Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Library Lifeline

There is a wonderful article on libraries on the Crime Writers Blog. Annamaria Alfieri focuses on The Library of Congress in Washington, The British Library in London, and the New York Public Library, where she goes four five times a week.  Her broad point is that libraries are an important part of the fabric of any culture, and those of us who live in countries with public (free) libraries are fortunate.

Alfieri publishes this article at the end of every year, to encourage support of local libraries.

My mother took us to the library in Garrett Park, Maryland constantly. It was a tiny library by any standard of measurement. Eventually it merged with the library in Kensington, Maryland. Although I'm sorry the library in the town of 1,000 is gone, the Kensington Park Library is able to be something the old library could not--a modern facility with a large collection and constantly evolving technology.

Many times I heard the story of Seneca, Kansas, my mother's town. In the 1920s, there was no public library, so my grandmother was one of the women who raised funds to build one. My mother and her younger sister checked out the first books. Her love affair with books started early. Thankfully, she passed on the affection for reading.
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Monday, December 23, 2013

The Modern Murder on a Train

Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express has always been one of my favorite mysteries. You know that a man was murdered when the train was stopped in its tracks (wow, a literal use of the term) by a snowstorm in Yugoslavia. Figuring out who did it when no one saw the killer is something else again. Some readers think it was Hercule Poirot's finest case.

With modern communication tools and multiple travel options it gets harder to isolate characters for more than a brief time. Nevada Barr does it well with the Anna Pigeon mystery, Firestorm. Park ranger Anna is with a group fighting a forest fire when the fire and a then murder leave two dead. A snowstorm keeps rescuers and law enforcement away for more than a day. It's not a closed-room murder, but it's definitely a whodunit with limited suspects and no way for them to leave the scene.

Robert B. Parker's Spencer generally roams the streets of Boston, but in Rough Weather he's hired to protect the mother of the bride at the daughter's wedding -- which is on an island,  complete with a raging storm. Although someone could argue an unknown person snuck onto the island at some point, weather makes it unlikely and there are enough motives among the wedding guests.

Both of these books are limited by time as much as environment-- the murder has to be solved before a storm lifts.

Perhaps no one has done the 'closed environment' better than Edgar Allen Poe in The Rue Morgue, which adds the locked-room element and a twist that even the best reader-detective is not likely to see coming. Not a modern mystery, but perhaps a good challenge for mystery writers. I can't think of a better locked-room type story in a modern novel. Maybe time for someone to write one...
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Saturday, December 14, 2013

Environment for Murder

There are so many wonderful books in which weather is almost an additional character. Think of the tornado in The Wizard of Oz. (Yes, it was a book before a movie.) If there were no snowstorm, The Shining (Stephen King) would have simply been attempted murder with a fairly easy escape.

For years I have carried the memory of one of the Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie books. Winter is one storm after another, and they sit numbly by the fire. Near the end a train is able to make it to town and it has a barrel of Christmas presents from relatives back east. They can even eat the turkey, because it stayed frozen.

Then there are the books that would not have been written except for a weather event. The best example may be The Perfect Storm (Sebastian Junger). It's a fictionalized account of a massive Nor'easter that swallows a Gloucester fishing vessel. I didn't see the movie because my mind still sees the men trying to lash down whatever they can on the deck of the boat.

Why am I thinking of this today? Because we finally had substantial snow in my part of Illinois, and I'm thinking about how to create a murder that takes place in a snow storm. A devious mind is always at work.
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Thursday, December 5, 2013

To Bundle or Not to Bundle

Several writer friends are banding together to sell bundles of books for the holiday season.  The most innovative is from my friend Aurora Lightbourne, with whom I sell books  at festivals. She and dozens of other authors present their books at

What makes this different is that the books are shown now (complete with a Santa welcoming you to the site), but you don't purchase them until December 24th, to give as ebook gifts--or for yourself

Between now and then, you have various ways to win one of the bundles, which are grouped by paranormal, sci-fi, new adult, contemporary/historical, and children. For example, if you go to their twitter site and retweet one of the tweets you are automatically entered for one of the bundles.

As you read through the site you'll see the opportunities to win bundles. At first I could not figure out why some of the contest headings did not link to the contest, then I figured out that the link did not become active until the contest started. No doubt others would figure that out faster than I did!

The artwork for the bundles is really pretty, making me wish I had some of those skills. I guess I'll have to be satisfied with the writing skills...
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Sunday, December 1, 2013

Bookselling Then and Now

There have been hundreds of news articles and TV spots about changes in the book industry. The three things that have made the biggest difference are the large bookstore chains, online book selling, and ebook publishing.

If you're older than twenty-five, you are scratching your head over the first one.  Haven't there always been big-box bookstores, such as Barnes and Noble?  Nope. Even B&N started small.

Online book sales? Internet sales of paper books were not possible until about fifteen to
eighteen years ago, and not widespread until the Internet rose to ubiquity in the last ten to fifteen years. For those who scoff at these timeframes, remember that not everyone had easy access until more recent years, and there are still parts of the U.S. and Canada that only get Internet through phone lines or satellite communication.

Ebook sales are the new kid on  the block for most readers. The dust has settled into just a couple of predominant formats, and ereaders are relatively simple devices that are fairly easy to learn to use and pretty hard to break. And nothing in paper can beat the prices of many of the ebooks. Of course, I still visit the library almost weekly, but I have taken out my first ebook from a library.

The upshot is that many independent bookstores were driven out of business by the larger stores, online book selling, and ebook publishing. And I helped put them there. I love to wander in the larger stores and I self-publish ebooks--and paperbacks, but those sell only a few hundred copies per year. All but a few of the paperback copies are sold online.

That's not to say that I don't like smaller stores. I almost cried when Danner's went out of business in Muncie, Indiana, and I was a regular patron of the store in my former Iowa town until the owners of the last one could not sell it before they moved. (A fitness business/coffee shop bought the Iowa one, but with far fewer books mixed in with the other businesses, it's far from the same. And they won't carry my books, so I doubly don't count them!) Now I live in Springfield, Illinois, and there is no independent book store. There is a Barnes and Noble, and I'm thankful for that--even  though they won't carry my paperback books either.

Don't think this is a 'gripe blog.' Businesses exist to make a profit. If they don't think an author will contribute to that on the limited shelf space they have, then they won't carry a book. I use the same principle for selling my ebooks. It is worth my time to load the books myself to Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and I would try iTunes if they'd have me (they won't). Luckily for authors, there are book aggregators like Smashwords who accept ebooks into their system and then distribute them to other sellers. They take a cut, of course, but it gets the book to the iTunes, plus the smaller outlets whose systems I'm not willing to take the time to learn.

All of these thoughts ran  through my brain cells yesterday when I read a New York Times blog on Helpful Definitions for Modern Authors. It's a bit tongue-in-cheek, which makes it a sometimes humorous read. Here's a short segment.

Your Agent: Acts as Book’s Editor.
Your Editor: Acts as Book’s Publisher, handling how it will be packaged and marketed.
Your Publisher: Creates Book’s mold ahead of time, insofar as it curates the existing market into which book must fit. (Additional duty: being dumbfounded by that market.)

When it comes to writing (and reading) we live in a very different world from our parents or even ourselves of twenty years ago. It is a more democratic one. I have sold tens of thousands of books because I decided to do it. There was no three to six-month wait for rejections before moving on to the next potential agent or publisher. There was also no publisher's editor, and if you get a good one they do improve a book.

However, look again at the definition of a Book Publisher. I have a couple of very successful author friends who self-publish more now because a twenty-something book publishing company editor wanted to dumb down their books for "today's readers," and then wondered at lower sales than prior books.

What is constant is authors' support of one another and independent book stores. That's why book stores were in so many stories about this year's Small Business Saturday, a day in which shoppers are encouraged to use their shopping dollars to support local small businesses. USA Today has a great article on readers' love of independent book stores and their role in Small Business Saturday.

Now that I live in a town with no independent book store, I've had to get creative. Another author and I do a table at a nearby arts festival, and we have a booth in a Springfield gift shop. As I get more familiar with Illinois, I'll find book stores in other towns. There will always be people who love to read, it's just a question of finding them in the new age of book publishing.
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