A Pick-Up, a Cold One, and You

Note: TKZ is delighted today to welcome guest blogger Camille Minichino, author of The Periodic Table Mysteries.

I grew up on the East Coast, about as far from cowboys as you could get. In my neighborhood the Columbus Day parade band played the march from Aida or the drinking song from La Traviata. So what if many of them were goons—they were goons with classical taste.

So how come the satellite radio system in my car is set to Willie’s Roadhouse, where Willie Nelson and his friends tell their sad, tragic stories with steel guitars and nasal tones?

I love country music.

How did that happen? I don’t drink. I’m too lame to get into a pick-up. I hate the outdoors, with all that dirt and creepy bugs. I barely tolerate living in San Francisco, too far west of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My first rodeo was also my last.

But I sing passionately along with Wynn Stewart: I bought the shoes that just walked out on me.

I’m often asked to explain it. My brother-in-law, a real life dude rancher in his youth, asks me often, as if he considers me unworthy to blend my voice with Patsy Cline’s.

I‘ve got your picture; she’s got you, I twang out.

There are limitless possibilities for backstory in that line, and in this early Willie hit: Hello, walls. How’d things go for you today?

It’s like flash fiction. And that’s it in a nutshell. Or cowboy hat. Country music lyrics have everything a writer could ask for. It’s grand opera without the libretto.

You want PLOT? Country music gives you revenge, big time. What better inspiration for a crime fiction writer?

Take Waylon Jennings: Well, I hope that the train,
 From Caribou Maine, 
runs over your new love affair. And Miranda Lambert: His fist is big, but my gun’s bigger; He’ll find out when I pull the trigger.

You want CHARACTERS? Country music has the saddest of the sad, the meanest of the mean—ornery sheriffs, jailbirds, a busted-flat girl named Bobby McGee, and a boy named Sue. 

Country characters can be the cruel: How Can I Miss You if You Won’t Go Away? Who doesn’t need Travis Tritt at least once a day: Here’s a quarter, call someone who cares.

The Oak Ridge Boys give us an expansive image: Gonna take the Mississippi, the Monongahela, and the Ohio; gonna take a lot of river to wash these blues away.

You want more METAPHORS? Here’s a gosh durn winner, my favorite, from Johnny Cash’s Flushed from the Bathroom of your Heart:

On the river of your plans I’m up the creek;
Up the elevator of your future I’ve been shafted;
On the calendar of your events I’m last week.

Ouch! My poor achey breaky heart!

Unlike the popular music when I was growing up, country music isn’t slave to cliché rhymes, like moon-June-spoon, or true-blue-you.

Instead, country gives us Conway Twitty’s tongue-twister, When we said I do, we really did, but now you don’t.

Okay, it’s not all lyrical.

Do you get inspired by music? Is your taste classier than mine?

Camille Minichino is a retired physicist turned writer, the author of The Periodic Table Mysteries. Her akas are Margaret Grace (The Miniature Mysteries) and Ada Madison (The Professor Sophie Knowles Mysteries). The first chapter of ‘The Square Root of Murder,” debuting July 2011 is on her website: http://www.minichino.com

Title Trauma, Part Trois

Recently, both Joe and John have been kind enough to share their title traumas. Funny how these things seem to go around, it’s like lice in a schoolyard. I thought I’d seize the opportunity to discuss what’s been happening in my neck of the woods.

More of the same, sadly. A few weeks ago my new editor (which bears discussion in a later post, the revolving door aspect to the editor/author relationship these days) announced that she no longer liked the title for my next book. Neither did anyone else at the publishing house, apparently. The words “it induced grimaces at the editorial meeting” were mentioned. She gently suggested that they would, in fact, much prefer a new title. Ideally in a week or less.

Now, I’m already up against a killer deadline with this book. I need a finished draft by January 1st, which means I’ll ideally finish my extremely rough, nightmarish, barely-legible draft by December 1st, then spend the next four weeks frantically trying to fill in all the bracketed spaces marked “physics stuff.” (Sadly, I am not kidding about this. Since nuclear physics has never been my strong suit, and the contract negotiations dragged on interminably, I was unable to devote much time to research prior to starting the book. So “physics stuff” it is, until I figure out exactly what I need to ask my wonderful, kind, and knowledgeable friend Camille Minichino during the editing process.) At some point in there, I’m presumably expected to celebrate the holidays, too, with everything that entails.

Facing a grueling schedule like that, when I’m trying to crank out 10 pages a day, minimum, the last thing I wanted to think about is coming up with a new title. And as John said, you become attached to titles, develop a certain affinity for them. I’d already changed the working title once, from “K & R” (which stands for Kidnap & Ransom) to “Tiger Game,” something my agent and I settled on after long consideration. And I thought, all things considered, it was a solid title for a thriller. Paired with good cover art, possibly a great one.

But no: the publishing house had decided that “Tiger Game” simply would not do. New title, please. Oh, and by the way, we’d really like it to be something powerful, with a lot of punch. But not something that’s been done to death. So please steer clear of “War and Peace” and it’s ilk.

Yikes. Part of the problem was that my previous two book titles derived largely from their settings. Both took place in small, relatively-contained locales. I knew the titles before writing a word of either story, and no one ever complained. In fact, they loved “Boneyard” so much that the main comment has been, “Can’t you come up with something more like “Boneyard?”

The new book is a bit of a departure for me, however, in that it jumps around the country, from San Francisco to New York to San Antonio, and the story involves everything from skinheads to border crossings to dirty bombs. Not exactly something that lends itself to pithiness.

So I did what I could. I canvassed my friends. Who are lovely people, but as it turns out, not so good in the title department. Offerings included “Watch Your Back!” and “The Obama Project,” which, as my book has nothing whatsoever to do with the President-elect, I chalked up to pre-election day exuberance. “Bungee Jumpin” was also mentioned, although there are neither bungees nor jumping anywhere in the storyline.

Thrown back on my own resources, I rounded up the usual suspects. I scoured a 181 page book of gang slang terminology, which produced such gems as “Diamond Shine” and “Thunder and Rain.” I searched the web for nuclear terms, eliciting “Top Off” and “Kill Radius.” I pored over quotes from militia members and other extremists, and (oddly enough) while following this vein skimmed through speeches of our forefathers. Books of poems were opened, then shut in frustration. I sent email after email to my editor with potential titles, over 100 in all. “Dirty Chaos,” sounded too negative. “Invictus” was too esoteric. “The Patriot Project” generated a ripple of excitement, until it was shot down by higher-ups.

Things started to take a grim turn indeed. There was talk of postponing the book launch, which until then had been scheduled for November ’09. Which was not necessarily the worst thing in the world: when it comes to a book purchase most people are swayed by the title and the accompanying cover. So if it came down to going to market with a title we were lukewarm about, or waiting for inspiration to strike, I was all for waiting, The question was, if that happened, when would I get on the calendar? A crime fiction author wants their books to come out yearly, ideally around the same time every year. We were already going to miss that window with a November release date, but if forced to wait until 2010…

It was stressful, to say the least. I spent every spare moment poring through books on the border patrol. I started a contest through my newsletter, offering a $50 Amazon gift certificate to anyone who supplied the perfect title. (This generated a lot of responses, but although some came close to the mark, none quite hit it).

It’s not an easy thing, to find a title that resonates with me as an author. After all, I was the one whose name was going to be on the book. The one who would be referring to that title ad infinitum, mentioning it nightly on a tour. Years into the future (with any luck,) this title might even be included in my obituary (I’ll admit, I have a tendency toward morbidity. Those of you who have read my work are probably not surprised to hear that). The search became somewhat all-consuming. I’d wander through my house, chanting titles over and over to myself until the words lost all meaning. I typed them out, all caps, in enormous font sizes to get a better sense of how they’d look on a cover. I agonized.

And then I woke up one morning, after spending hours the night before clicking through an online “random word generator,” contemplating “Desert Day,” “Rock Sundae,” and (I kid you not) “Saint Cobbler.” “Bungee Jumping” was starting to sound pretty darn good in comparison. “Bungee Jumping” could be a winner.

Thinking that, I opened my trusty “Alternate titles” file, which was now pages long, and there at the top were the words “THE GATEKEEPER.”

I have no idea where that title came from, honestly I don’t. I initially thought it must have originated via the contest, and went back through all the emails I’d received in the week prior: nothing. Checked my internet history: nothing. It’s a mystery.

But I loved it. It struck a chord. Turns out there was a Clinton-era border patrol initiative called “Operation Gatekeeper,” which jibed perfectly with my storyline. Sent it to my agent to double-check that I hadn’t lost my grip on these things: he loved it. And my editor practically swooned.


So, barring any unforeseen circumstances (and as every author knows, unforeseen circumstances are the nature of the publishing beast), THE GATEKEEPER will be released as planned next November.

Now I just have to finish the darn thing.

So I’m curious: what do you all think? Is it a winner? Or should I have gone with “Bungee Jumping” instead?

Please say you love it.

Add Water, Stir, and Kill

By Camille Minichino/Margaret Grace

I’m very excited as I open a package from my favorite online miniatures store. I pull out a tiny bathtub, a bathroom sink, a two-inch male doll, and some mini-tiles to lay down a floor. Just what I ordered. Any other customer would probably be constructing a dollhouse bathroom.

Not me. I’m setting up a crime scene. All I have to do is throw the doll in the tub, add “water” in the form of resin, and toss in a miniature iron. There’s no sizzle, but the doll is dead just the same.

I have a lot of friends in the miniatures community. They all have Victorian dollhouses or New England cottages or a country farmhouse. My most elaborate dollhouse is a mortuary. It’s fashioned after the building where my Periodic Table Series protagonist lives. Gloria tiptoes past mourners on her way to her kitchen, trips over a trocar when she goes down to do her laundry. My dollhouse reproduction has an embalming room in the basement, viewing parlors on the “street level,” and Gloria’s apartment on the top floor. It wasn’t easy to fashion an embalming table out of foil, but I had to, since no miniatures stores seemed to have any in stock.

I’m not always turning matchboxes into caskets and strewing dolly arms and legs around a crime scene. Here’s a benign tip, for example, from my new protagonist, Gerry Porter, of the Miniature Mysteries series from Berkley: Lay some bell pepper seeds on a paper towel and let them dry. Then put a few of the seeds in an old contact lens/bowl and you have chips ready for munching (by a very small person). It’s a project fit for family viewing.

But for the most part, when I buy a set of dollhouse dining room silver, you can bet that I’ll pick out the tiny knives and sprinkle them with blood—uh, paint—in case there’s a mini-murder by a mini-serial killer eluded by mini-cops.

“Why don’t you write about romance instead of murder?” my husband asks me once in a while (when I have no crafts blades or scissors handy). “Don’t you love me?” I can answer the second question (of course), but not the first.

I’m always looking for the creepiest take on a scene, whether I’m doing grocery shopping, performing a wedding, teaching a class, or wandering around a museum. At an exhibit of Chihuly glass art in San Francisco recently, where others saw magnificent irises, beautiful ferns, and interesting seaforms, I saw a CSI-type close-up of a gunshot wound.

Mystery writers and miniaturists apparently have the same occupational hazard—twisting things, morphing scenes easily from an idyllic pastoral into a bloody crime scene.

Or is it just me?