A fireside chat with James Ziskin

Every once in a while, I get embarrassed. Like recently, when I got the opportunity to score an ARC of James Ziskin’s latest Ellie Stone book. Now, I’ve been wanting to get to these for a while (yeah, yeah, you probably beat me to the punch). So my first reaction to the ARC was “hell to the yeah,” but then I thought, “Wait, don’t I have to start at the beginning?”

Screw it, I decided. This might be the kick in the pants I need.

Which it was.

DSP0101207I’m happy to report that the book is phenomenal – and if you are already an Ellie Stone fan, you’re probably thinking, “Well, duh, Liz.” And if you’re like me, and have inexplicably not read these books yet, I’m happy to report that the book is very readable — and you can gobble up this one, then go back to the beginning.

I’m equally happy (how many times can I use that phrase?) to say I immediately emailed to ask if James would answer a few questions and he was more than pleased to.

Without further ado…

LM: I loved Ellie’s voice. You probably get this a lot, but…I know authors who have a real challenge writing authentically from the viewpoint of the opposite gender. But Ellie never sounds anything but like a woman of her time period. Does this come naturally to you or do you have “experts” to keep you on track?

JWZ: I get that question a lot. Serves me right. I’ve asked myself the same thing for years. And I’ve come to realize that, besides listening better and striving to be empathetic toward a gender that is not my own, I’m more or less successful at creating a believable female voice thanks in part to the fifty-five years of distance between today and the early sixties. None of us is living in that time period. We’re all looking back through the lens of time. There are old movies, television shows, books, and newspapers, of course, and I use those resources and many more to hone Ellie’s voice. I can paint a character who is still surrounded and swamped by the expectations and prejudices and mindset of that period. I can even permit Ellie to be a little—just a touch—sexist herself, since everyone was back then.

As for experts to keep me on track, I have several trusted beta readers who fit the bill. My sister recently reminded me that good girls in the sixties were taught to keep their knees together. I just had to put that in the book.

LM: Betrayal and hypocrisy, and the results, struck me as big themes in A Stone’s Throw. Do you write with theme in mind or does it come out as you develop the story?

JWZ: Yes. I begin each book with the themes decided, at least in broad strokes. Of course better ideas come to me as I write, even though I outline and plot in advance. But the overarching themes don’t change. In A Stone’s Throw, I wanted to explore long-festering, cruel betrayal and its destructive effects on the people involved. Another theme that obsessed me in this book was the slow, slippery progression from good to bad. When do people cross the line?

LM: I’m so jealous. I can never identify “theme” until I’m at least done with the first draft, and I usually need people to bash me over the head with it even then.

I am ashamed to admit this was my first Ellie Stone book. What was gratifying was how I didn’t feel “lost” knowing this was not the first book in the series. I think it’s something every series author has to think about. Do you have particular tricks for making new readers like me feel “at home” in the series (and whet their appetites to go back)?

JWZ: I try to make each book stand on its own. One trick I use is to make sure I provide a brief recap of certain characters. It doesn’t have to be long. For instance, Ellie has to explain who Fadge is at the beginning of each book. And her nemesis at the newspaper, George “Georgie Porgie” Walsh. I usually have Ellie fire off a humorous insult at his expense or recall a memorable gaffe that he’s made in the past. In A Stone’s Throw, Ellie observes that sharpening pencils is the only skill George has that’s even remotely related to writing. This provides quick and painless insight into the character, as well as the contentious history he shares with Ellie.

Another thing I do with each book is a separate editing pass where I read exclusively looking for mentions of people or events from previous books. I believe I’ve explained how Ellie’s company car was driven into the lake by a drunken colleague—before it was fobbed off on her—in four books now. The key is not to be long-winded about it. One of my mantras for description is, “If it can’t be memorable, make it economical.”

LM: I love that; I’ll have to remember it for book 2.

Fadge speaks very knowledgeably about the race track and betting. Be honest: was this research or do you have some personal experience (and if so, what are your best tips – the only two times I attempted to bet on horse races I lost everything)?

JWZ: Most of my knowledge of the horse racing and betting comes from my teenage years when I used to go the races at Saratoga every August. I was a terrible gambler. No aptitude and no patience to pore over the Racing Form and handicap the horses. But knowing the results of the races in my book, I can tailor the fictional betting to make sense. And pay off. Or not. Growing up, I had a friend, Robert, who was the inspiration for Fadge’s character in these books. Robert was a scary bettor. A true plunger. He won big and lost big as well. And he lived life as if the clock was running out. Good thing, since he died of brain tumor at the age of thirty-five. A Stone’s Throw is dedicated to his memory.

LM: Maybe I should have gone over to the Erie County racetrack more growing up.

Ellie is an interesting character for me. She lives at a pivotal time in social history, and she definitely has opinions, but she doesn’t seem to wear them on her sleeve. For example, she’s very sensitive to people who make jokes or are critical of Jews, but she isn’t overtly Jewish. Was this something you set out to do or did you learn it about her personality as the character developed?

JWZ: As you see in A Stone’s Throw, an elderly bank executive’s attempts to lure Ellie back to the faith fail. But she cannot and, indeed, does not want to escape her Jewishness. She remains culturally Jewish even if she was raised by atheist parents. I definitely set out to paint her as an enlightened humanist, so, yes, it was part of her character from the start.

I would say that Ellie has a thicker skin about anti-Semitism than you might think, with the following proviso. She won’t lose sleep over a stale Jewish joke. Or even when her dear friend Fadge thoughtlessly uses the term “Jewish lightning” to describe arson. She gives him a sharp poke in the ribs for his trouble, by the way. But when people she likes and admires reject her for her Jewishness, it can knock the wind out of her. It’s a maddening prejudice that she can do nothing to change.

LM: James, thanks so much for answering the questions!

Readers, James graciously agreed to stop and answer questions throughout the day, so feel free to post your own!


Guest Post: Kathy Valenti

Please give a huge Mysteristas welcome to Kathy Valenti, author of the fabulous Maggie O’Malley mysteries. Today she’s talking about her newest, 39 Winks.

39Winks coverDid I tell you about the time John Grisham complimented my writing?

That’s a phrase I like to sneak into conversations.

And not just because it sounds kind of awesome. I talk about it because it answers a question I often get about subject matter expertise.

Whenever I go to a conference, visit a book group or speak at an event, I’m asked how my background in pharmaceuticals prepared me to write the Maggie O’Malley Mystery Series.

The short answer: It didn’t.

The longer answer: It didn’t have to.

I don’t have a background in pharmaceuticals or medicine. In fact, I think that whole “Write what you know” thing can often be too narrow. In my mind, the slightly different “Write what you can understand” is a more accurate axiom.

We all know that mystery authors don’t always share the backgrounds of their characters. Just because a protagonist is a handwriting analyst who knows jujitsu and pilots a Citation on weekends doesn’t mean that the author who created  him or her fits that description,. Likewise, simply because an author writes from the point of view of a psychopathic killer doesn’t (necessarily) mean that he or she is also a crazed murderer.

The same holds true for writing about topics that may be new to us. As authors, we delve deep into our subjects. We research. We interview. We question. Then we exercise empathy as we put ourselves in shoes we’ve never tried on, let alone worn for many miles.

Writing about things I previously knew nothing about comes with the territory as an advertising copywriter. I write about sports I don’t do, engine components I couldn’t begin to install, and places I’ve never been.

The latter is where the Grisham praise comes in.

Two years ago, I wrote a print campaign for a resort in the Lowcountry. Grisham felt that the work had so accurately portrayed the feeling of the place—a place I’d never been, mind you—that he wrote the resort and said so.

After I climbed down from cloud nine, I realized what an apt reflection it was of what I do as an author. Writing can be a lot like reading: we don’t have experience something firsthand in order to feel as though we have.

That’s not to say that I don’t research. I do. Extensively. Thoroughly. Painstakingly. (Emphasis on pain.) But I also celebrate what we feel as well as what we know.

On the eve of the publication of my second book, 39 Winks, I’m grateful for those who’ve helped me research, and for the heady mélange of understanding and knowledge. So while I can’t say “Did you hear what John Grisham said about my book?” I can say “Thanks for coming with me into Maggie’s world. I can’t wait to see where we go next.”


About 39 Winks

Former pharmaceutical researcher Maggie O’Malley is losing sleep. Constantine’s aunt is a multitasking sleepwalker who, in addition to wandering her stately home, prepares meals, folds laundry and, one winter night, stumbles across her husband with his throat slit.

It’s a rude and gruesome awakening that’s upsetting to Aunt Polly. And interesting to the police.

Maggie and Constantine work to uncover who killed the cosmetic surgery mogul and why. As they dig into the lives of those who knew him best, they discover that the truth is only skin deep and doctoring perception is a treatment with deadly side effects.

A gripping page-turner with more twists than a surgeon’s suture, 39 Winks is a tale of lies, betrayals and greed that will keep you up at night. And looking over your shoulder.


ValentiKathleen Valenti is the author of the Maggie O’Malley mystery series. The series’ first book, Agatha- and Lefty-nominated Protocol, introduces us to Maggie, a pharmaceutical researcher with a new job, a used phone and a deadly problem. The series’ second book, 39 Winks, releases May 22nd. When Kathleen isn’t writing page-turning mysteries that combine humor and suspense, she works as a nationally award-winning advertising copywriter. She lives in Oregon with her family where she pretends to enjoy running. Learn more at http://www.kathleenvalenti.com.

Gerry-rigging Hotel Coffeemaker

I don’t know about you guys but I cannot stand hotel coffee. The stuff in the rooms tastes like used engine oil. The stuff in the conferences is more like stewed gym sox.

So I’ve taken to bringing my own coffee, pre-ground back home. Which works out just fine if they give you the old-fashioned Mr. Coffee: paper filter, pour in grounds, add water, and voila! But those are less common these days.

Nowadays, the room coffeemakers have these funny little pods. Not Kurig-style pods, which would make life so much easier, but flat little paper pods. During my last trip, hoping to find a Kurig-style maker, I’d brought some pods of my favorite coffee, Deathwish.

Alas, no such luck.

So I developed a method for gerry-rigging the hotel room coffee maker utilizing coffee from the Kurig pods. I present you a photographic tutorial:

Step 1: You will need a coffee filter, coffee pod, the plastic tray that comes with hotel coffee and a paperclip.
Step 2: Throw out the hotel coffee.
Step 3: Using the paperclip, saw off the coffee pod lid and pour coffee into the filter placed in the plastic tray.
Step 4: Fold coffee filter into an envelope.
Step 5: Make coffee!

Stay tuned for my next blog post: how to construct a ball gown out of duct tape.

Calling All Mystery Readers!

We mystery fans love the fascinating detectives or the thrill of the chase or the baffling puzzle or a glimpse inside the mind of the criminal.  Sometimes it’s the interesting setting or profession or other new information to learn about that pulls us into the mystery.    

Some of us are mystery writers, too, but for now I want to think like a reader.  Readers know what they like and dislike, and they are the best judge of story structure.  

I’ve been pondering some questions that the writer part of my brain says “No!  Don’t go there!”  But since these questions are best answered by mystery readers, I’m posing them here to you in the form of a brief yes or no quiz.  

Does it bother you if:

 1.  A subplot isn’t resolved until a later book in the series?  

(a) no, as long as the main plot is resolved.  

(b) yes, I want to know right now how all subplots resolve. 

(c) yes, and furthermore, I’m throwing the book against the wall for such a major violation.  

 2.  The villain gets justice, but not by the hands of the protagonist?  

(a) no, I don’t care how it happens, as long as the villain gets justice.  

(b) yes, it’s just not right otherwise.  After all, it’s the protagonist’s story.  

(c) yes, and furthermore, I will never read another book by this author ever again.  

 3.  Characters are introduced who don’t have a big role in this book but are on deck for the next book?  

(a) no, because interesting characters can make the book richer.

(b) yes, I don’t want to slog through a cast of extra characters just to make the story feel real.  

(c) yes, and furthermore, I’m putting the book down because it’s way too tedious to keep track of everyone.  

 4.  The main character has a lot of baggage and reveals secrets little by little?  

(a) no, as long as the secrets are revealed by the end of the book.  

(b) yes, I want to know everything as soon as possible.  

(c) yes, and furthermore, I no longer care about any stupid secrets.  

 5.  There are occasional passages of narration, where time passes and the events of the story are told rather than dramatized?  

(a) no, because otherwise the book would be about three times as long.  

(b) yes, because I want to see everything played out in detail.  

(c) yes, and furthermore, I am so bored by narration that I’m tossing the book.  

Thanks for playing along!  It’s helpful for all writers to know readers’ thoughts on these issues, and I look forward to your answers/thoughts in the comments.   

Malice Domestic: The Power of Networking

Yes, I know what you’re thinking. ANOTHER Malice Domestic post? Really? Has every mystery blogger run out of topic ideas already?

Of course not! *shifty eyes*

Malice is just that special.

Last year was my first Malice. I went because I won the William F. Deeck – Malice Domestic Grant for Unpublished Writers (what a mouthful!). It was such a special moment in my journey as a writer, and I credit Malice with introducing me to people who’ve been particularly important in my journey.

My proudest moment: Malice Domestic 2017

Harriette Sackler, the head of the grant committee, championed both me and my work-in-progress.

Harriette Sackler and I after the SinC breakfast 2018

She introduced me to Janet Reid, who would go on to become my agent.

Janet’s not fond of photos, but I did manage to capture this action shot of her going after a tasty writer

And at the Agatha Banquet, I met Kellye Garrett, the author of the Agatha/Lefty/Ippy-winning Detective by Day series, and another writer of color. We became social media “friends,” then she took me under her wing and mentored me during a contest called Pitch Wars. I’m proud that  get to call her a real friend now, sans quotes.

Before she won the Agatha for Best First Novel ❤
Gathering of the writers of color at Malice. From top left: Alexia Gordon, V.M. Burns, Sujata Massey, Cheryl Head. From bottom left: Frankie Bailey, Mia P. Manansala, Kellye Garrett, Gigi Pandian.

The manuscript I revised under her instruction went on to earn me five offers of representation from literary agents. So you see, I can pretty much draw a straight line from Malice to where I’m at now in my writing journey. On top of that, everyone I had met, and I mean EVERYONE, was so unbelievably kind to me. (2017 post)

Writing is a career filled with insecurity; I was just a baby writer, new to the game and without a single finished manuscript to my name. Yet everyone I interacted with welcomed me with open arms. Complete strangers walked up to me to let me know they were cheering for me and couldn’t wait to follow my career.

In fact, the reason I’m lucky enough to be blogging with the Mysteristas is because Keenan Powell, a fellow grant winner, invited me to join.

Malice Domestic 2017

There’s a lot of talk about whether or not conventions are worth attending for the authors. They’re expensive and exhausting, particularly if you’re an introvert. I had to sneak up to the room for a bit each day so I could recharge my batteries. And from what I hear, the amount you make in book sales doesn’t cover all the other expenses, so people don’t consider it a good investment.

But I think that’s the wrong way to go about it. You don’t go to conventions to make money. You go to make connections. In fact, I only knew about the Malice grant because of Lori Rader-Day, the then-president of Mystery Writers of America Midwest Chapter. So that’s where my story TRULY begins.

Moral of the story: Join writing organizations and network. You never know what opportunities are waiting for you.

Dear Readers, what are your best tips for networking? Also, what connections have you made that turned into big opportunities? I’d love to hear about them!

Guest Post: Joanne Guidoccio

Please welcome guest Joanne Guidoccio, asking the eternal question: plotter or pantser?

Plotter, Pantser or …?

ADifferentKindofReunion_w12053_750 (2)Hundreds of books and articles have been written about the writing process. While it’s worthwhile to read some of this literature, it’s important not to become overwhelmed by all the information and advice.

When I first started my writing practice, I assumed I would be a plotter. After all, I was a left-brainer who had spent thirty-one years teaching mathematics and business education courses to adolescents. I focused on the articles devoted to plotting and attended workshops that featured authors who extolled that particular method.

The most memorable workshop was conducted by best-selling Canadian author Terry Fallis (The Best Laid Plans). An outliner (what he likes to call himself), Terry spends two to three months preparing a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline. On a PowerPoint screen, he shared a 64-page outline consisting of three pages of bullet points for each chapter. As soon as the outline is complete, he then devotes three months to writing the novel.

Glancing around the room, I could feel the awe and intimidation. The woman sitting next to me whispered, “It would take me years—maybe even decades—to write the outline and by then I would have lost interest in the project.” I could easily imagine that particular scenario.

I decided to examine the other end of the continuum: the pantsers (people who write organically or by the seat of their pants). Once they have a premise, they start writing and figure out the storyline along the way. They also let their characters misbehave whenever they want. 

Sylvester Stallone is an example of a pantser. When he arrived in Hollywood, he struggled to find acting jobs. At one point, he had only $106 in the bank, his wife was pregnant, and he couldn’t pay the rent. Frustrated, he sat down and wrote the screenplay for Rocky in 3½ days. It is important to note that only 10% of that first draft remained in the final version of the film that would go on to win the Best Picture Oscar.

After much experimentation, I found a process that works for me: linear pantser. Once I have a premise, I start imaging the characters and write brief sketches. Then, I plan the first three chapters and the last chapter. Once this is in place, I begin writing. Partway through the manuscript, I often hit the murky middle and need to reboot the process. At that point, I will briefly outline the remaining chapters.

Any plotter or pantser experiences to share?


Blurb – A Different Kind of Reunion

While not usually a big deal, one overlooked email would haunt teacher Gilda Greco. Had she read it, former student Sarah McHenry might still be alive.

Suspecting foul play, Constable Leo Mulligan plays on Gilda’s guilt and persuades her to participate in a séance facilitated by one of Canada’s best-known psychics. Six former students also agree to participate. At first cooperative and willing, their camaraderie is short-lived as old grudges and rivalries emerge. The séance is a bust.

Determined to solve Sarah’s murder, Gilda launches her own investigation and uncovers shocking revelations that could put several lives—including her own—in danger. Can Gilda and the psychic solve this case before the killer strikes again?


guidoccio-001A member of Crime Writers of Canada, Sisters in Crime, and Romance Writers of America, Joanne Guidoccio writes cozy mysteries, paranormal romance, and inspirational literature from her home base of Guelph, Ontario.

Website: https://joanneguidoccio



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