Till now, Judith Flanders has confined herself solely to nonfiction as one of the foremost social historians of the Victorian era and the best-selling author of The Invention of Murder and The Victorian City. With her debut crime novel, Flanders takes on the cutthroat publishing industry and spices it up with a bit of that Victorian-style macabre.
Chosen by librarians for the February 2015 Library Reads list, A Murder of Magpies is a darkly funny romp that takes readers between London and Paris in pursuit of a potentially libelous manuscript.
But how did Flanders make the leap from Victorian crime to contemporary crime fiction? As she reveals in a guest blog post, it's just more fun. (And now we know never to get on Flanders' bad side . . .)
Fiction has some definite advantages over nonfiction. I’ve been writing nonfiction for nearly 20 years now, specializing in Victorian Britain. I truly can’t complain: It’s a great job. As with every job, though, there are some days that are just a slog. At one point I was writing about a fire along the river Thames in 1861, and I wanted to incorporate an eyewitness’ description of seeing the fire from a train. To do that, I needed to say where his train was heading. It took me nearly a week in the library to find that out. Even though it was one of those boring little details that nobody reading my book would care about, still, I had to get it right.
If I had been writing a novel, I grumped to myself, I could have just made it up. And then I bumped into an ex-colleague in the library, someone I’d worked with years before. And I remembered how much I disliked her. (The feeling, I believe, is mutual.) So, to relieve the boredom of researching trains, I began to imagine ways of killing her. From making up train stations, to making up murder methods, I moved on to just making things up.
And before I knew it, I’d started to write a crime novel. Sam Clair is an editor in a publishing house. I worked in publishing for 17 years, and publishing is full of people that belong in a novel. The 20-something editor who thinks he knows everything? Check. The last remaining Goth in Britain, who loves commercial women’s fiction? Double-check. And of course then there’s the general murder and mayhem. After all, there isn’t an author alive who hasn’t wanted to murder her editor, and vice-versa.
With my nonfiction hat on, I wrote a book on 19th-century murder and how real-life crimes were used for entertainment purposes: Where today we have films about the Boston strangler or whatever, they had plays and novels and even puppet shows. What struck me was that real-life murder was, on the whole, not very interesting. Thug A hits Thug B over the head, fighting over a few pounds. Thug B dies. That was the pattern, over and over.
Crime was dull. Crime fiction, however, now that was fabulous. From Dickens to Dracula, authors everywhere found themselves invigorated by these very ordinary, very ugly events. They took the dull stuff—Thug A, a railway station, a fire—and turned it into magic.
Publishing can be dull, too. Like a lot of glamorous jobs, on a day-to-day level it’s often just paperwork: admin and schedules and budgets. But if you make things up, you can liberate the routine, turn it into magic, too.
So I decided that I’d give myself a break from researching train stations, or even Thugs A and B. Instead I would take the ridiculousness that is publishing, and the magic that is making things up, and see what happened.
Thank you so much, Judith! Readers, A Murder of Magpies goes on sale tomorrow!
Judith Flanders author photo by Clive Barda.
Marriage is hard enough, but you're adding a whole new level of trouble when you and your spouse share the same hopes, dreams—and career avenues. David Bajo, author of the new medical thriller Mercy 6 and husband to novelist Elise Blackwell, knows all about that. But it's not like he's keeping score or anything.
You have no idea how hard it is to pretend you are the second best writer in the house. I should have married a doctor. That way I could have spent my late mornings indulging in biscotti and cigarettes while composing brilliant novels in the inner sanctum of my study. I could have taken long afternoon walks to clear my mind’s canvas. But no, 25 years ago I made that great MFA workshop mistake and married another writer.
For the first eight years, we lived in a Victorian farmhouse and grew rare subtropical fruits to supplement our income. We gardened, using the Seed Savers Exchange to grow endangered vegetables and grains. She somehow translated this into an idea for a novel. Right? Who wouldn’t want to read about people who desperately try to save seeds. I said “we” gardened. But I was the one slipping pollen filters fashioned from pantyhose over heirloom okra flowers—while she took notes and corresponded with other seed savers. I was the one who made like a bee every afternoon at four when the cherimoya blossoms began to morph from female to male, using a paint brush to swipe and insert pollen—while she composed elegant sentences (that I would help her revise once my fingers stopped cramping).
Okay, so she published her novel first, a well-received and timeless piece of work about starving Russian scientists who saved seeds. It’s built up a nice following over the years. The Decemberists wrote a song about it. I’m not even in the acknowledgments. Look, I would have published first if I hadn’t been so busy trying to control the sex lives of cherimoyas and okras. And once you fall one novel behind, it’s almost impossible to catch up.
When event organizers find out about us—and factor in the cost of one accommodation instead of two—they think it’s cute. Married novelists. I bet we can make them squirm and fight and dish during the Q&A. We got invited to a festival in Ireland. I’m pretty sure it was my book that first caught their eye, but once they got a look at her dark hair and pale beauty, they put her photo on the flyer and her name first. I understand. Marketing is a shallow pool.
Speaking of shallow pools, we did a panel in Los Angeles. We sat on opposite ends. I think we were fighting over some bookfest swag, you know, like who gets the Pynchon coffee mug and who gets the Philip K. Dick glow sticks. The audience had no idea we were together, but as the Q&A progressed, they started to smell the scintillating ozone of domestic tension, the battle for literary number one. It became a game and the ignored panelists in between us were pissed. I fielded one question, she fielded the next. Why do you keep pointing at her? Why does she say your name like that? Which one of you two got the biggest advance? Who got the most foreign deals? Did any cool bands record a song about your novel? I let her win because I knew that would look best and sell the most stock.
Mercy 6 keeps me one novel behind. The first time she knew anything about it was when I read from the first draft during a reading series held in a bar. “I didn’t know you were writing a medical thriller,” she said to me, ready to take the stage after I had wowed the room. “Can you fetch me another Jameson’s? The show’s about to start.”
Thanks, David! Readers, Mercy 6 is out now!
Ravenous mystery readers know that crime isn't limited to big cities. It's not even limited to Amish farms, charming British villages or too-perfect suburbs. Revenge and murder even finds its way to paradise, such as in Mark Troy's new mystery, The Splintered Paddle. In a guest blog post, Troy shares his insight into the dark side of Hawaii.
Where do most fictional private eyes hang their fedoras? That’s easy: New York City, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Far down on the list is Honolulu.
You can name the Honolulu private eye series on one hand. Television gave us Tracey Steele and Tom Lopaka in "Hawaiian Eye," and Thomas Magnum in "Magnum, P.I." The list of Hawaiian private eye novel series begins and ends with Charles Kneif’s John Caine. Some mainland-based eyes, such as Sharon McCone and Adrian Monk, have had adventures in the islands, but none have stayed. The most famous Hawaiian crime fighters are police detectives Charlie Chan and Steve McGarrett (both incarnations), but, even with their inclusion, the list is a short one. One gets the sense that there just isn’t much crime in the islands.
In the minds of most people, Hawaii is a paradise of golden sands, sparkling waters, waving palm trees and gyrating hula girls. Where are the mean streets? They are everywhere, but, like the changes in seasons, they are easily missed until you have spent time there.
Although I love Hawaii, its beaches and mountains, what I love most are its people and culture. By culture, I don’t mean hula dances and ukuleles, but the circumstances of history and geography from which the spirit of the people is formed.
One of the tenets of Hawaiian culture is a long tradition of resisting mistreatment of its citizens and of taking care of the weak and helpless. That tenet is stated in the Law of the Splintered Paddle—Kānāwai Māmalahoe in Hawaiian. The law was the first edict promulgated by Kamehameha I after uniting the islands.
The Law of the Splintered Paddle is basically understood to mean that citizens have a right to defend themselves against mistreatment by the government and that the weaker members of society can expect protection from the more powerful members. The state constitution makes mention of the law and the Honolulu Police badge bears an image of crossed canoe paddles in reference to the law.
Ava Rome, the private eye in my stories, is an outsider. She is not Hawaiian by birth or upbringing, so she brings an outsider's perspective to the culture. In that, she is like many other private eyes. What sets her apart from other private eyes is her mission. Ava believes in the Law of the Splintered Paddle. She believes in protecting the defenseless. She has adopted this basic tenet of Hawaiian culture and made it her mission in life. She doesn't require innocence to take on a client, only defenselessness.
Ava's belief in the Law of the Splintered Paddle is fueled by a burden of guilt over her failure, as a teenager, to protect her brother from bullying. She is determined not to fail anyone else. She takes on a prostitute who is being harassed by a high-ranking police officer and a troubled teenager who has fallen prey to her own bad decisions and to the predations of a marijuana grower. Ava's greatest challenge, however, arrives in the form of an ex-con, whom she had arrested when she was an MP. He is out. He is seeking revenge, and he harbors a secret from her past.
The Splintered Paddle is the story of a private eye, Ava Rome, and her personal foray down the mean streets of Hawaii to protect the defenseless in the dark side of paradise tourists seldom see.
Thanks, Mark! Readers, The Splintered Paddle is now available.
California native Karen Keskinen follows up her 2012 debut mystery, Blood Orange, with a new adventure for private investigator Jaymie Zarlin. In Black Current, the body of a local teen is found in a tank at the Santa Barbara Aquarium. It's ruled a suicide, but the girl's parents hire Jaymie to prove otherwise.
In a guest blog post for Private Eye July, Keskinen shares what it's like to be the featured author at book club meetings. It's no small job, that's for sure:
I’ve never been a chakra-and-crystals kind of girl. Sometimes I think a New Age is just what we need, but most of the time I find that this age we live in is—you know—good enough. And yet one night a few weeks back, as I walked home in the dark from a book club engagement, one of those New-Agey words popped into my head: shaman.
Yeah. As I walked home from a meeting right here in Santa Barbara, California, that’s what I felt like: a shaman. Maybe I didn’t exactly feel like one, but for the first time, I could sense the power those ancient storytellers wielded through their words.
This little city bristles with book club encounters every night of the week. Readers congregate in highbrow get-togethers and lowbrow get-togethers, well-heeled gatherings and run-down-at-the-heel gatherings, co-ed clubs, single-sex clubs and not-all-that-keen-on-sex clubs. But all these confabs have two characteristics in common.
One is food. Many so-called book clubs are actually misnomered: They are more accurately food and drink clubs. And huzzah to that! I’ve stuffed myself with full-on meals, nibbled at dainty noshes and, as a special tribute to my first book, taken part in a blood-orange-themed spread. You have not lived till you’ve tasted calamondin and blood orange pound cake. Yet, I digress.
Another feature these meetings have in common is that they encourage some feisty conversations, especially among my fellow Santa Barbarians.
Notice, I don’t claim readers think Blood Orange and Black Current are the greatest reads since Ulysses. But here in our town, these books are proving to be provocative, flaring matches put to drought-dried kindling.
When I arrive at a book club meeting, I usually say that I’ll stay for no more than an hour. I warn the members in advance that they might grow tired of me, and also that they might like to have time to say what they honestly think, once I leave. It makes no difference: I always seem to be driving or trotting home around 10:30, my mind roiling from the torrid and intense conversation, in no way ready for sleep.
The questions begin innocently enough. For example: Why is Jaymie Zarlin’s office address, 101 W. Mission, in fact that of the Cat and Bird Clinic? But soon, minutia dispensed with, matters warm up.
Are the rich so awful? Are cops corrupt? Are people that mean? So we talk about the bad in good people, and the good in bad. We talk about the abuse of power and the power money bestows. About corruption, both personal and systemic. And we talk about that corruption right here in River City, not in some theoretical realm.
In every book club I’ve visited, somebody has had her cage rattled. At one recent gathering, people were debating in twos and threes when a young woman said loudly: “Jenny, I’ve never heard you talk like that!” The room fell silent. Flushed, the accused looked away. For maybe the first time in her life, Jenny had publicly dropped the f-bomb.
I’ve thought about shamans over the past few weeks. How did they work their magic? They were conduits, mediums, copper wires. The shaman had her ear to the ground, a nose for the news, she didn’t miss much. And she let all that flow into her, through her, and on out to the ineffable, what we fear and don’t understand. Then all that power, transformed into story, flowed back again.
The face of the fear doesn’t matter: Once upon a time there were broken limbs that turned septic, and mountain lions that could flail open a man. Now we have terrorists, torturers, rapists. The bogeyman changes masks as the centuries pass, but never his nature, which is the ability to evoke dread.
The shaman’s tools never change, either. She has only three, but what a three they are! People, places and things. Waving those three wands, she teases out her listeners’ fears and dreams and heartbreak, then weaves all that chaos to make a map, a guide for survival. A story.
When book club members ask me questions about the settings, characters and special objects in Blood Orange and Black Current, I know their interest is piqued. But when they ignore my answers and insist on supplying their own, that’s when I know I’m their conduit: The readers are redeeming my stories, remaking them into their own.
Recently at one local meeting, an older woman announced she knew the real life people I’d used to create two of my characters, Dr. Bruce and Cynthia Wiederkehr. In fact, Bruce and Cynthia were created from whole cloth, but I had the good sense to keep quiet.
My reader whispered their names to a friend sitting beside her, and the two women raised eyebrows and exchanged knowing smiles. The Sha-Woman reached for a slice of chocolate cheesecake, and felt good. She’d given it over to them, it was their story now.
Thanks, Karen! Readers, Black Current is now available!
Today's guest post is from author M.D. Waters, whose debut novel, Archetype, goes on sale today. Set in the near future, it's the thrilling tale of a woman who wakes up after a horrible accident with no memory of who she is. Luckily, Emma has a handsome and loving husband, Declan, by her bedside to fill in the blanks. But as Emma recovers, she begins to have strange dreams that contradict what Declan is telling her—dreams that feature another handsome man who claims to love Emma as well. We asked Waters, who lives in Maryland, to share the secret of how she constructed such a suspenseful love triangle.
I’ve been dubious about love triangles since the creation of Edward-Bella-Jacob. Not that I didn’t love the idea. My issue was this: I didn’t believe it. The doubts about guy #2 were right there in the heroine’s thoughts, and you just can’t turn doubt into reality. If she’s in doubt, well, so am I.
As a writer, I understand the difficulty for the author. To resolve a love triangle, there has to be a clear winner, and the reader must be completely satisfied with the heroine’s choice. I even attempted and failed at writing one in an early novel. Why was it a big, fat fail? Because, like Bella, my heroine liked guy #2, but she loved guy #1. Where’s the conflict in that? I gave up attempting to write the triangle after that and didn’t look back.
I’ve only come across two triangles I believed, and to this day I’m envious they pulled it off so seamlessly. The first happens to be a popular TV show, “The Vampire Diaries,” and the second is Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter spinoff series, The Infernal Devices.
To resolve a love triangle, there has to be a clear winner, and the reader must be completely satisfied with the heroine’s choice.
I once heard Cassandra Clare speak on this very subject at a conference in New York City, and what she said about love triangles really made sense. No triangle is complete unless a conflict exists between the boys. (Or girls?) Making them friends, or in the case of “The Vampire Diaries,” brothers. What was missing from all these triangles I’d been reading, and what she managed to show in her Will-Tessa-Jem triangle, was a three-way connection.
It was, in a word, brilliant. But now that I understood, I still faced an industry sick of love triangles, so why bother writing one? Little did I know that I’d already done it. Oy, the horror!
That’s right. It wasn’t until Archetype was in the hands of my Dutton editor that I heard the words “love triangle” applied to my story. Someone even said it was “the best love triangle in years.”
I was in shock. Yes, I’d written about two men in love with the same woman. And yes, she loved them both in return. But for some insane reason I never saw it as a triangle. Probably because I never had the intention of writing one. It was just another accident in a long line of accidents in the history of Archetype. (That’s another story for another day.)
So upon hearing these words, I had to analyze what the heck I’d done. I never set out to make the reader fall in love with both men. All I’d wanted was to mask my real villain and hero from the reader. How? By giving them equal parts good and bad qualities, from personality to lifestyle.
Ultimately, what I’d done was write two men that, as a reader, I wanted to win the girl. I had to stomp on the fact that one of them was destined from the start to be Emma’s #1. I made sure to write scenes with both men that made even me second-guess my plans. I had to—had to—believe every word, because any doubts I had would show in Emma. (Ah, the dilemma of writing first person, present tense!)
Ultimately, what I’d done was write two men that, as a reader, I wanted to win the girl. I had to stomp on the fact that one of them was destined from the start to be Emma’s #1.
This worked really well for me until it came to revealing the entire truth to Emma. She (and I) suddenly had to hate a man she (and I) loved. I couldn’t just point to him and call him “Bad Guy” and let things play out. Motivations played such a huge part in this story. Just about every square inch of this novel hinged on them, quite literally right to the very last page.
I came away from all of this seeing the love triangle in a whole new light. Cassandra Clare was absolutely right about the three-way connection, but I think too that, as the creator of these characters, we have to fall in love with all angles of the triangle or it won’t work. I’m already seeing a ton of Team Declan fans, as well as Team Noah fans. But then there are some, like me, who are Team Both, and I can’t fault them one bit.
Author photo by Crystal Bingham.
Catherine Coulter's new international thriller series kicks off with The Final Cut, a globe-hopping thriller with nonstop action that introduces Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Nicholas Drummond. In his first adventure, Drummond travels to NYC to investigate the murder of Elaine York, the minder of the crown jewels on display at the Met. Then the diamond centerpiece of the exhibit is stolen by an international thief called the Fox, and it's up to Drummond to retrieve the stolen gem before it's too late.
But Coulter wasn't alone in crafting Scotland Yard's newest hero. She collaborated with best-selling author J.T. Ellison, who shares in a guest post (one of my favorites to date!) the process of collaborating with veteran writer Coulter.
A writer’s career is full of moments. Capital M moments. Writing the first line of your first novel. Finishing said work. Getting an agent, then landing a deal. Seeing your book in print for the first time, then on the bookshelf in your favorite store and your local library. That first fan letter. I could go on and on. Trust me, having moments never gets old.
But some moments are bigger than others. Rewind to May 4, 2012. I’d just accepted a three-book deal with Mira books to continue my Samantha Owens series. (I’ve been writing two books a year for Mira since 2006—my debut, All the Pretty Girls, was released in November 2007.) Decent deal, job security, all the things a writer wants from her career. I went into the weekend very, very happy.
On May 7, all hell broke loose, in all the best possible ways. I received a call from my agent who wanted to give me a heads up that Catherine Coulter was about to call me and offer me a job. Cue sheer, unadulterated panic. I knew my name was in the mix for Catherine’s co-writing gig, but so were a lot of others very talented authors, and to be perfectly honest, I didn’t ever imagine she would pick me! As pie-in-the-sky dream jobs go, this one ranked up there. I mean, we're talking about Catherine Coulter! I’ve been a fan of Catherine’s books for years—since I read The Cove, and I especially love Savich and Sherlock—and the idea of working with her on a book both scared and thrilled me. Co-writing is a big decision, for both the writers. I was immediately plagued with worry. What if I wasn’t good enough? What if I was?
Before I could spin myself into a frenzy, the phone rang again. It was Catherine, and all worry was laid to rest. The first thing that struck me was her laugh. She has the most wondrous, wicked sense of humor. She said some very nice things about my writing, and how complimentary our styles were, which turned out to be hugely important down the road, laid out the plan for the books, what she wanted to do, how she wanted to do it, the characters, the series, everything. I was so impressed by how smartly she’d planned all of it. She knew exactly what she wanted, and I knew immediately we were going to have a good time, and I was going to get an education. So I accepted on the spot.
And suddenly had five books under contract over the course of three days. Moments that turn momentous, indeed.
After a fine bit of juggling with my editors and agent, Catherine and I made arrangements for me to fly to California to meet with her, plot out the book and generally get to know one another. Happily, we found out we have so much in common, so many congruous interests and opinions, that a friendship blossomed immediately.
And that friendship got us through the first few months, when we made pretty much every mistake possible. The Final Cut was my 12th novel, but it felt like my first many times as we sailed into uncharted territory of joint creation. As similar as our writing styles and work ethic are, we still had differences, and we needed to get used to those. Which we did, of course, ultimately parlaying our differences in style into the book’s strengths.
My biggest issue was writing in another author’s voice. I found it an incredible challenge. Catherine’s funnier and lighter than me—I’m a naturally dark, introspective writer—so I had to work twice as hard to both draft the story and find her voice. But find it I did, and the book came together quickly after that. There was a moment (see, they crop up everywhere!) toward the end of the first revision of the book when we were on the phone literally writing together, each contributing words to the sentences, and it was sheer magic. Magic I think comes across quite clearly in The Final Cut.
You have to have a lot of faith and trust in your co-writer to do this, and from the moment I met Catherine, I knew I could trust her, and I know she feels the same. She’s a writer’s writer, which I greatly respect. We have a similar work ethic – there’s no nonsense, no prevaricating, we just get down to it every day and make the words flow, and I think that was a big part of our success with The Final Cut. You absolutely can’t have a successful collaboration if you put a Type A writer with a Type B writer. You’d drive each other crazy.
This experience has been incredibly rewarding. One day, when I have 70 or so books under MY belt, I hope to repay the favor by doing the same thing, bringing another writer along for the ride. For now, I know our moment is just beginning. And I can’t wait to see where it leads us.
Thanks, J.T.! Readers, The Final Cut is on sale today!
John Rector, author of Already Gone and The Cold Kiss, has started to make quite a name for himself in the suspense genre. Already Gone was nominated last year for an International Thriller Award, and after his novella Lost Things won the 2013 Thriller Award for Best Short Story. In a guest post for BookPage, Rector introduces his newest thriller, Out of the Black, and discusses his climb to writing success.
I was at a convention once where I heard a writer tell a group of people that publishing a novel was similar to what Lewis and Clark must’ve felt when they crossed the Rocky Mountains for the first time. They believed that once they passed that first line of mountains, it would be downhill all the way to the Pacific. But when they got to the top and looked out, all they saw were more mountains, an endless blue stretch fading out toward the horizon.
I don’t think writing a novel is quite the same as the Lewis and Clark expedition, but I understand the analogy.
When you’re a working writer, there is no end goal, only an endless string of peaks and valleys. You climb one, and there’s another one right there waiting for you. All you can do is keep writing, keep moving forward. Scale the peak in front of you and try to survive the desert valley on your way to the next.
This constant struggle isn’t a bad thing. It’s exactly how it should be, but it can be shocking for a lot of newly published writers who, having climbed that first impossible peak, naively believe they’ve arrived.
At least that’s how it was for me.
My first peak came in the spring of 2009 when I got a call from my agent telling me Tor/Forge had made an offer to publish my novel, The Cold Kiss. I’d written one previous novel, The Grove, but it hadn’t sold. Publishers told me that it was too in-between genres, that if chain stores couldn’t figure out where to place it on their shelves, they weren’t going to buy it.
It was disappointing, but I didn’t see any reason to cry about it. What I did instead was write another book, this time with a specific genre in mind. I started working on a bleak, claustrophobic noir tale about a young couple trapped in a roadside motel during a vicious Iowa blizzard.
The Cold Kiss was a suspense novel with heavy noir overtones. When I finished and read through what I’d written, I was worried it would be too dark. Fortunately, that fear was unfounded, and after an excruciatingly long wait, Tor/Forge bought the rights to The Cold Kiss and agreed to publish the book in the U.S.
A few weeks later, Simon & Schuster stepped in and bought the rights, along with The Grove, and a third, unwritten novel, to publish in the U.K.
I was thrilled.
I’d reached that first peak, and for a while things were perfect, but it didn’t take long to realize that the mountain I’d scaled was nothing more than a crowded jumping off point. The real challenge was still ahead.
My focus immediately shifted from getting published to staying published. The problem, as I saw it, was that I had no following, no readers, and a strong aversion to social media and self-promotion. But I also felt that I was coming into the industry at the perfect time. New players and new technology were opening doors for writers that didn’t exist a few years earlier. And while this experimentation made me nervous, all I had to do was look around at the path I was on to see that it was littered with the corpses of talented writers who’d come before me, but who were unable to find an audience. It wasn’t difficult to figure out what my future held if I didn’t try something new.
When I finished my next novel, I turned down a good offer from Tor/Forge and signed a deal with Thomas & Mercer. I’m still with them, and I’ve never looked back.
So far, three of my books have been optioned for film, and my third novel, Already Gone, hit the top ten on the Wall Street Journal bestseller list. Already Gone was also nominated for an International Thriller award in 2012. I didn’t win, but the nomination was a wonderful validation.
I followed Already Gone with a dark, Hitchcock-ian novella called Lost Things. I liked the book, and readers seemed to like it, too, but it was short, and I didn’t expect much.
Then, earlier this year, while working on edits for my new novel, Out of the Black, I got word that Lost Things had been nominated for an International Thriller Award. So, I packed a bag, hopped a plane, and flew to New York. But unlike the year before with Already Gone, this time I won.
The award is nice, beautiful actually, and it looks damn fine on my shelf. It’s my first major award, and the recognition from my peers means more to me than I can say, but I’ve also learned enough to know that when you’re standing on one of your peaks, it’s not the actual awards or book deals or film options that keep you going.
It’s the view.
There are a lot of good things about this job, but the great things only come around once in a while. If you’re a writer standing on the summit of one of your peaks, I can’t stress enough how important it is to take a minute to look around and breathe. Look back at where you started and what you’ve accomplished, then focus on the horizon and what’s coming next. Let the view recharge you, and then get back to work. Keep writing. Keep moving forward. Because there’s always another peak out there, waiting.
And that’s exactly how it should be.
Thanks, John! Out of the Black is out in bookstores today.
RITA award-winning and New York Times best-selling author Laura Griffin knows a thing or two about creating the perfect blend of romance and suspense. Her Tracers series follows an elite crew of forensic experts who help solve the most difficult cases—while stoking the flames of their super-steamy love lives.
In this guest blog post, Griffin shares her thoughts on the key to balancing romance and suspense—particularly in her latest Tracers book, Exposed.
I love to read books in which the tension never lets up, in which the stakes start high and only get higher, in which I’m holding my breath while reading, wondering what’s going to happen next.
That’s a thriller, right?
Sometimes, yes. It can also be a romantic suspense novel. Romantic suspense is one of my favorite genres to read and write because tension permeates the entire story.
One of my favorite movie adaptations is The Bourne Identity, starring Matt Damon and based on the novel by Robert Ludlum. The first time I saw it, I was mesmerized. I loved trying to piece together the story puzzle, loved watching the chase scenes, loved the dizzying special effects. But amid all the action, I kept looking forward to the quieter scenes between Jason and Marie.
These scenes feel special because it’s in these moments that we get to see the emotional side of the characters. I mean, who doesn’t love watching Jason Bourne careen through the streets of Paris to outwit the baddies on his tail? But I like another later scene just as much . . . the one in which he cuts Marie’s hair to disguise her and then she kisses him. And the entire moment feels stolen because they’re on the run.
Danger and emotion. It’s a powerful twin engine that propels a story forward. I try to use it in all of my books.
Danger comes pretty naturally to the Tracers series, which focuses on an elite group of forensic scientists who help detectives solve their toughest cases. The books feature homicide cops, FBI agents and criminal profilers—along with an array of “Tracers,” forensic wizards who work their magic on the evidence to help identify and track down the bad guys. Most of the Tracers books begin, in some form or fashion, with a murder.
The newest book in the series, Exposed, features forensic photographer Maddie Callahan. When a photograph that she took turns out to be crucial evidence in an FBI investigation, Special Agent Brian Beckman meets Maddie and immediately takes an interest. He needs Maddie’s evidence, but he’s also intent on protecting her after he realizes that her life is in jeopardy because of something she saw through her camera lens.
Following a major loss, Maddie has closed herself off to people, especially men. But Brian is determined to get past her defenses and draw her out. Exposed is a mystery on the outside, but the heart of the story is the romance.
My favorite romantic suspense authors make me care about the outcome of the mystery because I care about the characters. Why do I care? Because between all the action moments I’ve had a chance to glimpse their feelings. I’ve become emotionally involved in their fate. Now I’m not just rooting for them because they are the “hero” or “heroine.” I’m rooting for them because they are determined, flawed, hopeful, resilient, vulnerable.
In other words, they’re human, not just superheroes. Characters like that come alive on the page and stay with me long after the story ends.
In my mind, that’s the hallmark of a good book.
Thanks, Laura! Exposed is out now. Will you be reading it?
Meg Gardiner's new novel, The Shadow Tracer, is an explosive thriller about Sarah Keller, a single mom and a skip tracer. But what is a skip tracer, anyway? We asked Gardiner to share some insight on skip tracers and introduce readers to the heroine at the heart of her gripping new book.
Sarah Keller is a skip tracer. She hunts down bail jumpers, debt dodgers and people evading arrest. She searches for people who can’t be seen directly, because they avoid the light. But they cast shadows. And that’s what Sarah traces.
To penetrate those shadows, she has become a chameleon. A skip tracer, she says, is a hunter, a manipulator and a professional liar. But Sarah’s more than that. She’s a guardian.
Sarah is mother to 5-year-old Zoe. The little girl came unexpectedly into her life, and Sarah has rebuilt her world around protecting her. That’s how she ends up in Oklahoma City, trying to be a good mom while chasing down deadbeats and criminals. She has become a skip tracer to learn every trick about staying off the grid—not just to catch people on the run, but to train for the day she might have to run herself.
Disappearing is hard to do these days. Going dark in the age of Facebook and PRISM takes smarts, luck and incredible discipline.
That’s what Sarah Keller needs, because she has her own secret, and if it’s exposed, Zoe will be in danger. And that’s just what happens. An accident reveals Zoe’s whereabouts, and sets some scary opponents on her trail.
With their cover blown, Sarah takes Zoe on the run across the Southwest. She scrambles for safety with only her wits, her skip tracing skills and her meager savings to rely on. She’s backed up—maybe—by a U.S. Marshal and a nun. She’s up against the FBI and a criminal clan that wants to grab Zoe for their own purposes.
It’s a chase, a game of hide and seek, with a little girl’s life at stake. And at bottom Sarah is fighting to keep Zoe from being grabbed by her father’s family. The clan will do anything to get hold of Zoe. Sarah’s every brave and desperate move is designed to save Zoe from them.
Sarah considers herself half shepherd, watching over Zoe, and half wolf, running down rogues. But when push comes to shove, Sarah’s a hero. She’ll have to be, if she’s going to survive.
Thanks, Meg! The Shadow Tracer is out now! Readers, will you check this one out?
Stay tuned for many more guest posts from mystery and thriller authors throughout Private Eye July!
guest post by Jaden Terrell
Readers never tire of reading about their favorite characters. Sherlock Holmes' fans were so insatiable that his author killed him off and was forced to resurrect him through a series of prequels. When I started my first Jared McKean novel, I hoped to inspire the same passion in readers. I knew that most successful series characters have the following traits in common, so before I sent the book into the world, I tried to make sure Jared possessed them.
They are vulnerable. We love an underdog, and a character’s vulnerabilities give readers a reason to root for him. Jared is still in love with his ex-wife, who is married to another man. He has family ties that leave him emotionally vulnerable.
Just like real people, they are flawed. Jared is impulsive and quick to throw a punch. He’s a sucker for a woman with fluttering lashes and a hard luck story. But that’s okay. A character’s flaws can provide plot complications and add emotional depth as he struggles to overcome his weaknesses.
They are strong. Vulnerability must be balanced with competence and strength of character. Jared is an accomplished marksman, horseman, and martial artist. He does what he thinks is right, even at terrible costs.
They are complex, with backgrounds and connections that lead to complications. Working undercover in vice and later as a homicide detective, Jared cultivated skills and contacts that make him an effective PI but have left him with enemies. His connections with family and friends give him support but often lead to entanglements and even physical danger. He’s spent his life trying to live up to his father, a war hero turned patrol officer who was killed while intervening in an armed robbery. Jared is a former homicide detective—a man’s man—but his tough-guy demeanor is tempered by compassion. He nursed his mother through her losing battle with cancer, cares for a friend with a terminal disease, rescues horses, and is the loving father of a child with Down syndrome. These things give him added dimension and—I hope—make readers care about him.
Will readers love Jared as much as I do? Only time will tell. In the meantime, I’m off to spend the afternoon with my good friend Jared McKean.
Jaden Terrell is the author of Racing the Devil (Permanent Press), the first in a series featuring Nashville private detective Jared McKean, and is a contributor to Now Write Mysteries, a collection of writing exercises published by Tarcher/Penguin for crime fiction writers. Terrell is the executive director of the Killer Nashville Crime Literature Conference and the recipient of the 2009 Magnolia Award for service to the Southeastern chapter of Mystery Writers of America. Learn more at on her website, jadenterrell.com.