Exploring the character of place

Location, location, location. The mantra isn’t just for real estate agents. Writers have long known that a place works better as character than background. NPR does, too, which makes the radio program “Crime in the City” a delight for tourists of murder and mayhem.

The series features well-known authors and their beats—George Pelecanos’ Washington, D.C., Walter Mosley’s L.A.—as well as writers exploring smaller venues—Archer Mayor and Brattleboro, Vt., Julia Keller’s fictional town in West Virginia.

“Crime in the City” also gives armchair detectives a travelogue of international venues—Mary Lou Longworth in Aix-en-Provence, Ann Cleeves in the Shetland Islands, Richard Crompton in Nairobi, Paco Ignacio Taibo II in Mexico City.

Big or small, noisy or quiet, home or abroad, these locales illuminate both the authors and their characters in unexpected ways.

NPR’s correspondents intersperse the ambient sound of streets and cafes with the voices of police, shopkeepers and the writers themselves. As the sun becomes a distant memory in North America, the summer series offers armchair travelers a glimpse of the often superheated habitat of their favorite novelists. (In addition to the live broadcasts, the programs are available on the NPR website as downloadable MP3 files.)

As a reader or writer, what role do you think place can play in crime fiction?

NPR Crime in City Byzantine monument

Now hear this . . . tips on creating audiobooks

Kids aren’t the only people who like to hear a story.

According to the Pew Research Center, 14% of Americans listened to an audiobook in 2013. Adults with higher levels of education are more likely to have read audiobooks than those who did not attend college. And the vast majority of those who read e-books and audiobooks also read print books.

Good news for writers who like to listen to as well as tell stories.

Convinced audio could prove a way to boost my audience, I contracted with an Amazon service called ACX to produce an audio version of my first novel, Peak Season. ACX connects authors with producers and distributors of digital files, in this case, iTunes and Audible.com. It does not produce CDs.

ACX made it easy to import cover art and relevant details of the novel from Amazon. I completed a form with the specs I wanted–a female narrator with a voice in the lower range, speaking in American English with no regional accent. After uploading a short script that called for multiple voices, I listened to sample readings from producers, asked for auditions and even reached out to friends who have a flair for this kind of work.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000038_00064]Choosing a narrator from the auditions proved difficult. All of them sounded professional. Most handled the multiple voices well, even the male characters. A few got creative and tossed in southern or Jersey accents. Two producers offered to include a short musical segment at the beginning and end of the narration, just as traditional publishers do.

The decision was entirely subjective. At the risk of sounding deranged, it came down to a choice of who sounded most like the voices in my head. I chose Pamela Almand, who does business as The Captain’s Voice. (She’s a former pilot. More on that in a later post.) The Audible.com cover appears at left. The audio version of the book should be listed on Amazon by the end of October.

For those of you who’d like to hear your work produced as an audiobook, a few suggestions:

Research the format before you head over to ACX. These projects take just as much work and time as independent print and e-book publishing. Fellow writer Erika Liodice (Empty Arms) has written a pair of insanely detailed posts on creating and marketing audiobooks, Navigating the Next Frontier in Digital Publishing: Audiobooks and 9 Easy & Inexpensive Ways to Promote Your Audiobook. The posts are encyclopedic.

Read the contracts. ACX says it delivers royalties of up to 40% but one example shows authors receiving a little more than $2 on a $30 audiobook. Audible gives free product to new customers and discounts to members, actions that will reduce the list price of your audiobook, and your royalty. Some producers will accept half of your royalty payments in exchange for their narration. Others want an additional stipend for narrating a book that may not sell enough to earn royalties. And unlike other Amazon services such as CreateSpace for print and Kindle Direct Publishing for e-books, ACX doesn’t allow authors to set the price of their audiobook, so you can’t control the profit margin.

Finally, learn from the experts. Indie author Joanna Penn offers several tips for creating and marketing your work as an audiobook. When it comes to running your writing career as a business, she’s one of the leading voices in the field . . . and well worth a listen.

Scouting for talent with Kindle

In another effort to challenge traditional publishers, Amazon has announced a program to test and market e-books before they’re published.

Called Kindle Scout, the program allows authors to place their unpublished work before a focus group of readers. If they like your book, Amazon may offer an advance and royalties through a five-year contract.

It’s crowd-sourcing for the unpublished author. And the key word here is unpublished. Only e-books that have not seen publication in any form except blog posts are eligible for Kindle Scout.

Authors thinking about selling their e-books through competing channels such as iBooks and Barnes & Noble’s NOOK should read the fine print. Kindle Press acquires worldwide publication rights for e-book and audio formats in all languages. The e-book is automatically enrolled in Kindle Unlimited and the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library.

On the plus side, giving away a previously unpublished e-book enrolls the author in Amazon’s marketing program.

Amazon is looking for e-books in these categories: Romance, Mystery & Thriller, Science Fiction & Fantasy, and Literature & Fiction. Action & Adventure, Contemporary Fiction, and Historical Fiction will be accepted within the Literature & Fiction category. To apply for the program, the author must be 18 or older with a valid U.S. bank account and a U.S. Social Security number or tax identification number.

Should you jump in? Only with eyes open. You can review the Kindle Scout guidelines here.

Kindle Scout

Stonewalled . . . and a glimmer of hope

When I pitched a review of Peak Season to Bill Kline, he respectfully declined. Lehigh Valley Business, the journal in Bethlehem (Pennsylvania) he edits, doesn’t deal in fiction. But if I could find an except from the novel with a commercial theme, he’d run it.

And he did. (Always a stickler for readability, the subheads are his.) You can view the excerpt as a PDF and, in three weeks, the original online.

Bill and I go back. I worked with him when he served as copy chief of the Pocono Record in Stroudsburg, Pa. He created the paper’s first Sunday edition and made it a showcase. His content and design pushed the conservative newspaper into the modern world. During the early 2000, we both worked in the Valley. He served as a sports and Sunday editor at Allentown’s Morning Call  while I worked in public relations for an agency in Bethlehem.

LVB and I also go back. I wrote numerous articles for the publication when it was known as the Eastern Pennsylvania Business Journal. It’s now a diverse and colorful journal, online and off, led by an editor who isn’t afraid to stretch.


Peak Season excerpt LVB 8-17-15

Summing up summaries

Writing the book was easy. Writing the synopsis was a bear.

You’d think that, after investing the better part of a year in my characters, I could crank out a summary as easily as ordering at McDonald’s. Not so for Peak Season, the first in a series of crime novels featuring the former cop turned pacifist Candace McCoy, known to her friends as CW.

Peak Season 3D cover 375x548Even after writing headlines at a daily newspaper for 14 years, I couldn’t distill the essence of the book. Should I focus the synopsis on the plot? On the characters? What if the plot arcs like a roller coaster, and the characters reject their labels? Fanciful but not helpful. Agents want to read a clear, concise summary of the book. They won’t appreciate digression.

I went at it draft after draft, pulling a few characters and themes from the wreckage. Eventually the copy wound up on the back cover of the novel. Here’s the synopsis. I’d be interested in hearing what you think. You can reach me through the comments section or the email link on the bottom of the website’s homepage.

Peak Season synopsis
Life at the beach can be murder.

Forced to shoot a fellow police officer, CW McCoy surrenders her gun and her badge to take refuge in the wealthy tourist mecca of Spanish Point, Florida. There she pedals luxury real estate, cares for her ailing grandfather Pap and tries to escape her past.

But even in paradise during peak tourist season, violence finds her like a divining rod.

Declared dead by the courts, Bobby Lee Darby bursts into CW’s office to demand the family friend clear his name in a scheme to bilk millions from investors. When CW refuses, the fugitive financier kidnaps Pap to ensure her cooperation, triggering a chain of burglary, assault and murder that convinces local police that the former cop has gone rogue.

Racing to find Darby, CW must confront her violent past, risky affairs and love-hate relationship with Southwest Florida before those personal demons turn her new-found paradise into hell on earth.

The luckiest people in the world

Writers who need writers are the luckiest people in the world.

We build on the work of other writers. We draw inspiration from their creations, and their success. We’re usually too busy building our own careers to notice.

It’s time to notice.

Women-Writers-FrontYou don’t know me but I would like to thank you for helping to create the character of CW McCoy in Peak Season, a series I hope someday will approach the benchmark you’ve set. You didn’t just paste male characteristics onto women or use violence to attract attention. You were the trailblazers, the authors who turned the noir subgenre on its head and ushered in a generation of smart, tough, proficient female investigators.

That said, here is my list of writers whose female characters have traded cookies for cojones:

  • Sara Paretsky, for creating V.I. Warshawski, a character whose toughness serves her sense of justice
  • S.J. Rozan, for her evocative sense of place in the Lydia Chin outings
  • Lee Goldberg, for the deft portrayal of a secondary character, Natalie Teeger, in his series of Adrian Monk novels
  • Julia Spencer-Fleming, for Rev. Claire Fergusson’s moral compass
  • Laurie R. King, for the daring intelligence of Mary Russell
  • Sue Grafton, for revealing the conflicted love life of Kinsey Millhone
  • Janet Evanovich, for the push and pull of drama and humor in the Stephanie Plum novels
  • Marcia Muller, for Sharon McCone’s allegiance to family and friends
  • And Jennifer Crusie, for giving her leads a heartbeat and not just a pulse.

Writers who need writers are the luckiest writers in the world. Thanks to you, I’m one of them.

Judging a book by its cover

I remember the day it it finally arrived . . . the cover for the Kindle version of Peak Season, the first in the CW McCoy series of crime novels. With its palm-tree sunset and police motif, the artwork reflected the setting and theme of the book—the fictional city of Spanish Point and the dilemma narrator CW (Candace) McCoy faces in her new life: how to live in peace while surrounded by violence.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000038_00064]Here she is, working in a resort town in Florida, selling beach homes to the uber-rich, sailing with a former police commander and kayaking with a hunk who manages more money than the Philadelphia Mint. Paradise by most standards. If it weren’t so dangerous, she’d find the situation ironic.

That’s a lot to ask a designer to convey. Even more taxing is translating emotional nuance into something people can see.

I know, I’ve tried. Back when I made my living as an art director as well as a writer, I designed the cover and interior of my first published work of nonfiction, the Spirit of Swiftwater. It proved challenging but fun. I selected objects that embodied the theme, hired a terrific photographer (David Coulter), designed the cover in Quark and handed the whole thing to the printer.

Fast forward a dozen years to a technology that has outrun my ability to comprehend it. The applications are new and utterly complex. I tried designing a cover for Peak Season in Photoshop and cringed. Time to get professional help.

I found Rick Smith’s how-to book CreateSpace and Kindle Self-Publishing Masterclass on Amazon and followed it to a site called Fiverr. There I found a person in Bulgaria who created a design that’s provocative, attractive and professional.

But it’s your opinion that counts. Can you judge a book by its cover? Has a cover ever made you want to read a book?

‘Peak Season’ goes video

It’s the latest rage: just as movies have trailers, books do, too. Here’s the video with voice-over for Peak Season, the first of the CW McCoy crime novels. Is it under the bar, over the top or does it hit the Goldilocks spot . . . just right?

Watch it here or visit my site on YouTube.

[iframe id=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/natgvgPWsO4″ align=”center” mode=”normal” autoplay=”no”]


Hook, line and action scene

David Hagberg doesn’t mess around. During a workshop in Venice, Florida, he said genre writers have to hook readers early, and the best way to do that is with action. He should know. He’s written a dozen thrillers for TOR.

After the session, I said I couldn’t decide how to begin Peak Season, a crime novel set in the fictional Florida beach town of Spanish Point. Should I start with the inciting incident, the one that drags the protagonist, CW McCoy, into the action? Or should I start with the scene that caused her to lose her gun, her badge and her self-confidence, the incident that propelled her to take refuge in this resort town by the sea?

In that big, bellow of his Hagberg said, “Start with the action!” I think people from Tampa to Naples heard him. I certainly did.

Was he right? Take a look at the first few pages of the novel and tell me what you think. (You can reach me through the email link at the bottom of this website’s homepage.)


I spotted the gun as soon as I walked through the door. Nicholas Church aimed a Glock 22 at his wife and daughter, arms straight and locked, his finger touching the trigger. His wife’s hands held nothing but air. The daughter gripped the back of her mother’s dress. Church’s eyes looked hard, the wife’s anguished, the little girl’s wide with terror.

“Bitch!” he roared and the soGun range silhouetteund echoed throughout the dead kitchen.

My face burned. After leaning out to call for backup, I stepped fully into the room and identified myself. He knew me. We’d worked together for two years. I held my hands away from my holster where he could see them. Non-threatening. No show of force. Talk him down.

Church filled the kitchen. He stood over six-feet-six and weighed more than 250 pounds, black hair slicked back, khaki slacks still creased despite the hour, white shirtsleeves rolled to the forearms to reveal a blue Marine Corps tattoo nestled among a thatch of hair. Under the fluorescent lights his silver badge glowed. Two years ago he’d received a citation for rescuing a woman trapped in a car. A year later the department had placed him on leave for beating a suspect during a drug bust. The wounded hero.

At five-foot-five, Anita Church shrank before her husband. She looked mid-twenties with a sharp nose and wisps of blond hair that floated around dangling earrings. She wore a sundress of pale yellow and blue, belted at her slender waist, and ballet shoes. Her wedding and engagement rings sparkled, as if to mock Church’s badge. When I moved closer, she glanced at me as if to say, you’re a woman, you can save me, and reached behind to clutch her daughter.

The girl was maybe seven, dressed in jeans and a sparkling pink T-shirt that depicted one of the Disney princesses. She wore pink slippers with rabbit ears. Junie, I thought. Nick called her June Bug.

For the third time that night I reminded myself that I didn’t belong there. Patrol responded to domestics, not detectives. My luck I was passing the neighborhood when the call came in. I inched forward, using Church’s name, reminding him that I was a cop and understood his anger, telling him to lower the weapon, showing him that we could talk. I gestured in slow circles, sliding to the right, watching his face, his fingers.

No one else in the room. Copper-bottom pots hanging from the ceiling. Two openings arching into shadow, one on the left that led to the laundry, one to the right that opened onto a formal dining room. In the silence I could hear him breathe, shallow, nasal. Somewhere in the house a clock chimed.

Where the hell is backup?

Church stood to my left, aiming across a table set with flowers and fruit, feet braced, both hands gripping the gun. With the slightest movement of his head he glanced right and ordered me to leave.

Tension clawed my neck. “Nick.” I kept my voice steady, my hands where he could see them. “You don’t want to do this. Put the weapon down. We can talk, whatever it is, we can talk.”

Behind me I sensed movement. A young male officer drew his weapon and crouched into firing position, his boots chirping on the tile. A radio squawked. Anita Church clutched at Junie and started to wail.

I shoved my hand into the holster and raised my weapon while edging to the right. In a voice deep from the gut I yelled, “Drop the gun!”

He kept the pistol trained on his wife. “Stay out of this!”

I tightened my grip, arms and stomach clenched, breath and blood pounding in my ears. “Drop the gun! Now!”

I watched his face, watched the eyes refocus on his wife, the jaw muscles tightening with the finger of his right hand, his stance shifting as the gun settled on the target. My vision narrowed and at the end of the tunnel Nicholas Church took in a deep breath as his index finger moved backward in slow motion.

Bam! Bam! The shots exploded in the tight space. The first round hit his chest and turned him. The second knocked him into the refrigerator. He slumped, his gun rattling on the tile. Anita screamed. Clinging to her mother’s dress, Junie gasped for air.

Ears ringing, the tang of gunpowder biting my nose, I holstered the weapon and put two fingers against Church’s neck and rose to call for an ambulance and the coroner. Walking across the kitchen to Anita and Junie, I guided them to chairs in the dining room. The crying crushed their faces. They’d soon slide from grief to shock. My arms shook and my stomach threatened to crawl out of my mouth.

You can buy Peak Season on Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, iBooks and Kobo.

Writing from the distaff side of life

It’s time to switch genders.

In the genre of mystery and suspense, women have pioneered a tradition of writing as men: Agatha Christie, Elizabeth George, Ruth Rendell, Martha Grimes. Poirot, Linley, Wexford, Jury . . . masculine characters come alive in the hands of female writers. The men seem real, the writing accepted by the public.

But what happens when men write about the distaff side of life?

Peak Season 3D cover 375x548Sure, men have written about women since cave days. Their work ranges from sparkling (Robert B. Parker’s Susan Silverman) to riotous (P.G. Wodehouse’s characterization of Honoria Glossop and other females in the Jeeves and Wooster stories). But when it comes to getting into women’s heads, do men get it right?

Some authors seem to meet the challenge without effort: Anthony Doerr’s blind French girl, Marie Laure, in All the Light We Cannot See and Tony Hillerman in Listening Woman. Others, like Parker in his Sunny Randall series, seem to present female versions of their male characters.

Ignorant or undaunted, I’ve entered the fray with Peak Season, a novel about a former detective who surrenders her gun, her badge her and confidence after shooting a fellow officer. Moving to Southwest Florida to care for her ailing grandfather, CW McCoy swears off violence until a fugitive kidnaps her family and she’s forced to decide which side of the law she’s on.

In portraying life through CW’s eyes, I’ve steered clear of stereotypical male and female roles. She swears off guns but will defend herself. She longs for a relationship but doesn’t make it her life’s pursuit. Even while navigating the mostly male world of law enforcement, she puts a high premium on family and friends, qualities exhibited by both women and men.

When I began the CW McCoy series, I wondered whether I could voice the feelings of a woman. Now I wonder about a more practical question: can the public embrace that voice?