14 October, 2015

Following my writing into white collar crime.

Sometimes you have to go where life takes you.  Other times, you go where your writing takes you.

When I decided to incorporate white collar crime into my mysteries, I knew a lot about technology and not so much about crime, except what I gleamed from watching the TV show. Now I know a whole lot more thanks to reseach.

What is white-collar crime? Lying, cheating, and stealing. That’s it in a nutshell, though it is generally defined as any financially motivated, nonviolent crime committed by business and government professionals.

Notice I said "nonviolent" and not "victimless."  A single crime/scam/fraud can destroy a company, devastate an individual by  wiping out his life savings, or cost investors billions of dollars (or even all three, as in the Enron case).

This type of crime is nothing new—it existed back in the Middle Ages—but the schemes are more sophisticated than ever as criminals take advantage of advances in technology.

White collar crime includes tax fraud, arson for profit, bankruptcy fraud, computer fraud, intellectual Property Violations, forgery, identity theft, counterfeiting, stock fraud, and antitrust violations, just to name a few.  The list goes on and on.

For July of this year,  Justice Department statistics reported 515 new white collar crime prosecutions. Of these, 96 cases filed in U.S. Magistrate Courts and 419 in the U.S. District Courts. 

Here's a small sampling from one day this week:

10.08.15     Miami: Former bank VP pleads guilty in
                        wire fraud conspiracy
10.08.15     Miami: Pharmacy owner sentenced to 46
                        months in prison for role in $1.8 Million
                       Medicare fraud scheme
10.08.15    Cleveland: Three police officers charged with
                       fabricating evidence and stealing cash.
10.08.15    Louisville: Three Japanese auto execs
                       charged in conspiracy to rig bids, fix
                       prices.
10.08.15    Sacramento: Yuba City woman sentenced to
                        two years and nine months for posing as
                        a  hospice nurse and treating more than
                        200 patients

Government web sites list the following as “white collar” crimes:

• Federal Procurement Fraud                                
• Federal Program Fraud
• Tax Fraud                                                          
• Arson for Profit
• Other Insurance Fraud                                       
• Financial Institution Fraud
• Bankruptcy Fraud                                              
• Advance Fee Schemes
• Other Fraud Against Businesses                        
• Consumer Fraud
• Securities Fraud                                                 
• Commodities Fraud
• Other Investment Fraud                                     
• Antitrust Violations - Other
• Computer Fraud                                                 
• Health Care Fraud
• Fraud Against Insurance Providers                    
• Intellectual Property Violations
• Insider Fraud Against Insurance Providers         
• MEWA (Multiple Employer Welfare  Arrangements) Fraud/MET                                                     
• Antitrust Violations - Airlines                           
• Antitrust Violations - Banking
• Antitrust Violations - Defense Procurement     
• Antitrust Violations - Extraterritorial Application • Antitrust Violations - Finance Markets,               • Telemarketing Fraud  Other than Banking
• Corporate Fraud                                                 
• Identity Theft
• Aggravated Identity Theft

Now my only problem is deciding which crime to use in my next mystery!


15 September, 2015

Plotting

Plot: verb (gerund or present participle: plotting)

1. devise the sequence of events in (a play, novel, movie, or similar work).
  2. secretly make plans to carry out (an illegal or harmful action).

When you write mysteries, plotting probably involves both definitions, but last weekend I participated in a Power Plotting workshop given by Mary Buckham to hone my craft in the first one.

I’d previously taken several of her on-line courses (Active Setting, Pacing, Body Language, First Five), but never a “live” workshop. I should have been forewarned.

The class, which is based on the book she co-wrote with Dianna Love titled: Break Into Fiction, was intensive and exhausting, but so rewarding.  The book includes eleven plotting templates and we spent two-days working through them (we’d been assigned the first two as pre-workshop homework). For each template, the book gives examples from four movies: Pretty Woman (templates for both Vivian and Edward), Finding Nemo, Casablanca, and The Bourne Identity. During the workshop Mary also included other examples such as G.I. Jane and several popular TV shows.

You might be thrown when asked “What is the character lacking internally at the beginning of your story that will change by the end of the story?” but when you read the example answers based on the  movie plots, it’s an instant "AHA" moment. I couldn’t believe  how simple plotting became, broken down into  eleven critical steps, when I had instant reference points. It was like paint-by-numbers, but adaptable to any fiction genre.

The workshop also afforded each of the ten participants one or more one-on-one meetings (in addition to 2 group lunches and dinners) with Mary to discuss our individual plots and problems. Each attendee’s reaction to these meetings was the same: Wow, why didn’t I see that before?

I am, I confess, an inveterate pantser, so I wasn’t sure that learning to plot was going to fit my writing process.

I was so wrong.

A plotter will use the templates before hitting the keyboard.  For a pantser, they are the perfect review system, highlighting plot holes, missed conflict, slow pacing, and flat characters.  

Before ending the class we also covered templates for pacing, endings and dialog, as well as a tutorial on the art of writing hooks. Did you know that there are ten types of hooks? And they can be combined to make even more powerful hooks?

So now, the world has ten more master plotters and hookers!(Pun intended) Thanks, Mary.


02 September, 2015

I lost, but I also won


This year, for the first time, I entered Pitch Wars.

For those unfamiliar with this "contest", Pitch Wars is an opportunity for aspiring writers to submit to five mentors. Everyone submitted on Aug 17th. That's when the mentors—— published/agented authors, editors, or interns who generously volunteer their time—— start winnowing down the submissions to the single story (and author) they want to help for the next five weeks.  On Nov. 3rd, the polished pieces (and pitches) will be presented to a panel of agents and, hopefully, representation will be offered.

This year there were 103 mentors. Unfortunately for me, most wanted to work on YA or MG manuscripts of varying genres.  By stretching my imagination a little, I was able to winnow out 5 mentors who might be interested in an adult, traditional mystery.

The bad news is that I lost.  On the more positive side, once Pitch Wars begins, a frenzy of Tweets ensues.  Both mentors and mentees post (See #Pitchwars and # Menteemates on Twitter) advice, suggestions for distractions, crazy cartoons and videos, encouragement, and offers for critique partners and beta readers. 

We were getting kind of punch drunk by Tuesday evening!

When they come up for air, most mentors will be sending short (or long) critiques to those they didn't choose. Another plus.

I came away with renewed determination and the knowledge that I'm not alone in my struggles. And I'll be checking my Twitter feed to see if anyone wants to critique or read Chill Well before Killing!

Everytime you put yourself out there, dip your toe out of your comfort zone, you get stronger.  Repeat three times and get back to writing.

21 August, 2015

Rebaiting your "Hook" -- with White Collar Fraud

A while ago I was in the midst of yet another painful round of querying agents.

I was thrilled when one agent wrote back that she loved my manuscript. That thrill turned to disappointment when she added that she just didn't feel she could sell the series due to the number of "culinary" series already out there.

The first time an agent asked me to explain my "hook" I was puzzled.  I'd written a mystery about a caterer, what was  there to explain? Now, more seasoned, I understand what he meant. And what the new agent was saying.

I needed a new hook.

But what hadn't been done? It had to be something I knew or could learn, as well as being  interesting enough that I'd want to write about it—hopefully over the course of many books.
I love to write about four things: murders/crimes, food, dogs, and all things techie, ;particularly crimes and fraud. So I've decided to incorporate all four into my manuscript, concentrating on food and technology to create a white collar crime traditional.

So, in the interest of educating future readers, I'll be blogging about hi tech crimes/fraud— along with murder, cooking , etc.

Today's crime is a real estate fraud perpetrating using sites such as Craig's List. I chose this particular scam because one of my friends was an unwitting participant just last week.


Mr friend has a house he wants to rent.  He hired a broker who listed the house on the usual sites: Zillow, Realtor.com, etc.

Along comes our con artist who finds the listing and reposts it on Craig’s List, posing as the agent, and offering a lower rental price to entice prospects. Unsuspecting person in Florida sees the fraudulent listing and wires $2000 security deposit via Western Union.
Since it was a real property--and most properties used in this type of scam are--even if the prospective renter checked on line, he would have seen the listing, or the aerial view on Google.

My friend knew nothing about any of this until he got a phone call from the local police asking him if he knew the "agent."

How can you protect yourself?

If you’re the owner, there is very little you can do to prevent this type of fraud.
If you’re the prospective buyer/renter:
  • always check this is a legitimate person or company by asking for a phone number or any identifiable information that could be further investigated.
  • check if the email address contains a company name, and if so, verify the authenticity of that company.
  • if there are errors or contradictory information in the advertisement with the wording, directions, communications (once the scammer uses one email address in the listing, and a different one when answering inquiries).
  • if the add contains spelling errors, grammar errors (Many scammers do not speak English well, i.e. ones from Nigeria and Russia).
  • never send money via Western Union or Money Gram. Use PayPal or a check so the payment can be cancelled.
  • If at all possible, if moving to another city, make a trip or stay in a hotel/hostel for few days and look locally for a place to rent once once you get to the new city. It’s a lot cheaper to spend few nights in a hotel than lose  two month rent.

17 July, 2015

A Practical Guide to Hosting a Writing Retreat

Writing retreats are, in my opinion, one of the greatest treats for any author. Having just hosted one here in Vermont, I thought I'd share some of the lessons I learned.
First off, there are three main things writers:


  • ·         Quiet
  • ·         "Alone" time
  • ·         Coffee

  • And not always in that order.

    Provide a Quiet Space

    When planning your retreat make sure you have a secluded writing spot for each person—complete with desk/table and light, preferably with a door he/she can close. Or at least somewhere they can be, preferably, alone.  That is not to say that two people can't share the kitchen or dining room table as long as others aren't milling about. In our case, we worked in my office, in a small guest room, and used the dining table.  Other available options were the screened porch, living room, and outdoors in a wooded alcove.  

     Wi-Fi is a plus, so is a sharable printer.

    The space doesn't have to be big, but it does need to be quiet.

    Which brings us to Ground Rule #1. Never disturb another writer.  Do not speak unless they look up at you first; do not knock on their door "just to chat"; do not turn on the TV/radio/stereo/laptop speakers until the day's writing is complete.

    Also be considerate at all times of the day.  At our retreat, we were all early risers—up by 6 am—but some people prefer to stay up late and sleep in.  Everyone should be quiet.


    Share the Chores: Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner

    You're a writer and you want to enjoy the retreat as much as everyone else. You're providing the location but not the room service.

    Cooking and cleaning up can divided over the duration of the retreat. Divide the number of days by the number of people and you've got the number of dinners each person is responsible for. That means providing the food and cooking it. 

    Since your guests may be arriving at varying times, it's best for the host to provide dinner the first night.  I served Low Country Boil "hobo" packs which could be assembled early and thrown on the grill when everyone was ready. Wine, cheese and crackers tided us over until dinner.

    I also invited another local writer, one who was not part of the retreat, to stop by for drinks and dinner. More war stories to swap!

    If people travel by car they can bring any food supplies they need, or you can offer to take them to the local market. Dinner need not be a competition,.  Simple is best.  We had home made vegetarian pizza, baked chicken with couscous, tortellini with fresh veggies, and a delicious pork stew.  And lots of fresh salad.

    Breakfast and lunch are self-serve, preferably foraging through the fridge for leftovers.  Make sure to have either a Keurig machine or a coffee pot, plenty of coffee, milk and creamer on hand. I loaded my refrigerator with yogurt and fresh fruit, as well as providing English muffins, granola, eggs and bacon. Also some "munchies" for the mid-morning stretch: potato chips, nuts, cookies. If at all possible ( and in my house, it's not), set up the coffee and treats in a room where no one will be disturbed when others refuel their caffeine levels.
     
    For lunch, we ate leftovers, sometimes together, sometimes alone. Again, self serve, self clean.

    My wonderful guests treated me to dinner at a local pub on the last night. No dishes and lots of laughs.

    Ground Rule #2. Advise your "guests" in advance of the chore sharing rules and ask each to list any allergies or food aversions.  Beets seem to pop up a lot in the latter category.

    Downtime

    No one can write 18 hours a day—or at least I can't. I'm fortunate that my location is idyllic (no thanks to me): quiet, deceptively isolated, but with plenty to do if you want. 

    It's a good idea to discuss work habits and free-time plans the first night, so everyone is on the same page.  Suggest interesting places to visit, walking routes, etc. and then let everyone decide what they want to do, alone or as a group.

    Maybe you all want to take a walk first thing in the morning, or do yoga.  There are no rules here, just what works for everyone as a group and an individual.

    It's cocktail time.

    I have to admit that we went through several bottles of wine. And one of Irish whiskey. We generally stopped work around 4:30 and began to socialize over wine and cheese while that day's appointed chef started dinner.  


    After dinner and shared clean up, we played Scrabble. Again, you may choose to just talk, watch TV (I don't have TV) or a DVD or do something else.

    Publicity

    We all know that in today's market writers are responsible to building their own platform and generating buzz.   What better way than to stop in and introduce yourselves at the local library and book stores.  Both my guests--Sheila Connolly and Edith Maxwell-- have published books. The local indy bookstore was thrilled to have signed copies to sell. Again we met another author--Sara J Henry--for this outing, in fact she suggested the bookstore.


    Pets

    Not everyone loves dogs, cats and other pets.  Be sure to let your guests know ahead of time if you have pets, and keep pets away from anyone who is afraid/allergic/adverse to them.  Suggest everyone keep their bedroom doors shut to prevent unwanted visits.  I asked everyone to make sure that the yard gates were always closed and latched so my Houdini Golden couldn't escape.

    Miscellaneous

    Every retreat is going to be different. Writers are at different stages of their careers and at different points in the writing process. During our retreat, I finished my major revision pass, Edith finished her first draft and Sheila plotted and wrote her way through her next mystery.

    This brings us to Rule # 3.  Have fun.  Enjoy time together as well as apart. This is your opportunity to swap experiences, knowledge and advice. Or just enjoy each other's company.

    10 April, 2015

    Fiction Friday: Literature seasoned with a dash of Food



    I wasn’t sure whether to file this under Fiction Friday or Tasty Tuesday because it fits both.

    My local library recently launched a new book group dedicated to 'food literature!' This is, apparently, a hot topic, with discussion groups popping up in all the major cities.  Goodreads lists 217 entries on its “Popular Food Literature Books” list, ranging from Julia Child’s My Life in France to  Calvin Trillin’s The Tummy Trilogy. PBS has a series titled Food and Literature.
      
    The first book selected for discussion was Blood, Bones & Butter, a memoir by Gabrielle Hamilton, who runs Prune restaurant on East 1st St. in New York. The library expected 4 to 5 participants; 25 showed up.

    As a food enthusiast and aspiring writer of food-centric mysteries, I wanted to love this book.  I didn’t. Disclaimer: this is my personal opinion, others in the group disagreed with me. Vehemently. Basically, we were all looking for something different from this book: food references, a good story, a stirring memoir, whatever.

    Hamilton has a MFA in writing and  the structure is good and the language interesting if sometimes excessive, almost as if she were being paid by the word.  My biggest problem was that I simply didn’t like Hamilton as a person, and halfway through the book I’d lost interest in her and anything she had to say.  Compounding that, the food theme was not strong enough to hold my interest. The book was provocative, but not evocative.

    All of which begs the question: Which is more meaningful: a novel centered around a food theme or a food-centric passage in a great literary novel? 

    I don’t have the answer.  I’ve read many of the books on Goodreads’ list:Babette’s Feast, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, My Life in France, A Moveable Feast, Kitchen Confidential, Cooking with Fernat Branca, Alice in Wonderland, etc.  All very different, yet all accepted as part of the food literature genre.

    So what’s your  preference: Food as a theme or subtext?

    30 March, 2015

    I digress. . .

    Every so often I feel the need to go off on a tangent, to leave writing, food, and dogs behind and blog about something meaningful maybe to no one but me.

    This is one of those times.

    On March 23, the world lost a great man. His motives were questioned by some, his means by more, but none can deny his accomplishments.

    Lee Kuan Yew was, for three decades, Prime Minister of the Republic of Singapore.  In fact, he was the country's first prime minister.

    He was, in every way, the founding father of modern Singapore, dragging it from Third-world status to First-world financial power.

    I lived in Singapore from 1969 to 1973 and had the privilege to me Lee Kuan Yew on several occasions. I made no claims of close friendship but I, like everyone who lived in Singapore, benefited from his decisions.

    His government was paternalistic at a minimum, viewed as dictatorial by some.  I can remember signs in department stores depicting "acceptable" hair lengths for men and stating that you could cut in front of customers not meeting those acceptable limits. Public school children were given mandatory monthly haircuts, paid for by the government, as well as an excellent bi-lingual education.

    I also remember inspectors coming to our house to check for standing water, be it in a rain ditch, a flower pot saucer, or a fish pond.  Any offense was punishable by a $250 fine.

    Draconian? Maybe, but Singapore is free of mosquitoes thanks to these laws.  Our house, with huge sliding doors and windows, had no screens and no flying bugs.  Spiders, yes, mosquitoes no.

    Lee banned chewing gum, spitting, littering and vandalism, and not flushing a public toilet. All are punishable by fines of $300 to $1000. He also mandated bi-lingual education for all and care for the elderly. 

    Caning, first introduced to then colonial Singapore by the British in the 17th century. Lee Kuan Yew continued and supported the punishment. To this day, caning is still legal and practiced. In a mild form, caning is used to punish male (only) students in primary and secondary schools for serious misbehaviour.  Some 35 criminal offenses are punishable by caning, including hostage-taking/kidnapping, robbery, gang robbery with murder, drug abuse, vandalism, rioting, sexual abuse (molest), and unlawful possession of weapons. Caning is mandatory punishment for  rape, drug trafficking, and illegal money-lending.

    Sounds extreme, but as a college-aged female, I felt perfectly safe walking home alone at 2 a.m.  Can you say the same about New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles? And whenever I did walk home alone, I invariably met city workers hand sweeping the streets of any debris.  Imagine a city with no trash, no graffiti, minimal crime.

    Today, Singapore is a 224 sq-mile city-state.  Almost all residents are bi- or tri-lingual speaking English, Malay, Mandarin and/or Tamil.

    In 2014, Singapore was ranked fourth in environmental performance and second as the freest economic economy. It is the 14th largest exporter and the 15th largest importer in the world, and has the highest trade-to-GDP ratio in the world. The country is currently the only Asian country to receive AAA credit ratings from all three major credit rating agencies.

    A long way from the poverty ridden possession it was under British control.  Lee Kwan Yew can not take sole credit for the transformation, but he was certainly the guiding force behind most of it.

    RIP Lee Kuan Yew.