Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Best Not to Eat The Clue

Some of my favorite movies from the grand era of romantic comedies are the Thin Man series, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles. I’m not alone in this feeling, as film critic Roger Ebert includes the first of the series it in his list of “great movies”:

William Powell is to dialogue as Fred Astaire is to dance. His delivery is so droll and insinuating, so knowing and innocent at the same time, that it hardly matters what he’s saying.... Powell plays the character with a lyrical alcoholic slur that waxes and wanes but never topples either way into inebriation or sobriety. The drinks are the lubricant for dialogue of elegant wit and wicked timing, used by a character who is decadent on the surface but fundamentally brave and brilliant. After Nick and Nora face down an armed intruder in their apartment one night, they read about it in the morning papers. “I was shot twice in the Tribune,” Nick observes. “I read you were shot five times in the tabloids,” says Nora. “It’s not true,” says Nick. “He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.”

(Read Ebert’s delightful full review of The Thin Man here.)

The six Thin Man films are based on the Dashiell Hammett novella (the last he wrote) called The Thin Man, but the movie of the same name follows the book only in bare-bones plot. Whereas Hammett’s work is more of the hard-boiled school of detective stories, the film is light-hearted and full of comedy, and one barely notices that there’s even a murder mystery going on underneath all the beautiful sets and costumes and witty dialogue.

Monday, September 17, 2012

How To Get a Literary Agent—Or Not

Often when I tell folks that I’ve written a mystery novel, the first thing they ask is “are you going to get it published?”

Easier said than done.

Yes, it’s true that nowadays one can self-publish one’s book, and the stigma that used to accompany the practice has mostly vanished (i.e., people rarely talk about “vanity presses” any more). But there is a ton of schlepp that goes along with self-publishing: line and copy editing; choice of fonts, style and size of the book; formatting the manuscript; designing a cover; placing the finished book where it can be purchased; and of course publicity.

If, on the other hand, you are fortunate enough to find a press willing to publish your book, they will take care of most of the above (publicity is now largely up to the author, even if you have a publisher, these days).

I’m not keen on spending my time on the production end of the actual book; I’d rather just write.

 conducting research
(photo by Robin McDuff)

So I’d much prefer the publisher route. Which means—realistically speaking—acquiring a literary agent willing to represent you and your manuscript.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Slow-Roasted Tomatoes

Speaking of poison (see previous post), the tomato—first brought from South America to Europe in the early 1500s—was long thought to be poisonous and therefore grown only as an ornamental. It is, after all, a member of the deadly nightshade family, which has numerous poisonous members. And anyone who grows them knows how toxic the leaves of the tomato plant are. (In order to avoid the severe rash that would otherwise result, I always immediately wash my arms and hands with warm, soapy water after working with my tomato plants, and then watch with amazement as all that bright yellow-green water flows down the drain.)

 heirlooms from my garden

Enter our hero, Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson, of Salem, New Jersey:
As the story is told, it was Colonel Johnson who on September 26, 1820 once and for all proved tomatoes non-poisonous and safe for consumption. He stood on the steps of the Salem courthouse and bravely consumed an entire basket of tomatoes without keeling over or suffering any ill effects whatsoever. His grandstanding attracted a crowd of over 2,000 people who were certain he was committing public suicide. The local firemen’s band even played a mournful dirge to add to the perceived morbid display of courage.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Cucumber Martinis

These cocktails would feature well in a mystery story, as—to quote Captain Hook—they are a “tempting green,” which color would nicely mask any variety of poisons!


And they taste great, too. Very...well...cucumbery.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Gearing Up To Get An Agent! Blogfest

Surfing a bunch of writing blogs the other night after dinner, I kept coming across the acronym GUTGAA. What the heck is that? I wondered. Thanks to the wonders of Google, I quickly found myself at the blog of Deana Barnhart, mastermind and creator of the Gearing Up To Get An Agent! (GUTGAA) blogfest.


Intrigued, I perused her site. Sounds fun! I decided, and signed up for the six-week cyber-fest, which is designed to connect unpublished writers with one another, and with potential agents and small presses.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

No-Frills Mystery

Mystery novels generally fall under what is called “genre” fiction, a type of writing that has special rules. Cozy mysteries, for instance, mostly involve an amateur sleuth (usually a woman), take place in a small town or village, have likeable characters, and don’t contain graphic violence, explicit sex, or profanity. They tend to have several suspects and red herrings, and the sleuth solves the crime based on her brains rather than her brawn. (See the Cozy Mystery website for more on this.)

Rules are a good thing: The reader knows what he or she is going to get in the book, and is never unpleasantly surprised by a grisly death in a romance, a mushy love-scene in a western, or a descriptive passage about how to cook vol-au-vent in a hard-boiled detective novel. The trick for the author, then, is to write an original story within the rules, so that the reader doesn’t notice that there are any rules.

My mom, a big fan of mysteries, gave me a few of hers a few weeks ago. Among the Elizabeth Peters and Dick Francis books she had for me was this one: