About Kay DiBianca

Kay DiBianca is a former software developer and IT manager who retired to a life of mystery. She’s the award-winning author of three cozy mysteries, The Watch on the Fencepost, Dead Man’s Watch, and Time After Tyme. Connect with Kay on her website at https://kaydibianca.com.

Adventures in Reversion – Getting the Rights Back

Reversion, noun. the act of turning something the reverse way.

***

I recently received the rights back to my first novel, The Watch on the Fencepost. Since many writers either have gone through this process or will in the future, I thought it might be valuable to share my experience.

DISCLAIMER: This is not legal advice. It’s just a list of a few of the lessons I learned while navigating this new pathway in the writing journey.

***

First, let me say I was happy with the company that published my first book. The publisher was easy to work with, and I had fully intended to leave the book with them. For several reasons, though, my husband and I decided to publish the next books in the series independently through our Wordstar Publishing Company. So, in order to promote the series as a whole, I needed to have the rights to the first book.

Once I had met the obligations required by my contract with the publisher, I requested the reversion of the rights to me, and the publisher agreed. That was the easy part of this whole process.

Note: This is still a work in progress, but here’s a list of some of the things I’ve learned:

  • Cover – I had to get a new cover since the original one was licensed by the publishing company. No problem here – I wanted a new cover anyway.
  • ISBN – a new publisher requires a new ISBN.
  • Content – I didn’t change any of the story content. The only changes were to the Copyright page and the About the Author page. However, this is an opportunity for authors to make significant changes to the content if they like.
  • Formatting – Since the publisher had made a few changes to the manuscript after I turned it over to them, I didn’t have the latest copy on my laptop. I requested and received the latest copy from them and they sent me a PDF. I had to convert it to Word in order to work with it in Vellum. There were a few “gotchas” along the way that made this the most time-consuming part of the process.
  • Reviews – I wanted to retain all of the 200+ reviews the book had on Amazon, so I contacted KDP Support and Author Central to make sure I was doing everything needed to keep the reviews. Basically, they told me the title, author, and metadata in the new edition had to be exactly the same as in the old edition. They suggested I publish the new edition while the old one was still online so that they could be linked.
  • KDP requirements – I decided to publish on Amazon first. When I had all the files in place, I let my publisher know the plan and I published the ebook and paperback through KDP. Everything went well until KDP did the content review and discovered the content was like the old version of the book which was still live on Amazon. I supplied them with an email the publisher had sent me that verified he was returning the rights to me. Then they linked the new edition with the old one so that the reviews would appear on the new detail page. There are still a few issues left to be resolved, but the new Wordstar version is available and can be purchased on Amazon.
  • Other retailers – I also published, with varying degrees of success, to the other retail platforms: Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple Books, Google Play, and ingram Spark. As of today, there are still some wrinkles that need to be ironed out. The publisher has not yet unpublished the first edition, and a few other issues need to be addressed.
  • The Audiobook – This is still uncharted territory to me. I’ll have to work with Findaway Voices to have the rights transferred to me and to change the cover image. The audiobook has more than 250 reviews on Chirpbooks, and I hope to find a way to keep those.
  • Miscellaneous – If you decide to get your book rights back for a book that was traditionally  published, be sure to save all the information from the former version, including ASIN and ISBN.
  • Major lesson learned – Be ready to deal with unanticipated problems.

Like most other things in life, this has taken a lot longer than I thought it would. And I discovered different members of support staffs had different answers to my questions. At least KDP will talk to the customer. The other retailers would only work through email, and that slowed things down considerably.

All in all, the reversion process has moved ahead reasonably well, and I’m still optimistic that we can resolve the rest of the issues.

***

So TkZers: Have you gotten rights back to a previously published book? Do you have any insights or advice to add to this list?

***

In celebration of having gotten this far, The Watch on the Fencepost ebook is available on Amazon all week for 99¢. Click here to get your copy.

 

THE WATCH ON THE FENCEPOST – A PUZZLE OF A MYSTERY.

“I started it … and to my surprise, I couldn’t stop. Nice job!” – Will Shortz, New York times crossword puzzle editor and NPR Puzzlemaster.

 

 

How Did I Get Here?

When I sat down at my desk a few days ago, the room suddenly turned dark, and there was a loud buzzing sound. I realized I had entered a wormhole, and I was being transported back in time to a day several years ago.

* * *

I was running on a dirt trail in a park near my home and I was listening to an audiobook on my iPod Shuffle. The book was one of the Rabbi Small mysteries by Harry Kemelman, and I was enjoying the story. As I jogged by a fence and around a turn, a thought lit a fire in my brain. I could write a mystery as good as the one I was listening to! It would be fun to write a novel just to see what it would be like. I finished my run, returned home, showered and dressed. Then I sat down in a recliner in our living room with my computer on my lap and began to type.

* * *

The wormhole suddenly closed, and I was back at my desk, a relatively new, six-foot-long testimony to my dedication to this writing journey. Desk-reorg day is later in the week, so the desk is messy, piled with papers and post-it notes – reminders of upcoming events and to-dos I shouldn’t ignore.

Two whiteboards sit on the back of the desk, leaning against the wall with lists of books to read and others I’ve read and need to review. A map of the Hero’s Journey is magnetically tacked to one of the whiteboards along with a few inspirational sayings. Reminders to Make Haste Slowly, Be Intentional, Make It Count.

My writing calendar is just inside the middle drawer of the desk. A glance at the page tells me about my obligations this month for blog posts, book promotions, meetings, and everything else that’s writing-related.

The Windows 10 laptop in front of me on the desk houses dozens of directories containing information from branding to short stories, from newsletters to marketing graphs.  This is where I handle email, write articles, post to social media, create jpgs and pngs to market books and share thoughts on writing.

A second laptop, a Mac, sits on the desk’s pullout shelf to my left. It’s owned by the publishing company my husband and I formed in order to publish our own works. I use it to format and publish the final copies.

A third laptop, another Mac, stays on the bar in the kitchen where I can glance over an occasional news story while I eat breakfast. Scrivener lives on that Mac, and it accompanies me to my office recliner, along with a glass of sparkling water when I sit down to spend serious time on my WIP.

A list of writing goals is taped to the back of my office door so I see it every time I close the door to begin work.

Bookshelves against the wall next to my recliner are filled with books on the craft of writing, constant reminders of how much I still have to learn. The bottom shelf contains copies of my three published novels as well as my husband’s recently published debut novel. Three-ring binders contain pages of notes on each of my books as well as several works-in-progress.

Other bookshelves in my office and throughout the house contain favorite tomes. (I really should spend some time reorganizing so I don’t have to go on safari just to find what I’m looking for.)

* * *

How did I get here? I was going to write just one novel. It was going to be fun, an act of exploration, like climbing a mountain. Do it once for the experience.

But then I discovered the craft and the joy of writing.

So TKZers: When did you decide to write that first novel? How did you get to the present moment? Were you surprised by the journey? Are you going to stay the course?

Happy Independence Day!

 

“When in the course of human events, …”

I’m not a scholar of state papers, but I’ve heard it said the American Declaration of Independence is one of the most beautifully written of such documents. I read it again over the weekend and reminded myself of its eloquence and substance.

***

I also looked up the definition of the word “independence” in dictionary.com. Here’s what it had to say:

Independence. noun. freedom from the control, influence, support, aid, or the like, of others.

Sounds wonderful, right? But it also means the independent person or entity must take control of their own future. It’s their responsibility.

And that brings me to publishing.

***

My first novel was traditionally published. In retrospect, I think that was an excellent idea since I knew so little of what it took to publish a book. The publisher engaged a cover artist, got the ISBN, registered with the Library of Congress, arranged for the final edits, formatted the book, and did all the other jobs necessary to have it made available on retail sites. If I had tried to do all those things myself, it would have been a much longer process.

My publisher was very supportive, and I intended to publish the other novels in the series with them. However, they changed their contract, and the new one had some issues I didn’t care for. Negotiations solved some, but not all, of the problems, so my husband and I decided I should look at the possibility of going indie. James Scott Bell’s book How to Make a Living as a Writer was a wonderful resource and gave me the information and reassurance I needed to make the switch.

***

Independent publishing is great. I love being 100% responsible for the content and presentation of my books, and I love having control of my products and following their performance on a day-to-day basis. However, the learning curve was steep and the time commitment continues to be large. I have to cover all the bases, including:

  • Engaging development and line/copy editors (I had always done this, so it’s not an add-on.)
  • Having the final manuscript professionally proofread
  • Getting the ISBN
  • Establishing the prices
  • Registering the copyright
  • Registering with the Library of Congress
  • Arranging for the front and back covers
  • Formatting the content
  • Distributing to various platforms including Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Apple Books, Kobo, Google Play, and Ingram Spark.

If there’s an audio book, I arrange for the narration, approve each chapter, and finalize the audio with Findaway Voices.

I also maintain the financials for our publishing company, Wordstar Publishing, LLC. I write the year-end reports, and work with our accountant to file taxes.

Is it worth it? I really do like the independence. However, I’d like to offload some of the administrative tasks, so I’m thinking of giving Draft2Digital a try to handle the distribution. That would give me more time for writing at a small cost.

Bottom line: I’m glad I went independent.

So TKZers: What are your thoughts on independence? If you’re an indie author, is it worth the extra effort? Do you pass off some of the tasks to others? If you’re traditionally published, have you ever considered going indie?

Theory of Blueberries

I’m not usually a fan of fitness magazines, but I found myself in a waiting room once before the era of cellphones, and I had forgotten to bring a book. I had to decide between twiddling my thumbs, staring off into space, or reading one of the magazines on the table next to me.

I picked up the magazine that was on top of the stack, which happened to be about fitness. I flipped through it and found an interesting article. It was all about the stuff you have to do to stay fit. You’ve seen the list: drink gallons of water every day, run thousands of miles, eat only organically grown super foods…  One could grow old just reading the list.

But the kicker was the conclusion of the piece. The author noted that most people can’t do everything on the list perfectly. As a matter of fact, many people read about all the things they need to do and become frustrated. They think, I can’t do all this stuff, and they give up.

But the article advised if you can’t do everything, at least do something. Their premise was to start small, then add to your fitness regimen as you get used to each step. Their suggestion was to throw a handful of blueberries on your cereal each morning. Blueberries have tremendous antioxidant properties and are very beneficial to one’s health. I read the following in an article about antioxidants on WebMD.com:

Wild blueberries are the winner overall. Just one cup has 13,427 total antioxidants – vitamins A & C, plus flavonoids (a type of antioxidant) like querticin and anthocyanidin. That’s about 10 times the USDA’s recommendation, in just one cup! Cultivated blueberries have 9,019 per cup and are equally vitamin-rich.

The theory of blueberries made sense to me. Even though I read that article years ago, I still drop a handful of blueberries on my oatmeal every morning.

* * *

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how to make a comparison between getting physically fit and getting fit as an author. There’s a lot to this writing business. I’ve heard people return from writers’ conferences feeling overwhelmed by all the information they’ve been trying to absorb: plotting, characterization, self-editing, point-of-view, editors, agents, self-publishing, just to name a few.

A new author may feel he/she has to incorporate every aspect of good writing in order to write that first novel, and may be too intimidated to try. “There’s no way I can do all that,” she says, and gives up.

But maybe there’s a blueberry way for writers to ramp up to speed. If new authors tackle one or two of the basics, they could begin to grow their skill and confidence. With time and attention to the craft, their writerly fitness would make them the Chuck Norrises of the literary community.

So TKZers: If you had to choose one or two things for new authors to concentrate on as they begin their writing adventure, what would you suggest?

Book Marketing Images & Videos

Stories are all about words, but marketing seems to be all about images.

Back in 2019, Sue Coletta posted a great article about creating free and easy book marketing images, and I thought this would be a good time to revisit the subject and add some thoughts about video marketing.

TEXT VS. IMAGE VS. VIDEO

The social media platform I post to most often is Twitter. So how much more effective are images than text for marketing books on Twitter? Socialmediatoday.com posted an article in 2016 that compared the effectiveness of static images with text posts. According to that article, tweets with images generate 3X more engagement than basic text updates. That’s a fairly old article, but I’ve read similar statistics on other sites recently.

EASY IMAGES

In Sue’s article, she mentioned DIY Book Covers, a free site where an author can easily create any number of beautiful 3D images in just a few minutes. All you need is an image of the front cover of your book. If the final image shows the spine (as mine does below), you have to upload an image of the spine separately.

Sue also mentioned several sites where you can find free images to use as background material. I tend to use Unsplash.com. When I was asked to guest post on the Southern Writers Magazine Suite-T blog, I found this image (Photo by Thimo van Leeuwen on Unsplash):

Then all I had to do was paste my book image onto the background:

I normally use Corel’s Paintshop Pro for images, but the picture above was created using Microsoft’s Powerpoint and exported as a jpg.

Powerpoint presentations are familiar to many of us who created or sat through a semi-infinite number of them in our previous lives. More than a few of those were just bullet-point slides outlining schedules or goals or whatever. But Powerpoint is capable of much more.

Powerpoint is a fast and easy way to create an image and save it as a jpg (like the one above), png, or any one of a number of formats. If you have Microsoft Office on your laptop, it’s likely you have Powerpoint. (I believe all Microsoft Office installations include Powerpoint now.)

EASY POWERPOINT VIDEOS

Back to that Socialmedia.com article about images vs. text. They also commented on the value of video, stating tweets with video generate 9X more engagement than basic text updates.

Now that’s worth paying attention to.

Disclaimer: I’m not an expert in this area. I’m using Powerpoint to create videos because I’m familiar with it, and it’s already on my laptop. Many of you may have expertise in more sophisticated tools for video marketing, and I hope you’ll share that in the comments.

With Powerpoint, you can add background, text, pictures, and even audio, animate different parts, then export it as an mp4.

For example, my first novel featured a young woman training for a marathon. I wanted to connect with the running community, so here’s a simple 12-second video I created on one slide to advertise the book. There’s no audio on this one. (It’s my understanding that most people watch social media videos with the sound muted.) Watch the video, then I’ll tell you how I created it.

This didn’t take long to create. The Powerpoint slide consists of five elements on a gradient background. You can see the three text boxes and two images that I outlined below.

a) The text at the top left of the image and the silhouette of the girl running appear when the video begins. b) The text “Forever” appears a few seconds later. c) The image of the books and the text “The Watch on the Fencepost” were grouped together so they would appear at the same time a few seconds after “Forever.”

Here’s a screenshot of the slide as I was working on it. I apologize for the poor resolution.

You can see the Animation tab (circled in blue) at the top of the screen has been chosen, and the Animation Pane (right side of the screen, also circled in blue) has been opened. Choosing an element on the slide places it in the animation pane where you can edit its entry effect and timing.

There are two items in the Animation Pane. The first one refers to the “Forever” text box. The animation details instruct the entry to fade in several seconds after the video begins.

The second item in the Animation Pane refers to the group of the book image and title at the bottom. Again, the entry effect is “fade in” a couple of seconds after the previous element.

***

There are lots of different effects you can create. For example, my third novel has a number of light-hearted, humorous scenes, so I wanted to do something fun for its launch. Here’s a 24-second video (no audio) that was created on one Powerpoint slide:

***

And finally, here’s a 28-second video (this one has audio) illustrating the puzzle nature of my cozy mystery series. (The audio reminded me of a watch ticking.)

One bit of advice to save you some time: If you’re going to upload to Twitter, set the aspect ratio in Powerpoint to Standard (4:3). When you export to video, use the Medium File Size and Moderate Quality (960X720). Twitter doesn’t like the larger, higher quality videos.

Is it worth the time and effort to build a video that you may only post once or twice? Like so many other things in life, it depends. I enjoy making the videos, so it’s worth it for me. Although I’ve noticed a small uptick in sales after a video posts, I don’t know that it’s terribly significant. However, I’m all for anything that advertises my books in a way that will capture a reader’s attention and provide them with a few seconds of entertainment.

Besides, it’s another creative outlet.

As I said above, I’m not an expert at this. Those of you who have more experience and knowledge, please offer your own suggestions in the comments below.

***

So TKZers: Do you use images and/or videos to advertise your books? What tools do you use? What platforms do you post to?

Running and Writing and Fear

There had been no moon that night, and at 5:30 a.m. on a cold November morning, the sun hadn’t yet graced the horizon with its first rays. Some people might find such darkness unsettling, but running in the early morning before leaving for work was preparation time for me – a good way to get my gray cells ready to meet the challenges of the day.

After a quick cup of coffee and slice of toast, I stepped out of the front door into the black void, looking forward to three-miles through residential neighborhoods that I had run hundreds of times before. So often, in fact, that I was comfortable running in almost complete darkness, aided only by the small circles of light the streetlamps dropped onto the asphalt, punctuating my path, each one providing just enough light to get to the next.

The silence was profound. There were no cars and no whirring air conditioners. Even the birds were asleep. The only sounds were the regular thump-thump of my Sauconys on the pavement and my frosty breaths accompanying the beats.

I heard the dog before I saw him. An explosion of furious barking off to my left split the air and startled me to a dead halt. I could hear his paws slapping the dry leaves as he charged over the lawn, and I knew he was running right at me.

Since I had never encountered any dogs on my morning runs, my first thought was that a mongrel must have wandered into the neighborhood overnight and taken refuge under one of the bushes next to the large house set back from the street.  Maybe I had disturbed his rest and he was going to punish me.

It’s funny, the way your brain reacts under extremely stressful conditions. It’s not like the usual problem-solving process. You know, gosh, there’s a savage dog getting ready to attack me. Maybe I should just sit down here on the curb and write out all my options on how I can defend myself. Then I can prioritize them and choose the best one for me.

No. My brain basically transformed into a mode previously unknown. I didn’t think “fight or flight.” I don’t remember feeling the things you read about when someone is in a dangerous situation, like the hair on the back of my neck going up or my heartbeat racing. I was frozen to the spot, and my singular thought was how to defeat the monster.

The only weapon I was carrying was a handkerchief.

I don’t know much about dogs, so I don’t know what kind he was. But when he came into view, his appearance fully reflected his fury. The street lights glinted off a solid black coat, and he was big. Real big.

When he got to within five or ten feet of me, he abruptly stopped, and we stood there staring at each other. Well, actually I was staring at him. He was barking, snarling, and looking like a human-destroying machine. But he wasn’t moving toward me anymore, so maybe I had a chance after all, and my brain switched back to problem-solving.

None of the options looked particularly good. a) I couldn’t move forward because he was in my way, b) I was afraid to start backing up. He might think I was some kind of prey trying to flee and that would prompt him to attack, or c) The only viable option was to stand still and hope someone would happen by before the beast decided to take matters into his own paws. Not a great alternative, but I wasn’t concerned about a happy experience – just one I would survive.

Then I heard a sound I had never previously associated with comfort. It was the grind of a garage door opener from the house to my left. Since the garage door was perpendicular to the street, I couldn’t see in, but the light shone through the opening as the door lifted. I saw a man step out and look in my direction.

I was trying to find my voice to ask for his help when he called out, “Stop that racket, Killer. Come here.” (He didn’t actually call the dog “Killer.” I just made that up. I don’t remember what the real name was.)

Killer stopped his furious clamor, turned, and obediently trotted back to his master. The man gave me one of those little waves people do when they’re apologetically brushing you off. “Sorry about that,” he called out.

I swallowed the only response I could think of, knowing I would regret the use of those words for the rest of my life, and continued my journey, grateful that I hadn’t been torn to pieces and strewn all over Kirby Road. And there was good news: my heart and lungs got more than a three-mile workout that morning.

EPILOGUE: I found a sturdy little stick that I ran with after that. I also bought a whistle and attached it to the lanyard I wore, ready to fight the monsters with high-pitched sound waves if one of them ever came near me again. I ran those streets many more times and never encountered another dog. (There were a few strange humans, but nothing dangerous.)

After I retired, I didn’t have the need to get up at 5:00 a.m. anymore, so I gave up early morning jogs. And I no longer run on city streets. I prefer the treadmill, the track, or a large, open park near our home.

I think about Killer now and then. I hope he’s well and living inside a fenced yard.

So TKZers: How do you describe fear in your stories? Do your characters faint, run, or stand and fight? What advice would you give authors about how to depict a character’s reaction to danger?

Iron Sharpens Iron — The Wright Brothers

“Before the Wright Brothers, no one working in aviation did anything fundamentally correct. Since the Wright Brothers, no one has done anything fundamentally different.”

– Darrel Collins, US Park Service, Kitty Hawk National Historic Park

* * *

The incredible story of the Wright brothers is well known to all elementary school students. At least it used to be. Two men, neither of whom had completed high school, solved a problem that had been around since the time of Icarus. A problem so complex that it had befuddled some of the best engineers and scientists for centuries — the invention of controlled, powered flight.

How did they do it?

A March 2020 article in Scientific American aimed to answer that question:

Aviation pioneer Octave Chanute predicted in a speech in 1890 that “no one man” was likely to possess the imagination, mechanical acuity, mathematical capability and fundraising skill necessary to solve the problem of flight. “It is probably because the working out of a complete invention requires so great a variety of talent,” Chanute said, “that progress has been so slow.”

Chanute was correct. It did take more than one person to solve the problem of flight. It took two. Working together to solve the hundreds of issues that stood in the way of the first flight, the Wright brothers proved to be the perfect team, combining intellectual curiosity with mechanical expertise, hard work, and dogged determination to find the solution.

But in addition to all the natural talent and discipline, the brothers had another attribute that may have been the catalyst: they argued with each other.

But wait. Isn’t argument always bad? Apparently not.

The Wright brothers’ respect for each other made it possible to work together and argue every aspect of the project without having it affect their personal relationship. This may have been the deciding factor in their success.

Back to Scientific American:

They often argued about the technical specifications of their craft late into the night. After one particularly heated argument about the proper construction of the propellers, they found themselves in the ridiculous situation of each having been converted to the other’s original position in the argument, with no more agreement than when the discussion began. They argued because they sought truth, not because one brother desired to win a victory over the other.

The Wright brothers achieved their remarkable success because of their arguments, not in spite of them. I think there’s a lesson here for all of us.

* * *

I’ve had the good fortune to have worked with software development teams to design several systems. I’ve found the best teamwork is enabled when team members leave their egos at the door and engage in robust discussion about how to get the job done. Ideas are floated and team members are encouraged to poke holes in them and find alternate solutions to problems. Disagreeing without being disagreeable is the goal.

* * *

How does this apply to writing? Authors often find themselves on the receiving end of criticism and rejection. Feedback from editors, agents, critique partners, and even spouses can feel like cold water thrown on a writer’s best effort. And then there’s the occasional less-than-glowing review posted after the book is published. But sometimes even the harshest criticism given in a positive way will culminate in a better product and a better writer.

“Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” –Proverbs 27:17

* * *

So TKZers: How do you handle criticism? Do you see it as “iron sharpens iron”? What advice would you offer new authors on the subject?

 

TIME AFTER TYME

Murder with a dash of humor

 

Second Chances and Parallel Plots

I recently re-watched the movie Seabiscuit, a film adaptation of Seabiscuit: An American Legend (1999) by Laura Hillenbrand. I had seen the movie several years before I picked up a keyboard with the intention of writing my own novels, but seeing the story for the second time gave me a chance to analyze it from a writer’s perspective.

* * *

SECOND CHANCES

The movie is set in 1930’s depression-era America, a time when many people lost everything except their longing for a second chance at life. The plot follows four independent characters who had suffered in different ways, but whose paths converge to result in a surprising accomplishment.

AND PARALLEL PLOTS

Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) was a wealthy and powerful automobile magnate, but the loss of his only child in an automobile accident destroyed his marriage. On a trip to Mexico with several friends, Howard became interested in horse-racing, though he knew little about the sport.

Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) was an over-the-hill trainer known for his unusual methods and devotion to rehabilitating injured animals. He uttered a crucial line in the film, “You know, you don’t throw a whole life away just ’cause he’s banged up a little.” Although Smith was referring to a horse, the quote clearly referred to all the main characters.

Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire) was a young man from an educated family whose parents were ruined by the depression. Bitter and angry, Pollard’s love of horses pushed him into becoming a jockey even though he was considered too big for the sport.

Seabiscuit (10 different horses played the role of Seabiscuit in the film) was a grandson of the great Man o’ War, but hadn’t amounted to much as a race horse. He was considered lazy and untrainable by those who tried to turn him into a winner. Besides, he was small for a thoroughbred. Hardly the stuff of champions

COMING TOGETHER

The four characters lived in parallel universes until Howard considered getting into the horse-racing business. Deciding against the well-known, successful trainers, Howard hired Tom Smith, and Smith, in turn, opted for the unlikely Seabiscuit as the horse to train. Then he went even further afield when he hired Pollard as the jockey. This was a team of misfits, all looking in different ways for a second chance at life. As Howard explains to a crowd in a memorable scene: “The horse is too small, the jockey too big, the trainer too old, and I’m too dumb to know the difference.”

You can see where this is going. Seabiscuit began to win races, and soon the horse was heralded as the best racehorse on the west coast. But the real horse-racing establishment was housed in the eastern United States. And it was there that the magnificent stallion War Admiral reined supreme. (Pun intended.)

In 1937, War Admiral won the Triple Crown, only the fourth horse do so, and was also named “Horse of the Year.” A majestic animal, War Admiral inspired awe in any who witnessed his races. So, of course, Charles Howard wanted to match his upstart steed against the best.

Samuel Riddle, the owner of War Admiral, had no interest in committing his champion to a head-to-head contest with Seabiscuit. He had nothing to gain and everything to lose. But Charles Howard took his message to the masses in 1938, and convinced people who were themselves yearning for a second chance at life to see a match race through the lens of the underdog. Howard’s strategy worked, and Riddle finally agreed to the match race, though on the terms that it had to be run on War Admiral’s home track.

The “Match of the Century” was held on November 1, 1938. According to the Wikipedia entry on Seabiscuit, 40,000 people showed up at Pimlico for the race and another 40 million listened to it on the radio! Since Pollard was still recovering from a broken leg suffered in a training accident, George Woolf, a well-known jockey and friend of Pollard’s, was aboard Seabiscuit for the showdown.

THE RACE

Knowing War Admiral liked to go immediately to the front, Smith’s strategy was for Seabiscuit to jump out to an early lead and set the pace, which he did. Smith also instructed Woolf to let War Admiral catch up in the backstretch, which he also did. Running shoulder-to-shoulder, the two horses rounded the final turn.

In a charming bit of moviedom that I doubt actually happened, George Woolf turned to the jockey astride War Admiral as the horses entered the homestretch and said, “So long, Charlie.” Then Seabiscuit pulled away and won the race by four lengths.

* * *

So TKZers: What do you think of the use of parallel plots? Have you used parallel plots in your novels? Do you ever knock your main characters down and give them a second chance at success? Have you ever used both parallel plots and second chances in the same story?

* * *

Two teams of female sleuths follow parallel plot lines to decipher the clues and discover a killer. But the only thing waiting at the finish line is more danger.

Time After Tyme

 

 

The History of Mystery

“It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.” – Proverbs 25:2

“Attempt the end, and never stand to doubt. Nothing’s so hard but search will find it out.” — Robert Herrick

* * *

Since all human beings (not just kings) love to figure things out, I thought the Kill Zone Blog might be a good place to examine the history of the sleuthing mystery genre. A look back in time may even give us clues to facilitate our own successes. So grab your flashlights and let’s enter the dark and web-encrusted chambers of crime. The game’s afoot!

* * *

The format of a mystery novel is straightforward. The story usually begins with a crime being committed. It can be a murder, a suspicious death, a disappearance, even a theft. The rest of the story involves the search for the truth and ends with answers to the questions: who committed the crime, how, and why.

Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) is generally considered to be the first modern murder mystery, and its detective, Auguste C. Dupin, the first fictional detective. There was no monkey business in Dupin’s analysis of the horrific crime and identification of the murderer.

Wilkie Collins was a contemporary of Charles Dickens and is credited with the first novel-length mystery, The Woman in White (1859). The book doesn’t just stop at murder – it also touches on insanity, social stratification, false identity, and a few other themes. Collins considered the book his best work and instructed that the phrase “Author of The Woman in White” be inscribed on his tombstone. He also lays claim to the first detective novel, The Moonstone (1868).

Arthur Conan Doyle published A Study in Scarlet, the first story featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, in 1887. In total, Doyle wrote 56 short stories and four novels featuring the famous detective. When he killed off Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem (1893), the public outcry was so severe, Doyle had to bring him back in later works.

 

Maurice Leblanc began a mystery series in 1905  featuring the gentleman thief Arsene Lupin, a character who’s been described as a French version of Sherlock Holmes. In all, Leblanc wrote 17 novels and 39 novellas with Lupin as hero. Check out Joe Hartlaub’s excellent blog post about the books and recent TV series based on Leblanc’s hero.

G.K. Chesterton is credited with creating the cozy mystery genre with a series of 53 short stories begun in 1910 featuring the Roman Catholic priest and amateur detective, Father Brown, who uses his intuitive understanding of human nature to solve crimes. The character was so popular, it inspired the Father Brown TV series that began in 2013.

 

The Thirty-nine Steps (1915) by Scottish author John Buchan was the first of five novels featuring Richard Hannay. a man on the run who had been unjustly accused of murder. There are a couple of movie versions of The Thirty-nine Steps, but my favorite is the 1935 Hitchcock film starring Robert Donat.

 

Cozy mysteries became very popular in the 1920’s and 30’s with several great British authors. Agatha Christie’s first novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), featured Hercule Poirot, a sleuth who used his “little gray cells” to solve mysteries. Poirot showed up in 33 novels and over 50 short stories. (I will have much more to say about Dame Agatha in a future post.)

 

Dorothy Sayers introduced her own hero, the elegant but troubled Lord Peter Wimsey, in her 1923 novel Whose Body.  Sayers wrote 11 novels in the Lord Peter Wimsey series.

 

 

Younger readers joined the mystery caravan with the Hardy Boys series which began with The Tower Treasure in 1927. Several authors contributed under the collective pseudonym Franklin W. Dixon.

 

The Nancy Drew series entered the parade in 1930 with The Secret of the Old Clock. Again, several authors contributed under the collective pseudonym Carolyn Keene. Many of us credit the Nancy Drew books with our own interest in creating mystery stories.

 

Hardboiled detective fiction became popular in the 1920’s and extended through the 20th century. Dashiel Hammett became famous for his character Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1929). He also created the sophisticated couple Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man (1933). Strangely, Hammett wrote his final novel more than 25 years before his death. Why he stopped writing fiction is something of a mystery in itself.

Raymond Chandler was forty-four years old when he began his journey as an author. His first novel, The Big Sleep (1939), introduced the world to private detective Philip Marlowe. In addition to his short stories, Chandler wrote seven novels, all with Marlowe as the hero. His prose is widely admired and his use of similes is famous. Here’s an example from The Big Sleep: “The General spoke again, slowly, using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work showgirl uses her last good pair of stockings.”

So that completes this survey of the history of mystery. I selected these twelve examples from articles about the subject on various websites including biblio.com and wikipedia.com. Did you notice anything interesting about this list? Almost all of the wildly successful mysteries are series. Food for thought.

* * *

Back to our original question: Why do people love mysteries so much? Maybe it’s because a mystery novel is an example of mankind’s search for truth pared down to its most elementary format and delivered in a 6X9 inch package. The reader knows he/she will be satisfied at the end of the book with the answers of who, how, and why. And justice will be served. That’s a lot to accomplish in just a few hours of reading!

* * *

So TKZers: What is your favorite mystery novel? And who is your favorite mystery novelist? What books or authors would you add to my list?

 

Running and Writing – The 800-meter Novel

“Pace doesn’t mean speed; it means the right speed.” – Reginald Hill

Some people think the 800-meter race is the hardest track event to run. Why? Because the race is twice around the track which equates to roughly a half-mile. Pace is the key. There’s a tendency to run the first lap too fast and run out of steam on the second lap. On the other hand, running the first lap too slow could mean falling so far behind the leaders that you can’t catch up. Each runner has to find their own pace within the field to run their best time. Can we apply this knowledge to writing a novel?

One of the most famous 800-meter races of all time was the 1972 Olympic final in Munich, West Germany. Eight world-class runners toed the starting lines. The favorite was Yevhen Arzhanov of the Soviet Union who had won every race he had entered for the previous three years.

The lone American in the race was Dave Wottle. Although Wottle had won the U.S. Olympic Trials race, he suffered injuries prior to the Olympic Games, and there was some question about his fitness. Here’s a two-minute video of the race. Arzhanov is wearing a red shirt and is in Lane One. You can easily spot Wottle – he’s the one wearing the golf hat.

***

Several weeks ago, Reavis Wortham wrote a blog post on pacing within a story. I’d like to explore the subject further by mapping Wottle’s race to a novel format. We’ll make Dave Wottle the protagonist in our story. Although I’m sure Yevhen Arzhanov is a very nice man, he’s going to be our antagonist for the purposes of this post. All the others are secondary characters in the story.

I suppose the inciting incident in this story is the start of the race. The gun goes off, and seven of the runners fly around the first turn.

My husband and I heard Dave Wottle talk about that race years later. He said he was surprised at how fast the other runners went out, and he was afraid he wasn’t up to the task. (Refusing the call?) Wottle could have stepped off the track after the first turn, claiming injury, and would have avoided disappointing his friends and family at home. But despite what he thought was a poor performance at the start, he decided to answer the call.

The backstretch, like the middle section of a novel, is usually not the most interesting part of the race. But in this race, there’s a lot of pushing and shoving going on in the first two hundred meters that focuses our attention on the secondary characters leading the race. At the same time, our antagonist, the favorite Arzhanov, slips back into anonymity at the middle of the pack.

As they come around the turn to complete the first lap, Wottle is still trailing. Running in last place at the midpoint of an Olympic final doesn’t bode well for our hero. Wottle must have asked himself if it was worth the pain to keep trying.

Down the backstretch for the second time, the tension ramps up as the competitors bunch up and jockey for position. Wottle moves ahead of a couple of runners. Now our attention shifts to Arzhanov as he takes off like a bullet to pass the leaders.

The race is now a 200-meter sprint. The finish line is in sight. The runners accelerate down the homestretch. The crowd senses the drama. Everyone yells for their favorite.

Our hero starts to pick off runners one at a time. It’s like figuring out clues in a mystery – with each new insight, he moves one step closer to catching the bad guy.

The tension is palpable as they approach the climax of the race. When Arzhanov realizes how close Wottle is to him, it’s too late to do anything other than fling himself forward, hoping to cross the finish line first, but Wottle clips his opponent at the line to win by three hundredths of a second.

In a mystery, the criminal always makes a mistake. In my book Dead Man’s Watch, the killer takes the watch off his victim, thinking no one could ever trace it to him. In the 1972 Olympic 800-meter race, Arzhanov started his finishing kick too soon, thinking no one would catch him. Both were wrong.

Maybe we can add a corollary to Reginald Hill’s maxim:

Writing a novel isn’t about producing words. It’s about producing the right words at the right pace.

***

So TKZers: How do you handle pace? Do you make your protagonist suffer an almost-certain defeat before finding that fire within? How do you prevent a sagging middle section? Do you pick it up in the last chapters heading to the climactic scene? What advice do you have about setting the right pace in novel-writing?

***

 

The Watch Series of cozy mysteries

Watches that tell more than the time.