Monday, January 31, 2011

January plea details

Okay, so here's the final tally for January. Read the disclaimers below for details (and obfuscation) but the bare bones tells us:

Total cases pled: 68
Probation: 32
Jail time: 36

So, playing with numbers a little bit, this means that (assuming the numbers stay about consistent for the year) the four ADAs in the 167th District Court will dispose of roughly 816 felony cases this year, by way of plea bargains.

I happen to think that number will prove to be lower than the actual, final tally, but it'll be interesting to see as we move along.

1. "Probation" includes regular probation and deferred adjudication. "Jail" includes anything from one day back-time, to life in the penitentiary. It's usually somewhere in between. :)
2. Note that these stats do no take into account probation revocation cases, i.e. where someone already on probation is accused of committing a further offense, and their probation is either continued or ends with a jail sentence. They also don't take into account cases from our court resolved on the "rocket docket" in the magistrate's court.]

Friday, January 28, 2011

Size doesn't matter. . . to the folks at Gatwick airport

Here's what happened:

"The crouching, camouflaged figure is most certainly armed. But few would say he was dangerous. Security officials disagreed however when he passed through a scanner at Gatwick Airport. His three-inch, plastic toy gun was branded a ‘firearm’ and banned from a transatlantic flight."

Here's the full story. Well, as full as you ever get from a newspaper.

And a lot of people are outraged, but I'm with the officials on this one. I mean, not a week goes by when I don't wander into my son's room to give him a kiss good night and step on a toy soldier in my bare feet. Bloody hurts! So don't stand there with your civil rights wrapped around you and try to tell me this kind of so-called "toy" isn't dangerous.

And another thing: feather boas. Just last night I snuck into my eldest daughter's room (her turn for a goodnight kiss) and I was attacked by a ferocious, snuggly-blue boa. Wrapped it's evil self around my ankles and nearly took me down. Ban those suckers, too.

Also, the last time I was on a plane some ne'er-do-well had his iPod blaring out "Danger Zone." Seriously, that song was taking us both on a highway to the danger zone, it bloody well said so! Ban it.

I like the way this is going, these flights could soon become super safe with all that kind of nonsense outlawed.

What else can we think of. . . ?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A surprise first date

I am a creature of habit. I get up about the same time every day, have my tea, some porridge, and take the kids to school. I listen to NPR on the way in to work and, if I'm not feeling like news, KMFA for some gentle classical music.

I'm old. So what?

But this morning, after recently replacing my battery, I was reprogramming my radio, trying to remember what other radio stations I like. I was moving through the spectrum and for some reason got hit by a few words that caught my attention. The words
were "Ralph Ablenado." He was a policeman shot and killed during a 1978 traffic stop, a name familiar to all of us in this line of work.

The chap I was listening to, who'd said Ablenado's name, was a radio talk show host and anyone who knows me even a little can tell you that talk shows, be they radio or TV, drive me insane. I simply cannot bear to give any of my precious life minutes to some overpaid dude or dudette who thinks they know more about the world that everyone else, or who thinks their precious words will make one iota of difference in my life because. . . because why?

My dad is about the only man who has anything worth saying, and he speaks approximately three times a year.

Anyway, this talk show host turned out to be a fellow by the name of Sean Rima, hosting a show called "The Big Talker," which right there would have me running in the opposite direction. So this guy (and here he is) was discussing what I didn't even realize was a controversy: the putting up of a memorial to Ralph Ablanedo in the neighborhood where he was killed -- the city is doing this all over to honor all its slain officers, not just Officer Ablanedo.

Here's a story about the controversy, which I don't intend to get in the middle of (look at me avoiding controversial topics as usual!).

I just wanted to pass on that I heard some stuff coming out of this radio guy's mouth I've not heard in a long time (other than from politicians at election time): support for cops. This Rima chap, be he right or wrong on this issue, was unequivocal in his support for law enforcement, talking about how they put on their uniform every day and go stand between him and the bad guys.

He admitted that his view wasn't the norm for Austin (I gather he's lived here less than two years, whatever that may mean), and he said he's tired of hearing people automatically assume the worst about our cops. Which is a little how I feel, as you might imagine.

So I sat there, even after parking, listening to this talk show host. I did, and yes I'm admitting it. And I'm amazed to say I found him to be reasoned and even articulate (well, I wouldn't have sat there otherwise, now would I?)

I eventually turned him off because (a) I, myself, have some bad guys to go after, (b) my coffee was cooling, and (c) I was afraid he might start talking about baseball and ruin our first date.

Ah, you are wondering -- did I program him into my radio? Silly question: of course not, there's no way I'm going steady with a talk show.

But. . . I might just listen tomorrow morning to see what he has to say. A second date, as it were.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Trial schedule

Yes, I know, too long since I've shared our trial schedule, so here's what's cooking in district court this week. Quite a lot, as it happens. (Oh, and one from last week.)


Defendant: Elfego Arce
Offense: Possession of a controlled substance
Prosecutors: Chris Baugh and Sandra Avila Ramirez
Defense attorney : Paul Velte


Defendant: Benito Belmares
Offense: Aggravated sexual assault of a child
Prosecutors: Yvonne Patten and Monica Flores
Defense attorney: Ricardo Maldonado


Defendant: Kenton Franklin
Offense: Sexual assault & Improper photography
Prosecutors: Erika Sipiora and Jeremy Sylestine
Defense attorney: Rick Reed


Defendant: Louis Gutierrez
Offense: Aggravated Assault
Prosecutors: Victoria Winkeler and Brandon Grunewald
Defense attorney: Keith Lauerman
Disposition: Jury found guilty, sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A preview of my cases

I thought you guys might find it interesting to see some of the cases I'm handling (and by "handling" I mean that I'm responsible for the plea negotiations and, should the case go to trial, I'll first chair it).

As well as the list below, I have about 150 other cases that never make the headlines.

Oh, because these are pending cases, I won't offer any commentary. Thus, the words below are taken directly from the news stories:
  • Police have arrested a 25-year-old man who they say used a stun gun on people in a string of robberies early Sunday.
  • Travis County Sheriff’s officials have charged a man with capital murder in connection with the fatal shooting of two men Monday morning outside a northeastern Travis County strip club.
  • A former Austin hip-hop dancer has been jailed on four counts of sexual assault, with two of those charges involving 17-year-old girls, according to Travis County Jail records and court records.
  • [This one is mine, though the appellate folks are handling it right now:] State District Judge Mike Lynch has granted a new trial to Daniel Joe Hernandez, a 23-year-old who was sentenced in September to 35 years in prison in the death of Francisco "Pancho" Iruegas, who was shot last year during an East Austin drive-by shooting.
  • [Headline, obviously:] Man arrested in 1985 Austin killing.... Nashville man, who worked in Austin music scene in 1980s, charged with murder.

I would guess that of the above cases, only one will be resolved by plea negotiations. As you probably know, that's a total reversal of the usual ratio. I'll let you know towards the end of the year if I was right about that.

But remind me, I can be forgetful.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Interview with Linda Fairstein

I'm honored to have the perfect meld for this week's Thriller Thursday - a former prosecutor who became a novelist. Linda Fairstein is the author of the New York based mysteries that feature Alexandra Cooper.

She has a dozen books out and a new one coming. I am particularly fond of her work not just because she's a former ADA but because she shares my view that a city can be a vibrant character in the book. I have Paris, she has New York. If you haven't checked out her books, I urge you to do so, she's a big-time, big-shot famous mystery writer for a reason (she has a writer's cabin on Martha's Vineyard, for pete's sake!).

I give you Linda Fairstein.

Did you always want to be a writer growing up, or did you come to it as an adult?

My earliest childhood plan was to be a writer. Wrote short stories and poems constantly...and by high school, when I listed it as my ambition, my father (whom I adored and who was enormously supportive) used to roll his eyes and say..."You have nothing to write about - you need a career, a job." I went to Vassar - then an all women's college - to major in English literature because of writers like Mary McCarthy and Edna St. Vincent Millay. By my senior year, I came to think my father was right, and decided to go to law school because my second love was the idea of public service. In fact, that education took me straight to the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, where I spent thirty years, and winding up with plenty of things to write about. I was always motivated because I never gave up the dream that I would get back to writing some day. And I do believe that writing well is a critical skill for a good litigator.

What is your writing schedule?

My writing schedule is very uneven. I'm still a lawyer and do a lot of pro bono work for victims of violence. Also, I use a lot of history in my novels, so I spend several months a year doing research. When I finally hunker down to write, it is usually during the summer months, when my husband and I move up to our home on Martha's Vineyard. I have a small cottage apart from the house which is extremely tranquil and remote. I try to spend as many hours a day as I can block off to get into the words, into the story, and write until late afternoon.

Do you actively look for story ideas (combing newspapers etc), or do they just come to you?

I keep very extensive clippings files, with stories - the more odd the better - that interest me. All of my plots are original - not ripped from the headlines - but I often find interesting detail or character traits or motives in the clips that provide a little extra color in the novels.

Have you ever thought about writing in a different genre?

Oh, yes, I'd love to try a different genre...someday...but for now I am thoroughly engaged in my series of crime novels. My first book was actually non-fiction, and I would love to update that some day. I'd like to do a young adult series...and maybe something more 'literary' - but right now I'm having too much fun with my regular series characters.

You're famous for Alexandra Cooper, have you ever thought about launching a new character, someone very different?

I'd really like to do a book from the point of view of Mike Chapman, the homicide detective in the series. That would be the first character I'd like to try. I have such a great time writing his dialogue, I'd really like to get inside his head.

Are there special challenges having a woman as your protagonist? (In terms of either the story itself, or perceptions and biases of readers/editors).

I would say there are two special challenges ( really good question) to having a woman protagonist - although both pale by comparison to having had a career as a woman prosecutor in the early 70's! First is the fact that she really needs to be able to get herself out of trouble by the end of a story (can't rely on the guys to do it for her in this day and age), and since I don't believe in using guns, I've got to plan the ending pretty carefully, as I begin to plot the crime. The second is that many male readers don't navigate to women writers and protagonists. For me, Mike Chapman has been a big draw to my male readers, although that was not the reason I created him. It's been a lucky side-effect.

New York city plays a big role in your novels, just as Paris will in mine. Do you see the city as a distinct character or just a convenient setting?

New York City is quite intentionally a major character in my novels. As you can tell, I love the city, and I am constantly fascinated by the history that surrounds me every day. I love scratching the surface of the most elegant places in town and finding the dark underbelly. In the 1980's, we really did have a murder at the Metropolitan Opera House - a musician killed backstage between scenes while four thousand people sat in their seats and heard nothing. I had to 'go there' - and it became the genesis of my novel DEATH DANCE.

How much energy do you put into the language aspect of your novels, the “art” so to speak?

I put a lot of energy into the language, and I guess that's the English lit major in me. Good dialogue, I think, makes or breaks a crime novel, and I work hard to create distinct characters with their own manner of speech.

Who are your favorite authors?

I read voraciously in this genre - all the classics, and my contemporaries like Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben, Lisa Scottoline, Brad Meltzer. I especially enjoy finding new writers trying to break in - like Hilary Davidson and Karen Bergreen in 2010. I love John Le Carre. And then I always go back to Anthony Trolloppe and Dickens and the dense Victorians while I am working on my own fiction. The language just lifts my spirits.

If you could offer just one piece of advice to aspiring novelists, what would it be?

Two pieces of advice: read... and write. I think writers need to be in other people's words all the time. Read constantly - for voice and character and plot and language (and joy). And write. Write something every day.

Do you outline your novels?

I don't do a heavy outline, but I am meticulous about plotting. As soon as I know who I am going to kill and why, I plot the ending. Maybe it's the prosecutor in me, but I want to know that Coop can get out of the situation safely and realistically (well, for a novel) and that I can lay in clues which will make sense to the readers, who tend - in this genre - to be very smart.

Do you recommend any specific "how-to" writing books for mystery/thriller writers?

I think the best 'how-to' is to read widely and deeply in this genre. See how the pros do it and have done it for the last century. There are so many fine books on the shelves, and there is a lot to learn from those who have written them.

You have a book coming out in March - tell us about it

The next caper in my series is SILENT MERCY - Coop's 13th adventure. My plan was to set the book in the city's glorious religious institutions, many of which have really interesting history. Then the current events drew me in - some of the bigotry and persecution - so I think it's a 'bigger' book than I had planned.

What do you think of the e-book debate - is the trend away from paper books good for authors, readers, publishers, anyone, everyone? authors, readers, publishers,
I'm not sure who the e-book trend benefits, but I guess it's here to stay. I happen to love books. We've got a kindle and I-Pads, but I have yet to break down and read a book electronically. I love the texture and smell and feel of a book, and I hope to be among the last holdouts...

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Plea deals

I didn't get around to posting last week's plea deal numbers. They are lower than the previous week, because there was a jury trial and we only had docket (where we make deals and plead cases) on Monday and Friday.

But here's what we had:

Probation: 6 cases
Jail: 6 cases

So, that means we have disposed of 37 felony cases so far this month. I'll keep updating and we'll see how things go.

1. "Probation" includes regular probation and deferred adjudication. "Jail" includes anything from one day back-time, to life in the penitentiary. It's usually somewhere in between. :)
2. Note that these stats do no take into account probation revocation cases, i.e. where someone already on probation is accused of committing a further offense, and their probation is either continued or ends with a jail sentence. They also don't take into account cases from our court resolved on the "rocket docket" in the magistrate's court.]

Another reason to love this place

Following last week's inebriated cowboys riding into town, one on a horse, the other on a donkey, this week's Austin-like weirdness comes courtesy of a transvestite rodeo clown. Again, inebriated.

Austin is now a city, but it's moments like this (and the fact they make the front page of the paper) that remind us what a cool, funky, bizarre and small town Austin really is.

Most excellent.

Monday, January 17, 2011

On being a lawyer

A colleague who practices criminal law in Washington DC has a wonderfully thoughtful post on what it means to be a lawyer. We're always the recipient of jokes, no shocker there, but lately there has been much discussion about whether people are pouring into the profession without knowing what they're getting into.

The best I can possibly do is refer them to Jamison Koehler's blog entry. Even if you're not thinking about going to law school, it makes for great reading.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Author interview: J.E. Seymour

Look at this, two weeks in a row! This week I'm featuring a wee interview I did with mystery writer J.E. Seymour, author of LEAD POISONING. Now, a disclaimer: I know her, and even did a little beta reading of her early chapters, but don't let my meddling detract from your interest. She's a talented writer with a great book and, on top of all that, is a super nice person.

Here she is:

Who is J.E. Seymour? (Married, kids, pets, guns, etc.)

J.E. Seymour lives and writes in southern NH. Married, with three kids, two retired racehorses (Spud and Hammy, they're both in the book,) a burro, three ponies, a goffin cockatoo, a retired greyhound and an insane treeing walker coonhound. Oh, and a barn cat. There are weapons in the house, yes, including a genuine Red Ryder BB gun (but nobody has yet shot their eye out.)

What have you published, and where can we buy it all?

My debut novel, Lead Poisoning, was released by Mainly Murder Press in November of 2010. It is available in trade paperback, direct from the publisher, or from Amazon.

Or, if you want a signed copy, you can call Water Street Books in Exeter, NH and order one with a credit card, and they'll ship it to you.

Alternatively, prospective readers can send me an email, and I'll supply my address to send a check so I can mail you a signed copy. We aim to please!

Lead Poisoning is also available as an ebook in a variety of formats on smashwords.

I've also got two short stories for 99 cents for the kindle.

At any given time, I have a number of short stories up on the web at various ezines, available to read for free. See my website for links.

Did you always want to be a writer growing up, or did you come to it as an adult?

I've always written, but never thought I could ever *be* a writer. I wrote books as a child, complete with illustrations, bound with staples.

Did you have a lot of support when you began writing, or did you suffer the same raised eyebrow most of us do? In other words, what kept you motivated at the start of your career?

I've had just enough praise from assorted writing teachers to keep me going. But really, writing is not about motivation, it's more of an affliction. I'd stop if I could. There are times when it feels like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer, you want nothing more than to stop. But I can no sooner stop writing than stop breathing. It's just a part of me.

What is your writing schedule?

I squeeze it in wherever I can. See my answer to the first question, regarding critters and kids. I also work part time at a middle school library. I do a lot on weekends, and in the hour between the time I get home and the time the kids get home.

Do you actively look for story ideas (combing newspapers etc), or do they just come to you?

I tend to write about characters, rather than plot ideas, but I do sometimes hear something and think - "there's a story in that." I wrote a short story for an anthology a couple of years ago called "Lights Out" that came about as a direct result of a story I heard on the news during an extended power failure.

Have you ever thought about writing in a different genre?

Working in a middle school library has me itching to write middle grade or YA. There's a real lack of historical fiction for kids set in the twenties, and that would be fun to write, all those gangsters, prohibition, it's ripe for the picking! I'm thinking about setting it in one of the big hotels in the Mount Washington area.

Who are you favorite authors?

Lawrence Block. Elmore Leonard. Donald Westlake, especially when writing as Richard Stark.

If you could offer just one piece of advice to aspiring novelists, what would it be?

Pay attention to the Ps. Persistence, Patience and Practice. It took me thirteen years to get my first novel published. I had two agents (one for each of my first two novels.) 80 rejections from agents on this one before I went to small presses. And as much as you don't want to hear it, you need to listen to people who tell you it stinks. When you start out, it does stink. That's where the practice part comes in.

Do you outline your novels?

No. I am disorganized by nature, and my work is character driven. I can't tell the characters what to do, they have to tell me.

How much energy do you put into the language aspect of your novels, the “art” so to speak?

I like simple. I don't believe in over-writing, but I do believe in paying attention to the little things. I don't try to write flowery stuff. I do pay attention to things like sentence length, and how it affects the reader. Most of the time though, my writing tends to be sparse. I don't think about "theme" at all. I have a tough time thinking about things like story arc too.

Do you recommend any specific "how-to" writing books for mystery/thriller writers?

Stephen King's book On Writing is good. Lawrence Block's Telling Lies for Fun and Profit and Spider Spin Me a Web. And Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is excellent.

What are you working on now?

Just sent out queries on the next Kevin Markinson novel - Arrhythmia. I'm also struggling to write a short story for the MWA [Mystery Writers of America] anthology.

What do you think of the e-book debate - is the trend away from paper books it good for authors, readers, publishers, anyone, everyone?

I don't think paper books are going away. I put my book in e-book format, but I don't own an e-book reader. Most of my books come from the library, although we do own a *lot* of books. I love used bookstores. I think things like smashwords that let anybody put a book out there are not necessarily good. A lot of those books are horrid. I do think there needs to be a way to shake out the chaff.

Thank you!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Why I love Texas

Where else would a couple of gentleman ride their horses into town looking for some evening's entertainment?

Won't see this in New York City or Los Angeles. No siree....

And here's the news story.

A weird version of murder - one I rarely see

"Felony murder."

At first it sounds silly - of course murder is a felony!

But that's not what it means. No, it means that when someone gets killed during the commission of a felony, their death is treated as a murder.

The classic example is a robber who holds up a bank, and while he's waiting for his bag of cash the gun goes off, but accidentally. He didn't mean to shoot the teller, so normally it might be chalked up as an accident. But because he was in the middle of committing a felony, it's murder. Ergo, felony murder.

More recently, some jurisdictions have applied the felony murder rule to deaths caused by drunk drivers. Remember that (in Texas) your third DWI offense is a felony, so if you get in an accident and kill someone, you now run the risk of being charged with felony murder.

Here's an unusual, real life example: a man burgles someone's house and steals a stove. He fails to secure the stove on the back of his vehicle, and 60 miles down the road it falls off and kills a motorist. Felony murder.

Harsh? Not for me to say, but the appellate court didn't think so.

The unusual facts caught my eye, and got me thinking: in my three years prosecuting felonies, I've never seen a felony murder case. Maybe one has been through the office and I haven't noticed, but I know I've not handled one myself.

I guess that's a good thing, right? Obviously, the fewer murders the better in general but there's something about the usually random nature of felony murders that I don't like. The double tragdey of an unnecessary death coupled with the "accidental" nature that subjects the defendant to a much stiffer penalty. Of course, depending on the facts, one's sympathies can be powerfully tempered; if your cyanide-poison hand grenade accidentally goes off while you are mugging a 90-year-old nun for the cash she was about to give to the orphanage, well, let's just say we suddenly see that value of the felony murder rule.

So, please, next time you're out mugging nuns, leave the military ordinance at home. And leave Sister Kildare with a little for the poor box. It's just common decency.

Monday, January 10, 2011

We're off and running

It looks like I may be in trial today, my first for the New Year. But I've been meaning to run by you the number that was tossed out in a DA's office meeting:


That's roughly the number of cases our office disposed of last year, apparently. Ten thousand felony cases.

Now, for fun, let's play with those numbers in a few ways.

Ten thousand cases means ten thousand crimes, obviously. And that many in a year correlates roughly to 27 felony crimes being committed in Austin every day of the year. Including Sundays. And holidays. And Christmas.

(Now, remember, these are felony crimes and don't take into account those common misdemeanors like DWI and assault, of which there are a trazillionty-seven every year.)

Next, we have seven courts handling felony cases, which means each court (mine included) disposed of about 1,400. With four prosecutors per court, that means I, myself, handled roughly 350 cases in 2009 (given that one of my colleagues was on maternity leave, it would have been a lot more, over 400 probably).

Breaking this down further (and even less scientifically), I estimate we have about 150 days when we're in court negotiating and taking pleas. Which means I (and my fine colleagues) are disposing of between two and three cases every time we go into court.

How about Austin? Well, with a population of about 1.7 million, that comes to one felony crime per 170 people.

Which tells me one thing: Austinites are good at sharing.

[As ever, a disclaimer: any statistics, probabilities or basic math offered by me is faulty, unreliable, misleading, and disingenuous. Why, last week I told you we'd put 13 people in jail, given 12 people probation, and therefore disposed of 23 cases. Two days later, my wife pointed out my error. I know, shameful it took her two days, but she's a busy lady. Point is, unless there's a major miscalculation, don't stick up your hand and say, "But have you accounted for holidays/vacation days/closed-due-to-bomb-threat days?" Because no, I haven't. And I won't. And you can't make me.]

Friday, January 7, 2011

Plea deals - initial results are in!

I was going to wait until the end of the month to see how the plea stats are, but then I wondered why. No reason, eh?

So, here's what we have for this week:

Probation: 12 cases
Jail: 13 cases

So, that means we disposed of 25 felony cases this week. I think the overall number of pleas are a little low just because the dockets were light and, as in every business, it takes a little while to get up to speed. For example, we did quite a few pleas today, but very few on Monday.

1. "Probation" includes regular probation and deferred adjudication. "Jail" includes anything from one day back-time, to life in the penitentiary. It's usually somewhere in between. :)
2. Note that these stats do no take into account probation revocation cases, i.e. where someone already on probation is accused of committing a further offense, and their probation is either continued or ends with a jail sentence. They also don't take into account cases from our court resolved on the "rocket docket" in the magistrate's court.]

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Interview with author Carol Carr.

Last week I reviewed Carol Carr's new book, INDIA BLACK. Very favorably, I might add.

Afterwards, she was gracious enough to answer a few questions I put to her, I hope you find it interesting:

Who is Carol Carr? Married? Kids? Husband? Pets?

I grew up and attended college in Missouri, and then moved to Washington, D.C., where I got a law degree in 1982 from George Washington University. Then I spent two decades in Dallas and southern California, working in private practice until I joined the legal department at a Fortune 500 company. After several years in the legal department, I became head of the Human Resource department. I retired from there a few years ago, while my sense of humor and my sanity were still intact. I live in the Ozarks with my husband and two German Shepherds.

Did you always want to be a writer growing up, or did you come to it as an adult?

I always had the desire to write, but I didn't try my hand at until I was in my mid 40's. Prior to that I was busy trying to climb the corporate ladder, and didn't have the time to devote to writing. Well, I suppose I could have, but I preferred coming home and having a gin and tonic in front of tube to hammering out a story.

Did you have a lot of support when you began writing, or did you suffer the same raised eyebrow most of us do? In other words, what kept you motivated at the start of your career?

I kept it a secret. I was superstitious about telling anyone, for fear I'd jinx myself. As for motivation, I am a competitive person. Over the years, I'd read books and think: "I could do better than that." So one day I tried, and quickly learned that there was a whole lot more to this writing thing than I had thought. It took a few years to produce something that I could acknowledge as my work without shuddering, but I never doubted I could get there, if I just kept working at it.

What is your writing schedule?

Usually, I sit down in front of the computer at about 2:00, so I finish writing between 5:30 and 6:00. You'll notice this corresponds with the cocktail hour, and I usually wind up the day's word count with a drink in hand. If you notice a decline in the quality of the writing every 5 pages or so, that's why.

Do you actively look for story ideas (combing newspapers etc), or do they just come to you?

I don't really search them out, but ideas do present themselves from my reading. The idea for the first India Black novel came from a dual biography of Disraeli and Gladstone, outlining their many public disagreements. For the second India, I knew I wanted to write about Queen Victoria (the humorous aspects of her private life were too good to pass up), so I did some research about her and the numerous attempts on her life.

India Black is, in my view, very original -- how would you classify the genre?

She doesn't fit neatly into one genre, as I discovered (to my dismay) when I tried to compose a query letter to agents. I'd describe the book as a caper novel, full of adventure and episodes of derring-do, though it does contain some aspects of the historical thriller and romance genres, and a little comedy as well.

Who are your favorite authors?

How much space can I have? Kipling, Trollope, Dickens, Graham Greene, Joseph Conrad. I read lots of mysteries: Kate Atkinson, Sarah Caudwell, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Laurie R. King, Julia-Spencer Fleming, Christopher Fowler, and Phil Rickman. I've left out lots.

What is your favorite ever novel?

Argh! Another impossible question to answer. Okay, this week I'll pick "Lord Jim."

If you could offer just one piece of advice to aspiring novelists, what would it be?

Buy the very best ergonomically-designed chair you can afford. Your back will thank you. On a more serious note, you have to persevere at writing, even if you're not successful initially. India Black is my third novel. The first was embarrassing, the second less so, and I finally found my voice with India. Have patience and be persistent.

Do you outline your novels?

I didn't outline this one, and I wish I had, because half way through it I found myself thinking: what next? My editor required an outline for the second novel, and I put together a lengthy one (20 pages, single-spaced!). I'm glad I did. It made writing so much easier. That may not work for everyone, but I like to know where I'm going. I couldn't possibly start a book without knowing who'd committed the murder, but I know some people do.

How much research did India Black take? (Seems like a lot, you nail the language perfectly)

I've been a history buff since grade school, and I've read a lot of British history, so I was familiar with the general background of the story and the personalities involved. But I like the details to be as accurate as possible, so I read up on British revolvers, Cossack swords, Russian aristocratic names, when bed-springs were invented, etc. For the second India, I read books on fencing and visited the local fencing maestro and his students so I could render a plausible action scene involving swordplay. Basically, the research is just an excuse for me to indulge my interest in various subjects.

Do you recommend any specific "how-to" writing books for mystery/thriller writers?

I know I've read one or two over the years but I can't remember any names (this happens to me frequently at this stage of my life). I actually think I've learned more from reading really good writers like Alan Furst, Kate Atkinson, and John Le Carre. My style is nothing like theirs, but I have learned a lot about structuring plots, creating atmosphere, and developing characters. Now if only I could do that as well as they do.

Is there any part of being a professional, full-time writer that you don't like?

Thanks for granting me that appellation, but I have to say that I don't feel like a professional yet. There is certainly more stress once you've published. I always thought that would be the big hurdle, but it turns out it's just the first of many. Now you have to try to produce another quality work, on time and with the editor looking over your shoulder. (My editor is very nice, actually, but she does have expectations, and rightly so). So that's the only negative thing. On the other hand, it's a privilege to have to worry about something like that.

What are you working on now?

I signed a two-book contract with Berkley. India Black is the first, and the second has been delivered to the editor. I think it will be published sometime in 2012. But because I hate to stress out about things, I'm at work outlining a third novel in the series, in the event sales justify a new contract. The third book features India Black and anarchists. It should be incendiary.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Ah, the New Year

I'm not really interested in other people's New Year's resolutions, to be quite honest. That's all you read about in blogs at this time of year and they bore me. After all, if the change you're making is drastic enough to be interesting, it's probably best kept private (not gambling away the kid's college fund, cut down on heroin production, etc). If it's mild enough to be talked about, it's probably not interesting.

I do have a couple, and they fall under the "mild enough to be uninteresting to others," so I'll keep them to myself.

But one change, hopefully of relevance to the blog, is that I plan to keep a tally of pleas we take in the 167th District Court. I have a simple chart, and I'll just tick off every plea, noting whether end up at jail time or probation. Every month, I'll post the results.

Now, understand that this won't be especially informative. Jail could be two days of time served to fifty years in the penitentiary. And probation could be six months on a misdemeanor to ten years on aggravated assault.

Mildly interesting, perhaps?

I hope so, it's hard to know how to break it down further without creating a record-keeping headache, something I don't need. I'll be asking my three court colleagues to keep a tally, too, so I don't want to burden them unduly.

By the way, someone told me that the DA's office disposed of 10,000 cases last year. Ten thousand. 10k. Sounds like a lot to me. Now, if you'll excuse me I have a batch of new ones to attend to.

And Happy New Year to you all. (May you not be one of our ten thousand cases this year!)