Southern Scotch

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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Serial Thrillin': The Bitchinest Ripsnorting Round Table Joust: 1

Five knights. One theme, of interest to writers and readers alike: the rewards and challenges of a writing a mystery series...and succeeding at giving it legs. The five knights, in alphabetical order:

Carolyn Arnold
International bestselling and award-winning author, as well as a speaker, teacher, and inspirational mentor. She has four continuing fiction series and has written nearly thirty books: from cozy to hard-boiled mysteries, and thrillers to action adventures.

Claude Bouchard
USA Today Bestselling author of the fourteen volume Vigilante Series as well as Nasty in Nice, ASYLUM and Something's Cooking. Other interests include reading, playing guitar, painting, cooking, traveling and trying to stay in reasonable shape.

Joe Clifford
He is the author of several books, including Junkie Love, Lamentation, December Boys and Give Up the Dead, as well as editor of Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Stories Inspired by the Songs of Bruce Springsteen. He lives in Oakland, CA.

Bill Kirton
University lecturer, TV presenter, wood carver, playwright, actor, director, RLF Writing Fellow, novelist. Crap at marketing or promotional work and possibly the laziest knight at the table (so says he). 

Brad Strickland
Author of 80 published books, including the ones he writes under the pen name of Ken McKea. These follow Florida detective Jim Dallas, who despite being retired on disability somehow can’t help running across murders. Brad lives in Georgia with his wife Barbara and a small assortment of varmints.

1) Why write a mystery series instead of a series of mysteries? 

Is commerce the main factor or is some other payoff at play?

I love being able to torture my characters over a longer stretch of time. And I don’t like saying goodbye to them. By writing a series, at least I know when I’m wrapping up a book, I’ll be with them again soon. I also believe readers love to get attached to characters and when you’re providing them with a series, they can do so knowing there will be more books coming.

From the time I started reading and then going forward, series have always been attractive, in large part due to growing familiarity of the main characters – think ‘Cat in the Hat’, ‘Bobbsey Twins’, ‘Hardy Boys’ and ‘Tom Swift’ before even getting to adult fiction. The same holds true with writing where one can develop and build one’s principal protagonists from one adventure to the next as compared to creating new, unknown characters with each new novel. Increased comfort exists when working with ‘people’ one already knows. The commerce factor obviously comes into play as many readers also enjoy said comfort and familiarity.

Like with any venture, there are pros and cons. The biggest “pro” is, if a series takes off, you have a built-in readership. Also in the plus column, a series allows you to examine a character and world a little deeper. Think Star Wars vs., say, well, any one-off sci-fi film. Most of all publishers love a series. Less risk, established commodity, etc. The downside is:  if you don't have a series as popular as Lee Child, the average series writer often sees a dip in sales with each book and finds the critical response to be harsher, despite each book getting "better." At least that has been my experience.

I suspect that a mystery series is the better bet. If you can create one or more characters that intrigue the reader, characters they’d like to spend time with, that’s more likely to draw them into buying more of the books in which they appear. I suppose that’s why I call my series The Jack Carston Mysteries.

On the other hand, if you find a stand-alone mystery to be gripping, you instinctively trust the author to deliver again on suspense, thrills, horror, whatever.

A series allows a deeper exploration of the characters’ personality—strengths, flaws, problems, solutions. I like the notion of a broad canvas that gives a kind of epic sweep. In the case of Jim Dallas, Jim has issues to deal with and resolve. Through all the stories arcs the tale of his smoldering anger and bottled-up desire for vengeance, which will eventually pay off.  I’m approaching a kind of midpoint which will begin the overall climax of the series.

So in a sense, a series is simply a group of oversized chapters in a longer story. There is, of course, also the consideration that a writer can invite readers to climb aboard for the whole journey—so a series tends to build readership. Have to say that commercial concerns aren’t the greatest with me, though they do factor in. From the get-go, I’ve had a definite goal in mind for the Jim Dallas stories.

2) For perspective,  give us a few names of your favorite 

mystery series writers.

I loved David Baldacci’s Camel Club series, and have also enjoyed some of the books in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series.

Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Lee Child, Jeffery Deaver, Jonathan Kellerman… Oh, you said a couple of names… Sorry. Anyhow, this is just a handful of writers who have consistently produced well developed, intricate storylines with strong, believable, three-dimensional characters. I never read a book by any of these authors which left me disappointed. I could mention that Child may have pushed it a bit on occasion but, then again, we are talking Jack Reacher.

I like what Lehane (more on him later), Sara J. Henry, Allen Eskens, and Matt Coyle are doing with their respective series. Of course there’s the granddaddy of them all: Phillip Marlowe.

Dalziel and Pascoe, created by the late Reg Hill, are great examples of powerful characterization and the dynamic created by a close friendship between different personalities. (Humour also helps a lot.) 

I’m not sure whether Janet Evanovitch’s Stephanie Plum novels qualify as mysteries, but the characters are so memorable and so funny (especially Grandma Mazur) that I need a regular 
therapeutic dose of them.

Jim Dallas owes a clear debt to Travis McGee and his creator, John D. Macdonald. I like the narrative voice in these—McGee is a principled, if “tarnished” hero (MacDonald’s own word) who teeters between wishing to resign from the over-complicated modern world with a drive to become involved with the victims of it. Similarly, Dallas pulled out of everything to lick his wounds (physical and psychological) after a traumatic encounter with organized evil, but he finds that campaigning for justice among the helpless cast-aside members of society helps him heal, and gets him ready for the challenge he knows is coming.

Another MacDonald, Ross MacDonald, is another inspiration. He took the tough-guy private-eye story to literary heights with his Lew Archer novels. I like his way with words and also his gift at plotting, which is not always on high display in this kind of story—for all his accomplishment, Raymond Chandler famously plotted by “having a guy come through the door with a gun” when things got slow. I don’t think there’s a finer, more jewel-like plot in private-eye fiction than in Ross MacDonald’s brilliant The Chill.

Both of these gentlemen give us a wry, world-weary, but game character who gives a problem his all—something I try to emulate.

3) Now to you...What is the most distinctive thing about your 

mystery series?

I offer readers a strong female protagonist detective, a male rookie FBI agent, and a married, murder-solving duo. In every book I strive for procedural accuracy, and as a result have been praised by law enforcement. This has led me to take on the brand line POLICE PROCEDURALS RESPECTED BY LAW ENFORCEMENT.™

Likely the most distinctive thing about my mystery series is all my main characters are Canadian yet none of them say, “Eh,” at least not when I’m around. Also, the members of the ‘Discreet Activities’ team are all well educated with respectable, professional backgrounds as well as smart, witty and highly sociable yet they kill for a living.

That they work both as standalones and part of an overarching storyline. Also I am hoping to shine a light on the grave injustice perpetuated against my father, namely that the Manafort family (yes, those Manaforts) and their greedy, gross misconduct directly led to my father’s premature death.

Hard to say. Humor's essential, even (or maybe especially) in the more gruesome cases, and I like the idea that people don’t automatically divide into goodies and baddies. My detective has no particular vices. He’s happily married to a wife who matches him for wisecracks, and yet constantly finds himself thinking politically incorrect things and chastising himself for it. I also end each book with a little scene designed to say ‘OK, reader. The mystery was solved and everything’s back in place – except that’s not the way the world works – different bad things keep on happening.

I think it might be the blend of humor and detail. I get letters about how real the background is—“I ate in that restaurant!” “I know exactly where that river is!” and so on. Having Sam Lyons as a foil character gives me a chance for a lot of repartee and shaggy-dog jokes, which I love. But capturing something of the Florida milieu (changed even from the days of Travis McGee) also gives the stories a kind of flavor. Still to come are a story that takes place, partly, at a theme park (I have relatives who worked for two of the biggest ones) and one that will feature intrigue at a posh Miami hotel, secretly falling on hard times but keeping up a front. I think the details in these will ring true. I have my informants. . . . 

But the truth of the background is meant to reinforce the psychological truth of the characters.

4) Can your books be read as stand-alones or should/must

they be read in sequence?

They can be read as stand-alones.

Each of the thirteen installments of my Vigilante series to date is a complete story and can therefore be read as a standalone. However, as with most series, reading them in sequence allows for a better flow in terms of character introduction and development. In addition, past events are occasionally referenced or directly related to the plotlines of later installments which also supports sequential reading as the best option.

As stated above, both, although obviously reading in order is preferable. You simply get more.

Mine are conceived as stand-alones, but in the knowledge that I have a group of people I know quite well and whom I trust to be themselves.

On the other hand, my two historical mysteries are only a pair because readers asked for a sequel to the first one in order to know how a particular relationship developed. I still think each is self-contained but reading them in sequence would add to the pleasure. (Some readers have now asked for a third, so it may become a series after all.)

I have no trouble writing them so they’re stand-alones, though I think they may make more emotional sense if read as part of an extended story. That’s when you begin to make the connections and to see the character development.

5) As a series writer, how do you handle back story from book 

to book—scatter shot or concentrated loads? How do you 

contrive to give just enough details for anchors?

I’m definitely more a “scatter shot” when it comes to backstory. I provide just enough—and what’s needed—for the current story I’m telling. Obviously if a tidbit about a character’s history is irrelevant to the current plot line, I leave it out.

Concentrated loads were used in earlier books with a gradual transition to scatter shots as required as the series progressed. With the fourteenth installment in the works, it becomes somewhat repetitive and redundant to present readers with too much detail relating to ancient history. Sufficient albeit brief data is supplied to new readers in later books to identify characters with the assumption (and hope) that curiosity will lead them to read past installments they’ve missed. As an example from my current WIP, the reader learns of Chris Barry’s financial success years earlier from a line or two of simple dialogue.

This is the challenge with each book, and I’ve tackled this task in different ways. You want to avoid the dreaded “auto-dump.” In the latest Jay Porter novel, BROKEN GROUND, for instance, we begin at an AA meeting with Jay speaking, which allowed me to get in a lot of the back-story organically.

leave it to the characters – which sounds, but isn’t, glib. Each member of Jack Carston’s team has distinct characteristics. Their idiosyncrasies provide the familiarity and continuity to suggest a well-established team who are used to and respond to one another’s behaviours. They are the back story.

I leak a little at a time. In the current one, the one I’m writing, we’re going to find out a bit more about the rough ride that Jim had when he worked for Internal Affairs back during his police days. He hasn’t talked much about that—but let’s say that his involvement may have made him say and do a few things that he deeply regrets, that go against his character. More of this will come out as the books go on. In the end, I think a reader can jigsaw together a valid portrait of him that will seem true to life.

6) The age thing. Hell, let’s hit it. Does your hero age/change 

very little over the course of the series (Hercule Poirot, Kinsey 

Malone, James Bond, Spenser)...or age and change 

progressively (Harry Bosch)?

There’s definite growth to the characters in all my series. Detective Madison Knight started off really rough around the edges. She’s still a hard-nosed detective who will do whatever it takes to find justice for murder victims, but she’s softened on a personal level. She used to be terrified of committing herself to a romantic relationship, but that’s a thing of the past. I think I might even hear wedding bells in her future. But that’s still a few more books out from—if it does happen.

Brandon Fisher started out as a new agent with the FBI in book one. As readers progress in the series, they are taken along the journey of him becoming a full-fledged agent with the BAU.

The McKinleys went from being homicide detectives for Albany PD to amateur sleuths to private investigators. That involved a lot of growth.

Chapter headings in each of my books include actual dates to establish a timeline. Book 1 was written in 1995 and set in 1996 while my last release took place in 2016, twenty years later so, yes, my characters have aged. Luckily, they were young enough at the start and I make damned sure they stay in shape from one story to the next.

Each book in the Porter series is a year later, which brings us up to the current year

Interesting question because the next Carston story will be the last. Without me trying to impose ageing on him, he’s been changed by the experiences of the crimes he’s solved and the individuals he’s met in the process. I’ve no idea what he’ll do in retirement, but his tendency to try to make light of things and just enjoy life has been severely eroded by the ongoing evidence of man’s inhumanity to man (and especially woman).

Heh. Ellery Queen was always 35, until somewhere between books he had a growth spurt and wound up being 57. Jim is aging—the stories are set along a time line of five or six years, and he’ll reflect that in the stories.


Take seven, as in seven days, to stretch and think about Part 1. Next week we'll return with the provocative conclusion. Among other things you'll learn--but no, mustn't ruin the surprise. You'll also meet a surprise guest. Arrive early for guaranteed seating.


To learn more about these authors and their books, click on the

following links:

Carolyn Arnold
New title releasing November 28:

Claude Bouchard

Vigilante Series Box set - Books 1 to 6:

Joe Clifford

Bill Kirton
Amazon Author Page:
Website: hhtp://
Book to introduce readers to my work: The Darkness (see answer 11 in Part 2)

Brad Strickland
Amazon Author Page:

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Revisiting a Crash Site

Today at 4:40 I'll set sail by trail again, this time to Atlanta. And I'm in finer fettle than I was twenty months ago, when I set out for Buffalo after suffering a serious fall. No wheelchair required to get me to the train. No cane required to take even three steps.

Still, this pales beside the changes I've gone through since I left Atlanta nearly twenty years ago. Atlanta was my crash site in more ways than I care to recall: marital, emotional, spiritual, publishing, employment, financial, physical...

Though I lack the hubris to announce a perma-happy ending, I can tell you: things have changed, in most ways for the better. I moved to Seattle three years ago...I've published a dozen ebooks, three of them published in print editions by Hold Fast Press. Recently, I started working for a world-class company, with transfer potential after a year to anywhere I please. I'm happily at work on a new mystery series. And, oh yeah, I've lost fifty-plus pounds, thanks to going Vegan and returning to the gym.

So my spirits are high as I prepare to depart. In Atlanta I'll meet with two writers, Brad Strickland and Lev Butts...and, hopefully, one or two other old friends. On the train I'll get some reading done and put in more hours on my WIP..

And I'll pay my respects to that crash site that made way a phoenix rebirth.

Till then, I'll do the thing I love best in this world, next to writing: damn right, board another train.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

You and the Miracle of Your Third Draft

Some call the first draft the vomit phase.

Others may see it as something like this:

In any case, the first goal is getting the words on the page, day by day. In good time, we meet that goal. And whatever hell we went through is soon to be forgotten when we start the second draft.

Do all writers go through such back-breaking work? Not all, but many. Perhaps even most. Here's a look at the great Nabokov conquering a second draft:

The work's as exhausting as digging a ditch with a teaspoon instead of a shovel. Simply clearing the vomit or shit off each page is enough to make a writer weep, howl at the moon or cry 'Never again!'

And the worst of it is this: no matter how greatly we improve the first draft, we're still nowhere near completion of a finished, professional work. Yes, we've pruned and edited, polished and filled in some blanks. And we've begun to see the outline of our book. But it's still just a sack of potential

The third draft, however, gives us the chance for a wonderful break from ditch-digging and drudgery. Now we get to put on our Architect hats. We can forget about Pretty or Perfect for now. Time to think of our narrative's structure...and where the structure may need reinforcements.

Here are some of the issues I'm tackling in the third draft of my WIP:
1) My book's divided into five acts. Are they roughly the same length and is my pacing on the mark?
2) My book contains shifts of POV. Do my two lead characters get close to the same stage time? And have I made it clear enough to readers at a glance to identify who's 'on' now?
3) Have my mystery's clues been fairly and effectively placed?
4) Have my characters done the detecting they should have done at all key points?
5) Have I brought my setting to life, buckshot-style, with just enough details as needed?
6) Have I succeeded on two fronts: launching a new spin-off series from my Boss MacTavin mysteries...and not giving readers the backstory blues?
7) Though this is a standalone series, is it completely consistent with the Boss MacTavin universe?
8) Can I do anything else to reinforce the novel's theme? Colors, imagery, weather, etc.

Now, with the clearance work you've done, is the perfectly natural time for such things. When they've been tackled, you're prepared for the delicate refinements of your fourth and final drafts.

If you don't believe in miracles, give this one a try.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Lost Art of Waking Up: a Pictorial

Somewhere along the line, we forget how to wake up refreshed and renewed. And instead we awaken like this:

 Correction: we wake up like that after hitting Snooze repeatedly:

Finally, we lumber up and stumble on in search of clothes and keys and everything we'll need--the most important of which we will always forget.

So, no matter what we matter what we don't forget...the message we send to the world will be this:

Okay, then. Let's take these as givens:
--Good diet
--Good health
---6-8 hours' sleep every night

If so, why would we need Snooze alarms? I have a theory about this. I don't claim that it's profound but it's been tested--and it works:

Our mindset when we go to bed determines our state in the morning. For better or worse, we continue where we left off the night before. And we'll continue for the worse if we retire in a negative or aimless state, I propose a three step plan to ensure that we wake for the better.

1) Eat lightly after 6 p.m.. Your last meal doesn't have to be what you see in the picture above. But keep it light, something easily digested.

2) That's right, meditate--in any position you like: sitting in a cozy chair or thinking while you stretch. Your meditation can be a review of the day: what went well or might have gone better. Review your blessings while you're at it. A positive 15-minute spiritual stretch will prepare you for a deeper and more restful sleep.

3) This is my own master key: a Kenneth Cole standing valet. My solution to maddening mornings spent looking for my keys, deciding what to wear and learning when I've left home that I've forgotten something. After my spiritual stretch, I set myself up for the morning--everything I'll need, from clothes to keys to change to my wallet, etc. I go to bed in a decisive state as well as a positive, calm one.

The process is a simple one. Whether you use it or one of your own, be true to it and you'll enjoy wht you've missed for far too long:

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Lies, Lies and More Damned Lies

I'm in a rare state of despair today because I've learned once again that ads are often jut cold, polished lies.

My state began a while back when learning that the bottled water on which I'd been spending so much of my money was actually just tap water. The story's here, if you care to look. But you've probably already had doubts of your own.

True, none of us could have expected that our designer tap water might actually threaten our health--with something like...oh, say...a tapeworm:

Still, life went on. My despair ebbed as I started watching closely, and more closely still, the food I put into my body. I eyed the labels like a hawk, on the watch for sugar in any form, preservatives, etc.

But I read a story this week that rocked my boat and should rock yours. Whether you're a Vegan, vegetarian or meat lover, the same question concerns us all: can we trust the labels or even the stores? Is 'organic' food really organic? Are 'cage-free' chickens actually cage-free? Are 'grass-fed' cows actually grass-fed? Is 'free range' actually so?

Here's one ad that sure sounds good, for yummy free range chickens:


'Direct Action Everywhere, whose mission is to create animal welfare-friendly cities and outlaw factory farming practices, visited a dozen Pitman farms and never once saw a chicken roaming outside. The group reported that it found no indications of outdoor living, such as feathers or fecal matter. Twenty-four hour surveillance cameras attached to six separate locations revealed no outdoor birds either, the activists said. Instead, chickens were packed shoulder-to-shoulder inside dusty sheds with degraded air quality, forced to challenge one another for access to food and water.'
--the, 9/15/17

So free range may mean, Dasani-style, not cage-free.

And does cage-free actually mean anything better than factory farm?

For your consideration:

I don't argue that you should be Vegan or that you shouldn't eat meat. But all of us should be empowered to make enlightened dietary decisions. And this is something we can't do if the labels lie.

“The industry is in bed with the government,” said (Wayne) Hsiung. “I’m a former securities lawyer. It’s similar to the financial industry. The USDA’s mission statement is to promote agriculture. You can’t promote the industry and guard against the industry’s abuses. It’s like trying to be a lawyer for both sides of a litigation.”

Sunday, September 3, 2017

A Hallelujah Change of Life

You know what it's like, there's just not enough time, not when you work 40 hours a week. And for much of my life I worked two jobs--60 hours or more, 7 days a week--while somehow making time to write.

In Seattle I cut down to one job, a relief. Even so, though, weekends were never enough. Half the weekend, generally, was spent recovering from work stress. 

I'd continued to write. In fact, I'd succeeded in putting on speed, close now to putting out one book a year. But I'd pretty much given up on having an actual life.

Until now. I quit my office job and took a position that offers: future transfer, if I like, to any major city in the country...good benefits...a physically challenging position that helps me stay in shape...discounts on the best and healthiest organic food...and:

a 4-day week, if I like.

I like--and I've arranged it.

Retirement may be wonderful for those who can afford it. For those of us who can't...yet...we should at least enjoy the rewards of a physically active job...nearly half the week off to ourselves...good medical benefits...and paid time off.

Finally, the second shift allows me to write seven days a week. So I'm a happy camper--with a train trip coming up in November.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Taking Out the Trash

Sometimes more courage goes into taking out the garbage than climbing Kilimanjaro.

You know the sort of trash I mean: from haunting regrets to lingering messes we made years ago, then allowed to remain.

Getting rid of the trash may prove tougher than lugging two bags to a dumpster. But, as I learned yesterday, the relief makes it well worth whatever it takes.

I had three messes I needed to clear from my life. And doing so took up a good part of my day: phone calls, emails, certified mail, running here and running there. At the end of the day I was lighter by three messes I'd come to accept as 'my life'. Lesson learned.

Taking out the trash may prove painful. Or costly. Or just difficult to do. We may need to write off a beloved old friend who no longer wants to be one. We may need to find a way to make peace with something we've done...or not done. We may need to take guilt, shame, envy or anger to the dump heap.

The price may be high but it's worth it. When the time is right, set aside a day for a test of your own.