Friday, July 29, 2011

Dr. Peeler's Guide To Getting Your Sexy On!

Hello pretties. Today, I'll be talking about writing the sexy. Now, I feel like I talk about sex ALL THE TIME. Because I do, to be frank. In fact, I've talked loads about sex in terms of why it's good for women to write and read positive depictions of female sexuality, why sex is an important part of character, et cetera. In other words, I've talked a lot about sex in terms of theoretical discourse, but I've never really talked about how I write sex.

So that's what I'm going to give you, today. Dr. Peeler's Guide to Getting Your Sexy On! (and yes, that must be said with the exclamation mark.)

1) WRITE LIKE NO ONE IS EVER GOING TO READ IT (especially your mom and dad)

The minute you start thinking, "Oh, what will people think about me if I write this?" or "Will they judge?" you're doomed, when it comes to the sex-writing. You have to write sex like you're on a desert island, and your books are never going to see the light of day.

Don't get me wrong, you have to be aware of what you're writing and for whom. Don't bust out a midget orgy in your YA, and don't start writing hard core erotica in what you want to be a mainstream mass market paperback. So yeah, there are natural limits on what you write that will be genre defined (feel free to ask me more about this in comments, if you're curious). But what you don't want to do is censor yourself once you've decided you definitely want to plunge, full steam ahead, into the love tunnel of writing sex.

Because you don't have to. A gentle lead up to a closed door is often equally satisfying for a reader, and it's certainly more satisfying than a super awkward sex scene written by someone who realized half-way through they couldn't say anything remotely naughty. That's how we end up with weird, vague, biologically hazardous euphemisms about "molded pleasure peaks" and "well-sheathed rapiers."

So if you're going to write sex do it the same way you should have sex: with gusto, passion, humor, and sensitivity to your partner (or, in this case, your readership).


It's funny for me, being an author, as I was a literary critic first. As a PhD student in English Lit, I studied all the different critical approaches as to whether we should base a critique on what we know about the author, or whether we should only look at the work and never apply the author's stated goals or biography to what's on the page.

Now, as a writer, I realize how much I put of myself into my books. That said, I also realize how much I twist those experiences so that they cease being "mine."

For example, I once knew a man whom I absolutely wasn't attracted to, but he still inspired a very sexy scene in one of my books. I had really long hair at the time, and he'd do this thing where he ran his hand under the hair at my nape, moved his wrist so the hair knotted around his hand, and then he'd tug. It was his way of saying hello, and even though I wasn't at all interested in him, I could recognize what a sexy fucking gesture that was. Had I been attracted to him, and he'd done that to me, I'd probably have jumped him on the spot.

Later, I used that gesture in a scene between two of my characters who are interested in each other but haven't quite managed to express their attraction. They're still fumbling around each other, and then bam, there's the fist-knotted-hair move.

In this scene, then, I used my own personal experience but I made it not mine. I made it Jane's, and I made it mean something it didn't, when it happened to me. So don't be afraid to mine your personal experiences, especially of what's sexy. Which leads me to my final point . . .


One of the reasons I think it's great to incorporate personal experiences, at least to a certain extent, into your writing of sex is to keep it real. The fact is that, even in its most extreme varieties, sex is a fairly mechanical process: insert tab A into slot B, and repeat.

I think where a lot of people go wrong in writing sex is that they try to make sex something exotic. And yet, imagining someone "stemming my love rose" isn't sexy, it's confusing, and it's not real. I'd much rather read a simple missionary position sex scene that's written with realistic detail: meaning realistic actions and reactions.

So write it raw, baby. Write a scene that turns you on, based on what you know turns your character on. Never forget that things are filtered through your character. Meanwhile, play with your fantasies, yes, but don't let fantasy overtake reality. At the end of the day, people in books should still have the same genitalia we do (unless they don't, because they're aliens, and then you can go nuts). This means that characters shouldn't orgasm simply by being stared at hard, or, gods forbid, from cervix bumping (where did that first come from??). This does mean you should think in terms of real physical processes, like who's touching the clit (someone should always be touching the clit!) and what makes having an orgasm really sexy (it's far more about trust and letting go than it is about having fifteen in quick succession).

These are just a few tips on writing the sex, and they're all linked up, really. Remember that, at the end of the day, if your sex scenes don't turn you on, they're not going to turn anyone else on. So if you do choose to write sex, get into it. Don't hide behind euphemisms or unrealistic situations. And, finally, have fun and explore your characters and your world through the sex they have. Remember that sex can mean so many things to different people at different times, and it reveals a world of emotion and motivation. Respect the sex!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Sexy Bodexy

--Adrienne Miller

That’s what I’m currently calling my WIP. Yeah, it’s a little awkward but it gets the point across. It’s a sexy, sexy story. At least that’s how I’m hoping it will turn out.
A while back, I got the most brilliant rejection letter that anyone has ever received. Pages long and insightful, I agreed with almost every note this agent made. Pacing problems, narrative problems, character problems, she dealt with them all with a fabulous mixture of “I know you can take this” honesty and “Buck up, lil’ camper, you’ll scale that mountain yet” confidence building. This thing was as wonderful as any letter informing you that your dreams are going to be delayed a bit longer could ever be.
So when she wrote that it seemed like I was uncomfortable writing love scenes, I took notice. Really? I thought. Uncomfortable? Isn’t everyone when faced with writing a graphic sexual encounter? Throw in the very real possibility that every living relative of yours might have access to this thing at some point, and it was amazing to me that anyone was willing to write about sex at all. Ever.
It appeared that my Prude Pants were showing. Except I wasn’t a prude. Was I? 
I like sexy things. I’ve read romance novels over half of my life. I practically turn into a puddle of melted butter every time I sit down for an episode of True Blood. I’ve watched the movie Troy close to a bazillion times, and not because I’m enthralled with the story line.

Figuring that couldn’t possibly be the problem, I dove right into writing another book. When I got to the first love scene, I took of note of how I dealt with it. And sure enough, the scene came out flat and awkward, like I was typing out the literary equivalent of lying back and thinking of England. 
Damn. What was wrong? Maybe I wasn’t loose enough, I figured. So I deleted the whole thing and started again, this time trying the Rachael Herron method of pounding down a glass of Laphroaig before starting over. It didn’t help. Now it was just flat and sloppy.
The next morning I woke up with deadly cottonmouth and an idea. It wasn’t that I hadn’t been exposed to enough sexy things. I was really good at receiving sexy input. No, the problem was that I didn’t have any experience at sexy output. And I don’t just mean writing a sexy scene, but in thinking of sexy as being anything that was inside of me. 
I don’t think that you have to believe that you’re sexy to write hot love scenes any more than I think that you need to have homicidal tendencies to write mysteries. But we’ve all been angry; we know the seed of that particular fruit. As for me, it was painfully obvious that I had gotten too far away from my sexy seed.
So I’ve set off to reclaim it, not the easiest thing for a overweight mother of two. I decided to dive headlong into a new story. An erotic romance. Ah hell, since I’m already neck deep, let’s make it a BDSM shape-shifter erotic romance. Because if there is one thing I believe in, it’s that any thing worth doing is worth overdoing. 
Yeah...we’ll see how it goes. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Sexy is as sexy does

So some time ago I went to a local S&M sex club to research a scene for a book. I know what you’re thinking: you suffer so for your art. It’s true. I do, I really do.

Weird thing about the visit was that, while it was mesmerizing, the phrase that would best describe my response was more “morbid fascination” rather than “sexy”.

Anyway, lest you all think I made the trip for other than artistic reasons (and because I’m under a book deadline and have no more original thoughts in my wee brain) I present you an excerpt from Arsenic and Old Paint, fourth in the Art Lover’s Mystery series (written under the pseudonym, Hailey Lind.)

Here’s the set up: Annie Kincaid goes to the Power Play looking for someone involved in a murder. She asks a few friends along to keep her company. The following is a fictionalized account of my actual experiences, from the moment the group approaches the front door…

“Costs more if you keep your pants on,” said the bored-looking man behind the counter.

Wesley had a coughing fit. Mary slapped him on the back. Bryan glared at the receptionist, his eyes cold and dangerous. I stepped in between them, afraid for the first time in my life that Bryan might be moved to physical violence.

“We’re good,” I said as I shelled out several twenties to pay for everyone. It was the least I could do. “They like their pants. Do you happen to know where Kyle Jones is tonight?”

The man’s eyes drifted over me, clearly seeing me naked and, no doubt, in an advanced Kama Sutra position reminiscent of a pretzel. My yoga hadn’t advanced that far and, I hoped, never would.

“He’s usually in the Dungeon, or the Pirate’s Lair. But you could check the Jail Cells, or the Coffin Room.”

Oh. Goodie.

Wesley paled. He would have left at that description, I felt sure, if Mary hadn’t been latched on to his arm as though he were the big, bad protector of a woman two inches taller, and no doubt much fitter, than he. Mary had been taking kickboxing for years, and wore serious boots.

“Where do you want to go first?” Mary asked. “It would be faster to split up, but I think we should stay together.”

“Oh, definitely,” I said.

“None of you are leaving my sight,” Bryan said, glowering at a clutch of young men entering the place behind us...

On the main floor there was an empty rec room with Ping-Pong tables, a pinball machine, and foosball games. Kind of like camp for grownups. Another, smaller room was decorated like the great hall of a castle, complete with an iron chandelier and a huge wooden table. I didn’t think much of the paint job, but the concept was kind of fun.

Moving on, we found the Jail Cells, only one of which was occupied by a hopeful-looking young man who had already thrust his hands into the chains on the wall. … A handful of men clad only in towels meandered through the rooms and hallways as though lost. Most of these were middle-aged and paunchy, giving the Power Play more an air of an executive locker room at the gym than a sex palace. …

We paused at the bottom of the stairs.…here there were at least nine men to every woman, and most were wandering the hall, which skirted a cyclone-fence encircled area, where racks, frames, and lots of ropes and chains were set up....

“Don’t touch anything,” Bryan told us in a fierce whisper. “Has everyone had their tetanus boosters?”

A man tottered by in white pumps, wearing a pink Jackie O-style suit, complete with pillbox hat, white gloves, and vintage white patent leather pocketbook. It’s not unusual to see transvestites here in San Francisco, but usually they were sexier and more feminine than half the women in town. This man, in contrast, had no makeup on, and had done nothing special with his short salt-and-pepper hair. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and a glum expression on his unshaven face. It looked for all the world like Murray from Accounting had lost a bet.

A group of at least half a dozen silent, watchful young men started to trail us, duckling-like, as we moved down the hallway past a series of fantasy bedroom situations. I was trying to imagine being willing to lie down on one of those beds; all I could think of was that TV show where they bring special lights and cameras to uncover the invisible cooties on hotel bedspreads.

Mary grabbed my arm and leaned into me to say something. There was an audible gasp from the crowd. They circled around us.

“Back off, you freaks,” Mary said. “We’re not going to make out or anything. Ew.”

One of the young men opened his mouth to say something.

“I said back off!” Mary yelled, taking a step toward them.

Bryan glared at them, and they fell back. But when we continued walking, they followed at a respectful distance.

“We are in a sex club, Mare,” I whispered. “It’s not out of the question to assume we might be game.”

Freaks,” she muttered, looking around malevolently.

.... I averted my eyes as we passed the rack and a masked man with a cat-o’-nine-tails. The burly masked man came over to stand just on the other side of the cyclone fence.

“Good evening,” he said as though he were a maitre d’, greeting us for lunch. “You ladies care for a turn? Giving or receiving, it’s all good.”

“Maybe later.”

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Rachael Writes Sexy

This is the way I write sexy: I sit at my computer. I realize, horrified, that my characters are about to get naked, and I cover my eyes. Then I look around to see if anyone saw me. Next, I type, "INSERT S.S. HERE." I like to use code, you see, because no one will EVER figure out that S.S. stands for sex scene (they will probably think Social Security, right? Right?), and thus, I will be spared from the embarrassment.

I write the rest of the book. As I do, I think about that scene (or two or four).

Then I have three glasses of wine, put something sexy on the iPod, hold my arms out without looking, and write the scene. (I'm exaggerating. Obviously. But honestly? Not by much.)

You'd think, wouldn't you, that I'm not a good sex writer? That's what I'd think, too. But I hear, over and over, that people enjoy my sex scenes. A lot. Ahem. I get grateful email from women about it, and I got one grateful email from a guy who had profited from his wife's reading.

In fact, after reading my last (straight) romance, my wife asked me, while driving through San Francisco, "Is there something... anything... you want to talk to me about?"


"You know, those sex scenes were really hot."


"No, really hot. Like, um. Is there... anything... you're missing?"

I nearly laughed myself out of the car. Then I reassured her. Then I patted myself on the back. Dude, you would, too. It was my second favorite compliment so far.

My first favorite? A reader came up to say hello at a yarn convention back east. We chatted, and I was thrilled she liked the book.

Then she said, "You know, I lost the book for a while."


"Found it under my thirteen year old son's mattress."

She said she'd told him to give it back when he was done and he said, "I'll make my own bed from now on, Mom."

And you know what I love the most about this story? Someday, that thirteen year old will be a man. And he'll be in a bar, or on the subway, and he'll see a pretty knitter and think to himself, "DAMN, she's SMOKIN'," and he'll never know why he can't resist a knitter's charms.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Soul Deep

by Sophie


It's kind of hard to be sexy when the world has fallen to war, starvation, and armies of cannibals...when you've pulled half your hair out and cut off the rest, you have multiple open wounds, and you haven't had a shower or brushed your teeth in weeks. Oh, and you're wearing bad shoes.

And yet, this is the state the heroine of my novel AFTERTIME finds herself in when she meets the man who will turn out to be her lover.

Much later in the book, after they've spent some steamy time together, she thinks back to the meeting and reflects that there was "something" there, even then, even as she stood trembling and stinking before him as his comrades decided whether or not to kill her.

That "something," my friends, is sexual tension and unlike almost everything else in this series of mine, it is not fictional. It's real. It exists, and only the unluckiest among us live out their entire lives without feeling it at least once.

Certainly there's a physical component. Like so much about human beings, it's messy and unpredictably and gorgeously varied. You may have your bulging-bicep fetish or your fall-into-the-limpid-pools-of-his-eyes tendencies, while I - and my dear friend Lynnie, with whom I've discussed this on many occasions, notably when we both fell instantly in love with Professor Snape/Alan Rickman - fall hard for a man's voice.

I was recently talking to a friend about this and one of us said something smart (sorry, i don't remember which - okay, let's go ahead and say it was me. :) Attraction has to do with the glimpses one gets into who another person truly is. A peek at the soul, ...the very rare tunnel-vision clarity about what drives, motivates, terrifies, provokes, elevates, sates, shatters another human being. It's all very well and good to see a fine-looking specimen of our species and feel that old inevitable lurching tug that has Nature rubbing her greedy preservation-of-the-species hands with glee. But that's just evidence that your parts are all working as they should. Huzzah, go team evolution! Yay!

Sexual tension is something else entirely, at least it is in my possibly-not-as-cynical-as-I-like-to-appear world view. Sexuality draws on the physical component I mentioned above, throws in a little spice-of-life, something-for-everyone diversity and says "your place or mine?" - but sexual tension says:"hello, I had no idea I could want something this bad until you showed up."

I actually spent a great deal of time - hours and hours - thinking about what made Smoke fall for Cass, and vice versa...and later, what makes her and Dor fall for each other. (It's critically important to get this right when you have a series with multiple romantic interests; if you don't believably motivate each, your reader will throw the book in rage.) I believe I was successful (that is it say, I know why in my mind; readers' MMV.)

If you want to make yourself crazy, try this little exercise: admit to yourself that you have insane sexual tension with someone. (I won't tell.) And then try to figure out why. You may well come up with a list; it'll be a lame-ass list, I guarantee it. There may be some things that make sense (he's still rooting for Obama, he smells like lumber, you can still hear a little of that accent in his voice, aw, did you see the way he swung his nephew up on those brawny shoulders?) - but you'll be left with a hell of a big chasm over the unknowable. In fact, if you took all those things away - stripped the object of your longing of every sexy attribute on your list - I think you'd still fall for the essence trapped within the humble pile of blood and bones that was left. (Again, the soul of the person, much as I hesitate to use that word.)

That was what simmered between Cass and Smoke the minute they met - her a wreck, him resistant.

They never stood a chance.

I believe that's how it's meant to be. So sue me.

photo Roger Sauterer

Friday, July 22, 2011

I Get a Kick Out of . . . ?

I get no kick from champagne
Mere alcohol doesn't thrill me at all . . .

So sang Frank Sinatra, though there were rumors to the contrary about the lifestyle of Old Blue Eyes.

It's definitely true for me, however. I've been a teetotaler since I took a sip of the nasty wine our landlord made in the cellar when I was a kid. They say there's some good stuff out there now, but it's just as well I don't taste it. What if I end up liking it and consuming alcohol the way I do Sees scotchmallows (why doesn't Sees have tasting rooms?) or hazelnut gelato? You'd be holding my hair back every night while I … never mind.

What does thrill me, besides my hubby, The Cable Guy?

Sometimes just a little arithmetic will do it. Like when my table companions let me calculate the tip or someone asks me to multiply 36 x 11. (There's a trick for multiplying quickly by 11 at the end of The Square Root of Murder. I'll bet you can hardly wait!)

I knew that the life of my new college math teacher protagonist, Professor Sophie Knowles, might not seem as exciting as that of skillet-wielding Stella Hardesty, for example, so I gave her a medevac pilot, ice-climbing boyfriend. Bruce sleeps in his EMS jumpsuit and answers to the call of the Batphone night after night. For some people, that's more thrilling than advanced calculus. Go figure.

I slipped out of ThrillerFest in New York earlier this month and visited the Museum of Arts and Design at Columbus Circle. Walked right into a thrilling exhibit of dioramas like this wrecked 1950s beauty parlor. Dystopias thrill me, especially in miniature form—the perfect combination of dark reality and a little bit of distance since nothing's big enough to hurt you.
I try to have four thrilling moments before lunch.

Here's what happened today:

1. I solved this exciting riddle: Tom's mother has three children. One is named April, one is named May. What is the third one named?

2. I read this thrilling quote from Alexander Calder, whose birthday is today, July 22: "I paint with shapes." It makes me think I can paint with words. Wow! Big thrill.

3. I got a kick out of these lyrics, rendered by Johnny Cash on the XM country channel in my car: "I've been flushed from the bathroom of your heart; up the elevator of your future I've been shafted."

4. I read the thrilling opening line of "Hexes and Hemlines," by Juliet Blackwell: "It didn't take a witch to figure out something was very, very wrong on the thirteenth floor of the Doppler Building."

I'm done for the day and it's only 10 in the morning! What's my biggest kick overall? Those wonderful readers, women and men we meet at conferences or book signings or on Facebook. Especially the followers of Pens Fatales: I get a kick out of you!

Camille Minichino is the author of three mystery series, beginning with her Periodic Table Mysteries. Her akas are Margaret Grace (The Miniature Mysteries) and Ada Madison (The Professor Sophie Knowles Mysteries). The first chapter of "The Square Root of Murder," (a July 2011 release) is on her website:

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Thrill Is In The Chase

The Pens would like to welcome a guest post from indie-pub newcomer, Cecilia Gray. Her paranormal romance bite-sized books will debut August 2011 with Falling, Book 1 of her Fallen Idols series.

I've been chasing publication as long as I can remember.

That kid who who scribbled books onto computer paper and bent them in half to staple a spine? I was that kid.

That teenager who angsted in her diary about how she wanted to be a writer when she grew up? I was that teenager.

That college student who snuck out of class to attend local writer group meetings?
I was that college student.

That adult who stayed up nights typing away worlds at her computer between jobs and a social life?
I am that adult.

Thanks to ebooks and ereaders, I've been given a unique opportunity to catch my quarry - publication - even in this not-quite-mainstream form.

I know the thrill is supposed to be in the chase, but like Lisa (congrats on releasing Blowback this week!!), I'm high on the thrill of publication. The thrill of being read. The thrill of having a story out in the wild.

I wonder if the taste of publication won't be as sweet as I'd imagined.
If the thrill will be gone.

The trick to this seems obvious.

Find more quarry.

That writer who wants to pen a bestseller?
I will be that writer.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Martha's List of Cheap Thrills

I am a sucker for that head to toe sizzling sensation.

Here are a few standbys that always get me going:

The Stratosphere Big Shot in Las Vegas

Rides like this don't always get to me, but maybe because this one's in Vegas, it's my favorite and I used to go several times a year. My husband planned to propose to me at the Big Shot! (Yes, planned is the operative word there...that's another story.)

I can't take you to the real thing so here's my next best shot at it:

The Kiss Sequence in Catch and Release

All right, so anything with Timothy Olyphant is a safe bet with me. I may have blogged about this before, but what makes this scene great is the range of emotions that happen in a 60 second sequence. I can barely make it through two sets of emotions in one long-ass scene. But in this scene, Jennifer Garner's character has just discovered Timothy Olyphant's character has been hiding her dead fiance's affair from her.

She begins the scene angry, moves to awareness and desire, and quickly to shame and loathing. He begins the scene annoyed, also moves to awareness and desire, and ends the scene with regret and yearning. Did I mention he's Timothy Olyphant? Sigh. Drool. All that.

Boy's 15 Year Old Bday on Michael Buble

In this clip, a mom talks her son onto stage at Michael Buble's concert citing his birthday. What follows is so genuine, I can't watch without grinning ear to ear and actually clapping.

I hope these thrill you as much as they thrill me!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

"Thrill"-ing News

“Thrill”ing News

We Pens are a prolific lot, we are all working writers, whether we have books on the bookstore shelves or are not yet published. With the advent of a new era in publishing, some of us are making the switch from traditional paper publishing to self-publishing. It’s not a choice for everyone. And believe me, I want to be traditionally published as much as the next Pen!! But after a round of rejections from traditional publishers, I decided to self-publish my Black Cipher Files series which straddles the line between romance and thriller.

The first book, BLOWBACK, released today!!

Doesn't this cover ROCK? Madeira at is amazing!!

Most of my novels begin with a ‘What If?’ question. What if espionage agents were being kidnapped and injected with an unknown drug? Why? What are the long term implications for the espionage community? And who would investigate the kidnappings?

While I started playing around with the ‘what if?’ ideas, I was also reading a fascinating book on the National Security Agency, about both its past and present history. From that research, a fictitious branch of the NSA was born. I also postulated reasons for why certain committee documents from World War II are still classified. And my heroine Jamie Hunt came into existence. She is a very hard, very intense, very closed off woman. She doesn’t allow herself any emotional contact. Honestly, when writing her story my heart broke, because at our core we all need love. And she has a dearth of affection in her life.

Jamie’s parents and brother were killed in a horrific car bomb attack when she was just fifteen years old and to protect her sister, she agrees to let her sister believe she died too. Fast forward thirteen years later, Jamie is in trouble, her sister is in trouble, and Jamie has nowhere to turn.

Enter the hero, Lucas Goodman, who understands Jamie because he used to be just like her. He is determined to drag her into a relationship whether she wants to or not.

The biggest compliment a writer can get is that a reader keeps their book on a shelf and periodically re-reads it. I love reading thrillers. What I’ve discovered about myself, found after years of reading, is that the plot can be fun and convoluted and intense, but I won’t re-read a book unless the character and romance is emotional and memorable. The details of the plot are just a framework for the relationship.

Blowback has plenty of action, classified espionage secrets, and some fascinating science but Jamie’s growth as she finally allows herself to accept love is the reason I was drawn to writing this story.


ps. And no I did NOT plan to release today, as a matter of fact, couldn’t believe it when the topic appeared in my inbox. Serendipity at its finest.

pps. Blowback is available on Amazon And right now. It will be coming to Smashwords in the next week or so.

ppps. REBIRTH (the next in Sophie's Aftertime trilogy--which is amazing) releases today!!!! It's a PENS release day :)

Monday, July 18, 2011

Reading Thrills

L.G.C. Smith

A delicious thrill I’ve indulged over the past several days has been the reader’s thrill of dipping into an author’s world and getting lost. Thank you, Lori Armstrong! Lori is from Rapid City, South Dakota, and her books are set in and around Rapid City and the fringes of the Black Hills. Everyone knows by now I was born in Deadwood and my mom grew up on a ranch in the Bear Butte Valley east of Sturgis. My dad’s folks lived in Rapid from 1966 until they died, and my parents lived there for eight years, during part of which I lived on the Rosebud Sioux reservation at Mission. Reading Lori’s books is like a visit home.

Okay, maybe scarier than that. Still and all, I can’t put them down. Lori captures the West River ethos dead on. Yeah, they’re mysteries and her protagonists pack more violence and dead bodies into a week than most South Dakotans, even those living in Shannon County, see in ten years, so that’s a little unrealistic, but hey—she made my spine creep the same way it did when I read student essays with titles like “11 Barred Doors to Freedom: Inside Leavenworth,” or a journal entry from a meat packer about how her father raped her when she was a kid. Western South Dakota can be pretty rough.

I love a good fictional world, be it Middle Earth or Westeros, the far reaches of the universe, C.E. Murphy’s Seattle, Stacia Kane’s Downside, Mayfair in 1814 or any of a thousand imagined places, but none of those are quite as thrilling as looking into another writer’s vision of a world I know intimately. Add a great story, which Armstrong does, every damn time, and I’m lost. I have to read. Everything else is on standby.

There’s a lot of pleasure to be had in any well-drawn setting, but knowing something about the world it’s based on reveals the depth of a writer’s skills. Armstrong is very, very skilled. Her prickly tough girl characters eloquently capture the conflicts and contradictions of women’s lives in such a hard, violence-prone culture. There’s a balancing act here between authenticity and the demands of narrative for identifiable, likable characters. I don’t tend to like tough girls (or boys), especially when they view fighting as just a little something they do for fun on a drunken Saturday night. I don’t hold with using alcohol to numb out real feelings. I deplore the use of violence to cow others, and the use of terror as a style of family discipline. Yet Armstrong carries me through my judgments and engages my compassion for the people doing these things.

She also reminds me why I don’t live in South Dakota now, and why I probably never will again despite the fact that there’s no place I love more on this earth. She also shows me into the hearts and spirits of the people who raised me and the people who raised them. I get a clear view of exactly where a big piece of my own fictional preoccupation with violence comes from, and why I see it in male garb more often than not. I see the awkward mix of pit bull tough, shoot-from-the-hip-and-pick-up-the-pieces-later snarkiness and deep, heartfelt concern for the welfare of others that is so ingrained in my mother and her family. I see why my Dad has always been inclined to let us women fight our own battles. I see why I don’t want to fight at all.

A little of the tension I carry at the core of me eases.

Now there’s a thrill.

And if anyone ever tries to tell me again that genre fiction isn’t as powerful or as rich as literary fiction, I’ll handcuff ‘em to a ball hitch on a crashed pickup in a March blizzard on South Dakota Highway 34 out past the Belle Fourche river and let ‘em think about that for a while. Oh, wait. That’s what one of Lori’s villains did combined with where some of my relatives lived. Never mind…

Thanks, Lori. Keep up the fine work.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Thrill of Travel

Hello all!

I'm writing this from London, where I've been for two weeks. I have another three before I have to go home, and I may need to be dragged kicking and screaming. I love it here, but I love traveling, in general, and I especially love going places by myself.

There's something about arriving in a new place, on your own, that's thrilling. And "thrilling" is the more accurate term, as it's not just fun and exciting. Traveling to new places--especially alone--has a frisson of worry, maybe even fear. And that, I think, is what makes this kind of travel so worthwhile.

Traveling this way isn't easy, and it's not relaxing in the way a beach vacation or a cruise is relaxing. In fact, it's really quite challenging, and I often feel I need a vacation from my vacation when I return home. That said, I also think it's a really rewarding and beneficial thing to do, not least because I've learned as much about myself as I have about the places I've visited.

The biggest lesson I've learned from traveling is to roll with things. I can be super OCD in my everyday life. I like being in control of things, and I've set things up so that I feel in control in my everyday life. Travel, however, throws all illusions of control out the window. Planes will be late; bookings at hotels will be lost; you will meet people for whom you throw all your plans out the window.

Because of this loss of control, travel also makes me laugh at myself. I now relish the moments of cultural awkwardness I get myself into in a new country. Indeed, my very first trip abroad was when I moved to Granada, Spain, for a year. The first thing I said to my cab driver was "soy caliente!" (I'm horny!) rather than "tengo calor" (I'm hot). Sitting in the back of the cab, I kept repeating, "I'm horny! I'm horny! Wow, I'm horny!", quite proud of the five sentences of Spanish I (thought I'd) learned from some language tapes. It was with growing horror that I sat through my first intensive Spanish class, listening to the instructor explain the crucial difference between "soy caliente" and "tengo calor."

Apparently, it's a mistake made by many newcomers to Spanish.

For me, these moments of embarrassment quickly transcended a mere few minutes of blushing. Eventually, I became aware of so many bigger lessons about cultural differences and similarities; about how I grew up one way, but it's neither the only nor necessarily the best way; and how being scared and being lonely can bring out the best in me. I'd never thought of myself as brave until I moved to Spain, knowing no one and only enough of the language to get myself in trouble, and I didn't consider myself brave when I lived there. But when I got back, and I thought about the thrills I'd lived through, I suddenly realized I was braver than I gave myself credit for.

I'm now addicted to travel, and some of my best memories consist of me doing quite silly things, such as continually getting lost in Istanbul and being walked home by little old trash collectors who clearly thought I was completely insane. But I'll never forget the smell of those dusty streets, the tiny figures of the little old men in their uniforms, and the one who knew English as he'd lived in America briefly, telling me stories about New York in the sixties. His memories and his own love of his life abroad were as alive with history as the Haga Sophia, and as beautiful.

So if you can, travel. There's so much to see in this world, and there's no thrill as great as meeting an entirely new you in a place you never thought to find yourself.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Red Leather Magic

That's me in 1983. Six years old, and doing my best Michael Jackson. And that is my red (p)leather jacket. I loved the hell out of that jacket. In my mind it wasn't some flimsy knockoff plucked off a Gemco shelf. To me, that thing was magic.

When I slipped it on, I was Michael Jackson in Thriller. I could sing like him. I could dance like him.

That red jacket was my Dumbo's feather. There was no stopping me when I had it on. I channeled all the cool of my childhood hero and coupled it with the unbridled confidence that only a six year-old is capable of. I was unstoppable.

What I wouldn't give some days to have just a touch of that magic back. Though this time around I'd probably choose something other than a shiny red leather jacket as a conduit.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Summertime thrills

--by Juliet

*Big sigh.*

Things were simpler when we were kids. When I was a kid, and I wanted a thrill, I knew right where to find it: the Big Dipper at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

(For you purists out there, I know, I know, it's now called the Giant Dipper. But when I was a kid, it was the Big Dipper, and the name change didn't make it any gianter. And there's such a thing as tradition. And I'm stubborn as hell, destined to be that cranky old woman who refuses to change with the times.)

Aaaaannnyyywaaay. So. The Big Dipper. A classic wooden roller coaster built in 1924 (now a National Historic Landmark). Such thrilling awesomeness was rarely to be found on this earth, I could tell that from the start -- ever since I was too young to make the height requirement. But the thrill didn't start with standing in line with dozens of sweaty beach goers, listening to the screams and rattles and screeching.

Oh no, the thrill began small. In that niggling little voice at the back of my head: was there any way, any way at all, to talk the grown-ups into a trip to Santa Cruz? I would have to recruit my sisters to my side, of course, and we would present a united front. A birthday or some other celebratory excuse was a great ruse. Promises were made, sad eyes maintained, wistful sighs manifested. Or perhaps another friend's parents were the more likely target...I tell you, there was a lot of strategizing, on and off stage.

Would they or wouldn't they? My father claimed to hate sand, sun, crowds, and traffic, so he was a pretty tough sell. But if there was some kind of motorcycle event in town? Different story. Other parents were more reasonable, allowing the concept of actually planning a trip just for the kids...and I could usually talk my way into the back seat of the station wagon (the one that faced backwards). Later, as a teenager, there was usually an older brother or sister who could be bribed or otherwise coerced into making the schlep from Cupertino, over the hills to paradise.

And then, once you secured a ride: cash money. You needed enough for a corn dog, maybe salt water taffy, and to get as many rides on the Big Dipper as humanly possible. Me, I would go without food for the sake of another ride, but most parents were sticklers about eating at some point.

Then came the wait in the loooong line, getting jostled by all the other anxious kids, bored, hot, and uncomfortable in damp, sandy swimsuits that chafed. Wondering whether, by chance, we would have the option of the very front car and if so, would we be brave enough to take it?

Once on board, of course, the real excitement began. Careening around sharp turns in the pitch-black tunnel. And then, the very best part: emerging into the sunlight and the clicking, clackety haul to the peak of the very, very tallest hill.

The cars climb the hill slowly. Achingly so.

You finally reach the top.

A seeming pause.

A hitch of breath, hands in the air, and ---


Okay, I was a tad obsessed. One of my fondest childhood memories was when a neighbor took my to the boardwalk as payment for vacation house/dogsitting, bought me a pass with unlimited rides, and I got to go on the Big Dipper over and over and over.

And then, in what I swear was in no way connected to my roller coaster fetish, I wound up studying at UC Santa Cruz. That summer, I got a job -- again, it was pure serendipity-- at the corn dog stand that just happens to be right underneath the Big Dipper. One of the perqs of being an underpaid Boardwalk employee and dealing with hot, sweaty tourists all day? A free pass to all the rides. I kid you not.

Okay, it's true I was sharing a roach-infested "studio apartment" in a crappy converted motel which called itself, in a fit of misplaced optimism, "Aloha Court" (the other residents included a disturbed Viet Nam vet, a heroine-addicted couple, and several Mexican immigrant families who worked the fields.) I smelled like corn dogs all summer long -- a mealy, greasy aroma that permeated clothing, skin, and hair. But it was thrilling, riding that Big Dipper any time I wanted...and being out on my own. Doing what I damned well pleased. If that included eating taffy for dinner and riding the Dipper five times, then so be it.

Since then there have been other thrills in life: Seeing lightening bugs for the first time. The birth of my son. Praying the erratically driven bus didn't go over the cliff in the Philippines. Falling in love. Running into the Tour de France, completely by chance, in the Pyrenees. Trying to take care of bodily needs out in the pig corral at night in a Mexican village. A night spent in an actual castle. Selling my first book, then seeing it on the bookstore shelf.

But things get more complicated when you grow up. Not harder, necessarily, because I think childhood is hard. But definitely more complicated. Sometimes it's difficult to find a really good thrill -- at least a legal one.

Now, in one of those funny twists in life, my son is studying at UC Santa Cruz. After dropping him off at the dorms, my friend (and former corn-dog-stand co-worker) and I hopped onto the Big Dipper for old times' sake. We were the oldest people in line --by far-- but we scored the very first car!

Held our hands up, screamed, laughed, and did ourselves proud.

It was a real thrill.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

What Gets To Be a Thriller?

by Sophie


I'm just back from Thrillerfest, the writing conference for aspiring and published Thriller writers held in New York City each year. I'll be posting some pictures soon - I'm still a little bit zombielike and exhausted from nearly a week of late nights and extended cocktail hours - but for now I want to tell you about a session I went to called something like "Thrillers - Can They Be Both Smart AND Exciting?"

Now the main reason I went to this panel was that my brother, Mike Cooper, was on it. So was Andrew Pyper, a Canadian author whose work I love and who deserves a LOT more attention.

Then there were a bunch of other guys.

Sorry so blurry, but that's Mike, me, author Joe Finder, MWA president Margery Flax, and Andrew Pyper. Someone with even fewer phone skills than me took the shot

I mean them no disrespect when I say that their comments - all considered, all earnest - did not do much for me. Everyone agreed with the quickly established thesis (yes, in fact, smart+exciting is not only possible, but recommended) so there went any possible dramatic tension. What happened, instead, is that everyone started holding up exactly the same example of how to write every possible facet of a thriller.

That example is Lee Child and the Reacher series, which is a fine, fine collection of books. But it's pretty damn narrow for defining success in a genre. Must, then, all our heroes be uncommunicative yet stunningly resourceful in life or death situations? Must all our prose be staccato, our dialog terse, our action scenes robust? Without the qualities of a Reacher novel, will our own fail or pale in comparison? (Would you guys like me better if i had a british accent and a better wardrobe?)

I kept thinking of books I considered smart and exciting that did not cleave to this model at all - Mr. Pyper's, for one, but also novels by Richard Price and Barbara Vine and Joe Hill and Dan Simmons and all kinds of other oddball wordslingers. Now I'm sure that the panelists had other examples too (Mike did mention a wide swath, in fact) but I do think there is a danger in deciding that we know what a genre should look like based on what we've seen of it in the past. This could apply to any genre, of course, but because thrillers are a relatively recent phenomenon (fast-paced suspense novels can be found going way back in history, but the term itself is newish) I think it's especially dangerous to decide we know all about What Should Be based on a small sampling of books.

I might be especially sensitive to this because I don't really stick to a single genre when I write. In fact, I was sitting in the audience having a whole silent internal conversation with myself (as usual, when bored, i gave everyone imaginary haircuts and brow waxes and fashion makeovers; yeah, it's damn shallow of me but what else are you going to do in a windowless hotel ballroom?) when it occurred to me that I don't really write thrillers. AFTERTIME is kind of sort of a zombie thriller, I guess. And my young adult books are thriller-y-ish. But they're also part romance and part paranormal and part urban fantasy and part other parts. People take lots of breaks from being chased around to do a considerable amount of navel gazing (I like to think it is lyrical navel gazing, but still...) This type of plot, uh, device (if one can call it that) is well outside the norms of the thriller genre, and I guess I was feeling a little inadequate to consider my book held up against a standard it cannot possibly meet.

So...a toast to Reacher. But also a toast to Pyper's self-loathing addict hero Bart Crane in LOST GIRLS, Price's mean and bloody but often contemplative streets in CLOCKERS, and Simmons' THE TERROR, in which a monster that may or may not exist and a pair of ships and the frigid landscape of the north are as deeply drawn characters as any in the ensemble cast. Toast these, read these, and please don't exclude these from any defining of the Thriller canon.

One little plea to my fellow Pens...I *hate* Michael Jackson's "Thriller" - everything about it from the music video to the thumping bass to the girlish whooping to the shoulder pads. God, I hate that thing. So if you're gonna post about it I'd appreciate a little advance notice so I don't get that odious wreck stuck in my head all day.

...and on that grumpy note I think it's time for bed! I missed y'all!

Friday, July 8, 2011


Say hello to our friend Susan Shea: author, mystery booster, all-around bon vivant. It's always great to have you on the blog, Susan!


First, thanks to one of my favorite authors, Sophie Littlefield, for offering me a chance to rub elbows with the fantastic writers on Pens Fatales. To say thanks to the blog readers for checking it out, I’m offering a signed hard cover copy of MURDER IN THE ABSTRACT, the first in a series of mysteries featuring Dani O’Rourke. Leave a comment on this post with an email address by July 22. We’ll throw all the responses in a hat and pick one entirely at random. Good luck!

“Oops” sounds like dumb moves, and I could list some of my own, but that would be lengthy, tedious, and uncomfortable. In real life, mistakes frequently lead to unhappy consequences, everything from running out of gas on the freeway to finding yourself standing in a corner at a party because you realize that sweet salesperson was lying through her teeth when she assured you orange was your best color.

In crime fiction, the stakes are often a lot higher. The protagonist doesn’t tell anyone she’s headed into the abandoned building in search of a man with a knife. The detective gets distracted by the obvious suspect and misses a vital clue to a serial killer. The petty crook gets dragged into a homicide by his stupider-than-dirt brother. Oops.

Why does this happen? Why would a sane woman tiptoe up the stairs in a dark house where she’s just stumbled across a dead body? Because she heard footsteps? Is she crazy? Are we crazy to keep reading? Why do supposedly smart people do things that, in real life, no one would dream of doing?

It’s a fair question for readers to ask, and one that can make us squirm as we’re writing our stories. The bottom line is, of course, we authors need the characters to precipitate action, to challenge the status quo, to ramp up suspense and confusion, and ultimately to lead us to the villain. If our protagonists merely dialed 911 and continued on to the grocery store or the movies, we wouldn’t sell a lot of books. But we have an obligation to answer the question of why as persuasively as we can, to create reasons that entice you, the reader, to suspend belief long enough to get caught up in the drama.

I think it’s one of the hardest tricks to pull off and I salute those who do it well. I remember one of Sue Grafton’s masterful moments when Kinsey, running away from a bad guy, jumps into a trash can and pulls the lid down on her head. She has to crouch there, seemingly for ages, waiting for the agonizing possibility that the man saw her and will suddenly whip the lid off and beat her up. My heart was pounding and I couldn’t read fast enough. I never stopped to think, Why would a savvy private detective put herself in such a vulnerable position? Why not keep running until she found a tree or a gas station, some place where she might have an option to defend herself? Grafton did that magical thing – she seduced me entirely into suspending disbelief.

I don’t remember the details of Kinsey’s internal dialogue, but it’s not hard to imagine her saying, limbs tangled, breath coming fast, “Oops, not a great move.”

-Susan C Shea

Susan C Shea is a former non-profit executive. MURDER IN THE ABSTRACT was her first mystery novel. THE KING'S JAR is the second in the series. She's active in Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime and lives in northern California.