The CreateSpace Experience

First of all, I’m happy to say that Ann and I completed the manuscript for FBI K-9s #3, STORM RISING, and passed it off to Esi Sogah, our editor at Kensington. We’re looking forward to working with her to fine tune the story in the new year.

Publishing LAMENT THE COMMON BONES was certainly a different experience for me. I’m the first one to admit that I like working with a publishing house rather than doing it myself. Maybe it’s because I have a full-time job on top of a busy writing schedule, but I really appreciate not having to worry about covers and formatting and distribution etc. Also, we’ve been lucky to have great publishing partners, so I wasn’t actively searching out another avenue to publishing. But we also had a manuscript that was crucial to the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries because it tied up a major multi-book arc, so, in the end, there wasn’t really any question about whether we’d put it out or not. Luckily, authors now have more options than ever if they want to self-publish.

We’d self-pubbed a novella before, but this was the first time I’d done a print version as well as an e-book. Because of my previous experience publishing NO ONE SEES ME ‘TIL I FALL through Kindle Direct Publishing and Kobo’s Writing Life, I knew the e-book would be no problem and could be done separately, but I looked to CreateSpace to put the print copy together and to ensure seamless delivery through Amazon worldwide.


When LAMENT THE COMMON BONES was orphaned by Five Star’s decision to close down their mystery line, the book was already written and had gone through the developmental edit. But we knew it needed another set of eyes on it, so the amazing M.M. Harden graciously offered her services as our copy editor. She can adjust her edit based on what an author is looking for; I asked to be hit with both barrels, and definitely got it in the form of a comprehensive and critical edit. My theory has always been that you have to know the flaws in a book so you can fix them. Yes, it’s hard on your ego and you hate to see your baby bleeding, but the final completed version was so much improved, it was definitely worth it.

A huge thank you goes to my husband Rick for taking on the task of formatting the manuscript. Not difficult work, but fiddly and time consuming in the extreme, requiring a large amount of patience for whenever Word starts getting frisky and doing things on its own (or so it seems!). All those section breaks and text formatting, then adjustments around page numbers, and indent size, and page size, and so on. So many changes and slightly different versions of the manuscript. However, we learned a lot with this manuscript that will make subsequent attempts MUCH easier. I will say that CreateSpace’s ability to upload the document and then convert it into a virtual live version of the printed book was incredibly helpful to the fine-tuning process. Many versions, many uploads, but we worked through the kinks until we had the interior exactly as we wanted.

LAMENT cover full - 2017-10-22 - FINAL.jpg

The cover was a little trickier, but was not beyond my daughter Jess’s skills. She’s also the brains behind the cover for NO ONE SEES ME ‘TIL I FALL, but now has a lot more experience as a photographer and photo editor under her belt. She initially did the front cover for the e-book version, but then expanded that image into the full cover complete with spine, back cover copy, and previous reviews for Abbott and Lowell. It took a few kicks at the can to get the cover right (partly due to CreateSpace’s vague error emails about why the cover didn’t work during the review process). But this is another exercise that taught us a lot and we’ll definitely be more prepared next time.

Getting an ISBN for each of the three versions was a breeze as Collections Canada provides them free of charge to Canadian publishers, so that was lightning fast and saved purchasing separate numbers for each.

This pretty much put the print copy together, so we completed the setup and I ordered a hard copy proof to make sure there weren’t any errors (and yes, there were… I always catch errors in new formats because I look at the book differently). This was a step that cost a little and took some time to have the copy shipped, but was well worth both.

Rick reformatted the manuscript for the e-book versions and we got those up and ready for pre-order with a few weeks to go still. This process would have been a little simpler if I hadn’t been juggling the still work-in-process post-crit team manuscript for STORM RISING, but somehow it all managed to fit in. And on November 21st, LAMENT THE COMMON BONES went live. And I survived the self-publishing process! ;)

What’s next for Abbott and Lowell? I’m going to tackle the re-release of DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT, A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH, AND TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER in print. Five Star has stopped printing the hardcovers, and, honestly, I always thought those were too expensive for a debut author’s book, so I’m going to be putting together the trade paperback versions to match LAMENT THE COMMON BONES. So, watch for new covers to come in the new year with the book releases following shortly after. Rick and I are already well into the formatting of those manuscripts and I’ll be working with Jess over the next month or two to get new covers ready to go. More of that in the new year. Stay tuned!

Report From the Writing Trenches, August 2017

I’m really back! Not that last week wasn’t a real post, but now I’m really and truly back into blogging. And since it’s been a while since a real update, I’d like to catch everyone up. So what’s been going on with me in the last two and a half months and what’s coming up?

FBI K-9s #3—This has been 95% of my summer so far. I’d gotten the writing started in May, but my mother had a bad accident and the month of May involved a lot of time at the hospital. Once she was out at the end of May, that was my chance to really dive into this latest novel. As usual, I set personal daily/weekly word counts and tried really hard to stick to it. The original goal was to do 9,000 words per week (1,000 for each work day, 2,000 for each weekend day plus past chapter editing) and to have it all done by the end of July in about 9 weeks. I came super close, only missing that goal by a week. Though, to be fair, the first draft ended up being longer than I’d set as the goal, so maybe it all comes out in the wash after all. I’m happy to announce that I completed the first draft last Monday. Ann had a crazy 3 or 4 weeks, trying to stay up to date with my writing all while packing her house and moving her 5 dogs and herself from Texas to North Carolina, but once she arrived, she jumped right back into the 8 or so chapters she was behind. By the time I’d finished the last 3 chapters, she was back in time with me. Now we’re doing side-by-side first round edits. This round is the most important because this pass is about story and both of us tackling it separately is crucial. This way we can independently look at the story we outlined together and see if something isn’t working, and, if so, come up with suggested ways to tackle it. After that, I estimate 2 more rounds for writing/language/word choice and then for cleanup. Our critique team is expecting the manuscript in early September and then they’ll have their chance to tear it apart. This is the 8th book with us for most of them, so they are good at this, let me assure you. They pull no punches and that’s exactly what we and the book need.

LONE WOLF in mass market format—LONE WOLF, book #1 in the FBI K-9s, is coming out in mass market paperback format on August 29th, so we’re back into new marketing of that book with Kensington, who, as usual, is doing a great job! This copy of the book will also include a sneak peak at #2 in the series, BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE.

BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE in hardcover format—The second book in the FBI K-9s series will launch on September 26th. I’m really looking forward to this one as this book is a particular favourite of mine. More mystery than LONE WOLF, this story continues to examine the bond between Meg and her black Lab Hawk, as well as exploring her relationships with her sister Cara, Washington Post reporter Clay McCord, and DCFEM firefighter/paramedic Lt. Todd Webb, all against a backdrop of a serial killer who is kidnapping and killing women to get Meg’s attention in a sick game.

To remind you of where we are in the series at this point, this is the back cover copy of the book:

In this powerful K-9 crime thriller, FBI Special Agent Meg Jennings and her trusted search-and-rescue Labrador, Hawk, must race against the clock before a diabolical killer strikes again…

Somewhere in the Washington, D.C., area, a woman lies helpless in a box. Beneath the earth. Barely breathing. Buried alive. In Quantico, the FBI receives a coded message from the woman’s abductor. He wants to play a game with them: decipher the clues, find the grave, save the girl. The FBI’s top cryptanalysts crack the code, and Special Agent Meg Jennings and her K-9 partner, Hawk, scramble to follow a trail of false leads to the scene of the crime. By the time they solve the puzzle, it’s too late. But the killer’s game is far from over…

Soon another message arrives. Another victim is taken, and the deadly pattern is repeated—again and again. Each kidnapping triggers another desperate race against time, each with the possibility of another senseless death. That’s when Meg decides to try something drastic. Break the Bureau’s protocol. Bring in her brilliant sister, Cara, a genius at word games, to decipher the kidnapper’s twisted clues. Meg knows she’s risking her career to do it, but she’s determined not to let one more person die under her and Hawk’s watch. If the plan fails, it could bite them in the end. And if it leads to the killer, it could bury them forever…

Our street team, early readers and a number of bloggers already have their copies, and we’re starting to see some great early buzz starting. This is the fun part. After all the hard work, now is the time where we get to share our creation and hear readers’ thoughts on all that sweat and hairpulling. ;)

Launch of BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE—Once again, I will be hosted by Ian Elliot of A Different Drummer Books here in Burlington on September 30th for the launch party. If you are local to the area, please stop by because I’d love to see you and sign your copy of the new book!

Word on the Street Toronto—This event isn’t definite, but I’ve applied to take part in it and hopefully will be chosen as part of the panel of Crime Writers of Canada authors attending. WOTS is a free event taking place in Halifax, Lethbridge, Toronto and Saskatoon to celebrate reading and to advocate literacy. I’ve taken part in it twice before in 2014 and 2015 and this year it will once again be at Harbourfront Center, right on the lake in Toronto. Taking place on Sunday, September 24, 2017, the event runs from 11:00 am - 6:00 pm and is great fun for readers of all ages and genres.

Bouchercon 2017: Passport to Murder—Bouchercon is the biggest North American fan mystery conference and, conveniently, this year it’s in Toronto! I previously attended Bouchercon in 2013 in Albany and was fortunate enough to be on their forensics panel. This year I will be appearing in several events. Right at the beginning of the conference, I will be involved in Author Speed Dating on Thursday, October 12 from 8 – 10am. Speed dating is exactly what it sounds like, except in this case, you’re not looking for an actual date. Instead, you sit for 2 minutes at 22 tables of 8 new and interested readers to tell them about your series. Should be great, chaotic fun, but I suspect I’ll need a nap afterwards. And then I’m thrilled to be part of a panel on Saturday, October 14 from 10 – 11am in the Sheraton B room. The panel is entitled ‘The Critters of Crime: K-9s, cats and cows, and their role in mysteries’ followed by a half hour signing in the book/deal room (Osgoode Room). Joining me are fabulous authors Margaret Mizushima, Eileen F. Watkins, Kelly Oliver, and Janet Finsilver, so it should be a super panel. I’m looking forward to seeing old readers, meeting new readers, catching up with author friends, and making some new ones!

So that’s what’s going on with me. Next week, I’ll be back to my regular blogging content. See you then!

Report From the Writing Trenches – September 2016

The blog is back! Sorry for the long summer hiatus, but it’s paid off for me—I finished the first draft of FBI K-9s book #2, BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE, this past weekend. *throws confetti* *collapses*

So what are Ann and I up to, writing-wise? Let’s go down the list:

  1. LONE WOLF: FBI K-9s book #1 will release in eBook on November 29th and hardcopies will be in bookstores and beyond on that date or very shortly thereafter. I’ll be holding a launch right around that time, most likely at A Different Drummer Books in Burlington, but possibly an early release the preceding weekend. More details on that hopefully in the next few weeks. At this point, LONE WOLF hard copy ARCs are out and are being sent to our early readers, bloggers, and reviewers. For the first time, as a part of Kensington, copies of the books will be available on NetGalley, so some of our readers have arranged to get their copies digitally. And last week, we were pleased to see the blurb for the book from Leo J. Maloney, author of the Dan Morgan series, including ARCH ENEMY—“Tense and exciting, Sara Driscoll has created a new power couple, Meg and her FBI K-9, Hawk.”
  2. BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE: As I stated before, the first draft of this book is now complete, coming in at just under 80,000 words. This is a great length for a thriller—it gives us room to still add a little more as we edit, and it also leave us room for chapter titles and definitions. What’s the theme this time? We’re 99% sure we know what it is, but that will get solidified within the next two weeks. We’ll edit from now until the end of the September. October 1st sees the manuscript going out to our amazing critique team (thank you Jenny, Lisa, Sharon, and Rick!). They’ll have the book for 2 weeks and then that leaves us about 4 weeks to put the final touches on it. The book is officially due on December 1st, but with LONE WOLF coming out on November 29th, it realistically needs to be done about 2 weeks early so we can keep all the balls in the air.
  3. FBI K-9s (Welcome to the real world of publishing, part one): Ann and I were very sad to find out recently that our Kensington Editor, the wonderful Peter Senftleben, was leaving the company to become a mysteries, suspense and thriller editor at Crooked Lane. We’re so very grateful to Peter for buying the three-book series, and very much enjoyed working with him and will definitely miss him. Peter, of course, has left us in very capable hands for the remainder of the series, so onwards and upwards.
  4. Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries (Welcome to the real world of publishing, part two): I’ve had many questions about the next book in the Abbott and Lowell series, LAMENT THE COMMON BONES. Readers knew we were writing it last year but there has yet to be an announcement about its release date. Well, we’ve got some bad news there. Our editor at Five Star definitely wanted the book, but before it was officially purchased, Five Star closed out their mystery line and is going strictly with westerns from now on. So the book has been orphaned. At this point, I’m not exactly sure what’s going to happen with it. It’s extremely difficult to sell the fifth book in a series, but our agent is working on it. But never fear, dear readers, the worst case scenario is that we’ll self-publish, definitely in eBook format and most likely in print as well. The book will get out one way or another—it’s the end of the big arc that started in A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH and continued through TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER, so we’d be doing a huge disservice to our readers if we didn’t release it. So stay tuned for more news to come here.

To celebrate the upcoming launch of LONE WOLF, Kensington is holding our first Goodreads giveaway starting today! You can find it below. Be sure to enter for your chance to win an early copy months before it actually releases!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Lone Wolf by Sara Driscoll

Lone Wolf

by Sara Driscoll

Giveaway ends October 02, 2016.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

We’ll be back next week with the first of our K-9 posts, so please join us!

Report from the Writing Trenches – November 2015

My apologies for our absence last week, but it’s been a busy month of “all edits all the time” as Ann and I finished off our final post-critique team edits for LONE WOLF, the first book in our contacted trilogy for the FBI K-9 Mysteries with Kensington Books. Many, many thanks to our crit team extraordinaire― Lisa Giblin, Jenny Lidstrom, Rick Newton, and Sharon Taylor―for their insight into both the story and our writing. I even put a really tough question to them and they all came up with great ideas as to how to fix a problem we didn’t see, but they all identified. You guys are the best and you never fail to challenge us to be better writers!

I’m happy to say we handed LONE WOLF in to our editor yesterday, more than a week ahead of deadline. We’re both very happy with it, but with Peter Senftleben’s skilled assistance we’ll be able to make it even better. We’re very much looking forward to working with him on the manuscript.

If everything stays on schedule, LONE WOLF will release in just over a year, on November 29, 2016. Here’s the current blurb that outlines the book:

When a madman goes on a bombing spree, an FBI K-9 team of one woman and her dog is the key to stopping him before more innocents die and panic sweeps the Eastern seaboard.

Meg Jennings and her Labrador, Hawk, are one of the FBI’s top K-9 teams certified for tracking and search and rescue. When a bomb rips apart a government building on the National Mall in Washington D.C., it will take all the team’s skill to locate and save the workers and children buried beneath the rubble.

More victims die and fear rises as the unseen bomber continues his reign of terror, striking additional targets, ruthlessly bent on pursuing a personal agenda of retribution. Meg and Hawk join the task force dedicated to following the trail of death and destruction to stop the killer. But when the attacks spiral wide and no single location seems safe any longer, it will come down to a battle of wits and survival skills between Meg, Hawk, and the bomber they’re tracking. Can they stop him before he brings the nation to the brink of chaos?

So what’s next for us? We’re going to be starting right into the next book in the series. Meg Jennings and her search and rescue black Lab will be back, as will her team and all the main characters we’ll be meeting in LONE WOLF. But where LONE WOLF is a straight thriller, book two will have some definite mystery components. Here is the book’s preliminary back cover copy:

When a cryptic message arrives at FBI headquarters, agents will have only a few hours to solve the puzzle and scramble to save a victim who has already been buried alive.

A coded message is hand delivered to the Hoover Building in Washington D.C., taunting the FBI with the news of a victim, already buried alive, who will be dead within hours if they don’t act immediately. Once decoded, the message will supply the starting point for the search, but then it’s up to the Bureau’s K-9 teams to find the victim and save her life. But decoding the message takes too long, and by the time Meg Jennings and her Labrador Hawk discover the victim, she’s already dead. When the second message arrives several days later, Meg blatantly breaks Bureau protocol and shares vital evidence with her sister. Cara’s always been a genius with word games and Meg will deal with the consequences later, once a life has been saved. But as the messages continue to arrive, and as the number of victims rises, the team will have to fight to get ahead of the cryptic killer if they hope to stop him before more lives are lost.

This one is going to be a real nail biter and will become a very personal mission for Meg and the whole team. We’ll take some time to get ourselves organized for Christmas, but will likely fit some research into the holidays so we can really hit the ground running in the new year, once LONE WOLF is through its heaviest edits.

And for those who are curious, while we’ll be writing FBI K-9s #2 during the first half of the year, we’re hoping to start into Abbott and Lowell #6 during the latter part of the year as we intend to keep that series running concurrently with the FBI K-9s. Never a dull moment around here.

That’s it for our latest update. It’s going to be an exciting year ahead, with lots of work, but also the fun of new cover art and new launches. Stay tuned and we’ll bring you all the latest news as it arrives!

Photo credit: Dave McLear

The Word on the Street Toronto 2015

This past Sunday, I once again attended The Word on the Street Toronto, the free annual festival celebrating the best of Canadian writing and reading. This year, for the first time, WOTS took place at Harbourfront Centre, right on the shore of Lake Ontario. A beautiful venue, a stunning day and books for any and all tastes - it was guaranteed to be a good time!

The ride in the on the train proved to be quite rowdy as it was full of Blue Jays fans headed to the Rogers Centre for the final game in a weekend series against the Tampa Bay Rays. The Jays are currently in first place in the American League East Division and have their sights set on the League title and then the World Series. It's been 22 years since they made the playoffs (when they last won the World Series) and Toronto has been in a sports drought for a very long time (the Leafs last won the Stanley Cup in 1967) so fans are extremely excited to have an successful home town team. Did I mention the trip in was rowdy?

A beautiful day at Harbourfront Centre, more reminiscent of summer than fall:

The festival at a glance - so much bookish awesomeness all squeezed together in one park:

All aspects of publishing and reading were represented at WOTS. There were publishers and presses, both large and small in attendance.

The Harlequin tent was always hopping:


Penguin Random House with Ben McNally Books:

Dundurn Press, the largest Canadian owned publisher:

Montreal comic publisher, Drawn and Quarterly:

And many more...

Both the Toronto Public Library and the TPL workers had booths:

Several bookstores were in attendance, including Mabel's Fables, a well-known local children's bookstore:

Many writing associations and organizations attended, showcasing their authors and their books, as well as their services. I helped man the Crime Writers of Canada booth for part of the day.

The Writer's Community of York Region:

The Writer's Community of Durham Region:

 The Ontario Writers' Conference and The Writers' Union of Canada:

Toronto Sisters In Crime and the Toronto Romance Writers:

Canadian Authors Association and the Science Ficton Writers:

There were even some other tents that made for a nice eclectic mix.

The theater crowd with Mirvish Productions, the biggest theater production company in town:

The Royal Ontario Museum was on hand with several centurions, promoting their terrific Pompeii exhibit:

And Amnesty International had a tent showcasing some of the many ways they work to expose and prevent human rights abuses:

There were a number of tents with presentations ranging from live readings to discussions of current events to awards:

We had a very good crowd pretty much the whole time, but I took advantage of a quick break at one point to grab a picture of the Crime Writers of Canada booth. Lovely authors Sharon Crawford and Caro Soles were signing with me.


Thanks to the Crime Writers of Canada for organizing our part in WOTS and thanks to the many readers who came out to meet new and favourite authors and purchase their work. We all had a great time and are looking forward to next year!

When a Character Takes on a Life of His Own

I had an interesting discussion with a co-worker a week or so ago. We were chatting about books and writing (as we so often do) and she asked if I’d ever had a character take on a life of its own and go in a direction I didn’t originally anticipate. I was about to answer ‘no, we plan too much for that’, when I realized it had happened to us in the form of Medical Examiner Dr. Edward Rowe.

Rowe was introduced as a minor character in our first series book, DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT. When a murder is committed, clearly an autopsy needs to be done, so we always planned for someone to fill this role. It was only when I went down to Boston on one of my research trips and learned how budget constraints actually affected the Office of the Medical Examiner that Rowe really started to come into his own. The truth of the matter in Massachusetts is they don’t send out a medical examiner or coroner to see the body in situ following a suspicious death; they simply don’t have the budget to support that. Instead, techs go out, collect the body and bring it back to the morgue in south Boston to be autopsied at a later time. It’s an incredibly problematic technique that we illustrated in an early scene between Matt and Leigh:


A few minutes later, Leigh came back to stand beside Matt. “They’re on their way. They understand that we’re in a hurry, so they’ll get here as fast as possible. I also called the M.E.’s office to keep Rowe in the loop.”

“Does he want to check out the site before we start?”

“Rowe?” She started to turn away. “He and his staff don’t come out to sites.”

Matt reached out, catching her arm to stop her. “What do you mean ‘they don’t come out to sites’? Then who does liver temp, lividity, and rigor to determine time of death in a fresh victim?”

“No one.”


Leigh shook off his hand. “Jurisdictions that can afford it send the M.E. or an assistant to a crime scene to do an on-site examination of the body to help establish time of death. Unfortunately, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts doesn’t have that in the budget.”

“Then who comes out to get the body?”

“The M.E.’s office will send a couple of techs to properly bag the body and transport it to the morgue. Once there, they do as-is photos, take fingerprints, and then toe-tag the body before storing it in the cooler. And that’s all they do until the autopsy, which can be days later. But that’s not all.”

“I can’t believe it. There’s more?”

“They base time of death on L.S.A.—the time the victim was last seen alive.”

Matt gaped at her in disbelief. “That’s incredibly inaccurate.”

“I know. So does Rowe. He’s well aware that they’re losing convictions because they can’t nail down time of death more precisely. He’s argued for additional funding to cover this for years, but no one is listening. This is just the reality of what the budget will allow and the constraints we have to work with. Anyway, when it comes to this particular case, Rowe will fully review all photos, evidence reports, and your written report as soon as it hits his desk, and will consult with you personally at that time.”

“I’m . . . appalled. I haven’t worked with the police a lot but I know colleagues back in Tennessee who do. That’s not how they do it there.”

“It shouldn’t be how we do it here. That’s why Rowe’s trying to change it.”

I confess that pretty much everything going through Matt’s mind in that scene was what went through mine when I heard about their protocols. But it gave us an opportunity to flesh out what started as a minor character. So, instead of settling for the status quo, Rowe takes time out his own schedule to attend to as many deaths as he can, hoping to prove those cases have a better conviction rate, and better funding will be the downstream result. Justice means something to Rowe and he’ll do what he can to obtain it for his victims even at his own personal cost. So we started seeing Rowe at all our major crime scenes, starting with the first fresh victim in DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT and continuing in every series installment from that point on. Reader reaction has shown us that Rowe is one of our most beloved minor characters.

However, Rowe’s character really stepped into the stoplight in TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER when it turned out he was a history buff and could be the team’s guide into the world of Prohibition era Boston and the Mobs. It wasn’t something we planned, it just… evolved, led to a degree by the character as I was writing him. It was a great development of a much loved character and we’re thrilled with how it turned out. Some characters initially seem like sketched-in placeholders whereas some characters spring forth as nearly complete personas from the first moment they hit the page—Rowe is definitely that kind of character.

We tend to be fairly major planners, so we don’t have the advantage of pantsers by just letting our characters lead the way through the story. This was definitely a situation where a single character took the bit in his teeth and grabbed some of the control right out of my hands. For other writers in the group, has this ever happened to you?

What's in a Title?

Ann and I are in the last few weeks of working on a new series proposal and we’ve hit that time, that dreaded time, when we have to come up with . . . a title. *cue scary horror movie music* You might think: It’s a title. How hard can it be? But when you consider what rides on a title—it needs to not only reach out and grab a reader’s interest, but also convey the tone of the book—it’s actually a key part of any novel and can’t be taken lightly.

Normally, we write the entire book first and have the luxury of settling into the story, so a title comes to us mostly organically. Ann is the title master; throughout the overwhelming majority of our writing together, she’s come up with both our book and chapter titles (and explanations). We tend to take our titles from other works, mostly poetry, using material in the public domain, or with express permission of the author or their estate.

The title for DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT is a line of poetry from an 1865 Civil War poem called Behind the Lines, about a Union soldier, wounded and near death on a battlefield. He fears that he will be buried in an unmarked grave and remain forever unknown:

Dead? and here—where yonder banner
Flaunts its scanty group of stars,
And that rebel emblem binds me
Close within those bloody bars.
Dead? without a stone to tell it,
Nor a flower above my breast!
Dead? where none will whisper softly,
"Here a brave man lies at rest!"

We changed the punctuation around a bit, but felt it was the perfect title for our debut novel. Admittedly it’s a mouthful, but for those of you who have read the book, you know exactly how well suited it is for the burial ground in the story.

The poem Until I Fall by HaliJo Webster, is the source of the title for NO ONE SEES ME ‘TIL I FALL, a story about loss of identity and how we fit into society, our own and the larger society around us:

I shout and no one seems to hear.
I dance naked and no one responds.
I wow my "self" and stand higher
than any mountain I have stood on before!
No one sees me.
Not till I fall.

A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH was the trickiest title for us so far, as we tried to link the concepts of fire and death in the same line of text. When we finally discovered the 1923 poem Fire, written by Australia’s Dorothea Mackellar, we knew we’d finally found what we were looking for:

This life that we call our own
Is neither strong nor free;
A flame in the wind of death,
It trembles ceaselessly.

The title for the upcoming TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER was the earliest title we matched with a novel. Ann found this little gem in a book called The Devil’s Dictionary. Originally a series of satirical newspaper columns written by Ambrose Bierce between 1881 and 1887, it was published in book form in 1906 as The Cynic’s Word Book before taking on its final title in 1911.

BRANDY, n. A cordial composed of one part thunder-and-lightning, one part remorse, two parts bloody murder, one part death-hell-and-the-grave, and four parts clarified Satan. Dose, a headful all the time. Brandy is said by Dr. Johnson to be the drink of heroes. Only a hero will venture to drink it.

An aspect of the storyline for TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER centers around Prohibition, so the combination of murder and alcohol implied in the title was simply perfect for us.

So what makes a good title? A title needs to be clever, but not so clever that it is misunderstood by the reader. It needs to not only identify the intended audience, but sometimes more specifically the exact series it is a part of. A good title is memorable and sets the tone for the story it encapsulates (Okay, the title for DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT is maybe not memorable because of its length and structure, but it totally sets the tone for the book!).

Will a publisher keep the title you’ve worked on so diligently once they’ve purchased your manuscript? Not necessarily, but we’ve had excellent luck so far since every one of our titles has been accepted without question. Will that luck continue? Not necessarily, but an author certainly hopes so when she puts this much work into finding the perfect title. As far as we are concerned, we work at this aspect of storytelling assuming the title will be a keeper because if it suits so well, perhaps our editor will agree with our choice. Wish us luck…

Photo credit: Dustin Gaffke (photo has been cropped from original size)

Word on the Street Toronto 2014

This past Sunday I took part in Word on the StreetToronto, Canada's largest book and magazine festival. Celebrating its 25th year, Word on the Street has everything for the book lover—one-on-one interviews, panel discussions, publishers, booksellers, libraries, literacy groups and much, much more.

This was my first Word on the Street, but what a fabulous festival! Every genre and taste was represented for every age. Despite the doom-and-gloom weather forecast for severe thunderstorms, the sky cleared during the festival and Toronto residents responded, coming out in droves.

I was part of the crew coming out from the Crime Writers of Canada and helped man booth 147. Along the way I met some of our existing readers, some new readers, and had great discussions with readers and authors alike. It was a really wonderful experience being immersed in a crowd of people who were all there for one reason—a universal love of reading.

Here are a few pictures from the afternoon...

Queen's Park Circle shut down for the festival:

Rick Blechta and Terry Carroll selling books and signing at the Crime Writers of Canada booth:

Jonathan Bennett, Jeramy Dodds, and Michael Lista in the ‘New Narratives’ tent:

Gail Gallant, Lucy Leiderman, and Lesley Livingston specializing in spoken word poetry in the ‘This Is Not the Shakespeare Theater Stage’ tent:

The Toronto Public Library booth was hopping with both kids and adults:

Penguin Random House's Author Solutions was out with several of its authors doing signings:

The Kobo Writing Life booth:

Toronto Book Award finalist Anthony De Sa, talking about his novel Kicking the Sky:

The ‘ Bestsellers Stage’ tent, introducing Andrew Pypers' The Demonologist:

Ottawa firefighter John Kenny with his debut novel The Spark:

And what's a festival without a beer tent?

Joan O'Callaghan and I manning the Crime Writers of Canada booth, meeting new readers, talking up the CWC and signing books:

Thanks Word on the Street for a great time. Looking forward to seeing you again next year!

Setting the Scene for the Climax of Abbott and Lowell Book Five

I’m back from vacation, and we’re back from a blogging hiatus and some time away to write, plan, and figure out some potential future projects (more on that when there is more to tell…).

My daughters and I travelled to Massachusetts at the end of June with two specific book-related research projects in mind—taking a tour of one of the Massachusetts State Police crime labs, and climbing the mountain that will be featured in the climax of our work-in-progress, Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries, Book 5. While the end scene will take place in December—in the middle of a blizzard—I wanted to get the experience of the actual location, even if we were out of season.

Holyoke Range State Park was our destination, just outside of Amherst, Massachusetts. But what we were specifically heading for was Mount Norwottuck, and its 1100 foot peak.

At the lower levels, the terrain mostly looks like every Ontario forest I’ve ever hiked through. I bet this area would be stunning in autumn.

But it fairly quickly got rocky and the incline started.

This picture was taken from about 300 feet up, looking northeast towards Amherst, Massachusetts. The buildings on the left are part of University of Massachusetts Amherst, better known to the locals as UMass. Mt. Orient can be seen in the distance.

This is the kind of terrain we were managing for a lot of the climb—well established hiking trails, but quite rocky and often very steep.

These are the Horse Caves, a geological formation of ledges below the peak of Mount Norwottuck. Local lore tells the story of American soldiers from Shay's Rebellion in 1786 hiding out at this spot from the Massachusetts militia.

My eldest, currently midway through her Bachelor of Arts in Photography, taking advantage of the outing for some great shots of the ledges at the Horse Caves.

Getting close to the top, the tree line suddenly changed to almost all pine trees and the footing looked like this:

Near the peak, a Golden Eagle soared overhead.

The prize at the top of the climb. This is my youngest, standing 1100 feet up, taking in the view. It was pretty incredible, even if it was a lot of work to get there!

Thanks to both of my girls for another great trip to Massachusetts. So far I’ve dragged them through a salt marsh (the body dump site for DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT), through Witches’ shops and a tour of the Salem Fire Department (both for A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH), and now up a mountain and through a real life crime lab for the as-yet-unnamed Book #5.

Coming up in one of our next blog posts, I’m going to talk about my trip to one of the Massachusetts State Police crime labs. I wasn’t allowed to take many pictures (totally understandable when real cases with real evidence are involved) but I did get a few photos and a ton of really great info. So I’ll be back soon with that fascinating information.

Happy Canada Day and a Summer Hiatus

Hello and a happy Canada Day from beautiful Massachusetts!

I hear you cry—you’re in the the U.S. on Canada Day? Yes, my daughters and I are currently in Massachusetts on a research trip for the fifth book in the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries. And thus begins my summer hiatus from blogging as we take some time off to travel and research, and then as I launch back into the current manuscript because my end-of-summer deadline is starting to tick rather loudly. So I’ll be taking the month of July off from blogging as I concentrate on my writing. But I’ll be back come the first week of August.

Have a great month and I’ll see you then!

Photo Credit: Jamie McCaffrey

How to Survive a Public Reading

This past Thursday, I took part in an event sponsored by the Crime Writers of Canada. Twelve local crime writers read from their novels at a large Indigo bookstore in Toronto as part of the Arthur Ellis Shortlist Events, celebrating the best in Canadian crime writing.

For many authors, the thought of doing a public reading makes them weak in the knees. Confession—I’m definitely one of these authors. I prefer to hide behind my keyboard rather than actually come out and talk about my work. But part of modern life as an author is interacting with readers, so we go out and do just that. And, honestly, meeting new readers is really fun. It’s just a matter of getting over the nerves of putting yourself out there.

So what can authors do to have a successful reading?

Don’t take yourself too seriously: If you stumble over a word or two, or flip one page too far, world peace isn’t at risk. Just laugh at yourself and move on.

Practice, practice, practice: Entertaining readers know how to work the text by adding intonation and pacing as they read, so practice what you’ll be reading ahead of time. Author Melodie Campbell, who read from her hilarious new novella, The Goddaughter’s Revenge, is a master at keeping the audience enthralled (and in stiches).


Make eye contact with members of the audience: Audiences prefer interaction with an author who doesn’t bury her nose in her book while she reads. Lisa De Nikolits, reading from The Witchdoctor’s Bones, connected wonderfully with the audience, drawing us into both her story and her love of Africa. Now, this doesn’t mean you have to memorize your material, but it is where the previous point comes in handy, allowing the time to look up occasionally because you already know where your sentence is going. If looking up to a room of strangers gives you the willies, ask someone you know to come along to be the safe person in the room and just read to them.



Try to use humour whenever possible: Following their reading, each author was asked why they write crime fiction. The often irreverent Rick Blechta, author of The Boom Room, replied that he wrote crime because he just wasn’t any good at romance, and whenever he wrote sex scenes, his wife laughed at them.


Use the opportunity to whet the audience’s appetite: A number of different authors used different methods to accomplish this goal. Gina Buonaguro, author of The Wolves of St. Peter’s, started at the very beginning of the story so the audience discovered the body of a drowned girl alongside the protagonist.


Cathy Astolfo used passages from Sweet Karoline to touch specifically on sections illustrating fascinating points of the protagonist’s psyche. From the moment Cathy started with ‘I met Ethan on the day that I killed Karoline’, the audience was hooked.


I always like to use an early turning point from Dead, Without a Stone to Tell It in my readings—what happens when you go looking for a murder victim and find a different one instead?


Leave the audience wanting more: If you want the audience to be intrigued enough to scoop up your latest release, leave them on a cliff-hanger. Rosemary McCracken wisely left the audience hanging with her excerpt from Black Water.


Thanks to all the immensely talented authors reading with me that night, as well as for the audience members who attended the event. A very good time was had by all!

I’m at Onmimytery News this week, talking about why I write crime fiction. Stop by to see why TV shows like Bones, CSI and NCIS inspired me to write forensics in the real world: Why Write Forensic Crime Fiction

Photo credit: Bradford Dunlop, Rob Brunet, and Tanis Mallow.

Big Publishing News for Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries!

Ann and I are thrilled to have not one, but two publishing deals to announce today!

First of all, the paperback rights for DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT have been contracted by Harlequin Worldwide Mysteries. We’re thrilled that our debut novel will now be available in three formats—hardcover, ebook, and paperback—for accessible reading no matter what your preference. Recent discussions with Harlequin indicate a moved-up release date of December 2014 to the very early part of 2015. More on that when we know more.

But our really big news is that the fourth installment in the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries, TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER, has been accepted for publication by Five Star Publishing, which has released all the full length novels in our series to date. Described by our editor as our best book so far, we love this book for its blend of mystery and history.


Publishers Marketplace recently published the two official announcements. Big thanks to agent extraordinaire Nicole Resciniti of the Seymour Agency for all her work on these deals:

March 3, 2014 - DEAD WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT by Jen Danna and Ann Vanderlaan 
Fiction: Mystery/Crime
Jen Danna with Ann Vanderlaan's DEAD WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT, when a single human bone is found on a lonely stretch of coastline, a determined homicide detective and a reluctant scientist risk their lives when they join forces to bring a serial killer to justice, to Laura Barth at HQN Worldwide Mystery, in a nice deal, for publication in Fall 2015, by Nicole Resciniti at The Seymour Agency (NA).

March 13, 2014 - TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER by Jen Danna and Ann Vanderlaan
Fiction: Mystery/Crime
Jen Danna with Ann Vanderlaan's TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER, the fourth book in the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries, where a body discovered in a long-forgotten speakeasy proves to be ground zero for a cascade of murders through the decades, to Deni Dietz at Five Star, in a nice deal, for publication in Spring 2015, by Nicole Resciniti at The Seymour Agency (NA).


TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER will be released either in March or April of 2015, so we’re pleased that this will keep the release of each installment in the series to less than a year apart. We can only write so fast because I still work full time in the research lab, but keeping the series rolling with regular release dates is very important to us.

So… what’s coming up next for Matt, Leigh and their team?


Prohibition was a time of clandestine excess—short skirts, drinking, dancing . . . and death. But a murder committed so many years ago still has the power to reverberate decades later with deadly consequences.

It’s a double surprise for Trooper Leigh Abbott as she investigates a cold case and discovers two murder victims in a historic nineteenth-century building. Together with forensic anthropologist Matt Lowell and medical examiner Dr. Edward Rowe, she uncovers the secrets of a long-forgotten, Prohibition-era speakeasy in the same building. But when the two victims are discovered to be relatives—their deaths separated by over eighty years—the case deepens, and suddenly the speakeasy is revealed as ground zero for a cascade of crimes through the decades. When a murder committed nearly forty years ago comes under fresh scrutiny, the team realizes that an innocent man was wrongly imprisoned and the real murderer is still at large. Now they must solve three murders spanning over eighty years if they hope to set a wronged man free.

A reminder to our readers that A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH will release April 18th and be available shortly thereafter. This is the third installment in the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries, following DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT, and the e-novella, NO ONE SEES ME ‘TIL I FALL. To mark this event, next week we’re going to start a series of posts on fire investigation and forensics. Please join us for this fascinating topic.



Lessons Learned From a TV Interview

Last Thursday I had the chance to appear in my first TV interview on a Toronto cable program called Writers and Readers on the Rogers television network. As a writer who definitely prefers to shelter behind her keyboard, this was a pretty stressful adventure for me. As far back as I can remember—all the way back to elementary school presentations—I’ve been terrified of public speaking of any kind (yes, I’m one of those people who would list public speaking above death on the fear scale). But my Canadian distributor extraordinaire, Nelson, was kind enough to set up the opportunity for me, and I was determined to do it.

So what did I learn from my first TV experience?

  • You’d be surprised at how many times a lapel microphone has to be put on or adjusted. Right side or left side? Wireless transmitter attached to your back pocket or belt? Is the transmitter on? Is it muted? I was repeatedly checked for that outside and then again inside the studio.
  • The lights aren’t as hot as you’d think they’d be. I’m familiar with stage lighting from many, many high school concerts and productions, and it’s nothing like that.
  • You aren’t going to be asked anything for which you don’t already know the answer. You’re there to promote your series; no one is going to ask you about your peace plan for the Middle East or for the chemical formula for titin, the protein with the longest formula known to man.
  • When asked a question, don’t answer ‘yes’ and leave it at that or you’ll drive your host to distraction. He’s opening a door for his guests to talk about their work, so expand upon all your answers.
  • Be yourself. I might consider 20 years of studying HIV and dengue virus to be run of mill because I’ve done it for so long, but others will find it an interesting experience compared to what they do in their own day jobs. Tie your own experiences into your writing so viewers will see why what you do is interesting. 

  • A good host goes a long way to make you comfortable. Tom Taylor, an author himself of the War of 1812 Brock series, went out of his way to make his guests feel comfortable. He reviewed some of the questions he’d be asking before we started so there wouldn’t be any surprises. At each break in the taping, he was very encouraging. And when the interview was over, he grinned and said ‘now your nightmare is over’. Oh yes, he knew that this was a new and stressful experience.
  • Everyone is there to support you, so just relax and enjoy the experience.


The show won’t be airing for about another 5 or 6 weeks, but I’ll be interested to see the final result. Many thanks to Tom for hosting me and the wonderful Lloyd Kelly and Pat O’Neill from Nelson for introducing me to the wonderful world of television!

On a more sober note, our regular readers will remember that a few weeks ago we covered the hidden bodies discovered at the Dozier School for Boys in Florida and the allegations of abuse and murder at the reform school. Since then one of the surviving students has contacted us and would like the opportunity to tell what life at the school was like from his perspective. Please join us next week for that very special blog post.

Photo credit: Tom Taylor and Rogers TV

Using Pinterest To Provide Additional Content For Your Readers

Everyone has their likes and dislikes when it comes to social media. I prefer Twitter – if you can’t say it in 140 characters, don’t say it at all. I pretty much hate Facebook and view it as a necessary evil—the privacy issues and the clunkiness of being forced to have two pages so you can have a hobbled business page pretty much drives me insane. But I LOVE Pinterest. Pinterest is where the pretty is and you can find value there no matter where your interests lie because its users are so diverse and creative.

While I started using Pinterest because I liked looking at beautiful nature pictures, classic architecture, gorgeous doorways, and just generally awesome stuff, I realized that it would be a great platform to add some extra content for our readers.

  • Our main characters – Want to see who we used as the physical inspirations for Leigh Abbott and Matt Lowell? Have you always wondered what gun Leigh carries, what kind of sights Matt sees every day at work, or where they both live? It’s all on display in the Leigh Abbott and Matt Lowell boards.
  • Our books – Each book is summed up pictorially on its own board, from the book cover as soon as it’s revealed, to relevant clues and locations. Curious about what the crypts under the Old North Church in Boston look like? There are pictures from my tour on the DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT board. The board for NO ONE SEES ME 'TIL I FALL highlights some of the smaller Massachusetts towns that are a part of the story. Or if you want to get a hint about the upcoming adventures of Matt and Leigh in A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH, it’s all there on FLAME’s board.

I’ve also recently added material for the fourth book in the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries – TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER. That board contains the site of the cold case that sets the whole story in motion, a look back at life during Prohibition, and the site of the final climactic confrontation atop High Rock Tower. So if you’re curious about Matt and Leigh’s newest case, stop by to take a look!

How do you guys feel about extra content of this kind? Does it complement the reading experience for you or does it interfere with your own mental imagining of a fictional world?

Breaking a Promise to the Reader

Before we start into this week’s blog post, we wanted to announce an e-novella promotion this week. From December 17th – December 19th, NO ONE SEES ME ‘TIL I FALL will be FREE! So if you wanted to try out the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries, this is your chance to do so, risk free. You can find it here: NO ONE SEES ME ‘TIL I FALL.

And now onto our regularly scheduled blog post. . . .

**This post will contain spoilers for Veronica Roth’s ALLEGIANT. If you would prefer to remain unspoiled, then please skip this post.**

I recently finished the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth. First of all, let me say that I’m not a regular YA reader. I’ve read some of the big ones—like THE HUNGER GAMES—but I have two teenagers at home and don’t need any more teenaged angst in my life, especially not in my reading material. So, by and large, YA doesn’t do much for me (it’s never good when you want to grab the protagonist by the shoulders and shout ”Snap out of it!”). But DIVERGENT got a lot of buzz so I admit I was curious, even though I came to the series late. I enjoyed DIVERGENT, and moved right on to INSURGIENT. I then had to wait about six months before I got to ALLEGIANT. But I watched friends who were extremely invested in the series get more and more excited as the release date for ALLEGIANT approached and then arrived. Then I watched them implode when they actually read the end of the trilogy. One friend even said she spent an entire evening sobbing. I know what investment in a fandom is like, and I know what it’s like when that investment crumbles because the storyline goes in a direction you can’t stomach. So I really felt for her, but from a writer’s point of view, I was more curious than ever about what exactly happened.

Now that I’m finished the book, I think what it essentially comes down to is that a promise was made to the readers and Ms. Roth and her editors broke that promise (which is totally within their rights to do, but this is the fallout as a result). Making and keeping promises to the reader is one of the points the Writing Excuses team comes back to again and again—when you make a promise to your reader, even if it wasn’t overt, you should absolutely keep that promise.

So where did Ms. Roth go wrong from that perspective?

  • She killed off her main character: The first two books in the series were first person narrated by Tris Prior. Hers was the only head we were in. Four/Tobias played a major part in the book, but only through Tris’ eyes. The third book started with dual POVs between Tris and Tobias. From a writer’s perspective, this clearly looks like a tool to allow the story to continue once Tris was killed with 20% of the story still to go. For me, this was the biggest promise broken. Normally, when you have a book written in the first person, as much trouble as that character might encounter, you know he/she is essentially safe or else the story cannot continue. The promise made in the first two books was that Tris’ life was safe. She might be injured or emotionally damaged, but she couldn’t be killed. Dual POV’s in the last book solved that little inconvenience. This is on scale with killing off either Matt or Leigh in our series, and, for us, this is absolutely forbidden. It’s like watching the TV show Castle—yes, Rick and Kate may get into trouble and we’ll go on the rollercoaster ride with them, but we never actually think either of them could die as it would kill the premise of the show (as an aside, the only showrunner this doesn’t hold true for is Joss Whedon. With Whedon, all bets are off and no single character is safe, something the community understands). Clearly, Roth’s readers felt a promise had been made and then shattered with Tris’ death.
  • The romance ended as a result of that death: For many readers, the main draw of the series as a whole wasn’t the conflict between the factions or the great overarching story with the Bureau; it was the developing relationship between Tris and Four/Tobias. That relationship was fully realized in the final book, just before Tris’ death. The readers were given what they wanted, only to have it cruelly snatched away, leaving Tobias destroyed and alone at the end of the story. Honestly, I’m not sure what most readers would consider the greater blow, Tris’ death, or the end of the Tris/Tobias romance, but I suspect it's the latter.
  • Hated characters were allowed to live: This issue is totally wrapped up in the concept of emotional justice. While Tris died, the brother who betrayed her lives on in her place, and Tobias’ abusive father is not only unpunished but goes free. Peter, a cruel compatriot of both Tris and Tobias, essentially gets a ‘get out of jail free’ card when his memory gets reset—essentially giving him a clean slate—and David, the man who kills Tris, while having his memory reset, remains in charge at the Bureau. It doesn’t feel like there was enough emotional justice in this book. Uriah’s death was handled emotionally and well (better than Tris’, truth to be told), but other than that, the deaths that occurred and the lives that were saved didn’t seem even remotely balanced.

Did Ms. Roth make a mistake in concluding the series this way? Not necessarily. As an author, it’s her prerogative to write the story in her heart. But from the readers’ perspective, I’d say she made a significant mistake. If you look at her reviews on Amazon, she has 1,283 one-star reviews vs. 1,193 five-star reviews. Of the one-star reviews, a very large number of them say that they’ll never pick up another book by Ms. Roth again, nor will they go see the upcoming DIVERGENT movie. Whether she meant to or not, Ms. Roth made certain promises to her readers, promises she did not keep. Because many readers are “once-burned-twice-shy”, this translates into sales and future writing potential. From the author perspective, I know I wouldn’t be able to do that with our characters. Abbott and Lowell readers, let me assure you, they are in safe hands!

Ann and I are going to be taking a couple of weeks off to enjoy the hustle and bustle of the season. Best holiday wishes from us to you, and we’ll see you in the new year!

High Concept Writing

I’m back from a crazy week of travelling for my jobs as both an author and a scientist. A week ago, I attended New England Crime Bake in Boston, combining the conference with an opportunity to do some final research for TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER. One of the panels I attended was on high concept writing, and I wanted to share some of that content here.

One of the most interesting parts of the panel—which consisted of five authors (Robin Cook, Hallie Ephron, Chris Knopf, Daniel Palmer, and Len Rosen, moderated by Ray Daniel)—was that they had a hard time even describing the idea of ‘high concept’. It’s one of those things that everyone wants, but has a hard time putting into words without using an example as the entire description.

In basic terms, high concept should encapsulate your story in a single sentence, in a way that makes your reader say Ohhhhh… Essentially, you’re explaining the hook of your book without actually talking about it, in a length that could be easily contained on a cocktail napkin.

So what exactly do they mean by this? Robin Cook, the author of Outbreak, Critical, and Contagion, summed up his breakthrough novel Coma like this: Bad doctors in bad hospitals. He then explained that at the time (1977), most doctors were represented by the likes of Marcus Welby, so this was the antithesis of the current mindset surrounding medical professionals.

So what are some examples of high concept, that thing that no one knows what it means, yet everyone wants? Michael Crichton is considered the king of high concept, so let’s look at several of his works to get the idea:

Jurassic Park— Creatures extinct for eons roam Jurassic Park, and the entire world can visit them for a price… until something goes wrong.

The Andromeda Strain—A deadly extraterrestrial microorganism threatens to annihilate human life.

Sphere—A group of scientists investigate a spaceship discovered on the ocean floor.

The ultimate form of high concept writing encapsulates the idea in only a few words in the title—Snakes on a Plane—or in even a single word—Sharknado. Without hearing details about the story, the title encapsulates the hook. Granted, even having a catchy high concept title isn’t a guarantee of success—Snakes on a Plane never earned out at the box office.

Bottom line—is a high concept something that every book needs? Absolutely not, especially if you are writing literary fiction. But if you are writing fiction with that pop you love in some of your favourite thrillers or action/adventure movies, you may want to work on this kind of hook. Then before you know it, your novel may be the next high concept idea showing on your local IMAX screen.

Photo credit: Universal Studios

Gone Fishing...

This glorious picture by the über talented hpaich pretty much sums up the life of leisure I'd like to be experiencing this week. But, in reality, Ann and I are in the final week of finishing up Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries #4 - TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER - so we're taking a week off from blogging to slave away on our manuscript.

But stay tuned on Wednesday of next week for a very special guest post as writing bud and fellow Seymour Agency author Marianne Harden launches her debut humorous mystery - MALICIOUS MISCHIEF.

Photo credit: hpaich

Crafting the Perfect Villain

Snidely Whiplash

I’m back this week with more craft tips from Bouchercon 2013. This week, I'm covering the panel on crafting the perfect villain with authors Barbara Fister, Michael Dymmoch, Steve Hamilton, Joe Lansdale, Jon McFetridge, and Helen Smith. Michael Dymmock started off by reminding the audience that the villain is the hero of his own story, always a good point for any writer to keep in mind when you’re trying to create a real and believable character. Of course, in some cases, the villain or antagonist isn’t even a person—instead it could be the forces of nature or a deadly pathogen—but for the sake of simplicity in this blog post, I'm only talking about a human antagonist.

How can we craft effective villains that don’t cross the line into unbelievable caricature? The panel offered some tips and aspects to consider:

  • Some villains are simply pure evil, but another angle on a good villain is to create one that readers actually like and then are sorry to see caught.
  • It’s important to understand the other side. We need to understand evil to be able to write it convincingly. Most of us can—just because we understand what might drive a person to horrific acts, doesn’t mean we’d ever actually act on those impulses ourselves. But being able to empathize to a certain extent allows us to write a compelling character. Try writing from the villain’s perspective to help create that empathy and make your villain multidimensional.
  • Bad guys don’t always know they’re bad. It’s all a matter of point-of-view: what seems evil to one person, might seem like a minor offence or a totally justifiable action to another. Sometimes it’s about the spectrum of shades of gray. Real villains are also well-rounded. You may have a villain who is hell bent on destroying your hero, but who supports local charities. Full bodied characters are multidimensional.
  • Good can be a sliding scale and sometimes the good guy is only slightly less bad than the bad guy. Multidimensional characters and complex storytelling is interesting, and only rarely can you convincingly write a single-mindedly bad guy like Snidley Whiplash opposing a purely good guy like Dudley Do-Right. Heroes like Dexter are questionably ‘heroic’ and are often only a few notches above the antagonist on that sliding scale.
  • Craft your villain to suit the scope of your story. A big city villain may have a larger than life personality, but you may want to create a more subtle character in an intimate small town (unless, of course, you want your villain to stand out like a sore thumb right from the very first page).
  • Make it all about internal emotions, not external characteristics. In other words, an eye patch doesn’t make a villain. It’s how that character feels about the eye patch and why he has to wear it that might push him over the edge to villainy.
  • If you’re having trouble creating a believable villain, pick someone you know and exaggerate their characteristics. This grounds the character firmly in reality but pushes them towards extreme behavior.

Thanks to the authors on this panel for a fascinating discussion and some very solid advice!

Pacing as a Writing Tool

My recent trip to Bouchercon in Albany was enjoyable not only from the aspect of an author meeting her readers, but also as a writer who is always looking to improve her craft. Just because you’re a published author doesn’t mean that there is nothing left to learn. So I made it a point to attend several panels on writing craft.

One of the panels I attended was on pacing. Authors Toni Kelner, A. X. Ahmad, Daniel Friedman, Michael Kardos, Dale T. Phillips, and Julie Pomeroy discussed the finer points of pacing stories, specifically in crime fiction. It was an excellent panel, so I wanted to cover some of their ideas here.

Unlike literary fiction, crime fiction authors needs to get into their story immediately and escalate quickly from there. The panel authors shared many of their tips and tricks to crafting a well-paced and exciting storyline:

  • The sliding scale of pacing depends on specific subgenres. Cozy mysteries are expected to have a slower pace than thrillers, and police procedurals tend to have a slow, stately buildup as the case progresses. Write according to the basic rules of your subgenre.
  • Even when the pace of the story is rapid, both the story and the readers need time to breathe. A story that goes at breakneck pace for the entire novel may actually leave readers feeling exhausted rather than breathless with anticipation. Good stories give the protagonist moments to reflect on what is happening to him, rather than doing nothing more than constantly reacting.
  • Pacing can be the by-product of a good plot. An exhilarating and intriguing story will naturally keep the pace moving without needing superfluous Michael Bay-like explosions to artificially ramp up the tension.
  • If you’re going to blow up something, don’t do it on page one before the reader has a chance to connect with your characters because they simply won’t care. Once they know and love your characters, putting them in jeopardy as a natural part of the plot will pick up the pace and keep the reader turning the page.
  • A pacing tip: Start your story in motion. Have your character on the move, hurrying from place to place, or in the car. This gives a sense of urgency right from the opening line.
  • Add a clock. Nothing ramps up the tension like a life or death deadline or a ticking clock à la 24.
  • Alternate scenes to pick up the pace. This is a film trick directors often employ. Change up POV and scene locations in short cuts to increase urgency.
  • Use high stakes to propel your story and give it energy.
  • Pacing doesn’t always equal action. Use dialogue instead as it can be loaded with emotional stakes for your characters
  • Short chapters can give the impression of speeding up your storytelling and will keep the reader flipping right to the next chapter.
  • As the recently deceased Elmore Leonard is famous for saying—leave out the parts people skip.

Hopefully, you’ll find these tips as helpful as I did. In the next writing post, I’m going to cover the excellent panel on creating the perfect villain.

Photo credit: -cavin­-

Bouchercon 2013 Debrief

I’m just back from Albany, NY following the close of Bouchercon 2013. It was a great experience and I met some wonderful new readers, booksellers, and fellow authors.

Bouchercon is always a huge conference and this year was no exception. Attendance this year was approximately 1500, so our venue at the Empire State Plaza worked well for meeting rooms, theater seating for evening events, and signing tables, while still having plenty of room for all the booksellers and their loaded tables of books. This year’s noted guests included Sue Grafton, Tess Gerritsen, Louise Penny and Anne Perry.

So what were some of my highlights?

  • The general atmosphere: It’s always fun to be immersed in the writing/publishing milieu. These are people who don’t stare at you oddly when you mention your own characters talking to you, or who nod in understanding when you talk about some of the crazy things you’ve done in the name of research. These are people who “get you” and think in exactly the same terms, be they writers or readers.
  • Meeting readers: One of the great thrills of Bouchercon for me was meeting new readers. Not people I know who read the book because they know me, but readers who found the book in a store, or who discovered it in a library and then loved it so much they went out and bought their own copy (Kathy, I’m looking at you!). It’s very gratifying to develop a personal connection with people who love what you do.
  • Meeting good friends for the first time in person: I’ve made some very good friends through my agency—other writers who either also signed with Nicole or have come into the agency family. It was a true pleasure to be able to spend five days hanging out with the hilarious Marianne Harden, another of Nic’s early clients, as she attended Bouchercon promoting her humorous mystery Malicious Mischief (which debuts Oct. 22nd). There’s always time for a glass of wine in the evening with Marianne!
  • Hearing words of wisdom from the professionals: Evening events included hour-long interviews with Sue Grafton, Tess Gerritsen and Anne Perry. It was fascinating to hear how their careers have developed and an outline of their future plans. All three ladies were very gracious, well-spoken and humorous.
  • Favourite panel: I’ve been a Louise Penny fan for a long time (no, not just because she’s also Canadian!). The Beautiful Mystery is a personal favourite of mine, partly because of the musical aspect of the book. Louise did a panel with long-time friends and authors Rhys Bowen and Deborah Crombie. Instead of the typical panel with authors behind a table, these three friends brought their chairs out front and invited us into their impromptu ‘living room’. They were funny and gracious, and this definitely stands as my favourite panel of the con.

It was a great experience to attend my first Bouchercon, and I look forward to many more. Look out Long Beach, CA in 2014. Here I come!