I Found True Love With Big Data

We’ve been kind of silent on the blog front recently, mostly because we are making a big push to write Book 3 (oh, and we just submitted a short story for publication which, while it doesn’t feature our protagonist Emma, nonetheless has a technological base and – we think – a good use of humor). Book 3, as I think we’ve mentioned, takes places in Hawai’i so, in addition to other arduous tasks, we are busy planning some market research (i.e., another surf trip to Hawai’i, kupaianaha (yippee!)).

It hasn’t all been long hours at the PC or Mac. One of us recently attended a nerdy security conference  (is there any other kind?) at which, in addition to seeing a lot of old friends, she got to sign a lot of books (her employer graciously bought a number of copies of Outsourcing Murder and Denial of Service as giveaways in the corporate booth). Book signing was a lot of fun and thus far, the recipients of the books seem to like them (at least, if anybody hates them, they haven’t emailed, called, or posted on Facebook to say what an icky read either of them were).

The conference was inadvertently another opportunity to do market research, some of which will likely end up in Book 3. Any conference typically contains people breathlessly talking about the New Cool Topic and conference papers have a surfeit of references to New Cool Topic.  New Cool Topic, 95% of the time, is just a Boring Old Topic dressed up in new duds. Think “the look that is being pushed in Fashion Week, which everyone exclaims is Simply Marvelous even if the average woman wearing whatever the In Thing is looks like a tulle-covered toilet.” At the nerdy security conference, the New Cool Topic was Big Data. Big Data, for those who don’t already know, is – well – Big. Really Big.

Big Data, for those who are not acolytes worshipping at the altar, is not merely Data that has taken too many steroids, oh no. It’s the idea that you collect every possible piece of information you can – “if you can collect it, you should, because gee, you might need it some day, so just collect simply everything!” – analyze it for trends, and predict who is going to pick his nose at 2PM next Tuesday based on your analysis and will need your brand of Kleenex at 2:01PM. (Ok, I made that last bit up.) But the premise of Big Data is that you can Detect Big Trends based on it or, in the security context, which is what the conference focused on, you can do stuff like determine you are under attack by Bad Guys or (to be inclusive) Bad Girls. Big Data is interesting to us not only because it is one of the new technological religious cults (“On the sixth day, God created Big Data, and saw that it was Good”) but also because the combination of Big Data and cheap sensors makes for a lot of potential humor.

For example, what if a company … attached sensors to their employees to determine what they did every moment of the working day (the ostensible justification is so the company can continuously improve, rightsize, achieve six sigmoid – er, six sigma – or any other buzzword of corporate goodness)? What if they correlated things like, oh, what an employee ordered in the cafeteria with the activities the sensor tracked like … say … time in the bathroom. And what if the company decided that the cafeteria shouldn’t serve so much fiber (because employees were spending too much time … you know … and were thus less productive – unless you measure productivity in units of fertilizer, eww). See what we mean? Big Data, we hope, will lead to Big Laughs in Book 3.(1)

A minor character who has made appearances in our earlier books will feature more prominently in Book 3. He is a conspiracy nut (no, not “who shot JFK?” type-conspiracy, but “THEY know too much about you” conspiracies). And in fact, the combination of Big Data, the Internet (especially people blabbing too much on it) and the surveillance society makes for a lot of small seeds from which big conspiracies can grow. We’re counting on it.((2)

(1) You think we’re making this up, don’t you? We’re not. Companies that have used sensors include Bank of America, Cubist and Kimberly-Clark; one of them did redesign the cafeteria based on their findings.

(2) For conspiracy believers everywhere, try stealth wear: http://shop.primitivelondon.co.uk/collections/frontpage/products/anti-drone-burqa

 

 

 

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?

 

 

Critique Groups, or “I love (hate) your book”

One of the key literary questions all good writers ask themselves (pay attention: trade secret forthcoming) is “does my book suck?’ It’s good to get an answer to that question early enough as you slog your way through writing a mystery, for example, so that you can decide not only whom to kill off, but whether the book should get buried, too.

We’ve found that a good way to improve our writing is to work with a small group of other aspiring authors to critique each others’ work. These groups, as many authors have discovered, are essential for several reasons. The first, of course, is to have readers for your work, who  can point out the shortcomings in your writing (dialogue stilted, no sense of place, character behavior doesn’t make sense, way-too-convenient-and-utterly-implausible coincidences, boring-as-all-get-out plot) and point out what is working and what they like. These other authors can also help you fix the shortcomings through their suggestions for improving dialogue, descriptions, even little plot twists. A fresh pair of eyes, or two or three, will often hone in on just those things that you were worried about anyway, confirming that the book isn’t quite ready for prime time, but needs more work. (Maybe another dead body. Or more gratuitous sex.) Let’s face it: unless you have multiple personality disorder and have a second psyche lurking within, it’s very hard to be completely objective reading your own work.

Equally valuable is that through their affirmation of your work and tales of their own struggles and successes, other authors can encourage you to keep going. Having deadlines like “submit 10-15 pages for review every other week” also motivates you to stop thinking about writing and just put something on paper. Anything. (And we do mean paper: it’s really tough to critique an entire book on the computer screen.)

Need the others in the group be writing in the same genre? Our experience is no. One of us has been in groups with writers of science fiction, young adult, fictionalized memoirs, self-help, and fantasy. Even those who are not fans of your genre can provide key input. We once had a retirement-age male who admitted to an intense dislike of our main character. Nevertheless, he read our submissions closely, and found several inconsistencies not picked up by the others in the group who were, fortunately for one’s ego, much more outwardly supportive. (Should that be out-wordly supportive?). Mr. “I can’t stand your book” may have been grumpy and just trying to find things wrong, but he did provide a valuable service. (He wasn’t in our target market segment, anyway, which is a literary way of saying, ‘nanny, nanny boo-boo.’)

And that brings up another reason to join a critique group; by carefully reading the work of others, you will become a better writer. We believe this has happened to us. A fantasy writer we critiqued was very talented in describing the world of her story, which contained a number of creatures not found on earth, except perhaps in Hollywood back lots and nightmares. (Or possibly the Marianas Trench, which is still hiding some huge squids.  Oh, and Godzilla goes there on his summer vacation.) This author not only painted a picture, but also imbued it with vivid smells. Reading her story has impressed upon us the important role that smell plays in description.

It is helpful to be part of a group where the authors are at a similar stage of development because being able to share the non-writing aspects of an author’s life are also important. For instance, those authors at the very beginning can trade helpful hints about the process of writing: finding time, setting short term goals, outline versus character driven, number of words, and so forth. Authors further along are in the throes of attending conferences, looking for agents, or deciding whether and how to self-publish. And established authors have their own issues with publishers and agents. One such author recounted a story wherein she was complaining about such issues, and the unpublished authors in her critique group were rather unsympathetic: they were searching desperately for an agent and publisher, and thought anyone who had already published was in nirvana and should have no complaints.  When you are unemployed — and, alas, so many are these days — you want a job so you can complain about work like everyone else. So it is with unpublished authors.

As a pair of writers, we already function as a small group: regular feedback on what we’ve written, encouragement from one when the other frustrated with the writing, and so forth. Although I must admit, we’ve not had the experience where one of us has said “I can’t stand what you’ve written.” Nope, we don’t do that.  Putting rubber roaches in the other’s sugar bowl — absolutely.  Loathing the other’s writing — nope. Mostly, this is because in general we are on the same literary wavelength — common DNA will do that for you. But if one of us were to feel that way, we’d just quietly make changes, turning off the track changes so the other would never know what happened. We both have extensive experience from childhood denying that we, in fact, Did Something. It must have been the dog; after he ate my homework.

 

 

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?