Tag Archives: books

Ice on the Bay Preview

If you’ve been tagging along with me, you’ll know that my third Howard County mystery is in the works, that it’s called Ice on the Bay, and that it should be out later this year. To whet your appetite, I thought I’d post the first scene.

Bear in mind that some editorial changes might be made prior to publication. With that caveat, here you go:


Ice on the Bay
Scene 1

“I’m freezing, Hank.”

His attention on the old house before them, Hank didn’t answer his wife’s complaint. Pale golden light leaked through gaps in the blinds covering the first-floor windows while the second floor slumbered in darkness. Built sixty or seventy years before, the house was a home no more, but a veterinary clinic. A brilliant white floodlight lit the front of the pale blue structure. Hank’s eyes didn’t register the color in the glare; he only knew it because he’d been here two days earlier, casing the place in daylight.

“Hank!” She whispered it fiercely and tugged on his sleeve.

He absently put his arm around her shoulders, but his attention remained fixed on the house. Situated on an otherwise deserted block in a sparsely-populated area, it was relatively isolated and surrounded by winter-bare trees. Wearing white pants, bundled in white coats with white hoods, the pair would be nearly invisible against the house thanks to the glare of the security light. Not that passersby were likely at this hour. Even so, his plan was to enter through a back window, where the trees would muffle any sounds they made.

He started forward, arm still around her, but she didn’t move. “What?” he asked sharply.

“Lights are on inside.”

“Just security lights.”

She leaned into him and shook her head. Her hair, long and thick, lightly stroked his arm.

“You backing out on me, Hannah?” Hank could tell she was nervous just from her touch. He knew her that well. After all, they’d been together for six years, ever since Howard Community College where he had been a pitcher on the school’s baseball team and she an aspiring actress in the theater program. Introduced to her by a mutual friend, he had fallen at once for her radiant smile, golden hair, and shapely body, while she had proven eager, even desperate, to hang on the arm of an athlete, especially one with Hank’s rugged good looks set on a solidly-built, six-foot-four frame. His height perfectly complemented hers, while the alliteration of their given names seemed to add to their mystique: other students regarded them with considerable respect and not a little awe.

Yet they’d ended up neither on the stage nor on the diamond, but here in the chill night.

Now she said, “Of course not.  She sounded far more determined than he knew she actually was.  She was a good actress, but she couldn’t fool him. She wanted out of this, out of the cold, out of the danger, out of the whole business. Only loyalty kept her here. He admired her for that. Little had gone right for him since college. Hannah alone had stuck by him, which he found an unfathomable mystery.  Oh, he knew that at first she had needed his protection, but those days were long gone, and here she was, still with him, defying the urge to run, standing firm by his side when she could have been sleeping warm and secure in a better man’s bed.

“Then come on.” He tugged at her, and this time she moved.

“At least it’ll be warm in there,” she muttered.

They crept through the darkness around the left side of the house and came to the rear. A waning moon illuminated the land, its light dimmed occasionally by ragged patches of swiftly passing cloud. The date was December twenty-fourth, Christmas Eve; the time two-twenty in the morning; the temperature forty-one degrees, although a stiff breeze made it feel much colder. Somewhere inside the house lay their objective: a supply of morphine and ketamine they could transform into cash.

They paused for a minute, checking the four darkened windows that flanked the back door, two on either side. Here, too, a security light revealed their target in detail so they could plan their attack. The light from within, washed out by the exterior glare, shone faint but steady.

Hannah took two pairs of latex gloves from her pocket and handed one pair to Hank. They pulled them on, careful not to rip them, then Hank quietly eased up the short flight of wooden steps leading to the door. He gently rotated the knob a half-turn. Of course it was locked, but it never hurt to check. No sense smashing things when an owner invited them in. Leaning to the left, he felt around the nearest window, examined it in detail, and gingerly tried to push up the lower sash. Again no luck, again none expected.

Hannah tiptoed up the steps while he worked and stood close behind him. “Hammer,” she whispered, pulling the tool from her coat pocket and handing it to him like a nurse handing a scalpel to a surgeon.

He took the hammer and with a swift stroke smashed the pane, then cleaned the jagged shards from the sash with the head. Falling splinters chattered as they struck the floor inside. Once satisfied the opening was clean, he helped Hannah through the window. She moved so quietly she might have vanished, but in his mind Hank could see her go to the door, disarm the alarm system using the code they had been given, and undo the deadbolt. Just as silently, the door opened for him.

He slipped inside and eased the door shut, then took her face in his hands and kissed her on the forehead. She beamed at him, a dog basking in its master’s approval.

The very next instant, the job went horribly wrong.


© March 2017 By Dale E. Lehman.  All rights reserved.  You may share links to this web page, but otherwise copying and redistribution of page content by any method for any purpose without written consent of the author is prohibited.

Why Isn’t Print Dead?

According to Yoda, the future is always in motion. That may be why it’s so hard for forecasters to read the tea leaves. For years they foretold the demise of print publishing as digital readers took the world by storm. But over the past couple of years, the digital growth curve has flattened and even turned downward. By 2013, eBook sales had grown to 21% of all book sales. But in 2014 that figure dropped to 19%, and in 2015 it further slid to 17%.

What’s going on here? Has the digital dream faltered? Everyone seems to have a theory. Wade through the mass of commentary published over the past year and you’ll find conflicting guesswork. On June 17 of this year, Publisher’s Weekly reported on a Codex Group study that suggests people are succumbing to “digital fatigue,” that many are growing tired of spending so much time plugged into their electronics. This exhaustion appears to be particularly acute among the very group you’d think would have most tightly embraced the gizmos–young adults. According to the study, the decline in e-reading is linked to a decline in e-reader sales and use.

But is the reading public really driving the decline? A Fortune article suggests something different: the ongoing war between Amazon and traditional publishers. On July 11, a mere month after the PW article, they reported that e-book best sellers now cost 50% more than during the Kindle’s early days. It’s not digital fatigue; according to this article, young adults are reading more and are very much in love with the electronic format. Additionally, the rise of self-publishing might be offsetting the decline in e-sales reported by major publishers.

Behind the apparent drop in eBook popularity is a big-picture issue: trade book sales slid 13.7% from January 2015 to January 2016, with the only growth seen in religious publishing. Against this backdrop, is it possible the digital decline is merely an artifact of publishing’s overall woes? Nobody seems to be suggesting that, but it’s hard to avoid wondering whether eBooks sales really are falling off a cliff after all.

In fact, the issue is probably more complex than any of these rather simplistic guesses. What people buy and use and like involves a wide variety of factors from life experiences to the state of the economy. If you’re struggling to keep the roof over your head, you’re not going to blow much on either print books or e-readers. Our experience of reading must play into it, too. My wife is fond of saying that it took humans thousands of years to replace the scroll with something easier to use–the printed book–and now we’ve reinvented the scroll. Her observation is partially borne out by a 2013 Scientific American report on research that compares reading using physical books and eBooks. The results suggest that each technology has merits, but that there can be potential drawbacks to e-reading.

Regardless of the reasons, clearly print books aren’t going away tomorrow, but neither are eBooks. Seventeen percent of sales is nothing to sneeze at. We publishers would be well-advised to make our products available in both formats, reasonably priced. I don’t mean that all eBooks should be as cheap as Amazon wants to make them. Writing, editing, layout, artwork, and file conversion costs money. Nevertheless, $15.00 is probably too much for most eBooks. People may indeed be less interested in buying them for that reason alone. Does that mean they’re running out to buy the print edition instead? Not necessarily. Remember that 13.7% decline in trade sales?

Earlier in 2016, we settled on three price points for our One Voice Press and Serpent Cliff eBooks: $3.99 for children’s titles and shorter works, $4.99 for most adult fiction and nonfiction, and $5.99 for longer works. This represented a decline in price for most of our titles, but so far I can’t say we’ve noticed any significant change in sales. Then again, we didn’t sell many eBooks to start with. The vast majority of our readers still buy print books. And that, too, may say something.

Assaulted By Ideas

Based on anecdotal evidence, one of the most common questions asked of fiction writers is, “Where do you get your ideas?” I’ve never been asked this. I may have been asked a time or two where a specific idea came from, but not ideas generally. But let me answer anyway.

Generally speaking, ideas sneak up and attack without warning. Later, I may not remember in any detail how a given idea arose. Nevertheless, they originate in three ways.

First, they fall out of the environment. A news report, an observation, or an experience might plant the seeds of a scene or story or novel. My third Howard County mystery, Ice on the Bay, arose as I drove over the Francis Scott Key Bridge one January day and discovered the Patapsco River frozen over, a first in the 20 years I’d lived in the Baltimore region. Another idea came to me just yesterday while reading about this weekend’s tragic flooding in Ellicott City, Maryland. It’s possible that incident will work its way into a future Howard County mystery.

Second, other people occasionally offer ideas. My wife suggested one to me many years ago involving the startling discovery of a murder victim in an unusual place. I haven’t used that one yet, but I expect it to appear in a future Howard County mystery. Writers also say they steal ideas from each other, although “steal” is not the proper term. It’s cross-pollination, not theft. Ideas can’t be copyrighted, only their implementation in words or images. That flooding I mentioned above? That’s only half of the idea. James Lee Burke’s novel The Tin Roof Blowdown takes place in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, and Archer Mayor’s Three Can Keep a Secret is set in the midst of tropical storm Irene, which struck Vermont.  I’ve read both. That’s why the weekend news clicked as a potential story element. But I’ll be telling my story, not Burke’s or Mayor’s.

Finally, ideas just pop into my head without any clear connection to anything. Often these are story-shapers rather than story-makers. In the midst of writing a scene, I’ll throw in some spur-of-the-moment thought to add interest. Sometimes that’s all it turns out to be. Sometimes I remove it later, because it doesn’t work out. Sometimes it proves significant. In a fantasy novel I wrote in the late 1990’s, the heroine finds herself wondering about her vanished family. Until that moment, I hadn’t given any thought to her family, much less known that they had vanished! Later, they proved important to the plot.

Bottom line: when all is well, ideas tend to crawl out of the woodwork. And when they don’t? Well, then it’s time to do something else for awhile. Sometimes the best way to attract ideas is to avoid looking for them. They don’t like to be ignored, and sooner or later they’ll let some passing writer know it.