Guest Post: Judy Alter

Welcome back Judy Alter with her new release Pigface and the Perfect Dog!

PigfaceFrontCoverThe Agrarian Myth, Small Towns, and the Cozy Mystery

When the first Anglo immigrants fled from Europe to our shores, they farmed, and they set the tone for our nation for over two hundred years. We were an agrarian culture, living close to the land.

Somewhere along the way the agrarian myth took root. It’s the belief that the best life is found in small villages where farming is the backbone of the economy. People who live close to the land are thought to be more honest, more independent, and possessed of a stronger work ethic. Small towns are safe; cities are dangerous places, full of crime and drugs.

Even though we are primarily an urban society today, that myth lives on. I have no statistics to back this up, but do you ever hear people say they want to raise their kids in the city for the wholesome life? Nope. Lots say they want to raise the kids in a small town, for that very wholesomeness. They overlook the educational and cultural opportunities for adults and children in cities. And they overlook the fact that small town teens often have drug problems as severe or more so than their city counterparts. If you did controlled comparative profiles on city kids and village kids, say from age 15 to 25, I suspect city kids would look better.

In other words, cities get a bad rap, and we fool ourselves about the purity of the pastoral life. But what does all this have to do with cozy mysteries?

A small-town setting is usually part of the profile of the traditional cozy. (More cozy series are set in the city recently, but I’m talking tradition here.) The limited environment makes it believable that the protagonist knows everyone in town—or seems to. And it’s all familiar to the reader if you follow the series. Read Leslie Budewitz’s Food Lover Village series—you know Erin, the Merc, the bar where Ned rules, the coffee shop with Michelle, and maybe the realtor’s office where cousin Molly presides. But you don’t really know the whole town—you just think you do. There’s an underside to Jewel Bay where many people struggle to make a living—it’s mentioned, but doesn’t figure in the story.

I think cozies are also set in small towns for contrast or shock value—a murder seems out of place in a village. In the city, murders become just another statistic and are often overlooked. In the small town, everyone focuses on this disruption of the natural order of things. Nothing bad is supposed to happen in this lovely, safe, pastoral village—but when it does it grabs our attention. It’s like evil has come to Mayberry.

I’m not sure that authors make these decisions consciously. Probably few say to themselves, “I’ll set this story in a village because I can control the population, and because the murder will have shock value.” I think, like much of writing fiction, it’s instinctive. At least that happened with the creation of the Oak Grove Mysteries, The Perfect Coed and the current Pigface and the Perfect Dog.

Not only are the books set in a small town, the main characters work on a university campus—another small and controlled environment. But this small town, like so many other fictional ones, turns out not to be as calm and peaceful as you’d expect if, say, you were a parent sending a son or daughter off to school there. In the first book, a coed is found dead in the trunk of a teacher’s car, and now in the new book, the protagonist is confronted by rifle-carrying, belligerent men in a grocery store. Really?

Did I plot all that out before hand? Not on your life. It’s just what happened when I, a dedicated pantser, sat down at the computer with that first line. I still like that opening: Susan Hogan thought she was going to meet her maker that March day. Her first thought was irreverent. “Really, God? In a grocery store in Oak Grove? Have you got this wrong somehow?”

*****

JudyAtWork 002Judy Alter is the author of six books in the Kelly O’Connell Mysteries, two books in the Blue Plate Café Mysteries; and two in the Oak Grove Mysteries. Pigface and the Perfect Dog follows The Perfect Coed in this series of mysteries set on a university campus. Judy is no stranger to college campuses. She attended the University of Chicago, Truman State University in Missouri, and Texas Christian University, where she earned a Ph.D. and taught English. For twenty years, she was director of TCU Press, the book publishing program of the university. The author of many books for both children and adults primarily on women of the American West, she retired in 2010 and turned her attention to writing contemporary cozy mysteries.

She holds awards from the Western Writers of America, the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame, and the Texas Institute of Letters. She was inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame and recognized as an Outstanding Woman of Fort Worth and a woman who has left her mark on Texas. Western Writers of America gave her the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement and will induct her into its Hall of Fame in June 2015.

The single parent of four and the grandmother of seven, she lives in Fort Worth, Texas, with her perfect dog, Sophie.

Follow her at Amazon

her blog: http://www.judys-stew.blogspot.com;

and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Judy-Alter-Author/366948676705857

Buy link for Pigface and the Perfect Dog

Buy link for The Color of Fear

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A long, late night

Otherwise known as…oops, I did it again.

I could blame the late night reading. I could blame the switch to working at home, which means one day is pretty much identical to the next. I could blame the chaos of a release week.

I stay up too late at night. I know I do. Except…late nights are the only time I get to relax. Read. Think about…things. From the time the alarm goes off at 5:30am to about, oh, 10:00pm, my day is concerned a lot with other people. Get the kids up, dressed, out the door (yes, even though they are teenagers). Work the day-job. Fix dinner. Talk–or at least try to talk–to the kids about their day when they get home (see above reference to teenagers). Squash some writing time in there. Watch TV and spend some time with The Hubby.

You get the picture.

But late at night, the house is quiet. No one is making demands on my time. It’s just me and the book du jour. Bliss.

Except that it keeps me up. Makes me forget stuff – like doing my post for the blog.

I need a better calendar. Or I need to give up those late nights and go to sleep.

{Pause}

Anybody have a favorite calendar?

Night Play

Air shifts as the earth moves through its rotation.

Dawn brings a fresh current that’s both quiet and invigorating. A promise and a plan. Your plan. Possibilities.

The day is filled with chatter and movement and news and emotion commotion. The current is busy and robust and packed with energy. Wins and losses. Joy and pain. That point when you realize your plan is so much smoke. The usual.

Twilight into dusk is a time for calmness. Reflection. A bit of mental planning (yes, you’re an optimist) for the following day. Deep breaths. Soft breezes carpeted with fragrance.

From evening into night we strip our faces, don comfy pajamas, and decide how we want to relax for a few hours. (Or if you’re a writer, what to work on next.)

Lights flick off. The urban wave of traffic calms, and almost—but not quite—disappears.

And night slides into the deep.

In the deep current Darkness rules. Spirits and magic and things that hide from the light come out to play. To tempt, trick and trap.

It’s when I can see you. The real you.

And I know exactly how to get to you. Are you ready to play?

 

It’s all better with friends.

 

 

Cut the Fluff

“I try to leave out the parts readers skip.” ~Elmore Leonard

parisTransitional phrases like late that night come in super handy to heed Mr. Leonard’s excellent advice. These show that time has passed without bogging the reader down with unnecessary fluff that doesn’t serve the plot. And, as we all know, everything must serve the plot! It’s kinda like the One Ring.

 

Here are a few instances where I’ve learned I need to leverage transitional phrases:

  • I allow myself one—*maybe* two—transportation scenes per manuscript. As a combo pantser/plotter, I tend to use bus rides, walks, etc. to explore where I want the scene to go next. Which means, once I figure out where the scene is going, I can cut out the actual transportation and just say something like, one awkward Uber ride later…
  • When I show characters coming up with a plan that they later enact, this is sometimes because I’m struggling to figure out how the hero is going to take down the baddie. Problem is, nobody wants to read both the scheming AND the actual scheme. Unless the plan falls to pieces, I usually skip to the action with a phrase like, after an afternoon spent carefully laying my trap…
  • Since I write mysteries, it’s important to have lots of chills creeping up spines, nervous twitches, and other murder-inspired reactions, but sometimes it’s not that interesting to read over and over, which is when I usually leverage something along the lines of: after another sleepless night spent twitching at every sound…
  • If I ever start feeling bored while I’m writing a scene, I know the reader is sure as hell going to be bored. That’s when I cut ahead to where the action picks up with phrases like, I think about the kiss all afternoon, or, the weekend passes without incident.

Readers, I’m curious what scenes do you tend to skip? Writers, do you have any rules of thumb like mine? Do you pure plotters struggle with the same situations?

Late at Night: An Excerpt

“It was an old-school watering hole: dark wood, low lights, and minimal décor. I liked it. It was unpretentious, lacking the flash and sparkle of the newer places in town, the ones with DJs and rope lights all over the place. Did the edge of a bar really need its own color-changing rope lights? I didn’t think so. Parked at the far end of the glossy, well-aged bar, I had my back to the wall and full view of the place. As was my habit, I was early to the meeting, so I had time to study my surroundings. The waitresses were dressed in black skirts and white blouses, nothing too short or too tight. None carried a notepad, so they were trained to memorize a patron’s order. Again, I liked it. Pagers clipped to their pockets seemed to let them know when an order was up, because every now and then one of the women would glance down before gliding over to the kitchen window or bar to scoop up someone’s food or drink. Orders were delivered with a smile, empty glasses were whisked away and replaced with full ones, and the whole process seemed to flow with ease.

A quick peek down the bar showed a mix of men and women, mostly in jeans and cotton shirts, consuming cold beer and warm pretzels. No fruity, frozen drinks for this crowd. The low hum of conversation ebbed and flowed in the air, a soothing white noise that lulled one into calm. Except, one of the patrons at the bar wasn’t calm; in fact, this blond fairly vibrated with nervous energy, and my gaze was drawn to her again and again. She seemed to be alone, at least she wasn’t interacting with the folks on either side of her. Her glance kept sliding toward the door, and then quickly back to her drink, as though she didn’t want to look at the door but couldn’t help it. Odd, I thought, but not my problem.

I continued to study the place, in between sips of my Guinness. Yeah, it was alcohol, but not Scotch, so I figured that didn’t count. Much. Who was I kidding, I thought. I pushed the glass away and threw a handful of pretzels into my mouth. The open wood beams added character and age to the place, while the music in the background was a mix of acoustic guitar tracks and subtle, smoky jazz numbers. It was unobtrusive.  The whole theme of this place seemed to be one of calm. I glanced back toward the slim, nervous woman, only to see her slide off her bar stool and head for the ladies room on those spiky high heels some women preferred. I suppressed a shudder; my feet hurt just looking at them. She glided across the room, though, so clearly she was okay with those ankle-breakers.

I should follow her, I thought. My curiosity was piqued. The tap on my shoulder startled me, which pissed me off and had me whipping my head around to see who dared touch me, who had managed to sneak up on me.  The owner of the fingers was tall, at least six feet, and broad-shouldered.  His thin sweater looked soft, maybe cashmere, and was paired with dark denim pants. The pants ended at a pair of sensible brown Oxford shoes. He stepped back and held out a hand. “Hi, I’m Oliver. Are you Rachel?” His voice was low and smoky, much like the jazz whispering in the background. Oliver’s bright blue eyes provided an interesting contrast to his dark wavy hair and olive-hued skin. A great example of the American melting pot, I thought.  I slid off the bar stool to face him, and shook his hand.”

(Amber Dreams, Unpublished Work © 2017 by Pamela A. Oberg)

This piece is something I’ve been playing with for a while. It’s a locked room mystery, and I’ve locked myself in. Oops! One of these days, I’ll figure out how to write myself–and the characters–out of the room. In the meantime, what do you think is happening? What comes next? This is the middle third of the story, and I’ve finished all but the last bit. I’d love so hear what you think is going to happen! I’ll give you a couple of hints: Rachel is a private investigator, and struggling alcoholic with a fondness for quality Scotch. She’s tough, but has a big heart. Oliver? He’s got some family issues to work through. Ready? Go!

 

Interview: Connie Cockrell

Please welcome Connie Cockrell!

What’s your idea of a perfect day?

A day spent hiking. I love getting out in the woods or desert where it’s quiet, preferably alone though I don’t do much individual hiking any more. I usually go with the local hiking group.

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

Spaghetti night is every Saturday at my house. I make a great red sauce and it’s my go-to comfort food meal. My husband tried to establish Tuesdays as taco night but it never took off.

Which books/authors inspired or influenced you the most?

I went to heaven when I found Issac Asimov and Robert Heinlein and all of the other great classic SciFi writers. A friend of mine went on a paper drive with her church and at one house, the man gave her a whole box of scifi books. She gave them to me and I went through that box over the summer, reading to my heart’s content.

Do you listen to music when you write? 

Only if my husband turns on the kitchen radio or the Satellite TV to a music station. Otherwise, I think there’s already enough noise in my head.

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

Mystery at the Book Festival would be semi-sweet. Jean Hays isn’t a girly girl. She’s retired Air Force and divorced. But she does like to have fun, hiking, and of course, solving murders!

What made you interested in writing this particular story? 

This book is the third in the Jean Hays series. Jean likes to be involved in her community. Since I run a book festival (www.PaysonBookFestival.org), it just seemed like a good place to dump a body for Jean to find. Nothing so exciting has happened at my real festival though.

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

I write mysteries, scifi, fantasy, and even westerns. In nearly all of them I have strong women taking care of themselves and usually in a fight against big government, big conglomerates, or a combination of the two.

Tell us about your main character.

As I mentioned above, Jean Hays is strong and independent. She is a retired Air Force project manager and has the logical mind from that background which helps her find the murderers in the books. Her best friend, Karen, is more of the crafty person: sewing, gardening, scrap-booking, decorating her home, and cooking. She’s always on Jean for leaving the contractor paint on the walls of her house and not cooking meals for herself. They make a good team.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.

Jean is sort of like Jessica Fletcher, Miss Marple, and Kate Becket. She is never armed but she has the inquisitiveness and the ability to notice what’s happening around her that make a great detective.

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

Agatha Christie, Elmore Leonard, Issac Asimov, Nevada Barr, Mary Higgins Clark, and Tony Hillerman. I think they would make a delightful evening!

What’s next for you?

I’m preparing for the November National Novel Writing Month, where I’ll be drafting Mystery at the Reunion. I’m going to give my fictional town of Greyson a little break from murder!

Guest Post: Catriona McPherson

Welcome back to a Mysteristas favorite, the lovely Catriona McPherson!

Late That Night

9780738752167Joy of joys! When I – and I can’t be the only one – pester Mysteristas into letting me back to guest-blog, I’m happy to get a positive response. Then the time rolls around to write it and my brain cell – clapped out by extreme draft-production and even more extreme editing – is nowhere to be found. Blank screen, blank face. (Please tell me I’m not the only one.)

But then . . . I see the topic of the month and my brain cells multiplies and bursts into life. “Late that night”! Who wouldn’t be inspired and enchanted? Who wouldn’t be a little bit scared in the best possible way?

I love to scare myself. I read every word Stephen King writes (in hardback, on publication day) and I’ve told the story before of finishing Duma Key late one night, all alone in my isolated farmhouse in Scotland, during a power-cut, by the light of a guttering candle.  It was worth it, but I had to phone my mum before I could summon the courage to go upstairs to bed.

And sometimes I scare myself while writing too. I remember jumping and shrieking when a friend put a hand on my shoulder while I was writing a scene in HOUSE.TREE.PERSON. Then everyone else in the coffeeshop got a little bit scared too. It really was a pretty full-throated shriek.

The funny thing is, I don’t believe in any of the things I get so enthusiastically scared by. I don’t have any supernatural beliefs at all. None. When it comes to strange-seeming events, I believe in bell curves, typicality, outliers and aggregate statistics. When it comes to miracles, I believe in placebo, reversion to the mean and the tendency of humans to seek patterns. When it comes to life beyond our lifespan, I believe the bit after I die will be the same as the bit before I was born.

abbeyBut I would no more walk through a graveyard in the dark than I would stir my tea with a stranger’s comb. And if I heard a funny noise coming from under the ground in a ruined abbey, where monks were buried long ago, I would not – like Ali McGovern does in the book – go to see what’s up.

And all the tropes of fiction in print and on film that horrify me deliciously (as opposed to sensibly and unpleasantly, the way war and suffering terrify us) are supernatural. Blood and guts, bad guys, violence of every kind I can happily live without. But the ghosts in The Others? Or Sid, the ventriloquist’s dummy, in that episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer? Not to mention the little girls in Duma Key who are not actually there but leave wet footprints in the beach-house?  Love ’em.

What do you love to fear? Do you love to fear? Again, don’t tell me it’s just me.

*****

pic-of-meCatriona McPherson is the author of eleven novels in the Dandy Gilver series, featuring Dandy Gilver, her sidekick Alec Osborne, and Bunty the Dalmatian, set in Scotland in the 1920s and 30s. They have won Agatha, Macavity and Lefty awards and been shortlisted for a UK Dagger. The series is currently in development for television, at STV in Scotland. She also writes modern standalones which have won two Anthony awards and been shortlisted for an Edgar and the Mary Higgins Clark. Catriona is a past president of Sisters in Crime and is still as Scottish as a plaid haggis, despite having lived in northern California since 2010. www.catrionamcpherson.com.

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