The Hazards of Research

We were raised to be respectful, law-abiding citizens. I won’t say that we’ve never criticized our government, vociferously, to all who would listen, nor that we haven’t broken a few laws along the way, such as the speed limit and running a dark orange light. (Okay, maybe the light was pink, but it wasn’t red, really.) But, we’ve never been concerned about being on the government’s radar as a ‘persons of interest’ ­­– until recently. 

One of us was on an authors panel last month http://www.washacadsci.org/activities-and-events/science-is-murder/science-is-murder-3-2012/ explaining to the audience that Maddi seeks to ensure that the technology and science the Miss-Information Technology Mystery books and (soon to be published) short story are “plausible.” We are not trying to write a “how-to” manual on hacking or murder (however angry we are at former boyfriends, the worst we have contemplated is using their name in a book, adding fifteen pounds and a bad comb over – oh wait, we did that. However, we’d like to be accurate in the portrayal of the workings of science and the potential of technology. It’s that striving for authenticity which is, frankly, now making us nervous. Our research is becoming hazardous.

Put your mind at rest; we’ve not actually killed anyone using the methods in our first two books. Let me rephrase that: we’ve not killed anyone, period. True-to-life research has been within the bounds of proper behavior: shooting guns (no assault rifles, except M16s that the Navy made us shoot and a couple of trigger pulls on an M60), trying out tropical drinks, surfing, getting tattoos … oops, scratch that last one. Researching hacking, murdering and other illegal activities has been conducted through consultations with experts (not the perps, but those who capture them) and searching the Web. 

Our third book – nowhere near completion – includes a scene involving the cultivation of cannabis or, as it is known in Hawai’i, pakalolo. As neither of us grows such a crop in our gardens (nor do we know anyone who does), one of us spent a great deal of time online researching strains that grow well in Hawai’i, visual and olfactory characteristics of those strains, how and where to cultivate, and the best ways to hide the illicit garden from the government. We’d be surprised if our Internet travels were unknown to the authorities. And we wouldn’t be surprised to be met at Honolulu airport on our next trip by members of Operation Green Harvest, Hawai’i’s cannabis eradication program. They won’t be bringing us leis. Though a fresh lei of pakalolo leaves would celebrate local culture. 

By virtue of her day job, one of us has a legit reason to be searching online for information about hacking. Supplemented by a little Internet work and talking with colleagues in the security business garnered what we needed for the first two books. However, bereft of contacts in the spy business, we searched online for information about bugs, er, listening devices (used in Denial of Service.  Our story is that we were looking for baby monitors that we could hide from inquisitive infants. Really!) 

We’ve been searching for novel ways to use “killer technology,” so to speak. Why use a firearm if you can just hack into a self-driving car (like the one driven by that annoying neighbor who won’t turn his headbanger music down after nine at night) and with a few remote commands, “oopsie” – now how did that car go over the guardrail on a really steep curve? And how about implantable medical devices, like insulin pumps, pacemakers and the like? For our short story, we’ve been researching how to hack these medical devices to cause, er, um, severe discomfort.  One of us even emailed a technologist, who published a paper in the field, asking if he’d answer a few questions. Does no response mean he’s ignoring the request, or that he’s already reported us to the authorities? (Honestly, any real malefactor would research murder methods in a library she doesn’t usually frequent.) 

And if these little research projects aren’t enough to cause concern, then maybe our recent probing into how to make an explosive device is. Using search terms such as “fertilizer as explosive” should put us on someone’s radar, shouldn’t it? More frightening than the specter of being considered a threat is what one finds in such a search: videos that show, step by step, how to make a bomb. (No, we DID NOT watch them).

One can also watch videos of explosions using varying levels of explosives. Yes, we watched those; we wanted to know the size of the explosive needed to cause appropriate destruction so we could determine how to disguise it in the story. However, after this research experience, we’ve decided to draw a line in the sand: no nuclear explosions in our stories. A few characters may “go ballistic” but only descriptively speaking. 

Naively, we at first thought our military service (no silver stars, but no court marshals, either) would prove that we were loyal Americans and no threats to the government. But have you noticed lately how the U.S. Government has come out and said that ex-military are a potential terrorist threat? Was that a signal that they’ve noticed our research? And do they know that one of us lives in Idaho (you can buy makeup and ammunition at the same store – how convenient) and the other drives a car with a Virginia “Don’t Tread On Me” license plate? 

I’m not saying we will, mind you, but just in case, if it comes to that, are any of you willing to illustrate Maddi Davidson’s line of children’s bedtime stories? C3PO meets C4? Or Chicka Chicka Boom Boom BOOM!?

 

Deathly Diversions

Like many writers, we seek literary escapism in the writing of … other writers. (Wow, that was recursive, wasn’t it?) To restate in English, reading your own work multiple times isn’t much of an escape. It’s more like a trap. For one thing, you already know whodunnit, which significantly diminishes the suspense. Secondarily, and given the amount of work that goes into getting a book out the door, reading your own work ex post facto can be a nightmare, one in which you dream that, despite reviewing your work 18 times or paying a professional to do the same, you found a typo only after publication, such as using “grizzly” instead of “grisly” to describe a murder scene. (Note: the former only works if the killer was an ursus arctos horribilis (grizzly bear). One of us actually did find that mistake in a murder mystery that she finished reading last weekend. She notes that no grizzly bears – or teddy bears – appeared in the mystery, which takes place in England in the 1930s.)

There are many mystery writers whose work we enjoy as a pleasant escape from the grind (dark roast, of course) of writing and whose protagonists we reference in our book, e.g. Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie), Amelia Peabody (Elizabeth Peters) and Nancy Drew (Carolyn Keene) Without further ado, we therefore tip our (warning: shameless reference to Denial of Service follows) obnoxiously lime green tam o’shanter to a few of our favorite mystery writers.

When we just need to laugh-out-loud we turn to – no surprise – Janet Evanovich. We particularly enjoy the Stephanie Plum series (beginning with One for the Money and sequentially “numbered” to the “just out but we haven’t read it yet” Notorious Nineteen). Regardless of how many times a “shtick” appears in one of her books, she finds new ways to make it funny. For example, her heroine, skip tracer Stephanie Plum, has an unfortunate tendency to have her cars explode, at least once a book on average. Not to mention, Stephanie’s sidekick Lula, a former ‘ho who thinks nothing of shoving her ample frame into brightly colored (and many sizes smaller) spandex is a hoot. Lula’s idea of a diet is leaving the whipped cream off her second helping of pie, a sentiment we relish (whipped cream counts as serving of dairy, right?) We look forward to a new Plum mystery the same way we enjoy finding a new kind of M&M’s. (And just like M&M’s, a Plum mystery is to be devoured voraciously and without a smidgen of guilt.) We enjoy Ms. Evanovich’s work so much that we found it a particularly nice compliment when a reviewer of Outsourcing Murder compared Emma Jones to Stephanie Plum.

When we’re in the mood for gentle humor, we read Alexander McCall Smith, author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series (the first of which is The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and the most recent of which, the 13th, is The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection). The series has become immensely popular and has recently been made into a perfectly wonderful HBO series. His main character, Precious Ramotswe, a “traditionally sized lady,” is the founder and owner of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Botswana. The mysteries are less “dead body in the den” than missing person or husband’s suspicious behavior (did the wife really want to know the truth?) The subplots are as interesting as the main mystery, involving as they do matters of the heart, or matters of heartbreak. Other characters are stalwartly drawn, from Mr. J.L.B. Maketone of Tlokweng Speedy Motors (who keeps Precious’s tiny white van running) to her secretary (who scored 97% percent on the Botswana Secretarial College exam – a record! – as she often reminds other characters). Each book is a charming gem, teaches you something about Botswana and leaves you singing “Africa Africa Africa Africa” in your heart.

We can’t claim direct, tangible inspiration from Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series but only because Emma hasn’t mastered time travel yet. Maisie Dobbs, the protagonist of the series, is a former ambulance driver in the Great War who later becomes a psychologist and investigator of sorts. Ms. Winspear manages to do something very difficult for mystery writers or even most writers: the resolution (“who shot John?”) is secondary to the writing. You want to reread her books, even after you know whodunnit, because of the quality of her writing and the human face she brings to the Great War and the years thereafter. While our education barely touched on the 1920’s except for flapper fashion and Jazz Age music, Jacqueline’s books improve our understanding of the difficult time in Britain during those years. She explores everything from the horrific injuries many servicemen experienced (e.g., the aftereffects of chemical warfare (mustard gas)), to the shortage of marriageable men, to the rise of Nazi Germany (and the many people in England who admired Hitler, before they didn’t).

Far from the riotous humor of Janet Evanovich and the gentle renderings of Alexander McCall-Smith and Jacqueline Winspear is the suspense-filled world of C.J.Box. The Joe Pickett series comprise many of his books. Joe is a Wyoming game warden and the series showcases the wilderness, those who inhabit it and love it, and those who attempt to protect it. Wild mountain men? Check. Eco-terrorists? Check. Poachers after trophy animals out of season? Check. Jurisdictional arm wrestling among law enforcement agencies? Check. Humor? Not deliberately. After finishing a Joe Pickett novel, you feel you’ve experienced everything the wilderness has to offer except mosquitoes and black flies. Oh, and litter from tourists who won’t pack it out. And serious amounts of elk doo-doo, which the one of us who lives in Idaho knows a lot about. The first rule of hiking: watch out for the umgawa.

We appreciate our devoted fans (we believe we have developed a few besides out mother who is, after all, somewhat partisan). We hope someday to have the breadth of enthusiastic following that the above writers have. In the meantime, we thank them for many hours of unapologetic escapist pleasure and hope our readers will discover and love them, too.

Next blog: Mystery writers envisioning murders at every turn

Market Research

Both of us are taking a small breather after the publication of Denial of Service. The breather is for at least three reasons. One, we are, for the moment, heartily sick of reading Denial of Service, as much as we like the book (it’s like eating turkey for five straight days after Thanksgiving: no matter how delicious the bird, enough, already!). Two, we are concentrating on marketing activities for DoS (e.g., readings at book stores). Three, one of us has been doing market research for book 3, the working title of which is Murder Mo’ Bettah and which takes place in Hawai’i.

Truth in advertising: “market research” is a slightly grandiose term for what was, in reality, a desperately needed vacation for one of us, who booked 7 days in Hawai’i because she can operate on “autopilot” when there and because she wanted to surf her brains out. (Being a blond, surfing her brains out admittedly did not take all that long.) The other of us gave the vacationer some pointers on “needed market research” for book three in terms of finding background material, getting a feel for local color, and the like, much of which was ignored in the interests of “market research on who makes the best Mai Tai on Waikīkī Beach.” (Whee.) Note: the answer to that question is indubitably the Halekulani for a multiplicity of reasons, including the fact that pineapple juice – which most watering holes on Waikīkī insist on adding to their Mai Tais – has Absolutely No Place in a Mai Tai. (The Halekulani also has a delightful concoction known as a Liliko’i (Passion Fruit) Daiquiri that is not only delicious but counts as a serving of fruit. As everyone knows.)

No matter how familiar someplace seems to you if you go there a lot – and both of us have been to Hawai’i many times – writing about a place is different than visiting it. More to the point, you can go to the same place many times, yet not really see it. The request was for specific “background/color” for the book and this, the vacationer spent time actually looking at what she had experienced so many times.

One of the more colorful aspects of Waikīkī (besides the frequent ‘anuenue – rainbows – as showers move over the Ko’olaus – is the evening “street scene.” Kalākaua Avenue – the closest thing to a “main drag” in Waikīkī and the street that fronts most of the hotels as well as Kuhio Beach before it peters out around Kapi’olani Park – is always active but never more so than at night. For starters, you have a slew of people handing out pamphlets for everything from going to the gun range (an indoor shooting range on Waikīkī) to how to find Jesus. (Hint: He’s not lost: you are!)*

Then, there are the “living statues” (maybe there is a more au courant term for them but we do not know what it is): the folks who dress up in silver (or gold or black) painted clothing with silver (or gold or black) body paint, who don’t move for – a long time. (Donations welcome.) There are also street musicians (e.g., an 11-year-old kid playing Hawaiian music on a trumpet, for something completely different). (Donations welcome.) There are street artists – either caricaturists or those who do chalk drawings on the pavement. (Donations welcome.) There are also street vendors of lei (Hawaiian flower garlands) or practitioners of lau hala (the weaving of fronds of the hala tree into hats, bowls and the like). To set the scene for all these characters, we have the chain of “tourist paraphernalia and kōkua (help) known as ABC Stores. Whatever you forgot to pack or need to enjoy the water, prevent sunburn or recover from sunburn because you picked a wussy SPF, you can find it at an ABC Store, and there is one every 65 feet or so on every street beginning with a ‘K’ in Waikīkī.**

There is more, much more, in the area of background material that we have both catalogued for book 3. One of them may not make it into the book, but it is the reason we continue to love Hawai’i and makes it so special: the air. As soon as you get off the plane, whether it is in Honolulu or Kona or Līhue, you are bathed with air that is the perfect (not too hot, not too cool) temperature, that has moisture (but isn’t disgustingly humid) and is scented with plumeria. The air in Hawai’i is like nowhere else: the fabled trade winds caress you and your ‘uhane (soul) feels refreshed and restored.

*One of us notes that these street scene participants are all welcome upgrades from the slew of Hare Krishnas in years past (whose endless cymbal clanging and near frantic jumping around made one want to rush up and direct them to the nearest men’s room to relieve their obvious distress) and “extremely well dressed ladies of the evening” that used to frequent Waikīkī in the years when we first started going there.

**That’s a joke. In Hawai’i, with the exception of a few “grandfathered” English names, all streets have Hawaiian names and most of those begin with ‘K’ on account of the direct article in Hawaiian begins with a ‘K’. So we have (just in Waikīkī): Kalākaua, Kuhio, Koa, Kapuni, Ka’iulani. Kapahulu, etc.

It’s Not Over ‘Til It’s – Oh Wait, It’s Over!

The above title is not a reflection of the imminent election on November 6. Maddi has her – should I say ‘our’ – electoral preferences but is apolitical for literary purposes, and rightly so. We think enjoying a good murder mystery is a distinctively non-partisan activity and we want fans who enjoy our writing, not our political opinions.

Ergo, the above title is a not-so-subtle way of announcing, for those who did not hear our collective “yeehah!” from three states away (excepting Alaska and Hawai’i), that the second book in our Miss-Information Technology Mystery Series, Denial of Service, is now available in print and ebook versions. Phew.

Before we hoist a collaborative glass of something interesting (I’d say “champagne” but my co-writer is less than enthusiastic about it and would prefer a good mojito), it’s time for accolade awarding. Producing another book is a joint activity, but it is fair to say that one of us spent the majority of our collective energy reviewing, in painstaking detail, the final proof, then the final final proof, then made the edits to the final final proof, and so on, which constitutes “above and beyond” not only the call but the font and grammar of duty. Therefore, the Award for Most Eyes Glazed goes to the ‘D’ part of Maddi: thank you and well done. A new pair of reading glasses are yours along with an engraved bottle of White Out.

A second award goes to the fastest order of the new book……a one Art C., who ordered a book a scant three or four minutes after we announced on Facebook that the new book was available. Thanks for being a loyal fan, Art, and the payoff money should arrive soon … er … ”our appreciation is boundless.”

A third award, for Ripping Retail Sales, goes to Cheryl Thomas of Chapter One Bookstore in Ketchum, Idaho. One of us had barely dropped off 25 copies of our book (they were still on the counter), when she sold two of them. Aside – there is a new book, entitled My Bookstore that chronicles writers’ favorite independent bookstores. (Yes, I know it is ironic to show a link to Amazon regarding a book about independent bookstores. Do your independents a favor – read the book reviews on Amazon and then buy or order from your local bookseller. Nobody else lets you browse through books – nothing like actually holding a book in your hands – remembers you and what you like or can rhapsodize (and quote from) A River Runs Through It.) Anyway, Chapter One Bookstore is mentioned in My Bookstore, another reason we like shopping there. Cheryl has been a one-woman marketing machine for our books (she’s also invited one of us to do a reading in conjunction with an event for My Bookstore and is a wonderful person, besides). A bottle of champagne is in order and will be delivered soon: yes, indeedy.

A logical question to ask exhausted authors is “What next?” If it’s not too early to start shilling, we are at work on book three (though, admittedly, it’s not really a book yet but an outline, a plot, a few draft chapters and a gleam in our collective eyes.) It is set in Hawai’i and one of us is about to go surfing…er…go do market research in Hawai’i. Working title is Murder Mo’ Bettah. Though we think it is entirely possible we can come up with a mo’ bettah title than that. One of us has been busy suggesting specific market research the other can do in HI (the other thinks it is critically important that descriptions of tropical drinks are accurate and plans on checking out different samples at multiple watering holes to ensure that our descriptions are giggly…er…glib). The research we will not be doing is related to exactly how a body looks after the car it has been in is blown up. Though one of us is feeling slightly hostile after the 6th call in one day seeking funds for a candidate or polling for the election, grrr, we both believe that violence doesn’t solve anything. (Unless, of course, there is a dispute over the last pair of really cute sandals in my size that are on sale in which case, I saw them first and no holds barred.)

We also have a short story in the queue that we are still considering how to put in the hands of our devoted readers. Or even vaguely interested readers – at this point in our budding (which is at least better than “wilting”) literary careers, all readers are welcome, though we admit that the kind who like our book and add favorable reviews (hint, hint) are readers we particularly like.

There’s another activity we are doing post book 2– looking at ways we can find other potential readers, otherwise known as “marketing.” We decided to take a low-key approach to this essential activity after our first book was published, and concentrate instead on completing the second book. Now that we have the series underway, it’s time to get out there and sell, sell, sell! Already, we’ve discovered that two books are easier to sell than just one. One of us just spent a couple hours at a mystery authors event, signing books, and sold a goodly number of both books.

Even amidst moving from publishing to pushiness … er … promotion, we will take a brief moment for the other “p” – no, not “pooped,” but “proud.” The book isn’t perfect, but we are pretty dang happy with our efforts. Now, off to find a fresh lime for that mojito, and we hope you enjoy Denial of Service.

Weapon of Choice

Plotting a murder mystery requires answering a few basic questions, starting with who dies, how and why. One is tempted to choose the idiot in the black Lexus (who tailgated so closely, you could see the whites of his eyes in the rearview mirror), swerved into a merge lane to drive past the crawling traffic and then cut right in front of you, nearly clipping your bumper and who then gave you the finger when you beeped your horn. Visions of his battered Lexus lying at the bottom of a ravine (recently filled with cow dung) whet your literary juices … but we digress. Back to the question at hand: whom to kill and how? (“Colonel Mustard in the library with a wrench” has been done. Mrs. Mustard had nagged her husband to fix the plumbing for the eleventeenth time that morning while he was in the middle of working the crossword puzzle, so, really, who can blame him?)

Recently, one of us spent some time at the gun range with other mystery writers engaged in “field research.” No one was killed at the range, tempting as it was to eliminate the competition in our target market segment (no pun intended).  We had the opportunity to handle a weapon that is responsible for more than half the murders in the United States: the handgun. (Another ten to fifteen per cent of murders are from rifles.) Both of us served in the military, where we learned to fire a semiautomatic weapon in the interests of national defense, but given the difficulty of fitting an M16 into a purse – even a really big purse – learning to wield a handgun is something both of us have separately given a whirl to, for different reasons. (Not to make light of learning to use a deadly weapon, which really is a serious responsibility.)

As a murder weapon, handguns are pretty straightforward. The question of caliber needs to be decided, as not all handguns are created equal in terms of stopping power and accuracy. We don’t want to get too graphic here, but killing someone with a .22 caliber requires a high degree of accuracy while using a larger caliber induces more damage but necessitates carrying around a heavier weapon.  As one of us explained to another woman contemplating a handgun purchase, “A .38 doesn’t have enough stopping power, a .45 has too much recoil, but a 9MM, as Goldilocks would say, is just about right. Oh, and you can’t go wrong with a black one – always a good fashion choice.”

Your choices in literary gun-related deaths – other than “point, aim, shoot and hide the body” are limited. Yes, you could have an accident while hunting rabbits (is it really an accident? “Wabbits are vewy, vewy twicky,” as Elmer Fudd reminds us). A forgettable minor character could be felled by a trick shot requiring a richochet off a steel beam. A detective could be puzzled by an interesting pattern of holes (twelve shots in the back forming the border of Albania).

 In mysteries set in the world of police, criminals and professional detectives, it is easy to explain away a panoply of armed suspects. However, our protagonist, a 20-something female technology consultant living in San Francisco, does not spend her life in this world and doesn’t conveniently subscribe to Murderers Monthly and isn’t conversant in rifling patterns, blood spatters, and other arcane elements of death-by-bullet. Not that we are ruling out guns for future murders, but for the novels we’re currently working on, we’ve chosen other means of eliminating characters (no, not WhiteOut – we prefer modern methods, such as the search and replace function in Word – tee hee!). Enjoying as we do a well-placed send-up of technology, we are trying to figure out how someone can die during an upgrade. (Heaven knows many end users have been viciously tortured during them.) Considering how much software and hardware now permeates our world, including medical devices, cars, “smart” meters and other types of devices that used to be “unwired and a lot more reliable,” there is almost no place for Joe-Bob or Janey-Sue to hide from technology these days, so much of which can be turned to the dark side – we have reason to know.

After Guns, Cutting and Stabbing is the next most popular murder method (ten to fifteen percent), followed by Personal Weapons (hand, feet, fists) and Other (poison, explosives, narcotics, etc.), each of which accounts for five to ten percent of murders. Completing the list are Blunt Objects (~ five percent) and Fire.

Readers of mysteries know that many authors gravitate towards these less popular forms of murder as they provide an opportunity for some originality, e.g., the cricket bat (Blunt Object) used in Outsourcing Murder. In all honesty, we don’t know if the cricket bat is the most commonly-used Blunt Object since FBI statistics did not provide further category detail. (Is running a car off the road a Blunt Object or Other? What if the car bursts into flames after running the victim off the road, does it qualify as Fire? Again, we don’t know.)

Using a less common form of murder also allows the author to develop a mini-mystery about the specific item used. For example, in the case of a blunt trauma to the head: what object was used? Of what significance is the object? Who has it and is that person guilty? Why hit someone over the head instead of inserting the weapon in an interesting orifice? (“Ear,” of course, what else would we mean?)

In Denial of Service (available October, 2012) the murder weapon falls under Cutting and Stabbing. No further details at this time – you’ll have to read it – but the murder weapon is not just any old knife and is personally significant to the victim. And in book 3 – underway but not named – the weapon of choice is Other.

Certainly the choice of the murder weapon is not independent of the killer’s motive and frame of mind. In simple terms, was this a planned murder? If so, then the killer is much more likely to use a gun or poison, rather than the antique silver candlestick on the mantle (does anybody know why there was a wrench in the library for Colonel Mustard to oh-so-conveniently use?). But an impulse kill … well, the possibilities are endless: knocked unconscious and stomped to death by camels; hit over the head with a Stradivarius and thrown off a twenty-story building; pushed into an exhibit of hungry sharks; or all of the above. We get giddy just thinking about it.

Regardless of how the victim was done in, in a comic mystery there is one other factor that is illustrated by an anecdotal story about Franklin Roosevelt, who surmised that nobody actually listens to the polite mutterings that take place in a reception line. He decided to test his theory by saying, as he shook the hand of countless people at a reception in the White House, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.” The story goes that nobody heard what he said, except one reporter who nodded, smiled back and responded, “Well, she certainly had it coming, didn’t she?” Murder is serious business, but in at least a few cases, we admit to thoughts of “Well, he certainly had it coming, didn’t he?” as we plot a character’s demise.

 

When Some is Not Good

Yup, the title was meant to be confusing. But after you read this post, it will be somewhat clear, or sort of understandable, or a bit less confusing. Kinda. Sorta.

We, Maddi, are working on the last phase of our second book; the final scrub. Think cleaning grout. This includes finding and eliminating some extraneous words, like “some.” A search for the work “some” revealed 281 instances in the latest draft, including someone, sometimes, something, somewhat, somewhat and Somerset Sidebottom. Okay, that last one isn’t in this book. (Maybe Book 3?) I don’t know how we’d manage without the Find command, although I suppose we’d figure out “some” other way.

In addition to “some,” words common in conversation that too often slip into our writing include a few, a couple, sort of, kind of, very and really. (We did not, we are pleased to say, violate the 11th Commandmant: “thou shalt not say ‘very unique’: it is an abomination unto the Lord.” *) Even when we find these words in the conversation of our characters, we want to be careful about how many we leave in. For instance, it is easy to imagine one of our young characters saying something is “really interesting” or “really cool.” Leaving in the “really” indicates, if you didn’t already know it, that the character speaks in the common vernacular. But even if the character uses the word in every sentence, do you as a reader want to see it? No. After reading it once or twice, you get the idea and don’t need to be bombarded with it. The same applies to like, you know, umm and sorta.  

If searching and replacing extraneous words isn’t exciting enough, think of the joy of ensuring that spacing is correct. We admit (at least one of us does) to having learned to type pre-word processor when the protocol was to leave two spaces after a period to improve ease of reading. Hardly necessary today, when word processing programs automatically space letters and punctuation to improve readability. Old habits die hard, or in this case, aren’t dying; we will at time still double hit ye old space bar after periods, question marks, exclamation marks and closing quote marks. (The 12th Commandment, if anybody cares, is, “thou shalt not capitalize the start of thine independent clause after the use of a colon – what ist thou thinking? What idiot starteth this heinous trend?” **) 

Let us not forget the overuse of adverbs, which is common among writers. Oft-repeated advice is to review all adverbs (or if lazy, search for -ly words) and excise 90% of them. A controlled adverbocide, if you will. Clearly one should not automatically remove all adverbs, but carefully scrutinize their use to determine if they can be eliminated without dramatically changing the meaning. Indubitably, adverbs are frequently used by writers in lieu of writing action or movement into the narrative. They are often not necessary if you did your writing job correctly:  “Darryl, I just love your provocative low-cut loafers,” she said flirtatiously. (Darryl, it should be said, was hoping for more compliments on his tight T-shirt, given he just got pectoral implants in hopes of cherchez-ing more femmes.) 

Now that we are enjoying ourselves, we can take on the ‘easy’ word issue. These are words that easily come to mind when you’re writing that you throw into the narrative so you can continue with your brilliant thought. They survive draft after draft after draft. When cleaning up the story, you realize that this word appears … everywhere and adds almost nothing. Try eating no-calorie chocolate. Are you satisfied? That’s what these words are like. An example: looked. She looked in purse, then looked up and saw the man at the bar looking at her.  Look at how many times we used the word, look! (“Made you look!”) Our offenses are not that egregious, but the herd of “looked” (over 200 appearances at last count) has to be thinned. It’s time to give gaze, searched, examined, glanced and other worthy words (available through your on-line thesaurus) a chance. No leering, though — Emma isn’t that kind of girl. Even if Huw does look — er, appear — mighty fine in a wetsuit. Yes, indeedy. 

So if this is the last phase, you might ask, “When will the book be available?” We are hoping, but not committed to, the end of September. While this may be the last phase of writing, the publishing process has just begun. Decisions about book size, font, artist to use for the cover and more have been made (see the first book). But, our artist will not complete the front cover until mid-August, we have to put the manuscript in book form, check for widows, orphans and waterfalls, proof everything again and more. That process may take two month, or it may take longer. We’ll let you know how we are progressing and the fun we have along the way. 

 *Because “unique” means “one of a kind.” You can’t be “very one-of-a-kind,” yet this expression gets used all the time. Ick.

** OK, God does not actually talk like the King James Bible. He doesn’t sound like Charlton Heston, either. We are pretty sure He is a good grammarian, though, and uses proper English — er, proper Hebrew, Aramaic and Koinic Greek. You don’t see “whatever, dude” in the Bible, do you?

 

 

Nani Hawai’i (Beautiful Hawai’i)

Hi friends, family and fans (we hope we have a few fans by now) –

We’ve been silent on the blog front recently because of a) working on Book 2 (we get a lot of inquiries as to when it will be out) and b) doing extensive market research, which is a fancy term for “vacationing in Hawai’i.”  We just got back from 10 days of surfing, listening to Hawaiian music and some exhaustive tropical drink sampling (well, one of us sampled, the other selectively “verified her research,” an equally fancy term for “checking out the other one’s lilikoi daiquiri to make sure it hadn’t gone bad”).

We’ve decided to go multimedia in this blog entry which means we are stepping up to include pictures (woo hoo!) but not yet videos (e.g., of us surfing in Hawai’i, mostly because we are still editing out the wipeouts). There is a literary point to going multimedia, we promise. Specifically, for those who are interested in how we write, we thought it might be interesting to show pictures of what inspires us and/gives our writing a sense of place — for readers who haven’t  actually been to San Francisco or Hawai’i, that is. 

If we actually are doing our writing jobs properly, people who have been to locations we describe or “plug into” will recognize what we are talking about, like sitting in traffic on 101 (or the H1 in O’ahu – we, alas, did experience that, which Emma will as well in Book 3), the fact that Russian Hill is the Land of No Parking, or the joys of Leonard’s on Kapahulu in Honolulu, although one of us – the one who isn’t a size 6 even if she wishes she were – is actually wearing a few of Leonard’s malasadas (which bypassed the digestive tract and went directly to her hips), and thus is feeling slightly less joyful about Leonard’s malasadas than the other one is.

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Aside: for those who do not know what a malasada is, think “fried dough with fat bomb filling.” Malasada is from the Portuguese word meaning, “has no nutritional content whatsoever,” but they are delicious and any long time resident of O’ahu (as Emma was for the four years she was at University of Hawai’i –Mānoa) is a Leonard’s fan and probably has the ‘opu nui (big belly) to prove it. Note that since you can get them in different fillings, one of us believes that, technically, if you get a guava or haupia (coconut)-filled malasada, it counts as a serving of fruit.

Certainly one of the most visible landmarks in Hawai’i which never fails to put us in a good mood is the famous Diamond Head, which even has a song written about it (Kaimana Hila).  Hard to beat, isn’t it? This particular picture was taken from the Halekulani, where one of us was enjoying a perfectly lovely lilikoi daiquiri or maybe it was a Mai Tai: they have the best ones on Waikīkī, mostly because they do not put pineapple juice in it which has absolutely no place in a Mai Tai. Emma agrees with us on that point.  If you are on the south shore of O’ahu, on the famous Waikīkī beach, you cannot help but be drawn to Diamond Head. Emma likes to surf off Waikīkī (so do we) and we will talk more about how surfing inspires us in a later blog entry.

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We’d be remiss in not including a discussion of things that not only provide inspiration, but provide a sense of place in our book(s) and, for lack of a better expression, make us pretty darn happy when we write. It is with that in mind that we include a picture and a gratuitous plug for our friends Michael, Bobby and Stan who are the members of the Hawaiian music group ‘Ike Pono (which means, “to see rightly,” if you care). Emma really, really likes ‘Ike Pono (so do we).  We preface this comment by noting that we have both, over the course of many trips to Hawai’i (not to mention one of us living in Hawai’i), listened to a lot of Hawaiian music. Our tastes encompass everything from the “golden age of Hawaiian music” (Alfred Apaka and the Kalima Brothers – “1000 pounds of melody”) to contemporary Hawaiian (Hapa, the Brothers Cazimero, Maunalua, Gabby Pahinui, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (aka “Iz”), Kapala, Sean Na’auao, and so on).  ‘Ike Pono is, hands down, our favorite group – wonderful musicians, talented writers, and their vocals are to die for. They are also three of the nicest guys you ever hope to meet. 

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We made a purposeful holoholo out to Waipahu to see them play at Big City Diner, and they were very gracious to us (even giving a plug for our book which of course, mentions them). They plugged our book to their audience even before we told them we weren’t planning on killing any of them off – literarily, we mean. I guess we can also blab and say that in Book 2 we send Stan (the ‘ukulele player) to the mainland so Emma’s sweetie Keoni can sub for him. (We hope Stan has a nice trip and Keoni doesn’t mess up the lyrics on “Mo’olele.”) Seriously. Stan, Michael, and Bobby, mahalo for truly wonderful music that inspires us to write more about the beauty of Hawai’i and nā mele Hawai’i.  For those who have not discovered Hawaiian music, or ‘Ike Pono, we hope that you will listen to them here and consider purchasing their music. It will make you as hau’oli (happy) as Emma is when she listens to it, we promise.

With that, we’ll say a hui hou (seeyas!) until our next installment. Time to go back to editing Book 2, which means making a Mai Tai (or popping the top on a Kona Brewing Company Longboard Lager) and putting the earphones on so we can listen to Hawaiian music. Sublime, even if it is snowing outside (yes, really) as one of us writes this. Eew.

 

Green Things

Large parts of the country had little to no winter this year (and many ski areas had little to no snow).  The same swathes are now well into spring: daffodils, crocuses, and tulips are out in glorious profusions of color. Maybe wisteria and a few lilacs. Cherry blossoms and other blooming trees. The Easter Bunny didn’t need snow boots this year but doubtless brought lots of Zyrtec – achoo! – to go with chocolate eggs and jelly beans.

Even in the snow-capped mountains of Idaho, spring is slowly emerging from the receding snowpack. The birds that headed elsewhere for winter have returned, cheerily chirping from dawn until dusk although, judging from the rapidity of depletion of local birdfeeders, they haven’t quite gotten around to worm patrol. (Where is their commitment to local and sustainable food?) Underneath the layer of last fall’s late leaves blanketing flower beds and lawns, there is green amidst the brown soil and brown castoff branches as the bulbs we planted last fall push their green shoots out into the open.

Writing is a lot like planting bulbs, something we, Maddi, have had reason to know in the last month as we take stock of the incipient garden that is Book 2.  There were a lot of bulbs that we planted in drafting the book – major themes, minor themes, “growth opportunities” for characters. Now that the garden is blooming, we’ve seen some of the mistakes we’ve made. In other words, it’s already pruning time! And unfortunately, we’re pruning some of the plants that don’t belong. Yes indeedy, cactus and crocus do both start with c and end with us, but somehow, they just don’t fit in the same garden. So that whole section about Grundy and his minions being bad asses but looking like Tweedles dum and dee? Gotta go.

Like gardening, sometimes your best writing tools are the ones you use to prune, pare and pluck. We found in reviewing book 2 that parts of the book were too much like “we planted one of everything.” We stepped back to consider what we wanted to say – major plot (1) and minor themes (>1 but <10). Not too many of them: we aren’t writing War and Peace. We found the pacing was inconsistent, like having one part of your garden with a flower every 5 feet, and another with dozens of flowers crowded in a small space. It doesn’t look good in a garden and doesn’t read well in a book.

Reader’s quiz: Which is better, A or B?

A.   “What is a rose?”

“It’s a rose.”

“But what do you think about it being a rose?”

“I think a rose is a rose.”

“I agree. It’s a rose.”

B.   “A rose is a rose is a rose,” (Gertrude Stein)

We thought so, too. We had too many sections that resembled the former. So we’ve spend a lot of time weeding, pruning, and replanting, and can already see the emergence of much more harmonious garden we are calling Book 2.

And what’s a garden without a few bugs? Spoiler alert: In Book 2, Emma learns the legal ins and outs (mostly outs) of bugging, fights with a sperm whale, fends off a late night mugger and tap dances on her parents dining room table. Okay, we made some of that up. But you still want to read the book, right?

 

 

 

 

 

Bogged Down

Two weeks ago, we did a presentation and book signing at Ketchum Community Library in beyootiful Ketchum, Idaho (which is not Sun Valley, Idaho, thank you very much, though it’s where Sun Valley Ski Resort is. Sun Valley is where the Sun Valley Lodge is. Clear?)  Anyway, a mahalo nui loa (big thank you) to Lauren Zondag at the Ketchum Community Library, Lynn Mason-Pattnosh of the Concierge Questionnaire and Cheryl Thomas of Chapter One Bookstore (http://www.chapteronebookstore.com/). We talked about what it’s like to write with two heads (er, authors) and various other writing topics, many of which we’ve covered in previous blogs. One of the questions posed by the audience was whether we planned to write a book set in Ketchum. 

The upside of doing a series is it allows one (or two, in our case) to develop characters over time. And honestly, if you can get readers hooked on your characters, you’ve a better chance of selling more books (the cocaine effect). The downside, of course, is that you may so get bogged down and bored with your own creation, you feel driven to kill him/her off (such as Sherlock Holmes’ death at Reichenbach Falls, though he was literarily resurrected by Arthur Conan Doyle and lives on in a number of non-Conan Doyle-authored books). Or, your setting becomes limiting. In Cabot Cove, Maine,* that picture-perfect community of 3,000 or so that was the setting for “Murder She Wrote,” hundreds were murdered (usually by other locals) during Jessica Fletcher’s time and the duration of the series. Our theory is that Jessica Fletcher spent more time in New York City as the series wore on because there weren’t enough potential victims left alive in Cabot Cove. Or, she was banished as she, Typhoid Mary-like, left a trail of corpses in her wake. (Or is that “wakes in her wake?”) 

A writer friend (Cathy Wiley) chose Baltimore for the setting of her books because it consistently ranks as one of the top five (though “top” seems an exceptionally poor word choice) cities based on its murder rate.  We note Baltimore has a much larger population than Cabot Cove so her series could go on indefinitely: the pool of potential corpses is quite large. 

As an IT consultant, Emma has the opportunity travel to a variety of assignments so she can trip over bodies in different locales. As we’ve blogged previously, book number three takes place in Hawai’i. (Hmm, we’re due for another research trip to Waikīkī. Tough job but someone has to do it.) We’ve considered Washington, DC as another location. We’ve all had murderous thoughts towards various government agencies (who really likes the IRS, for example?). So why not Ketchum? Or Vancouver, BC? Or some other great place for a research trip? 

Emma’s assignments will allow us to introduce new characters, include GD Consultants from previous assignments, and of course, continue developing her relationship with her family, friends, and “potentials” (Keoni and Huw).  It will also allow us…er, her…to enjoy surfing, frou-frou coffee, chocolate and the endless quirkiness of so many fascinating locales. The fact that you can buy makeup, ammunition and dry flies in the same store in Ketchum (what more would any woman want, I ask you?) 

Another question posed by the audience was whether we had considered doing an audio book. The questioner pointed out that some “readers” almost exclusively use audio books, since their only “free” time was during the commute. Our answer: no, we’d never considered it. But, we’ve since looked into it and discovered the minimum cost for a decent production is $5k and a typical sales cost for the DVDs is $20 plus. To save on costs, one of us volunteered to make the sound effects if the other read the book. However, the method of replicating the thwack of a cricket bat against flesh provoked a major disagreement.  Mostly because one of us objected to being the guinea pig…er…target.

So if you’d like our series to be available on tape, encourage your friends, family, co-workers, team members and complete strangers to purchase our books. (Or convince the West Coast member of our team to take a bat to the body for the sake of her art). Otherwise, we’ll wait until we reach best-seller territory to pay professionals to record our book. Until then, you’ll have to content yourselves with the printed and digital versions.  

Thanks to those friends who came to our Ketchum book signing and we look forward to seeing more fans at the next reading (I mean, non “coopted into being a fan because they are family members and we know where the bodies are buried and will tell Mom”).  Our next gig in Old Town Kensington (Howard Avenue) Maryland celebrating the Day of the Book on Sunday, April 22nd. Diane will be there between 11am and 4pm to show, sell and discuss our books. Hope to see you then.

 

*Though “Maine” as filmed in the series was actually Mendocino, California. Who knew?

 

 

 

 

Marketing Quicksand

Writers dream of publishing their first book to widespread acclaim and skyrocketing sales as the world embraces a new blockbuster novel, genuflects at the author’s very name (and attractive single men throw champagne, long stemmed roses and room keys her way. OK, one of us added that, this being Valentine’s Day and all). The reality is that sales are more apt to only reach as far as one’s circle of friends and relatives (in our case, since we are a writing team and related, that’s one less book sale right off the bat, dang it). So unless you can fill the Rose Bowl with your cousins, you probably need to do some marketing. “Marketing” is the fancy business school term for “shameless self-promotion in hopes you can get more moolah from the effort than you actually spent on it.”

We’ve mentioned before that this is not just a self-publishing issue; all authors are expected to invest time and energy in promoting their books. If you have a publisher, they have worker bees who do things like arrange book signings, press interviews, random people to throw rose petals at you when you get out of a limousine, etc. If you self publish, and have to do all the above yourself (Can you throw rose petals at yourself? Does it count if you do?) All that represents time and energy that you could be using to write the next book, or clean up after an incontinent puppy (one of us has reason to know about this subject in alarmingly messy and smelly detail. All in, though, she considers “spot treating carpets four times a day” to be less of a hassle than self-promotion exercises). In other words, authors cannot just be writers. Each author is a small business and he/she must promote that business. Sure, publishing companies help in that process, but the author is a major mover of his/her – or in our case, their – own book.

One of us was given a list of websites where one can market a book. What these websites have in common is a readership looking for eBook deals (preferably free). Authors are provided several ways in which they can ‘sponsor’ their books on the site. ‘Sponsor’ is a fancy way of saying “pay good money so the site owner can say nice things about your book – the one you are giving away for next-to-nothing.”  That is, be listed as eBook of the day, thriller of the week, deal of the day, sucker of the century (OK, I made that last one up), etc. These sponsorship opportunities generally cost from $60 to $300 and come with glowing testimonials from former sponsors. (Sound like a literary Ponzi scheme?) Is it the least suspicious that no more than a handful of glowing testimonials are provided when each of these websites has four hundred or more sponsors each year?  Nawwww.  (One of us wonders if this site is run by the same nice people in Nigeria offering to help her make money on the Internet. She’s pretty sure it’s a similar financial model and has about the same return on investment.)

We’d like to give kudos to the one site that actually provided statistics on book sales before and after sponsorship. But we won’t, because the reward for providing some data is that we’ll analyze their data and rip the site apart. For purposes of this blog, let’s call this website MoneyPit.com. If you think that’s harsh, the ones that don’t provide any data about sales could be called Black Holes.con, and we do mean con. (Though at least black holes really exist. It’s not clear that an uptick in sales from using most of these sites does exist. Especially when you consider that the main site endorsements are from the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus.) Seriously, if you want to spend money without really knowing what you’re getting, it’s okay with us. In fact, send us a check and we’ll talk up your book. (We’ll even leave a ringing endorsement in your Christmas stocking or under your pillow.)

On the MoneyPit site, there is a spreadsheet of authors and books sponsored over the past several months, including the price of the book, the type of sponsorship, Amazon sales rank before the promotion and highest rank reached. At first glance, the figures are impressive, as most books recorded incredible jumps in their Amazon sales ranks. Second glances are always more revealing. (Kind of like meeting a real person on DesperateSingles.com after viewing their profile photo –  an airbrushed college graduation picture from 25 years ago – “goods not quite as advertised.”)

Amazon does not provide sales figures correlated to rank. It’s a religious thing. People being what they are, a number of analytical types have made a stab at deducing sales versus rank, so we turn to those figures to determine how many actual book sales authors realized from the promotions. Now, our figures aren’t exact, but the general conclusion is that MoneyPit lives up to its name. If one just wants to sell books, it may be a good place to invest, but very few authors sell enough to recoup their investment.

Fact One: About 1/3rd of the authors spent an average of $170 promoting their free books. In other words, the buyer got it for free, the author lost real money. Doesn’t sound like a sustainable business model to us.

Fact Two: The % increase in Amazon sales rank is almost meaningless. For instance, Book A experienced a 1700% increase in rank (from 230,000 to 12,000). Impressed? Don’t be: they sold 8 books. Book B sales increased a mere 200% (from 9000 to 3000) but sold about 30 books.

Fact Three: Of those that actually charged for their eBook, no more than 20% recouped their investments through increased sales. Not a surprise. If you spend $170 to promote a $1.99 book, you’d have to sell 125 books to recover your costs.

Fact Four: Higher priced books (over $2.99) don’t generally see large bumps in sales, but because of the book price, they are more apt to recover their costs.

Conclusion: Despite the fact we’ve ripped these sites as meaningful investments (nobody advertises: “spend oodles with us and get absolutely nothing for it! But wait, order now, and you can throw even more money down a rat hole faster!”) That said, they could be good for authors who want to get their names out and make sales. However, it will require investing multiple times or multiple sites to make any headway on book sales. And the effect of these promos will be short lived. The readers of these sites are primarily looking for ‘deals’ so they are best perhaps for low (or zero) priced books. And really, after all the work you put into it, do you think your book should be free? You get what you pay for, and you “sell” what it’s priced for.

Will we be sponsoring our book through any of these sites? Perhaps later. For now, we are focused on completing book 2. When that is published, we may take the opportunity to promote both books together. For now, we are still working through our marketing plan. (And continuing to clean up after a very adorable but still slightly incontinent puppy, which, on some occasions, one of us does think about offering for sale on MoneyPit.com.)