Reading for the 4th of July

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Happy Fourth of July!

I was thinking about books that celebrate the nation’s founding and its early history. I got my start with Johnny Tremaine, a classic children’s book set in Boston prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution. Centering around growing tension between Patriots and Loyalists the book describes the Boston Tea Party, British blockades, the midnight ride of Paul Revere and the Battles of Lexington and Concorde. Since then, I have read many books that touched upon those important years in the nation’s history. Some focus on specific historical figures – Stephanie Dray’s America’s First Daughter, Gore Vidal’s Burr. Others create an atmosphere in and around the era including several books by Jeff Shaara and even one of Diana Gabaldon’s (The Fiery Cross).

Bernard Cornwell made the revolutionary war the centerpiece of two of his novels beginning with Redcoat, which focuses on winter at Valley Forge. On his website, Cornwell says he was historically accurate but took some heat for use of the “f” word, noting that the word was part of historical accuracy. Some years later he added The Fort to his revolutionary collection.

Anyone reading for the holiday today? Any 4th of July favorites?

★ Home and away with Tracee de Hahn

BOOK CITY ★ Roanoke

Tracee de Hahn is the author of Swiss Vendetta, the first of the Agnes Lüthi mysteries published by St. Martins/Minotaur. Book two, A Well-Timed Murder, is scheduled for release in Feb 2018. She took a break from edits on her second book to talk with us about her inspirations.

dehahn2BOOK CITY ★ Roanoke: Let’s start with your process. What fuels your creativity? 
Tracee de Hahn:  Travel. Without a doubt travel is my inspiration. My current mystery series is set in Switzerland where I lived for a time and where my husband and I return frequently (he’s Swiss). However, travel ANYWHERE fuels my creativity since it takes me outside daily life and helps me see everything and everyone differently. Plus, when I return I’m very happy to be home. There I sit and write!

BCR:  Back home, what about Roanoke inspires your writing?
TdH: I’ve found great inspiration in the other writers I’ve met since moving to…

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Fan Conferences

Screen Shot 2017-05-25 at 9.43.14 AMReaders who haven’t heard about fan conferences are missing something. They are – to my mind – a unique opportunity for writers and readers to mix. And honestly, aren’t all writers also readers, so it’s a perfect storm.

More seriously, for those choosing which conferences to attend, writers have a to remember that these conferences aren’t about craft. Panels tend to focus on the experience of reading – what’s it like to set a book in a hot climate or why do you write such scary books. If you want a seminar on plot or constructing believable characters pick another type of conference.

That said, fan conferences are a chance for writers to have down time with their fellow scribes and network among colleagues. If you are a beginning writer then you can take advantage of the (often) more relaxed atmosphere and get to know some of your favorite authors and make connections that may help your career down the road (when you need that blurb for your first novel).

For fans who have no intention of writing these conferences are a vacation. I’ve met mother-daughter traveling teams, groups from book clubs who want to take their reading interest to a new level, and families who use the conferences as a base for their vacation (particularly true in cities like New Orleans).

There are large national conferences and small region ones, which means that there is probably an event for all budgets and needs. Some of the ones I’m familiar with for mysteries/thrillers are listed below.

-Thrillerfest in NYC every July (a fan conference with a CraftFest component prior)

-Bouchercon every fall. This conference is huge (which means a little something for all mystery/thriller fans) and moves around North America (guaranteeing a good vacation spot)

-Killer Nashville in August (small enough to have a chance to interact with anyone you want, even the big-name headliners)

-Malice Domestic in Bethesda everypring (focus on cozy mysteries but with room to include others. Again, small enough to allow access to the superstars)

-Suffolk Mystery Festival (I’m going for the first time this year)

I’d love to hear about any other great fan conferences out there!

A book club for men.

Screen Shot 2017-05-24 at 3.03.39 PMWriters love books, right? Which must mean that writers love book clubs. After all, this means that people are coming together under the auspices of reading. Recently I’ve talked to several people about their book clubs – clubs of long standing, walking clubs, clubs that meet every month and those that meet four times a year. Clubs that are mainly social clubs and others that are serious discussion only. The common theme – apart from the books – was that they are all women. This started my quest for a book club for men. Turns out it wasn’t hard to find. Not only did I find a few, I found one that struck me as very special. The Short Attention Span Book Club (SASBC) located in the community of San Luis Obispo, California.

The founder, Will Jones, retired from a career in public education (high school English teacher, high school administrator, high school principal) and was interested in next steps. He first started a website called Everyday People where he posted poems he’d written and reviewed books and movies in a section called Short Attention Span reviews. From this the book club was born with the theme ‘short attention span books’ (300 pages or so). Since they started in February 2012, they’ve have only missed a few months and have read well over 50 books.

Will sounds like a lot of my friends and acquaintances who are members of books clubs. He has a lot of interests, including traveling, writing and publishing poetry and writing monthly articles for a local magazine, and spending a lot of time outdoors as a backpacker, hiker and rock climber, but he says that the “SASBC has been the most rewarding activity of my retirement because it’s a shared experience with men my age and we talk about literature! Many of us are dealing with the challenges that come with aging, so even though we don’t dwell on those health issues, there’s always a level of support and understanding. We’re a tight group.”

As an author I like books clubs because people are reading books, but my exchange with Will reminded me that books are about far more than reading. They are about connecting with people.

Will shared more details about the SASBC:

“We’ve had vibrant, rewarding email exchanges with three authors: Larry Watson (Montana 1948 and American Boy), William Giraldi (Hold the Dark), and Jess Walter (Beautiful Ruins). Larry Watson acknowledged his debt to book clubs and wrote that our club name was the best he’d heard to that point. Two local authors, John Hampsey (Kaufman’s Hill) and Franz Wisner (Honeymoon with My Brother) have attended meetings to discuss their books. We attended a Q&A with Kevin Powers (The Yellow Birds) at Cuesta College, a local community college that had chosen The Yellow Birds as its book of the year. We all got to meet Kevin and have our copies signed by him.

“I keep updating our list of possible books to read. I recently added several to the classics column that were written between 1910 and 1920 because one club member has a habit of asking which books we’re reading might still be well regarded in 100 years.

“We are a relatively homogenous group: college educated professional seniors, most either fully or partly retired. We rotate houses for our meetings, which start at 7:00 and usually end by 9:00 or 9:15. We have a great time, but there’s very little idle chit chat. We spend a few minutes sharing “what’s up,” choosing future books to read, agreeing on date and location, and then we dive into our discussion.

He included a two column list of books (attached below) they use as a resource for choosing which books to read. Books with an x next to them are books the SASBC has read (the final two are the next up in their rotation). A big hit recently was O Pioneers by Willa Cather and he notes that they will probably read the other two books in her prairie trilogy soon.

This has made me curious about books clubs – what works and doesn’t work? What are people reading and way?


SASBC Short Novels

Classic Contemporary
Animal Farm, George Orwell Montana 1948, Larry Watson  x
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley  x Train Dreams, Denis Johnson  x
Cannery Row, John Steinbeck  x Lying Awake, Mark Salzman
Farenheit 451, Ray Bradbury Waiting for the Barbarians, J. M. Coetzee
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald  x A Sport and a Pastime, James Salter
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad Solo Faces, James Salter  x
Night, Elie Weisel The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane Farmer, Jim Harrison       x
The Stranger, Albert Camus A Prayer for the Dying, Stewart O’Nan
Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe  x The Dew Breaker, Edwidge Danticat
Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Hurston After Dark, Haruki Murakami
Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck Out Stealing Horses, Per Petterson
Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee  x Charming Billy, Alice McDermott  x
O Pioneers, Willa Cather The Road, Cormac McCarthy
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway x Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion  x
The End of the Affair, Graham Greene Grendel, John Gardner
Appointment in Samarra, John O’Hara  x Chronicle of Death Foretold, Garcia Marquez
The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett We Don’t Live Here Anymore, Andre Dubus
Our Town, Thornton Wilder (Play) The Soloist, Mark Salzman x
The Call of the Wild, Jack London  x Amsterdam, Ian McEwan
The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan
The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene  x Saturday, Ian McEwan x
Franny and Zooey, J. D. Salinger  x The English Major, Jim Harrison  x
Day of the Locust, Nathaniel West An Imaginary Life, David Malouf
Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder Remembering Babylon, David Malouf   x
The Awakening, Kate Chopin The Sense of An Ending, Julian Barnes  x
Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth In the Lake of the Woods, Tim O’Brien
Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut  x March, Geraldine Brooks
Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac The March, E.L. Doctorow  x
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey x Regeneration, Pat Barker
Cathedral (SS), Raymond Carver  x The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers  x
Dance of the Happy Shades (SS), Alice Munro American Boy, Larry Watson  x
Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys If the River Was Whiskey (SS), T.C. Boyle  x
The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway x Wild,  Cheryl Strayed  x
Rabbit, Run   John Updike   x Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain x
A Death in the Family, James Agee Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter  x
My Antonia, Willa Cather Plainsong, Kent Haruf
Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather American Romantic, Ward Just  x
The Ginger Man, J.P. Donleavy  x Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan      x
The Winter of Our Discontent,  John Steinbeck  x A Bend in the River,  V.S. Naipaul      x
Ask the Dust, John Fante  x Hold the Dark, William Giraldi             x
The Turn of  the Screw, Henry James Straight Man, Richard Russo                 x
O Pioneers! Willa Cather  2/16/17 Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson
Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote West of Sunset, Stewart O’Nan  x
A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess Kauffman’s Hill, John Hampsey   x
The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler Honeymoon with My Brother, Franz Wisner  x
Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse  x The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, by John Vaillant
100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez  x The Mersault Investigation,  Kamel Daoud
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch,  Fyodor Dostoevsky Silence, Shusaku Endo  x
The Ghost Writer, Philip Roth When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi  x
Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka, 201, 1912 City of Secrets, Stewart O’Nan  x
Howard’s End, E.M. Forster, 246, 1910 The North Water, Ian McGuire  x
A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, James Joyce, 329, 1916 SoHo Sins, Richard Vine   x
Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton, 128, 1911 Razor Girl, Carl Hiassen  4/20/17 x
The 39 Steps, John Buchan, 100, 1915 Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead 5/18/17
Winesburg Ohio, Sherwood Anderson, 240, 1919 Nothing to Be Frightened Of,  Julian Barnes  6/15/17
The Moon and Sixpense, Somerset Maugham, 204, 1919  

 (This post appeared simultaneously on


It’s still May. Short story month.

Screen Shot 2017-05-23 at 9.47.51 AMI recently spoke to a middle school class in Athens, Tennessee and was impressed by their thoughts on writing, what they were writing and how excited they were about the entire process from inspiration to words on paper to editing (which they informed me was the hardest and most important part!).

In this class, and when I meet children or young adults with their parents, one of the inevitable questions is what should I do if I want to be a writer? That’s a loaded question but one of the things I usually mention is name recognition through competitions. (After all, practice and potential resume building aren’t bad for anyone.) Inevitable we talk about short story competitions. Why? There are quite a few of them. And while writing a short story isn’t easier than writing a full length novel it is ‘shorter,’ which hopefully translates into a shorter timeline for completion.

While name recognition for a contest winner or short story publication is a great thing, there are other wonderful reasons to tackle the short story.

Perhaps most importantly, it is a tool in development of writing craft. Short stories may be short but they have a beginning, middle and end. Their length makes it all the more critical to distill all knowledge into an abbreviated word count. A good short story will always be tight and succinct (whereas a novel can legitimately be lengthy). That leads to the part that the middle schoolers felt was the hardest and most important – editing. A masterful short story is a well edited story.

This doesn’t mean that a short story edits out theme or twists or experimentation with POV or any other of the other things that writers use in full length novels. The short story provides space for everything, just judiciously. A theme is the heart of any story!

Recently I asked a short story writer what was their biggest piece of advice. The answer: start the story very near the end.

Are you a short story writer? Any advice? Any favorites?

Clues and red herrings

(This post appeared simultaneously on

Mystery and thriller writers are often asked – how do you plot your books? For the truth of the matter is that whether the author plots in advance or flies by the seat of their pants and then fixes, the mystery/thriller writer is paying attention to the clues and red herrings that bring their story to a satisfying end. This makes clues and red herrings the mystery writers stock in trade. They aren’t, however, all of the stock needed to arrive at a satisfying end. I like to think that misdirection is the mystery writer’s friend.

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What are some strategies for misdirection?

– Innocent characters with strong motives (who must be clearly shown to be innocent later)

– Innocent character at the scene of the crime (meaning no motive, but the reader will wonder if the motive will be revealed)

– Guilty character who appears innocent (no evidence of motive, weapon or opportunity)

– Clues that can be interpreted in multiple ways (and are)

– Unreliable narrator (this has been added to the list of popular misdirection techniques in recent years)

Strategies require thought and application. Writers use post its and charts, they think about foreshadowing, investigate the rabbit holes of misdirection, and plot backwards from the end to check the sequence.

The critical part of all these strategies is a satisfactory conclusion to each point. For what is truly important is that the reader buy into the ending. There is a fine line between the reader identifying the guilty party too early and not being able to identify them at all. The solution should evolve, so that when it is revealed it is the nicest mix of surprise and a satisfied ‘of course’!

What are your favorite endings? Was it a big reveal or the steady inevitable construction of clues? (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was one of my first mystery reads and the conclusion was a complete surprise, but when I was reminded of the chair being moved I thought Agatha Christie was playing fair. The clues were all there.)





Resources for writers. Oh, how times have changed.

Screen Shot 2017-04-11 at 6.09.28 AMThis post appeared concurrently on, which was recently spotlighted in Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 best blogs for writers. (And it was one of only three named specifically for the mystery genre.) It was a thrill for our group – our Andy Warholian fifteen minutes of fame!

That said, don’t worry if you didn’t see the list, or if you read over if you did. There’s a lot of information out there these days.

Part of me embraces the connectivity. That’s certainly why I blog with these wonderful fellow writers. Writing can be an isolating experience and staying in touch via electronic media helps. Fifty – even twenty – years ago we would have written letters. More personal? Perhaps. But also limiting. I doubt the MissDemeanors would have all participated in a weekly round robin letter.

While I appreciate, and value, all of the on-line resources available today, I can’t help but also give a shout out to the old-fashioned kind. Strunk and White anyone? I still have two copies on my shelf near to hand. And the newer and hipper Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss? I keep it on my nightstand – it is truly urbane, witty and very English as the book jacket proclaims. A chance to be entertained and learn a thing or two.

My point? How do you wade through “what’s out there” without merely marking everything under the sun as informative and to be read later? In my case, I stick with a few resources. Writer’s Digest being one of them. I also try to follow Jane Friedman as much as possible. After that, I attempt to keep in the loop about conferences both local and national, big and small since they are wonderful face-to-face opportunities to connect with both writers and readers. And I confess to loving Twitter – in small doses. It’s like taking the pulse of the world. And I keep my old stand bys – the Strunk and Whites of the world – at hand. When the internet crashes, I’ll be thankful they’re here.

What do you do?

Descriptions. What’s your preference?

(I’m blogging this week with my fellow writers at and this post appeared there as well. Follow us every weekday where we chat about writing and any other thing that strikes our fancy).
My neighbor is a big reader and we had an interesting conversation over the fence this lovely spring weekend. He doesn’t like to read elaborate descriptions. To him, an elaborate description is the gun on the tabletop in scene one that never gets discharged. He gave an example: in the thriller he is currently reading there is a scene where the protagonist walks down a long corridor. The scene is complete with a detailed description of the doors the protagonist passes, what he sees at the other end, etc. In the end, the man gets to the end of the hall and goes into a room.

My neighbor read the passage carefully, sure that the careful attention to detail meant that there were important clues in the text – or at a minimum something would happen behind one of those doors. He felt that the description made it difficult to separate important detail from general atmosphere.

This is a problem for writers. First of all, no two readers are the same, so you can’t satisfy everyone. Some people like to use their imagination to fill in most of the details of places and people. A long narrow corridor. A tall dark stranger. Good enough. They’ve got the idea and the tall dark stranger gets filled in with their ideal, not the writer’s. Same thing with places. My long narrow corridor may look different from everyone else’s, but does it matter if there is crown molding or not?

Screen Shot 2017-04-10 at 12.11.37 PMI believe that there should be enough detail to get close to what the author imagines, but I can sympathize with the notion that too many details are information overload for a reader. This came up in my conversation with my neighbor. Afterwards it struck me that the average reader’s access to information has altered what we want. Think of Charles Dickens or Leo Tolstoy or Victor Hugo. These men were literary giants in their day, hugely popular in every sense of the word. They set a scene that was possibly unimaginable to their readers – a glimpse of the darkest side of industrial England’s workhouses and slums and law courts. The vast battle fields of Russia and the gaiety of aristocratic balls. The dark currents of Paris, including those running under the streets. These scenes were so finely wrought that they are useful to historians today.

Modern society has access to images on television, at the movie theater and on-line. Take Industrial England. Google it and you are overwhelmed by images and descriptions (not all accurate, but that’s a separate issue). No longer are novels the main form of exposing people to faraway places or ideas. As a result, we have adapted as readers and therefore as writers.

Or have we? Description still plays a vital role in a novel. I read to remember places I’ve been, and to dream about places I’ll never go. For me, it remains a balance. I want to see into the mind of the author, all the while knowing I’ll continue to fill in details from my own imagination. That’s also my goal as a writer.

I’m curious, though, what do others want? Plenty of description or spare spare spare? There is definitely room for both.

Am I working on one or three?

This is not an uncommon situation – in fact, I should acknowledge how fortunate I am to be a ‘working’ author at all. However, there is something a bit odd, perhaps even awkward, about being in the midst of finalizing, working on finalizing and at the beginning all at the same time.

Swiss Vendetta is in some ways a thing of the past – I’m still out and about in bookstores and libraries talking about Agnes’s first adventure in Violent Crimes – however, what I’m really thinking about is A Well-Timed Murder, her next adventure (set amidst the watch industry in Switzerland). No cover art yet, in fact I’ve not seen the first round of edits….. so I’m in waiting mode.

Did I mention that I’m waiting? The moment an author hits send the waiting begins. I like to think that I’m a patient waiter. I like having some distance before getting this all important feedback from my editor. Too soon and I might not be ready to hear suggestions. Hit it just right and I can read with a fresh eye. Certainly time and distance will have made me re-think some parts of the book (the question is will my editor and I agree on the changes…. back to waiting patiently). I won’t bother fretting (will my editor want changes that I agree with?). I defer to Stephen King on this – and I paraphrase – writer’s write and editor’s edit.

At the same time, I’m well into research for book three. I know what the big theme is, I’m working out the various characters, and have some ideas for the story (beyond the big idea). There’s still time for the story to evolve and change and likely it will look much different when finished that I envision it now, but it is the next big project! This is where I want my mind to be 100%.

On the other hand…. the mental hopper needs time and feeding and when I get A Well-Timed Murder back (today? tomorrow?) I am ready to dive in and rotate a bit backwards in the cycle.

I’m curious, though, how do other authors do this? Wait until one is completely finalized before starting the next? Or is everything always on a middle, simmer burner?

Swiss Vendetta goes audio!

Swiss Vendetta recently released as an audiobook and it’s generated a little curiosity on my part about the recording process. I’m not an audiobook devotee – like many of my friends. However, I might turn to the audio version of a book for a long solitary drive. When I do, I typically select a familiar title since I tend to zone in and out of listening – an unbreakable habit. A familiar book is best for me. I need to be able to fill in the blanks when I miss something. (This may come from listening while driving up and down the California coast. It’s best to not be distracted in LA traffic!)

As an author, I am a firm believer in craft. That translates into respect for the professional narrator’s craft. Because of this, I trusted that the narrator chosen by my publisher would do for Swiss Vendetta exactly what needed to be done. That meant creating the characters’ voices, setting the tone, and invoking atmosphere. All with her voice.

My narrator, Cat Gould, has a long and distinguished resume, particularly with accents, both as varieties of English and foreign. I’m so pleased to have her on this project. She makes the listen feel like they are in Switzerland!

Curiosity about the life of an audiobook’s narrator led me to a great article giving Steve Marvel’s perspective about his ‘reading’ experiences and process.

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Cat Gould

I hope all audio listeners enjoy Cat’s reading of Swiss Vendetta. Hat’s off to our audio collaborators!