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Author of the young-adult thriller Shock Point, as well as five other mysteries and thrillers.
Statistics for So many books, so little time
Number of Readers that added this blog to their MyJacketFlap: 35
Three years ago, I read a news story that I new immediately would make a great jumping off point for a new book.
It was the winter of 1985 when Diana Robertson was killed, and near her body on a snow-covered Lewis County logging road was a manila envelope with the handwritten words, “I Love You Diana.”I couldn't stop thinking about what might have happened. And what it would be like to grow up thinking your dad probably killed your mom - and then to learn that wasn't true at all. I started working on my version of the story right away, but a few things intervened, like other deadlines, starting a new series, and taking care of my mom while she was dying. I took chapters of it to my critique group, but it didn't meet very frequently, so I made slow progress. But the story stayed with me. It's about half-written. I moved the story to Southern Oregon, where I grew up. I know the answer to my imaginary puzzle, and it's surely not going to be the answer that happened in real life. I treat real-life inspiration the way Law & Order did - you might recognize the initial set up, but that's it. This spring, I gave my agent a short description. What follows is about half of it. The Girl I Used to Be by April Henry
The case was perplexing, and police later found her 2-year-old daughter outside a Spanaway K-Mart store. But she didn’t provide any clues, and reportedly told investigators her mommy was in the trees.
Police said the girl’s father, Michael L. Riemer Jr., might have been the man responsible for the murder. But they couldn’t find him, despite an initial search with more than 50 people, statewide news coverage and a 1989 feature on “Unsolved Mysteries.”
On Tuesday, the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office confirmed a skull found there last month was that of Riemer, who hadn’t been seen in nearly 26 years. [Seattle Post-Intelligencer]
I used to be a little girl.
Now I’m 17 and an emancipated minor.
I used to be blonde.
Now my hair is brown.
I used to be named Ariel Benson.
Now all of my ID says Olivia Rinehart, the last remnant of an adoption that didn’t work out.
I used to have a mom and dad. And then I had a long string of adults who wanted me to call them some variant of that.
Now I’ve got no one.
I used to think I was the child of a killer and a murder victim.
Now I know I’m the child of two victims.
I used to hate my dad and pity my mom. Now I only have one desire: to find the person who killed them both.
I was three years old, dirty, covered in scratches, and all alone, when a sales clerk found me curled up in a Wal-Mart, sleeping on a blanket of white cotton “snow” underneath an artificial Christmas tree.
The authorities didn’t figure out who I was until someone recognized me from a photo of a family missing nearly 200 miles away, in Southern Oregon. A mom and a dad and a little girl, who had gone out in the woods to look for Christmas tree. When they asked me where my parents were, all I could tell them was, “Mommy’s dancing.”
Two weeks later hunters found my mom’s body in the forest. She had been stabbed to death. And my dad—who had never been married to my mom and sometimes fought with her—was missing. Later, his truck was found parked at the Portland airport, wiped clean of prints. Everyone figured they knew what had happened: my dad killed my mom, dropped me off, and then ran away.
Today, nearly fourteen years later, the cops came to tell me that they had finally located my dad.
And he wasn’t hiding out under an assumed name. All these years, my dad has just been a body in the woods, like my mom.
Or not exactly a body. Not that they can find, anyway. All they have so far is his jaw bone.
And what everyone knows to be true has changed.
This is the truth. The real truth.
Someone killed both my parents. And whoever did it must have thought I was too young to tell on them. So they dropped me off at the Wal-Mart instead of killing me, too.
I had to have spent several hours with the person who murdered my family. But I don’t remember a thing—not about my parents or what happened that day in the woods.
But I’ve started having these dreams. Dreams filled with blood. What if I remember more than the killer thought? And will the person who murdered my parents kill again to keep their secrets hidden?My agent showed my editor. And this was the result:
Last week, we had our floors redone. Behind a built-in drawer, Mark, one of the floor guys, found a cache of toeless hose, which brought back a lot of memories.
In May 2000 I went to Washington, DC, to attend a fan conference called Malice Domestic and to find out if my first book, Circles of Confusion, had one of the big mystery awards, the Agatha Award.
That year, Circles of Confusion was also short-listed for the Agatha Award and the Oregon Book Award. Both the Agatha and the Anthony were for best first novels. It's a lot easier to get on those award lists, because there are probably fewer than 200 first mysteries published each year. After that, there are no "best second mystery" contests. Instead, you are competing against everyone else for "best mystery" - and the competition is much stiffer.
That year about 700 mystery fans, as well as about 100 authors, attended. Every hour there were two or three panels, where four or five authors talked about "Mystery's Bad Girls," or "Humor in the Mystery." And you could also mingle in the bar with your favorite authors and buy them drinks. (I drank more in three days than I have in probably a whole year - that's what happens when you're neither driving or paying.)
It was strange being a demi-celebrity, and having trembling strangers ask if it were okay to take my picture. (Now that everyone carries a phone that doubles as a camera, I hardly ever get asked if it's okay, but this was back in the days of actual film cameras.)
How toeless hose helped me make friends
Since Malice Domestic is always held on the east coast, I knew no one at the conference. And everyone already seemed to be friends, standing in little groups, laughing and joking.
But I had a secret weapon that I wore to the big banquet where they announced the awards. It was the latest thing - toeless pantyhose. My friend Vicki had seen them on Good Morning America, and she said I absolutely had to have a pair to wear with my silver sandals. That way my legs would look smooth (the pantyhose) and I would still have toe cleavage (the toeless part).
I ordered them off the Internet (they were not yet in stores), only to learn they would ship in six to eight weeks - well after the banquet.
I figured it didn't hurt to ask, so I called up and explained what it was for. A team of people at the company Fed-Exed me three pair in a range of shades the day before I left.
At the banquet, I made a point of going up to little clumps of people and showing off my pantyhose and my silver toenails (I still have some polish permanently imbedded on my bathroom floor all these years later). The hose made a great icebreaker.
Find your own toeless hose
I've since realized that most gatherings of people look so intimidating to outsiders. Everyone else appears to be friends and having fun, and you're standing there all alone.
So what you need is a good icebreaker, like toeless hose.
At Wordstock one year, I really wanted to meet the author Stewart O'Nan, because I love his books. There was a party at Weiden & Kennedy for the authors, and I showed up primarily for that purpose. I had googled a photo of him, but he was wearing a baseball cap. So I would go up to groups of people and ask if they had seen Stewart O'Nan.
Everyone said no, but we still ended up talking. I met the most interesting people, ranging from a French guy who had just made a documentary to another author named Stuart to the people who were providing the beer and had no idea what the event was even about.
It worked so well that I've thought of searching for Stewart O'Nan (who actually never came) at every big event.
Or if you are at an event you've attended before, one where you already know people, try reaching out to a few people holding their glasses and smiling uncertainly. You might just make a new friend.
This morning, I was walking (my current substitute for running until my knee decides to be in a happier space) when I looked across the street and saw a man lying on the sidewalk. A couple of people were gathering around him. As soon as the light turned I hurried across to see if I could help.
A thin man in his late 50s with close cropped hair lay on his back. He was wearing running clothes and the white buds of his earphones lay next to his ears. His eyes were open, but unfocused. His skin looked pale. He was breathing rapidly, and with very exhalation he made a noise that was a cross between a grunt and a sigh. A neighbor was on the phone with 9-1-1, who advised giving him an aspirin. The lady ran inside to get an aspirin (makes me kind of wonder if I should keep some in the house - I know they help thin the blood if there’s a clot of some kind).
Another woman said she was his wife and that he had been running and suddenly collapsed. She wore what looked like pink house slippers, so I’m not sure where she came from or if he collapsed right outside where they live. She said he had an implanted defibrillator. She seemed kind of oddly distant from what was going on - not talking to her husband or kneeling by him.
A third woman was kneeling by him. She said she worked in medical imaging and knew CPR (but seemed uncertain of what to do since he didn't need CPR). She had her hand on his wrist and said his pulse was not too bad. A man showed up with a blanket which was put under his head.
We got him half up and I think he managed to swallow the aspirin. He mumbled that his defibrillator had gone off, which might have accounted for how shock-y he looked. And just then, thank God, the fire department showed up (they are first responders in Portland). An ambulance was not far behind.
While I wasn’t particularly scared, I did feel uncertain about what to do, especially since he was breathing but was clearly in bad shape. The last time I took a CPR class was in 1990. And I took an advanced first aid course in college where we learned how to deal anything up to severed limbs. But that was 30 years ago. I’m sure a lot of things have changed.
So what should I/we have done:
- Called 9-1-1 (which was done)
- Sat him in the 'W' position:semi-recumbent (sitting up at about 75° to the ground) with knees bent.
- Told him to chew the aspirin
- Asked him if he had any medications on him
- Monitored and took note of his breathing and pulse rate (the medical imaging lady was checking his pulse only, and I’m not sure if she was noting it)
If he had been or had become unconscious, we should have:
- Shouted at him: 'Can you hear me?' or 'Open your eyes'.
- Gently shaken his shoulders.
If he didn’t respond, checked if he was breathing by putting a cheek right above his mouth and look, listening and feeling for breath.
If he was breathing, we could have put him in the recovery position until help arrived, which is basically turning him on his side and lifting his chin forward to open his airway.
If he hadn’t been breathing, one of us could have put the heel of one hand between his niles, placed our other hand on top of the first, kept our arms straight and used our body weight to do press straight down on the chest at least two inches, 100 times a minute (using the old BeeGee’s song Staying Alive as a guide). There’s no need to do rescue breathing if you haven’t been trained.
My local Red Cross offers a CPR/first aid class. I'm going to sign up.
- Read, read, read.Try well-reviewed books in genres you wouldn’t normally read - fantasy, historical novels, even westerns. Don’t be afraid to put something aside if it’s not working for you - but first try to pinpoint why it’s not working.
- You don’t have to write what you know. Write what interests you. Do I know anything about kidnappings, murders, drug dealers, being blind, assuming a dead girl’s identity? No. But I’ve written books that have gotten starred reviews, awards, and have hit the New York Times bestseller list.
- You can write a book in as little as 20 minutes a day. I know, because I’ve done it. Make writing a habit. Don’t wait for inspiration. Once you are published, you’ll need to make deadlines. Write every day, or at minimum every weekend.If you don’t know what to write about, start by getting a book with writing prompts, like Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg or What If by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.
- You can always edit crap. You can’t edit nothing. Sometimes you have to force yourself to write. Sometimes you’ll find your back against the wall when you need a solution or a resolution to the story. Make yourself write something. Anything. And often what you come up with turns out to be surprisingly good. (Sometimes I use www.writeordie.com to force myself to write 15 or 20 minute.)
- You don’t have to outline - but you can. If you don’t plot in advance, just keep raising the stakes for your characters. Set up initial goals, throw some obstacles in the way, and see if your characters sink or swim. And if your characters do swim, send a few sharks after them!
- Tenacity is as important as talent. Many fine writers have given up after getting a few rejections from agents. I still think about Jane and Tom, people I took a writing class with about a decade ago. They were the stars of our class, far better writers than I was. I was just one of the drones. Both Jane and Tom gave up after getting a few rejections from agents. If they had persevered, I think they would have been published.
- Show vs. tell is something most writers struggles with. In movies and on TV, they can’t tell you anything. Everything is visual ie - they have to show you. How do you know someone is upset, angry, happy, sad, frustrated, etc.? Watch movies and TV and write down facial expressions, movements, actions, gestures, etc. Use these to describe your own characters when you're writing. This is a good way to learn how to show emotion instead of telling it.
- Revision has gotten a bad rap. It can actually be the most fun. Most of the hard work is done - so you just polish things up, trim away the fat, make characters a little larger than life, and reorder your ideas. The best way to start a revision is to let the book lie fallow for at least a week. A month is better. Six months would be ideal.
- To really see what needs fixing, read it aloud. Yes, all of it. It’s even better if you can read it to someone, even if it’s a toddler or your cat. Or imagine an editor or agent is listening.
- Go to readings at bookstores. You’ll learn something from every writer you hear. You’ll see that published writers aren’t some exotic species. And they’ll be glad to see you even if you don’t buy a book.
A few years back, I found out the secret my grandmother had hidden all her life, a secret that explains all about the kind of woman she was - and maybe about the kind of writer I am. Perhaps I should have guessed there was a secret. As a writer, I know that the way a character acts can be traced to backstory.
My grandmother, Effie Satterwhite, was a bitter, mean woman. But I never thought to wonder why, to think that people don't start out that way. I never thought to question why she didn't marry until she was 32, in 1920, at a time when many of her peers were probably becoming grandparents. If I did give any thought to it, I must have chalked it up to no one wanting to marry such a judgmental person.
Then, four years ago, in an idle moment of Googling, I found her name in an Arkansas State Supreme Court decision. It upheld a lower court's ruling that found my great-grandfather guilty of assault with intent to kill.
According to the court records, when she was 17 and living in Hope, Arkansas, Effie started seeing a man named Jim Wallis. One night they went to an “entertainment,” and returned at 11 pm. The following is from the court transcripts.
"She put her hands against him and pushed him away"
“She started to go in the house, but was stopped by Wallis who reached out his hand and drew her to him and kissed her. She put her hands against him and pushed him away. They walked to the end of the porch, and stood there talking until the clock struck eleven. Wallis looked at his watch and then turned and kissed her again. He then left the house.”
Effie went inside, heard a door open, and then saw her father “going down the steps with a gun in his hands.” She heard the shot, and tried to run to Jim. Her father grabbed her, and said it was all her fault.
Finally he let Effie go to her boyfriend, who lay bleeding in the street. Jim told her that he was sure he was dying.
"Relieve her of her virtue"
At the trial, Effie’s brother testified that a year earlier he had seen Effie and Jim together “in a very suspicious attitude, conducting themselves in what he thought a very unbecoming manner on the front porch.” Gus ordered Effie inside, and told Jim to never come back. But Jim did, the next day, and told Effie’s brother that he loved her. They continued to see each other until the night he was gunned down. He lingered for months, finally dying in a Texarkana hospital.
My great-grandfather’s defense was that he was sure Jim “was trying to seduce his daughter and relieve her of her virtue.” But the jury found that the two intended to marry.
Effie lived with her parents for many more years. How did her family treat her? Her town?
I'd like to do a story that reunites the lovers in present day. A ghost story. Which is different than anything I've done before.
But Grandma Effie's spirit calls to me.
Do you see a family resemblance?
Back in 2005, I started writing a book based on something that really happened: a blind girl who was briefly and accidentally kidnapped when her parents left the keys in the car and someone stole it. Only in my book, the thief kept the girl and she had to figure out how to escape.
My editor at the time felt that kidnapping books were overdone. He suggested I rewrite it from the POV of the kidnapper. That didn't seem right to me. How would readers understand what it was like to be blind? So I kept the book as it was, and my agent sent it out to a bunch of editors. Christy Ottaviano at Henry Holt loved it the way it was.
What I hadn't thought of at all - what I think no one thought of - was that schools like to have students read books about characters with disabilities. So that helped the book to find a wider audience. Also, it's about as clean as a YA can be, which I think also helped. The third thing that helped the book be assigned is that I tend to write books that test out at a fairly low grade level (even my adult books are like that, probably because I used to have to write to a certain grade level when I wrote in health care) and that are about high-interest topics (sometimes known as hi-low books).
I started getting requests for a teachers' guide, and with the help of a teacher, I put one together. You can see it here.
Since it was published, the book has been the winner or a finalist for 9 state awards. Now I get emails every day from kids who have read the book because they were assigned it at school.
Or I see posts on Amazon like this:
Sometimes people ask me where I get ideas. All you need to do is watch the news, or read a newspaper or online newspaper, or just watch what's happening around you.
Did you hear about the case of the porcelain dolls being left on the doorsteps of girls to whom they held an eerie resemblance? At least eight families received the dolls, and all of the girls were around 10 years old. It turned out that an older woman who attended church with the girls, and she wanted to give her collection away in what she thought would be a fun surprise. But what if someone else was
behind it? Wouldn't that be a great beginning to a book?
Or how about this story from the Oregon coast? A few months ago, KGW reported: "A retired police officer found a decomposed human hand while he was walking along the beach in Gearhart with his 9-year-old granddaughter Friday evening, police said. He moved the hand away from the approaching water before calling police so it wouldn’t wash back into the ocean." In real life, it turned out to be a decomposed seal's flipper.
But what if it hadn't been?
Or how about the clean up on the campus of the National Institutes of Health which turned up vials of live smallpox virus, forgotten since the 1950s. Smallpox is only supposed to be in two sanctioned high-containment labs in the world - and that certainly wasn't one of them.
So what if a bad guy were to figure out there were other forgotten vials?
Or this story, about a local 17-year-old girl who left a message in her journal before vanishing: “If you’re reading this, I’m either missing or dead." (She was
eventually recovered, but it sounds like she was sex-trafficked, told by her abusers that her parents and boyfriend would be killed if she didn't cooperate.)
I'm not sure I would do it from the girl's POV, but what if she had a friend who tried to find her?
Once on my run, I saw a bored security guy standing on the sidewalk outside a condo. He told me the parking garage's gate was broken, and until it was fixed, they would have security stationed outside 24 hours a day. He wasn't armed, just a guy in uniform with a clipboard.
What if he saw something a little strange, a little off, across the street? Not strange enough to require the involvement of the real cops, at least not yet, but enough that he decided to do a little investigating of his own...?
I’m on a board for people whose write about murder and theft, poisons and fires. In addition to writers, there are a lot of professionals on the board - people who are or have been cops, paramedics, FBI agents, firefighters, PIs, and more.
A writer recently posted a question about what kind of gun her character should get. She said she knew nothing about guns, and she wanted to know what her equally ignorant character would experience if she went to a gun shop and asked for help.
At which point I (and several other writers) chimed in. Why not just go into a gun store and explain what she was working on and ask their advice? This was one real-life situation (unlike questions about, say, the best undetectable poison) where it would be easy to experience it.
And experience will give a writer so MUCH more than reading about it ever would. She’ll be able to describe the shop without trying to google images of “gun shop.” She’ll know the heft of a gun, and the feeling of the grip, learn it’s surprisingly heavy even though parts of it appear to be made out of plastic. There may be smells and even tastes she would not expect. Since her character and the writer herself are both coming from the same place (not knowing much about guns) she’ll be able to ask the questions her character would and hear the answers her character would as well.
I have found that almost everyone likes to talk about themselves and what they do to an interested person. I have interviewed teens, death investigators, DNA experts, and curators. In some cases, I have gone in cold (as I would in the gun situation above). In others, I have done the professional the courtesy of learning as much as I could before I went to them. With Dr. Dan Crane, the DNA expert, for example, it would be a waste of his precious time to sit down and say, “What’s DNA?” Instead I learned a lot on my own and asked about Y-STR and familial DNA testing.
When I was working on the end to The Body in the Woods, I knew it took place in Forest Park. And I knew my bad character would be armed, and my good characters wouldn’t be. They needed something they could use as a weapon. But what? I took the same walk they would have to get into the park, past nice homes, and I photographed everything I thought they might consider for use as a weapon. Real life thought of many more alternatives that I did.
If you’re going to write mysteries, thrillers, horror novels, or many other types of books, you’ll need to decide how to approach writing about violence and physical harm.
There are at least three ways to approach it:
1. Slow it down. Each step makes it clear just how bad it is.
2. Make the readers fill in the blank. Their solutions are usually far more affecting than yours, because they will think of the things that frighten them the most.
3. Underplay it. Use short, simple declarative sentences. Think Hemingway.
A couple of years ago, I was running in my neighborhood when I fell, cracking the bridge of my nose, and scraping my face, hands and knees. I knew it was bad when I saw the expression of two guys I waved down to ask for help. Here are three ways to describe what happened.
Slow it down
“Running up 45th, April’s toe caught a crack in the sidewalk. The next thing she knew, she was in the air. Time slowed down, the way it did when you reached for a glass and knocked it over instead. She got her hands up in front of her as the sidewalk tilted at a crazy angle. Her palms skidded along the dirty concrete, but her momentum wasn't slowed.
Oh no, she thought, not her face! – then there was the solid surprise of her nose meeting the unmoving sidewalk.
And still April fell. Her front teeth hit the concrete, wavered, decided to stay put.
Finally she was still, face down, unmoving on the cool Sunday morning.
Make the reader fill in the blank
One minute April was running, mentally writing her next blog entry. The next thing she knew she was flat on the sidewalk. Something was terribly wrong. Her face felt wet.
The woman standing by the side of the road was frantically waving her arms. At least Josh thought it was a woman. Her face. Jesus Christ, what had happened to her face?
Underplay the prose
She ran up the hill. It was a Sunday morning. Her thoughts were elsewhere.
The sidewalk had lifted at an expansion joint. Her toe caught the crack. She fell very hard. She lay on the cement. Maybe she was okay. It was just a fall. She started to move but something grated inside. Her mouth tasted like rust.
Next to her was a bush with white flowers. She stared at it. Her vision was growing dark at the edges. The bush would look good in her garden.
She closed her eyes and was still.
More examples of fill-in-the-blank
I think the fill-in-the-blank idea can be the most powerful of the three. Here are two examples, one short and one long:
Five miles up the road, he opened the window and threw out the first of Karen Reid's teeth.
—The Intruders, Michael Marshall (the book does not say anything else about what he did to Karen Reid - but doesn't your mind supply a few details?)
She swam against the grain of the ocean, using a short and sharp stroke and a smooth kick.
She did not see the murky shape drifting toward her. It was more than half-submerged, and it had eyes. When she barged into it, the silent mass reared up.
Her scream was muted, most of it locked in her throat.
On the beach, her sons threw sand at each other and the man with the device unearthed a nickel. The lifeguard rearranged his legs in a way that the girls below could see the filled harness under his neon swim trunks. A stray cloud blotted some of the sun.
One of the boys pointed with his shovel. "Look at Mommy."
—Widow’s Walk, Andrew Coburn
I used to write books just for me. No publisher was waiting for them (although I certainly had the fantasy that once publishers saw the finished book they would fight each other to publish it). And the books were done when they were done.
Now most of my books - I’ve had 17 published in 15 years - are written under contract, which means they have a fixed due date. (Although I still sneak off to work on a “spec” book now and then, like a married woman making out with some hot guy from her Body Pump class in the parking lot of the gym.)
My current writing process is:
- One year before the book is due: I have plenty of time. And I deserve to relax after how hard I worked to get the last book done. I might make some notes and brainstorm a little. After I clean out the basement.
- Nine months before: This plot idea is intriguing. The characters are starting to seem like real people. Maybe I should create a thorough outline instead of just plunking away at it.
- Six months before: The outline is finished. This is going to be so easy. I should outline all the time! I’ll just take it step by step, like paint by numbers. The book is practically going to write itself now that I have all the hard work done. I think I’ll call my friend and go out for ice-cream to celebrate.
- Three months before: Holy crap! This outline doesn’t work at all. And why do my characters keep doing things I never planned on them doing? This one guy was meant to be a secondary character, but for some reason he thinks he’s the real love interest. And my main character refuses to do this one dangerous thing the outline says she should do. She says it’s a bad idea.
- Two months before: I will never be done in time. Never. The only way I can do it is to write two thousand words a day, every single day. Didn’t manage more than three hundred today? No problem, I’ll make it up tomorrow.
- Two weeks before: There’s too much blood in my caffeine stream. I’m writing like a mad woman. But I can do it. If I just give up on this sleeping thing.
- Due date: There. Finished. Is it any good? I’ve read it over, but to be honest, I have no idea. I hit the send key. I really should celebrate. Or work on that other book that’s due. But how long has it been since I swept behind the couch?
It bothers me when I read something in a book that I know is wrong. Wrong and Google-able. (I started writing before the Internet, or at least before a widely available Internet, when it was not quite so easy to check things out. Twenty years ago, I felt more comfortable just guessing or making stuff up. No longer.)
(Guess what doesn't have a safety? That was the end of this book for me.)
With a little bit of time, you can figure out nearly anything without having to step away from your computer. Like:
- Do red-tailed hawks eat road kill? (If fresh, yes).
- Does Oregon pay for braces for kids in foster care? (No.)
- What time are trial advocacy classes at the University of Washington. (Late afternoon.)
- What testimony did the original grand jury hear in the Phoebe Prince case? (Actually, I couldn’t find that, which makes sense. Grand jury testimony is sealed. Still I would like to know more.)
One of the absolute best parts about my job as a mystery and thriller writer is doing research. In the past couple of years, I've:
Taken a class in fighting in close quarters. At the end, someone sat behind you in your car and attacked you with a training gun, a training knife, a plastic bag, and a rope.
Pulled out everything from underneath my kitchen sink, crawled into the space, and taken a picture to prove to one of my editors that yes, a body would fit under there.Asked my kajukenbo instructor to drag me across the room, his hands underneath my arms, so that together we could figure out how a character could fight and get away.
Spent a day with a criminalist at Forensics Division of the Portland Police.
Faced down armed muggers, home invaders, crazy people, and robbers - all while armed with a modified Glock that uses lasers instead of real bullets. I did this at a firearms training simulator facility (the only one like it in the world that is open to civilians) which, lucky me, is just 20 minutes from my home. You interact with life-sized scenarios filmed in HD. The scenarios change depending on what you say (for example, “Hands in the air!”) and where your shots hit (a shot that disables versus one that injures). Meanwhile, the bad guys are shooting back. If you choose - and I do - you can wear a belt that gives you a 5000-volt shock if you’re shot. The facility even offers a simulation that is nearly 360 degrees, so you feel like you are standing in the middle of, say, the convenience store or the parking lot. This teaches you to look behind you for that second or third bad guy.
Every year, I go the Writers Police Academy, which is in North Carolina at a real police and fire academy. I also graduated from the FBI’s Citizen Academy, which is taught by real FBI agents and included a stint at a real gun range where I shot a submachine gun. I’m a member of Sisters in Crime, and my local chapter has experts speak every month (the blood spatter expert was particularly interesting). And I’m an online member of Crime Scene Writers, which has lots of retired or even active law enforcement personnel who answer questions.
My first book was published in 1999, so I've had a lot of experience working with editors. In fact, I have had six of them (at five different houses), plus an unknown number of copy editors and proof-readers. The amazing thing is that in my experience each editor has a different approach. What one editor is passionate about may not even be on another editor's radar screen. And each editor tends to think that the way they do things is the only sensible way.
My first editor loved characters who were quirky, whacky, or eccentric - and if she felt they weren't quirky, whacky or eccentric enough, she often asked for them to be enhanced. Sometimes her comments were cryptic. I still remember staring at one notation scribbled in a margin. It said, "Pump up the mystery!" I had no idea how to do that. And I was too scared to call her. I've since learned that just as an email sometimes lacks the emotional nuance that would allow you to completely understand it, so too can editorial letters or hand-written notes. A simple phone call can go a long way toward making things clear for both writer and editor.
My second editor was a legend in the business. She was in her 80s, and everyone loved the idea that she was still working full-time and still danced and drank at mystery cons. Dozens of famous authors were edited by her over the course of her long career. I think she worked right up until she died. Her editing was much more broad-based, and she wasn’t nearly as much of a detail person as my first editor was.
My third editor was famous for being able to write an 11-page editorial letter for a 12-page picture book. He used brown stickies to mark changes he had pencilled in green pencil on the manuscript. One draft I got back bristled with so many stickies it looked like a porcupine. For Christmas that year, I gave him a brand new green pencil, figuring he had used one up on my manuscript. One thing I learned from him was that sometimes when an editor asks for a specific change, he or she may be right that something is wrong. However, the writer can often make a different fix than the editor requested and still come away with both parties happy.
My fourth editor writes thoughtful editorial letters that I dread. Why? Because she is skilled at finding flaws I haven't noticed. Flaws that require lots and lots of thought before I can fix them. She is also the most timely editor I have ever had. If she tells me something is due on a certain date, then I can expect an editorial letter back almost exactly two weeks later.
After sending the editorial letter, Editor 4 hands off the manuscript to Editor 5, who serves as both copy and line editor (usually those are two different people). A few times, she has questioned the veracity of things I write, asking if it’s really true or possible. I welcome that. So much fiction, especially mysteries and thrillers, is riddled with errors about police procedure, weapons, or investigative techniques. Once she asked if a woman's body really could be jammed under the kitchen sink - so I took everything out of mine and crawled in to prove it. Editor 6
My fifth editor is both a big picture editor and someone who notices the smallest details. She's pointed out words I tend to overuse, words I wasn’t aware of until she had check-marked three or four uses of the same word in a single page.
I have been doing martial arts for close to five years now. First it was kajukenbo and then for the last two and a half years, kung fu.
I love martial arts, an idea that would probably really surprise anyone I went to high school with, where PE was the only class where I ever got a C. (In my nightmares, I am still being taught a dance to Winchester Cathedral by Miss Fronk, who only shaved her lower legs.)
My gateway drug was a kickboxing class, where I found out I love hitting things as hard as I can. The teacher was also a kajukenbo instructor, and I ended up taking kajukenbo for about 18 months. I had an orange belt and was training for purple. My sifu even helped me figure out what moves my character could do in various situations in The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die.
When he stopped teaching, I started taking kung fu at the Westside Academy of Martial Arts (which also offers cross training, so our sifu often throws some in at the end of a session). I love sparring, learning techniques like the spinning back fist, and going up against guys who are a half-foot taller than me. I'm even getting better at grappling. I hold an orange belt and hope to test for purple soon.
What I've learned
Martial arts have helped me be a better writer (after all, mysteries and thrillers often contain an element of violence), as well as a stronger and more prepared person.
Women often deal with threats, even physical ones, with social behaviors. We ignore the people who threaten us or try to appease them. We try to ally ourselves with the person who made the threat by acting like we are really on their side.
But you know what? These skills won’t work on most predators. They won’t work on the person who sees your purse or phone as something they must have – and sees you as about as valuable as the packaging they originally came in. They especially won’t work on a predator who only wants to take you to someplace private so they can hurt, rape or kill you.
Sparring and grappling have taught me what it feels like to get hurt or simply experience the surprise of having someone attack you. Getting hit in the face or even having your hair pulled is shocking. In our culture, even close friends don’t touch our faces. Once you’re no longer a little child, no one even pats you on the head. Knowing a little something about surprise, pain and fighting back helps me write about them.
I can write authoritatively about fear, about how things blur, about the way people move and hold their bodies and eyes and mouths. I can tell when someone is about to hit me and where. The eyes focus, the breath catches and the shoulder drops or the hand goes back.
I also know how to hurt people – and that means my characters might be able to do it too.
In a weird twist, a man who was looking for girls and woman to abduct was killed by police right outside my kung fu school a few months ago (you can even see my car in the top picture). He had already kidnapped a teenager from Paradise Tan. She was only able to escape by jumping from his moving van while still bound with duct tape. I am thinking there might be a book in there someplace. Like what if he had taken a girl from the school?
I own both these books - the approach is so similar. I wonder if the designers are aware of the other book. One's a mystery, one's a YA.
I turned in a book February 19th, then February 20th I started a new book and wrote every day, evening and weekend. Even when I was on "vacation" or doing school visits.
I turned that book in on June 1. The editor has already given me edits (she's fast!) and she loves it. For the first time in literally years, I've got some free time. I want to take a step back and look at my my one wild and precious life (to paraphrase poet Mary Oliver). I want to decide it's "okay" to read more for pleasure, or even to watch one of the many TV programs I've only heard about. I want to get myself back in balance, instead of to always be working.
What things do you wish you were doing?
Today, June 17th, is the publishing birthday of The Body in the Woods. It's the first in my new mystery series for teens, called The Point Last Seen series. I like mysteries and thrillers that are fiction with a big dose of reality. For a long time, I’ve been looking for a good idea for a teen mystery series that was realistic.
Then just a little over two years ago, I was sitting with some old friends at a Kathleen Edwards concert. They told us their daughter Sarah was volunteering with Multnomah County’s Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue (MCSO SAR).
I thought I knew what SAR did: help find people who are lost in the wilderness. And while they do
do that, it turns out that our local SAR has two things that set it apart.
The first is that while other SAR groups exist across the country, most are not made up of teens. And those few that are usually either associated with Boy Scouts and/or just have an observational role. By contrast, MCSO SAR is the Multnomah County Sheriff’s office primary search and rescue resource. While there are adult advisors and a Multnomah County Sheriff’s deputy is present at any operation, the team leaders are all teens, as are most of the members.
The second is that about 30% of what they do is crime scene evidence searches. If someone was murdered outside, or if they police suspect the weapon or other evidence was discarded outside, or if the police know a gun was fired and they need the bullet for evidence, or if a body is found outside and they aren’t sure of the cause of death, these kids will be there.
They form a line on their hands and knees, wearing painter’s padded kneelers and leather gloves and they crawl forward shoulder to shoulder. They never touch what they find, so they don’t enter the chain of evidence. They are taught to look directly in front of them, as well as above them and behind them, to make sure they don’t miss, say, a knife someone sunk into a tree trunk. The rule is, if they can’t see through it, they have to go through it, because they know that often a bad guy will discard evidence in a place he thinks no one would ever go, such as a blackberry bush.
And when I heard about this, I knew that I was going to right a series based on our SAR. Less than six months later, I had made a two-book deal in what we’re calling the Point Last Seen series, and I just accepted an offer for more books.
So this book is about three teens. Alexis is tall, pretty, quiet, and poor. She joined SAR in the hopes that it will look good on college applications in a few years. Alexis also has a secret: her mom is bipolar. Ruby is a bit of an odd duck, who knows she’s different but doesn’t understand how to fit in. She likes unusual gum flavors, continuity errors in movies, and true crime. And then there’s Nick. He’s a hyperactive daydreamer who dreams of joining the Army, just like his dad, who died in Iraq.
And in the book, they are hunting through Forest Park for a missing autistic man when instead they find the body of a murdered girl. Ruby begins to believe that there’s a serial killer at work.
The real SAR
While the state requires only 30 hours of training for certification, all members of MCSO SAR receive about 300 hours of training in first aid, emergency survival skills, radio communications, land navigation, GPS orientation, crime scene evidence searches, search techniques, human tracking, helicopter safety, wilderness medicine, rope rescues, urban search and rescue, snow and avalanche safety, and how to respond to terrorist attacks as well as natural disasters.
Its members are the first response team for missing, lost, or injured persons in the county and are often called in by other counties to assist at large search sites or when resources are drained. MCSO SAR members perform crime scene evidence searches at major or outdoor crime scenes for agencies all over the state of Oregon, and have been credited with finding key evidence in dozens of cases.
To participate, teens must be 14 years of age or older, maintain a 2.0 GPA, pass a criminal background check, have up-to-date vaccinations, be able to hike for long periods of time, be on call 24/7, and have the permission of their parents/guardians as well as their schools.Blog tour
Monday June 9YA Book Nerd
Tuesday June 10The Book Addict’s Guide
Wednesday June 11A Reader’s Adventure
Thursday June 12YAdult Review
Friday June 13MacTeenBooks
Monday June 16Reading with ABC
Tuesday June 17Novel Novice
Wednesday June 18Paperback Princess
Thursday June 19Tales of a Ravenous Reader
Friday June 20Adventures of a Book Junkie
What a long strange, day. I started with a radio interview, and even with a GPS I got lost trying to find the studio.
Next I went to see my mom's house. From the outside it looked the same, but from the inside - and these people were very gracious to let me come in when they had only moved in the day before - there was nothing that reminded me of her. Even the beds were in the "wrong" positions.
Next I went to the neighborhood cemetery she always loved - we all did. The bench is the one we sat one more times than I can count. She would always leave seed for the blue jays and we would watch them cautiously wait for us to leave before they would eat it.
The grave stone fo
r Silas Hawk has been pushed over, but I have long thought of giving that name to a character.
Next I went to Graveyard #2 and laid a poppy on the grave of my old friend Penny, who died of a brain tumor when we were in first grade.
Then I met the Flower Girls for lunch. They had all worked with Mom at one flower shop or another. They said it was good to have a foursome again.
Each one missed different things about her - her phone calls or her emails. They not only told
stories about her but they acted out her part. In them, I could see her again. Hopefully in me they could see her, too.
After that, it was a trek to the other side of town to see where my mom's and dad's ashes were interred. I was running late and by the time I finally found it, all I could do was stand there and cry on this very blank looking stretch of grass. I choked out "You were good parents."
Then I had to run back to my car in time to make drive to another town to do a newspaper interview. The photographer took a million pictures. Hopefully he used the filter that makes you look younger and not tear-stained or sleep-deprived.
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I will be turning in a book June 2. The next book is not due until the end of the year, and it's already half written. Do you know what that means? It means I'll be able to have a life again! I have worked every single day for months and months. Possibly years (and I'm not even joking). I have written on airplanes, in hotels, on "vacation," in the passenger seat in cars, in the back of a limousine, and even in the hospital.
I'm going to be able to:
- Read more than 20 minutes a day! I have stacks and stacks of books.
- Clean! It's petty clear that I have been doing only the main things and ignoring the margins.
- Figure out who all the people in the photos are in the photos I inherited when mom died. Thanks, older third cousins I met onAncestry.com! You are helping me names to 100 year old faces.
- Try new recipes. I have dozens I have torn out over the past months.
- Have weekends. I'm not sure what one does on a weekend any more, but I'm hoping to find out.