Monday, March 31, 2008

The good, the bad, and the ugly: These debut novels have a splash of each

Two debut suspense novels, released this week, have memorable, strong female leads you won't soon forget.

Karen Harrington: author of Janeology, and Linda Merlino: author of Belly of the Whale, recently put their keyboards together to talk character development. Specifically: the good girl and the bad girl.


Belly of the Whale: Meet Hudson Catalina, age thirty-eight, a wife and mother who has lost both breasts to cancer. This is twenty-four hours in her life, the morning she awakes devoid of hope, certain that she will die of the same cancer that took her mother, and the night she is taken hostage in a market by a killer more deadly than her disease.


Janeology: Meet Jane Nelson, age thirty-eight, with soft eyes, south Texas natural highlights and a penchant for paperback romances. A former ER nurse, Jane is smart, sexy and confident. Only she hasn’t felt that way about herself since she had her twins a couple years ago while at the same time, her husband begins spending more time at work. In an attempt to soothe herself, she develops an odd compulsion to garage sale, filling up her empty hours, and filling up her garage with needless stuff.

What makes your female lead so good or bad?

KH: Like the Chris Isaak song says, “Baby did a bad, bad thing.” Jane did a bad thing by committing murder. In a moment of psychosis, she drowns her toddler son, and nearly kills her toddler daughter. Her mind dissolved into a twisted mess as a result of her depression and isolation. The result: Indefinite confinement to a state mental hospital while her husband, Tom, tries to care for their surviving daughter and shed the guilt that he should have seen Jane’s approaching mental snap.

LM: Strong women, those are the one’s that are cut from the cloth of good women; determined, do-it-myself kind of females that act assertively when the situation gets grim. Hudson Catalina is just this sort of woman. We are our history; even fictitious people have a background, that seed from which he or she grew. The molding of a person, their experiences and their choices generally determine the good or bad theory. That is not to say that, real or imaginary, a seemingly good girl can’t go bad. But, again, something in her past, some quirk or turn-of-the-screw is the trigger. And the mental illness factor is huge. History, for sure, determines the genetics for Jekyll and Hyde personalities; the good girl mask on a bad girl. In Belly of the Whale, Hudson has given in to cancer, the flaw in her otherwise seamless character; she’s hit a wall of hopelessness. This glitch turns her inward, makes her self absorbed. Life shuffles the cards, and on the day she thinks she knows “what will happen”…she is taken hostage in an all-night market by a killer more deadly than her disease. It is in the market, Whales Market, that the good versus bad portion of the novel takes place.

Characters are multi-dimensional. What qualities defy this characteristic in your female lead?

KH: There was a part of her, once, that was good. In fact, her entire motivation for wanting to be a nurse was to save people. When she was nine, her mother died and she always thought this was a mistake. And in the novel, when readers meet her as a nine-year-old girl, all of her vulnerable side is on display. She wanted to be pretty. She wanted to fit in. I think she struggled against this side of her, which was perceived as weak by her mother, for a long time. That is actually my favorite chapter in the whole book because you witness the slate of a child’s life being written on with things that strip away her innocence.

LM: Hudson Catalina has a boulder-size chip on her shoulder. Despite her seemingly good life, good family, great husband, beautiful children, she is still bitter about the loss of her mother when Hudson was fourteen. She has spent two decades plus running away from her fear of having breast cancer like her mother. This is her history, this is what shaped her, and this is how the Good Girl loses hope and succumbs to her own fears.

How did your character come into existence? What was your motivation?

KH: Stephen King is responsible. A few years ago, Stephen King issued a short story writing challenge to take a common situation and turn it on its head, possibly reversing the sexes. I thought about the fear a woman has of being stalked by a deranged boyfriend, and I thought, “What if a man was afraid of woman he still loved? What would make him afraid of her and desire her at the same time?” So those were the seeds for drawing Jane as a bad girl, as someone a strong man could fear.

LM: The seed of this story, Belly of the Whale, came from thinking about heroes. What does it take to be a hero, who is capable of being a hero and could someone who defies the acknowledged criteria for heroism, be a hero? The character Willy Wu in Whales Market is this person. The book’s title was originally, Willy Wu. I wanted to depict this young man as a hero. In order to do that, I built a story around him and it became, not just his story, but Hudson Catalina’s story.

Check out these great novels today on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or at your local bookstore.

Come back on Wednesday, April 2 for Part 2 of our Good Girl/Bad Girl discussion.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Fear not. Clinton is related to Angelina, but you might be, too.

That's right.

The New England Historic Genealogical Society announced some interesting findings this week.

Hilary Clinton and Angelina Jolie have something in common: they are ninth cousins. Author Jack Kerouac and Camilla Parker-Bowles, wife of England’s Prince Charles are also among Clinton’s gene pool.

An auspicious family tree, nay, orchard, if you ask me. Lots of interesting branches.

But I am not shocked. In fact, I’d wager that at least one of the readers of this blog is my distant relative. (Hey, you want an author to write about our big, dysfunctional family, right?) This is all part of a concept known as pedigree collapse.
Here’s how it works.

We all have two parents, four grandparents, and eight great grandparents. Let’s assume for the sake of math that the average generation is twenty-five years long. If we go back in time 1200 years (800 AD) each person would have 281.5 trillion grandparents. This calculation is done by reasoning the number of grandparents doubles every 25 years – and in 48 generations (or 1200 years) 281.5 trillion names would be on a person’s pedigree.

But in 800 AD, there weren’t even that many people in the world. How could any of us have that many grandparents? The answer: they are not all different people. Some names on your family tree would appear twice, or ten times, or even one hundred times over the years. Ancestors married their relatives throughout the years, knowingly or unknowingly. This was particularly common among royal families who were encouraged to marry other kinsman of royal blood.

This is pedigree collapse. So if you trace your family roots backward, you will find that it spreads out for several generations – and ultimately "collapses" back on itself, corresponding with the original size of the world’s population.

There are even some geneticists who believe that everyone on earth is at least a 50th cousin to everyone else. It’s no wonder we don’t always get along. Most large families do not.

But, this is what makes the study of genetic inheritance so fascinating. The knowledge that gifts, talents – even dark traits like mental illness or disease – can be passed down from one generation to the next. This linking of one ancestor to another is the integral theme to my novel Janeology – where you will meet eight of Jane’s ancestors as her husband searches her family tree for answers to her nature and nurture.

In the beginning of the story, you will meet with Jane, age nine, as she was abandoned by her own mother. (This is my personal favorite chapter of the book.) And you meet her mother, Victoria, who left New England as soon as she was of age, forever cutting off ties with her father -- Jane’s grandfather, Horace, who is filled with regret as he comes to terms with the focus of Victoria’s contempt. And then, Jane’s great-grandfather, Charles, a distant scientist, who looked the other way when his wife once tried to sell Horace’s twin sister to a carnival manager. For his part, Charles has been plagued by uneasiness all of his life, because his mother, Jane’s great, great grandmother, Eliza Anne, woke in a London hospital with no knowledge of who or where she was. And these are merely the relatives on Jane’s maternal side of the family. Many more are found on her paternal side.

In fact, if you visit my website, you can see Jane’s pedigree chart.

So next time you research your family tree, expect to find the unexpected. And for all you cousins out there I have yet to meet, Howdy!


Karen Harrington is the author of Janeology.


“I’m terribly proud that they quoted Rumpole twice during the O.J. Simpson trial. One of the defense lawyers told Judge Ito he thought they were getting ‘a case of premature adjudication,’ which is something Rumpole always says. Then one of the prosecution lawyers said, ‘As Rumpole would say, it all comes down to the blood.’” John Mortimer

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Conference Calls

This is the week of the 14th Annual Virginia Festival of the Book! Starting Wednesday, Charlottesville, Virginia comes alive with five days of mostly free literary events that are open to the public as the whole city honors book culture and promotes reading and literacy. The Festival includes a whole mystery-suspense track called Crime Wave, and I’m privileged to be part of it again this year. Saturday afternoon I’ll be on a panel called, "Life on the Streets with Cops and PIs" alongside some impressive names like my pals Libby Hellmann (past president of Sisters in Crime) and Shamus winner Andy Straka. You’d think I’d be totally focused on such a wonderful chance.

But this week I was meeting with Ruth Jordan of Crimespree fame to get involved with the final planning of a conference that will be an hour away from my house and won’t happen until October. Why?

Well, the VA Festival is a major deal in my state, but for mystery writers and fans, Bouchercon is the Superbowl of conferences. When you get asked to get involved with setting up or fielding volunteers, it means you’re truly part of the mystery community.

Also, Bouchercon is likely to draw 3,000 or so mystery fans to Baltimore this fall, fans who will need hotel rooms, goodie bags, schedules and directions. I don’t imagine the Democratic National Convention is any harder to put together. There’s a lot to be figured out and a lot to be done. A lot of the people doing it are pals of mine, and some live across country from here. How could I not offer to lend a hand?

And finally there are perks that only my fellow criminal minds could understand. The chance to meet and chat with my heroes and role models. Lunch or dinner with the best authors in my genre. Getting to exchange e-mail addresses with the people who may one day blurb my novel or mention me in passing to the right publisher.

These conferences take place all over the country - Love is Murder, Deadly Ink, Magna Cum Murder, Left Coast Crime.... I could go on for hours, but here’s the point. If you love mystery, if you love writing or if you just love the writers, get involved. When a conference calls, answer it! Those panels don’t happen by themselves, and the rewards for helping to pull something like that off simply can’t be measured.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Now we need more the kitchen!

There's a new false writing scandal in town that got past trusty editors. But hold onto your blog commenting keyboards, friends, this false copy isn’t a from a memoir. It’s from a recipe.

What’s the world coming to that you can’t even trust a recipe?

The culprit: a recipe falsely attributed to a celebrity. That’s right. GoodHousekeeping Magazine had to do a mea culpa after posting a recipe in its mag, proclaiming it to be Conan O’Brien’s Irish Stew. The talk show host said he’s never made a stew, doesn’t cook, and was never contacted by the magazine to lend his name to the St. Patrick’s Day recipe.

For the record, O’Brien said he wasn’t mad at the magazine, and even demonstrated on his March 20 TV show how he could "Irish up" the stew recipe by adding booze, Lucky Charms cereal and a nice garnish of grated Irish Spring soap.

Dear reader, I give you my promise that every recipe in Janeology was actually cooked by a celebrity, eaten by a celebrity or eaten while I watched a celebrity on TV.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Killer in Blog

This is a blog about a criminal mind, the mind of a killer, the mind of a bottom-feeder. The killer in any story, that thoughtless lack-luster-ink-spot on the white-shirt-of-life can make or break the manuscript. What is an author to do when the story needs a killer?

Writing is a solitary sport. The exercise of the mind to produce a winner of a novel puts the writer and author up against tremendous odds. Toss in the killer factor, the need for that one character that is capable of murder and out from the author’s vault comes the criminal mind, the dark side of imagination. Fiction is a wonderland of make believe. The creation of people, places and events are endless, but the mix of good and evil must be tempered. Too much of one and not enough of the other, can leave readers confused, puzzled and disappointed.

To get inside a criminal mind an author has to walk in the killer’s shoes. A writer must sink into the demented mind of the character being created. Anyone who spends days in their pajamas with nothing but a tea stained cup for company knows the tribulations of character development. The fictitious characters in your head become real. They breath and sit next to you, they joke and poke fun at you all the while you rake your hands through your unwashed hair attempting to create a believable killer, one who stirs up just the right mix of fear and horror to carry your plot to its conclusion.

Try, I mean just try to carry on a normal life. Things like having dinner with your family, talking to a friend on the phone or going grocery shopping becomes incredibly difficult. The ability to carry on a conversation or make decisions concerning real life is compromised. Your killer is everywhere. His actions, his thoughts, his clothes, every minute detail of that heinous crime he will commit, the one you will invent, hangs low and close and you can not function next to real people. You are a writer, you are a recluse, and you are the killer’s creator. Your mind will not rest until the deed is done and the last word is written.

Oh the trials and troubles of an author’s imagination. No front page newspaper, no gossip rag headline can match a fictional bad guy. A writer must write from his or her soul, and on the good days the writer turned author must get out of her jammies and sell books.

Belly of the Whale will take you deep into the mind of a two killers. One is cancer and the other is more deadly than the first.

Blog what you what think, what you hear and what you see.
Linda Merlino, author, Belly of the Whale

TV Writers’ Strike - The Aftermath

The Hollywood writers’ strike was both a blessing and curse for me personally. I’m hooked on just about every detective, adventure and science fiction program on the tube and the last couple of years have seen explosive growth in all three. The strike tipped the balance temporarily toward reality shows and repeats I had already seen. Boredom ensued, but I supported our courageous writers by not watching those reruns.

Of course, the unintended consequence of all this was that I suddenly found myself with more time to write, and to devour the latest issue of Writer’s Digest. My next novel took dramatic leaps in word count. On balance, the good outweighed the bad.

But what about the courageous writers who actually took a stand? To find out I wrote to Rafael Alvarez, a Baltimore native who made his bones writing The Wire and moved to Hollywood to grow his career. He was writing and producing a great crime show called LIFE just before the strike. I waited until the end of February, assuming he was overwhelmed with catch-up work, before asking about the fate of his series and whether he thought the strike was worth it. His answer?

“Yes. We won the establishment of a formula based on gross internet revenue that sets precedent. The numbers aren't that great right now, but putting the formula in place was a great victory.”

Pretty positive words there. But on his own career... not so much.

“Personally, I’m not busy yet with TV work because NBC fired half the staff of all shows on its schedule and I got the axe the day after the strike ended, even though LIFE was renewed for a 2nd season."

Geez, NBC... vindictive much?

These days Rafe is teaching writing classes, doing book signings, and writing a great weekly column called Storyteller for his hometown paper, the Baltimore examiner. You should check out the column, and not just because it is some of the best writing you’ll ever see. It is also true that the more on line visitors it gets each week the better off Rafe is with the editors. There’s more than one way to support our courageous writers.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

What Do I Think?

You know how you can tell the day is going to be bad?

The morning started with a friend calling to alert me about a 28-year-old woman who threw her two children, then herself, over a bridge not twenty minutes from my home. Incredibly, all three survived and were not hit by on-coming traffic on the highway below. What did I think, asked my well-meaning friend?

Well, friends, this kind of story is on my radar for obvious reasons. And this isn’t the first Texas mother in recent weeks, months, years to make headlines that get shuffled into my email box or on my voice mail with the accompanying, "Did you hear about this?" So, yeah, people are going to ask me about it because, in the words of my writing professor, "Parental relationships, especially mothers, are your territory, Karen. That’s your country. So don’t stop writing about it."


But this querying of my opinion, as if I am an quasi-expert or collector of mom tragedy, is an unexpected part of this writer’s education. Fair enough. All writers have their country. And when we buy a house in our country, I suppose it’s assumed we speak the language.

So, I wonder what writer whose work is a pot-boiler of politics and prostitution is being asked her thoughts on Eliot Spitzer today? You know you’re out there. Please step forward an answer the question: Why is Mrs. Spitzer looking at her husband with such restraint?


Karen Harrington, author, JANEOLOGY, the story of one man's struggle to understand his wife's sudden snap.

Fictional Blog

I love that people read my blog posts, but did you know that my fictional detective Hannibal Jones also blogs?

By now you realize that all crime fiction writers are schizophrenic – at least to the extent that our characters and the world they live in are very real to us. When I write I’m in my character’s head, and the space of the novels is not enough.

I started Hannibal’s blog a couple of years ago as a way for me to get to know my character better. Speaking in his voice, I offered his opinion on various subjects. I had a reporter interview him. I posted several vignettes exploring how Hannibal mentored Monte, his pre-teen neighbor. I also posted a number of short stories (under 1200 words) in the process of learning how to write flash fiction mysteries.

Due to time limitations in THIS universe, Hannibal hasn’t posted to his blog since Christmas, but the archives are still in full view on line. If you’re hungry for something a little different, if this sounds like an interesting writing exercise to you, or if you’d REALLY like to step into the mind of a crime novelist, Read Hannibal Jones' blog.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Fiction masquerading as memoir

Lying about factual book content is a crime. So why do some authors insist on trying to skirt the law with fictitious claims? Over the past 60 years, thousands of authors have claimed to have led fascinating lives and have bared all in gritty, nonfiction memoirs. Yet, some have outright lied.

Who can forget the James Frey scandal that resulted in a public admonishment from Oprah Winfrey?

Or more recently, Misha Defonseca, who claims in her "memoire" that she travelled with a pack of wolves during the Holocaust.

Or Margaret B. Jones...aka Margaret Seltzer...who professed to be part Native American when her parents are white/caucasian and further claimed she was raised in foster care.

Los Angeles Times has a series of related stories based on authors who misrepresent fiction as fact. Just check out some of the posts:

The New York Times has their own list of fraudulent memoir stories:

As an author, I have to shake my head. Fact is fact, people. If you lived it and people around you know you lived it, that's fact. Facts are usually fact-checked by someone. Eventually. FACT...also known as nonfiction in the book world. What part of this don't you understand?

These lies hurt the entire industry--from publishers to distributors to agents to reviewers to other authors and to readers. Especially to readers! By lying, you are shortchanging readers who have invested time, money and emotion in your work. And readers deserve more.

So why do these authors masquerade fiction as memoir? For more "WOW factor", because otherwise their lives would seem just like ours--fraught with bad childhoods, bad parents, bad memories, bad husbands, wifes, children...etc. Let's face it, we all have had challenges in life, but for most of us our lives just aren't interesting enough to warrant writing a book, much less finding a publisher to publish it.

Let's keep fiction where it's meant to be and memoirs filled with good ole honest truth.

On that note: I hope you will all read my memoir The River, which you can order from Amazon...the link to follow.

This is the true story of how I went searching for my father in the Nahanni River area and stumbled into a deadly conspiracy to do with nanotechnology; I barely escaped with my life. My father went missing about 7 years ago and my mother and I thought he was dead. We even had a funeral--even though there was no body. But investigators did find his blood, lots of it and after a while, they presumed him dead.

I would never have doubted it if it wasn't for my father's friend showing up in my university classroom, where I was teaching. I just about passed out when I saw him. He looked really old and was pale like a ghost! He should have been one too because he went missing along with my father. But what this man told me...I could barely believe his words. He said that my father was alive...up north...but that people were trying to kill him.

It didn't take me long to decide that there was only one thing to do--go to the Nahanni and find my father. I managed to convince some really great people to come with me. I could never have done that journey alone. It was exciting at first, but it didn't take long to become the most terrifying time in my life. It makes me shake just thinking about everything that happened...and the people who died as a result of my decision to go to an area of Canada that is nicknamed The Bermuda Triangle. Really! Not kidding!

I can't tell you everything here. My doctor says I am suffering from PTSD and I have to be careful. It was hard enough to get everything written down in my memoir. But if you want to know everything that happened...well, you'll have read it yourself by picking up a copy of my bestselling book The River (by Cheryl Kaye Tardif, in case you've forgotten).

My mother and I are doing better now. As for my father...well...I did find him. But I didn't expect to nearly drown, find a hidden river, or become a prisoner of a lunatic.

Read my memoir.

The River by Cheryl Kaye Tardif.

P.S. I hope you all realize that I was being completely sarcastic about The River being my memoir. It isn't. It's a suspense thriller--pure fiction. But I bet I had some of you going, didn't I? It certainly sounds far more exciting than telling you I was a military brat, moved around a lot and threw orange pop at the first boy who kissed me, doesn't it? :) The point is, this is fine as a joke, but not fine if I made this claim because I wanted to benefit from a lie financially and never told the truth until someone found me out.

P.P.S. I hope you'll still read The River. Everything I told you was from the perspective of Del, the main character, and the plot is as it is above.

I hope you'll read my novel, The River by Cheryl Kaye Tardif.

The Mystery of The Mystery of Edwin Drood

In the late 1860’s, when mystery novels were still relatively new, Wilkie Collins challenged his friend Charles Dickens to turn his pen in that direction. Taking up the challenge, Dickens began his first and only mystery story, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The novel was to be serialized in twelve monthly instalments by a magazine; published in Britian and shipped across the Atlantic to America. Unfortunately Dickens died halfway through the fascinating story. Oddly, it was the only time in his writing career that the writer had insisted on a contract stating that his heirs would be paid for the work should he die before it was finished.

Three years later, a young gadabout named Thomas James checked into a boarding house in Vermont, intent on avoiding anything resembling work. Shortly after, James announced to his landlady, a spiritualist, that he had been contacted by the spirit of Charles Dickens, who wished James to finish Edwin Drood. Eager to help out, the landlady offered him free room and board until the task was completed. Witnesses testified that James would go into long trances and write furiously as Dickens dictated the remainder of the novel. As word got out, James was accused of fraud and failure. However the book, attributed to ‘the spirit pen of Charles Dickens’ made an appearance in the bookstalls on Hallowe’en of 1873.

Controversy over the ‘genuine’ outcome of the story and the identity of the villain of Edwin Drood circulated among the early scholars, based on the working notes left behind by Dickens and the vignettes on the cover of the monthly instalments. The case was investigated by Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle insisted that Thomas James did not have a literary bone in his body and was incapable of creating the prose of Edwin Drood without assistance of some kind.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Allow Me To Introduce Myself

My name is Austin S. Camacho and I’ve been invited to join this esteemed group of bloggers. I am a published author with a four-book detective series to my credit, but there are lots of those lying around, so why should you listen to anything I have to say - especially since the first sentence you heard from me here is in passive construction?

Well, I can say that my opinions are not only strong but backed by experience. I’ve published my novels through a Print On Demand company, then by way of genuine self-publishing. After that a small press accepted my work so I actually got an advance, which I think is the line you cross when you can call yourself “commercially” published. And I have a New York agent who is trying to sell a couple of my manuscripts to the big guys, the mythical “mainstream” publishers we’ve all heard so much about. I’ve taught writing to adults at a local college. I’ve given classes and sat on panels at a number of writing conferences.

I’ll never talk so much about myself again, I just wanted you to know that no matter what kind of writer you are, we have something in common. And there’s this other thing. I love to write. Mostly I love writing mystery novels, but short stories and articles come out too.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s also writing I hate. I hate writing submission letters. I hate writing press releases about me or my own work. I hated writing a treatment for a potential screenplay of one of my stories. I’m hating trying to write discussion guides for book clubs that might want to read my novels.

That kind of writing is marketing, either to publishers, producers or readers. Not liking it doesn’t change the fact that it’s half the writer’s job. I spend a lot of time on marketing, which is why a POD company asked me to write a book on marketing fiction. (Don’t buy it – an updated version will be out in 2 months.)

So, bottom line, I’m a writer with all the oddities and foibles you have. I’ve learned a lot from the other writers here. I've traded opinions with Cheryl Kaye Tardif and now I hope to do so with you. I’ll be back when I have something to say, and now you know who I am.