Saturday, July 19, 2014

Food in Fiction

As a child, I remember bringing a book home from the library, finding an apple, and sitting sideways in the living room chair to read. When I could get away with it, I had a couple of potato chips. Or cookie dough. Raw cookie dough was a no-no, so I had to sneak it when my mom left the mixing bowl alone for a minute.

As an adult who writes, I think a lot about food in my own books as well as those I read. Sue Grafton has Kinsey Milhone eat hot hard boiled egg sandwiches with mayo.  I thought it was gross until I made one. Mostly, Kinsey eats fast food and the
Sweets at my family reunion. No wonder I like food.
bread her landlord makes, and she eats regularly.  Janet Evanovich has Stephanie Plum stop often for donuts and chicken, the latter at Cluck in a Bucket. We won't talk about what Lula eats.

Lots of cozy mysteries feature food. There is a group of cozy writers who have a blog about food and mysteries -- This isn't a passing thing, July 2014 is their fifth anniversary. Though my protagonist is a lousy cook, Aunt Madge makes muffins in my Jolie Gentil series.

Meals are not regular components of all fiction. You don't see Jason Bourne remembering to grab a sandwich when he stays a step ahead of assassins. For that matter, he doesn't remember who he is, so why remember to eat? Yes, he eats, but it's hardly on a schedule.  Nor would it make sense if he did.

The ones I don't get are the characters who forget to eat. Who does that? I'm listening to 14 by Peter Clines, which is described as an apocalyptic mystery.  (Who knew?) I get that when there is a lot going on food is not first in one's mind. But at the end of a bad day the lead character, Nate, is climbing into bed and remembers he hasn't eaten since breakfast. And he still goes to bed.  I'd be up all night thinking I'm hungry. On the other hand, when the apocalypse is on the doorstep they do inventory their food.

I am not big on description other than venue and weather, and even then I'm sparse. I've finally added food to a list of things to check as I edit a first draft. I seem to remember breakfast and coffee, not so much lunch. However, readers have said my books make them hungry because Jolie and friends are always eating. They seem to have adopted my snacking habit.

Food is fun, when you have enough of it. Since some people don't, Jolie chairs a food pantry committee at a local church. A book can't lecture readers, they put it down. Jolie and friends stage inane fundraisers. Mostly people don't get murdered at them.

As I work on the eighth book in the series, I'm debating whether to kill someone in a coffee shop. Jolie and friends hang out there a lot, so that probably would not be good for business.  I'll have to noodle it.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Linda Rae and the Nellie Chronicles

Linda, Fred & Mary Doris
My cousin Linda Rae started a book about our grandmother, Nellie.  She was always going to find the time to finish it. 

You can see she was a happy baby.  She is laughing in almost every photo, a precursor to her later ability to chat up and charm anyone.  If you walked with her through her family's neighborhood in Topeka it was immediately clear she knew everyone who walked by.

Linda was a cheerleader at Hayden High school and Kansas State.  She used to laugh as she said that her K State cheerleading was the achievement her mom was most proud of.  We acknowledged that it represented a life our mothers, who did most of their growing up during the Depression, could not have dreamed of.  Yes, she earned some of her own spending money and did volunteer work, but she had time to have fun and she had dozens of friends.  Friends she maintained throughout her life.

She was on a teen advisory board at a Topeka department store, something my mother (who sent me to the Wendy Ward School of Charm because I was a cross between a klutz and a tomboy)  noted often. When her family visited mine in  the mid-1960s, I was nervous.  How did an awkward thirteen-year old even stand next to a polished sixteen-year old?  No worries.  Though the many outfits she and her mom had on hangers in the back seat of the car (complete with hats) mystified me, Linda was her same friendly self.  As we walked through my Maryland neighborhood she'd pound on the door of the city bus to wave at the driver, and she was as interested in the White House or the cannons at Gettysburg as my brothers and sister and I.  Or was polite enough to say she was.

Tom, Mary Doris & Linda
Though she had no children, Linda was often with her brother Tom (the orneriest brother on the planet) and his family.   Her two nieces lived near her as adults, so she didn't just "see them," she was involved in their lives.  Okay, maybe she gave Amanda and Melissa too much advice sometimes, but they loved her to pieces, as did her nephew, Tony.

Linda had a busy career as an investment adviser and spent a lot of time visiting Sante Fe to collect Native American pottery, which is displayed throughout her house.  Some of it is on the very knick-knack stand she long ago knocked over in our grandmother's house, breaking everything on it but one item.

In rural New Mexico with Dick and Mary Doris.
The meticulous Linda could also get down and, well, not dirty.  She took many road trips with her mother, Mary Doris, and her husband, Dick.  That included helping build a house (really), visits to pueblos (think more pottery), camping, and taking care of various pets.

We had a memorable trip to Disneyland with her brother and assorted kids, including recording some songs at Universal Studios theme park.  We would likely all pay to have that tape destroyed.

Colon cancer sneaks up on you.  For months Linda thought she had a gall bladder problem and she carried Milk of Magnesia with her.  Her mom, who had Alzheimer's, was dying and Linda traveled between Denver and Lake Havesu City often. I bugged her about it when we were at her mom's funeral.  Yes, she would get it looked at, she had been too busy to have a silly stomach problem checked.  If she had had colonoscopies she would not have had to worry about that seemingly innocuous problem.  When she did get it checked the month after her mom died in 2010, she had stage 4 colon cancer that had metastasized to her liver.  The doctor said she had likely had it for ten years. You can wage a good fight, but you can't beat that kind of cancer.

Kansas friends for life. Linda 2nd from L. July 2011
She did fight.  She had surgeries and chemo, lost forty pounds, and at times spent a lot of hours on the couch with her dog.  Linda was grateful for the care and attention of family and friends. She also kept gardening, read books I (and many others) wrote, spent time with friends, and continued to bug her nieces and brother and his wife as appropriate (or not).  Linda also kept her sense of humor, wondering whether getting a two-year lease on a car her brother insisted she get was perhaps not optimistic.

She worked on the Nellie Chronicles.  And then she lost her battle with the cancer she didn't need to die of.

Life is about a lot more than finishing a book.  You know what your passions are -- family, friends, writing, fitness, your church, traveling, a career.  Get on with them.  Before you know it, time's up. Don't let your life end before it should because you didn't have time for a cancer screening.  Do it. Now.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Reading and Thinking

Everyone observes what's going on around them. Writers are different. We think we should comment on it. In fiction, we do this through our characters. However, if it appears they are simply spouting opinions about the world around them, those observations go largely unread.

I have a few ideas about the next book in the Jolie Gentil series, and have made notes on several other books. Some of the latter have been rattling in my brain for years.

Anytime I start something new I think, "Really? Why would someone want to read this?" In fact, they don't know if they want to. They need to be convinced. You can draw them in with a book description, but in our world of short attention spans, few people get past two or three chapters unless they are immediately drawn to the characters.

As I write opening paragraphs for several books (my way of starting), I veer off course to read. It's not just a diversion.  It's learning. I owe it to my readers.

“Read, read, read. Read everything -- trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it's good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out of the window.”  William Faulkner

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Getting Another Book Out the Door

After a crazy spring of finalizing a move and finishing a book, I'm happy to say that Vague Images will be available for purchase on June 26th. It is the seventh in the Jolie Gentil cozy mystery series, and provides another chance to see Jolie and friends track a murderer in their Jersey shore town.

Here's a brief description of Vague Images:
Bad enough that Jolie ends up in the emergency room because she tried to avoid hitting a deer. Worse to find a dead woman in the hospital restroom after Jolie gets patched up. As the chief budget cutter at the hospital, Tanya Weiss was unpopular, especially in the Radiology Department, where Scoobie works.

In between appraising houses and feeding her pet skunk, Jolie’s on the lookout for a runaway teenager and whoever planted the dead woman in her path. Thanks to Scoobie, she’s also planning another crazy fundraiser for the food pantry—this one a Corn Hole Contest. It’s sort of a bean bag game for grown-ups, and the polite term is Corn Toss Contest. So of course, Scoobie prepares to name winners in the Harvest for All Corn Hole Contest.
Just when Jolie’s ready to leave the murder investigation to the police, she gets a surprise—and it’s not a good one. Will her need to know see her hurt—or worse? 
 It's a challenge to keep a series interesting, but I still love the characters, so there will likely be an eighth book. I already have some ideas...

Vague Images is available from Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and all booksellers in the U.S and overseas. See here for all links.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Reaching Readers with Hashtags

I did a couple of blog posts about using Twitter, and had quite a bit of feedback. Since I'm a writer, the result was a new book -- 500+ Hashtags for Writers.

The key for me has always been to use Twitter efficiently--meaning ten minutes a day or less. It took more than ten minutes to write this book but, like the techniques I use, it grew over time. The book (in ebook form only for now) discusses how to use Twitter, but only briefly. It's largely lists of hashtags specifically geared to getting your books to readers.

What's a hashtag? It’s a way to send tweets to people who have similar interests.  For example, you can send to writers or readers by putting the pound sign in front of the terms: #writers  #readers.  A hashtag counts as part of your 140-character limit, but links to websites do not contribute to that limit.

Amazon US link

Kindle Boards link, which has all Amazon sites

Thursday, May 8, 2014

That Pesky First Paragraph Starts the Trouble

I wrote previously about sitting in a class and hearing an instructor discuss the importance of the opening paragraph, and then rewriting the first paragraph of the first book in my Jolie Gentil series. The new version was much better, and a couple of reviewers commented on it.  One said it really drew them in, another said it was the best part of the book. Ouch.

Here is the first part of the seventh book, Vague Images, which I have been very slow to finish. I'm beyond all reasonable excuses.
  • If it hadn’t been for the deer that ran in front of my car I wouldn’t have hurt my foot jamming on the brakes. If I hadn’t hurt my foot I wouldn’t have gone to Ocean Alley’s hospital. If I hadn’t been in the hospital I wouldn’t have seen him. Not that I could follow him. I was on my butt in the emergency room.
Several thoughts could come to mind when someone reads this. The obvious one is who has Jolie seen and why does she seem to want to follow him? Then there's what happened to the deer? And finally, who is so clumsy they hurt their foot jamming on the brakes?

I do quickly make it clear the deer escaped Jolie's car. Hurting an animal in a book is kind of like a horse getting shot in a western movie. Both are major turn-offs, and the first few paragraphs are meant to entice readers, not make them feel sorry for an animal or be mad at me for hurting one. 

Jolie doesn't immediately find the person she wants to pursue. She does find a body pretty quickly, and the book works on two tracks from there. They converge, but my struggle has been bringing the two plot lines together seamlessly. Several times I've thought I was 'there,' only to find my solution was too clumsy.

A couple of days ago the link became less ungainly, and the final chapter is coming together. It has to, because I've written the opening paragraph for the next book.

No animal was harmed in writing this blog post. And I'm the dork who sprained a foot jamming on the brakes.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

An Author Plays with Google Play

As one who years ago settled on Google as my go-to site for searching the web, I was pleased to learn that I could sell my ebooks via Google Play. I already sell on Amazon (where you can see my author page), BN, Smashwords, iTunes, Kobo, and other sites. An additional sales channel is a very good thing.

I became a Google partner and loaded the seven books of the Jolie Gentil Cozy Mystery Series to Google Play. To start the process, you need a Google Account. The same one gets you into email, Google+, Google Books, and all other Google sites. Once you have an account, go to and create your publishing account.

I chose to permit Google to load samples of the books. This is a common practice. It gives readers a chance to learn more about the book. The goal is to let them see how much they like what they read so they will buy a book.

Unfortunately, the samples that Google loads have the beginning of the books...and (often) the end. If you are writing a book about gardening, an author's last few pages may not spoil the reading experience. In most mysteries, knowing the ending is a literal spoiler. A reader will likely learn who the bad guy or gal is. Why bother to read the book?

Through its support system, I asked Google if there is a way to not have the end of the book visible.
There is not. The polite reply is attached. Apparently it depends on where the prospective purchaser chooses to start sampling. However, for many books I've looked at, the sample starts at the beginning and leaves out the middle and jumps to the end. I'm clueless, but those who know me will not be surprised.

Unfortunately, this kind of sampling can diminish sales on all sites. Why not read the end on Google Books?  Then you don't have to buy the book.

One other thing to watch for has to do with price. Google Play sharply discounted my books. I agreed (as do all authors) to give Google this authority when I signed the partner agreement. At some other sites, your agreement stipulates that you may not sell books for less on another site than you sell on theirs. Amazon enforces this policy and you could lose your privilege to sell there. You may want to play with your list price so that you don't lose your markets elsewhere.

I would love to hear from readers and other authors. Have you found books on Google Books or Play where the sample doesn't give away the ending? I have found some, and hope someday Google will figure out how not to spoil a good mystery.  In the meantime, I'm leaving my books on Google Play. If sales approach those on Amazon, they'll stay, if not (and I'll give it a year), then I'll have to rethink whether it's worth spoiling the endings.