Monday, January 28, 2013

MYSTERIOUS MONDAY: Downton Abbey, Barnes & Noble, and Carola Dunn

by Carola Dunn

A few weeks ago, my editor told me Barnes and Noble had picked my 19th Daisy Dalrymple mystery, Anthem for Doomed Youth, to be part of a nationwide promotion for Downton Abbey. Yes, I was excited!

The third season of the popular series is set in England between the wars--WWI and WWII, that is. Besides books about the period, B&N were looking for novels set at that time. They planned to have 5 or so copies of each chosen book on display near the checkout counter, in every store in the US. St. Martin's was to do a special reprint of the paperback edition for them.

My editor said the four-week promotion was to begin on January 8th. So on the day, I trotted along to the local store. I must have circled the store 3 times before I decided I just wasn't going to find the display. All the booksellers were busy, so I came home disappointed and tried to call them. Impossible to speak to a Real Person, or to leave a message, or even to stay on hold. At last, later that evening I got through.

The person I spoke to had never heard of a Downton Abbey promotion. He looked it up on his computer, and couldn't find anything that mentioned it. :-( 

I emailed my editor. I also asked my Facebook friends to pop into the nearest B&N if they happened to be passing and see what they could see. My editor contacted Macmillan's "B&N person," who promised to get onto it.

The responses I had from FB friends were not encouraging:

"There is a Downton Abbey display here in Naples, FL, but no Anthem for Doomed Youth."

"Checked the store in Fort Gratiot, MI. No Downton display but Anthem is on display in the new Mystery section."

"This was unfortunately the case last night at the W. 82nd location in Manhattan as well. I had called ahead and put Anthem on hold, but before I retrieved it, I sought out the Downton display to check out what else they had out. I found it on the endcap of the aisle that contained Mystery. So when I didn't see Anthem on display, I found it only a few feet away. I feigned ignorance tho just so I could ask an employee to find it for me and then mention I thought it was part of the Downton promo. I doubt it did any good, but I did want to mention it to them. Still glad to have a brand new copy of Anthem, which I hadn't read yet, but it was disappointing."

"I found the Downton Abbey display at the Ithaca Barnes & Noble - it was about 7 books on an endcap (no Anthem!). I caught a fellow and asked where the Anthem books were. He pulled out a paper with the particulars about the display, and it didn't include yours. He checked the computer and they had 5 new Anthems, it said they were supposed to be in a "Cash Wrap" (?) "up front". We found them stacked on a desk; so I don't know where they are going to end up. But I did impress upon him that all your 'Facebook friends' would be looking for the Anthems." 

And have to laugh at this one, I guess: "Went to B&N in Woodland Hills yesterday and they were gone. Had been there just before Christmas. The sign said they closed 12/31/12."

I forwarded all these and more to my editor, at his request. Whether they helped or not I don't know, but I'm very grateful to all those who took the time to check. Three cheers for Facebook friends!

On Sunday, I returned to the local (Eugene) store. There was Anthem, right by the cash registers, with a selection of other books set in the time period! I asked if they'd like me to sign them, which they did, and even dug out some of my other titles for me to sign.

When I got home and turned on the computer, there was an email from my editor--he had found the same in his local B&N.

I'm not sure what the moral of this story is. Be patient and they'll get around to it? Or persistence pays--keep bugging till they act?

One way or another, I'm happy to announce that if you go into a Barnes and Noble store in the next few weeks, you may--or may not--find a Downton Abbey promotion that includes Anthem for Doomed Youth!

Read about the book here:
  (scroll down a bit)

Or read an excerpt here: 

It's also available as an ebook. 

Istoria Books's "Mysterious Monday" program features posts about mystery writing, reading, bookselling and more by writers from beyond the Istoria stable.  Stop back on Mondays for insightful posts on the mystery genre. 

This post, by Carola Dunn, first appeared at the Murderous Musings blog on January 16, 2013.

Mysterious Monday posts from the past:
Jenny Milchman writes about "Putting the MIST in mystery: obscuring facts"

Coming up: Authors Gary Alexander and Joyce Yarrow talk about favorite characters and favorite character types in mystery.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

No sex, no swearing, no drugs, no alcohol: Istoria Books YA line

by Libby Sternberg

During the Christmas holiday, I received a charming card from a family we know. On it, the twelve-year-old daughter had written her own message to me: "I love your books! When I'm not reading them, I'm thinking about them!"

She was referring to my first two published novels--the Edgar-nominated teen mystery Uncovering Sadie's Secrets, and its sequel, Finding the Forger. There's a third book in the series, Recovering Dad, that I will dispatch to her this week.

Not only did her comments warm my heart, they affirmed for me a commitment I, as an author, made to myself when I first wrote "young adult" fiction. That is, I would write the kind of YA books that I enjoyed reading as a preteen, books that didn't shock or startle or depress but instead invited the reader into a world worth visiting. In this world were people who set good examples, tried their best, loved their families, and didn't try too hard to be part of the cool crowd.

Notice, by the way, that I mention "YA books that I enjoyed reading as a preteen."  Many preteens read YA, while teens themselves have moved on to adult fiction. So, when I write YA, I assume my audience is more likely to be nine- to twelve-year-olds than it is older readers.

In my YA mysteries, the characters don't swear. They don't use drugs or alcohol. They don't have sex or talk about it. And I know--this doesn't reflect reality for all teens. But for a good number of kids, it does; or, at least, it's the life they aspire to. Their parents scold them if they swear. They're expected to abide by their family's rules. They're expected to try to be good, even if they sometimes fail. They're not trying so hard to be cool that they'll fall into trouble easily.

Many teen novels don't follow this pattern. Many YA novelists believe their books would betray the worlds they want to create and a sense of verisimilitude if the characters don't confront coarse situations and use coarse language. Some of these authors, I learned from participating in a YA writers email group years ago, take a perverse pride in being provocative, as if shocking parents of teen readers with dark tales is the goal, rather than telling a good story or even offering a good lesson.

The Wall Street Journal's children's book reviewer shared some thoughts on the dark state of YA fiction in a June 2011 article that generated controversy. Meghan Cox Gurdon wrote in that article:

How dark is contemporary fiction for teens? Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.

Pathologies that went undescribed in print 40 years ago, that were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago, are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail. Profanity that would get a song or movie branded with a parental warning is, in young-adult novels, so commonplace that most reviewers do not even remark upon it.

If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.

Don't get me wrong--I don't begrudge YA authors success if they happen to tell grittier tales than mine. And I'm not suggesting that YA fiction should be censored or have the real world whitewashed within its pages. (Neither was Gurdon in her article.)  But I do think there's a place--an important place--for YA fiction that does not focus on what's wrong in a teen's world, for stories that make readers feel good about themselves and perhaps even affirm the good choices they are making.

These are the kinds of YAs Istoria Books is looking for.

That kind of "clean" YA fiction doesn't have to be boring. In fact, this spring Istoria Books is proud to release a sweet and fun YA, The Body Electric by Allie Duzett, that doesn't include a single curse or reference to sex or substance abuse. It's a rollicking journey to the "end of the world," an exploration of young love and ancient curses. It's the exact opposite of boring. But it doesn't have a single element in it that would make a parent cringe.

Editing Allie Duzett's debut novel reinforced my belief in this kind of YA fiction. It's the epitome of our mission: we publish "good stories, well told."  Good stories--where you want to keep turning the pages to see what happens. Well told--where you want to keep hearing that author tell the story to you (instead of jumping ahead to the finish). And while our adult fiction does handle adult themes, sometimes explicitly and realistically, our young adult fiction will be a place of refuge for the preteen and teen reader who wants stories where they feel comfortable with the characters and don't mind inviting them into their own lives.

In The Body Electric, an eighteen-year-old Colorado girl meets and falls for an odd new fellow in town. He seems to possess heroic strength, is a gentleman of the old school, dresses as if he stepped off the pages of a menswear ad spread, is cheerful, honest and...has a family of grudge-bearing maniacs. As Lena learns more about Zach, she finds more to admire...and also fear. She learns just as much about herself in the process, about what values she holds dear, about what is most important in life.

I hope young readers will enjoy The Body Electric as much as all of us at Istoria have. Watch these blog pages for an interview with Allie Duzett in the weeks before its spring release!
Libby Sternberg is an award-winning novelist. She is editor-in-chief of Istoria Books. If you have a young adult novel you'd like to submit to her, send a query to

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Monday, January 21, 2013

MYSTERIOUS MONDAY: Putting the MIST in Mystery: Obscuring the Facts

by Jenny Milchman

Mysteries are the most challenging genre of all.

I can already hear the indignant responses from romance writers (how do you keep boy-meets-girl fresh), the historical writers (all that research!), and the horror ones as well (hey, it’s grisly in there). Not to mention the literary authors. Writing a story that doesn’t rely on plot to pull the reader along is no easy task.

So, all right, perhaps each kind of book has its own unique challenges.

I’d like to go over a few that I’ve found in writing mysteries.

  • Knowing when to resist formula and when to make use of it. Should a body appear in the first chapter? A dead one, I mean—presumably most novels have people in them. And should the rest of the novel go on to unravel how the dead body got there? If you don’t keep to this rubric, but your novel is fast-paced and dangerous, is it still a mystery, or some other beast? Suspense, maybe, or thriller? Defining what you’ve written is hard and getting harder all the time, given the new sub-genres out there. Yet agents and editors will want to know your definition.
  • Knowing what to reveal to your reader and when. As author, you know everything, at least by the time your book is in publishable form. But if you lay out your cards too soon, you’ll have a boring book that isn’t very mysterious. Too late and your solution will be either anticlimactic or a deus ex machina—a solution delivered from above without the appropriate groundwork being laid. Navigating between these two extremes takes an ability to climb into your reader’s mind—and out of your own.
  • Related to the above is the challenge of obscuring the facts throughout your mystery. They have to be there, or else you haven’t played fair with your reader. But you don’t want readers to figure out clues or see plot twists coming like a Mack truck on a narrow road. Instead what you want to do is create a highway…populated by many vehicles…driving on a misty night. Those other lanes are your subplots and dead ends. The different vehicles are your red herrings, your distractions, and characters that fill out a story and make it feel fully realized. While the mist is there for atmosphere and to obscure the one truck barreling down the road…and into your victim’s life.

How do you rise to the above challenges? I imagine that every writer has his or her own tried-and-true methods. Here are three I’ve tried, which may turn out to be true for you:

  1. Don’t worry about any of the above while writing your first draft. Let the danger and excitement of the situation your character has gotten himself into carry you along. Because if you’re carried along, it’s a good bet your reader will be, too. Fine-tuning details that are too obvious or too obscure, layering in red herrings, and making sure the solution is fully satisfying are for drafts two, three, and…thirteen.
  2. No? Does the thought of writing thirteen drafts scare you like your heroine is scared by the killer? Then consider the five-point structure, brought to you courtesy of film-writing guru Robert McKee, with a few tweaks by me for mystery writers: Know the beginning, middle, and end of your story. By this I mean a key scene or two you can envision. If necessary, write up background material for these, or rough versions of the scenes before you begin. Sketch out their high points, conflict, and who stands to lose or learn what. Then do the same thing for two turning points in your story—one at the 1/3 mark, between the beginning and the middle, and the second at the 2/3 mark between the middle and the end. You now have a road laid out, and should be able to see from point one to five without getting too lost.
  3. See your novel as a movie and write down exactly what you’re watching at any point where you feel stuck, or even at the beginning of the process. By visualizing the scenes, you make them that much realer in your mind. Later when you’re writing, you can come back to scenes you’ve already experienced.
The biggest mystery of all to be unraveled may be how a mystery is created. I hope that in this post I’ve given you a few clues.

Jenny Milchman is a suspense novelist from New Jersey whose short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Adirondack Mysteries II, and an e-published volume called Lunch Reads. Her first novel, Cover of Snow, was released by Ballantine this January.  

Istoria Books was proud to publish Jenny's short story "The Very Old Man" in Lunch Reads Volume 1. All four volumes of Lunch Reads shorts are now available in one set digitally at Amazon's Kindle store!

Check out Istoria's mysteries here!