Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Thursday, June 30, 2011

What's it worth to you?

eBook Pricing...Say What?
So there's this huge debate going on in the ether (otherwise known as the Internet) about the pricing of ebooks, and I'm like...huh? You don't have enough to worry about?

We're talking unit price, not overall earnings. That's the part that makes this ridiculous. Who cares what the unit price is? Other than the readers, of course, who are always scrounging for another dime to buy something to read and appreciate getting good books el cheapo. There's already a long, well-established tradition of used bookstores and libraries (free books! What a deal!) that some of us use to try to stretch our dimes a bit further.

Here's the argument:
If you sell your book for $.99, you devalue it.

Really? You mean that book I got last weekend from the Waccamaw Boys & Girls School Thrift Store for $.25 has less value to me as a reader than it would if I had to pay $9.99 (and frankly, couldn't afford to buy it)?

I don't think so.

First off, you can't force a reader to value you, or your work, more by forcing them to pay more for it. They just won't buy it. You can enjoy your ego-trip thinking about how to make people pay more so they will know how much work you put into your product, but the reality is: if you're a writer, you have other things to worry about, including: writing the next book; writing the next book better than the previous book; and royalties.

Your focus should be on royalties, not unit price. Historically, you've never been able to set or control the unit price if you're traditionally published, why do you worry about it in relation to some theoretical "value" placed upon your work? There is no relationship between the two. Except what your ego places there.

Royalties = the money you earn on that book (of course, with an advance if you get one). That's your revenue stream.

The unit price that generates that revenue stream is irrelevant, except in dinking around with it to generate the largest revenue stream possible.

I would rather make $20,000 selling books for $.99 than $1,000 selling books for $24.95 for my traditionally published book. Because it's not the unit price that interests me (or any businessman or businesswoman); it's the revenue stream.

Which brings me to the second flaw in this thought process that focuses on unit price: if you set the price higher, you'll make more.

Probably not.

Again, you're making assumptions with no facts to back them. There's no such thing as a gauranteed sale unless you're like...Rowlings or someone like that. But we're not talking about a mega-super-star, here. We talking about John and Jane Doe-Author. Just because you can sell 1 million books at $.99 does NOT mean you will sell 1 million books at $9.99. In fact, odds are good you will sell sufficiently less to make the $9.99 per unit revenue stream less profitable than the $.99 per unit stream.

Am I saying that all books should be priced at $.99 if you want to sell a million?
Heck, no. I'm not insane (even if I sound that way).

What I'm saying is that pricing is not an exact art. There are times when you may want to use the $.99 price as an "intro" or "sales" price to generate interest. You may want to use it for the first book in a series to entice readers. You then may want to use a strategy such as:
$.99 - first book in series/short stories
$1.99 - novellas
$2.99 - full lenth novels/2nd and subsequent books in a series

Or higher prices. It's up to you. Do what works for you and your audience. But my advice is: leave your ego at the door.
This should be a business decision. It should not be about making readers value your work.

Only your work can make readers value your work, regardless of price.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Guest Author: William S. Shepard

First, I need to apologize to William for messing up his blog date. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. No excuses--especially since he sent me the blog ages in advance and I was really looking forward to it. But enough wringing of hands. Here he is!

Research and Mystery Writing
William S. Shepard

The advice given writers is to write about what they know, and it is sound advice. For myself, as a former career diplomat, it meant creating a new mystery genre, the diplomatic mystery. My series of four Robbie Cutler novels is set largely in American Embassies overseas, where I have served and lived for years.

That doesn’t mean, I quickly found out, that an overseas location is easy to write about or to recall. For one thing, one’s memory begins to play tricks. Was that restaurant really on the hilly Buda side of the Danube, or in downtown Pest? For another thing, history is a moving target. It doesn’t stay still at all, particularly in areas where the politics are volatile.

My novel “Murder On The Danube,” for example, is set in Budapest.

It is set in the present time, with flashbacks to the Hungarian Revolution against Russian occupation. Someone is killing people now, to stop the past from being found out.

This made for interesting research. When I was assigned to the American Embassy in Budapest it was during the communist years, when the Hungarian Revolution was officially a nonevent, so it was impossible to do solid research. After the Berlin Wall came down, and with the assistance of both the Hungarian Embassy in Washington and the American Embassy in Budapest, I returned, did research for the book, and even lectured at the official 1956 Historical Institute.
Now that would be impossible, for the Institute no longer exists. The 1956 Historical Institute was defunded, some say because its files may have contained embarrassing information about presently powerful people! History tends to wobble around still, like that Budapest park filled with old statues of the Stalinist era!
In creating a back story for the Hungarian Revolution itself I was faced with difficult choices. Put in too much, and the back story intrudes. Too little, and it would seem shallow. I even put the problem to a creative writing class that I was teaching at the time! Finally the solution came. The thirteen days of turmoil are well known, and so I wrote thirteen chapters, each with a back story that contained some highlights of that day in the fighting, with clues as to the present murderer. This format succeeded, and a high compliment came from a friend who was himself a Freedom Fighter in those days. He said that his teenage son read the book, and then said “I read ‘Murder On The Danube,’ and now I understand what you and Mother went through!”

Let me mention also my latest ebook, “ Maryland in the Civil War.” 

It arose out of my lectures on that subject at Chesapeake College and Washington College, Maryland. This is the 150th anniversary of those events, and some of the background, for example how Maryland stayed in the Union, is little known today. But I soon discovered the truth of Faulkner’s axiom, from Requiem For A Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” I found for example that fifty years ago, the centennial of the Civil War was marked by state observances. There arose an issue of whether to tell the story of John Brown’s 1859 raid at Harper’s Ferry. Some feared that the entire centennial observance might unravel if publicity were given to Brown’s exploits!

I have found unexpected richness in this topic. The courage of Governor Thomas Hicks, for example, is virtually unknown today. Sort of a Maryland Harry Truman, he was a Dorchester County farmer, who was elected by the Know-Nothing anti-immigrant party. Then Maryland was overwhelmed by the grand issue of whether to secede. Faced with a largely pro-secessionist state legislature, Hicks stalled and played a major role in ensuring that the state stayed in the Union. Had she not done so, of course, Washington would have been totally surrounded by the Confederacy, and the outcome might have been very different. It is a gripping story, one that I was thrilled to discover and write about. And of course the story was not one sided. At Gettysburg on the third day of the battle, Maryland units faced each other, and at Culp’s Hill, the opposing color sergeants were two cousins from Trappe, Talbot County, Maryland!

The richness and confusion of history is worth exploring. I hope you will share the excitement of that research, in “Murder On The Danube,” and “Maryland In Thed Civil War.”

One of the reasons I was so fascinated by this is that I grew up in Maryland and have visited Gettysburg, Harper's Ferry, and have had several wonderful trips to Russia, so it really resonated with me. I hope you'll enjoy these mysteries as much as I do!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Guest Author: Bernadette Pajer

Please welcome Bernadette Pajer, especially since it is her birthday. The times, they are a-changing...she's doing a fascinating look at how things have changed.
Happy June 27th! It happens to be my birthday, so I thought it would be fun to compare life in 1901, the year Professor Bradshaw solves his first case in Seattle, to life in 1963, the year I was born. It's such a short time in the grand scheme of things, just 62 years, but the difference is astounding. I've found a few quotes to illustrate how much the world changed (and yet how we're still profoundly connected.)

"Some Inside History and Physics of Flight, by Henry Neidig, M.E. . . .There is just as much likelihood that the granite bowlders [sic] of a dozen states will someday get up and fly back to their original strata, as there is that the Langley and Kress, or any other purely mechanical flying machines will become practical man-carrying realities."
                     The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 3, 1901

"X-15 Pilot Gains Astronaut's Wings EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif., June 27. –(A.P.)— Air Force Capt. Robert A. Rushworth, warming up for an altitude-record try, guided the X-15 rocket plane more than 50 miles high today to earn his astronaut's wings."
                      The Seattle Times, June 27, 1963


"Some women, otherwise good and true, have a sort of moral want of taste, and wear too bright colors, too many glass beads, too much hair, and a combination of discordant materials which causes the heart of a good dresser to ache with anguish."
                       Manners and Social Usages by Mrs. John Sherwood, Revised edition of 1901.

"Inez Robb: Down With the Fancy-Pantsers NEW YORK This is the day to nail my fashion theses to the door. I am so avant garde that I believe women should look like women from the cradle to the grave and not like beatniks, freakniks or creepniks."
                    The Seattle Times, September 10, 1963

"TELEPHONE METHODS. May Be Completely Revolutionized by This New Invention.(Chicago Times-Herald) An invention threatens to do away almost entirely with the telephone girl . . . The new invention is called the autocommutator . . . every subscriber is supplied with an instrument consisting of a battery, transmitter, receiver, call bell, and a moveable dial with decimal figures."
                  The Seattle Daily Times, April 6, 1901.

"DEAR ABBY: You mentioned that some of the wires a father should pull to get his son into a good college were TV, hi-fi and telephone. I couldn't agree more heartily. I am 18 years old and have been glued to the "nutty box" almost since its invention."
                 The Seattle Times, June 3, 1963.


"I have a very great interest in your state, the great state of Washington, which I helped make, . . . Seattle and Tacoma are wonderful young cities, and are destined to become very great metropolises." President William McKinley as told by Mr. Baker of the Snoqualmie Falls Power Company.
                    The Seattle Daily Times, July 18, 1901 (two months before he was assassinated.)

"We need men who can dream of things that never were."
President John F. Kennedy
June 28, 1963 (the day after I was born, and five months before he was assassinated.)


"If you can dream it, you can do it. Always remember that this whole thing was started with a dream and a mouse."
Walt Disney, born 1901
(attended McKinley High School in Chicago)

"I was born into a world full of rocket ships and magic kingdoms, thanks to all those who came before me, following their passions and their dreams, and inspiring me to do the same."
Bernadette Pajer, born 1963
(attended Kennedy High School in Seattle)

In A SPARK OF DEATH, The First Professor Bradshaw Mystery, Benjamin Bradshaw, Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Washington in 1901, discovers a colleague dead inside the Faraday Cage of the Electric Machine. The death is senseless and Bradshaw is the lone suspect. To protect his precious son and clear his name, he must find the killer.

His life and liberty threatened, Bradshaw discovers the thrill of investigation as he unveils a tangle of clues and questions. How had the Electric Machine’s Tesla Coil delivered a fatal shock? Was the murder personal—or connected to anarchism and President McKinley’s planned visit to Seattle and the new Snoqualmie Falls Power Plant? Bradshaw struggles to protect his own haunting secret as the hunt continues. Before it’s too late, will he discover the circuit path that led to a spark of death?

Thank you so much! I love these brief glimpses into our past and how things have changed!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sample Sunday: A Rose Before Dying

It's Sample Sunday, which means it's time to gives folks a sample of one of my books. This time it will be my latest mystery, A Rose Before Dying which was just released this month.

A Rose Before Dying

Only Sir Edward had the motive, the opportunity, and a garden full of the identical roses sent to each victim before their death.

The first victim was Sir Edward’s ex-mistress, a woman who threw him over for a younger man. After receiving a mysterious rose, she dies while alone with Sir Edward. Then a second rose is delivered and a deadly game commences, where roses are the only clues to save the next victim.

However, Charles Vance, Earl of Castlemoor, refuses to believe his uncle, Sir Edward, could commit the murders, even when the renowned head of the Second Sons Inquiry Agency warns him there may be some truth behind the rumors. The roses are Sir Edward’s attempt to cast suspicion elsewhere. Misdirection. Or so the whispers say.

Convinced he can prove his uncle’s innocence, Vance enlists the aide of notable rosarian, Ariadne Wellfleet, little realizing his actions will involve the Wellfleet household in the killer’s game.

Before the week is out, another rose is delivered.

And someone else is missing.

In this excerpt, Charles Vance, Earl of Castlemoor, is convinced by his desperate uncle, Sir Edward, to help him prove his innocence in the death of his mistress. Sir Edward had originally gone to his friend, Knighton Gaunt, the founder of the Second Sons Inquiry Agency, but he has now had second thoughts about involving an outsider. The only thing they have to go on is a spray of Lady Banks roses and a few taunting notes.

“Is this our only clue, then?” Charles arranged the two calling cards in front of him before gently rewrapping the spray of yellow flowers. “Did anyone see the flowers delivered?”

“No. The butler found the first bundle on the stoop when he opened the door for Lady Banks and Sir Edward to attend church services. They assumed I’d left it there as a surprise when I arrived.”

“Surely the accident didn’t occur on your way to church?” Charles asked, appalled.

“No—no. We went for a walk. Later. In the garden,” Sir Edward said. “There was a shot. She fell into my arms…”

After a moment of silence, Gaunt picked up the threads of the story to spare Sir Edward. “The second note and rose were left at the French doors leading to the garden.”

“Inside the house?”

“No. Outside,” his uncle said.

“And no one saw anyone?” How was that possible?

“No. No one but me. The servants said no one but me had visited or been in the garden. The constable did his best. He questioned several of the lads—known poachers—but they all had witnesses to verify their whereabouts at the time. Then he had to look elsewhere. By then, the whispers had started. I was alone in the garden with her. They said I did it. I was the only one there.”

Charles touched his uncle’s shoulder. “Nonsense. Obviously, someone else had been there. Had she argued with anyone?”

“No!” The single word exploded from his uncle’s white lips. “No. She argued with no one. This was—inexplicable. Inexcusable. She was an innocent victim. I—I believe it was aimed at me. The taunting flowers—what other reason could there be for those bloody roses?” He voice rasped with barely suppressed emotion. “He killed her—so they weren’t meant for her. The flowers were a message to me.”

“Why?” Charles glanced away from the pain in his uncle’s face, trying to drag the conversation into less terrible channels. “Who would hate you so much? Who do you suspect?”

Sir Edward took a deep, shuddering breath and then straightened. He shrugged. “No one. I can’t imagine who would hate me so. Or treat Lady Banks with such callous contempt. It’s beyond comprehension.”

The thought of shooting a woman for the purpose of bringing pain and suffering to another man was difficult for anyone to accept.

It took Charles a few moments convince himself it was possible for a man to be that cold, that malicious. “Have you any other information? Perhaps a list of those who bear you malice?”

His uncle shook his head, his gaze fixed on the floor.

Charles glanced at Mr. Gaunt. He wanted to question him to see what the man might have to offer in his professional capacity. Surely he had some relevant experience. Something that might bring light to the awful events.

“Please, Lord Castlemoor…Hoopes was right, after all. I should have gone to you, first.” His uncle interrupted the silence in a rush as if he could no longer bear the company of his own thoughts. “Whatever scandal is flushed out is best kept within the family. You must see that.”

Scandal? Charles’s gut clenched. What skeletons did his uncle know about, that might creep out of the family’s closet?

Certainly, none that he wanted Gaunt to chat with.

Hope you enjoyed that brief snippet of A Rose Before Dying.
Best wishes for a successful week ahead!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Guest Author: TL Jones

Today we have T.L. Jones visiting, talking about the craft of writing. She's working on an interesting series, the Jaded Series, revolving around Jade Hamilton Douglas. Without more ado, here is T.L. Jones.

The Craft of Writing, By T.L. Jones

First I want to thank Amy for allowing me the opportunity to blog. We have chosen to blog about ‘The Craft of Writing’.

Writing can mean many different things to the writer themselves. Some authors write out of passion, some for stress relief and others for reasons to many to mention. Most writers’ stick to a genre they are familiar with or have knowledge of.

Writing can be challenging and enjoyable. The different styles of writing can be confusing and new authors have to find their own style. Some authors will make an outline before they begin their novels or short stories and others, like me, don’t work with an outlined story.

I find that my talent simply put, flows. I love the challenge of sitting down to my laptop and begin a story line off the top of my head. This would be uncomfortable for those that choose to work from an outline.

Imagine being able to write a story and have characters you’ve made come alive on the page. I believe one of the highest compliments a writer can get is when the reader tells them that reading the book was like watching a movie. That means they have given enough detail to give the reader a complete description to actually see in their minds eye what the writer is trying to say.

Many writers’ complete formal training to learn the rules of proper writing. I don’t believe you must have formal training, however, keep in mind the importance of proper grammar. Of course, sometimes, proper grammar is not used in such instances as, conversations between characters. (When you want the dialect to sound like a conversation.) Not many of us talk properly when we converse with each other, such is the case when you have two characters talking you want it to sound like a typical conversation between two people.

Editing is one of the most important aspects of writing. Many writers employ editors to edit theirs works. You wouldn’t want to pick up a book to read only to find error after error. That takes away from the joy of curling up with a good book. The storyline can be an exceptional storyline, however, if not edited well, you probably would not enjoy the book.

Writers come from all walks of life and most work another job. Writing is a hard industry to break into since today it seems everyone has a book. Self-publishing and vanity presses make it easy to get a book in print these days, however, quality can be a problem. If you are going to take the time to write a book keep in mind the competition for finding a publisher is very tough.

There are several blogs on writing techniques and the do’s, as well as, the don’ts for anyone looking for help. Just make sure you take the time to see your book completed with quality. Do not rush the process and skip important steps just to see your work in print.

T.L. Jones
and on Facebook as T L Jones Author

Thanks, T.L., and I'm glad you mentioned taking time with your book. Independent publishing venues have made it ridicuously easy to rush a book into print before it's really ready. It's difficult to resist that when you're really excited about a story. But we all owe it to our readers to take the time and write the best book possible.

Monday, June 20, 2011

School of Hard Knocks: Pacing and Tension

Story Pacing and Tension

I recently had a chat with my editor, and I need to improve the pacing & tension in my latest paranormal romance. So before I did anything, I thought I’d do a quick scan on the Internet for articles on pacing and tension. I’ll admit I was looking for easy answers instead of what I already knew.

What I found surprised me because it strictly focused on cosmetics rather than the fundamentals. Sort of like advising home owners that if they have a leak that has stained the wall, they can simply paint over the wall to eliminate the stain. While this is true, it doesn’t fix the leak. But it’s easier to paint than it is to rip out the wall, replacing or fix the leaking pipe, replace the wall, and then repaint.

So while it’s true that I was looking for an easy answer, I wasn’t happy with the easy answers I found because I knew they would not fix my problem. I also knew in my heart-of-hearts that I actually needed to put in some blood, sweat, and tears to fix the issue. I just didn’t want to admit it.

Cosmetic Fixes

If you need a quick fix, here’s the answer that is plastered all over in writing blogs everywhere: Shorten your sentences. Use a few fragments. Avoid lengthy descriptions. Shorten your scenes. Use more dialog.

Yes, that will increase the pace. But…I’ve seen entire novels written this way, so while it does help, it’s actually not the answer if you need to increase both pacing and tension.

How to Increase Tension and Improve Pacing

There are two main ways to do this. Actually, there are dozens, if not hundreds, but all methods can be roughly defined by the two I’m going to mention. Neither is easy. Both require a lot of thought and work. Once you do one of them, you can “pretty it up” by doing the cosmetic thing with the shorter sentences, fragments, etc.

The two ways are defined mostly by the kind of story you are writing. If you are writing a mystery, where much of the tension is derived from information (i.e. clues, new suspects, etc) then the method of most interest will be the Information Method. If you’re writing a more action-packed story, e.g. adventure, suspense, etc, then the technique listed as Obstacle Method may be more germane. But either method will work in any kind of story. Most of the time, authors use both methods, because varying the method will also help to increase the tension and improve the pace.

No matter which method or variation of a method used, the key is this: to increase tension and pacing, you must introduce something new, either information or an obstacle. It must come from an entirely different, and unexpected direction.

Sometimes the new thing comes in the form of a subplot. For example, in a mystery, you have the detective trying to solve a homicide. She’s being shot at and generally placed in danger by thugs who may or may not have committed the murder. But you have a subplot where her boss is trying to make her retire because he thinks she’s “past it”. So you can increase the tension and pacing by throwing in a curve by having the boss assign the case to a different guy, but your detective can’t let go. Conflict. That’s what you’re going for.

The thing about this is that it’s not what the reader expects. It’s not just “more of the same”. You can’t increase either tension or pacing by just piling on more of the same kind of action, i.e. the detective faces one gunman in chapter 1, so in chapter 2, you have her face five gunmen. Bor-ing!

Information Method

Give the reader a new bit of information that send the story in an entirely different direction. For a mystery, this can be a new clue (or red herring) that forces your detective to suspect a different person. Think of it as driving down a street and coming to an intersection. Your reader expects you to go straight or turn right or left. You’re going to back up fifty feet and go down an alley the reader didn’t even see.

Obstacle Method

An obstacle can be anything that causes a problem for your hero or heroine. But for this to work, it has to be a different problem with the following characteristics:

  • It’s not the same (only more/bigger/badder) problem s/he face before. You can’t just add one or two more gunmen to the shoot-out. It has to be something different, like the house suddenly caving in on them. 
  • It has to be unexpected
  • It has to flow naturally out of the story so that once the reader sees it, they’ll say—of course that happened, it had to, but it was sure a shock. For example, in a ghost story, your intrepid investigators are attacked by some sort of paranormal entity while trying to help the family who just inherited the house. Blah, Blah. Then suddenly, they are shot at! By another group of competing investigators, who are there because they’ve learned there’s a chest of cursed gold hidden, blah, blah. A physical attack by humans is not what your average ghost story fan expects. It’s not what your hero/heroine expects, either. (The gold isn’t expected by your hero, either, so it’s a two-for-one moment, both information and obstacle.)

New information and obstacles must be present in every chapter—hopefully, something new is delivered in every scene—to create a page-turner. That’s something new happening three times a chapter, at a minimum. That’s the structural requirement to keep a book from having a sagging middle, and once you create the structure, then you can daub on the paint to make it look pretty, too, by shortening sentences, adding more dialog, etc, in those specific high-tension spots where the pacing has to increase to the fastest pace.

But remember, you don’t want your entire book to be at a run because that can be exhausting. You want to give the reader a chance to catch their breath once in a while, just like your characters have to.

Now, I have to get back to figuring out what walls to rip out and replace in my own book.


Guest Writer: Robert Richter

Perhaps it's because I was born in Texas, but whatever the reason, I'm enthralled by Mexico and it's rich and varied history. When Robert contacted me and said he'd be happy to write a blog about Mexico, I jumped at the opportunity. Robert writes both mystery and history set in Mexico and his most recent novel is set against the Huichol culture of northwestern Mexico, one of Mexico's most mysterious and isolated indigenous people. I find it fascinating and I hope you will to. Please welcome Robert!

Although I was a wheat farmer for twenty years and still live a reclusive life on the remnants of a family homestead in southwestern Nebraska, I also have an active relationship with Mexico (and other parts of Latin America) that dates back more than forty years. I first traveled alone in Mexico during the cultural turmoil of the Vietnam Era, and I quickly began to realize that the official American version of what Mexico is like as a nation and a people was just as distorted as the official version of that Asian war. Unfortunately, over four decades later, American conceptions of Mexico’s government, culture, and history, including the so-called Drug War at present, remain a politicized distortion in American schools, the American press, and the American psyche.

Perhaps our collective national consciousness is still in denial (and cover up mode) about the fact that we stole nearly half of Mexico’s sovereign territory in the 1840s. Did you know that what American schools gloss over as the U.S.-Mexican War is taught in Mexican history class as The U.S. Invasion of Mexico because, well, that’s just what it was? (You can find verification of this version in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.) A hundred a sixty-five years of Mexico bashing has been a noisy rationale of just desserts all around: the U.S. is superior; Mexico is still lawless and dangerous. This is just one example of how two different cultural realities and perspectives can occupy the same historical space.

While I could rant about such injustices, my only real suggestion is merely that a person ought to travel to Mexico to see for oneself what life is really like there. And by “Mexico,” I mean a place other than the beach resorts—rural and village Mexico, and wild nature Mexico, exotic Mexico.

I return to Mexico each year, in part, to remind myself that day-to-day humanity of my own local community and way of life is the same human nature to be found in rural and small town Mexico (and, would you believe, in most parts of the rest of the world): love of family, devotion to a higher power, communal interaction for the betterment of all. In short, decent human beings working out their lot in life exist everywhere.

I also return to Mexico each year because, well, I just like the life style there. It reminds me of earlier times when my own American culture was more free spirited, less cynical, more informal in business, and less restrictive in personal freedoms. And you can’t beat the affordability compared to the American cost of living. But mostly, I return to Mexico because the history and culture fascinate me with their blend of Spanish colonial and indigenous character. There is still magic in Mexico, different realities side by side, and places where the passage of time means nothing.

I also travel frequently to Mexico because I am a historian and a writer with a scholarly relationship to Mexico past and present. The country’s history and character imbue my work, whether I write fiction or historical narrative, and that work is always composed of personal experience and sound historical investigation, intended to inform and entertain my audience about some real and fascinating aspect of Mexico’s rich culture.

An example subject would be the Huichol and Cora Indians who live in the high sierras of northwestern Mexico where the states of Durango, Jalisco, and Nayarit meet. So isolated and independent, their ancestors were never conquered by the Spanish colonists. Their animistic religious lives, devoted to the worship of the deer, the corn plant, and the peyote cactus, have never been dominated by Christianity. Their language is unwritten, its orthographies created by modern anthropologists who have studied their culture. And Huichol art has come to be known worldwide for its uniqueness in form, style, and subject. Merely Google “Huichol Art,” to verify this point.

The art is also a good example of how their culture has come under stress from outsiders and the modern world. Early Huichol art was entirely devoted to a spiritual connection to and view of the universe and their gods. In particular, the “yarn painting” is traditionally a small rectangular board coated in bee’s wax into which colorful yarns are inlaid in tight, concentric lines, and depicts a scene in which the artist receives a vision from the gods while under the hallucinogenic influence of peyote. The yarn painting tells a story of the artist’s spiritual journey, and originally, such works were never intended to be sold to anyone.

Now, yarn painting is a cottage industry, along with other well-known Huichol art forms like “god’s eyes” and bead inlaid busts of jaguars. This industrial output has been supported by outside do-gooders, including Mexico’s own Ministry of Culture, in well-meaning efforts to help the Huichols preserve their ancient and traditional culture in their homeland sierras. In the evolving production of art goods, the spiritual messages and symbols inherent in early works that found their way into art boutiques and tourist shops have all but disappeared into secular, geometric design. It is still unique Huichol art, but art for contemporary mass capitalistic consumption.

Having moved along the fringes of Huichol culture from time to time during forty years of travel, I’ve seen a subtle evolution in the yarn painting. Once, the vision represented was purely symbolic of the spiritual, a depiction of interaction between the highest powers and the vision seeker. The corn plant, the deer, the peyote, and so many other spiritually imbued creatures—scorpions, eagles, water serpents, grandfather fire, and more—were the elements and the life of the vision and the painting. But gradually, true spiritual stories have given way to nonrepresentational geometric designs and creatures talking to and for an audience of art buyers, not for the shaman—the Huichol religious leader who helps the visionary interpret his religious experience under the effects of peyote.

In other ways, too, the Huichol culture has come under stress of onslaught by modern times. Alcoholism and capitalism work like water seeping into the cracks of a granite mountain to freeze and thaw, expand and contract, until this particular cultural mountain erodes way to boulders, then to gravel, then sand. But capitalism also helps keep the Huichol culture alive in some of its purer forms, too. Those who recognize the artistry in Huichol craft and buy their art sustain a contemporary economic base for an ancient culture, allowing a people to adhere to their cultural values at a level of their choosing. In communities in the highest sierras, some Huichols still follow the shaman in the old ways, never mixing with the outside forces. In flea markets and tourist resorts, some merely dress in native costume and sell their culture’s heritage. As the saying goes, it’s complicated. Two (and more) realities occupy the same human space.

I have tried to present this complication of different cultural realities occupying the same space in a mystery novel called, Something Like A Dream ( ). Set in 1982, at an early stage of corruption by infiltrating contemporary culture, the story is meant to introduce readers to the Huichol people, their cultural and religious life centered on peyote visions and a spiritual relationship to their environment. While I set a contemporary mystery about a wife’s search for her lost anthropologist husband against this indigenous cultural background, the story is really about the nature of Huichol life, and I include a list of anthropological references and a glossary of many Huichol terms. The protagonist of the mystery is an outcast American expat who becomes obsessed with the beautiful wife as he helps her search for her famous husband in the sierra heart of Huichol territory. On this strange pilgrimage he will find a whole new perspective on reality and dream, on deceit and self-deception, on human spirituality, and a miraculous healing ceremony that will change his life forever or simply end it. You are invited to share the search and this look at ancient Huichol life in modern Mexico. You may find that Mexico has much more to offer than its contemporary image portrays.

You can get more information about Robert's books at or at his personal website at . I hope you'll give him a visit.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Guest Blog: Kit Sloane

I recently asked Kit Sloane to join us for a blog since she's written about a subject that a lot of folks find very interesting these days: Reality TV. Thankfully, she answered the call and here is her blog. I hope you enjoy it!

I write a mystery series about Hollywood people, The Margot & Max series. She is a film editor. He is a director. They meet very interesting people!

This began when years ago, my then frustrated agent suggested I try writing another series. Yikes! She hadn’t sold my first series during the turbulent late 80’s when publishing houses were becoming conglomerates and editors/authors found themselves suddenly “downsized. I was dumbfounded thinking of all the work needed to create a whole new cast of characters, etc, etc. But I kept my eyes and ears open.

Fortunately, at this time, a dear friend was interning as a film editor at a prestigious production studio and I’d meet her there for lunch. I was fascinated by the shy, retiring, mostly women, film editors I met, far from the perceived “glitz” of Hollywood. What a great background for the protagonist of a mystery story, a woman who is detail-oriented and also a genuinely reticent wall flower. I teamed my Margot O’Banion with her partner, Max Skull, a talented, successful, over-the-top director. He sees to it that she faces the world, no matter how uncomfortable it may be for her.

Now, eight books later, my daughter Annie Sperling (who also does all my book covers. Even with 3-different publishers, they’ve always asked if she can continue doing them!) and her partner, Marc Greville, are production designers in...where else....Hollywood! Making movies is a fascinating BUSINESS. It takes approximately 200 people doing their specific, detailed job to make a movie; from director and actors, to electricians and plumbers. What a fascinating mix! The industry attracts a diverse group of individuals, all talented or highly skilled (or they don’t work), all jockeying for jobs in a highly competitive arena. Incredible fodder for a mystery writer!

My research is done by asking questions and, especially, by listening. When visiting in Los Angeles we often get to go on set during productions. I stand back and LISTEN. People talk. They talk about their jobs, their co-workers, their bosses... It’s like listening to any other water cooler conversations except these people tend to be a bit larger-than-life with added dramatics and the stories are fantastic!

I also have to keep up on the technical changes for making movies. I don't stress these, but Margot has moved from film to taping and digital devices. And I've kept up with the economic changes in the business. Life doesn't stand still!

Having researched everything (I use the Internet, non-fiction books, and even movies) from the House UnAmerican Activities Committees in the 1950s where so many talented writers and actors were blacklisted, to financing and “following the money” as my protagonists make their first independent film, I decided to finally take on reality TV, an especially curious mix of the real and manipulations. I began my research online for the unique terminology that is used and then asked Annie and Marc about friends who’ve worked on these “reality” projects. Wow! The stories they told. THE MAGICIANS, book number 8, came from this research.

So, are all the events I hear about truly subjective or accurate? Probably not. Most story tellers tend toward exaggeration and self-aggrandizement. I mean, we’re only human! But, generally, even in the most outlandish anecdote, there’s a shining kernel of truth. That’s what I look for. That bit of hard fact is often what I base my plot lines on, the unexpected behavior or fashion or trend and the way people act and react to these. That’s what makes a mystery! And many readers say that my stories feel so “real.” Well, they are. Mostly!

the eighth Margot & Max mystery

from OakTreeBooks

Reality TV can be murder...

Thank you so much, Kit!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Guest Writer: Bruce Macbain

I love mysteries set in ancient Rome and Bruce Macbain's are some of the best. He also writes for Poisoned Pen Press, which I have a special fondness for, since I remember sharing dozens of their mysteries with my father. In fact, I doubt I would write mysteries if it wasn't for those books my dad passed to me whenever I stopped by his house.

So I hope you'll enjoy meeting Bruce and hearing about some of the fascinating research he's done for his mysteries.

Wandering wombs and talking snakes?

There are some strange and untraveled byways in the ancient world that even professional historians (which I was for many years) rarely tread. Having now turned to writing historical fiction, I am happily exploring some of them.

By way of introduction, I should say that I have written a mystery set in first century AD Rome entitled Roman Games (Poisoned Pen Press, 2010) and am now at work on its sequel, The Bull Slayer. My hero is Pliny the Younger, Roman senator and letter writer extraordinaire, assisted by two other well-known literary figures, the poet Martial and the biographer Suetonius. But it isn’t about them that I want to talk today.

In Roman Games, Pliny’s fourteen-year-old wife, Calpurnia, is having a difficult pregnancy (this much is fact: Pliny mentions her miscarriage in one of his letters). We don’t really know who her physician was but I have put her in the capable hands of Soranus of Ephesus, who was just beginning his career in Rome in the 90’s AD. This young Greek doctor was to become, in the words of his modern translator, “one of the most learned, critical, and lucid authors of antiquity.” Little is known of his life except that he was born in the province of Asia (modern Turkey) and trained in Alexandria. He wrote on many medical subjects but his most influential work was the Gynecology. The following small sample of chapter headings shows the range of this fascinating work:

• What Persons Are Fit to Become Midwives

• Up to What Time Females Should Be Kept Virgins

• What Care Should Be Given Pregnant Women

• What Grows Inside the Uterus of a Pregnant Woman

• Whether One Ought to Make Use of Abortives and Contraceptives, and how

• How to Recognize the Newborn That Is Worth Rearing

• On Difficult Labor

• On Hysterical Suffocation

Hysterical suffocation is the condition of the lady Amatia, a guest in Pliny’s house. Soranus, who is attending Calpurnia, witnesses this lady’s sudden attack of convulsions and volunteers to examine her with a bronze speculum that resembles an implement of torture. Emerging from her bed chamber after a few minutes, he announces triumphantly, “…the lady’s womb is precisely where it should be!”) Soranus was, in fact, one of the few ancient physicians who questioned the common belief that female hysteria was caused by the womb (Greek hysteron) becoming detached and “scampering around like a kitten chasing a ball.” Treatments for the condition generally involved applying evil-smelling substances to the nose or sweet-smelling ones to the nether regions in order to lure the madcap organ back to its proper place. And, despite Soranus’ considerable authority, this continued to be the prevailing theory for centuries among (male) doctors whose imaginations got the better of their common sense.

For anyone interested in the history of medicine, or of women, his book makes interesting reading. (There is a translation with good introduction and notes by Prof. Oswei Temkin [Johns Hopkins University Press] available on Amazon.)

If Greco-Roman medicine has its amusing side, so too does religion. In The Bull Slayer, I introduce a character who is based on one of the most brazen—and successful—religious charlatans to be found in any age: Alexander of Abonoteichus. This man’s astonishing career is described for us by Lucian of Samosata, a Greek writer of the 2nd century AD, who knew him personally.

From obscure beginnings in the ignorant backwater of Paphlagonia, Alexander invented and propagated an oracular cult which took all of Roman Asia by storm and gained enthusiastic adherents even in the highest levels of the aristocracy. As Lucian tells it, Alexander was a “handsome man with a touch of divinity about him….his eyes were piercing and suggested inspiration…his voice sweet and sonorous.” He wore his hair in long curls, dressed in dazzling white, and carried a scimitar in honor of the hero Perseus from whom he claimed descent. But he had a “temperament compounded of falsehood, trickery, perjury and cunning.” Versatile, audacious and adventurous, he “never made a small plan.” When confronted by skeptics, he would foam at the mouth and feign divine madness.

His shtik was elaborate and impressive. He worked with an immense tame serpent (the totem animal of Asklepios), which he wound around his body, concealing its head under his arm. What the audience saw was a fake head made of painted canvas, serpent-like but vaguely human, whose jaws were moved by pulling invisible horse hairs. Through a speaking tube made by joining cranes’ windpipes together, a hidden confederate would voice the oracular responses to people’s questions.

And how did Alexander know what answers to give? The gullible (which included nearly everyone) wrote down their questions on tablets and sealed them with wax. Behind the scenes his many accomplices—he had a huge organization of attendants, inquiry agents, oracle writers, secretaries, seal forgers, and interpreters—removed the seals, read and then resealed them. Run-of-the-mill questions, often relating to health, got standardized responses. But other questions revealed that the writers were up to illegal activities. In these cases he didn’t return the packet with an answer but held on to it and used it to blackmail the sender. Between the drachma he charged for each answer (people often submitted dozens of questions at a time) and the blackmail, Alexander got to be a very rich, and a very dangerous, man. Lucian, who was a thorough-going skeptic, did his best to expose him, tricking him in various ways with phony questions, but nothing availed against his popularity.

Lucian, by the way, is an interesting figure in his own right. We know little of his personal life but he wrote amusingly and insightfully on a wide range of topics. His “True History” recounting a trip to the moon, is the world’s earliest science fiction story. His “Dialogues of the Gods” pokes gentle fun at the traditional myths. And his essay, “On the Death of Peregrinus,” is the biography of still another religious charlatan—a wandering philosopher who, for a time, became a Christian. Peregrinus learned their “lore”, assumed the role of prophet and lawgiver in one of their synagogues, and was revered as a god, “next after that other, to be sure, whom they still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world…” Eventually, the Christians caught on to him and tossed him out. He ended his life in 161 AD by publicly burning himself to death at the Olympic Games. (These and other essays of Lucian can be found in several available translations.)

As I began by saying, it’s the less-known, out-of-the-way corners of the ancient world that interest me the most. I hope I’ve shone a light into a couple of them and enticed you to explore them for yourself.

Thanks, Bruce! I hope folks will check out your book and your terrific website at .

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sample Sunday: A Rose Before Dying

It's Sample Sunday and I'm offering an excerpt from my latest mystery, A Rose Before Dying. This is the second mystery in the Second Sons Inquiry Agency mystery series and although Mr. Knighton Gaunt, the founder of Second Sons, is involved, the main investigator is not an inquiry agent at all, it's an earl trying to exonerate his uncle.

It's 1821 and Sir Edward Marlowe has been accused of killing his ex-mistress, Lady Banks. His nephew, Charles Vance, Earl of Castlemoor, is convinced his uncle is innocent and decides to investigate. The killer has left a taunting note and a rose, indicating that another murder will soon take place. Charles has taken the rose to an expert in hopes of identifying it and preventing the tragedy.

The butler stared at the card and then intoned, “Lord Castlemoor, Miss Wellfleet.”

She wiped her hands on a towel resting on the table and faced him. A tan apron covered the front of her dress from neat collar to hem, and dark, rich earth liberally smeared it in long, sweeping streaks.

“I’m afraid we must disappoint him.” She stared at Charles, but her movements placed the lamp behind her and left her face in darkness. Her expression was hidden, but the light behind her set her hair on fire. The thick coils glowed deep, golden brown in a halo around her shadowed face.

“Are you sure Mr. Lee sent you? Here?” she asked.

“Yes, quite sure.” Charles had the uncomfortable feeling that Mr. Wellfleet was either gone from this house, or worse, from this world. “I take it Mr. Wellfleet is unavailable?”

“You might say that,” she said dryly. “He’s been rather unavailable for the past six months. My father, Mr. Wellfleet, is dead, my lord.”

“I’m sorry. However, I assure you Mr. Lee did send me. And I freely admit it may have been my fault to assume he sent me to speak to Mr. Wellfleet.” His voice slowed as he realized his hopes had faded along with the daylight. Mr. Lee had sent him on a fruitless mission to see a man who had died months ago.

Bitter anger gripped him, clogging his throat. He stared at the woman, unable to speak through his frustration. Someone would die—and soon—because he was unable to identify a single, ridiculous rose.

“Is this your daughter?” she asked, breaking the silence. Her lovely face remained impassive as she eyed the little girl.

“What? No—good heavens, no.”

“Then…who is she?”

“Her name is Rose.” He bit the words off, thinking furiously of a way to identify the next target. There had to be a way, even without knowing the true name of the rose.

“And did you bring her here for a reason, my lord?”

“Well, her name is Rose,” he replied absently.

Rosa collina, Lee had said. Someone named Collins? That had to be the answer.

“I see. So you thought you could plant her in the garden, perhaps? Next to the chrysanthemums?” She paused as if in thought. “Well, Mr. Gibson dug a new bed this morning. I suppose we can plant her there, assuming she will fit. What color are her blooms? I hope they aren’t too garish. I was planning a display of pale pinks and murray-purple in that particular spot. It’s too late to change now. I’ve already begun planting.”

He stared at her only to realize that despite her solemn expression, her hazel eyes glowed with laughter. She looked at the small girl clinging to him and smiled.

Rose stared back, her blue eyes wide before she nodded and said with firm resolution, “Pink.”

“You’re sure? You look rather like one of the mad Gallicas to me. Perhaps you’re a rich red streaked with a few patches of the palest-of-pale pink?”

The little girl shook her head vigorously before stepping over to Miss Wellfleet and taking her hand. “Pink. I’m pink.”

“Then I just may have the perfect bed for you.” Her wide mouth trembled with suppressed mirth. She glanced back to Charles. “Since it seems, despite all appearances and the company you keep, you aren’t quite mad after all.”

She clearly wasn’t convinced of his sanity, however.

He flushed. “I beg your pardon. But truly, I didn’t know where else to take her…”

“And just where are her parents? Her mother?”

“She’s an orphan.”

“That’s certainly convenient, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” he replied stiffly.

She sighed and dipped a corner of the towel into a small, tin pitcher of water on the table. She washed a smudge of dirt from the girl’s cheek, revealing the soft, rosy skin. “Do you even know who her mother is? Or was?”

“Yes. She resides just a few blocks from here.” If she could joke about the situation, he could, too.

“Where?” she asked warily. “Oh, you mean St. Michael’s, I suppose.”

“Yes. At least, that’s what I understand.”

“The orphanage—”

“Workhouse. Would you really ask me to take her there?”

She studied him. “No, I suppose not. But you—”

“I can’t keep her.” He paused. “Can I?”

“It does look odd.” The speculative gleam in her eyes brought out their rich brown color. “And most improper. What I don’t quite understand is your concern for her. Why, out of all the dozens of children wandering the streets of London, did you choose her? Are you certain she’s not yours?”

“No. In truth, I never knew of her existence before today,” he replied honestly. “I just stumbled over her and brought her along.” He raised his hands in a helpless gesture. “There’s no compelling logic or reason.”

“I see. However, I fear I must ask again, are you sure she’s not yours?”

“No. Truly. I never meet her until today.”

“That’s hardly convincing, is it?” She asked in her driest voice.

“I assure you, I don’t have a passel of…well, love children, wandering the streets of London.” He flushed with embarrassment. The hot color deepened when he realized she seemed just wayward enough to believe he was more embarrassed that he didn’t have a vast collection of by-blows, than he was by the suggestion he had only one.

Despite his best efforts to educate himself about females, they remained mysterious and largely incomprehensible at best.

This disadvantage struck him disagreeably.

“I couldn’t just leave her to starve.”

“This is most irregular, my lord. Any decent woman would flatly refuse to accept an orphan thrust upon her by a stranger—even one who is an earl.” She sighed. “However, I’m tired and perhaps not at my most sensible. So I suppose she can stay—”

“Thank you!” He leaned forward and almost gripped her hand. “I sincerely appreciate it.”

Miss Wellfleet folded the towel with restless hands. “May I ask if your sole reason for coming here was to divest yourself of Rose?”

“No—no, of course not.” He pulled out the small bundle containing the rose. He knew it was useless, her father, the rose expert, was dead. But he couldn’t stop a small spurt of hope. “I’d like to identify this rose. Do you recognize it?”

“I supposed you’re only asking me as a last resort. Because my father is no longer with us.” She held out a peremptory hand. “Let me see it.”

Her face was a smooth, expressionless mask. However, he detected traces of tired resignation at the implication that she could not be expected to have the depth of knowledge exhibited by a man.

When he placed the limp spray in her palm, she held it up to her nose and breathed in several times with closed eyes, cupping the flowers in her hands. Then she gave it a cursory examination before pulling the petals off of one flower.

“Stop!” He reached over to wrench it out of her hand. She turned her shoulder, blocking him. “What are you doing?”

“Counting the petals. Why?”

“You’re destroying it! How shall I identify it if you ruin it?”

She held it out. “Take it. Plant it, or allow me to root it. Or graft it. If it grows, you can ask your friend, Mr. Lee, to identify it in two or three years from the shape of the bush and bloom habit. Most men who grow roses agree that it takes at least one cycle of blooming to identify a rose with any assurance.”

“Two years!”

“Yes—if you want to be sure. And isn’t that why you wish to identify it? So you can purchase a specimen for your own garden?”



He gazed into her coolly discerning eyes and realized she was aware that he was not being open with her. But given Mr. Lee’s reaction, he could not bring himself to tell the complete truth. The rose wouldn’t last long enough to find another master gardener, assuming he could even locate one in London. “It’s…a wager. Silly, I know, but one of my friends said I couldn’t identify this rose.” The tips of his ears burned.

“I see.” Her eyes grew colder. “This is all a wager?” She glanced at Rose.

“No, of course not. Not Rose—she’s not part of it.”

Miss Wellfleet’s fingers pushed the petals into a line on the table and hovered over them. Thirteen petals, thin and wilting, spread in a tattered line. The slender spray was dying. The small, tight buds had already blackened and hung limply. His chest tightened with frustration.

Then with a theatrical gesture that suggested more defiance than scientific inquiry, she ripped apart the remaining flowers. She arranged the petals in three parallel lines, one for each flower. The roses didn’t all have the same number of petals. The first had thirteen petals. The next had eleven. The final rose had seventeen.

After examining what remained of the stalk, the yellow stamens, and leaves, she looked at him.

Although she didn’t precisely shrug, there was a quality in her expression that spoke of disdain when she said, “Rosa Collina fastigiata.”

“That’s it?” His tired disappointment reminded him of the lateness of the hour. Useless. He needn’t have come here at all. Lee had it right the first time.

“Well, yes. What were you expecting?”

“Something…more. A name…”

“That is a name.” Irritation sharpened her voice. “Or Flat-Flowered Hill Rose, if you prefer an English one.”

“You’re sure?”’

Her eyes hardened. “As sure as I can be from this small spray.” She flung the petals and twig onto the table. “No one can be absolutely sure without seeing the bush and knowing the growth habit and bloom cycles. Have you any idea how many roses there are?”


“That’s why your friend made a clever wager—if wager it was. My lord. And if the true wager wasn’t bringing that girl, Rose, to a spinster plantsman.”

“No. Truly, I apologize. I sincerely appreciate the name. And Rose was an accidental meeting on my way. She was nearly killed in the road a few blocks from here. I couldn’t just leave her—for God’s sake—she’s just a child!”

“No, I don’t suppose you could,” she replied grudgingly. One of her slender hands rested on the girl’s lank hair. “It’s late. You have your name. I hope you win your wager.”

With a coolness he deserved but saddened him nonetheless, she gestured for him to leave. The butler, Mr. Abbott, waited just outside the French doors to the greenhouse. His silent presence ensured Miss Wellfleet had never been truly alone with Charles. Somehow, this reminded him of how attractive he found her, and he flushed when he caught Mr. Abbott’s curious gaze.

However, his embarrassment faded as he remembered his purpose.

A life could be saved if he interpreted Rosa Collina fastigiata properly.

How many people named Collins lived in London? Unless the clue rested with the English name, Flat-Flowered Hill Rose. Did this blossom point to a location instead of a person?

Time was slipping away.
A Rose Before Dying is available at, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

An Interview with Amy Corwin

This is a strange blog for me. Normally, I prefer to write about the craft of writing, research, life’s general weirdness, and occasionally my books. But a group of fellow writers convinced me to participate in a blog chain on the specious grounds that it’s fun. So here it is. One of my fictional characters, Miss Prudence Barnard, will interview me. Yes, that’s right, the character will interview the writer—not the other way around. And let’s remember this is theoretically fun.

So who is Miss Barnard, anyway? In The Vital Principle, Pru is a spiritualist, though not by choice or even nature. She’s fallen into that pastime to survive in the early years of the 19th century when there was precious little work for a lady. Or rather, there was no work available for a lady if she wished to remain a lady. So Pru, being a spinster with a tiny income, has become a professional guest. She’s invited to various house parties (saving her the cost of rent and food, although the tips for servants are outrageously expensive) because she’s entertaining and seems to be able to talk to the spirit world, which amuses her hosts. Usually. Until her most recent host is murdered.

Oh, by the way, she’s also a fraud and was accused of murder, but that’s another matter, entirely.

Amy Corwin’s Interview conducted by Miss Prudence Barnard

After unhitching the horses from Miss Barnard’s carriage and releasing them into the yard where they will hopefully get along with our two dogs and not eat too many roses, Amy invites Miss Barnard into her log home.

“Take a seat,” Amy says, waving toward the living room before she rushes to pick up the pile of computer, archaeology, and gardening magazines from the sofa. With a glance at the television (muted because her husband seems to enjoy having moving pictures without sound) she also picks up the remote control and turns it off the moving pictures.

Miss Barnard glances around, takes in the two cats flopping around on the floor, the detritus from the dogs, and delicately sits on the edge of the leather loveseat. “Thank you for your invitation.”

“No—thank you! You’re the one doing the interview. So ask away.” Amy distractedly looks around to find another more-or-less open place to sit. She winds up on the edge of the sofa, trying to push Psycho, a toothless and not particularly cooperative marmalade cat off the seat.

The cat immediately jumps into her lap, despite Amy's efforts to remain somewhat cat and cat-hair-free.

“Well, yes.” Miss Barnard rearranges her skirts and smoothes the dark silk. She turns her head to glance out the front window. She frowns. “I beg your pardon, but I have to ask, why is there a skeleton hanging from a tree near the driveway?”

“Oh, you noticed that, did you?” Amy says, trying not to scream when Psycho, in a sudden fit of insanity, grabs her wrist with his two front paws and begins rabbit punching her.

“One could hardly miss it.”

“It’s to discourage unwanted visitors. Will you stop that!" She shakes Psycho loose. He sprawls on the floor before getting up and rushing over to attack the other cat, Cricket. Both animals yowl and begin chasing each other through the living room, knocking over books and magazine with abandon.

Miss Barnard flushes, but continues gamely, “I see—”

“Doesn’t seem to work very well, though. We still get visitors.”

“If you’re implying—”

“I rarely feel the need to imply. When you’re over fifty, you pretty much just say it right out.” The back door slams open and two dogs rush through the house. Cricket, seeing the dogs, yowls. The dogs, seeing Cricket, rush out the front door. Amy ignores them. Cricket decides to also push open the front door and go outside. Psycho resumes his previous interest in Amy's lap and ensconces himself firmly therein.

“I beg your pardon, you’re…well…not very cooperative.”

“Really? Fancy that. Maybe that’s why I write mysteries like A Rose Before Dying. And by the way, stop begging my pardon. I’m not in a position to grant anyone a pardon, least of all a murder suspect.” The animals may take advantage of me, but I'm darned if I'll let a character I made up do so.

Pru straightens and nearly stands before she takes a deep breath. “I sense a certain resistance. Are you certain you want to be interviewed?”

“I’m certain I don’t want to be interviewed, but I agreed, so let’s just get this over with, shall we? You want something to drink?”

“A cup of tea would be lovely.”

“How about tea in exchange for a spirit session? I’ve been told the place is haunted. So far, no luck finding anything except a few snakes wandering around the house. One even tried to use my sewing machine but a lack of hands put a damper on things.” I start getting wound up. "You'd think the least these dogs and cats could do would be to keep the snakes out of the house, but nooooo. They have to act like the Bumpus dogs on Thanksgiving and dash through the house at regular intervals, leaving a trail in destruction in their wake."

“I’d really rather not conduct a spirt session at the moment. I'm sure you understand,” she says, looking around.

“You’re not afraid of snakes, are you?”

“No of course not. You don’t keep them in the house, do you? As pets?”

“Our pets are those hoodlum dogs and cats. If the occasional snake gets inside, it’s due to its own initiative. The best I can do is grab the snake tongs and throw them outside.”

“Do you think there are any here? At the moment?”

I shrug. What can I say? I’m not in control of my environment. When you live in a log home at the edge of a swamp, you take what comes. I know that. I’m resigned. “So, you want to get back to the interview?”

“I’m sorry.” She stands. “But I’ve just remembered another engagement.”

“A séance?”

“Yes. Quite. But thank you, I’ve enjoyed our visit.”

“Wait a minute,” I say as I open the door for her. “It’s still daylight—what kind of a séance starts at two in the afternoon?”

“An urgent one, I’m afraid.” She glides past me and gestures for her driver to catch their horse. Just in time, too, because it was munching on one of my favorite roses, Yolanda. In the meantime, our dogs have come back and have started eyeing the horse with a gleam in their eyes that boded ill for the spindly-legged beast.

“Come back soon!” I yell.

She glances over her shoulder. I could see the words form in her dark eyes, “Certainly. Right after Hell freezes over.”

-------Here is a list of the participants in the Heart of Carolina Writers Blog Chain
Full list of participants:

Aimee Laine:

Lyla Dune :

Carol Strickland :

Amy Corwin : *** Me ***
Lilly Gayle :

Rebekkah Niles :

Laura Browning :

Andris Bear :

Marcia Colette :

Nancy Badger :

Sarah Mäkelä :

Jennifer Harrington :

Scott Berger :

Friday, June 10, 2011

My Latest Second Sons Mystery Is Finally Released

A Rose Before Dying is out!

This is it, my second book in the Second Sons mystery series is out! I’m exhausted but very, very pleased. Year ago, I came up with this concept of an inquiry agency manned by all those “spare” second sons who aren’t the heirs and are left with the clergy or military for careers. What if none of those alternatives appealed to them? What if they were willing to give up their social status and had an insatiable curiosity about their fellow human beings? A position as an inquiry agent might just be the ticket!

My first book, The Vital Principle, was finally released in February. That book introduced Knighton
Gaunt, the founder of Second Sons Inquiry Agency (Discreet Inquiries). He was featured in a previous book in the Archer family series, I Bid One American, but he gets a starring role in The Vital Principle.

In the new book, A Rose Before Dying, Charles Vance, the Earl of Castlemoor takes the lead with an assist from Mr. Gaunt. Charles is not an inquiry agent, but when his uncle is accused of murder, he steps in to find the person responsible for killing his uncle’s ex-paramour, Lady Banks, and leaving a rose behind with a taunting note.

A Rose Before Dying let me combine my research into the history of the rose with a classic British mystery and I’m deeply grateful to all the footwork done by rosarians including: Graham Stuart Thomas,
 David Austin, Peter Beales. Their books were invaluable, not to mention the gorgeous new English shrub roses David Austin is hybridizing these days. I have several of his roses in my garden and they are lovely as well as hardy. In fact, their books got me started on growing Old Garden roses and they are truly a delight.

The early years of the 19th century saw an explosion in exploration, with hundreds of new plants being discovered. Roses from China were brought to England and hybridization efforts began, since the China roses had one important difference: they bloomed all season rather than once a season, i.e. they were remontent. The development of the classic florist’s rose, the Hybrid Tea, is a direct result of hybridizing
 European roses with the China rose. Pretty exciting stuff! So I couldn’t resist casting a female character as a rosarian involved in the efforts to cross China and European roses.

In A Rose Before Dying, Vance must seek out a rosarian to help him identify roses the murderer has left as clues, and he finds Ariadne Wellfleet, a woman trying to live independently and pursue the
development of new rose hybrids. Unfortunately, the men in her life are bent on helping her to conform to the more standard feminine role as wife, despite her resistance. Her involvement in the murder investigation puts her—and the members of her household—directly in the murderer’s path.

It's a classic British mystery that I hope all mystery fans will enjoy!
Have a great weekend!