Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Guest Author: Wendy Gager

We continue our series on mystery authors with Wendy Gager, who was gracious enough to agree to appear here and talk about creating a sense of place. I have to say it is gratifying to find another author who shares my view that sometimes a locale or place can be a character in its own right. So thanks, Wendy!

A Sense of Place

Creating a sense of place is important in a book. Many times the place can act like a character. When it comes to setting, I consider myself a minimalist. I’ve always hated reading a book and getting to a long passage of description which I would always skip. I prefer layering in descriptions little bits at a time and letting the reader use their imagination and what they know to create their own image. This same scenario surprised me because it is true for how I create places as well. Let me explain…

When I write, I usually have my own idea of the setting based on places I’ve been or lived. The Mitch Malone Mysteries are set in Grand River which I’ve fictionalized from Grand Rapids, Michigan. I fictionalized it because cities change and grow and I didn’t want to be inaccurate. (In the first book, A
 CASE OF INFATUATION, I wanted the police station to be where is used to be and not in its current location.) Grand River has really taken shape as a large urban center filled with crime, interesting characters and stories.

That has worked well so far but IN A CASE OF HOMETOWN BLUES Mitch goes back to the small town where he grew up. I called it Flatville based on the river in my hometown of Greenville, Michigan. To fictionalize them I usually interchange the river with the city and vice versa. That is just my twisted and ironic way of knowing where I am when I write and a bit of playing with words which I enjoy. But enough of that, I’m straying from my point.

In this book, Flatville becomes less like a setting and more like a character as Mitch sees the whole town against him from memories of his youth. In the book I thought I was using the layout of the first town I worked in as a reporter. It had a town square, a colonial courthouse with white pillars, and a pub that I frequently visited. Funny thing is when I went searching for photos of the courthouse, I found a very modern structure. Seems the courthouse I had in my mind doesn’t exist. What I painted was either the hospital in Coldwater or the old courthouse in White Cloud when I first covered trials there. It was torn down in the early 1990s.

As I was writing I thought I channeled my first job setting. Instead it is an amalgamation of several places. It has only been when I went looking for a photo for this blog that I realized how fictional it had become. See if you can help me figure it out.

In A CASE FOR HOMETOWN BLUES my crime sleuth reporter Mitch Malone is going to turn himself in. This is his description as he looks at it from being a wanted man.

“My concern mounted when I could see the courthouse and jail behind the office looming like a monolith. The courthouse oozed Southern charm with three-story, white pillars flanking the front entrance surrounded by lush green grass and flower beds comprising the city’s center square. It was the community’s figurehead, a beacon of welcome as espoused by the Chamber of Commerce unusual for a small community so far north of the Mason-Dixon Line.”

I’ve included photos of the Branch County Community Health Center and the Newaygo County Courthouse. Which was I channeling? It could even be a different building I saw in my imagination. Writing is very freeing and that freedom allows our subconscious to come up with so much more than possible. The same things happen in my books in that the characters take over and things happened that I never imagined making the book much better. Which building do you think I pictured in my brain? I’m not sure. Do you ever think you are describing one thing and it morphs into something completely different?

A Case of Hometown Blues” Synopsis

When Pulitzer-winning reporter Mitch Malone's editor presses him for a favor, Malone breaks his vow to never return to his hometown. It seemed simple enough--lead a seminar for Flatville, MI's newspaper, keep a low profile and get back to the city post haste. But memories of his parents' death swarm him, and, to avoid solitude, he stops for a beer. In the crowded bar, Mitch is dismayed to see many of his former classmates--including the still-lovely Homecoming Queen, Trudy. Once the object of his teenage crush, Trudy joins Mitch. He quickly realizes she is upset and inebriated. Always the gentleman, Mitch sees her safely home, and returns to his B&B, still trying to shake memories of his parents' sad demise. The next day, he is stunned to learn Trudy was murdered and he is the prime suspect. The locals treat the murder charge as a slam dunk, and Mitch realizes he must track down the real killer to keep his butt out of jail. As he investigates, facts he thought he knew about his family unravel, and danger ratchets up. Can Mitch discover the truth that will allow his parents to rest in peace, or will he be resting with them?

Author Bio

W.S. Gager has lived in Michigan for most of her life except when she was interviewing race car drivers or professional woman's golfers. She enjoyed the fast-paced life of a newspaper reporter until deciding to settle down and realized babies didn't adapt well to running down story details on deadline. Since then she honed her skills on other forms of writing before deciding to do what she always wanted with her life and that was to write mystery novels. Her main character is Mitch Malone who is an edgy crime-beat reporter always on the hunt for the next Pulitzer and won't let anyone stop him, supposedly.

W.S. Gager
Author of Humorous Whodunits

A Case of Infatuation & A Case of Accidental Intersection-Now Available
A Case of Hometown Blues - Coming this summer!

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Thank you, Wendy!

After Irene

We live in North Carolina and braced this weekend for Irene. While it was bad, it wasn't as bad as we feared, although it did about $5,000 for us and more for a lot of others. A tree came down on our pole shed, we lost some shingles on our place at Sea Level, and the water blew out about 5-6' of our shoreline, so we'll have to get a couple more CAMA permits: 1) to replace the pier that is now completely gone (it's broken into three pieces, 1 in our yard, 1 across the street, and another in a neighbor's yard a little further down the street); and 2) to get a few tons of granite to reinforce the shoreline.

We spent the day yesterday at Sea Level assessing the damage and working with our neighbors to clear up debris. One of our friends ended up in the hospital with a stroke, unfortunately. But we're hoping he weathers it and is home, soon. There were a lot of trees down on phone lines and a lot of houses got flooded out again. Many of the homes between Moorehead City, though Beaufort, Stacy, Davis, Otway, and Sea Level had their doors and windows open with big piles of carpeting outside as folks tried to dry out.  The water came up to the fourth step of our house (about 2-3' up) but didn't make it into our house at Sea Level. We're hoping the waves didn't wash into the air conditioner unit, either, but we won't know how well that fared until the electricity comes back on. 

 We were sorry to see the Martin house next door blown down, but we're thinking of getting a new one and setting it up so that when the Martins come back next spring, they'll have a place to live.
 The power company guys were all over the place repairing lines. We really have to hand it to them, they are the greatest! We were only out power for half a day at our home. I expect it will take them longer to repair the lines to Sea Level. There were a lot of downed trees and trees leaning on power lines, but they were all over the area fixing lines. I'm just thankful that our power companies are the best of private industry and not Government-owned or they'd still be out there doing "studies" and "evaluations". LOL.
One of the more miraculous things was that, although it tore out our pier and gouged out our shoreline, it left our brand new screens intact. Pretty amazing. This last picture shows two pieces of our pier. I can't imagine the force of the water to rip it up and wash it across the street like that.

Hope everyone is safe and our prayers go out to those who are were hit harder. Be safe.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Interview with Randy Rawls

Today, I interview author Randy Rawls. He writes mysteries featuring detective Ace Edwards and most recently, a mystery/suspense, called "Thorns on Roses". I can't resist a book that has the word "rose" in the title as I grow roses. Thankfully, Randy agreed to an interview, so here he is.

What prompted you to write THORNS ON ROSES?
I'd written six Ace Edwards, Dallas PI, mysteries, which I'm told are cozies. I wondered if I could write a thriller, something with a harder edge. When I saw Tom Jeffries entering a morgue to identify a body, I knew it was what I had been looking for. THORNS ON ROSES was born.

Why did you decide to write?
Wow, tough question. Kind of like asking why I chose a career in the Army. I just did. That's the best answer I have. I didn't sit down and weigh all the pros and cons, ups and downs, or any of the other measurement tools we're taught to use. I enjoyed my time in the Army so I stayed in. I enjoy writing so I write.

How much research do you do?
I do enough research to make sure my facts are correct. If I choose to use a particular weapon, I research that weapon and make sure I use it correctly. It drives me nuts to read about a safety on a revolver—ain't no such thing. Same with a cylinder or a clip on a semi-automatic pistol.

Research today is made simple by the vast amount of information on the Internet. Unfortunately, some of it is not accurate. A writer owes it to his reader to make doubly-dang sure that what he writes is correct.

What’s your favorite method for researching?
Consult an expert. If I happen to know an expert on a subject, I pick his or her brain. If not, I go to the Internet and find one or more.
Do you have a favorite theme or message for your readers?
Yes. Read, read, read. There are so many wonderful writers in the marketplace today that deserve to be read. Find them and read them.
When do you write/what is your writing day like?
When the story grabs me, I am absorbed by it. I am so intent on getting it on my hard drive I ignore everything around me. This is not always good since My Honey might say, "Dinner's ready," and I completely miss it. If that happens, she is not pleased.

What is the best advice someone has given you about writing? The worst advice?
Best advice. Write what you like to read. Yeah, that might seem simple, but I know people who attempt to write what is popular, whether they like it or not. Vampires are hot—they write a vampire story. Werewolves—yep, a werewolf story. However, the downside is they never write a good story, only what they think the reader will want to read. And they don't enjoy their writing experiences as much as I do.

Worst advice. Just write it, the Agent/Editor will fix it. I still hear this from would-be writers. Horrible advice that should never be repeated. I've never heard this from a published writer.

How do you approach a new book? Outlines? Just an idea?
An opening. I see an opening and let the story take me where it will. For example, I just started a new book, another thriller. I saw a confrontation in an alley between the protagonist and two thugs intent on molesting a teenage girl. Not real sure where the story will take me, but I'm sure I'll enjoy the ride.

Outlines. Bah humbug! I still shudder at the thought of outlining. A thousand or so years ago when I was a student, the teacher would insist I turn in an outline with my paper. I did it by writing the paper, then writing the outline. I hope no one ever asks me for an outline again.

How do you develop your characters?
Basically, I see them and see the actions they're involved in. That's good for me, but not always good for my readers. I've been told I don't describe my characters enough—you know, height, weight, hair color, etc. However, I always hope my words cause the reader to create their own visions of the characters.

Who are your favorite authors? Have any authors inspired you or influenced your work?
Too many to list. I just read John Hart's new book, IRON HOUSE. He is undoubtedly one of the best, if not the best, wordsmith in the business today. Definitely high on my list of favorites. P.J. Parrish, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Harlan Coben, Ken Follett, Bill Crider and many other NY-published authors. Then there are many small press authors that I enjoy. I'm an avid reader, never go anywhere without book. To get on my list of favorites, all an author has to do is write a good story.

Every book I read influences my work. I'm always looking for what makes this author so good, how does he/she express him/herself? I'm a firm believer in learning from the best, and that's what I try to do as I read.

What makes a great book in your opinion?
One criteria: Good writing. I can tolerate a weak story if the writing is good. I cannot and will not bother with any book that is poorly written, no matter how wonderful the plot might be. And that includes those books whose authors try to impress me with how much gutter language they can put on the page.

If a reader took away one thing from your book(s), what would you like that to be?
That I love to write, and that I take my writing seriously.

Do you have any tips for aspiring authors?
Yes, one tip that will never lead you astray. Read, read, read, and learn from what you read. Then read, read, read some more.

Where do you see yourself as an author in five years?
Not much different from today. I've accepted that NY is never going to gobble up one of my books and turn me into an instant millionaire. I'll keep writing and keep working with small publishers to turn out the best books we can.

Where do you see the publishing industry going in the next few years and where do you see yourself within this industry?
A year ago, I would have said the ease of publishing ebooks would cause the influence of the big publishers to wane and the huge conglomerates that control the industry might well break up. The role of Agents would also shrink. That was last year.

This year, I'm not so sure. The explosion of self-published ebooks threatens to kill the golden goose. The marketplace is suffering from a plethora of bad, bad ebooks. With no gatekeeper to screen what is published, "writers" are putting out manuscripts that aren't ready—far from ready.

This is fine for the writer's ego, but what about the reader? The reader now finds himself having to search through a ton of books, all with wonderful "reviews" to find something worthy of reading. Some of those readers, and I am one, will not waste the time required to find that one gem in a dumpster filled with broken glass. This will result in the reader returning to the tried and true, published by real publishers, large and small. So, instead of seeing the demise of publishers and agents, they will maintain their influence in the marketplace. This last year of unbridled self-epublishing has proven that gatekeepers are a necessary evil.

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Thank you, Randy. I was particularly fascinated with your views on where the industry is headed. It is a time of vast changes, both good and bad, but in the end, I think readers will find they have more choices than they used to have and can find those gems, despite the broken glass.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Guest Author: Jacki Vick

Today we have guest author Jacki Vick with us. She write humorous mysteries that always give me a smile and a sense of satisfaction to see justice done in the end.

Two’s Company, Three’s a Crowd

The hubby and I will soon celebrate our twenty-first wedding anniversary. I still remember our first date--the awkward introduction followed later by the even more awkward goodnight at the door. Does he like me? Will he kiss me? Is he the one?

After twenty-one years, it’s natural to miss the excitement and anticipation of dating, and that’s what romance novels are for!

However, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend. Multiple love interests. “Is he the one?” becomes “Is he or that other guy the one?” I’m not bashing the books. These authors are good at their craft, but I wonder if they couldn’t use some reader tips?

Janet Evanovich’s long-standing love triangle was fun at first. Stephanie Plum didn’t know either Joe Morelli or Ranger, and at the discovery phase of a relationship, readers will allow for the heroine’s divided attentions. After sixteen books, Stephanie’s starting to come across as a tramp. Even Ms. Evanovich seems to recognize this, as book seventeen promises to make her heroine choose.

Joanna Fluke’s Hannah Swenson steers clear of trampy because she doesn’t sleep with either Mike or Norman. Still, I wonder how these men put up with her inability to choose between them. Even I want to scream, “Make up your mind!”

The one scenario that really put me off (I won’t name names) was when the married protagonist kept falling for handsome strangers. Adding a second man to the mix is not the way to marital bliss.

Choices are good. I sometimes debate between sweet and salty snacks, but a possible life-partner deserves more consideration than Cheetos versus Nestle’s Crunch.

Then why do trios work in Elizabeth Peter’s Amelia Peabody series? Amelia is married to larger-than-life archeologist Radcliff Emerson. During their travels in the East, a mysterious Master Criminal butts heads with the couple, and he falls for Amelia in a big way.

There’s a difference between Amelia and those other gals. When the Master Criminal kisses her, she loses her breath. Electricity crackles in the air. Yet even from her swoon, her superior brain is working out how to get back to her true love, Emerson. She never doubts. She doesn’t dally. The equation is still 1 + 1 = Love.

Humor helps. When the Master Criminal demands she strip off her clothes and put on a harem outfit, she leaves on her sturdy undergarments. The Master Criminal’s longing satisfies our romantic imagination without sacrificing Amelia’s integrity. And we laugh.
Is it old-fashioned to hold out for “Boy Falls for Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Wins Girl Back?” I don’t think so. Romance authors and readers have stood by this formula for years. There might be another interested guy in the story, but he’s never a serious contender.

Is two the ideal number in a romance? Is three company or a crowd? Take a stand and let me know what you think!


Jacqueline Vick writes humorous mysteries and short fiction. An article for “Fido Friendly Magazine” led her to create Frankie Chandler, a reluctant pet psychic. Her short story, “Pekingese Premonition”, is available on Smashwords and Kindle.

Web site:
Pekingese Premonition on Smashwords: 
Pekingese Premonition on Kindle:

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Thank you Jackie! For me, three is always a crowd, but I'm sure everyone has an opinion and I hope they will share them!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Preparing for Irene

Hurricane Season Is Ramping Up
Looks like Irene is getting ready to sock it to us here along the coast of North Carolina so we're bracing ourselves and reviewing what we've got in our emergency stash. We've been hit before and have survived having no power for an entire week so we've learned a few things.

For those who are also getting ready for disasters, here are a few tips.
Before You Lose Power
  • Do the laundry, now. LOL, this is one thing you don't really think about, but becomes a pain in the patootie if you're not prepared. I like to change the sheets, collect all the dirty towels, and catch up on all the laundry because who knows when you'll get to do another load if you lose electricity? (Besides, you may need all those towels to sop up the water...)
  • Fill every container you have with water.
  • Water all your indoor plants
  • Make sure you have everything fully charged, e.g. cell phones, etc.
  • Get a "regular" cheap telephone if you have land lines. We have an old 1960's phone that we use for informing the power company that we have no electricity, or calling for help when no other phones work. You can often pick these up really inexpensively at yard sales, thrift stores, or even at your local "green box mall" (i.e. the dumpsters).
  • Make sure you have lanterns, flashlights, etc, and fresh batteries. We have a rechargeable LED lantern that is fantastic, as well as kerosene lamps.
  • Determine how you're going to cook food, i.e. if you have grills, etc, make sure you have propane, charcoal, or wood. Hibachis are great when you have no electricity.
  • Worst case latrene--the bucket. If for some reason you can't flush the toilets with dirty water you saved, then make sure you have a 5-gallon bucket and some heavy-duty trash bags. Line the bucket with a trashbag and use that. When you need to, you can lift out the bag, seal it, and dispose of it appropriately.
  • Have some tarps for covering openings, e.g. gaps in the roof or blown-out windows.
  • Duct tape.
  • Food that doesn't need heat to prepare. We like canned chicken because I can make chicken salad. Hard boil a few eggs. They last a long time in the fridge and are great for a quickie breakfast. Another emergency food I like to make is quiche. Yep. It makes a terrific emergency food and because you can make it out of anything that suits your fancy, making a few small ones means some variety in what might become a wacky diet. I also stock up on fresh fruits like apples and oranges. You might as well use this as your opportunity to eat healthier.
  • Speaking of food, prepare a few "pocket stews" if you have a grill or way to heat them. Fill a square of foil with hamburger, onions, chunks of potatoes, carrots and whatever other veggies you like (I like parsnips) and top with ketchup. These are great to pull out and plop on the fire/charcoal/grill as they give you a nice "meal in one" and you can eat right out of the foil. Almost no cleanup required.
  • Get packs of foil and plastic wrap. They are useful (see above).
  • Paper plates, plastic utensils, plastic or paper cups--anything that won't add to the "cleaning" burden or require you to use some of your precious water to clean.
  • Get some of those foamy strips from the hardware store (not the adhesive kind, though). During the storm, you can poke them in around windows, etc. to cut down on the leaking. They won't damage anything and you can pull them back out after it stops. I like the long rolls that are "rope-like" (I can't for the life of me think what they are called right now) and about 1/4" to 1/2" in diameter as they can be wedged in around windows perfectly with a butter knife (so you don't accidentally gouge anything. Like you.)
After You Lose Power
  • When you wash your face, wash dishes, etc, with that precious water you've saved, keep the dirty water. You can use it to manually flush toilets as well as water plants (if they need it after being nearly drowned by the storm).
  • Put a few dark colored containers filled with water outside. Let the sun heat them for you. It'll be nice to have a warm "spit bath" after a day or two, believe me. Although I often just settle for cold, room temperature water.
  • Pull out the old board games like Monopoly or Scrabble. Use this as an opportunity to have fun!
That's it! Other than this one last piece of advice: losing electricity may turn out to be the mini-vacation you need, so take advantage of it. Enjoy yourself, go birding, play cards, read a book--it's a gift, not a curse. Laugh, because what else are you going to do?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Author Interview: Dennis Collins

Today we are privileged to have Dennis Collins with us, and I'm flinging some questions at him that he's been patient enough to answer.

An Interview with Dennis Collins
Why did you decide to write?

I’ve always enjoyed making up and telling stories so I consider myself more of a storyteller than a writer. I have lots of stories running around in my head so I began writing them down so that I wouldn’t forget them. I suppose that’s where it all began.

How much research do you do and what’s your favorite method?

It always bothered me to find a mistake in a book and so I decided that my books would always be thoroughly researched. I sometimes probably go farther than I need to but there is just so much information available on the internet, I get carried away. But when it comes to a setting for a story, nothing is better than a personal visit to get the real feel for the location. You might find that the place has magnificent sunsets or hectic traffic or possibly a unique smell. You can’t find that stuff on the internet.

Do you have a favorite theme or message for your readers?

I wouldn’t call it a message but my writing does have a personality. I like my characters to carry a strong sense of right and wrong and to be responsible and accountable. Of course the bad guys have none of these qualities.

When do you write/what is your writing day like?

I’m one of those fortunate few not tied to a day job so I can write whenever the urge hits. Sometimes it takes a little discipline to keep from getting lazy so I set daily writing quotas. Some mornings I wake up feeling inspired and so I begin before breakfast and other times I find myself working around lunchtime. On rare occasions I can be productive in the evenings. As long as I can get somewhere around two thousand words, I consider it a day’s work. Sometimes it’s only a couple of hours and other times it takes all day.

What is the best advice someone has given you about writing?

It’s a message I’ve heard over and over from successful authors, from editors, and just about every keynote speaker at every conference I’ve ever attended. Don’t get discouraged. Don’t let rejection letters bother you. Don’t give up!

How do you approach a new book? Outlines? Just an idea?

All of my books have been inspired by one small thought or some seemingly insignificant event. The idea for my first book came from an obituary in a newspaper. Another book was the result of a discovery I made about my own family. I start with a very small seed and begin to build a story around it. I never use an outline. One of the adventures of writing this way is that I have to keep going in order to see where my story ends up.

How do you develop your characters?

Basically I give my characters a personality and then throw them into situations. Their personality controls how they react to conditions and gives them a chance to grow. So I’d say that my characters are developed by the challenges they face.

Who are your favorite authors? Have any authors inspired you or influenced your work?

There have been some authors whose work is so dynamic and captivating that I’ve looked long and hard at their writing to see what made them stand out so dramatically. Hemingway comes to mind as a man who could convey great emotion with very few words. Herman Wouk is a magnificent story teller and Mario Puzo was able to take a cold blooded murderer and turn him into a folk hero. These authors shared the same knack for being able to mesmerize their readers.

What makes a great book in your opinion?

Books are a subjective thing. As a reviewer I’ve seen a few books that I didn’t care for draw glowing reviews from other readers. I personally judge a book on whether or not the story appeals to me and ease of reading. I like something that flows well, follows logic, and entertains me.

If a reader took away one thing from your book(s), what would you like that to be?

My main message has always been that good triumphs over evil but life is not always fair. The good guys will win but there will be victims.

Do you have any tips for aspiring authors?

Don’t give up!

Where do you see yourself as an author in five years?

My current goal is to publish two titles a year so I’m hoping to have a large enough list of books to actually get noticed.

Where do you see the publishing industry going in the next few years and where do you see yourself within this industry?

This is the most interesting question of the bunch. I don’t think that anybody knows what lies in the future for the publishing industry. The recent explosion in e-book sales is exciting but I’m sure that there are a few yet to be exposed growing pains lurking in the swamp. The situation is even more unpredictable because the portion of the industry that produced e-readers is in an unprecedented growing spurt as well. We’re not only dealing with a culture change among readers, we’re at the mercy of the electronic geeks who provide the venue. As for me, I’ll probably always be somewhat behind the curve but I’ll keep a close eye on what the leaders are up to and do my best to adjust on the fly,

The First Domino Blurb
Joe Pellerito thought he could murder his way into the mob. The son of a high powered Mafia lawyer and negotiator, he assumed that he’d be welcomed into the Family. When Joe’s father died of cancer he waited anxiously for the invitation to join the ranks. But the call never came. Feeling shunned, Joe devised a plan to show his dedication and fearlessness. From a list of Detroit cops who have been problems for the syndicate Joe chose three candidates and pulled off a string of three brutal murders in less than two hours on a bright spring morning.

The philosophy of the mob has moved into the new millennium and has all but abandoned confrontations with law enforcement. Joe’s actions threaten to undo the progress that took two decades to build. The problem of Joe Pellerito must be addressed.

With a price on his head, Joe is forced to flee and tries to hide in Italy where he attempts to gain a whole new identity.

The diligence of Detroit Police detectives Otis Springfield and Albert McCoy helps them sniff out Joe’s trail but the mob has its resources as well and soon the race is on to see who can get their hands on Joe first.

All of the books in the McCoy series are attractively priced in Kindle and Nook formats. See more at: .

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Thank you for joining us, Dennis! I was really interested in hearing about the direction you thought the publishing industry might take in the next few years. It's definitely a period of change for all of us, but I firmly believe it will result in more opportunities for everyone and a richer landscape for readers. I'm looking forward to it.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Vintage Murder - Real or Research?

Vintage Murder - Real or Research?
A Look Behind the Scenes

The first book in my series of Diplomatic Mysteries is Vintage Murder ( ). It is set largely in Bordeaux, where I lived for several years, and in Paris. Much of the detail depends upon my research and memory of the days that I lived there, as Consul General.

Here are some examples, The meetings described in the book that take place at the Embassy in Paris are quite genuine in tone, and mirror actual meetings of American diplomats who were assigned to diplomatic missions around France. The Bordeaux vineyards are also real, and most of them (except where blackmailing episodes take place) are amongst the most famous and pricey wine estates of that storied region. So, unfortunately, are the activities of the Basque ETA, a terrorist organization whose stated purpose is Basque nationhood.

My idea was to combine these elements. Now, fortunately, the ETA seems exhausted (although we have seen that before), and its fortunes at a low ebb. But what if they were to revive, motivated by the desire to be a real player, with large sums of money at their disposal rather than the small amounts of “taxes” which they extort from local Basque businessmen? That led me to the creation of my first character, a young Basque of keen intelligence and a burning desire for revenge. Here I inserted into his background an actual event, the formation of paramilitary hit squads by Spanish authorities, who crossed the border and carried out murders in France. Unfortunately, they fairly often hit the wrong targets and murdered innocent people. That was the case with the father of my main Basque character. (I don’t like cardboard villains very much. I like to understand their motivation and to the extent possible, make them three dimensional.)

Having invented this character, I had the idea of having him be a keen student. Why not have him with an American MBA? That would do several things – he would think of the ETA terrorists as a group with a failing business model. To have any chance of success (specifically, liberating the hundreds of their members in prison) they would need a great deal of money and weapons. And there, in Bordeaux, just a few hours away from the coastline, are world famous vineyards, some bottles of which sell for enormous prices. It would be a tempting blackmail prospect.

My American diplomat, Robbie Cutler, is the Consul at the same mission where I served. He surely knows some of the same people, and of course is enjoying their wines! But when he is contacted by a wine estate owner who claims that he is being blackmailed, the action takes an official turn for Cutler. Add to that the sign paingted on the door of the American Consulate General, “Death to the American Consul,” signed by the ETA!

Robbie is on his second assignment. His father was also a career diplomat, so living overseas is natural for Robbie. He has long since paid all of his official calls, so that when help is needed, he already knows the key players in the French police and intelligence services. He also has that rare quality that Napoleon is said to have demanded of his generals – he is lucky! And luck is presented in the person of the beautiful Sylvie Marceau, a features newspaper writer for the local regional newspaper, Sudouest. He is logical she is intuitive. She also discovers the first wine estate owner to be murdered by the ETA!

Robbie and Sylvie ramble through the most famous vineyards of Bordeaux, in St. Emilion, Pomerol, and the Médoc, where they attend a reception at storied Château Margaux. Their detection becomes a love story, and on a visit to Bordeaux, Robbie’s sister Evalyn tells her brother that now he is the lucky one – Sylvie is far too good for the likes of him!

Since this is the first book of a series, Robbie Cutler and Sylvie Marceau become continuing characters, as do several of their diplomatic colleagues. Cutler is reassigned from Bordeaux to Budapest at the end of Vintage Murder, during the second book in the series, Murder On The Danube, but he and Sylvie keep in touch, and become engaged. Their honeymoon, in Murder In Dordogne, gives Sylvie a chance to play detective as well, and she solves a murder plot of which her husband was totally unaware! Finally, the American Ambassador in Paris in Vintage Murder is so well connected politically that at the start of the fourth book in the series, The Saladin Affair, he is named Secretary of State, and Robbie becomes his Special Assistant, responsible for planning his trips overseas. Here his diplomatic duties are compounded by a murder investigation, and the repeated attempts of Al Qaida to murder the Secretary of State.

Shepard’s Guide to Mastering French Wines ( )

My years in Bordeaux also led me to a second career in wine writing, as the Wine Editor of the travel group, French Wine Explorers. My latest column, published last week, concerns the wonderful 2009 Beaujolais vintage. ( ).

My Kindle book on French wines, revised and enlarged for this 2011 edition, introduces you to the wines and wine regions of France. With dozens of hyperlinks, the reader can click back and forth between the book and the actual websites of the great regions of Champagne, Bordeaux, and Burgundy. The 2009 and 2010 vintages are assessed, and there are many tips on quality wines that are reasonable priced. For the cost of a single glass of wine, here is your well-researched guide to the pleasures of French wines. Read this, and you’ll wonder why you ever relied on a point score rather than your own good taste!

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Thank you so much! My husband and I are just starting our efforts to learn about wine, so this was wonderfully serendipity to get a blog about this fascinating topic. We can't wait to learn more, and I, personally, can't resist a mystery with such an interesting premise as Vintage Murders.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Unwilling Herpetologist

Herpetology for Idiots,
or “What the heck is that?”

Let me tell you a little story. It starts about 2:00AM Saturday morning when, for reasons best known only to himself, my husband decided to go around the house turning off our air conditioning units (we don’t have central air). So around 3:00AM I woke up stuck to the sheets in a pool of sweat. The bedroom had taken on the atmosphere of a Louisiana swamp in mid-summer, so I got up and went downstairs. I turned on the air conditioning unit in the living room and settled down on the sofa, thinking I’ll get a little sleep.

Crash—boom—crash! I heard the sounds of smashing glass, coming from the other room. Now, it’s getting close to 4:00AM and instead of operating at my normal, peak brain efficiency of 50%, my mind was working at about 7.5% efficiency. But I figured the cats were knocking things off the kitchen counter again. They like to push stuff off and watch it shatter and roll around the floor. It amuses them.

So I tottered out towards the kitchen, but on my way, I noticed a lot of smashed crystal on the floor, in the dining room. The broken glass was almost directly below a little decorative shelf that runs along the ceiling where we keep nice, but seldom-used glassware.

I looked up.

A little rat snake peered down at me from the shelf, way above my head.

O-kay. Not the cats. All right, then.

I tried to rev up my brain, but it stuttered and stalled at about 3.2% running efficiency. The only things I could think of were:

  1. If I mess around too long, the snake is going to get away and I’ll never find it again.
  2. And I don’t want to wake up with it in bed next to me.
  3. Or accidentally grab it instead of the lid to the Tupperware when I’m reaching through a kitchen cupboard.
  4. So I have to do something. Preferably, now.
  5. How, exactly, is my husband sleeping through the loud explosions as crystal falls about 8 feet and shatters on our laminate flooring?
  6. I’ve got to get the dogs out because they’ll go nuts, and I don’t want to clean snake parts off the walls.
  7. Why are the dogs still sleeping? What are they? Deaf?
  8. I won’t be able to catch the snake if the dogs are pushing me around.
  9. Side Action: I wake the dogs and thrust them out the back door.
  10. They object because it’s as hot as a Louisiana swamp out there, too, even though we live in North Carolina.
  11. Now, I can’t put the snake out the back door, because the dogs will tear him apart.
  12. And there’s no way I can unlock the front door, while holding a snake. Even with the snake tongs. So I have to open the door, first. At least I got that bit right.
  13. I open the front door.
  14. I get the tongs.
  15. I don’t see the snake anymore.

 Crash—boom—crash! Another load of glassware hit the floor, from just a little further along the shelf.

This time, I had the snake tongs. I saw the little rat snake’s face peering at me from the edge of the shelf. There were still some glasses it hadn't broken in front of it.

Another round of ponderous decisions, that ran along the lines of:

  1. If I try to move the glasses, the snake will just slither off.
  2. Do I know what I’m doing? (No.)
  3. Why hasn’t my husband woken up? Should I wake him up, if for no other reason than to see him suffer? Because really, he started this by wandering around the house at 2:00AM turning off the air conditioning units.
  4. And hubby is a wildlife biologist, which is why we even have the tongs to begin with.
  5. So shouldn’t he have to deal with this?
  6. But if I go get him, won’t the snake be gone? And won’t my husband just think I’m a nitwit? (Okay, he probably already does, because after all I'm a blonde--or was, but we all have our delusions.)

 So, I clutched the snake with the tongs, remembering my husband’s warning that snake’s necks are fragile and you can easily crush them. It was a relief when the snake coiled around the tongs. I figured it would relieve the pressure on the neck. It wasn't a relief, though, when it started to stink (herp lovers will guess why, others needn’t worry about it) but I was glad I was holding it at the end of tongs and not in my hands.

Finally, I released it into the wilds, next to the front door. I swept up all the broken glassware. By this time, it was close to 5:00AM and too late to go to bed. So I also swept the rest of the house, ran the dishwasher and did a few other things. All of which my husband slept through.

By the time my husband woke up, it was all over except for the screaming, and I was too tired for that. His first question when I told him about it was, “Did it look fat? Maybe it ate the mice.”

Sigh. If only. You see, we also have a mouse problem. Unfortunately, the snake was only about 4 feet long and not at all fat, so I think we still have a mouse problem. If only the cats would be as interested in the mice as they are in shoving things off counters and watching them break.

Anyway after I disappointed him, my husband did educate me. Apparently, rat snakes are largely arboreal and like to live in trees, eating baby birds, baby squirrels and whatnot. Since we live in a log home, the snake probably mistook the place for a really peculiar tree. I'm sure there were plenty of good things to eat, too. Things that I'm glad I know nothing about.

Oh, and then, our Chesapeake retriever, Molly, got bit by yet another copperhead last night and now she has a fine goiter. My husband did take care of that problem, with extreme prejudice. But that’s another story.

(Molly is doing fine, by the way. And she’s very proud of herself. And she took out her bad feelings on another hapless snake that we weren't quick enough to rescue.)

Sleep well!

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Guest Author: Dara England

Please welcome Dara England! I had the temerity to ask her if she would write a blog after I found her books and downloaded every single one of the to my Kindle. I loved her writing and really wanted a chance to host her.

She graciously agreed, and not only that, she is sponsoring a contest. If you stop by and leave a comment here, Dara and I will pick a winner. You'll receive an ebook by Dara, and I'll tell you, if I hadn't already bought all her books, I'd be tempted to cheat and keep the book for myself.
So here she is!
Dara England
Many thanks to Amy for agreeing to have me as a guest on her lovely blog.

Something I’m often asked lately is why I’m pursuing indie publishing after having been previously published in more traditional forms. There’s no short answer to this so I’m going to go with a long one. That’s right, get comfy because this girl is going to share her entire publishing background, such as it is.

In The Beginning …

After years of writing fiction in the hope of getting published “someday” I finally got up the nerve to start submitting my work. Only to small webzines and print magazines no one had ever heard of but at least it was a start. Seeing my work up on the web and knowing other people were reading it was fun and it gave me confidence, as well as the chance to hone my skills.

But that wasn’t enough. It wasn’t the real dream, just the smallest taste of it. I learned about the possibilities opening up in the e-publishing world and, although the idea of e-books took some getting used to at first, decided to give it a try. I submitted to a number of digital first presses and was eventually picked up by an up and coming small press called Lyrical Press Inc.

I still knew very little about the small press world and hadn’t had the sense to do much research before submitting. But I got lucky this time and LPI turned out to be a great first home for me and my books. They were professional, easy to work with, paid on time, and I didn’t have to deal with any of the nightmares it’s so easy for a first-timer to get sucked into.

Oh, Sweet Rapture!

But my dream was still traditional publication. Or legacy publishing. Or New York publication. It goes by many different names but you know what I mean. I wanted to see my books in stores and libraries. So when I heard of an opportunity to submit for a Running Press anthology, I jumped at it. And shockingly, at least to me, they wanted my story!

My experience with this second publication was a good one and seeing the Mammoth Book of Irish Romance in bookstores everywhere was beyond awesome. Whenever I stumbled across it someplace new I’d stop and pick up a copy and hug it. Or just stroke the cover. Let’s just say I probably looked like a crazy person to all the bookstore employees and the shoppers around me.

The Depths Of Despair

But New York, alas, still didn’t throw it’s gates open wide for me. I wrote a new book, sent it on the agent rounds and got a lot of interest. One agent even agreed to send me a contract but shortly thereafter her agency closed its doors and I was left still unrepresented. I was tired and frustrated at the endless rounds of queries, submissions, partials, fulls, rejections… Everywhere I went agents and editors talked about the tough market and all our communications ended the same way. They just weren’t confident enough that they could sell my book.

I returned to publishing with digital first presses but I kept an ear to the wind. And about this time I began to hear whispers of the potential for success in the self-publishing arena. Well, this was nothing new. I’d been hearing this kind of talk for years and had always dismissed it as nonsense. Everybody knew what self-publishing was, right? Just hand-selling a few copies of your little book to family and friends and anybody else you could beg or guilt into buying a copy. Self-publishers were largely derided and I was one of the persecutors. Just call me the Biblical Saul/Paul.

What’s This Indie Thing About?

But then something changed. Several authors I knew began to come out and “admit” to trying their hands at self-publishing e-books. These were “real” authors, people whose business sense I respected. They were New York published, for heaven’s sake! And yet, they were finding indie-publishing on the side lucrative. They kept their New York contracts and they continued to write for digital first publishers like Samhain Publishing, Ellora’s Cave, Carina Press, Spice Briefs, Red Sage, etc. But they were also finding time to put out some indie works and were reporting impressive sells numbers.

Cue inspirational music. This was the moment a light bulb went off over my head and I realized I could be building a reader base with indie publishing and pursuing New York at the same time. It wasn’t an either-or situation. What was more, thanks to the lower cost of producing an e-book versus a print book I could experiment with this whole indie thing at little expense.

Testing The Waters

Ok, I’d wised up and it was time to dip my toe into the water. I wrote something new, something I hadn’t tried before. A historical mystery novella set in Victorian England. I titled in Accomplished In Murder. I had always enjoyed detective stories but this was the first time I’d had the nerve to write one. Previously I had written things I thought would sell well, mostly paranormal romance. But it was time to break out and write something my heart was in, something I actually enjoyed for its own sake.

Thanks to my major obsession with hanging out on writers’ forums all these years I’d made a lot of connections with people involved in the publishing industry. I knew a number of formatters, editors, cover designers, etc. I hired Lauren Dee of Daisy Cakes Creative to edit my manuscript because she came highly recommend by other writers I trusted. Also she was reasonably priced and I didn’t have a huge budget. I lined up Lucinda Campbell of L.K. E-Book Formatting to format my e-book because I didn’t trust myself to do it properly and I was determined my first effort at an indie book would look professional.

The Big Experiment

With surprising ease, I uploaded my e-book to the usual venders and sat back expecting to watch the dismal numbers creep in at snail speed. Instead they…well, not exactly rushed in, but came in at a respectable and sedate pace. I had studied other’s statistics and was prepared for the long haul. I thought, “I’ll sell five copies the first month, ten copies the next, and wait for the snowball effect everybody talks about”. Instead, I easily surpassed my meager expectations on the first day my book was available for purchase.

At this moment, about a month out from my first indie release, I’m sitting in Amazon’s Top 100 list of best-sellers in the Historical Mystery Category. I’m also respectably situated on the Women Sleuths list. I have no idea how long this good fortune will last but I’m enjoying the ride.

As to the big question, will I be doing it again? Heck, yes!
Dara England

Accomplished in Murder

Murder was never so refined…

When her holiday on the coast of Cornwall takes a deadly turn, it is up to Drucilla Winterbourne to uncover the dangerous secrets the inhabitants of Blackridge House will do anything to conceal. But can a proper young lady from London society comprehend the dark motives of a killer?

Accomplished In Murder is the first in a series of historical mystery novellas featuring intrepid Victorian heroines up to their bustles in crime. These works are only loosely connected and can be read in any order.

Length: 17,000 word novella.
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Please be sure to leave a comment to win a free copy of the ebook, Accomplished In Murder.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

A mid-week smile for the chronically overworked

For the Chronically Overworked

This goes out to all of you, and you know who you are, who just don't have room on your plate for even one more thing.

By the end of the day, all you can say is, "I'll do it when I get around to it."

Here you go.

You've got one.
Now what're you going to do about it?

Monday, August 01, 2011

Too Stupid To Live Characters

Too Stupid To Live (TSTL) or Just Normal?

I’ve been thinking a lot about characters in books and movies who are labeled, “Too Stupid To Live” or TSTL. I rarely think a character is TSTL, although sometimes I wish she really would pick up that gun that the bad guy dropped before he gets it back. (I’m going to talk about killing and the ability to kill in a later blog, so I won’t address that aspect at this point.)

Is it because I’m more forgiving of differences in human beings?

I don’t think so. In fact, most people think I’m cruel because I'm impatient and expect people to live up to a higher standard. I expect them to do things like “make sense” and “act reasonably.” But I do recognize that not everyone—in fact almost no one—thinks clearly in an emergency situation without a lot of practice and training. In fact most self-defense classes are about repetition so that your body knows what to do when attacked and you don’t have to think about it. Because as soon as you start thinking about it, you’re bound to mess up. He who hesitates is lost.

Anyway, let’s take a classic TSTL moment in fiction. In chapter 1, a bad guy escapes from prison. Let’s call him John. It’s on the news. Alice watches the news and thinks, wow, that’s not good. In chapter 2, the heroine (let’s call her Alice) hears a noise in the basement. Alice goes down to investigate.

I find this perfectly acceptable. A lot of readers, however, throw the book at the wall at this point because they know it’s John in the basement. After all the book is suspense and we (the reader) know this. The author has warned us. The author set up the scenario.

But if this were real life, why would Alice think it’s John in her basement? In real life, it’s probably a raccoon. Or a rat. Or a rattle in the pipes that just knocked over a clay pot that had been teetering on the edge of a loose shelf for the last decade.

If we called the cops every time we heard a noise in the basement, the cops would soon stop responding to us. And although I’ve got my concealed carry permit, I don’t run around the house with my gun, even if there is an escapee loose from the local jail. Why would he come to my house as opposed to all the other, closer ones?

We all play the odds. We don’t expect bad things to happen to us. Mostly if I hear a weird noise, it’s one of the dogs, one of the cats, or another snake has gotten into the house from the swamp.

Back to the book, what would you really want to happen?

• Alice locks the basement door. John piddles around in the basement and eventually gets bored and leaves. End of book.

• Alice locks the basement door and calls the cops. John hears the cops pull up. He leaves. The cop write up Alice for a nuisance call. End of book.

• Alice arms herself with a .357, goes into the basement, sees John and shoots him. She goes to jail for manslaughter. End of book.

• Or…Alice acts like a normal human being, goes into the basement, John grabs her and…stuff happens. About 350 pages worth of stuff.

What’s wrong with that last thing? Well, the real problem isn’t that Alice is TSTL. The problem is really that people are tired of the old, dark basement thing and they want a new way for John to break into the house and terrorize Alice.

In addition, we don’t want our characters to act like us. We don’t want them to be afraid to pick up the gun that the bad guy accidentally dropped. We want the characters to be better than us. Stronger. Quicker. More intelligent. Maybe not Superman, but…better. Because if the characters are better than us, it makes a more compelling story, and secretly, we’d all like to be just a little bit better in one or more ways. As humans, we have a need to vicariously feel what it’s like to be a bit stronger and more intelligent. We want to feel the rush of overcoming great odds and winning in the end. That’s why movies such as “The Karate Kid” and “Rocky”, even “Harry Potter” are so compelling. They’re about characters who rise above the ordinary. They are larger than life.

So is there really a problem with TSTL characters? Or is it just the hackneyed plot device that makes them see that way?

In the end, it really depends upon the reader.

What are your thoughts?