Hunkering down with Pat Tierney

Returning from Cuba on February 14 as we did, Ed and I didn’t have to self-isolate for two weeks in case we were carrying the coronavirus. But given that the venues of most of our favourite Toronto activities–fitness centres, public libraries, restaurants and movie theatres–are closed, and gatherings of more than five people are discouraged, we have pretty much been living in self-isolation.

Ed is keeping busy editing manuscripts for fiction writers. And I’ve been hunkering down with Pat Tierney, the protagonist of my three mystery novels. Pat’s fourth mystery is now finished, and I’m going over the manuscript with a fine-tooth comb. After spending two books in Ontario cottage country, Pat has returned to Toronto and has purchased an existing financial planning practice. She is going out on her own because she is tired of being jerked around by the head honchos at big investment firms. She figures she can help her clients better on her own.

I’m hoping that the fourth novel will be out this year. Still don’t have a title for it, though. But in keeping with the titles of the other three mysteries–Safe Harbor, Black Water and Raven Lake–this one should be another water idiom.

So I’ll have plenty to do in the next few weeks making sure this fourth Pat Tierney adventure is, to use another water metaphor, ship-shape.

I try to keep myself in shape by bending my elbows every so often in toasts to Pat, and all the wonderful places she’s taken me to over the years. Thank goodness the LCBO stores are still open!

Salut, Pat Tierney!

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A post on The First Two Pages!

I am thrilled to to have an essay on Art Taylor’s blog, The First Two Pages, today!

One of America’s leading crime fiction writers, Art Taylor has reaped a host of awards: an Edgar in 2019; an Anthony in 2015, Agatha awards in 2014, 2015 and 2017; Macavity awards in 2014 and 2017; and three Derringer awards. He’s also a book critic, and a professor of English at George Mason University in Virginia.

Art took over B.K. Stevens’ outstanding weekly blog, The First Two Pages, after her death in August 2017. It features craft essays by writers, analyzing the opening pages of their published stories and novels.

I met Art at Bouchercon 2017 in Toronto. He had read my story, “The Queen-Size Bed,” in the conference’s anthology, Passport to Murder, and suggested that I contact him about writing a post for The First Two Pages when a new novel was released. When the writers’ collective I belong to, the Mesdames of Mayhem, released its fourth crime fiction anthology, In the Key of 13, last fall, I did just that.

Art agreed to look at the collection, with the view to having a few writers post essays on their work in it. I mailed him the anthology, and he selected three stories and asked their authors to write about the decisions they made in creating their opening pages, and what made these pages work. My story, “Farewell to the King,” was one of the three stories he chose.

You can check out my essay about it here. Another post by Sylvia Warsh will run next week, on March 31, and Lynne Murphy’s essay will appear on The First Two Pages on April 7.

Effective opening pages, as Art noted in the Guidelines he prepared for writers preparing posts for The First Two Pages, are what make busy literary agents and acquisition editors keep reading. I do a First Page workshop from time to at libraries in my community and slightly further afield, critiquing the first page of participants’ stories and novels. The sad truth is that no matter how great a story or a novel is as a whole, if its first page (or two) doesn’t grab an agent or an editor, it will likely be returned to the slush pile. And opening pages need to hold readers who are flipping through books in bookstores, and make them want to read more.

I strongly suggest taking a look at The First Two Pages blog every Tuesday, for tips on making opening pages work.

Author Art Taylor

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Getting in the mood for St. Paddy’s Day: Weekend in Lisdoonvarna

The Matchmaker Bar in Lisdoonvarna where the real-life Willie Daly helps his clients find true love.

“Weekend in Lisdoonvarna” is in Kings River Life Magazine today. My story is set in the real town of Lisdoonvarna in western Ireland, where a matchmaking festival is held throughout the month of September every year. The festival started 160 years ago to find wives for local farmers. Today, tens of thousands of people from around the world visit the small town in September to dance, drink, listen to some of Ireland’s best country music, look for love, and enjoy the craic. This town really knows how to party!

Check out “Weekend in Lisdoonvarna” by clicking here!

Kings River Life Magazine is a California-based online magazine. It is published by journalist and author Lorie Lewis Ham. This is the second story I’ve had in the magazine.

Liquid courage for those looking for love in Lisdoonvarna.
Bronze fiddler and bodhrán player performing for a bronze couple who are stepping into a waltz in Lisdoonvarna’s market square.

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Shakin’ it in Cuba!

Back from sunny Cuba to freezing Toronto, 10 days’ worth of laundry and our photo memories. Above, Ed shakes it up with Legendarios del Guajirito star Hilda de la Hoz. Hilda looks pretty amazed by her dance partner!

Returning from the market in a shocking pink taxi. Ed is all tuckered out after partying with the Legendarios, musicians and singers who worked with the legendary Buena Vista Social Club.

Chilling out in Cayo Santa Maria.

A visit to Mausoleo Ernesto Che Guevara in Santa Clara, where the great man now rests, was the highlight of my trip. Guevara lost his life at the age of 39 trying to spur an armed uprising in Bolivia in 1967. His remains were exhumed and taken to Cuba in 1997. Santa Clara was chosen as the site of the memorial in memory of Guevara’s troops taking the city on Dec. 31, 1958, in the Battle of Santa Clara that clinched it for Fidel Castro and sent General Batista fleeing Cuba. Above, the 22-foot bronze statue of Guevara oversees the museum and mausoleum complex.

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Klaus Schwamborn crafts crime in cyber-space

Cyber-thriller writer Klaus Schwamborn joins me today on Moving Target. Klaus was born in Cologne, Germany, and has worked as a software engineer on several continents. He and his wife now live outside Toronto. His debut novel, Emily, was released by Olympia Publishers in 2018, followed by Dreamland earlier this year.

Klaus Schwamborn.

Moving Target: Emily, Dreamland and Gemini, your novel that will be released in 2020, are cyber-thrillers, stories set in the world of cutting-edge communications technology. Klaus, why do you write cyber-thrillers and what does that sub-genre mean to you?

Klaus: Having worked in the technology industry my entire working life, this is a world I understand. Cyber-crime is very real in today’s world of information availability. People and corporations use communications technology for personal gain. Most companies do not openly admit to having their information stolen, knowing that their investors will lose confidence in them. My stories expose how cyber-fraud is so easily carried out.

Moving Target: What research have you done for your novels?

Klaus: All the technologies described in my novels are real and based on what I’ve encountered in my own work; however, I’ve altered some narratives to protect proprietary information. The novels are set in real places, mostly cities and countries I’ve been to or lived in. Places I haven’t been to I’ve researched through the Encyclopaedia Britannica or Microsoft’s Encarta. Google Maps and Google Earth were also invaluable sources of information.

Moving Target: Are any of your stories based on people you know or real events you’ve gone through?

Klaus: All my characters are composites of people I’ve met or worked with throughout my adult life. It may be difficult to believe that my antagonists are based on real people and the situations they’ve got themselves into, but sadly people like that do exist. I’ve built the worst aspects of human nature into my antagonists, and the very best of human nature into my protagonists to suit my storylines. Office politics, business dealings and humorous situations are all taken from real life.

Moving Target: Do you have a plot nailed down when you start writing?

Klaus: Yes, I know exactly what my plot is before I start writing. Then I build a story and characters’ relationships around that plot.

Moving Target: What gives you the most trouble to write?

Klaus: Describing characters and places in exactly the way I want them to be seen by the reader.

Moving Target: Getting published is a long and often bumpy journey. Do you have an amusing anecdote about your Getting Published experience?

Klaus. Being steered in the wrong direction by individuals claiming to be publications managers or literary agents with the sole intention of getting money out of me. It wasn’t amusing then, but in retrospect, I find it very funny just how many opportunists are out there.

Moving Target: Tell us about your writing schedule.

Klaus: I carry a phone or tablet with me at all times, and take notes about the people I encounter and situations I find myself in. These notes usually become part of a story; sometimes just a small paragraph, other times one or more chapters. If I get an idea, I will write it down regardless of the time of day. It can be after midnight or before breakfast. There is no set time of day or night when I sit down to write.

Moving Target: What has been the worst advice you’ve received as a writer?

Klaus: That I needed a publications manager, that I needed to belong to a guild or a union, and that I needed to have previously published works in order to be published. I was also bombarded with email from people who wanted money so they could advise me on the best route I should take, usually self-publishing. I still get many of these emails today, and they are all redirected to my junk folder. Being ignorant about how to get your novel published and about the publishing world in general can be costly.

Moving Target: Tell us about your next novel and when it will be released.

Klaus: Gemini is in the final stages of production and will hopefully be available early next year. It is not intended to be the third part of a trilogy, but it is the third novel about the fictitious SkyTech Corporation. The fourth SkyTech novel is already in the making. The plots of each novel are different, although they all involve cyber-technology. And I build on the relationships of the primary characters in each consecutive story.

Moving Target: What actress would you like to play your protagonist in the movie adaptation of Emily?

Klaus: With most of the characters I’ve created, I had a very clear idea who would be the perfect actor or actress—except for my protagonist Emily. The closest I came to in looks was a pencil sketch I made of Emily. But after reading all three novels (several times), my wife Francesca suggested that Kate Hudson would be perfect in the role. She was absolutely right. Francesca can also take credit for Gemini, the title of the third novel.

Kate Hudson in the title role in Emily?

Moving Target: Thank you, Klaus!

Emily can be purchased at Amazon.ca and Amazon.com. Dreamland is also available on Amazon.ca and Amazon.com.

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Black Christmas: slashing through the seasonal fluff

The Toronto house at 6 Clarendon Crescent where Black Christmas 1974 was shot.

Black Christmas 2019, now playing in movie houses, may be an antidote to Christmas cinema fluff. But it’s also worth taking a look at the original 1974 Black Christmas, a slasher film about a group of sorority girls who are stalked and killed by a crazed killer on Christmas Eve.

Panned by Canadian critics when it opened, Black Christmas went on to become a domestic box office hit. It is now considered a landmark movie of the horror genre, predating as it does Halloween, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and My Bloody Valentine.

And the 1974 film is thoroughly Canadian. The screenplay was based on a script written by Roy Moore, whose storyline was sparked by a series of strangulations in Westmount, Quebec, between 1968 and 1971. The film’s director, the late Bob Clark, an American by birth, was an honorary Canadian best known for his work in Canadian film in the 1970s and ’80s.

Black Christmas was shot in Toronto in the winter of 1973-74, almost entirely inside the stately home at 6 Clarendon Crescent (in the St. Clair Ave. West and Avenue Road area), which was leased for the production. The beautiful old house never feels warm or safe in the movie, despite the raging winter wind outside; it’s a prison, rather than a home for its residents.

And who lives in this house? A young Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin (who went on to SCTV fame), Olivia Hussey and Toronto actress Lynne Griffin. Griffin plays the film’s first victim, whose grisly death by plastic bag became the poster image for the movie and an unforgettable moment in horror-film history.

A young Margot Kidder played one of the victims.

Most of the non-house action was shot on the University of Toronto campus.

Black Christmas holds up because it has character, humor and complexity. The sorority sisters feel like real young women, bright and independent, not the dumb victims of subsequent slasher flicks. And what seem like horror clichés in 2019—a killer on the loose, a first-person camera showing the action though the eyes of the faceless stalker, and the “final girl” convention—are all slasher tropes established by Black Christmas.

There was a loose remake of Black Christmas back in 2006—it borrowed the title, anyway—that was shot in Vancouver. It explained in painstaking detail who the killer was and why he became deranged. Backstory that the 1974 version wisely chose to keep back.

This year’s Black Christmas remake was shot in New Zealand. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes says: “Better than the 2006 remake yet not as sharp as the original, this Black Christmas stabs at timely feminist themes but mostly hits on familiar pulp.”

The Solders’ Tower on the University of Toronto campus was the setting for a scene in Black Christmas.
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Remembering their courage: The Great Escape

Steve McQueen on the Triumph TR6 Trophy motorbike in The Great Escape. The dramatic fence jump was made by McQueen’s stunt double, Bud Ekins.

Celebrated Remembrance Day early last night by watching The Great Escape.

Loosely based on a mass breakout by Allied prisoners in a Nazi detention camp during the Second World War, John Sturges’ 1963 film is my favourite war movie, and one of my favourite movies period. Even though there isn’t a single woman in it. It’s a Boys’ Own adventure story about teamwork and loyalty, with an all-star cast including Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, James Garner, Charles Bronson, David McCallum and James Coburn.

Backed by Elmer Bernstein’s jaunty score, The Great Escape is great entertainment from its opening sequence right through to McQueen’s daring motorcycle bid for freedom, and its denouement following up the escapees outside the camp: hitchhiking, and on bicycle, bus, train, plane and rowboat.

McQueen’s iconic freedom jump and the movie’s other stunts are pure Hollywood, but The Great Escape is more than escapism. The determination of human beings to escape captivity is instinctual and makes a moving story. As senior British officer Ramsey (James Donald) tells the Nazi commander, “It is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape. If they can’t, it is their duty to cause the enemy to use an inordinate number of troops to guard them.” The prisoners in Stalag Luft III organize themselves into teams, displaying amazing ingenuity in getting out of the camp and outfitting themselves to continue their flight outside. Attenborough’s Squadron Leader Bartlett says, “All this kept me alive.”

There is no sermonizing on the horrors or the futility of war. Just the single-minded focus of these men. And, above all, their courage.

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