Cozy Dust

In December I was hurrying to put together a proposal for another cozy series. I wanted to send it to my agent so she could get it out to editors while I was doing copyedits for FOUL PLAY ON WORDS, which I was expecting to receive any day. I didn’t want to get stuck in copyedit hell for a month, and have this shiny new proposal just sitting here with nobody to admire and fawn over it.

I rushed and rushed and got it emailed off. Whew. The proposal package contained a 6-page synopsis of the book, the first 50 pages of the story, and a page or so about how I envisioned the next few books in the series.

The next day I got an email from my agent. She didn’t much like what I sent. She told me in broad strokes where she thought the proposal was lacking. I was crushed and confused. We’d been talking about this for a long time. I thought we were on the same page!

Freaking out to a couple of writer pals, I told them what had happened and asked their advice. They, of course, hadn’t read the proposal, but I ran down all the pertinents. They were confused too, but helped me formulate my thoughts.

I replied to my agent, discussing each of her concerns in turn, pointing out that I did indeed do what I was tasked with. I ended by asking her for specifics about where she saw that I had fallen short of my goal, which she quickly and generously gave me.

That lightbulb flashed over my head and I understood what I had forgotten.

The cozy dust! I forgot to sprinkle the pages with cozy dust!

My agent was absolutely right. I had an interesting premise with funny, solid writing, but I did not do justice to the cozy mystery genre. My setting wasn’t somewhere marvelous that readers would want to inhabit. It was generic and dull. Some of my characters were quirky, but not one of the main characters. He was just, yanno, a cop, nothing special about him. And the crime didn’t have that eccentric, cozy spin on it.

I was in such a hurry to get words on the page that I forgot who my readers were and what they expected from me.

So, I set it aside, took a few weeks to finish my copyedits on FOUL PLAY ON WORDS, and sent them off.

Then I started over with the outline and beats for my new book.

Lesson learned. You can rest assured I’ll never again write without a full bottle of cozy dust next to me.

Have you ever dropped an important ball while you were in a hurry? Please tell me I’m not the only one! 

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Good Jobs For Amateur Sleuths

I recently pitched a new cozy series to my agent so I had to make some decisions about my main character’s occupation.

In BANANA BAMBOOZLE and MARSHMALLOW MAYHEM, Cassidy Dunne and Dan Diehl owned a newspaper. (I call these the Dunne Diehl Mysteries and it never fails to make me laugh. I am truly my best audience.)

In my Mystery Writer’s Mysteries, Charlemagne Russo is a mid-list mystery author with all the hilarity and angst that entails. (And in a fit of blatant self-promotion, I feel compelled to tell you that book #2 FOUL PLAY ON WORDS comes out in April 2019 and is up for pre-orders even as you read this. Go ahead and clickety-click. I’ll wait.)

And in the one I’m in the process of pitching (and writing), I decided that Quinn Carr creates crossword puzzles and works in a diner.

I thought you might be interested in some of my discarded ideas for my character’s job.

  • Air conditioner repair — people would be so agonizingly hot and uncomfortable they’d confess to anything
  • Flooring installer — they’ve always got those kneepads handy for searching for clues in awkward places
  • Acupuncturist — needles, so many terrifying needles
  • Parking lot attendant — plenty of time for cogitation and analysis
  • CEO of a Fortune 500 company — interns could do all the investigative work, freeing up the sleuth for several romance subplots
  • Cartographer — ability to locate anything in the world
  • Reality TV camera operator — apparently, at some point they become invisible and people really let their hair (and guard) down
  • Gastroenterologist — who better to determine if someone is full of crap?
  • Hydrologist — could probably always get out of hot water
  • Make-up artist — an expert in all things made up
  • Radiologist — could see right through people

Feel free to use any — or all — of them in your next book. You’re welcome!

Any other good jobs for amateur sleuths?

The Genesis

As you read this, I am winding down a ridiculously long and what-were-we-thinking month-long vacation in Eastern Europe. Assuming all went according to plan (and just typing that gives me sweaty palms), we will have spent time in Transylvania, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, and the Netherlands.

Transylvania and the Netherlands were tacked on to the beginning and end of a Danube River cruise.

I’ll tell you all about it later, but for now, I want to tell you how it began, the genesis of this trip.

In 2016, when my agent and I were strategizing my career path for the next five or so years, she told me she wanted me to have two books released every year, which sounded good to me.

I already had a contract for three books from Midnight Ink in my Mystery Writer’s series — FICTION CAN BE MURDER, April 2018; FOUL PLAY ON WORDS, April 2019; and METAPHOR FOR MURDER, April 2020.

 

 

We wanted to slip in a cozy series that came out October-ish in between the Mystery Writer’s Mysteries. So I started brainstorming and sketching out ideas. We agreed on one idea that we both liked, so I got busy with a series outline.

Unfortunately, before that got too far, I was diagnosed with a tumor in my spinal column. It was benign and all is (mostly) back to normal, but the surgery and recovery really screwed up my plans, as you can imagine.

But, in the course of this new cozy series arc, I sent the main character’s parents off on a Danube cruise. As I googled and read and pored over maps, I had an epiphany.

 

liz

 

So, when I was moving better and everything seemed back to normal for me physically, or at least as back to normal as it was going to get, we met with our travel agent.

Now, there WILL be a story set on a Danube cruise, but maybe not the story I envisioned originally. I’m not completely sure that my agent was all in when I described this particular story as a “cozy thriller.”

That’s not really a thing, apparently.

So, we’ll see.

My plan as we’re gliding past the sights, sounds, and smells of autumn on the Danube, is to finish fleshing out this series as well as beginning to flesh out a standalone darker mystery that’s been gnawing at me for years. Again, we’ll see what really happens.

Regardless, I’ve gotta start writing something new as soon as we get home. Both of these ideas have lived too long in my head.

I don’t plan on doing much reading on this trip (except in airports and on planes), however. As my husband said, “You read fiction to get transported to another place and time. We will have already done that.”

I’ll check in here as soon as I get some sleep, have more coffee, reacquaint myself with Nala, get some sleep, have some coffee, and mourn the loss of having every single one of my whims catered to. Maybe not quite in that order.

In the meantime, where would you like to transport yourself to read a book? Do you like all kinds of settings to read about? What about writing, authors … do you have someplace you’ve always dreamed about using as a setting in a story? Do you have an itch to write somewhere waaay out of your routine?

Also, do you know about Christine Gentes’ Map Your Mystery blog and Facebook page? It’s a very cool list of where cozy mysteries are set. And I see one set in Bulgaria! Gotta read that one for sure!

Soooo …. all DID NOT go according to plan! I decided to leave this post intact instead of trying to scramble to rewrite it. But four days before we were supposed to leave on our cruise, they cancelled it because there wasn’t enough water in the Danube River! I had accepted that we might need to portage around low spots here and there, but not the entire river. It was a shocking email to get, after planning this trip for so long. We were actually very fortunate though. What if they’d cancelled it after we were already on our way? What if they took the option of turning it into a bus tour? As it is, by cancelling, we got choices of several remedies. We decided to rebook for a similar Danube cruise in May. They covered the cancellation fees we incurred AND gave us $1,000 worth of travel vouchers good for the rebooking. We weren’t out any money and now we feel like our May trip surely must be pre-disastered! So don’t cry for me, Argentina.

Since we had dog and house sitters, and we’d arranged to be away from work, we decided it would be too sad not to go somewhere, so we quick made plans to go to Oregon. We stayed a few days in Portland with our daughter and son-in-law, then went to the southern coast and stayed in a lighthouse bed-and-breakfast where they specialize in a seven-course breakfast. After a few days of indulging in that, we headed to the northern coast and stayed at a resort steps from the beach where we had a huge jacuzzi in our room. We were able to leave our balcony door open and hear the crashing surf all night long. So. Much. Decadence. (And they comped us one night! AND the gal who booked our reservation asked about my BeckyClarkBooks website. When I told her I wrote cozy mysteries, she told me how much she liked cozies. About 30 minutes later, she sent me an email through my site telling me how excited she was to read my books. So I brought her a signed copy. That was fun.)

It wasn’t what I’d planned to do, but I got some brainstorming in on a standalone I’m noodling over, I got some new experiences into my bucket, I ate all the clam chowder, and, of course, I got some much-needed R&R. I just got back a couple of days ago and feel energized and ready to tackle all my new projects.

But the question still stands, readers … where would you like to transport yourself to read a book? Do you like all kinds of settings to read about? What about writing, authors … do you have someplace you’ve always dreamed about using as a setting in a story? Do you have an itch to write somewhere waaay out of your routine?

Despite all indications to the contrary…

I’ve learned some things over the years.

1. Parents and children both get smarter as they age.

2. The more dollars you exchange for euros on your vacation, the less likely you are to need them.

3. Writing a book and typing a book are entirely different beasts.

And 4, I’ve learned I’m getting old. I’m not complaining exactly, but I can’t keep calling myself middle-aged unless I really am planning to live to be 114. I like the age I am, and I certainly can’t complain. I agree with Ellen Degeneres.

Ellen meme

Or maybe aging is like a roller coaster. It’s so much effort climbing, with lots of scary groaning and creaking. But then you get to the top and see that fantastic view of your productive kids living in their own houses, and you can’t help but grin and squeal as you race down the other side.

It’s thrilling.

But whether we’re climbing up one side or racing down the other, writers — and other sedentary types — can keep aging at bay by eating right and exercising. But it’s difficult when you spend so much time at a computer.

Despite all indications to the contrary, being a writer is physically very challenging.

We look nice and comfy, don’t we, staring out the window (we’re plotting … really!) with our feet on our desk. Or lounging on the patio under a dappled sky with a pooch curled at our feet. Or in a wingback pulled close to the fireplace.

But those legs crossed on our desk cut off circulation. And that patio chair forces our neck in a weird position. And there is simply not enough light next to that wingback.

And there are so many other challenges. We type for excruciating stretches at a time. We sit or stand at our desks for long periods. We get in The Zone and forget to eat. We get fantastic ideas that make us pop up out of a sound sleep and stay awake the rest of the night to capture them.

And the thing I did recently … sat from about 5:30 in the morning until about 4:30 in the afternoon reading my manuscript straight through.

That’s part of my process. After I get my first draft written, revised, and polished — before anyone else sees it — I sit with it and read it in as few sessions as I can. I can find all kinds of continuity and logic problems when it’s all right in my face like that.

But that’s tough on the ‘ol bod. Your keister falls asleep. Your right pointer finger gets stiff from hitting that down arrow as you read. Your eyes get blurry. Your neck kinks.

I try to force myself to stop every couple of hours and stretch or at least move around, but NOT to graze on cookies or chips or cheese or ice cream.

In the Denver Post on Saturday was an article about Feldenkrais, an alternative therapy for pain and mobility issues. I’d never heard of it but it’s basically a brain workout that can relieve years of discomfort through slow and subtle movements that retrain how you move, whether it’s walking or sitting or typing. The author of the article (which I can’t share) describes her hip and neck pain and then the treatment, performed flat on her back making tiny eye movements. It makes no sense, but after the session, despite no hip or neck stretches, her hip and neck had more mobility. The theory is that eye movement is vital in “coordinating the body’s musculature, particularly in how the neck muscles contract — one of Feldenkrais’ many counterintuitive approaches to learning to move differently.”

Here’s a different first person account of using this therapy.

I won’t pretend to understand it, but I thought it was a fascinating and unusual way for folks to heal and care for themselves.

Another thing I’ve learned over the years is to keep an open mind, and that I’m all about the fascinating and unusual!

So, what fun things do you do to remain healthy and mobile? What do you do during your breaks from desk and computer? What healthy foods do you keep around to nosh on? Which are your favorite guilty pleasure foods to indulge in when you don’t want to take time for an actual meal?

Hey, Baby … Come Here Often?

I’m not a photographer, but I can picture us together.

Are you religious? Because you’re the answer to all my prayers.

Do you know what my shirt is made of? Boyfriend material.

Even if there wasn’t gravity on earth, I’d still fall for you.

Are you a parking ticket? ‘Cause you’ve got fine written all over you.

 

Not gonna lie. Back in the day, these pick-up lines would probably have worked on me.

Yes, they’re cheesy, but they immediately tell me something about my future paramour.

He or she is funny. And funny is the golden ticket for me.

Opening lines in books do the same thing.

A good opening sets the stage for everything that happens next. It gives you a glimpse of the character you’ll be traveling with on this 300-page journey. It gives you a hint of where and when you are. It lets you know whether you’re going to laugh, or be terrified, or skeeved out … or all of the above.

A REALLY good opening does it all in the first sentence.

As you can imagine, that’s quite difficult.

So let’s take a trip to my local literary bar and do some speed dating.

Here are your potential suitors. They’re on their best behavior, wearing their spiffiest clothes and smelling marvelous. Let’s hear what they have to say to woo you.

opening lines

 

THE HIGHWAYMAN – Craig Johnson

There is a canyon in the heart of Wyoming carved by a river called Wind and a narrow, opposing, two-lane highway that follows its every curve like a lover.

THE BLACK WIDOW – Wendy Corsi Staub

“Some things,” Carmen used to say, “just don’t feel right until the sun goes down.”

HOLLYWOOD HOMICIDE – Kellye Garrett

He stared at my resumé like it was an SAT question.

THE SEMESTER OF OUR DISCONTENT – Cynthia Kuhn

When summoned by the department chair, one shows up on time.

BLOOD ON THE TRACKS – Barbara Nickless

His life wasn’t worth spit in a hard rain.

TREBLE AT THE JAM FEST – Leslie Budewitz

Blame it on the rhubarb.

DESIGNER DIRTY LAUNDRY – Diane Vallere

When you wear fishnet stockings to the grocery store, people tend to stare.

CLASS REUNIONS ARE MURDER – Libby Klein

I was being bullied by stationery.

HUNTING HOUR – Margaret Mizushima

“Whom do you trust, Maddie?”

FICTION CAN BE MURDER – Becky Clark

Melinda Walter settled her lean Pilates body — the maintaining of which took all her free time and could fund North Korea’s military for a year — into the soft leather driver’s seat of her sleek red 1959 classic Corvette.

BANANA BAMBOOZLE – Becky Clark and Ted Hardwick

Using only one hand, Cassidy Dunne silently unwrapped a fun-size Snickers hidden in her sundress pocket.

These are just a few individuals loitering against the wall near my neighborhood office.

Would you enjoy spending more time with them? Grab them and steal away to a quiet corner where you can be alone? Take them to bed? (You vixen, you.)

Which made your heart go pitty-pat? Is your heart already taken by another? Are you willing to share?

Do you feel jilted by this metaphor yet?

Wearing My Itchy Wool Sweater of Words

The other day, Lori Rader-Day wrote such an inspiring post about being open to saying yes to opportunities. A few years back I said yes, albeit very reluctantly, to be involved with the founding of the Colorado Chapter of Sisters in Crime, an organization full of writers and readers, men and women, whose mission is to support, promote, and recognize women crime writers.

I am grateful every day that I went to that little informational meeting and met the dynamo that is Cynthia Kuhn.

We are about 60 strong, meeting quarterly for all-day events where we have speakers in the morning teaching some aspect of the craft or the business of writing. After lunch, we have a speaker educating us about some aspect of crime that we can use in researching and writing our books. We’ve had psychologists, FBI profilers, gun experts, arson investigators, human trafficking investigators, and many more … a gamut of fascinating individuals doing fascinating jobs.

Recently, because of the generous support of the Sisters in Crime Speaker’s Bureau, and our uber-efficient chapter president, and former Mysterista, Cynthia “Digs Up Grants Like The Bunnies Dig Up My Tulips” Kuhn, we had a FREE all-day workshop with award-winning mystery author Nancy Pickard, whose two newest books — THE SCENT OF RAIN AND LIGHTNING and THE VIRGIN OF SMALL PLAINS — I absolutely devoured.

Nancy Pickard

In the morning, Nancy spoke to us about her writing journey which has been vibrant for many years, beginning with winning her first major award in 1986. Her talk was as inspirational as it was charming. She also spoke about being one of the earliest champions of Sisters in Crime thirty years ago, and the hard-fought battle to make it viable. There were many misty eyes and full hearts.

After lunch, Nancy taught us some ways to make our manuscripts soar in revision. Many of us, myself included, bought Nancy’s how-to guide, Seven Steps on the Writer’s Path, co-written with Lynn Lott.

From the introduction … “As Nancy Pickard looked back over her own career and that of her many writer friends, she saw herself and most of them struggling through stages of unhappiness, of wanting, of commitment, of wavering, of letting go, of immersion, and of fulfillment. It looked very much like a path to her, and it felt true, in the way only actual lived experience does feel.”

Seven Steps

After our chapter meetings, many of us typically re-group for a social happy hour, and this time was no exception.

But this one turned out so differently from the others.

Somebody pulled out their copy of Seven Steps on the Writer’s Path and began thumbing through it, stopping at the first step, Unhappiness. She explained it to those of us who hadn’t read the book yet. This step could also be called “the creative itch.”

We all began sharing why we started writing, how our “itch” manifested. I described having three very young kids and providing home daycare for a handful of others. Every day, during the two-hour afternoon naptime, I escaped into the grown-up world of tapping out humorous personal essays in the style of Erma Bombeck. I sold the first one I sent out. That $50 remains one of my proudest achievements. But it didn’t satisfy the itch … it only made it itchier! Like a slightly too big wool sweater of words.

One woman spoke about being a flight attendant based in New York during the 9/11 Twin Towers attacks. Another talked about being trapped in New Jersey at the same time, trying to organize the non-English speaking tourists she was leading who were equally trapped in Manhattan. Others shared health scares and that awful feeling that time might run out before you achieve the things you want. It was all very moving and heartfelt, somewhat out of place in the noisy corner of that brewpub.

After the eight of us had each spoken, we turned to the Keeper of the Book and eagerly asked about the second step of the path.

“It’s Wanting,” she said. So we all talked about what we wanted from writing. Awards, recognition from our peers and readers, money, good reviews, the feeling of accomplishment that comes with a huge undertaking like writing a novel. I mean, who DOES that??

But then we held each other’s feet to the fire. It’s not enough to want. Everyone wants. We all spoke about what we were going to DO about it.

As we brainstormed, I think everyone ultimately came away with some concrete ideas to move themselves forward, from wherever they were.

I knew so much more about my fellow Sisters by the time my beer was gone. That couple of hours was transformative for me, and I hope for everyone else. It was another excellent reminder that Sisters in Crime has thoroughly and utterly transformed my life.

There’s not enough thanks in the world to give Nancy Pickard, and all the other Presidents, for their part in establishing Sisters in Crime, or for Cynthia “Won’t Take No For An Answer” Kuhn for creating our Colorado chapter.

My hope for all you mystery readers and writers is that you can find a Sisters in Crime chapter near you to join because it is chock-full of inspirational people doing fascinating things.

Do you belong to any organizations that “fill your cup” with inspiration and joy? Did you find them, or did they find you?

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.