Sunday, December 30, 2018

Wrapping Up and Looking Ahead

If you think about it, December 31st isn't any different than January 1st. Or July 22nd. But we've decided that January 1st is a chance to pledge some promises. I'm not good at keeping them, so I rarely make resolutions. I'm proud of one.

In the late 1980s I decided to eat no chocolate for a year. Not to lose weight, but because I thought of sweets as only chocolate and I wanted to broaden my choices. Okay, I hoped to lose a couple of pounds, but that wasn't the primary goal. I learned I liked butterscotch, and ate no chocolate for twelve months. I'm back to M&Ms, but I still like butterscotch.

In 2019 I will read more. Since I started writing 30-40 hours each week, I read less. I have hundreds of books on my Kindle, but I mostly read nonfiction. That's fine, but my own writing would be better if I read more fiction.

I take out three or four audiobooks a month from the library. I'm in the car a lot, so I'm guaranteed at least a few books. Every now and then my mind wanders as I listen, but it's rare. Why don't I bring the books into the house? I could listen while I do dishes.

At a charity auction in November I bought an under-the-counter radio with a CD player. Remember those? If I can figure out how to install it, I won't have to move a CD player into the kitchen.

Of course, anyone under 25 who reads this is saying, "CDs? You use CDs?" Yes, though I have a few digital audiobooks. I'm too cheap to buy many for Kindle. I do visit the used book room at the library and buy them for a few dollars each. It's like money in the bank in case I can't get to the library.

Two weeks ago I discovered that Kindle audiobooks can be listened to on Alexa. I had just bought a spare Echo Dot to take when I travel. Maybe I will have to buy more audiobooks...

Whatever your resolutions for 2019, I wish more joyous reading in the new year.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Books for the Holiday Season

    Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanza or you don't want to hear one more thing about "getting ready for the holidays," I have a reading list that will help you wind down each evening. Other than the two lists (since I can't know all the best books), I've read all of these. A couple I've written.

    Many versions of Dickens' A Christmas Carol populate Amazon and other sites, some illustrated. It's darker than the kind of tales you'll see today, but the story is timeless. If you've only seen the movies, try the book. Most libraries have multiple copies.

    After promising a list of books, I have to add my favorite Christmas story, a movie,
It's a Wonderful Life. I saw the move for the first time as an adult, when I was sad about something. I can truly say it affected my outlook on life, then and now. Right now it's also free on Amazon Prime (that's not the link I cited here).

    The first story I remember as an adult (okay, high school) was O. Henry's
The Gift of the Magi. A young couple has no money to give each other a gift, but each makes a meaningful sacrifice to secure one. Many copies are free on retail sites.

Parent Magazine's eclectic mix of books for children is delightful. (I might add many are for children of all ages.) It covers the three major celebrations, and most are secular, though there is also a beautiful tale of how the animals in the stable welcome Baby Jesus and his family. While most deal with Christmas, others deal with Hanukkah and Kwanza.

    The Mission offers a list of the
thirty best Christmas books. I found several I'll read this year.

    Publisher Annie Acorn LLC does a book of Christmas stories each year. My favorite is
Snowbound for Christmas, which is a good introduction to the group. Click on that one (currently a 99 cent bargain) and you'll gain access to the other years' books. (Okay, I'm biased, Annie publishes my River's Edge Series!)

Mildred Mistletoe Fixes Christmas is my take on how families can help each other when their teenagers figure out one of them needs a boost. One reviewer says, " This is a story about human problems that are lessened by human kindness--and just a tiny nudge from a wise cat."

A Few Mysteries with Christmas Spirit...

     There are good reasons why Karen Musser Nortman's
A Campy Christmas has 159 reviews and some readers think it should be a Hallmark Christmas movie. It's part of the Frannie Shoemaker Campground Mystery series, but you don't need to have read the earlier books. The crew gets stuck in a Christmas blizzard, and finds a gift in helping others.

Murder in Christmas River is the first of a series by Meg Muldoon. I've read many of them, and like them a lot. Protagonist Cinnamon Peters is a baker who cooks up more than her trademark entry to the annual gingerbread competition.

   Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, by Agatha Christie. Enough said.

   Holidays in Ocean Alley, the ninth Jolie Gentil mystery, finds Aunt Madge solving a murder in Silver Times Senior Living. But she also realizes injured people need more than a lift to the hospital, and organizes a giving opportunity. Enjoy the humor.

Final Cycle is my second book in the Logland Mystery. Chief Elizabeth Friedman works with the eclectic Logland residents to solve a murder that takes place during the Christmas season. Doesn't sound very "holidayish" but be assured the warmth of the season comes through. You can preorder through December 23rd, when you'll receive the book. Final Cycle -- a police procedural with a cozy feel.  

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Friday, December 14, 2018

The Logland Series: Police Procedural with a Cozy Feel

When I started Tip a Hat to Murder, I saw it as a one-and-done novel, but I enjoyed the characters so much a second book was in order. It's been too long between books! Final Cycle will be released December 23rd, and is available for preorder.

I am experimenting with a sleuth who is not an amateur. I describe the series as a police procedural with a cozy feel. Other than having a female police chief as the sleuth, the books maintain the rest of the cozy mystery principles: the murders are off-screen, small town, very minimal swearing. 
Quirky characters populate both novels, though I try not to veer into silly. These two books, and all others, will have the opening scene in the Bully Pulpit Diner. That doesn't mean that the murders will always take place there.The diner a good place to bring characters together from time to time.

I plan to maintain the practice of having the first chapter be third person and the rest first person, from the perspective of Chief Elizabeth Friedman. In Tip a Hat to Murder I had a couple chapters in distant first person with another character, but it's more of a challenge to have the story unfold from one person's capabilities. I like the immediacy of first person, and Final Cycle does that..
Why not an amateur? I decided I wanted the investigator to be someone who had a right to ask questions. For an author who usually has to think of reasons for a sleuth to pursue suspects (in the Jolie Gentil and River's Edge series), this was energizing.

To emphasize that this is a series (The Logland Mystery Series) I redid the cover for Tip a Hat to Murder. I'd love to know what you think.

Final Cycle was released on December 23rd.  Read both books free with Kindle Unlimited.
As always, let me know if you'd like a review copy. 

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Saturday, December 8, 2018

Why Blocking is Good for a Book

We're talking blocking as in plays, not American football.

When you read a play, it's not just dialogue. The author describes the setting and indicates where the actors will be placed on stage. The latter is called blocking. Instructions from the director will expound on all author instructions, so the final written version of each production generally has a lot more instructions than the author's original draft.

A book needs to set the stage too, so to speak. Certainly, much is in the reader's imagination. Think about Scout's description of her hometown of Maycomb, in To Kill a Mockingbird.

"Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather, the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square."

Some of us will see a town with clapboard homes and a two-story courthouse with a flat roof, others envision brick houses and a courthouse with a steep roof with a long flight of entry stairs. Generally, an author will tell us as much as we need to know and let us picture the rest.

To some extent, whether characters stand or sit in a scene may not matter, and I find it boring when an author outlines every detail of a room or the style of chair each person sits on. But a book is more than dialogue, and readers don't want to be surprised to find characters in a different room when there is no indication that they moved.

For example, a cocktail party is in full swing and two nephews are arguing about whether an uncle should leave more of his wealth to the older one, who took most care of the aging relative. Ten minutes later, one nephew shoots the other in the back garden. When did they leave the room? Did they head out there together, or did one go upstairs to grab a pistol before heading outside?

Sure, your protagonist can later recall that she was so engrossed in studying a painting that she didn't hear them leave the house. But even that acknowledges that the men didn't apparate to the garden.

Even if all the guests at your New Year's Eve party stay in the living room, it's still important to show whether someone is on the couch when they pass out or already sitting on the floor. Otherwise, the author leaves the impression that people are mannequins in a store window -- except these dummies talk.
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Thursday, November 15, 2018

Over the Hump with River's Edge Three

The ebook of Demise of a Devious Suspect, third in the River's Edge series, has been joined by its paperback. When the paperback appears, I feel as if the book is real. Silly, I know -- especially since more readers buy the ebook. Still, there is nothing like the feel of a hard copy.

Protagonist Melanie has secured full access to her family's farm, so she and Mr. Tibbs have a comfortable place to live and a porch from which to view the cornfields. A place to invite friends to share a beer.

She's so at ease that she invites the handsome Syl and her buddy Stooper to be her guests at the Farm Bureau potluck supper. And then she finds a body in a coat closet at the dinner.  The body of the grain elevator owner with whom her late father had a strained relationship.

The discovery is upsetting, but she's not a suspect. However, she begins to wonder if the dead man should be a suspect in her parents' deaths. They were killed in a car accident on icy roads. But now it seems someone may have forced their car into a semi.

Nothing is ever simple.

Demise of a Devious Suspect lets readers know the characters and the town better, and introduces Cat, who inserts himself into Melanie's life. To the distress of Mr. Tibbs. Pets in my mysteries do not have human characteristics, but they are smart.

As a writer, I feel a series hits its stride with the third book. Perhaps it's because I'm fully comfortable with the characters. Comfortable enough to give them more ways to pry into the puzzle.

You can find Demise of a Devious Suspect at all sites --

Annie Acorn Publishing, LLC
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Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Staying True to Your Mystery's Red Herrings

The so-called red herring in a mystery is a false path the sleuth follows. As s/he starts down a trail it seems to be one  that will help solve the crime. It eventually becomes apparent that a suspect or lead is not what the crime-solver hoped it would be.

From the detective, PI, or amateur sleuth's perspective, following a false clue is largely a waste of time. It could mean a person who provided the lead is not to be trusted, and that's good to know -- but the red herring still takes time to address. It diverts the PI from the best path.
From the reader's vantage point, the red herring can be a good thing. The book won't end soon. Many times I've wished a good novel were longer.

So what do I mean about staying true to red herrings? They must appear to be logical clues, not simply time wasters or a chance for the sleuth to look brilliant. The reader doesn't want to read fluff or feel the wrong path could have been easily avoided.

Some of the best false directions are from the classic mystery writers -- Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammet (especially The Maltese Falcon), Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novels and of course Raymond Chandler's Sam Spade (especially The Deep Sleep). The pace of these older novels is slower than what readers seem to expect in more current books, but don't let that turn you off. Follow the detective's mental trail and you'll learn a lot about good writing.

Though not mysteries in the classic sense, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books have a plethora of twists and diversions. Some are natural, because Harry and friends are kids -- they make the occasional false assumption (based on past experiences with other characters). I think the path to Professor Snape's role in the stories is strewn with some of the best red herrings in literature. And when they are revealed, they make sense and pull together several story lines.

People occasionally tell me they especially like the false clues in a couple of my books. What they can't tell (thankfully) is that I decided that the murderer would be someone different than my original intention. The ultimate bad guy made sense, but so did the one I originally planned. Don't tell anyone.

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Sunday, October 21, 2018

Mystery Writers Ponder the Genre

The 24th Magna Cum Murder Conference  in Indianapolis featured guests of honor Reavis Wortham of Texas (Sonny Hawke and Red River series) and Peter Lovesey of the UK (a 35+ year career including the Peter Diamond series set in Bath, England). Highlights of a couple of panels include:

Down Those Mean Streets --
a look at the PI Novel

Panel members discussed variations among the types of mysteries, including traditional mysteries, police procedurals, private investigators, and noir. Most examples focused on classic mysteries, and I could have listened to these panelists talk for another hour. Better than a seminar, but with some humor.

PIs in traditional mysteries (Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey, Doyle's Sherlock Holmes) function in an orderly world, and they are looking for the disorderly person (criminal) among orderly people.  They may butt heads with the police sometimes, but they're on the same team. When the PI finds a culprit, s/he can turn the bad guys over to the police.  Hard-boiled detectives operate in a corrupt world; they are looking for deviants among deviants. (Terence Faherty)

In Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest (a very dark PI novel), even the police are corrupt. The Continental Op (the narrator) pits characters against each other to clean up the town, but at great cost. Almost every key character dies. (Diana Collier)

Distinctions among types of mysteries have a lot to do with the tone, atmosphere, and language. (And not just whether they cuss or not, the level of coarseness varies.) The same plot could be written as a cozy, PI, or procedural. In the PI novel, the atmosphere would obviously be darker. (Kaye George)

Shown in the photo: Kaye George, Terence Faherty, M. Ruth Myers, Diana Collier, Jim Doherty.

In a traditional mystery, the PI would follow several paths, four of the perhaps five being red herrings. Eventually the investigation leads to a killer. Had the investigator picked the 'right' path first, it would be a short story. But if you look at Chandler's Deep Sleep, Philip Marlowe is peeling an onion. He has to jump through all the hoops to solve the crime. In many ways, it's a more complex story, more interesting to the reader. (Faherty)

Police procedurals show the mean streets real-life police have to face.  As Joseph Wambaugh (The Onion Field) said, “It’s not how the detective works the case but how the case works on the detective.” (Jim Doherty)

Noir novels, as the name implies, are darker stories. Micky Spillane's Mike Hammer considers himself judge, jury and executioner -- in many ways a vigilante. Criminals generally don't get turned over to the police. (Faherty)

In Sickness and in Health

I moderated this panel, which discussed the extent to which health (mental or physical) can affect a story line. Participants included honorees Wortham  and Lovesey as well as Parnell Hall (The Hastings and Puzzle Lady series) and Michael Allen Dymmoch (Caleb and Thinnes series).

It's a given that all murder mysteries include at least one person with mental health issues -- the killer. I wish I could have made the kind of notes I take when I'm a panel attendee, because the panelists had cogent points.

We acknowledged that the health limitations could be those of the protagonist, villain, or victim. In fact, the Thrilling Detective website has a section devoted to "Defective Detectives," organized by mystery subgenre. In current culture, Adrian Monk's OCD often comes to mind first.

None of us structured our plots around a character's illness (beyond those with criminal intent). However. Dymmoch and Wortham both have key characters with PTSD. I thought Dymmoch's Jack Caleb gave a poignant description of his emotional reaction after rescuing a policeman from a car, covered in gasoline, that was about to be torched.

"[Caleb] shivered in spite of the blanket he was wrapped in. The excitement was wearing off and a poisonous cocktail of neurochemicals was replacing the adrenaline. He was beginning to experience depression. He'd suffered from it for so long it seemed comforting at times -- the devil you know. He felt the onset of a self-loathing that was familiar, too, a habit he had thought he'd broken. It was partly self-disgust at having lost control, partly a profound feeling of loneliness. In times of distress, friends and family were a palliative or at least distracting. But he was estranged from his family."

A great example of presenting an emotional reaction without making it sound like a clinical recitation of symptoms.

I asked Wortham about Sonny Hawke (his newest protagonist) who, in Hawke's War gets shot under the arm, falls off a cliff, and is essentially tortured by the bad guys who later capture him. Is the reader meant to suspend reality in terms of physical endurance? Wortham cited the basic need for human survival -- people push themselves to the limit to keep living. Wortham has also fallen off a cliff, so has some firsthand knowledge of that and plowing through cactus needles. Good research.

Apparently male protagonists survive such medical emergencies -- Hall's Teddy Fey (written with Stuart Woods) is a stunt-actor-cum-assassin who intended to fall five stories onto an inflated mat. His nemesis had poked it full of holes, so he landed on concrete -- and survived.
Peter Lovesey, Reavis Wortham, Elaine Orr

Lovesey doesn't create disabled characters for plot purposes. I asked him about his Theo Sinclair (in Rough Rules) who walked with a cane because of childhood polio. In a near final scene, an injured Sinclair is almost thrown into a hayloft while the murderer occupies himself below. Sinclair was able to watch as the killer dragged in another victim.If he hadn't been so encumbered, he would have tried to escape, thus precluding the chance of spying on his suspect.

What I Learned about Poisons

Toxicologis Luci Zahray is at Magna most years, and each time has more resources on the role of poisons in murder. If you think like a novelist, it's good to remember that the poisoner has to be able to handle the substance without harming themselves. It may take more skill than putting on latex gloves.

Thinking of poisoning someone with strichnyne? You pretty much have to want the recipient to die, as one of the few effective antidotes is an injected Benzodiazapine (such as Valium), which relaxes convulsions. It's unlikely a hospital would have enough to help. Even if an antidote works, your body temp likely would become so high that you'd die of organ failure within a few weeks. Ugh. 

Zahray had other 'suggestions.' How about putting a DMSO (Dimethyl Sulfoxide) in a water-soluble solution such as hand lotion? A poisoner could do that and be long gone before the victim became ill.

The best thing I learned was that you can buy some older poisons at antique stores. I've no plans to do so, but one of my future bad guys may well make such a purchase.

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Friday, October 5, 2018

The Brain Protects Us from Fear

I don't directly use personal life events in my writing, though of course I write from the perspective of my experiences. I've wrestled the last two weeks with whether to discuss one incident, and finally decided it could help others see a familiar face in the age of #MeToo.

First, I'm fine. What happened to me changed some personal  behavior, but not my life trajectory.

In my late twenties, I lived in a suburban neighborhood in Rockville, Maryland. Many evenings I took a brisk walk on the street that ran in front of my house -- a busy one.

One evening, a male jogger approached from the opposite direction. Nothing unusual. As he reached me, he stuck out one arm, roughly grabbed my left breast, squeezed, and then kept running. I stopped, but just for a second, before walking faster to get home. I feel certain that I didn't look back.

Home was a ranch house I'd bought to accommodate my mom's wheelchair, so she, my dad, and I lived together. I assume I did as most nights and said hello and went to my bedroom in the back of the house to change.

I do remember sitting on the bed, stunned, to process what had happened. (Such a neutral word, process.) After a short time, I began to think about what to tell the police.

Then reality hit. I could remember nothing about the man who groped me except that his hand was white.

Not. One. Other. Thing.

He had passed within inches of me five minutes prior. Was he clean-shaven or did he have a beard? Was he wearing shorts or longer pants? What color shirt? Tall or short? Solidly built or slim? Nothing. In retrospect, I suppose he had on a shirt, because I think (?) I would have remembered a bare chest.

Eventually I spoke to a therapist, but I didn't call the police. I should have, but I was embarrassed at how little I could tell them. I was a smart woman who had a responsible job, loving family, and lots of friends. I should have been able to describe the man.

I can't tell you the date other than it wasn't winter and had to be between mid-1979 and 1985, because that's when I lived in that house. I might figure out a date range because soon after I joined a health club. Why? Because I was afraid to walk on that street. I never did so again. The street in front of my own home.

The therapist explained that the lack of memory was my brain's way of protecting me. He said it more eloquently, but that was his essential point.

Like most assault survivors, I told few people. I had no guilt other than not remembering enough to tell the police. I didn't tell my parents because they would have been terrified every time I went into the front yard. The couple girlfriends with whom I discussed it were sympathetic, but we'd read worse stories in The Washington Post.

Eventually I stopped thinking about it ten or fifteen times a day, and then I 'only' thought about it when I read about someone else being groped.

Since the #MeToo movement, I've remembered it more often, but distance (and the lack of intense trauma) do not bring the emotional terror that many survivors of sexual assault feel. I'm still angry.
Two times is too many.

Why write this? I don't find it the least odd that Dr. Ford remembers few details of her assault. That she didn't want to tell her parents she'd attended a party with beer served makes perfect sense to me. And why would she talk about it a lot afterwards? Who wants to relive terrifying experiences?

I had the benefit of being in my late twenties and self-assured. I sometimes wonder if I sold that house after six years because, subconsciously, I wanted to be away from that event. Don't know, don't care to think about it anymore.

At least I have that option. The trauma others suffered is not so easily dismissed, and we all know what happens when they confront their assailants. #WhyIDidn'tReport