The Siren Song of Summer

It takes all my discipline to do my work during these lazy summer days.

Everything conspires against me. The distinctive perfume from the petunias and the cedar chips, heated by the afternoon sun. Culinary delights from the neighbors’ barbecues wafting across my yard at all times of the day and night. Above my head in the sweet-smelling linden tree, the drone of the bees industriously flitting from flower to flower. The chittering and scolding of the squirrels. The shadows of the butterflies and goldfinches floating and teasing across the patio stones. The snap of Nala’s jaws when a “sky raisin” tantalizes her by flying too close.

leaves above me

All I want to do is be outside with Nala, enjoying a cold drink and the flora and fauna of my yard. Except the deer. They’re jerks who eat my flowers and don’t flush, but that’s a story for another, crankier day.

deer poop

I’ve just recently figured out how to be on my patio with my laptop, where and when there’s no glare, but optimum shade resides. My beautiful patio is only a few years old, you see, when we threw scads of money at an ugly problem and transitioned to something lovely. I told my husband yesterday it was the best thing we’ve ever spent money on. Sorry, kids.

Nala pulls me outside but I still have work that needs to get done. She loves being out there in all kinds of weather, but she has canine lupus which means she’s supposed to stay out of the sun. The patio is half in the shade as I write this at 2:15 in the afternoon and she positions herself in the shade or the dappled light near me. That isn’t always the case, however. When I’m not out there with her, more often than not she lays right in the sun, no matter how hot it might be.

Therefore, I don’t feel I can leave her to her own devices outside. The other problem is that I usually work upstairs. I know — because this has happened forty-leven gazillion times in the five years since we’ve had her — that the minute I get upstairs, she will want to come in. It comes in handy when I need to get my steps in, but it really wrecks my writing mojo.

So, I’ve made some tweaks to my schedule so that I know I’ll get everything done, regardless of the siren song of the yard. I’m at my desk by about 9:00 every morning. I set my timer for one hour and write nonstop. At the end of that hour, I record my word count, stretch, give Nala (and who am I kidding — myself) a treat. Then I set my timer for another hour. At the end of that time, I record my word count again, print out my pages for the day, and email the day’s work to myself. I eat lunch, Nala gets her “lunchtime cookie,” then I spend an hour with my email accounts (yes, setting the timer again).

When I close the lid to my laptop, no matter how stealthy I am or where she is in the house, Nala comes running up behind me, dancing with excitement, because she knows what comes next.

Outside!

I pour myself a glass of something cold, grab my computer, and head to my zero-gravity chair. Because it’s generally at least breezy, if not downright windy out there, I can’t do any work that requires notes. So I’ve learned to title word docs with blog topics I need to pursue and leave them on my computer desktop. And pursue them I do.

Like this one.

While I wrote this, Nala spent time sniffing the wind, regally surveying her kingdom, sorting out a squirrel on the fence, and arranging herself in front of, behind, and next to me. For no reason I can discern, she rotates her comfy spot.

nala on patio

It makes me wonder what I do that is perfectly reasonable and logical to me, but that would cause any onlooker to scratch their head and mutter, “Weirdo.” Probably lots more than I suspect.

In our time outside, Nala also very delicately, with her tiny front teeth, stripped single blades of ornamental grass. At least until I asked her to please refrain.

And now she’s off to remind the squirrel who’s boss.

Nala on step

It’s her, by the way. She’s the boss. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Do you have a place outside you love? Do you write out there? Read? The one thing our yard doesn’t have anymore is a good place for a hammock. But that’s probably good. Can’t quite picture how I’d get any work done in a hammock!

Oh … I almost forgot this was Independence Day! (That’s what happens when you work at home.) Got any big plans? We’ll go to a neighbor’s house with a nice view of our big town fireworks show. (Yes, she invited us. Pfft.) We’re having a horrendous fire season here in Colorado already, so I hope not to hear those annoying and dangerous fireworks going off all over the neighborhood. At least Nala isn’t scared of them.

Advertisements

Becky’s Epiphany

I’ve never written a short story, but it’s been on my bucket list for an embarrassingly long time.

I want to use short stories in two ways — to give readers of my novels some pithy backstory “bonus feature” tidbits, and to perhaps encourage new readers to give my novels a try.

But I’ve been struggling with this. Every idea I have is too big, involves too many characters. People who know of such things have told me (repeatedly) the “rules” of short story writing — limited characters; limited plot; no backstory; establish character, setting and plot within the first paragraph or so; beginning, middle, and end; satisfying ending, perhaps with a twist — but nobody has successfully told me how, exactly, to do all of that in 5,000 words.

So I struggle.

Until the other day when I finshed a workout and had on my “Stretching Music” playlist.

Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” came on.

It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw. I’ve gone to look for America. “Kathy, I’m lost,” I said, though I knew she was sleeping. “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.” Counting the cars on the New Jersey turnpike, they’ve all come to look for America.

That there is a short story, locking me into Pigeon Pose for the entire three minutes and thirty-three seconds duration. Knowing I had to stretch my other hip flexor, I rearranged myself, mulling and probing this esoteric new concept.

Next, “And So It Goes” by Billy Joel came on and blew my mind the rest of the way. An entire story in 200 words. I’ve heard this song forty-leven bajillion times and never had this epiphany. (If you don’t know this song, stop reading right now and have a listen. It’s quite possibly my favorite song of all time.)

In every heart there is a room, a sanctuary safe and strong, to heal the wounds from lovers past, until a new one comes along….. I would choose to be with you, that’s if the choice were mine to make. But you can make decisions too, and you can have this heart to break. And so it goes, and so it goes, and you’re the only one who knows.
As a lover of all kinds of music, you’d think I would have had this epiphany much, much sooner. And here’s one more piece of evidence to show you how thick I’d been all these years. A couple of weeks ago when I was weeding my ancient manila folder labeled “Short Stories,” I found this note I’d scribbled to myself on the back of a discarded email dated July 1, 2014.
eleanor rigby
Songs are short stories. Who knew?
Everyone but me, apparently.
As I write this, I’m halfway through a project that I think [see me crossing my fingers?] is actually going to end up being a short story.
Have you had any epiphanies lately, writing or otherwise?

I Splattered Fangirl All Over the Place

I’ve been a bit AWOL recently because I was hanging out at the Malice Domestic convention, along with fellow Mysteristas Mia Manansala, Liz Milliron, and Keenan Powell, and 500 of my new best friends.

I’ve been to numerous writer’s conferences, and fan conventions like Left Coast Crime and Bouchercon, but this was my first Malice Domestic. (Next year’s info is already posted … get it on your calendar!) It’s a fan convention that has been around since 1989, celebrating traditional mysteries like Agatha Christie’s.

In fact, they have an Agatha Awards Banquet where the winners in each category take home the coveted Agatha teapot. It’s so exciting to cheer for all the nominees, many of whom are friends of mine. It’s too bad everyone can’t win!

Here’s Kellye Garrett holding her Agatha for Best First Novel for “Hollywood Homicide.” She’s standing with her Midnight Ink editor (and mine), Terri Bischoff.

Kellye and Terri Agatha

I met so many new friends — some were even fans of mine, which is thrilling beyond words — and was able to get to know other writers and readers just a bit better.

And, of course, I was able to fangirl all over MY favorite authors! I had a nice chat with Louise Penny who is warm, generous, and delightfully charming. She’s a woman and an author who inspires me so much.

me and Louise Penny

Brenda Blethyn, who plays the title character on the BBC series “Vera” was one of the guests of honor, along with the fantastic Ann Cleeves, the creator and author of the Vera books. We had a SRO sneak peek screening from the newest season, which won’t be in the U.S. for a while.

I stood in line for them to both sign Ann Cleeves’ book, “The Glass Room.” When it was my turn, I told them I was having a fangirl moment by having both Veras together in front of me. In dry British fashion, Ann turned to Brenda and said, “And look here, we have Becky Clark in front of us!” Obviously they didn’t have any idea who I was, but I’m notching my belt with that ‘brush with greatness’ story.

Brenda Blethyn, Ann Cleeves and me

Suffice it to say, any time I get to be around a multitude of books and/or authors is a fantastic time.

And speaking of a multitude of books … no wonder my suitcase was so heavy coming home!

books

So, how ’bout you? Do you go to fan conventions? Who would you most fangirl (or boy) over? Tell us about your ‘brush with greatness’ author stories.

ACK! Book Launch!

FICTION CAN BE MURDER launches on April 8th so I’m scrambling like a madwoman trying to get everything done that I think will ensure its success.

Fiction Can Be Murder

Same as what I tried to do when I launched my kids. The only difference, I guess, is that my little baby birds could fly on their own. But when I toss my baby book out of the nest, I still have to hang on to the straps of its overalls so it doesn’t plummet to its death.

I attended the Left Coast Crime convention last month, talking myself hoarse during two hours of speed dating, trying to match 160 readers with my book in two minute snippets. As you can see by fellow Mysterista Keenan’s photo, I went out of my way to charm the audience of my panel about plotting mysteries. Despite the way my fellow panelist, Kim Fay, is looking at me, we hadn’t actually started the questions yet. This was not punctuation of any answer.

Becky Clark panel

I’m organizing THREE launch parties in the Denver area, which means I have to figure out not only what food to order, but also what to say and what to wear. Times three. Egads. (See photo above.)

I’ll be attending the Malice Domestic convention later this month, where again I’ll try to be charming whilst playing matchmaker between readers and my books. I’m doing something different there. You know how attendees at conferences get tote bags stuffed with all kinds of books and goodies? I made up booklets comprised of the first three chapters of FICTION CAN BE MURDER that I’m having stuffed in the totes. Most everyone will get a taste of the book, and if they’re not fans of traditional, cozier mysteries, I hope they’ll still take it home and share it with someone who is. Also, at Malice, I’ve agreed to a Facebook Live event, which is making me sweat more than a sunbathing pork chop. What was I thinking??

I’m planning on doing some clever social media things, which, yanno, haven’t quite materialized in my brain yet. Although I did do a video book trailer, which you can see on my website.

And in the middle of all this hoopla, I’m writing the back cover copy for FOUL PLAY ON WORDS (book #2 in the series, out in April 2019), which has been sent off to my editor, and I’m finishing up the outline so I can start writing METAPHOR FOR MURDER (book #3, out in April 2020).

What a weird, wonderful business this is!

Writers … what’s the best thing about your book launches?

Readers … What do you like/hate the most about book launches? (And if you’re in the Denver area and want to come to mine, let me know and I’ll shoot you the deets!)

 

Seven Sinister Sisters

Seven Sinister Sisters headshot collage

Today, Mysteristas is hosting the Seven Sinister Sisters blog tour. We’re seven mystery authors, all members of Sisters in Crime, who have new books out this spring. We’re bopping around cyberspace answering one question whenever we land.

Today’s question … Do you put real people/places in your mysteries? Why or why not?

Cathy Perkins takes umbrage with the premise of the question. “You mean characters aren’t real?”

Of course they are, Cathy.

“Whew. Because I know many talented, hard-working women Holly’s age and a few with her off-beat sense of humor, but she’s a character who evolved as the story came together. I knew she’d be curious and tenacious, as well as want to do the right thing for her murdered friend. JC is a mashup of guys I’ve met over the years. While he’s good at his job (and the sexual chemistry between Holly and JC was so fun to write), I wanted him to be very human, with his own baggage to carry. Clearly, Holly and JC still have obstacles to overcome, which show up in IN IT FOR THE MONEY. The minor characters are often drawn from real life. Dickerman, aka The Shrimp, is based on a patrol officer I had to deal with in a volunteer position – and his name is from a person who annoyed me for years. Word of warning – authors do stuff like that.”

“Authors also donate naming rights to charity auctions and create a fictional character with the name of a living person, like I do,” says Edith Maxwell. “In my contemporary mysteries, I don’t include real people. I need my characters to serve and guide the story, and if I had a real person in there, they might not be willing to do what the character needs to do. But in my Quaker Midwife Mysteries, set in 1888, I include John Greenleaf Whittier as a character. He lived down the street from my midwife and helped design the Friends Meetinghouse where she worships (and where I do on Sunday mornings). Because the series is set in the past, I feel safe including him.”

Shawn McGuire agrees. “I think whether we realize it or not, real people influence our characters, but I don’t put actual people on my pages. I think doing so can be a very touchy thing and potentially open an author up to trouble. Picking and choosing quirky characteristics makes for great characters, though. Regarding places, I borrow things from places I’ve been for my settings. For example, Mackinaw Island, Michigan is responsible for the fact that cars are not allowed in Whispering Pines, the village in my current series. I’m having great fun creating a place where I’d love to live.

“I like the quirky characteristics, too,” Patricia Hale says. “I don’t put real people in, although I do draw on the characteristics of people I know when creating a character. For example, Britt Callahan, the female half of my PI team, smokes Honey Berry cigars. A friend of mine mentioned that her husband hates this vice of hers and she has to hide in the garage. I thought it was an interesting quirk. I do put real places in my books because I enjoy reading a story set in a town/state I’m familiar with. I can visualize exactly where a scene is taking place. I like that. I hope my readers do too.”

Becky Clark begins with a real person’s photo. “I may start with a character who looks like a celebrity or someone I know, but by the time they go through my grinder, they’re completely different. Settings are trickier. I want authenticity, but I don’t want anybody mad at me for killing a character in their establishment. In FICTION CAN BE MURDER I use names of streets and landmarks in the Denver area, which you might recognize if you’ve been here, and that’s always fun. But specific locations I fictionalize so I can have the doors in the right place or so the victim can get murdered. I don’t want people fact-checking or being pulled out of the story over stuff that doesn’t matter.”

“As soon as I started fleshing out the first of my Sally Solari mysteries, I knew the town of Santa Cruz would play a starring role,” says Leslie Karst. “Its old-time Italian fishermen and restaurant owners, now having to come to terms with the newly-arrived techies and hipsters and their passion for the modern food movement, make for a colorful cast of characters. And with the stunning beauty of the town’s coastline, redwood forests, and famous roller coaster as a backdrop, it was a no-brainer that I had to use the real Santa Cruz in my books.”

Sue Star’s Nell Letterly mysteries take place in her hometown of Boulder, Colorado. “It’s a real place, and the joke in Colorado is that it’s the “Republic of Boulder,” referring to its … er, shall we say its special uniqueness? I can’t resist poking gentle fun at Boulder and its plans to save the world. But at the same time, I don’t want to offend anyone. That’s why I make up specific sites within the larger confines of a real place. In MURDER BY MOOSE, the Colorado mountains are very real, but the dude ranch setting is entirely fictional.

Would you be interested in having a character in a book named after you? Would you want to be the killer, the victim, or the sleuth? Do you like reading mysteries set someplace you’ve been before? Does it bug you when the author alters it to suit their needs? Or would you rather read about fictional places or places you’ve never been? 

* * *

To celebrate our new releases, the Seven Sinister Sisters are having a giveaway! Seven lucky winners will receive an ebook from one of us. One GRAND PRIZE winner will receive a signed copy from each of us! Enter to win by leaving a comment below. Our tour runs from January 6th to April 30th and we’re answering a different question at each blog. Leave a comment at each blog for more entries! We’ll draw the winner from all the combined comments at the end of our tour. If the grand prize winner is out of the United States, we’ll send an Amazon gift card for the equivalent amount.

Watch our Facebook page for the next stop on the tour.

* * *

For more info on the Seven Sinister Sisters …

Patricia Hale

Edith Maxwell

Leslie Karst

Cathy Perkins

Shawn McGuire

Sue Star

Becky Clark

 

Tour graphic Seven Sinister Sisters

Coincidences and Habits

In 1994 or so, I took my kids to the park. I began chatting with another mom. She and her husband had just opened a dental practice, and my husband and I had just opened our printshop. Our kids were playing together. I haven’t seen her since.

Her kid is now my dentist.

Entirely impossible. Until I had someone help me with the math. (How I got so old is a topic for another day. When I have the wine out.)

He did not remember our paths crossing like this, but he did tell me I had lovely teeth. Only problem is that I brush too hard and it’s causing some gum recession. I’m right handed and when I come around that corner to attack my lower left teeth, I’m a little … um … aggressive. He advised I should hold my toothbrush with only two or three fingers instead of gripping it in my fist.

“Like playing a violin?”

“Exactly.”

Oh, and this reminds me. I have a doggie dentist appointment next week for Nala. I know for a fact her dentist will not compliment her teeth. Nine years of not brushing has, I fear, caused some problems for her. In my defense, I tried cleaning her teeth when we got her four years ago, but neither one of us liked it. Perhaps I was too aggressive with her, too. Or perhaps the bacon-flavored toothpaste was unappealing. (Ya think??) Now I’m a bit worried because they’ll put her under with anesthesia. They’ve assured me she’s healthy enough to handle it, but still…

 

Nala1     Nala2

 

I’m sure the doggie dentist will fix up Nala, but who’s going to help me?? I’ve been trying for the last week to completely change how I brush my teeth. It’s HARD! I’m overly-conscious of every movement I make while attempting to polish up my pearly whites. Sometimes so conscious that I don’t think I’m doing much of anything. Don’t scrub … am I foamy enough? … do I brush longer since I’m not scrubbing as hard? … am I getting everywhere? Gah.

I’ve been trying to dig deep into the recesses of my memory to see if I’ve successfully changed any other habits so drastically. I came up with a couple, although none that I’ve been doing for over 50 years.

I’ve changed how I outline and write books, for one thing. But that was so incremental, simply tweaking my process by trial and error from book to book.

I’ve changed my diet. But again, so incrementally it’s hardly noticeable.

And that’s all I came up with.

Not one habit in my life has been turned so immediately upside down as changing the way I brush my teeth.

So, I’m asking you. Have you had to abruptly change a long-standing habit? How did you do it? How long did it take to embrace the change? Will you now hold your toothbrush with only two fingers and commisserate with me? Should I send you Nala’s leftover bacon-flavored toothpaste?

How Much Cursing is Okay in a Cozy?

Since I wanted to get your opinion on cozies today, I thought I’d bribe you a bit with pics of Nala, my cozy cuddlebug.

There are a lot of colors in the “Mystery” rainbow: cozies, legal and medical thrillers, police procedurals, suspense, romantic suspense, historicals, private eyes, noir, capers … and more!

And don’t forget the subgenres! Just under the “cozy” umbrella there are crafting cozies, cupcake cozies, cat cozies, hobby cozies, etc, etc, etc. There are even some stay-at-home-dad cozies.

Most readers read across the spectrum to some degree, but writers tend to stick with one genre.

I’ve always told people I write cozies because my definition is that they have an amateur sleuth, are usually funny or light-hearted, not a lot of violence or sex, and usually set in a small town. But I was at a party recently and a friend told me about a controversy she’d been following about readers giving one-star reviews to cozies that don’t follow the reader’s “rules,” whether that’s absolutely no cursing, or that cozies must have a recipe, or whatever. They’ll turn up their noses and slam the author for “calling their book a cozy when it’s clearly a traditional. Harrumph.”

Now, I don’t mind a well-reasoned negative review (well, I do, but that’s a conversation for my therapist) but those arbitrary and angry one-stars bring down an authors rating, causing all sorts of problems for their career.

And when I stumble across the phrase “traditional mystery,” I’m stumped. How is that different from a cozy?

I don’t think anyone would argue that Agatha Christie is the Queen of the Traditional Mystery, but look at the Miss Marple books. She ticks all my “cozy” boxes.

But Writing World separates “cozies” and “amateur sleuths” into two distinct genres.

I decided, with FICTION CAN BE MURDER, my new perhaps-cozy-perhaps-traditional-perhaps-amateur-sleuth-but-definitely-not-police-procedural mystery coming out soon, I needed a definitive answer.

So I started asking people, beginning with a Facebook group I recently joined called A Cozy Experience Online Cozy Mystery Book Club. With a name like that, they will know!

I asked them how they defined cozies. Here are some of the insightful answers I got:

I define a cozy as a “soft” mystery with no blood curdling scenes and no cursing in a homey setting where only one or maybe two bullying, egotistical jerks live.

I don’t like any cursing in my cozys, nor do I like any sexual activity, implied or otherwise. To me traditional mysteries and cozys are entirely different entities. Cozys the murder occurs quietly off scene, mysteries that’s not always the case. I expect a mystery to be a little more graphic but not necessarily as gruesome as a thriller.

Hm, I’m wondering how I’d categorize series like Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, or Diane Kelly’s “Death, Taxes, and…” series, both of which I love and which fit the bill for most of the cozy check points (humor, young single female protagonist, light on gore or violence or criminal psych study, and justice is always served – but both series can be more graphic when it comes to language & sex (neither of which bother me at all).

Mild cursing is fine, eg “gosh darn”or “shoot.” And I am all for romance in cozies though nothing too explicit, I’m there for the mystery not the sex. Also I am really really really getting tired of love triangles in cozies. A love triangle is NOT cozy. Sorry for the shouting. [This comment made me laugh!]

I always think of a cozy as a story that happens to have a murder involved but it’s really more about the protagonist’s life. Also in a cozy mystery the protagonist’s hobby or career are as important, if not more important than the murder. I don’t mind cursing, especially if it fits the character. And I don’t mind the sex if it drives the story.

A cozy mystery takes me to a new place, introduces me to new people, and tosses in a murder or two or three.

A cozy is also supposed to have an amateur detective (a regular person like you or me) as the main character. Some books are called cozies but are really just mysteries or maybe humorous mysteries. I’m not picky though, I read them all.

I enjoy cozies. I do not enjoy graphic violence or really twisted characters which often appear in mysteries other than cozies. I don’t want to feel “sick” when I read. Mild cursing is not a problem for me, however, I do sometimes find some cozies “too sweet” and it gets old.

I would say Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple stories are almost the ideal cozies. Don’t see the violence. Don’t see the sex. Figuring out the mystery is done by brain power. Jane didn’t have a strong supporting cast which I think is needed in a good cozy series. (There are a couple of series that I enjoy the sleuth’s buddies more than the main character.)

To me, a cozy is a relatable character that has a fun job/hobby that is also included in the book — baker has recipes, crafter has craft projects, etc. I don’t mind mild cursing. A traditional mystery to me is one where the character is a policeman or detective. Someone doing a job they normally perform. But they are less approachable, for lack of a better word. Cozy characters draw me in and could be my best friend or myself even. I also think cozies have a good bit of comedy added.

No cursing or swearing…mild violence, nothing gory. Relatable characters, quirky and funny…laugh at themselves. Mild romance, friendships. Also like the series that include crafts, baking, decorating, pets…so many great theme series out there!

Cozy mysteries are fun and the characters are more quirky than in a traditional mystery.

• And someone posted this link to an interesting article defining cozy mysteries.

Quite a lot of agreement, except about the profanity, which kind of worries me because I taught my two sailors everything they needed to know when they shipped out. I get one more pass through my manuscript before it’s set in stone, so I’ll scrub it as clean as makes sense. But what makes sense to me, may not make sense to my readers.

What do you think about my definition of cozies … or the difference between cozy and traditional … or how much cursing is okay in a cozy … should I say I write amateur sleuth mysteries instead of cozies? And while you’re at it, what should I have for dinner tonight?