Why I Find Comfort in Crime Fiction

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A few months ago I almost signed up for an “urban escape” training weekend. We’re not talking getting out of the city and into the woods though. The course description is this:

While on an international business trip you are kidnapped and held for ransom. or, a terrorist attack closes the business district of your city and you find yourself in a dangerous, chaotic fix. How do you stay alive? How do you get to safety on your own?

This class provides leading-edge skills to civilians who live or work in challenging urban environments or who may find themselves in a destabilizing urban area during a crisis. Topics covered include covert movement (day vs. night), the judicious use of caches, understanding urban baseline movement and urban awareness training, the use of disguises and false papers/identification, lock picking, escaping from unlawful custody, obtaining and driving local transportation, the use of “specialized” urban gear, and instruction on how to develop urban escape and evasion go-bags. A one day urban escape scenario is held the final day of class.

Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? One of the classes was offered in Las Vegas during my daughter’s spring break, and I suggested we take it together–spend a couple days in Vegas ahead of time for fun, then go to the class to learn some new skills. Great mommy-daughter bonding time, right? She seemed as excited about it as I was.

When I suggested I wanted to do this, my husband was appalled. He didn’t understand why we would be attracted to this kind of weekend. Learning how to escape from being kidnapped? Sure, it would be awesome research for my writing, but I wanted to do it. For me. I still want to.

As I spoke to more of my friends about this, I learned that women were more likely to be attracted to the class than men. As women, we are taught to walk down the street with heightened awareness and actively think about the threats that surround us all the time. Is that man crossing the street toward me? What kind of lighting is there? Can I see who is around me? Who is nearby that can harm me? A class like this would give me some possible skills to use if I am ever pulled into a passing car or a bag goes over my head from behind.

As I rationalized my desire to take this class, I realized my relationship to reading (and writing), and my intense focus on all things scary had to do with coping in life. Crime fiction, mysteries and stories that deal with horrible things provide a sort of comfort to me. It is to many women what Grimm’s Fairytales are to children.

Reading about someone surviving a terrifying situation, especially if they are part of their own escape from it, helps us, as women, cope with the possibilities. It makes it so we can walk down the street knowing others have survived, we can too.

note:
I ended up not taking that particular class because of timing and cost issues. Good thing, too. The weekend I was looking at ended up being the same one where I had an emergency appendectomy. Being locked in a car trunk with an exploding appendix would have not been a good time. I’d still like to take the class sometime…

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(c) Can Stock Photo

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A new year, a new list…

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What’s on your list to read in 2016?  I got a few fun books to read over the holidays, (see photo) and I still have a backlog from book-signing events and conferences.

First up is “Purity” by Franzen. It was a birthday gift from my fabulous mother-in-law, and I have kept ‘meaning to get into it.’

Every book I read about writing gives me the same advice–write and read a lot. I tried to put every book I read in 2015 on my Goodreads shelves, but I probably missed one or two. But, it looks like I made my 52 book goal for the year.  Most were mysteries or thrillers. What a surprise!

As a writer, I have a couple of standard responses to books I read.  Often I think “wow…this is really good. HOW did this writer pull me in?”  I spend some time analyzing the craft of the author and feeling inferior.  The other response is “wow…this is really crap.  How did this writer ever get published?” along with the more peevish, “I write better than this, so what’s off about MY STORY?”

Regardless of my response, I usually learn SOMETHING as a writer with every book I pick up. Reading without the active analysis is harder for me than it used to be, so I love it when I get so sucked into a story that I forget to pay attention to craft details. When I put such a book down, I have a moment where I think, “wait…how did that happen? I read a story and didn’t even think about how the author used a gazillion adverbs and it didn’t bug me at all…”

Here’s wishing you and yours a happy, safe, and word-filled 2016.

 

 

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Why your epic-fantasy-detective-Christian-erotic-romance is having a hard time being found….

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I recently worked with a friend to co-edit and publish an anthology of erotic vampire stories. The collection includes some gay, some lesbian, some straight, some BDSM, and even one science fiction story. Given they are all about vampires, most of which suck blood or psychic ju-ju, they all border on horror.

If you’re  at all observant, you might have noticed the picture to the left. These are the categories publishers use as defined by the book industry study group.  When we went to publish the book, we were given space to choose three categories.  (I’ve included both erotica and fantasy categories, but the link to the group will show all categories–click on fiction for all fiction etc.)  Technically speaking, we could easily have chosen six categories for this anthology.

We chose to publish via Ingram Sparks, a distributor of books all over the world, rather than via Amazon.  Amazon is hated–and I mean HATED–by most brick and mortar stores, and we wanted to make sure this little anthology was available in small independent stores.  This is how it works. The publisher logs onto IngramSpark and adds a new title. They put in the ISBN, which they’ve purchased from a service. Then, they choose the categories and add in a bunch of key words to help readers with their searches. Basically, the publisher adds data to a database. They upload the documents for the book–cover, PDF, epub files etc. Then, retailers databases ‘talk’ to the distributor’s databases and computer magic happens and the book appears for sale all over the internet–Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, etc. Unfortunately, not all magic is magical. Databases talking to other databases don’t always match up field for field and nothing is 100% automated.  We still had to call Amazon directly for them to link the kindle version with the print version. Barnes and Noble managed to link the two versions automatically, but they got other metadata wrong because they pulled data from the wrong fields.

The bigger problem is, you can’t add categories or tweak them. We were stuck with the categories shown in the image. So, while there are several gay stories in our anthology, they aren’t ALL gay. And while there is one alien story in the book, it’s not a collection of science fiction. We could have just left it at “collections and anthologies” but we wanted to let readers know, somehow, there are more than just heterosexual interactions in the book. Our back cover, the description for the book, ended up being the only way we could inform readers of what they’d find inside.

As authors, we get asked this question by agents and editors all the time: “Where would your book go on the shelf?”  Now I FINALLY understand why. They want to visualize our books as part of the industry standards–the categories they know and understand. If they can’t click on one of the topics off that list, they don’t know how to sell our work. The category list is a lot smaller than you think it is.  Genre-benders almost always get turned down by agents because they can’t quite figure out which category to use that will sell the most books.  If it doesn’t fit into the list as they know it, they won’t want to rep or buy your book.

So, here’s the take away for writers.  If you have a book you want to sell, study the list. Figure out which three categories you would choose to best describe your book and use the top category in your pitches. You can do this even with cross-genre work by going with the strongest element of your novel.

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Deep breath, hit send. Fly baby, fly.

Betas and drafts.

Betas and drafts.

I might as well be standing outside naked–in a public park surrounded by people staring at me. That’s how exposed I feel right now. Today is it. The day I send Bound to Die out into the world. Yes, a few people have read it, liked it, even. But, today is the day I send it to agents and editors–the people I met at last year’s PNWA conference who said, “Sounds like a great story. Send it to me when you’ve got it.” The people who will pass judgment on it in a way that has me feeling raw and vulnerable.

I made a goal to send it off before THIS year’s PNWA conference. It’s July 3rd, and I’m meeting that goal by a scant two weeks.

I took all my beta-reader’s delicious (and sometimes painful comments) and worked through them over the last few months. I hired a professional editor to look at the result and rewrote based on his comments. All the while, I tried to maintain the integrity of my voice, my character’s voices. Did I make every change my readers suggested? No. I seriously considered every thoughtful remark and comment. I agonized over cutting characters, adding in more of this or that. At the end, I am feeling really good about the book. It’s got a beginning, a middle, and an end–complete and full story with characters who make me want to write more of them.

It’s hard work. I was consumed by it in a way I had never experienced before. Working late into the night is pretty strange experience for me, but that old Journalism degree pounded a fierce compulsion to meet deadlines into my psyche. I’m done…I’m finally done.

Well, for now, anyway.

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Beta Time

Beta PicPeople have been asking me questions that are some variant of “So, how’s that book coming along?” or “When is your book coming out?” and “Didn’t you win a contest or something?” and “Hasn’t it been a while now?”

It feels like FOREVER since I started Bound to Die for NaNoWriMo in 2011. I took a look at the original 50,000 words and realized I have kept about 5,000 of them. Ten percent. I point this out to illustrate that, as a newbie novelist, I am learning as I go. Writing a novel is about ten thousand times more difficult than reading one. And, when you do it the way I did, it’s maybe a gazillion times harder.

The problem with NaNoWriMo is, it’s all about process and not product. The problem with this is…well, it’s NOT about the product. So, my 2011 NaNoWriMo was a mess. It’s taken me three years to turn it around into something that is readable. In Mid-February, I sent the manuscript off to six readers to get their response.

The image above shows the first three manuscripts I got back. I used this image to illustrate the next step in my process. I will be comparing notes from all six readers side-by-side and page-by-page. For example, readers of two of the returned manuscripts have brought up an issue at the start of Chapter 23. They are having DIFFERENT questions, but this tells me that I have to re-write the transition into the scene or fix it some other way to keep people connected to the story.

As the author, I get to make all the decisions about things, but when half the people are being bumped out of the story, it’s clear something is not working. This is tricky, because writing by committee doesn’t work. I’m trying to work out a metric on this. If only one person is bumped by something, I look to see if it’s a big bump or a little one. If it’s something easy to clarify, I will. If it’s something that I think is just that reader’s ‘personal issue’, I’ll probably ignore it. If more than two have a bump, then I KNOW there is a problem.

One person told me he doesn’t like the name I chose for my protagonist. It just so happens he had a bad reaction to the name because he was projecting from a life experience. I get that, but I decided to keep the name I had very carefully chosen even though I know at least one person won’t like it. Heck, I know more than one person won’t like the book. (And, there’s the topic of my next blog post–thick skin…)

I’m heading off on a three day intensive editing retreat this week to go through all the fabulous and thoughtful responses I got from my “beta readers.” I have an appointment with a developmental editor in April, and then I’ll be ready to do one more edit before sending it out to agents. I had a bunch of them interested in the story at last summer’s PNWA conference, and I can’t wait to get it into their hands.

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Cassoulet!

After my last post on making the duck confit, I kind of left things hanging. Sorry about that, but I was busy finishing a draft of my novel during the last few weeks. Said draft is out into the world, or at least in the hands of six lovely beta readers for now. I told my family last night I feel like I just walked into the mall, took all my clothes off, and asked people to tell me what they think. I have a very thick skin when it comes to my writing, but there’s something very raw and tender about sending my 98,000 word “baby” off to be (intentionally) torn into shreds by critical readers.

Back to Cassoulet…In my last post, I cover making Duck confit. Today I’ll run through what else goes into our cassoulet with a bunch of pictures. (Still trying to figure out alignment issues…sorry if it’s not all pretty on your browser.) For the pork roast recipe, you can find the general directions here.

And, here’s a link to where you can watch a timelapse of putting it all together. I apologize in advance for the vertical format. I had to stick the phone into something to hold it while I did the timelapse, and doing it the right way wasn’t working. The only thing that is missing is the final step–chopped parsley mixed with bread crumbs go over the top of the beans. The cassoulet goes in the oven for an hour, then you push the browned crumbs down into the beans and let it brown again.

Pork roast in marinade plus prepared veggies.

Pork roast in marinade plus prepared veggies.I used Julia Child’s classic pork roast recipe. I let it marinate for a couple of days before cooking it for the cassoulet.

The roast is browned and veggies are added before it bakes in the oven.I deglazed the pan after the roast was done cooking with wine and saved the resulting liquid for the final preparation of the cassoulet.

The roast is browned and veggies are added before it bakes in the oven.I deglazed the pan after the roast was done cooking with wine and saved the resulting liquid for the final preparation of the cassoulet.

We found some French garlic sausage to use, but you can use kielbasa found at the grocery store. Just don't use breakfast sausage. You want something with a savory garlic flavor.

We found some French garlic sausage to use, but you can use kielbasa found at the grocery store. Just don’t use breakfast sausage. You want something with a savory garlic flavor.

The garlic sausage is cut into quarter chunks and browned. I let it drain on paper towels before putting into the cassoulet. I bet pouring the leftover fat from the browning onto the beans would be tasty, too.

The garlic sausage is cut into quarter chunks and browned. I let it drain on paper towels before putting into the cassoulet. I bet pouring the leftover fat from the browning onto the beans would be tasty, too.

The bouquet garni for the beans is pretty important. Parsley, thyme, garlic and bay flavor the beans.

The bouquet garni for the beans is pretty important. Parsley, thyme, garlic and bay flavor the beans.

One inch chunks of salt pork are first boiled then drained before adding to the beans.

One inch chunks of salt pork are first boiled then drained before adding to the beans.

The beans have been through a quick boil/soak. Now they are in their long cook with sliced onions, the salt pork and the bouquet garni. They are cooked until just tender as they will be cooked again in the cassoulet.

The beans have been through a quick boil/soak. Now they are in their long cook with sliced onions, the salt pork and the bouquet garni. They are cooked until just tender as they will be cooked again in the cassoulet.

Here you see everything ready to put together, except the beans. They are on the stove. The duck, pork, sausage, juice from the duck and pork,  salt pork are ready to be layered together.

Here you see everything ready to put together, except the beans. They are on the stove. The duck, pork, sausage, juice from the duck and pork, salt pork are ready to be layered together.

Crusty Cassoulet, ready to serve.

Crusty Cassoulet, ready to serve.

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Cassoulet–Step 1, Duck Confit with the Anova Sous Vide

Crusty Cassoulet, ready to serve.

Crusty Cassoulet, ready to serve.

For many years, my in-laws would celebrate their New Year’s Day wedding anniversary by hosting an open house and serving Cassoulet. January 1, 2015 was their 50th anniversary, and a cassoulet open house seemed the perfect way to honor their golden year.

What is cassoulet? Essentially, it’s baked beans. In France, people will take whatever meats they have left over from their meals, put it in a pot with beans and bake it. However, not being French, and not having leftover meat enough for fifty people, I definitely had to start from scratch. I used the old Julia Child cookbook my mom-in-law had used, watched the Julia Child video on youtube and went from there. The idea of using duck confit came from the cookbook, and I decided that sounded extra rich and yummy.

I had made a ‘quick’ version of duck confit recently in order to get the duck fat for roasting veggies. The store was out of duck fat, so my only choice, really, was to render it myself. The duck meat itself wasn’t my prime target on that one. But, during my research, I had learned duck confit is traditionally made by covering the duck with salt, weighting it down and letting it cure for several days before covering it with lots more duck fat and then cooking it in the fat at a very precise low temperature for hours. Kind of finicky for me, but I was willing to do it.

Then, when I was looking for the directions again, I came across a recipe by Paula Wolfert. (I tried linking it here, but the site doesn’t allow linking–you can google it under Paula Wolfert Duck Confit.) She basically has you put the duck in a pouch and watch the water at 180F for five hours. Basically sous vide without any machine to help. This still requires pretty consistent attention. It just so happens, my husband bought me the”Anova Sous Vide Immersion Circulator – 120V Circulator Cooker” for Christmas. I knew immediately what my first use of the new Sous Vide machine was going to be.

So, here’s how I did the confit for the party. It’s a lot of duck, but packed in its own fat, it should last for months. Either do a huge batch or reduce the quantity of spices and you’ll be fine. I don’t think there’s anything exact about that part. I saw several recipes that added lots of garlic to the mix, so next time, I might do a garlic confit. (I just didn’t want to flavor all my fat with garlic this time out.)

Ingredients:
10 Duck leg quarters
6 TBSP Salt
4 TSPN freshly ground black pepper
two crumbled bay leaves
10 sprigs fresh thyme

I started by cleaning duck quarters and rubbing them with salt, pepper, and crumbled bay leaves. I had fresh thyme still alive in the garden, so I just layered fresh sprigs on each piece. I piled the duck into a sealable container and pressed it down with a piece of plastic and closed it up for three days in the fridge.
Raw salted duck

Duck in bags

After the duck had been salted for several days, I washed off as much of the herbs as I could and dried very thoroughly with paper towels.

I put two quarters into each quart sized vacuum sealable bag and used a vacuum/sealer (FoodSaver V2244 Vacuum Sealing System“>) to suck out all the air and seal the plastic closed.  (While I did this, I had the Anova set up in a huge pot with water warming to 180F.)
Duck in waterThen, I put all the bags in the huge pot with the Anova. I had filled the pot with very hot tap water, set the machine to 180F and left it to come to temperature while sealing the duck. This is the easy part.  I left the bags in the pot for a long time.  Wolfert said 5 hours, but I actually left mine on for a lot longer. More like ten.  My goal was to get to the point where everything looked rendered and the meat was falling off the bone when I poked at it through the plastic.

duck as it cooks

As you can see, the fat renders from the duck as it cooks.  This is probably around four or five hours of cooking when I took this photo.  Honestly, I had a meeting that evening, so I left my husband to pull the duck out while I was gone.  You just have to decide when it is done, but with confit, I think the more tender it gets the better.  Check it at five hours, then every hour after until you are satisfied it is melty enough for you.

cooled confit

This is the duck after the duck has cooled overnight. The yellow is the rendered fat, and the pink-jelly like stuff you can see if you look closely, is the rendered juices. At this point, I opened up the bags and scraped the fat into one bowl, the juices into another,and pulled off the meat from the bones so I could use chunks of the meat in the cassoulet. For regular use, I would just leave the duck in the bag until I needed it. Traditionally, you would take the whole piece, reheat it gently and pan fry the skin to a crisp golden yumminess. Since I was serving fifty people off the ten pieces, I had to remove the bone and put pieces throughout the dish instead.

(And sorry about the formatting on this post. I made the mistake of switching to ‘visual’ mode in WP, and couldn’t figure out how to make it look even.)

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