Award-winning author
Unusual times, remarkable places

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

30 July 2008

A Meme for writers: a look at myself

This meme showed up on Charles Gramlich’s Razored Zen blog, and he found it on Writtenwyrdd’s blog. As Charles did, I won’t tag anybody, but I invite you to do the meme if you think it would be fun.

What is your genre(s)? In nonfiction, I write primarily medical information for patients, but sometimes I write for doctors and scientists. I’ve covered the gamut—magazines, newsletters, medical tabloids, scientific journals, online news reports, book chapters, and books. In fiction, I write speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, and horror) and romance short stories and books.

How many books are you working on now? My agent is marketing one book, and I am writing two more. Although some people can’t work on more than one book at once, I can, probably because writing on multiple topics simultaneously is a requirement for freelance writers.

Are you a linear or a chunk writer? Primarily a linear writer, although if I get excited about an upcoming scene, I may jump ahead and write it.

What POV are you partial to? I usually use third person. I strive for deep POV, but often fail.

What tense do you use? Past tense.

What theme keeps cropping up in your books? Loss and/or culture clash have turned up in every story and book I’ve written. I purposely write stories and books that focus on conflict between people of different religions, sexes, social classes, cultures, or species. Loss worms its way into my writing on its own.

How many days a week do you write? I try to work on nonfiction on Mondays and Tuesdays and on fiction on Wednesdays and Fridays and play catch-up on Thursdays. But life usually messes up that ideal schedule. Even in the weeks when I can stick to it, I don’t actually put fingers to keyboard all those days. I may research, edit, or plan instead.

What time of day do you get your best writing done? I’m least tired and most focused early in the morning before the emergencies and other interruptions start. I tend to write fastest late in the afternoon as I try to wrap things up before supper.

Who are your mentors? A friend who writes historical romance as Lynna Banning was my first mentor, and she still helps me today. She encouraged me to start writing and to join the Romance Writers of America (RWA), even though I wanted to write fantasy. I count the members of the Southern Louisiana and Orange County RWA chapters and everyone whose presentation I’ve attended at the national RWA meetings among my mentors. My critique group members—Laurie BolaƱos, Rosalind Green, Margaret Nichols, and Farrah Rochon—have taught me much as well.

Who are your favorite authors to read? fantasy: Guy Gavriel Kay, Barbara Hambly, Ursula LeGuin, and Gene Wolfe; mystery: Barbara Hambly (again), Laura Joh Rowland, Sharan Newman, Candace Robb, and Kate Sedley; romance: all my RWA friends, of course!

I’m in San Francisco this week at the national RWA conference, and this blog posted itself through the miracle of Blogger’s post scheduling feature. I’ll respond to your comments next week after I get home. See you then!

22 July 2008

Interview with mystery novelist Ed Lynskey

Ed Lynskey’s mystery novels fall into a genre of their own, Appalachian noir. His fourth novel—and the third in his series about hard-boiled private eye Frank Johnson—is Pelham Fell Here, published in June 2008 by Mundania Press. In this novel, Frank investigates the murder of his cousin to prove his own innocence after he becomes the prime suspect in the death.

Ed, thank you for visiting my blog today for an interview, and congratulations on the publication of Pelham Fell Here.

Thank you. Readers and critics have told me Pelham Fell Here is my best book. The dustjacket blurbs from James Crumley, James Rollins, Kevin O’Brien, J.D. Rhoades, Megan Abbott, Kevin Starr, Anne Frasier, and William Kent Krueger were enthusiastic. Not to overtoot my own horn, but it’s the most gratifying thing to hear—I mean improving and growing as a fiction writer. When I worry is when I’ve plateaued and stagnated.

I mixed in more back story in Pelham and toned down the action sequences and wove in a romance thread. Readers seem to cotton to a likable hero (though he’s flawed, too) to cheer on as well as a couple of love interests.

Appalachia has a culture and mindset all its own. You’ve spent much of your life in Washington, D.C. I’m curious how you went about researching Appalachia and particularly how you learned to recreate the speech patterns and rhythms.

I agree that Appalachia is a unique place. I was bred in the hilly Piedmont on the doorstep to the Blue Ridge mountains. This orients my worldview. Only a few years ago did I relocate to the Washington, D.C., metro area. You’re spot on about the research. I rely on the Internet and Google to do research on various Websites.

A sure, deft sense of dialog is something I labor over. I email experts in their fields, asking too many questions, I’m sure. For instance, Frank is a bluegrass music fan. For The Blue Cheer I contacted several sources to incorporate some musicians native to West Virginia.

Do you agree with the label “Appalachian noir”? How would you define it?

The first time I saw the label was in the dustjacket blurb John Lescroart gave my 2007 mystery The Blue Cheer, set in mountainous West Virginia. I’m okay with any of my books being called “Appalachian noir.” I love the area. But I’m not sure I can offer a viable definition of “Appalachian noir.”

This vivid region (Central Appalachia) has been recently used by such New York Times and USA Today bestselling suspense authors as Patricia Cornwell, Charlaine Harris, and Nora Roberts. So Appalachia remains a viable setting in mainstream commercial fiction.

I guess the noir mood emerges in the fatalistic attitude, stubborn independence, and edgy voice that writers use. A slate of Appalachian writers might include Pickney Benedict, William Gay, Daniel Woodrell, and Breece Pancake.

But then, are private detective novels like I write really noir or noirish? I don’t know. Arguments I’ve seen can go either way. Certain aspects such as the tone, pace, and setting strike me as pretty much the same. Anyway, I use the pulp noir masters such as Gil Brewer, Charles Williams, and Ed Lacy as a baseline or blueprint. Then I add a twenty-first century bent and use my own voice.

I’m not a noir fan myself. Yet the genre seems to be alive and thriving and even cross-pollinating other genres, such as science fiction. What do believe accounts for the genre’s appeal?

I’m not a real authority on noir. I write in several genres (crime fiction, literary, some speculative) with a lot of blurring between them. So, this is my personal take on noir.

Violence, conflict, and other dark forces are at work in a noir, but the predestined bad outcome dooms the protagonist from the get-go. In other words, the protagonist is screwed from page one. No matter what he or she does, they can’t find a way out, and things just go from bad to worse. Given the present world stage filled with its war and uncertainty, noir strikes me as a natural fit.

But a true noir’s nihilistic view is too restrictive and one dimensional for me. I prefer to see redemption, or at least the possibility of redemption, stitched into the narrative’s fabric.

Not every story has to end on a bleak, enraged, or gory note. In fact, many such endings to me are hollow cop outs. You know, the writer doesn’t have a skillful way to close out the third act, so they kill off everybody. What’s really amazing is when a first-person narrative has the main character die at the end. I guess their ghost is who’s been telling us the story.

I have a couple of finished projects I might call noirs, if I want to apply that label. However, literary agents and editors tell me noirs have peaked in their sales and are presently tough sells in today’s marketplace.

Some people write novels and wonder how anyone could compress a story into a few pages, while others write short stories and wonder how anyone could write something as long as a novel. You seem to easily do both, having written hundreds of short stories, many featuring P.I. Frank Johnson. How do you go back and forth? Do you approach short stories and novels differently?

Well, actually, I cut my fiction teeth on writing the short stories. Then I graduated to producing the novels. Novels have been my major focus for a few years. On occasion, I’ll dip back into a short story.

Neither form comes easy to me.

I’m doing the edits on a short story collection now (A Clear Path to Cross, Ramble House, 2008) of my lady P.I. Sharon Knowles. All but one story previously appeared either online or in print. My rereading them leaves me mulling over whether short stories can really deliver the dramatic goods to make for entertaining fiction.

Which do you prefer, writing short stories or writing novels? Why?

Nowadays, the time crunch is really the driver for which one I write. If I have a short slot open, I’ll try writing a story. If I have a week with more time available, I’ll work on a novel. Writing and revising novels, I’ve found, requires multiple revisions and sizable blocks of time.

Look, with a novel you go back and beef up or trim down things like back story, scenes, and character development. A lot of novels I review nowadays are thin on these elements. My suspicion is the writer didn’t follow through on the revision process.

Anyway, my point is doing revisions of novels eats up gobs of time, and none of us is getting any younger. A short story, on the other hand, can be worked in its entirety with each sitting.

What is your writing regimen? Would you recommend it to aspiring authors?

One thing I shoot for each day is to ink some new words on current projects. Some writers prefer to ride the dawn patrol, and others are night owls. I’m definitely the former, when my eyes and brain are the brightest and freshest. Use whatever works for you. I like to work in different places and not be chained to the same desk or work station.

I guess writing classes and critique groups are good things, but again, there’s the time issue. Is your time better spent working on your stuff or learning from experienced teachers and writers? I guess it’s a balancing act.

Do you have any advice for my readers who are working on their first novels?

First novels are a gas. You’ve just dived into the creative process, and it’s like being given a blank coloring book and a carton of crayons. Have at it and enjoy the ride.

I don’t usually outline but that’s changed. If you’re writing a linear noir using a few characters, you can probably do it without a map. More complex plots with a larger cast of characters get tangled up in my analog brain. But then the mighty Faulkner outlined the plots to A Fable on his office walls at Rowan Oaks (I believe you can still see the outlines).

Then you’ll hear from the readers and critics all the things you screwed up and maybe a few compliments. I’d listen to it, and maybe change something, if it makes sense to you. After all, the book is your baby, warts and all, to do with as you see fit. The book has your name on the front cover.

Thank you again, Ed, for visiting my blog to talk about Pelham Fell Here.

Shauna, thank you so much for your slate of engaging, insightful questions. I appreciate your having me aboard your blog to say a few words. I hope your readers enjoy something. I know I did by my participating here.

For more information, visit Ed Lynskey’s Website and his blog. His book Pelham Fell Here, published by Mundania Press, is available online at Barnes & Noble and the Mundania Website.

16 July 2008

My town Wednesday: A Riverside Fourth

The higher we climbed, the taller the mountain grew.

By the time we were a third of the way up, our house and acre of land had shrunk so small my hand could blot them out. By the time we were halfway up, I had already stopped to gasp for breath twice and regretted leaving my asthma inhaler behind.

From our driveway, the way had looked easy. But the path was rutted with narrow, twisting gullies and studded with expanses of bare rock dusted with a slippery layer of sand. The climb turned into an aerobic and balance workout, but the twilight breeze kept us comfortable. Across a valley, we saw two other figures climbing.

When we reached the top, we realized our neighbors had exaggerated when they said we could see the Fourth of July fireworks from there. Taller mountains blocked our view of the park where the fireworks would be. We walked along the ridge heading toward another, taller mountain. The going was easier here; the path wound upward at a leisurely rate, and the mountain breeze and the view exhilarated me.

Dawn is my favorite time of the day; dusk is a close second. The air shimmers as the light changes color and intensity from moment to moment. The sounds of animals of the night replace those of animals of the day. The sudden coolness refreshes and makes one’s skin tingle as the hairs stand up. Shadows distort and disguise and make the ordinary mysterious.

As we walked along the ridge and the sky grew darker, a nearby coyote pack began its evening song. We stopped to listen. Across the valley, another coyote pack joined in the chorus, followed by a third pack farther away. It was as if Giovanni Gabrieli, in his later, odder years, had decided that the span of San Marco church was too narrow to do justice to his multichoral pieces and placed his choirs instead on three mountains.

When the coyotes finished, we continued on and in a few minutes passed the two young women we had seen earlier, already settled on a ledge. We walked farther until we found a flat area of dirt and put down our bedspread. The mountain dropped off sheerly a few feet away. Looking across the valley to another mountain, we could faintly make out a knob of naked grey rock with an amorous couple balanced on its rounded top.

No city sounds intruded but the pop-pop-pop of illegal fireworks, which flamed here and there far below us. Around us, bushes rustled, and small creatures squeaked in the dark. I imagined we were the first humans ever in this exact spot, an illusion destroyed when Dave found a piece of iron driven into the rock beside him. We wondered who climbed so high to pound a single spike into a mountain top, and why.

As we waited for the Riverside fireworks, which were scheduled for 9 pm, still half an hour away, we twisted to watch the fireworks of Corona through a gap in the mountains, each burst as tiny as a thumbnail. Behind us, another town shot off fireworks. When those ended, we turned back around to watch the park, impatient as 9:00 came and went.

As we waited, I looked around and marveled that though night had fallen, I could still see the rocks around us and the silhouettes of mountains in the distance. The nights of my childhood were inky black; here, though we were in wilderness, the night was merely gray, so bright were the lights of the streetlights and houses far below.

At last fireworks started in several towns. What a magnificent sight! Whatever direction we looked in, tiny firework displays sparkled. Meanwhile, the Riverside fireworks flared huge and bright below us. Instead of stars beyond, the lights of Riverside and its neighboring towns twinkled below and for as far as the eye could see. Meanwhile, bats fluttered above us on their evening hunts. One missed my face only by veering sharply away at the last second.

Our new camera has a fireworks setting, and I shot picture after picture (a few of which are at left). Blur marred many and enhanced a few; next year I’ll get a tripod.

Too soon it ended. Dave suggested we follow the young women down because their path had looked less steep. Instead, the path was twistier, steeper, and less well marked than the one we had taken up. The young women lost their way twice, and we found the path again only because I had brought along three strong flashlights. That path took us away from our house to a road about a half mile away. We ended our evening of wonders with a pleasant walk home.



1. I am the “spotlight author” for July at Benston Blogs, the blog of author Rebecca Benston. Thank you, Rebecca! To find a long interview with me, scroll down to the bottom of the page.

2. I will be autographing the science fiction anthology Barren Worlds on 26 July at 2 pm at:
Bookfellows/Mystery and Imagination Bookshop
238 North Brand Boulevard
Glendale, CA 91203
Barren Worlds contains my story “Elessa the Restless.”

Coming soon: author interviews with crime-fiction writer Ed Lynskey and romance writer Lynna Banning and a writer’s meme

09 July 2008

News and views

My story “Elessa the Restless” was published last week in the science fiction anthology Barren Worlds. The story, set in space far in the future, retells one of the many dozens of versions of the old British ballad “The Maid on the Shore.”

Barren Worlds is available online from and Barnes and Noble.


I will be autographing Barren Worlds on 26 July at 2 pm at:

Bookfellows/Mystery and Imagination Bookshop
238 North Brand Boulevard
Glendale, CA 91203

Please drop by if you’re in the area! I’d love to meet you in person.


I'm interviewed this week at (Scroll down to find me; my interview is the very last.)


So much for news. Now for some views.

God must be inordinately fond of beetles, biologist J.B.S. Haldane is reputed to have said. Why? Beetles make up about one-quarter of all living creatures. I found this gorgeous one sitting on the hummingbird feeder last week. What appears to be an emerald set into its carapace is actually a drop of water. After searching the Internet, I suspect this is a green fig beetle (Cotinus texana).

Progress! Four weeks after I snapped the top photo (which may look familiar because it was in my “My Town Wednesday” post about invertebrates), I took the one beneath it. More wasps have joined in the construction, and many of the formerly occupied cells are now vacant. They've become more aggressive in defending the nest; look at all the flared wings in the second picture! It's been fascinating to watch them since they started building in April.


Next week: a Riverside Fourth

02 July 2008

My Town Wednesday: Stuff in my yard

Stuff in my yard, part 2: Critters (vertebrates)

“My Town Monday” is the brainchild of Travis Erwin at One Word, One Rung, One Day. The goal is to introduce one's blog readers to what’s special about the place where one lives.

In New Orleans, most of our animal visitors were squirrels, anoles, blue jays, cardinals, dragonflies, and plant-devouring bugs.

In our Riverside yard, all are rare or absent. Below are pictures of some Southern Californian vertebrates I have been able to photograph, with tentative IDs. (Please correct my IDs if you know these animals.)


Pocket gophers (possibly Thomomys bottae) are hard workers and constantly expand their network of burrows. Many people here kill gophers because they dig many exits to their tunnels, killing grass and leaving dirt mounds. We think the fun of watching them makes up for the damage to the lawn. This gopher put a tunnel entrance under a bird feeder so it could eat spilled seeds. At bottom, it makes a rare foray out of the burrow. It does not have measles; its cheeks are stuffed with seeds.

People here also dislike rabbits (possibly desert cottontails, Sylvilagus audubonii) because they eat plants. My observations so far suggest that they far prefer grass and clover to landscape or garden plants. (That said, I have lost several ornamental plants and young trees to their nibbling.) Several rabbits live in our yard, and at least two females gave birth this spring. Here are two young ones; the one on the bottom is two months older.

Coyotes (Canis latrans) must spend quite a bit of time in our yard, given the loud howling we often hear at night and the amount of new coyote scat we see each morning. We don’t actually see them much, though. The only picture I’ve gotten so far is of this coyote puppy, which died in our ditch. Coyotes occasionally snatch and eat cats and small dogs that wander from their yards. In addition to pets, they eat birds, snakes, lizards, small and large mammals, and fruits and vegetables. They prefer fresh meat but will eat carrion.


Our most frequent feathered visitors are finches (various kinds), hummingbirds (various species), mourning doves ( Zenaida macroura), black phoebes (Sayornis nigricans, American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos), common ravens (Corvus corax), sparrows (unidentified; they look too much alike to me), hawks (red-tailed hawk [Buteo jamaicensis] and others), and greater roadrunners (Geococcyx californianus). Pictured above are several adult finches and one fuzzy-headed young finch—purple finches (Carpodacus purpureus and American goldfinches (Carduelis tristis).


The desert spiny lizard (Sceloporus magister) is a member of the iguana family. One that lives in the jasmine vine in our courtyard, and another lives in a bush by our garage. Their territories seem small; I’ve never seen them more than a few feet from their shrubbery. They have easy lives, it seems, for they spend hours each day basking in the sun. You'll have to turn your head sideways to look at these pictures; Blogger rotated them when it uploaded them, and I don't know how to fix it.


Coming soon:

Stuff in my yard, part 3: wildflowers

Wasp nest update