Friday, July 30, 2010

What’s in a name?

Please welcome today's guest, Avery Aames, author of newly released The Long Quiche Goodbye.

Avery Aames is the author of A Cheese Shop Mystery series for Berkley Prime Crime. She likes to read, cook, garden, and do amateur photography. You can visit Avery at She also blogs at Mystery Lovers Kitchen, a blog for foodies who love mysteries, as well as at Killer Characters, a blog overtaken by cozy authors’ characters,

Names. Indiana Jones…James Bond…Hercule Poirot…Nancy Drew. Names are very important to distinguish the character that leaps off the page. John Smith would never be Indiana Jones. Jim would never be James. Hercule…I can’t even imagine another name for Hercule, can you?

Names are very important to me as a writer. If I name a character Nikki, she takes on a personality of her own. Strong, kick-ass, alert. If I name her Charlotte, she’s gentler, more refined, a bit of an artist. Both are passionate but in entirely different ways. Now, I’m not saying that a Nikki couldn’t be an artist and a Charlotte couldn’t be kick-ass, but for me, this is who they are…who they have become. Have you met people who match their names? When I think of the name Janet, I think direct, funny. Ginger is a long, lanky exotic dancer or actress with red hair. {Yes, I’m probably influenced by Gilligan’s Island.} Kat is a whole lot different than Katherine or Kitty or Kate.

When I began writing A Cheese Shop Mystery series, I started with a few characters. That list quickly grew to an alphabet of characters. In cozies, writers populate entire towns. At some point, I realized that I had an Amy and an Amelia, and it dawned on me that the two couldn’t dwell in the same story. They just couldn’t. They started with A and they sounded the same. Multiple times, I found myself typing mistakes--entering Amelia when I meant Amy and vice versa. [Side note: Have you ever read a book where there’s an Ann, Amy, Analise, and Annabelle…or some such combination, all with that sort An or Am combination and after a while, you’re wondering who’s walking onto the page?] In The Long Quiche Goodbye, Amy was an eight-year-old twin, and Amelia was a twenty-two-year-old Amish woman. Amy was leaping off the page with personality; Amelia wasn’t. So I kept Amy, and I searched the Internet for the most popular Amish names. I landed on Rebecca. [I didn’t have an R-named character other than Rags, the Ragdoll cat. I didn’t think the two would be confused.]

Suddenly Rebecca took shape. She was plucky, coltish, curious. Amelia wasn’t any of those things. She was shy and tentative and, well, just not very memorable. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying all Amelia(s) are shy and tentative and unmemorable. Look at Amelia Earhart. Talk about personality. But in my world, Amelia didn’t have pluck. Rebecca did!

Another problem with the names I had chosen cropped up when I realized that I had two characters whose names sort of rhymed. Kristine and Kathleen. And they not only rhymed, they started with the same letter K, they were both thin, they were the same age, and they were forthright. Uh-oh. How many times do you think I got their names wrong? If I couldn’t keep them straight, how could I expect my readers to? So I changed the names. [Let’s hear it for the global “replace” tool on my computer.] Kristine remained Kristine. It fit her. She was regal and wanted to run the town. Kathleen became Vivian, a much nicer name for an antique dealer. The name Vivian had a softer tone, an artier feel. She sailed into The Cheese Shop with the grace of a clipper ship. Kristine marched onto the scene.

Don’t get me wrong. I know people are not named according to their personalities or their looks, but when I write, I try to fit the name to the person.

On a personal note…true story: My real name isn’t Avery. {How many of you knew that?} It’s Daryl. I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve heard people say: “Where’s your other brother Daryl?” or “Funny, you don’t look like a boy.” The name Daryl sticks with people. They expect me to be direct and strong, though not masculine, and many expect me to be good at football. [I can’t even begin to tell you how many Darrells there are who play football, both white and black. Most are wide receivers or tackles. If I’d played, I would have been a safety.] Avery, on the other hand, is the kind of gal who would love to take things slower, slip into your kitchen, pour a cup of coffee (or wine), and talk about cheese.

If you’re a writer, think about how you choose your characters’ names. Are there any that aren’t quite fitting the name and screaming out for a new one?

For readers, think about your friends. Would you have named them differently? How about your family? Do any have nicknames that have stuck because that’s just who they are? Peanut, Pooh, Tweedle Dee, Rocko?

Names. I love them! And I’m thrilled to have a couple of my own.

Best to all,
Say Cheese!

The first book in Avery Aames' Cheese Shop series, The Long Quiche Goodbye, came out on July 6. You can purchase the book at Avery’s bookseller page:

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Names That Inspire Devotion

--Adrienne Miller

I named my first heroine Charlotte Fenton. It wasn’t a random name. Charlotte was for Charlotte Bronte. And if you have to ask why, then you’ve obviously been spared the experience of me cornering you at a party to drunkenly lecture you on why Jane Eyre is most amazing, life-changing novel ever written. Others have not been so fortunate.

The Fenton part, on the other hand, is a little more interesting...and a little less fan-girl creepy. Fenton’s is an ice cream parlor in Oakland. Okay, not just any ice cream parlor. It is the ice cream parlor, with flavors so drool worthy and portions so huge you’d think that you had died and were given a counter seat at heaven’s own scoop shop.

Think I’m exaggerating? I’m not. Chances are you know about Fenton’s. Did you see Up?

Yep, it’s a real place, and as wonderful as Russell makes it sound in the movie. It's a beloved institution. My great grandparents used to go there when they moved a few blocks away in the 40's. My grandparents as well. Then my parents. And now me and my kids. That's five generations of sweet ice cream love. 

Here it is in real life.

When I was pregnant with my first son, I ate at Fenton’s almost every day. On those days that I was so sick that I could hardly keep anything down, I would make Tom walk down to Fenton’s with me and order us up a couple of hot fudge sundaes with extra nuts. It was so dang good, it could knock morning sickness on it’s ass.

The day Jack was born we figured he was built almost entirely out of Mocha Almond Fudge.

As for Jack, he was born in 2003. The year a little movie with another Jack came out.

A few years later, another movie came out, and Jack got a little brother, Will.

I’m not saying I names my kids after a couple of fictional pirates. I’m just saying some names, they stick with you.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Pen by Any Other Name…

I answer to a whole lot of names. Yes, it’s true. I have not one, but two, pen names. Pseudonyms. Noms de plume. Whatever they’re called, I’ve got a couple of them. So far.

People comment upon this. Frequently. And right underneath the comments I often sense a tiny little bit of annoyance.

Well, I’ve got news for those folks who are already confused by my multiple monikers, and seem to want to take me to task for it. I’ve got plans for more. I’ve discovered I like fake names. It’s like having multiple personas. I’m at the point where if I weren’t an author, I might have to have a couple of aliases anyway, just for fun.

I’m not the only one. I know for a fact that a lot of folks make things up when asked what name to put on their coffee drinks. The other day I saw a Xena and a Maverick at the Peet’s counter. Please. And just how many girls at the bar do you think are really named Chloe and Zoey and Dakota? Scalawags, all. I love it. Go on with your bad selves, be wild with those coffee names!In Spanish, rather than saying “my name is Juliet,” you say, “Me llamo Juliet,” which means, literally, “I call myself Juliet.” I like the idea that you “call yourself” something. It makes it seem like one’s moniker is something temporal, active, alive. As though chosen on purpose rather than simply put upon you when you were a defenseless infant.

In fact, it's common in Mexico for people to go by not one, but several, nicknames depending on their situation and their whim. Partly, of course, this is because a great many people have the same first names (Jose and Maria are biggies) so a little improvisation helps simplify matters. I once knew a family of five girls, and each of them was named Maria. In the United States this was a bureaucratic nightmare –try telling the front desk clerk at the health clinic that there are five Maria Garays in the waiting room-- but amongst family and friends there was no confusion at all. Maria de las Flores called herself Flor or Flora or Flo; Maria de la Gracia called herself Estrella-- not sure why; Maria de los Angeles went by Angelica or Angelita, depending on her mood…etc.

The point is, they called themselves whatever it was they had decided upon.

So I think it’s a little small minded to insist we all stick to one name, specifically the one granted to us by our parents at what one can only imagine was a rather stressful time: a moment of raging hormones and sleeplessness in which we are most likely to be unduly influenced by sappy AT&T commercials or melodramatic 19th century novels. So far I’ve had two official pseudonyms (I’m not going to get started on my bar names, much less coffee names, I promise). Hailey Lind was the first; it’s an old family name I use when I write with my sister. I do believe t took my sister and me more time to decide upon a name than it did to write our first book.

The second name was easier, because I chose it myself. I wanted something toward the beginning of the alphabet. I figured that for an author, color names are good because they’re easy to remember, and even easier to spell. Black seemed a natural for something to do with witchcraft, but it was too plain. Blackwell struck me as just about perfect. As for the first name, I needed something that I had a reasonable shot at remembering whilst downing cocktails –because it there’s one thing we know about mystery writers, it’s that they’re most often found in the bar. (Again with the bar references...looks like someone needs a drink.)

Of course, I should have consulted with Sophie Littlefield. Then I would have been Andromeda Petrovic or Wildcat McGee. Something really exciting.

And my “real” name? Complicated, of course. When I was in college I decided it was rather patriarchal to keep only my father’s last name. And boring, too. So I took my mother’s as well, and hyphenated them. Flash forward twenty-five years…to problems with the DMV, the doctor’s office, every piece of junk mail in the world. It’s not a legal problem – in fact, one of the interesting things I learned was that you can call yourself any damned name you want, so long as it’s not for purposes of fraud. Jesus Christ? You go, girl. Minnie Mouse? Why not? Paris Hilton? Sure…just don’t try to convince people you’re the famous blonde who forgets her underwear. No, changing my name was fine, but computers hate hyphens, and people on the other end of the line don’t much like them either.

Anyway…I suppose I might well use my lifelong name for the next novel I’m writing, which isn’t a mystery. Why not? Julie Goodson-Lawes might as well step out into the limelight. On the other hand, now that I look at it, I'm rather partial to Wildcat McGee....

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Rachael is Bad at Names

Oh, my god. Sophie's post yesterday has inspired me. I'd lost sight of the fact that I can name my characters ANYTHING I want. I'm the law! I'm in charge of my little town! I'm not even a deputy, I'm the sheriff, goldangit!

But . . . um. I kind of screwed up a character's name pretty badly this week. You see, I'm just about done with this book of mine, and during the writing of this first draft, I've never yet believed in my hero's name. I know his last name is Keller, and he's stuck with it, because he's the brother of someone I named in two other books.

First he was Hank. Hank Keller. I liked it. But my very smart editor's assistant (now an editor in her own right) said that she really didn't like Hank. At all. It seemed like an old man's name to her, and as she's younger than I am and knows more about that kind of thing, I took her advice.

Then I changed his name to Zach. Zachariah Keller. The problem was that in paragraphs when I talked about both Zach and his brother Jake, I couldn't tell their names apart at a quick glance. It's practically the same name if you're drunk: Zjacck.

So I changed it to Sam on a whim. I have NO IDEA why I did that. I don't like the name overmuch, and the bad guy in my first book is named Samuel (I'd forgotten that. I'm a bear of very little brain sometimes).

So this last weekend, I changed it to Charlie. Simple, strong, right? Sure. I did a find and replace of Sam with Charlie.

Then, within a second of hitting "Replace All," I thought about what I'd just done.

Every single "same" in my text was suddenly "Charliee." "Sample" turned to "Charlieple."

I was in Scrivener, not Word, but I hit Cntrl Z anyway, hoping for the best -- it didn't WORK. I hit close, so maybe it wouldn't save, but damn the autosave!

I put my head on the desk and rocked it back and forth for a while. Le sigh.

Now I think I've fixed it using find and replace (again) to put "same" and "sample" back, but what if there's flotsam in there? Or jetsam? Samovars, or Sambuca? My poor copy-editor.

And you know what? After reading Sophie's post, I feel like I'm going to let myself down if I leave it Charlie. I'm off for a week of writer-speak --RWA convention in Orlando -- maybe the perfect name will come to me while I'm in the bar, drinking with friends.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Not So Pleased to Meet You, Derek Stone

by Sophie


There aren't many aspects of writing on which I have a confident grasp - a sense that I do them right more often than I do them wrong - but naming my characters is one of them.

Not everyone agrees with me; readers and reviewers occasionally raise an eyebrow or toss a virtual tomato in my direction for a name they find clumsy. But 9 times out of 10, I'm pleased and even delighted by the names I choose.

The problem is that I have no idea how I do it.

Maybe it's presumptuous of me to think other writers might like to know my secret, but if there was a way for me to share my naming talent I would. In fact, there are a few authors out there who I'd love to send a plucky but well-meaning form letter:

Dear ______,
Next time you're kick-starting a new project, won't you consider giving me a call?

While you're certainly adept at _____, and I admire your facility with ____, I hope I'm not being too bold by suggesting you need a little help naming your characters. I couldn't help noticing that you named your last character ________, which is about as special and evocative as a can of chicken noodle soup.

All best regards,
- Sophie

(I threw in the compliments because everyone likes a little sugar with the medicine, and I can nearly always find something to like about a person's writing.)

Seriously, it stops me in my tracks when I'm reading happily along and run smack into a Derek Stone. Or a John Murphy. Or a Claire Johnson. Or any of a thousand bland, flavorless names that have been slapped on heroes and heroines who have so much more to offer. I imagine them in Fictionland, meeting each other at cocktail parties...they start out all confident and game-faced, since they're usually fantastically handsome/gorgeous, as well as tremendously fit and clever. But their cheery smiles slip a little each time they introduce themselves.

"I'm Allyssa Gray," a slightly embarrassed raven-haired beauty says, extending a perfectly-manicured hand to the tall, handsome man in an Armani suit (Armani! Why does it always have to be Armani!!), who blushes and mumbles "Jake Williams." Then all the sexual tension in the encounter evaporates as each assumes the other will be just about as exciting in the sack as their name.

Not in my world! My characters might not be stunning to look at, but when Stella's thoughts turn to love, she's got her choice of Goat Jones and B.J. Brodersen or even Jelloman Nunn, though he's more of a friend. Tell me that didn't just send your mind in interesting directions!

I've named characters Dot and Mud and Mo and ThreeHigh and Twister, and a thousand other things that just sort of popped into my head. Occasionally I have a little trouble with surnames, especially if I need a Polish or Irish name, for instance - as in my young adult - but I poke around online and on the spines of books and in my kids' school directories until I find something that catches my fancy. Kazmeircz Sawicki, the hero of BANISHED, got his name that way, as did Dor MacFall (AFTERTIME, 3/11).

Not long ago I blurbed a fantastic book (trust me on this - you're going to love PURGATORY CHASM by Steve Ulfelder), the hero and dead guy of which are named, respectively, Conway Sax and Tander Phigg. I loved this book so much that I did a bad thing - I sent the first page to a fellow author who I suspected would love it just as much as me, which I had no right to do since it's not published yet, but I couldn't resist. I anticipated a drooling exchange about the deftness of these opening lines, but what I got back was "Tander Phigg! Awesome name!"

That's what a terrific, unique name can do for you - catch the attention of even the most jaded reader. So why do people keep settling for boring ones? Beats me.

(One more comment on names: twenty years ago I was in a PayLess Shoe Store buying a pair of silver flats and the clerk runs my credit card and says to me "Sophie Littlefield? With a name like that, you should be a romance writer!" So, long-lost friend, wherever you are, many thanks...)

Friday, July 23, 2010

2010 RWA Conference Packing Tips from the Pens

Well, three quarters of the Pens (Boo-Hoo, we wish Gigi and Martha were coming too!) are heading off to the Romance Writers of America annual conference next week, so we thought we'd offer a few packing tips.

Items not to forget:

1. A notebook: you will be struck with idea after idea, bring a notebook so you can write them all down, because invariably you are brain dead after a week of social interaction and will forget if you don't

2. Chocolate: you will need sustenance after running the gauntlet of hallways and conference room mazes to find your workshops

3. The most comfortable shoes you own: even if your shoes are comfortable, by the end of the day your feet are going to hurt

4. Corkscrew: if you choose to forgo the bar one night and buy your own, you won't want to wait an hour for housekeeping to deliver a corkscrew so you can dive into that bottle of wine

We're sure there are more comprehensive lists and tips but we feel these are the things NOT TO FORGET :)

Have fun! Be sure to look for us in the various bars and stop by and say hello!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Zeitgeist's Observer

by Gigi

There's a bar near where I used to work in San Francisco called Zeitgeist. It's the kind of place that I liked to go to after work, with its large backyard full of sprawling tables and trees. The kind of place where you can chill with your friends while people-watching -- and there are always interesting people in this neighborhood at the edge of the Mission District.

I love observing people to understand the times. (Yes, I'm the child of cultural anthropologists; but no, my skill in people-watching does not transfer to eavesdropping, which I'm terrible at.)

I've always been the observer.

It was my role in back at school, when I read The Great Gatsby and immediately identified with the narrator, Nick. One friend called me Nick for a while after we read that book, while I called her Jay. And when I saw the musical Rent, oh how I was at one with Mark, the geeky documentary filmmaker.

I'm most at home behind the camera, capturing the essence of what's around me. I find I get the most authentic shots when I wait a while after taking out my camera. That way people forget about the camera and stop posing, allowing me to capture their natural spirit -- like in this photo of my friends in a bar in Bath, England.

Since I seem to be continuing with the bar theme, here's a photo I took at a San Francisco bar (though it's not Zeitgeist):

Writing fiction is similar to these moments observed through the lens of a camera. You put the essence of life into a story, not every mundane detail.

Have you ever read a book with dialogue like:
"Hi, how are you?"
"Good, you?"
"I'm good. How was your weekend?"
"Nice. Yours?"
"Pretty good. The neighbors came over for a barbeque."

If a writer left that in, you'd either fall asleep or throw the book across the room. Yet you probably had that exact conversation at work on Monday morning. But to capture the spirit of reality, you start writing where the conversation gets interesting. What little gems of details say more about the world than the sum of their parts? Therein lies the fun in capturing the spirit of the times.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Martha's Food Zeitgeist

What other animal needs professional help in deciding what it should eat?
- Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food

Oprah. Infomercials. Suzanne Sommers for crying out loud. What's the deal with people forgetting how to eat so they need these sources to step in?

I'm as guilty as anyone. I can't remember the last time I listened to my body instead of a barrage of medical advice.

I'll start my day with oatmeal or yogurt. Do I like these things? No. But somewhere along the line, someone convinced me I wouldn't die if I ate them. I'm gonna nosh on some fish. Something about omegas. Maybe get in a few veggies. Because of an "oid" of some kind...flavenoid? Rabenoid? I don't know.

How have we as a culture become so disconnected by something as simple as our survival instinct?

Even water has a guideline. WATER!!!! The simplest, most basic need for survival and I need a doctor to tell me what to intake? Or the trainer at the gym?

To me, this food dynamic represents just one iota of the self-help culture zeitgeist. Of this idea that we don't know enough about ourselves or that we can't trust ourselves to be healthy, happy, fulfilled, satisfied, rich without the input of "experts."

I know there's nothing wrong with looking for advice but I'm waiting for the next zeitgeist. The one where we listen to ourselves first, and strangers next.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Zeitgeist of Parenthood

by Lisa Hughey

The meaning of Zeitgeist is in the spirit of time. And okay, I admit, I had to look it up. Generally I believe the spirit of the time is more broad, such as the Gay 90's (1890's) or the post 9/11 the patriotism that ran heavily through our hearts and country. But the term can be applied to any place (the artiste community in Paris during the 1920's)...

...or even be whittled down to a specific family or person and a specific moment in time.

My oldest son is preparing to leave for college soon. Actually I’m preparing for him to be gone. He can’t wait. I understand and I’m honestly thrilled that he is excited to embrace the change and a new place and a new state of being. So for the summer we exist in this awkward state of limbo. Not parent, child anymore but not yet adult, adult. He hasn’t left yet but he’s already gone. And I live each day knowing soon, life will be different. Soon. But not yet.

In reality, we’ve been preparing for this day since we brought him home from the hospital. Helping him walk, catching him when he fell, kissing his boo-boo’s better and then teaching him to get back up again. Teaching please, thank you, good words, bad words, punctuation, math, dinosaurs and chemistry experiments. Life lessons: don’t touch the hot stove, consequences of missing deadlines and forgetting your homework. Heart lessons: that first rejection and living through the ache, with him and for him.

The pride of his accomplishments, overcoming dyslexia, discovering a passion for rugby,

This is his favorite picture from last season, a conquering bloody warrior :)

graduating from high school. Perseverance. Endurance. Every single moment has been building toward his leaving our nest to become an adult. The Zeitgeist of Parenthood narrows down to one small click of the dorm door lock after he says goodbye, eager to begin his new life, standing alone, standing proud. I know it's time, I know he's ready, but when I think of him heart is so full of love the pressure is a physical ache in my chest.

It’s been an amazing journey, funny, frustrating, rewarding, exhilarating and heartbreaking, sometimes all at once. And I know it’s never over. The Zeitgeist of Parenthood can be summed up with three simple words: hope, pride, love.

We love you, buddy. And we'll miss you.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Missing Zeitgeist

L.G.C. Smith

The Grousing Reader is in the house this week, and it's all about zeitgeist. In my over-educated, persnickety and old- fashioned opinion novels need a strong zeitgeist to be truly satisfying. This is zeitgeist as Juliet defined it for us last week, The Ghost of the Times -- where setting, culture and moment breath in and around character and conflict as an independent presence without which the story would be utterly different.

It's impossible to imagine Juliet's Lily Ivory without her transplanted-Texan-witch-in-San-Francisco vibe in the Witchcraft Mystery Series. Or Rachael's Abigail and Cade without Eliza Carpenter -- who is, literally, the zeitgeist in the Cypress Hollow Yarns. Or Sophie's Stella without rural Missouri and the ghosts of violence and expedient self-interest that haunt it.

We can imagine Jane Austen's novels without Regency England thanks to Hollywood and various enterprising storytellers, but the originals are better. Change the setting and the spirit of the times and you may reveal the universality of emotion, but it's not the same. Good writers will replace the original zeitgeist with something dynamic, which can be provocative. At the least, it can be fun and refreshing. A great deal of creative storytelling is about manipulating the stock of standard human stories into a distinctive zeitgeist.

It occurs to me that one of the elusive differences between literary and popular fiction may lie in the handling of zeitgeist. Literary fiction can float on a sea of it without bothering much about plot. I don't get that. On the other hand, popular fiction can view zeitgeist development as more of an optional sort of thing. And this is my grouse. Why? I'm sick of it. I can't be the only one.

I lay the lion's share of blame for this at the feet of publishers. This means you, marketing folks. You are entitled to pursue the book-as-commodity model. It's a free market. Fine. Go for it When I look at my royalty statements, I have very much appreciated this. I'm sure many authors do. We may also appreciate that publishers can get out three, four, five, or even more books a year if we can write them that fast.

But as a reader, I'm weary of generic settings, books that would be vastly better had they had another month or six of work, and the lack of any geist in the zeit. Because I read more romance than anything else, I'll take my examples from that genre. First up: category publishers. There are many, many fine category novels. There are more bland ones that look like the writers have opted for a corporate zeitgeist that's about as interesting as library paste. I can't remember the last time I bought a category novel. I know there are excellent books there, but I've been disappointed too many times.

Lest anyone think I'm picking on category publishers, the publishers of historical romances are a bigger disappointment. A proper historical romance should ooze zeitgeist. I want to feel as though I'm in the world at a different place and time from now. Different. Not like now. Not like here, wherever here is. I want a total immersion experience in something else AND I want a well-crafted story. Madeline Hunter offers this, particularly in her medievals. LaVyrle Spencer's historicals give it up in bushels. Laura Kinsale can be the best. "For My Lady's Heart" does this spectacularly well.

I don't want to read about contemporary people dressed in costumes zipping through places with values and mores just like the ones I see everyday even though it's supposed to be two hundred years ago in England. That's not what I mean when I look for "identifiable characters." If that means an author has to work a little harder, and possibly use a few more words to tell the story better, fine. I would be thrilled to read more 150K historical romances redolent of the zeitgeist of another time and place.

In the past month, I've read perhaps a dozen genre novels. Maybe more, but I'm reading less fiction than I used to partly because none of those novels were all that great. They weren't necessarily bad. But they were lackluster. Then I picked up Suzanne Brockmann's "Infamous."
At first, I was that unimaginative reader the marketing departments claim we all are: I sneered. "What, no Navy SEALS? No terrorists? No Troubleshooters? Bah." I was looking for the usual Brockmann zeitgeist and I didn't see it. "Infamous" is a contemporary ghost story in a western setting. I resisted. But then I reminded myself that Brockmann knows how to tell a story, and she knows how to develop a world. So I started reading, and for the first time in a long time, I couldn't put a book down.

It's more than the characters, and more than the setting that make "Infamous" a wonderful read. Zeitgeist is more than the sum of the parts of a novel. Yes, there's a ghost, so maybe I'm way too literal, but Brockmann pulled me in, and I didn't want to leave. That indefinable something, the spirit of the times, the zeitgeist -- it made all the difference.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

And the winner is...

Susan Shea, author of the wonderfully received new Murder in the Abstract, blogged for us a couple of weeks ago and offered an ARC of her new book to one lucky commenter.

And the winner is...Hank Phillipi Ryan!

Hank, Susan will be contacting you directly. Congratulations! And many many congratulations to Susan, whose first novel has been selling out everywhere. Yay!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Staying Connected -- A.J. Larrieu

Talking to a three-year-old on Skype is a good way to understand the limitations of the medium. Since I live in California and most of my family doesn’t, I end up having a lot of conversations over the internet, and it works much better with the adults in my life. “Talking” to my nephew usually involves him running by in a blur, waving a toy truck. I’m glad I get to see how much he grows every year, but it’s not the same as taking him to the park in person.

If there’s a spirit of our times, I think it must be this: the paradox of families being hyper-connected but spread thin across the world. There are so many ways for us to get in touch with people we love, but none of them ever feel complete compared to being in the same room. I’m not saying all the social networking we do is bad: I love it! But it’s no substitute for the real thing, and I think the popularity of facebook, twitter, facetime, etc. etc. etc .is linked to the fact that none of these things is quite enough.

It’s a disturbing talent of mine to link everything back to writing—sort of a self-centered six-degrees-of-separation—but this one’s easy. What are stories, if not ways for us to connect with each other? My nephew tells me complicated, made-up stories about the adventures of his tiny toy cars. Having dinner with a couple of new friends, my husband and I told old stories we’ve heard a hundred times, taking a different kind of comfortable pleasure in hearing them again. (Like the one about him almost getting hit by a train: funny now, not funny at the time.) Stories aren’t just a nice way to connect, they’re the only way to connect. Publishing a book, well, that’s a way to tell a story to thousands of people, whether it’s a true story or one that only feels true.

Every so often, an agent or publishing professional will post a blog entry about the explosion of unsolicited submissions, wondering aloud why they keep increasing. (Here’s an example from literary agent and writer Nathan Bransford.) Is it the economy? The fact that anybody with a computer can write a book? I think those things are probably part of it, but I also think there’s something more societal and systemic at work. Now more than ever, people are moving away from their families and trying to forge new lives in strange cities, strange countries. It’s what I’ve done. My husband and I have become part of a community of other “orphans” out here in San Francisco, but sometimes it can feel sad, being cut off from your roots and trying to grow news ones. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way, and I’m betting I’m not the only one writing stories as a way of understanding it, as a way of connecting with the huge, scary rest-of-the-world. Anybody else want to confess?

A. J. Larrieu writes urban fantasy set in southern Louisiana and the San Francisco Bay Area. She is represented by Sarah LaPolla at Curtis Brown, Ltd., and her first novel is on submission. Visit her at

Thursday, July 15, 2010


--Adrienne Miller

I’ve heard it said that the music that you loved when you graduated High School is music that you’ll love all your life. I don’t remember who said it, so I’m going to attribute it to Them. You know Them. They are always saying stuff like, “Don’t count your chickens before they’re in the bush,” or “Haste makes a stitch in time.” I don’t know. They’re crazy, those guys.

This is what I imagine They look like. Definitely not crazy, or, most likely, real.

But whatever the true or existent nature of this Them, I’m thinking they got this one right. My iPod is filled with the songs I used to love when I was eighteen. And it’s not just the music. The movies, the tv shows, I still love them. Well, some of them. I don’t deny I’m cherry picking here.

So, let’s all get in this little time machine of mine and meet this girl I used to be. Buckle up and prepare for he far away land of 1994.

And it’s not my 1994 with out Toad the Wet Sprocket. My most enduring 90’s love. If I got a vote on those Best Albums of the 90’s lists, my #1 would be Dulcinea. Hands down. None of this Nevermind for me.

A close second—and I do mean very close—is James. Ring the Bells off the Seven album. Yeah, so it came out in 1992, but trust me that cassette was still in heavy rotation in my Walkman. That’s right, my Walkman.

There are others, Counting Crows, Green Day, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Though I must admit that last one has fallen out of favor lately. It seems I don’t much of a stomach for songs about killing women anymore.

As far as I was concerned there was only one movie put out in 1994. And that was The Crow. Eric Draven, I still love you.

The Crow Trailer

Alex Proyas | MySpace Video

And when I curled up on the couch every Sunday night with my Ham and Cheese Hot Pockets and Mountain Dew who was keeping me company. Why, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, of course.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Ghost of the Times

There may be a few of you out there still blissfully unaware that I was the Monta Vista High School Bank of America German Award recipient of 1980.

I like to point this out since it's the only award I've ever won. (I don't take this particularly personally, as I never win anything. No theater door prizes, no free lunch when I deposit my business card in a box at the counter, not even a freaking Sisters in Crime raffle...I mean, come on, everyone wins Sisters in Crime raffles eventually, right?)

Anyway, back to the topic at hand: Zeitgeist. Since I can claim the very slight, very dubious, very out of date honor of the aforementioned German award, I know what Zeitgeist means. Literally. Zeit means time, and Geist means ghost. The term has come to refer to certain prevailing thoughts and ideas of an era. But in literature, the German Romanticists utilized Zeitgeist not only as an ephemeral spirit of the times, but as an actual character in their novels.

This got me thinking. What form would Zeitgeist take, as a character in the story of our times? A character can impose its will, interact with other characters, experience moments of heroism and/or meanness, share its gifts...and fail from its faults. A literary character has an arc -- it changes over the course of the tale.

If I was casting the role of today's Zeitgeist...I would jump on the paranormal bandwagon. Way more fun than reality, and as far as supplying characters, the supernatural world offers all kinds of timeless, yet time-specific, tropes. After all, if it was good enough for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, isn't it good enough for us today?

But should I choose an immortal, bloodsucking, soulless creature...or a shambling, brain-jonesing, mess? Which would you choose? In other words, are you team vampire, or team zombie?

One blogger presents the idea that in the current political landscape, vampires are red, zombies are blue. Apparently democrats fear the idea of vampires (the aristocracy sucking the people dry); whereas republicans are scared of zombies (shuffling, poorly-dressed folk--apparently without health care-- looking to eat brains.) Hence when republicans are in office, the vampiric specter is raised, while democratic control of the white house leads to widespread zombie outbreaks.

Or maybe this overcomplicates matters. Maybe our interest in zombies is simply a natural reaction to the reality of economic recession and shrinking resources. They're a symbol of apocalyptic, diseased immortality, after all; a real downer of a Zeitgeist. On the other hand, could our current literary treatment of vampires --casting them as misunderstood love interests rather than deadly snakes-- be a thinly veiled plea for gay rights? For comprehensive immigration policy reform? For acceptance of the classic Other?

What do you think? Would our current Zeitgeist be better represented by a zombie, or vampire? Or a werewolf, for that matter, or another kind of would you envision the Ghost of our Times?

And, perhaps most importantly: who the heck would play him -- or her-- in the movie?

*** case you don't believe me about that German award, here's proof --it's tucked under my arm at my high school graduation:

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Twitter Zeitgeist

I'm a Twitter junkie. There's something about 140 characters that I find so wonderful -- I sometimes find myself in entirely innapropriate situations composing those perfect few words which will convey what I mean in the best way possible. While stuck in traffic (no texting while driving, I swear), I think (often) of the best, wittiest thing you've EVER heard. You will DIE when you read this one. But by the time I pull over, it's no longer funny or even relevant.

Isn't that just the way with Twitter?

I don't use Twitter for big announcements. (Okay, sometimes I do.) I don't use it to complain (very much). I don't use it to be passive-aggessive (well, I did the other night during a domestic argument, but I swear to God it was the first time).

I use it to sound off. I use it to catch up. And more than that, I use it to remain connected to people I really care about. It's a warm, fuzzy feeling -- standing in line at the post office with a few minutes to kill, I can eavesdrop on friends' lives. I can catch up, commiserate, and congratulate with just a few strokes of the phone's keyboard.

And it's that eavesdropping that brings me to this week's word: Zeitgeist. Twitter, for as long as it lasts (LOVE MAY IT LIVE), is a window onto the spirit of today's culture. The trending topics alone show us what the majority of people are thinking about on Twitter. Last week, when the Mehserle trial's verdict was returned, I sat glued to Twitter, feeling comforted as other people were scared, upset, and nervous. I searched #riot to see if anyone was planning anything in my neighborhood (so I could avoid it, not join it). I was with people then, even though I was alone in my house.

And now, I have such a treat for you today. I mean, really. If I'd made you my special seven-layer cookies (which actually only have six layers, because I leave the nuts out, leaving more room for chocolate chips), you would not thank me more for what I'm going to give you right now.


Twistori only takes a moment to glance at. But watch out: It's compulsively addictive. You will want to sit and watch. I think I could sit in front of it with my knitting and watch for hours. I know I'd learn a lot if I did. Do yourself a favor and click. For just a moment, be immersed in the Twitter Zeitgeist. It's pretty awesome. (Gleaned just a second ago: RAWR means I love you in dinosaur. If you see one that knocks you out, copy and paste it and bring it for us in the comments, mmm?)

Monday, July 12, 2010

Breathing the Air Down There - NYC Subway

by Sophie

So I think I'm going to do us all a favor and roll out a definition for our theme this week (thanks Wiki):

Zeitgeist is the general cultural, intellectual, ethical, spiritual, and/or political climate within a nation or even specific groups, along with the general ambience, morals, sociocultural direction or mood of an era (similar to the English word mainstream or trend).

Now pardon me as I wander just a little bit far afield. I was up until 3am last night - the last night of Thrillerfest in New York City, where I'd been cavorting for nearly a week. (It pains me to admit it, but this is actually an improvement over last year, when I and three friends stayed up until four am after the awards dinner.) Then up early this morning for a flight out of Kennedy, which brings me to the subject at hand, because I decided to save fifty bucks by riding the subway to the AirTrain, a short connecting rail that takes you from the Howard Beach subway station in Queens right to Kennedy.

I LOVE the New York subway system. LOVE IT! It is one of my happy places, and I adore everything from the smell to the swelter in the summer. I love watching the people, eavesdropping on conversations. I love tracing the words carved in the benches and reading the graffiti and listening to the accents. And most of all I love the zeitgeist of the thing.

This morning, on an odyssey that took me nearly two hours and involved a dozen flights of stairs lugging my monster suitcase and lifting it over turnstiles (there may be a better way to do it, but I took the shuttle from Grand Central to Times Square, caught the 1 to 14th, took the tunnel to catch the F to 4th St. where I got the A to Howard Beach - but all for $2.25) I was thinking how fantastic the subway zeitgeist is. For instance, somewhere in Queens I found myself sitting next to a couple of thirty-something surfer dudes (fedoras, long bleached Aerosmith hair, flip-flops) on one side and an orthodox Jewish man taking notes in a careful script in a notebook on the other. The former wore far fewer clothes and might have been more comfortable if they weren't so obviously hung over. There was an elderly couple dressed for church, the wife sleeping on her husband's chest; he occasionally kissed her hair gently so as not to wake her. There were three bewildered people who asked me for directions - probably not their best move. There was an old man singing to break your heart - "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone" never sounded so croaky-good, definitely worth a buck in his plastic bucket.

I lived in New York for a few months twenty years ago, and the thing that made me fall in love with the subways first was the mosaic. I have always loved mosaic, and when I found out that Italian craftsmen had been brought to our country just to create the marvelous station signage, I used to imagine what it must have been like for them, practicing their painstaking art down in the newly-built tunnels. Did they learn English from the laborers working all around them? Did they miss the sights and smells of home, and what did they think of the dimestore counter lunches? Did they fall in love, or long to return home?

Nowadays when I'm in New York, I can afford a cab now and then, but I'll take the subway at the drop of a hat. I took it down to the Battery the other day to join my brother and his family on a trip to see the Statue of Liberty. Went underground in Midtown, surfaced in the canyons of Wall Street, the harbor laid out before me like a picture postcard. Gave me a shiver just like it did the first time I ever saw it.

I long to have an apartment in NY some day, and sometimes I wonder if the thrill will wear thin after a while, if I'll start resenting the wait time on the tracks and my maloderous fellows, the shoving and the scowling and the out-of-service hassles. I suppose some of that is inevitable, but for now it feels like my own little corner of heaven.

Photos: Bernard Safran, Paul Mijkesenaar

Friday, July 9, 2010

Obsessed With Firearms? You Be the Judge - Reece Hirsch

Today the Pens welcome thriller writer Reece Hirsch, whose debut novel THE INSIDER came out in May. Publishers Weekly called the novel "fast-paced and film-ready" and said the "tough, ambitious characters will keep fans of legal thrillers on the edge of their seats."

Reece lives right here in Northern California with the rest of us, so we're happy to have him in our Pens-tourage. (Like that? I just came up with it!! :)

The recent Supreme Court decision lifting Chicago’s handgun ban demonstrated once again that we are a nation obsessed with our firearms. The same goes for mystery and crime writers. If a handgun ban were to be imposed upon our genre, we would all be out of business. With that in mind, I compiled the following tally of weapons used in my debut legal thriller THE INSIDER, while trying to avoid spoilers.

Page 3. The weapon: concrete pavement after a fall from the roof of the Embarcadero Four building in San Francisco. Attacker: Unclear. Victim: Attorney Ben Fisher. Body count: 1.

Page 47. The weapon: a wineglass to the head. Attacker: Russian mobster Yuri. Victim: Corporate attorney Will Connelly, my protagonist. Body count: 0.

Page 73. The weapon: car cigarette lighter. Attacker: Unclear. Victim: Attorney Ben Fisher. Body count: 0 (this occurred before Ben hit the pavement on page 3, but we don’t learn about it until page 73).

Pages 83-87. The weapon: a box-cutter. Attacker: Russian mobster Nikolai. Victim: Will Connelly. Yes, Will is having a bad week, but the body count is still: 0.

Pages 225-233. The weapons: unspecified pistols. The shooters: Russian mobsters Nikolai and Yuri and a team of law enforcement agents led by Department of Justice Special Agent Joan Fisk. The setting: the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade. Body count: 2.

Page 312. The weapons: unspecified pistols. The shooters: Two Russian mobsters in Puma track suits and four Department of Justice agents. The setting: Justin Herman Plaza in San Francisco. Body count: 3.

Pages 313-321: The weapons: first, it’s unspecified pistol versus unarmed person, followed by screwdriver versus hammer. Participants: Will and a bad person who shall remain nameless. Body count: 1.

As the above tally indicates, I’ve written a legal thriller, but not a courtroom drama. This count does not include: (1) brandishing of guns, (2) threatened use of guns and (3) use of fists.

I know that there are certain readers who love nothing better than to catch a mystery/crime author in a firearms error. If you say that a particular handgun has a safety, it had better have a safety or you’re going to be receiving some e-mails.

I bypassed that issue a bit in THE INSIDER because my story is told from the perspective of Will Connelly, a young corporate lawyer in a big San Francisco law firm. Will is no Reacher-esque action hero with a connoisseur’s appreciation of the damage that can be done with a particular handgun and ammunition. When Will handles a gun, he just notices how cold and heavy it feels in his hand. When someone points a gun at Will, he’s doesn’t notice whether it’s a Ruger or a Smith & Wesson, he just thinks about how to avoid getting killed. Putting much more detail about the make and caliber of weapons wouldn’t have been consistent with the limited-third-person point-of-view that I was using.

Like Will Connelly, I’m a lawyer who doesn’t engage in much gunplay in my everyday life. However, I know that, as a thriller writer, I’m going to need to up my firearms IQ soon because I’m working in a genre that favors a body count.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Of Guns and Zombies

I'm the girl who moved the ouija board.

You know who I mean. When asking the ouija board questions as kids, someone would invariably move that planchette to spell out answers from the great beyond.

Well, it was me.

It was no fun sitting there asking questions of the spirit world and receiving no reply. Somebody had to do it. And there was no point in doing it if you were going to admit it.

I'm also the girl who would survive a zombie attack. In those "would you survive the zombie apocalypse?" quizzes (you know you've taken them), I apparently know just how to kick some zombie ass. I'm a survivor.

Just like with a ouija board, the key is a certain degree of detachment. You can't worry about deceiving your friends -- after all, they're having more fun than they would have been staring at a ouija board that refused to move. And when asked in the zombie quiz if you'd stay behind with a friend who's just been bitten by a zombie who's sure to turn into one herself in a few minutes -- the obvious answer is NO. Be real; you can't save her.

What? You say the zombies in the zombie quizzes aren't real? Okay, I'll grant you that.

Here's how I learned to fight zombies in the real world -- with a gun:
Oh yes, that's my handiwork in that zombie's chest
(although I'm pretty sure I was aiming for his head)

Until a few years ago, I'd never shot a gun in my life. Being a mystery writer and all, I figured I should give it a try.

When members of a local writers' group arranged a trip to a nearby shooting range, I jumped at the chance.

We had to sit through an hour-long training before we got to shoot. (Our teacher was such a character that I need to write him into a book at some point, or at least write a blog post about him, but he deserves a post of his own so I'll save that for another day.)

After the training, we picked out our guns. It was an odd feeling at first, but as soon as I got the hang of it -- holding the guns with both hands to steady myself from the recoil -- it was a blast.

We got to pick out our own target as well. The zombie was the perfect pick. Much more practical than the black bullseye roughly shaped like the blob of a man. When is that situation of a walking bullseye ever going to come up in real life? But a zombie on the other hand...


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Martha's Five Favorite Movie Weapons

Call me old fashioned, but sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. So let's focus back on those sticks and stones, shall we?

In real life, weapons have to be practical because if you're trying to defend your own life or take someone else's, you're focused on the goal, not the journey. But in movies, ah, in movies, we can have fun.

Movies have yielded many iconic weapons. The light saber. The phaser. Again, call me old-fashioned, but I like my killing machines a little less geek chic which brings me to my five favorite movie weapons of all time.

5. The Fifth Element's ZF Gun because it literally is the all-in-one weapon of choice.

4. The Indiana Jones' gun because it gets to the point.

3. Evil Dead 2's Chainsaw because when it's a trick, nothing else will do. (Except maybe an axe.)

2. Swords in Kill Bill for being the most beautiful, elegant way to off someone.

1. Bruce Willis as John McClane in the Die Hard series. Cuz duh. Enjoy this musical tribute to my favorite human weapon.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Words as Weapons

by Lisa Hughey

Karate kicks, Knockout blows, Throwing stars, Blackjacks, Knives, Handguns, Rifles, Bombs, Dirty Bombs.... I’ve researched most of these “weapons” at one time or another for my work.

My characters have carried Ka-Bar combat knives, AK-101 compact assault rifles, and Beretta 92-G Italian pistols.

But those are just details. When it comes down to it--the weapons that inflict the most damage are words. And beneath the words, sub-text, unspoken words convey thoughts and feelings that layer every character’s black moment with tension and heartache. The more devastating the weapon, the more satisfying the happy ending.

Nearly kill a character with a, they’ll recover. But mortally wound them with words...and they, and the reader, won’t ever be the same.


ps-on a more important note: a huge thanks to all the men and women serving in the military around the world, you are not forgotten and always appreciated.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Forearmed Safety Buffaloes

L.G.C. Smith

I used to assiduously research the weapons my characters used. I'd pick out each one's gun/bow/knife/what-have-you of choice and create a backstory as to why that particular weapon suited them to a T. Not that I was foolish enough to include much, if any, of that information in my novels. But I knew. I have the expensive books on firearms to prove it.

Before the drill.

Now I worry more about how well I'm getting the emotional arsenal down. Figuring out the weaponry specifics is one of those things I leave for stuck times when I need a book-related procrastination activity. And I have a cupcake tree full of gluten-free banana muffins.

Trouble is, I'm not naturally into weapons. If I'm reading someone else's book, I don't mind if there are tons of deets on them. It can be a nice addition to the setting. If the author is skilled, she'll make those details add to character, emotional build-up and conflict. But if the conflict is already solid and the emotional and sexual weapons well-employed, the word 'gun' can be as effective as 'blah-blah-beretta-bladdy-special. '

That's a weapon? In the right hands...maybe.

No, my favorite kinds of weapons aren't sharp and they don't explode. They invoke the old scouting motto "Be Prepared."

I come from a family of Safety Buffaloes. The term originated in National Lampoon in the mid-1970s. I heard it when my husband called me one the first time I refused to start the car until he fastened his seat belt. Ah. Courting rituals. I thought it was pretty clever, what with my family coming from South Dakota and my mom's Uncle Harry having a buffalo herd and all. Then I realized not only was he mocking my highly prized cautious nature, but he'd stolen the term from P.J.O'Rourke. Bah.

Step away from the lantern.

Whatever. Guess what us Safety Buffaloes did for the Fourth of July this year? We had an earthquake drill! We got out as much of our survival/camping gear as we could find without getting into the attics (too hot), set it all up in the backyard, and made sure someone amongst us knew how to use the various items. My dad made sure we had the appropriate fuel for the lanterns and the stove, and that we gave adequate thought to where to locate the latrine. We checked that the flashlights all had fresh batteries, and my sister, JPW, showed off a new hand-cranked flashlight/radio combo thing. Neato.

We staged our pretend quake at 3 PM, and taught the Leezlet how to get under heavy tables or into the sturdiest part of my sister's house. We know exactly where this is because four years ago during the extensive remodel, we paid close attention. Once the shaking stopped, we taught the Leezlet to assess the surroundings for immediate dangers like broken glass or heavy, precarious items that might fall on someone. She, in true Safety Buffalo fashion, was totally into this. "What about broken pipes?" she asked. "Or big splinters?" My sisters and I beamed proudly.

Break time. Earthquake drills are hard work.

Next we made sure the gas was off, filled the bathtub with water while there was still pressure, and checked everyone for injuries. JPW called her husband in San Francisco to ask if the Golden Gate Bridge was okay. It wasn't. We all called my brother in Texas to check in. The Leezlet got to perform first aid on the wounded. She put a big Barbie band-aid on Uncle Bob's forehead, which he wore all afternoon and evening, not realizing it was pink and sparkly. He went to Walgreens with it. Heehee. Grandpa had a cut on his calf, Auntie JPW had a sprained wrist, and the Leezlet's daddy had a doozy of a conk on the head. Otherwise, all of us, cats and dogs included, came through in good enough shape to roast sausages for dinner, followed by s'mores. Then the braver souls slept in the tent. (Not me.)

Some of the campers.

As weapons go, being prepared may not be the sexiest cannon in the castle, but it's practical. In both real life and fiction, practical can be desirable. Folks who are good with conventional weapons can be much more interesting and formidable if they're also good at assessing their surroundings and responding with ingenuity and flexibility. In real life, some may mock Safety Buffaloes as being a bit dull, but we have fun developing our own quietly pragmatic weapons skills. A new generation of Buffs learned to make s'mores last night, after all, which means she now has a proper understanding of the lethal properties of molten marshmallows. That might come in handy some day.

Junior Safety Buffalo chillin' after practice for the Big One.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Don't Shoot! I'm in the Bathroom.

Welcome today's guest blogger, Boyd Morrison, whose debut thriller, THE ARK, was released in May.

Boyd is a Seattle-based author, actor, engineer, and Jeopardy! champion. He started his career at Johnson Space Center, where he got the opportunity to fly on NASA’s Vomit Comet, the same plane used to train astronauts for zero gravity. He went on to earn a PhD from Virginia Tech, then used his training to develop eleven US patents at RCA and manage a video game testing group at Microsoft before becoming a full-time writer. When he’s not working on his novels, Boyd acts in stage plays and independent films. His hardcover debut thriller, THE ARK, was released in May, and translation rights for THE ARK have been sold in eighteen foreign markets.

I have shot thousands of people in my life. Many of them were my friends. However, they don't hold it against me. In fact, they were expecting it.

My extensive weapons training has prepared me for a career as a thriller writer. But I wasn't a cop, spy, soldier, or assassin (as far as you know). I got all of that experience playing video games.

Before I became a full-time novelist, I worked in the Microsoft Xbox division as a user testing manager. We would bring consumers in to play the games we were developing to find out where players would get frustrated or stop having fun. And as part of my job, I had to play through the games so that I would know how to design the tests. Yes, I got paid to play games.

Not that you have to pay me to play. I've been a fan of video games since my dad got me the first Pong home game. At the time, we were amazed at the sophistication of using two rectangles to bat a dot back and forth across the screen. It's been a long journey to the point where we are now, in which players are disappointed if the blood splatter isn't realistic enough when you blast someone in Grand Theft Auto.

One of my favorite games is the Call of Duty series, which you can play online with other people. In the latest installment of this first-person shooter (as the genre is called), you take the role of a soldier fighting with the latest modern weaponry. The developers of Call of Duty have put thousands of hours into researching the dozens of real pistols, assault rifles, shotguns, and sniper rifles used in the game. The guns sound and operate exactly like they do in real life. You can even feel the difference in the recoil with the vibrating controller (FYI, if you enter the word “vibrating” into Google to get more information, “controller” is not the next word Google suggests).

When I was with Microsoft and playing these games at home, it gave me a ready-made excuse when my wife would ask me to do chores.

“Honey, I can't take out the garbage right now!” I would say, never taking my eyes off the screen. “Can't you see I'm working?”

Now that I'm writing novels, my excuse is still intact. I view all of those hours in front of the television as valuable research. My debut thriller, The Ark, features a lot of gunfights. That happens when a madman is trying to destroy civilization and rebuild it in his own diabolical vision. Luckily, the hero, Tyler Locke, is a former army combat engineer with plenty of weapons training. He may not like being shot at, but at least he knows how to return fire.

I, on the other hand, have never been in a real gunfight, nor would I really care to be, mainly because of the whole fear-of-death aspect. In my virtual Call of Duty gunfights, about the most dangerous thing I ever do is hurdle a chair on my way back from the bathroom so that I return in time for the start of the next game.

I have shot real guns as research for my books. At the gun range I've emptied a few magazines into paper targets so I could accurately convey what it's like to fire a .22 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver (“plink”) and a .50 caliber Desert Eagle semiautomatic (“BOOM!”). But unless you're in a Stephen King novel, the paper targets don't shoot back, and there are only so many different types of guns you can try out in real life. I recommend video games to help you fill in the gaps.

So if you're writing about a hit man and want to know how if feels to shoot someone with a Barrett .50 caliber sniper rifle from three hundred yards, try aiming at one of your friends. I can tell you from personal experience that headshots are the most rewarding.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Adrienne's Got Game

--Adrienne Miller

Thirteen years ago, my husband, Tom, and I played our one and only game of chess. I say game because to me that's what chess is; it's a board game, much like checkers or Monopoly, slightly more complicated than Chutes and Ladders, but, hey, you're in the same ballpark. It took me about half the game to realize that in Tom's mind we were engaged in a battle far more profound than my "hey! you sunk my battleship!" attitude. To him, we were at war, a battle of minds that would define our character, intelligence, and, I'm pretty sure, even our worth as human beings.

I didn't get it at first, probably because I'm not great at chess. I'm Ok. I don't suck. I'm sure if I applied myself I could improve my game and begin to see it with the tactician's eye that Tom does. But, to be honest, that's pretty low on my To Do List. But I get the whole, this is not a mere game, this is war mindset. I do. Just not about chess.

I understood perfectly the first time I rode me a little ride at Disneyland called Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters. See, I'm good at that game. Real good. Real Damn Good. 

Well, I didn't start out that damn good. At first I was pretty good. Better than most. But this game, it is addictive. I wanted to be better than good. I wanted to be the best. 

I was determined.

Note how much more serious my expression becomes as my score increases. That's how you can tell I mean it. *wink*

There was another side effect of my pure awesomeness. No one wanted to ride with me anymore. I think it all started when my husband wanted to pose for a cutesy picture at the end, so I indulged him. Turns out, he was thinking I would stop firing just to mug for some silly camera. 

He was wrong. 

After that we parted ways on ol' Buzz.

He's a better solo act anyway.

My dad knows where I'm coming from. These Disneyland trips are big family events after all. Things are hard on those who have the gift. First the people we love start to resent our special powers.

Then they lose interest all together.

But we overcome. First, we become mighty.

Look! Momma can even kick alien booty one handed with a baby on her knee.

Then we become Legend.