Life is a Costume Party


Life is a costume party. And then you go to the banquet.

Every day, we dress up in something appropriate for the tasks ahead of us. I wear a suit and pumps to court. To the office, I wear slacks, a shirt or turtleneck, and mules. (I’m playing the role of sole practitioner in Anchorage, Alaska.) For my noon-time walk, hiking pants and a fleece jacket with cleated walking shoes over layers of clothes. For the grocery store, sweat pants and a hoody.

Certainly, clothes are chosen for the function but they are chosen as well to impart an image. My suit is expensive. The image I wish to project is that of a successful lawyer. I’ve won a lot of cases before I walked into this courtroom so you all who are watching me should expect me to win this one, too.

My hiking clothes are in trendy colors as are my walking shoes. They say, I’m having fun while I walk downtown. They also say, “Look at me! I know you see me! I’m not hiding my size. I’m proud that I’m outside moving.”

My grocery store outfit says, “Look at me if you want but I’m not here to impress you.”

But do the images I craft reveal the “real me”? No. Nor are they necessarily interpreted the way that I intend. Someone in the courtroom may see an arrogant lawyer, not a confidant one. Someone on the street might see a fat woman of a certain age with bad taste, not a fitness devotee. Someone in the grocery store might see a slob. (They probably got that one right.)

The “real me” conjures these images for effect. I disguise the “real me” with the costumes I wear while I’m playing a role. And while there is truth at the crucible, only the “real me” would pick that costume for that image for that event, it is only a shard of truth so slender that it cannot be interpreted in a vacuum.

And, so we dress our characters. We craft descriptions to convey the essence of their personality, how they see themselves and the image they are trying to project. In Tana French’s most recent book, The Trespasser, Investigator Antoinette Conway is always dressed in a sharp-looking tailored dark suit. She emphasizes that she looks different. She’s taller than most and has dark features uncharacteristic of the Irish. Feeling different her entire life, being independent and authoritative is important to her. She uses her suit to command attention and respect.

But we can also use these descriptions to show the incongruity between the image the character wants to project and the truth of that character. Conway’s inner conflict is whether she wants to stay on the police force and what she would do if she wasn’t a cop.

And that is why I say: Life is a costume party and then you go to the banquet. The question then becomes: what do you feast upon once you get there?

Mysteristas: Can you think of other characters whose costumes belie their truth?

This Storytelling Business

One of my goals at the start of this year was to focus on good storytelling.  What makes Harry Potter such a great story?  Why are the “Girl” books (like Girl on the Train) so universally talked about today, whether or not you love them?  Why do some books sell like hotcakes?  Why are some classics still deeply loved today by many readers, in spite of being dated?

Ten months later, I still haven’t found enough answers.  Have I been deceiving myself (my nod toward this month’s monthly theme!)?  Can such answers even be found?  Have I been chasing the holy grail?

I don’t think so.  There’s a never-ending amount of learning we have to do as writers.  The more we learn, the more there is to learn.  So, with doubts hovering over my writer’s desk, I thought it was time to attend another workshop.  Now as I type this, I have just arrived home with 20 pages of notes, single-spaced.  A few nuggets keep surfacing, catching my attention because they have to do with process and this storytelling business.  Such as…

Some tips on how to turn around all types of negative thinking:

  • Instead of thinking you “failed” because you missed a goal, take a look at how much you actually did accomplish.
  • If you feel overwhelmed, try writing down each day at the end of the day what your progress actually was that day.
  • Don’t think of the entire book you have to finish.  Think of only one scene at a time.   Take one bite of the elephant at a time.

You know you’ve created good storytelling when…

  • readers really enjoy your stories and want more of them.  And they want to learn when and where to find them.
  • writers remember to have fun.  If we’re not entertaining ourselves, how can we entertain our readers?

This is just a sample.  There’s a LOT more in my notes.  I can’t wait to practice what I’m learning!

And I’ll keep readers posted about my progress in my newsletter a couple times per year.  If you want to sign up to receive it, let me know at

Life and Writing, According to Plan

Normally, I write at my kitchen table. Not today, though. I am currently sitting in a smoking minivan outside an O’Reilly Auto Parts in Finlayson, Minnesota. We made an unscheduled stop after a bad smell and the aforementioned smoke. According to the menfolk, the van is leaking radiator fluid. Instead of offering my opinion about the car, I’m thinking about writing. Writing … road trip gone wrong … basically the same thing, right?  Anyone who’s written a book knows that the plot often starts leaking radiator fluid about one hundred pages in.

While there is always a tension between planning ahead and unplanned car trouble, some types of books probably require a firmer hand on the wheel. For example, a work of grand deception. When I say grand deception, I’m thinking of one of those books that leaves you gobsmacked at the end because the reality the author immersed you in turns out to be false. You aren’t just surprised about the killer, but the entire world the author created. When this works, the resolution is shocking. There is probably a German word to describe this experience. In the movie world, think The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense. Gone Girl is a the most recent grand deception that rocked the literary world. God, I’m sick of talking about Gone Girl, but there it is again. It was a pretty good deception. The Westing Game also comes to mind, but it’s been so long since I’ve read it, I might be misremembering. I need to reread that one.

Car update: So the men have emerged from O’Reilly with a bottle of Stop Leak liquid aluminum, but decided not to use it after reading the directions. It would take too long, I guess. All seven of us are now on the road again—did I mention four kids are in the car? Also, there’s bumper-to-bumper traffic. So many things could go wrong. We’re definitely in Act II, the part where the chaos accelerates.

Unlike my real life, an author hoping to pull off a grand deception has to be in control of things. To create a false reality, while hiding the true reality in plain sight, everything has to be working in concert: plot, narration, character development, theme, and clever clues. If the deception isn’t built into the book on every level, it won’t work.

I don’t know if a detailed outline is required, but I imagine an author has to have a strong vision at the outset. Without an overarching vision, I imagine the thing would turn into a herky jerky mess, broken down on the side of I-35 southbound. Incidentally, I’m not there yet, at least literally. We are forty-five minutes from our final destination, St. Paul, Minnesota, and the van hasn’t produced any more smoke. As for my current writing project, I’m only seventy-five pages in. Plenty of time to break down still.

Can you think of any novels of the type I’m describing? Maybe there is a name for this sub-genre… Grand deception sounds a little stilted. The cool kids probably call it something else. If there’s a name, enlighten me.

‘My Favorite Murder’ Podcast

This public service announcement is brought to you by Kimberly — your neighborhood pop culture junkie. Seriously folks, I need to tell you about my newest podcast obsession — My Favorite Murder! And you all are the perfect audience for it. It’s a podcast about …. murder!


Hosted by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, a comedian and Cooking Channel star respectively, My Favorite Murder is a podcast about true crime, told in the style of gossip with your best girlfriends over brunch and mimosas — chatting about the killer, adding your own commentary, recounting tidbits you heard on Dateline, not always being accurate, stuff like that.

It’s funny and fairly light considering the dark topic. The ladies riff for ten minutes, making each other, and the audience, laugh before each selecting a murder to tell, sometimes in chilling detail, but mostly with humor. They’re not disrespectful to the victims or anything, but they understand our morbid fascination with why people kill, and they talk about it loosely, like you would with your neighbor.

My favorite episodes are the ‘mini’ ones where listeners email murder stories from their own hometowns. The one I recently heard was from a woman who had nearly been abducted when she was a child by an infamous pedophile. Although it may sound creepy, it’s not told creepily. You’ll laugh and then be intrigued. And then you’ll wonder, what would I have done?

The best is the women’s blatant paranoia about getting murdered themselves. They end each podcast with terrific advice to “Stay sexy. Don’t get murdered.” Also, to “F*ck politeness,” a tactic to trust your gut instinct when dealing with strangers.

If you’re into true crime, or you just have a normal fascination with murder, check out My Favorite Murder. If anything, it will liven up your afternoon chores.

Interview: Joe Ide

Today we welcome Joe Ide, author of IQ.

What is your idea of a perfect day?

My perfect day would be fly fishing on Ruby Creek in Five Rivers, Montana, in late September. Then a medium rare rib eye and a decent bottle of Pinot, followed by good conversation, a Patron Maduro and watching the storm clouds roll in over the hills and the lightning storms flash and crackle in the sky.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase/expression, or meal?

My signature expressions are all swear words, said frequently and in a loud voice.

iqcoverphotoWhich books/authors influenced you the most?

Aside from Conan Coyle, my biggest influence was Elmore Leonard. I loved his vivid, low life characters and how real they felt. I loved how they led the plot instead of the other way around. I loved the mixture of pathos and comedy. And I loved the writing. So rich, entertaining and economical at the same time. I think his dialogue is the best in crime fiction and ranks at the top across the board.

Other early influences include, John LeCarre, Walter Mosely, William Gibson, Hunter S. Thompson, Louise Penny, James Baldwin, Cormac McCarthy, and many others.

Do you listen to music when you write?

On the contrary, I shut off of my phone, draw the drapes and lock the door. I even wear ear plugs to enhance the feeling that I’m alone with my characters.

If your latest book were chocolate, what would it be and why?

A Hershey Dark Chocolate Mini. A fun treat you can have anytime.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?

It was my first novel so I thought it best to follow the old adage, write what you know. My favorite books were the original Sherlock Holmes stories. By the time I was twelve, I’d read all fifty-six stories and four novels multiple times. Like me, Sherlock was introverted, a misfit, and he wasn’t a tough guy. But unlike me, he was able to defeat his enemies and control his world with only the powers of his intelligence. I grew up in South Central LA where walking home from school could be life threatening so that was very powerful idea. When it came time to write the book, Sherlock and my early days converged all by themselves.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?

Many mystery/thrillers tend to treat the victims of crime as props. They’re moved around like chess pieces to add suspense, pathos, terror, or whatever the story requires, legitimate techniques I utilize myself. What I’d like to do in future books, is give more focus to the victims as characters and explore the consequences crime has had on their lives, relationships and futures. To make them more human. More like us.

Tell us about your main character.

Isaiah Quintabe is twenty five years old and a high school droput. He lives in East Long Beach; the crime-ridden area Snoop rapped about in The Chronic. Isaiah is a loner and a misfit. He wears no bling, no tattoos, there are no rims on his car and he doesn’t listen to hip hop. He is quiet, watchful and assumming. His reasoning skills are near genius levels and he posseses extraordinary powers of observation. He makes his living as an unlicensed, underground private detective. He is Sherlock in the hood. An African American Columbo, and he takes the cases the police can’t or won’t handle. My daughter ran away with a drug dealer. My son did not commit suicide. I know who killed my friend but there’s not enough evidence.

Isaiah doesn’t have a convenient friend on the police force or access to law enforcement data bases and he doesn’t know how to hack. I like to think of him as a latter day Hugh Glass or Jerimiah Johnson. He knows what he knows from long experience and studying his enviroment. He charges whatever his clients can afford, which more times than not is something like a sweet potato pie, a hand-knitted potholders or a free oil change.
What drives Isaiah is his past. He’s done terrible things in his life and he’s hurt people. Much of that is irrepairable so case he takes is penance. Every case is a way to pay down a debt that can never really be paid off. Isaiah’s story is about redemption. It’s about a young man who overcomes his terrible past and transforms himself into someone who seeks justice for people who cannot seek it for themselves.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
— Sherlock Holmes
— Steve McQueen
— Sidney Potier’s Mister Tibbs in The Heat of the Night

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?

I wouldn’t restrict the guest list to mystery writers at any dinner party of mine. I’d invite: Conan Doyle, Anne Coulter, Hunter S. Thompson, Richard Pryor, Affinity Konar and Malcolm X. Now that’s a dinner party.

What’s next for you?

I’m editing the second book in the series.


Joe Ide is of Japanese American descent. He grew up in South Central Los Angeles. He earned a Master’s Degree and had several careers before writing his first novel, IQ. He lives in Santa Monica, California.

Web Page: Facebook: joeidebooks

The deception of every day life

As writers, we spend a lot of time working on fictional deception. That guy, the one who looks like such a good guy? Yeah, he’s a ratfink. Or maybe that woman seems like a mean old hag, but underneath she’s got a heart of gold.

That item, lying there on the floor? It didn’t just fall over. It was dropped and that’s an important clue.

The torn love letter you are convinced is the key to the mystery? No, it’s just a tale of woe.

But as hard as creating fictional deception can be, I think it’s a lot easier than real life.

  • That trip you thought was going to take ten minutes? Try an hour.
  • Thought it was going to take you an hour to pick up your kids after school? Try two and a half.
  • That road they said was going to be closed for two weeks? It’s been months and counting.
  • The bridge repairs from that fire? Yeah, zero timetable on that one (or maybe that’s not deception).
  • That dress that look absolutely gorgeous in the dressing room? Get it home and WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?
  • The shade of lipstick that seemed to work perfectly when you tested it in the store? Nuh-uh.

I could go on. But lately I’ve been thinking life is more about navigating the deception that is rampant in the world than anything else. No wonder we’re all exhausted. As soon as we think we know what’s going on, Life and the Universe pull the rug out and give a big ol’ laugh as we land on our, um, patooties.

And maybe that’s what makes fictional deception so much easier to create. After all, when it gets too crazy, we can always write a soothing peaceful scene where everything goes right. Just to calm our nerves.

Even if that scene winds up on the cutting room floor.

Fellow Mysteristas, what’s your latest example of real-life deception?

Liz Milliron | @mary_sutton73

The Texture of Language and Character

(Note: I wrote this post for our September theme of texture. Due to scheduling confusion, it didn’t appear but I kind a like it so here it is… a little late.)


Awhile ago I discovered the awesomeness of streaming through the power of my Prime membership. There are a lot of plusses: watching commercial-free episodes on my own schedule is huge; the ability to see and feel character arcs; then of course there’s the pause feature, and the ability to go back and see a certain scene again.

Over time I’ve noticed something else.

When I first started watching Deadwood I was shocked. It’s set in the late 1800’s, and I know for a fact no one ever dropped the f-bomb on Gunsmoke. It felt course. Raw. Unfinished. 

Then I began to get used to it. I got past the language and began to see the characters. Care about them. Feel their struggles, their failures and their triumphs. The characters were course. Raw. Unfinished.

And then I began dropping the f-bomb more frequently myself. In my writing and in conversation. The first couple of times I said the word aloud I’m pretty sure I surprised the people I was with. I know I surprised myself. If that’s a word you’re not used to, it’s impossible to unhear it.

I had managed to not fall into the Downton Abbey folderol. (Get that last word? Definitely not a Deadwood word.) I streamed that series and slipped into a pattern of thinking and speaking that was smooth. Refined. Polished. 

As were the characters. (Granny had some of the best lines!)

We often hear about sharp dialogue. My memory may be off, but I think Gilmore Girls was known for it.

George Pelecanos is a best-selling author I don’t read. I tried one of his books, The Night Gardener, and while I thought some of his characterization strong, the language put me off. After Deadwood, I might give him another go.

There is texture to language. And character.

A character who is flat simply needs more texture. A history that gives them vernacular. A language of their own, of their times, and of their heart.

Can you tell? I just finished re-watching all of Downton Abbey. (The f-bomb is unlikely to drop any time soon.)

What about you? Have you felt the hard edges of words from characters who are on the edge and hide little? Or the silky feeling from those who are restrained and might hide volumes?


It’s all better with friends.