Amazon barcodes

I want my book to look just right, so I’m working with my covers and placing that barcode in just the right place. Barcodes are already an intrusive thing, their white background shocking when nothing else has white. The books came out fine at Ingram.

But now I want to publish the paperbacks at Amazon also. Why? Because although Amazon can get my book from Ingram, and shows it on their site, it’s sometimes shown as unavailable because it’s Print on Demand. Even when it’s available, it takes weeks to get there. They say that on the book pages, discouraging purchases. So it’s no wonder my paperback sales on Amazon have been low.

When I order proof copies, however, they look like this:

ugly Amazon bar codes

Ugly, huh? I knew about the “not for resale” stripe (which I don’t mind, actually – on the shelf I can tell it’s a proof). But that barcode is the size of a small European country. It cuts through my Victorian frame, and partly overlaps my own barcode. I’m confused because during setup, it asks whether you have your own barcode. I assumed that clicking Yes means they use yours.

When I research in Amazon support, it goes on about barcode sizes and requirements if you use your own, but I’d done all that. And it says they might add a “Transparent” QR-looking thing. I google and see that some people are saying this horrid bar code isn’t printed on the real copies, only proof copies and maybe author copies.

Amazon support chat was there for me, and after I sent them this photo they confirmed that this is the case. These big-as-a-Buick barcodes won’t appear on author copies (thank goodness, since I sell some myself) or actual purchased books.

Moving back

So many of my blog posts talk about both writing and history that I’ve decided to post only at my Lisahistory blog for 2024 onwards. 

A mini-lecture and a book

As a recently retired history professor, I cannot help a little lecturing when there is confusion. My heart is breaking for those suffering in the eastern Mediterranean, so as an author and historian I’m naturally going to recommend a book as my contribution to the peace process. 

The conflict between Palestinian Arabs and Israelis is not thousands of years old, despite the epic storytelling. Rather it goes back to the end of the Ottoman Empire, which was huge.

The entire area in conflict today was part of the Ottoman Empire which oppressed everyone equally. Jewish, Christian, and Orthodox enclaves could conduct their own affairs and patrol their own communities, so long as they paid their taxes and followed Ottoman law. It was kind of like the Pax Romana – a big empire forbidding autonomy but allowing significant freedoms. Any breaking of the peace was punished.

The Ottoman Empire sealed their doom when they chose to support Germany in World War I, and the victorious European powers divided it up. Although Prince Faisal of Arabia had united the Arab tribes under his control and was prepared to rule a pan-Arab state (surely you’ve seen Lawrence of Arabia?), the victors would not allow this sort of power to emerge. Instead they divided the area into mandates, which were like semi-autonomous colonies. Palestine was one of these, controlled by Great Britain.

World War II put an end to mandates, as people under colonial rule helped their oppressors then rebelled against their rule. Violence in Palestine had been on the increase, and although Britain had promised a Jewish state, it became impossible. By 1947, the brand spanking new United Nations did some partitioning to prevent war. Palestine was under Palestinian Arab control, Israel under Israeli Jewish control. 

Israel agreed to the partition and announced their new state. The Palestinians didn’t, and attacked Israel. You can read about all the wars since then, but they resulted from creating nationalisms (Palestinian, Israeli) where there hadn’t been any, which in my experience always causes trouble. Today’s horror is the latest version.

So what’s the book? The Peace to End All Peace, by David Fromkin, is a 1989 book by a Pulitzer Prize author, so it’s readable. It focuses on that time after World War I, when the modern Middle East was created, and how it happened. Highly recommended!

Grousable Blog

Free Victorian mystery short storyHere’s where I blog on things mystery and historical, topics I’m researching, things I see on my travels. 

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Mystery conference: things learned

On my first day at Bouchercon, the huge conference for mystery writers and readers, I was taken by the fact that everyone was talking about books, which I thought was strange.

By “book” we now mean a codex rather than a scroll or an oral tradition. Since medieval times, reading silently to oneself has become the norm for experiencing a book.

                                           Photo by Matias North on Unsplash

From the 18th century at least, this has meant that reading is often a private activity requiring concentration and a less distracted environment. When one reads, the mind of the author feels closest to one’s own, even if someone else is sitting nearby. This puts reading alongside other usually private or semi-private activities, such as putting on clothes, kneading bread, or deadheading roses. They can be done in a group, but typically are solitary activities.

To hear others talk about books felt like being admitted into everyone’s boudoir to discuss private thoughts. [It struck me that this is why it’s so hard to get good readers to leave reviews: we are asking them to share in a public forum something that would normally be more private. To share impressions of a book means using a whisper, not a bull-horn.]

Among these thoughts, I gleaned a number of tips and perspectives:

  1. Ambient story: this is the story behind the plot or experience that’s up front and obvious. Examples might be an immersive ride like the Haunted Mansion, a video game, or a Lady Gaga dress — all of these have an ambient narrative that you know is there even if it isn’t explicit. When you set a novel in a creaky old house, or a lunatic asylum, or a manicured suburb, the ambience is obvious.
  2. Dialogue is key. Writers tend to be listening learners. This is why getting dialogue right is so important. Each character must have their own way of speaking, and their unique ways mustn’t slow down the reader. Dialogue also should be realistic — not everyone speaks formally or finishes their sentences, and a character’s inner dialogue may contradict what they say aloud. 
  3. Head-hopping is not forbidden. In the only short course I ever took on mystery writing, my assignment was dinged for first considering one character’s thoughts from their point of view, then the other’s. This was “head-hopping”, writing from two points of view. I tried learning the rules (it’s ok in the same book, but not the same scene or chapter), and yet I had read so many good books that did this. At the conference, J.D. Robb, Louise Penney, and Scott Turow were lauded for being especially good at it. Sneakers poster
  4. Crime or mystery novels are about community; thrillers are about the individual. This was the most helpful thing I’ve heard distinguishing the two genres. Midsomer Murders? Mystery. The Bourne Identity? Thriller.That doesn’t mean there aren’t thrillers about groups (I’m thinking Sneakers, one of my favorite films), but that the individuals in the group are spotlighted as much as the mystery. The few “thriller-like” scenes in my books all focus on what an individual is experiencing.
  5. It’s about secrets. In mystery, usually someone wants to discover someone else’s secrets. As a reader, I love figuring out what the character is hiding. I realized my books should have more secrets.
  6. It’s easy to lose your own voice. One of the panelists (it may have been Jacqueline Winspear) said the worst school exercise she ever had was an assignment to read a page of a famous author, then close the book and write. The tendency was to adopt the cadence and style of the author one had just read. That, she said, is how easy it is to lose your own voice.

No, that isn’t all I learned at the conference. But these points were the most significant to me, the ones I intend to do something about. I noticed awhile back, for example, that my nightly writing was getting worse. The language was too simple, with little metaphor or color. Every sentence later needed editing. At the conference, I realized this was because I had been reading, very quickly, lighter-side books rather than literary fiction during those weeks.

This may be why many of us haven’t read, or don’t read while writing, a lot of the works in our preferred writing genre. No one wants to sound like someone else.

Despite the large number of attendees (1700 people, by one count) I still felt like I was at the campfire listening to the gossip and the wisdom. Now, back to writing!

Mr. Wells and the gorilla

It begins, as these things often do, with a search for a source. Wellsians, as we style ourselves, are familiar with this picture of H.G. hanging with a gorilla skeleton,

What I didn’t realize was how far back Wells was dealing with gorillas. In his Experiment in Autobiography, he relates a childhood terror caused by reading a book:

There was Wood’s Natural History, also copiously illustrated and full of exciting and terrifying facts. I conceived a profound fear of the gorilla, of which there was a fearsome picture, which came out of the book at times after dark and followed me noiselessly about the house. The half landing was a favourite lurking place for this terror. I passed it whistling, but wary and then ran for my life up the next flight.

Seeking out this book, I came upon copies of an Illustrated Natural History by Rev. J. G. Woods in several different editions. The 1853 edition did not have a gorilla at all, nor did the 1854 or 1858 editions. Wells dated his experience around 1874, when he was about eight years old. I found the beast in the 1872 edition, then went backwards till I found him in the 1859 edition.

He doesn’t look that fearsome to me, but I am not an 8-year-old boy laid up with a broken leg. In later editions, they show a gorilla family that is far less daunting.

The reason for all this searching? I needed a footnote for a chapter I’m writing on Wells, so I needed the most likely edition. The 1859 edition makes sense, since Wells’s father had brought it home from the Bromley Literary Institute, and they probably had older books. But as soon as I saw the engraving (by the Dalziel Brothers, featured in my novel Murder at an Exhibition) I knew that was the monster.

In light of this, the photo of Wells with his insouciant arm around a gorilla skeleton is more than just that of a cocky fellow. He had overcome his fear and was now hob-nobbing with the quadrumana.

(also posted at my online teaching and history blog)

Rest: a poem

Sensing autumn in the air

the sap wonders whether it’s time to pull back.

It hesitates, leaving some leaves green and others brown.

A striped hawk comes looking for an errant mouse,

an inattentive lizard.

Each season was once anticipatory

spring the prelude to glorious summer

winter holding out with chill

for far too long, every time.

Fall was once a painful season

fateful birthdays, students pressured, a tumor removed

having overgrown in the enthusiasm of summer.

Now it is a promise.

Rest, a moving inward, a calm

pulling growth down into a bowl.

Autumn in its dryness

wants moisture and desiccated bird seed.

The fledglings gone, the herbs paused

the sunlight coming sideways

as if trying to peek in one last time as the door closes.

Sweaters in the dryer emerging free of dust

blankets fluffed, ready to serve

electric heaters taken apart screw by screw

to clean them out.

Conversation with a feline character

“I don’t understand,” says Hephaestus, snuggling his large orange body onto my belly. “Am I the protagonist?”

“No, honey. You’re not. The protagonist is Rosie McMahon, your human.”

“Am I the antagonist?”

“I’m not sure there is one. The murderer, I guess. But no, you’re not the murderer.”

“I am in every scene, though?” He turns and rubs my arm with the side of his head.

“Um, no.”

“What is my role here?” His eyes open wide. “My motivation?”

“You’re going method on me now? You’re a cat. A big orange tabby cat. You go for walks on a lead. You knock things off flat counters at the police station. You sit near Rosie as she writes her memoirs.”

“Do I find the killer?” The tip of his tail is starting to twitch.

“I don’t know yet.”

“But you know who the killer is, right?”

“Um, no. I haven’t written that part yet.”

“Excuse me,” he says, sitting up on my thighs to look me squarely in the face. “Don’t writers know who the killer is before they start?”

I sigh. “Some do. I don’t. I have to write my way to that part.”

“Maybe I could be one of those red things.”

“A red herring?”

“Yes, a red herring. I’m red.”

“You are. Well, orange, anyway. I suppose you could be part of a detractor of some kind. I should go back and write you better.” I tap my pencil against my lower lip.

He licks his paw and cleans his eyebrow. ”There is no need. I am perfect as I am.”

As I continue typing, he becomes increasingly nervous. “Are you writing about me yet?”

“I’m on Chapter 4. I’ve written about you several times already.”

“Do I get to do interesting things? Swim in the ocean, find a gang of rats you’ve been looking for, meet the pope, get kidnapped?”

“No. But you do get to help Rosie, and add commentary.”

“I get to talk?”

“Well, no.” The tail swished faster.

“You know what I think?” Hephaestus’s voice purrs with disdain. “You just want me for decoration, a bit of color. The token cute animal in the cozy mystery. That’s not what my contract says.”

“You wrote your contract, honey. I never signed it, though I appreciated the thought.”

He began cleaning his paws, making sure that each long claw nail was fully visible as he did.

“If I don’t like the manuscript, I could just shred it.”

“All right.” I sigh and lean back. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll go back and give you more scenes, and more action. And I’ll figure out how to have you be part of a red herring, or engage in a daring rescue. Do you like Lou?”

“Yes, I like Lou very much. He pretends not the like cats. That’s why I sit in his lap.”

“Then I’ll make sure it involves Lou. Maybe one of you could rescue the other.”

“No undignified up-a-tree scenes, though?”

“I promise. Nothing undignified.”

Hephaestus puts his nose up against mine and blinks slowly.

“Very well, then.” And he curls up next to my hip and goes to sleep, snoring as usual.

A mystery writer writes romance

Having never done it, I was nervous about writing a romance. So before I began, I did some reading about how to write romance fiction, and concluded that there are some other challenges with a mystery writer doing romance:

1. The typical tendency to start with a dead body

When you write semi-cozy historical murder mysteries, starting with* a dead body is de rigueur. In a romance, not so much, and I did try to avoid a corpse. For about ten minutes. So, yes, I have a dead body, but only because he died without a designated heir and that’s part of the romance. Nobody gets murdered. So far as we know.

2. The intense desire to have an underlying puzzle

I could not for the life of me figure out what two people could do while falling in love that would be remotely interesting to an outsider. But if they solve a mystery together — aha! So I cheated and created a mystery to guide the plot, involving a lost miniature and some family papers. Such things aren’t huge stakes because I needed the focus to be on the relationship.

3. The nagging feeling that there must be an antagonist

I learned that the romance couple must experience not only the opportunity to be together, but also face obstacles that make the relationship unlikely or tricky. This adds an element of suspense. In mysteries, this obstacle would be an antagonist trying to stop them. Yeah, he’s in there, not trying to stop them from falling in love, but from getting what they want. I also found ways to keep the lovers separate, especially so they could imagine the worst of each other.

4. The perpetual confusion of goals

Each main character was supposed to have a goal, and in a romance it should be a goal other than to fall in love and have a romance. See why I ended up with a mystery back story? They must both want something for which love would get in the way. Love is inconvenient when you’re trying to do something else. It tends to overcome intentions, plans, and motivations. We want to be rooting for the lovers to both get what they want and fall in love.

5. The unbearable burden of not being a romantic myself

I’m unfortunately not a “romantic”, although I’m certainly not averse to candlelight and chocolates (the latter being more important, of course). Love can make people unsure of themselves and too daring at the same time. They do things they’d never do, experiencing a transformation of self that may be overly attached to the other person’s actions. I prefer motives like jealousy, money, revenge, hatred. So it was more difficult for me to understand my characters, even as they wrote their own stories. Making them likable, and adding a bit of screwball comedy, made this a pleasure rather than a burden.

I am very happy with the result. Amanda is a young, swearing, intelligent woman. Jack is a charming, clever, secretive man. It’s a Victorian romance with both serious intents and light-heartedness, as our main characters balk at the things society expects of them. There is no sappiness, sexual explicitness, or background trauma. If you haven’t read it, give it a try. 

More thoughts posted while I was writing the book are here.


*ok, maybe by Chapter 4 — I like to set the stage and characters

Which point of view?

I’m working on a scene for my beach cozy mystery. It could be a short scene, indicating Sam’s desperation, or one that continues at the POV (point of view) character’s workplace (real estate office for Mary, hardware store for Sam). Which is better?

Mary’s point of view

“I’ve got to see you.” Sam was being as insistent as he could, considering he had to keep his voice down so customers in his hardware shop couldn’t hear.

“I’ve told you not to call me at work,” hissed Mary Gunter. There was no one in the office at the moment, but a wealthy widow was expected at eleven. Sam’s voice sounded desperate.

“Lunch? Please?”

“Not a chance. I have a meeting.” She thought for a moment. Sam Struthers was a nice guy, but mostly he did nice things to her that she liked. She wondered where they could go in the middle of the day. The parking garage under the bank? No, she’d ruined her shoes last time . . .

“Tonight, then. At the beach.” She could hear the tension in his voice. Well, if he wanted her that badly . . .

“All right. After midnight, though. I’ll meet you there.”

Sam’s point of view

“I’ve got to see you.” Sam was being as insistent as he could, considering he had to keep his voice down so customers in his hardware shop couldn’t hear.

“I’ve told you not to call me at work,” hissed Mary Gunter. She must have a customer in the office, thought Sam.

“Lunch? Please?”

“Not a chance. I have a meeting.”

Sam switched tactics. “I want you,” he said, his voice deep and husky. He heard her intake of breath, and felt bad. This wasn’t about sex, but he had to talk with her. She must be imagining they would meet in the parking lot under the bank again so he could drive her insane. Let her think that.

“Tonight, then. At the beach.”  Her voice was low and silky.

“All right. After midnight, though. I’ll meet you there.”