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? 

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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.

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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?”


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?




When Endings Aren’t Endings

We all have our favorite book or movie endings. Those perfect denouements that surprise you or confirm what you suspected all along or make you weep with emotions you can finally release.

But for me, endings are rarely endings. (Although I’ve yet to read a book where everybody dies and the entire universe explodes. That might be the exception that proves my rule.)

People ask me all the time, “Where do you get your ideas?” My answer is always, “Where DON’T I get ideas?”

Magazine stories about something I never knew to be interested in, a snippet of conversation I hear while shopping, a particularly interesting face I see at a restaurant, memories of my own, airport drama I eavesdrop on, stories my friends tell of growing up, a newspaper blurb that leaves me with more questions than answers, a piece of art hanging in a museum, an old photo I stumble on in an antique store, a dream so real I remember all the details, a disjointed turn of phrase from a novel, a what if so compelling it keeps jabbing at me until I pay it some attention.

Ideas are why endings are rarely endings for me. Even if a story is tied up with a neat little bow, I always tack on another chapter in my head. And another. And another. It’s the difference, I think, between a writer and a reader. Or maybe between readers and nonreaders.

In my head, tomorrow is indeed another day for Rhett and Scarlett. In fact, they’ve probably had a month of tomorrows in my brain, all while wearing spectacular clothes.

I know what Christopher Robin and Pooh will play in the Hundred Acre Wood tomorrow, next week, and next year. And I know that some dopey do-gooder will insist that Eeyore get some anti-depressants and that Tigger needs some Ritalin.

Just because Scout Finch never saw Boo Radley again doesn’t mean I haven’t.

Now as I reread what I’ve written here, I sound a bit wacky. So, please, please tell me that you tack on extra endings to books and movies like I do. Or at least pretend you do so I don’t look so crazy.



Your Fictional Thanksgiving Table

I think Thanksgiving must be the first thing that pops into most American heads when they think about November. It’s the holiday everyone can — and probably does — celebrate.

Some of us have to scrounge for extra serving bowls and dig out the dusty card table only used once a year. When I was growing up, that card table was the “kiddie table.” We ached for the day we could graduate to the “real” Thanksgiving table.

Some of us have quieter Thanksgivings with a more manageable, probably better-behaved crowd.

Some of us do all the cooking for the belt-loosening feast, and some of us have potlucks where everyone brings something, lightening the load for everyone. And some of us always assign Becky to bring the booze because she can’t ruin beer or wine by experimenting with kale or using half the sugar called for in a dessert recipe.

But no matter how the day is organized, the people you celebrate Thanksgiving with are your family. Some are blood relatives and some are chosen to be members of the family.

When you read fiction, you choose the people you want to spend time with. If you don’t like the characters, you don’t care about their adventure. Some characters I’ll stick with for one adventure, but then I never want to hear from them again. I’m talking to you, Hannibal Lecter. Some characters I love through many, many books but would never consider inviting to my home. coughDextercough.

And then there are those characters we love hanging around. The people we’d hip-check Great-Aunt Gertrude out of the way for so they can sit next to us at our Thanksgiving table.

I’d invite Stephanie Plum’s Grandma Mazur for the hilarity and indiscretion.

Diane Mott Davidson’s Goldy Schulz is on my list so she can do the cooking.

Any of the kids from John Green’s novels because they are all witty, charming, and smart and can carry on a conversation with everyone.

If Walter Mosley would relinquish him for a bit, I’d also invite philosopher and ex-con Socrates Fortlow because I have so many questions for him. Also, I think I could fix him before the pie is served.

Which fictional characters would you like to invite to your Thanksgiving table? And why? And can I come?


Do We Need Fictional Villains When We Have So Many Real Ones?

Yesterday morning I woke to the horrific news about the Las Vegas massacre. I tried to ignore the worst of it even as it swirled around me. But there was no escape.

Yesterday afternoon I abandoned my work on the outline for a new mystery. Even a cozy, light mystery seemed wrong.

This morning I saw on my To Do list that my blog post theme for tomorrow was “Villainy.”

Books, movies, and television are saturated with bad guys, some of whom we even like. Fagin. Beetlejuice. Shere Khan. Moby Dick. Macbeth. All the characters in Shameless.

But how can we write fictional villains when the world is teeming with them, walking invisible among us? Apparently we talk to them, pour their coffee, greet them warmly, sell them guns, movie tickets, and muffins every day.

I’m struggling with this along with most of the rest of the world.

Early this morning, before the sun even hinted at a new dawn, I scrolled through my Facebook feed and saw this. I can’t verify anything but the truthiness of it.

what I do is important

“Of course,” I thought. “Of course people need stories to transport them out of their real lives.” And some will risk their life to do so. People need Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler and Harry Potter and Coraline and Madame Bovary and Leopold Bloom and Holden Caulfield and Atticus Finch.

But do we need another murderer? Another Norman Bates? Another Hannibal Lecter? Another Bill Sikes? Another Mr Ripley?

Do we?

And then it came to me.

Yes, we do.

We need the villains so the heroes can win. We need the bad guys to get some kind of comeuppance, whether that’s prison, their eye-for-an-eye death, or just a life spent looking over their shoulder, waiting for whatever avenging shoe will drop and smoosh them.

Unlike real-life, fictional murders are almost always tied up within a few hundred pages, a logical bow waving in the righteous breeze. Our hero figures out what happened, whodunnit, and usually why they dunnit.

Unlike real life.

And we need that.

Don’t we?




The Fixer Upper

Pam’s house was a two-story fixer-upper from the 1960s that hadn’t been fixered-up, and probably never would. It was left in my care while she backpacked across Scotland.

Despite her pages and pages of intricate and cryptic instructions — Flip the breaker if you want to run the microwave and the toaster at the same time; When the plumbing farts upstairs, threaten the downstairs toilet with the plunger; Open the kitchen window at 2:40 every other day; Do not, for the love of all that is holy, do NOT water the tree out front. — all I really managed most days was picking up her mail, making sure the refrigerator and liquor cabinet got used to my constant presence, and screwing up her Netflix algorithms by watching my shows. Saturday mornings, I also performed triage on her most tragic houseplants. Some Saturday mornings. Okay, once, but in my defense, I never claimed to be nurturing.

Today unspooled in exactly the same manner as all the rest of my days here. I sprawled on the couch, open bag of chips tucked in next to me, almost-empty baking sheet of now-cold taquitos and chicken fingers on the ratty carpet below me, third bottle of beer on the coffee table in front of me, my hand curled around the Netflix remote.

The sun had set long ago, and I vowed to turn on some lights, in accordance with Rules Number 7 (subsections a – c) and 7A (subsection b) — Turn on the interior lights; living room; bedroom; making sure to rotate locations per random order (See Rules 19-26) and Turn on the exterior lights; particularly spotlight in side yard to keep the burrowing animals to a minimum — just as soon as I got up. But I was only on episode five of my current binge-worthy series, so it might be awhile.

I doubted Rule Number 7 mattered much, anyway. If somebody was desperate enough to break into this dump, having lights shining probably wasn’t going to deter them. And if the basement was any indication, could be the animals were tunneling to get out.

I startled awake. Netflix silently judged me, pulsing the question, “are you still watching?”

What woke me if not the TV? I shifted my weight against the bag of chips, creating a tooth-jolting noise in this utter silence, second only to the screech of fingernails on a chalkboard. I plucked the bag from the couch and dropped it to the baking sheet. A trail of chips and crumbs skittered out.

I didn’t move, listening. There was something very weird about being in someone else’s house late at night. You knew all the little sounds of your own place — the creaks and bangs of the furnace, the exact location of each floor squeak, the sudden rattle of the icemaker. Other people’s houses though, especially fixer-uppers, were enigmas. Loud, creepy enigmas.

My feet swung from the couch and planted themselves on the threadbare rug, clearly more interested in investigating than seemed prudent to the rest of me. Reluctantly, I hauled myself up. Three steps later, paused. A branch against the house? El cheapo ticking clock in one of the upstairs rooms? It sounded like scratching, but that made no sense.

Using the ambient light from the TV, I made my way across the dim room to the torchiere standing in the corner. I twisted the knob, it came off in my hand, and the room blazed with harsh light. Again, I froze, listening.

Definitely scratching.

Oh! The burrowing animals. I giggled at the silliness of my worry and headed for the garage, but not before jamming the knob back on the lamp. Perhaps I’m more nurturing than I thought.

The light switch for the side yard was on the farthest wall of the garage, near the outside door. I flipped on the garage light and made sure the door from the garage to the house was unlocked (because I am a girl who learns her lessons the hard way and hopefully only once). I found myself on tiptoe, sneaking across the garage.

The scratching definitely seemed louder now. Definitely coming from the side yard. Definitely skunk? Raccoon? Opossum?

I silently cursed that I hadn’t checked earlier that the side door was locked. Hell, it wasn’t even closed. If it had been, I could run across the garage, turn the outside light on, and run back inside before some rabid animal rushed me.

Ironically, the idea made me move at half-speed instead of double. I was like one of those lions on the savanna sneaking up on their prey, even though it was prey I decidedly did not want.

As I slowly stretched my fingertips toward the switch, the scratchy, scrabbling sound stopped. I flicked on the light. The side yard lit up like a carnival midway. Something small and covered in dirt vaulted from the hole, rushed away, and crashed into a juniper bush near the street.

Relief and adrenaline energized me. I stepped toward the hole the animal had dug and peered at it. The spotlight so bright it rendered the late night obsolete.

My breath caught and held. Ice coursed through my veins. My internal organs shifted one inch to the right.

The excavation resembled a miniature grave, maybe four feet deep, about three-feet by two. Tiny chaotic footprints muddled the dirt floor and in the scattered dirt above. At the short end of the hole were two perfect child-sized handprints planted in the mounded dirt. Scrawled nearby was a message: Won’t forget.

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So, Readers, I went back and forth about the message at the end. Which do you like better … “won’t forget” or “Pam”?