Welcome To My Store

By John Gilstrap

Hello, dear reader. Welcome to National Chain Bookstore, or, as we like to call it, NCB. Come on in and look around. Careful, don’t trip over the stacks of remaindered hardcovers there. Do you want one? They were all fairly successful a couple of years ago, and while they last, they’re cheaper than their paperback reprints.

No? Okay then how can I help you? A novel, eh? How about one of these titles here on the front table? Lots of good stuff there; in fact many of our customers never go any farther than that into the store. Must be why publisher pay us to display their books there.

No, no pressure. I’m anxious to put the perfect book for you into your hands. What kind of book were you looking for today? I see. Well, “fiction” is a big category. Do you like literary fiction or commercial fiction? Wow, I don’t really know how to answer that. You’re right, it is a subtle difference. I look at it this way: If you have to read it in school, or if the fact that you’re carrying it is likely to impress people, chances are we categorize it as “literature” and we put those titles on the shelves that line the outer wall. No, the other wall. That wall’s for Photography books. Hey! You two boys! Put the book down and quit looking for dirty pictures in my store! Sorry about that.

Okay, good. Commercial fiction. Science fiction? Romance?

Great. A Mystery, then. Do you prefer cozies, hardboiled or softboiled? Whoa, another good question. Well, as I understand it, as the body count goes up, the book is boiled more. If the lead detective is a cat, it’s definitely a cozy. Everything else is a gray zone. Maybe you can tell me an author you like to read.

Uh-huh. Michael Connolly . . . John Grisham . . . Jeffery Deaver. Goodness gracious, you don’t want a mystery at all. You want a thriller. Well, sure there’s a mystery in most of their books, but a thriller has more suspense. What’s that? Of course. I agree that there’s suspense in Moby Dick and Oliver Twist, but people respect those books, so those are literature. Were you not paying attention before?

I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I was indeed flippant. I meant no harm. You just ask very good questions, and I’m not answering them very well. Of course. I understand. Tell you what. If I may be so bold, you can never go wrong with a Gilstrap book . . .

Witches, Zombies, Vampires, and Everything Nice…

So we’re coming up on my favorite holiday of the year: Festivus!

Oops, meant to say Halloween. And to celebrate the occasion, I’m offering a few novel ways (no pun intended) to pass the time until All Saint’s Day:

  • Sacrifice a goat. Or, read a book, depending on the availability of goats in your area. I recently hosted a witchcraft panel at a Book Group Expo, and consequently have three Halloween-appropriate recommendations. The Witch’s Trinity by Erika Mailman just came out in paperback, and it’s a terrifying tale of witch hunts in old Europe. The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent portrays the Salem Trials through the eyes of a young girl whose mother stands accused. And The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry (don’t you just love that name?) is set in a more modern day Salem, focusing on two missing women. All were amazing reads, and perfect to get yourself in top Trick-or-Treating form.

  • Burn a Wicker Man. Or, rent Shaun of the Dead, IMHO the best zombie flick of all time. Because it not only stays relatively true to the genre, it’s funny and presents a nice depiction of how many people are already zombies, they just haven’t realized it yet. Genius. And who doesn’t love a film where the heroes take refuge in a pub as their last resort?
  • Bob for Apples. Or, if this always seemed strikingly unsanitary to you (it certainly does to me, that bobbing pit is like a cold, nasty, water-filled petri dish teeming with disease) Rent Season 1 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Because it truly doesn’t get any better than Buffy. True Blood is okay, but let’s be honest: Buffy is still the gold standard. I never get tired of watching a young Sarah Michelle Gellar kick vampire butt. And the first season, when she’s still getting her sea legs, is classic.

And what will I be doing, you might ask? Well, here in the Gagnon household it’s eyeball pizza and grog night, where I simultaneously man the door against greedy little beggars who try to seize handfuls of candy while also valiantly guarding the well-being of my carved gourds. Wish me luck. And Happy Halloween!!!!

The Great Tony Hillerman

hillerman_tony1 By Joe Moore

We lost a great one on Sunday. Bestselling novelist, Tony Hillerman, past away at the age of 83. Best known for his mysteries set among the Navajos of the Southwest, Hillerman was a true storyteller. His novels involved people struggling to maintain their ancient traditions while coping in a modern world. His series featured Novajo tribal police detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, and painted such strong visual images of the Southwest that I felt I had visited there in his books long before I did in my travels. His stories have vast physical, intellectual and spiritual dimensions.

I became a fan when I started reading Hillerman about halfway through his catalog. That’s when I picked up a copy of A Thief Of Time, a mesmerizing tale of the Anasazi, a missing archeologist, and the black market run by “pot hunters”. It was later made into a movie staring Wes Studi and Adam Beach.

Besides weaving great mysteries, Hillerman always showed through his characters a high level of compassion and a hunger for justice. And he wasn’t afraid to explore the misunderstandings and cross-cultural conflicts still very much alive today.

But he was first and foremost a great storyteller. He will be missed, for talent like Tony Hillerman is as rare as rain in the desert.

Oprah blesses the Kindle

The word sent a jolt through the author community:

“Oprah endorses Kindle.”

The Kindle, in case you’ve been marooned on another planet, is Amazon’s much-ballyhooed e-book reader. Oprah’s nod is likely to give the gadget a boost in sales. To quote one industry insider, a blessing by the Queen of Talk TV means that “the sale of Kindles will increase sales by approximately one bazillion percent.”

I’m a bit of a Luddite when it comes to gadgetry, so I haven’t tried the Kindle yet. But I was gratified recently to learn that my latest book, A KILLER WORKOUT, has been published in a Kindle edition. Now that my book has made its debut in the e-reader world, it feels like my baby has grown up and left home. And forgotten to send a postcard.

I’ve been a “slow adopter” when it comes to e-reader technology. Basically, this is because, 1) my daughter convinced me to buy a very expensive e-book reader years ago, and it broke within a month; and 2) I find it tiring to read text all day on the computer screen.

But I have to admit, there are some real advantages to e-books, particularly the Kindle. For example, when I heard that Kindle lets you increase the text size, I thought—“Okay, this is a winner.” Me and a silent majority of over-40 presbyopic-somethings, we’re yearning for text that is ten feet tall!

Plus, the Kindle promises that its “revolutionary electronic-paper display provides a sharp, high-resolution screen that looks and reads like real paper.”

I will definitely give the Kindle a trial run (probably by giving it to someone close as an Xmas present).

Meanwhile, I’m interested to hear from folks who have tried the Kindle. What’s the reading experience like? Authors, have Kindle sales boosted your audience?

Goodbye Beloved Friend

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

On Friday, with great sadness, we had to euthanize our beloved collie Benjamin. As an unapologetic dog lover I was devastated by the sudden blow but it placed in perspective how we often treat the sick – and how in many ways we get the opportunity to treat our pets more humanely than we can ever hope to be treated as humans.

After a series of strange, stroke like episodes, we sought a neurologist’s opinion about Benjamin. Not only could he be seen the following day but they then scheduled an immediate MRI scan, spinal tap and chest x-ray. That night the neurologist phoned me to discuss the results and altered his schedule so he could go through the images in person with me the following day. Everyone at the animal care center treated me with compassion and concern and having seen how distressed I was when I saw Benjamin after the tests (he could barely walk) the neurologist phoned me twice that evening to see how both collie and owner were faring. I was told that if we did consider surgery that the neurologists would put aside their surgery schedules and do Benjamin. Having seen many family members face a cancer diagnosis and treatment I can tell you that Benjamin received far better attention and care than they ever did (and they had both health insurance and decent physicians!)

When we finally made the decision not to put Benjamin through surgery (a proposition that had little guarantee of success and we knew the tumor on his spinal cord would all too quickly return) and sought euthanasia, our own vet and the neurologist were both quick to console and reassure us. When it comes to the animal world we at least can alleviate pain and humanely deal with what is a terminal illness. Would that the same could always be said for our human companions.

Today’s blog post is unashamedly sentimental. I remember all my collies – Sam, Charles, Edward and now Benjamin. I grew up with a true Lassie as a companion. Sam was the kind of collie who would leap over furniture and through an open window to come to his owner’s defence. I still cannot watch any Lassie movie or TV episode without weeping. Call me a wimp but all I need is those deep brown eyes, the cocked head and the classic Lassie intense gaze and I am a goner. Benjamin was the most mellow, soft-hearted dog in the world. He was a true Californian – laid-back, zen like and yet a true gentleman. He will be missed.

My writing experience will no longer be the same without him asleep nearby. I will miss hearing his sighs and seeing him lift his head as if to say “isn’t it time we were on the couch watching TV – not at the desk revising?” Half the time I used Benjamin as an excuse not to work. After we had the twins, the evening was the only ‘me’ time Benjamin and I used to get. He would place his snout on the cushions on the couch, look up at me with his deep brown eyes, as if to ask permission. He would then clamber up, all fur and uncoordination. I would then stretch out and put my feet under his paws for warmth. Those are the times I will cherish.

Call me foolish but I have lost a beloved friend and when I begin my next manuscript I know I will look up from the page and feel his absence acutely. I will miss the comfort I got from being with an animal who could live each moment without worrying about the next, reveling in the joy that came from the simple things, like lying on the couch, letting the world pass him by, living simply, without pain – knowing that the people around you would never let you suffer. I think we humans have a lot to learn from our beloved canine friends.

Fiction Techniques for the Technical Stuff

When a mystery I’m editing includes a great deal of specialized or technical information, I help the writer find more effective ways of presenting the material. Too much explanation not only slows a plot’s progression, it stops the story. Agents, acquiring editors, and other readers reject progression derailed by digression.

Yet the technical stuff might be needed for understanding the story, the situation, or the protagonist’s actions. Jargon may be essential for authentic-sounding dialogue.

What’s a writer to do? In my case, what’s an editor to do?

I’m a developmental and line editor, my full-time occupation for 44 years in publishing, starting in NYC. Coping with family transfers, I moonlighted for eight of those years by teaching writing for publication at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

I was also an instructor of writing for the University of Maine-Portland, then for SUNY-Rochester. One memorable summer I spent in the mountains near Seoul teaching conversational skills to South Korean teachers of English-as-a-second-language. They understood our grammar better than most Americans do.


Notice that the preceding information is a digression. In fiction, that kind of content is called backstory. You probably keep reading such action-stoppers, at first, but after a while you’re likely to skim and skip ahead whenever the content seriously veers off topic.

Skimming and skipping are easy when only a paragraph of tangential information intervenes. Besides, most backstory and explanations can and should be cut. (Really.) But essential material that continually interrupts, especially if it’s technical, needs cutting and restructuring.


Catalyst: A substance that starts a chemical reaction but which is not itself chemically changed.

The above exemplifies a method I suggest of opening each chapter with a paragraph containing the least amount of technical data required by that chapter. Format the information as if copied from another source, using italics or a font different from your main text.

You can also set off the paragraph by indenting from both side margins. Instead of double-spacing, use one-and-a-half lines. Similar formatting and placement make it easy for readers to glance at the technical stuff, yet find it again if they later choose to see what it says.


In Southern Discomfort, Margaret Maron starts each chapter with an epigraph from an actual U.S. Navy manual on construction. Be sure the source you quote is in the public domain. (Government publications are.) Or concoct the “quotation” yourself in the style of a legitimate-sounding source.

The above definition of a catalyst is one of many chapter openings in 13 Days: The Pythagoras Conspiracy. This debut thriller by L. A. Starks follows the woman who must discover and stop a foreign plot to sabotage Texas oil refineries. The resulting gas shortages are shockingly real and unexpectedly deadly.

Definitions placed at the opening of many of Stark’s chapters allow the thriller’s pace to move like fire through an oil spill.


A similar device is used by Deb Baker in her delightfully humorous, nontechnical Dolls to Die For mystery series. Each is supposedly excerpted from a book on doll restoring and collecting “authored” by a character in the series, the missing mother of the protagonist. Here’s an example:

When attending a doll show, a repair artist must be prepared for any doll emergency. Aside from standard stringing tools such as elastic cording, rubber bands, and S hooks … (and so on).

Each of Baker’s epigraphs is followed by this authentic-appearing credit line:
—From World of Dolls by Caroline Birch


Death Will Get You Sober is an insightful, engaging mystery by Elizabeth Zelvin, a psychotherapist experienced in treating alcohol addiction. Her first-person protagonist translates the jargon of the AA 12-step program with brief, unobtrusive asides within the narrative itself. The explanation below follows a line of dialogue spoken by a minor character obviously unfamiliar with acceptable AA practice:

“The man’s an asshole,” he told me.

“You mean you don’t like his sobriety,” I said. An AA way to register disapproval without actual name-calling. Step Four was taking your own inventory, not someone else’s.

Another example from Zelvin’s debut novel offers an even briefer, equally straightforward explanation:

“You take care of yourself,” she admonished me. “Don’t you dare go AMA before you’re discharged, and don’t get into any trouble.” She meant leaving against medical advice.

If you have your own examples of explanatory asides in third-person, or other effective techniques, I hope you’ll share them with me.

CHRIS ROERDEN wrote the Agatha Award winning, Anthony and Macavity nominated DON’T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY and its all-genre version, DON’T SABOTAGE YOUR SUBMISSION.

At the beck and call of…

By John Ramsey Miller

In the early fifties William Faulkner once answered the question as to why he didn’t have a telephone by saying, “I won’t be at the beck and call of any son of a bitch with a nickel.” Calls were cheaper then, and people who couldn’t get a private line often used public phones. I know Bill did have a telephone because there’s one on the kitchen wall at his home, Rowan Oak, in Oxford, Mississippi, with his friends names and numbers penciled on the wall by his and his wife’s hand. Well, he may have said that before his wife decided she wanted everybody with a telephone to be at her beck and call. While there was bourbon in his writing room, there was no telephone.

Recently when I wrote a phone booth into a manuscript and my editor told me there were no such things in New York City any more, just kiosks, which are becoming rarer these days due to cell phones in every pocket––even those pockets without the price of a public phone kiosk call in them. We can communicate with anybody any time, and even pre-tens have cell phones. One crisp winter morning while I was sitting in a stand in the woods in Mississippi deer hunting I got a call from my agent telling me that the first draft of SIDE BY SIDE had been accepted as written. Ten minutes after hanging up, I shot a deer. After I pulled the trigger, I got a second call, this one from a friend on another part of the property asking if that had been my shot he’d heard. Not long ago I was on a panel in New York at Thrillerfest when my son decided to call me to see what I was doing. I covered the phone with my hand to mute it until it fell silent, then I took it out and turned it off. Holy Moto interruption, Batman.

A couple of years back I saw someone using their cell phone to take a picture and I commented to them, “I have a camera that does that.” Today’s cell phones do everything but mix drinks. I’ve been told that mine has games in it, a 5 megapixel camera, a video camera, texting capabilities, a calculator, access to the internet, an audio recording feature, a choice of ring tones, an alarm clock, a clock-clock, and more, but I merely use mine for phone calls. My kids laugh at me because I don’t know what I can accomplish with the tiny privacy invader. And nothing bugs me more than getting a pocket call from someone who sat on the phone and I have to listen to their conversation with someone else, or background noise, while I’m hollering into my phone at them trying to get their attention to complain. Evidently sound enters a pocket easily, but doesn’t travel from one worth a damn.

I am old enough to remember when Dick Tracy wore a wrist watch with a radio in it and how ridiculous and futuristic that seemed at the time. I remember how badly I wanted one, and now for less than $200.00 I can have my choice of several. They make one that also plays music. Check it out: http://www.lightinthebox.com/wholesale-Watch-Style-Cell-Phone_c1298/All-3?gclid=CKGh-uaCu5YCFRKAxgodSSfkmg

The worst thing about writing modern fiction is the problem of instant communication. You can write a technology that doesn’t exist and nobody bats an eye. In one book recently I devised a test (not yet accepted by courts, but in a beta existence) that gave my protagonist DNA results in hours instead of a couple of weeks, and nobody said anything. Because everybody who watches CSI “anywhere” thinks that instant DNA results and access to everybody’s DNA in that city is in a fancy computer database along with fingerprints. If you watch any fictional cop show you see technology at use that (if it existed) would cost cash strapped departments millions of dollars. On TV they do autopsies using holographic images they can view from any angle. In one thriller two men exchanged their actual physical features like they’d exchange two-dollar masks. This is despite the fact that the actors had totally different voices, body types and facial bone structure, and they totally fooled people who’d known them for years. How many cops and criminals are that good an actor.

I use modern technology in my plots because––in a world of nanny cams available for a few dollars–– you can’t ignore it, but I have to admit a burning desire to write a book set in the time of scarce phone booths, mobsters who have to be found by their bosses, villains who can’t listen in on the good guys by merely aiming a laser at a window, can’t use GPS to monitor people’s movements from a distance, fire a rifle and kill someone 1500 yards away, make a bomb that can fit into a tube of lipstick, move around the country in private jets, hack into computers, and all the things that make life easier for all of us. I wanted to set a thriller in 1917 a while back––against the backdrop of a famous murder trial––but was informed that period thrillers didn’t sell. Truth is, I’d love to be able to set a thriller during the War Between the States one of these days.

For a long time we have been living in a world catering to instant gratification, and nothing proves that like our need for immediate communication. I have seen people out in the middle of nowhere take out a cell phone and freak out when they can’t get a signal. I have to admit, it’s odd not to be able to get a signal anywhere these days, and it’s getting to where the absence of a signal is very unusual even out here in the middle of nowhere. I only get irritated when I’m doing something important to me and I am interrupted by someone who basically just wants to break up their day by chit-chatting. I don’t mind being called by someone with something to say––especially when I want to hear what they have to say, but sometimes I, like old Bill Faulkner, resent being at the beck and call of…. Well you know.

“Hello, Clarisse…”

As part of my “Bouchercon week,” experience, a friend had arranged for me to tour the FBI Academy at Quantico. Maybe I’m alone in this, but ever since watching Jodie Foster run “The Yellow Brick Road” in Silence of the Lambs, I’ve been curious to see this training facility.

So I flew into DC a few days early. Spent the night in a hotel just outside the base that was apparently entirely populated by Marines in between tours of Iraq (and let me tell you how unnerving it is to step off an elevator into the lobby and have every eye in the room–and I do mean every one– swivel toward you, as if they’re waiting for someone to show up with an IED). I kept my hands in sight the entire time since they seemed extremely twitchy.)

Apparently deer can get used to pretty much anything…there was a shooting exercise going on less than 100 feet away and it was LOUD

Unfortunately according to my GPS the Academy didn’t exist, so thanks to directions scrawled on a napkin by th
e concierge I stumbled in the back gate of the complex. Two checkpoints, each with armed guards. I had one of those moments where I act like I’m doing something wrong even though I’m not (a terrible habit I developed somewhere) and got waved over both times for more intensive scrutiny. Forty-five minutes later I finally made it inside and was waiting in the lobby for the group I was latching on to, a contingent from the latest Sacramento “Citizen’s Academy.”

Habitrail City

The buildings themselves are fairly standard, that brown block style that was such a hit in the late sixties. There’s a strange, Habitrail feel to them since they’re all connected by windowed corridors. We wove through a few times, until I completely lost my sense of direction and couldn’t find my way back if I tried (this might have been intentional).

Driver Training, or “Look Ma- no hands!”

Like so many tours, it featured sparks of excitement and fascinating tidbits, separated by long periods of powerpoint presentations and minutaie during which even I, devoted FBI fanatic, had to fight to stay awake. There’s really only so much a person needs to know about J. Edgar Hoover.

But the tour of the Hostage Rescue Units training facility was amazing. Set inside a huge quonset hut, the entire interior (save for a narrow corridor running along the inside) is a giant maze composed of black padded walls. Sadly, no photos were allowed to be taken there, which struck me as overly cautious since the maze is changed on a regular basis (every room is composed of slats hung from metal beams). Bullet marks pock the walls: live fire drills are conducted here, with instructors walking along the top of the maze monitoring the progress. Suspended above the maze is a nearly full-size mock-up of an airplane, complete with dummies (some of whom appear to have taken a few hits; I’m guessing those trainees failed the course).

Hogan’s Alley

Another highlight (for me, at least) was Hogan’s Alley, the faux town constructed in the center of the compound. We marched into the fake pool hall, checked out the real/fake deli, and explored a seedy motel. Good times. Plus we got to watch some of the students go through their driver training, performing high speed weaves through the cones on the driving course. And let me tell you, you haven’t lived until you’ve shopped in the FBI gift store. Quantico onesies: who knew?

All in all, it was a thrill ride (with some boring bits). I considered a CIA Headquarters tour as well, but according to those who went it was mainly a tour of the CIA cafeteria (Eggplant espionage!)

Anyway, I made some new friends (see below) and got some excellent source material for the next book. Can‘t beat that.

The Name Game

By Joe Moore

Book titles are critical. It’s that first impression when a potential reader glances down at the new fiction table in the local bookstore. And even if you’ve got a great title, you hope the publisher’s art department doesn’t somehow screw it up with the cover art. I’ve seen books with good titles that were almost impossible to read from a distance. And others where the design was so busy, it gave me a headache.

When Lynn Sholes and I decided to collaborate on our first book, we used CORPUS CHRISTI for the working title during the three years it took to write. Since it was a thriller about cloning Christ, we thought using the Latin for Body of Christ was cleaver. But when we sent it off to our agent, she pointed out the error of our ways. Could be a travel guide to a city in Texas. Could be a novelization of a Broadway play running at the same time. So we changed it to THE ENOCHIAN PROPHECY, a brilliant title that no one could pronounce or spell. Our publisher wisely changed it to THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY which has stuck in all the foreign translations except German.

Book 2 had the working title of THE THIRD SECRET. Steve Berry released a thriller by the same name so our agent changed the title to THE LAST SECRET. So far, it has worked for the foreign publishers that have translated it, although we haven’t seen the German version yet.

Book 3 had a working title of INDIGO RUBY for the year it took to write. The title had a great deal of meaning for at least two people: Lynn and myself. Again, the publisher stepped in and wisely renamed it THE HADES PROJECT which is exactly what the book is about. Clever.

BLACK NEEDLES was what we called number 4 which was the name we gave the deadly retrovirus that formed the threat of the book. Cool title, but it really didn’t tell the reader anything about the story. Could be a book about a knitting club for witches. So the publisher finally settled on THE 731 LEGACY. The book involves the Japanese WWII biological warfare division called Unit 731 and how its legacy propels the story. OK, we agree that was a wise decision and makes sense.

The working title to our next one is THE PHOENIX APOSTLES. We’ll see if that makes it to print.

Sometimes it’s better to leave the titles to the marketing and sales department and just stick to writing the story.

So why are titles important? Paul McCartney’s working title of the Beatles classic “Yesterday” was “Scrambled Eggs.”

Have all your working titles made it to the cover of your book? If not, were you happy with the final version?

Dreams and your writing

Robert Louis Stevenson is said to have come up with the plot for Dr. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde during a dream.

I may never hatch the Great American Novel in a dream, but I recently discovered the importance of dreaming to my creative process.

I’ve always been an on-the-nose dreamer. There are few hidden messages in my dreams. If, in my day job, I’m trying to solve a gnarly problem related to the worldwide web, I will dream of battling a giant spider web (get it?). If in real life I’m trying to stop eating sugar, I’ll dream about diving into a pint of Chunky Monkey. And so on.

My dreams, while challenging, invariably end on an upbeat note. I may spend the night outwitting shotgun-toting bad guys, but somehow, the dream always ends with my escape. I’m quite the REM-state John McClane, with the requisite nine lives.

But then came the day when I temporarily stopped dreaming, thanks to the Happy Blue Pills. And all of a sudden, it became much harder to get the creative juices flowing. The words came more slowly. I had no energy for writing.
At the time, I had no idea what was causing my writer’s block. I was getting plenty of sleep, right?

Then one night, I forgot to take the sleeping pill. That night, I dreamed for the first time in weeks. And for the first time in weeks, I woke up thinking about my story. And I began to write.

Phew! It seemed miraculous. That was the morning I poured all the little blue pills down the garbage disposal.

I did a little research, and found little hard data to back me up on this, but my theory now is that nocturnal dreaming is essential to the creative process.

So I’d like to know from other writers and creative types: do you dream at night? A lot? Do dreams help you solve story problems directly, ever? Do you dream in color (which used to be considered the hallmark of creative people)?