Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy Holidays to All

Well I'm ready; how about you?

The ginger bread house is, as always, Danielle's, while everyone pitches in to load down our poor, groaning tree...

Wishing you all the best of holiday seasons!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Orianthi's Believe


I remember a skinny little kid named Orianthi who was a demon with a guitar, who didn't want to do anything but pick a six-string and sing, and who dreamed of growing up to be a rock star. I remember a growing girl who sat in the corner whispering with my daughter about how much they hated school and how embarrassing it was to have moms who wrote romances. I remember a teenager who was such a wonder with an electric guitiar that Carlos Santana invited her up on stage to do solos with him when he came to Adelaide. I remember a determined, incredibly talented young woman whose mom put her own dreams on hold to help her daughter reach for the moon and the stars.

Along the way, a lot of people said it would never happen. But today, she's in Los Angeles rather than Australia and her debut album, Believe, has just been released. Last I checked, her "According to You" was sitting at #32 on iTunes. Pretty neat, huh?

Congratulations, Orianthi! (And you, too, Sue.)

You can visit her website and watch her new music video here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Some Good News...And More Water

I've had several pieces of good news this past week:

First, What Remains of Heaven has been nominated for Romantic Times' Best Historical Mystery of 2009 award.

Then, I learned that What Angels Fear and Why Mermaids Sing are both going back to press. This makes the fourth printing for Angels, which is pretty neat since it shows the series is continuing to pick up new readers--and has made my publisher happy.

And, best of all, I've learned that the first month sales of the hardcover release of What Remains of Heaven were almost double last year's sales of Where Serpents Sleep! So in a publishing environment where "flat is the new up," my sales are UP up.

As for the rain... New Orleans has now recorded 21.2 inches of rain for the month of December. According to the weather service, that total is the most ever to fall in a single month in the New Orleans area since 1947, when the service started keeping records at the airport. It even exceeds the total for the month of May 1995, when New Orleans had their big rain-induced flood. Of course, most of that rain fell in something like 12 hours, so this isn't nearly so bad. But then, we're still only halfway through the month, and the ground is beyond saturated.


I was planning to go Christmas shopping today. Not happening!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Water, Water Everywhere


It’s not that I hate water. I just hate water running two feet deep down the street I’m trying to drive on. I hate water when it falls from the sky at the rate of nearly six inches in an hour. I hate water when I sit marooned for 90 minutes watching car after car die an ugly, sloshing death before me.

No, this isn’t our car. We had enough sense to pull off Severn onto a higher, nearby parking lot and wait for the water to go down (despite the fact Steve just bought a hulking big Toyota SUV). The driver of this Lexus wasn’t that smart.

Heavy rains are a part of life in New Orleans. But this one was a bit unusual. You see, the previous record rainfall for the month of December in New Orleans was only something like 10.7 inches. As of 9 pm last night, we’d broken that record, with 12.7 inches of rain recorded so far this month. And there’s still a lot of December left.

I like Al Gore’s phrase, “climate change deniers.”

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Year the Publishing Industry Committed Suicide—with a Little Help from Its Friends


Times have been tough for most of us lately. But the publishing industry seems to have chosen 2009 as the year to shoot itself in the foot. And the arm. And the leg….

First came reports that certain houses were cutting out Advance Readers Copies/Editions for all but all but a few lucky Chosen Ones. Publishers have always had a love-hate relationship with ARCs. On the one hand, they can be a good way to get a buzz going for a book. On the other hand, they’re expensive to produce and lately they have a nasty way of ending up on eBay, thus cutting into an author’s sales. So why not phase them out? Well, the main reason is because without ARCs, reviewers can’t review a book (most really don’t want to deal with PDF files). And without reviews, no one is going to know a book is out there. And if no one knows a book is out there, guys, how can you expect anyone to buy it?

Oh, look; our sales are tanking even worse!

So what did publishers do? They looked at their falling sales, got spooked, and came up with the bright idea to postpone the release of many their “big” books to the fall, by which time they assumed the economy would be better. It would have been bad enough if just one house had done this, but great minds—and not so great ones—tend to think alike. Result? Lots and lots of books—both “beach books” and literary fiction—that were supposed to come last summer were all dumped on the market this fall, along with all the “big” books that are normally released in the fall. As a result, more books were competing for fewer buyers, and everyone’s sales tanked. Clever, guys; very, very clever.

Then came the news that the grand dame of romance, Harlequin Mills and Boon, has decided to open up a vanity press division. Why is this an issue? Because writers’ organizations really, really hate vanity presses; they simply do not recognize them as legitimate publishing houses. So everyone from Romance Writers of America and Mystery Writers of America to Science Fiction Writers of America and Fantasy Writers of America have reacted by announcing that any author whose book is published by Harlequin (that includes Mira, which has been trying to position itself as a big league publisher of mysteries and thrillers) is no longer eligible for any of those organizations’ awards. Ouch.

Obviously, the biggest impact of this decision will be felt by RWA. Harlequin’s sales make up something like fifty percent of all romance sales, and I suspect that Harlequin authors and those wanting to become Harlequin authors make up more than 50% of RWA’s members. The entrants to certain categories of the RITA come entirely from HM&B, and HM&B contributes heftily to RWA’s national convention every year. Basically, HM&B and the writers’ organizations are in a pissing contest. Who will win? I don’t know. But all I gotta say is: Great timing, guys!

And then Walmart decided they wanted to corner the market for online book orders. How? By selling the top ten bestselling hardcovers at a huge loss, for $9. In order to complete, Amazon.com matched Walmart.com’s prices, followed by Kmart. So readers now have a choice between paying $9 for a bestseller or $25 for a midlist author. Way to slaughter the midlist, guys—along with any remaining bricks-and-mortar bookstores. The most famous beneficiary of this scheme was probably Sarah Palin, whose $30 book was selling for less than a third its cover price…and don’t get me started on the millions Harper Collins is spending to hire a $4000/hour private jet for a month to ferry this “author” and her 15-plus entourage on the book tour to end all book tours. Literally.

It just keeps getting worse. Across the country, more and more hard-pressed newspapers have been eliminating their book sections and book reviews, making it harder and harder for authors to get their books reviewed anywhere except online. In September, Publishers Weekly announced that they would now only review one mass market original per house a month. And then, today, comes the news that Nielsen Business Media has “made the decision to cease operations” at Kirkus Reviews (as well as Editor & Publisher.)

For those of you not familiar with Kirkus, it was perhaps the most respected forum for book reviews, largely because they were tough. As Ron Charles at the Washington Post Book World tweeted, "Worst news in a long time: Kirkus shutting down. For me, they were the last reliable source of negative reviews." In other words, if a book got a good review from Kirkus, it meant something. Now, that’s gone.

So just how bad are things in the publishing industry? According to insiders, the sales of virtually all NYT bestselling authors—across the board--are down between 15-30%. Once, if an author’s sales were staying flat, it was considered the kiss of death for his career. Now, with most people’s sales tanking, if a writer’s sales are staying flat, that’s good.

Or as they say in New York these days, "Flat is the new up."

Monday, December 07, 2009

The Polish website Zbrodnia w Bibliotece recently ran a long interview with me. You can see their lovely posting here.

I found their questions both interesting and thought-provoking, so I thought I’d post some of them here for the benefit of those who (like me!) can’t read Polish.

ZwB: Do you think that historians are in some ways like detectives, searching for what happened in the past?
What an interesting question! I’ve never thought of it that way, but I think you may have something there. Much of what drives my interest in history has always been curiosity—I want to know what really happened, why, how, when, or by whom. With history, we can rarely be entirely certain that our reconstructions of the past are correct. But when I write a detective novel, I’m in complete control, so when Sebastian figures out the story of a slice of the past—the murder—he gets to KNOW he’s right.

ZwB: Why do you write historical crime novels?
I’ve loved history for as long as I can remember. When I was a child, we lived in Spain and my holidays were spent climbing around crumbling castles and exploring ancient Roman ruins. My father was a professional historian and a great storyteller, so my bedtime stories were the tales of the Alhambra and Scheherazade. It was virtually fated that I’d grow up to earn a PhD in history and become a professor myself. I no longer teach, but I’ll always love history.

ZwB: Why do you think historical crime fiction is so popular?
Perhaps because many readers like to feel they’re also “learning” something when they read fiction? Because the lives of historical figures seem less complicated and constricted than ours? Because it’s pleasant to escape into both a different land and a different time? I suspect we each have our own reasons for enjoying historicals.

ZwB: Was your decision to do a historical detective novel based on market awareness or was it simply something you wanted to do?
At least in the States, contemporary mysteries and thrillers are actually more commercially successful than historicals. But I personally have always liked old-fashioned detective stories, where the emphasis is on character analysis and deduction rather than on police procedure or high-tech forensics. So putting my detective in an historical setting was a way to embrace what I enjoy and avoid what doesn’t interest me. Plus, of course, I love history.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Kitten Update

Yes, they're still here. All of them. They turn four months tomorrow.

We've found a friend to adopt the mama cat and one of the kittens (Peanut, the dainty, apricot-colored runt of the litter who's off doing her own thing, as usual), but he won't be taking possession until after he returns from a trip to South America later in the month. My daughter, Sam, wants to keep Whiskies, the sweetheart with the white markings on the left (she'll be adding him to the three black rescue cats she already has). That still leaves us with Peaches (the one sleeping in the back--Peaches is always sleeping) and Roscoe (the handsome adventurer on the right). The problem is, the longer we have them the more attached we become. They are sooo cute!

Friday, November 27, 2009

A Tale of Two Sisters Booksigning

Steve and I will be doing a booksigning this Saturday afternoon, November 28th, at the Tale of Two Sisters Bookstore, at 214 Lee Lane in Covington, Louisiana, from 2-4 pm. The bookshop is a new venture by a friend of ours, Kathy Spiess. So if any of you are in the area, it would be nice to see you there.

I trust all had a pleasant Thanksgiving. We had a relaxing day with both my daughters, my mom, and one of my daughter's friends from med school who couldn't go back to Michigan for the holidays. It was a lot of fun.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Planting Pablo’s Oak

Pablo is gone now. But before he died, he planted an acorn that has since grown into a small tree. Last weekend, Steve and I took Pablo’s oak up the lake as a memorial to a fondly remembered friend.

So who was Pablo? Here he is:

No, not the person; that’s Ben, a great guy who gave up part of his 2005 Christmas vacation to come down from Kentucky and help us rebuild after Katrina. Pablo is the squirrel. He brightened our lives through all the dark, heartbreaking months we were struggling to recover from the hurricane.

Katrina’s combination of wind and flood decimated the neighborhood’s squirrel population. The sole survivor was Pablo, a rather small male with the scraggliest tail I’ve ever seen on a squirrel. He was so lonely—and hungry—that he adopted us. Every morning when I’d pull into the driveway to begin another day’s work on our devastated house, he’d come pelting down the walk, chattering happily. There you are, there you are. Launching into a flying leap, he’d land on my shoulder. (He did that once to the UPS guy, who freaked out.)

We kept Pablo supplied with nuts, and in return he made us laugh and helped us to remember what is important in life and what isn’t. After about eight months, a new squirrel appeared, young and plump and female. Together, she and Pablo set to work rebuilding the neighborhood squirrel population. Yet even after he had his own kind again, Pablo stayed our friend.

By the time we moved back into our house, we could tell he was aging. He could no longer make the great leap from the pavement to our shoulders, but would have to climb the brick posts or a tree and chatter for us to come close enough that he could jump. And then one day he came no more, and we knew Pablo was gone.

But he left my yard seeded with lots of little nut trees—pecans and oaks and walnuts. The little oak I found growing in my hanging bougainvillea—one of Pablo’s favorite spots—made me laugh so much that I carefully separated it out and potted it up. I’ve nursed it along for several years now. We selected a spot down by the back fence of our lake house, and last weekend we planted it.

There are lots of squirrels up at the lake. Hopefully, in time, their descendents will enjoy the acorns from Pablo’s oak. And every time we see it, we’ll be reminded of the little friend who helped us through one of the darkest periods of our lives.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sneak Peek, Part Two

It's hard to get back to work after such a totally relaxing break. We had a wonderful time up at the lake, touring plantations and planting climbing roses and honeysuckle around the house. Even the weather cooperated, with lovely clear blue skies and daytime temperatures in the 70s. Bliss.

Now, as promised, here is the beginning of the second chapter of Where Shadows Dance. (And my apologies to everyone I made worry that I was about to kill off Gibson!)


The first rays of the rising sun caught the heavy mist off the river and turned it into shimmering wisps of gold and pink that hugged the soot-stained chimneys, church spires, and rooftops of the city. Standing beside his bedroom window, Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, cradled a glass of brandy in one hand. Behind him lay the tangled, abandoned ruin of his bed. He had not slept.

He was a tall man, leanly built. Not yet thirty years of age, he had dark hair and strange yellow eyes with an unnatural ability to see clearly at great distances or at night, when the world was reduced for most men to vague shadows of gray. Now, as the world outside the window brightened, he brought the brandy to his lips only to hesitate and set it aside untasted.

There were times when memories of the past tormented his sleep and drove him from his bed, times when his dreams echoed with the crash of cannonballs and the screams of mangled men, when the cloying scent of death haunted him and would not go away. But not this night. This night, he was troubled more by the present than the past. By a life-altering truth revealed too late and a future he did not want but was honor bound to embrace.

He reached again for his brandy, only to pause as the sound of frantic knocking reverberated though the house. Jerking up the sash, he leaned out, the cool air of morning biting his bare flesh as he shouted down at the figure on the steps below, “What the bloody hell do you want?”

The man’s head fell back, revealing familiar features. “That you, Devlin?”

“Gibson?” Sebastian was suddenly, painfully sober. “I’ll be right down.”

Pausing only to throw on a silk dressing gown, he hurried downstairs to find his majordomo, Morey, dressed in a paisley gown of astonishingly lurid reds and blues and clutching a flickering candle that tipped dangerously as he worked at drawing back the bolts on the front door.

“Go back to bed, Morey,” said Sebastian. “I’ll deal with this.”

“Yes, my lord.” A former gunnery sergeant, the majordomo gave a dignified bow and withdrew.

Sebastian yanked open the front door. His friend practically fell into the marble-floored entrance hall. “What the devil’s happened, Gibson? What is it?”

Gibson leaned against the wall. He was breathing heavily, his normally jaunty face haggard and streaked with sweat. From the looks of things, he hadn’t been able to find a hackney and had simply hurried the distance from the Tower to Mayfair on foot—not an easy journey for a man with a wooden leg.

He swallowed hard and said, “I have a wee bit of a problem.”

* * *

Sebastian stared down at the pale body stretched out on his friend’s granite slab and tried to avoid breathing too deeply.
The sun was up by now. The wind had blown away the clouds and the last of the mist to leave the sky scrubbed blue and empty. Already, the day promised to be warm. From the corpse before him rose a sickly-sweet odor of decay.

“You know,” said Sebastian, rubbing his nose, “if you’d left the man in his grave where he belonged, you wouldn’t have a problem.”

Gibson stood on the far side of the table, his arms folded at his chest. “It’s a little late now.”

Sebastian grunted. To some, they might seem unlikely friends, this Earl’s heir and the Irish surgeon with a passion for unraveling the secrets of the human body. But there had been a time when both had worn the King’s colors, when they’d fought together from the West Indies and Italy to the mountains of Portugal. Theirs was a friendship forged in all the horrors of blood and mud and looming death. Now, they shared a dedication to truth and a passionate anger at the wanton, selfish destruction of one human being by another.

Gibson scrubbed a hand across his lower face. “It’s not like I can walk into Bow Street and say, ‘By the way, mates, I thought you might be interested to know that I bought a body filched from St. George’s Churchyard last night. Yes, I know it’s illegal, but here’s the thing: it appears this gentleman whose friends all think died in his sleep was actually murdered.’ ”

Sebastian huffed a soft laugh. “Not if you value your life.”

The authorities tended to turn a blind eye to the activities of body snatchers, unless they were caught redhanded. But the inhabitants of London were considerably less sanguine about the unauthorized dissection of their nearest and dearest. When word spread of a body snatching, hordes of hysterical relatives had a nasty habit of descending on the city’s churchyards to dig up the remains of their loved ones. Since they frequently discovered only empty coffins and torn grave clothes, the resultant mobs then turned their fury on the city’s hospitals and the homes of known anatomists, smashing and burning, and savaging any medical men unlucky enough to fall into their clutches.

Gibson was well known as an anatomist.

Sebastian said, “Perhaps Jumpin’ Jack dug up the wrong body.”

Gibson shook his head. “I plan to check the rolls of mortality later today to make certain, but my money’s on Jumpin’ Jack. If he says this is Benjamin Knox, then this is Benjamin Knox.”

Sebastian walked around the table, his gaze on the pale corpse.

Gibson said, “Do you recognize him?”

“No. But then, to my knowledge I’ve never met anyone named Benjamin Knox.”

“I’m told he had rooms in St. James’s Street, above the Je Reviens Coffeehouse.”

St. James’s was a popular locale for young gentleman. “Who told you he died of a defective heart?”

“A colleague of mine at St. Thomas’s—Dr. Anthony Cooper. He was called in to examine the body. Swore there were no signs of any violence or illness; the man was simply lying dead in his bed when his valet came to rouse him that morning. Cooper was convinced he must have had a weak heart. That’s why I was so anxious to dissect the body—to observe whatever malformation or damage might be present.”

Sebastian hunkered down to study the telltale slit at the base of the man’s skull. “Your Dr. Cooper obviously didn’t think to look at the back of his patient’s neck.”

“Obviously not. But surely there would have been traces of blood on the pillow and sheets?”

“If Mr. Knox were killed in his bed, yes. I suspect he was not.” Sebastian straightened and went to stand in the open doorway overlooking the unkempt garden that stretched from the stone outbuilding to the surgery beyond.

Gibson came to stand beside him. After a moment, the Irishman said, “Looks like a professional’s work, doesn’t it?”

“It does.”

“I can’t just pretend I didn’t see this.”

Sebastian blew out a long breath. “It’s not going to be easy, investigating a murder no one knows occurred.”

“But you’ll do it?”

Sebastian glanced back at the pallid corpse on Gibson’s dissection table. The man looked to be much the same age as Sebastian, and he found himself wondering if Knox had left a wife and children to mourn him. A mother? Perhaps a father. He should have had decades of rewarding life ahead of him. Instead he was reduced to this, a murdered cadaver on a surgeon’s slab. And Sebastian knew a deep and abiding fury directed toward whoever had brought Knox to this end.

“I’ll do it.”

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Taking a Break


Steve and I are taking off for a much-needed four day weekend. My sister is in town to take care of my mother while we're away, so this will be the first "real" break we've had in years. See y'all next week!

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Shadow Teaser


One of the things I've been doing this past week is preparing the "teaser" chapter for Where Shadows Dance that will go in the back of next summer's paperback reprint edition of What Remains of Heaven. So I thought I'd give y'all a "pre-sneak peek". Here's chapter one, which introduces the murder victim; chapter two follows next week.

Wednesday, 22 July 1812

A cool wind gusted up, rattling the branches of the trees overhead and bringing with it the unmistakable clatter of wooden wheels approaching over cobblestones. Standing just outside the open gate to the alley, Paul Gibson doused his lantern, his eyes straining as he peered into the fog-swirled darkness. Thick clouds bunched overhead, obscuring the moon and stars and promising more rain. He could see nothing but the high, rough stone walls of the yards around him and the refuse-choked mud of the lane that curved away into the mist.

A dog barked somewhere in the night. In spite of himself, Gibson shivered. It was a dirty business, this. But until the government revised its laws on human dissection, anatomists like Gibson could either resign themselves to ignorance or meet the resurrection men in the darkest hours before dawn.

Paul Gibson was not fond of ignorance.

He was a slim, dark-haired man of medium height, Irish born and in his thirty-second year. Trained as a surgeon, he’d honed his skills on the battlefields of Europe until a French cannonball shattered the lower part of one leg and left him with a weakness for the sweet relief to be found in poppies. Now he divided his time between sharing his knowledge of anatomy at hospitals like St. Thomas and St. Bartholomew’s, and working from his small surgery here, at the base of Tower Hill.

The dog barked again, followed this time by a man’s low curse. A two-wheeled cart loomed out of the mist, the raw-boned mule between the poles snorting and jibing at the bit when the driver drew up with a gutteral, “Whoa there, ye bloomin’ idiot. Where ye think yer goin’? We got one more delivery t’ make before ye can head home to yer barn.”

A tall, skeletally thin man in striped trousers and a natty coat jumped from the cart and tipped his top hat in a flourishing bow. As he straightened, a waft of gin underlain with the sweet scent of decay carried on the wind. “We got him fer ye, doctor,” said Jumpin’ Jack Cockran with a broad wink. “Mind ye, he’s not as fresh as I like me merchandize to be, but ye did say ye wanted this particular gentleman.”

Gibson peered over the cart’s side at the bulky, man-sized burlap sack that lay within. Another name for the resurrection men was the sack’em up boys. “You’re certain you’ve got the right one?”

“It’s him, all right.” Cockran motioned at the sturdy lad who accompanied him. “Grab the other end there, Ben.”

Grunting softly, the two men slung the burlap-wrapped merchandise off the back of the cart. It landed heavily in the rank grass beside the gate.

“Careful,” said Gibson.

Cockran grinned, displaying long, tobacco-stained teeth. “I can guarantee he didn’t feel a thing, doctor.”

Hefting the heavy sack between them, the two men carried the merchandise into the stone outbuilding at the base of Gibson’s overgrown garden and heaved it up onto the granite slab table that stood in the center of the room. Working quickly, they peeled away the mud-encrusted sack to reveal the limp body of a young man, his dark hair fashionably cut, his hands soft and well-manicured, as befitted a gentleman. His pale, naked flesh was liberally streaked with dirt, for the body snatchers had stripped off his shroud and grave clothes and stuffed them back into his coffin before refilling the tomb. There was no law against carting a dead body through the streets of London. But stealing a cadaver and its grave clothes could earn a man seven years in Botany Bay.

“Sorry about the mud,” said Cockran. “We’ve had a might o’ rain today.”

“I understand. Thank you, gentleman,” said Gibson. “Here’s your twenty guineas.”

It was the going price for an adult male; adult females generally went for fifteen, with children being sold by the foot. Cockran shook his head and hawked up a mouthful of phlegm he shot out the door. “Nah. Make it eighteen. I got me professional pride, and he’s not as fresh as I like ’em to be. But ye would have this one.”

Gibson stared at the pallid, handsome face of the body lying on his dissection table. “It’s not often a healthy young man succumbs to a weak heart. This gentleman’s body has much to teach us about diseases of the circulation system.”

“Weary interestin’, I’m sure,” said Cockran, scooping up his muddy sack. “Thank ye kindly fer the business, and a weary good night to ye, sir.”

After the men had left, Gibson relit his lantern and hung it from the chain suspended over the table. The lantern swayed gently back and forth, the golden light playing over the pale flesh of the body below. In life, his name had been Benjamin Knox. A well-formed gentleman of twenty-eight years, he’d had long, leanly muscled arms and legs, and a broad chest tapering to a slim waist and hips. He looked as if he should have been the epitome of health. Yet four days before his heart had stopped as he slept peacefully in his own bed.

The delicate dissection of the defective heart would need to wait until daylight. But Gibson set to work with a bowl of warm water and a cloth, sponging off the mud of the graveyard and casting a preliminary practiced eye over the corpse.
It was when he was washing the soil from the back of the man’s neck that he found it: a short purple slit at the base of the skull. Frowning, Gibson reached for a probe and watched in horror as it slid in four inches, easily following the path previously cut through living flesh by a stiletto.

Taking a step back, he set aside the probe with a soft clatter, his teeth sinking into his lower lip as he brought his gaze back to the young man’s alabaster face. “Bloody hell,” he whispered. “You didn’t die of a defective heart. You were murdered.”

Friday, November 06, 2009


Finally, finally, I have finished The Babylonian Codex. This book feels as if it's taken me forever to write. But now it's done and I can get back to work on Where Shadows Dance, the next book in the Sebastian St. Cyr series. The thrillers are fun, but I do miss Sebastian!

I'll be doing a booksigning for What Remains of Heaven tomorrow, Novemeber 7th, at the Garden District Bookstore in New Orleans, from 1-3. Hope to see you there if you're in the area.

And here, for smiles, is a picture of little Roscoe...

Monday, November 02, 2009

What Remains of Heaven goes on sale officially tomorrow, but from the sounds of things NAL isn't being too careful about "lay down" (which is really only important when a publisher hopes a book will hit the lists). Since I'm distracted at the moment, here are two more reviews, a nice one from Romantic Times, which gave the book 4 1/2 stars and made it a Top Pick, and a slightly snarky one from Publishers Weekly.

Romantic Times, Top Pick 41/2 stars:
"From dissolute and disillusioned to insightful and probing, Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, has evolved into a fascinating and effective detective as he moves stealthily among the ton to investigate murders in London's upper echelon. Harris' deft touch with atmosphere and history weaves a rich tapestry for this complex tale of a murderer driven by fear. This first-class historical mystery will put Harris in the stratosphere of some of the best historical writers.

"The Archbishop of Canterbury asks Sebastian to help investigate the mystery of two corpses found in ancient crypt, their violent deaths separated by decades. The first is the Bishop of London, who was the Archbishop's heir apparent, a controversial figure among the ton. But before he can solve that murder, Sebastian has to identify the second body and how it relates to the feisty bishop.

"Sebastian's suspect list includes some of the Prince Regent's closest friends and expatriate William Franklin, son of American patriot Ben. Along the way he must also confront some dark family secrets that will undoubtedly affect his life."

Publishers Weekly:
What Remains of Heaven: A Sebastian St. Cyr Mystery C.S. Harris. NAL/ Long-festering family secrets, treachery and worse threaten Sebastian St. Cyr in Harris's addictive fifth Regency-era mystery starring the dashing soldier-turned-sleuth (after 2008's Where Serpents Sleep). From the start, St. Cyr's mission is sensitive: finding out who killed the bishop of London, a leading candidate for archbishop of Canterbury, in the crypt of the same country church where the mummified body of another murder victim was discovered only hours earlier. It becomes downright dangerous once the charismatic viscount unearths the surprising connection between the men as well as the many powerful enemies with motives for their murder—including his own father. Harris weaves palpable period detail and romantic subplots with such ease that her occasional descriptive laziness, such as repeats of “fiercely blue St. Cyr eyes,” grates inordinately. But it shouldn't keep you from being swept up by her seductive antihero at his swashbuckling best."

Of course, this is why they invented the ellipsis, so that authors can take less-than-perfect reviews and make them sound like raves, i.e.: “Addictive...Harris weaves palpable period detail and romantic subplots with such ease…her seductive antihero at his swashbuckling best.”

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Library Journal Gives Heaven Starred Review

I've been busy this past week, spending time with my daughter who was home for Fall Break and trying to finish up my %$#@ manuscript. My next Sebastian book, What Remains of Heaven,comes out next week, November 3. Library Journal gave it a great starred review:

Harris, C.S. What Remains of Heaven: A Sebastian St. Cyr Mystery. Obsidian Mysteries: NAL. Nov. 2009.
In his fifth outing (after Why Mermaids Sing), former spy Sebastian St. Cyr is asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury to find who killed the Bishop of London, whose body was found in an ancient crypt along with a decades-old unidentified corpse. Along the way he gets a bit of help from Miss Hero Jarvis, meets Benjamin Franklin's embittered son, and learns more about his origins. VERDICT Harris combines all of the qualities of a solid Regency in the tradition of Georgette Heyer by pairing two strong characters trying to ignore their mutual attraction while solving a crime together. Anyone who likes Amanda Quick and/or is reading the reissued Heyer novels will love this series.

I find it a bit bemusing the way the review emphasizes the romance when it's actually a minor subplot, but I'll take a good review any day, especially since PW got a bit snarky in theirs.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Too Subtle


Writing a thriller with dual protagonists (in my case, Tobie and Jax) presents several difficulties, many of which fall under the general heading of “point of view.”

For those of you unfamiliar with the writers’ expression “point of view” or POV, it simply refers to whose head we’re in. In other words, are we as readers experiencing the action from Tobie’s perspective or from Jax’s perspective? If we’re in Tobie’s perspective, we see what she sees, hear what she hears, and know what she’s thinking and feeling. She can only guess what’s going on in Jax’s head.

Writing is all about choices. And one of the reasons POV is troublesome when you have two equal heroes is because the writer has to decide, Okay, whose POV am I going to write this scene from? In some cases the choice is obvious. At other times, less so. And how do you remind readers whose POV they’re in—particularly in a fast-paced book without a lot of introspection?

I always have some sort of clue at the beginning of each scene to let readers know whose POV we're in. But because of the nature of the books, those clues are often very subtle. So I also decided from the very first book that Tobie would think of herself as “Tobie” while Jax thinks of her as “October.”

Ironically, I never told my coauthor, Steve, I was doing this—I just assumed he’d noticed. I mean, he’s read each of these books over and over again, right? Well, I came right out yesterday and asked him if he’d realized that Jax always thinks of Tobie as “October” so that it’s one way to tell who is the POV character in any given scene. He stared at me blankly and said, “Really? I never noticed.”

So now I’m thinking, if Steve hasn’t noticed, I doubt anyone else has, either. Although I’d like to think maybe readers notice subconsciously.

No? Oh, well; at least it serves to remind ME whose head I’m supposed to be in.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Emperor's New Clothes


Barbara Peters of The Poisoned Pen was so incensed by the glowing review of Dan Brown’s latest opus by Janet Maslin in the New York Times that she waxed long and eloquent about what she calls “the way celebrity authors …can induce a kind of 'Emperor's New Clothes' approach to literary criticism.”

Let me say right off that I myself have not read The Last Symbol. But this isn't really about Dan Brown; it's about all authors/actors/directors who have achieved such a stellar level of popularity that it seems to intimidate reviewers into what can only be called a state of dishonesty. For those who don’t know her, Peters is the owner of very successful bookstore in Phoenix. The Poisoned Pen is so supportive of mystery authors that they actually began their own press for authors of favorite mystery series that had been dropped by New York. So Barbara is not a disgruntled author; she’s a bookstore owner who’s evidently finally had enough of a phenomenon we’ve all noticed: bestselling authors who are given a pass for lousy books simply because no one has the guts to stand up say “the emperor has no clothes”.

The reason? According to Barbara, “The pressures can be financial (from the newspaper or the publisher or...), or editorial (lots of pressure points here), or a fear of being the only one to point out how bare-assed the emperor may be. Who of us wants to be caught naked in public?

“I really hate to think an adulatory review of a bad book is penned because a critic's reading faculties have done a meltdown. And I do allow for variations in appreciation of voice or subject or narrative drive..... But terrible writing speaks for itself. Any of you can recognize it.

“The sad truth also is that with a celebrity author two things can come into play: 1. It's uneconomic to put the effort into editing bad writing as the book will sell anyway. 2. The editor will get no reward in his/her house for alienating an author with criticism and perhaps driving the author to seek another publisher. If you contemplate how bad some bestsellers are, or how surprisingly some writers you have read with enjoyment have deteriorated, apply these two points.

“Brown, under contract to deliver The Lost Symbol back in 2005, sent in a book that is so poorly written, and then has been published with so little if any editing (one hopes no editing since if the submitted text was actually edited the mind boggles at what the draft of the novel might have been), [that he] has done himself no favor. Those who bit on The Lost Symbol -- and I am one, I did buy it to read since I really enjoyed Angels and Demons, the first for symbologist Langdon -- will in large numbers not buy Brown again.

“So in the end, a "rush job" (Why, one asks, is a book over four years late a "rush job"?) like this does no one any favor other than say for Maureen [this reference is to a biting review by Maureen Dowd, who has never been intimidated by anyone’s celebrity] who clearly relished every word she set down in review. Maybe the humorists benefit deriving one set of riches while Brown and Doubleday enjoy their profits at the bank.”

For the curious, Maureen Dowd’s review is here .

All I can say is, Ouch.

And a hat tip to Sphinx Ink for the link.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Reading Habits

I’m so obsessed with the push to finish my book that I was finding it hard to come up with anything to blog about. So I’m stealing this “Reading Habits” meme from Charles. Here goes:

Do you snack while you read? If so, favorite reading snack?
I will eat while I’m reading. I also read while I’m eating. But I’m not much of a “snacker” so I don’t have a favorite reading snack.

Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you?
I’ve recently started writing in nonfiction books. It makes it easier to find points I want to refer back to later.

How do you keep your place while reading a book? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book flat open?
Bookmark—even though it’s frequently just a Post-it note. It drives me nuts when people borrow one of my books and break the spine by laying it flat.

Fiction, nonfiction, or both?
I start a lot of fiction but rarely finish it. Lately I’ve found myself reading more and more nonfiction, which seems to hold my attention better.

Are you a person who tends to read to the end of a chapter, or can you stop anywhere?
I can generally put a book down at any time.

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away?
I actually don’t come across that many words I don’t know. But I will look them up if it’s convenient (or write them on my Post-it note bookmark for later).

What are you currently reading?
South of Broad, by Pat Conroy
Republican Gomorrah, by Max Blumenthall
Sheba, by Nicholas Clapp
Tripwire, by Lee Child
Only the first and last of these are fiction. I’ll probably finish the Conroy, but not the Child. I’ll definitely finish the two nonfiction.

What is the last book you bought?
The Road to Ubar, by Nicholas Clapp. I enjoyed Sheba so much I just ordered Clapp’s other book, although it hasn’t arrived yet.

Are you the type of person who reads one book at a time, or can you read more than one?
I’ll frequently have four or five going at a time. But one will usually be my main focus.

Do you have a favorite time/place to read?
I don’t seem to be able to carve much reading time out of the day, so most of my reading is done at night, right before I go to bed.

Do you prefer series books or stand alones?
I find that, in general, stand-alone books are more likely to have a better story line and character arc. But most readers love series, and publishers and authors aim to please, so series have become much more common.

Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over?
My favorite writer of all time is Dorothy Dunnett. But I’ve recommended her Lymond series to many, many friends over the years only to find that most do not share my enthusiasm!

How do you organize your books?(by genre, title, author’s last name, etc.)
I have an eccentric shelving system that no one else could ever understand. My history books (the vast majority of my collection) are shelved by period and country, i.e., ancient Greek history, medieval England, twentieth-century German history, etc. But then I’ll put Greek philosophers and, say, the Athenian playwrights with the Greek history, while Nietzsche goes on the “philosophy and religion” shelf rather than with the German history. Fiction is just as strange. If it’s a “pretty” book (I love collecting gilded leather copies of classics) it goes on certain shelves, but if it’s just a humdrum copy of a classic, it goes someplace less prominent. Hardcover contemporary fiction by my all-time authors—Pat Conroy, James Lee Burke, John Connolly, Georgette Heyer, etc.—goes in my office. Everyone else goes in the upstairs hall, where they are alphabetized. I rarely keep paperbacks. If I like a book enough to want to keep it, I’ll look for a hardcover, if available—which is probably why I am seriously running out of bookshelf space!

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Booksigning for The Solomon Effect

Steve and I will be doing a booksigning for The Solomon Effect at the Garden District Bookstore in New Orleans this Saturday, October 10, from 1-3. The Garden District is always a wonderful place to have a signing, with wine and cheese and friendly, book-loving people. If you're in the area, hope to see you there!

Saturday, October 03, 2009


I'm in a big push to get the last 75 pages of Babylon finished, so all you're going to get out of me this time is some kitten photos. Our foundlings are almost eight weeks old now, and they've well and truly stolen all our hearts. Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Solomon Released Today

Today is the official release date for The Solomon Effect. After all that has happened--or should I say, all that has not happened--I must admit to watching its debut with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. But the great folks in the Harper Collins publicity department have been scrambling to try to rescue its maiden voyage from a Titanic-like fate.

A friend flying up to New York tells me she saw the book sitting at the #18 slot at the airport bookstall, evidence that they have indeed come up with at least some last-minute coop. And if you go to bookpage.com you'll see that The Solomon Effect is their third featured book, right after Paterson and Albom.

The "featured book" highlight is only there for today, Tuesday, but it links to a piece we wrote that can be read here.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Oh, What a Lovely Blog

I'm slow in posting this because I've been up at the lake scribbling my little fingers to the bone, but Charles from Razored Zen has presented me with a "One Lovely Blog" award. Thanks, Charles!

The rules are simple, so I'll be a good girl and follow them:

1) Accept the award, and don’t forget to post a link back to the awarding person.
2) Pass the award on.
3) Notify the award winners.

Listen up, Steve from Full Throttle and F**k It and Liz from Just Keep Writing and Other Thoughts: you're it.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Live from the Battlefield

You don’t have to read very far into Peter Arnett’s autobiography, Live from the Battlefield: 35 Years in the World’s War Zones, before you come to an obvious conclusion: the guy is either one of the most determined, tenacious, competitive reporters ever born, or he’s certifiably nuts. But there’s no denying he’s lived an eye-popping life. And, he can write. The result is a fascinating, gripping tale of courage, dedication, and unflinching honesty that is in many ways a history of war and reportage in the second half of the twentieth century—as told from the trenches.

I’ll admit right off that Arnett in something of a hero to me. When the U.S. first attacked Iraq back in January of 1991, we were still unpacking after our recent move from the Middle East to Australia, having left friends and family scattered from Kuwait to Baghdad to Amman. There simply aren’t words to describe the sensation of watching your own country wreck hideous destruction on people you know and love. I sat, tears running down my face, and watched the bombs rain down on Baghdad. I listened, furious and incredulous, while the American president and his Pentagon puppets lied to the American public. Peter Arnett is probably the only thing that kept me from putting my foot through the TV screen.

But before he became famous—or infamous, depending on your point of view—as the lone face of CNN in Baghdad, Arnett was best known for his coverage of the Vietnam War as a reporter for the New York Times. President Johnson—like Bush I after him—hated Arnett with a vehement passion. But then, you don’t win a Pulitzer Prize for reporting the story the Powers that Be want told. Arnett was in Vietnam for the innocuous beginnings of the American buildup in 1962, and he was there until after the very end. That’s right: when that last helicopter pulled away from the roof of the American Embassy in 1975, Arnett stayed behind to cover what happened when the Viet Cong took over Saigon. Like I said, crazy.

Of course, Vietnam and Baghdad are only part of the story. There’s his early life in New Zealand. His stints as an AP reporter in Bangkok and Jakarta and Laos. After Vietnam came Cyprus. Lebanon. San Salvador. Moscow. Afghanistan. This is reporting like it isn’t done any more. When a coup in Laos closed all the borders, Arnett swam the Mekong River to file his dispatches from Thailand. When the North Vietnamese overran Saigon during the Tet Offense, Arnett bundled his wife and two children (the youngest a newborn baby) into the bathroom and told them to stay put while he went off to report on the fighting.

Me, I think I’d probably have divorced him. But if you like adventure and history, I can’t recommend his autobiography enough. It’s riveting stuff.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Things We Leave Behind

It isn’t often that cookies inspire deep thoughts, but bear with me.

I was wandering through World Market the other day and spotted this package of Arnott’s Mint Slices, which were my all-time-favorite, special-treat biscuits (cookies) during the years I spent in Australia. Since I’m supposed to be on a health kick I didn’t get them at the time. But they haunted me so much that I finally went back and bought them. And the entire experience started me thinking about the things we leave behind in life.

My life is littered with wonderful taste sensations that have entered my orbit and then departed, never to be experienced again. The world’s best chocolate-filled pastries from a hidden lane in Florence. Airy confections from the shop down the street from my apartment in Athens. Devonshire teas everywhere from Winchester to Wellington to Adelaide. Fish strewn with lemon and spices and cooked in foil by a Palestinian refugee with a stall in downtown Amman. (Notice this litany is heavy on deserts; I have a sweet tooth.)

But it isn’t just great foods that I’ve had to leave behind. It’s also pleasures and pastimes and the patterns of my days. Catching snowflakes on my tongue. Casting a lure just so in a clear mountain stream. Waking up in the morning to throw open my bedroom window and gaze out over a Spanish plaza once known by Romans and Moors and medieval knights. Trekking across a sun blasted, stony Arabian desert to come upon the ruins of a city abandoned two thousand years ago. Cutting back a bougainvillea rioting over my garden in the Adelaide hills and pausing to listen to the haunting, ever-exotic cry of a kookaburra.

And then there are the things I’ve lost without even realizing I was leaving them behind. As a teenager I played the guitar and had a horse. In my twenties I was absolutely fluent in French. At one point I went through a ballroom dance phase and swam a mile every day. Then I was seriously working toward a black belt in Tae Kwan Do. But life got in the way, my focus shifted, and before I knew it, those things, too, became a part of my past.

And don’t get me started on the friends and lovers I’ve left behind.

This constant letting go and loss is probably hardest on those who move around a lot. But I suspect everyone’s life is this way to some extent. A few nights ago, I was sitting at the sidewalk table of a local Lebanese restaurant with my husband of (almost) six years and my gorgeous, dark-eyed, twenty-something daughter. The air was heavy with the scent of night blooming jasmine and Mediterranean spices. An Egyptian singer was wailing over the sound system as the St. Charles streetcar went clanging past. It was a magical blending of old and new, lost and recently discovered.

Life, bittersweet, but good.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

On Birthdays, Pregnant Publicists, and Websites

My very first published novel, Night in Eden, came out twelve years ago this month, on my birthday. You see, publishers tend to release books on the last Tuesday of the month before their official publication date. So since Eden was an “October release” and my late-September birthday just happened to fall on a Tuesday that year, the planets aligned to give me one of the nicest birthday presents I have ever received.

Well, the planets have aligned again this year: my second thriller, The Solomon Effect, is due to be released on my birthday. But I’m not so sure this is a good omen. You see, my publicist went on maternity leave just when she should have been sending out review copies and press releases and such, and Solomon basically fell through the cracks. Fortunately my agent and I eventually realized what was happening and the folks at HarperCollins have worked really hard to salvage some things. But there will be no Publishers Weekly review, and the Romantic Times review won’t appear until their December issue. The Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews are also iffy. If this sounds like the kiss of death for a book, believe me, it is.

That said, I’ve updated the C.S. Graham website and added a new feature, A Pictorial Tour of the World of The Solomon Effect. You can see it here.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Crazy for God

I ordered Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God (subtitled “How I grew up as one of the elect, helped found the religious right, and lived to take all—or almost all—of it back”) as part of my research for The Babylonian Codex. I thought I’d just skim it, focusing on the parts where he talks about his and his famous father’s contributions to the rise of the radical Christian right and the formation of the Moral Majority, and then toss the book in the library donation box.

Boy was I wrong.

This is a story told with brutal honesty and a rare and penetrating wit. It begins, “You can be the world’s biggest hypocrite and still feel good about yourself. You can believe and wish you didn’t. You can lose your faith and still pretend, because there are bills to be paid, because you are booked up for a year, because this is what you do…”.

From there, Crazy for God takes the reader on a journey that is part autobiography, part magical mystery tour. Whether he is writing of his bizarre childhood growing up wild at his parents’ utopian evangelical mission in Switzerland (where guests included the likes of Timothy Leary and Led Zeppelin) or his equally fascinating stint as a boarder in the world of England’s elite public schools in the sixties and seventies, Schaeffer introduces us to an unforgettable cast of colorful and deftly drawn personalities. Ironically, the book actually focuses very little on the part of his life’s story that prompted me to buy it in the first place. I didn’t care. A gifted storyteller and brilliant analyst of character, Schaeffer made me laugh out loud, wince, and think long and hard about everything from family life and parental love to the ways in which the people we meet affect the course of our lives.

I’m not normally a fan of autobiography, but I sat up late into the night reading this one, unable to put it down. The truth is, it’s been a long time since I enjoyed a novel as much.

The library sale isn’t getting this one.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Hot Buttons

Do you have a situation/conflict/kind of character you just can’t read about?

I ran across one last night. I’ve been meandering my way through Snow Falling on Cedars and rather enjoying it until the story suddenly grated across my worst, I-don’t-want-to-read-about-it, don’t-want-to-think-about-it issue. So what’s my hot button?

A character getting cheated out of or foolishly losing his money.

I know, I know; this says volumes about me and none of it is nice. But it's one of my worst nightmares and I don't want to go there.

I know people who can’t read about the murder of children (I have a hard time with that one, but it won’t stop me cold). Other friends say they can’t read about a character who commits adultery.

So what’s your “hot button”?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Katrina Plus Four


For me, the day before Katrina is the anniversary that always brings a moment’s silent remembrance and reassessment. It was on Sunday that we finished boarding up our house, packed our cars, and drove away from a neighborhood, a city, a life that would never be the same again. It was on Sunday when, trapped in traffic as the feeder bands of the hurricane rolled over us, I looked out over a vista of tens of thousands fleeing for their lives and realized three things with sudden, painful clarity: that I was part of an event that was both frightening and powerfully historic, that my world was about to be turned upside down and inside out, and that I was one of the lucky ones because I was getting out with my family.

It sounds like a selfish focus, concentrated on my own pain, my own experience rather than on the 1,800+ who died. It is not.

I actually started this blog on an earlier Katrina anniversary, when—like the parents of a newborn child—we were still counting the passage of time by months. Curious about how far I’ve come since that day, I went back and reread my first posting, written in my gutted office when we were still working so hard to get back into our house. Here it is…

Saturday was an anniversary of sorts. Eight months ago yesterday, Hurricane Katrina took off the roof of our New Orleans-area house while the floodwaters of Lake Pontchartrain came sluicing through the ground floor. Sometimes I still lay awake at night and torture myself with conjured images of water lapping at my bookcases…swirling around my daughter’s lovely old iron frame piano…leaching the color from the polished wood of ancient chests. The images are always without sound, like glimpses into the eerie, flooded world of Atlantis or the Titanic. And then I think, No, not my house. Reality tilts and never quite rights itself.

Eight months. For eight months we’ve lived the life of refugees, shuttling from one shelter to the next. The possessions Katrina left us are boxed and scattered—at a friend’s house in Baton Rouge and two storage units in two different cities, at my mother’s house and the now-empty house of an aged aunt for whom the horrors of Katrina proved simply too much to bear. My mind is scattered, too. I look at the antique roses in my garden, survivors whose carefully lettered copper labels were carried away by the waters into oblivion. Once, I could have named every bush, told you its heritage and characteristics. Not now. That was another life, another reality.

Imagine a house shattered by wind and water. Now imagine hundreds of thousands of houses standing broken and empty. That is New Orleans. Imagine the army of laborers and carpenters, electricians and plumbers and roofers required to make it all right again. They’re not here. (Where would they live?) And so we either wait, or we take up tools and get to work. With hammer and wrecking bar, we attack sodden walls and mold-covered doorframes. We choke back tears as we drag beloved memories, the pieces of our lives, out to the curb and abandon them there to the sun and the rain. We learn to hang and float Sheetrock, to stomp ceilings, to cut trim and plumb sinks. There is a sense of pride, a strength that comes from rebuilding our own house. I think of my ancestors braving the terrors of immigrant ships to build log cabins in the dark forests of Virginia and Tennessee. Or my other great-grandparents, the ones who belonged to the Clan of the Wolf and lived in tune with the seasons and the pulses of the earth. I wonder if they would be ashamed of me, see me as weak. Crushed and disoriented by one little hurricane. Okay, one big hurricane.

Will we ever be the same again? No. Is that a good thing, or bad? Perhaps it is both. In all these months, I have written little. The people in New York have been understanding, in their way. I put the manuscript for my next book, When Gods Die, in the mail a week before Katrina hit. My editor didn’t bother me with the revisions until January. Perhaps she realized I couldn’t handle it until then. I’m still amazed I did manage to do the revisions. I am now committed to write the next book in the series, Why Mermaids Sing. Once, I was excited about this book. I’m still excited about this book. But doubts crowd in on me. My husband says, You’ve always been like this when you start a book.

Yes, I was. But my books come from my soul, and my soul has shifted.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Are You Visual or Aural?

Can the way we like to learn also influence the way we write and the kinds of books we like to read?

This interesting concept was suggested to me by Sabrina Jeffries, a NYT bestselling romance writer who recently visited our Monday night writers group (she was in town visiting her agent and critique partner of many years, both of whom are members of the group). She said she was an aural learner, and she thought that’s why she didn’t like putting a lot of visual description in her books and becomes inpatient with writers who do. (She also said where she picked up this interesting concept, but I was so focused on the idea itself that I didn’t hear that part.)

It’s an intriguing idea. I Googled learning styles and discovered that, yes, our preferred learning styles do influence more than just they way we prefer to study. They also affect the way we internally represent experiences, the way we recall information and the words we choose. So it makes sense that they would influence the way we write and whether or not we like James Lee Burke.

There are actually several different approaches to learning:

Visual (spatial): prefers using pictures, images, and spatial understanding.
Aural (auditory-musical): prefers using sound and music.
Verbal (linguistic): prefers using words, both in speech and writing.
Physical (kinesthetic): prefers using body and sense of touch.
Logical (mathematical): prefers using logic, reasoning and systems.
Social (interpersonal): prefers to learn in groups or with other people.
Solitary (intrapersonal): prefers to work alone and use self-study.

Although we usually have a dominant learning technique, most people use a combination of these approaches. The same person can even use different styles in different situations. My kids, for instance, learned better when they could move around (works great for memorizing spelling words at home, but not so good in a classroom situation when everyone is expected to sit down). My daughter also discovered she could remember her French vocab words if she wrote them on colored cards: blue for masculine nouns, pink for feminine. But our styles are not fixed; we can develop our abilities in our less dominant styles. And each of these styles uses a different part of the brain, so the more areas of the brain we use when learning, the better we remember.

I guess my exercise with the colored note cards shows that I’m very visual. My card system also betrays that I’m very logical; I like to diagram things out and classify information. But I’m also highly aural: I remember material I hear in a lecture better than I remember what I read, just as I learn the words of songs or poems I hear very quickly. Unfortunately, I am not at all kinesthetic; when my girls and I were taking Tae Kwan Do, they’d learn our belt pattern the first night and then spend the next three months trying to drill it into my thick head. I’m also a solitary rather than a social learner: no study groups for me.

How about you? How do you think your personal learning style influences your writing or reading?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Confessions of a Plotter

Whenever anyone asks if I plot my books in advance or simply fly off into the misty unknown and write by the seat of my pants, I always say, “Oh, I’m definitely a plotter.”

But that doesn’t mean I have every scene nailed down before I start writing. I do carefully work out the beginning and sketch in the end (the operative word there is sketch). But my ideas for the middle are usually just that—ideas for scenes that sort of float, well, in the mist. And there usually aren’t enough of them. I’ve learned over the years that my grasp of the story changes once I actually start writing and new ideas pop up, so it’s a waste of time to put too much effort up front into carefully laying down a path I won’t end up following.

But I can only go on like that for so long. Somewhere around page 75-100, I haul out my 3x5” cards and go to work on my plot again. Each card represents one scene. The note cards I use at the initial concept stage—when I’m just getting a rough idea of what will happen for the proposal—are all white. But once I’m well into writing the story, I get really obsessive about pacing and timing. And since I’m a visual kind of person, when I go back and attack my plot again I use colored index cards.

If you’re curious about what all those different colors mean, here’s the code for my thrillers (I take a different approach for my mysteries):
Light green: Tobie and Jax scenes
Light blue: Noah scenes (Noah is the protagonist of the interwoven subplot)
Purple: action scenes involving Tobie and Jax (i.e., chases, fights, shootouts, etc.)
Dark blue: action scenes involving Noah
Dark red: the head villains plotting the dastardly deed Jax and Tobie are racing to avert
Light red: the villains’ minions, maneuvering to get Jax and Tobie (or Noah)
Yellow: missing links—places I need something to get me into or out of a scene or sequence of scenes

The beauty of this system is that I can see everything—pacing, character flow, and missing links—at a glance. I can see I need a purple card (a fight or a chase) here, or that I go too long without a villain scene there, or that I need another blue sequence with my subplot character, Noah, in there.

The layout is significant, too. But for now, I’ll leave you snickering at my OCPD tendencies.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Back on Track

Well, I finally finished the reworking of the first hundred and twenty pages of The Babylonian Codex. I sat down last night and read through it. The pacing is good and the action tight, so all systems are now go to chug forward again.

I had a brief moment of panic when I couldn’t find my outline for the rest of the book. That outline—much scribbled over after Steve and I spent several nights intensively replotting—still isn’t finished, but the thought of losing the progress we’d made had me sick to my stomach. I spent several frantic hours cleaning up my office and my bedroom (I do a lot of my writing perched on the porch swing of the upstairs gallery). On the off chance I'd somehow mixed it up with my research material, I even sorted through and filed a huge stack of notes and print outs on everything from sailboats to the Gospel of St. Thomas (at which point I realized I’ve done way too much research for this book). I even went through the trash. And still no luck.

Of course I found it sitting on my desk, stuffed in the back of a note pad but so well aligned that nary a hint of its presence showed. I swear I looked in that pad a dozen times.

Note to self: become more organized, or risk stroke.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Just Cats

I'm still struggling with the rewrite of the first third of my book, so I thought I'd do an update on our new foundling and her babies.

Mama is slowly gaining weight--not an easy task while also feeding four hungry little ones.

The kittens all have their eyes open and are getting huge.

Here's a picture of big bad Huckleberry, being silly.

And here is a photo of my little sweetheart, Press Cat, that I found on the camera and didn't even know I had.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The 100-Page Hiccup on Steroids

I always throw a fit just about the time I hit the 100-page mark on a new manuscript. I’ve even developed a name for it: the Hundred Page Hiccup. At that point I have the story established and the characters introduced and enough pages written that I can get a feel for how the story is shaping up. I go back, do some line editing, print out a clean copy, and sit down to read. And I always, always freak out.

This book is sh*t!! It’s too slow! The idea sucks! What’s wrong? I don’t know how to fix it! Oh my God, my career is ruined!

That’s exactly what happened to me last week when I sat down to read the first 100 pages of The Babylonian Codex, my next remote viewing thriller. Oh, I was happy enough with the first fifty pages or so. Then the story turned into a wet noodle. Since I’m already far, far behind on my schedule, I had a panic attack. Steve said, “Give it to me; I’ll read it.” So he read it, handed it back, and said, “I think it’s good.” I wanted to believe him. But in my heart of hearts, I knew he was wrong.

I headed up to the lake house anyway, planning to spend a few days of intensive writing. I am sooo far behind schedule it’s not even funny, so I really, really needed to tear out at least 75 pages. But before I buckled down to write, I decided to reread. And perhaps thanks to the extra oxygen in the air up there and the super quiet, light bulbs started popping in my head. I sent Steve a text message at 1:30 am that read, “I know what’s wrong with this book!” (Of course he was asleep.)

So what was wrong? So much that it deserves its own post. Suffice it to say that I spent virtually my entire time at the lake figuring out how to fix it (knowing what’s wrong and knowing how to fix it are two very different things). I only managed to write about 20 pages of new scenes to insert, and my reorganization and rethink ended up massively requiring me to rewrite the last 50 pages (I'm still working on that) and completely cut three entire scenes that added up to 16 pages. When you’re already way behind schedule, that’s a killer. But it was necessary.

Is the book better now? I don't know. Once I've finished this planned overhaul, I'll sit down and read it again. God help me.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Bon Temps


Steve and I first fell in love with the charming town of Clinton, Louisiana, some six years ago, when we stumbled upon it by chance while exploring the gently rolling hills of what are known as the Felicianas. With its moss-draped live oaks, stately columned courthouse, Victorian-era false-fronted shops, and graceful antebellum homes, Clinton is a picture book-style old Southern town. After Katrina, when we decided to buy a “bolt hole” that we could use for future hurricane evacuations, it seemed somehow inevitable that we ended up buying a house on a small lake on the outskirts of Clinton.

So it was a bit of a kick to drive through town on our way to the lake a few weeks ago and discover that Clinton had been turned into the physical manifestation of Bon Temps, the fictional small Louisiana town that serves as the setting for the HBO series “True Blood.”


Personally, I’ve never seen “True Blood,” although I have read one of the Sookie Stackhouse books. The filming of the location shots was evidently quite an experience for the cast, who had to deal with real heat and humidity rather then simply pretending they were dealing with heat and humidity.

“It makes you move slower, which is interesting for character,” said actor Stephen Moyer. “I understand now why people move so slow down here.” To which Anna Paquin, who plays Sookie, chimed in, “You have to move slower, or you’ll pass out!”

Seems Clinton will be appearing in three of the upcoming episodes, including the August 23rd episode and the season finale. And given the series’s success, more filming will likely be scheduled in the future. Which is nice to know, because like so many small American towns these days, Clinton needs all the help it can get.


Tuesday, August 04, 2009


One of my daughters went up to a national park in Arkansas for a quick break before school starts, and called me on the way home to say, “There was this sweet little orange cat that someone had dumped in the park. The rangers said all the area shelters are full, and she was so skinny she’d have died if I hadn’t taken her. You aren’t mad, are you?”

“No. I understand.”

“Well, the thing is, you see, she was skinny everywhere except her belly.”

Deep breath. “You mean she’s going to have kittens?”

“Um… She kinda had them. In the backseat of the car when we were on the Interstate.”

So this family that already had waaaay too many cats now has five more.

She is an unbelievable little sweetheart. Mom and kids are doing great. The vet says that even though she is pathetically skinny she is healthy, and she ought to be able to feed them.

Know anyone who wants a kitten?

Friday, July 31, 2009

Write with Fire

As those of you who read this blog with any regularity know, I belong to a great writers group called the Wordsmiths that’s been meeting at a local bookstore every Monday night for more than eight years (well, except for those memorable months in late 2005-06 when we met in my gutted house!). One of the Wordsmiths is fantasy and horror writer Charles Gramlich, who has just released a new book called Write with Fire. A professor of psychology by day, Charles has published everything from poetry and short stories to a stand-alone novel and a trilogy. Vampire stories, sword & sorcery, sword & planet, adventure, westerns, children’s tales, humor, and nonfiction—you name it, he’s probably written it (with a few significant exceptions!).

He’s been at this writer thing for more than twenty years, during which he’s spent a lot of time thinking about writing, talking about writing, and writing about writing. And now he’s gathered all his insightful thoughts together in Write With Fire: Thoughts on the Craft of Writing. As Charles himself says, “The first part [of the book] is mainly about the practical mechanics of writing. How do you shepherd ideas through the writing and editing process and into the final form needed for publication? It talks more about fiction than nonfiction but a lot of the articles are really about communicating with your writing, which applies to any genre. The second part deals more with theory and philosophy in writing. What kind of characteristics are common to writers? What makes and breaks a “page-turner?” The last and much shorter section consists of articles that are more personal to my life as a writer, such as my experiences after Hurricane Katrina.”

My own copy of Write with Fire hasn’t arrived yet. But after spending eight years talking about writing with this guy, I don’t have any hesitation promoting his work sight-unseen. It’d be hard to imagine a more honest, down-to-earth, practical, and savvy guy with whom to sit down and talk craft.

You can read more about Charles and his book here.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The New Orleans Connection


It sounds like something out of a thriller novel: a fireball lights up the night as a car explodes in the quirky, narrow streets of New Orleans’s warehouse district. Video camera footage from a nearby garage captures the grainy image of a man setting a bomb just moments before the explosion. The owner of the car? A political consultant advising a beautiful young woman on her run for the U.S. Senate.

But wait! There’s more. The woman in question is Stormy Daniels, a porn star. That’s right, a porn star. The politician whose seat she is running for is a rightwing sanctimonious ass who based his political career on “family values” and “Christian morality” before (surprise!) his name was linked to a Washington, D.C. call girl service. Stormy’s political activities are both embarrassing and troubling, since they keep reminding voters of what the Senator would rather they forget.

Of course, the exploding car does the same thing. Was that the point? Is something more nefarious afoot? Or was it all just an amusing accident?

Stay tuned. Ya can’t make this stuff up.

(p.s. That is not a photo of said car; it's a burning car from our sister city, Baghdad.)

Friday, July 24, 2009

Shop Talk

I had some interesting conversations while at the recent conference in Washington, D.C.. One such conversation, with the Director of Sales for one of my houses, was particularly sobering. He said that they’d just run the numbers on all their New York Times bestselling authors for the year to date, and that the sales of every one of them were down between 15 and 30% compared to last year.

Think about that. James Patterson: off 21%. A big selling romance writer I won’t name since she gave me the figure herself: off 30%. This director of sales says he’s been in the business for 30 years and he has never seen a downturn like this. You know how bookstores will sell something like, say, Dan Brown at 40% off? It’s a “lead loss.” The bookstore takes a loss on the bestseller in order to lure buyers into the store. Normally, readers will buy the lead loss and four or five other books. Now, they’re buying the lead loss and just walking out. Not good.

He does say he’s hopeful things will turn around this fall. But here’s the part that worries me: It seems all the houses have been holding back the books of many of their traditional big sellers, hoping the market will improve later in the year. So there are going to be lots of books by big-name authors coming out this fall. And as my source said, they’re going to cannibalize each other’s sales.

Unfortunately, I have three books coming out this fall—one paperback original, one paperback reprint, and one hardcover original. Not good news. Not good news, at all.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Ever Have One of Those Weeks?

You know the kind I mean. When you’re supposed to be home packing to go to a conference and instead you’re in the hospital? When your publisher sends 200 books for you to give away at a signing and someone steals all five boxes? When you’re rushing to get ready for a couple of important parties and there’s a fire in the hotel that requires everyone to evacuate right away?

Still, I had a great time at RWA’s National Convention in Washington, D.C., last week, even though I spent a big chunk of it lying down in my hotel room resting, as per my doctor’s orders (“You’re not STILL planning on going, are you?”). I had some interesting conversations with heads of publicity and sales (more about that later). I got to catch up with my agent and both my editors. And although I didn’t win the RITA, I met so many ardent fans of my books—both the Sebastian mysteries and my old romances—that I was both amazed and humbled.

So it was worth it. But all I can say is, I’m glad to be home!

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Just for Laughs

I don’t know about you, but I feel in need of a laugh at the moment. So my thanks to Dave Carroll, who got his own back at United Airlines (I have really, really hated United Airlines ever since my 10-month-old baby almost died on one of their flights, but this is about laughter so we won’t go into that). Anyway, here's Carroll's saga in his own words:

"In the spring of 2008, Sons of Maxwell were traveling to Nebraska for a one-week tour and my Taylor guitar was witnessed being thrown by United Airlines baggage handlers in Chicago. I discovered later that the $3500 guitar was severely damaged. They didn't deny the experience occurred but for nine months the various people I communicated with put the responsibility for dealing with the damage on everyone other than themselves and finally said they would do nothing to compensate me for my loss. So I promised the last person to finally say "no" to compensation (Ms. Irlweg) that I would write and produce three songs about my experience with United Airlines and make videos for each to be viewed online by anyone in the world."

Without further ado, here’s Dave’s revenge:

Go, Dave!

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Goodbye, Little Sweetheart

Press Cat, 1999-2009

Losing a cat is always hard. Losing two relatively young cats within months of each other is…hell.

We always knew Press would never live to be an old cat. He started life as a feral waif who wandered into Steve’s factory and took up residence beneath the company’s giant press (hence his name). When Steve trapped him, he was so covered in oil and dirt that Steve thought he was a gray tabby. Petroleum and cats, needless to say, are not a good mix.

He spent the next four years of life running wild in Steve’s bachelor pad with the tuxedo cat twins, Nick and Nora. When we married, it took Steve five hours and several nasty bites and scratches to stuff Press in a carrier so the gang could move over to my house. In the nearly six years since then—wooed nightly with his favorite, tuna—he calmed down a lot. Every night when I’d lay down on the sofa to watch the Daily Show and Colbert, I’d trail my hand over the side and Press would come on the run. As long as he was sure I wasn’t in a position to grab him, he’d let me pet him until my arm (or leg—he also loved foot pets while I was at the computer) felt like it was ready to drop off. He’d purr and purr and purr. But try to reach for him and he was gone.

Because he was impossible to catch, he rode out Katrina in our house and lived in the flooded shambles for a week before we battled our way back in to rescue him. (Needless to say, he went with us for Gustav.) About five years ago he had a bout of ill health when the vet told us his kidneys were failing and he’d probably only live a few more months. So we always knew that each passing year was a gift.

He went down hill very suddenly. When he sniffed at Sunday night’s tuna and turned away, I knew something was wrong. Our vet told us just how wrong. Having just watched Nick take months to die of kidney failure, we’d already made up our minds we weren’t putting another cat through that.

But God, it hurts.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Dunning-Kruger Effect


It’s one of those phenomena we’ve all encountered—and puzzled over—time and time again. There's the incompetent but amazingly smug coworker whose misplaced self-confidence perversely convinces his manager the idiot is a superstar, thus earning the fraud an undeserved promotion. Then there’s the appallingly ignorant but blazingly self-confident politician who speaks with such poise and self-assurance that a huge chunk of her audience doesn’t notice she’s spouting an incomprehensible tangle of meaningless words and phrases. So it’s nice to know that scientists have actually calibrated, explained, and named this marvel: it’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

So what is the Dunning-Kruger Effect? Basically, it’s the tendency of people who are incompetent to over-estimate their own competency. Or, in Dunning and Kruger’s words, “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than knowledge.”

According to their Nobel Prize winning study Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments (http://www.apa.org/journals/features/psp7761121.pdf), the most incompetent people are exactly the ones most convinced of their competence. “The skills that engender competence in a particular domain are often the very same skills necessary to evaluate competence in that domain—one's own or anyone else's. Because of this, incompetent individuals lack what cognitive psychologists variously term metacognition….

“In a perfect world, everyone could see the judgments and decisions that other people reach, accurately assess how competent those decisions are, and then revise their view of their own competence by comparison. However, [our studies] showed that incompetent individuals are unable to take full advantage of such opportunities. Compared with their more expert peers, they were less able to spot competence when they saw it, and as a consequence, were less able to learn that their ability estimates were incorrect…Incompetence, like anosognosia, not only causes poor performance but also the inability to recognize that one's performance is poor.”

An interesting corollary is that the most competent people usually underestimate their competence. In other words, the more you know, the more you focus on what you don’t know. And, ironically, the more inclined you are to believe that your peers know as much if not more than what you do.

Of course, none of this is news. It was Thomas Jefferson who once said, "he who knows best best knows how little he knows," while Charles Darwin observed back in 1871 that "ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge." And then there’s the British philosopher Bertrand Russell (who, ironically, never suffered much from self-doubt) who said, “the trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”