Saturday, December 29, 2018

Ten Recommended Reads

As is my custom, as the year winds down I like to assess the books I've read and make some recommendations.
Since I'm a voracious reader of both fiction and non-fiction (reads and re-reads nearing a hundred and the year isn't quite over), I'm limiting to just 10 books in the mystery genre this time around. Note, they weren't all published in 2017 either. Here they are, in no particular order:
A RECKONING IN THE BACK COUNTRY by Terry Shames. The vicious murder of a doctor from out of the area poses a perplexing mystery in this seventh in the Samuel Craddock series. I don't know why, but this was my first experience with this series. It won't be the last.
SEE ALSO PROOF by Larry D. Sweazy. This Marjorie Tremaine mystery takes the reader on a harrowing journey back to the 1960s--which weren't as wonderful as some would have you believe.
ROBICHEAUX by James Lee Burke. It's been far too long since the last visit with Dave and the gang. Burke has given us other novels in between, but Robicheaux remains my favorite of his creations.
THE LINE by Martin Limon. This page-turner with Army Criminal Investigation Division agents Sueno and Bascom takes the reader on a nail-biting jaunt to the DMZ where a South Korean soldier has been murdered and their investigation threatens to set off an international incident.
A KNIFE IN THE FOG by Bradley Harper. I'm not a fan of writers appropriating the character(s) of others for their own stories. But rather than "borrowing" Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Harper has employed Conan Doyle, his creator; Dr. Joseph Bell, Doyle's mentor, and Margaret Harkness, a remarkable woman, whom I'd never heard of before, for a brilliant and plausible joust with Jack the Ripper, whose bloody exploits continue to fascinate and remain as shrouded in mystery as the foggy streets of 19th century London.
THE WITCH ELM by Tana French. I've enjoyed her Dublin Murder Squad series but this stand-alone with an unreliable narrator may be my favorite of her works. Psychological suspense at its best.
FIVE DAYS, FIVE DEAD by Carole Crigger. I've been a fan of Crigger's China Bohannon since reading the first in the series. This fun romp in the Wild West is a good introduction if you haven't yet read any of the previous novels.
THE STRANGER HOUSE by Reginald Hill. This standalone by the late, lamented author of the superb Dalziel/Pascoe series isn't new (published in 2009) but it's erudite, witty and highly entertaining.
BODY AND SOUL by John Harvey. This is the final episode in Harvey's Frank Elder series and, based on his own comment, his last novel. As always, it's sharp and gripping. Personally, I hope there are more novels to be written by Harvey. If not, there are still a good many I haven't read.
SMOKE AND ASHES by Abir Mukherjee. This is the third outing for Captain Sam Wyndham and his sidekick Sergeant "Surrender-Not" Banerjee and I hope there are many more. Sam's addiction put his career in jeopardy as he tries to solve several ritualistic murders and Banerjee grapples with family and personal issues amidst the turmoil of Gandhi's Indian independence movement.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Writing Habits

(My guest today is Marilyn Meredith aka F. M. Meredith who is going to share with us some thoughts on writing and a bit about her latest mystery, Tangled Webs.)

It’s always interesting to learn how different writers write, if and how they schedule their writing time, where they like to write, music they like to listen to, what they drink while writing.

One of my favorite writers does the majority of his writing in a diner, others I know head to the local coffee shop, or the library. For me, having to go someplace to write would not work—plus, I know I’d be distracted in a public place. Watching people is too much fun.

Mainly I write at my desktop computer in my office in my home. No photo, it’s generally on the messy side. Because I have a big family, big and little people drop in unannounced. I have no problem at all getting back to work after they leave.

Some writers I know set aside a particular number of hours a day to write, much like working at a regular job. Others write at night after all is quiet. I prefer writing in the early morning hours while most in the house are still in bed—but I keep on going until I know I’m done for the day. However, there are times when the muse strikes me at odd hours and I’ll return to the computer.
And no, I don’t write every day—some days I’m busy with other business connected with writing, or just life.

I tried using music to set the mood for whatever I was writing, but gave it up. It was far too distracting. However, I always begin my day and the writing process with a cup of Chai latte.

One last little tidbit, I know some writers stay in their PJs all day. Not me, I get dressed first thing after I rise. Remember, I wrote that people drop in unannounced? I’ve had family arrive before 6 a.m. for one reason or another.

So, you other writers out there, what are your writing habits?

writes the Rocky Bluff PD series as F. M. Meredith

Blurb: Too many people are telling lies: The husband of the murder victim and his secretary, the victim’s boss and co-workers in the day care center, her stalker, and Detective Milligan’s daughter.

Bio: F. M. Meredith who is also known as Marilyn once lived in a beach town much like Rocky Bluff. She has many friends and relatives in law enforcement. She’s a member of MWA, 3 chapters of Sisters in Crime and serves on the PSWA Board.

Facebook: Marilyn Meredith
Twitter: @marilynmeredith

Tomorrow I’m heading to Thonie Hevron’s blog: https;//Thonie and letting everyone know what I’m thankful for as a writer.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Reader Survey, Part 2

Writers--unless they're like J. D. Salinger who in his latter days was only interested in the process--seek readers. Traditional wisdom says the best way to do that is to give readers what they want.
So, how do we discover what readers want?
In my opinion, the best way is to listen to what they say. One source of information is surveys such as one conducted by M. K. Tod, an author and blogger at She's been conducting these surveys since 2012 and they provide a wealth of insight into the minds of readers from around the globe.
Last  week I commented on the 2018 survey findings on issues of interest to readers. Naturally much of that should have been of interest to writers, too. We learned 75 percent of the participants still prefer print books over electronic format. They told us they mostly read fiction for entertainment and their most popular genres are mystery/thrillers, romance and historical fiction.
Granted, this was not a huge survey. But more than half the 2,418 respondents said they read more than 30 books a year. That's a significant number.
This week I'm focusing on matters of more concern to writers, specifically how to give readers what they want.
One topic I found most interesting was how readers determine what to read next. The most important factor, they related, is subject matter and genre. The least important--the publisher or imprint. Though we've been told time and again covers are an extremely important factor in sales, that wasn't borne out in this survey. Cover was somewhat a factor (slightly more important to women than to men), but not an overriding concern for most. Identity of the author varied with age groups. Fifty-four percent for those over 70 but only 29 percent for those under 30.
We've also had the importance of reviews drummed into us constantly. Yet (and I wasn't totally surprised) reviews weren't the top factor in this survey. These readers (and I believe most) rely predominately on the recommendation of friends. That's not to say reviews aren't important. Favorite review sites were second in preference, closely followed by sites such as Goodreads and simply browsing in a bookstore. Except for Amazon, advertising/promotion seldom rose above 20 percent for the respondents.
Another factor writers should keep in mind, women read more than men. Sixty percent of the women responding to this survey said they read more than 30 books a year. You're free to write whatever you like. But, if your books don't appeal to women, you're missing a large part of the market. And, they love fiction. Eighty-eight percent of the women expressed a preference for fiction in their book reading.
Some of the factors women cited as important in their reading were authenticity, characters who are both heroic and human, a fast-paced plot, and feeling immersed in the novel's world.
Giveaways have long been a big marketing ploy. Yet only 30 percent of the respondents (male and female) found those of interest. They were more interested in reading a magazine or newspaper article about a book (60 percent), following an author on Facebook or Twitter, reading an author's blog or newsletter, or meeting an author in person.
As to how they purchase or acquire their books, 70 percent of the respondents said they buy on line. Libraries also remain a strong source, particularly for women.
For a more in depth look at the survey, use the link above to M. K. Tod's site.

Monday, October 1, 2018

A Survey of Readers

This summer I was one of more than 2,000 persons who again participated in a survey of readers conducted by M. K. Tod, an author and blogger at She's been conducting these surveys since 2012.
The results provide a few surprises which may be of interest to other writers/readers.
First, I should note, participants came from around the globe, were of varying ages and more than half read more than 30 books in a year. Not surprisingly, a majority of the participants were female. Women do tend to read more than men.
It pleased me to learn 75 percent of the participants prefer print books, frequently or exclusively using that format. I have nothing against electronic formats. I do find them convenient, especially for travel, and do utilize my Kindle on a fairly regular basis. But, despite all the hype, I don't believe they are monopolizing the reading world. At least, not yet.
Entertainment was cited as the primary reason for reading fiction, and readers like to feel immersed in the story. Seventy-one percent of men vs. 88 percent of women read fiction more than 50 percent of the time. As to genre, the favored categories in order were: mystery/thrillers, romance, historical fiction, women's fiction, and literary. Yay, mysteries!
Again, not surprisingly, genre interest varies with age. For mystery, interest increases with age, while interest in fantasy, science fiction and horror seems to decrease with age. Here are two other factors I found fascinating: interest in the romance genre peaks between the ages of 30 and 50. Literary fiction is less popular in the U.S. than in other parts of the world.
Since some of my stories are classed as historical fiction, I was pleased to see the 19th century as the second most favored period.
As to non-fiction, the most popular genres were history, biography and memoirs.
The majority of those surveyed (78 percent) said they read whenever opportunity permits. Bedtime reading, followed by vacation-time, were other high percentages. More men than women read on the way to or from work. Most people read solo, though the more books a person reads in a year, the more likely they are to join a book club.
(I'll be doing a follow up on this blog, focusing more on topics of specific interest to writers).

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Not The Only Game In Town

Mention 19th century U.S. detective agencies, and Pinkerton is generally the first to be called to mind.
This isn't surprising since the agency established by Allan Pinkerton in 1850 is widely known because of its role in protecting President Lincoln during the Civil War, smashing the Molly Maguires in the Pennsylvania coal region, and tracking down western outlaws like Jesse James. By the 1890s, the Pinkerton Detective Agency had more operatives than the U.S. Army had soldiers.
But, Pinkerton wasn't the only detective agency operating in the wild west in the 1890s.
One of Pinkerton's major competitors was the Thiel Detective Service Agency. The firm was founded by George H. Thiel, a former Civil War spy and Pinkerton employee.
I decided to give my character Sam Blake a job with the firm after research turned up the firm's work in Colorado in the period of Blake's Rule. One of Thiel's first employees was John F. Farley, a former U.S. Cavalry trooper, who became manager of the Denver office. He hires Blake in the novel.
A major task of the Thiel agency was infiltrating labor organizations and breaking up strikes, work that had agents reviled by many as mercenaries and musclemen. This reputation causes an initial conflict between Blake and Sheriff Fremont before they become allies in Blake's Rule. Here's a blurb for the novel:
Blake’s rule has always been to do what’s right…not what’s easy.

Range detective Sam Blake is after cattle rustlers—but when a beautiful woman is accused of murdering her employer, he has to step in and see justice done. Miriam had her reasons for the brutal killing, and though she’s not talking, Blake understands there’s more to this crime than meets the eye.

When the local sheriff, James Fremont, asks Blake to spirit Miriam and her two children out of town before a lynch mob comes for her, he agrees. But Cyrus Diebler, the influential rancher who is intent on seeing her pay for her crime, is not about to be stopped. He will go to whatever lengths he must to see her dead, though it means putting his own family in harm’s way.

As Blake and Miriam stay one step ahead of the relentless Diebler and his deadly henchmen, a relationship begins to build between them. When Blake learns the real story behind the murder, and the dark secrets of Diebler’s motivation to see Miriam dead, he vows he will protect her and her children at all costs—even if it means his own life.

Blake's Rule is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other major booksellers.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

On Writing Multiple Series

(Amy Reade is my guest today. The floor is yours, my friend:)

            Last week I was in a pickle (not literally, of course). I’m working on three series right now and moving seamlessly from one to another was not happening. When I worked on the first project, I would be fine. But when it came time to shift gears for the second project and then the third, I found I had no energy, no ideas left in the well.
            I know plenty of writers who write more than one series. And if they can do it, so can I. 
            It’s hard work writing one book, let alone two or three at the same time. I’ve imposed deadlines on myself to stay on track and on pace, but deadlines only work when you have ideas and can immerse yourself in a book to get those ideas down in edit-able form. Hence, I’m meeting the deadlines on the first book; not so much on the second and third.
            I knew I had to figure out a way to make three series work, and I think I’ve hit on a three-part solution.
            First, I limit myself to working on two books per day. On Day One, I work on the first and second books. On Day Two, I work on the second and third books. And on Day Three (you guessed it), I work on the third and first books. Then I start the cycle again.
            I know there are some writers who think it’s necessary to work on the same book day after day in order to stay in the flow of the story, but this is what’s working for me right now. If there comes a time when it’s not working, I’ll have to come up with a different solution (and another blog post about it).
            Second, I have found it helpful to take a break between projects every day. And I’m talking about a physical break—one where I get up and move around, do something vigorous. It may be taking my dog for a walk or getting on the spin bike or cleaning a bathroom. It can be anything, as long as it isn’t just eating lunch or (gasp) taking a nap. There’s truth to the rumor that getting the blood moving also gets the brain moving.
            And third, each project I’m working on is at a different stage of the writing-editing-publishing process. My first project is deep in the rewrite stages. My second project is in the soggy middle. My third project is at the very beginning of the rewrites. Once I’m ready to send the first book off to the editor, I’ll have just one book in the rewrite stage and I’ll start something new. I find that it helps not to be actively drafting three books at the same time.
            Do you work on more than one project at a time? How do you keep yourself sane and the creative juices flowing? I hope you’ll share your ideas with us.
 Author bio:

Amy M. Reade is the USA Today bestselling author of The Malice Series, consisting of The House on Candlewick Lane, Highland Peril, and Murder in Thistlecross, all of which are set in the United Kingdom. She has also written a cozy mystery, The Worst Noel, and three standalone novels of gothic suspense: Secrets of Hallstead House, The Ghosts of Peppernell Manor, and House of the Hanging Jade.
Amy is a recovering attorney living in Southern New Jersey. She is active in community organizations and loves reading, cooking, and traveling when she’s not writing. She is currently working on a second cozy mystery and a historical mystery set in Cape May County, New Jersey.
Social Media Links

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Complicating a Character's Life

In my mysteries, I like to give my protagonist big problems in addition to the central crime with which he's dealing.
Life comes with complications, so why should a mystery be any different?
In The Bartered Body, Sheriff Sylvester Tilghman is confronted with the theft of a body from a local funeral parlor. Not just any body, but that of the mother-in-law of Nathan Zimmerman, burgess of Arahpot and Syl's boss.
When Syl isn't dealing with crime his major concern is trying to convince Lydia Longlow, the strong woman he loves, to relinquish some of her independence and marry him. He's persevered with this and other problems in the two previous novels of the series (Fallen From Grace and Sooner Than Gold). In the past Syl's dealt with such issues as poisonings and stabbings, scary predictions by a gypsy fortuneteller, horse thieves, a political enemy, and even a few culprits taking pot shots at him.
The theft of an old woman's body is a new and complex problem, perhaps the most perplexing he's faced yet.
But, as I said, I like to complicate life for my characters.
While working on the weekly history column I write for my local newspaper I stumbled upon the Great Arctic Outbreak of February 1899, and  I knew it was an element made for this novel. This storm impacted the whole of the United States, including Pennsylvania where my story is set.
The impact of the storm was felt as far south as Florida, where temperatures dropped below zero in Tallahassee on Feb. 13. The cold was so intense cattle froze in the fields in many places. Telegraph lines--still the major means of communication between communities--were downed, rail traffic was halted by drifting snow, and cities and towns were completely cut off from one another for days. Orchards and crops were destroyed. It's been estimated more than 100 people died as a result of the St. Valentine's Day Blizzard of 1899.
Now, that's what I call a complication.
For good measure, I tossed in a few other problems for Syl--the arrival in town of a former flame who threatens his relationship with Lydia; clashes with his old enemy, former burgess McLean Ruppenthal, and  a string of puzzling armed robberies.
The Bartered Body is available in print and electronic formats.
Grab a copy here:
It's also available from Amazon, B&N and other fine booksellers.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Gin Mill Grill--A Sandi Webster Mystery

I'm hosting Marja McGraw on my blog this week. Marja has a new Sandi Webster mystery to tell us about. The floor is yours, Marja.

John, Thank you for having me as a guest today. I enjoy your posts and I’m delighted to be a part of your blog.

You might wonder how I came up with a storyline that involves speakeasies and gin mills. I was stuck for an idea and sat down with a large book filled with the front pages of newspapers. I can’t say the headlines grabbed my attention, but farther down the page you can find all kinds of stories.

We like to say that things were simpler in the old days, and that people were more innocent than we are now. That’s not necessarily true.

Through researching old newspapers I’ve found some sensational stories that involved things you’d think might happen today, but not back in the thirties or forties. People are people, and they do unexpected things for surprising reasons.

I’m getting off track. When I started reading some of the stories, the ones farther down the page, I ran across one regarding the murder of a man and the disappearance of his brother. Needless to say, the authorities thought of the disappearing brother as their prime suspect. To the best of their knowledge, he’d been in the house at the time of the murder and somehow managed to escape.

That’s all I needed. This brief story got the best of my imagination and the storyteller in me was off and running. I wanted an interesting time and location involved in the story and what might be better than a speakeasy during Prohibition? I needed a resolution to the disappearing brother, and I found one. I also needed someone who might even care about the brothers in current time, and I found just the woman. I also needed suspects, but considering the era it took a bit more work to come up with some characters who might still be living after so many years.

As the story unfolded, I wanted to include a really scary guy, and I came up with one I think might give you the shivers. His nickname was Water Boy and I think you’ll love letting him give you the chills.

Sandi Webster-Goldberg and her husband, Pete, have a reputation for solving cold cases and it didn’t take long for a woman to walk through their office door with an old case.

I think one of the reasons I enjoy occasionally having Sandi and Pete solve a cold case is because the victim is “off stage,” so to speak. They don’t have to face a recent murder and I don’t have to let gore sneak into my books. When the pair solve a current case, it’s a bit trickier.


Sandi and Pete have earned a reputation for solving old cases, and they’re approached by a woman who’d like a 1930s crime solved. A man was brutally murdered and his brother immediately disappeared. The authorities believed the brother was their best suspect, but they weren’t able to track him down.

Case closed – or was it?

With the discovery of a private room in the house where the crime was committed, Sandi and Pete must change their thought processes and start running down other suspects and looking at other locations, including an old speakeasy.

Why would someone in the current day try to put a halt to the investigation? After all, the murder took place in the 1930s.

Circumstances are often not as they seem, and this case is no exception.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Syl's Back

Nineteenth Century Coal Region Sheriff Sylvester Tilghman has been one of my most popular characters with readers.

Tilghman was introduced in Fallen From Grace. His adventures continued in Sooner Than Gold. And now I'm thrilled to report The Bartered Body, third in the series, has been released by Milford House, fiction imprint of Sunbury Press
The third of his family to serve as a lawman in the fictional Arahpot, Jordan County, Pennsylvania, Sylvester has persevered in his duties and continued his quest to marry the ambitious and independent Lydia Longlow. Now, this time around, he faces one of his most difficult challenges as a law enforcement officer.
Here's the blurb:
Why would thieves steal the body of a dead woman?
That’s the most challenging question yet to be faced by Sylvester Tilghman, the third of his family to serve as sheriff of Arahpot, Jordan County, Pennsylvania, in the waning days of the 19th century.
And it’s not just any body but that of Mrs. Arbuckle, Nathan Zimmerman’s late mother-in-law. Zimmerman is burgess of Arahpot and Tilghman’s boss, which puts more than a little pressure on the sheriff to solve the crime in a hurry.
Syl’s investigation is complicated by the arrival in town of a former flame who threatens his relationship with his sweetheart Lydia Longlow; clashes with his old enemy, former burgess McLean Ruppenthal; a string of armed robberies, and a record snowstorm that shuts down train traffic, cuts off telegraph service and freezes cattle in the fields.
It will take all of Syl’s skills and the help of his deputy and friends to untangle the various threads and bring the criminals to justice.
The Bartered Body is available in print and electronic format from the publisher, as well as Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other booksellers.
If you're looking for a fun read and haven't yet met Syl and his friends I hope you'll add The Bartered Body to your TBR list.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

On Attracting Readers

What makes a reader pick up a book?
For writers, this is always an intriguing question. I've been monitoring a survey on the subject, and it resulted in a few surprises.
With the millions of books published every day, writers have to resort to every element available in order to stand out and be discovered by readers. We're told we've got to become a 'brand' so those coveted readers will recognize us and seek out our work from among all those available. Branding means getting your name out in the marketplace. You've got to promote yourself as well as your books. This endless drive to promote can become overwhelming, distract from your real job (writing), and become downright annoying to potential customers if you don't do it right.
Many of the writers I know are obsessed with a desire to acquire reviews because they've been told this is the key to discovery. Amazon, for example, gives marketing assistance to books with 50 or more reviews. Some marketing programs won't accept a book unless it has a designated number of reviews.
Surprisingly, reviews were not specified as a particular attraction for readers responding to this survey.
What a majority did emphasize as elements inspiring them to pick up and buy a book were: An attention-grabbing title; an intriguing blurb, and an eye-catching cover.
Another big concern was price. They seemed to agree $2.99-3.99 for electronic and $15-20 for print were fair prices.
I was a bit surprised they put title first, since most often the advice from "experts" emphasizes cover art. Personally, I do think cover design is among the most important considerations. Yet, there is the admonition not to judge a book by its cover, and I am drawn to the mystery of titles. Think of all the great novels you would know by their titles rather than the covers adorning their pages.
In regard to blurbs, a majority said they should be just long enough to give a hint of what the story's about (but not give away everything), should not include reviews and definitely should not compare the book or writer to another.
A number of the persons responding to the survey said they also like to read a few pages of the book to test the quality of the writing before making a decision to buy. The "look inside" feature for electronic versions got a big thumbs up. Reflecting the trend to shorter attention spans, a number of the responders said they would select a shorter book over a longer one every time--provided it had the desired other attributes.
Getting back to the subject of reviews, some discounted them as merely one person's opinion while others said they have been put off by manipulation of the system and inaccurate or misleading comments.
True, this was not a huge survey. But I think it provides some interesting food for thought.