Theme Is The Theme Here

A couple of years ago, I had this weird harmonic convergence over the course of just a week or so, getting pummeled from all sides by unrelated news articles, personal accounts, and videos about kids in the foster care system.

Which I thought was, yanno, weird.

I had a passing knowledge of the foster system, but nothing first hand or detailed. So why the onslaught?

I decided it was because the Universe was trying to get me to pay attention to something other than myself for a hot minute.

So I did. I started doing some research to try and figure out why I needed to pay attention and to what in particular. One of the original articles in the onslaught, maybe the first one, was a piece with an image that haunts me to this day, that of foster kids having to gather up all their worldly possessions into a big, black garbage bag as they’re suddenly removed from their home. Sometimes they don’t even get that. Often they’re picked up from school and swooped up into the foster system with nothing.

Fairly quickly I stumbled upon Comfort Cases, Together We Rise, Backpacks of Love,   and one near me in Colorado, Packs of Hope which endeavor to provide backpacks or roller bags or duffels stuffed with emergency clothes and supplies for these kids.

I knew I couldn’t do much about the overwhelming and paralyzing bad news in the world, but quickly realized I could fill a backpack for a kid so they’d at least have jammies to sleep in that night. And I thought maybe some of my friends could too. So I set up a GoFundMe and organized a party for local donors I cleverly called a “Backpack Party.” (Free book to anyone who gives me a better name!)

I’ve hosted it for two years now. We have a lot of fun at the parties, catching up with old friends, meeting new ones, playing Giant Scrabble

and other backyard games, gorging ourselves at the taco bar and drinking sangria and margaritas. I’m still waiting for the final tally for this year, but we collected 25 backpacks for all ages and sizes of kids last year and at least that many this year. Donations are still coming in, though, so maybe I can fill more backpacks before my final delivery.

Backpacks 2019

That’s great, Becky, but what does that have to do with themes?

Here’s what.

It just occurred to me that authors put themes like this in their books all the time to draw attention to a particular issue that’s important to them.

I was talking recently to someone who was asking about my new crossword puzzle series and as I described my protagonist, who has OCD, they stopped me and said, “Oooh! A theme!”

I’m sure I made a face because “themes” seem to belong to weightier books than mine. “Themes” are for books I studied in Literature class. “Themes” are for authors smarter and more famous than I am.

But then I thought about reading THROW ME TO THE WOLVES where Patrick McGuinness used the theme of media saturation and “fake news” in his terrific mystery.

In Barbara Nickless’ fantastic Sydney Parnell thrillers she digs deep into the theme of PTSD in military veterans.

And I guess themes don’t even have to be dark. In Tim Dorsey’s comic crime novels, you will always find his theme of “ridiculous things that happen in Florida.”

I don’t really do any of that. Not consciously, at least.

But now I feel the pull to make a concerted effort to … I dunno … include themes. Is the Universe telling me to write about a foster kid? And if so, why? What am I supposed to say about the foster system? What kind of light needs to be shed upon it? Can I do this theme justice?

Problem is, even if I decide to, I’m not sure how to go about it. Any ideas for me? What do you think of when you hear the word “theme” in conjunction with a novel, especially a cozy mystery? Can you think of other examples of themes in mysteries? Am I making this too complicated?

 

 

 

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No, Go Ahead, Tell Me Everything You Hate So I Can Obsess Over All Of It

I recently opened a can of worms in a Facebook group by asking some cozy mystery readers which tropes they hated.

It was a tad disingenuous on my part because I had just finished the first draft of a manuscript and was getting ready to do the first revision. Not that I was pandering or trying to write by committee, mind you, but if everyone hated a certain thing, and I had a chance to not do that certain thing, well, I’d be foolish not to listen, right? Right?

Well, listen I did. For a long, long time because these readers had loud and proud opinions!

I started writing them down but abandoned my list fairly quickly because I couldn’t keep up. Here’s a rundown of some of the things readers hate in their cozies …

  • love triangle (I lost count at all the people who agreed and expounded on this. It was far and away the biggest gripe)
  • business owners closing their store to chase clues (second biggest gripe)
  • more job-related gripes include the sleuth having a specialty job she doesn’t know how to do; having a job they never go to; the character gets dumped by boyfriend and moves home to start a business
  • too perfect an ending
  • “she got out of a bad relationship and inherited a fortune”
  • sleuth accidently stumbles on the solution
  • author doesn’t play fair
  • sleuth puts herself in danger because she doesn’t think it through
  • and there were opinions about law enforcement … some people don’t like the cops to be inept or jerks; “I don’t care what the police say, I’m doing it!”; sleuths who talk about how they solved previous crimes, like the police did nothing; characters who sleuth because the police aren’t doing enough; characters (or authors) who know nothing about the law

And there were more. So many more. I got disheartened and gave up when I saw that I’ve done, oh, most everything they hated.

Except the love triangle.

So I’ve got that going for me.

Writers, can you believe I was so stupid to ask this?? I might as well have asked people to critique me in my swimsuit. Readers, I’m curious, even if you hate some trope, will you let a beloved writer get away with it? And everyone, next time you see me wandering the streets in my swimsuit, please find me a cover-up.

The Life Blood of Fiction

I’ve had a wild spring full of peaks and valleys, nooks and crannies.

Many of you probably know that bracketed by the extreme merriment of the mystery conventions, Left Coast Crime and Malice Domestic, was my dad’s death in April.

Then less than a week after I returned home from Malice, my husband and I hopped a plane for Budapest where we began a two-and-a-half week vacation, most of it cruising the Danube River.

At Chicks on the Case, I wrote about some of the memorable characters I met, which I hope will find their way into future books.

These people, and the character studies they’ve provoked in me, have lodged themselves firmly in my psyche. I can’t stop thinking about characters.

Over the weekend I went to the bridal shower for my soon-to-be daughter-in-law. I was meeting most of these lovely friends of the bride for the first time. I noticed the way the hostess immediately made me feel so welcome and at ease. The timbre of another woman’s laugh. The ease with which a childless woman communicated with two small children. The women who wore a lot of make-up, the women who wore none, who was manicured, who, like me, was not. How they each approached the buffet. The diligence with which some attacked the silly games, and the way others didn’t even try, preferring simply to bask in the entertainment as it surrounded them. The deliberate — or haphazard — way each chose colored markers for the games.

Every minute of it was fascinating to me, for two reasons, I think. One, I was still mulling over the people I met on our trip, and two, these women were mostly strangers to me so I was seeing traits and interactions for the first time … no presumed ideas of how they were going to talk, laugh, act, connect.

Which leads me to today.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ve got a huge family flung hither and yon. My local siblings and I have been endeavoring to clear out Dad’s house, but it’s slow going. The last time I was there, though, I thought about his grandchildren who lived far away and didn’t have parents sweeping through his house thinking about trinkets and remembrances they might want.

So I gathered up several boxes of stuff that spoke to Dad’s predilections: his horny toad collection, books, suspenders, fancy neckties, baseball pennants, Irish stuff.

Over the weekend I finally had a chance to photograph the items in each category and email them to all my nieces and nephews. I told them to tell me if they wanted any of the items.

I will admit to some preconceived ideas of who would want what, and who probably wouldn’t want anything. In almost every instance I was wrong.

These characters surprised me!

It was another excellent lesson for me about developing fictional characters. Know a lot about them, but let them surprise you.

Writers always get the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” It always seems flip when I answer, “Everywhere,” but that’s the truth.

Characters spring from fellow travelers, from a Dutch waitress, from an inscrutable concierge, from a young Latvian woman on a grand adventure working a job she loves, from friends of your future DIL, and from nieces and nephews you’ve known forever.

Donna Tartt said, “Character, to me, is the life’s blood of fiction.”

To that I’d add it’s also the life’s blood of an interesting life!

Do you have someone in your life who’d make a great character in a novel? Or someone with an interesting trait, some telling detail that gets to the heart of who they are?

Another Draft of Life’s Manuscript

I’m in between things for a few weeks.

The launch for FOUL PLAY ON WORDS is winding down. My next book isn’t due for a while. I’m traveling a lot. I’ve got some family things going on.

But in October I’m giving my “Novel in 8 Weeks” half-day workshop and it occurred to me, I should have a companion book to go along with it.

So I’m taking this “in between projects” time to write it, including information from a time management workshop I’ve presented for close to twenty years. Not continuously, of course. That wouldn’t be a good use of anyone’s time.

My writing schedule is the same as when I’m writing fiction — 9:00 to noon on Mondays and Thursdays, 10:00 – 4:00 on Tuesdays, and Fridays as much or as little as I want.

But that’s the only thing that’s the same.

Crikey, it’s so much easier to write nonfiction!

Even though I outline my fiction so I know where I’m headed in my story, the process of telling this nonfiction “story” flows so much easier. I guess it’s because I know way more about these topics than I could ever know my outline for a novel. In fact, what I’m writing about is explaining the process I use when writing my novels.

It’s a process I know backward and forward, inside out and upside down. And I get to write all about it as if I’m explaining it to a friend, which is what I’m actually doing.

That’s so very meta.

Of course this isn’t a Master’s dissertation or something for the Journal of the American Medical Association. Or even the Ladies’ Home Journal.

But it is a topic near and dear to my heart. It’s also a topic which I’ve heard has helped writers find their own path through their first drafts, often with an AHA! moment. The same thing I felt when I finally figured out what worked for me.

Maybe that’s why it’s easier. People have already told me this works for them. And I know it works for me. But when I write a mystery, I don’t know if I’ve done what I set out to do until after I write the entire thing. Then, if I’m lucky, people will tell me it worked for them, too.

I guess each time I gave one of those workshops, it was like another draft of this non-fiction manuscript.

Is there something you’ve done a zillion times, something deep in your bones, that you don’t even have to think about anymore? Something that comes so easy to you, but when you share it with others, it’s revelatory to them?

High Highs and Low Lows

This has been a very weird couple of weeks for me.

Just before I was to leave for Vancouver to attend the Left Coast Crime Convention, my 88-year-old dad ended up in the hospital. He refused treatment and simply wanted to be made comfortable as he slipped toward his death. I got a couple of chances to say goodbye to him while he was still lucid and in relatively good humor. I made my peace with the fact he would leave us while I was in Canada. (Spoiler alert: he didn’t.)

He would have killed me if he knew I cancelled my trip, so passport and a suitcase full of swag in hand, off I went to Vancouver.

I survived

My hilarious author friend Libby Klein and I had concocted an event “Hijinx and Hot Chocolate” for ten attendees of the conference the evening before it started. We whisked them away to a fabulous chocolate shop, plied them with goodies, then returned them to the hotel where we played games for a couple of hours. We got to know some readers, they got to know some authors, and we all had fun. I made them all one of these pins they attached to their conference name badges and folks asked about it all weekend. Score one for branded swag and exclusive parties!

Bright and early the next morning was Speed Dating. That’s where authors get two minutes to pimp themselves out to potential readers and try to get them to love us. I was paired with Libby and the two of us moved through the 20 tables every four minutes. me and libby dating

I really love this event, as an author. I sat and listened to the authors at one conference and I found that absolutely exhausting. But both Libby and I thrive under this kind of attention and more than one attendee said we were their favorite authors of the day. Highest highs! (This event encourages readers to investigate our books. If they like us, they’ll like our books, right?)

Then it was time for a well-deserved Guinness with my lunch. Award-winning author and former Mysterista Cynthia Kuhn joined us, and seemed to order some kind of liquid science experiment.

guinness

All weekend long there were panels galore on so many interesting topics: culinary mysteries, social issues in crime fiction, detectives past and present, gender roles in crime fiction, writing serial killers, animals in mysteries, the sex panel, the liars panel, and the always hilarious Match Game, among many, many others.

I was on a panel with Anne Louise Bannon, Ingrid Thoft, Ruth Donald, and Marsali Taylor where we discussed traditional vs non-traditional mysteries. We had a lively and interesting discussion.

panel seriouspanel laughingpanel

There were interviews with CJ Box, Maureen Jennings, Cathy Ace, and a remembrance for Sue Grafton. If you can’t find a topic or author you like at Left Coast Crime, then there’s simply no pleasing you.

There was lots of hugs, laughter, random photo ops with friends new and dear, plus a fun breakfast with all the Mysteristas in attendance, some of whom hadn’t met each other before. (We made poor Kelly stand in the bright sunshine. She’s probably still squinting.)

mysteristas.jpg
Kelly, Mia, Becky, Keenan

There’s always an awards banquet. This year I hosted a table with the fabulous and prolific Eileen Rendahl. We gave out some swag to the people who signed up to sit at our table. Eileen’s included a thumb drive.

And then the conference was over, a long weekend full of highs. Libby and I had planned to stay a bit longer and play tourist, and I’m so glad. Vancouver is a lovely, bustling city and the weather was perfect the entire time we were there. The cherry trees were even in bloom!

And then back to Colorado and my dad’s beloved Pikes Peak.

pikes peak

He was failing. Lowest of lows. As I organized myself to get to him one last time, I got news from my agent. I had two offers on a new series I was working on! Highest of highs.

And then Dad was gone. I wrote about it all here.

Four days later I was launching FOUL PLAY ON WORDS, the 2nd in my Mystery Writer’s Mysteries.

Happy Book Birthday FPOW

It was emotional whiplash.

Luckily I’m my father’s daughter and I know the highs and lows of life are the anomalies. Real life is lived in between. At a much less chaotic pace.

I suspect it’s so we can enjoy the cherry trees.

cherry tree

I don’t want to ask you about your times of emotional whiplash so let’s talk about something more fun … my book! Will you buy it? I’m trying to get at least 50 reviews for FOUL PLAY ON WORDS in the next couple of weeks. Can I count on you to help? Will you please request your library carry it, along with FICTION CAN BE MURDER? If you do any of those things, you’ll be my very favorite person on the planet. On. The. Planet. Thanks for reading this chapter of The Recent Adventures of Becky. I tend to process emotions and events through my keyboard….could you tell?

A Writer Was Born

When my three kids were little I stayed home with them, often with other daycare kids in the house. I always had the videocamera — the huge behemoth that rested on your shoulder — locked and loaded.

I also had index cards and pens placed strategically around the house. On them, I wrote the funny things the kids said and did. At the end of the day, the index cards would get shoved into the appropriate diaper bags of my daycare charges or thrown into my kids’ “Memory Boxes.”

Some mothers lovingly craft scrapbooks for their children. I lovingly crafted piles of index cards.

*index cards

(We still talk about “brave and smooth and good” apples at my house.)

I eventually typed them all up. Surely there’s a book just waiting to be written. Here are just two samples that won’t embarrass my daughter.

12-5-90 — Jessie [age 3] made the astute observation that you can’t hum with your mouth open.

12-12-90 — Jessie said something was “a propersation.”  When Wes asked her what that was, she said, “It’s Batman or grass or tea or soup.”

That was my first inkling I was raising a writer.

When did you know what kind of kid you were raising?

How Many Words is This Photo Worth?

I’ve had a series of stories rattling around in my brain where I’d take an Old Masters painting and tell the story behind it. You know, like Mona Lisa is smiling because she just fed poison to the crooked chariot salesman who convinced her she needed to buy the extended warranty.

Back when I used to write for kids, I’d do school visits where we’d do this same exercise, but with photos I pulled from magazines. I’d cut off the caption and it would turn into a writing prompt for them.

I think it’s a great exercise for the imagination and the pen. A photo, as they say, is worth a thousand words.

I stumbled on this gem of me from around ninth grade, I think. I moved a few times as a kid, so I can’t quite place that bedroom to date the photo definitively.

**high school Becky

There’s a lot going on here. If you want to play “writing prompt,” you can stop reading now and formulate a few sentences about this “Old Master.” Then continue reading and I’ll point out some of the highlights.

Okay …

you’re thinking …

you’re thinking …

you’re thinking …

you’re thinking …

And now you’ve decided what you want to say about this photograph extraordinaire.

There are some things I know to be fact.

In the center of my floor is the entire reason I’m there. You’ll see my radio. The microphone of the cassette recorder is pointing directly at the speaker. I know this means it’s Saturday morning between 9am and noon when Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 counted down. I would sit, finger hovering above the “record” button until I heard the dulcet tones of any of these songs. When one of my favorites came on, I’d press that button with all my might, sit back, and keep my fingers crossed nobody would interrupt for three minutes or so. If I was really lucky, Casey would go right into the next song so I wouldn’t miss the first three seconds of it. Maybe he’d even add a sweet or intriguing bit of information about the artist. It was the dawn of music piracy.

I don’t know what I’m reading in the photo, but I know I spent an ungodly amount of time sitting on that very beanbag chair in that very corner. (I can see my purple copy of “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” on my desk. If I had more time, I bet I could recreate that run of books on my desk. A million dollars says they’re all still in my house at this very moment.)

I know it’s not summer. The hot rollers in front of the mirror show where I sat every morning before school to curl my locks and tresses. An hour of effort for about eight minutes of curl. On a good day. When I didn’t have gym class.

The phone wasn’t mine, didn’t live in my room. But it had a cord that was approximately seventeen miles long. I could encircle the house with it twice and still be able to carry it into a closet for privacy.

But some of these tidbits are lost to the ages and better left to the imagination. Just like Mona Lisa’s smile.

Like, what’s with the plaster cobra? I remember it being very heavy, but beyond that, the provenance and history eludes me.

What was I reading?

Why was it so cool to split your pant leg at the ankle?

What was the purpose of the scissors on the corner of the desk? Had it been used already or was it waiting for action? And what kind of action? (Also, I’m fairly certain that pair is forty years older and now resides in my junk drawer. Don’t judge me.)

Who took that photo? And why? Did they think I’d look back on it, lo, these many years later and consider it an historical document?

What say you? Any writing prompts jump out at you? Any stories you want to tell about what you’re seeing? What do you think happened to my black plaster cobra?