Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Archangel on Huffington Post

Eric Kuhn over at the Huffington Post has an article on The Archangel Project!

In a posting entitled "Political-ish Holiday Stocking Stuffers," he spotlights three new thrillers, saying, "As the holidays quickly approach and some are looking for the last minute perfect gift for that politico in your life who was obsessed in the recent presidential campaign, I thought I would go out again and find the best "Political-Ish" holiday reads. Below are three interviews with authors who recently published fictional novels with political overtones. The perfect stocking stuffer!"

Archangel is the first book he profiles.

Ever since I realized there was a whole world of swirling debate going on between left and rightwing blogs that was generally flying by under my radar, I've taken to reading the Huffington Post daily, so it's neat seeing our book highlighted there.

You can read the entire interview here.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Testosterone Overload


While most other women were out doing their last minute Christmas shopping today, I spent four hours in a gun show. In Louisiana. Picture a massive hall filled with long-haired, bearded bikers in leathers and chains, and good ole boys in baseball caps and t-shirts that say SUPPORT OUR TROOPS, many with rifles or shotguns slung over their shoulders and revolvers stuck in their belts, all drooling over Uzis and Glocks, Sigs and Winchesters. At one point I looked around and realized I was one of maybe six or eight females present. The testosterone was so thick that it was virtually toxic even to breathe.

What was I doing there? Well, part of it was research. Writing a contemporary thriller series has inspired me with the desire to be more familiar with a variety of weapons, including things like machine pistols, which I have never handled.

I grew up with guns. My dad, an Air Force intelligence officer who carried a gun in civilian clothes, was an avid hunter. And I’m married to a retired Army colonel. But I have to admit that today disturbed me. I spent many years living in Australia, where guns are illegal and, as a result, the national murder rate is equal to about one week’s worth of kills here in New Orleans. At one point today I watched a young Asian dude buy a Desert Eagle, an M1, a bulletproof vest, and a belly belt (for carrying concealed). And I thought, Hello! Does no one else find this the least bit scary/alarming?!

Nevertheless, I have to admit I had fun. They had some great guns there—revolvers from the Civil War and a gorgeous 1871 Winchester. And I saw a really nice Springfield Armory 1911-A1 Pistol with a cocobolo wood grip and stainless finish that I liked. Just over $900 dollars…

Friday, December 12, 2008

Winter Wonderland

This is a sight we don’t see too often here in New Orleans.

When it first started, I ran and grabbed my camera, because all I was expecting was a few flurries. But it kept snowing, and snowing, and snowing. For hours.

The kids down the streets went nuts, as did my Jordanian-born, Aussie-raised, kid-at-heart, just-home-from-college-in-Florida daughter.

My mom, who spent many years in the likes of Idaho and Alaska and South Dakota, got all teary eyed, saying, “Snow really is beautiful, isn’t it?

Yes it is.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Title Woes, Part III (or is it IV? IX?)

In which the title sagas wage on.

I thought the title for my next contemporary thriller had been nailed down: The Deadlight Connection. The editors liked it. The sales department (far more important and powerful than mere editors!) liked it. The recently released edition of Archangel even carried teaser chapters of the book with the Deadlight title—advance publicity. So it was a done deal, right? Wrong.

About six weeks ago, Harper Collins cover conferenced the book. This is when the editors and marketing people get together with the art department to come up with cover concepts. Only problem was, the art people “couldn’t get their heads around the title.” (Huh?) So they wanted a new title. Preferably The Dead SOMETHING Connection.

My reaction was, You’ve got to be kidding? NOW you decide the title needs to be changed. And you want me to come up with a title to fit a cover idea? With the word “dead” in it? Like what? The Dead Nazis Connection?

Round and round we went. Like a good, cooperative author (uncooperative authors, unless they are HUGE, soon find themselves OOPs—Out of Print), I tried to come up with a new title. Steve and I spent hours, day after day, brainstorming new titles, but the results ranged from the dull to the ridiculous. I kept hoping HC would give in and go with the original title. But every Monday there would be a new little email in my box: Come up with any good title ideas over the weekend?

Finally, inspiration hit. I sent the idea in. A shout of jubilation went around the editors, the marketing people, the Art Department. A new title was born. And it shall be called The Solomon Effect.

My editor thought to ask, Does it have anything to do with the book? To which I responded, I’ll make it fit.


Monday, December 01, 2008

My Cat Monday: Nick

Our visit to the vet last week didn’t bring good news on Nick, our sick cat: seems his “numbers” are still bad. But he’s eating again, and they say that cats can live for a long time with kidney problems, so we’re hoping Nick has many years ahead of him. Here’s a photo of Nick being bad, up on the table. But then, what cat can resist a box?

Nick is a real sweetheart, but he’s also one of those cats who’s so dumb he’s always good for a laugh. For some reason, he likes to paw at the floor when he drinks. Only, sometimes he’ll forget and paw at the floor with both front feet at the same time, with the result that he pitches headfirst into his water bowl. His nicknames are Velcro, Duffus, Bubba, and Nicholas Pee Cat (the latter earned when he first encountered my Big Bad Huckleberry, and was so terrified that he, well, peed. A lot.)

Steve and I have a blended cat family. When we married five years ago, he had three cats (Nick, Nora, and Press), and I had two (Huckleberry and Thomasina). Since then we’ve acquired one half-dead stray, BC (now no longer a stray and very fat) and my mother’s cat, Angel (named after the vampire). When my mom and Angel moved in with us this last summer, Nick, Nora, and BC went with my daughter, Sam, to live in my mom’s house. But we still consider all seven our cats (and have the vet bills to prove it!)

Here’s a photo of BC (Bad Cat, Black Cat, Baby Cat—take your pick), our latest addition and another sweetheart, cuddling his sick friend.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A New Meme

Sphinx Ink tagged me for a meme, which basically involves coming up with six random things about myself that you may not know. It's been a while since I've done this, and it's always fun. But I have a lousy memory, so if I'm repeating myself on any of these points, my apologies. As usual, I'm not posting rules or tagging anyone else, although any readers who are so inclined to pursue this may consider themselves tagged. Here goes...

1. As a child, I was desperate for piano lessons. Since we moved frequently and my parents were not musical themselves, lessons weren’t a priority with them and it never happened. Thanks largely to that disappointment, when I became a parent I was pleased that both my children expressed interest in learning an instrument and encouraged (but never forced!) them to pursue it. Sam was a wonderful flutist, but dropped it after five years; Danielle still loves her piano, and gave serious consideration to minoring in music. I occasionally think about taking lessons myself, even at this late date, but apart from the problem of finding the time to devote to it seriously, I have finally acknowledged to myself that I don’t have a musical gene in my body.

2. When I was in high school, I taught myself to play the guitar. I was never anything but a rank amateur, but I always enjoyed it. I had a wonderful old handmaid Spanish acoustical guitar. I put it in storage when I was 27, expecting to retrieve it in a year. We were recently reunited, but, alas, playing a guitar is not like riding a bicycle—at least for me. Perhaps when my kids are settled, the houses restored, and I’m down to writing just one book a year, I’ll pick it up again. Perhaps.

3. When I was in grade school, I loved to take my blocks and cars and tiny horses outside. We lived in the country in Oregon for five years, and I’d find a hollow at the base of a tree and build myself a ranch, complete with house and pastures and stables and a winding lane I’d “landscape” with bits of vegetation. I could happily pass hours that way.

4. I’m a direct descendent of Mary, Queen of Scots. My nth great-grandmother, also called Mary Stuart, was the illegitimate daughter of James II by his mistress Goditha Price. When King James lost his throne in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Mary helped her half-brother, and then her nephew Bonnie Prince Charlie, in their attempts to regain the throne. After the Rising of 1715, Bonnie Prince Charlie entrusted the beautiful, gold-trimmed and illuminated genealogical pages torn from the Stuart family bible to my ancestor, and Mary’s son carried them with him when he fled to America, with each successive generation faithfully recording their offspring. They’re still in the possession of a cousin. But the only thing I’ve inherited from my ill-fated royal ancestors is a tendency for my hair to turn red in the sun, a proclivity toward making bad choices, and their %#@% porphyria.

5. A Spanish general whose name I never knew had his brains blown out by Communists on the front porch of the house I lived in as a child in Madrid. This ghoulish tidbit was a source of endless fascination to me. Although it had happened decades before, during the Spanish Civil War, I often gave that door an extra hard look as I passed by it, searching for vestiges of stray bits of his gray matter. What affect this had on my growing up, I’ll never know.

6. Today is my wedding anniversary; Steve and I have now been married for five wonderful, happy years.

On a side note, Nick's visit to the vet yesterday did not bring good news. More about that later. In the meantime, Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Oops! We Did It Again


It’s official: New Orleans has been branded as the city with the worst crime rate in America. According to the CQ Press "City Crime Rankings" list, this honor was bestowed upon us after New Orleans racked up a reported 19,000-plus incidences of six major crimes -- including 209 murder cases -- in 2007. This in a city of less than 250,000 people (which is far less than half the Crescent City’s peak population of some years ago). Compare this with Ramapo, New York, about 40 miles northwest of New York City, which had only 688 total crimes and no reported killings in a city of about 113,000.

When I went to Bouchercon in Baltimore last month, I scandalized some of my fellow conference attendees by going off for a two-hour self-guided walking tour of the city. “Baltimore is a very dangerous city!” they cried. (People who write murder mysteries must tend to be unusually timid folks.)

Any city can be a dangerous place, especially if you don't know where you're going. But I had maps, and a well-developed sense of what parts of a city to avoid. Besides, I told them, “I’m from New Orleans!”

On a side note: Our cat Nick goes back to the vet tomorrow, but he seems to be feeling much better so we're hopeful he's on the mend.

Monday, November 17, 2008

One of Those Weeks

Ever have one of those weeks when it begins to feel as if anything that can go wrong, will? This past week…

My daughter ripped the bottom out of her low-slung sports car on one of New Orleans’s Katrina-ravaged streets. While it’s in the shop being repaired, she’s driving MY car (down those same Katrina-ravaged streets). Then…

The washing machine in my mother’s house broke down. Since it’s old, I decided to go buy a new one--not easy when I don’t have a car. Then,

Our cat Nick, one of the stupidest but also one of the sweetest felines in the world, went into kidney failure. We’re hopeful he’s going to recover, but he’s not out of the woods yet. He’s only eight years old, poor guy. Then…

I broke my toe. Without a car (see above), I’d been walking. No more. Then…

My washing machine broke down. Fifth time in two years. Grrrr.

And then, although it was technically not in the same 7-day streak, Steve and I did a booksigning at a local independent bookstore this past Saturday and sold not a single book. Not one. In all my years as a published author, I’ve never been skunked at a booksigning. I guess there’s always a first. I’m not taking it personally—I’ve talked to huge NYT bestselling authors who fly into a town for a signing and don’t sell, so I know it happens (plus we were able to sign a lot of stock). But still…

The good thing is that with the exception of Nick's health, these are all pesky (although in some cases, expensive) irritants. I know life could be so much worse. Nevertheless, here’s hoping for a better coming week!

Saturday, November 08, 2008

You Can’t (Usually) Go Home Again

One of my favorite books of all time is M.M. Kaye’s Trade Wind. I fell in love with it when I was quite young, and have reread it with equal pleasure several times over the years. So when I came upon Kaye’s Death in Zanzibar at the recent Friends of the Library Booksale, I considered it a find.

If you’re not familiar with the two books, Death in Zanzibar is a whodunit from the fifties, very much in the style of Agatha Christie. In writing the “modern” murder mystery, Kaye conceived a backstory involving a rakish nineteenth-century English outlaw/privateer, a prudish American do-gooder, and a trove of hidden treasure. In one of those fascinating twists of the creative process, she found herself so obsessed with her “backstory” that she later went on to write that story, too, in a sprawling historical novel that became Trade Wind.

I remember checking Death in Zanzibar out of my local library in the seventies, and being swept away by lush descriptions of the island and its culture. So I thought I was in for a real treat when I started reading it last week—“thought” being the operative word in that sentence. To begin with, where’s the island? I’m now half way through the book, and we’re still on the plane! Why didn’t I remember that part of the book? Obviously, because it wasn’t memorable. Yet I intend to continue reading, not because I’m enjoying the story (I’m not) , but because the book itself is an eye-opening period piece.

First of all, it’s taking our heroine days to get to Zanzibar; that’s what international travel was like in the fifties. I myself have vague memories of flying back and forth to Europe as a child and having to stop and spend the night in the Azores (okay, I know I’m really dating myself here!). Yet if I were to read this book without looking at the copyright date, I suspect I’d guess it was written in the thirties, rather than in the fifties. Ladies wear lovely linen suits and hats, and young women traveling alone are ever-so-careful of their reputations. A flamingly gay secretary is caricatured in a most politically incorrect way, as is the Westernized Oriental Gentleman (aka Wog, for those of you familiar with overt mid-twentieth century British racism), who is portrayed as a sinister character largely by virtue of being labeled a “nationalist” who wants to kick the benevolent British out of their God-given colonies. Oh, and then there’s all the talk about the evil “Reds.”

Sadly, Death in Zanzibar is a novel that has not aged well in the way of, say, To Kill a Mockingbird, or Huckleberry Finn, or even Kaye’s own Trade Wind. It occurs to me now that all three of those novels were actually “historicals” at the time they were written, even though the first two were set within the remembered lifetimes of their authors. Which is a thought I hope to ponder, at a later date.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


It’s been a hectic month. The LA Bookfestival, Bouchercon, out-of-town guests, newspaper, TV, and radio interviews, booksignings, and a three-week bout of the flu I’m just beginning to recover from. But this past weekend, Steve and I grabbed the chance to go up to the lake and just sit on the porch and soak in the beauty of changing leaves reflected in still water.

It was our first visit to the lake since Hurricane Gustav two months ago. When we left, the power was still off and we abandoned huge piles of broken limbs, so we’ve been anxious to get back up there and make sure everything was all right. It was, but unfortunately we couldn’t stay as long as we’d have liked, since we had a TV appearance scheduled for first thing Monday morning.

And, as if life weren’t hectic enough, Where Serpents Sleep is released today. Somehow, given the election-day timing, I doubt too many people will be rushing out to buy it! I don’t know about you, but I am soooo glad this election is almost over. I’ve been finding it very hard to concentrate this past week. And I have Book Number Five in the series due so soon I can’t breathe when I think about it. I need to go back to the lake…

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

On Coop

No, this isn’t a post about chicken coops. The coop I’m talking about is publishers’ coop, which is pronounced “co-op” even though it’s spelled like the barnyard habitat of our little feathered friends. So what is coop? Coop is the money publishers pay to get their books a better position in stores. The theory is, the more people who see a book, the more people who will buy a book. If a book is simply stuck sideways on a shelf at the back of the store, it could be the most brilliant novel ever written but no one will ever know it because it will languish unseen and unread in the dark.

Until I became involved in the book industry, I did not know publishers did this. I thought when you went into a drug store or grocery store and saw Stephen King’s latest in a stand by the checkout behind a sign that said, “Number One Bestseller,” it was because the book was, literally, the number one best seller. Now, it could very well be, but that’s not why it’s there; it’s in that slot because that’s the slot King’s publisher paid for. If the publisher had only paid for “Number 8”, that’s where it would be. If a publisher hasn't paid any coop, then you won't see that book at those racks. Simple as that.

Publishers’ coop money also pays for books to sit on the tables at the front of Barnes and Nobles and at Borders. The books on the end caps (the ends of the rows, where books are displayed face out) are all there because of coop. And the cardboard display stands (“dumps”) at the front of stores? Coop, again—although dumps seem to be going out of style these days. The biggest outlay in coop ever spent in publishing history was laid down for, you guessed it, The Da Vinci Code. Bottom line: coop works.

So for writers, having their publisher agree to pay for at least some coop is a Really Big Deal. It’s also frustratingly hard to get. I’ve written over a dozen books, yet The Archangel Project is the first book I’ve ever had come out with coop. Traveling up to Baltimore barely a week after Archangel’s release was a heady experience. I checked out every Hudson’s News I passed, on every concourse, and there it was: The Archangel Project, in Bestseller Slot Number Twenty-something. A little higher number would have been nicer, since it would have brought the book up to eye level, but hey, I’m not complaining!

As the writer of one of those twenty-five Anointed Ones, it was great. But as a reader, my reaction was a little bit different. You see, the more bookstores I ducked into, and the more I saw the exact same books (in the bookstalls on the concourses, the twenty-five “bestsellers” were typically all they carried), the more troubled I became. I mean, what if I was flying and none of those twenty-five titles appealed to me? Think about it: thousands of newsstands and bookstalls in airports across the country, all carrying the same twenty-five titles, all there courtesy of the coop paid by their publishers. Magnify that by the Walgreens, the Walmarts, the fill-in-the-blank chain. Oh, look; there’s the latest Grisham. And there’s the Lisa Kleypus. And there’s the latest Raymond Khoury. Again and again. What if I was looking for, say, C.S. Harris’s Why Mermaids Sing (also released this month in paperback, but given no coop)? Tough.

Is Archangel a better book than Mermaids? No. Is it going to sell a heckova lot better, thanks to all that coop? You betcha. On which thought I’ll leave you with this snapshot of Archangel on the shelves of a bookstall in Tampa—right between the latest Grisham and the latest Khoury.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Still Alive, Barely

I brought a nasty case of flu home with me from Baltimore that I still haven't shaken. But I wanted to share this STARRED Publishers Weekly review of Where Serpents Sleep, which hits the stores the first Tuesday in November. I could have done without the "predictable" line (excuse me?!) but since they gave it a star, I can't really complain!

"Where Serpents Sleep: A Sebastian St. Cyr Mystery C.S. Harris. NAL/Obsidian. The savage murder of eight prostitutes at a London house of refuge provides Sebastian St. Cyr with yet another challenging puzzle in Harris's outstanding fourth mystery to feature the Regency-era gentleman sleuth. St. Cyr, who's been despondent ever since a stunning personal revelation toward the end of 2007's Why Mermaids Sing, is roused from his funk by Hero Jarvis, the fearless and independent daughter of his mortal enemy. Jarvis, who was doing research at the house of refuge at the time of the murders and barely survived the massacre herself, asks for St. Cyr's help in tracking down those responsible. The amateur detective finds no shortage of suspects, ranging from the pimp of some of the dead girls to Bow Street magistrate Sir William Hadley, who had patronized them. While the developing attraction between St. Cyr and Jarvis is a little too predictable, Harris does a nice job of weaving the many plot strands together while exploring the complex character of her protagonist. (Nov.)"

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Thought Police and the Thriller

A disturbing story was making the rounds among authors and editors at this year’s Bouchercon: it seems that a segment of Lee Child’s readers are so enraged by antiwar statements made by characters who are Iraq War vets in his latest Jack Reacher novel that these readers are tearing out the offending pages, using them as toilet paper, and mailing them to Child.

Child found this reaction somewhat bemusing, given that he literally took quotes from real Iraq War vets and put them in the mouths of his characters. We all know that anti-war vets exist—they haven’t exactly been keeping quiet. Not only that, but it’s a time-honored tradition in fiction to have characters disturbed by their war experiences. So what’s going on here?

I first encountered this troubling mindset in some of the reactions to my Sebastian St. Cyr books. The fact that the series is about an Englishman in the early nineteenth century didn’t stop certain readers from objecting to statements my main character makes about things like the Napoleonic Wars and the American slave trade. That’s right; evidently having a character who is speaking in 1811 criticize the existence of slavery in the United States (while trying to wheedle information out of an ex-slave, no less) marks me as both liberal and unpatriotic. And as for the idea that Englishmen might have committed what we would today call war crimes or that a war veteran might be troubled by his experiences? How dare I suggest that anyone of Anglo-Saxon origins could ever be anything less than a hero in war, or that wars can be horrible rather than ennobling experiences.

So when Steve and I wrote The Archangel Project, we knew what we were letting ourselves in for. We could have written a safe, predictable thriller about Islamist terrorists, but the truth is, we don’t find the menace of terrorism nearly as scary as the threats to the American way of life that come from inside this country. So Archangel is about things like the Big Brother trends in modern government, the influence of giant energy and defense conglomerates on foreign policy, the dangers inherent in the privatization of the military and intelligence sectors, and the inevitable economic impact of militarism and empire building. And the bad guys? Basically, they’re people who are greedy, although they try to disguise their greed behind an exaggerated patriotism and neo-conservative philosophy. Given what they’re doing, it would be beyond implausible to have any of these guys profess to be a “liberal.”

But any reader who therefore leaps to the conclusion that Steve and I are “liberals” is making, well, an unsupported leap. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not one of those people who considers the “L” word a dirty slur. But I’d like to point out that Libertarians also condemn the above-named tendencies as Bad Things, and they think of themselves as “conservatives.” In fact, Libertarians are virtually the only group that has been vocally against the war in Iraq since before it began. They run a great website called antiwar.com that provides links to all the news that is either never printed in this country, or is typically buried on the bottom of page F56. You’ll notice that antiwar.com is in the list of links on the right; it’s always been there. Does that mean I’m a Libertarian? No. The truth is, I’ve lived such a huge chunk of my life outside the United States that I don’t find I can identify too closely with any of the current parties.

Yet there’s no denying that Steve and I feel passionately about current trends and follow them closely; otherwise, the idea for The Archangel Project would never have occurred to us. The important thing to remember is this: our stories are STORIES. “President Randolph” is President Randolph, not President Bush; he will be in The Deadlight Connection next year, long after Bush is gone. We write dialogue, not polemics, and every word is there either to advance the plot, deepen characterization, or provide information the reader needs to make sense of the story. Some readers may find that the realities we choose to mention threaten some of their deeply held beliefs, but that doesn’t alter the fact that our purpose is not to challenge their beliefs, but simply to tell a story. Our female protagonist, Tobie, is actually a fairly apolitical figure; she’s never been particularly interested in history or current affairs, and it shows. Our male protagonist, CIA agent Jax Alexander, is keenly aware of both. But Jax is not a front for either Steve or I; instead, Jax, Matt, and Colonel McClintock are all inspired by the many intelligence personnel we have known over the years. Because the truth is, when you’ve heard your President get up and tell the American people something you know is directly contradicted by the report on your desk, or when you’ve been ordered by your superiors to go up on the hill and lie to Congress, you tend to get a little cynical. A lot cynical. This unblinkered realism is the reason so many veteran CIA agents have been forced out of the Company in recent years. And yes, we do touch upon that, too—again, not because we’re writing a polemic, but because in order for our story to make sense, this little-known reality needs to be stated—however uncomfortable some readers may find it.

Every writer inevitably brings his or her own particular ideology to their books. You can only write thrillers about the things that scare you. Certain modern American thriller writers whose names I won’t mention display such vitriolic bigotry and xenophobia that I can’t read their books; yet one rarely sees their racism criticized. Why? I suppose because if a writer’s basic beliefs and assumptions chime well with the popular passions of his age, the majority of his readers won’t even notice his bias. Back in the days of the Cold War, most American thriller writers took it as a given that the Russians/Commies were the bad guys and the Americans were by default the good guys. Only a few, generally British authors dared look at some of the things Western governments were doing and suggest that maybe overthrowing democratically-elected leftist governments and replacing them with right-wing dictators backed by death squads was both morally objectionable and stupidly short-sighted (can anyone say, “Iran”?). All you need to do is consider the reception given a few years ago in the United States to the film based on Graham Greene’s The Quiet American to realize how far we still have to go in this respect.

So Steve and I expect The Archangel Project to rattle some readers. That’s okay; controversy is good for sales. But there’s a difference between controversy, and the kind of unreasoned hatred that once prompted angry mobs in Pakistan to burn Salmond Rushdie in effigy, or that leads partisans at a political rally to yell “terrorist” and “kill him” when the opponent’s name is mentioned. What has happened to the civil discourse we once liked to think characterized our country?

No writer should ever have to worry about what is going to show up in his mailbox.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Back from Bouchercon

Well, I’m back from Baltimore, and exhausted. This was my first Bouchercon, and it was a heady experience. I met Lyssa, my Harper Collins author, for the first time, and so many authors and wonderful, enthusiastic fans of mysteries that my brain is still spinning.

Writing full time is such a quiet, solitary endeavor that these eighteen-hour days spent around people and being bombarded by excessive noise has left me in sensory overload shock. I’m hoarse from shouting to be heard over the roar in the bar, and I can only wonder at my fellow authors who spent those hours in the bar drinking adult beverages rather than sipping iced tea. How do they do it?

I’ve come home with some great tales of bizarre behavior, none of which I have any intention up putting up on the Internet (sorry, guys!). What is it about conventions that leads some people to indulge in stupid antics? Or do these people behave this way all the time? One would think that, eventually, the Darwin Law would take them out of circulation.

All in all, Bouchercon provided me with much food for thought, which I’ll be pondering over the next few days. After I get some sleep and this headache goes away.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Charmed to Death

I hope this is a case of better late than never: I will be Baltimore, Maryland, attending this year's Bouchercon ("Charmed to Death") from Wednesday, 8 October to Sunday, 12 October. For those of you not familiar with Bouchercon, it's the big American mystery convention, and is being held at the Baltimore Sheraton City Center Hotel, 101 West Fayette Street. Because I was so slow getting my act together, I'm only on one panel--Thursday, at 10:00am, in room International E. The panel is "Let's Work Together" (i.e., writing with a partner), and my fellow panel members will be Cara Black, Meredith Anthony, Donald and Renee Bain, Larry Light, and Michael Stanley. There will be a book signing in the Carroll Room immediately following the panel.

So, if you're in the area, I hope to see you there!

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Archangel Is Here!

The Archangel Project arrives in bookstores this week. Given this book's long gestation--Archangel was half written when Katrina hit three years ago--I'm finding it a bit hard to believe this is finally happening. But il est arrivé!

I understand some bookstores even have a stunning dump (one of those cardboard display boxes you see at the front of the store) with a great "tag" line: Think you know what's real? Think again. I myself haven't seen one yet, but if anyone spots one, I'd love a picture.

It's been a busy week. My sister arrived for an eight-day visit last Friday. I had a birthday--on what will now go down as the greatest stockmarket crash in history . Archangel was released. I got Deadlight in to my editor ON TIME. I'm getting ready to be on a panel at the Louisiana Book Festival on Saturday, and then next Wednesday I fly to Baltimore for Bouchercon. Phew!

As soon as I get back, I need to buckle down and finish book five in the Sebastian St. Cyr series. My editor shot down my working title--What Hell Marks. So we have a new title: What Remains of Heaven.

Monday, September 22, 2008

A Learning Process

Well, the last scene of The Deadlight Connection is written, which would be cause for celebration if I weren't so frantically combing through the manuscript, looking for errors and little turns of phrases that just don't quite sound right while keeping a nervous eye on the calendar. It doesn't help that I compressed the action into seven days, rather than eight, which means I'm also doing some date juggling. But the important point in all this is that the #@$% thing will be finished by its official deadline, even if it is six months late by my own deadline.

I've realized I write books in one of three ways: 1) I make reasonable revisions as I write, then finish the first draft and go back for a more substantive overhaul and cosmetic corrections;. 2) I write the first draft in a white heat, barely looking at what I've written until I reach the end; and 3) I make a series of massive, bloody overhauls long before I finish the manuscript, as well as less drastic but still substantive revisions, so that by the time I write the last chapter, all I need is to go back and do the final cleanup.

After having written upwards of fifteen books, you'd think I'd have an established work pattern, but I don't. Of the three approaches, I personally prefer #2, but that only seems to work when the book is working. I simply can't keep going when I realize there's a hideous problem (or two or three) in what I've already written.

Now that I'm (almost) finished with it, I find I'm surprisingly happy with this book. I think it's a fun read. The only thing that startles me is that it's LONG--which is one of the reasons (but only one of them) it took so long to write. You'd think after having written all these books I'd be better at judging a story's length.

All of which reminds me that while I know a great deal about this book-writing business, there is still much that I am learning.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Hog Hunting in Louisiana

Yes, I'm hyperventilating about getting this book finished on time, and I'm scheduled to give a keynote address at a luncheon on Saturday up in Baton Rouge, and my sister's coming for a ten day visit in a week, and I still haven't put away any of the stuff I packed up when we evacuated for Hurricane Gustav, and I'm supposed to fly up to Maryland in three weeks, but... I wanted to share this photo of an alligator catching his dinner on Highway 51, which is a road that runs near my, ahem, lake house. Hopefully I'm not violating anyone's copyright here since it came to me by email, but here it is...


Saturday, September 13, 2008

Lost Days

I might have been able to handle waking up Friday morning to that maddeningly familiar sound of wind and rain if I hadn’t looked over to see what time it was and realized our power was out. Again. Our recent experiences with Gustav have made me realize how very, very fond I am of electricity (not to mention the fact that I just spent $$$$$$$ at Whole Foods to restock my fridge and freezer).

It’s hard to concentrate under those conditions, but I was determined to do it, writing in longhand. Then our power came back on. Why is this a bad thing? Because my daughter’s power was still out. She came over dragging the contents of HER Whole Food-stocked fridge and a heavy dose of high anxiety. The truth is, it is hard to write when communities around you are going under water. It’s as if their cries of anguish are carried in the wind. And when you’ve seen your own house go under water, the resonance is painful.

Yes, Texas got the brunt of the storm, and what happened to Galveston was tragic. But coastal Louisiana is suffering a heart-breaking tragedy of their own, largely away from the media’s eye. Who out there has even heard of the Isle de Jean Charles?

Last night, we wandered down to the lake, a couple of blocks from our house, expecting to see some white caps and waves. We saw more than we expected. And looking back at the levees, and realizing how high they AREN’T, was a sobering experience.

Yet somehow, today, I MUST write.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

In Deadline Hell

The Deadlight Connection is due on my editor’s desk the first of October, and I’m in a bit of a scramble to finish it, having just lost two weeks to the rigmarole of Hurricane Gustov. (As I write this, the outer bands of Ike are pounding New Orleans with howling winds and driving rain; they say we should only get tropical storm force winds, although the storm surge will be a bit of a worry.) When I remember that I originally planned to have Deadlight finished by the first of April, I have to laugh. The best laid plans of mice and writers…

On another front: while we were evacuated, we discovered that The Archangel Project is an October Indie Next Pick (and thanks so much for your congrats, S). If you’re going, “Eh?” let me explain: the Indie Next List is drawn up by the independent booksellers association and is sent to its members as well as being available on line. Each month they announce the new releases and make their recommendations. They hardly ever recommend mass-market originals (which is what this book ended up being) so being an Indie Next Pick is a Big Thing. Archangel will be officially released September 30, which is the day after my birthday and the day before Deadlight is due…

So, back to writing--although it's hard to write with one wary eye kept on the weather.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggety Jig!

We’re home, we’re safe, our houses made it through the storm in great shape, and so did our city. Here are a few of the moments from this past week that I’ll always remember:

*Caught in evacuation traffic at 1:00am on Sunday morning and admiring the way the wet blacktop reflects the miles and miles of brake lights ahead of me as I listen to the Moody Blues singing Traveling Eternity’s Road

*Waking up early Sunday morning to go get gas for our generator, only to discover that all the gas stations in the area are sold out and closed. Oh, dear.

*Watching the pine trees around the lake house thrash wildly back and forth as the hurricane rolls over us on Monday morning and thinking, We should have had some of these suckers cut down.

*Listening to a continuous bombardment of broken limbs from said pine trees crashing down on the roof and thinking…but I already said that.

*Losing power at midday and thinking, We don’t have any gas for our generator.

*Spending days playing Charades, Clue, Scrabble, and Crazy 8s in a futile attempt to keep my electronics-deprived daughter from unraveling, and thinking, Why didn’t anyone tell me a hurricane can take 48 hours to pass?

*Emerging into a shattered world to spend five hours driving around looking for gas and ice, and finding neither. (This includes three hours spent parked in 95 degree heat in a line at a open station, only to be told when we are the fourth car from the pumps that they just ran out of gas.)

*Finding an open hardware store, to be told that since they don’t have power, we can only come in and shop if we have 1) our own flashlight, and 2) cash. (We have both, and buy lamp oil and batteries).

*Driving up to a little town in the middle of nowhere in Mississippi and scoring both gas and ice. (Only, since there is a limit on the amount of gas each customer is allowed, we are only able to fill our cars, not our generator’s gas cans. Good thing we got the lamp oil and batteries.)

*Watching the rising sun spill across the mirror-like surface of the lake while cooking pancakes on a camp stove on the front porch.

*Hearing that our house in New Orleans survived the storm with nothing worse than a downed fence and a refrigerator full of spoiled food, and that the power is finally back on. We’re going home.

*Feeling a zing of joy as I turn from I55 onto I10 and see that sign that says “New Orleans.”

*Listening to my next-door neighbor (who is in law enforcement) tell us about his hurricane experiences, then watching him pull an M16 and an AK 47 out of his car and carry them into his house.

Ironically, given Hurricane Gustav’s final path, our lake house actually got hit harder by the storm than the house we evacuated.

Thanks to everyone who wished us well. It’s wonderful to be home (and to take a hot shower). But I'm not unpacking. Have you seen some of the projected paths for Hurricane Ike?

Friday, August 29, 2008

Headin' for High Ground

We're in the last stages of boarding up the house and hauling what's movable from the first floor up to the second. Then it's off to the lake house with seven cats for a fun-filled weekend of wind and rain and high anxiety. 'Till next week.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Katrina Day Number Three and Counting

Friday will mark the third anniversary of the day Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf shore, essentially wiping out the New Orleans we all knew and loved, and altering forever those of us who lived through it. It’s a story the rest of the country has long since grown tired of hearing. But for those of us who still live here, the storm is a part of our lives. It’s become a tradition for a group of us to take a tour of the city, then meet for lunch at a local restaurant before heading over to the home of author Laura Joh Rowland for desert. Laura’s house in Gentilly took about four feet of water on the bottom floor, and she says organizing the annual event means she has something to look forward to on that day, rather than simply dreading the memories the anniversary inevitably brings.

I’m not sure that works for me. But the get-togethers make for a fun day, and since it’s been a while since I’ve driven out to Chalmette and the Ninth Ward, I’m also curious to see how things are progressing down there.

In my own neighborhood, probably one out of every fifteen or so houses is still empty—gutted and abandoned. I often look at those houses when I go for a walk and try to understand what happened to the people who used to live there. Are they dead? Are they someplace else, still paying mortgages on houses they don’t inhabit? Why don’t they sell the houses? Or if the bank has repossessed them, why doesn’t the bank sell the properties? Of course, in the truly devastated neighborhoods, selling probably isn’t an option.

With Hurricane Gustav now taking aim at the Gulf, we're also all reviewing our evacuation plans...which has added a nasty fillip to the looming anniversary.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


We’ve finally updated the C.S. Harris website, with the stunning new cover of Where Serpents Sleep, the fourth book in the Sebastian St. Cyr series due out this November 4. You’ll also find the cover copy and an excerpt of the first chapter, as well as some of the events/appearances I’ll be making this fall.

There’s a new section on the website, too: Special Features. The first “special feature” is an article on porphyria, the genetic disorder from which the British royal family has suffered since the days of Mary, Queen of Scotts, and that helped drive King George III mad. Check it all out at csharris.net.

You’ll notice we also updated the blog a bit and fixed some old links. And the RSS feed finally works—or so I’m told.

And one more update from my Florida daughter: seems the third time's the charm. Fay is finally hitting her college--now that the evacuation is over and they're all back on campus!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

And You Thought That Signed First Edition Was Worth Something

A reporter for the Guardian spotted this ad on Craig’s List: Wanted. Fourteen people to fake authors’ autographs on 53,760 hardcovers at a Los Angeles warehouse. “You will need to be able to copy the look and style of both authors’ signatures,” says the ad. You also must be able to stand the rigor of signing books for 8 hours a day, at an estimated rate of one book every 15 seconds. If you’re good at forgery, go for it: They’re paying $25 for every 200 books signed.

Exactly who are the lazy authors who can’t be bothered to sign their own books? That’s a deep dark secret.

Enquiring minds want to know.

And here's the news from Florida: "I told you not to worry. All we got was a little rain shower."

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Fay and the Faint-hearted


It doesn’t help that we’re just days away from the three-year anniversary of Katrina. But the truth is, no one with hurricane-induced posttraumatic stress syndrome should send their youngest child to college in Florida.

Fay isn’t a hurricane yet, but they expect it to turn into one before it comes ashore. The path has been vibrating back and forth across the western coast of Florida, with landfall expected close enough to my daughter’s college that they’re ordering an evacuation. That means they close the campus, and where the students go and how they get there is up to them.

“Keep yourself safe,” I tell my daughter in one of the thousand phone calls I’ve made to Florida in the last 48 hours.

Her response is predictable. “I can’t believe you said that. It’s just a little Category 1. I went through Katrina, remember?”

Like I could possibly have forgotten? I say, “It’s not the hurricane I’m worried about; it’s the evacuation traffic.”

“Oh. I’ll be careful.”

But I lied, of course. I am worried about the evacuation traffic, but I’m also worried about falling trees and rampaging storm surges and roving lawless gangs and all the other nasties that come with hurricanes.

I’m really great at worrying. Unfortunately, from here, it’s all I can do.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Rewriting, Again

I’m rewriting The Deadlight Connection once again. How many serious reworkings does this make? I’ve lost count.

So what drove this particular rehashing? The realization that I didn’t have enough conflict between my two protagonists. In the first book of the series, The Archangel Project, Jax and Tobie spar back and forth constantly. In Deadlight, they were getting along way to well. The sizzle was gone. It was…boring.

So I’ve rethought Tobie’s motivations and goals, gone back to her roots, and started rewriting. In the process, I’ve recaptured the characters I loved in Archangel and given this new book a much needed spark. Maybe, just maybe I can finally say, "By George, I think I've got it." About six months late, but better late than never.

How did I go wrong? Distraction, I suspect. This has been a sucky year. But my mom’s in our house now, things are beginning to settle into a pattern, and while I find my writing hours reduced, I also find that in my non-writing hours I’ve started doing something I haven’t done in a long time: I’m thinking about my book.

Which is how I realized I’d lost the conflict between Jax and Tobie, and how important that was for making the book a fun, fast read.

Now, if I could just finish the #@%& thing!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Choices, and Gone Baby Gone

One of the realities of life in our family that has long driven my girls crazy is the way my sister—the novelist Penelope Williamson—and I tend to talk about writing for hours and hours and hours whenever we get together or chat on the phone. I remember one time Penny said, “The more I write, the more I become aware of the choices I make every time I sit down to write a scene.” Ever since that conversation, I’ve been far more aware of the choices I make, and how the number of choices I have to make seems to expand the more experienced I become.

I think this is true for most writers. As beginners, we tend to rush into each scene with lots of enthusiasm and little sense of conscious choice. But as we gain experience, we become aware of those choices and begin to make more deliberate decisions. Where to start a scene. Where to set a scene. Whose point of view to use. When and how to end a scene. And on and on.

So what does this have to do with Gone Baby Gone? Steve and I watched this movie Saturday night. And then, last night, we watched the Bonus Features, including the “Audio Commentary by Writer/Director Ben Affleck and Writer Aaron Stockard.” When I first saw it listed as a selection, I said, You’ve got to be kidding. The entire movie with a soundtrack of the director and writers talking about the movie? Sounds boring, right? Maybe for most people, yes. But for those of you out there who are writers, fascinating. Because most of what they talk about is the choices they made—some good, some bad, and the compromises they had to make. I also found it fascinating to realize, by watching the movie through their “eyes”, just how many subtle little things I’d missed. Whatever you might think of Affleck as an actor, there’s no doubt he understands storytelling, and has studied and learned from the masters.

A few weeks ago, Steve Malley ran a post on the wisdom to be gained from watching the bonus features on DVDs. If you want to take his advice, Gone Baby Gone would be a great place to start.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Book Club Sales

Last week brought some good news. The Book of the Month Club and Mystery Guild are buying both C.S. Harris’s Where Serpents Sleep and C.S. Graham’s The Archangel Project. Both titles will be “featured alternate selections”--one in October (I think), the other in November.

But this is the really neat thing: the Science Fiction Book Club is also buying Archangel! They say that although it’s a little out of their usual “realm,” they think the remote viewing element will appeal to their members.

How neat! Does this mean I can now say I write “science fiction”?

I guess not.

Friday, August 01, 2008

An Interview with C.S. Graham

This weekend, WRBH will be airing an interview with “C.S. Graham” on The Archangel Project. If you don’t live in the New Orleans area, you can listen to the interview by going to their website at www.WRBH.org. If you’re in the broadcast area, WRBH is at 88.3 FM on your radio.

The website doesn’t do podcasts, so if you want to hear it, you need to click on the “Listen Now” button on the website at the exact time the interview is being broadcast: on Saturday, 2 August, at 8:30am Central Time, and on Sunday, 3 August, at 8:30am and 10:30 pm Central Time.

The voice of C.S. Graham in this instance will be my co-author (and spouse) Steven Harris. It’s a great interview, so if you can, do try to catch it. We hope to get it up as a podcast on the website noon.

As for me, my mother is now in our house. Everything is still chaos, but I’m trying to get back to work on The Deadlight Project. I'd love to go up to the lake for some intensive writing, but that will have to wait until my mother gets more settled, and my youngest heads back to college.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Writing Gene

Going through my mom’s lifetime collection of Stuff, I’ve finally reached The Bookcase.

Now, the last thing my house needs is more books—especially since moving my mom into our house has entailed sacrificing some precious feet of bookshelf (and just try getting furniture down a hall lined with bookcases!) But what makes THE Bookcase extremely problematical is that all the books on it were written by my mother’s husband or daughters.

What does one do with all of these lovingly inscribed books? There are simply too many to squeeze into her new bedroom. My dad (the historian Raymond L. Proctor) published three history books, with two translated into foreign editions. I have one history book and a dozen novels to my name. I didn’t give her copies of most of the foreign editions, but I did give her some of those that came out in hardcover with interesting covers. And then there’s my sister, the novelist Penelope Williamson. She’s written a good dozen herself, also published in hardcover in numerous foreign translations.

One might be tempted to think my sister and I inherited our writing gifts, such as they are, from my dad. But the truth is that while my father was a wonderful verbal storyteller and an excellent historian, he leaned heavily on my mom in the writing of his books. Tucked away in my mother’s desk, I recently found a collection of short stories that I didn’t even known my mother had written. They are truly wonderful stories, artfully crafted, never missing a beat in story arc or character development. Once, my mother dreamt of becoming a journalist. She even won a scholarship to a local Catholic women’s college, but the Great Depression intervened. My grandfather lost both of his businesses, and rather than go to college and become a journalist, my mother went to work as a secretary to help support her family, then married my father and became an Air Force wife and mother.

My mother is one of those people gifted with a serene temperament, never looking back with regret at what-might-have-beens. But when I found those short stories, I gazed over at that bookcase full of her family’s writings, and wept. For what might have been.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

White Doves at Morning

James Lee Burke is one of my favorite writers, yet I’ve had this historical novel sitting unread on my shelves for years now. I’m not sure why it took me so long to pick it up. Because it isn’t one of Burke’s standard, contemporary crime novels? Because the Civil War is a depressing period? Whatever my reason, I’m glad I saved it, because as hectic as my life has become these days, I needed a treat.

The prose is pure Burke, lush and lyrical, with that magical facility to hone in on the essence of a thought or emotion in a way that makes the reader think, Yes, that’s exactly what it feels like. The characters are pure Burke, as well. Burke follows four young friends from the tense moments that precede the War Between the States, through the first battles, to the arrival of Union soldiers in Louisiana and the beginnings of Reconstruction. Interestingly enough, the novel focuses on Burke’s own ancestor, Willie Burke, a poor but honorable Irish immigrant, and his friend, Robert Perry, wealthier, but also a good, admirable man simply trying to survive and do the right thing in a world gone mad. Despite their personal opposition to both the war and slavery, both men join the Confederate Army—to protect their homes and loved ones, and because that’s what honorable, brave men do when their leaders go to war.

Unusually for Burke, this book also features two strong female protagonists: Flower Jamison, the beautiful half-black slave fathered by the owner of Angola Plantation, Ira Jamison, and Abigail Dowling, a Massachusetts abolitionist with whom both Willie and Robert Perry are in love. I have read that White Doves at Morning is actually Burke’s favorite of his books, and he lists the strong female protagonists as one of the main reasons.

But apart from the protagonists, what would a Burke novel be without a wonderful assortment of villains? There’s Clay Hatcher and Todd McCain, of the “poor white trash”/Knights of the White Camellia stripe; the evil Rufus Atkins, overseer of Angola Plantation; and the wealthy Jamison, his evil flowing more from his self-obsession and weakness rather than from the inherent sociopathic tendencies that drive the others.

Writing about the Civil War is always tricky, but Burke approaches his topic unflinchingly; he never shrinks from portraying either the horrors of slavery, or the barbarity of war, or the horrors of what the Union soldiers did to the South. In so doing, he doubtless p’ed off a whole passel of both Southerners and Yankees, along with those still inclined to see war as a nation’s “finest hour.” Yet, oddly enough, this book is actually not as dark as I’ve found many of his crime novels.

I could go on and on, because I really, really enjoyed this book, but I’m writing this in a hurry. We’ve set Friday as the day we move my mom out of her own home and into our house. Hopefully by next week I’ll manage to get back into a more regular blogging schedule.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Lessons Learned

If I could go back in time, one of the many things I’d do differently in my writing career is this: I’d keep a Lessons Learned journal.

What kind of Lessons Learned? All those hard-won insights and Ah ha! moments—large and small—that come in the course of writing every book. One might think that knowledge gleaned at the price of so much pain and suffering would never be forgotten, but I am cursed with a lousy memory. Recently, I’ve found myself repeating mistakes I should have remembered from earlier books.

What kind of mistakes? Well, in the initial drafts of my third book, SEPTEMBER MOON, my heroine came off as a starchy English bitch. She really was a likeable character once we got to know, understand, and sympathize with her, but in the first rendition of the manuscript, my editor had a hard time warming to her. Solution? Instead of beginning the book with Amanda’s arrival in the wilds of Outback Australia, I first introduced readers to her at her employer’s deathbed. We learn that she has missed her ship home, stranding herself penniless and friendless in an alien land in order to comfort a dying woman. Result? Instant sympathy! Lesson learned: if you’re going to have a protagonist display potentially unlikable characteristics, make sure to get your readers solidly on the character’s side before you have her start displaying those characteristics.

In the book I’m writing now (in between ripping out walls and laying floors and packing up my mother’s Stuff, etc, etc, etc) my protagonists do a lot of traveling. We follow them on a breakneck race to Berlin, to Kaliningrad, to Turkey, back to three different cities in Germany, to Lebanon, to Israel, back to Russia… Whew! It’s a lot of fun, so what’s the problem here? Well, this book is a thriller. And in today’s market, this kind of thriller needs to be fast-paced with a loudly ticking clock. I had originally planned to have this book play out over four or five days, max. But it takes time to travel to all these different places. In fact, if you find out on Friday night that you need to fly from New Orleans to Kaliningrad, Russia, you won’t be able to get there until SUNDAY morning. My characters take a lot of overnight flights, and I still had to stretch my ticking clock out to eight days, about twice as long as I’d have liked. Lesson learned: if you want a fast-paced, doom-is-breathing-down-your-neck book, limit the wide-ranging international travel.

These are two lessons I suspect I’ll never forget. But all those other little Lessons Learned? I should have written them down.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Another PW Review--and this one's starred!

Okay, this is really weird. The latest edition of Publishers Weekly has another review of The Archangel Project, slightly different from the first. I'm not complaining because this is a starred review--very important to both New York editors and the people who place the orders for bookstores. I'm not sure exactly what happened--maybe they meant to give it a star the first time, and ran the review again when they realized it'd been left off? Anyway, here's the new, starred version:

The Archangel Project C.S. Graham. Harper, $7.99 (384p) ISBN 978-0-06-135120-4
Novelist Candice Proctor (Why Mermaids Sing and others as C.S. Harris) and her husband, army intelligence officer Steven Harris, collaborate on this rollicking suspense novel. October “Tobie” Guinness is a remote viewer who sees unpredictable flashes of things miles away. When she discovers a conspiracy by key defense industry and government personnel to plan a 9/11-type attack in New Orleans and turn public sentiment against Iran, the conspirators decide that she and the professor training her must die. Jax Alexander, a CIA agent one mistake away from being fired, goes to New Orleans to investigate the professor's death and stumbles into the plot. Jax and Tobie run for their lives, trying to stay one step ahead of the killers, piece together the plot and avert an unjust war. While Tobie is trapped by circumstances, shockingly capable and intelligent but tormented by her gift, Jax is the consummate skeptical patriot. Conspiracy fans will love this impressive series opener.(Oct.)

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Nightmare, Revisited

We’d planned a nice, relaxing weekend. We’ve been working so hard for what seems like forever—rebuilding from Katrina, renovating our newly acquired lakeside weekend getaway/hurricane evacuation house, sorting through my globetrotting mother’s lifetime accumulation of treasures and reconfiguring our house to get ready to move her in with us—that we decided we deserved a few days off. The idea was to go up to the lake, resist doing any of the zillion and one things that still need doing up there, and instead lounge around, sip root beer and eat (vegetarian) hotdogs at the picnic table overlooking the water, and then mosey down into town for the local Red, White, and Blueberry Festival.

Ah, fate. I pushed open the front door to hear the sound of rushing water. At some time in the past three weeks, the hot water heater sprang a leak. At first, from the looks of things, just a fine spray, at some point it turned into a gushing flood.

It could have been so, so much worse. I seriously suspect the final burst occurred just hours before our arrival, which is what saved the house from total destruction. Thanks to our decision to go up there and “goof off” this weekend, the damage was limited to two rooms—the room where the hot water heater is located, and the dining room. The casualties are a bunch of Steve’s tools (which were stored on the shelves and floor of the former), a dining room chair (already refinished once after Katrina!), an antique buffet already in need of refinishing, and of course the walls of said two rooms.

There’s nothing like ripping out moldy sheetrock and soaked insulation to bring back the bad ol’ days of Katrina and provoke on a dose of posttraumatic stress syndrome. At least we know the drill. After bleaching, we’ll now need to let the studs dry for six weeks before we can start rebuilding. But we did get the Sheetrock we need, and I was incensed to see that it is now selling for less than $6 a sheet, despite the recent Midwest floods. Why incensed? Because my house was rebuilt after Katrina using $12 a sheet drywall. Ya gotta love capitalism.

Monday, June 30, 2008

We're Live!

The C.S. Graham website has finally gone live. You can visit at...


Since the "fun bio" on my C.S. Harris site has been so well received, we did a great one for Steve, too (and yes, he is years older than I am). "C.S. Graham" also did a radio interview last week that should be up as a podcast in a few days. And we have a photo tour of Archangel's New Orleans sites planned, but our expeditions to take a few missing shots keep getting rained out. One of these days it'll be there.

My web designer, Madeira James, is in my opinion the best around. She did my C. S. Harris site, and after that there was no question in my mind as to who we'd get to do the thriller site. If you're interested, take a look at her portfolio here.

Whew! What a relief to have all that done. Now I get to update the C.S. Harris site. Sigh.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Archangel's Publishers Weekly Review

The Publishers Weekly review of The Archangel Project is already out, and it's a good one. Here it is...

The Archangel Project
C.S. Graham. Harper, $7.99 (384p) ISBN 978-0-06-135120-4
Vietnam vet Steven Harris and Candice Proctor (of the Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries, written as C.S. Harris) write here as Graham and deliver rollicking good suspense. October “Tobie” Guinness is a navy vet of the Iraq War with remote viewing skills, meaning she can see into rooms from miles away. She can't hone in with complete exactness, though, and a viewing session unintentionally leads her to discover a conspiracy involving key defense industry and government personnel. They, in turn, quickly dispatch former special ops man Lance Palmer to “clean up” the situation. Jax Alexander is a CIA agent one mistake away from being fired, who goes down to New Orleans to investigate the death of Tobie's former professor and stumbles into the plot. Jax and Tobie run for their lives, trying to stay one step ahead of the conspirators, piece together the plot and eventually save the life of the vice president and avert an unjust war. Tobie, tormented by her gift, is terrifically capable and intelligent, while Jax is the consummate skeptic who still loves his country and believes in his job. The credible, fast-moving plot gives them ample opportunities to show off their skills. (Sept.) -- Publishers Weekly, 6/2/2008

Monday, June 23, 2008

Writers Write

Writers write. At least, that’s what we’re supposed to do. But over the past month I’ve spent an extraordinary amount of time doing other things.

To begin with, I’ve been reading galleys. For the uninitiated, galleys are photocopies of a book’s typeset pages. This is the author’s last chance to catch any mistakes—either their own, or those inserted by helpful copyeditors and careless typesetters. It’s always a nerve wracking and time consuming process, but when you have three books coming out in quick succession—THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT on September 30, the paperback of WHY MERMAIDS SING in October, and the hardcover of WHERE SERPENTS SLEEP in November—it can begin to feel as if it’s consuming your life.

And then there’s the new C.S. Graham website. Even though we’ve outsourced the actual construction and design, I still had to decide on the exact look I wanted, find the images to convey that look, plot the site navigation, and write the text. That all takes TIME.

And then there’s the week I spent filing. Okay, what was once an end-of-the year chore hasn’t been done since Katrina. But still. Being a writer generates enormous quantities of paper. Research notes and ideas for future books and royalty statements and contracts and transcripts of interviews and revision letters and on and on and on. I need a secretary.

Just when I was about to tuck back into writing, I was told Steve and I have to do a Harper Collins’ “Microsite”. This is an ambitious project to put up mini webpages for all of HC’s authors. Of course, these are constructed to a strict template, and the template is designed for one author, not two (despite the fact that HC has a surprising number of writing duos). Headaches, upon headaches. Not to mention pages and pages of cute questions that needed to be answered. Like, “What’s your favorite item of clothing?” Or, “What would your dream vacation be?”

It took me DAYS to come up with this stuff. Ironically, I learned some interesting things about my own husband in the process (“Your favorite food is grilled cheese sandwiches? Why didn’t you ever tell me that?”) But as I watched another week disappear without me writing one word on my book, I began to wonder, Is all this crap really necessary?

Of course, in addition to being a writer, I’m also trying to get my house ready to move my mom out of her house and into ours, so the past month has also included a fair amount of cleaning and painting and packing and laying floors.

Did I say, “writers write”? When?!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Another Great Cover

The cover of WHERE SERPENTS SLEEP has been finalized, and it's wonderful...

Sorry I've been a bad blogger lately. I'm busy getting the new C.S. Graham website ready to go live, plus reading galleys and trying to get ready to move my mom into our house. Hopefully things will settle down soon!

Friday, June 13, 2008

New Website!

We've been busy pulling together the new C.S. Graham website. The entire thing isn't ready to go live yet, but you can see the design at:

Take a look and tell me what you think!

Monday, June 09, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull

I really, really wanted to love this film. After all, the first and third Indiana Jones movies are among my all-time favorites, and the producers did a great job of approximating the style of the earlier films. Harrison Ford handles his gently aging role with aplomb, as does Karen Allen. But this installment stumbles badly, and I think the ways in which it stumbles have something to teach writers.

Warning: If you haven’t seen the movie, some of my remarks might be considered spoilers. But there’s nothing here I didn’t see coming a mile away. Which leads me to fault #1:

Predictability. You might say this is an inevitable product of the genre, but I don’t think so. Remember those great reversal moments in THE LAST CRUSADE, when Sean Connery uses his umbrella to send up the seagulls and crash the plane? When we learn that Dr. Elsa Schneider is working for the Nazis? That she slept with the senior Dr. Jones? Or in THE LOST ARC, when the evil Gestapo agent holds up his palm to say “Heil Hitler,” and we see that the imprint of Marion’s medallion was burned into his hand? The fourth installment has none of those moments.

Stereotypical characters. CRYSTAL SKULLS has a character who is sort of a compilation of Sallah, Belloq, and Schneider. Needless to say, he doesn’t work, and I had to look up his name before I could even remember what it was (Mac). I have read raves of Cate Blanchett’s depiction of her character, Irina Spalko. Perhaps she did the best she could with what she had to work with, but in my opinion, her character hit one evil note and held it through the entire movie. She wasn’t interesting, she wasn’t fun, she was just…a stereotype. Yawn. The interaction between Indie and the boy, Mutt, had some good moments, but I kept thinking they could have done so much more with it, while the bits with Marion were so hackneyed and clichĂ©d they made me squirm.

Plot development. Nothing much happens in this movie. It felt like half of the screen time was taken up by one long chase through the jungle. And while it was fun at first, it eventually just felt…long. Plus, while it may be a Hollywood convention to have the bad guys shooting endlessly at the good guys and still missing, this scene was by far—BY FAR—the worst I have ever scene. It went beyond improbable or silly, and just became hopelessly contrived. And boring. Because if they’re that bad of shots, there’s no danger, right?

Plot holes. Where does one start? Like, why did the American government need an archaeologist to help them deal with an alien? Or, why were those conquistadores buried in a tomb with all their loot? I could go on and on and on, but I won’t because it would give too much away. All I’ve got to say is, They take twenty years to write a script, with the “best” people in Hollywood working on it, and they can’t do better than this?

But the most damning flaw in the entire movie was this: Lack of a powerful forward thrust. It could have been there—it should have been there—but it wasn’t. At one point—I believe it was when they were crawling around in the cemetery—I actually found myself thinking, “Now, what are they here for again? What’s the whole point of this movie?”


Monday, June 02, 2008

Never Say Never

I hope to get back to my discussion of plotting soon, but I’ve been busy this past week finishing our bath project. Our builder snagged major jury duty with less then a week to go on the project. Faced with waiting potentially forever, or finishing the room myself, I opted for DIMS.

After Katrina, when we couldn’t hire anyone to Sheetrock the house, I learned how to hang, float, and finish drywall. But once I finished my last room (if I remember correctly, the master bath), I said, “Never again!”

Never say never again.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Truby on Plotting

As I mentioned before, I’ve been slowly working my way through Truby’s ANATOMY OF STORY. I’ve always had a reputation for obsessive preplanning and control, but let me tell you, this guy makes me look like a blithe free spirit.

He breaks story structure down into twenty-two steps. According to Truby, these twenty-two steps “show you how to create an organic plot, regardless of the length or genre of your story. They are also the key set of tools for rewriting.” Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

Well, don’t run out and buy the book just for this section, because there really isn’t anything earthbreaking here. Like most writing instructors—whether we’re talking screenwriting or novel writing—Truby leans heavily on identifying your character’s need, desire, and weakness, which are revealed right up front, and the moment of self-revelation and moral decision, which of course come at the end. This progression represents the “journey” your hero will take. Truby actually argues for coming up with the self-revelation first, and working backward to decide on your hero’s weakness, need, and desire. Thus, the writer starts with the endpoint and the beginning; with this framework in place, everything else is just in fill (more on that, later).

I’m still wrestling with this approach. I think that in the best stories, one can definitely see this framework—weakness, need, desire, final self-revelation and moral decision. The thing is, I’m not sure that the BEST stories are actually created this deliberately. The whole process seems so forced and artificial, that one suspects it must surely show (as it often does). Then again, that could simply be the result of inexpert handling. Perhaps in the hands of a true master, the result really does seem organic and natural. What do you think?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Six Unspectacular Quirks Meme

I plan to talk more about screenwriting techniques soon. In the meantime, Sphinx Ink has tagged me for a meme. Here are the rules:

Link the person who tagged you.
Mention the rules in your blog.
Tell about six unspectacular quirks of yours.

Okay, here it goes...

1. I’m a health food fanatic. Not only am I a vegetarian, but I scrupulously avoid a long list of “poisons,” including partially-hydrogenated oils, high-fructose corn syrup, dairy products that aren’t from antibiotic- and rBGH-free cows, artificial sweeteners, etc, etc, etc. In other words, I'm a real pain to invite to dinner. Which is a pity, because...

2. I hate to cook. It’s not that I’m a bad cook, I just really, really HATE TO COOK. If my family were a part of the Fast Food Nation, this wouldn’t be a problem. But since we’re all health food nuts, I have to cook. And I hate it.

3. I lust after big old houses. I love graceful old trimwork, mellow hardwood floors, and idiosyncratic nooks and crannies. I love wrap-around porches, screen porches, porch swings, turret rooms, spreading live oaks, and dusty old attics full of forgotten treasures. I’ve always wanted to live in a big old house. The last time I lived in a big old house, I was six.

4. I’m a planning freak. I constantly make lists, figure out how I’m going to do things, the order in which I’m going to do things, etc. Steve says I spend more time making lists than doing what needs to be done, but I think that’s an exaggeration.

5. I loathe crowds, noise, TVs or talk radio programs playing in the background, using the telephone, driving a car—far too many things that are an inescapable part of our modern lifestyle.

6. I’m a sucker for cats—which is why I have six of them. I also love birds, squirrels, butterflies, dragonflies, and lizards, which is why my (organic) garden is overrun with critters, and my cats stay inside.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig!

My youngest arrived home from her first year at college yesterday, thanks to big sis who flew down and drove her home. She's feeling much better, and so is her mother, now that's she here and I can take care of her.

Who’d have thought you could get all this stuff in a littlve itty bitty VW? The question is, where is it going to go now?

Friday, May 16, 2008

A Story with Two Legs

Mark Truby’s THE ANATOMY OF STORY has, I am told, become the new Bible of screenwriting. I’ve been slowly winding my way through it for some weeks now. This is not a fast, easy-to-grasp read. He devotes vast chunks of his book to topics like Moral Dilemmas, and Symbol Webs, which tend to give me squirming flashbacks to my college English class. (The only “B” I ever got in eight years at university was in Freshman Creative Writing. I kid you not.) But the section I’m reading now, on Plot Types, has much meatier stuff.

Truby sees a story as moving toward its character’s desire on what he calls two “legs”: acting and learning. Basically, a story is about how a character takes action to get what he wants, and the new information he learns about better ways to get it. As a result of the new information he acquires, he makes a decision and undertakes a new course of action.

Some story forms highlight one of those “legs” over the other. Myths and action stories focus on, well, action, while mysteries and romances tend to highlight learning. Truby identifies a number of different plot types emphasizing one or the other of these “legs,” including the Journey Plot, the Three Unities Plot, the Reveals Plot, the Antiplot, the Genre Plot, and the Multistrand Plot.

Ever since THE HERO’S JOURNEY became popular a few years ago, there has been a tendency—especially among romance writers—to try to jam every plot into the mythic journey form. I’ve always though that was stretching the myth form to the breaking point, although, obviously, that approach works for some authors. Because in the end, these are all simply mental constructions we use to make our job a little easier.

As I work my way through Truby, I’ll be talking about his ideas some more. This week I’ve been focusing on 1) getting my youngest home from her Florida college alive (she spent all of Wednesday in the Emergency Room); 2) getting the main bathroom remodeling finished (not going to happen before the youngest comes home from college); and 3) getting the new C.S. Graham website up (a long process only just begun).

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

More from the Movies

A newer approach to screenwriting calls for breaking a film down into eight 15-minute sequences—or, to transfer the idea to a 400-page book, into eight 50-page sequences. At the end of each sequence comes a mini-climatic scene, some kind of twist, reversal, or “Aha” moment that flips the action into the next sequence. These eight sequences are still grouped into the three acts—in other words, the first two sequences are Act One, then next four sequences are Act Two, and the final two sequences are Act Three.

What’s nice about this approach? Well, breaking your story into eight segments is a great way to get a handle on it. And the need to have a climax at the end of each segment keeps the story from becoming too linear.

One of the points Alex Sokoloff made when we were talking to her at the Jubilee Jambalaya is that a story resonates with particular effectiveness when the climatic scene at the end of Act One asks a question that isn’t answered until the end of Act Two. For instance, in Silence of the Lambs, the end of Act One asks the question, Will Hannibal help Clarissa catch the serial killer? At the end of Act Two, when Hannibal escapes, we realize the answer to that question is, No. He won’t; Clarissa will have to draw on all Hannibal has taught her in order to catch the killer and save the girl herself. (Incidentally, this is a frequent construction: The hero thinks he has help, then at the end of Act Two discovers he doesn’t; it’s at this point that the hero and the audience realize that in Act Three, the hero will need to accomplish his objective all on his own.) Notice this Act Two question is slightly different from the overall story question: Will Clarissa catch the serial killer in time to save the girl?

The climatic scene at the end of Act Two is also a good point for your protagonist to have his or her moment of revelation. This is frequently the point at which the protagonist discovers/acknowledges his inner “need” (as opposed to his acknowledged “want”). But then, not all stories have this need/want dichotomy; it’s far more common in literary works and women’s fiction, for instance, than in mysteries or thrillers, especially series.

If you’re not tired of this yet, I have some more screenwriting points I’d like to ponder. And I have some good news: The massmarket edition of WHAT ANGELS FEAR has sold out and it going back to press for a hefty second printing. Sales have been up considerably over the last six months, since the publication of WHY MERMAIDS SING. Let’s up it continues!

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Writing Through Disruptions

Up until two days ago, this was our hall bathroom. There were only two rooms in our entire house not damaged by Katrina: this bath and Steve’s office. If anyone had asked my preferences, the hall bath was the one room Katrina could have utterly destroyed with my blessings—it was pitifully in need of a drastic overhaul. But of course, things never happen that way.

Needless to say, we’ve had a lot of other priorities in the last two and a half years. But renovating the main bath has suddenly become a necessity. Why? Well, the bath was broken into two very small, awkward spaces, with little room to maneuver. And that has suddenly become an issue because as soon as we can arrange it, my mother will be moving in with us.

My mother is ninety now (and no, I’m not a senior citizen; my mom had me very late in life), and we’ve finally had to admit that she can’t continue living alone. She’s still surprisingly spry and agile for her age, but I know that might not always be the case. The time to renovate the bath is now, before she moves in.

There’s going to be a lot of other juggling involved. Steve’s office will become my mom’s bedroom (which means new flooring and a new paint job—I did say it was the other room not hit by Katrina, didn’t I?). Sam’s bedroom will become Steve’s office. Sam is going to be moving into my mom’s house. And then there is the whole musical cats issue—my mom has a cat, Sam has a cat, Steve has three cats, I have two cats…yikes, this would be a lot easier with less cats!

In the meantime, I’m still struggling with the rewrite of THE DEADLIGHT CONNECTION—which has somehow managed to add a hundred extra pages into the manuscript. And I promise I’ll be posting more on applying screenwriting techniques to novel writing. Soon. Inshallah.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008


I sooo did not expect this! I've just learned that WHY MERMAIDS SING has won the Best Historical Mystery Reviewers Choice Award from Romantic Times.

I've known for several months that MERMAIDS had been nominated. But it was up against such fierce competition from such well-known writers that I was convinced there was no way it would win. I simply counted it as an honor to be nominated, and forgot about it.

When I remember the conditions under which I wrote this book--as a Katrina refugee devoting most of my time to rebuilding my house--it really seems incredible. The most amazing thing to me is that the book ever made it into print.

Learning from Syd Field

The granddaddy of screenwriting instruction is Syd Field. While there has been a movement away from some of his teachings in recent years, he’s had such a profound effect on Hollywood thinking that he’s still a good place to start.

Field harks back to Aristotle’s division of fiction into a beginning, middle, and end. According to Field, the beginning of a film, or Act One, sets up the story, introducing the hero, his problem, and (in the words of the hero’s journey) his “call to action.” Act Two, the middle, is the main body of a screenplay, the scene of action and counteraction, of complications, the chess game of move and countermove. Throughout the middle, the stakes rise until the characters reach a point of no return. It’s here, at the point of no return, that the story flips into Act Three, the climax, the resolution, the end. Anyone who’s ever watched a movie will recognize these three segments. The beginning corresponds to the first 20-30 minutes of a movie, the middle is the largest chunk, the next 60 minutes, while the end or climax fills the last quarter of the film.

So how do we, as novelists, use this? Well, if we apply Field’s division to a 400 page novel, Act One would be the first 80-100 pages, Act Two is roughly page 100 to page 300, and Act Three is the final 100 pages. At this point you’re probably saying, Well, duh. But it’s the next part of Field’s teaching that is so helpful to novel writers.

Field is big on what he calls Plot Points: important, pivotal scenes that take the action and flip it in an entirely different direction. The two most important plot points are the critical scenes at the shift from Act One to Act Two, and from Act Two to Act Three. But Field also identifies three other key plot points: the Midpoint at around page 200 of our book (or half way through a screenplay), and two “Pinch Points” at roughly page 150 and page 250.

What this means is that, as a novelist beginning a new book, I can identify my pivotal scenes—the ah-ha moments in my story, when the action suddenly goes zinging off in a totally unexpected direction, like a pinball zapped by a quick-fingered pinball wizard. I can lay out those pivotal scenes, deciding, ah, yes, this will be my first Plot Point, this will be my second, and so on, spacing them out and making sure the tension and the stakes escalate until I reach my final plot point of no return.

So picture it: before I ever sit down to write, I know that Here, in my first 80 or so pages (I personally favor a shorter Act One), I’ll introduce my hero and his problem. Then, I'll have this pivotal scene that sends me into the middle part of my book. Then 50 pages to the first pinch point, 50 pages to the midpoint, 50 pages to the second pinch point, and 50 pages to the plot point that will send the action spinning into the climax. By breaking a 400-page novel down into these short interlinking segments, plotting suddenly becomes So Much Easier.

Conversely, if I’ve written a book and I have this nasty feeling that something is wrong, I can write a quick description of each of my scenes on a 3x5 card and lay my story out on the dining room table. It’s then very easy for me to look at my story and go, Oops! This is what’s wrong! I don’t have well-spaced pivotal scenes; I don't have a well-defined beginning, middle end; my story is too linear here, too crazy here. I need to even it out.

I’m a big fan of plotting with 3x5 cards. And I’m a really big fan of the pivotal scene concept. If you take nothing else from screenwriting techniques, this is a good one. But like I said, there is a new movement in Hollywood that does this a bit differently. And that’s what I’ll look at next time.