It’s no mystery

Hold on tightly, this post is NOT about mystery books. Sorry, but as I looked over my “to read” list, I found I just could not face another book about a woman who is lied to by her husband, friends, strangers, and is running away. (Apparently, women running away on book covers must wear red coats. I think they are really being pursued by the fashion police.) I needed something else to read, and I found it.

Ready Player One-Cover“Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline is the journey of Wade Watts, better known as Parzival, as he navigates life. I picked it simply because it was available from the library. Despite all the “sci-fi” hype, this is just a wonderful classic adventure story, albeit set in 2045. It has all the elements: an ardent adventure- seeker, valiant sidekicks, evil pursuers, outrageous weapons, mortal combat, and most importantly a daunting quest for fame and fortune. (Finding the hidden “egg” in a gigantic video game will bring limitless wealth) The clues are found in video games, movies, and pop culture events from the 1970s, and 1980s. I actually have some of the “stuff” from the quest buried out in my garage. Wil Wheaton did a superb job with the narration. He was able to deliver the enormous variety of voices, computer interactions, and emotional encounters, and his flawless elocution made the book come alive.

sparkOn the absolute other end of the spectrum, I also read Jodi Picoult’s newest book “A Spark of Light.” I have read several of her previous books and found them thought provoking and socially pertinent and “A Spark of Light” is no exception. It is a powerful and controversial novel about people, and begins with a shooting at the last abortion clinic in Mississippi. The narrative moves backward through the day to chronicle the events that lead up to that event, and how individuals got there, to that moment in time. Put aside the law, the religion, the emotion, the practicality, the righteous indignation, and you are left with people, people in crises, people suffering,  people dying – people. It will be a very long time before I find a book as compelling and unforgettable as “A Spark of Light.”

whatWhat about You? What was the last non-mystery book that you read? Do you regularly read a variety of books or do you mostly pick mysteries?


Where am I, and where’s my car?

A few weeks ago, Mysteristas discussed selecting names for characters that had meaning and charisma. During that discussion, the topic of “place” arose, and I promised to discuss that “sense of place” in September, so here we are.

costumeI have read many books where the setting, the place, is so important that it is a character itself. Of course, glamorous vacation spots and exotic places such as Proper City, Nevada (where else do residents wear costumes all year weiraround) certainly change the plot.

Obviously, novels set on Mars or the moon are in a class by themselves. However, many other stories would be changed significantly if they were to take place in a different geographic location.

HghwayThe “Highway” and “Paradise Valley” by C. J. Box could only happen where long haul trucker “The Lizard King” could disappear on the long stretches of mostly uninhabited highway.

“Here and Gone” by Haylenhere and gone Beck works because Audra Kinney is not pulled over in a big city, but instead on a lonely highway in Arizona where a small-town sheriff controls the situation. “You’re a former addict running from Children’s Services. How much do you think your word means against theirs?”

coyle.jpgWriters also use local “color” and landmarks to add realism and flavor. Matt Coyle’s Rick Cahill series is set in La Jolla, and he specifically uses street names, landmarks, and the beautiful La Jolla setting to its fullest advantage. “The sun danced off the ocean far below, and a gentle breeze slowly pushed scattered clouds around the blue sky. Idyllic. Paradise. “


Alan Drew makes Orange County a character in Shadow Man” when the citizens of a “safe” planned community are terrorized. He not only utilizes vivid descriptions of “the western sky a propane blue,” but also sets the action in the local shopping centers, freeways, and beaches.

MayorFinally, I have to confess that every time I read a book by Archer Mayor, I follow the whole adventure on Google maps as his characters wander around Vermont. His descriptions are so exact that, thanks to Google, I have driven down Putney Road, explored the pedestrian bridge, the food coop, the railroad, and the dumpster. I even visited the Green Mountain Racetrack. I came to know the setting as well as the characters.

Now, authors, it is your turn to share. Could your books take place in another location without altering the fundamental feel of the book? Do you only write about geographic locations that you know and love? Do you use writing a new book as an excuse to visit new, exotic places? Do you prefer to make up your own geography so readers like me will not use Google Maps to find your mistakes?




The Name Game

cartoon-cute-girl-reading-book-library-illustration-40729412Characters are the heart of every story. As a reader, I want to relate to characters as people I might meet in the grocery store or people who might buy the house down the block. I want to “like” the good guys, and REALLY hate the bad guys, (although the neighbors of serial killers always say “they” were so, so quiet, and never bothered anyone – except their victims!)

Parents spend lots of time selecting the names for their children. They research the family tree on both sides of the family. They pour over lists of baby names, analyzing the number of syllables, the meaning, and the sound when spoken (or yelled!). In the small town in which I lived, my parents did not know of and other girls with my first name, so that was my parent’s choice. Of course, when I got to school, there were two other girls with the same name in my class. (We were the only three who shared a name!) When it came time to name my children, I named one after a political sign that had a name with a nice “ring” to it, and  another was given the name in a song title.

name tagCharacters in books have names given to them by you, the authors of the books. How do you pick names? (Does the name just “come” to you? Do you use random names from internet lists of names? Do use names of friends or relatives? Do names have to start with a particular letter? Do you “sell” a character’s name for a donation to charity?

What does a name say about the character? Is Lizzy more apt to kill people than Michelle? Do names have to reflect cultural heritage (Huong, Shannon, Franklin)? Are characters with unusual or non-standard names more interesting (Bricks, Astrid, Karena, Sass)?

Question_ - CopySo now, let us play the name game. Think about your books and select one of your characters, and share how you picked the name and what the name says about the character. Alternatively, share how you got your name and what it says about you.

To Tell the Truth

imagesI read fiction, and I would guess that most  of you mysteristas both read and write fiction. I just do not read much “true crime. I want my “fiction” to belief-like, with characters so “real” that I might see them in the grocery store. I certainly want dialogue that is realistic for any person in a similar situation.

However, as far as reading what really happens in “real life,” that pretty much stops for me with the daily newspaper. Of course, even with the newspaper, I hypothesize about the incidents, and I sometimes wonder if that “accident” really was an accident or something more sinister.

news1 - CopyThere seems to be an abundance of true crime in TV-land, and not just on the nightly news. Streaming services, national networks, and local independent stations have series after series “exposing the truth behind” some unsolved crime or criminal prosecution, and pleading with viewers to be on the lookout for a suspect on the loose wanted for a horrible act. Even while surrounded by “true crime” I somehow have not read much in the true crime category.

I was reminded of why I had not read much “true crime” when I went on vacation last summer. I was looking for something to read on the plane, and I saw a “true crime” book set in my vacation destination. It promised a wrongly convicted defendant, an in-depth search for the killer, celebrity connections, political corruption, and a giant cover-up. “Wow! How interesting,” I thought. Well, not so much.

The author documented the search for all those things all right, but the book was about the tedious (and mind-numbing) search through records, folders, files, and papers. The characters, the innocent and the guilty, were one-dimensional and really an afterthought. There could certainly be no accusations of making things up just to make the book interesting!

I can understand how difficult it must be to write “true crime” because an author cannot make anything up to create suspense or intrigue. Besides, if the “crime” is high profile enough to merit a book, the readers already know who did it, so there goers the suspense angle.

I recently heard an author of “true crime” speak about her books. Reading one of her “true crime” books gave me a new totally perspective. The book was compelling and thrilling. The dialogue certainly was realistic, and the characters were diverse and interesting. It was wonderful to read. Now I have a bunch of her other books on my list to read. Perhaps the writers of “true crime” that I previously read were just not good writers – of anything.

Now, I have a question for you. As authors of crime fiction, do you ever write “true crime?” Why or why not? If you do, how is the writing process different? What are the guesschallenges?  (Besides not being able to make stuff up.) How do you move the story along when readers know the ending? How do you keep it from becoming just another “National Enquirer” type story? Enquiring minds want to know!

Can you hear me now?

I love audio books; they used to be the almost an afterthought in the kingdom of “real” books, but that is no longer the case. I discovered that 67 million Americans listen to audio books each year and that about 48% of frequent listeners are under the age of 35. The ever-increasing popularity of audio books is partially driven by their convenience. Book fans can listen anywhere and even do other things while listening.

I purchase audio content on CD and by downloading audio book files from Audible. I have also found that my local public library has an extensive collection of audio books as part of its “e-book” selection that I can easily download with my library card.

Untitled-2I listen mostly while running, well jogging; OK fine, I am actually just walking, but you get the idea. I load my mystery or thriller books onto my “portable device,” grab my headphones, and off I go. I find this provides powerful motivation to get out, walking and dodging the neighborhood dogs, because I just MUST know what happens next. Lots of others must agree with me since the “mystery thriller suspense” audio books are the most popular.

Listening to a book is not the same experience as reading a book, and reading aloud is a separate skill set from merely talking. The narrator has to develop a unique “voice” for each character as well as for the background explanations. Books have a varied cast –men, women, authorities, criminals, and all of these need to have a distinctive auditory presence in the book, and all are usually spoken by one narrator. A narrator can make or break an audio book.

I think audio books are an appropriate way to enjoy novels, as fitting as the “printed” word. Now authors, what do you think? Are your books transcribed into the audio format? Do you get to choose the narrator? Do you listen to audio books, either your own or those written by others?

You are what you read

Last week I attended “Literary Orange, a fabulous event presented by the Orange County Public Libraries and almost fifty writers speaking. I am still amazed at their diverse personalities, insightful comments, and varied books. I added so many books to my “must read NOW” list that I may never get anything done because I am reading.

One interesting comment that came up repeatedly was that these writers all started out as readers, and they continue to be readers to this day. They read fiction and non-fiction; they read to see what the competition is writing; they read to get ideas; they read to help friends; they read to get background for their own books. THEY READ.

little womenThey shared stories of being taken to the public library as children. They told of reading “adult” books when they had read all the children’s books. They mentioned “Little Women” numerous times. They described the love of syntax and rhythm in books. They learned to imagine the possibilities by reading. They developed a lifelong love of telling stories by reading the stories of others.


raymond libraryThat motivated me to share my reading stories. My father was and still is a READER. My childhood memories include trips to the local library in our small Ohio town. In fact, I still have my library card from the Raymond library and check out e-books from my home in California.

I remember my parents reading to me, even after I could read myself. My mother read the printed page with feeling and expression, but my father created something unexpected, a story about the pictures, almost the printed-page story, but yet different, unexpected, surprising. Even those “safe” Little Golden Books were transformed into mysteries as he read them. I think I love to read mysteries because he created the unexpected when he read to me. He still does that with his grandchildren. I laugh when I hear him reading and one of the kids says, “That’s not what is in the book.” He replies that it might be.

Most of you are writers and probably readers, so now it is your turn to share. What were your early experiences with books? What books do you read now? Why do you read them?

The Oscar goes to…

1446751375574The 2018 Academy Award for best adapted screenplay went to James Ivory; little, if any attention went to André Aciman, the author of the book “Call Me By Your Name.” A film or a TV series “based on the book by …” generates a lot of publicity, but not much attention is given to the original book itself. Even readers fall into the adapt-for-film-or-TV trap, and one of the questions frequently asked of an author at a book signing, is “When will this be made into a movie?”

Why, why, oh why?

Yes, I know; the deal to adapt a book for film or TV generates a lot of publicity, fame, attention, and MONEY, but I really feel the book is always better than the movie. (I will discuss one exception in a moment.)

Films are short, only about an hour and a half or so long, so by design they limit the scope and the depth of the story. Films do have the advantage of being able to immediately define the sense of place with vivid indoor and outdoor shots. However, time constraints dictate that they leave out many of the rich details and intense characters that make books great.

A TV series has greater flexibility than a film since writers have multiple episodes in which to tell stories, and have the flexibility to pull details from multiple books rather than having to follow book with a linear story line. This makes TV “based on a book by …” much more “appealing” to me, a book reader.

Craig JohnsonUnfortunately, sometimes the TV series is so successful that the original books get lost in the whole process. At a recent book signing, Craig Johnson shared this story about his “Longmire” TV series. He was wearing a cap with the Longmire series logo while having lunch. The waitress commented that she loved the TV show, and asked him how he got the hat. He replied that he writes the books on which the TV show is based. Her astonished reaction was “There are books?”

Earlier I mentioned that there was one film I liked better than the book. “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is based on the book by Lionel Shriver. The librarian recommended the book, but since there was a waiting list for it at the library, I found the 2011 movie on Netflix. For those not familiar, it is the anguishing story of Kevin’s mother as she struggles with Kevin throughout his life and “something” that happened, details of which were not revealed until near the end. We agonize along with her, observing her trauma and pain as well as his “lack” of it.  (It is a powerful movie with a VERY current theme, and if you haven’t seen it you should.) The movie was gut-wrenchingly tragic. Now I also loved the book, but in the book, there it was; the event that was hidden for so long in the movie was right on page twelve. The book was still excellent, but for tension, drama, and angst, the film wins.

Now, what do you authors think? Have your books been adapted for film or TV? Did you have input during the process? Is the film as good as your book? What is your favorite film or TV adaptation of a book?