What Inspired Me to Write SKIN OF TATTOOS

I am delighted to host author and fellow International Thriller Writers member Christina Hoag on my blog today! Today she shares the inspiration behind her thriller SKIN OF TATTOOS.

What inspired me to write Skin of Tattoos

By Christina Hoag

Skin of Tattoos is a noir crime novel set in the gritty underbelly of Los Angeles’ gangland, the darker side of the palm-studded, movie-star lifestyle that L.A. is known for the world over. Why, readers have asked me on more than one occasion, did you write about gangs?

In 2000, I was sent on a magazine assignment to El Salvador for story about gang members deported from Los Angeles to their birth country, which they identified with, but really didn’t know because they had left, fleeing the 1980s civil war, when they were infants and small children. Some of them barely spoke Spanish. Growing up in L.A., they had joined gangs to protect themselves against long-entrenched Mexican-American gangs who didn’t welcome outsiders. But because the Salvadorans weren’t U.S. citizens, they later were vulnerable to deportation when the government started cracking down on immigrants with criminal records.

The stories of the young men I interviewed, who were basically stuck between worlds, struck me as a bizarre outcome of both a civil war and an immigrant experience. I tucked it away in my mind as a great premise for a story, and a couple years later, I wrote an outline for a novel and stuck it in a drawer.

Flash forward to 2008. I became a reporter for the Associated Press in Los Angeles and ended up covering gang and urban poverty issues. Somehow, I thought, life had come full circle, and I remembered that old outline. I dusted it off and started writing, although I stopped and started many times, not confident that I could pull off writing about a world so foreign to my own. But because I was drawn to the subject and it was part of my day job, I really got into the research. As I drove around these neighborhoods as a reporter, I absorbed details of the landscape and people’s lives like the proverbial sponge.

I interviewed people involved with gangs in various aspects, plus people who were directly affected by gang activity. One of those interviews led to a nonfiction book about community peacekeeping in gang neighborhoods. “Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence” involved even more interviews with experts and former gang members.

To get more personal details about this culture, I read every memoir written by former gang members I could find. They were a fantastic firsthand source. I read books about gangs themselves, devoured news stories, watched movies and TV shows about gangs, which were great as visual and dialogue aids. I found online dictionaries of gang slang. I did this over the course of several years, steadily accumulating a trove of knowledge.

After countless rewrites and rejections, Skin of Tattoos landed a publisher and was finally published in 2016—sixteen years after I did those initial interviews in El Salvador. I just heard from a reader who happened to be a former gang member who said it totally hit home for him. He congratulated me on my research.

SKIN OF TATTOOS by Christina Hoag

Los Angeles homeboy Mags is desperate to get out of gang life, but the only exit is through sacrificing everything – and everyone – he loves. He must make the difficult choice, and soon, or have it made for him. Based on extensive interviews with street gang members, this noir crime novel explores a poor immigrant family’s struggle to survive in a gritty world where gangs appear to offer youth a way out but instead ensnare them in a tangle of deceit and betrayal.


Christina Hoag is a former journalist for the Miami Herald and Associated Press who’s been threatened by a murderer’s girlfriend, had her laptop searched by Colombian guerrillas and phone tapped in Venezuela, hidden under a car to evade Guatemalan soldiers, posed as a nun to get inside a Caracas jail, interviewed gang members, bank robbers, thieves and thugs in prisons, shantytowns and slums, not to forget billionaires and presidents, some of whom fall into the previous categories. Kirkus Reviews praised Christina as a “talented writer” with a “well crafted debut” in Skin of Tattoos (Martin Brown Publishing, 2016), a noir crime novel. Her thriller Girl on the Brink (Fire and Ice YA, 2016) was named to Suspense Magazine’s Best of 2016 YA list. She also writes nonfiction, co-authoring Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence (Turner Publishing, 2014), a groundbreaking book on violence intervention used in several universities. Christina makes her home in Los Angeles and lives on the web at www.christinahoag.com.


Skin of Tattoos is available in ebook and paperback from AMAZON.







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I am delighted to have fellow International Thriller Writers member, Amy Shojai, as a guest on my blog today! Today she shares with us some of the inspiration behind her novel SHOW AND TELL.


By Amy Shojai

As an author I wear a couple of different hats, and am a certified animal behavior consultant and pet advocate. As such, my mission is to use my work and words to educate pet lovers to empower them to make informed decisions for their animal companions. I do this in my nonfiction prescriptive books, and through entertaining thrillers with pet-centric themes. I knew that my most recent book SHOW AND TELL would include dogfighting, but didn’t want to focus so much on the horror as on the problems of this crime. And shine a light on how law enforcement now takes dogfighting more seriously.

The notorious Vick dogfighting case spurred public outcry about this horrendous animal abuse crime. It’s surprising to me that was the first time ever that dogs were treated not only as evidence–but also as victims.

It’s not just the fighting dogs that are victims. Other animals such as cats, small animals like rabbits and even puppies may be used to train the dogs to fight. Yes, that’s incorporated in the SHOW AND TELL plot, but I never read (or write) on-stage “kill the dog” scenes—that’s a furry line I refuse to cross in my writing. My animal behaviorist hero and her service dog Shadow would never forgive me (and I couldn’t forgive myself!). While I know many folks abhor the idea of dogfighting, and rightly so, y’all may not be aware of how law enforcement and the court system sees this.

Law enforcement now considers dogfighting and cockfighting a venue that also typically involves illegal drugs and guns, and as such, reports of dogfights no longer are relegated to the local animal control/cruelty division as in the past.


In May 2013 I had the opportunity to visit the Crime Museum in Washington, DC (which sadly has since closed last fall). I spoke with Dr. Randall Lockwood, senior vice president of ASPCA Forensic Sciences and Anti-Cruelty Projects, about new initiatives in dealing with dog fighting, and visited the Dog Fighting Exhibit. Much of the fighting paraphernalia displayed there ended up in SHOW AND TELL, including the canine “rape stand.” *shudder*

Since 2008, it has been a federal felony to sponsor, exhibit, buy, sell, deliver, possess, train or transport an animal for participation in an animal fighting venture. This crime is punishable by a term of imprisonment of five years and a fine of $250,000.

But until recently, being a spectator at a dog fight was only a misdemeanor in 24 states. In many states spectators must pay a small fine with no jail time. Meanwhile, what horrors have they exposed their kids to, and modeled as “normal” behavior–cruelty to animals. And again, yes, one of my characters in SHOW AND TELL was brought up in a culture in which dogfights were “normal.”

With help from animal advocacy groups including the ASPCA, The Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act, which was included in the final 2014 Farm Bill, makes it a federal felony to knowingly bring a minor under the age of 16 to a dogfight or cockfight, punishable by up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine, and a federal misdemeanor to knowingly attend a fight as a spectator, punishable by up to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine.

My mystery writing colleagues are well versed in all things FBI and even know about CODIS–Combined DNA Index System–used to help track criminals in real life. The authors learn about CSI and evidence, police procedures and more to ensure the stories are as real as possible. Today, forensic science used in real life to catch bad guys for crimes against people has also been made available for furry victims. Yes, veterinary CSI uses many of the same scientific bells and whistles, and I say it’s about time!


To combat the crime of dogfights, the Missouri Humane Society, the ASPCA, the Louisana SPCA and the University of California-Davis Veterinary Genetics Laboratory collaborated to establish the first ever database. Canine CODIS  helps identify the bad guys involved in the dog fight industry by tracking doggy DNA. Can you see my virtual tail wagging!

When writing thrillers, authors want to offer vicarious chills and spills in a roller coaster ride along the way, and a ticking clock increases the stakes and tension. A real life ticking clock measures living heartbeats that can be saved by supporting change and championing the innocent victims–dogs and children–and stamping out the specter that labels Pit Bulls as villains when it’s the two-legged criminals that are the real evil. I hope that SHOW AND TELL helps shine a virtual spotlight on both the true villains and real heroes in this canine and human tragedy.

SHOW AND TELL by Amy Shojai

SHOW AND TELL is the 3rd installment of Shojai’s dark, female-driven domestic thriller series featuring pet-centric plots: An animal behaviorist and her service dog race a deadly storm to expose a treacherous secret others will kill to protect. 

A BLACKMAILER returns to sell a deadly cure.
A MOTHER’S DENIAL dooms millions of children.
AND A DOG shows true loyalty…when he runs away.

With her stalker finally caught, animal behaviorist September Day’s PTSD has abated and she’s begun to trust again. She dares to hope Detective Jeff Combs might become more than a friend, until his investigation into a dogfighting ring leaves her reeling.

Shadow wrestles his own demons. A German Shepherd autism service dog before losing his-boy to a health crises, Shadow found love and his true purpose working with September. Now his-boy is back–but changed–and Shadow fears he’ll be forced to choose.

When a desperate mom demands help, and Combs’s son disappears with his dog, September and Shadow must find the children before a devastating storm hits. But the children have a secret plan of their own. Only when September shows true courage, and a good-dog tells the truth, can they find their way home again.

Amy Shojai is a nationally known authority on pet care and behavior, a certified animal behavior consultant, and the author of 30 nonfiction pet books. She also writes THRILLERS WITH BITE! which includes the pet-centric thrillers LOST AND FOUND, HIDE AND SEEK and SHOW AND TELL, and the Keiki and Lia (Lei Crime KindleWorld) novellas.

Amy has been featured on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, and in USA Weekend, The New York Times, Washington Post, Reader’s Digest, Woman’s Day, Family Circle, Woman’s World, and She has also been a featured pet care expert on Animal Planet Dogs 101, Cats 101, Petsburgh USA/Disney Channel program, Good Day New York, Fox News: Pet News, NBC Today Show, WGN-Chicago “Pet Central” and “Animal Planet Radio” and many others

She is an active member of the International Thriller Writers, certified member of International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, founder and Past President of the Cat Writers’ Association, member of the Dog Writers Association of America, and Past President and Honorary Lifetime Member of Oklahoma Writers Federation, Inc. She frequently speaks to groups on a variety of pet-related and writing issues, lectures at veterinary and writer conferences, and conducts training and behavior demonstrations around the country.

She and her husband live with Seren-Kitty the 21-year-old Siamese wannabe, Magical-Dawg the German Shepherd, his best friend Karma-Kat and other assorted critters at Rosemont, their thirteen-acre “spread” in north Texas.

Connect with Amy on her website, on Facebook, on Twitter and on Amazon.






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Creative Minds Profile #27: DAVID MEYERS

I first met actor and playwright David Meyers a few years ago when he joined a group of actors to do a cold reading of a play I was working on at the time. I had the pleasure of working with him again when he appeared in a reading of my Guillotine Play at the Dramatists Guild Friday Night Footlight Series. I have also had the pleasure of seeing his work produced…which inspired a blog post a few years ago.

I was delighted to learn that David’s play WE WILL NOT BE SILENT is getting produced this summer at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, WV. I am thrilled to have him join me on my blog today.


David is an actor and writer based in Los Angeles and New York. As a playwright, his work has been seen off-Broadway and regionally at the Lark, the Barrow Group, Abingdon Theatre Co., The Fountain, Florida Rep, Kitchen Dog and many more. His play BROKEN, which tells the story of a mass shooting from the shooter’s perspective, was named one of the Best Plays of 2015 by Indie Theater Now. His work has been published by Applause, Smith and Kraus, and Indie Theater Now. David previously worked in the White House and U.S. Senate.

Thank you so much for joining me this month on Not Even Joking! Your play WE WILL NOT BE SILENT premiers next month at the Contemporary American Theater Festival. How exciting! How did you decide to write this captivating true story?

I came across the story of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose a few years ago in a newspaper, and was immediately captivated. I had never heard the story before, and I immediately knew it was one that I had to share with other people.

It’s one thing for us to sit safely in America, and call on people around the world to fight for their freedom. But here was a group of college students that risked their lives to do what was right, even though they knew they would never “win.”

And today people like Sophie Scholl exist all over the world –Russia and Egypt and North Korea, and they are shot in the back of the head, put into ditches and truly forgotten. The play is about Sophie, but it’s also about all those people who are not fortunate enough to be remembered even though they made the same sacrifice.


Many of your plays deal with contemporary social issues and politics. Does your background in politics  have a strong influence on your work? (And if not, what does influence your work?)

Definitely. I just told someone we should pitch this play at a theatre together, and they told me that it wouldn’t be “summer fare.”

I wish I could write light frothy comedies — and I have in short plays. But when it comes to longer works that I invest years in, I always come back to the political — to stories that reflect what our society is going through, and that reflect on us as people.

Someone once told me “you’ve got a lot on your mind” after seeing one of my plays  — and that’s probably right. One of the artists I admire the most is singer/songwriter Harry Chapin — and while his story songs weren’t always political, they were always about people — and I’d say the same thing about my plays.

What’s up next for you in your writing and/or acting life?

 We’ve got more readings coming up of We Will Not Be Silent — and my main goal is to ensure we get our second production (and then third, and fourth, etc.)

I am SO passionate about telling this story. It would have been easy to give up on trying to get this play produced due to the nature of this business, but I would never let myself do so — because I am so passionate about telling Sophie’s story. That’s more important to me than any “success” that I personally might achieve from this play.

I also have a new play about racism called F*** Mark Twain: a play (and conversation) about race that I’m very excited about. It’s very controversial, and think it will push some buttons.

As an actor, I just moved to Los Angeles in January — and things have been going well, especially commercially.

What else gets you up in the morning? What are you passionate about? And how does this influence your creative life? (or does it?)

Making art. The only thing I’d change in my life (that I can change, at least) would be having more money to be financially secure. But literally the only thing I spent my money on after basic things like food, housing, and health care is making more art is all I want to do.

I consider myself so lucky because I get to do this; my only hope is to find a way to make enough money to continue doing it!

What advice would you give to someone who thinks they’d like to pursue acting and playwriting?

Do not give up. The amount of people who have told me “no” when I know the answer should have been “yes” is literally hundreds. Art is subjective, talent is subjective — and often times merit does not win out in this profession.

But if you keep putting yourself out there every day, eventually you’ll improve your art, and hopefully find someone who believes in you.

One of the best pieces of career advice I ever heard was from Mandy Patinkin, who said that this business will knock you down every day — and the time to stop is when you can’t get back up anymore. I think he’s completely right — and that’s coming from someone who probably had more success in his first 5 years than most people have over a lifetime. So that gives you an idea how grueling this industry can be. As long as you can keep getting up — do!

Thank you so much for joining me here today! That is really good advice. And your play sounds amazing, and I wish you the best of luck with it.

Readers, you can connect with David on Twitter, and learn more about the upcoming production of WE WILL NOT BE SILENT here.










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How Can a Novel Be Novel?

I am delighted to welcome fellow International Thriller Writer Melodie Winawer to my blog today! Her novel, THE SCRIBE OF SIENA, was released earlier this month.

How Can a Novel Be Novel?

By Melodie Winawer

I’m a neuroscientist, neurologist, and novelist.   Despite the logistical nightmares of that combination, it provides some surprising intellectual benefits—and not because my novel is about neuroscience. (In fact, it isn’t. But more about that later).

I submitted three grants to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the past six months –right as my first novel was heading towards publication. Recently, the NIH developed a new system to evaluate submitted grants, divided into five key areas: Significance, Investigators, Approach, Environment and Innovation,.  Most of these are straightforward, but Innovation is not so obvious.

Merriam-Webster dictionary calls innovation the “introduction of something new.” But when you start thinking about what new really means, things get complicated.

In science, there has to be a foundation for research—either prior evidence that the new study has some likelihood of succeeding, or that it helps answer an important question.  Most research is based, at least in part, on what has come before.

So how is innovation compatible with the requirement for what is, essentially, being derivative?  How new can you be new without being so new that your grant will be doomed because of lack of preliminary data or evidence of plausibility?

Science, you might be thinking, science is so rigid, compared to fiction. Wow, I’m really glad I write fiction.  I too am glad I write fiction, for many of the same reasons. In science, everything I do has to rely on systematic production and reporting of evidence.  In fiction, I get to make things up, which is heavenly.  But, it turns out, science and fiction share a similar problem: doing something “new” is nearly impossible.

I recently started thinking about classic story lines, and how they get recycled. Some examples:

  • Long hidden secret shatters a family’s peace
  • Love from the past looms up to unravel a stable marriage
  • Good and evil battle each other in an epic tale playing out in a fantastical world
  • Faith overcomes tragedy
  • Lovers from feuding families pursue their dream despite dangers

They’ve all been written before, more than once. And they will probably be written again. Even if your plot isn’t in that short list, some aspect of it probably has shown up in one form or another, somewhere else. And so has mine.  But does that mean there is no point writing? That there is nothing new left to invent? What avenue does a poor writer have to be creative?

In fact, science, for all its rigidity, has given me one good answer: combinations. One way to make something new is to take old things and put them together in unexpected ways. I’ve published more than 50 scientific articles, and the one that has gotten the most media attention is  a study in which I did just that.  My research focuses on epilepsy genetics. But working as part of a large collaborative study called the Epilepsy Phenome/Genome Project, I decided to look at whether migraine and epilepsy have shared genetic causes.  This had been studied before, but never proven in large studies of common forms of epilepsy and migraine. In our study of hundreds of families in which multiple people have commonly occurring types of epilepsy, we made the first demonstration of a shared genetic effect on epilepsy and migraine.

Right after the paper was published, I was startled to hear I’d won an award from The National Headache Foundation for best paper of the year, though I’d never done any previous research on headache!  And it got me thinking that the excitement over what I’d done arose because I crossed lines dividing two fields, because I approached headache research with what I knew about epilepsy. Innovation came from the fact that I was interested in combining disorders and studying them together, rather than viewing them separately.   I’d done novel headache research because I was new to it, bringing principles that came from somewhere else.

Recently, my spouse decided to start studying linguistics.  This means we’ve been having some fascinating dinner table conversations–or trying to, as our three children fight over who is going to talk first. But one of the most interesting concepts we’ve all been discussing despite these challenges, is “discrete infinity”. This fabulous term would make a great title for a novel, or maybe an indie band. In linguistics it refers to one element of human language that differentiates it from animal communication. It means that we humans, with our multi-letter alphabet and large but finite number words, have an infinite number of combinations of things we can say.

And this is true of writing, too.  There may be only so many basic elements that make up a story, but the number of combinations of those elements is infinite. Those of us who write in English share the same words, but we all put them together differently. This is both dizzying, and, I think, comforting. Because if, despite the fact that everything seems to be derivative, there are an infinite number of new subjects to focus on and new ways to write, then we’re all capable of innovation.  We can all, through our particular ways of putting things together, write something new—not just once, but over and over again.

Melodie Winawer. Photograph courtesy of Dana Maxon

Melodie Winawer is a physician-scientist and Associate Professor of Neurology at Columbia University. A graduate of Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia University with degrees in biological psychology, medicine, and epidemiology, she has published over fifty nonfiction articles and book chapters. She is fluent in Spanish and French, literate in Latin, and has a passable knowledge of ItalianDr. Winawer lives with her spouse and their three young children in Brooklyn, New York. The Scribe of Siena is her first novel.




THE SCRIBE OF SIENA (Touchstone, May 2017)

Equal parts transporting love story and gripping historical conspiracy, debut author Melodie Winawer takes readers deep into medieval Italy, where the past and present blur and a twenty-first century woman will discover a plot to destroy Siena.

Accomplished neurosurgeon Beatrice Trovato knows that her deep empathy for her patients is starting to impede her work. So when her beloved brother passes away, she welcomes the unexpected trip to the Tuscan city of Siena to resolve his estate, even as she wrestles with grief. But as she delves deeper into her brother’s affairs, she discovers intrigue she never imagined—a 700-year-old conspiracy to decimate the city.

After uncovering the journal and paintings of Gabriele Accorsi, the fourteenth-century artist at the heart of the plot, Beatrice finds a startling image of her own face and is suddenly transported to the year 1347. She awakens in a Siena unfamiliar to her, one that will soon be hit by the Plague.

Yet when Beatrice meets Accorsi, something unexpected happens: she falls in love—not only with Gabriele, but also with the beauty and cadence of medieval life. As the Plague and the ruthless hands behind its trajectory threaten not only her survival but also Siena’s very existence, Beatrice must decide in which century she belongs.

The Scribe of Siena is the captivating story of a brilliant woman’s passionate affair with a time and a place that captures her in an impossibly romantic and dangerous trap—testing the strength of fate and the bonds of love.






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Creative Minds Profile #26: SHERRY KNOWLTON

One of the writing organizations I had the honor of joining during the past few years is the International Thriller Writers. It was through ITW that I got hooked up with “The Fearless Bloggers,” a group of ITW members that live secret (or not so secret) lives as bloggers. I was lucky enough to meet many of my Fearless Friends as Thrillerfest last summer, including Sherry Knowlton. I am delighted to have her on my blog today.

Sherry Knowlton is the author of the successful Alexa Williams series of suspense novels: Dead of Autumn, Dead of Summer and Dead of Spring.  When not writing the next Alexa Williams thriller, Knowlton works on her health care consulting business or travels around the world. She and her husband live in the mountains of South Central Pennsylvania.

Thank you so much for joining me this month on Not Even Joking! Congratulations on the release of DEAD OF SPRING.  Your mystery novels deal with some important social issues. DEAD OF SPRING tackles fracking and political corruption. Is this something you originally planned, or did your characters lead you in that direction?

When I began to think about Alexa Williams’ next adventure, I almost immediately decided that she should tackle fracking and political corruption.  As you mention, all of my novels in the series explore current social issues.  Fracking has been the subject of considerable debate here in Pennsylvania, nationally and globally. So it was an environmental topic that seemed relevant and timely.  My protagonist, Alexa, is a bit of a crusader.  She becomes outraged by the fracking-related illness of a friend’s daughter.  And, she witnesses the death of a senator in the State Capitol.  From those two threads, my story for Dead of Spring took off on its own.

You’ve set your books in the mountains of South Central Pennsylvania, where you also reside. I imagine you are like me, and your writing is often inspired by your environment. Is my assumption correct, or is there something else that plays a larger role in inspiring your writing?

Setting is a key part of my writing, and I draw heavily on my home region, Southcentral Pennsylvania.  In the first book in the series, Dead of Autumn, Alexa has just returned home from New York City to escape the rat race.  She lives in a cabin in the mountains with her English Mastiff, practicing small-town lawn and searching for a simpler life.  Of course, since the books are mystery/suspense, it should come as no surprise that peace and quiet keep eluding her. I believe that writing about familiar territory (both Pennsylvania and some of the other locales used in my books) helps me ground the novels with a strong sense of place, and provides a wealth of material to draw upon and enrich the story.

But, I also am inspired by social and environmental issues that are fundamental to the plots of my novels.  The latest, Dead of Spring, involves Alexa in the controversial areas of fracking and political corruption.  The themes of my earlier novels include reproductive rights for women and religious fundamentalism (Dead of Autumn) and sex trafficking (Dead of Summer). I have to admit, I’m aiming for a little stealth education about topics that are near and dear to my heart.  But, I also believe that plots that deal with real-life current topics speak to readers and engage them in the suspense.

What are you working on now? Will we be seeing more of Alexa Williams? Is there a “WINTER” book in the works?

You’ve guessed correctly.  I’m now working on Dead of Winter, so Alexa’s adventures will continue. And, it’s likely that I’ll continue the Alexa Williams series beyond Winter at some point.  Since I’ve run out of seasons, coming up with a title could be the hardest part of book five and beyond. At some point, I might head in another direction with a freestanding novel or another series.

What else gets you up in the morning? What are you passionate about? And how does this influence your creative life? (or does it?)

I am at a really wonderful stage in my life.  Seven years ago I “retired” from a high-pressure, more-than-full time executive career that I enjoyed, but it was time to try something new.  Now I consult part time, pretty much at the schedule I choose.  My husband and I travel extensively, sometimes with our son and his new wife.  We’re on a quest to visit all the most exotic destinations on our travel list in the next few years. We just returned from a six-week safari: three weeks in Tanzania and Kenya followed by another three-week tiger safari in India.  Amazing! We both dabble in photography and exhibit locally – mostly photos from our travels.

Of course, I now have plenty of time to write—which I love.  Since I began writing mystery/suspense later in life, I’m able to incorporate my life experiences, my quite-strong opinions, and my travels into my books.  Poor Alexa is carrying quite a bit of my baggage (good and bad) on her shoulders.

One of my mantras in life has always been: step outside your comfort zone.  In my younger years, I tested those limits with new jobs, hiking the wilderness, learning to sail, and more.  Now, I travel to remote places and have taken up photography.  But, creating a series of novels – along with the challenges of getting them published, marketing, etc. – that’s been the ultimate experiment in stepping beyond my comfort zone.  And, I’m having a great time.

What advice would you give to someone who thinks they’d like to write mysteries?

Go for it.  I hope you enjoy writing as much as I do.  But, go into it with a willingness to learn.  I’ve done a huge amount of professional writing in my job – and before that high school and college journalism.  But, writing fiction required me to learn a whole different structure and style.  Don’t be afraid to take writing courses or seminars and benefit from expert advice.  A writing critique group and beta readers can also be helpful to obtain honest feedback on your work in process. And, above all, don’t become discouraged.  Writing requires inspiration, skill, and a huge amount of willpower.

Yes it does! Thank you! This is wonderful advice.

You can find Sherry Knowlton on her Website, Facebook, and Twitter.

Here’s some more info about DEAD OF SPRING:

A dead senator, an environmental crisis, a political showdown.  Lawyer Alexa Williams runs afoul of the powerful fracking industry in this suspenseful tale of corruption and runaway greed. Alexa joins a handsome, environmentalist in a quest to find justice for a desperately ill child, but soon finds that her quest has put her on a collision course with danger.

With Sherry Knowlton’s trademark mix of feminism, history, romance, and fast-paced thrills, Dead of Spring rockets from the halls of Pennsylvania government to the drilling fields of the Marcellus Shale to the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear disaster. Hang on for the ride.

You can find her books on Amazon, B&N, and Sunberry Press.

Be sure to view the DEAD OF SPRING book trailer!







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Mystery Conferences with Martha Reed

Today, I am delighted to welcome fellow mystery author and Sister in Crime Martha Reed to Not Even Joking!

Congratulations on the release of your new book, NO REST FOR THE WICKED!

Thanks, Nina. I’m very excited about this one. No Rest is book three in the Nantucket Mystery series, but as soon as I sat down, it felt like this was the book that I wanted to write. It was the strangest thing. I typed in Chapter One, and the story just flowed, like I was watching a movie. Each day, when I returned to my keyboard, the story was there, waiting for me to continue. My subconscious clicked into hyper-drive. That hasn’t always been the case, since I generally tend to noodle around more with my ideas.

NRW_final_smallHere’s a synopsis: Detective John Jarad’s world explodes when state archaeologists uncover a suspicious steamer trunk buried in Nantucket’s landfill. The contents reactivate intense interest in the Baby Alice Spenser kidnapping of 1921. As John pursues the investigation, myriad family scandals emerge from the Spenser’s privileged and Gatsbyesque past. Modern day events flare white-hot when a copycat kidnapper snatches a second child. No Rest is garnering 5 star reviews.

As you know, writing can be a very solitary pursuit. It’s taken me years to get to the place where I can shut out the real world, quiet my mind, and ruminate on my new story ideas. Don’t get me wrong, it’s my very favorite thing to do, but it can get lonely, since it involves enforced solitude for hundreds of hours. That is hard for me, because I’m a naturally gregarious person. My recompense for all of this effort is that I get to go to conventions.

Which conventions have you attended?

Malice Domestic was my very first one. Its focus is traditional and cozy mysteries. It makes me laugh now to remember how intimated I felt walking into that Bethesda hotel lobby. My sister Joan went with me, and when we got home, our other sister Boo-Boo asked: “So? How was it?” Joan said that when she opened the door and looked inside, she saw 300 Marthas walking around. She was right. I had found my people.

Since then, Bouchercon has become an annual habit. Bouchercon is my favorite convention. Not only is it huge, with over 2,000 registered attendees; its focus is the entire crime fiction, mystery, and thriller universe. It’s also held in a different location each year, which gives me an excuse to fearlessly travel to strange new cities, and after all this time, meet up with my friends, usually in the hotel bar.

Vampire Tour in NOLA. Photo courtesy of Martha Reed.

Vampire Tour in NOLA. Photo courtesy of Martha Reed.

Bouchercon 2016 New Orleans was an exceptional experience. The B’Con planners really hit it out of the ballpark with that one. NOLA offers a naturally creepy setting, and some friends and I enjoyed a late night Vampire tour through the French Quarter that gave me a lot of material for my next stand-alone novel. Conference attendees also participated in a second line brass band parade as part of the Anthony awards ceremony. We turned out en masse. Our parade blocked NOLA rush hour traffic. The honking car horns added to the fun. Sidewalk gawkers asked: “Who are you people?” We shook our parasols and shouted: “We’re crime fiction writers!” Befuddled is the verb I would use to describe the looks we got during that parade. Usually, crime fiction writers only misbehave on paper.

If you’d like to personally review the evidence, here’s a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_fkx25jSHeE

Martha Reed with Sarah Paretsky.

Martha Reed (R) with Sarah Paretsky (L). Photo courtesy of Martha Reed.

Another great thing about conventions is how accessible everyone is. It really does make you feel like you belong to a larger crime fiction community. I’ve had the honor of meeting Hank Phillippi Ryan in Cleveland, Sue Grafton and Louise Penny in Albany, and Sarah Paretsky in New Orleans. It’s just so easy to strike up a conversation. All you need to do is to say: What are you working on? And you’re off to the races.

There are some terrific regional conferences, too. Killer Nashville featured four days’ worth of writer panels and insightful author events, and it was held over Halloween weekend. You should have seen the costumes at the Sisters in Crime Favorite Sleuth/Favorite Crime Character party. I noted a couple of Sherlocks and one Hercule Poirot, but the real standout was an Amelia Peabody in full Victorian dress including button boots.

Bouchercon 2017 is being held in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, in October this year. I’ve also registered for CrimeBake New England in Boston, Massachusetts, in November. With a series set on Nantucket, I’m well aware of northern winters and fluky weather patterns, but I’m staying optimistic, and hoping  for the best. Now that I’m really looking at that schedule, it’s starting to sound like a game of Clue!

Thank you so much for joining me here! I hope to see you at a mystery conference soon!

MarthaReedMartha Reed is the award-winning mystery and crime fiction author of the John and Sarah Jarad Nantucket Mystery series.

Book 1, THE CHOKING GAME, was a 2015 Killer Nashville Silver Falchion nominee for Best Traditional Mystery. THE NATURE OF THE GRAVE, Book 2, won an Independent Publisher (IPPY) Honorable Mention for Mid-Atlantic Best Regional Fiction. Book 3, NO REST FOR THE WICKED was a 2017 Independent Publisher IPPY nominee in the Mystery/Cozy/Noir category.

Martha’s short work has appeared in Pearl, Spinetingler, Mysterical-e, and in Mystery Readers Journal. Her short story STRANGLER FIG appeared in LUCKY CHARMS: 12 Crime Tales, an anthology published by the Pittsburgh chapter of Sisters in Crime, Inc.

Martha recently completed a four-year term as the National Chapter Liaison for Sisters in Crime, Inc. She loves travel, big jewelry, and simply great coffee. She delights in the never-ending antics of her family, fans, and friends, who she lovingly calls The Mutinous Crew. You can follow her online online at reedmenow.com or on Twitter @ReedMartha.











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Creative Minds Profile #25: Catherine Maiorisi

I first met author Catherine Maiorisi at the Brooklyn Book Festival a couple of years ago. I had just purchased a copy of the MURDER NEW YORK STYLE: FAMILY MATTERS, the New York-Tri State Chapter Sisters in Crime Anthology, and she signed my copy. I have since become much more involved with my local Sisters in Crime chapter, and as a result I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Catherine at our meetings and post-meeting dinners. I am delighted to welcome her to NOT EVEN JOKING!

thumb_Catherine_Maiorisi - black_1024Catherine Maiorisi lives in New York City and often writes under the watchful eye of Edgar Allan Poe in Edgar’s Café near the apartment she shares with Sherry her partner, now wife, of forty years. Catherine has published two full-length romances, Matters of the Heart and No One But You, both published by Bella Books. Bella will also publish Catherine’s first mystery, A Matter of Blood in December 2017.

In addition to the novels, Catherine has published both mystery and romance short stories:
Justice for All in Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices
Murder Italian Style in Murder New York Style: Family Matters
The Sex Club in the Best Lesbian Romance of 2014 from Cleis Press.
Come as You Want To Be, a standalone eStory on bellabooks.com
You Will See a Stranger, in Happily Ever After, a Bella anthology
All’s Well that Ends Well in a Bella anthology available July 2017
Love, Secrets, and Lies in Where Crime Never Sleeps (Murder New York Style 4) available September 2017

Catherine is active in the New York Chapters of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America. She is also a member of The Golden Crown Literary Society, Romance Writers of America, the New York Chapter of Romance Writers of America and the Authors Guild.

thumb_BEL-NoOneButYou_1024Thank you so much for joining me this month on Not Even Joking! Congratulations on the release of your novel NO ONE BUT YOU.  What do you think the main ingredient is in a well-crafted romance novel?

Two vibrant and engaging main characters with a strong attraction to each other who must overcome major obstacles before obtaining their happily ever after. And there absolutely must be a happily ever after. The challenge is to avoid clichés on the journey to the happy ending, to write a story that is more than just a mating dance.

I like to use the romance as a vehicle for exploring real life issues. For example, in my first romance, MATTERS OF THE HEART, one of my characters had a weak heart and by-pass surgery and the aftermath was a big part of the story. And in my second, NO ONE BUT YOU, I explore what happens after the happily ever after and the characters deal with the birth of a very premature baby and repressed memories awakened by the birth. The romance I’m writing right now involves postpartum psychosis, PTSD and parental kidnapping.


 I first became familiar with your writing through your short mystery story, “Murder Italian Style.” How does writing romance differ for you than writing mystery? (Or does it?)

Yes, for me, there is definitely a difference between writing a mystery and writing a romance.

I got into writing romance accidentally. I had never even read a romance before I wrote my first one, a short story. But since then, ideas for romances are constantly triggered by something I see or hear or read or dream that generates narrative or dialogue that I hear when I’m walking around or cooking or trying to sleep. Characters chattering in my head often wake me up. In order to clear my thoughts I write down as much of the story and the characters as I know at that time, give it a name, and put it aside. I currently have about thirty-five of these in various stages-snippets of dialogue, pages of actual writing, or just notes on how I think the story should go. Sometimes additional thoughts about one of these will arrive and I go back and add them to the document. When I’m starting a romance, full-length or short story, I go to this list and if anything seems right, I begin writing from there.

Mystery characters and story lines have never just appeared in my thoughts or been active in my mind in the same way as they have for romance. Instead, I’ve had to create them from scratch.

With the romances, once I have the characters the conflict comes out of who they are, their history, how they live their lives, and where they live, and the rest is writing the story.

The structure of mysteries is more complex and requires much more thought and many more elements. Though I’m not a planner or outliner, with a mystery I create the detectives and their conflicts, then worry about clues and red herrings, a victim, a murderer, suspects, a secret for everyone, and playing fair with the reader, i.e., giving them all the information they need to solve the crime with the detective but providing misdirection so they’re surprised. I do a lot of this on the fly so there is much juggling of the elements as I write.

My writing process, though, is pretty much the same for both romance and mystery. I write scenes as they come to me, rarely in sequential order. I do character histories and analyses for the main characters. And I make short notes about scenes that I can see ahead. Some people call it writing into the mist. As I write a scene, it may trigger something that needs to be changed or added in an earlier chapter and I’ll go back and make the change. Sometimes it will trigger another scene and I’ll make notes on it. My goal is always to get a first draft written. That rough draft contains the basic story and from then on my writing is iterative, adding, deleting, changing, correcting until I have the story I want, written to the best of my ability.

And speaking of mysteries, you have a mystery novel coming out in December. Could you share a little about it?

A MATTER OF BLOOD is the very first book I wrote. I had just retired and was trying to figure out what came next. I tried watercolors but the process didn’t really touch me, so I challenged myself to write a mystery. I wasn’t thinking about publication. I just wanted to see if I could. After staring at a blank screen for a few days, I acknowledged that I didn’t have the vaguest idea of how to construct a novel. So I set out to educate myself and began what became a self-defined nine-month independent study program of reading everything I could find on writing. When I finally started to write, it took me about four months to complete the manuscript. I use complete loosely here. Though I had a full-length (100,000 words) novel it wasn’t anything I could show to someone else, so I started rewriting. I continued to read about writing, joined several professional mystery-writing organizations and began to take writing workshops.

In the thirteen years since I completed that first draft of A MATTER OF BLOOD, I’ve rewritten it at least forty times, retaining the basic story but rewriting the characters, the killer and just about everything except the victim. When I finally showed it to my wife Sherry, a theater director experienced with working with playwrights, she pointed out that some of my paragraph length sentences were maybe a wee bit long, then asked me lots of questions that sent me back to the drawing board. While continuing to rework A MATTER OF BLOOD I wrote the second book in the Chiara Corelli series, many short stories, published and unpublished, and three full-length romances. I love this book and I’m really excited to be able to share it with readers of mystery.

 A MATTER OF BLOOD, which will be published in December 2017, features NYPD Detective Chiara Corelli an Iraq War vet and principled cop who finds herself on the other side of the blue line after exposing a ring of dirty cops. Corelli’s boss says she can only work if she has someone she trusts to watch her back. Her choices: work with newly minted Detective PJ Parker, the daughter of a vicious public critic of the NYPD, or be stuck behind a desk. She’ll take her chances with Parker.

Working with the most hated detective in the department won’t do much to improve Detective Penelope Jasmine Parker’s already shaky standing with the blue brethren. But Parker’s goal is homicide and working with Corelli is her only chance of getting it. And, P.J. Parker always achieves her goals.

Reluctantly, Corelli and Parker partner to investigate the murder of a Wall-Street businesswoman, a greedy user and abuser, hated and feared by many. But working together is not easy. Parker thinks Corelli is crazy or suffering from PTSD and putting unreasonable pressure on her, yet she saves Corelli’s life.  Corelli, still dealing with the death of her lover Marnie when they were in Iraq, is shaken by her visceral attraction to a female suspect, saves the life of the son of a Mafia boss, and solves the murder.

What else gets you up in the morning? What are you passionate about? And how does this influence your creative life? (or does it?)

Writing is my passion. Writing gets me out of bed in the morning. Writing is like meditating for me; it takes me out of myself and centers me. I write just about every day. I don’t have a strict schedule but I read the newspaper with breakfast, then unless I have something I must do like a doctor’s appointment, I sit down and write for anywhere from four to eight hours depending on whether I’m cooking dinner that day. After dinner I read. Reading is my other passion and I usually read until eleven or twelve and sometimes beyond that if a book captures me.

A good deal of my life is focused on things related to writing. For example, I’m active in Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America and attend their monthly meetings. I’m Co-President of the New York Chapter of Sisters in Crime. I attend conferences like the Golden Crown Literary Society, a lesbian writers and readers conference, and the New England Crime Bake, a mystery writer’s conference. In July, I’ll be attending my first Romance Writers of America conference. Also, since my first romance was published in June 2016, I’ve been doing readings and presentations in various venues in and outside of New York City.

Except for Grey’s Anatomy and Rachel Maddow, I don’t watch TV.

What advice would you give to a  person who thinks they’d like to write?

Read, read, read everything but especially the genre you’re interested in writing. And then spend time learning the craft of writing. Read books on writing, take workshops, attend writer’s conferences, find a writer’s group, and join professional organizations focused on the genre that interests you. Write, write, write. The more you write, the better your writing will become. Finally, be patient. Don’t put your writing out there too soon.

Groups like Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and Romance writers of America (every genre has them) offer programs and workshops to help members improve their skills and learn about the publishing industry.

That is really great advice. You are truly an inspiration. Thank you so much for joining me here today, and I look forward to seeing you at a Sisters in Crime meeting in the very near future!

Readers you can contact Catherine on her website:  http://www.catherinemaiorisi.com  on Twitter @CathMaiorisi and Facebook.

Catherine’s books are available at Bellabooks.com, Amazon and Barnes and Noble.


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The Kick Ass Girls of Fire & Ice YA


I was delighted be asked to have my YA mystery novel SWIMMING ALONE, and protagonist Cathy Banks, join The Kick Ass Girls of Fire and Ice YA. This group is filled with girl-power protagonists.

SwimmingAlonefrnt (2)

Girls who help their friends. Girls who take matters into their own hands. Girls who fight for what they believe is right.

So, where did Cathy Banks come from?

Where do any of my female protagonists come from? Because I would like to think they are all Kick Ass in one way or another.

Like 17-year-old Minnie, in my graphic novel FAKE ID: BEYOND RECOGNITION. Or Alex, my school-teacher detective in my recently re-published short story “Summer Reading.”

OK, here’s my deep, dark secret.

My protagonists are usually…well…me. Not that I solve crimes or chase down gangsters or anything quite so exciting in real life. But I sure as heck would like to. My protagonists are all definitely cooler than me. And crazier, and braver. But they have a lot of my faults as well. They are quirky, insecure, and have over-active imaginations

Sometimes their over-active imaginations get them into a little bit (or a lot) of trouble. Sometimes they help them to solve murders and save lives.

My protagonists overcome their insecurities, and usually, but not always, do the right thing. I hope to live up to the expectations that some of my characters have for themselves.

The Kick Ass Girls of Fire & Ice YA are giving away some ebooks. You can enter to win 1, 2 or even 3 ebooks from Fire & Ice YA authors below:


a Rafflecopter giveaway






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Creative Minds Profile #24: Albert Tucher

I met Albert Tucher when I moderated my very first panel at my very first mystery conference, Deadly Ink in 2015. It was a short story panel, and in preparing to moderate, I read my very first Diana Andrews story. It was dark, gritty, and very enjoyable. Since then, I have had the pleasure of running into Albert at a host of other mystery events, including a bunch of Mystery Writers of America New York Chapter events, the 2015 New England Crimebake, and the 2016 Deadly Ink Conference. I am delighted to finally have him here on this blog!

Tucher_HeadshotAlbert Tucher is the creator of prostitute Diana Andrews, who has appeared in more than seventy hardboiled short stories in venues including The Best American Mystery Stories 2010. Her first longer case, the novella The Same Mistake Twice, was published in 2013. Albert Tucher’s favorite place on earth is the rainy side of the Big Island of Hawaii, and Diana says it’s about time he started writing about it. He works as a librarian at the Newark Public Library.

 Thank you so much for joining me this month on Not Even Joking! Congratulations on the upcoming release of THE PLACE OF REFUGE. You set the novella in Hawaii, which I have read is one of your favorite places. Tell me about your love for the Big Island.

Thanks, Nina, and thanks for having me. It’s several years now since we met at the Deadly Ink conference. The time goes!

I would probably never have visited Hawaii if my brother, then a Coast Guard Officer, had not taken up a post there in 1994. He and his wife arrived just before Thanksgiving. They knew no one yet, and I decided to do my family duty by spending the holiday with them.

A dozen visits later, Hawaii is still my favorite place, and I have decided it’s because there is no wasted time there. I came to that realization in 1998, when I visited the Big Island. My first morning there I was still on New Jersey time, which meant I was up and on the road to Volcanoes National Park by 5:00 AM. I drove for an hour looking for breakfast. Nothing but McDonald’s was open. Okay, I thought, just this once. I took my tray to a window seat and glanced outside.

And gaped at a sheer drop of hundreds of feet. At the bottom was a perfectly shaped half-moon bay, accessible only by water. I kept missing my mouth with my fork, as I watched the surf churning the perfect blue water into brilliant white foam.

That seat in McDonald’s would belong in every travel guide to the islands, except there are too many such places to list. Moments like that one have come up during every visit. I keep waiting for it all to become routine, but Hawaii has a way of topping itself.

And when Hawaii isn’t topping itself, it comes at you in unexpected ways. To me the most fascinating thing on the Big Island is the rainforest. The Hawaii County Police are stretched thin over this enormous island, and nowhere is that more apparent than the region called Puna, which is home to marijuana farmers, meth cookers, fugitives, survivalists, and 60s holdovers. If there was ever a natural setting for crime fiction, this is it.


Serial killers and prostitutes…what inspires the darker elements in your writing?

That’s a tough one. When I was still in high school, Ross Macdonald converted me from a science fiction fanatic to a crime fiction reader, and from the beginning I have been drawn to the noir side.

Prostitutes are at the heart of noir. I have met women in that line of work, and the thing that has come to fascinate me most is the deception and self-deception required on both sides of the transaction. A man works to convince himself that the most fleeting of experiences with a stranger is worth the money. As the woman knocks on a stranger’s door, she tells herself she knows men and can’t be fooled.

But we know that sometimes she’s wrong. Serial killers love prostitutes because they do much of the killer’s work for him. Most women won’t go make themselves vulnerable to a strange man, but that is a prostitute’s job description.

I first became acquainted with your writing through your Diana Andrews short stories. PLACE OF REFUGE is your second novella. What draws you to shorter form mysteries?

It’s hard to argue with success. I have published more than seventy short stories, most of them about Diana Andrews, in venues including The Best American Mystery Stories 2010, edited by Lee Child and Otto Penzler. But here’s a little-known fact. I have a series of five Diana novels that I have been submitting for years now. Unless someone offers to publish them in the next ten minutes, I plan to self-publish them. Call it my retirement project.

The inspiration for Tentacles, the second novel in the series, goes back to Hawaii. In 2000 I had been writing about Diana for less than a year. I went to the Big Island again and hiked down into the Waipi’o Valley, a place of such unearthly beauty that one of my characters calls it the place where God used up all the green he had left after creating the world. Forty to fifty residents apparently spend their time feuding among themselves and making it clear to visitors how unwelcome they are. The Hawaii County Police are said to go down into the valley only reluctantly, and they leave the residents to it.

I spent a day imbibing that intoxicating brew of beauty and menace, and I knew I had to get Diana down there. In Tentacles she tries to earn the biggest payday of her career by backpacking into the valley with a client who neglects to mention that some nasty people are after him.

Among the people she meets are officers from the local police, and I have discovered that Detective Errol Coutinho and his sidekick Officer Jenny Freitas can carry stories of their own. The Place of Refuge is one result, and I am nearly finished with a novel with the working title The Hollow Vessel.

What else gets you up in the morning? What are you passionate about? And how does this influence your creative life? (or does it?)

Sometimes it makes me want to stay in bed, but the first thing I do in the morning is work out. I run and do strength training. I have always been concerned with fitness, but about ten years ago I stepped up my efforts after a near miss with diabetes. Forty years ago I couldn’t do fifty consecutive pushups, but just a couple of weeks ago (BSP alert!) I did 121.

That’s the thing about getting older. You can save more than you think for longer than you think, but ultimately you can’t save anything.

Is that noir enough for you?

What advice would you give to a young person who thinks they’d like to write mysteries?

As to the writing itself, all I can say is sit down and do it. Nothing counts until it’s down on the screen or on paper. No matter how bad it is, you’re still ahead of the pack. You have something to work with and learn from.

When it comes to submitting, don’t go off half-cocked, as I did. I burned some chances with agents and editors by sending out the first Diana novel before it was in shape. Find a critique group (a topic for many blog posts in itself) or a writing teacher, or join MWA and make use of the mentor program.

This is great advice. I have found my critique group to be extremely helpful, and organizations like MWA are also an amazing resource. Thanks again for joining me, and I look forward to reading THE PLACE OF REFUGE!

You can connect with Albert Tucher on his Website, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon!






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The World as Inspiration

I am delighted to have fellow International Thriller Writer Michael Niemann on my blog today! His latest thriller ILLICIT TRADE (Coffeetown Press, Feb 1, 2017) was  recently released, and today he answers the question, “Where do you get your ideas?”


By Michael Niemann

Where do you get your ideas? That’s a perennial question, authors of crime fiction face. And the answer is different for every one of us. So let me tell you the story of how I get my ideas.

For the past thirty years, I’ve had the following conversation innumerable times.

Person at a party: “What do you do?”
Me: “I teach.”
“What do you teach?”
“World Politics.”
“Oh, that must be really interesting right now.”

All these years, I have puzzled over this response because I knew there hadn’t been any increase or decline of the level of interestingness of world politics for as long as I’ve been teaching it. Since I started writing fiction, I think I’ve found an answer.

In his book on detective fiction, French sociologist Luc Boltanski points out that in modern western societies reality is represented as robust and predictable. We generally believe in the reality of reality. Everyday life would become impossible if we didn’t. At the same time, we can’t help but have anxieties about the reality of reality. Our governments claim to have things under control but all of us have had experiences that make us less sure about that claim. That anxiety is even more prevalent when it comes to world politics. The world is so patently messy and complicated. How can one not be anxious about it? The answer “Oh, that must be really interesting right now” reflects this unease.

But this anxiety also insures a continued readership for crime fiction fiction. Because, as Boltanski points out, “the particular sort of excitement called suspense, originates in the possibility of calling into question the reality of reality.” Crime fiction channels an already existing anxiety into something more enjoyable we call suspense.

Which brings me to my genre, international crime fiction. It dates back to 1648 when Giovanni Paolo Marana wrote Letters Writ By A Turkish Spy. Since then all kinds of sub-genres have emerged in response to the changing dynamics of world politics. Childers’ Riddle of the Sands anticipated World War I. Buchan’s Thirty Nine Steps took place during that war. Graham Green anticipated World War II in The Confidential Agent. The Cold War brought us George Smiley and James Bond. The post Cold War era terrorism, global crime networks and corporate malfeasance emerged as topics of choice. My protagonist Valentin Vermeulen is firmly part of the post Cold War world. He works as an investigator for the United Nations, an international organization whose tasks have grown dramatically since the early 1990s.

When looking for a new plot, I don’t have to do a lot of searching. Given Vermeulen’s job, I can send him all over the world wherever the UN is active. And that world is full of possible stories. The Office of Internal Oversight Services for which he works is an actual entity. I can read the annual reports for plot ideas.

But, as all crime writers know, I have to navigate that fine balance between plausibility and suspense. The plot has to connect to that anxiety I mentioned above. It must be in the realm of the possible. That’s the easy part. I find lots of incidents that did actually happen, like the visa fraud at the beginning of Illicit Trade. That really did happen. But by itself that’s not a terribly exiting story. Most fraudulent behavior of real humans is rather pedestrian. And we don’t want our readers to say, “Meh.”

So my job is to take something that actually happened and link that to something else that also happened. And do it in such a way as to turn a reader’s low level anxiety about the world into a suspenseful story that could have happened but fortunately didn’t.

And that’s a lot of fun.

illicit_tradeILLICIT TRADE by Michael Niemann

Two poor Kenyan men visiting the U.S. are found dead, one in jail, one on the street. Both used forged UN documents to enter the country. Valentin Vermeulen’s superiors have no interest in the plight of undocumented immigrants, but they want him to stop the fraud. The clues take Vermeulen from New York City to Newark, where he riles a woman known as “The Broker,” then to Vienna.

Earle Jackson, a small-time hustler and the last person to speak with one of the dead Kenyans, has taken the man’s passport and money. He also finds a note listing an address in Newark, where his efforts to cash in on the situation go awry. Fleeing for his life, Jackson flies to Nairobi using the dead man’s passport.

Vermeulen and Jackson have chanced upon a criminal network more extensive and vicious than either could have imagined. To survive, Vermeulen must do more than sever a few links. He must find the mastermind at the top.

NiemannColor copyMichael Niemann grew up in a small town in Germany, ten kilometers from the Dutch border. Crossing that border often at a young age sparked in him a curiosity about the larger world. He studied political science at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms Universität in Bonn and international studies at the University of Denver. During his academic career he focused his work on southern Africa and frequently spent time in the region. After taking a fiction writing course from his friend, the late Fred Pfeil, he switched to mysteries as a different way to write about the world.





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