Upcoming travel!

My semester begins this week, which means lots of meetings plus the usual chaos of getting students settled into the right classes and ready to go. I’m extra busy, though, because on Sunday I’ll be leaving for a week in Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH), where I have a conference to present at.

Although I’ve been to the neighboring country of Croatia many times, and even lived there twice for short periods, I’ve been to BiH only once before, when I was able to spend 4 days in Sarajevo and Mostar. It’s a beautiful, fascinating country with a rich (and sometimes tragic) history. Mostar was the inspiration for Zidar, the fictional town in my novella “The Pillar.”

(Actually, I was in BiH one other time, while traveling by car from Dubrovnik to Split. Both of those cities are on the Croatian coast, but a little blip of BiH divides them, meaning you spend about 10 minutes in BiH as you pass through. They do check your passport and everything, though.)

I don’t think I’ll make it to Mostar this time, although I’m hoping for a day trip to some places in eastern Bosnia and western Serbia. Most of my week, though, will be in Sarajevo. That city is sometimes called “Jerusalem of Europe” or “Little Istanbul.” I’ve stood there inside an old Sephardic Jewish synagogue and looked out at a mosque, an Eastern Orthodox church, and a Catholic church. I doubt there are many places in the world where that’s possible.

What’s especially cool is that Sarajevo serves as one of the primary models for Starograd, the capital of Vasnitsya–which is the setting for my upcoming novel, The Spy’s Love Song. Vasnitsya is entirely fictional, of course. And while it’s run by a totalitarian dictator, BiH is most definitely not; BiH is a democratically-run republic (with a somewhat unusual governmental structure due to recent political conflicts). In addition, my imaginary city of Starograd was also influenced by other places I’ve visited in Central and Eastern Europe, including Warsaw, Budapest, Zagreb, and Prague. But when it comes to descriptions of what Starograd looks like, of the parts of the city built during the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, as well as the parts built during communist times, Sarajevo is the biggest contributor.

I will, of course, post photos. So if you’re not already following me on social media, now would be a good time to add me. My photos from BiH might make reading The Spy’s Love Song more fun.

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So you wanna be a writer….

I don’t claim to be the world’s foremost expert on writing. But I’ve done a goodly amount of it (currently working on my 25th novel) with some degree of success. And lately a few aspiring authors have asked me for advice. So here’s my wisdom.

One thing to remember is that there is no One Right Way to be an author, no True Path to literary achievement. I know a lot of writers, and each one of them does things their own distinctive way. Some plot; some pants. Some write linearly; some skip around. Some keep to a strict daily schedule and word count; some write in fits and spurts. Some use fancy software. Some scribble in pencil in notebooks. I’d recommend new writers to experiment freely and see what fits them best. Plus, whatever works today, for this story, might not be the best fit tomorrow, for the next one.

Now, while there is no One Right Way to to write, there are many wrong ways. But you know what? If you find yourself lost on one of those rubble-strewn roads to nowhere that’s okay. The lovely thing about writing fiction is that no matter how badly you screw up–with some very few, highly implausible exceptions–nobody is going to die. The world won’t end. All you have to do is retrace your steps, maybe salvaging a few good words along the way, and head in a different direction.

Not only that, but every author strays down those wrong routes occasionally. I am positive that Shakespeare crossed stuff out now and then–or sometimes even threw his quill across the room and stomped on down to the pub.  At least once, Jane Austen must have stared morosely at a blank page, convinced everything she wrote was awful and nobody would ever want to read it.

There are two lessons I hope you can draw from this. First, don’t try to write perfectly. You won’t. You can’t. What you do is write something–best if it’s something you love to write, something that feels good in your bones–and then edit it. Take that lump of linguistic clay you’ve created and twist and reshape it until it’s something beautiful. Some lumps need more of this than others. That’s okay. Get someone, or better yet several someones, to help you with this process. People you trust to treat your clay with frank honesty.

The second lesson is the more important one. I said there is no One Right Way to be an author, yet there is one thing you absolutely must do: Write. You can’t be a writer if you don’t write. Type into your word processor. Scrawl in ink in cute notebooks. Tap it into your phone with your thumbs. Calligraphate on parchment using the blood of thine enemies as ink. Whatever.

I estimate that I’ve written about 4 million words of fiction thus far. That’s… a lot. If someone pointed her finger at me and said, “You must go write 4 million words!” I would cry. I’d take a nap. I’d binge watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’d sit down at my laptop and end up playing Solitaire or commenting on Facebook instead, because 4 million words is impossible. Yet I’ve written ’em–one damn word at a time. (While, I might add, working a full-time job, parenting two kids, and traveling often.) You can write 4 million words too.

I can give you other little nuggets of advice too. Such as cultivate friendships with other writers and read a lot in many genres and buy some good guides to writing. Maybe take some workshops. Maybe create little encouraging rituals or indulge in rewarding snacks. If you write genre fiction, consider attending cons. Find a writing buddy and make dates to sit at a coffeehouse and write; instruct your buddy to glare at you if you get distracted. Back up everything, often. Keep notebooks or files to jot down ideas that come to you while you’re standing in line at Target or sitting in a meeting. Keep the cat off your keyboard.

But those are optional nuggets. In the end, I have one word of rock-solid guidance for aspiring writers. WRITE.


Interview with Andrew McFerrin

I’m delighted to say that Andrew McFerrin has stopped by today! He’s narrated two of my books, Ante Up and The Little Library, and does really fantastic work.

Could you tell us a little about yourself?

How little are we talking? Ummm, I’m Andy, hi. Age 42, cis-gay dude, 6’4”, brown eyes, dark hair which I tend to keep shaved…I basically look like a biker. I’m the guy who walks into the homey local bakery cafe and there’s literally a moment of horrified silence—I can hear the record scratch in my head—as everyone wonders which violent crime I’m about to commit. And then I sit down, pull out a book, and order a spinach quiche and artisanal fair trade coffee or whatever. Defying expectations is hard work, but rewarding.


How did you start doing book narration?

Completely by accident, really. I was a guitarist and singer in a local rock band, and we recorded an album with John at Falcon Sound. The album didn’t turn out so great—we weren’t that good of a band—but I really get into the technical side of doing all that stuff. So in the process of pretending I knew something about EQs and compressors and what a noise gate is, John and I got to be pretty good friends. And the whole while he kept telling me about audiobooks he was doing, like “You should try this, you could make a living at it.” I never really thought much about it, kept putting the idea off. And then, one fairly minor financial upheaval later, I came back like “Yes, I do believe I shall try this. Tell me more of these audiobooks of which you speak…”

The weird thing was, I started getting work pretty much right out the gate. I think from the beginning of my first production to the part where I put in notice at my day job, it was like 6 months. So maybe I’m onto something…


I’d love to learn a little more about your process for narrating. Do you begin by reading the entire book to yourself before you start narrating? How long does an average novel take you?

Oh god yes. I can’t start narrating a book unless I know who’s who, how much of a role they’ll play, what kind of character arc they’re going through—I’ve tried to wing it exactly twice, and both times I ended up spending so much extra time and energy that I drove myself nuts. So yeah. Nothing happens until I’ve read the book and done preproduction, full stop.

After that the actual recording process takes maybe 8-10 working days for most books, then editing and all that stuff that basically makes it sound good. For every hour of narration, you can figure that about 6-7 hours of work have gone into it when all’s said and done.


How do you choose what kind of voice a particular character will have?

It’s always a process of deciding which details I want to focus on and to what extent. Big stuff like age, ethnicity, nationality, gender, species—straightforward obvious stuff. But also smaller details like attitude, how they relate to the world around them, and even what purpose they serve in the story. Like, a main character’s voice will probably be less affected because they have to express a greater emotional range, and the listener has to spend more time with them. Going back again to Ante, I knew that he needed a Slavic accent but I also knew that if I went overboard I’d lose all the other things a main character has to be able to do. Let’s face it, no one wants to hear a sex scene with Boris Badenov. But if it’s a smaller part I feel free to really cut loose and play.

I know I’m not exactly romanticizing my job the way I probably should, but that’s how I approach it. When I do my read I’m enjoying the story and getting into it, but in the back of my mind I’m also noticing those little details and character moments that I want to bring out. Most any time you hear me do something and think “Oh, that was cool,” it’s really just me calling attention to something cool that the author did. It’s really y’all’s show, I’m just the emcee.


What are some of the biggest challenges to doing narration work?

I live with cats, in a neighborhood inhabited by compulsive mowers of lawns.


What do you like to read for fun? Do you listen to audiobooks for fun too?

Just about anything! I love to hit the local Half Price Books and grab the first thing that looks interesting, and that’ll be my book for the week. I’m just finishing The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood. If you’ve seen Cabaret, that’s the book it was based on. If you haven’t seen Cabaret, well…see Cabaret. But anyway, books. Physical books, used books, with spines and pages and sometimes other people’s grocery lists stuck in as a bookmark and forgotten about. That’s how I’ve always read for pleasure.

As for audiobooks…not for me. That’s work, you see. If I listen to someone else narrate, I’m too busy listening to what they did to follow the story. I can’t even watch TV shows with voiceover narration anymore, for that reason.


Do you have a dream project?

I don’t really think that way, to be honest. My idea of a dream project is a book where the themes or characters resonate so strongly with me that I just. Have. To. Do. It. And I’ve been lucky enough to have more than a few of those already—Ante Up was one, Brandon Witt’s Then the Stars Fall was another. On the non-romance front, I did this really wild SF novel about an autistic Amish boy who gets turned into a cyborg called Brother, Frankenstein. Most books have a couple scenes where the action plays out at a very emotionally-charged level, where I finish the scene and I’m completely drained. That book, the whole novel played that way. The protagonist was such a terrible person—I had so much fun getting to be him!


If money were no object, what vacation would you take right now?

Europe. All the Europe, I think. I’d start in Baku, on the Caspian Sea, head west until I hit Athens, then work my way north to Helsinki. Total walkabout, like a whole year. And then maybe I’d take the next year and work my way back down the western half, spend New Year’s Eve in Porto watching the sun melt into the sea through a wine glass.


What do you have in the works next?

Up next, I’m actually just starting production on the third book in the Knight & Day series by Dirk Greyson, for Dreamspinner. That’s pretty big fun, hunky secret agents and stuff. Can’t go wrong there.


These boots….

Sometimes people ask me whether my characters are anything like me. The answer is no. I’m boring and nobody wants to read a book about me. But now and then my characters and I share a small quirk. In the case of Daveth Blyd from Blyd and Pearce, that quirk involves footwear.

Here’s what Daveth has to say on the matter:

My boots were plain black leather, but they were well made. One thing I don’t skimp on is my footwear, even if it means I go hungry for a time.

And then later:

I scented leather as we passed the cobblers.

Jory noticed me cast a longing glance at a pair of tall chestnut-brown boots. “Tired of black?” he asked with a laugh.

“No. Mine are fine.”

“Yours are very fine. You’ve a taste for good footwear.”

Nothing makes a day more miserable than poorly fitting shoes—or no shoes at all. I’d rarely owned them as a boy, and my feet had always been cold.

I never had to go without shoes as a child, but like Daveth, I appreciate good footwear, especially boots. Um, over-appreciate, perhaps.

Yes, my closet is a mess. I do occasionally straighten it out, but I swear those things walk around while I’m not looking. Also (ahem), this is not my entire footwear collection. My daughters say I have a problem—and then they steal my shoes, so they really shouldn’t complain.

Here are four of my favorites. I’ve had the Docs on the left forever. The red and studded pairs are newer. And I got those Fluevogs on the right about two years ago. Here’s the thing about all of these: while I love the way they look, they’re also practical because they’re comfy. I can walk miles in any of these. The middle two were cheap; the other two were not. But I think Daveth would approve of them all.

Do you have favorite footwear?

Medieval passageways

If you’ve read Blyd and Pearce, you know that it takes place in Tangye, a city in a medieval fantasy setting. (And if you haven’t read it, why not?) Although I live in America—where few buildings predate the 19th century—I’ve been lucky to spend time in much older cities in Europe. Tangye is an amalgam of many of the features I’ve experienced in those places.

Today I wanted to talk about an architectural feature that was common in medieval and later architecture but is rarer now, at least in the US. That feature is the arched pass-through. It’s mentioned a time or two in Blyd and Pearce and there’s one on the cover. It functions as a way for people and traffic to get through a large building, often into the courtyard beyond. In some cases, these archways actually lead to other streets instead.

Here are some examples. I took all of these photos this March while I was wandering the upper town district of Zagreb, Croatia. As the name suggests, this part of the city is hilly. It’s also quite old, with parts of it dating to the 13th and 14th centuries.

(And also note that the upper town still uses gas lamps. I’ve several times seen the lamplighters at work.)

I especially like the photo above because it shows several interesting features. Not just archways, but also a church spire in the distance and a stairway (visible between the buildings) that’s actually a street. That white sign gives its name: Mlinska Stairs.

That’s probably the most famous archway in Zagreb, the Stone Gate. It passes through the original city wall, built in the 13th century. What’s cool about the stone gate is that although it’s a primary method of passing into the upper town, it also contains a Catholic shrine. Legend says the painting in there miraculously survived a fire in the 18th century. There are almost always a couple of people who have stopped inside to light candles and pray. Oh, and see that guy with the pole? He’d just lit that gas lamp.

Here’s a more recent version of the archway. This one is in the lower town, right off the main square, and was probably built in the 19th century. It allows pedestrians to pass from one street to another without having to go around the large block of buildings.

You can see another more modern archway in this aerial view of Zagreb’s main square. Click for the big version, then look at the ground floor of that yellow building in the center of the block beside the white canopies. That building was probably built circa 1887. The passageway is big enough to include storefronts; it leads to a small street behind. More importantly, though, it also leads to Dolac, Zagreb’s biggest public market, On the far left of the photo you can just make out some of the red umbrellas over the produce vendors at Dolac. (That tall church is Zagreb’s cathedral. They’ve been working on restoring it for a zillion years now.)

Does your city have similar archways?

Summer adventure, part 3

Here’s the final set of photos from our recent Chicago visit.

 The Field Museum

 The alley where John Dillinger died

 Of course deep dish pizza was consumed.

 “That’s where they got that Picasso.”

 103 stories up. The kid was too chicken to go out on the glass with me.

We also got to hang out with friends, watch a decent thunderstorm (they’re rare here in California), and wander through Millennium Park. It was a great week. Now I’m back to the grindstone!

Interview with Kenneth Obi

I’m excited today to share an interview with Kenneth Obi. He did a fantastic job narrating my book A Full Plate, and he has nearly two dozen other audiobooks on his roster as well. Thanks so much for joining me today, Kenneth!


Could you tell us a little about yourself? Well, I’m 52 (almost 53), a father of 3 kids, all moved out and forging their own ways. I have two female Newfoundlands that have been in the show ring and are currently training in water rescue work.

How did you start doing book narration? I’ve been in radio and theater. I have a good friend who owns a production company (Falcon Sound Company) that asked me if I was interested in giving it a try. I thought it sounded like a good idea and eventually started my own production company (Under the Stairs, LLC). And while I now have managed to build a hefty workload from some talented authors, I still do voice work for the great crew at FSC.

I’d love to learn a little more about your process for narrating. Do you begin by reading the entire book to yourself before you start narrating? How long does an average novel take you? I would say I skim. I need to get an idea of the characters and story. Once that is done, I come up with voices for the mains and create a small audio file I can refer to before each session to keep the voices clear. I’m not Mel Blanc, but I do try to give each character their own sound. As for how long, Studio time is usually about 7-10 days per project. Some a little longer or shorter, but that is close to average.

How do you choose what kind of voice a particular character will have? Once I get an idea what they are like as characters, I toy around with dialogue sections until I find one that makes me feel like I can convey their personality to the listener.

What are some of the biggest challenges to doing narration work? Women’s voices. I’m a pretty big guy, and while I don’t have a voice like Bowzer from Sha-Na-Na, it is a solid baritone. And I hate making women sound mousey, so that is always a challenge.

What do you like to read for fun? Do you listen to audiobooks for fun too? I am a huge zombie fan, so I read and listen to a lot of that, but I also have some podcasts I am part of, so I can often be found listening to everything history to breakdowns on the “Mind of BTK”.

Do you have a dream project? As an avid (early era) Stephen King fan…doing something of his would be the Holy Grail.

If money were no object, what vacation would you take right now? A week at Atlantis with my wife.

What do you have in the works next? I am wrapping projects for Kyleen Neuhold, Nora Phoenix, and Shaw Montgomery as well as prepping another Dreamspinner title for FSC and the second book in a six-book series for them as well.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us? Leave those reviews, even if they are critical. Sure, I like to see the good ones just like anybody else, but good critique can give good direction and help with becoming a better performer. Just don’t take the glowing ones too seriously to where you think you are beyond reproach or the bad ones to make you feel like you are failing.

Blyd and Pearce blog tour

I’m excited to announce the Blyd and Pearce blog tour, which begins today! Each stop includes original content, most of it related to noir films and fiction. There are also excerpts and a giveaway. So please join me!

July 17 MM Good Book Reviews

July 24 Boy Meets Boy Reviews

July 25 Love Bytes

July 26 Scattered Thoughts and Rogue Words

July 27 My Fiction Nook

July 30 Open Skye Book Reviews

July 31 Long and Short Reviews

August 1 Dreamspinner Press

Summer adventure, part 2

My younger kid and I took the train 2000 miles east, then spent a few days hanging out in Chicago. Here are some pics of the city.

 . This is from a river cruise.

 Obligatory photos at the Bean.

 At the American Writers Museum, which we loved.

 At the Art Institute: American Teenage Gothic

Have you been to Chicago? What was your favorite part?