Thursday, May 19, 2022

Beginnings and Endings

This week is full of emotions: It’s my final week as an employee and resident of Northfield Mount Hermon School. We are moving to Detroit Country Day School in June, where I will take on a new role and a new life –– it’s a day school, so we will move out of the dorm and join the civilian ranks –– and I should hear an update from my agent regarding the status of a manuscript I sent her a few weeks back.

It’s a time of beginnings –– new job; and now that one book is off to my agent, it’s time to start the next. Assuming she can sell the one I sent her, I’ve started the sequel. (I’m an optimist; aren’t we all in this business?)

So what does it mean for me to “start a new book”? It means conceptualizing: sketching the characters and setting. Here’s a section from my pre-writing for the work-in-progress:


Blaise Academy is a small, traditional blue-blazer and skirt/cardigan New England boarding school with 350 boys and girls located near-ish to Hartford, with a view of the Connecticut River. In a world where “wealth” is relative, Blaise does not have the endowment of Exeter or Andover, and the Academy (and its leaders) can be placed in compromising positions to acquire the donations needed. It is a small school, where everyone knows everyone, a place where the sales pitch is “community,” a place where a few teachers do it all, and students are supposed to feel known by the adults in the community.


+Bo Whitney, 50-ish, former Hartford Courant reporter. Now an English teacher and hockey coach. Husband to HOS Kate. Out of place in this buttoned-up world. First-person narrator. Cynical about the wealth and privilege he’s surrounded by.

+Kate Whitney, Ph.D., Head of School. The first female head at Blaise Academy. And she feels the responsibility to carry the torch successfully.

Trent Highsmith, senior, from NYC. Has the world by the ass and knows it. Life comes easy to him. He’s 6’2”, 215 lbs, and will play linebacker at Brown. SATs aren’t quite as good as his haircut, but they’re close, and that’s good enough for Brown –– if you’re All New England. He is a four-year senior at Blaise, and is popular enough to be on the Student Council, but too lazy to do the work, so he doesn’t run. He would receive a Jeep for graduation, except that he got it a year ago. On a campus where cars are prohibited among students, Trent has been seen (by many including the Whitney kids) driving the Jeep. Of course, the deans can’t prove that. The book begins in April, six weeks before graduation, the day before Trent is found severely beaten in the woods behind his dorm. Trent is a difficult character to like, and we need to stress his positives to build sympathy –– he volunteers at home and worked a summer camp where he met and worked closely with Ryan Kinsley, 7, a wheelchair-bound boy, who Trent often took swimming.

+ series’ family of character

Starting a new book also means establishing goals for the book . . .

This book is not about sexual violence; it is about emotional manipulation and toxic masculinity and how far a young girl will go to find approval.

My character list is 14 people long, and I have a plot sketch as well. Part of that sketch is here . . .

. . . This is a dark story, one of manipulation and toxic masculinity. Bo’s cynical voice will highlight this. This is also a story in which readers are forced to consider the role of justice in the criminal justice system: Was Trent’s attack justified? In the end, Trent will recover and go off to Brown, and Hillary will be in therapy, and Bo will be forced to decide whether or not to tell Connecticut State Trooper Mitt Houston what he has learned, essentially defining justice in this book.

And so I’m off and running, looking over my shoulder at my sketches and plot concept and always willing to pivot if need be. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this approach or how they set about writing a new book.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Creating Likable Characters


by Sybil Johnson

When my first book in the Aurora Anderson mystery series, Fatal Brushstroke, was bought by my publisher they told me a number of things they wanted me to change. Chief among them was the likeability of my main character. As written, they didn’t think she was very likable.

I was surprised when they told me Rory wasn’t likable. I really thought she was. Then I started thinking about how to make a character more likable. I looked at blog posts on the subject, read books on creating characters and thought about it some more.

I realized that she was a little snippy at times, maybe not as kind as she could be. It dawned on me at one point that those kinds of things would work better in a sidekick.

Here are some other things I came across in my quest to improve Rory’s likeability: 

1) If you want to make a character likable, introduce an animal like a dog or a cat. Have that character interact with it on a positive note: save the animal from being run over, treat a neighbor’s animal kindly when they wander into your yard, give the character an animal to take care of. The same goes for children. How a person interacts with a child or an animal tells you a lot about their character. If you want a character to be unlikable have them treat a child or animal badly. Although, in cozies, you should probably not kill an animal off because you’ll hear about it. 

2) If someone says something to them, don’t have your character ignore them. Have them interact with that person even if it’s an annoying person. 

3) Give your character a flaw or two so they don’t appear too saintly. 

4) Give your character something that they’re really scared of, e.g. heights. You could then have them come across a situation in the story where they have to overcome that fear in order to rescue someone or get information they need or escape from a bad guy. 

5) Make your character liked by others. If other people in the story want to be around them, that’s an indication that the character is likable. 

6) Make their goals worthy. If they want to be the head of a company and they’re willing to do anything to reach that goal, that’s not a likable character. It’s an interesting character, but not very likable. At least not to the average person. 

7) Make them have a sense of humor. As long as the humor isn’t at the expense of others. People relate to those who can make fun of themselves or have a sense of humor about situations. As long as it’s not over the top. 

8) Have them be sympathetic/empathetic when someone dies. How they treat that death and those who are affected can make a person likable or unlikable. 

9) Make your character relentless. No matter what obstacles they come across, they should continue to strive to get to the truth, to right the wrong. 

Not every character needs to be or should be likable. In any story, there should be a mix. But, as a reader of cozy mysteries, I want to like the main character. They can be quirky or have flaws, but if I don’t like them, I’ll probably read one book and then I’m gone. Okay, I may not finish the book. I may throw the book across the room if they're particularly annoying. Okay, that happened one time only!

Does anyone have any other methods of making a character likable?

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Ode to Joy


Katelyn Bieker

Boy, am I ever proud. My youngest grandchild graduated from Colorado State University Saturday with a major in Biological Sciences and Pre-Med. We have six grandchildren and now all have a college education. 

Best of all, all six are avid readers. 

No one can take a degree away from the beaming graduate. It means that the recipient can adhere to a goal over a period of time. With that precious degree, comes the special elation of completing an arduous task. Ode to joy. Wow. We did it.   

Katy's mother, Mary Beth, and her sister Abby help Katy celebrate this happy day. There are smiles all around. 

Naturally the whole family made pigs of themselves. The Crocketts had a little party before the special day. Too much food and temptation. What is a poor grandmother to do? 

Congratulations to all the graduates everywhere. We are proud of all of you. 

Monday, May 16, 2022

Plot Twists in Fiction--Good. In Real Life--Not So Much.

 By Thomas Kies

As I write this, my wife and I were supposed to be on an exploration day in Vancouver.  Then, the following day, we were supposed to board a Holland America ship for a cruise of the coastline of Alaska for ten days.  

I’d never been on a cruise before and neither of us had visited Alaska, so this was going to be a real treat.

My wife spent months putting the trip together, planning the shore excursions, picking out the drink and meal packages.  She’s the one who booked the flights from Raleigh to Minneapolis to Vancouver.  She’s the one who booked the hotels we needed when not onboard the ship.

She’s the one who put the sweat equity into what was going to be the trip of a lifetime. 

Then there was a plot twist. 

Even just reading it puts your nerves on edge, doesn’t it? Foreshadowing…yes, there’s trouble brewing ahead.

In order to board the ship, even to gain entrance into Canada, we had to show proof of vaccination (no problem—vaccinated and double boosted) as well as testing negative for covid within 72 hours of entering the country.

We’d decided to catch a favorable flight from Raleigh (a three-hour drive from our home) and figured that if we got tested on our way out of our hometown, the timing would be perfect. Once at the Days Inn in Raleigh, we checked our results.  My wife was negative…I was positive. 

I had no symptoms.  No cough, no runny nose, no fever.  I still had my senses of taste and smell. 

But the results were positive.  Plot twist!

We were supposed to catch a cab at four in the morning for a six-a.m. flight.  At that point, it was after seven in the evening.  Hoping that I’d scored a false positive, we started making phone calls looking for a place that could get me in for another covid test. None…and I mean none…were open at that hour.

Time had run out for us.  We pulled the plug on the trip.

When we got home, I got another test and, yes, I was negative. 

A plot twist is a literary technique that introduces a radical change in the direction or outcome of the plot.  It adds intrigue and suspense and builds reader engagement. 

I could have done without this one.

But let’s face it, plot twists in fiction are the best!

Here are some of my favorite movie plot twists (warning—spoilers ahead):

Planet of the Apes—Who can forget the ending of that movie when the hero, who is riding astride a horse with his love interest up the beach to better days after escaping the “damned, dirty apes”, only to discover he wasn’t on an alien planet after all.  There in front of him, is the remnants of the Statue of Liberty.  He realizes he’s not on an alien world but on Earth, thousands of years into the future.  Mankind had destroyed itself and the planet is now, well, dominated by apes. 

The Sixth Sense—After watching this movie, who didn’t go back and re-watch the film to see how M. Night Shyamalan pulled it off? The plot is simple, a child psychologist works with a boy who claims he can see “dead people”.  The movie itself is creepy enough, but at the end, we find out that the doctor is the one who is dead.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood—This is one of my favorite Quentin Tarantino movies.  The protagonists are a fading film star and his stunt double sidekick as they move through the sixties in Tinseltown.  The plot twist here is when the Charles Manson family drives up into the hills to kill Sharon Tate, they get the address wrong and end up at the house of the protagonists.  The ending is the usual brutally violent bloodbath that’s a Tarantino trademark and the Manson family is wiped out. Revisionist history…another Tarantino trademark. 

My neighbor, a health care worker, has advised me to quarantine for five days even though the second test was negative.  Better to be safe than sorry. So, instead of being onboard a Holland American cruise, I'm sitting in my home office in front of my laptop. 

In fiction, a plot twist makes the story memorable.  Plot twists are an adrenaline kick.   

In real life, I’m pretty sure we can take them or leave them. 

Friday, May 13, 2022

Going Somewhere Slow

 She's back!  It's me (Frankie), and after missing at least three or four alternate Fridays, I'm getting back to posting. I blame my neglect on a week when I was under the weather. By the time I had been taken to the emergency room because I was dizzy and feared I was going to pass out and then spent two nights being tested (with nothing conclusive), I needed to have some down time. And then came the end of semester. 

I'm still reading the research papers I required of the students in each of my classes. But yesterday a colleague in another academic unit observed that we seem to have a similar process. When we are working on something important and need a break from the monotony and/or boredom, we tend to take a break and work a little on the next important thing on our list. That keeps us going in spite of ourselves, and we manage to be productive.

My problem, as it has been through most of 2022, is that my list of important things to do has tasks that need to be done. I need to clean up -- or out -- my home office so that I can find what I need for my various writing projects. I have boxes of research stashed in the closet for the nonfiction book on gangsters and the 1939 historical thriller and my 6th Lizzie Stuart novel and for the first book in what I hope will be a new series set in the 1940s and 50s. But -- even though I should know better -- I haven't been as methodical as I should have about sorting and filing so that I know what I have to draw on. That means when I want to break and work on the next important thing, the most important thing seems to be to get the office prepared -- books in order and shelves and desk dusted, deleted messages and junk/spam off my computer, paper in printer, closet boxes sorted and ready to pull out as needed.  Lovely flowers in a vase on my desk like in those glossy magazines. 

Of course, it will take me a week to do all this. More if I pick up and sort the books and papers that have found their way from the bookcases in the dining room and the bookcase/room divider that separates dining room from living room. Not that those divisions matter in my small house. Every room except the two bathrooms has books and papers that need organizing. So, when I look at the next thing on my list, it's always to "get organized". No matter which organizing system I'm looking at -- including the one for "creative people," it seems easier to toss everything and start over with a system that works in mind. And, of course, having a system I would need to use it. 

I've made many a fault start. But with the end of semester this weekend, once I have my grades in, I will try once more. In between sorting, tossing, and donating, I hope I'll use my breaks to get in some exercise. And my exercise -- particular walking -- as time to mentally sort out my plots. I'm an outliner and I can't -- even when I try -- plunge in with no direction in mind. Over the past few months, this has brought me to a standstill as I debate a prologue or a frame story and who among my characters has the opening scene in the historical thriller. 

I also need to do some exciting -- fingers crossed -- tasks related to the trip I hope I will be able to make to England for the Agatha Christie Festival in September. The question is should I purchase the plane ticket now or wait to see if fares stay high. I'm counting on my travel agent to have some thoughts about that. Getting ready, preparing my presentation, I have a lot of books to re-read or read for the first time. 

The most logical approach is to make a list and work from it. I enjoy checking off mundane tasks. But the last time I make a to-be-done list, I had almost 50 items. I would love to have an assistant who could handle the cleaning and sorting and organizing. I can find someone to clean, but the sorting and organizing is another matter. To do it in a way that would be really useful, I would need someone who could read my mind. Someone who would understand how one writing project related to another and why an article or research info was in one box instead of the other. 

Maybe I can figure out how to convey that while I'm cooking. I tried meal delivery services (e.g., Hello Fresh and Daily Harvest). They're useful because the bag for each meal comes with all the ingredients, including the little packets of spices, garlic butter, and sour cream. The only problem was that the boxes for the next week kept arriving before I finished the one before. However, a trip to the supermarket this morning sent me home with sticker shock. So now I really am serious about gardening -- and thinking while I dig and plant about how I'm doing that important thing while taking a break from the organizing that was a break from the research that was a break from the writing. 

Or maybe I'll just take a week or two off to think about getting ready for summer and my sabbatical.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

It's a Mystery

Passing on my vast wisdom ... kind of

After finishing three installments of my new Bianca Dangeruse Hollywood Mystery series, set during the Roaring Twenties, I (Donis) am returning to the past briefly, and working on the manuscript of my eleventh Alafair Tucker mystery. One might think it'd be easier after to get back into the world of rural Oklahoma in the early 20th century, but even though I find dealing with these familiar characters and settings quite comforting, trying to do justice to the story itself always makes me anxious. Can I make the story on the page turn out as good as the story in my head?

If I have learned anything about writing after all this time, it is that the process I undergo to finish every book is unique, even if it’s the nth in a series and is populated with characters you know like the back of your hand. Each book requires something different from you. Some flow out, some are dragged out screaming. Some take more research than others. You always have to respect your reader’s intelligence. Avid mystery readers are often more savvy about how mystery plots are routinely constructed than the writer is, so you’ve really got to be imaginative and on your toes to fool them. And fool them in a logical way. And how you as the author manage to get that done that for each book is totally different from all the others you've written. I don't know why.

Now, like many working authors, I occasionally present workshops and classes on how to develop character, construct a mystery, how to plot and how to add suspense to a novel. I have a system all worked out, and it's neat and tidy and easy to understand. The only problem is that I seldom follow my own advice.

I tell my classes that I generally write the first draft from beginning to end, skipping over the places where I find myself stuck so that I can just get it down. That's the dream, anyway. The reality is that I've been known to make books like I make quilts, out of patchwork pieces that I sew together and hope in the end I have a pattern. And when it comes to the "skipping over" part, I have to admit that I have been known to spend day after unproductive day picking at some plot problem as though I'm trying to unravel the Gordian knot with a straight pin.

I advise the writers in my seminars that "writing is rewriting", which I believe to my bones. And yet it is not unknown for me to polish a section of story for a week before moving on.

Write every day without fail, I say. Skipping even a day makes it difficult to pick up where you left off. Excellent advice. If only life never intruded. Or if only I weren't such an undisciplined slob.

The only thing I can always count on when I write a book is that whether I deserve it or not, the Muses always come to my rescue and I end up with a finished mystery novel that hangs together in an interesting and logical way. I don't know how.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Getting to the end

 As usual, I loved Douglas's Monday blog. When my turn on Type M looms and I have no idea what to blog about, I read the blogs immediately before mine and very often, presto, an idea. Or at least something to spin off of.

He was talking about starting points. That blank page that confronts us authors at the beginning of our 300-page journey into the unknown. Full of possibilities, secrets to be unearthed, and terrors to navigate. Then he described on how he navigates the journey.There is no right way to write a book, no shortcuts or guidebooks that guarantee an easy, successful trip, despite their promises. And if there were, what a bore that would be. Writers are often asked two questions: where do we get our ideas, and what is our writing process? People are interested to learn that ideas do not land on our page perfectly formed but rather they are spun from snippets here and there – a conversation overheard on a bus, a news in brief in the newspaper – created much as an oyster forms a pearl from an insignificant grain of sand. 

Our process is whatever works for us to get from that blank page to the words "the end". Some writers are compulsive outliners, others sketch out the high points and major twists ahead of time, but leave the details for first draft. As incredible as it sounds, a great many simply jump in and start to write, with only the vaguest idea what the story is about and who is in it, but not the faintest idea where it's going or how it will end. I am mostly of this latter school, knows as pantsers. As in we fly by the seat of our pants. This is a wild-west style that allows the imagination the greatest freedom but also brings the most terrors. Douglas is quite right - when terror strikes, you have to trust yourself. I usually remind myself that I have written xxx number of books before and in each case have managed to figure out how to end them.

Which brings me, finally, to the point I was going to make in this blog. The ending point. If you and your editor have done a decent job, the end should be neat and only as long as it needs to be to finish the story. I don't mean "tied up in a perfect little bow" neat. I mean it should answer the crucial question(s) posed in the book and tie up most but not all the loose ends. If too many questions are left dangling, the reader feels frustrated and unfulfilled, but if every little question is answered, there is nothing left for the reader to ponder and answer on their own. It all feels too clever and contrived. It also leaves the reader with no curiosity about what may happen in future books.

In most mystery stories, the crucial question(s) to answer is Who dunnit, and will justice be served? It's a rare mystery that doesn't at least tell the reader at the end who the killer is. In most cases, that would leave the reader throwing the book across the room. Very occasionally, the author leaves a hint of doubt and a hint of a possible alternative, so that the reader can weigh the evidence for themselves. Risky, but intriguing! 

The question of "Will justice be served" leaves a lot more leeway. Sometimes this means the killer is not only revealed, but the evidence exists that will convict them. But there may be times when, on balance, justice is served by letting the killer go free. Mysteries that explore that vast gray area between right and wrong, between good and evil, are the most compelling and meaningful of all. When the reader asked themselves, What would I do?


Tuesday, May 10, 2022

May Misery

 Well, here I am. It's Mother's Day and my daughter, Michele and her husband Harry, invited me over for a lovely meal. My granddaughter Leah drove up for Denver. I was presented with a lovely Pendleton bag. My problems commenced when I joined the family outside on the patio. Literally everyone else was in sandals and lightweight clothing. I was wearing two sweaters (One is a turtleneck) and a jacket.

I cannot believe that my non-allergic rhinitis is stronger than ever. Springtime brings a special kind of misery. Everyone else was enjoying the sunshine and I was chilly and bundled up. The worst side effect is fatigue and a special kind of brain fog unless I'm dosed up with an antihistamine/decongestant. Then I do quite well. But I didn't have it on hand, and it was Sunday. 

I have a number of historical medicals books on my shelves. From time to time I wonder what folks did about illnesses year ago. When I was a little girl my mother's remedy was lemon juice with aspirin for practically anything--coupled with bed rest. 

Folk medicine played a huge role in my most recent book, The Healer's Daughter (Five Star/Gale Cengage) which was set in the 1800s, a central character, Queen Bess, used maggots to cleanse a mother's wound from a Caesarian incision. If that sounds gross and primitive maggots are still being used today in some of the best hospitals because they work more quickly than other methods and don't spread the infection. Still. I would rather not have this done to me. I'm a rather queasy woman.

In another book, Hidden Heritage, (Poisoned Pen Press) an old Spanish woman combines all kinds of spells with her herbs, and her knowledge of plants is profound and very ancient. Since I mentioned a madstone in this book, a reader wrote to tell me about one in a museum in Missouri. A madstone was used to cure a person of rabies. The stone is actually a hairball from a deer's stomach. A madstone from a white albino deer will also take care of rattlesnake venom. 

My all-time favorite recommendation for wound treatment was whiskey and opium. Taken as requested. It came from a Tennessee hill doctor.  

Monday, May 09, 2022

The blank page

 Every piece of writing begins with a blank page.

Whether you use technology, pen, pencil, crayon, quill or a stick in the sand, you are faced with a pristine surface that urges, goads, bullies you to record your thoughts.

When I was a newspaper editor, I told young journalists struggling with how to begin to just put anything down. Don't sweat an opening, it will come. 

The advantage they had, of course, is that they were merely recording facts (in theory anyway) and not creating something out of thin air. They had the basis of what they were about to write in their notepads but still they hesitated, searching for that killer opening.

I've given would-be authors the same advice in workshops - just put something down - anything, even Once Upon a Time, if you have to. One word will follow another and I guarantee sooner or later the correct opener will present itself. It might be something grabby, it might be something descriptive, it might be something so wonderful that people will quote it for decades to come, damn you.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

I don't know if Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and George Orwell had those lines already factored into their plans. I like to think they occurred to them after they had begun writing, mostly because it suits my premise. 

Speaking personally, I have very little factored into my plans when I write. I fact, I don't have any plans to speak of when I write but there have been times when I have come up with what I believe is a cunning twist - say on page 262 - that makes me realise why I had something happen way back on page 84. It's not a way of working that I would recommend but it's the way I seem to be stuck with, thanks to custom, practice, extreme laziness, lack of focus and a mind that goes off in many directions at once and is easily distracted by....oh look, a shiny thing!

Now, where was I?

Oh, yes, writing from scratch.

I met a friend yesterday who is writing her second book. She told me that she's been sailing along quite happily, she's at chapter nine or ten, but she has no idea how it will end.

Well, it's my theory that she actually does know how it will end. Or at least some part of the brain that governs this sort of thing does. It's just that the part of the brain that governs this sort of thing is very secretive and it simply hasn't told her yet.

The part of the brain that governs this sort of thing is like that person in school. You know who I mean - the one who covered up their work so nobody could see. They usually sat beside me and it was infuriating. I mean, what's the point of sitting beside someone who is smart if you can't crib their work? Frankly, I found it very irritating.

Anyway, I think the part of the brain that governs this sort of thing has much of what we write already worked out. That's why I'm not a great believer in writer's block. I think what happens is that the writer has lost faith in what makes them a writer in the first place. Let's call it a gift, which sounds terribly pretentious but that's what it is. We have to trust the gift and let it find the way ahead and sometimes it's by going back. The answer is there, somewhere in that part of the brain that...etc...etc...

So what made me broach this for my fortnightly Type M entry?

Well, I couldn't think of anything to write, so I typed the first thing that came into my mind.

And then, hey presto, I had a blog.

See? It works...

Wednesday, May 04, 2022

Malice Domestic Recap 2022


by Sybil Johnson

I recently attended Malice Domestic in Bethesda, Maryland at the Bethesda North Marriott (really it’s in Rockville, Maryland). Here’s my recap of Malice 32-33-34. Yep, 3 years in one! It was 32-33-34 because, even though an in person Malice didn’t happen for all of them, the Agatha Award winners were selected for each year. 

I was traveling from California to D.C. on the 20th, hence no blog post that day. I know, I know, I know, I could have done it ahead of time. Anyway, I like to get to the hotel on Wednesday so I have Thursday free to adjust to the time change.

Traveling on a plane wasn’t particularly odd for me. I’ve been on a number of them since last June either to Seattle or Las Vegas. This was the first on what I would characterize as a long flight for me though. The flight was fine. I got to the hotel around 11 pm at night and slept in a bit on Thursday

Since I had Thursday free I went to the zoo which is a pretty easy subway ride away from the hotel. The National Zoo requires a ticket to get in these days. They’re free and you can get them when you get to the zoo, but it’s easier to make the arrangements ahead of time. Also, you won’t run into the possibility that they’ll deny you entrance because they have given away all of the tickets.

I visited the pandas and the cheetah, my two favorite animals there. I didn’t put the plural on cheetah because I only saw one of them while I saw more than one panda. Saw lots of other animals as well. All in all, I had a really nice time walking around.

The conference itself was very nice, though smaller than usual. If I had to guess I’d say that about half of the usual number of people attended. That’s purely a guess made with absolutely no statistics to back it up.

Everyone was very happy to be back together. I think we were all trying to get back into the swing of things. I saw many people I haven’t seen since the last Malice I attended in 2019. Had a good time attending panels, guest speaker interviews and talking to people in the lobby/halls/break room. Ellen Byron and I laughed that, even though we both live in Los Angeles County, we had to cross the country to see each other.

Libby Klein, Becky Clark, me, Laura Oles (photo courtesy of Laura Oles, used with her permission)

photo courtesy of Laura Oles used with her permission

I also did a podcast interview with Angela Marie Hart, Cozy Mystery Book Club founder. We had a wonderful conversation about writing and my books.


Angela Marie Hart and me

I was on a panel entitled “Can You Google the Killer? How Sleuths Navigate Tech and Social Media” moderated by Vincent O’Neil. Besides me, the panelists were Nicole Asselin, Sarah E. Burr, Barry Fulton and Korina Moss. It was a fun panel and an interesting topic, but I feel like we only scratched the surface. We could have talked for a lot longer about the use of tech and social media in mysteries.

The panel I was on (photo courtesy of Laura Oles, used with her permission)

The Agatha Banquet was fun, as usual. I was lucky to be at Dru Ann Love’s table, Fan Guest of Honor. Had a lot of fun and interesting conversations. The awards for Malice 32, 33 and 34 were all given out. Tears were shed at some of the acceptance speeches, including Ellen Byron’s who won the Agatha for Best Contemporary Novel for Cajun Kiss of Death. The Faithful Few, those who have attended every single Malice since its inception, were honored with the Amelia Award.

After Malice, I spent some time with a friend from college who now lives in Virginia. On the way to the airport, we visited the Pentagon Memorial, the Iwo Jima Memorial and the Air Force Memorial. The Pentagon Memorial was particularly touching.

Iwo Jima Memorial

Me in front of the Iwo Jima Memorial

The Agatha Award winners for 2022

Best Contemporary Novel Cajun Kiss of Death by Ellen Byron

Best Historical Novel Death at Greenway by Lori Rader Day 

Best Short Story – “Bay of Reckoning” by Shawn Reilly Simmons in the Murder on the Beach anthology 

Best First NovelArsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala

Best Non-FictionHow to Write a Mystery: A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America, Lee Child and Laurie King, Editors 

Best Children’s/YA MysteryI Play One on TV by Alan Orloff 

Malice Domestic is my favorite conference. I gladly cross the country to go to it. Hope to see more people there next time around. 

A couple other recaps you might find interesting: 

Edith Maxwell’s:

Dru Ann Love’s:

Tuesday, May 03, 2022

Mother of All Plotting Books

Years ago, when I was learning to write, I ordered writing books from Interlibrary Loan. One on plotting was clearly superior, so I bought it. The title is Plotting: For Every Kind of Writing. The author was Jack Woodford and it was published by the Garden City Publishing Co, Inc. in 1939. 

I had a hard time tracking it down and I'm sure it would be impossible today. The book is a gem. The table of contents alone was worth the price of the book. Above is a sample of one of the chapters. Here's some others:
The chapter headings go through XXXIV. THE COMPLETE MOTION PICTURE STORY. One of my favorite chapters is XXIII, THE CHINESE METHOD IN PLOTTING. It's a very analytical approach to learning how to plot. He also mentions the futility of classifying the four thousand novels published yearly in the United States. Four thousand. Boy, those were the days.  

I'm a linear plotter. Meaning that I write a novel straight through with one scene following another. I don't think this is the best way or the only way to write a mystery, it's simply the only way that ever worked for me. 

It has its own rewards. On days when I absolutely, positively can't see through the fog and have to force myself to keep stumbling along, my characters volunteer to help me out. 

I love to plot. I love discovering connections and assimilating complications. It's the Nancy Drew gene. A number of mystery writers swear they have it. 

Monday, May 02, 2022

Writing in a Hotel Room?

 By Thomas Kies

We just got back from New York City this weekend and I have all those mundane things that need to be done…laundry, finish unpacking, go through the mail, and pay bills.  So, this week’s blog will be blessedly short.

We attended the Edgar Awards last Thursday. I’ll write about that in my next blog.  Needless to say, it was an incredibly classy affair, and it was the first in-person event that the Mystery Writers of America has hosted since the beginning of the pandemic.  I was honored to be invited. 

And this was the first trip we’ve taken since March of 2020.  As you know, mask mandates have been suspended on airlines and in most airports and it was with some degree of anxiety that we flew from North Carolina to the Big Apple.  

The cab we took from the airport still required a mask, but the hotel didn’t. The Edgar event required that you show proof of vaccination and that you wear a mask. The MWA gave out really cool black masks with their Edgar logo on the side. 

The masks lasted only a short time in the champagne reception for the nominees, and it wasn’t long before we were all maskless.  Ditto the mask situation for dinner. It’s just difficult to eat and wear a mask and after a couple of glasses of wine, masks are generally forgotten.

We managed to score a couple of tickets to see HAMILTON on Friday night.  They were serious about covid precautions.  You had to show proof of vaccination and wear a mask the entire evening.  No exceptions. 

The show was well worth it and everyone in the audience was in compliance.  

It’s been a number of years since we’ve been in NYC and the one thing we noticed most (other than the incredible amount of scaffolding and building and remodeling going on in the city) was there was a free Covid testing site on nearly every street corner. I think we have only one for our entire county here where I live. 

And it was cold there.  Dear God, it was cold.  I’m now sitting in my North Carolina home office in my shorts and t-shirt and the windows are wide open.  I forgot just how cold April can be “up north”. 

I’ll write more about the Edgars in the next blog as well as the party and anthology kick-off event at the Mysterious Book Shop.  Forgive me if I drop a few names (I get star struck when I meet mystery writing legends).  I’m in my sixties, but I still felt like the country boy in the big city this past week.

Did I do any writing at all?  In a hotel room, overlooking Times Square?  Fat chance.

But now, I’m glad to be home, where I can write in peace.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

From Real Life

 For the past several months I've been hosting authors on my own website in a feature called Tell Me Your Story. I ask my guests to let us in on how events in their lives led them to become authors or influenced their writing. I've had some wonderful guests who've told wonderful stories, and as a bonus I've learned that my sources of inspiration are no different from even the most prolific and successful writers out there.

My guest this month is Betty Webb, author of dozens of wonderful novels, including ten Lena Jones noir mysteries and six Gunn Zoo humorous cozies. Betty lets us in on why her characters are so realistic and relatable. She says  "I get my ideas from my exceedingly weird family, who are weird enough to give me tips for character-driven mysteries, but not so weird that they ruined my childhood." She also admits that she bases her characters on her friends and enemies, too. (You can read about her tips and tricks here.)

This has made me consider my own characters. Mine are fashioned after and inspired by real people in my life, as well. You can't make up people in all their glorious inconsistencies and peccadilloes with anywhere near the imagination that God uses.

Of course, after writing several books featuring the same recurring characters, it seems to me that my characters have developed lives of their own, and they drive the action in my stories rather than the action driving them, just like real life.They may have started out as fictional characters, but they don't stay that way.

The great mystery novelist Graham Greene once said, "There comes a time when your character does something you would never have thought of. When that happens, he's alive, and you leave him to it."(I may have used this quote several times before, but what good is it to know a pithy quote unless you can use it fifteen or twenty times?)

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

In celebration of independent bookstores

 Barbara here. I am devoting today's blog to independent bookstores, because April 30 is International Independent Bookstore Day. It's a very worthy cause that deserves much more attention than it gets. It even has its own Twitter hashtag, #indiebookstoreday, which I used on Facebook today since Twitter and I aren't on speaking terms at the moment.

Since I first got into the author business over twenty years ago, it seems to me that independent bookstores have staggered from one crisis after another. First it was the Big Box retailers. In Canada, Chapters/ Indigo often tried to drive the indies out of business by opening a big store right up the street. The big stores drove harder bargains with the publishers and demanded bigger discounts and other preferential treatment like book placement that the indies couldn't afford but publishers couldn't refuse. Next, megastores like Walmart and drugmarts began skimming off the biggest selling books, eroding everyone else's profits even more.  Then along came Amazon, with its aggressive sales approach and deep discounts, and blew the whole brick-and-mortar book business out of the water, including the Big Box and Megastores. Quite a few closed or went entirely online. Many customers switched to digital books downloaded online. Everyone prophesied the demise of the physical bookstore entirely.

Signings are always more fun with author friends

And finally along came the pandemic, supposedly the final nail in the independent bookstores' coffin. Retail stores had to close their doors during lockdowns and reduce their capacity at other times, people avoided going out and switched to online buying instead. Every business scrambled to find ways to stay afloat, but most independent bookstores could not afford to offer free shipping or sales discounts when their profit margin had always been very slim and they still had rent and utilities to pay, staff to pay, and inventory to purchase.

During these difficult times, especially during the past two years, they survived mostly on the loyalty of customers, which was based on the relationships they had built up and the unique personalized service they had provided in the years before. Shopping at an independent bookstore has always been different than shopping online or in a megastore. Staff turnover is minimal. Staff know their books and have read many of them, and they know their customers. Customers can always rely on a friendly personal greeting, usually from the owner, and a knowledgeable recommendation that helps them find the exact book they are looking for, even if they don't know what they want. "That blue book set in Venice with the police inspector. I think."

There is a place for Amazon and the big online retailers. They made a huge number of books accessible to everyone, no matter how remotely they live. They reduce costs for those who would otherwise struggle to buy books. However, indies can't match the discounts that the big guys offer because they haven't the power to negotiate publisher discounts, but those discounts are often at the expense of authors. Both publisher and author are squeezed by aggressive tactics from the big guys, and in the end, there will be fewer books and fewer publishers.

But indies offer things the big guys can't. There is nothing like the personal touch and the ability to browse bookshelves and peer at back covers. Nothing like the owner who listens to what you like and knows exactly what to suggest. Who helps you to find a lesser known writer whom you will love.

Aunt Agatha's Bookstore in Ann Arbor.

For most authors except the mega-best selling ones, that connection is crucial. We build up relationships with bookstores and we rely on that relationship and personal knowledge to help us reach new readers. Most authors are unknown and never hit the big best-seller status that gets them to the front racks at Walmart, Cosco, or pharmacies. Independent bookstores recommend our books to the customers they know would probably enjoy them, and bit by bit, our readership grows. 

Despite their struggles, many indies have not only survived but are drawing readers back in who miss the personal connection and knowledge and who recognize the value of a local business that is part in the community. Bookstores host readings and signings, they often have book clubs and children's events. This is what must be celebrated and cherished. On April 30, many of us authors will be participating in events at local bookstores. I urge everyone to look them up, post about #indiebookstoreday on Social Media, and if you can, drop by your favourite local bookstore. 

I'll be there - at Coles in Carlingwood Shopping Centre in Ottawa, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.