at Is A Novel? And Why Does It Matter? And To Whom?

Originally published on MotiveMeansOpportunity.

According to Cambridge Dictionaries Online, a novel is “a long, printed story about imaginary characters and events.” I find that definition, while technically accurate, woefully vague. Dictionary.com, thankfully, has a more precise definition: “a fictitious prose narrative of considerable length and complexity, portraying characters and usually presenting a sequential organization of action and scenes.” Formal language aside, this is much better. Far more specific and comprehensive. However, neither definition concretely addresses what is, in my opinion, the most important aspect of a novel: length. So allow me to synthesize parts of the above definitions with one of my own.   A novel is a piece of fiction that is 60,000 words or more.

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But what’s more relevant than the definition itself are the reasons why readers and writers alike should care.  So let’s discuss, briefly, what some of those reasons are, why they matter, and to whom they matter. First off, I’ve yet to come across a literary agent or a publisher that will even consider a manuscript that is less than 60,000 words, so length is paramount.  My guess is that’s to do with marketing.  Agents must sell manuscripts in order to make any money, and publishers big and small are not willing to spend the time, energy, and resources on any manuscript, regardless of quality, that cannot be labeled a novel, which is, by leaps and bounds, the most popular form of fiction read today.  It’s supply and demand. Simple as that.  That said, I love short stories and novellas, but generally speaking, people don’t read them. Truth be told, I don’t read them much, unless it is for a literature or creative writing class I happen to be teaching.  In short, readers read novels. Period.

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Money is another reason writers should be keenly aware of the definition of a novel.  Everything, in the end, gets back to money. Sad, but true.  And if publishers are going to go to the trouble of publishing a book, it needs to be of substance and of a certain length, i.e. novel-length. Quick hypothetical: imagine you’re a Kindle reader, and you purchase a “novel” that looks good, but then soon discover the book is less than a hundred pages.  You feel cheated, right? Betrayed, maybe even enough to not bother with the rest of the book.  And if you do read on, that sense of betrayal can and will color your opinion of the book in question, especially since you paid good money for it.  Now consider the cost of printing a hardback or paperback.  After paying editors and proofreaders and book cover designers, a publisher has to then send a typeset manuscript to a printer, and that costs even more money.  Publishers must be selective in what they publish. Highly selective.  It’s not just a question of money, but time as well. For all the time a publisher spends on one book, that same publisher is missing out on a whole slew of other books, all potential bestsellers. For you business types out there, you’ll know there is a name for this: FOMO. Fear Of Missing Out.

Bottom line, writers need to be aware of what publishers and agents mean when they ask for novels, and act accordingly. Because if writers don’t, they’ll get something even worse than a boilerplate rejection notice in their inbox: they’ll get no response at all.

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So what’s your definition of a novel? Why do you think readers prefer novels over other forms of fiction such as novellas and short stories? I’d love to hear what you think.

Advice to Unpublished Novelists

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Dear Unpublished Novelist,

Stop what you’re doing. Immediately. Paying attention? Good.

Now read the following letter (in its entirety) before you decide what to do with that first manuscript you spent so much time on your posterior writing. Trust me, it’ll only help. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

A Writer’s Goals

So you wrote a book, eh? Good for you. A major accomplishment. You should be proud as punch. After all, there aren’t enough novels in the world.  I kid. Congrats, for sooth.  Now, an important question: should you send your book (your precious baby that you slaved away on) to an agent, a small press, or self-publish?

My answer: depends on what your goals are as a writer. Here’s a breakdown of my thoughts on the subject. Bare in mind these are just my humble opinions based on my experiences in the biz.

Agents/Big Publishers

There are exceptions, of course, but if you want to earn anything even close to a living, then you definitely need an agent and a big New York publisher. Agents and big publishers have the resources to get your book into bookstores and libraries around the country; they can get your book reviewed in a variety of influential publications; they can set up book tours (although those are becoming less and less frequent unless your name is James Patterson or Nora Roberts). And agents, the good ones anyway, are advocates who help your career in ways that you on your own would never be able to do.  Do you know anything about contract law? Do you read and understand legalese? Do you have experience negotiating? No? Me neither. Those are just some of the many reasons you need an agent in your corner.  Bottom line, if you want to make some money writing, your best shot is with an agent and a big publisher. Period.

Small Presses

If your goal is to experience the thrill of having your work in “print,” then a small press is great. Nowadays, there are TONS of small presses out there, and some of them put out excellent books at reasonable prices.  Another advantage: small presses will take manuscripts directly from an author, whereas big publishers will only read manuscripts sent to them by literary agents. That’s the good stuff. Now, the bad: if you sign with a small press, chances are you will make little to no money (most DO NOT give advances on royalties), and you will be responsible for a majority of the promotions. Also, unless you happen to live near the publisher, or you are willing to travel (at your own expense) to their offices, you will never meet them in person, which, for some writers, could be a major problem.  (I’m not particularly fussed about that as I’m a borderline recluse and love to travel . . .all around MY HOUSE.) Most likely your communication with a small press will be through emails, and perhaps a phone call here and there, if that. I know of some small press writers who have never spoken to their publishers, at all.

I’d compare the experience of working with a small press to taking college courses online: sure, it is convenient and you’re still getting a decent education, but you have very limited access to actual human beings, and, as we all know, things can get lost in translation via email and phone.

My opinion: small presses do their best, but their resources (and time) are limited, so go into the whole process with your eyes open. . . and perhaps most importantly, manage your expectations.

Self-Publishing

As for self-publishing. . .well, I get tired just thinking about it.  Advantages: you do get to keep more of the money you earn, and you’re in total control, which, as a control freak, is attractive to me and more important than the money aspect even. However, it’s expensive because you’re responsible for everything.  Literally everything.  Writing, editing, book cover, promotions. . .the whole shooting match.  It’s a ton of work, and frankly, there are SO MANY self-published books out there that it will be very, very, very, very difficult to get yours noticed. It can be done. I know at least two successful self-published authors out there, but both of them had agents and big publishers at one time, which helped them build up a readership that enabled them, in my opinion, to be successful on their own. Plus, those authors hustle, man; they work their butts off, which a lot of us writers, myself included, aren’t willing to do. My take, the self-publishing route is a long shot, but hey, writing is a long shot, so do what you feel!

So there you go, Unpublished Novelist. My two cents worth. Remember to take all of my advice with a grain of Margarita salt.

Yours in wisdom (which is just a synonym for regret),

Obscure Mystery Novelist

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Advice for Writers

Quick word: I’m contributing to a new mystery blog called MotiveMeansOpportunity, so go check it out.

Be mentally-ill.  Believe me, if you want to be a writer, having a reasonable, manageable amount of mental illness is a God send. (Note: being neurotic can and often does reek havoc on your personal and professional life, but the fleas come with the dog).  Here’s why being afflicted with a mild to moderate mental illness is beneficial to a writer: because you suffer, you better understand the suffering of others.  Your suffering allows you to better understand human frailty, and that, in turn, fosters empathy for others, which will help improve the depth of the characters you write. Plus, do I really need to list all of the great writers, male and female, who struggled with depression, anxiety, OCD, and other neurotic ailments?

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Have a toddler.  Or, if parenting isn’t your thing, then babysit a friend’s toddler for an hour or two.  Playing with a toddler is an excellent crash course in the art of improvisation, and there’s only one rule when it comes to improv: ALWAYS say yes.  This is important to remember, especially when writing a first draft. Don’t try to control everything; don’t dictate every little thing your characters say and do and think.  Allow your characters to surprise you, allow them to hurt themselves, make mistakes, say boneheaded things. In other words: improvise. You’ll be amazed what those figments of your imagination will get up to once you stop helicoptering over them all the time.

Listen to Rap music.  My old man forced John Prine and Jimmy Buffet and the Allman Brothers Band down my throat when I was a kid, and, eventually, I grew to love that music, too, but really my first love was rap. I love the rhythm and attitude in hip-hop, the bravado, and all of those things have helped improve my writing. I’ve been told my books have a pretty strong voice, that the words create a rhythm when read, and I credit my love of rap for that. Plus, whenever I write a hardcore villain, I try and channel the devil-may-care-attitude of classic rappers like Public Enemy and NWA.

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Handwrite letters. It’s a tragedy that people don’t write letters anymore. A real shame. I still write them though, and I love receiving them as well. Writing anything by hand helps you develop patience, the ability to slow yourself down and reflect before simply, for example, pecking away at a laptop or tablet. Letters are more personal, too, and the best writing, whether it’s a mystery novel or an email, has an element of the personal to it.

Read outside your genre. Yeah, I know: this is a mystery blog, and I like mysteries. I’ve written several. I’m writing another one as we speak (well, it’s sort of a mystery, sort of a meta-spy, break-all-the-rules novel of complications).  But anyway. Reading outside your genre: this will only improve your writing, expose you to new ideas, new styles, and new modes of storytelling, and that is always a good idea. Too, I get bored reading the same types of stories over and over and over again. Am I the only one?

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Watch TV. Before I get lambasted for suggesting something as crass as staring at the Idiot Box, let me clarify. Watch good TV. And actively, not passively, watch it.  Guess what, there’s plenty of great TV shows out there these days (movies, not so much). Better Call Saul, Mr. Robot, and Silicon Valley are just a few of my current favorites. Watching good TV is a quick and easy way to improve your dialogue writing skills. Ditto storytelling. Good TV also teaches you to always, no matter what, focus on the story. No fat. No filler. Everything in a good TV show serves the story in some form or fashion, and the same should hold true for your novels.

Tell lies. Yes, I know: lying is bad. I’m not saying you should lie about anything important, but when you meet a stranger at a party, go ahead and tell a few whoopers. Why? Again: improvisation is a tool every storyteller should have in his or her toolbox. If you can tell a credible lie (or a series of lies) to a stranger, and they actually respond to them, that tells you you have created a believable fib, and, possibly, a fascinating character. That’s what we writers do, isn’t it?

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Be an introvert. My opinion, you want to be good at writing, you need to spend a lot of time alone honing your craft. Sure, workshops are. . .no, I can’t even tell that lie with a straight face. I don’t like workshops, never have, not even when I was required to attend them in order to obtain my so-called Master’s degree in English. But full disclosure, I do not and never will work and play well with others. Writing is a solitary endeavor. Period. Hell, that’s at least half of its appeal to me; I get to be alone for a few hours every day. You can talk to writers and readers and hang out at conferences, and all that’s fine by me. But if you want to get good at this tricky thing called writing, go inside, shut the door, and write. And you need to be alone when you do it.

Which reminds me, I need to be alone for a while, so the next sound you hear will be my door shutting.

Ed, Not Eddie (An Eli Sharpe Mystery) Official Release!

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With no humans in sight, Eli shifted the car into drive and pulled into a small gravel parking lot situated to the left of the house.  There, sitting atop a purple and gold ambulance, sat Leland Leviner, the man who’d made the frantic phone call the night before. The man who was now holding a shotgun.

Got time to kill? Got discretionary income? Like to read mysteries? If you answered yes to all three, then go pick up Ed, Not Eddie (An Eli Sharpe mystery) today. Only $4.95 for Kindle, and $14.95 for a paperback. Oh yeah, Split to Splinters (Eli Sharpe #2) is only .99 on Kindle all through April.

The third installment in the Eli Sharpe series, Ed, Not Eddie is my favorite book I’ve ever written (this month, anyway), so you should go buy it, and if you read it, too, so much the better! And if you review it, well, I’ll simonize your car for you. Nah, not really. Don’t do manual labor. Too old. Too out of shape. Anyhew, here’s what some nice folks have written about my little book:

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“With well-developed characters that are colorful and unique, this enjoyable story has a solid plot that flows smoothly and seamlessly from scene to scene, pulling one in as it entertains…. Rich with a well-written story line, vivid descriptions, wit, and smart, snappy dialogue, this intriguing mystery will appeal to readers of many genres and is a welcome addition to any collection.”

—Janna Shay for InD’Tale Magazine

http://www.indtale.com/reviews/mystery/ed-not-eddie-eli-sharpe-mystery

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Ed, Not Eddie is the best written of the Eli Sharpe mysteries. There are strong characters with an intriguing plot. Best of all the narrative flows smoothly. Pages glide by. It has the potential to be a break through book for Everhart…. Eli has become of my favourite 21st century sleuths. Everhart’s series is the best mystery baseball series I have read since the Kate Henry mysteries of the late Alison Gordon.”

—Bill Selnes for Mysteries and More

http://mysteriesandmore.blogspot.com/2015/12/ed-not-eddie-bymax-everhart-third.html

Eli Sharpe is #1. . .and FREE!

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Exciting news item #1: “Pink Elephant,” an Eli Sharpe mystery, is FREE on Kindle right now, AND it has reached #1 on one of Amazon’s bestseller lists. Please, go download this fast-paced story involving a stuffed pink elephant, drugs, and a bad guy named Mr. Spoon immediately. (Thank you in advance for leaving reviews on Amazon!)

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Exciting news item #2: Ed, Not Eddie (Eli Sharpe #3) is out today and is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords. Only $4.95 on Kindle or Nook, $14.95 for paperback. This go round, Eli Sharpe is tasked with figuring out who is sending death threats to a hotshot female knuckleball pitcher in rural Cook, South Carolina. It’s good. I promise. So buy it and read it and review it.

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Exciting news item #3: The Kindle version of Split to Splinters (Eli Sharpe #2) is only .99 all throughout the month of April. That’s right: you can get a brilliantly-written, highly-entertaining piece of literature for less than a dollar. AND, if you’ve already purchased the paperback, you can get the Kindle version for FREE! Just get as a gift for someone else who hasn’t read it. Or read it again on a different format. Just get it, pretty please.

Book Review of DEADLY DUNES by E. Michael Helms

deadly dunesOnly $4.95 on Kindle and $14.95 for paperback!

Multi-million dollar real estate deals. A priceless map drawn by 16th century explorers. Coded messages in Spanish and English. Femme fatales and callous businessmen. Snipers and lying women. Suicide and murder. Sex and intrigue. Like a complex stew, there are many layers to Deadly Dunes, the third installment in the highly-entertaining Mac McClellan series, and although I greedily consumed this mystery in one sitting, I’d recommend slowing down, savoring the many flavors.

The setup: McClellan is hired to investigate the alleged suicide of an archeology professor, who just so happens to have stumbled across a map from Hernando de Soto’s 1539 exploration of a place called Five Mile Island, an idyllic spot on the coast of Florida. Little does McClellan know that the map will draw him into the always dangerous world of big money real estate development, and before long, he’s embroiled in yet another complex web of lies, money, and murder. The only question is: can McClellan, a retired Marine turned P.I., discover the truth, thwart the bad guys, and remain in one piece?

This is a solid mystery with plenty of red herrings and double-crossings to keep the reader guessing until the end. But, as always, the thing I enjoyed the most was Mac McClellan. A drinker of Budweiser, an avid fisherman, a man’s man with a sarcastic tongue and a secret chivalrous streak, McClellan has quickly become one of my favorite P.I.s, and I look forward to his next adventure. Highly recommended.

Alphabet Land Official Release

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Alphabet Land, my first noir crime thriller featuring the problem-solver The Rook, is out today! Pick up the Kindle version ($4.99) or paperback ($14.95) here on Amazon. For fans of Barnes & Noble, go here, or if you prefer, buy it from Books-a-Million, my former employer while in grad school, here. And, of course, you can purchase my book from IndieBound, too.

I’m pretty proud of this book, and I believe readers will have a tough time putting it down once they start reading. . .and when you do finish reading it,  please write a review on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, and/or anywhere else you see fit. Reviews need not be long, but if you want to gush and ramble on and on and on about my brilliance as a novelist, well, I won’t stand in your way.  But seriously, for small press authors, reviews are very important, so thank you in advance for taking the time.

Enjoy!

Max

Read Excerpt of ALPHABET LAND

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Attention fans of noir/hardboiled fiction: click here to read the first chapter of my forthcoming crime thriller Alphabet Land.  If you like it, pre-order the paperback ($14.95) or Kindle ($3.99) here. Or head over to Barnes & Noble and get it here.

Advanced praise for Alphabet Land: 

“Alphabet Land is as coarse and gritty as Carolina noir can get. Max Everhart has a new big fan.”
—JOHN VORHAUS, author of The California Roll 

“Everhart has skillfully put together a fresh, tight tale that juggles the story of multiple damaged goods characters that collide face-first on a chunk of dirt called Alphabet Land. Crime story goodness that’s gritty, pulpy, tragic, even funny at times and rips through pages like lightning.”
—MIKE McCRARY, author of Remo Went Rogue and Getting Ugly

“Alphabet Land, decrepit neighborhood on the wrong side of the bridge in Clyde, South Carolina. A bridge separating “haves” from “have nots,” opulence from squalor, justice from injustice. Meet the Rook, product of Alphabet Land, casket-maker and “problem-solver” by trade. Call him vigilante, or Robin Hood—the Rook lives by his own code and his word is his bond. Max Everhart’s mystifying hero is determined to stop the lustful power mongers from both sides of the bridge before greed destroys all hope for the hood’s people. Hang onto your hat, because you’re in for one hell of a non-stop ride through the dark and violent streets of Alphabet Land!”
—E. MICHAEL HELMS, author of the  Mac McClellan Mystery series

“Alphabet Land is a crooked little concoction of hard luck, urban decay, and vigilante style justice. In this fast-paced urban noir, Everhart introduces the Rook, a chess playing, coffin-building, monosyllabic badass, who’s hellbent on pushing back the rising tide of corruption in his city no matter what it takes. Highly recommended!”

–John Mantooth, author of The Year of the Storm and Shoebox Train Wreck

Favorite Novels of 2015

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When combing through the list of books I’ve read this year, these five really lingered, got under my skin, stuck in my head. . .and stayed there.  If you haven’t read any of these, you should as well as the other books I’ve reviewed on this site (check archives). But, alas, these are my favorites.

  1. Dear American Airlines, Jonathan Miles. Bennie Ford, a failed poet turned translator, gets stuck at the airport while on his way to his estranged daughter’s lesbian wedding. An acerbic, heartbreakingly unflinching autobiographical letter to (yup!) American Airlines follows. This inventive play on the traditional novel form is howlingly funny, dangerously insightful, and, my favorite, sneakily soulful.
  2. The Perfect Son, Barbara Claypole White. After his wife and super-mom Ella is hospitalized indefinitely by a sudden heart attack, Felix Fitzwilliam, an OCD financial geek with zero patience, must, for the first time in his seventeen years as a father, become a real parent to their son Harry, who, aside from having a high IQ and a perfect SAT score, suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome. This one was a pure reading pleasure, mostly because of the careful and touching portrayal of all the characters, especially Harry.  The difficult relationship between the father and son really resonated with me, and I was moved by the surprising, yet inevitable ending of the novel.
  3. The Land of Steady Habits, Ted Thompson. Anders Hill, an empty-nester living in Connecticut, blows up his cushy life by divorcing his wife and opting for a small condo instead. Hilarity–and humility–ensues. Maybe even some personal growth. This book is a modern day Rabbit, Run, but, in my opinion, funnier.
  4. Outline, Rachel Cusk. This one, more than any other book I read this year, snuck up on me. A friend recommended it to me, I read the synopsis and wasn’t really excited. I read it, anyway, and wow. . .Essentially, it’s about a woman flying to Greece to teach a creative writing class.  That’s it.  But really, it’s about observation, listening–really listening.  It’s also a master class in storytelling as the protagonist reveals next to nothing about herself, and yet I was riveted the whole time.  Not a great description, I know, and yes, some readers–namely, impatient ones–will give up within a page or two, but if you read on, if you think about what you’re reading, you will be rewarded.
  5. Rumrunners, Eric Beetner. The plot: Webb McGraw, an aging rumrunner, is given a lucrative pick-up-and-drop-off gig by Hugh Stanley, who presides over a criminal empire “running anything and everything illegal.” Used to driving American muscle cars, McGraw enlists the help of a long-haul trucker to drive the eighteen-wheeler, which, of course, turns out to be a huge mistake. McGraw gets highjacked, barely escaping with his hide in tack, but now he’s faced with a dilemma: run and hide, or go back to Hugh Stanley and admit failure? This is a well-written pot boiler brimming with good dialogue, memorable characters, and thrills on every page.

Guest Blog: M. Ruth Myers

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WHEN MYSTERY MEETS HISTORY, SPEED COUNTS

M. Ruth Myers

A mystery writer has to juggle a few more elements than the regular novelist. Set it in the past, and the writer needs to keep even more in the air to avoid painful goose eggs on the head. Here’s what goes up and how to keep it aloft. (Feel free to blow smoke in my face and tell me my story doesn’t check out. I’ve been grilled before)

Any good novel needs certain basics — plot, pacing, character, dialog – skillfully done and in a balance to keep the reader reading. A mystery, in addition, must have clues and red herrings woven through those basics, sometimes sliding by unnoticed, other times producing an “Ah-hah! I’ll bet I know whodunit!” reaction. Writing a historical mystery calls for an additional set of elements which, like clues, must be worked in without slowing the story.

Some of those elements are ones found in any historical novel. If you’re thinking clothing styles, technology and jargon of the era, as well as actual historical events and personages, give yourself a gold star. Then consider additional ones which are particularly important to a historical MYSTERY where people are followed, eliminating a suspect may hinge on the time required to get from Point A to Point B, detectives interface with police and life-or-death chases are known to occur. For starters:

* Streets. Which have vanished or appeared or changed direction between your time period and the present? Certain types of mystery, such as private eye yarns and noir, characteristically tell the route the detective is taking when following someone or being followed — or thinking through the fastest way to get somewhere. A writer can locate a business or house on a fictitious street, or better still, refer to it as “just off” (fill in name of actual street), but keep it anchored to real places in order to give the historical authenticity readers expect.

* When unincorporated areas around a city were incorporated as separate towns or villages. If a suspect lives there, and your detective is going to follow or question him, best know how to refer to the area. Also, differences in jurisdiction might come into play.   Believe me, someone who has lived in the area or is a history buff will point it out if you slip.

* Changes in locations of government buildings, jails and police stations. Even an amateur sleuth may have occasion to visit such a place, so make sure buildings haven’t wandered.

* Changes in laws and speed limits. Some race cars of the late 1930s, when my Maggie Sullivan series opens, could go 100 mph or more. However the speed limit, even on U.S. highways, was 35 mph in most states.

* The attitudes and world-view of people in your chosen time period. This is far too often violated. It seems to me that writers are especially likely to attribute overly modern attitudes to female characters, presumably to make them more appealing to contemporary readers.

What forensic methods were available at the time? Were they widely used?

You may recall I said this information needs to be threaded through the mystery itself. If you periodically dump in paragraph upon paragraph, you stop the action cold. A historical MYSTERY is first and foremost a mystery. Maintaining pace is crucial.

Here are some ways I’ve approached it.

Tough Cookie, the second Maggie Sullivan mystery, opens with the PI in her office. She’s playing jacks with spare slugs for her .38 because: It beat trudging through slush and ice from Dayton’s last snowfall to spend three cents on the Daily News only to learn Herr Hitler was still bamboozling leaders in Europe. We get a sense of time (which becomes more specific later), of the media of the day, and of prices. Just as a new case walks in.

Later in the same book, as the case is starting to break, she waylays a photographer pal from the evening paper to ask him the fastest route to a town between Dayton and Cincinnati:

“Scenic or speed?”

“Speed.”

“State route, then. The national’s better in places, but it swings west so far you lose time cutting back over. Speed limit’s thirty-five on both, so there’s nothing to even out the extra distance.”

“It entered my mind I might risk forty if I took the US route.”

“Adds lots of time if you get a ticket. Or blow a gasket.”

It sounded like the voice of experience.

In Don’t Dare a Dame, Maggie wants to call her client to warn her to expect the police: Going back to the office was faster than finding a pay phone.

Historical details need to become mere threads in the mystery itself. What’s the fast food of the detective’s time? What kind of lodgings does he or she have? Does he walk to appointments like Anna Castle’s Tom Clarady? Hire a horse cab like Susanne Alleyn’s Aristide Ravel? Or does she drive a DeSoto like Maggie Sullivan?

If you’re a mystery fan who hasn’t tried any with a historical setting, try some. You might enjoy them. If you favor historical novels, sample a few that are mysteries as well. You might discover new treats. Those of us who write them think the combination is as satisfying as tea and crumpets… or gin and tonic.