Monday, March 30, 2009

What brings people to websites?

I check the stats for my website infrequently and then only glance at which pages are most read. When I took a look today at the month almost over, I found I was averaging about ninety unique visitors a day, which is no great shakes but not all that bad. That's 2700 people in a month.

What I found most intriguing, and makes me wonder about people on the internet, is the search term that appears most often by people who arrive at my site. Are you ready for this?

Charles Manson.

Yep, THE Charles Manson of Sharon Tate murder fame. Back in 2004 I was asked to write an article for Web Mystery Magazine. The editor suggested I take an old murder case and give it a new slant. After doing considerable research, I wrote "The Bizarre Case of Mass Murderer Charles Manson." My chief source was prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi's Helter Skelter, which ranks as the publishing world's top-selling true crime book.

My article pointed out the bizarre aspects of the case and the trial, which took five weeks to seat a jury. It began on June 15, 1970, and the lawyers' summation lasted from Dec. 21 to Jan. 15. The article gives highlights of the murders and background on Manson and his lethal "family." They were sentenced to death, but the California Supreme Court overturned the death penalty a year later. You can read the article here.

Scrolling down the long list of search terms that had brought people to my website proved quite fascinating. They included numerous descriptions of authors by state or sex, which no doubt led them to my Links page. One search term was "this is to be taken facetiously." That one probably landed on my F.A.Q.'s page (Facetiously Answered Questions).

Somebody apparently Googled "Meriwether Lewis was poisoned on the Natchez Trace." Why, I have no clue, but that speculation was mentioned in my new book, The Surest Poison. The longest search query, which appeared with "+" between each word, was this:

"advice someone setting out alone to visit an isolated area of sea or land before the trip."

To paraphrase Art Linkletter, "people ask the darndest things."

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Getting ready to tour the blogs

I’d seen so many mentions about blog book tours, or virtual book tours as they were first known, that I decided late last year to do one for The Surest Poison, my new Sid Chance mystery coming out next month. It is all but nailed down with only one stop left to settle on, the final day of the tour.

The Surest Poison tour will run from April 15 through April 30, with two Sunday’s off. If God could rest on the Sabbath, I figure, so can I. I’ll be visiting fourteen different blogs during that time, writing about various subjects, at least tangentially related to the book. There will be interviews and lots of cool stuff.

As soon as I’ve confirmed that last date, I’ll give the schedule here with the places I plan to visit and the subjects of the blogs. To make it fun to follow, I will be giving away copies of the book to lucky people who leave comments on my posts.

Although the official pub date isn’t until April, the book is already available on and To check out some great reviews, go to The Surest Poison page on my website.

And don’t forget to watch for my tour. You’ll learn all sorts of interesting stuff about the story, the characters, and how it all came together. There will even be interviews with the main characters, Sid Chance and Jaz LeMieux. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Crime up front? Murder she wrote?

On the Make Mine Mystery blog, Marvin Wilson referred to an article on the Top 10 Rules for Mystery Writing by Ginny Wiehardt, which you can find by clicking on the title. Marvin wrote about her number one rule: in mystery writing, plot is everything. I decided to comment on a couple of related rules a little farther on.

Her Rule 3 says to “introduce the crime within the first three chapters of your mystery novel.” She adds, “The crime and the ensuing questions are what hook your reader. As with any fiction, you want to do that as soon as possible.”

I agree that something criminal needs to take place up front or you won’t have much of a mystery. I’m not a big fan, though, of rules that say “you must do this by Chapter X.” In The Marathon Murders, my fourth Greg McKenzie mystery, the first body doesn’t show up until Chapter 8. But by the end of Chapter 3, it’s clear somebody is missing and not under auspicious circumstances.

This leads to Ginny Wiehardt’s Rule 4, “the crime should be sufficiently violent -- preferably a murder.” I’ll accept that. After all, murder is so…final. It isn’t a reversible error, as a lawyer might say. She continues, “for many readers, only murder really justifies the effort of reading a 300-page book while suitably testing your detective's powers.”

However, unless the book features a police detective pursuing a case, murder may not be the central crime, at least initially. Since private detectives aren’t normally involved with murders, unless it’s a cold case where the family wants to know what happened, our PIs are usually pursuing some other crime when they encounter the aftermath of a murder.

In my new book, The Surest Poison, my detective is investigating the origin of a massive toxic chemical dump. He is involved only peripherally with the murders until close to the end. There are kidnappings and assaults and explosions, but he isn’t looking for a murderer.

How do you feel about it? Should the actively-pursued crime be murder, and does it need to occur right at the first of the story?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Late Bloomers

A week ago, I blogged about writing what you know and observed that I couldn't think of anything for which I might claim expertise. While skimming about the many groups I subscribe to, I came across a thread at the Sisters in Crime list titled "Late Bloomers."

I discovered my niche. If there's something about which I can speak with authority, it's late-blooming writers.

If you've never visited the FAQ's page on my website, you're probably unaware that I pounded out my first mystery novel on a small portable typewriter while a college junior in 1948. Or that it was October of 2002 before my first mystery novel arrived on the shelf in a bookstore. I was 76.

For achieving the status of a published author, that's blooming late (yes, you can take that as a pun or a statement of fact).

I don't recommend an apprenticeship of 54 years, though it has its advantages. For one, you've observed enough of humanity to be conversant with most any type of character around. For another, you've been involved in business, social, and personal relationships that give you insights into most of the situations you're likely to encounter in writing a novel.

True, you may not have stumbled upon a murder like most of our characters eventually do, but you've heard and read and seen enough of it to feel comfortable with describing the experience.

If you've ever seen someone die traumatically, it'll stick with you. It happened to me back in my early newspaper reporting days. I was riding with a photographer on the way back from covering a story in another county when we topped a hill and saw a motorcycle lying in the middle of the highway. Two men were on it. We jumped out of the car and ran up to where they lay amidst a growing sea of red. Just as I got there, one of them gave a final tremble.

I can still see that scene vividly in my mind though it was 60 years ago.

Writing fiction is a taxing task, no matter how long you've been at it. You're always reaching for the precise word you feel will best convey your thoughts. But inventing characters and situations becomes easier the more you take part in life's everyday experiences.

Being a late bloomer doesn't seem all that bad, except for one thing. It makes you impatient with agents or editors or publishers who dawdle around with your work like you had all the time in the world to wait on them. That's why I deal with a small press that can make decisions quickly and get things done in a hurry.

What are you waiting for? Get busy!

And check out my latest book here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

8 reasons for a new writer to celebrate

If you’re the celebratory kind (and who isn’t), here are some benchmarks that should give you a reason to call in the cheerleaders, quaff a tall cold one, or otherwise laud the muse.

1. You have the basics of a solid plot.

After considering all the options, you’ve decided on a situation that feels right, a plot that gives you the opportunity to pursue a story that challenges your creativity. Take a bow.

2. You’ve successfully concluded the opening chapter.

You’re off to a great start. You’ve created a zinger of an opening paragraph, and you’ve set the plot in motion. Two loud huzzahs, please.

3. The dread middle third is in the can, to use an old movie term.

Most writers feel the middle portion of a novel is the most difficult to write. That’s where the story usually bogs down, where you need to work hard to keep the action from lagging. When you’re ready for the final arc, tip your hat and kick your heels.

4. You’ve finished the first draft.

For lots, maybe most, writers, this is the point where you have the basic story on paper (or in the computer), and you’re ready to go back and smooth out the language, beef up the descriptions, put things in shape for the final revision. Since I’m a constant editor, by the time I finish a first draft it’s about ready for the final revision. Whichever way you lean, it’s time to light up the sparklers.

5. You’ve passed the manuscript around your first readers, digested all their comments and suggestions, and penned the final revision.

This is the point where you trot out the trumpets and the snare drums. You’ve done the deed. Well, almost.

6. You have landed a publisher.

You’ve inked your name on a contract, either through an agent or with an independent publisher that doesn’t require agent submissions. This is the biggie. You fire off the Roman candles and the rockets. Buy a round for everybody at the bar.

7. At last you have a book, a bound volume with a colorful cover and hundreds of inside pages, in your hands.

This may seem anticlimactic to the non-writer, but it’s the arrival at the peak for you. Just sit down, feel the heft of it, turn the pages, and savor the moment.

8. You scrawl your name on the title page at your first signing.

Now you really feel like an author. You’ve sold the book to a reader. This is the most fulfilling moment. Enjoy it and celebrate all you want. Then prepare to embark upon the writer’s other journey–guess what, you are now a marketer.

All you pubbed writers, uh, authors, out there does this sound familiar, or did you have other high points in the process deserving of celebration?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Where mystery stories come from

Where do mystery stories come from? Out of a computer, my grandson would probably say. Indeed, I’ve heard there are computer programs you can feed info into and they will produce a story. But it seems there’s a little more to it than that.

Writers indulge in what is generally known as the creative process. According to Wikipedia, there’s no “single authoritative perspective or definition of creativity.” So they go on and give one, saying it’s “a mental and social process” that involves generating new ideas or concepts. Or, put more simply, it’s the act of making something new.

That’s always been my definition, creating something different than what was there before.

People with a scientific bent go into all this right brain vs. left brain stuff. They say the right brain flourishes in dealing with “complexity, ambiguity and paradox.” Hey, my mysteries are full of that. Also, the right brain isn’t necessarily interested in following the rules. That cinches it. I’m a right brain writer.

One other item mentioned in Wikipedia, creativity has been associated with genius, mental illness and humor. Funny they should say that. I don’t consider myself a genius, so where does that leave me?

Put simply, I think writers feel a compulsion to tell a story. They have great imaginations, the ability to form images in the mind that are far removed from anything present at the time. We may have a picture or notes pertaining to the subject, but the gyroscopes in our heads are busy twisting and turning them into something entirely different.

Since there are no really new plots out there, we grab an old one and give it our own twist. The mystery writer’s arsenal is full of motives and weapons and crimes and passions. We choose a place for things to happen, create some interesting characters, and set the story in motion.

If the protagonists we create are believable and worth caring about, if our settings are vivid enough to make readers feel they’re on the scene, and if our plots follow a trail of growing conflict and suspense, we’ve probably created a mystery that folks will be willing to plunk down a few bucks to read.

I don’t believe a computer could accomplish that without our help. Well, maybe Donna Andrews’ Turing Hopper could, but Donna created Turing.

More about my latest creation here: The Surest Poison

Friday, March 13, 2009

Write what you know...or fake it

Write about what you know, says the familiar mantra. That implies that we should all be experts, or at least quite well versed, in something. Like a lawyer would write legal thrillers, and a doctor would write medical mysteries. Ex-football or basketball players could pen novels in the sporting realm.

That sort of leaves me out. If I was ever an expert, or at least reasonably proficient in some particular endeavor, it was so long ago that I’ve either forgotten how all the good stuff worked or things have changed so much in the interim that I’m way too far out of date.

Take newspapering, for example. I started out as a reporter in 1947 and departed the field in 1959. That was back when everybody typed their copy on sheets of newsprint with old Underwood typewriters and stuck the pages together with goopy paste from a jar. Newsrooms were as open as the corner drugstore, and anyone could walk in off the street. Try to get past the reception desk at a newspaper now. I have no idea what goes on in newsrooms, but I’m sure it’s all done by computer.

Bottom line, I’ll not be writing a contemporary reporter story.

I wrote copy for an ad agency back in the late sixties. I’m not sure how agencies operate now, but no doubt it’s eons removed from what we did back then.

My last job of any consequence was executive vice president for a statewide trade association. I worked at that for eighteen years and was pretty proficient at it. I was one of the early Certified Association Executives accredited by the American Society of Association Executives. But I retired in 1989 making a salary in the $50,000 range. You got any idea what they make now? It would make me cry.

So I’m twenty years out of date on that score. The only thing I’ve done that hasn’t changed over the years, except for the implements used, is writing. Sentences are still put together pretty much the same as when I was in grammar school (only they don’t have grammar schools anymore, do they?). Nouns and adjectives and, yes, even the dreaded “ly” adverbs, are still the same as they’ve always been.

I suppose that means I should be writing about writing, or writers. But I’ve learned to cheat. For the past several years, I’ve been writing mystery novels about a pair of private investigators. I’ve never been been a PI or anything approaching it. But I’ve learned a lot about the field and seem to have knack for creating believable situations for my fictional investigators. I was really flattered when one reviewer wrote:

“If you’re interested in seeing how a real private detective works, try Chester Campbell’s Deadly Illusions.”

And another wrote:

The Marathon Murders is a skillfully woven tale that shows detective fiction wannabes how it’s supposed to be done.”

So I guess I’ll just keep on writing about a subject I shouldn’t really know. What about you? Do you write about what you know? Or do you fake it, too?

To learn more about my PIs, go to my website.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

How a Spanish castle got on the beach

In a blog at Kill Zone Authors, Cara Black questioned her publisher's publicity and marketing people on what they do. Among their replies was a note that one of their people meets with the distributor's sales staff to present their upcoming books. Sometimes the sales folks will suggest changes in a cover to make it more saleable.

It would be nice to have a publicity and marketing department to work with, but in my small press world those things don't exist. However, one of my covers did get an alteration thanks to a marketing guy at Barnes & Noble in New York.

It happened a few years ago when my publisher went along with the distributor’s rep to make a sales call. They had with them a sell sheet showing the cover for Designed to Kill, the second book in my Greg McKenzie mystery series. The design, shown above, depicts an elaborate picture frame with a painting (actually, a photograph) of a castle in Spain. A seal covering the lower right corner contains a nice blurb from New York Times bestseller Phillip Margolin.

I had found a photo of Castle Alcazar de Segovia on the internet and suggested if for use on the book cover. The artist came up with the idea of using it as a painting surrounded by flowery type.

The book's plot centers around a high-rise condo built on the beach at Perdido Key, Florida designed after a Spanish castle. When the Barnes & Noble marketing guy took at look at the picture, he said, "If it's in Florida, it has to have a beach."

The publisher went back home, contacted the artist, and had a small strip of sand and green water inserted. Barnes & Noble bought the book for its stores in the Southeast.

Just a small example of the power of chain booksellers in the publishing business. And it gave me a nice little story to tell when talking to book clubs or showing the book at a signing.

Read more about Designed to Kill

Monday, March 9, 2009

How much daylight are you saving?

As I write this, the first day of Daylight Saving Time, 2009 edition, is coming to a close. It’s something of a misnomer, of course. The relationship between the sun and the earth doesn’t change regardless of what we do with the hands of the clock. The number of hours and minutes of daylight will be the same. No saving there.

If nothing else, it saves a little wear and tear on my nerves. My old eyes aren’t too happy about driving in the dark, so DST allows me to pick up our grandson from Taekwondo while the sun still shines. We can also head out to a restaurant before dark. But the flip side is we’ll be getting up before the sun for a while.

There was something on the news about studies done to determine if Daylight Saving Time accomplishes the goal Congress had in mind, saving on energy consumption. As usual, there are differing opinions.

What impact does it have on writers? Depends on when you do your best work. If you’re an up-early type who wages war at the keyboard before the day gets going good, you’ll be spending more time in the dark. I spend enough time in that state already. I do more work late than early, though where the sun is makes little difference.

Ben Franklin first came up with the idea of daylight saving in an essay written while he was in Paris in 1784. But it wasn’t written into law until 1918. Then it didn’t last but a year before DST began it’s on-again off-again path right up to the present. Some complain of sleep disturbances, loss of productivity, and more severe accidents as a result of the practice.

One writer has blamed the idea on Puritanism. He calls it an effort to get people earlier to bed and earlier to rise, “making them healthy, and wealthy, and wiser in spite of themselves.”

Whatever side you’re on, DST will probably stay around for a bit. Congress is too preoccupied with the economy and bailouts and foreclosures and taxes and wealth redistribution to fool around with the clock this year. So just be sure all your timepieces are in synch with the rest of the country. Don’t want to be late for a book signing.

Read about The Surest Poison

Friday, March 6, 2009

Travel--grist for the writer's mill

Travel can provide grist for the writer's mill. It's what sparked the idea for my first published mystery novel. Of course, when you've been around as long as I have and visited as many places, you accumulate much more than you can use.

I haven’t done everything, not even close. I never climbed Mt. Everest or swam the English Channel. Somehow those failed to appear on my to-do list.

I wish I could remember more about all the places I’ve been and things I've seen. Back in the early early days, my Dad liked to maneuver rickety old cars over bumpy roads when that was about all we had. When I was quite small, we drove to places like New York and Chicago, where my mother had siblings. All I remember of New York was the magic bed that pulled out of the wall in my aunt’s flat and getting scared out of my gourd on the Observation Deck at the Empire State Building. You could walk right out and gaze down from the railing in those days.

All I recall from a trip to Chicago was getting bonked in the nose by a baseball while playing with cousins who spoke a strange language called Yankee. I have only vague recollections of attending the Chicago World’s Fair in 1934. I was eight at the time. Looking at photos on the Fair website, I saw one at the Enchanted Island on the Midway that could have been my mother bending down talking to me.

It’s funny how you remember little snapshots of the distant past. I recall a ceramic washbasin and water pitcher in a tourist cabin on U.S. 41 somewhere north of Nashville. They had strips of flypaper hanging around to trap the flitting varmints.

The memories become more vivid as I aged a bit. On one trip to Florida to visit a great uncle who had a farm near St. Augustine, I had another frightening experience as a result of fog near the ocean. Due to conditions resembling a whiteout, Dad missed a turn and we wound up at the edge of the Atlantic, with the surf slurping around the tires.

I have since traveled most areas of the U.S. and in several foreign lands. My first trip to the Far East, and my first shipboard venture, came in 1952 courtesy of Uncle Sam and a bit of unpleasantness called the Korean War. I have a 16-page letter I wrote to my wife during the voyage aboard the USNS Gen. W. F. Hase. I read all the way through it recently for the first time since I wrote it. There were mentions of working on a mystery story, but I have no idea what happened to it. I haven’t run across it in the last 57 years.

My first overseas junket since Korea came in 1984 when my wife and I embarked on an almost three-week grand tour of Europe. Traveling with a group from Nashville, we landed in Amsterdam. Our bus took us to Cologne, then we cruised the Rhine to north of Heidelberg. From there we drove to Munich and took a side trip to the Concentration Camp at Dachau (it was a gray, dreary day that set the mood for the horrors experienced there). From southern Germany we traveled to Lucerne, then Innsbruck, and through the striking Brenner Pass to Venice.

After doing the mandatory gondola ride and disturbing the pigeons in St. Mark’s Square, we headed on to Florence, climbed the Leaning Tower in Pisa, and drove to Rome. This was one of our three-day stops to make time for the Vatican, the Coliseum, the Catacombs, and a side trip to Tivoli Gardens. Then it was up the coastal highway to the French Riviera, Monte Carlo and Nice. After hitting the major spots in Paris, we traveled to Calais, boarded a hovercraft to Dover, and wound up in London. We had another three-day stop to see such sights as Westminster, the Tower of London, the Changing of the Guard, and a cruise on the Thames. We made a day trip to Bath and Stonehenge, then headed back to Atlanta.

As an association executive, I attended annual conventions all over the U.S., including Hawaii, plus Acapulco and Toronto, taking side tours in the process. In 1987, we spent a month touring the Far East with my son, who was in Army Special Forces, and daughter-in-law.

We began at Travis Air Force Base in the San Francisco Bay area. Since I’m an Air Force retiree, my wife and I flew space-available from there to Tokyo aboard a C-5 for $10 each. From Tokyo, we flew to Korea on a C-117. It was my first visit to Seoul, where I was stationed in 1952-3, since the war. What a change. We also toured Okinawa and Singapore, including the Tiger Balm Gardens (now called Haw Par Villa). In Thailand, we visited numerous colorful Buddhist temples in Bangkok, crossed the Bridge over the River Kwai, and flew north to the mountain town of Chiang Mai (I understand the city has grown considerably since my visit). While there we shopped at a village where they made brightly painted umbrellas of all sizes and watched elephants haul logs at an Elephant Nature Park.

From Thailand we headed to Hong Kong. We visited a friend’s daughter’s high-rise condo with a breathtaking panoramic view of what was then a British colony, dined at a restaurant with a tiered lazy Susan, shopped the Kowloon malls among hordes of Orientals, and enjoyed speedily crossing the bay on the Star Ferry. Our tour ended in Manila, where we bused out to the Subic Bay Naval Base in hopes of getting a space-available flight back to the States. After a day at the Cubi Point Air Station, it became obvious we’d have a long wait, so we returned to Manila and flew home on Northwest.

Shortly after my wife died early in 1998, I took a 14-day Holy Land tour with my brother’s Sunday School class. We flew into Amman, Jordan, visited the striking pink stone-carved facades in Petra (photo at left), then moved on to Israel. We hit most of the main biblical sites from the Old and New Testaments. Some of the more striking were Masada, the Dead Sea, the Mount of Olives, the Temple Mount, Bethlehem, Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, and the Golan Heights. We wound up touring Haifa, Tel Aviv, and the ancient port city of Jaffa.

That was the trip that led to the writing of Secret of the Scroll, the first Greg McKenzie mystery.

My last major foreign fling took place in August of 2000 after Sarah and I were married. We did a tour of France, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. We saw more of Paris than on my 1984 trip, visiting the Louvre and Eiffel Tower among other spots. We also viewed General Patton’s grave in Luxembourg. Most of our time was spent touring Austria and Switzerland. We took the cog railway from Zermatt up to a perch above 10,000 feet, looking across at the majestic Matterhorn. We visited the cheese town of Gruyere, Zurich, Berne, and took a boat ride on Lake Geneva. At Chillon Castle we saw the dungeon where Byron's Prisoner of Chillon was shackled. After covering much of Austria, including Vienna, we returned home.

I took my first non-military cruise in 2007 with my high school alumni group. We sailed out of Mobile on Carnival's smallest ship, making ports of call at Cozumel and Progreso on the Yucatan Peninsula. Unfortunately, Sarah has an inner ear problem, and the Gulf of Mexico was not kind to the small ship or to her. I enjoyed the trip, though I can't say that was the case for Sarah.

So, the question remains, how much of this traveling experience has made it into my books? Not as much as it should have. I mentioned my novel that takes place partly in the Holy Land. Some of my earlier books that are yet to appear on a printed page involve several of my travels. One takes place in Korea, another has portions in Vienna, Hong Kong and Toronto.

I haven’t given up on using lots more, however. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

How the ending begins

Writing the ending to a mystery novel is always a challenge. When I first started working on mysteries, I would have a beginning in mind and an idea for what would happen at the end. Not exactly how it would happen, but a pretty good feel for the ultimate fate of the characters.

The more books I write, the more it all becomes a big mystery for me. About all I know for sure is that the bad guy or gal, maybe guys and gals, will get their comeuppance at the end. Since I’m learning the story along with my protagonist(s), I’m occasionally as surprised as they are at what occurs.

In listening to a bunch of panels at the SleuthFest conference in Florida last weekend, I found that most of the author panelists felt it best to plot out your mystery in advance. Maybe I’m too lazy, but I’ve never managed to do that.

I start out with a scenario for some kind of criminal enterprise that results in murder. I people it with characters who have a stake in the outcome, some innocent and some guilty as Obama’s tax dodgers. I write a character sketch for each of them. In that process, I learn from their backgrounds and actions how they’ll fit into the plot.

Then I start writing with an eye toward the ultimate solution to the crime and its resulting case of homicide. By that time I normally know whodunit, though in at least one case I changed the murderer in the middle of the book.

As the story moves closer to the final act, I begin looking for ways to get my protagonist in really big trouble. That’s when the fun begins. It can’t be a simple step up to the guilty party, show a weapon, and demand the surrender. The good guy must find himself in mortal danger before he manages to turn things around.

I’d like to cite some examples of how I do that, but I ain’t givin’ nothin’ away. You’ll have to read the books to find out. Some of them have surprise endings, particularly the one where I switched killers. A few readers said they thought I had cheated until they went back and saw where I had laid the foundation for what happened.

My new book, The Surest Poison, has a bit of a twist at the end I haven’t used before. I hope you like it. Go to Poison.htm for links to ordering the book.