Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Dick Davidson Interviews Fred Shafer, Literary Editor & Writing Teacher

1. Q. I have heard that you prefer a literary writing style. Is this correct, and if so, how do you define literary?
A. The word “literary” may seem to imply some kind of hierarchy in fiction writing, and I don’t feel comfortable with that idea.  But if the words “narrative” or “descriptive” were substituted for “literary,” then I’d say that I enjoy all kinds of narrative and descriptive writing, no matter the genre or audience.  In terms of voice or style, it’s always interesting to see and feel the things that good works of fiction share in common, from the cadences of sentences, to the textures of details, and the sounds of words.
2. Q. You have pointed out that all writers can learn something from studying examples of writing for children. Would you comment on this?
A. There are many things that all writers can learn from books written for children, because of the close contact those books share with fables, fairy tales, and stories told to listeners.  Too often, writers for adult audiences lose track of the basic spirit and force of storytelling.  By reading stories for children, they can renew their awareness of the rhythms of plot and the power and beauty of narrative sentences.
3. Q. You have spent more time in your career teaching others to write well than you have spent on your own writing. Would you comment on the relative values you place on writing and teaching?
A.  As a teacher and an editor, I’ve always felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to the people who come to me, and I enjoy watching writers develop and grow. It’s true that I usually give priority to my students’ work over my own, but I feel, at the same time, that I’m learning and growing and that my classes and workshops are, by implication, about my own writing, when there is time for it.
4. Q. In today’s literary climate and marketplace what kind of future do you see for short story writers?
A. Thanks to the Internet, the prospects for short story writers are excellent.  When the general-circulation magazines, with just a few exceptions, stopped carrying short fiction several years ago, the market for stories remained strong in magazines and journals published by universities, art organizations, and independent editors.  Many of those journals still appear in print, but some of them have shifted to on-line publishing and new journals show up frequently on Internet.  Last year, an author I know conducted a study of publishing opportunities available for storywriters both in print and on line and found more than 500 outlets.
5. Q. Genre writing emerged because bookstore displays and sales were made easier by having well-known categories of subject matter. With the increase of book (and eBook) sales online, will the importance of genre writing change? Do you anticipate new genres or mixtures of genres?
A. I suspect that the practice of categorizing genres is being sustained in on-line publishing, especially by systems that steer readers to books similar to those they have already purchased.  But I hope that writers will continue to experiment with genre mixing, because as a reader I like books that introduce new combinations of established forms and defy categorization.  On the Internet, where the planning of shelf space won’t be an issue, titles can always be listed under more than one heading, and it should be possible to create new headings, when they are needed.
6. Q. Some novels use much more narrative than dialog, while others are closer to plays in using mostly dialog with just enough narrative to set and describe the scene and accomplish transitions. Is the latter approach due to our increased dependence on visual forms of entertainment? Are different balances between narrative and dialog better suited to certain types of written works?
A. The reliance by fiction writers on dialogue, compact scenes, and quick transitions can be traced all the way back to the appearance of motion pictures early in the last century, and those characteristics appear often today, in short stories and novels created by writers who grew up watching television and movies.  Many writers have swung in the opposite direction, choosing to take a close look at the characters’ unspoken thoughts and feelings, simply because it isn’t possible in works written for film or theater.  The fact is that some stories may require physical action and dialogue, while others need to dwell on the interior lives of the characters, and I feel that each writer should be allowed to decide on the balance that seems right for his or her work.
7. Q.  Would you comment on the need for fiction writers to be entertainers as well as technically proficient writers?
A. If providing entertainment means to involve the reader in the characters’ personalities and lives, the world of the story, and a strong plot, great fiction writers have always been entertainers.  Whenever we are engrossed in reading a novel or watching a play or movie, those qualities enable us to feel entertained, and we need to stay in touch with them when writing our own stories.  It’s easy to make the mistake of associating entertainment with comic relief or, on the other side, to believe that a serious theme and technical adeptness will win the reader’s attention, forgetting that our primary job is to create a compelling narrative.

8. Q. The statistics I have seen indicate that only about ten percent of the titles published in the U.S. are fiction. Is this a cultural effect with the balance being different in other countries, and/or is there something that would make the reading public more interested in fiction?
A. I doubt that this trend can be reversed, unless the spread of IPads, Kindles, and other reading devices brings a renewed interest in short stories and novels.  For perhaps a majority of people in our society, the appetite for stories is being satisfied by movies and television programs, including the new and seemingly pervasive form, “reality TV.”  Even so, I feel that there will always be people, like us, who are eager to read fiction. Those are the people for whom we are writing, and on-line publishing has provided new and relatively inexpensive ways of reaching them.
9. Q. Is public school education more or less likely to aim children toward writing interest and proficiency than in the past? What would you recommend to improve writing education?
A. In the two years in which my older daughter has served in Teach for America in Washington, D. C., she’s helped me to understand that the reading and writing of stories is still an important part of our educational system.  Her seventh and eighth graders respond enthusiastically to stories about people, situations, and places with which they are familiar, and it leads them to write stories drawn from their own memories and imaginations.  I hope that educators will continue to acknowledge the essential role that the narrative impulse plays in our lives.
10. Q. With the advent of greater self-publishing, eBooks, and POD publishing we are now publishing more than a million book titles per year. Would you say this is a good trend because more people are getting more experiences in writing books, or do you prefer the traditional publishing gatekeeper approach which limits the number of titles published but tries to guarantee that those published have very high quality? 
A. In my answers to the other questions, I’m sure that my enthusiasm for on-line publishing has been obvious.  I’m pleased to see that the removal of the gatekeeper has created new opportunities for writers to publish and distribute their work, but there is one aspect that concerns me: the decline of the role played by editors in helping writers to shape and polish their work. This has already happened at some of the on-line journals, which tend to post manuscripts, without changes, soon after accepting them. I hope that people who decide to publish their own fiction will secure the help of an editor, because good books have always reached their potential through collaboration between a writer and an editor who is sensitive to the writer’s purposes.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

To Outline or Not to Outline

There is definitely a very good argument for creating an outline as you prepare to write a new book if you are writing nonfiction. The argument is less convincing for general fiction, and I do not like to outline in writing a mystery novel. I do make plenty of notes on a yellow legal pad with some guesses about where the plot might be going, and then I put that pad away and never look at it again until the book has been completed. The essence of a mystery novel is investigation. If you have an outline, you already know the results of that investigation. I prefer to write a mystery from the inside out. I ride along with my characters and witness each step of the investigation along with them. The nature of your characters, the amount of information they have, and the situation in which they find themselves tell you what the logical next step in the investigation is going to be. Different characters logically explore aspects of the problem that are appropriate for them, and they learn from each other when they compare notes. Each status comparison builds a new platform for the next steps in the investigation. I never know the outcome in advance. I learn along with my characters, and I find many surprises as the process leads to an outcome.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Beginning / Middle / End / Beginning

Most coherent stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. As with a speech, you don't want to start communicating without having some idea where you are going. Good fiction will tend to have a beginning, a middle, an end, and then it will double back to the beginning to be sure that the opening questions have been answered by the end of the book. It isn't always necessary to tie down every loose end, especially if you want to leave the reader with open-ended questions rather than answers, but wrapping things up neatly yields reader satisfaction and is a sign of good writing craftsmanship. However, if you are writing a series of novels, you may want to use the technique of ending each volume with a dilemma or stimulus that will entice the reader to crave the next volume.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Obituary vs. Celebration of Life

I was looking at web sites that had templates for writing obituaries, just because I will be including a few obituaries in my latest novel. It struck me that obituaries really don't tell you that much about the nature of the person who died. I learn much more when I go to a memorial service where they are having a Celebration of Life for the individual. Not only do they have panels full of photographs from different points in the life of the deceased, but they invite family members, friends and acquaintances to talk about him or her and to remember important and anecdotal events and encounters. These are extremely valuable to you if you only knew the deceased in a single context or situation. The problem is that I typically learn that my friend or acquaintance had so much more depth and substance in his or her life that I never comprehended or appreciated. Why can't we come up with a new kind of written profile for those with whom we interact that allows us to share our common interests and better appreciate each other while we are still alive and vibrant? We would need something beyond a resume that does not invade privacy, but opens the door a crack toward offering the opportunity to explore each other's qualities during one-on-one interactions. Can you write such a personal profile about yourself?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Into the Ebook World #1

I've finally started my journey into the ebook world with the publication of Lead Us Not into Temptation, Volume I of the Lord's Prayer Mystery Series as a paperless book. All formats of ebook are available at the links shown below:
Richard Davidson's Smashwords Author Profile:
Book page to sample or purchase Lead Us Not into Temptation:
I've also just skimmed this book in both the widely distributed epub and mobi (Kindle) versions, and I found the ebook reading experience reasonably satisfying (although I still feel nothing can match the printed book experience). I will soon have my other books available as ebooks also.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Dick Davidson Interviews Sharon Fiffer

  1. Q. Whether you are writing memoir or a Jane Wheel mystery, you draw stories out of physical objects and memories of real objects. Do you find this easier and more satisfying than conjuring up an object from your imagination to fit your story?
I simply find that using objects works for me—and I usually like to find something real.  The hunt for the object helps me think out the story. That’s not to say I don’t make objects up.  When I am writing about a “mystery” suitcase that Jane Wheel picks up at a sale, I might have her open it to find a Bakelite pin that I will describe in great detail.  It isn’t necessarily a piece of jewelry I’ve seen—it might just be something I think should exist.  As far as memoir, I think real objects can lead you into memory in a concrete way.  They just help anchor your thoughts, help you focus.  That’s been my experience.
  1. Q. When you use fiction for creativity and filling in the blanks in memoir, how do you keep from slanting the story so that it is more entertaining or self-serving than is true to the actual events?
I do not use fiction to fill in the blanks—and I hope I don’t ever give that impression.  Compressing time or using composite characters isn’t really fiction.  Writing actual dialogue for someone that’s true to the person or event or true to your memory isn’t  what I would call using fiction –although it might be using the tools of fiction writing.  Also—if your memoir isn’t entertaining, why are you writing it?  I think all writing should teach and please (badly paraphrasing Aristotle there) to a certain degree—and if your story doesn’t have a point of view or doesn’t increase someone’s understanding of the human condition, doesn’t expand the world in some way, it might be a very interesting personal diary, but it isn’t necessarily memoir to be shared.  And as far as writing being self-serving?  That’s what journals are for!  To work out all those revenge fantasies!  That is not what I think of as memoir.
       3. Q. How does a memoir that uses fiction compare to a personal historical novel?
I think I have to repeat myself here—using the tools of fiction writing to craft your memoir is not using fiction.  I’m not sure what a personal historical novel would be, but unless I had changed history in some way, I’m not sure I’d attempt it
       4. Q. You take the unusual approach of using real family members and    locations identified by their real names in your novels. Does this technique make you tend to put yourself as a character or raise questions from family and friends?
I use characters who were part of my life—like my mother and father—and their place of business, The EZ Way Inn.  Because I have great affection for the people and the place I feel I can base characters on them without raising any negative questions from anyone who knew them.  But make no mistake, even though my Don and Nellie are based on the real Don and Nellie, Jane Wheel’s parents are my fictional creations.  I never feel bound by the real people—my wonderful characters are all troopers in that they live to tell the story.  By the way, the only characters whose real names I use are my parents who have now passed away.  Although I use some real place names and street names, I would never have something terrible happen in a real ongoing Kankakee business.  
  1.  Q. Have you received encouragement or recognition from the city of Kankakee, Illinois for setting your stories there? Would your stories have more flexibility in a fictional town?
I think the people in Kankakee who read my books love them.  That’s what they tell me when I go there to read and sign.  And someone from Kankakee is presenting the key to the farmer’s market to me in June and naming a carrot after Jane Wheel—I’ll be there signing and they’ve asked me to hand out recipes for Nellie’s vegetable soup.  And as far as flexibility?  I can tell whatever story I want—just as Sara Paretsky can make Chicago home for V.I. but tell any story she wants.  If I feel wanderlust at all, Jane visits someplace else.  Book #3, The Wrong Stuff, takes place in Michigan and Hollywood Stuff, Book #5 takes place in LA.  Having a real home base for the series is, I think, an advantage. 
  1. Q. You and your husband are both writers. How would you respond if he wanted to co-author a mystery with you? Do you think co-authoring works well?
We’ve written one non-fiction book together  and edited three collections of memoirs together.  Pure pleasure.  Steve is a non-fiction guy—all plot and structure—and I am much more interested in dialogue and character so we make a good team.  I think it would be a lot of fun to do a mystery together—we just have to find some time when we both aren’t swamped with separate projects.
  1. Q. Do you have other types of writing that you would like to pursue? Would you feel obligated to keep the Jane Wheel series going while you wrote other things?
I’ve been lucky that my editor and and publisher have not required a strict book –a-year schedule.  Between books  #4 and #5 I took some extra time to work on some other projects.  I still have a few other stand-alone novels I’d like to write—and I think I might even have another series in me.  I just need a few extra hours in the day, a few extra days in the week.
  1. Q. Would you please give a few examples of items you see at estate sales, and what you think they tell you about their former owners?
Photo albums are obvious storybooks—but I prefer handwritten items.  I love old autograph books, old high school yearbooks that have been signed, even old notebooks from high school classes.  Love to find other peoples’ doodles and notes and lists.  I also like old kitchen items and recipe boxes with lots of hand-written recipes with notes on family dinners and adjustments made to recipes.  I also love finding handmade things—crocheted potholders, knitted blankets—all that time and love and domestic art!
  1. Q. I noticed that on your business card, you give Jane Wheel, PPI her own e-mail address. Does she receive a lot of e-mail, and how would you characterize it?
Jane gets a fair amount of fan mail.  I use that email address on my website,, so fans who visit the website can email directly.  The idea of using one side of the card for Jane’s name and title, PPI (picker and private investigator) is a bit of whimsy that appeals to me. After seven books, Jane’s earned some professional swag.  
  1. Q. Did your parents ever read a Jane Wheel mystery, and if so, how did they react to being in it? If they didn’t read one, how do you think they would have reacted?
Sadly, my father died long before Jane Wheel was born.  He became ill one year after he and my mother sold the EZ Way Inn and retired.  I know he would have loved the books—he’d probably have plenty of ideas for scenes in the tavern—and would probably share lots of anecdotes that I never got to hear.  My mother was not a reader—I always tell the story that I apologized that the Nellie character came off pretty rough in the first book (but has redeemed herself many times over—and Jane has begun to better understand where her mother’s gruffness comes from) and my mother told me not to worry about it.  “Hell, honey, I won’t ever read it anyway,” is exactly what she said.  I did read some parts of the book to her—and she enjoyed hearing me describe the tavern and some of the characters.  She died at 92, and remained as feisty as the fictional Nellie until the end.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Dick Davidson Interviews Zoe Zolbrod

1. Q: In your novel, Currency, you used a Thai male narrator because you had spent enough time in Thailand to become familiar with the culture and language. How would you go about building sufficient expertise to use a narrator from a country you had never visited?
A: Well, the first thing I would probably do would be to plan a visit to that country. Although I know writers have successfully done it and taken similar leaps, I can't imagine being moved to create a narrator from a country with which I'm not personally familiar. I did have characters in my book who were from places—Kenya, Russia—I've never been to, and even for these characters, I steeped myself in both fiction and nonfiction from those countries.

2. Q: How do you feel your day job as a textbook editor affects your fiction writing?

A: I work on books and instructional materials for middle and high school literature and language arts classes, and at its best, my job requires me to attend very closely to some good and great literature. I've learned a lot about story construction and language by having to deconstruct selections for students and write and edit questions about the works. Even as a writer who reads with an eye toward craft, it's hard for me to slow down and concentrate as fully as I need to when reading on my own time. On the other hand, having a full-time job while raising a family starves me for writing time. Better that than actually starving, though.

3. Q: In Currency you had the Thai narrator from a culture other than your own. If you had several other-culture characters with different backgrounds, would it be worth juggling cultural details, languages, and idioms? We tolerated a lot of films in the past where all the other-culture characters had British accents.

A: Because my novel is a lot about the dynamics of cross-cultural relationships and about the way nationality affects how we move through the world, it seemed important to me not to flatten those aspects of even minor characters. I tried to give a different cadence to the speech of my Kenyan and Russian characters; I tried to take into account their backgrounds as I created them, so they'd be fully fleshed people. To me, that's an author's job. However, in my book, I took license with everyone's syntax and so forth. I wanted to give the flavor of their idiosyncratic English without making it too difficult for the reader to engage with.

4. Q: What are the primary characteristics that make a character’s voice believable?

A: A distinctive voice, and sense of depth or back story. A character should rarely say everything he or she thinks or feels--most of us are not even consciously aware of everything we think or feel. So the author should know more about the character than is revealed.
5. Q: How do you avoid distractions of unusual voices in multi-character dialog?

A: One thing I kept tinkering with in revision were the dialogue tags and bits of description interspersed in conversation. If there are too few, the dialogue becomes ungrounded, but if there are too many, they can impede a conversation's flow. I didn't worry about the idiosyncratic voices per se, though. To me, it's more distracting--or difficult, anyway--to follow and care about a conversation when characters' speech patterns are so similar that it's hard to tell who's who.

6. Q: What is the role of the reader’s imagination in capturing a character’s voice? How subtle can the cues be to trigger that imagination?

A: The reader's imagination is very important, of course, but a character should not be a blank slate. Like most readers, I've been in conversations with others who have read the same book and found myself disagreeing with their opinions of certain characters. That's fun and interesting, and the conversation usually reveals that our opinions say more about us and our own experiences than about the characters. But in such a conversation readers should be able to support their opinions with many specific details from the text.

7. Q: On your website, , you describe the enjoyment your book tour gave you. Your novel also has a travel dimension. Please share the relative values to you of travel itself and the purposes of your travel.

A: From childhood, I've had a curiosity about other places. Seeing new things sparks my imagination, and when I travel, I’m more fully present in the moment, I live through all my senses, and I’m more open to the world; I'm a better observer, which makes me a better writer.  Traveling helps me take the focus outside of myself, which increases my empathy and compassion, and in the process, it helps me know myself in a different way. I've traveled to broaden my own horizons, and now I hope to spark a similar openness and curiosity in my children.

8. Q: You have said that Currency emerged from a daylong exercise of conjuring up your Thai narrator and having him converse with you. What were your other motivations for writing this novel?

A: I wanted to explore questions that were raised for me as an American traveler visiting much poorer countries, as well as to reflect on my experience growing up as a townie in a college town and working as a waitress in the tourist mecca of Santa Fe, New Mexico. I wanted to better understand the ways of the world and to investigate how an issue can appear differently to different people depending on a variety of factors.

9. Q: You indicated that the total Currency process from first writing efforts to publication spanned approximately ten years. Are you an exceptionally patient person? Describe the highs and lows of this process.

A: There were many highs--writing and revising the novel was an extremely exciting and satisfying period of my life, and that period lasted a long time; about three years or four years. It was easy to be patient then, because I could sense that I was on the right track and that I was refining the book in meaningful ways. I could feel myself getting stronger as a writer, and there was such a thrill of discovery as I continued to realize new things about the characters and their situations. I expected it to be difficult to find an agent and a publisher, and so I remained fairly patient during the two years it took me to find my first agent. The lows came after that agent collected her first batch of rejections from publishers and started pulling away from me. I eventually found another enthusiastic agent, but when the same pattern repeated itself, I became extremely demoralized. I had a child by this time and a more demanding job, and I couldn't drown my sorrows in immersing myself in a new project; I just didn't have the time to throw myself into something. I pursued publication with small presses, but half-heatedly. When the novel finally found a home with Other Voices Books, my feeling was initially one more of disbelief than excitement or joy. It took awhile to realize that Currency was finally going to be made into a real book, and that other people cared enough about it to help me with the process.

10. Q: What are you planning to do differently in bringing out your second novel?

A: I'm not working on a novel currently. I'm working on what I think will be an extended work of nonfiction. At the rate I'm going, it's likely to be many years before it's ready to be considered for publication. This time around, I hope to maintain the writing community I've reconnected with upon Currency's publication and not to give up hope. I'm also going to try to publish excerpts of it online and in journals in order to generate some interest and keep my own momentum. And I'm going to start trying now to make connections with the communities I think will be interested in my current topic. That's really invaluable, both for building a platform for my work and for learning things that will enrich it.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Susan Bearman Interviews Laura Munson

Follow this link to an interesting interview with Laura Munson about her family crisis memoir. The full interview is posted on Susan's blog, "2 Kinds of People."

Friday, March 4, 2011

Three-Dimensional Novels

One of the ways you can make your novel stand out is to make it three-dimensional. The same principles can be applied to shorter written works, but you have better opportunities to do it within the length of a novel. The width dimension of a novel is enhanced by intertwining and layering plots. Instead of a single start-to-finish plot, use two or three main plots interwoven and coming together as each strand meshes with the others before the climax. Sub-plots add further layering and change-of-pace interests for the reader. The depth dimension of a novel concerns its message or messages. A good novel will convey a message or philosophy to the reader which must be consistent with the nature of the story. The length dimension of a novel is obviously its numbers of words and pages, but it should contain enough twists, turns, and character developments to give the reader the feeling that he or she has undergone an experience by its completion. Generally, the novel length should range from 75,000 to 100,000 words. Most readers won't tackle a work much longer than that unless the author is well-known and respected. If your novel has well-developed width, depth, and length, your reader is very likely to get immersed in it.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Dick Davidson Interviews Augie Aleksy of Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore, Forest Park, IL

Q. Your bookstore emphasizes the fields of History and Mystery. In my novels the key to solving the mystery is frequently found in historical precedents and situations. How did you come to pair these two fields as your specialties?
Both history and mystery were subjects that always intrigued me. When I did my planning for Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore it was late 1989 and 1990 and at this time the Borders and Barnes & Nobles were already making headway into the Chicago market. I knew I could not compete with them financially, nor did I want to be a general bookstore. The idea bored me. Knowing that choosing my niche of mystery, history and biography would have to be justified by customer interest and purchases I conducted 2 kinds of surveys. The first was circulation of books by categories spelled out by the Dewey Decimal System at the main building of the Oak Park Library. In that survey the only category to compete with mystery, history & biography combined were “Do it yourself” books. Under “Do it yourself” fell a variety of areas, gardening, home repair, automobile mechanics, baking, etc. Then I did a 3000 piece mailer to Oak Park and River Forest that was a gate-fold with 4 pages. The pages had about 8 various categories to choose from to define the survey recipient’s purchases in the last quarter of 1989, taking Christmas shopping into account. Mystery, history and biography combined beat out all other categories listed. The response to the survey was over 18%. Also, I attached quarter as an incentive for the recipient to fill out the survey. I received $8.75 of quarters and one $0.25 stamp back with comments like…” I’d fill this survey out for nothing; if you’re opening a bookstore; you’re going to need this quarter more than I…” So I had the practical reason for my specialization. To your thought, would I have opened the store anyway? My answer would be NO. I knew what I wanted to do, but I was practical enough to know that if I didn’t have a chance I wasn’t going to start the venture.
Q. This is a difficult time for retail bookstores. Your store is local and in a downtown area of an urban suburb, yet your reputation and appeal go well beyond your location and size. How have you managed to continue to grow your base of followers?
I think I have been able to expand our base through the variety of programs I offer at the store that distinguish it from your “typical” or “ordinary” bookstores. It is a place where I truly believe we can make the books you read come “alive”.  We have had and continue to have the following events at Centuries & Sleuths:
            1. The Mystery (3rd Saturday), History (Last Sunday) Discussion Groups, and the G.K. Chesterton Society (2nd Saturday) meet monthly along with the local     chapters of the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and the Chicago Dickens                              Fellowship and less regular basis throughout the year.
            2. Live programs with time volunteered by our fantastic customers:
                        a. Trial of Richard III (with a real Federal Court Judge; Congressional Hearing  concerning FDR’s prior of knowledge of the Attack on Pearl Harbor, The Great Debate of 1850 with Clay, Calhoun, & Webster; & a Fictional Debate between Abraham Lincoln & Jefferson Davis.
                        b. Plays written and performed by members of our Mystery Discussion Group  (e.g. Valentine Day’s Murder; Blood on Blue & Gray: A Death at the Fair; Murder in the Red Light District, and more.)
                        c. 17 performances of the Meeting of Minds similar to those developed by Steve Allen for Public Television in the 1970s. We have Tsar Nicholas II, Al Capone, Richard J. Daley, Marcus Garvey, Dorothy Day, Mary Todd Lincoln, Ida B. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle Edgar Allan Poe, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Booker T. Washington, Gen. George A. Custer; Martin Luther, Nicholas Copernicus, Ferdinand & Isabella of Spain, W.E.B. DuBois, and many more…
                        d. What’s Cookin’ in History & Mystery with various foods from historical periods, food on military campaigns, food from various Victorian & Edwardian mysteries, etc.
            3. Author Discussions & Signings with internationally known authors and our own local authors, some of which are internationally known. (e.g. Steve Allen, Sir Peter Ustinov, Senator Paul Simon, Sara Paretsky, Donna Leone, Ian Rankin, Bob Goldsborough, Richard Lindberg, Barb D’Amato, Harriette G. Robinet etc.)
A wonderful compliment that was paid to the Centuries & Sleuths is when a local author Harriette G. Robinet said the store is more than a bookstore, it’s a Cultural Center.
Q. Until fairly recently, self-published books had very little chance of attracting the interest of bookstore managers. Now, due to changes in technology and the advent of e-Books, the majority of titles are self-published. How do you perceive the trends in quality and acceptance of self-published books?
Well, it gets down to the quality of the book written. In the past many of volumes that were self-published were done because the writing was not up to the standards of the major publishing houses. I think in many ways that has changed. Some major publishers’ editors and book agents have let quality books slip past them because they felt it was time for “this type” of expression. You can talk to many authors who are well known now, that keep boxes of rejection letters in their closets to keep them humble or to harass publishers. In the past you might have had a good and determined author out there, but their resources, whether in terms of spirit and/or dollars, had dried up. Now, thanks to self-publishing there is another means for these enthusiastic writers to get published and become accepted and loved by readers. However, the quality of the work is what will keep it alive and make it a “classic”. Self-publishing gives more writers the opportunity to get the recognition they deserve.
Q. Independent bookstores and independent publishers appear to be finding niche markets that give them staying power while the giant bookstores and major conventional publishers are facing difficulties that are new to them. How would you forecast future problems and opportunities for bookstores and publishers of various sizes?
I think it is important to know your product and, at the same time, know what the buying public wants and if your product meets their needs. Also, there is the educational aspect. Many times the public (your prospective customers) don’t know about your product and how important it is for them to know, appreciate, & understand it. There is a great quotation from Christopher Morley in his book The Haunted Bookshop "We have what you want, though you may not know you want it." Having a niche makes it more likely that you know your product because you purposely chose it. Having a niche makes more viable for the small business to survive financially since you have no intention of pleasing everyone with your selection and the reading public knows that, if you’ve advertised well. It also gives a vast opportunity to have programs in your store that promote your niche. The owners can have various discussion groups, author signings and talks by specialists in your specialized area, and performances which educate and entertain your customers. The only problem, sometimes, is success itself. When you do things right and do well there is the temptation to enlarge expand or in some cases be bought out by a larger company. Then you risk losing the personal knowledge of and touch with your customers’ wants and needs which won them over to you. Don’t lose touch with your product or your customers.
Q. There are currently more writers and published books than ever in our history. With all of these new books, how do you see the trend in readership?
It does concern me with reports that more newspapers are closing because no one’s bothering to read the daily or even weekly papers. Also, they are telling us that less of the young people are bothering to read. However, perhaps they’re not looking in the right places. Since papers and books are available on line now more of both adults and children are reading on line. Also, I have heard from a high school literature teacher that said it depends on the quality and the topic of the book whether young people read it. The Harry Potter and the Twilight series have become quite popular and both books are quite thick. Also, an author's grandmother has noticed that her granddaughters are communicating and reading, but are using the electronic media to do it. So, it seems that readers young and old gravitate to quality, but have more distractions to take them off course.
Q. The Harry Potter books uncovered an amazing willingness of young readers to tackle the reading of large books if the subject matter excited them. Do you see the younger generation as becoming lifelong book readers, or do you think that the social media, blogs, and e-mail tend to limit their attention spans to shorter works and articles?
That’s a good question. I think using Harry Potter as an example is part of the answer. The quality has to be there, but it has to have appeal to what young people want to know about. There’s friendship (Pals), the need for study, discipline, good fun and EVIL. The books have to have something to challenge youth, both good & evil besides being a good yarn. There also have to be good marketing and promotions with social media because this, unfortunately, is where, not just kids, but many are getting their news. There is hope. Ways of informing young readers about a quality volume, have changed, but they contact far more people than past methods.
Q. As a bookstore owner of significant reputation, you are probably in a position to be a gatekeeper for achieving legitimacy and standing for new and little-known authors. Can you think of some authors who have benefited from your encouragement and gone on to significant popularity and careers?
That’s a tough question to answer. I think I have been responsible for putting my customers and/or friends on to great authors after having read their works. But my recommendation did not make the readers come back to read more of a given author and have the customer tell me they appreciate my suggestion. The writer wrote a good story, they told it well, it kept the reader’s attention and wanting more. There are authors like: Harriette G. Robinet and Norm Cowie with good kids’ books; Will Thomas, Peter Tremayne, Bob Goldsborough & Michael Jecks that have great historical mysteries; Libby Fischer Hellmann, Julie Hyzy, Barb D’Amato, Sean Chercover, & John Connolly writing exciting and sometimes really creepy thrillers, and Jennifer Lee Carrell, Ian W. Toll, Erik Larson, Lynne Olson, Stanley Cloud & Linda Himelstein who make history & it’s characters come alive. I don’t think these authors would have benefited from my recommendation or encouragement if they hadn’t written wonderful books. Maybe my customers have benefited from my help and saved them from wasting time on a poor or mediocre book. I just wish I had more time to read.
Q. Can you identify some trends in the approach and subject matter of history works and mystery novels that have increasing popularity?
Well, I think there are some trends in both areas. It’s been the consensus of our history discussion group that journalists who do their research well are the best writers to tell the public their history. Historians are good for facts, dates, figures, etc. that fit in an academic environment. However, it is the good journalist that knows how to write the story that keeps the reader interested in the subject with desire to read through the whole book. Martin Gilbert in his History of the Twentieth Century is a prime example. Most people know what happened in at least up to just past the mid 1900s. However, the style that Gilbert writes in makes you want to read how the German’s are going to be defeated in both World Wars I and II. They were like a juggernaut with no one or way to stop them. Also telling us of the origins of Franco in Spanish history and Mussolini in Italian history, but how they fit into the big picture. It appears that in the mystery area there has been a tendency to the supernatural and horror. We have vampires and werewolves roaming not only mysteries, but the classics and I don’t mean Frankenstein and Dracula. But, again I think the quality of the writing makes a book work. One of my personal bestsellers in 2010 was Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Graham-Smith. It’s very unique in the way of blending history and mystery. Graham-Smith does a great job of research, writing and transitioning from reality to horror. It does appear that it’s a trend and what “new” readers are buying. As bookseller and authors we must realize that some of the “old timers” that were in love with the old traditional mysteries are dying out. So we have to be aware of these trends, but quality and clever writing is what will survive.
Q. When I was younger, I was very enthusiastic about historical novels for both their entertainment value and their ability to transport the reader to different times while providing reliable historical lessons. The Kenneth Roberts series of American history novels come to mind. Are such novels still finding a significant market, and are the authors maintaining adequate historical accuracy?
Yes, the historical novels by Bernard Cornwall, George Mac Donald Fraser, Robin Maxwell, Patrick O’Brian, C.S. Forester, Alexander Dumas, Rafael Sabatini, etc. are all doing well. They fill 1-3/4 bookcases. They are filling a vacuum left by former history students who had poor history teachers. These are adventures and get their life from history’s legends. Fraser’s books are full of footnotes telling the reader what was historically taking place as he tells his story. Their accuracy is probably better than James Fennimore Cooper.
Q. Would you comment on the significance of trade associations and networking with other bookstore owners for the success of an independent bookstore?
I definitely favor the trade associations because they keep us in touch, aware of new systems and challenges out there, and help with costs because of the power of numbers. The networking is a key factor because he makes you aware what others are doing even if they don’t work for you. Or you can take someone’s idea and put a new twist on it to make it work for you.
Q. What would be your advice to someone who was considering opening a new bookstore, with or without an area of specialization?
1. Do a Business Plan. (If you don’t know what one is look it up.)
2. Analyze the market in which you’re opening your business.
            a. What are people buying?
            b. Does that market need another bookstore?
            c. Why are there no bookstores in that area?
3. What can you afford & where are you getting your money?
            a. Personal Savings (Family’s?)
            b. Loans
4. Make sure your personal support system (family, friends, partner, pet or whatever) is behind you. If not, and you still want to move on --- It’s going to be even tougher than you         imagined.
5. Remember, no matter what the “How To” books say Bookselling is a career, a vocation and a life style. It’s not 9AM-5PM Monday through Friday.
6. You’ve got to be both tenacious and creative to succeed. Don’t ask me yet what success is.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Where Do You Write?

This is the final post in my sequence about the Why, What, Who, When, and Where of writing. It is also the most difficult to tackle. Why should where you write be important? I'm sure that some writers require a very comfortable and carefully arranged setting. Others jot ideas on Post-It notes and write the finished version on a clipboard pad while watching television. Some even dictate their materials into a recorder and get someone else to transfer their thoughts to computer input or paper. Some like isolation, while others do their best writing in a coffee shop. The most important aspect of Where is that it must be a setting that works for you. At least a pen, a laptop, and a smartphone are portable devices. You can easily test a variety of writing venues until you find the one that makes you feel most efficient, has the fewest distractions, or is the most likely to keep you stimulated. Wherever you write, try to write something every day. Writing is habit forming, and the more you do it, the better the writing habits become.

When Do You Write?

I have to plead guilty to a terrible defect when it comes to writing. I take care of all my other chores and answer all of my e-mail and write blog posts before I get to working on my current book. It is very inefficient with regard to my books but tremendously efficient for all of my other work. I think this deficiency has to be due to the fact that I am easily distracted. Once I start working on the book manuscript, I don't want to be distracted by other obligations. I take the easy way out by completing the other obligations before I do the work that I most want to do. Some writers manage to allocate a certain period of time each day for writing on their primary project. I would like to do that, but I fear that I would have to cancel most of my other obligations and become a hermit to succeed at it. I do have the consolation that while I am doing other things, I get ideas for the next phase of my book project, so that when I do sit down to work on the book I can jump right into it. I have to conclude that this jumping from job to job and clearing out the background noise projects before launching into my main writing work is my personal style. Each of us has to develop a schedule for writing with which he/she can be comfortable. Mine is a random walk through all of my jobs. I just have to continue to improve my efficiency at it. Maybe your routine is more rational, or perhaps it is even more quirky. Either way, enjoy your writing. I find that no other task is as satisfying.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Who Writes Your Fiction?

The title of this piece initially sounds nonsensical. Of course you write your own fiction. Who else is going to do it? I like to think that my characters and their situations write my books. I'm just along for the ride. What I mean by this is that I create the concept of the book, along with the characters and the initial situation. Usually, my initial situation is dynamic; the novel starts with something going on. Then the characters have to continue the action and/or react to it. Given the characters you select for any given chapter and their scene/situation, you can write the book from the inside. Instead of hovering over the scene and manipulating people, you can put yourself into the mind of each character and know what they would say and do to move the story forward. The characters interact in a series of actions and reactions that lead you to know what has to come next. If you have created meaningful characters, you will know what the tone of their comments will be and their approaches to getting out of the problems you have created for them. Your only requirement is to give them a continuous series of obstacles and problems to overcome. Just as in your own life, your characters will develop more as they face and overcome adversities. They will also come to learn more about each other and will become more believable and real to the reader.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Dick Davidson Interviews Marshall J. Cook, Part 2

Q: Given the violent world we live in, what should a mystery writer do to keep the reader's attention when he/she sees murders every day on the news, and the writer is creating a whole novel about "only" one or two murders?
A: You can't outdo life for gore, violence, and inhumanity. I don't even try; that's one reason why I write so-called cozy mysteries. No matter what you write, though, I think you earn and keep the reader's attention by creating credible characters and giving the reader a reason to care about them. Shockingly, some of my favorite [mystery] novels don't have any murders at all!!!!
Q: When I write a novel, I try to add significance by framing it around events that might have "national news impact" and bring in the historical background behind what is happening now. This is my style, and it gives me confidence that the reader will learn something from my novel. What do you think about the importance of style and voice to an author?
A: I think they're important, and I'd add "attitude" and "way of looking at the world" to the list. That said, I think the writer should absolutely forget all about such things and just try to tell a story as truly and sincerely as he or she can. Your style and voice will emerge naturally out of who you are, your experiences, your passions, your convictions.
Q: Catherine Wallace has said that there are many more reasons to write than there are to publish. Given this point of view and the hundreds of thousands of books that are published each year in the U.S. alone, would you ever suggest to your students that they write novels or nonfiction and never even try to publish them?
A: My job is to encourage, nurture, and help them do what they want to do. I do stress, though, that the act of writing itself, for oneself, is inherently valuable and needs no further justification, including publication. Writing is communication, sure, but it's also therapy, self-discovery, exploration, mastery of skills and forms -- all very good things.
Q: I've always been fascinated by authors like Isaac Asimov, J. R. R. Tolkien, and J. K. Rowling, who created their own worlds. Then they determined the natural laws and relationships that controlled those worlds. Have you ever thought about creating your own version of reality in a book? Would you like to play God in that sense?
A: I've never felt called to write science fiction, in that sense, but I think every fiction writer creates his/her own version of reality, a whole world. You are in that sense the God of your own little universe.
Q: It has to be very frustrating to authors to see that anyone with a bit of celebrity or notoriety can get bigger contracts and sell more books than most professional writers. What do you think about "star power" in publishing, and what do you think about the quality of most celebrity books?
A: Two Different questions.
Celebrity "books": Most of them aren't books at all. They're a little scrap of the celebrity, like a signed picture, something of that person that we can have for our very own. In terms of the quality of the book: Aw, you know they generally aren't very good. You don't need me to say so. But the 'star power' writers -- Stephen King, Danielle Steele, Patterson, Clancy, all the rest -- I say more power to them, and thank God for them. If we didn't have superstar fiction writers, only the courageous small press publishers would publish any fiction at all. And the stars get folks reading novels, which they might not otherwise do at all. And finally -- some of those 'stars' write really good stuff. Lonesome Dove was a blockbuster; it's also a great American novel.

Q: You pointed out earlier that in the U.S. only about ten percent of the books that are published each year are fiction. With a nonfiction book, it is fairly easy to determine your (somewhat specialized) market and your platform for promoting it. I know people who have written novels that have appeal to a specific geographic or historical interest market. How do you feel about writing a novel to suit a marketing plan?
Q: What do you think about writing contests? Do they work better when everyone writes to meet a specific assignment, or are they best for assessing the value of already-published works?
A: That's not really an either/or, is it? They certainly both have value. (I think the ones with a specific assignment are more interesting and fun.) I've never been much for entering contests. (For me the 'contest' is "Do you want to publish this?") But I think they're great if they encourage writers.
Q: I know that you teach some writing courses online. Do you think that writers get more out of a short in-person course or a longer self-study online course?
A: Depends on the learner and the learning style, I'm sure. I love classroom/face-to-face teaching and had my doubts initially about online teaching. I've been amazed at how wonderful it is. You really can teach writing this way, and you develop relationships with your students that are in many ways deeper and more authentic than face-to-face ones. It's great!
Q: I think that the best way to learn how to write is to write. @@@Amen, Brother!@@@ While you are in the process, and when you are revising, you can apply skills and information you have picked up along the way. As an educator, do you think there are skills that should be honed before one tackles creative writing? Should a novice writer feel self-conscious about writing down his or her thoughts?
A: Should you learn your scales first and jump right in and try to play a song, right? I'm definitely of the second school of thought. Get in there and tell stories. You start figuring out right away what you don't know and what you need to know. It's organic.
Q: I was fortunate to have a great Creative Writing teacher back in high school. He said that the secret to any written work could be found in two words: unity and coherence. (HMMM. Nobody told William Faulkner, I guess.) Do you have any similar succinct keys that are favorites?
A: They aren't similar, but over 40+ years of teaching, I've got it honed down to seven words:
Pay attention.
Try stuff.
Don't give up.