Author to Author with Brian Stoddart

Author to Author with Brian Stoddart

I’m thrilled to host mystery author Brian Stoddart, creator of the Superintendent Le Fanu historical series set in India in the 1920’s. Think Sherlock Holmes meets The Jewel in the Crown, with a bit of my favorite thriller, too.

Brian is a New Zealand-based but globally engaged writer whose historical crime fiction is based in Madras, India of the 1920s. He trained as an historian, and worked as an academic in Australia, Malaysia, Canada and the Caribbean before becoming a university executive and later an international consultant on World Bank, Asian Development Bank and European Union projects in Cambodia, Laos, Jordan, and Syria. Follow him at www.brianstoddartwriter.com.

1.Carmen Amato: Brian, thanks so much for stopping by. I love historical mysteries that teach me something and your Superintendent Le Fanu series set in 1920’s India reminds me of the BBC’s Jewel in the Crown, with a touch of Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts thrown in for verve. Tell us how you came to write such a complex and fascinating series.

Brian Stoddart: My PhD research was on modern nationalist politics in South India, and even as an academic I thought that those times and events had great dramatic qualities. That backdrop immediately allowed me to develop characters and events that were based in the historical record and, as we all know, truth is often more fascinating than fiction.

Some of the characters in the Le Fanu novels really did exist, and around them I can orbit fictional characters who also draw off people who were working at that time. The detailed historical knowledge allows me, then, to weave these stories in detail.

That said, I have had also to revisit Madras (now Chennai) as a writer rather than historian, because the city is as much a character as the people. Knowing the city well has allowed me to make the blend and set a place that is different, exotic but knowable. I am delighted that readers have felt that they learned something from the stories as well as being entertained by them.

2. CA: How do you create multi-dimensional fictional characters, including your lead character Christian Le Fanu? Where do you look for inspiration when creating characters?

BS: Those historical characters who lurk behind my fictional ones were all multi-dimensional and complex, often controversial, frequently combative and sometimes illogical. All those traits feed into Le Fanu and his colleagues as well as his opponents.

For example, I wrote a biography of an Anglo-Italian named Arthur Galletti who served in Madras and was the archetypal square peg in a round hole: anti-authority, hugely intelligent, socially awkward, pro-Indian and all the rest. Others were themselves writers who questioned the British regime. All of this feeds easily into creating characters who belong in the time. So that inspiration comes from the past and the historical record.

The other influence is from other writers and seeing how they create characters who live. Among my favourites are writers like Evelyn Waugh, Ian Rankin, Kate Atkinson, Parker Bilal, Fred Vargas – this is by no means exhaustive but will give you the idea. I also draw ideas and influence from television writers like Sally Wainwright, Anthony Horowitz, Neil Cross and others, because they create visuals that transfer well into print.

3. CA: Le Fanu has a personal relationship that was not allowed under British law in India at that time. How will this impact his decision-making as the series goes on?

BS: It was not so much “not allowed” to have a relationship between European and Anglo-Indian (mixed race) as severely damaging to a reputation and career, much the same if not even more so as a relationship between European and India. That is a trope for several novels, of course, perhaps beginning with E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India.

I use Le Fanu’s complicated relationship with Ro McPhedren almost as a lodestone to that complex matter of race relations in India at the time, and that shows up in how some other European characters relate (or do not relate) to Indians both professionally and personally.

By definition, the relationship will continue to bear on Le Fanu’s life as a whole, and be something of an allegory for the broader relationship patterns as independence nears for India. At the same time, the relationship allows me to explore the nuances of all this community-based activity in British India: Anglo-Indians who dominated the railway services, the missionaries who brought another corrective, the European business classes who had different outlooks again, and a range of others. India was all about relationships, in many respects, and Ro McPhedren helps focus that.

4. CA: What makes India a good setting for a mystery? How do you use setting to create and build suspense?

BS: As I say, Madras for me is really another character that influences the interactions between the characters. There are those Europeans who hate the place because they hate being in India and refuse to understand the locals. Le Fanu’s boss and bête noir Arthur Jepson is like that. As a result of WWI, Le Fanu now understands India and Indians better and is at home exploring it. That is why the Udipi food stand is in there – Le Fanu is the only European in the small eatery (which itself is drawn from reality and was the beginning of what has become a major restaurant chain). Habi, Le Fanu’s sidekick, provides the strongly necessary Muslim element in the story because Madras has always had a big Muslim presence.

In many ways, India is such a natural setting for these kinds of stories because of multiple cultural strands (the north differs from the south), cross-faith issues, caste, education, and all the rest. The historical context itself provides so many opportunities which is why the Le Fanu plots and storylines move across all these things and others like them – Madras in the 20s was replete with visitors blundering into systems and situations of which they were ignorant. That makes for great stories.

5. CA: You can invite any author, living or dead, to dinner at your home. What are you serving and what will the conversation be about?

BS: Oh wow! I will cheat and pick one dead, one alive. The latter first. Andrea Camilleri, the marvelous Sicilian creator of Commisario Montalbano. The books and the television series are captivating because they so “get” local nuance, story, history, relationships and networks. The menu would be all seafood drawing on the restaurant favourites and recipes that appear in the books. I am a huge fan – my wife and I have even been to Ragusa and that area of Sicily to immerse ourselves in the Montalbano story. The conversation would be about writing and storytelling based on local knowledge and insights, and how far fact can be stretched into fiction.

The writer from the past would be Robert Louis Stevenson who was one of the very first writers to impress me way back when, and who I talk about these days in my cruise lectures. When he went to Samoa he immersed himself in local politics and culture, and the stories from then reflect that. The food would be Polynesian, and the discussion would focus on the relationship between history and fiction. And the fact that he was a Scot is a bonus.

6. CA: How do you go about researching your books? How do you know when you have done enough to begin a project?

BS:  Really great question. The research for Le Fanu has, of course, been done over many years and is almost natural. I have a lot to draw on. Because of that, the idea of when is enough really does not arise. What I tend to research now are the details of places and historical figures.

I spend a lot of time on geography, for example, trying to get the streetscape right. That includes finding local tales and myths that might add to the plotline or the storyline. Those are things that historians sometimes overlook but are the things that writers rely on. When I am happy I have enough of that to pace the book, then I am happy to quit, until the next time.

7. CA: Can you leave us with a quote, a place, or a concept from a book that inspired you?

BS: I am really driven by the idea of what I call “crime and place”. That is, in all locations and settings the best storylines and plots are driven by local history, folklore, events, characters and conditions. So the concept of place in crime fictions is something I am always trailing after and I always get a great buzz and a sense of encouragement when I find examples that push the boundaries in the genre.

For that reason I find great encouragement in work by people like Barbara Nadel (Istanbul), Donna Leon (Venice, although I think she is having trouble aging Brunetti), Michael Connolly (a really complex character in Bosch set in the ultimate tangle of LA), Paul Thomas (Auckland, with a Maori cop), John Enright (Samoa) and others like that. The inspiration, then, is from the interplay between location, background and character. Hopefully, something of that emerges in the Le Fanu series.

Thank you!

Chatting with Nordic Noir Author Torquil MacLeod

Chatting with Nordic Noir Author Torquil MacLeod

I’m thrilled to chat with Torquil MacLeod, author of the Malmö mystery series featuring Detective Anita Sundström. Full of shocking twists and Swedish authenticity, the series is a great addition to your Nordic noir library.

Carmen Amato: Torquil, thanks so much for stopping by. I found your books by accident a few years ago. Meet Me in Malmö popped up in a search on Amazon for books by Jo Nesbo. My first reaction was “Dang, wished my books came up on that search list,” and then, “This looks interesting.” Tell us how you came to write the Malmö series.

Torquil MacLeod: Hello, Carmen. Nice to team up with a fellow crime writer across the Atlantic. Well, to answer your question, it goes back to my first trip to southern Sweden which was just before Christmas in 2000. We were visiting our elder son who had just moved there.

Torquil MacLAt the time, I was trying to break into scriptwriting and I thought the stark winter landscapes of Sweden would be an interesting location for crime stories – this was well before the Scandi-crime invasion had hit the UK. On that first trip we stayed with a blonde female detective who has now become one of our greatest friends. I came up with a couple of ideas, one of which, unsurprisingly, featured a blonde female detective.

Needless to say, the screenwriting career disappeared up a blind alley, so I decided to turn one of the scripts, Meet me in Malmö, into a book. One thing my many years in advertising taught me was never waste an idea! If it doesn’t work the first time, you can always revisit it. I’m glad I did.

CA: How do you create multi-dimensional fictional characters, including your lead character Anita Sundström? Where do you look for inspiration when creating characters?

TM: When writing the first book, though much of the story is seen from a British character’s point of view, I found I became increasingly interested in Anita Sundström’s character and her situation – someone who had to work within a team and was not the senior detective like Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole or Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander. By being just an ordinary member of the squad it means that there is more scope for tension within the group. Over the years, she has developed into a more rounded character because she has faced ever-changing personal and professional situations. I think when you’re writing a series, like watching a TV box set, you linger longer with the main protagonists and have more time to let the characters grow. There’s less pressure than in a one-off story. And the more they grow, the more rounded they become both in the mind of the writer and, hopefully, the reader.

CA: Anita Sundström has not always had good judgement when it comes to her personal relationships. What criteria does she use to make decisions?

TM: To be fair, it’s not always Anita’s fault. Her philandering husband left her to bring up their son. Other choices have not been so good. Given her choices in the books, her main criterion seems to be a sense of humor. Having spent part of her childhood in Britain, she enjoys the self-deprecating humor. She’s attracted to men who don’t take themselves as seriously as some of her former Swedish boyfriends/lovers.

CA: Nordic noir is a very popular genre and Sweden has become a popular setting thanks to authors like Henning Mankell, Camilla Läckberg, and yourself. What makes Sweden a good setting for a mystery? How do you use setting to create and build suspense?

TM: The Sweden I know – the southern Skåne region – is a place of physical contrasts. In winter, the landscapes are harsh and barren; in the summer, incredibly lush and vibrant. Both give the writer scope to play with the conditions. In long winter nights people hide away. That in itself can play on people’s minds; be disturbing. But murder in a beautiful summer setting can be just as unsettling. It’s a season I often use to get away from the perception (certainly in Britain) that Sweden’s always bleak and snowbound. Another aspect of the country that helps the writer is that the Swedes generally keep themselves to themselves. That allows secrets to be buried deep.

CA: You can invite any author, living or dead, to dinner at your home. What are you serving and what will the conversation be about?

TM: I’d dig up Wilkie Collins. His 1868 Moonstone is considered the first full-length detective novel in the English language. I could ask him how he created Sergeant Cuff and many of the ground rules for detective fiction that virtually every detective writer has adhered to since. As he was also a good friend of Charles Dickens – coincidently, in 1857 they visited the Cumbrian village where I live– I could see if Wilkie could pass on any tips from the great writer. As for the food, my culinary skills are fairly limited, though I do a mean shepherd’s pie and a presentable chili (though, Carmen, I’m sure you would probably be horrified at my version of the latter). Poor old Wilkie would be left with a stark choice on the menu, so I’d try and distract him with a good bottle of something – though that might not work as he suffered from gout!

CA: How do you go about researching your books? How do you know when you have done enough to begin a project?

TM: I do two types of research. One is physically getting to know the locations I want to use. It’s fun to wander round the streets of Malmö and drive around Skäne. Swedish friends are also useful in suggesting places. I like to get the feel of a place, which makes it easier to describe. I can imagine the characters in the locations. It also means trips to places like Berlin and Malta as I like to get Anita out of Malmö from time to time. The other is that I try and find some interesting nugget of Swedish history that I can use in a book. This is where the internet comes in useful. However, as I’m not a great planner of my books – they tend to evolve as I go along – then some research takes place when the project is already under way.

CA: Can you leave us with a quote, a place, or a concept from a book that inspired you?

TM: In my case, the concept is a combination of a place and a person – Malmö and a real blonde female detective.

More about Torquil MacLeod: Torquil was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, and brought up in the north east of England. After brief spells as a teacher and a failed life insurance salesman, he worked as a copywriter in advertising agencies around the UK for more years than he cares to remember. The Malmö Mysteries have been inspired by his frequent visits to southern Sweden, where his eldest son and family live. Visit www.torquilmacleodbooks.com to find out more.

Check out the latest from Torquil MacLeod!

Torquil MacLeod interview

Author to Author with British Mystery Writer M.A. Comley

Author to Author with British Mystery Writer M.A. Comley

British author M.A. Comley is here to talk about her multiple mystery series. Her latest book IN PLAIN SIGHT, 3rd in the DI Hero Nelson series, came out last week and quickly shot to the top of Amazon’s Hot New Releases chart!

1. Carmen Amato: You are the master of the short swift mystery novel built mostly around a single plot thread, a format that has really resonated with readers. Tell us how you came to embrace this style and if you have a writing role model.

M.A. Comley: Hi Carmen, thank you for inviting me to take part in this Q&A with you. To be honest with you, I’m not one of those writers who try to fill their novels with worthless words just to achieve an 80K word count. My first two books were 88.000 and 80.000 respectfully but then I cut it down to writing 60.000 only because I had very impatient fans who wanted to see more and more books from me. My role model has to be James Patterson, the only difference between us, is the fact that I write my own books. Ha ha.

MA Comley

With her dog, Dex

2. CA: You write multiple series and maintain a fast publishing pace. Tell us about the different series and how you keep each fresh and unique.

MAC: I used to just write and publish the Justice series as the main character Lorne seemed to be the only character shouting, urging me on in my head. Then I started writing the DI Hero Nelson series, he’s the only male character I write. All of a sudden, all these other characters started screaming at me, demanding to be heard. Therefore, I went on to write a Private Investigator series, the Intention series. Finally, I began writing another police procedural series, the DI Sally Parker thriller. I intend to alternate the series over the coming years. Recently, I have co-authored two other series with Tara Lyons and Linda S Prather, although they were fun projects to write, I think I’ll be concentrating more on writing my own books going forward as I’m a bit of a control freak at heart. As for keeping the characters fresh and unique, they tend to do that themselves to be honest during the writing process, I suppose I’m lucky in that respect.

3. CA: Who is your target reader? What other authors do they read who are similar to you?

MAC: My target readers are anyone who appreciates a fast-paced thriller, sometimes they can be a little gory, but then you only have to look at a news bulletin every night to see that unfortunately, we live in a violent society, it would be totally unrealistic not to include at least some violence in my novels. Again, I have to mention James Patterson, Karen Rose, Lee Child, Karin Slaughter, Tess Gerritsen.

4. CA: Which of your characters are your favorites? No, wait. I’ll make this harder! Tell us about a favorite relationship in one of your books.

MAC: That’s a no-brainer, it has to be Lorne Simpkins/Warner, she is me. We both escaped a violent abusive marriage, the only difference really is that Lorne went on to find the love of her life in Tony, an ex-MI6 agent. I think I’ve given up hope of that ever happening to me. I’m too devoted to my career as a writer now to ever contemplate getting out there and finding a man who I can trust to have my best interest at heart.

5. CA: I hear one of your series is coming to the silver screen. Tell us all about it!

MAC: Crikey, not sure where you heard that, of course if Hollywood came knocking I’d bite their hands off. Until then, I’ll just have to dream about my characters playing out their roles on the silver screen.

6. CA: You can invite any author, living or dead, to dinner at your home. What are you serving and what will the conversation be about?

MAC: Sorry to sound repetitive, but again it has to be the master crime writer himself, James Patterson. I’d get my mum (she’s a qualified chef) to serve up a traditional roast beef dinner with all the trimmings, followed by a steamed syrup sponge and custard, lots of calories but sooooo good to eat. The conversation would be all about him and his books, his phenomenal writing ethic, and would end with me pleading with him to co-write a series with me, I live in hope of that happening, we always sit side by side each other in the charts so he must have noticed me, surely. 😊

7. CA: Can you leave us with a quote, a place, or a concept from a book that inspired you?

MAC: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Maya Angelou

Thank you!

More about M.A. Comley: I’m a hybrid author with a two-book deal with Bloodhound Books. I started self-publishing the Justice series in 2010 and now have over thirty full length novels and several novellas and short stories to my name. I intend to write and publish four more books in 2017, beginning with COLD CASE due out May 2017t.

Visit  M. A. Comley’s website and find her books: Amazon author page

KOBO author page

iTunes author page

Barnes and Noble author page

Google Play author page

Twitter

Facebook author page

Friends with Books: The Founder of BooksandSpoons.com

Friends with Books: The Founder of BooksandSpoons.com

This week I stumbled upon the great site http://www.booksandspoons.com/, run by reader and chef Anu-Riikka. Half of the site is devoted to book reviews of romantic thriller and suspense novels and the other half has recipes from her kitchen, complete with photos. The books are rated by the spoonful and the recipes are straight comfort food. It’s fun, folksy, and well written.

I love combining books and food—all of the Detective Emilia Cruz novels include a recipe from something served in the book—and I know readers do, too.

Anu-Riikka was nice enough to chat with me this past week.

Carmen Amato: I love the premise of your website, http://booksandspoons.com. Tell us how and why you started the site, which now has 14,000 weekly page views, and about your background as a chef.

Anu-Riikka: I found my passion for food, and baking especially, as I was working in a kitchen while in college to get my Bachelor’s degree. A couple of years after graduation I went back to school, and first got my degree in baking and pastry, and then in culinary technology. So I’m both pastry chef and a chef.

I have worked in variety of kitchens including as a baker in a country club, kitchen manager in a conference center, and a catering chef in a large sports arena environment. I’ve had the opportunity to cook and arrange events and private parties for royalty in Scandinavia  and managed hot dog stands in a World Cup sporting event. I have managed all the fresh food departments in gourmet grocery store, and catered private parties for all the life events one could have.

Due to some medical problems I have been partially handicapped, ‘mobility challenged’ as I like to call it, for about four years now. That changed my life drastically. After finding the balance with the new life and treatments, I needed something meaningful to do. So after planning and months of research, I started the website that is now Books & Spoons.

CA: You review many romantic suspense and thriller novels and always give a very well-rounded view of the book, including details about characters, pacing and writing style. I especially loved the way you described Cavanaugh in the Rough as having a “drizzle of clues.” What makes a book stand out for you as a reader? What don’t you like?

A-R: A great story for me has a balance, everything in moderation (yes, even those sexy scenes!) My first choice of genre is romantic suspense, and I love when both the romantic part and the action/suspense are well reasoned, the book has a good foundation that is built upon through the story, has feelings I can relate to, and solid characters I want to cheer for and wish them all the best. I like conflict when it comes outside of the couple, not something they cost themselves. I like angst, fear, danger, as long as it is balanced with sweetness and a little humor; I need both smiles and sighs. When it comes to the sex scenes I want them to be taking the plot and the couple forward. When it is obvious there’s a sex scene just because of it, I start to skip pages.

I don’t read stories with cheating issues, third party involvement, and a cliffhanger at the end is a deal breaker for me. I want the crimes solved, at least some of them if a series, and if there is something that is left open, please tell me the next book is out soon.

I have gotten a little feedback from readers that I use funny expressions sometimes. I know that, but I speak three languages daily, and it is possible that I take an expression from other language and make a translation that is ‘unique’. I would like to call that my trademark (hahaa)!

CA: Tell us about a favorite suspense novel? What snack you recommend to eat as we read it?

A-R: Oh wow. Nope, I can’t, too many to choose from. I can only give you some of my favorite authors.

The first romantic suspense book that I bought was Sandra Brown’s UNSPEAKABLE–and I was sold on the genre. Then there are Linda Howard’s MR. PERFECT and OPEN SEASON that I have reread countless times. But those are paperbacks before my first Kindle opened a new world to me, with countless stories just seconds away from my fingertips without waiting 3 to 12 weeks for the book order to arrive in Europe.

This year I have already read some excellent romantic suspense stories, one that stands out is AT CLOSE RANGE by Laura Griffin. The perfectly balanced story, in my mind.

When I write in a review that something is nail-biting intense or toe-curling scary, it means I actually did that while I read the book. So when I read suspense, to save my nails, I like to snack on something chewy. Salted licorice is often my first choice. My go-to snack is fresh berries and fruit, but the snack has to be something that doesn’t get books or my Kindle messy.

CA: On your site, which are more popular, the reviews or the recipes? (BTW I am trying the roasted cauliflower tonight). What is the most popular recipe on the site?

A-R:  I normally do one food post a week, and during a busy week, there can be up to 20 book posts. So BOOKS gets much more attention but SPOONS does very well when you count the overall number of viewers to the website.

The baking recipes get a lot of attention and the most popular recipe has been the Gingerbread Fudge.

There has been a lot of social media attention on the posts that are just a basic meal idea with a twist, for example, use rainbow carrots instead of regular ones to bring intensity to your plate.

CA: If you could invite any authors, living or dead, to dinner, who would you invite and what would you serve?

A-R: The menu part is easy; something seasonal, three courses. Right now it is the worst time of the year when it comes to local fresh produce. But since we are going towards the spring I would start with a gazpacho, a cold tomato soup. For the main course I would serve roasted pork loin with citrus avocado salad and couscous. For the dessert I would serve petit fours so we could taste as many different flavored cakes as possible.

As who I would invite, that’s a hard one. I’m sure I am in a minority when I say I prefer not to know too much about the authors whose books I read. Social media has twisted the concept of what we all share with the world, and what we know about total strangers. I don’t have the need to know every activity, meal, lipstick color and a cup of coffee for most people. That said, here are some authors I would like to have a conversation with:

Pat Conroy – Because of THE GREAT SANTINI and the growth experience reading it was for me

BT Urruela – A soldier turned into a cover model turned into an author must have great stories, and really, have you seen him?!

Jasinda and Jack Wilder – Because I admire their journey and their books were the first indie books I read.

Jill Mansell – Her books took me through some dark times when my disability was first diagnosed

Liliana Hart – I admire her business sense, the fresh look she has with the industry, and adore many of her early works

Sally Ann Phillips – An author I met on Twitter who has turned into a soul sister whom I haven’t had a chance to meet face to face.

Thank you, Anu-Riikka!

Readers, check out BooksandSpoons.com for all the reviews and recipes.

Mystery and Thriller Trends for 2017

Mystery and Thriller Trends for 2017

I recently chatted with Mary Rosenblum from New Writers Interface about what we can expect when it comes to mystery and thriller trends in 2017, as well as what really hooks a reader and draws them into a story. She’s an author, editor, and marketer whose services replace much of what traditional publishing houses once did when it comes to prepping a book for publication and seeing that it gets to the right audience. So if anyone knows what is ahead for readers, Mary does.

Carmen Amato: As a publishing insider who helps bring quality books to readers, what mystery and thriller trends do you see ahead, when it comes to reading and publishing?

Mary Rosenblum: I’m seeing a growing shift to ebooks among the mystery readers in general. It was behind the fantasy, romance, and SF genres for awhile, but the ebook sales  have really strengthened.  It’s still a genre where you want to have the book available in print as well as ebook, however.

Readers are getting pickier now, dismissing books with weak descriptions or slow starts. Most people use ‘look inside the book’ before they buy. Series collections are increasingly popular in the ebook world, and for you authors, free book giveaways no longer translate into an increase in paid sales.  They’re good for boosting your Amazon ranking, though.

There is also a growing need to focus book promotion on increasing your visibility on Amazon.com as book purchases shift more and more to Amazon.  Amazon does not make all books visible equally, and good books can be quite invisible unless you know the author or title.  Don’t depend on Amazon only to find new books.  Use book discounters such as Fussy Librarian or BookBub, be on Goodreads, and follow reviewers in your genre for good leads.

CA: I’ve noticed that more and more mystery series are using title devices. For example, the title of each Hetta Coffey mystery by Jinx Schwartz starts with “Just,” while Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum mysteries are numbered. What do you think of this trend?

MR: It started some time ago and has recently gained momentum.  Sue Grafton really brought attention to it with her alphabet series quite a few years ago.

This is all about branding and it’s a really good idea in our world of one second visual hooks!  Some authors use a title device, perhaps using a particular phrase, a color, flower, bakery item or what have you as part of the title.  My own cozy mystery series with Putnam included a flower name as part of the title;  Deadly Nightshade, Bleeding Heart, etc.    Other authors use cover imagery as a brand — the covers all share a similar look.  You want instant reader identification — “Oh, I like that series…”

CA: As both reader and editor, what “hooks” you when you read a book description or see a cover on Amazon? What makes you pass on a book? 

MR: Covers are the first thing I look at and I can tell with about 90% certainty whether they’re professionally done or done by the author.  A good cover reveals the genre, the ‘tone’ of the story, and offers some kind of visual hook.  Vague covers that don’t make the content clear are a turn-off, not just to me but to other readers, too.  It implies a book that isn’t up to professional standard.

I will even turn down free books if the description is poor! I want a description that hooks me right away, gives me a sense of the main character and the central conflict, and excites my curiosity.  If I want to go read more at the end of that description, I’m 2/3 of the way to clicking ‘buy’!  (A quick glance at the start of the book is the deciding third…)

CA: Book reviews, especially on Amazon, have become an essential part of the book industry for both readers and writers. My own experience has been 1 review for every 1500 downloads. Do you think book reviews will become more or less important as time goes on? Why do you think so few readers leave reviews?

MR: Right now, reviews are becoming more and more important to Amazon visibility as are Goodreads reviews and reads.  These things change, but right now, authors need to actively solicit reviews.  But you must do it within Amazon’s best practices rules or risk getting kicked off Amazon.  You cannot offer a reward for a review and it is very dangerous to hire a company to ‘get you positive reviews’.  If that company is on Amazon’s black list, your book gets banned!  NOT good!

The best way to get reviews or Goodreads action is to cultivate a personal connection with  your readers.  Acquire their emails and their goodwill through giveaways of free short content, free book giveaways, contests, invitations to contribute something to an ongoing draft, and the like.  Then ask for reviews the way you’d ask them for a Facebook like.  If your fans feel that they’re your friends, they’re more willing to do you favors.

CA: Can you tell us a bit more about yourself? You have a unique place in today’s  publishing world but I think more agents and editors are going to follow your lead.

MR: I raised my kids as a mid-list author with Random House, Penguin, and Torr Books, writing SF and mystery (as Mary Freeman) as well as teaching writing. (And I won some nice literary awards while I was doing that, too).  As the publishing world changed and opened up to self publishing, I saw too many of my students getting scammed by fake ‘publishers’ or publishing books only to see no buyers.  I saw this new world of self publishing as a huge benefit to writers and readers both. The NY marketers were no longer the gatekeepers of published fiction!

But you have to do it right in order to succeed.  You must have a book that satisfies the readers in your genre and is well edited.  You must publish it in a professional manner.  You must promote it.

I have worked very hard to bring those three elements together for writers as New Writers Interface where I edit and help them publish and promote.  The promotion part has become more important lately, and I spend a lot of time keeping track of what is working for authors today to connect their books to the right readers.  It’s a lot of fun and keeps me busy tracking trends! And I love it when my clients’ books sell well!

CA: Can you leave us with two recommendations: A classic every mystery lover should read, and a book you’d give as a gift.

MR: Ah, I’m usually terrible at these recommendations, but in this case I can manage!  Whew!

The only classic that I’d recommend to every mystery lover is Sherlock Holmes.   No matter what sub genre of mystery you read or write, Holmes works.   The books really don’t fit into any modern genre, but for mystery authors there’s a lot to be learned from that distant, knows-everything character.  The books don’t sell just because they get assigned in high school and college English classes, they still engage readers in spite of the antiquated writing style.  A few authors since then have done very well with the Holmes archetype.  Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series, begun in the 30s, was very successful and was quite popular for at least four decades.

A gift I actually gave this Christmas was an assortment of Raymond Chandler mysteries — another classic by the way.  The recipient is a younger mystery reader who likes noir detective fiction and hadn’t heard of Raymond Chandler and Phillip Marlowe.  He was very pleased with the books, and there’s another author whose stories have survived in spite of ‘antiquated’ prose!

CA: Mary, thanks so much for stopping by. This was great information for both readers and writers.

MR: Carmen, thank you so much for inviting me!  I just finished Hat Dance and am moving on to King Peso–I really like Emilia Cruz and her investigations.  And believe me, getting three books into a series is rare for me!  As soon as I start editing, I am done with a book!  That I do for pay, not for pleasure.  Excellent writing, characterization, and plotting.  I’m looking forward to more Emilia Cruz mysteries for sure!

You can find out more about Mary and her magic at http://www.newwritersinterface.com/

Author to Author with Estelle Ryan

Author to Author with Estelle Ryan

I’ve been reading Estelle Ryan’s Dr. Genevieve Lenard mystery series, starting with THE GAUGUIN CONNECTION. The series is a fresh take on the usual whodunit, both in terms of style and characters. I’m delighted to host Estelle today for a short chat.

Carmen Amato: Estelle, your absolutely compelling mystery series featuring Dr. Genevieve Lenard now spans 9 novels. Dr. Lenard is a self-described “non-neurotypical” personality with touches of Asperger’s Syndrome and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in her makeup, all of which both help and hinder her efforts to solve crimes that incorporate an art element. Between the complexity of the character and the mysteries solved, how do you maintain continuity across the series while also keeping things fresh?

Estelle Ryan booksEstelle Ryan: Firstly, thank you so much for having me and also for your kind words. When I developed the series, I spent a lot of time getting to know my characters before I even wrote the first book. I wrote out comprehensive personality and professional profiles on each of them. No matter what crazy crime challenge gets thrown their way or how much each of them grow throughout the series, at their core they’re still true to their personalities. Plot points are easy and hard to find. Technology evolves at such an alarming rate, it’s not difficult to find new things to include in the mysteries. The difficult part comes in avoiding the very strong temptation of repeating the progression of a mystery in one of the previous books. But that challenge is fun to take on.

CA: Accompanied by her observations of body language, discussions between a group of characters in Genevieve’s apartment or her work place drive much of the storyline in your books. What are the pros and cons of so much dialogue?

ER: The pros of dialogue-heavy story telling are numerous, one of which is that it is more dynamic. It gives the reader the opportunity to get to know the characters through their speech and not through lengthy descriptions. It is a great way to reveal conflict between characters as well as giving each character a very distinct voice. The cons would be the lack of detailed description. We are venturing into a very subjective topic. Some readers love detailed descriptions of places, emotions, actions, as well as lengthy internal dialogue, where others find that boring and skip over those parts. Both have their place and finding a balance is another challenge for every writer. 

CA: One of the reasons I love your books is that our writing styles are very similar. We both feature strong yet flawed female characters and write from their deep point of view. What is the most difficult thing you have faced writing the character of Dr. Genevieve Lenard?

ER: I wanted the readers to experience the challenges people on the spectrum face every day. I wanted to make Genevieve difficult, but I didn’t want to make her impossible to relate to or unlikable. Striking that balance has been and still is something I pay close attention to. People who don’t know someone on the spectrum might find a character like Genevieve unbelievable and it’s my job to draw them into her world, into her mind in a way they can relate to her – even if it’s only in a small way.

CA: I found Genevieve to be very relatable! Part of what makes her endearing is that she struggles with all the changes in her life, but never loses that well-crafted and unique persona.

Transition is a huge part of a mystery or thriller novel. Change amps up tension and forces characters to adapt in order to keep moving forward. Can you share a significant transition that you experienced or that you wrote for a character?

gauguinER: The catalyst for Genevieve’s most significant growth/transition was when Colin and the other friends entered her life in the first book. She was forced out of her comfort zone of isolation and had to learn to trust and share. Adding the presence of Nikki, the student who elicits very strong protective tendencies in Genevieve also shook her to her core. I think all of us have experienced such events that took us to uncharted emotional territories and forced us to grow and often face our own fears.

CA: Can you leave us with a quote, a place, or a concept from a book that inspired you?

ER: Everything about ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ touched me. This quote is something I hold dear: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Estelle, thank you for stopping by!

If you haven’t read the terrific Dr. Genevieve Lenard series yet, check out Estelle’s website and find the Dr. Genevieve Lenard books on Amazon

Anne R. Allen’s Essential Tips for New Authors

Anne R. Allen’s Essential Tips for New Authors

Lately, several emerging authors have asked me what to focus on as they start their careers. For a pro opinion, I turned to Anne R. Allen, author of How To Be A Writer In the E-Age. Anne writes the essential blog for today’s writers at http://annerallen.com/. When I asked her for a few tips, she shared this great advice:

1) Concentrate on writing short work (both fiction and personal essays).

Yes, you’ve got that novel or memoir you’re pounding away at, but spend at least half your time on short pieces. Short stories and essays will help you hone your craft and get you published in journals and anthologies. They might even make you some money. Some short story contests have big prizes.

And yes, you can write some of those short personal essays on a blog—either your own or as a guest—which will do amazing things for getting your name out there.

When you finish a short work, it gives you a wonderful feeling of accomplishment, and you can send those out to contests and journals and anthologies. There’s nothing more empowering than getting something in print and putting “published author” after your name.

2) Don’t write in a vacuum.

Take a class, join a critique group, find beta readers or a critique partner. You want to do this fairly early on. Writing in a vacuum can lead to bad habits and unrealistic expectations. Learning to write well is a long, steep learning curve. Don’t stay stuck at the bottom longer than you need to.

3) Read contemporary books in your genre.

If you only read the young adult books from your own youth or you read the regencies or mysteries you loved 20 years ago, you won’t be able to compete in today’s market. What was hot then will be clichéd now.

4) Network with other writers.

There are lots of great online social media groups and forums. (Some are fantastic and others not so much, so run if you see any trollish behavior!)

Blogging is a great way to network with other writers, and there are great blog networks for new writers like the Insecure Writers Support Group.

Simply commenting on well-known writing blogs gets your name into search engines and raises your profile. Get to know people and get known!

Genre groups that welcome both amateurs and professionals can be especially helpful, like RWA, SCBWI, and Sisters in Crime. They usually have online and in-person meetings.

You may be lucky enough to live in a community that has in-person writers clubs that meet at local libraries or bookstores. Network anyplace you find kindred spirits.  But you want to be online too. That’s where you’re going to make your sales and establish your career.

Online networking is a great way hear about agents who are looking for work like yours and to learn from people who are self-publishing and decide if it will work for you. This is where you’re going to find out about the business and learn the latest scams to stay away from (there are always scammers looking to pounce on newbie writers.)

5) Write everything down.

Don’t “talk out” your novel or story. Jot down your ideas—in notebooks, on Evernote, or whatever program works for you to save those thoughts, names, settings, weird stories that you can work into plots. Take it with you everywhere. They will be a goldmine later.

Thank you, Anne!

To learn more about Anne R. Allen and mine her trove of great advice, check out http://annerallen.com/ and her book How To Be A Writer In the E-Age.

Author to Author: DV Berkom and Carmen Amato

Author to Author: DV Berkom and Carmen Amato

I love swapping ideas and stories with other mystery authors and this week I had the opportunity to chat with DV Berkom. Her Leine Basso and Kate Jones thrillers have been topping Amazon’s mystery and thriller genre charts of late, possibly because the author is as interesting as her books.

author DV Berkom

Carmen Amato: DV, thanks so much for stopping by. I confess to discovering you as an author when Amazon’s ticker said that people who bought my books also bought yours! As a result, I find myself in very good company.

DV Berkom: I’d have to say the same thing. Your character, Detective Emilia Cruz, is fantastic. Good company, indeed.

CA: You write both the Leine Basso crime thriller series and the Kate Jones adventure thriller series. Juggling two series at once is impressive. How do you maintain continuity? Do you have a process for each series?

DVB: Continuity can be tricky. Unfortunately, I don’t compile story bibles. That would take too much planning. I’ve been writing each character for so long now that I remember most if not all of what I need. It’s like accessing each character’s memories, if that makes sense. If I get stuck, I’ll re-read sections of previous books just to make sure I’m not mis-remembering. A Killing Truth was the trickiest, by far. As a prequel, I had to make sure to adhere to what I’d written before about Leine’s early life, which made things tricky. Especially the ending. I re-read Serial Date and Bad Traffick and then did a search for certain character’s names to refresh my memory about what I’d written. From reader comments and emails, it seems to have worked, thank goodness.

Related: Meet David Bruns, thriller author of JIHADI APPRENTICE and WEAPONS OF MASS DECEPTION

CA: Your main characters are strong, multi-dimensional women. But they aren’t perfect. Where did you look for inspiration when creating these women?

DVB: Perfect characters are {yawn} so boring. I don’t want to invest my precious time reading about someone who can’t do any wrong. How is that compelling? Strong, flawed women are all around us—you just have to look. And let’s face it—nobody’s actually “perfect.” A bit closer to home, my mother is one of the most fearless women I know, as is my sister. I believe that we’ve all got that strength inside us, and I love to tap into the character’s reserves to find out what she’ll fight for and what she won’t. It’s a deep well.

CA: Setting can drive the tone and tempo of a mystery. Tell us about a favorite setting you have used in a novel and why did you choose it.

DVB: Mexico is one of my favorite settings. I’m sure you can relate  Even though I lived there for a time and traveled there extensively, it’s still mysterious and I keep going back. Take your pick: jungles, deserts, ruins, cosmopolitan and rural areas, resorts, etc. The country is so diverse, I doubt I’d ever exhaust the possibilities. Of course, the same could be said for the US, and I’ve set books in California, Arizona, Hawaii, Alaska, and Washington State. I’ve lived in most of the places I write about, or at least have visited them, and enjoy writing about the ones that made an impression.

Related: The Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico

CA: Transition is a huge part of a mystery or thriller novel. Change amps up tension and forces characters to adapt in order to keep moving forward. Can you share a significant transition that you experienced or that you wrote for a character?

DVB: Life is change. If you lack that basic element in your novel (especially in thrillers or mysteries) you will lose 99.9% of your readers. My own life transitions have taught me so much. For instance, my family moved a lot when I was young, forcing me to adapt to change: new location, new school, new friends, new cultures. At the time it sucked, but now I’m grateful. Having to adapt to new situations taught me the art of observation. When you’re the new kid on the block, you avoid a lot of unpleasantness if you first observe how others react. As a result of moving so much as a kid, for several years after I graduated college I changed addresses every 6 months or so. I loved being on the move. It wasn’t until I was in my forties that I settled down (more or less). Needless to say, during that time I had a lot of adventures—great fodder for novels.

CA: What is the first grown-up mystery you remember reading? Was it the one that inspired you to write that genre yourself or did another?

DVB: I’d read other spy novels before him, but Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle had the greatest impact. What a master. It was the first novel I’d read with a strong, realistic female character who fought back without making excuses. I also was inspired by Carl Hiaasen. His books showed me that you could write about social issues and still be highly entertaining.

CA: What can we expect next from Leine Basso and Kate Jones?

DVB: I’m currently in the middle of the first draft of the next Kate Jones thriller. I’m taking her in a slightly different direction, and it’s been a lot of fun. I don’t have the title yet, but I assume it will appear when it’s ready. Then, on to the next Leine Basso. I can’t get enough of either of them. If that does happen, or a high percentage of readers tell me I should kill one or the other of them off, I’ll know it’s time to start something new.

CA: Can you leave us with a quote, a place, or a concept from a book that inspired you?

DVB: “One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” ― Jack Kerouac

Thanks for allowing me to be part of your world today, Carmen. I appreciate it.

Want to know more about fellow mystery author DV Berkom? Here’s her official bio:

DV Berkom is the award-winning author of two action-packed thriller series featuring strong female leads (Leine Basso and Kate Jones). Her love of creating resilient, kick-ass women characters stems from a lifelong addiction to reading spy novels, mysteries, and thrillers, and longing to find the female equivalent within those pages. She makes her home in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, Mark, and several imaginary characters who like to tell her what to do.

Find her across your digital devices!

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Amazon Author Page: USUK

A Killing Truth by DV Berkom

“Relevance and immediacy:” A chat with thriller author David Bruns

The #friends section of this website is all about walking and talking with awesome mystery and thriller authors. This week I was lucky enough to catch up with David Bruns, half of a dynamic writing duo (with JR Olson) that gave us the contemporary thriller Weapons of Mass Deception. David talked about the delicate business of writing terror-based fiction, his favorite author, and what it takes to collaborate with a co-author. A new role for me in there? Read on!

Carmen Amato interview with David Bruns

1. Carmen Amato: David, thanks so much for stopping by. I was really impressed with your thriller Weapons of Mass Deception and am looking forward to your new book, Jihadi Apprentice. Both are about terrorism from two points of view: those defending US national security and terrorists bent on destroying Western civilization. What are the pros and cons of using terrorism as the basis for fiction?

David Bruns: Writing about a politically charged topic like terrorism is an artistic tightrope. On the plus side, we extrapolate from current events so the story has a sense of relevance and immediacy that grabs a reader’s attention. The downside is that exploring these topics can be scary. There’s a saying that the FBI agents use in Jihadi Apprentice: “The bad guys only need to be successful once. We need to be right every single day.” Unfortunately, I think it’s true.

My writing partner was a naval intelligence officer for 21 years and he’s witnessed scary events that never made the news–most of which he can’t talk about, even with me. One of the points we make in our books is that the world has become a gigantic game of Whack-A-Mole for the people trying to protect us. It’s scary, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s also real and makes for compelling fiction.

JihadiApprentice_CVR_LRG2. CA: How do you create multi-dimensional fictional characters, including the terrorists? Where do you look for inspiration when creating characters?

DB: In Jihadi Apprentice, we took on a difficult artistic challenge: how do we write a sympathetic terrorist? The inspiration for Ayana, a Somali-American teenager who is recruited by a terrorist group, was the newspaper articles about young Somalis being recruited to fight for ISIS. These are US citizens–born in America but with one foot in the traditional culture of their immigrant parents–who are persuaded to leave the US to fight overseas.

After consulting with contacts in law enforcement, academia and in the Somali community, our approach was to show the process of the young person being recruited, groomed, and manipulated into betraying their country, then realize what they’ve done.

Related post: A chat with Khaled Talib, author of Smokescreen

3. CA: You and J.R. Olson are co-authors and bill yourselves as the Two Navy Guys writing team. If you and I were to write a thriller together, what expectations would you have and what would you want to know about my writing habits and style?

DB: First off, I would love to collaborate with you! Co-writing has been a wonderful experience for us. Having someone to share the endless duties of plotting, writing, editing, and marketing is a godsend. I think the most important part of any collaboration is to understand where each person’s strengths lie and plan your project accordingly. In our case, we come up with the story idea and overall arc together, but JR does most of the plotting and research. I do the actual writing of the first drafts. We revise and edit together and share the marketing duties.

4. CA: Transition is a huge part of a mystery or thriller novel. Change amps up tension and forces characters to adapt in order to keep moving forward. Can you share a significant transition that you experienced or that you wrote for a character?

DB: I’ll use an example from Weapons of Mass Deception so I don’t want to give away any of the plot points in the new book. In WMD, Rafiq Roshed is a Hezbollah agent, and a very bad dude. About midway through the book, Rafiq gets sent to South America to develop a sleeper cell. While there, Rafiq falls in love with a wealthy heiress. He marries her, becomes a father, and inherits a massive fortune. Then he’s called on to fulfill his mission for his Iraqi handlers. The transition from despised terrorist to loving family man back to terrorist made Rafiq one of our most interesting characters.

Related: Book Review: Weapons of Mass Deception

5. CA: Now for some fun. You are shipwrecked with a crate labeled “Books.” What 3 books do you hope are in it?

DB: Only three? Wow, that’s tough. The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy is the book that enticed me to become a submarine officer. DUNE by Frank Herbert is my all-time favorite sci-fi novel and The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay is the absolute best coming-of-age story ever.

6. CA: You can invite any author, living or dead, to dinner at your home. What are you serving and what will the conversation be about?

DB: Charles Dickens and there wouldn’t be any food–just beer, lots of beer. To me, Dickens is the full package, the guy who recognized at an astonishingly early time that writing is a business. He was writing great stories, but also constantly reinventing how those works would be delivered to his reading public.

7. CA: Can you leave us with a quote, a place, or a concept from a book that inspired you?

DB: Louis L’Amour, one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century, had a great saying that I keep posted next to my computer: “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”

So many people talk about writing, but never actually get around to doing it. I think Louis has the right idea.

Thank you!

Want to know more about David Bruns and his books?

David author pic - cropped-minDavid’s bio: 

David is a recovering corporate executive who writes science fiction under his own name and thrillers with co-author, JR Olson. Weapons of Mass Deception, a novel of modern day nuclear terrorism, was their first co-authored book. Their latest novel, Jihadi Apprentice, about homegrown radicalism in the American Heartland, comes out in June 2016. Visit www.davidbruns.com to find out more.

 

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Author to Author: Jinx Schwartz and Carmen Amato

Author to Author: Jinx Schwartz and Carmen Amato

As a mystery author of books set in Mexico, I have been lucky enough to build a great network of friends with books. Mystery readers love following along with the Detective Emilia Cruz series and the troubled relationship between Acapulco detective Emilia Cruz and hotel manager Kurt Rucker.

Other readers are drawn by Mexico’s mystique.  I’m in good company when it comes to writing about Mexico. We hang out at the Mexico Writers Facebook group which includes novelists, non-fiction writers, and bloggers. Mexico is our common theme.

Friends With Books is a series of conversations with members of the Mexico Writers group. Each conversation has a few surprises about Mexican #culture and #protips about the writing process. Today’s conversation is with Jinx Schwartz, author of the Hetta Coffey mystery series as well as TROUBLED SEA, an adventure tale set in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. If you love yachts, humor, and Texas, chances are you have read one of Jinx’s popular books.

JinxOn real life

Tell us a bit about your family.  Texans. What else do I need to say?

How do you work through self-doubts and fear?  If I fear it, I kill it off in a book. Works every time. Except for the dentist; they are the undead.

What scares you the most?  Anything medical.

What makes you happiest?  Being with my husband.

What are you most proud of in your personal life? Landing my husband. I was 45 and single. He fought the good fight, but we’ve had a great life together.

What’s your greatest character strength? Hmmmm. My husband says I am generous to a fault, so that must be it.

What’s your weakest character trait?  Why do you think I have one? Have you been spying on me? And no, I am NOT paranoid.

On writing and reading

Just Different DevilsWhy do you write?  I like to tell tales. Some say I have a loose hold on the truth, so why not use it?

Have you always enjoyed writing?  Nope, but always loved reading.

What writing are you most proud of?  I guess the Hetta Coffey series, because I get feedback that the books actually make people laugh when they need a good laugh.

What books did you love growing up?  I grew up in places like Haiti and Thailand, so I read anything I could get my hands on, age appropriate or not.

Who is your favorite author?  Well, me, of course:-)

What book genre of books do you adore?  Action/adventure, mystery.

What book should everybody read at least once?   The Bible. Lots of good stories there.

 What do you hope your obituary will say about you?  Not sure about the obit, but tombstone: “That’s all she wrote.”

Thanks, Jinx!

Jinx is a #friends with books on Amazon.

Author to Author with Penn Wallace

Author to Author with Penn Wallace

On real life

Tell us a bit about your family.  I have a rather unconventional family. My father is of Scottish heritage; my mother’s parents came from Mexico. I grew up with a foot in both worlds.

When I was little, we interacted mainly with my mother’s family. I remember my first day of kindergarten. There were all these kids with yellow worms growing from their heads. I had never seen a blond before.

But somehow, I’m not a Latino. My Spanish is poor, but I can make myself understood. I stand out as a gringo in Mexico and fit into American culture.

I married up. Connie was one of the most wonderful people I ever met. We adopted two girls from Korea and had a lovely family. Then she got ovarian cancer.

She spent ten years in a valiant struggle against the horrible disease. I watched her waste away before my eyes. It is the hardest thing I ever did.

After I lost her, I decided to totally change my life. The lesson I learned from the experience is that you have to live for today. You never know what tomorrow will bring, of if you’ll be there.

For fifty years I dreamed about buying a big old sailboat and sailing down the coast to Mexico. So, after Connie was gone, I did.

As the author of the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series set in Mexico, I’m been honored to be a member of the highly engaged Mexico Writers Facebook group. I’ve been chatting with various members on the blog. Each conversation has a few surprises about Mexican #culture and #protips about the writing process.

Today’s chat is with Penn Wallace, best known for the Ted Higuera mystery series. Penn is a sea-faring author, with a lifestyle most of us can only dream about.

 How do you work through self-doubts and fear?  This is a really tough question because I rarely have self-doubts or fear. If you read my first book Blue Water & Me, Tall Tales of Adventures With My Father, you will see that Papa exorcised fear and self-doubt from me at an early age.

I’m kind of like the bumble bee. Scientist have proven mathematically that a bumble bee can’t fly. Someone just forgot to tell the bumble bee. I don’t know what I can’t do, so I just go ahead and do it.

What’s your most embarrassing moment of your life?  You’re going to have to sit down and get yourself a drink for this story. It may take a while.

When I was in grad school, our final project was to write a business plan for a new business. We worked in groups and wrote a masterpiece.

This was during the dot com boom. The school invited a group of venture capitalist to attend our presentations. They said that if any of our business plans looked good to them, they would fund them.

My group nominated me to make our presentation. I had just started taking a medication that made my mouth dry.

I got up and started talking. My mouth got drier and drier. Finally, my tongue swelled up and I had a hard time articulating. Then my tongue stuck to the top of my mouth and I couldn’t speak.

I had to dash from the room to find a water fountain. Then I returned and finished the presentation.

In case you’re wondering, our group did not get funded.

What scares you the most?  Dogs. I can honestly say that the only thing in the world that I have ever been afraid of is dogs. When I was three years old I was attacked by two German Shepherds. To this day, the sight of a German Shepherd makes my blood run cold.

This is particularly important since Dawn, my significant other, had two Great Danes when I met her. Like everything else in my life, I swallowed my fear and just plunged ahead.

What makes you happiest?  Wow! There are so many things that make me happy it’s really hard to choose. Sailing on a downwind reach off the coast of Baja California with just Dawn on my boat was one of the best experiences of my life.

How could you ask for more? The temperatures were in the eighties, we had about a fifteen knot wind on our quarter, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Pods of dolphin and whale played with us for days. We were off shore far enough that we couldn’t see land. We had the world to ourselves.

What’s your greatest character strength?  Honesty. I value honesty and loyalty above all other traits. When I meet a person, I assume that they are honest. I give them the benefit of the doubt until they prove otherwise. Once a person has been dishonest with me, I can never trust them again.

I have been told by employers that my honesty is a flaw. They said that I was too honest for my own good. They wanted me to lie for them and I wouldn’t. I also did not spend many more years at that job.

What’s your weakest character trait?  Self-control. I know I have a problem with food. I’ve been fighting my weight most of my life. For me, food is like a drug. I’m hooked. Even though I know I shouldn’t be eating that greasy bacon for breakfast, if it is there, I take it.

What are you most proud of in your personal life? My daughters. They have grown into fine young women. They are strong, brave and independent, just like their mother.

What other jobs have you had in your life? I have been a restaurateur. That includes everything from mopping floors and washing dishes to owning two of my own restaurants.

Then I took a major career detour and became a software engineer. I have also been a project manager and a business analyst.

If you could have a dinner party and invite anyone dead or alive, who would you ask? Sofia Vargara, Selma Hyak and maybe Catherine Zeta Jones.  To make sure you realize I’m an equal opportunity letch, I’d invite Rebecca Romijn too. To heck with the dinner, let’s go straight to the drinks.

When you are not writing, how do you like to relax?  Sailing is my passion. We sailed down the West Coast from Seattle to Mexico and back to San Diego. I expect to head south again soon.

Other than that, I love to cook and read. I am a world-class Mexican chef. You want to be invited to my boat for dinner.

On reading and writing

What books did you love growing up? Edgar Rice Burroughs. The Mars series, Tarzan of the Apes. Much of my writing today is influenced by his style. I also loved Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.

Who is your favorite author?  Larry McMurtry. He is fantastic. I think Gus McRae is the greatest single character in American Literature. I envy Larry’s ability and only wish I could write like him.

What book genre of books do you adore?  My favorites are thrillers. However, I love good historical fiction as well. The Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brien and the Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell are my favorites.

Related post: See Bernard Cornwell’s comments in 25 Authors on the Future of Bookstores

What book should everybody read at least once?  Lonesome Dove. It’s my absolute favorite. Everyone should have the opportunity to meet Gus McRae.

Is there any book you really don’t enjoy?  I hate to be a wet blanket and I don’t want to disparage any other authors, but I really didn’t enjoy Fifty Shades of Grey. The story just didn’t interest me. I couldn’t understand why she would willingly submit herself to such abuse.

How did you develop your writing?  By making every mistake in the book. I knew instinctively that I was a literary genius. I sat down and started writing. When I finished my masterpiece, I hired a good editor, just on the off-chance that I missed something.

She tore me to pieces. Actually, she tore my book to pieces. After I nursed my wounds and got over the sting, I cut more than a hundred pages from my manuscript and started over. Her second pass through the manuscript was a much more pleasant process.

I also joined a writers group. It took me several tries to find the right group, but eventually I ended up with a group of writers who were better than me. By working with them every other week, I gradually improved my writing.

Why do you write?  Because I have to. My mind is overflowing with stories. I just have to get them down on paper (or on a hard drive).

I write a beat sheet, character sketches and a fifteen to twenty page outline before I begin writing the book. Then I sit down to write. By this time, my sub-conscious knows the story and the characters and the words just flow from my fingers. I almost never think about what I’m writing.

I’m as enraptured as any reader as I see the story unfold in front of me. Sometimes it surprises me.

In The Inside Passage, I thought that Meagan was a certain kind of person, but as the story unfolded in front of me, she refused to be pigeon holed. She evolved and changed into a whole different person by the end of the book.

How has your upbringing influenced your writing? How could it not? My father was a communist who taught us to question everything. He never went to college, but was the most educated person I ever met.

He was a stickler for English grammar. It kills me when I hear someone say “where’s it at?” or “Me and Sally.” If you see bad grammar in my books, it is because the character talks that way, not because I don’t know better.

I think I look at the world a little differently than your common garden variety author. I am very liberal and open minded. I’m willing to accept things in people that others might question. This allows me to see and write about these people without being judgmental.

Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?  My father was a frustrated writer. He wrote a book about the tuna fishing industry that he tried to get published for fifty years. I grew up in a writer’s house. It just seemed natural.

When and why did you begin writing?  I had surgery and was out of work and going out of my mind. I had been thinking about writing my father’s story for twenty-five years. One day, while I was laying in bed recovering, I asked my wife to bring me my laptop and the rest is history.

Have you always enjoyed writing?  Yes. When I was in the sixth grade the teacher gave us an assignment to write “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.” I wrote 30 pages.

What motivates you to write?  Ego. I have all of these stories that need to be told and I have enough ego to think that somebody might like to read them.

What writing are you most proud of?  I think that I am growing and improving as a writer with everything I write. I think that The Mexican Connection is my best work yet, but I’m the most proud of Blue Water & Me, Tall Tales of Adventures With My Father.

Blue Water is a tribute to my father and it may not be as polished as my later works, but it will probably always be my favorite.

What do you consider the most challenging about writing a novel, or about writing in general?  Finding an audience. After you’ve written your masterpiece, the cards are stacked against you for ever getting it published.

I am more and more feeling that finding a publisher is mostly a matter of luck. I have seen some really good manuscripts get rejected time after time and I’ve read some really bad books that get published.

But once you have made the hurdle and have your book in print, you have to find a way to let the world know it exists. You could find the cure for cancer, but if no one knows about it, it will do no good.

I know that there is an audience out there who would enjoy my books. I just need to find a way to let them know I exist.

My first thriller, The Inside Passage, was a compelling story, but it started out too slowly. I had several agents tell me that I needed to just jump into the story, then go back and fill the reader in on what they needed to know. They even questioned whether the reader needed to know that stuff.

It took some serious re-writing to get The Inside Passage ready for publication.

I didn’t make that mistake in Hacker for Hire.  I decided to start with the action and let the reader stay in the dark for a while, trying to figure out who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. I hope that when the reader gets to the end of the book, they will reconsider who is who one more time.

Where do you get your inspiration from?  The headlines. Read the newspaper. I could never make up stories as bizarre as I see in the news every day.

What is hardest – getting published, writing or marketing?  Marketing. I suffered through the writing process. I endured the fight to get published. Now I am struggling with marketing my works. If no one knows about your book, you could write Gone With the Wind, and no one will read it.

I work daily to find my market. I’ve tried everything I can think of and have made very little progress. I hear that it’s about a five year process to get your books out there and known.

What marketing works for you?  BookBub is by far the most effective tool that I’ve found. I pay about $275 for an ad and usually make that back by noon. The problem is that they’re very picky about what books they feature. I’ve submitted to them six times and only have been selected three times.

As with everything in life, there are no short cuts. I believe that you have to put in the work every day, day in and day out, if you want to succeed at anything. I think that writing is the same. If you want to sell your books, it is not enough to write a masterpiece. You must spend effort every day marketing it.

Do you find it hard to share your work?  Not at all. I put my work out there all the time. I know that some people won’t like it, but I hope to find an audience that will. I also am very receptive to criticism.

That doesn’t mean that I’m going to change something just because it has been criticized. It means I will listen and consider the suggestion.

I just got a review by a woman who said that my writing was too obsessed by breasts and legs. My characters are two men in their early twenties. Of course they are obsessed with breasts and legs. If she does not realize or like that, then I guess she is not in my target audience. I seriously considered her criticism, but in the end, I am not going to change my characters’ points of view. That’s who they are.

Is your family supportive? Do your friends support you?  Yes. Dawn, my significant other, listens to everything I write and gives me her criticisms. Sometimes she likes what I’ve done, other times she has creative suggestions.

My best friend, Susie, has edited everything I’ve written since grad school. My other friends are very supportive. Some actually read my work, but they’re all positive.

Do you plan to publish more books?  Does a bear . . . no, seriously though, of course. I have written four of the Ted Higuera novels and am in the editing process for the fifth. I have the plots for two more books in that series. Catrina Flaherty has spun off a series of her own. The next book on my list is about Catrina tackling a serial rapist.

I would also like to write some historical fiction. I have a civil war story just begging to be told.

But here’s my biggie: I discovered that people love dogs. If you want to write a best-seller, put a dog in it. So . . . in Bikini Baristas and the new The Cartel Strikes Back, Maria has a Great Dane for protection.

Tell us about your new book? What’s it about and why did you write it?  The latest Ted Higuera thriller is The Cartel Strikes Back.

In the Mexican Connection, Ted, Cat and friends were responsible for the death of one drug lord and the capture and imprisonment of another, El Pozolero.

In The Cartel Strikes Back, El Pozolero escapes from prison and causes all sorts of trouble for Ted. Ted has no choice but to go to Mexico and when things get too hot for him to handle, he calls Catrina, Chris and Hope to come to his aid.

SPOILER ALERT: I will tell you that Ted proposed to Maria in this book, I just won’t tell you her answer. I hope that you will be blown away by the ending.

Have you developed a specific writing style?  I hope so. I like to have short, action filled scenes, parallel plot lines and cliff hanging scene endings. Hopefully, that will make the reader want to turn the page to see what happens next.

Of course, it all depends on the story. You have to have “good bones” to hang your meat on.

What is your greatest strength as a writer?  I can accept criticism. I take my work to writers groups, I ask beta readers for their opinions. In the Ted Higuera series, Ted originally talked about himself in third person (“Ted really likes that.” As opposed to “I really like that.”). I got so much negative feedback that I changed it, even though I loved that part of his quirky character.

Every writer has their own idea of what a successful career in writing is, what does success in writing look like to you?   The adulation of millions. Not being able to go anywhere without the paparazzi following me around. No, seriously though, I would like to be able to sell enough books to subsidize my travels and live comfortably on my retirement income.

I’m not thirsting for a million-seller. I would like to be able to tell my stories and have people read and appreciate them. But if I wrote a million seller, I wouldn’t object.

Do you have an organized process or tips for writing well? Do you have a schedule? Everyone writes differently. Before I start writing, I do my research. This could take a month or more to learn everything I need to know about my story. Once I’m comfortable with the story,

I write a beat sheet.

The beat sheet is a three to five page document that outlines the plot, the characters and the story line. When that is done, I know who the characters are, so I write character sketches for the major players in my book. As new characters develop, I go back and write character sketches for them. I want to know who they are and how they will react in situations before I start writing.

Then I write the outline for the book. It is usually fifteen to twenty pages long and describes most of the scenes in the book.

After I’ve done my homework, I start writing. By this time I know the characters and story so well that I don’t really think about what I’m writing. The words just flow from my finger tips.

At this point, I’m always discovering new scenes that I hadn’t planned on or new twists to my characters personalities. It’s a journey of discovery. The neatest thing about my process is that when I’m writing, I’m like a reader. I get the same thrills and pleasure the reader will get as the story unfolds.

I try to write every morning. That is my most creative time. I like to get up and write before the house (or boat in my case) is awake. That way I don’t have any distractions.

Sometimes it’s so hard to keep at it – What keeps you going?  I’m just stubborn. When I start a project, I plunge head long into it and keep going until it’s finished. I don’t allow distractions to tear me away. I am determined to finish.

Have you met any people in the industry who have really helped you?  Jinx Schwartz comes to mind. I met Jinx in La Paz, Mexico, and she was kind enough to spend a couple of hours with me discussing her marketing process. It was a great help and I took what worked for me in her process and continue to build on it.

What do you hope people will take away from your writing? I just want to entertain people. I’m not trying to change their lives or provide some great hidden truth. I want them to relax and forget the world for a few minutes and just enjoy the story.

Is there anyone you’d like to acknowledge and thank for their support?  Without a doubt, my mother. She hated the first draft of Blue Water & Me because she was in it and she is a very private person. After not talking to me for about three weeks, she finally gave me her permission to use the material she objected to.

Since then she has been 100% in my corner. I am most grateful for her support.

How did you come up with a title?  I usually brainstorm the title. I make a list of possible candidates, nothing is too stupid to add to the list. Then I share it with my friends and ask for their ideas and input.

Once I have twenty or thirty possibilities, something usually suggests itself.

There was a comic book when I was a kid called Hero for Hire.  Somehow, when I started writing Hacker for Hire that memory resurfaced in my mind.

Ted is a computer security analyst. Corporations hire him to try to hack into their systems to find vulnerabilities before the real hackers find them. To me, this was a Hacker for Hire.

Can you tell us about your main character?  Ted Higuera is the son of Mexican immigrants. He grew up in the barrios of East LA and has a little of that hermano still in him.

He was fortunate enough to be physically gifted. He set scoring, touchdown and yardage records at Garfield High School in LA and won a football scholarship to the University of Washington where he met Chris Hardwick.

Chris is the kid born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His dad is the head of one of Seattle’s most prestigious law firms. Chris grew up in a million dollar estate overlooking Puget Sound.

Everything comes easy for Chris. He has an eidetic memory and finished first in his class. Ted has to scrape and claw for everything he’s earned in his life. The two come together to make a great crime fighting duo.

 How did you develop your plot and characters? I don’t have to make this stuff up. I just read the newspaper. Hacker for Hire is a real life situation that happened in one of the Fortune 100 companies in this country. I have moved the story to Seattle, changed the company name and thrown in a murder or two, but the basic plot was already there.

I should say something about Catrina Flaherty. is a kick-ass private investigator.

I modeled her on a PI that I did some consulting work for a few years ago. I remember the sales guy asking me what I thought about her and I said “I wouldn’t cross her. She can kick both of our asses.” I love her character and decided she would make a great stand alone protagonist.

The Catrina Flaherty Mysteries consist of a short story called Mirror Image and a novella called Murder Strikes Twice. In her upcoming novel, she is on a mission to find a serial rapist who preys on undocumented aliens.

Who designed the cover?  Brandi McCann has been designing my covers and I like them a lot. I am trying to keep a consistent look and feel to them. I just had her do a cover for a short story that I will publish shortly that is about one of the characters in the Ted Higuera series, but Ted and Chris aren’t in it. I wanted to keep the same feel without the trademark bullseye on the cover. She did a terrific job.

Who is your publisher?  My first book, Blue Water & Me, Tall Tales of Adventures With My Father, was published by Aberdeen Bay Press. I will be eternally grateful that they took a chance on an unknown author.

However, I felt that they overpriced my book and it has not sold well. They also don’t give their authors any marketing support. Once the book is published, you are on your own.

I decided to take the plunge and publish my second book, Christmas Inc., myself, using Create Space and Kindle Direct Publishing. It hasn’t sold well either.

I will continue to publish my own books. I have heard that you need to have at least five books out before you can build an audience. This makes sense.

If a reader finds your book and really likes it, they immediately want another one of your books. If you don’t have one available, they will move on to another author and forget about you.

I did this with a young author in the 1970’s. I read his first two books and loved them, but he didn’t have anything else out yet. I promptly forgot about him for thirty years, until I re-discovered Patrick O’Brien who had about twenty-five books available for me to chain-read by then.

I also understand that if our books are in a series, it will make the marketing easier. People will fall in love with your characters and want to know what they are doing next.

Why did you choose to write this particular book? I didn’t have a choice. The newspapers, TV and the Internet were screaming out the plot. I couldn’t resist. It is such a current topic, I hope readers will flock to The Cartel Strikes Back.

 What was the hardest part about writing this book? Finding a way to mix it in with a very full and complicated life. I started the book in January and finished the first draft by the end of February. I managed to get that writing shoe horned in around working on the boat, attending a writers conference and figuring out what the next step is in our lives.

I’m in the editing process now. I have to work that around getting ready to move and taking off on an adventure to Panama.

Did you learn anything from writing this book and what was it?  I wanted to write a book that sucked you right in. I started with a compelling character (is he a good guy or a bad guy?) and dropped the reader into a situation that they don’t know what is going on. I wanted to show the readers what the situation in Mexico was like so they could understand the tale I was about to weave. Then I went back and introduced our main characters and gave the reader a little bit of insight into their angst.

Hopefully this formula will work. I hope that people will start the book and be so intrigued that they have to keep reading to find out what the heck is going on.

Will you write others in this same genre?  Yes. I am already writing the fifth book in the series, The Cartel Strikes Back. I’ve already told you about that, but book the next Catrina Flaherty novel will be a kick to write.

Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?  I don’t believe in Hollywood endings. Life isn’t that way. In The Inside Passage one of the major characters is killed at the end of the book. In Hacker for Hire the ending will surprise and chill you. I won’t give it away, but let’s just say that, in the end, justice prevails, despite our messed up court system. In The Mexican Connection one of the team gets killed in the big finale. I defy you to guess the ending to The Cartel Strikes Back.

But what I really want the readers to realize is how greedy these people are. They already have everything and are willing to go to extreme lengths to get more. How much do they need?

How much of the book is realistic?  It’s happening right now. Pick up a newspaper. I won’t tell you who the characters are based on, but it shouldn’t be hard to figure out. I really didn’t need to make up anything to move the story along, it’s too bizarre to believe. Of course, I did imagine an ending for the story that had not yet played itself out.

Have you included a lot of your life experiences, even friends, in the plot?  You betcha. I lived in La Paz for two years, so the geography is realistic. Some of the characters are people I met there. As I’ve already said, Cat is based on a real-life woman. Ted and Chris are also based on real people. Ted’s family is totally made up, but it’s not too far different from the family in which I grew up.

Maria and family are based on some very dear friends we met in Mexico. I hope they are not offended by the story I made up for them.

How important do you think villains are in a story?  Villains are the story. Can you imagine The Silence of the Lambs without Hannibal Lecter? What about the Wizard of Oz without the Wicked Witch of the West?

In order for your hero to stand out, he/she must face a villain of at least equal ability. That’s why Doyle had to create Professor Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime, to give Holmes an adversary that was worthy of him.

To build tension in your story, the villain must be able to manipulate and mislead your protagonist. He/she must appear to have the upper hand so that your hero can overcome the odds and everyone can live happily ever after.

By the way, I hate happily ever after. I despise Hollywood endings. I try to have my stories end on a more realistic note. The readers might not like it, but I feel it’s true to the world.

What contributes to making a writer successful?  You have to be able to get your thoughts down on paper in a coherent way. You need to comply with the current reading habits of American readers. You have to have a story to tell, but most importantly, you need to be persistent.

I know many writers who want to write in their own style. That’s well and good, but they are severely limiting their audience. A few years ago, I would have said that it’s the kiss of death, because no agent would pick up an author who doesn’t write for current tastes. However, with electronic publishing, anyone can publish a book. Now you just need to find an audience that enjoys that style of writing.

I read my father’s work and it reminds me of 19th century writing. Charles Dickens comes to mind. It is a great story, but I don’t think a modern reader is going to slog through all of the purple prose.

The most important part of writing success is just showing up. Being there everyday. Writing. Working on publishing. Spending hours each day marketing your work.

I always ask people why they write. If they write because they love it, that’s fine. They may have a story that they just have to tell, that’s good too. To many of my friends, it’s a hobby. They have no intention of ever publishing their work.

I have other friends who are so caught up in the writing that they never look beyond that to what happens when their manuscript is complete.

Writing for a living is hard work. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The book is about 50% of the job. Getting it published is another 50%. Then selling the finished work is the final 50%/

Wait a minute, that doesn’t add up. You can’t have more than 100%. That’s right. Writing is one of those jobs whose parts exceed the total of the sum.

If you could leave  readers with one bit of wisdom, what would it be? In those immortal words of Winston Churchill, “Never give up.”

Thanks, Penn Wallace! You have given us a new series to investigate.

Find Penn’s books on Amazon. Start with THE INSIDE PASSAGE.

Author to Author: Robert Joe Stout and Carmen Amato

Author to Author: Robert Joe Stout and Carmen Amato

I recently had the chance to have a series of conversations with members of the Mexico Writers Facebook group. Robert Joe Stout, a prolific author, acknowledged baseball aficionado and the father of five children, currently lives in Oaxaca, Mexico. His essays, commentaries, short fiction and poetry regularly appear in literary and commercial magazines and journals.

Robert Joe Stout on real life

Tell us a bit about your family.  I grew up with two families—the post Great Depression one of a sugar factory worker father and housewife mother and the pre-Great Depression family of a booking agent for actors and musicians and a musician/actress mother. They were the same people but in the small Wyoming town in which we lived I physically shared a daily existence of fishing for carp and chubs in the summer and sledding in the winter but emotionally shared my parents pre-Great Depression adventures through their scrapbooks and photo albums and the wonderful stories they told about Australian aborigines and applauding audiences in Great Falls and being smuggled across the Rhine beneath gunny sacks in a leaky boat.

 

How do you work through self-doubts and fear? Basically journalisticly: What’s causing this, what prompts the feeling, what are the choices, the consequences of each choice, what’s the worst that can happen, what resources do I have to emerge from this. The answers sometimes are unpleasant but getting them out in the open enables me to deal with the doubts or the apprehensions.

What scares you the most? I have no lingering fears. Circumstances occur: a guy waving a gun, shrieking brakes, a snarling dog.

What makes you happiest? Americans seem to thrive on “most this, best that…” Actors, sports teams, candy. I don’t categorize in that way. A lot of things make me happy: being alive, fresh strawberries, visits from my kids, writing, piano sonatas.

What are you most proud of in your personal life? Being a father—I think a pretty good one, if somewhat unconventional. All five of my kids are healthy, positive, creative persons and I get very positive playback from them.

What’s your greatest character strength? Again, something I’ve never categorized. I’m not much of a selfie and don’t think much about what I’m like. I’m very independent, not much influenced by what others think or say, that’s a primary part of who I am.

On writing and reading

What motivates you to write? It’s my profession. I’ve been a professional journalist since I was in college. I like the exploration, the process, the stimulation. The more I write the more I’m motivated to write. It’s a life work, it’s who I am.

What writing are you most proud of? No single thing. My first novel, Miss Sally. Quite a few of the short stories, including several published in the ‘70s. Quite a few individual poems. The creative nonfiction book The Blood of the Serpent.

What books did you love growing up? Oh, Richard Halliburton’s descriptions of his adventures. Osa Johnson’s adventures in Africa. I remember really liking Ivanhoe, and Ernie Pyle’s firsthand accounts as a war correspondent during World War II. James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohigans.

Who is your favorite author? Don’t have one but among those I prize having read are Wallace Stegner, Dostoevskii, Erich Maria Remarque, Simone de Beauvoir, Richard Wright, Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence, Hannah Arendt.

What book should everybody read at least once? None. Different strokes for different folks.  But at least some poetry.

Thank you! Check out Robert Joe Stout’s books on Amazon.

As a mystery author of books set in Mexico, I have been lucky enough to build a great network of friends with books. Mystery readers love the headline-inspired plots of the Detective Emilia Cruz series and the steamy relationship between Acapulco cop Emilia Cruz and American hotel manager Kurt Rucker.

Other readers are drawn by Mexico’s mystique.  I’m in good company when it comes to writing about Mexico. We hang out at the Mexico Writers Facebook group which includes novelists, non-fiction writers, and bloggers. Mexico is our common theme. Thanks to these great friends with books and conversations about Mexico, writing, and real life. 

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