In search of The Wall



After wrapping up at Harrogate, where I met up with my wonderful UK team from Transworld Publishers (below),



 it was time for some sightseeing.  My husband and I, along with my literary agent Meg Ruley, headed off in search of Hadrian’s Wall.  First we pulled into the little town of Alston in the gorgeous Pennines, where we spent two nights at a country inn called Lovelady Shield.  Every Sunday, the inn serves an exquisite eight-course dinner.  Here we are, Meg and I, feeling happy and well-fed.

lovelady shield
Our one and only goal during our trip north was to visit Hadrian’s Wall. 


We had no idea how difficult it would be to find it.

The first place we headed for was the ancient site of Vindolanda, where over a hundred samples of writing from the Roman Britain era were discovered.  They were little “postcards” written on thin slices of wood, and preserved by the oxygen-poor mud of the site.  These writing samples give us very human and intimate peeks into the lives of real people.  There’s a note from a woman to her sister, asking her to please come for her birthday party.  In another note, a man implores his brother to please send cash as soon as possible, as he’s in dire need of it.  Also found in the mud were leather shoes, so well-preserved they might have just been discarded by their owners.  The exhibit was astonishing and immensely moving, and I could have spent a week there.

But it was time to move on.  We still hadn’t seen the wall.

Next we went to the Roman fort at Chesters, where a diagram of the site showed the wall being present right there in front of us.  But where was it?  We thought we spied a small bit of it, half-buried in the grass – but no!  It couldn’t be that unimpressive, could it? 
We drove on to the Roman town of Corbridge, and along the way, we kept seeing signs pointing to Hadrian’s Wall.  Invariably, these signs seemed to point to … nothing. 

We began to wonder if the wall was a fraud, something devised by the British tourism agency to fool visitors into coming north.  Meg started calling our journey “Where’s Wall-do?” and “The Emperor’s New Wall.”

At last, defeated, we headed toward Newcastle to turn in our rental car and climb on the train back to London.  But we needed gas, so we stopped at a little town to fill our tank.  In exasperation, we asked the gas station clerk if the wall happened to be anywhere nearby.   Oh yes, she told us. 

A few minutes later – we finally found it.

the wall
Mission accomplished!

And finally — a photo I couldn’t resist sharing.  It was taken at the castle in Knaresborough, where we encountered the official “keeper of the ravens,” with her young charge.  This raven is only about six weeks old, and it sleeps in the keeper’s bedroom along with her other ravens.

bird lady

Harrogate wrap-up

I’m sitting in Heathrow waiting for my flight home, and am still thinking about the highlights of what turned out to be a wonderful conference. I haven’t yet blogged about the events in which I participated, so here’s what happened.

On Friday, I was part of a panel on religious symbolism. When I first heard they’d placed me on this panel, I was puzzled because I don’t think of my books as having a lot of religious themes, but there I was, sitting onstage with Ann Perry, Chris Kuzneski, and a French author named Michel Benoit. Our moderator, Natasha Cooper, was most curious about our reactions to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, wondering why we thought it was so popular.

Which happens to be a really interesting question. Ann Perry hadn’t read the book, so she didn’t comment. Michel Benoit thought the book’s success had to do with spectacularly good marketing. I’ve heard a number of writers speak of the book with disdain, criticizing its writing, its themes, its factual and geographic inaccuracies. But when I read the book, I was just looking to have a good time.

And I did have fun.

I was on a plane home from Paris when I cracked open the galley. About halfway through the book, I had to get up to use the restroom, and as I got out of my seat, I suddenly caught sight of the passenger sitting right behind me. He was wearing what looked like Opus Dei robes. I kid you not — he was dressed exactly like the villains in the novel, and I was spooked. That little event alone made reading the book a pretty memorable experience.

I think the reason for the book’s success was its connection with women. It is a feminist, subversive novel that tells women that, yes, they may indeed have had a role in the foundation of the church. It made devout Christians feel a bit naughty reading it, and that was a big part of its success.

On Sunday, I was scheduled to be the last author featured on the program. I was supposed to be interviewed onstage by a radio personality, so I had no need to prepare a speech. I love these sorts of presentations — no stress, just smile and answer questions.

The interviewer never showed up. We still don’t know what happened to him. Would I have a problem with that? they asked me. Could I just go onstage solo and talk for an hour to a packed room?

Luckily, I never seem to run out of things to say when it comes to the writing business. So I walked onstage and just started talking. About why I write crime novels. About where the ideas come from. About the cool things I’ve learned while doing my research.

Later I was asked how I could do that — just get up before an audience and fill an hour without notes. And my only answer to that is: longevity in the business. It’s the same advice I give to newly published authors who are discouraged by how few people line up to buy their books. Or to authors who freeze in front of a bookstore crowd because they’ve run out of things to say. You have to write enough books, collect enough war stories, and with time, you’ll collect both stories and readers. These things don’t happen overnight. You just have to survive long enough in the business.

So if you’re starting out as a published author, keep track of the things that happen to you. The weird anecdotes, the creepy fans, the fun facts you turn up in your research. When you talk to an audience, take note of what makes your audience laugh or lean forward in their chairs — and file those remarks away for future use, because you’ll know they’re proven crowd-pleasers. After five books or ten books, you’ll have amassed a large array of war stories. You’ll know about how long each story takes to tell. You’ll have a series of set pieces that you can trot out when you need to fill time.

You’ll never be at a loss for words.

Hello from Harrogate

I’m writing this from the absolutely lovely resort town of Harrogate in the UK, where I arrived on Thursday evening. I’m attending the Crime Writing Festival, which is being held at the Crown Hotel.

crown hotel

The hotel is filled with writers, fans and editors from around the world. In fact, one of the first authors I met (on the train up from London) was Johan Theorin, a Swedish author whose books are starting to make a big splash here in the UK.


(As you can see, Johan and I share a love for great beers.)

One of the great aspects of this festival is that each presentation receives the festival’s full attention — there are no simultaneous panels or programs, so that one doesn’t have to sit onstage and look out at a half-empty auditorium. And the panels have been fascinating, although I must confess that it’s taken me a few days to tune in to the various UK accents, which to this American’s ear are sometimes incomprehensible. I found French novelist Michel Benoit’s strong French accent easier to understand than some of the English I’m hearing around here!

Some of the memorable moments that I can recall off the top of my head:

On opening night, panel moderator Natasha Cooper asked each of the panelists onstage: “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” I could almost see the panelists squirming in their chairs as they tried to decide whether to tell the truth.

Friday, on the “True Lies” program, a panel of authors who are also real police officers or attorneys (Nigel McCrery, Charlie Owen, John Connor and Frances Fyfield) described some of the weird real-life cases they’ve experienced. And Charlie Owen, I think it was, spoke of the man who had been in the midst of picking his nose when he had a car accident which drove his finger straight up his nostril and into his brain, killing him. “A case of fatal nose-picking”, as she put it.

Today, a much-anticipated panel called “Bloody Women” played to a packed house. Chelsea Cain, Val McDermid, Simon Beckett and Mark Billingham discussed whether women can get away with more explicit violence in their novels than can men. Because emotions (and opinions) are strong on this topic, we were all expecting male vs. female arguments to break out, but in fact they were all quite civilized. No controversy after all, which led someone to say, “So what’s the argument going to be next year? Big vs small?” Mark Billingham responded with: “Big vs. small what?”

And moderator Stuart MacBride’s hilarious answer: “Mark, come with me into the men’s room and I’ll demonstrate.”

Hitting the road again

I’m leaving for the UK, to attend the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival.  I hope to be blogging from the road, so here’s hoping I can manage to find enough wi-fi coverage to use my new laptop.  I’m looking forward to catching up with some writing pals, including Joe Finder, Jeffrey Deaver and Simon Kernick, plus get the chance to meet some writers I’ve never met before, including the mysterious Andy McNab.

 While I’m gone, you can also check out my blogpost on Murderati, which will appear next Tuesday, the 15th.


Yes, I’m back. I think.

I’ve missed you all.  I’ve missed the community here, and the chance to dish about the industry.  It’s been a few months (has it?) since I really sat down and wrote a post.  I mean, a real post that wasn’t about selling my latest book or announcing promotional stuff, which I guess is the real purpose of an author’s blog, a purpose that I never stuck to because I always had other things I wanted to talk about.  And even though I enjoyed the vacation, there many, many times when something startling would happen, or I’d hear a conversation, and I’d think, “gosh, I’d really like to blog about that!” 

But I didn’t.

I’m still a little leery about wading into these waters again.  I’m worried that I’ll once again stick my foot in my mouth and offend someone.  But I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a certain subsegment of people out there who’ll be offended if I say the sky is blue, and sometimes you just have to ignore those people and speak your mind.  Those people will be offended no matter what you say.  Life is too short to care what they think.  (Yeah, and please keep reminding me of this.)

I was also lured back into blogging by all the emails I’ve received over the past few months.  And then I heard the somewhat startling news that I landed on the 100 top female bloggers list.  Which I didn’t even know existed until someone sent me the link to it.

So I guess despite all the gaffes I’ve made here (and will certainly make in the future), I must be striking some notes that people are identifying with.

My business of writing gem for this week is actually stolen from the June 23 issue of Publishers Weekly, a column called “Authors & Writers By the Numbers.”  Some stats:

Total number of authors and writers, 2005: 185,276

Median income for full-time authors: $50,800

Median income for all authors: $38,000

Median income for male authors: $47,300

Median income for female authors: $33,300

Percent of authors who are minorities: 10.8%

Source: National Endowment for the Arts study, 1990-2005

You know what?  I have a really, really hard time believing some of these statistics.

That median income surprises me, especially after I saw the Novelists Ink survey in which a large percentage of multi-published novelists can’t earn a living on their writing.  I’m also very skeptical of the number of minority authors.  Whenever I attend a writer’s conference, I find that I’m one of very few minorities in attendance.  I’m also surprised to find that male authors out-earn female authors, because I’ve always thought that female authors outsell male authors.

So these statistics surprise me. 

Finally, there’s this statistic:

Highest ranking city in authors per capita:  Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Okay, that I believe.





Upcoming author events

 I’m having trouble posting to my “author events” page, so I thought I’d give you a preview of how the rest of my year is looking so far.  I do hope I’ll be visiting a city near you!



JULY 18, 3:30 PM — Crown Hotel, Harrogate

Tess will be on a panel about religious symbolism, along with Chris Kuzneski, Anne Perry, Michael Benoit, and Natasha Cooper.

JULY 20, 11:30 AM — Crown Hotel, Harrogate

Onstage conversation with interviewer Paul Blezard.





6:00 PM: Owl and Turtle Bookshop, 32 Washington Street.  207-236-4769



FALMOUTH, MAINE.  1:00 PM: Books, Etc.  240 Route 1.  207-781-3784

BANGOR, MAINE.  7:00 PM: Borders Books and Music, 116 Bangor Mall Road.  207-990-3300



7:00 PM: Borders Books and Music, 430 Gorham Road.  207-775-6110



6:00 PM: The Fertile Mind bookshop, 105 Main Street.  207-338-2498



7:00 PM: Davis Kidd bookstore, 2121 Green Hills Village Drive. 



7:00 PM: Joseph-Beth Booksellers, 161 Lexington Green.  859-273-2911



Time tk: Books and Co.  937-429-6302



11:30 AM: Mystery Lovers Bookshop, 412-361-3581



7:00 PM: Odyssey Bookshop, 9 College Street.  413-534-7307



Local library event.  Details tk



12:00 PM: Seattle Mystery Bookshop, 117 Cherry Street.  206-587-5737



7:00 PM: Clayton Books, 5433 D, Clayton Road.  925-673-3325



7:00 PM: Bay Book Company, 80 North Cabrillo Highway, Suite F.  650-726-3488



7:00 PM: Library event.  Brookline Adult and Community Education Center, 115 Greenough Street.



7:00 PM:  Barnes and Noble, 1 Worcester Road.  508-628-5567



7:00 PM: Barnes and Noble, 45 Gosling Road.  603-422-7733



St. Louis Big Reads Festival — Big Mystery Panel.  Details tk.



6:00 PM: Bookstacks, 71 Main Street.  207-469-8992



7:00 PM: Jabberwocky Books, 50 Water Street, Tannery Mill #1.  978-465-9359



7:00 PM: Talk at Brunswick Library



7:00 PM: Talk at Swampscott Library



Lunchtime: speech at the New York Institute of Technology, NYC

7:00 PM: RJ Julia Bookshop, 768 Boston Post Road, Madison, CT.  203-245-3959 x14



7:30 PM: Westchester Book Company, 975 Paoli Pike, Westchester.  610-696-1661 x14



7:00 PM: Bookmark Books, 299 Atlantic  Blvd.  904-241-9026



Appearance at Delaware Book Festival.  Details tk.


photos of “the farm”

A few photos:

One of the naughty donkeys (this is Spock):

terry and donkey

and here’s the vineyard.  (It doesn’t look like much now, but the grapevines are leafing out.) We’ve planted some varieties that are amenable to our climate including Traminette, Cayuga, Seyval Blanc, and a Muscat grape.  Plus a “reach” grape for us: Cabernet Franc.  I’ll let you know if they survive their first winter!


And my first season’s blueberries, picked from our own fields!


When writers aren’t writing

Yesterday, the donkeys got out of their pen.

As we chased them around the field, trying to get them corralled again, I found myself thinking that this was not what most people imagine writers doing in their free time.  And since turning in my final edits a week ago, I’ve been blessed with an abundance of free time — the first free time I’ve had in months.  I’m not accustomed to it.  I wake up every morning ready to be anxious, ready to tackle some new writing task, and suddenly realize: hey, I don’t have to write!  I can do whatever I want to!

And what I’ve chosen to do is work in the hot sun like a field hand.

Besides chasing those naughty donkeys (who eventually were coaxed back into their corral) I’ve been weeding my vegetable garden.  Yesterday, my husband and I installed an irrigation system in our new vineyard — and picked the ticks off each other afterwards.  We’ve been double-digging hard-packed clay soil, enriching it with donkey manure and compost and seaweed, in preparation for a new flower garden next to the barn.  Every night, we’ve collapsed into bed, exhausted and sunburned.

I’ve had the greatest time.

A week ago, starting on the next book was the last thing I wanted to do.  But now, after only a week away from my desk, I can feel the old writing engine start to hum back to life.  I’ve been hearing snatches of dialogue, and a character’s voice — a teenage girl, about fifteen, streetwise and in big, big trouble — and I’m almost ready to sit down and start her story.  But not yet.  I need to let her put down roots first.  I need to let her develop, somewhere in my subconscious, before I tell her story. 

In the meantime, I’m headed back to the vineyard again today, to yank up the last of the winter rye that’s invaded the grapevines.  I need to mulch the asparagus bed and the edamame plants.  And there are lots and lots of blueberries that have ripened in our field over the last few days, and I’ll be picking them for tomorrow’s breakfast.

It’s good to be a writer.  But it’s also good when I don’t have to write.

Guest post over at

You can read it HERE.  I’m a regular there every other Tuesday.