melted and smooth, stirring every 30 seconds.

Cover cookie sheet with parchment or wax paper and lay out 20 ROLD GOLD Classic Style Tiny Twists Pretzels.  (There was plenty of chocolate for more than 20 pretzels. Fill the pan.)

The Gorgeous Photo from the Ad. Mine Did Not Look Like This.
Place melted chocolate in a piping bag (what I did) or create your own by placing chocolate in a small plastic bag and snipping off one corner (Might try this next time because cleaning the chocolate from the piping bag was a mess).

Fill pretzel opening with melted chocolate and allow to cool. (I didn't completely fill holes.)

Once cool, place 2 teaspoons of marshmallow creme on each chocolate-filled pretzel and top with a pretzel, pressing gently.  (I was barely able to fit a generous teaspoon of the creme on top. It squishes out.)

Grate extra chocolate over finished Pretzel S'mores and enjoy. (Grating chocolate on top is an extra unnecessary step IMHO and rather like gilding a lily, but whatever.)

I recommend putting them together right before serving. They start to melt almost immediately, the tops sliding to one side. I put them in the fridge which helps. Don't know what freezing would do to them.  They were fine after being refrigerated overnight. Before serving, I set each one on a small piece of wax paper because they stick to the serving plate.  We had a couple of friends over and they were a big hit, especially with the guys. I put the leftovers back into the fridge and they didn't hold up after a second day.

I would make this recipe again.

Bon appetit!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Perfected: Lemon Custard Cookies

I'm going to just say it: I make the best lemon custard cookies.  Over the many years that I've been baking them, I've honed a recipe that is simple on the surface yet the devil is in the details. 

My Thanksgiving batch with a Shawnee vase from my collection.
I've become a lemon custard cookie snob.  I can eyeball a batch made by others from ten paces and determine with pretty good accuracy whether they're good or not. Pale yellow custard?  Not tart enough.  Runny custard?  Underdone. Fluffy custard or gummy custard?  I have no idea what causes that but it's just wrong.  Crumbly, thick crust?  Underdone or not packed well into the pan or... gasp... I don't even want to know if you didn't use real butter.

The perfect lemon custard cookie has a tart, smooth lemon pie layer that's gelled but not gummy atop a buttery, crisp yet tender shortbread crust. When you bite into it, your lips slightly pucker like at the beginning of a kiss. The shortbread crumbles and melts and you feel a memory of tartness at the back of your throat. There is always a moment of silence. 

Notes before proceeding: Do not be afraid of the lemon!  On the other hand, don't tip over into sour.  You need to find the delicate balance between lemon and sugar.  And only use fresh lemon juice.  Banish that bottled Real Lemon!  It tastes metallic. Go no further if you're even thinking about using it. 

Leery of tasting the raw custard for tartness?  I suppose you could go on faith, but I've been eating raw batter since I was a kid.

Ready?  Here we go.


Pre-heat oven to 350

For crust:

1/2 cup sifted powdered sugar
1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 cubes unsalted cold butter

Put powdered sugar and flour into a medium bowl.  Cut butter into the bowl.  Blend together with a pastry blender, fork, or fingers (my favorite) until evenly crumbly. Pat firmly and evenly into a 9" x 12" pan.  Bake 10 to 15 minutes until slightly brown on bottom and sides and top has brown patches and looks solid--not doughy.  Watch as it can burn quickly.  Be careful not to under cook the crust as it won't bake much more when it's filled and will be too crumbly if it's underdone. Take out pan and set on a rack.

For filling:

Freshly squeeze lemons until you get about 7 to 8 tablespoons of juice (about 3 or 4 medium lemons).
Strain the juice through a sieve to remove seeds and pulp.
3 eggs, beaten
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 tablespoons flour

Note on the sugar: you may be tempted to cut the quantity. It is a lot of sugar, but when you cut it (once I cut it to 1 cup), the custard won't have the right consistency.

In a medium bowl, mix together by hand the eggs, sugar, and flour.  Add about 6 tablespoons of lemon juice then taste for tartness. The tartness of lemons can vary. Add more lemon until you achieve the tartness you like, but be bold! Batter should be a little more tart than you want in the finished cookie because a bit of tartness is lost in cooking.

Pour filling on hot crust.  Bake 20 minutes longer or until custard is firm in the middle. Should have little bubbles here and there on the surface.

Sprinkle on powdered sugar while still hot.

Cool and cut into squares.

Serving tip: If you're bringing the cookies to share, cut and plate them ahead of time. They are sticky and hard to get out of the pan without breaking. If you bring the full pan, your masterpiece will be delicious but ugly from people jabbing and breaking the cookies.

Bon appetit!


Monday, November 8, 2010

The Coast, Conference, and Cuisine-- Bouchercon Part 3: Cuisine

A great meal shared or enjoyed in solitary reverie creates an enduring memory. I pretty much ate my way through the San Francisco Bay area while I was there attending Bouchercon 2010. And what a place to indulge. 

Soundtrack: KFOG

A trip to San Francisco is not complete for Charlie and me without a visit to Tadich Grill. Established in 1849, it's San Francisco's oldest restaurant. We like to sit at the long wooden bar, leaning against the wall behind it with a drink while waiting for seats to open. Seats eventually do appear and so does a white-aproned waiter who sets down sliced bread that has a thick dark brown crust that's nearly burnt. Completely addictive. I ordered cioppino.  I always order cioppino.  I must have had cioppino 20 of the 30 or so times I've been to the Tadich. I even make it at home as I have the Tadich Grill book that includes the recipe. Charlie had littleneck clams steamed in a buttery broth which he sopped up with that bread. The waiter brought us paper bibs. I dig paper bibs.

Also waiting for a seat at the bar was an older man in a well-tailored business suit. He sat beside us, didn't look at the menu, and ordered glass of cabernet and a slab of rice pudding that came with a little pitcher of bourbon sauce. He poured the sauce around the pudding and ate slowly, with focus and pleasure. Then he paid and left. Clearly his Tadich tradition.

The Random House party was held at Water Bar in their upstairs room where a patio overlooks the Bay Bridge, spectacularly lit at sunset. I was a fan girl, chit chatting with Lee Child, Laurie King, and Karin Slaughter. A friend and I blissfully polished off most of a platter of ahi tuna tartar served in porcelain spoons while raw fish-averse buddies wrinkled their noses.

One afternoon, I explored the Ferry Building near the conference hotel, my shopping bag in hand with a goal of buying goodies for our family dinner as later I was heading on BART to the East Bay to spend time with my in-laws.

The first thing I bought was a Mo's Milk Chocolate Bacon Bar. 'Nuff said.

I loaded my bag with sheep's milk feta from Cowgirl Creamery, a small bag of the crispiest, most delectable chocolate chip cookies from Miette, and a baguette, cinnamon rolls, and a round of walnut/cranberry bread from Acme Bread Company. Back at the hotel bar, friends said the baguette wouldn't survive my trip to the East Bay intact. They were right. By the time I disembarked, the crusty end was toast (bad pun... couldn't resist!).

On Sunday in the East Bay, we went to a farmer's market to shop for our family dinner that night. We bought lots of wonderful produce for a big pot of stew, but the star was grass-fed local beef from Alhambra Valley Beef. I've eaten grass-fed beef before and to me it tasted like, well, grass. This beef was so flavorful. Words that come to mind are fresh and light. 

While browning the beef, I recalled lessons learned from Julia Child. "Don't be afraid of the fire" (get that pan and oil hot) and "don't crowd the beef as you'll steam it and not brown it."  (Add Julia's trilling voice). Ah, Julia. How can there be people who don't know who you are? (Read to the middle of my Big Sur post). My farmer's market stew was a success.

We had lunch with family and friends at The Dead Fish in the bayside city of Crockett. It's a charming restaurant with a funny name, hilarious menu, and great food. It was a rainy day.  We sat by a window overlooking the Carquinez Straits (gotta love the name). I had crab cakes--crisp panko breadcrumbs on the outside and succulent inside.

The next day, we made PB & J sandwiches for the drive home. Thanks for the delicious memories, S.F.  

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Coast, Conference, and Cuisine-- Bouchercon Part 2: Conference

Bouchercon 2010 in San Francisco was already two weeks ago?  Got to get this post up.  This is the "conference" part of my three-part Bcon experience. Part 1 is: The Coast--Big Sur. The third and final part (coming soon) is Cuisine. You can't go to the Bay Area and not give props to the food. 

So here are my conference observations, in no particular order:

  • Bcon is like a giant cocktail party. Make like a hummingbird--dive in, suck the nectar, move on.
  • It was terrific. Well-organized, great panels and fun events.
  • The best part was seeing friends, of course.  Too many to mention! 
  • I saw a lot people I know only enough to say hi to, but I'd really like to sit down and have a conversation with these folks some day.
  • Priceless as Daniel Woodrell drolly explained in his slow drawl that there are some places in the U.S. where you can still buy a house for fifteen thousand (speaking of his Missouri Ozarks).  "The foundation's maybe slipped or the roof might slope a little. Most of the meth labs have moved out of my neighborhood, except for the house next door."
  • My panel rocked! It was "Crossfire: Putting Your Protagonist in Jeopardy" with me, Lori Armstong, Karen Olson, James Rollins, James Thane, and moderated by Randal Brandt. SRO and we had a lot of laughs.
  • I can't wear high heels as long as I used to at cocktail parties.
  • I love wearing high heels.
  • Lee Child's remarks about researching places for his books were funny and revelatory. He set a book in Georgia. Instead of traveling there, he rented "My Cousin Vinny" to get an idea about Georgia, even though the movie was set in Alabama.  "Close enough."
  • I need some of Lee Child's guts.
  • Loved seeing writers I know from crime writers' organizations and other conferences who were then unpublished and are now sitting at the signing table with me. Yay! 
  • Lots of cat talk in author bios. Made me think, "Whoa, those cat people are crazy into their cats." Then, "Yikes, that's me!"
  • If someone points a camera at you, especially if you're sitting behind a table, straighten up.
  • Smile!
  • Before we left, driving from SoCal, I grabbed my husband's vintage red and navy Madras plaid jacket from the closet. Wore it Saturday, sleeves rolled up over skinny jeans with a Kangol felt hat, navy blue with rolled brim. Retro fun. Hey, it's Frisco.
  • Loved the "Me too!" moments with other authors that make me feel that I'm not alone out there.  An author told me he likes media escorts and staying with family when on tour except for the endless talking.  "I just get tired of talking." Me too! Or the author who revealed he always wanted to be included with the group, chosen for the team, one of the popular kids. Hey!  Me too!
  • Missed several panels because of stopping to chat with friends in the hallways and the bar.
  • LOL hearing the banter between Val McDermid and Paul Levine talking about writing a sequel to Treasure Island. "John Paul Silver--The Return."
  • The badges listed name and state. No city. Just state. There were many Californians.  I thought it was humorous to ignore California's geographic chauvinism and throw us into one pot. Some Californians couldn't bear it and hand wrote their city.
  • There's always talk of splitting up California. Some years ago, the L.A. Times asked for suggested names for the new states. Someone suggested these names for the three states of Northern, Central, and Southern California: Super Ego, Ego, and Id.  This has nothing to do with Bouchercon. I just think it's funny.
  • My first Bouchercon was in 1991 in Pasadena,CA. I'd just sold my first books to Simon and Schuster. I met my editor, Dana Isaacson there. Dana and I had a lot of fun then and we're still having fun. If this was your first Bouchercon, hope you took away something magical.
Soundtrack on the drive into San Francisco: Genius Loves Company.

Food is always at the top of my agenda any time I travel to the Bay Area. Next, I blog about the third part of the journey: Cuisine.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Coast, Conference, and Cuisine-- Bouchercon Part 1: The Coast and Big Sur

We drove from SoCal to Bouchercon 2010 in San Fransciso, which means that we seriously overpacked. Okay, I seriously overpacked.

Fog hiding the ocean. Looking south from the deck of the Nepenthe.
Husband Charlie and I decided we'd break up the drive and spend a night in Big Sur. It had been a couple of years since we'd cruised Highway One.  When the weather is fine, driving that stretch of coast from Morro Bay to Carmel is transformative. It makes me want to write a love song to California. I hummed some instead. Yeah Cali, you're broke, you've got a lot of problems, but this native daughter loves U and your golden self.

We almost had the road to ourselves.  A light shifting fog moved through the air, making mirages of ocean and foothills that would suddenly appear out of the mist only to be just as quickly erased. White fog ran down canyons like streams from Heaven. Quicksilver ocean melted into dove-feathered fog. It was mystical.

Soundtrack into Big Sur: Jazz Round Midnight: Chanteuses and selections from Beethoven.

Big Sur is like a hippie Fantasy Island--a different place and era cut off from the rest of the world. It's not easy to get to. There's sporadic cell phone service. The physical beauty is imposing and makes everything else seem trivial. The French, German, Italian, and British visitors outnumbered the Yanks, adding to my feeling of being in a strange land.  My cell phone displayed a scary red emblem instead of the signal strength bars. Took me a little time to ignore that silent scream. Freedom from the CrackBerry.

I'm a sucker for a pretty photo of a sunset.  From the Nepenthe. 
We reached the Nepenthe in time for the sunset. Charlie trained another bartender how to make a Vesper martini.  We split a Calistoga artichoke appetizer, a Nepenthe's Ambrosia Burger, and a giant basket of fries. Behind us, a group of folks was discussing the "Julie and Julia" movie. A man at the table didn't know who Julia Child was. Others there filled him in, but agreed that she was still alive yet "elderly." Decisions... Reveal myself as an eavesdropper and inject myself into their conversation to set them straight or forever hold my peace?  I practiced silence and turned my attention to the sun setting behind twin fog banks which garnered a crowd with cameras.

When the sun made its final dip into the ocean, there was discussion of seeing the green flash. Very cool, waiting for that fleeting event.

We stayed in a simple motel along the Big Sur River. There were Adirondack chairs in the river, perfect for sitting on a hot day.  Even though the river was more like a creek after our dry year, I realized how rarely I experience a river. The cement-shrouded L.A. River doesn't count. I let the cool water run over my hands and touched the smooth pebbles on the bottom.

I awakened at some point during the night. It was strangely dark. Black dark. No display on the nightstand digital clock. No lights from outside. The power was off. I wondered if the rest of the world had disappeared like in one of those early 1960s horror movies inspired by A-Bomb paranoia in which the people seem to have evaporated, leaving their cars with full tanks of gas and the keys in the ignition. What if the world outside Big Sur was gone?  Deciding there was nothing I could do about it, I rolled over and went back to sleep. In the morning, the digital clock was flashing the wrong time. The world had not disappeared.
I had plenty of company snapping this beauty.

Every time I visit Big Sur, I hear its siren call, as have many others, including Henry Miller, who rolled in and didn't leave--for a while at least. Big Sur whispers to me, "What are you doing with all this stuff?" I think, you're right. I'm gonna shed my baggage, the Samsonite in my hands and the crap in my head, and stay. Stay and make necklaces out of stones and bones and write crazy prose and not care if anyone reads it and live out the rest of my days. The next morning, just like the power outage, the moment passed.  After a lovely breakfast on a deck above the river, we pushed on to San Francisco and Bouchercon. 

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Writin' is Fightin'

If you're holding down a job, caring for family, keeping a home, you're already under a lot of pressure and your attention is pulled in a zillion directions. How are you going to fulfill your dream of writing that novel?

From the outside, writing a novel seems magical and mysterious. From the inside, it is often magical and mysterious. When the eagle soars and the words flow, it's a beautiful thing.

Then there are those other times...

I've heard Michael Connelly say that writin' is fightin'.  It is a fight--to find time to write, to focus, to turn out great work, to shut down the self doubts. I've heard hugely successful novelists talk about having the same concerns. It's comforting in a way to know that they also struggle. I do have a couple of novelist friends who have said certain of their books have "written themselves." Hmm... Not me. By the time I've put a book to bed, I feel as if I've survived the Bataan Death March.

Take heart. Writing a novel is not easy for most of us.

If you want to write that book, you must treat it like a job. No time to wait for the muse. Set aside a fixed time five days a week and write. Even if it's just an hour.  Even if you don't feel like it. Even if, even if... Just do it.

Just like any job, sometimes I have terrific days and other times, not so much. On those tough days, sometimes once I sit down and get started, the ideas and words come. Other days, the work just goes nowhere.

That's when I make a bargain with the muse.  I'll tell myself to work for two hours, then I can go do something else. Or maybe just one hour...  Walking away and doing something not related to writing, like going to the gym, digging in the yard, or cooking, often will pry loose ideas.

Then come back to the computer later that day or the next day ready for a new fight.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

They're Playing Our Song

Photo: Bill Youngblood
In the spring of 1999, my groom Charlie and I were planning our wedding which would take place on September 23, 2000. This was my first marriage.  I was well past my ingenue years and, even as a teenager and young adult, I'd never dreamed about getting married or having a wedding.  So I was surprised when I wanted a wedding, a traditional one with all the pomp and ceremony.

As the larger decisions--ceremony, reception, music, food, attire--came together, we began to consider the smaller details. One detail turned out to be not so small. What song did we want for our first dance as husband and wife?  We didn't have an "our song." The thought of an "our song" was so romantic and classic, so Bogie and Bacall, so Tracy and Hepburn, so Liz and Dick. How does a couple get one, make the decision that this is our song? It's not something you just pick out of the vinyl-coated, buffalo-wings-grease-smeared pages of a karoke song book. 
Vintage 1950s cake topper I bought on eBay.
Photo: Bill Youngblood.

I decided to be practical. Forget about "our song." While we loved to dance, we'd never taken those ballroom dancing lessons we'd always talked about and were too busy to start so a swing tune like "Fly Me to the Moon" was out. I began scouting around for something easy to dance to. I also wanted something classy and that hadn't been done to death.  No "Love Me Tender." No "From this Moment On." No "How Deep is Your Love." No. No. No. Love "Moon River," but cripes, too slow. And I wanted the song for our first dance to mean something. Even if it wasn't the elusive "our song," it had to be a great song.

One weekend, we went to La Jolla, California. Charlie had a business meeting nearby and we splurged on a stay at the La Valencia Hotel. Yes, it's as wonderful as it looks.  That evening, we sat in the lobby bar where there was a piano singer--a dying breed. He started playing and singing a song that made me sit straighter.  What was that tune?  I'd heard it before, but hadn't really paid attention to it. Now, I was enthralled, especially when my husband-to-be spontaneously started singing along:

"I can only give you country walks in springtime,
and a hand to hold when leaves begin to fall.
And a love whose burning light,
Will warm a winter's night..."

The lyrics expressed what we felt about each other. The melody was memorable and... easy to dance to.  I asked Charlie, "What's that song?" He turned to me and sang, "That's all.  That's all..."

I've since learned that "That's All" was written in 1952 and has been recorded by many greats including Nat "King" Cole, Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme and Bobby Darin.

Our first dance to "That's All." Photo: Bill Youngblood.
Ever since, whenever we're lucky to find a place with a great piano singer, we always request "That's All."  We listen, misty eyed. Sometimes we dance. I love it so much that when I dedicated The First Cut, the first in my Detective Nan Vining series, and Love Kills, the fourth, to Charlie, I included a homage to "That's All."

So, here's our song, for you Charlie.  Happy tenth anniversary, sweetheart.

My favorite version is by Mel Torme, but I also love this classic version sung by Edie Adams on the "I Love Lucy" series finale in 1960. 

Here's a lovely rendition by Cynthia Lin on ukulele that she performed at her sister's wedding.

Monday, July 26, 2010

What's in a Name?

I'm working on a new book and I'm having a hard time naming a key character. I've tried out a bunch of names, but nothing sticks. Something will, I just don't know what or when.  I once heard Sue Grafton say, "Trust the process."  Wise advice.  When in doubt, keep at it. Something will come.  

I can't speak for other fiction writers, but naming characters is a critical step for me when crafting a story. I strive for each character's name to evoke an image of or a feeling about the character.  How perfect a name is "Hannibal Lecter" for a cannibalistic, erudite serial killer?   

While I'm struggling with getting this one important character's name just right, I thought it might be of interest to describe my process for coming up with names.  "Process" sounds so formal and orderly. In reality, my method has few rules and mostly flies on instinct.

As a place to begin, names reflect a character's era and background. I think about the character's age, social class, and where and how she or he was raised.  I imagine the character's parents and think about where their heads were when their bouncing baby came along.  In my most recent book, Love Kills, I had fun naming two sets of girlfriends from different generations and upbringings.  One set included Patsy, Catherine ("Tink"), and Vicki.  The other had Cheyenne, Fallon, and Trendi.  Any ideas about the ages of the friends and which had the more stable backgrounds?

There are some Hollywood types in Love Kills and naming them was a kick. There's an A-list celebrity couple and I wanted to give them a catchy shorthand nickname along the lines of Brangelina.  I named the husband, a vaguely creepy funnyman, Gig Towne and named his younger and troubled wife Sinclair LeFleur.  They're known in the tabloids as "LeTowne."  Gig is as snappy and phony as his name.  Sinclair is like a bruised flower. 

I chose Georgia Berryhill for the name of my motherly, nurturing guru to the stars who owns Berryhill, a Malibu Canyon healing ground for the well-heeled.  "Georgia" to me sounds homey and comforting, like peach pie. "Berryhill" conjures a wonderful image.  It was a blast to lift the kimono and reveal what really goes on at the Berryhill compound. Sometimes I choose names that deceive the reader about the character's true nature.

Sometimes, a name comes easily.  That was the case when I named the protagonist of my current series, Detective Nan Vining.  There's a town in California's eastern Sierra Nevada mountains that's called Lee Vining.  That name had always stuck in my head. I wasn't crazy about "Lee" or "Leigh" as a first name, though. Names with a lot of vowels and soft consonants sound soft to me.  I wanted my protagonist to have solid, old-fashioned first name and settled on Nan, short for Nanette, her grandmother's name.  Nan Vining's name is apt because she's like a vine--tenacious, slowly creeping, deceptively strong. Her name also inspired her nickname at the station: Poison Ivy.  

To me, names with hard consonants, like Nan Vining, sound sharp and forceful.  Nan's homicide detective partner is Jim Kissick. Sounds decisive and he is.   

I can start writing without having my characters' names finalized, but they don't feel whole until they're properly named. I feel like I don't completely know them. I often change names when I'm well into a manuscript. I'll be writing along with the great name I've picked and one day, it'll just go "clunk" in my head. Back to the drawing board. 

What comprises my drawing board?  I do have a sort of process for naming and keeping track of characters.  Of course I consult the Internet.  It's great for researching names by any parameters imaginable. I like to see words in print, so I also use books and such. 

I bought Character Naming Sourcebook years ago and use it often. I have baby name books. I have a spiral pad full of names I've jotted down over the years. I keep alumni directories and high school yearbooks.  I'll look through my local newspaper's obituaries.  I'll scan the phone book. Sometimes I'll describe a character to my husband and ask him for a name off the top of his head. I've used names I've overheard.  

I avoid names that are hard to pronounce.  When I'm reading and come across a name I don't know how to pronounce, it takes me out of the story because I stop to try to figure it out. 

I avoid names that can make for awkward reading. "Fred," for example. "Fred said" would take me right out of any story I'm reading. I don't want readers to focus on individual words.  I want them to be lulled into the canvas I'm painting with words and to forget they're reading.

While I'm immersing myself into a world of names via these myriad sources, I jot down names on blue index cards with a Sharpie pen.  I like blue cards for names and white cards for plot points.  No reason.  The white index cards I thumbtack to a big bulletin board to the left of my desk.  I'll write about how I plot in a future blog post.     

I look for memorable rather than unusual names. Sometimes the names are unusual.  Sometimes they're common.  The one thing they have in common is that they fit the character.  Once I come up with a name I like, I tape the index card with it onto one of two large white boards that sit on the floor behind my desk, within easy reach. I'll also write brief facts about the character--age, background, etc. If I have longer descriptions, those go up too. Sometimes I'll put up photos I've found of people who look like how I've imagined a character.  

Through all this, the characters begin to live and breathe and I'm slowly building the skeleton upon which I'll drape the story.  I put index cards up and take them down as names change, new characters appear or ones I thought I needed drop away  The index cards on the whiteboards also help me see if I have too many names that start with the same letter or that sound the same.  

I save the final index cards that I've created for all my books.  Part of saving them is sentimental, but they have a practical use too. I can quickly look through them to make sure I haven't already used a character's first or last name in another book in my Nan Vining series.

Here's a shot of one of my white boards as it looked when I finished the final revisions to Love Kills. After a book is finished, which for me is after I've gone through the printed page proofs and there's no further writing to do, I take everything down, leaving my white boards clean and bare, waiting for a new family of characters to move in. I again begin the process of getting to know them and their stories.

As far as the ongoing characters in my Detective Nan Vining series, I'm well beyond the blue index card phase with them. I have to keep track of their entire lives and make sure the basic facts about them stay consistent from book to book.  I've set up a Word document for each character. I type into it physical characteristics, background information, family and educational history, types and names of their pets, even descriptions of their homes and workplaces if we've been there.  I record anything about the character that has appeared in any of the Nan Vining books.  With each book, I add to each character's encyclopedia page.  I print the pages and put them into a three-ring binder that sits to the right of my computer.  Then if I forget the color of Jim Kissick's eyes (hazel) or the number of times Nan's mother has been married (four), the information is at my fingertips.      

Speaking of changing names, you might have noticed that I've changed the name of this blog. I used to call it "I Write Therefore I Am," which I meant as a fun poke at my undergraduate philosophy studies.  "Plot Points" is pithier, I think, and speaks more to my goals with this blog.  I've also used one of the new templates supplied by Blogger. What do you think?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Interview for The Big Thrill

This interview by Lori A. May appeared in the International Thriller Writers "Big Thrill" newsletter.

Dianne Emley escaped a career in business middle management and the cubicle warren and now writes the Detective Nan Vining thrillers published by Ballantine. The debut, The First Cut, was an LA Times bestseller. Publisher's Weekly called Cut to the Quick "compelling" and "edgy." The Deepest Cut, a Romantic Times TOP PICK, received a starred review from Booklist. Love Kills was released in May 2010. The series has been translated into several languages. A Los Angeles native, Dianne has a BA and an MBA from UCLA. She lives in Pasadena with her patient husband and two willful cats.

Dianne was pleased to chat about writing, life, and her latest in the series--Love Kills.

Q: Congratulations on Love Kills, the fourth book in the best-selling Detective Nan Vining series. When you started writing the debut in the series, The First Cut, did you imagine Nan would take you for such a ride?

A: Thank you! I can't wait for Nan's fans to reconnect with her in her newest adventure, Love Kills, which is jam-packed with twists and turns. When I started writing The First Cut, the series debut, I wanted to keep readers turning the pages into the wee hours of the night. I have to say that Nan has taken me to some unexpected and exciting places that neither I nor she could predict. In her obsession to trap the man who ambushed her and left her for dead, whom she and her daughter have dubbed T.B. Mann (short for The Bad Man), she's danced on the line between right and wrong, scaring even herself (and me).

Q: Perhaps more than ever, Nan has some serious personal stakes within Love Kills. What sort of struggle do you have, as Nan's creator, to keep her balanced between peril and pursuit?

A: Love Kills takes Nan disturbingly close to home when she learns that the seemingly unrelated murders of a Hollywood P.I. in a seedy East L.A. motel and the mysterious drowning of Pasadena socialite in her backyard pool do, in fact, have a connection--Nan's mother. Even though Nan faces daunting challenges investigating these new homicides, she must stay grounded and balanced as she is a single mom to her fifteen-year-old daughter, Emily. No matter the perils of her day job, Nan has to make sure that Em gets to and from school, eats well, does her homework and chores, and stays out of trouble.

Q: You have quite an impressive tour schedule this summer! Some might say the book tour is on a decline--in part due to the economy and partly since there are more online marketing opportunities than ever for writers. What do you like most about touring and why do you think there is still value in meeting readers face-to-face?

A: The writing life is solitary. Contact with fans and other writers online is a form or connection, but there's no comparison between sharing Twitter tweets versus a handshake, a face-to-face smile, and real conversation. I enjoy the discussions that arise at book signings. Plus, I love chatting with booksellers, finding out what they're reading, and poking around genuine brick-and-mortar stores.

Q: When you were eleven, you asked for a desk and a typewriter for Christmas. Do you still have these items of nostalgia? If not a Smith Corona, how do you prefer to now write out your works-in-progress?

A: That desk and typewriter were given away long ago. The desk was tiny. Don't miss it, but I do miss the Smith Corona portable for sentimental reasons. I typed many college papers on it, scads of letters, and my earliest fiction. I still have the Brother portable electric that replaced it and I also have two antiques, an Underwood and a Royal, both from the 1920s. They are impressive--big and heavy. I sometimes tap their keys just to hear that typewriter "clack." Now I mostly write on computers, about which I'm not sentimental. They get traded in regularly. For revisions, I print out the manuscript and handwrite with Dixon Ticonderoga #2 pencils, sharpened with a manual sharpener that's bolted to the back of a door. I reach a point where I need to touch the words and handle the manuscript.

Q: It took several career changes and some far-reaching travel to finally settle in as a writer. What would you say to others who have realized they have done everything else they want or should--go to college, get a job, get married--and still feel that desire for writing, but perhaps wonder if it's too late to start?

A: It's never too late, as long as there is breath in your lungs, ideas in your mind that you'd like to put on paper, and a fire in your belly to write. That's the charm of the writer's life--youth and beauty aren't important! Wisdom and perspective make your work richer. On the other hand, you don't need to wait until you've attained that great college degree, job, relationship, family, etc. to begin. All you really need is to start. And don't stop, no matter what. Set a routine. Make writing an important part of your day. Carve out just one hour, five days a week, put your butt in the chair, and do it.

Q: Earlier in your writing endeavors, you signed up for a writing class and now you're a published member of International Thriller Writers. How has ITW benefited you and why is it important for writers to connect with others via classes, organizations, and writing groups?

A: ITW and Thrillerfest are terrific. I always learn something at Thrillerfest and reading The Big Thrill. At Thrillerfest, it's great to connect with old pals and make new friends. As I said earlier in this interview, the writing life is solitary. It's easy to get bogged down and in a rut. Sometimes talking with another writer is just what I need to work through a rough plot point or a rough career patch. It's nurturing to connect with folks who understand your career and craft challenges and joys. I started my first book in a writing class, where I also found my first mentor. I got that book published and my mentor became a trusted colleague through the years. I don't know if I would have finished that first book and set about finding and agent and a publisher without the support and the nudging of other writers.

Q: Finally, what's the future for Nan? Will we see a fifth book in the series?

A: I'm giving Nan a break for the time being and am working on a new book, a thriller, that I'm very excited about. There will likely be another Nan Vining. For now, I'm putting all my effort into this new book, hanging on for what is shaping up to be quite a ride. Thank you for inviting me to participate in this Q & A and for sharing your time with me.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Why Tour?

I've just concluded a seven city book tour for the release of Love Kills, the fourth in my Detective Nan Vining series, signing exclusively at independent bookstores. In this era of Facebook, Twitter, and "Contact Me" buttons on websites, through which fans can reach out and virtually connect with authors, isn't the old fashioned book tour so last millennium?

No, and here's why.

- It's a promotional boost. Independent bookstores will feature your event on their Websites and in their newsletters, reaching avid crime fiction fans around the world. If the bookseller deems your book a "must read," better yet. The stores order many more copies than they would otherwise. Signed books are displayed prominently. 

- It's a way to support indie bookstores, who need all the help they can get right now.

- Talking with indie booksellers is great. They know the genre and love it as much as I do. They often introduce me to the works of writers who are new to me. I usually leave with a stack of books I've bought.

- Local media might cover book events. Here's a nice article that appeared after my appearance with other authors at Scottsdale's Poisoned Pen.

- It's fun to have real, face-to-face, conversations with fans, to hear how a character or situation made them feel and see the enthusiasm in their eyes. I don't get that from Twitter or Facebook.  Sometimes, someone will ask a question or make a comment that really makes me think. Often, people shopping in the store who don't know my books will see my event, wander over, and buy books.

- I have friends who live in many of the cities where I sign. Some fans have become friends. It's a chance to catch up and have a drink or a meal afterward.

- I meet other crime writers. Sometimes stores schedule more than one author for an event and I like that fine. It makes for interesting conversation and the pressure is not completely on me to hold forth. I like networking with colleagues. We'll likely cross paths again at a convention or festival. They may think of me and I them when putting together an event.

- Book signings have led to invitations to speak at other events, which leads to more folks seeing me, which leads to more invitations to other events and more exposure for my books. 

I follow a few rules when doing a book event. I treat it like a business meeting. This is my career, after all. I'm always on time, polite, well-groomed, prepared, and I attempt to be engaging. I am respectful of my hosts, any authors I may be appearing with, and the audience. I try to speak with energy and focus and am mindful of my time (I don't drone on).
How many books do I sell at appearances? Just like any advertising or marketing campaign, it's hard to gauge success. Certainly there are authors who have become huge bestsellers without making any public appearances. I'm not there... yet. So I do what I can and I do what's fun. I don't go to every conference. I limit my bookstore signings. I need quiet time to rejuvenate, ruminate, and work on the next book. 

Here are some photos I took during my tour for LOVE KILLS.

You can find signed copies of my books here:

Book 'Em Mysteries, South Pasadena, CA
Clues Unlimited, Tucson, AZ
"M" is for Mystery, San Mateo, CA
Mysterious Galaxy, San Diego, CA
Mystery Bookstore, Los Angeles, CA
Poisoned Pen, Scottsdale, AZ
Vroman's Bookstore, Pasadena, CA

And here's an article about a fun dinner party a group of friends and I put together after the tour was over.

Even though the official Love Kills tour is over, I always have appearances scheduled. Check my Website.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Criminal Minds Guest Blog and Book Giveaway

I'm guest blogging over at Criminal Minds today. Comment to be eligible to win a signed copy of the latest in my Detective Nan Vining series, LOVE KILLS, that's just out this week! Check it out!

Had a fantastic turnout for my book launch at Vroman's in Pasadena. There's a photo below and more to come. Pasadena Now's James MacPherson was terrific to attend and take photos. Emma Petievich catered and the food was delish and beautifully displayed (email me for her contact info). I kept cracking myself up over the slide show I put together to "illustrate" Love Kills.

Pasadena blogger, Cafe Pasadena, brought me a box of macarons from EuroPane (to die for). After the signing, I went across the street with some friends to Roy's where they treated me to a Roy's Hawaiian Martini (to die for and is my limit with those bad boys).
This writer's life sometimes can be pretty darn great.

If you missed the book launch, Vroman's has plenty of signed books in stock and I have a bunch of appearances coming up. This promotional train has just left the station, baby! 

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

LOVE KILLS On Sale Today, May 25!

It's finally here.  Book launch day.  How does it feel after I've now published nine books?  Pretty much as exciting and surreal as it always has.  The book will finally be in the hands of not just reviewers but readers--the folks who actually plunk down money to buy books and read them for fun. Then some of them will write me an e-mail about it, or post a note on Amazon or somewhere, or tell a friend, or come up to me at an event and talk to me about it. In a way, life is finally breathed into it and it's a beautiful thing.

I always have a party when a new book comes out. I get my hair done and I wear a new outfit.  

If you're in the Pasadena, California area, come out Tuesday, May 25 to Vroman's on Colorado Boulevard. The party starts at 6:30.  At 7:00, I'll do a presentation and a reading. 

I'm also doing a radio interview on Tuesday, May 25 at 7:35 am. It'll be on radio station AM 1290 KZSB in Santa Barbara and you can listen live on

I have a bunch of other appearances scheduled. Stop by!

Happy reading, and let me know how you like Love Kills.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

I (Heart) Tom Selleck--Again

In the eighties, I was a big fan of Tom Selleck and his hit T.V. show, Magnum P.I.  What wasn't there to love? 

For the youngsters reading this, the show ran from 1980 to 1988 and was about Thomas Magnum, a private investigator in Oahu, Hawaii. He lived in the guest house of "Robin's Nest," a gorgeous beachfront estate, at the invitation of its owner--never-seen bestselling author Robin Masters. Magnum drove Masters' Ferrari, played with Masters' two Doberman Pinschers, wore Hawaiian shirts, cavorted with a couple of his Vietnam vet buddies, and traded barbs with the estate's majordomo, a supercilious Brit named Higgins. Need I mention that Magnum was witty and smooth and HOT and that women were always falling all over him? Oh, and he got the bad guys.

 Magnum P.I. was fun. It was cotton candy.

Wikipedia tells me that Selleck was born in 1945. When Magnum P.I. first went on the air he was thirty-five.

Fast forward twenty years or so. Selleck is now the producer and star of several movies about Jesse Stone, a character in a series of novels by Robert B. Parker.  Stone is a former detective in the LAPD's Robbery-Homicide Division who's let go because of a drinking problem and is hired as the police chief in the small town of Paradise, Massachusetts. 

There's much to love about these movies. Jesse Stone is a much darker character than Magnum. His delivery of Parker's sparse dialogue, so simple on the page, takes on a winsome yet world-weary quality. To lines of dialogue like: "I will" and "You can" and "Call me Jesse," Selleck gives a certain something that's plain yet right. Parker himself said that Selleck had "nailed" Jesse Stone.

Need I mention that Jesse Stone is HOT and that women are always falling all over him? Oh, and he gets the bad guys.

What I also love about these movies is that Selleck shows his age. He has lines on his face and he's a little thick around the middle.  And the other actors on the show--the supporting cast is terrific--look like real people. Also to admire (for gals of a certain age), the women Jesse cavorts with are age appropriate. There was a very young D.A. in one of the early movies, but she was quickly killed off. ;-)

The plots are engrossing. There are some ongoing story lines involving the tiny police department, the town, the city council, and the police and hoods of nearby Boston. It's fun to see Stone with his big city cop background collide with the small tourist town machine.  It's a mature series of movies. Refreshingly different from the flash-bang glittery Botox silcone stuff that's usually on.

I hadn't seen Selleck on T.V. for awhile. I don't watch much network TV.  I found the Jesse Stone movies via Netflix's recommended: "movies you might like."  And I do.  The Jesse Stone movies have made me (heart) Selleck all over again. My husband loves the movies too. If you to watch something great, rent these flicks.  Here they are in order:

Stone Cold (2005)
Jesse Stone: Night Passage (2006) a prequel to Stone Cold
Jesse Stone: Death In Paradise (2006)
Jesse Stone: Sea Change (2007)
Jesse Stone: Thin Ice (2009) 
Jesse Stone: No Remorse (2010)
Jesse Stone: Innocents Lost (2010)

Monday, April 26, 2010

An Artsy, Wordsy Weekend

It was a wonderful spring weekend full of creativity and friends. 

It kicked off on Friday afternoon with a visit to a terrific and moving photography show at LA Artcore Brewery Annex (650A S. Avenue 21, L.A. 90031). The show is titled: Quiet Heroes/Over 80 and the photographer is Barry Shaffer. Barry has been a dentist for over thirty years (he's my dentist!) and has transitioned his longtime photography hobby into something spectacular with this show.

With Quiet Heroes/Over Eighty, Barry set out to meet some of Los Angeles' oldest residents and document their lives. His subjects are almost all from other countries and many from backgrounds of war and conflict. The photos, all black and white, were taken in the subjects' homes using natural light. Barry sought to achieve intimacy seldom found in photographic portraiture. The exhibit is a celebration of humanity, wisdom, and our country's history of immigration and assimilation, exemplified by Los Angeles. 

The photographs and the subjects' stories are remarkable. Below, Barry and I are in front of two of his photographs.

See the show if you can. It's terrific and moving. Days later, I'm still reflecting on the subjects' images and words. The show continues until May 2. Go to Barry's site to learn more about the project:

Friday night was the always fun pre-party for the L.A. Times Festival of Books at the Mystery Bookstore.  I spent Saturday at the festival on the UCLA campus (my alma mater).  I took a bunch of photos. Here's one with the awesome women of mystery I shared my signing time with at the Mystery Bookstore's booth. 

L to R: Cara Black, Alafair Burke, Karin Slaughter, me, and Kelli Stanley.

You can see all my festival photos here:

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Will Write for $$$

I was with a group of friends, all accomplished professionals with good jobs. I was the only professional writer there. The conversation turned to books and authors. One friend asked, “Do writers write for money?” Another opined, “It’s an art. Writers don’t write for money.”

All eyes then turned on me and someone asked, “Do they?”

I felt like sarcastically responding, “Writers write purely for the love of it, just like when Mommy and Daddy love each other very much and, after a while, a stork delivers a baby to the house, or when the Tooth Fairy snatches lost teeth from beneath your pillow and…” You get the idea.

The truth, as usual, is more complicated.

The physician’s oath begins, “First, do no harm.” The writer’s should begin, “First, write for the love of writing.” Writers have to love writing because doing it well--writing something that others want to read--is hard work. Writing a book, sustaining a reader’s interest through 70,000 to 100,000 words (on average) is very hard work. That’s not counting the tens of thousands of words that will be jettisoned during the process, as rewriting that book is as important as cranking out the first draft.

Of course, one can write a book without passion for the craft of writing and storytelling. And one can write a book without any talent for writing. The problem is, all that becomes apparent in the work. Readers can not be fooled. Readers know the real thing.

So how can this sublime, creative, beautiful process be compatible with doing it for money? Well, Virginia, writers have the same basic needs as everyone else: food, shelter, safety. After the basics are taken care of, a few pats on the head for self esteem are also welcome.

The pressure to maintain a roof over the scribe and his or her family can be a tremendous motivation to keep churning out the words. At the Left Coast Crime conference in L.A. earlier this year, I heard Michael Connelly discuss having difficulty keeping his motivation going. Robert Crais quipped, “Michael, buy a bigger house.”

That night with my friends, I curbed my sarcastic impulse and instead related my favorite story about writers writing for money.

Mario Puzo had published several novels that were critically acclaimed but that hadn’t paid very well. He was married with five kids, working as a government clerk, and under financial pressure. He decided to turn out a book that would appeal to the masses and make a lot of money. During stints working in pulp journalism, he’d collected anecdotes about La Cosa Nostra. In the 1960s, the Mafia was just entering the public’s awareness and its inner workings were mysterious. Puzo’s book, The Godfather, published in 1969, was on the New York Times bestseller list for 67 weeks and was the basis of the three Godfather movies made by Francis Ford Coppola. Puzo didn’t just write a bestseller, he launched an entire goodfellas genre.

Do writers write for money? What do you think?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

On Becoming an Adult Orphan

A friend who'd lost his father years ago, recently lost his mother. He told me, "I'm an orphan."

"Orphan" conjures images of scruffy waifs in drafty, moldering institutions, not middle-aged people with spouses, homes, and children. Having never known a parent is shattering. Losing a parent too young is shattering. Losing a parent at the "appropriate" time, when you're well into adulthood and after mom or dad has enjoyed a long life is... shattering.

This is not a cheerful topic. Aging and dying parents have become an epidemic among friends in my age group. But we are the lucky ones, having had our parents for so long. They are lucky too, experiencing the natural order of life and outliving their children.  Still, a parent’s decline and death rends to the core. 

Recently, I was at the gym when an acquaintance received news that his father had died, not unexpectedly. Still, he looked broken. He was a big, strong man, yet I glimpsed the boy he'd been.

I know how he felt.  One wonders, "Who am I now?"

Ten years ago, I’d received similar news. Mine came via a phone call from my aunt. She delivered her message in the plain-spoken, direct manner of the rural north Texas plains where both sides of my family are from. She said, “Your father is dead.”

The news was not unexpected. My father’s last months were a twilight nightmare. At last, the nightmare was over.  So when my aunt’s call came, it was a blessing and yet…

I hung up the phone and moved to an easy chair where I rarely sit. That day, I sat there with both feet on the ground and my arms resting on the chair arms. The solidity of the big old chair was comforting. I sat there for a long time and thought of my father. The most resonant memories were the most mundane. As a child, holding his hand that seemed impossibly big and strong. Climbing astride his shoulders and seeing the world from so high up. Racing in the yard where I could never catch him unless he let me. 

Decades later, I sat beside his hospital bed where his body, which had seemed so tall and invincible had atrophied.  I held that same hand that, beneath the weathered skin, was still big.  I whispered into his ear. I wasn't sure he understood or even heard, but I thought that maybe my voice, my presence might make some neurons fire. Whether he heard my words or not, I needed to say them, even though there had been little left unsaid between me and my dad while he was still standing.  We'd certainly had our differences. 
"Your father is dead."  Who am I now? I stepped into a role that was new to me—fatherless daughter.

As I drove home from the gym the day my acquaintance had heard about his father's passing, I looked at the puffy clouds moving across the sky. Although ethereal, clouds seem capable of holding our hopes, dreams, and memories, our grief and prayers. I'll tell my gym pal that the human heart is stronger than it sometimes seems. He'll be able to look for his dad there. That's where I look for mine and that's where I always find him--big, tall, and fast.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Permission To Keep Your Day Job

The other day, I was listening to a popular psychologist's radio show. I often agree with her, but that day, she gave a female caller what I thought was bad advice.

The caller was a single woman who was between jobs and living off savings. She was about to look for another job in sales, which she hates but it pays well. She felt stuck. She'd always done the safe thing career-wise and had never pursued her true passions: writing and photography. She was afraid of failure but more importantly, she was afraid of running out of money.

The radio host pronounced, "You're an artist. You will never be happy unless you fulfill your destiny." She advised the caller to immediately start writing and taking pictures and sending them around. "Sell your house, get a small apartment, and eventually you'll earn enough money to live." The shrink poo-pooed the caller's concerns about running out of money again imploring, "You're an artist."

I agree that the caller should follow her muse, but worrying about keeping a roof over my head never did much for my creativity. Earning a wage and pursuing your creative aspirations are not mutually exclusive.

The lifestyle of a full-time writer is very appealing. It was many years after I published my first book before I was able to make that transition. True, there are writers who rolled the dice and quit their day jobs when that first book was just a crazy glimmer in their eyes, but the vast majority started by balancing working for a living and building a writing career, book by book, reader by reader.

Some of the “roll the dice” tales have back stories. Some writers have gainfully employed spouses, or maybe cashed out of highly successful other careers, or perhaps don’t mind living like the Unabomber.

It takes months and even years to knock out that book that finally gets published.  If you earn a six figure advance for it, my hat's off.  The advance will probably be much less, tough to live on, and who knows if this new career's going to stick?

In the early years of my writing career, I was single without a spouse to fall back on. My modest investment portfolio would have been blown through in a few years if I had to live on it. When I was younger, I spent many years scraping by. I didn't like it then. I sure as hell wouldn't like it now.

Here's the great thing about writing. You can write books even if you can set aside just an hour a day as long as you write consistently.

Which is what I did. I rose at 4:30 a.m. and wrote before I went to work. At night, I took creative writing classes. I wrote on weekends. I was inspired by the book: Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow, by Marsha Sinetar.

I wrote and published three novels while working full-time. I was able to pare my job back to part-time and then published another four novels. It took me fifteen years to finally let go of the last of my day job.

Here’s a secret: I often found that day job to be a comfort when the writing wasn’t going well. Facing long stretches of time with just you and that blank page can be daunting. There’s a lot of pressure in trying to make a decent living as a writer.

So, my advice to the female caller who pines to be a writer/photographer is to find another job and carve out consistent time to follow your muse. Being able to work in your pajamas is fun, but no wine before its time. Until then, paychecks are good and compatible with creativity.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Conference Schedule with Palm Trees

Have no time to write something pithy, meaningful, yada yada... So, here's my schedule for Left Coast Crime and the Tuscon Festival of Books both happening this week and a cool photo I took of my favorite palm trees in Pasadena.

The palms are arranged in two groups along the side of the wonderfully renovated Pasadena Convention Center. I took the photo after the rain had stopped on a stormy late afternoon.  It was snapped on my BlackBerry Storm cell phone, which I usually have in hand. I think it takes great photos.

If you love crime fiction and non-fiction, come out to the Left Coast Crime conference, which this year is being held at the Omni Hotel in downtown L.A.  I'm moderating a panel this Thursday, March 11, at 3:30 called, "Your Roots are Showing."  It's a discussion between two crime writers who are native Los Angelenos (me and my friend Eric Stone) and two who are from elsewhere but who have lived in and written about the city (P.A. Brown  and Robert Ellis).

On Saturday, March 13, at 8:30 a.m. (I know, yikes!), come see me discuss "Love and Death" with a fabu group of women writers including: Susan Slater, Erica Spindler, Linda O. Johnson, and Sophie Littlefield.

Sunday, March 14, I'll be at the Tucson Festival of Books. At 1:00, I'm delighted to be on a panel with Richard Lange and Thomas Perry discussing "L.A. Noir." I'll have a signing at the festival at 2:30. Then I'll be signing at the festival booth of the wonderful Clues Unlimited bookstore in Tucson at 3:30.

If you're going to be around any of these events, please stop by and say hi!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

It's All About The S-T-O-R-Y

It happened again. I was at a social event, chatting with an aquaintance, a woman who knows I write crime novels, and she began, "I have a great idea for your next book."

I said, "I'm intrigued. Tell me more."

She said, "I was at my hairdresser and she has women in her shop as old as ninety and as young as her little four-year-old granddaughter. All the stories they tell and the wonderful lives they've led... I thought that would be just perfect for your next book."

I'm thinking, She's never read one of my rather gritty crime thrillers. I've discussed writing with this woman before and I know she'd like to write fiction. So, I said, "I think that's a great topic for you to write about. Think up a ticking time bomb. Something that happens to a couple of the women. Something life-altering. A story."

She gave me a blank look.  Story.  That's the rub, isn't it?

I have a rather crusty friend, a former law enforcement guy who's been around the writing biz, putting out novels and screenplays, for decades. He loves to give advice. More than once over lunch, he's turned his steely gaze on me and said, "Never forget, it's all about the S-T-O-R-Y."

I've been around this block a few times myself and have to agree. And this is especially true when it comes to writing mystery and suspense fiction. Of course characters count. Of course the quality of the writing counts. But what really keeps readers turning the pages is the story.

But, you counter, if I don't care about the characters, I don't care about finishing the book. True. But those characters have to be doing something that reveals their essence that propels the reader to care about them. They don't exist in a vacuum, or just in a beauty shop.

Think about the authors who are accused of having wooden characters and flat prose but who can tell a rip-roaring page-turner. Tom Clancy and John Grisham come to mind. Contrast them with authors who pen gorgeous character studies, as perfect as tiny jeweled boxes, such as... Hmm... I can't think of any . Can you?

Yes, we must love the characters, above all, but they must do something, act out some sort of drama to interest us, to move us, even to scare us, on the page as in life, no?