Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Tale of a Launch Party

Stealing ideas is what writers do best. You’ve heard the old adage, there are no new plots under the sun, only variations of ones that have been around since some cave dweller learned to draw pictures on the wall. Well, I pilfered an idea from old friend Marilyn Meredith, who recently wrote about launching a book at her church.

A week ago Sunday, I did my formal launch party for The Surest Poison at City Road Chapel United Methodist Church in Madison, TN. Formal sounds a little too . . . formal. I wore no top hat and tails, but I did have a party cake with the book cover screen-printed in icing. This was my step-granddaughter’s idea. She and her mother handled the catering.

The only problem with a fancy cake like that is nobody wanted to cut the cover. So we ate off both ends and wound up taking the cover part home intact. We got even, though, and took it back to our Sunday School class last Sunday. It is now no more.

A launch party is something I’ve only tried with the last two books. Neither has been a big sales event. I haven’t had much luck in getting media notice. The Nashville City Paper ran a nice review but never mentioned the party. The major daily remained totally silent. I did manage to get notices in some of the online event calendars, but the only people besides church members who showed up were two fellow Sisters in Crime.

We had a nice group of friends on hand and chatted about my books and writing. One happy buyer sat to the side and made a good start at reading the book while his wife conversed with some of the others.

We sold a decent number of books, more than enough to pay for the cake and punch and cookies. I’m following up with three consecutive Saturdays of Barnes & Noble signings, so hopefully it will all wind up as a successful extended launch.

Maybe I’m not thinking big enough. The new book I’ve started working on, a fifth Greg McKenzie mystery, involves pro basketball and hockey, NBA and NHL. I could do a book launch on the ice at the Sommet Center, invite thousands of fans who normally cheer the Predators. I dunno. Somehow I think that might cost a bit more than the cake.

P.S. My blog tour for The Surest Poison ends Friday at Julia Buckley’s Mysterious Musings. All those who have left comments during the tour will be eligible for a drawing for (1) an autographed copy of The Surest Poison, and (2) the Grand Prize of all five of my books, including four Greg McKenzie mysteries.

Friday, April 24, 2009

And the winners are . . .

We've passed the mid-point in my blog book tour for The Surest Poison. It's time to draw names out of the hat from those who made comments on the various posts my hosts kindly put up for me.

First, a few statistics. During the eight stops on the tour, there has been a total of 124 comments on the blogs. Today's post is at There's a Dead Guy in the Living Room. I question whether I'm writing murder mysteries or mysteries about murder. Sound a bit obtuse? You'll have to read it to see the point.

Okay, you want to know who are the winners of autographed copies of The Surest Poison. We'll get to that in a minute. First here are the remaining stops on my tour:

Saturday, April 25 – Writers Plot – social issues
Monday, April 27 – Murder by 4 – using sub-plots
Tuesday, April 28 – Poe's Deadly Daughters – interview
Wednesday, April 29 – Acme Authors – Miss Demeanor and Five Felons Poker Club
Thursday, April 30 – Write First, Clean Later – multiple POV
Friday, May 1 – Mysterious Musings – Sid Chance (protag) interview

Okay, now let's open the envelope. What envelope? Sorry, this is a drawing. Okay, here it is, the first winner (drum roll):

Maryann Miller, who left a comment on Marilyn Meredith's blog

And the second winner:

Mark Troy, whose comment appeared on Helen Ginger's blog yesterday (you just sneaked in, Mark).

Congratulations to the winners, and remember, there's a final drawing on May 1. Good luck and keep those comments coming.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A flying dream adventure

What we did as kids no doubt set the stage for what we’d do as adults. In my case it was to dream adventures that would lead me to write equally hair-raising stories many years down the line. And some of the dreams actually took place.

I was fascinated by airplanes at an early age. I glued many a strip of balsa pinned onto the plans for a World War I Fokker or SPAD or Sopwith Camel. Johnny Green, the boy next door who was a year older, lived in a bulky three-story frame owned by his grandparents. It had a small one-room house in back that must have been for servants originally. We played there flying our imaginary aircraft. Once we scrounged up a world map and plotted a global flight.

Johnny and I were thrilled no end at the news of Wrong Way Corrigan’s small plane flight from New York to Ireland in the summer of 1938. My interest was piqued further by my father's habit of driving out to Berry Field, the Nashville airport, on Sunday afternoons to watch the airplanes take off and land. When I was 12, he bought tickets and took my brother and me up for a ride in an Ogden Tri-Motor.

Johnny's uncle further whetted our appetite for flying. A member of the National Guard’s 105th Observation Squadron, he took us to the airport and let us climb in one of their O-47s. It was a squat, single-engine airplane that sat low on the ramp. It had a long greenhouse type canopy. I used one of them in the plot of The Marathon Murders.

The memory is a little hazy after 70 years, but it was probably the following summer when I was 14 that Johnny Green and I began saving our pennies and nickels and dimes with a plan in mind. On trips to the airport with our parents, we had seen a sleek WACO biplane with a snazzy radial engine and streamlined fenders over the wheels, piloted by a smiling young man with a windblown look. He sold 30-minute joy rides for something like five dollars.

We lived in East Nashville, a genteel middle class area a few miles from the Cumberland River and downtown. We had pedaled our bikes all over the area and knew our way around. Sneaking a map from one of the cars, we plotted our route to the airport, which was about 10 miles away. Using our normal excuse, he told his mother he was going somewhere with me, and I told my grandmother, who kept us while my mother worked, that I was going somewhere with Johnny.

With our $2.50 each in our pockets and small brown bags of peanut butter and crackers, plus a couple of candy bars, we embarked on our journey. Rather than head south toward town, we rode north to the Inglewood suburb where a ferry took us across the river. From there, all we had to do was follow McGavock Pike to the airport.

We had picked a bright, sunny day and encountered no problems along the way. The trip took a couple of hours. After resting up a bit while we ate our goodies, we headed over to the fence area where the pilot hung out. We showed him our cash and said we were ready to ride. I think he would have preferred $5 each, but the plane was a two-seater, and we would only occupy one seat together, so he led us out to the plane.

We hadn’t left the ground, but we were flying high. He boosted us into the open cockpit and strapped us down. A little prop cranking to start the engine, and we were off into the wild blue yonder. It was the most exhilarating feeling you can imagine. He did some steep turns so we could see the landscape below. I think he looped it, but I wouldn’t swear to that. This was around 1939 and there was no FAA to bother with.

The 30 minutes was over all too soon. With that thrilling experience to chatter about, we didn’t start worrying until we got close to home. “Where have you been?” was the first thing we heard. We admitted to crossing the river and peddling around McGavock Pike, but nothing about the airport. Things were pretty tense for awhile.

Johnny moved away by the time I got to high school, but we kept in touch. Both of us went into the Army Air Forces after graduation. Not long before World War II ended, I wound up at the San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center, now known as Lackland Air Force Base. It was split off from Kelly Field, one of the oldest U.S. air bases. One of my mother’s sisters lived in San Antonio, and her husband was a mechanic at Kelly Field. In a visit there as a boy, I toured the shops at Kelly and saw where they repaired the aircraft. I’ll never forget going into the paint shop, where they applied dope to the fabric covering of the planes. The smell penetrated everything. It was like sitting in a pool of mashed bananas.

Though long retired from the Air Force Reserve, I still love airplanes. My Greg McKenzie character is retired Air Force and his wife, Jill, flies her own Cessna. For me, the whole flying business got a hefty boost that summer day at Berry Field back in 1939.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A day at the BookFest

I intended to put up a new post this morning but ran out of time last night and have been gone all day to the Southern Kentucky BookFest in Bowling Green. So let's talk about that and other such venues.

At the SoKyBookFest, which is how it's abbreviated at their website, 150 authors of all kinds of books, fiction, non-ficvtion, children's, whatever, were seated at rows of tables in the Sloan Convention Center. When we arrived for the 9:00 a.m. opening, our tables were crowded with books ordered by the local Barnes & Noble store. Across one end of the hall were larger tables for 20 Featured Headliners, including Kevin Clash, the man behind Elmo, and Jill Conner Browne, author of six Sweet Potato Queen books.

The marathon book signing session went on until 4:00 p.m. The crowd was decent but didn't seem as large as the last time I was there. I saw several buyers with armloads of books, but a frequent lament I heard was "I can't afford to buy much."

One woman told of being laid off from work last year and saving her pennies to pay her bills. Others said they saw lots of books they would like but had to pass them up.

My last two books, The Surest Poison and The Marathon Murders, were available at my table, a total of 30 books. One woman was a reader of the DorothyL listserve who said she had read about me there and had to get a book. Another had seen my books at the Kentucky Book Fair last November but failed to get one. Quite a few took bookmarks and will look for a book later, hopefully.

A woman who said she preferred to read a series in order marked down the first three Greg McKenzie books and said she would order them on-line. I sold 11 books, but I didn't feel bad when I saw the stacks of books left at tables across from mine.

All-in-all, it wasn't a bad day, though it certainly could have been better. Following my standard signing routine, I ignored the chair and stood behind my table all day. I like to look people eye-to-eye. Plus I can lean forward and converse with them better while standing. My gravelly voice doesn't carry far, making it difficult to be understood at times.

Sunday is my book launch party for The Surest Poison. It will be from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. at my church, City Road Chapel United Methodist Church in Madison, TN. It'll be a real party atmosphere, complete with a cake bearing the book cover in icing. I'll post a picture of it.

I'll sit the whole time for the signing. You can do that with a captive audience.

Like to win copies of my books? Visit the sites I'm guest blogging during my Blog Book Tour through May 1. For where I'll be and details of the drawings, scroll down to my April 6 post Win Books on The Surest Poison tour.

Check out my book covers at the left side of the page and click one for more information, including where to buy, opening chapters, and reviews. And if there's a book fair or fest in your area, be sure to go. They're great for finding new books and authors.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Reading with imagination

In mystery writing, we’re always talking about a reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. The term was coined in the early 1800s by English philosopher and poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (shown a right), best known to American high school students for his “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The idea stemmed primarily from a desire to get readers to accept supernatural events.

We use it now mostly in the context of stretching the truth. The question is how far can you go in ignoring the facts? I suppose it depends on how eager the reader is to get some enjoyment out of the tale you have to tell.

Writing in Biographia Literaria in 1817, Coleridge spoke of “a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment.”

So it would seem the reader’s imagination is the key element. Is it sufficient to accept the ideas we want to get across? I got to thinking about this after writing a post for my current Blog Book Tour (in it’s second day at Joanna Campbell Slan’s blog). I mentioned in writing a discussion of setting that I keep my descriptions short, giving only enough to paint a picture sufficiently vivid that it should stir the reader’s imagination to fill in the rest.

I’m reminded of the old Harry Connick, Jr. lyric:

“Imagination is funny
It makes a cloudy day sunny
It makes a bee think of honey.”

It takes a good imagination to dream up all the stuff we writers put on paper. Am I being too generous with my readers’ ability to imagine the wealth of possible details my stories concern? I dunno. My first editor cautioned me about over-explaining. Don’t underestimate your readers, he said. They know a lot more than you think they do.

Coleridge implied that the shadows of truth we offer through our artful creations provide enough moments of escape from their normal lives that our readers are willing to suspend their disbelief long enough to enjoy the tale. An interesting new take on this appears in an article at Magellan’s Log by Douglas Milburn. He points out that what we used to consider simple truths are seriously in question now, thanks to such things as quantum physics.

Milburn says one prominent figure recently put it this way: If objectivity is dead, then there’s no longer any question of who’s right; all that matters is who’s interesting. You can read the entire article here.

For now, anyway, I think writers will have to depend on the readers’ imaginations to get us through that quagmire of willing suspension of disbelief. All the while working to finesse the facts as best we can. I suppose paranormal writers have it the best. If people are willing to accept vampires, what would they not believe?

Monday, April 13, 2009

What's behind The Surest Poison?

After getting four books published dealing with the often-quirky ventures of a retired Air Force investigator and his wife, PIs in their mid-sixties, I decided to try something more gritty. I had started my mystery-writing career with post-Cold War spy stories, a gritty species if there ever was one. They didn’t sell, however, so I turned to private investigators.

The Surest Poison is a lot more hard-boiled than my previous series. After a bit of debate, I put PI Sid Chance in Madison, the northeast suburb of Nashville where I live. That eliminated the necessity for a lot of research. On that phase of the project, anyway. Turned out I had to do much more digging as the story unfolded.

To keep things interesting, I gave Sid a female associate. The popular term is sidekick, but Jasmine (Jaz) LeMieux is more than the normal sidekick. For one thing she’s rich, majority owner and chairman of the board of a lucrative chain of truck stops. And she’s had a rather checkered career, including Air Force Security Police, professional boxer, and Metro Nashville policewoman. She was responsible for getting Sid into the PI business. He had been a National Park ranger for 19 years and a small town police chief for 10. He left that job after false accusations of bribery.

Okay, now I had two characters, so what to do with them? Thinking about newsworthy areas they might get involved with, I considered the topic of environmental pollution. While splashing that idea around in my gray matter, I happened to mention it to a friend who is fairly well known as a private investigator specializing in locating missing persons. She once tracked down a bunch of people for Oprah and appeared on her show. She has done other network shows and written a couple of books.

“I had a case involving trichloroethylene down around Jackson a few years ago,” Norma Mott Tillman told me. That was in West Tennessee, a fair distance outside my territory.

She was hired by the attorney for a company that faced a huge cleanup cost resulting from the toxic chemical being dumped on its property by a previous owner. (For another look at a similar situation by an attorney check Murderous Musings). The guilty party was no longer around and her job was to track him down. It sounded like the perfect plot for a mystery, after a bit of tweaking.

I wanted it set around Nashville but away from the considerable resources of the Metro Police Department. We’re surrounded by five counties, three with well over 100,000 populations. Of the other two, one has less than 40,000 people. So I had my location, a small plant near the small county seat, Ashland City.

Norma Tillman’s case lacked the ingredient of mayhem. I had to give my PIs plenty of trouble to deal with. That meant dropping a few bodies along the way. I also arranged for the company responsible for the pollution and its owner to virtually vanish from the scene.

All well and good, but no self-respecting mystery would be caught without a tantalizing sub-plot to preoccupy the sleuths. Jaz came to the rescue. She lives in a mansion on the more classy side of town, as opposed to where Sid and I live among the middlin’ folks. She has a live-in couple named Wallace, family employees since Jaz was a girl. When the Wallaces’ grandson disappears, then reappears frightened out of his wits, Jaz enlists Sid’s aid to ferret out the problem.

All set, right? Not quite. The popular term among readers is “murder mystery.” So I needed a little murder to get things going. You’ve heard the argument over where the murder should come. On page one? The first chapter? I’m a believer in put it where it belongs. In this case, it fit in the opening chapter of the book.

I started with murder on page one. Hit ‘em right between the eyes. Then I segued to my protagonist who, at the same time, was waking up in his hillside cabin 50 miles away. My editor thought it would be more effective to switch the scenes. After a bit of reflection, I agreed. You can see how it turned out by reading the opening chapter at my website.

Now you know the hoops I jumped through in putting the story together, at least in getting it started. Since I’m a seat-of-the-pants plotter, at that point the characters and I took off running. It was a fun run.

Starting Wednesday, April 15, I’ll be doing a Blog Book Tour, making 15 guest spots by May 1. I’ll give away several books during the tour. Scroll down to my April 6 post to see where I’ll be and how to win books.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

"A top rate mystery" - Crimespree Magazine

If you're a subscriber to Crimespree Magazine or can get it at your local newsstand, check out the book review of The Surest Poison by the editor, Jon Jordan. Assuming you aren't lucky enough to have a copy, here is what it says:

"Chester Campbell’s latest, THE SUREST POISON introduces a new character, PI Sid Chance and his side kick Jaz LeMieux. Sid lives just outside Nashville and is a former Police Chief who wanted to just retire and get away from it all. His friend Jaz works her magic and talks him into taking a case and becoming a PI. With this book opening she has pulled some strings and gotten him another case. A local lawyer is representing a business owner in trouble with the authorities because of a chemical spill at his plant caused by the previous owners. Unfortunately the previous owners are more than a bit elusive. The further along Sid gets, the stranger things become and it soon becomes clear these are people who want their privacy. Something very hinky is going on.

"Chance is a great character, 59 years old, Viet Nam vet, ex cop and relentless. Campbell’s work here is his best yet and the book has a natural rhythm that moves the story along at a nice pace. The people who populate the book are realistic and nothing feels forced, its as if Campbell is just telling their story without embellishing, which I found refreshing. A top rate mystery by a gem of a writer."

What more can I say? Go here and buy the book?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

You gotta Noah 'bout the Ark

As anybody who’s been around me for long knows, I’ve been writing for around 1,000 years. For a long time I heard writers mention the Story Ark, and it was a complete mystery. When my curiosity got the best of me, I searched through the pages of the Writers Bible, New King William of Shakespeare Version. I found the answer in the Book of Sources, Chapter III.

One day an angel came down and found an unruly bunch of scribes dressed in grungy white robes and split-toed sandals seated at hard rocks–not the CafĂ© variety–arguing over how a story should be told. To tell the truth, the angel appeared a bit on the shabby side himself. He looked a lot like Gabby Hayes. Anybody remember Gabby?

Anyway, the angel said, “I was sent down here by the Big Editor in the Sky to straighten out you people. You got to get your act together or you’re in for really big trouble. One of these days a guy named Gutenberg will invent a thing called the printing press, and you’re going to be inundated with a flood of stories.”

The scribes and storytellers began to mumble among themselves. You know what it’s like. You’ve seen ‘em do it at the bar during mystery conferences and conventions. Finally, one of them called Leifchilde, who wrote about an outrageous character named Goliath, spoke up.

“That’s scary, Mr. Angel,” he said. “What should we do?”

“You have to build you an Ark.”

“An Ark? Like old Noah and his kids did some time back?”

“Not exactly,” said the angel. “But you get the idea. You have to build the Ark in three parts.”

“We know,” Leifchilde said. “A bow and a middle and a stern.”

The angel reached into a large pocket in his dingy robe and pulled out a flat piece of slate with chiseled scratchings on it. “I brought along three stone tablets to explain it.”

Leifchilde spoke up again. “I thought you were supposed to have two stone tablets.”

“This isn’t like the Ten Commandments, dummy,” the angel said, holding out the stone. “This is Ark One. You have to hook the reader, establish your characters, introduce the crime–we’re talking good ole time mysteries here, guys. You ratchet up the stakes to where the main character knows he has to find a solution.”

He handed the slate to Leifchilde. “Don’t drop it. It’ll break, and it doesn’t come with a replacement guarantee. Those things haven’t been invented yet.”

He pulled out a second slate. “This is Ark Two. You might say it’s amidships.”

“Told you,” said Leifchilde.

The angel ignored him. “In this part you need to make some characters into likely suspects, introduce some red herrings.”

“What’s a herring?” one scribe asked.

“Sorry. Herrings are found in the Atlantic, and it’ll be a long time before Columbus wanders over that way. Let’s just say you make some people look like suspects though they’re really good guys. They take you down false trails. Things really get complicated for the hero, and he’s not sure he wants to solve the case.”

“What’s a case?” another asked.

“Look, I don’t have time for a lesson in semantics here,” the angel said. “Take your piece of rock and figure it out.”

He pulled out the third slate and smiled. “This is the wrap-up, Ark Three. You have to make it move like a rushing river.”

Leifchilde nodded. “Good place for an Ark.”

“The hero looks like he’s doomed, but he finds the strength to go on. Good overpowers evil, and all the loose ends are tied up.”

Leifchilde snickered. “Sort of like that robe you’re wearing. It’s about to come apart.”

The angel frowned and tossed the slate at him. “Okay, wise guy. Fail to follow these and your Ark is sunk.” With that, he disappeared in a poof of smoke.

The scribes began to mumble among themselves again, as writers are wont to do, but they kept the Story Ark tablets safe and handed them down through the ages.

What? You say it’s the Story Arc, with a “c?” You get the Story Bible publisher to change it. I’m not getting into that.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Win Books on The Surest Poison tour

I’ve been absent the past few days working on the dreaded Form 1040. I’m back now, and just in time for the launch of The Surest Poison. The official release date is this Friday, but it’s already available here. I’m doing a Blog Book Tour from April 15 to May 1, skipping Sundays. Like God, I rest on the Sabbath. Well, maybe an afternoon nap.

I’m giving away books in two drawings during the tour. If you make a comment on one (or all) of these blogs, you’ll get one chance for each comment you leave. The drawings will be held at the mid-point, April 23, and the last day, May 1. In the first drawing, two winners will get copies of The Surest Poison. The final dip into the hat will bring up another two winners, one for a copy of the new book and the grand prize of all five of my mysteries, which includes four Greg McKenzie books.

To pique your interest, here is the tour schedule with date, blog link, and subject:

Wednesday, April 15 – Book Roast – book excerpt
Thursday, April 16 – Joanna Campbell Slan – Coming Out with The Surest Poison
Friday, April 17 – The Stilleto Gang – The Surest Poison's Jaz LeMieux Talks
Saturday, April 18 – Bob Sanchez – Make the Setting Come Alive
Monday, April 20 – Murderati – Cultivate Your Writing Style
Tuesday, April 21 – Silver Rush Mysteries – Writing the Private Eye Novel
Wednesday, April 22 – Marilyn Meredith's Musings – A Look at Dialogue
Thursday, April 23 – Straight from Hel – Electronic Rights to Books
Friday, April 24 – There's a Dead Guy in the Living Room – Is It a Murder Mystery?
Saturday, April 25 – Writers Plot – Keep the Mystery Free of Sermons
Monday, April 27 – Murder by 4 – Using Subplots in Mysteries
Tuesday, April 28 – Poe's Deadly Daughters – An Interview with Chester Campbell
Wednesday, April 29 – Acme Authors – Miss Demeanor and Five Felons Poker Club
Thursday, April 30 – Write First, Clean Later – How Many POVs Do You Need?
Friday, May 1 – Mysterious Musings – An Interview with Sid Chance

Get ready to follow along and learn all about the book and its characters and my views on writing. But don’t wait to buy the book hoping you’ll win one. If you’re a winner and already have the book, let me know and I’ll substitute another (or you can give, your winner as a gift to a friend).

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The worm turns - Conflicted?

Okay, it's April Fools Day and the worm is supposed to turn. Is that somebody's joke? The Conficker worm, that is, although the term appears both as "Conflicker" and "Conficker." A colleague on one of the writers' lists calls it "Cornflicker."

According to the literature, and the web is full of it, this is for real. The nasty computer worm is supposed to start wiggling today in infected machines and do all sorts of nasty stuff. I wonder if it could switch chapter numbers or alter character descriptions in one of my novels? I can see it now:

"The old man shook his long blond curls and planted sensuous hands on his shapely hips."

Doesn't sound quite right, does it? I'm not worried, though. My virus program assures me it includes the latest worm medicine, and I've installed the Microsoft security updates. The worm isn't gonna turn me.

But I may be a bit conflicted on the basic subject of worms. When it rains a lot, the slimy reddish critters gather at the base of my garage's overhead door. I wasn't sure if they were trying to get to the water or had in mind getting away from it. Seems, according to one source I checked, they were just making out on the driveway. It's easier for them to squirm out of the ground when it's wet, and they don't worry about drying out (which would be fatal). So they gather on the concrete looking for mates.

Aren't you glad you stopped here for a little education on the mating habits of earthworms? One mystery solved. Now back to the books.