Interview with Bruce Cook

As a huge fan of Blood Harvest, I’m happy to see Marshal Lawe return to print in Tommy Gun Tango. Will this book take on the point of view of other characters as Blood Harvest did? Any animal POV’s?

It’s so nice of you to interview me, Jackie—thank you! And I am happy that you are a fan of Blood Harvest.
Yes, I am once again using multiple first person points of view in Tommy Gun Tango. That was an experiment in Blood Harvest, and I found I really enjoyed the process. I am sticking with fewer points of view this time around—four people, instead of six humans and two animals. By the way, I borrowed this idea of contradictory/contrasting first person POVs from the Japanese film Rashomon, by Akira Kurasawa.

I greatly enjoyed writing from the point of view of a dog and a crow last time, and some of my readers found it amusing and entertaining. But that choice—to write as an animal some of the time—caused a tremendous split among readers and reviewers. They tended to love or hate the book based on that criterion. I decided to forgo that technique this time around—and besides, Marshal Lawe has moved across the country by car in 1932. His police dog Chief had already passed on to the Great Hunt in the sky.

This story begins with the POV of Marshal Lawe. We then see things from the POV of his serious girlfriend, Gladys, who lost her diner back in Massachusetts and moved to be with family in Los Angeles. We also hear from Jackie Sue, the sexually precocious and ambitious 13 year old from Blood Harvest. She is now 16 and is working as an actress in Hollywood. The final voice is a new character, Al Haine, a handsome Irish gangster, con man, and smooth talker. (Side note: Al Haine is the grandfather of Sam Haine, the lead character in my first novel, Philippine Fever.)

For Tommy Gun Tango, Bruce Cook collaborated with alter ego Brant Randall. What did each self bring to the process?

The Bruce Cook side of me is a scientist and mathematician by training. I worked on the Apollo Project in the 70’s as a laser physicist, before becoming a film maker. Bruce tries to be a close observer and factual reporter.

Brant Randall is the story teller, memory-keeper, spinner of tall tales, researcher of times past and customs vanished. He grew from my work in Hollywood as a screenwriter, director, cameraman, film editor, and sound designer.

You have two very different protagonists in your novels—Marshal Ichabod Lawe and ATF Agent Sam Haine. Do you find it difficult to move between their mindsets? And do you ever work on both series at the same time?

I have written 30 screenplays, none of them sequels to each other. I do not find it difficult to invent new characters. None of them are myself—but they all have aspects of my personality.

This is seasoned with the traits of my friends, family, co-workers, passersby, and enemies.
I haven’t worked on both series at the same time, but I don’t see that it would be a problem. I see it in much the same way as when you move from workplace to home to church to public space—you display different aspects of your personality. When I move from contemporary times to the past I switch attitudes and mores to match the setting.

In Tommy Gun Tango, you take on a real person, actress Jean Harlow, and an incident in her life—the death of her second husband, Paul Bern. This had to be intimidating. How did you approach your research, and were you nervous about upsetting Harlow fans?

I read plenty (and there is plenty to read!), re-watched her films, talked to film buffs—just immersed myself in Hollywood of the 1920s and 30s. I enjoy research, so it was fun, not intimidating.

I perused news accounts of the death of Paul Bern. I was able to get hold of some court transcripts. I found late-life memoirs of people involved with Harlow, Bern, and MGM. I read the gossip sheets from the era. The material was fascinating and contradictory. Bit by bit a pattern emerged (to my eye, at least) of Hollywood studio cover-ups of crimes by stars and producers. The police and city officials were complicit in these cover-ups. From all this data I drew my own (reasonable, I think) conclusions about Bern’s death.

You seem so comfortable writing “outside the box”, whether it’s placing your story on foreign soil in Philippine Fever or traveling back in time for Tommy Gun Tango. I know you lived in the Phillipines, but you certainly weren’t around when Blood Harvest took place in the 20’s. Is this simply great imagination? Painstaking research? Magic?

I’ll pick research and magic.

Seriously, I read accounts of the times written by many different voices. And then I interviewed people who were alive during those times and let their memories flesh out my vision of the past. I also found fabulous visual and audio resources. I was greatly aided by fiction films and documentaries made during that era. The internet and Netflix are wonderful tools.

You are also a teacher. Do you think this impacts your writing and how?

Yes, indeed. I constantly try to improve my teaching—which I see as the process of getting ideas and information from my mind to the mind of the student. And of course that is the same task that an author faces. Sometimes techniques from the craft of writing change the way I teach—and other times the tricks I have learned as a teacher work just as well on paper.

Among your former students are Matt Groening (creator of The Simpsons), actor Laurence Fishburne, six Academy Award nominees and winners, and twelve Emmy nominees and winners. You obviously have something important to say to artists. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
The difficult thing is to develop a voice and world view that is your own—recognizable to others so that they can identify with it, but quirky (or twisted or off-kilter or…) enough to force the reader to see things freshly. The writer is a storyteller first of all, a conservator and purveyor of the culture—but if he/she isn’t also an innovator, then the story is old and formulaic, not worth the reader’s trouble.

I have to ask. You used the names of people you know in Tommy Gun Tango. (Including our own Gayle Pool and Jackie Houchin.) Are you careful to be complimentary when you do this?

I asked permission first to name characters after these fellow authors, and told them briefly what kind of character each would be. Once I had written a substantial passage that included them I sent it to them to vet. If either had been offended or homicidal about her portrayal I would change the character name to Jackie Vick.

My buddy Robert Fate also shows up in this book and other friends and family have been used as well. It’s meant to be fun—so if it’s not, I don’t do it.
What’s next on Bruce and Brant’s agenda?

Well….Bruce is writing a textbook on screenwriting just now. When that is out the door Bruce and Brant are going to collaborate once again. The next book is set in contemporary Los Angeles and features a number of ancient gods, mythical characters, and other immortals of waning power and influence. They all are trying to break into show biz to re-establish their identities in popular culture and regain solidity in the Jungian world-mind. The book will be called Nasté, Brutus, and Shorte.

And yes, there will be animals: Odin’s talking ravens, Hugyn (Thought) and Mugyn (Memory), for those of Scandinavian inclination.

You can order the book by clicking on the cover. You can also visit Bruce online.

An Interview with Jeri Westerson

Today, we are pleased to present an interview with Jeri Westerson. A Southern California resident, Jeri has been a freelance reporter and has written award-winning short stories, some of which can be found on her website. Besides being a wife, a mother and an artist, Jeri is the author of the Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series. Crispin debuted last year in the hardcover mystery “Veil of Lies“, available in bookstores and on Kindle. “Veil of Lies” was recently nominated for a Macavity Award for Best Historical Mystery and the Shamus Award for Best First PI Novel. GB Pool’s review of “Veil” follows this post. Her second Crispin Guest mystery is “Serpent in the Thorns.”
Without further ado, Jeri Westerson.

“Serpent in the Thorns” is the second book in your Medieval Noir series. Most people think of Los Angeles when they think noir. What attracted you to 14th century London?

I am an L.A. native, as it happens, growing up on the “mean streets.” But I am of the mind that any place can have its noir-ish qualities. There are dark mysteries set in Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago. But aside from geography, I think noir is more of a state of mind. It’s the dark places in one’s soul; the depressed lives of those who move through the underbelly of society. And that can be anywhere, from Chandler’s Los Angeles of the thirties to the muddy streets of fourteenth century London.
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When I set out to write my own style of medieval mystery, I didn’t want to write the same thing that I saw on bookshelves. They say you should write what you can’t find out there to read, and so when the idea of creating a hard-boiled detective set in the Middle Ages came to me, it seemed a natural fit with the time period. When you concentrate more on the people of the streets rather than the velvet-gowned nobility, you have the makings of noir.
Fourteenth century London offered a great deal to write about for a disgraced knight who found himself trying to eke out a living as close to what he was used to doing as he could get, valiantly maintaining his chivalric code. In 1384, when the series begins, we have just come off of the Black Death some forty years prior. This is a dark chapter in Europe’s history where a third of the population was wiped out. Imagine, a third of farmers, craftsmen, nobility—all gone. That took a toll on commerce, making food, goods, and services scarce. Superstition, crime, corruption, the Hundred Years War—all good stuff! But on a happier note, it is also the time of Chaucer, when English was becoming the language not only of the people but of the court. It also begins the promising reign of Richard II only to have that reign end in tragedy. It’s rife with noir opportunities!

The Boston Globe described your protagonist Crispin Guest as a medieval Sam Spade. He’s a disgraced knight turned private investigator. We’ve seen disgraced cops before. What additional implications are there for a disgraced knight?

There is a lot in common with the cop who has to leave his badge behind, but also some differences. Crispin not only lost his knighthood, his lands, and his wealth, but taken all together, these were the very things that defined him. So it’s not just about losing one’s job as a cop. Crispin has no place in the world. All his life he was raised to a certain position, a certain expectation in a society in which everyone’s place was rigidly defined. To have been tossed out of his place—not allowed to even be succored by relatives—was the ultimate dehumanization of a person like him. Family and lineage was important to every aspect of society, but now Crispin had nothing of a legacy to leave behind. In a sense, he has no name.

But even though he was no longer allowed to be a knight with all the trappings, he can’t let go of the chivalric culture he was raised in. Crispin is a classicist and a snob. He contends that his nobility is “in the blood” and even though his rank has changed, he finds it impossible to overcome that which was ingrained in him, even to his detriment.

I thought it incredibly clever that you gave Crispin his own blog. What are some of the pluses and minuses of posting from your character’s point of view?

The pluses are that readers get to know Crispin more deeply. I write the blog in first person, but the books are in third. It actually gives me a deeper insight into the character when I have to think in first person.

The downside is that I have to be careful not to give away plot or get ahead of the current book (I’ve actually already written the first four in the series, but we’ve only got the first two released or soon to be released).

I only post once a month because I want to save something for the novels. It’s only supposed to serve as a bridge between books, just to keep in touch with Crispin in a new and sort of interactive way. Some people have left comments but not many. I don’t know if they realize that Crispin will reply.

Reviewers praise your attention to detail and your ability to bring medieval England to life. What are some of the strangest facts you’ve run into while researching your time period?

There is the odd fact that an inordinate amount of men in London met their doom by falling out of windows. That in and of itself isn’t much, but it was how they fell out that was the most interesting part. It seems that waking up in the middle of the night, probably groggy from too much drink, men were too lazy or thought it too hazardous to relieve a call of nature by climbing down rickety ladders and stairs to use the privy outside. So they’d open the shutters (remember, no glass), positioned themselves accordingly, and…well…misjudge. Talk about getting caught with your pants down!

With so much detail, do you write your first drafts and then fill in the research details later? Or do you research as you write?

I usually take a solid month or two before I begin to write to do some detailed research. I already have a lot under my belt to get me going. These new details usually involve real people I plan to write about, or occupations I haven’t researched in depth before. Then, as I write, if I come across something I need to research, I usually stop and research right then and there. The problem with just passing over it to look it up later is that sometimes what you thought and what you discover are two entirely different things and the new information could end up radically changing the plot! So I find it’s just better to stop and find out right away. Sometimes it gives me more insight into some other aspect of the plot I hadn’t thought of before, so it’s always valuable.

Do you have any advice for aspiring historical novelists?

Well, there is a difference between the historical novel and historical mystery. The latter is a much wider market (which was why I switched from writing straight historicals to mysteries). I think it might be easier to get published in the latter, but mysteries come with their own set of problems. For one, mysteries pretty much demand a series with the same characters. There are exceptions but I wouldn’t count on those. Writing a series character was a new experience for me. I was writing and trying to sell stand-alone historical novels for well over a decade before I switched gears and worked on developing my mystery series. I couldn’t get arrested let alone published with my historicals (the historical market is very tough. Currently, editors seem to want female protagonists. And the Tudor era is golden.)
My best advice is to write what you love. Write what you can’t find out there to read. And keep on writing.

Can you tell us what’s next for you?

Crispin will return in his third adventure in 2010 (I’ve signed a contract for books three and four and I’m currently working on books five and then six). The third in the series is called A CONSPIRACY OF PARCHMENT and pits Crispin against a child killer and a mysterious creature that might be a Golem.

And then I am also working on a second medieval mystery series. It’s in the thinking stages right now but promises also to be another subgenre of medieval mysteries, something a little lighter in tone.
Thank you, Jeri, for taking the time to talk with us.

If you would like to check out Jeri’s website, click here .

And if you would like to read what Crispin is blogging about, click here .


You can find “Serpent in the Thorns” at bookstores or by clicking on the book cover.

An Interview with Sheila Lowe

We are proud to present our Monday Guest Series, where we will be interviewing authors, web mavens, personal coaches, and other professionals who can bring you valuable information about writing, whether it’s enthusiasm, encouragement, tips, or advice.

Our first guest, Sheila Lowe, is a court-qualified handwriting expert who testifies in forensic cases. Sheila’s handwriting analysis practice, Sheila Lowe & Associates, covers a wide spectrum, from personality evaluation to handwriting authentication, to lecturing, teaching, and writing about handwriting.

So it’s no surprise that her protagonist, Claudia Rose, works in the same field, though with more deadly results. In Poison Pen, the mystery begins with the suicide note of an ex-friend. In Written in Blood, Claudia is asked to prove that the signature on a will is a forgery. This time, Claudia is headed to New York in Dead Write, where dating can be hazardous to your health.

And now…author Sheila Lowe.

Sheila, you have been a qualified handwriting expert with the California Court System since 1985. Your first venture into publishing was non-fiction with “The Complete Idiot’s Guide — Handwriting Analysis” in 1999 (which I’m going to purchase and use on my fellow WinR’s). When did you decide it was time to move on to fiction? Was there any particular incident that edged you in that direction?

The fact is, it was the other way around. I always wanted to write fiction, but got busy raising three kids on my own, and scratching out a living. It wasn’t until the kids were grown and on their own, and I had finally succeeded in creating a successful handwriting analysis practice, and had my two non-fiction handwriting analysis books published, that I came back to my first love, mystery.

In your third and most recent book, Dead Write, Claudia is hired by a world-class matchmaking service for the rich and powerful to screen their applicants. This seems especially relevant in the wake of the recent Ryan Jenkins tragedy. For those who don’t know, alleged murderer Ryan Jenkins was a contestant on the VH1 show “I Love Money”. How did the idea of a graphologist vetting matchmaking applicants come to you?

Having Claudia work for a matchmaker was a natural for me. For about fifteen years I had a client who was herself a high-priced matchmaker. She used my analyses to help her understand the members of her introduction service better, and often said it helped her to create successful marriages (she is not Grusha, however!). If everyone would use handwriting analysis as a tool, it could help avoid many unhappy relationships (this is a not-so-subtle plug for the non-fiction book I’m writing now on that very subject—Rotten Relationships, why we choose them). I don’t know anything about Ryan Jenkins, but the sad truth is, unless the client listens to any warnings about red flags in the handwriting, it doesn’t help. My own daughter is a case in point. She was the victim in a murder/suicide by a man whose handwriting contained some major red flags which sadly, she chose to ignore.

Dead Write takes Claudia out of California and into New York’s Manhattan. What was it like taking Claudia out of her usual environment? Was it an enjoyable experience that you plan to repeat in the future? Or was it difficult to create both a new mystery and a new environment?

I think it’s a good idea to change environments from time to time, or readers will begin to think I’m writing cozies J (I consider my books psychological suspense). Claudia lives in the almost fictional beach town of Playa de la Reina. In Poison Pen there are scenes in Palm Springs, and in Written in Blood, Claudia goes out of state. New York was a bit of a challenge because I haven’t spent a lot of time there. But Google and Youtube, are my friends and provide lots of good, usable stuff: sights, sounds, local color. Of course, there were a few missing senses, but a writer’s imagination can make up for that, and some of the smells I could do without anyway. I was lucky enough to make contact with a police detective in the precinct where the story took place, and he kindly filled in some of the blanks.

If you were to analyze your protagonist Claudia Rose’s handwriting, what are a few of the characteristics that would show up?

Claudia’s handwriting would have strong rhythm, a balanced spatial arrangement on the page, be moderate in size, with well developed lower loops, good simplification, and a few angles. Now you’ll have to look all that up in the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Handwriting Analysis to find out what they mean (will the BSP never stop?!).

What is the strangest assignment you’ve had?

Having analyzed well over 10,000 handwriting samples over my career, that’s a really hard question to answer. I recently provided Graphological input on a company logo. I’ve been asked by foreign police to examine the handwriting of a potential copycat serial killer. I’ve had genealogists ask me to prepare a Graphological autopsy on their ancestors. But mostly my work is fairly humdrum and involves analyzing handwriting for employers who are interviewing applicants, and on the other side of my practice, authenticating handwriting in cases of forgery.

Do you find that you subconsciously analyze the handwriting of everyone? Your agent, your mother, your friends?

I certainly get impressions about handwritings when I see them, favorable or otherwise. Way back when I was a beginner (in the 1960s), I would sit down and properly analyze them. Like Claudia, I don’t do that anymore, unless I’m getting paid for it. These days, although I do still maintain an active handwriting analysis practice, I’d rather be writing about Claudia Rose analyzing handwriting than doing it myself. Like I said, more than 10,000 samples…

Is there one obvious trait or set of traits that would make you just walk away from a person or situation?

An important fact about handwriting analysis is, there is no “this means that” relationship. The handwriting must be seen as a whole, as the context can make a difference to the interpretation of the individual parts. But some ‘red flag’ characteristics that can add up to potential for pathological behavior are extremes in pressure (heavy or light) plus extremes in slant (left or right); too many angular formations, extremely tall upper loops. Heavy, filled in punctuation. Many tiny hooks (seen under magnification). In fact, extremes of any type can usually be interpreted negatively.

What’s up next for you?

I’m madly working on the next Claudia Rose mystery, Unholy Writ, for release next year. Claudia’s friend Kelly Brennan is approached by her estranged younger sister Erin to help her find her missing child, who has been taken by her husband. Claudia and Kelly go “undercover “ in the religious cult of which Erin and her husband are members and where things are not always what they seem. And, of course, there’s that non-fiction book on relationships waiting to be finished.

Many thanks to Sheila for coming to us on this Monday moring.

Dead Write is available in bookstores or by clicking on the book cover to the right.

You can find out more about Sheila Lowe and Claudia Rose at Sheila’s web site.

How Sunday School Led Me to Celebrity Interviews

I used to be very shy. Whenever I tried to speak to a group of people I’d get flushed and start shaking and sweating. My vocal chords would squeeze shut and my voice would come out in a squeak!

On oral report days at school, I would stay home and take the bad grade.

And then, by a fluke, I was elected leader of a women’s group at my church. “No, no, no!” I protested in panic. “I can’t do this!” They smiled and patted my quivering hands. “You’ll be fine,” they said.

The first meeting was excruciating. I’d prepared. I’d brought my notes. Everyone waited expectantly. I opened my mouth … and squeaked. They smiled and nodded. I squeaked again then managed a few words. Another squeak and a few more words. And then, thank God, it was over.

I tried to quit a dozen times, but they wouldn’t let me.

Gradually…I stopped squeaking. Then one day I realized I was having fun.
What happened? What had changed abject terror into exhilaration?

Then it hit me, I’d changed my format from talking to asking. I’d put the pressure to communicate on the others. Nicely, of course, and with genuine interest in their answers, but nevertheless, requiring them to respond.

Yes, I prepared questions, and yes, those questions led to the point (or lesson) I wanted to make, but they were doing the talking, and I was doing the listening.

It was an epiphany. I could lead/teach a class by posing (prepared) questions. (Do you see where this is going?)

I also discovered I’m nosey. Why do people act and speak they way they do? What motivates them? What makes them mad? sad? hurt or lonely? How did they get started in their job? Why are they are getting a divorce? a tattoo? breast implants?

So I ask them and I take notes. Then I compile the answers into an article or story and submit it for publication. Voila! An interview!

Most people want to tell their story (especially celebrities), and some will tell you anything if you promise not to print it.

(Confession: Sometimes in an interview I ask questions I’m personally curious about but never plan to put it in a story. Oh, the things I could tell you!)

That’s how – when they were filming the TV series “Sons of Anarchy” in front of my house – I could walk up to Ron Perlman and talk to him like he was my “Uncle Fred.”

Piece of cake!

The Perfectionist Ghoul

Perfectionism: rigorous rejection of anything less than perfect (Encarta Dictionary).

Perfectionism can lead to misery, frustration, and long nights of ranting to the dog because he’s the only one who will listen. Meanwhile, Fido wonders why he ever wanted to leave the pound.

Once you’ve finished the chapter (or paragraph, or manuscript), gone over the grammar, tweaked the dialogue, and clarified plot points, how do you decide it’s time to let it go? Or, until the date it’s accepted by an editor, do you continue to go back and do rewrites?

How obsessive are the WinR’s??? How obsessive are YOU? We’d love to hear how you handle this dilemma.

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Bonnie Schroeder

Since I haven’t been published a lot, I have the luxury of continuing to tinker endlessly with my work. My short pieces usually get at least ten revisions. After a few rewrites I read them aloud and/or get trusted colleagues to give feedback and then revise and revise and revise. (Does the word “perfectionist” starting resonating about now?) Longer pieces I probably rework at least five times. The first draft is generally so hideous I don’t show it to anyone except maybe the dog; I revise until it’s fit for human eyeballs and then workshop it two or three times, and even then I find little things (sometimes not so little) that I’m shocked to have missed before.

At some point though, quite honestly, I just so darn sick and tired of the piece it that I can’t face another read-through. It goes in the drawer, and some things have sat there for years. Then one day I’ll drag one out, take another look, and go, “Well, this isn’t so bad. If I just changed . . . . “

Does anyone ever get a message from the Muse that says “enough?” If they do, I’m jealous! I don’t like to read the published version of my work, because I’m always afraid I’ll spot some huge flaw that snuck past the editor and me. I’ve gotten pretty good at disconnecting from the writing by then and can (almost) pretend it was written by someone else.

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GB Pool

One Last Polish

“Only God is perfect.” The rest of us strive for just being good at what we do. As a wise man once said, “You might be stupid, but you don’t want to look stupid.” So we keep polishing that sentence, or paragraph, or novel to make it not only look good, but also, surprise, surprise, it might actually be good. And if you persevere, it just might be great. So each pass of the polishing cloth gets us closer to “good.”

Here is another saying: “Don’t beat a dead horse.” If everybody tells you something doesn’t work, start over with another approach. Or maybe bury it. Lazarus had help coming back from the dead. If you don’t have Divine help, get over it and move on. Time’s a wastin’.

But don’t polish you work for so long that the toes fall off. The Pieta in Rome has had the feet of Christ replaced numerous times because people keep rubbing the toes for good luck. I hope they got their good luck, but your work will only end up toeless if you don’t finally say: “I’m done.”

But as with all wise sayings, here is my favorite. My father told me after I had moved to California to write, “No matter how good you think you are, I think you’re better.” So my friends, find people who are in your corner. People who will give you heartfelt encouragement and constructive criticism. You need both. And then, do the toughest thing of all: trust yourself.

After all it’s your work. Have faith, do your best, and let it go.

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Jacqueline Vick

My Work of Art!

Have you ever gone back and read a piece that you “finished” last month (last year, last decade) and been horrified by the errors? What happened to your clever story—the one that was going to win the Pulitzer? Who the heck broke into your computer and destroyed your masterpiece!!!
Experiences like that make writers neurotic. The fear is that we’ll send out substandard stuff and that editors will add our name to the Black Book of the Damned—writers they would only read with a pitcher of cocktails and their BFF’s with the intent of having a giggle.

There has to be an end point or you’ll drive yourself mad. (An insane writer—is that redundant?) 1. Always set your work aside and get back to it after at least a week’s rest.

2. Expect that, when you pick your piece up again, it will have errors. This is good. You’re finding them before it goes out!

3. After this edit, you can allow yourself one more rest and read cycle. Unless you rewrite the whole thing from scratch, trust that you’ve found what needs to be found.

4. Have an objective set of eyes look at it. This is where a good writing group is invaluable.

5. Let it go.

There’s a line of thought that says you have to let things go in order to attract new things. Imagine all the writing projects you’re missing out on by obsessing over this one piece. Is it worth hanging onto for the rest of your life?

We all want to do our best, and that’s all we can do. I will make mistakes. I’ll learn from them, forgive myself and move on. Nobody’s perfect.

A Report Back on the CCWC

Late June, writers from all over the country met in Pasadena, CA, for the California Crime Writers Conference–a joint effort between the Southern California chapters of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America. Dozens of panels to choose from, high-quality speakers, and the comradere of fellow writers made the weekend worth every penny.

Though it’s difficult to sum up such an eventful conference, here are some highlights from the Writers in Residence who attended. We asked them to consider the following questions:

What was the best/most important thing you learned at the conference?

Which speaker (keynote or session) did you find most inspiring/helpful, and why?

In which way has the conference helped you the most – tangibly (facts, techniques, contacts) or intangibly (inspiration, support)?

Did you attend this conference? Let us know what you thought!

Pictures: MK Johnston and Rosemary Lord soak up information at a panel. GB Pool works the Forensic Track. Jacqueline Vick works the raffle table with Sue Stimpson

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MK Johnston

A good conference benefits the writer in many ways. You learn, you relearn, you’re invigorated, you’re humbled. You reconnect with old friends and meet new ones. That’s all part of the appeal, whether you’ve just decided to begin writing, you’re shopping your latest novel or any point in between. And, as has often happened to me, I found some of the most helpful information came from the least likely source.

Generally, I had no trouble picking which session I wanted to attend, but one session had nothing that interested me. At the last moment I chose Christopher Rice’s “Become your editor’s favorite author”. His message was simple – Know what your central premise (theme) is, and create very detailed character biographies. In other words, know precisely what and who you’re writing about. He also stressed the importance of creating an editorial staff to include your biggest fan (for pure support), target audience member, tough critic (knowledgeable in your genre), and proof reader. Rice also discussed the rewrite process, not just technically, but emotionally. His advice – never rewrite your book for someone who rejected it.

One concept that kept coming up was whether or not to prepare a story outline. I didn’t use one when writing my first novel. Although it allowed me the freedom to explore different paths with the story line, it also took many years to complete, a luxury I won’t have with the sequel. Several speakers gave great advice on how to get the advantages of an outline without outlining. Two good suggestions: write key scenes on index cards and add up or down arrows to note whether that scene is more or less active (to help with pacing), or rely on very detailed character bios to guide the story.

I came away from the conference with my creative juices flowing and the resolve to finish my rewrite. Can any writer ask for more?

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GB Pool

Since I had the opportunity to work on the conference from its inception, I got to see how much goes into putting on an event like the California Crime Writers Conference. But I think getting to interact with other committee members, attendees, and the speakers was priceless. I have met so many absolutely marvelous people and I realize how important networking is to anyone who wants to not only be a writer, but be a successful one.

I ran the Forensics Track at the conference and spent the entire time with that group. I got to pick who spoke and work with them and introduce them. That was a sheer joy. As for my favorite speaker, I thought private detective J. Corey Friedman was spectacular. He could literally get your mother’s underwear size by running a “legitimate scam” on her. And he showed us how to get information on nearly anybody via the Internet. One man gave him only his name and Corey found his wife’s Social Security number on-line.

Working on the conference showed how well organizations can do things if each person gets their assignments and does them. Nobody bothered me and I did my own thing. It worked for me. And then to see how happy people were who came to the conference made all the work worth while. Bernadine De Paolis said, “I pissed on the ceiling.” She explained that in her family that means I did the impossible. I don’t know about that, but I sure was glad there were so many happy faces. That’s what I wanted.

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Note: The elusive Jackie Houchin takes many of the pictures for our blog. We will capture her on camera…eventually.

Jackie Houchin

Writing (and Reviewing) Crime

Along with everyone that attended the California Crime Writing Conference, I was impressed by the four “tracks” of workshops available.

I chose the “Learning the Craft” track because it fit what I am interested in. No, I haven’t written any crime fiction since the junior detective series I wrote for my grandchildren ten years ago. But I do review mystery and thriller books, so I wanted to learn from the professionals what makes a terrific best-seller.

Jerrilyn Farmer used her book, “Perfect Sax” to illustrate how to plot a mystery. She kept us spellbound for an hour as she reviewed her reasons for choosing for the victim, the method of murder, a variety of suspects, false leads and red herrings, and then showed us how to add twists and surprises to keep the cleverest of readers guessing till the end. “But remember,” she cautioned us, “all your characters’ actions and reactions must be logical and believable.”

In her workshop on how to plot a thriller, Gayle Lynds explained the difference between a mystery and a thriller. Mysteries begin with a terrible crime, then go on to discover who did it and why. Thrillers begin with the knowledge that something dreadful is about to happen, then race to try to stop it. She also drilled us on the importance of the villain in a thriller. “Your antagonist is critical, he drives the plot. He must be a worthy opponent for your hero, a clash of titans. If you get stuck in your story, ask yourself what the villain is doing.”

The tips I learned in these two sessions will help me better understand and review the next crime or suspense novel I read…if I can just remember to apply them.

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Jacqueline Vick

For attendees of the recent California Crime Writers Conference, the most difficult task was to choose which panels to attend.

In the Writing Business Track, Carolyn Howard Johnson began the day sharing cool tips on how to market your book without spending a lot of money. With so many online options available, this isn’t as difficult as it seems. Carol explained how to efficiently produce both a blog and a newsletter by sharing information between the two. Many blogs allow users to schedule a future posting date so that the newsletter content doesn’t duplicate what’s online. She also mentioned the immediate feedback she’s received from Tweets—postings on Twitter.

I have to say that the information she gave on marketing was the most valuable concrete information I received at the conference because she was talking about steps I can take today to get my “brand” out to people so they will be interested by the time my book comes out.

Annette Rogers of Poisoned Pen Press reminded us that we writers are storytellers. She read examples of great opening paragraphs to demonstrate how to catch the editor’s attention. Editors look for stories that can compete against all media, including television, movies and radio. And we can’t sell something that isn’t out there. If a dreaded rejection shows up in the mail, tweak a few words and send the manuscript out again the next day.

Annette inspired me because writers sometimes see editors as a scary, separate piece of the publishing puzzle, and her personable approach and sense of humor reminded me that editors are simply people who would love to see good writing on their desk.

The E-Publishing Panel included Annette Rogers, Marilyn Meredith, and E-Publisher Marci Baun. While traditional publishing can take two years from acceptance to print, E-Publishers can do it in as little as four months. The standards are the same, and guidelines are still important.

This panel inspired me to think outside of the box. The opportunities to publish are out there, even though it seems that the business is contracting.

Everyone inspired me in one way or another–the speakers with useful information, the other attendees with their stories and eternal optimism. I learned long ago that mystery writers are a close community, always willing to encourage and share tips. I highly recommend that writers get out of their cloistered writing rooms and step into this conference in two years when it is offered again.