Saturday, June 16, 2018

Searching for Inspiration

By Vicki Delany

THE SPOOK IN THE STACKS, published on June 12 by Crooked Lane Books, is my 30th published book.  Wow! Seems like a lot.  It is a lot.

What thirty novels means, is that I’m running out of ‘ideas’.  Ah, yes, the proverbial ‘idea’.  At the beginning of my writing career I had SOMETHING TO SAY. My standalones (Burden of Memory, Scare the Light Away) discussed, in broad terms, the changing role of women and effect of events of the past on the present. The first Constable Molly Smith book (In the Shadow of the Glacier) was about forgetting the past, and asks if that is ever desirable or even possible.  The eighth Molly Smith book, Unreasonable Doubt, was about a man who’d spent twenty-five years in prison for a crime he did not commit, and asked how could that happen.

It’s not so much that I don’t have anything to say any more, but maybe that I don’t want to write about it.  So now I write cozy mysteries, which really don’t have anything much to do with the larger pictures of redemption, justice, revenge, etc etc, although they do have a lot to say about character and friendship.

Which means I am sometimes in search of inspiration. One of the ways I’ve found it is in the world of classic novels.

Case in point: My lighthouse library series, of which The Spook in the Stacks is the latest. One of the premises of that series is that the book the classic novel reading club is reading is reflected in the plot of my book.  In Reading Up A Storm, they’re reading Kidnaped by Robert Louis Stevenson.  

Reading up A Storm opens with a shipwreck during a storm, and ends with an idea to capture the bad guy taken directly from Kidnapped.  The Spook in the Stacks is set over Halloween, but because this is a light, funny mystery I didn’t want to use a true horror novel. So I hit on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Bracebridge Hall by Washington Irving. (Warning for those wanting to read along: Bracebridge is long, and very dull.) Two men vie for the affections of the rich man’s (grand)daughter. An idea straight out of Sleepy Hollow.

In the fifth book, Something Read Something Dead (coming in March 2019), cousin Josie is planning her wedding and the club is reading The Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L Sayers.

Once I had the idea, or the inspiration, I made it my own. My books are not an attempt to recreate these classic works, but maybe just to pay homage to them.

As well as giving me ideas, they’ve made me re-read some of the world’s great books.  And that’s always an inspiration.

What's your favourite classic novel?  Maybe I can use it in the Lighthouse Library series one day.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Setting and Social Issues

Yesterday in her post, Donis wrote, "Setting is important to characterization." I've been thinking about that because of a brief conversation that I had with a colleague a couple of days ago. She was talking with a group of other people and as she saw me walking by, she paused to tell me she had finished reading all five of my Lizzie Stuart novels and the two Hannah McCabe novels set in Albany. I was pleased when she said she'd enjoyed all the books -- and surprised when she said the fifth book in the Lizzie Stuart's series, Forty Acres in a Soggy Grave, had been her favorite.

If I had been asked, I would have suspected that the fourth book, You Should Have Died on Monday, would be the one most readers liked best. That book had an interesting cover, introduced Lizzie's mother, the femme fatale, moved from Chicago to New Orleans. That book got great reviews. The fifth book came out with little fanfare. I was worried that I might have offended folks on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. In the book, I'd use the real name of the location because it would have been obvious and because it was crucial to the book -- a barrier island, wildlife, farms, migrant labor, agribusiness, pollution, land-use issues.

I knew after my first visit that I wanted to set a book there. I loved Eastern Shore. I went back again as I was writing and spent another week at a bed and breakfast to make sure I was highlighting what made the peninsula unique. But the plot of my mystery was inspired by a  newspaper headline that I'd discovered from 2004, the year (in the recent past of my series) that the book was set. Starting there was probably not the best way to highlight the beauty of the setting.

In retrospect, after the book was published, I feared that I had gone too dark. Yesterday, I flipped through the book again, reading the last few chapters. I'll need to read it all in a couple of months when my editor at Speaking Volumes prepares the manuscript for the reissue. But I was curious about whether I had short-changed this literary child of mine. I think I did. It received fewer Amazon reviews than the other books in the series, but the reviewers generally liked the book. What they liked was the characterizations and the relationships.

This time around, I'm going to send Forty Acres out into the world with a hug and pave its way. I couldn't have written any other story. Setting and characters came together, and the clash was disconcerting, but important to the series. The ending was satisfying for me, and for the readers who understood it was the completion of a series arc that had begun four books earlier. Now, as I move on to the next book, the characters are in a different place in their lives.

Next stop, Santa Fe -- and that setting, too, is crucial.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Places We'll Write About


Or here?

I've been thinking about surroundings lately.  My own private space says a lot about me, and it's made me consider how important it is, therefore, to describe a character's environment a novel. You can learn a lot about him from the setting in which he is placed.

You know how it is when you buy a red Toyota, thinking you're all unique, and then every other car you see on the drive home is a red Toyota?  It's the same with what you think are original observations. Rhys Bowen said that when she begins a novel, she often doesn’t know the complete cast of characters, who’s going to get killed or how, or who did the deed, but she knows where the story will unfold.

The very night before I heard Rhys say this, I was reading  P.D. James’ book on writing entitled Talking About Detective Fiction, and came across this :  “My own detective novels, with rare exceptions, have been inspired by the place rather than by a method of murder or a character."    She then describes a moment when she was standing on a deserted beach in East Anglia.  She could imagine standing in the same place hundreds of years ago, until she turned around and saw a nuclear power plant, and “immediately I knew that I had found the setting for my next novel.”

Ms. James also observes that : "When an author describes a room in the victim's house, perhaps the one in which the body is found,, the description can tell the perceptive reader a great deal about the victims character and interests.

Setting is important to characterization.  Even if the murder unfolds the same way in two novels you'll have two very different mysteries if the victim is killed in a beach house in Thailand or in a prep school auditorium; if the suspects live on deep in the moors, or in Manhattan across from Central Park; if the detective lives in a fifth-floor walk-up on the south side of Chicago or in a mansion in Beverly Hills.

If Miss Wonderly had walked into Spade and Archer Detective Agency on the first floor of the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, The Maltese Falcon just wouldn't have been the same.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The embrace of summer days

The release date of my next Amanda Doucette mystery, PRISONERS OF HOPE, is October 2, 2018. As the date nears, the promotional machine is ramping up: the ARCS are being mailed out, the e-versions are up on Net Galley for those wishing to review it, and the publisher's marketing, sales, and publicity wings are busy making pitches to media, booksellers, and special events. But perhaps the biggest and most sustained promotional efforts are done by me. It seems every year we authors are being urged to network, blog, create newsletters, and add yet another social media outlet in order to increase our reach and visibility.

First it was Facebook, where much of my reader demographic is active, then Twitter, which I have yet to see the sense of for book promotion. It's great for breaking news, but tweets seems to have a shelf life of fifteen minutes, and even at that I sometimes wonder whether anyone actually reads them. Writers hurl book covers, brags, and review links into the great Twitter maw much as space junk is shot through space into the endless void.

Last year my publisher urged me to get active on Goodreads, so I dutifully spiffed up my profile, made a link to my blog, and opened my page to questions. Not a single question arrived. This year, Instagram is the new buzz. You'll reach a younger demographic on Instagram, I'm told. Instagram is pictures. Millions of pictures. Pictures of what, I thought. My book cover? Me doing a reading at a festival, me at my writing desk tearing my hair out? Me slouched over a bottle of whiskey? And once I've run through all those, my dogs? My breakfast? I will stick my dutiful toe into the the Instagram Universe to test the waters, but it all strikes me as a bit narcissistic.

It's also been suggested that I make a book trailer. It's easy, it's fun, check out these links... Sigh. I can see myself wasting days of my summer scrolling through photos and fighting with software as I try to put a decent book trailer together. Days when the sun is shining, the canoe is beckoning, and my favourite chaise long has an open book lying facedown on it and a wine spritzer beside it.

And then... In the midst of what should be languid, lazy summer, I have to start planning book launches and fall signings. Bookstores and venues have to be contacted, dates set, and itineraries figured out.

All this when I am actually trying to research and write the next book. Which is something I can do from my chaise long with a wine spritzer by my side. I don't mean to sound churlish, but it does sometimes feel as if I am constantly chasing the caboose. Most of these activities are enjoyable in themselves, but en masse, they could become overwhelming if I let them. So I suspect Goodreads and Instagram will get short shrift, and the book trailer might not even happen. But I will get out in my canoe, and I will read that book lying on my chaise long.


Tuesday, June 12, 2018

You can’t rely on your memory

by Rick Blechta

Aline’s post yesterday (as her posts often do) struck a chord with me.

For nearly 25 years, I taught school music (band aka “crowd control with a beat”) and I learned pretty early on how memory can often play tricks on you — or your students (or both).

Just as Aline experienced, I had memories of situations in my memory that I was certain were 1000% accurate. This usually involved confrontations with students (thank heavens, I was usually an observer). In the most memorable confrontation, one student pasted another right in the nose (unbelievably, they were arguing over a trumpet fingering!).

I was at the front of the class dealing with a clarinet problem. As usual in a music class, the kids were coming in, getting out their instruments and music with the usual attendant “talking and squawking”. A normal class in middle school, right?

Then I heard a loud crash and a whole lot of cursing (“You broke my $#%^@ nose!”). At first, I thought a couple of boys were getting a bit rowdy, nothing more. Then I saw the kid on the floor, holding his face and there was a whole lot of blood. The classroom suddenly went quiet. “Everybody sit down and no one talks!” I said, and remarkably, they all did as I asked.

The unfortunate boy did indeed have a broken nose. I got some paper towels, and had him lie down on my desk (fortunately cleaned off for once) with his head off the end to try and slow down the bleeding. Then I got on the intercom to the office to get some help.

The upshot was, the parents of the punched out boy wanted to press charges. I had to give a statement. I laid down exactly what happened, positive that I had it right. I was helping so and so with her clarinet, heard the fracas and looked up to see the chair with the boy in it tip backwards and so on…

Some of the other children in class were also interviewed. What I found out later was the person I was helping was an alto sax player (but she was sitting in a chair in the clarinet section at the time). The tipped over chair fell sideways (which is why the struck boy didn’t have a huge welt on the rear of his head along with the injury to the front).

Before the principal informed me about my faulty memory, I was certain I had things correct. In fact I would have put a few hundred dollars down on that.

To say the least, I was stunned. Like Aline, I could see in my memory exactly what happened so clearly. But four or five of my students remembered something completely different — and all agreed on what they saw, so I had to accept that I was wrong.

Fortunately the whole debacle ended there, charges were never pressed, and both boys became good friends in a few months, as children will do.

But I learned so strongly that day that memory is a very faulty thing indeed. In a court of law, it can be a deadly thing, too.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Guilty/Not Guilty

With two criminal defence lawyers in the family and my own background as a Justice as well as a crime writer, I suppose it's natural enough that I'm fascinated by the way the justice system works. I'm totally addicted to The Good Fight but would love someone to tell me if that really is the sort of thing that goes on in a US court? It certainly wasn't in the Perth and District Court when I was in charge!

My books are, basically, about who did it and who didn't – who's innocent and who's guilty. It's somewhere close, I suppose, to Oscar Wilde's Miss Prism's prototype: 'The good end happily, the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.'

In a court, it's different. At the end of a trial the defendant is pronounced 'Guilty' or 'Not Guilty' but of course that isn't really true. All the court can say is that the case has been proved or not proved, according to the legal rules about evidence.

And I had an experience recently that got me thinking about what constitutes proof.

The strongest kind is of course hard evidence which can stand on its own – direct evidence like fingerprints and DNA where there isn't usually much point in arguing.

Then there's circumstantial evidence – evidence that links to hard evidence but is indirect, relying on inference which can be disputed. You hear people saying dismissively, 'Oh, it was purely circumstantial evidence', as if that meant it didn't count. But a high proportion of cases rely on a complex web of circumstantial evidence that ultimately builds to the proof standard of 'reasonable doubt' and it's often a great deal more reliable than the next category – the eye-witness account.

This is the kind of evidence juries instinctively love – 'he was there, he saw it.' The trouble is, even with the best will in the world (which doesn't always exist) people's memories are unreliable. Two peoples' accounts of same event may differ widely and the most complicated thing is that they often quite sincerely believe their own version.

A few years ago I had a horrid accident when I fell down ten concrete steps into a basement and landed on my face. I was amazingly lucky to escape permanent damage but I can still see it happening – when you think you're going to die it tends to make quite an impression. I could describe the staircase to you in minute detail – the handrail down one side which I grabbed at and missed, the bare wall on the other side, the wide steps where people sat as they tried to help me.

The trouble is, I'm wrong. I recently went back there for the first time since it happened and it's a narrow staircase with identical rails on either side with absolutely no room for anyone to sit beside a sprawling me. But I utterly believed my mental picture.

The unreliable narrator is a standard in detective fiction. But I don't think I've ever read one where the plot hinged on an unreliable but genuinely mistaken eye-witness – perhaps an idea to play with.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

A Gold Mine for Mysteries

Please welcome our weekend guest, Dave Butler, an exciting new writer from British Columbia. Dave is the author of the Jenny Willson mystery series, published by Dundurn Press. Full Curl, the first in the series, won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Crime Novel in Canada in 2018, and is also a finalist in the mystery category for the Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writers awards. 

Dave is a forester and biologist living in Cranbrook, British Columbia, in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. His writing and photography have appeared in numerous Canadian publications. He’s a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal winner, and a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. When he’s not writing, Dave is professionally involved in sustainable tourism at local, national and international levels and he travels extensively. He’s a Professional Author Member of the Crime Writers of Canada, and a member of The Writers Union of Canada. Take it away, Dave!

Rick Blechta’s June 5thpost offered some intriguing thoughts on the creative process. Rick wisely linked writing and music, but he also referenced the Greek goddesses who (may) act as his muse. I can’t help but wonder what Rick’s office is like, what with all those scantily-robed women lying around, sipping wine, tossing grapes into their mouths, strumming harps, offering him plot points.

While I’m not so lucky, and while my office may be much less crowded than is Rick’s, I have discovered that the front pages of major newspapers (or, if you’re so inclined, the home pages of major on-line news outlets) are veritable gold mines of ideas for mysteries.

Aside from the obvious surplus of political intrigue these days, I’ve been using major land use and development issues as a source of inspiration for my Jenny Willson mystery novels. As the Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling used to say, “I offer for your consideration:” a good mystery needs a protagonist, an antagonist or two, lots of human emotion, inciting incidents, obstacles, a climax, and at some point, a denouement.  

Now think about pipelines, mining applications, new hydro dams, nuclear power plants, new ski hills, industrial agriculture proposals, gentrification of historic urban neighborhoods. See any parallels?

In every one of those situations, there’s no shortage of people willing to step up and take a side. And they don’t tend to do it quietly. Some are unstable and unpredictable, some sophisticated and professional. But the main things they have in common are that they care, and they’re willing to express their opinion. Campaigns are then built, clever posters created, noisy demonstrations organized. Emotions build, passions rise, and soon, neighbours turn against neighbours, friends turn against friends, and family dinners become awkward … if not violent. Often, these controversies quickly become good-vs-evil, black-vs-white, win-vs-lose, right-vs-wrong. 

There’s your gold mine, with the (mystery) ore ready for the digging, close to the surface. You can use any excavation tool you’d like, from shovels to backhoes. Even a teaspoon will do. 

Digging up those ideas is relatively easy because there are so many rich sources all around us. But like most mines, it’s the processing that’s the challenging and time-consuming part of the process. Once you’ve got healthy samples of that mystery ore, you need to take it to the next step. That’s when it’s fun to ask the famous ‘what if?’ question that we mystery writers hear so much about. 

What if the opponent of that hydro dam was willing to murder one of its main proponents to stop it from happening? (if Edward Abbey and The Monkey Wrench Gang comes to mind, you’re already on the right track…). What if the main spokesperson for that new downtown condo development disappeared without a trace? What if the proponent of a new power plant decided to murder her opponents, one-by-one, to silence them?

In Full Curl, the first Jenny Willson mystery, I asked the question: what if someone with no morals or ethics decided to use Canada’s national parks as a source of trophy animals? In the second, No Place for Wolverines, the question became: what if someone proposed a new ski area partly inside a national park, but the project wasn’t what it seemed on the surface? I’m working on In Rhino We Trustnow (the third in the series); that involves processing piles of Namibian mystery ore, along with the occasional pile of steaming rhinoceros dung…

If you’re stuck for ideas, or suffering from a short bout of writer’s block, grab a newspaper or your tablet and start asking “what if…?” I’m offer no guarantees that it will work for you. It does for me. But trying this idea just might lead you down a new creative path. Good luck!

You can learn more about Dave, Full Curl, and future projects at 

Friday, June 08, 2018

Colorado Book Awards

My fourth mystery, Fractured Families was one of the three finalists for the Colorado Book Award in the mystery category. 

The winner was Dead Stop by Barbara Nickless (Thomas & Mercer, Amazon Publishing. It was a very heady experience to be included in this distinguished group. The event was held at the SIE Film Center in Denver. It was beautifully organized. My daughters, Cheryl Flink and Mary Beth Bieker attended as well as my granddaughter, Leah Flink. I have been blessed with one of the most supportive families ever. 

I had hoped to fill this post with wonderful pictures from the event, then decided it would be impossible to top a YouTube video created by Colorado Humanities honoring the winners. 

So--in their own words:

Thursday, June 07, 2018

The art of the summary

Can you summarize your novel in two or three sentences? This is a litmus test many of us use. It’s helpful, and when I can’t do it, I know I’m in serious trouble.

This happened to me recently. I was talking to my agents, driving, when they asked me to summarize the draft of a novel I’d finished. Having sent it off to them, I turned my attention to the next book I’d write and drafted a short synopsis for book #2. It’s brief. A 1+1+1+1=4 summary of what will happen and why. (The why is the fun part and much of that I flesh out as I write.)

What occurred on the phone was that I realized I couldn’t offer them a short, succinct account of what happened in the book and why. My failure to do this was, I realized, directly related to questions they had surrounding plot points. I exhaled and told them I wanted the book back. Now I’m eliminating a character and revising.

A couple things happened in this case. The first is that I spent more time writing this book (18 months, maybe two years) than I have ever before. That’s too long. Stephen King, in On Writing, recommends three months. With a day job, I can’t do that. But I usually spend nine months or so on a draft. This time, I got sick, spent a month in the hospital, and when I returned to the book, I’d lost the thread of the story, had to go back, read it all again and made changes along the way, complicating the plot.

I’m not Tom Clancy and don’t want to be. I like books that work because of the characters, not because of the plots. I’m interested in human motivations and moral ambiguity. I guess, though, if you give me several weeks alone in a hospital room to think and rethink a story, my ego gets the better of me.

So I’m back at it, revising and streamlining my book so that in the end no one will say I didn’t play fair. It starts (and hopefully ends) with a three-sentence summary.


In other news, my 17-year-old daughter Audrey and I are traversing the midwest this week, visiting colleges. We’ve driven 1,200 miles (and counting), starting in Maine, turning around at the tail end of Ohio, and driving back, visiting seven colleges in five days, and meeting track and cross country coaches.

Children grow up too damned fast!

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Writing Acknowledgments

For most of my reading life, I’ve skipped over the Acknowledgments (or Acknowledgments, if you prefer) section in every book I read. (Dare I say, I barely acknowledged the acknowledgments? No! She didn’t!)

Now I read them all the time. What changed? I had to write my own and I wanted to see what other authors had done. Pretty soon I realized they can sometimes be more interesting than a list of names might suggest.

When I wrote the section for my first book, Fatal Brushstroke, I admit to being rather nervous. I was afraid I’d forget someone important or say something stupid name it, I probably thought it. The acknowledgments for my books are fairly short, but I try to make them somewhat interesting. I dedicated Fatal to my husband and wrote this in the acknowledgments: “Finally, a special thank you to my husband, Steve, who barely flinches at dinnertime discussions of poisons and other methods of murder and who always encourages me to follow my dreams.”

I’ve begun to think of acknowledgments as a conversation with the reader. So in my latest book, Designed For Haunting, I added an explanation for why I dedicated my book to libraries and librarians: “I’ve dedicated this book to libraries and librarians because of everything they’ve given to me over the years, for all the worlds they’ve introduced me to, real and imagined. Without them, I would not have discovered many wonderful books and authors or learned so many interesting things.”

That’s the fabulous cover you see here. It’ll be out Oct 9th, available for pre-order July 18th-ish.

Okay, back to acknowledgments. They seem to come in all sizes, long, short and sometimes they don’t even exist. Anything’s fair game, I think. Now that I know a fair number of people in the mystery world, it’s fun for me to see their names in the acknowledgments of other’s books. I even, once or twice, found my name there! That pleased me to no end.

I’ve even gotten a chuckle out of some of the things author’s say. Ellen Byron, in Body on the Bayou thanked her local Target stores. “I do some of my best thinking aimlessly wandering those jam-packed aisles.”

Acknowledgments can also be educational. If you’re looking for an agent, one of the things you can do is check the acknowledgments for books that are similar to your own and see the name of the author’s agent. Agents, editors, etc. are usually acknowledged. No guarantee they’ll become your agent, but at least it’s a place to start. Before you look, you’ll find my editors acknowledged but no agent because, well, I don’t have one of those. But if I did, I’d certainly thank them!

Those are my musings on writing acknowledgments. Now I have to hunker down and come up with ideas for my next book. I have an inkling of an idea, but I still have a long way to go. Perhaps one of those muses Rick was talking about in his post yesterday will help me out...

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Inspiration: how does it work?

by Rick Blechta

Athena, Apollo and The Muses
The creative process is a mystery to me. I have experience with it in two art forms — music and writing — so you’d think it would have become clear to me long ago how this inspiration works and where it comes from.

I was working on a musical arrangement the other day. Basically, it’s what’s known in the music biz as a “lift”. What that means is you listen to a recording, figure out what’s being played by the musicians and “lift” them into your arrangement. It can be a very tedious process, believe me. As I was working, a musical twist floated into my head completely unbidden. I examined it, tried it out in the software I use to do these arrangements and listened to the results (it has a playback function). It wasn’t much, but it certainly added something to the arrangement.

Where did this idea come from? I have absolutely no idea. I wasn’t even thinking to myself, How can I make this arrangement better? I was simply copying down what the musicians were playing on the studio recording.

Inspiration is even more evident — in any art form — when you’re actually creating something from nothing. Inspiration is actually everything at that point. Otherwise you couldn’t get started on a particular project in the first place.

The Greeks came up with the idea of muses, goddesses who helped in the creation of arts and even science by providing divine inspiration. Based on my experience with the hidden mechanics of the creative process, I sort of not willing to disbelieve these goddesses exist.

It’s a thrilling experience when inspiration strikes. In writing it may be as simple and innocuous as a character walking into your story with something interesting or even critical to your plot, the addition of which makes your deathless prose even more deathless.

But inspiration can strike anywhere and with any person. I’m certain everyone reading this has been struck by an inspired thought. Some of us may even have had their life changed by it.

But as an artist, I sure wish I could understand how it works and how to access it when I need it.

Perhaps I should invoke the aid of those Greek muses.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

This weekend's guest blogger: Cathy Ace

My use of plots (garden ones)
for plotting (writing ones) 

One of the questions I receive from readers which I particularly enjoy answering is “What do you do when you’re not writing?” Of course, the same as everyone, I live a life filled with “MUST DO” lists, but I am also an avid gardener, and – I admit it – that’s my passion-filled, all-consuming hobby. This time of year, from June through to September, is when most of us who garden would love to be able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labors; but we all know it’s the time when we really have to apply ourselves because it’s peak growing season…and that, unfortunately, includes weeds!

Cathy’s garden in the spring.
I have come to terms with the fact that dandelions are just yellow flowers in the grass which the bees enjoy, and that I should therefore allow to flourish until they reach the seed-head stage, when I can happily mow the living daylights out of them. I have also accepted that buttercups in flower beds must be viewed the same way – as a natural phenomenon feeding the insects and they can look exceptionally good when the wind makes them sway, their yellow heads fluttering attractively. Then I rip them up. Roots and all.

When I’m mowing I find myself in a sort of Zen state; my mind is focused on doing a good job with the creation of stripes on our acre or so of grass, whilst it’s also able to play with plotlines, come up with devilish methods of murder, and offer me the chance to consider the intricate patterns of behavior my characters might display to allow readers to spot a real clue, or be taken in by a red herring or two. Ripping up weeds is a similar occupation – needing just a certain ruthless part of my brain to work in concert with my hands to ensure weeds come up and plants I want to protect remain undisturbed…all while figuring out how the suspects will be challenged by my protagonist, and finally brought to face justice at the denouement.

Cathy's garden in the fall – with Cathy on the mower!
So I would suggest that – for anyone struggling with plotting – a day or two working in the garden might help; I certainly find it allows me the mental freedom I need to be able to plot more fluidly. And then there’s the garden you get to enjoy as a result…not to be sneezed at (unless you, like me, suffer from allergies, so that a daily dose of antihistamine is required).

Happy gardening, and happy plotting!

Cathy Ace is the author of The Cait Morgan Mysteries and The WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries. You can find out more about Cathy, her characters, and her work at her website:

Friday, June 01, 2018

Honoring Your Process

Frankie here. Regular readers of Type M know by now that I'm not a pantser. As much as I often envy writers who can write a novel by plunging into the deep end, I can't do it. Not only do I write at a snail's pace until I'm well into the book, sometimes I fear I am channeling Adrian Monk. I can't begin writing until I have a title, and I keep coming back to the title, frequently and obsessively, until I have the right title. I do the same with character names and their backstories. I keep researching even as I'm writing. And, every blessed time I sit down to write, I read and tinker with the first chapter before going on. I do that at least until I'm halfway through the book.

I have the title of my 1939 historical thriller -- A Penny Struck by Lightning. As you may recall the title was inspired by a conversation Opie Taylor was having with his pa, Andy Griffith. The television was playing in the background, unnoticed, until the words "penny" and "lightning" caught my attention. The perfect metaphor for that year of 1939, and the New York World's Fair.

But having a title has not helped me move along. Yesterday, I switched the first-person POV of the protagonist -- who is attending Marian Anderson's concert at the Lincoln Memorial -- back to third person. And still it wasn't right. I had photos of the the crowd. I could imagine where my character was standing. I knew there was a brisk wind. But had the sun really come out as Anderson was about to perform. There were no mention of that in the second source I had looked at.

Being obsessive -- unable to pull myself away from Chapter One and get back to writing -- I stopped to find the answer to the weather question.

And that was when the Writing Gods showered me with gifts. During the next hour, I said "Wow!" three times. With the last "Wow" I was jumping up and down and dancing around the room. Harry, my cat, was looking at me like he was about to hide under the bed.

Here's what happened -- as Adrian would say -- while looking for a third description of the weather, I found the NBC radio broadcast of the concert. I had listened to portions of it before, but this website included the concert program and mention of the intermission during the concert when the announcer reviewed Anderson's career. The broadcast was almost 30 minutes long, and while I was listening, I started to go through some photos of the platform guests. It had occurred to me that maybe I really should take a page from Dennis Lehane. I love his novel, The Given Day, set in 1918, in the months leading up to the real-life Boston Police Strike. But the book opens with Babe Ruth, traveling on a team bus, coming upon a baseball game being played in a field . . .

So my idea was that I would have someone on the platform, looking out over the crowd. I thought of Harold Ickes, the Secretary of the Interior, who introduced Marian Anderson. When I searched for Ickes and the concert, a photograph I had never seen before popped up. Ickes and Anderson shaking hands and off to the right, a group of news cameramen and among them one black photographer. That was my first "Wow." The photographer reminded me of what the NBC announcer had mentioned about the concert being under "the auspices" of Howard University, the famed historically black university in D.C. I already knew that. My protagonist even mentioned seeing a group of Howard students in the crowd and wanting to go over and speak to them, wanting to tell them that he planned  to attend the law school.

I hadn't made too much of that, but now I was wondering how he would have known they were from Howard. So I Googled Howard University and the concert. I already had the telegram that Eleanor Roosevelt had sent to a professor there when the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to allow Anderson to use their hall. Now I was looking for information about the students at the concert. That was when I went "Wow!" again. Ossie Davis. I had stumbled across what Ossie Davis -- yes, the actor, writer, civil rights activist -- had said about that day. That day when he was in the crowd as a student from Howard University.

So now my chapter opens from the POV of Ickes looking out over the crowd  -- or maybe Anderson herself -- and down in the crowd, my character standing near a group of students . . . and one of them is named "Ossie" . . . and they are both moved and inspired and there is a brief exchange between the two of them. . .

And that was when I went "Wow! Wow!" and jumped to my feet. I knew Anderson was wearing a mink coat and a mink hat. My protagonist mentions that. But I had only seen black and white photos and barely noticed her outfit. Yesterday, as I was thinking about Ossie Davis, the Writing Gods dropped more gold coins into my lap. A photo of the donation that Anderson's family had made to the Smithsonian. The ensemble she was wearing under that mink coat. The kind of "telling detail" that I love as a researcher. The kind of detail that I might have missed if I weren't an obsessive plodder, but that no one who attended that concert and was close enough to see Ms. Anderson would have missed.

Writing lesson:  Honor your process even when you hate your process.