Liz Milliron has been making up stories, and creating her own endings for other people's stories, for as long as she can remember. She survived growing up through reading, cutting her mystery teeth on Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark and, of course, Nancy Drew. She is the author of THE LAUREL HIGHLANDS MYSTERIES and the upcoming THE HOMEFRONT MYSTERIES. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. She lives near Pittsburgh with her husband, two children, and her retired-racing greyhound.
I’m sitting in a patient waiting room and the early morning news is on. Some thoughts:
Don’t drink and drive. Last year over 40% of accidents involved alcohol. Duh.
Smoking is down – yay! But they aren’t sure how many have switched to vaping – boo.
People who live in areas of high air pollution are prone to depression. (Well, considering air pollution often blocks sunlight, I find this particularly shocking.)
Since we’re going to a neighbor’s house for Christmas, all I have to do for Christmas dinner is buy two bottles of blush wine. Talk about a low-stress holiday dinner.
And we’re going to a friend’s house for dinner on Christmas Eve, so ditto.
It’s colder now then in November (duh).
I’m waiting on the delivery of a gift for The Girl, but other than that and needing to buy a gift card for my sister (she needs diapers and wipes, but I’m not gonna buy, wrap, and ship those) my shopping is done.
Writing my post on my phone is awfully convenient.
I need breakfast.
Getting up at five a.m. leads to some really random thoughts.
At the end of October, I went to the big “D” – Dallas, Texas – for Bouchercon. I traveled with my good friend Annette Dashofy. Mostly I went because Hank Phillippi Ryan was Guest of Honor and Deb Crombie was Local Guest of Honor. That and I figured I’d never have another reason to visit Texas.
If you aren’t familiar with Bouchercon, well, it’s…a madhouse, really. Most mystery conferences are. It’s one of the few times a year when all we authors get together, talk books, catch up, and get to meet readers. There were over 1,700 attendees at this year’s con, the 50th anniversary. Needless to say, I had a lot of fun, wished I could spend more time with some people, and am looking forward to the next get-together (which for me will be Malice Domestic in the spring).
Annette and I have traveled together enough that we’ve got our routine down by now. The plan was I would go to her house, leave my car in her garage, and we’d go to the airport. We did not anticipate much of an issue, even though I was traveling through Pittsburgh at rush hour.
Man plans, God laughs.
What should have been a forty-minute trip took over two hours thanks to a disabled tractor-trailer. Thankfully, there is no traffic on Annette’s side of the city, and we’d left plenty of time to get to the airport. Off to Houston.
Except…Houston, we have a problem.
Upon landing, our 45 minute layover turned to a hour and forty-five minutes, turned into two hours, turned into three, turned into… You get the picture. The text tones went off so frequently our phones sounded like pinball machines. Fortunately, there were chocolate-covered potato chips.
Upon arriving in Dallas, our phones chimed with alerts about a freeze warning. Hello, didn’t we go to Dallas? Why yes, yes we did.
By the time we arrived at our hotel, we were spent.
Nowhere to go but up, right? Wednesday, I hooked up with Dru Ann Love for a bus tour and yummy lunch.
From there, the whirlwind started. There was the always-entertaining Jungle Reds panel, this year a game show titled “Who Wants to be a Mystery-aire?” I answered questions I didn’t know I knew and flubbed ones that should have been easy. About par for the course.
I saw my favorite cowboy.
And celebrated the end of the conference with some fabulous chocolate cake.
I fully expected my panel on Sunday to be empty, but I was rather pleased at the crowd. We had a lot of laughs.
And from there it was off to the airport, another flight delay, and eventually home.
Next year, Bouchercon is in Sacramento. Maybe I’ll be recovered enough by then to think about going.
Liz here. We love Catriona McPherson here at Mysteristas. No matter what she’s writing – historical, funny contemporary or creepy thriller. She’s one of the nicest people ever. Seriously, I’ve seen her injured, in slings, and boots, and there is never not a smile on her face. And that accent! I can listen to her talk for…hours, literally. So when she asked to visit the blog again, well, it wasn’t a hard decision.
T:The Fun in Dysfuntion
I wasn’t aware of
doing it, and I certainly didn’t plan it, but last year, for some reason, I
wrote a functional family! I know. The Doyles, in Strangers at the
Gate, are a good man and a good woman, happily married, weathering their
challenges, supportive parents to a decent, resourceful, empathic child.
Of course there are
other people in the book too. There are the Dudgeons. And no matter how low we
set the bar, how hard we work at acknowledging human frailty, and how
unjudgmental we try to be, the Dudgeons . . . how can I put it? . . . suck.
The contrast between
the Doyles and Dudgeons got me thinking about my favourite dysfunctional
families in mysteries. There are plenty to choose from. In fact, it’s a bit of
a stretch to find a happy family in crime fiction. Or any fiction. I
came up with: the Chopras in Vaseem Khan’s Baby Ganesh series – a good man and
his good wife and their happy marriage; the eponymous family in Ngaio Marsh’s A
Surfeit of Lampreys – a bit bonkers and annoying but loyal and loving to
the core; and the Carters in Angie Thomas’s barnstorming debut The Hate U
Give – kind, brave, funny, affectionate people, sticking together come what
But I’ve got to admit,
if Inspector Chopra didn’t have his awful colleagues, the Lampreys didn’t have
their mad aunt, and Starr Carter didn’t go to school with such snotty monsters,
the books would be much less compelling. Messed-up folk have always beguiled
us: from Medea through the Macbeths, all the way to the Lannisters. Dysfunction
So. Here is my personal
top five of dysfunctional families in crime fiction.
5. The Turnmills in The
Arrangement by Robyn Harding.
I just read this book
last week (preparing to moderate a panel on domestic noir at Bouchercon (I love
my “job”)) and it’s a brilliant slow-mo car crash. We can only watch and wince
as Gabe, Celeste and Violet Turnmill make an exponentially appalling, but satisfyingly
plausible, series of decisions. And they’re not even the screwed-up ones! I
don’t suppose anyone reading this is swithering about how good an idea it is
for a mum and daughter to stay in the Hamptons full-time while the dad gets
himself a pad in Manhattan, but if you are – take a squint at The
Arrangement before you go signing any leases, eh?
4. The Symmingtons in The
Moving Finger by Agatha Christie.
I only started rolling
my eyes about the Turnmills last week; I’ve been hating the Symmingtons for
forty years. Mrs S. regrets her first marriage and wishes she could put it
behind her now that she’s got a respectable new husband and two perfect little
boys. The trouble is, she’s also got Megan, her daughter from husband number
one, and – try as you might – young women of twenty don’t disappear in a puff
of smoke just because you want them to. The cruelty required to act as if
someone in your house doesn’t exist isn’t any less cruel because you do it
subtly. And another thing: that second husband might be wealthy and
suitable-looking, but Mrs Symmington’s ability to pick a winner has not, in
fact, improved. Not at all.
3. The Jacksons in The
Darkest Secret by Alex Marwood.
But the Symmingtons
look like the Ingalls compared with this lot. They are a cold narcissist of a
patriarch (if he’d “gone to Mankato” and stayed there it would
have been better all round), his feckless first wife, his ineffectual second
wife, some avid contenders for the post of third wife, and a troop of kids who
are just so much trouble to take care of, don’t you know? The heartless
solution dreamed up by this bunch of over-privileged wazzocks will drop your
jaw and you’ll keep reading into the night to watch it go wrong for them and
see them try to escape their come-uppance. I should say, there are people to
love here too, in Marwood’s excellent third novel, but you’ll have to keep
reading a bit before you find them.
2. The Hillyards in A
Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine.
This is the first domestic noir I ever read,
back in 1986, and it blew me away. Not just me, either, since it won the Edgar
for best novel that year. Vera and Eden,
the sisters at the heart of the book, don’t really get how to do family. Vera
is obsessed with her sister and neglects her first child. She goes too far the
other way with her second child, mistaking devotion for affection. And Eden,
once she decides she wants a child, truly believes she can just pick one.
They’ve got the self-awareness of a pair of lamps, but when it comes to
cunning, they make Lady Macbeth look schlubby. After thirty years of other
writers – me included – dredging the depths of human hopelessness, like
Baroness Rendell taught us to, this one still shines.
1.The Corleones in
Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.
Come on! Who else
could it be? It sometimes seems that the dysfunctional families we love to
loathe are stuffed with rotten women and useless men, but Puzo’s masterpiece is
an exception. Here there are rotten men – murderous, faithless, blinkered,
grasping, selfish, rotten men – and the useless women who pander to
them, cover for them, pray for their (alleged) souls, and generally enable
them. Actually on reflection the women are pretty rotten too. But the book is
anything but. The fact of every character being held in a death-grip by family
loyalty makes for a genuinely pulse-pounding psychological thriller; the fact
that the raison d’être of the Corleones is so venal, so grubby, so small –
makes the whole thing a tragedy. I don’t often cry when I’m reading, but The
Godfather gets me every time.
So what do you think of my top five? And what did I miss? I’m getting ready to spend the rest of the day going “d’oh” like the patriarch of the most functional fictional family ever.
Catriona McPherson is the national best-selling and multi-award-winning author of the Dandy Gilver series of preposterous detective stories, set in her native Scotland in the 1930s. She also writes darker contemporary suspense novels, of which Strangers at the Gate is the latest. Also, eight years after immigrating to the US and settling in California, Catriona began the Last Ditch series, written about a completely fictional Scottish woman who moves to a completely fictional west-coast college town.
Catriona is a member of MWA, CWA and SoA, and a proud lifetime member and former national president of Sisters in Crime, committed to advancing equity and inclusion for women, writers of colour, LGBTQ+ writers and writers with disability in the mystery community.
Liz here, thoroughly enjoying the teasing onset of fall in southwestern PA.
When asked, “What is your favorite season?” the answer is easy: autumn. I love almost everything about it. The nip in the early morning air. Sweaters. Boots. Turtlenecks. The riot of color on a forested mountainside as Mother Nature dons her finery. The dry smell of leaves that are about to fall. The sharp tang of smoke from a wood fire. The tantalizing scent of hot spiced cider. (The only thing I don’t like about fall is what comes after, but we’ll let that go.)
In recent years, fall brings something else, something that will divide a room faster than asking for opinions on use of the Oxford comma: pumpkin spice.
It’s everywhere: coffee, cereal, lattes, bagels, cookies, donuts, syrups, non-dairy creamer, candles…you name it. One of these days an enterprising person will market pumpkin-spice perfume.
Now don’t get me wrong. In the Great Pumpkin Spice debate I am in the “yea” camp. I love a good pumpkin-spice chai latte. A delicious bagel thickly covered in cream cheese. My local bakery makes delicious pumpkin-spice mini-cheesecakes.
If only it didn’t come so soon.
“But Liz,” you say, “September is half over. October will be here before you know it. Is it really soon?”
Ah, dear readers, if only that were the case. See, all of the pictures in this post were snapped in…wait for it…August.
Yes, August. We had not yet had our first full week of school, and pumpkin-spice mania had descended.
I remember when September meant apples. A trip for fresh-pressed cider and an apple donut. Hot mulled cider to warm you up on a cool fall night. An apple-cinnamon coffee cake. Younger me did not care if it was homemade or out of a box (to be honest, older me doesn’t care either).
No more. Move over, apples. Here comes pumpkin (See the lonely box of maple Cheerios in the below picture? Another forgotten flavor of fall.)
Now in the rush that is the retail word, we careen madly from season to another, barely stopping to appreciate the bounty of where we are.
Bathing suits make their appearance in catalogs about February. Heaven forbid you go on vacation in August and need a new suit. Good luck.
Those sweaters and boots? Retailers start advertising those in July. Sorry Land’s End. When it’s 100 degrees out with 95% humidity, it’s hard to get jazzed about a new sweater, even if it is made of the finest cashmere in the world.
But that’s not the worst. No, no it isn’t. This also greeted my eyes on that sultry August afternoon.
Just where did my grocery think I was going to put that chocolate? Even with air-conditioning, it’d melt in my cabinet. Freeze it? Oh, and did they think my will-power was enough to make it last two whole months?
Needless to say, the reason retailers pull these stunts is because people buy the goods. If retailers weren’t making money off pumping-spice pudding, it wouldn’t be on the shelves.
So let’s change it. Boycott. No pumpkin-spice before October 1. Not in coffee, cereal, pudding…nothing. No Boo-berry or Count Chocula. No Halloween-wrapped Hershey’s minis.
None of it. Let September have her due. Bring on the apples and cinnamon. Plenty of time for the pumpkin-spice parade in October.
Liz, here, who is starting to think she’s lost her mind.
So, I’m sitting at my computer this morning and I don’t see a Mysteristas post in my mailbox. “Hmm,” I think. “I wonder if something is messed up.”
Something’s messed up all right. Me.
Last week, things were a bit insane with the release and launch of Heaven Has No Rage. Don’t get me wrong – it was great. But trying to remember what blog I was visiting that day, checking frequently to respond to comments (and being petrified I’d miss something), then making sure the promo materials were in and everything was ready for my big party on Saturday, well, it got hectic.
But didn’t the display look nice?
Then just as I thought I had it all under control, it was time to move The Girl into her first apartment for the start of her sophomore year of college. It was a pretty smooth process, but it did take all of yesterday.
So I had a blog post all planned and…it just didn’t happen. You get this instead.
I need a new planning system.
Readers, how do you keep track of the chaos in your life? Or do you just suck it up and do your best?
Throw the confetti and pop the cork on the champagne! Heaven Has No Rage is out today!
A year ago, I was celebrating the release of my debut, Root of All Evil, and running around like a chicken with my head cut off. I was obsessed with making this The Best Launch Ever. You know, since I’d been dreaming of it for so long.
I don’t know if it was the best ever, but it was pretty darn good and I still get warm fuzzy feelings thinking about it.
This year is a lot more low key. No big huge cake and booze, just cookies and water/tea/coffee. Still having a party (this Saturday) at Mystery Lovers Bookshop. Still a little nervous about what to wear, what to say, and whether the books will show up on time (what author doesn’t worry about these things?).
But I’m trying to be more organized and less…uptight. It’s a day of celebration, right? Time to kick back and for one day not worry about the next book, or editing, or plot holes, or, or, or…
I thought I was doing okay, too. After all, this is the second book. I’ve already launched a book once. I learned all sorts of lessons. Piece of cake, right?
Uh, not so much. I tried to be more organized on my pre-launch marketing, send out press releases and media pitch requests. I even participated on a three-month program to help me get better at these things.
So why do I feel like I’m all thumbs once again?
But I did manage to get the ARCs out and what lovely things people are saying. Aside from the fantastic blurb from fellow Mysterista Kathleen Valenti, there’s this from Dru Ann Love:
With visually descriptive narrative, the author knows how to tell a story with engaging dialogue and action-filled tale that never let go, until the very end. This well-written drama reached a feverish pitch as the story came to its conclusion and I was holding my breath as I watched it play out. Well done. I enjoyed this book and I look forward to more adventures with Jim, Sally and the gang in this terrific series.
Dru Ann Love, Dru’s Book Musings
Kristopher Zgorski, from BOLO Books had kind words, too:
Milliron writes a tightly-coiled plot with evocative language that readers can easily sink into. With Heaven Has No Rage, she stakes her claim for a long-running series featuring these flawed, but loveable, characters.
Kristopher Zgorski, BOLO Books
I’ve taken notes on what worked and what didn’t because in a year, I’ll be doing this all over again for book three. But for now, let’s party, right?
Oh, don’t get me wrong. I celebrate the little things on the way to publication: finishing the first draft, finishing the last revision, submitting to the publisher, etc. But release day feels like the checkered flag, the finish line on the marathon. The book is OUT!
Now to wait for the first reader reviews. In the meantime, anybody want a cookie?
Giveaway time! Tell me your fave way of celebrating a milestone achievement and you could win a signed copy of Heaven Has No Rage! (US residents only, sorry. Please include your email address in your comment.)
That sounds familiar. I think it was a line in a movie, “Pretty Woman” maybe?
And it’s true.
We often think we are taking care of ourselves. We eat properly. We get up regularly to move, since writing is a very sedentary occupation (some of us have little devices to remind us to do this, others use standing desks). We drink water. We exercise by swimming or walking or running or yoga or whatever.
Except we neglect one critical piece. Our mental health.
For the past few days, I’ve felt sluggish. What was it, the weather? No, I felt this way even in the cool of the morning. I reviewed my routine:
get up around 6am – check (well, mostly – I’ve been having trouble sleeping again so who am I to argue when the body says “Nope, you’re giving me another hour and that’s final”)
feed Koda – check
make and consume my yogurt and granola – check
make my first cup of tea for the morning – check
write for an hour – check
check my favorite blogs and social media, including Instagram and Facebook – check
start the day job – check
It all seemed in order. And then it hit me.
I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook. I love it because…
it lets me connect with so many friends who live in far-flung places;
it lets me keep up with my family, who all live outside Pittsburgh;
I get to interact with readers;
I participate in Ramona DeFelice Long’s “sprint club,” which keeps me focused on my writing because I have a daily obligation to check in and report;
I get to wish Dru Ann Love good morning and receiver her cheery reply;
I get to keep up with Dru Ann and BOLO Books on new book news.
I also hate it because…it’s angry.
I scroll past soooo many angry posts. It’s gotten to the point where I hide 2-3 of every 5 of them. Republicans yell at Democrats. Democrats yell at Republicans. The President yells at everybody. Women yell at men. Men yell at women. People yell about the wall, and immigration and the migrant camps. People yell about sports.
I’ve noticed this yelling (and it doesn’t have to be literal yelling) has extended to so much more of our culture. I can’t watch the news anymore, or even listen to it on the radio. I would sell my soul for the return of Walter Cronkite, a man who gave the facts and just the facts. I’m sure old Walter had plenty of opinions, but he saved them for another venue than reporting the news.
I can’t even listen to The Boy’s sports programs. It inevitably leads to yelling (and yes, this times its often literal yelling). Was it a good idea for Kawahi Leonard to sign with the Clippers? Who should worry more about Odell Beckham Jr – the Steelers because of his skill or the Browns because he could become a distraction?
Okay, I get it. It’s important stuff (okay maybe not Odell or Kawahi). We need to be informed. Terrible things are happening and it’s more than Not Right.
But the yelling – it’s wearing me down. So much so that I don’t want to write. I don’t want to read. I don’t want to do anything.
So I signed off Facebook, at least mostly, for the time being. I check my notifications in the morning, say “good morning” to Dru, check in with the Sprint Club, cruise by Dru’s Book Musings and BOLO Books. I post to my author page for the day and respond to reader comments. I check one fan group for my friend Annette Dashofy.
Then I sign off.
Now, admittedly – the pull to just “take a peek” is tough. I used to use Facebook to relieve the my brain at the day job as I switched from task to task (there’s a lot of mental stress in multitasking this way, look it up).
Fortunately, Instagram remains a source of nice pictures – of flowers, dogs, cats, travel, books, and yes, food. But no yelling. And I’ve started playing WordScapes. I’m good with relaxing pictures and crossword-type games.
It’s Day 1. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.
What about you? How to you take care of your mental health when it all gets to be too much?