Guest Post: Annette Dashofy

I credit Annette Dashofy, author of the fabulous Zoe Chambers Mysteries, with a lot in my life. She was one of the first to welcome me into Sisters in Crime. She critiqued my first (never to be published) book and gently taught me there was a lot more to writing a mystery than pushing a noun against a verb. She’s commiserated with me and helped celebrate my successes. And since she’s one of my critique partners, if you’ve ever enjoyed anything I’ve written she’s someone who helped me get there.

All of that means I’m thrilled to host her today as she celebrates the release of her eighth Zoe book, Fair Game. And she’s talking about something a lot of writers can relate to.

An Introvert in an Extrovert’s Life

I’m currently in the middle of a mini book tour (the tour is mini, not the book) for the release of Fair Game, the eighth in my Zoe Chambers Mystery Series. Although I’m a writer, not an actor, I deserve an Oscar for faking my way through all these public speaking gigs. Standing in front of a room of people and chatting about my books does not come naturally.

One of my earliest memories is of meeting the girl who would become my childhood best friend. Her mother brought her to our house to introduce us. I hid behind my mother’s legs. To say I was paralyzingly shy would be accurate.

In grade school, I was the quiet kid. One teacher moved me, so I had to sit in the middle of the rowdy kids, hoping I’d rub off on them. I didn’t. Nor did they rub off on me. I think I lasted two days before pleading with my teacher to move back to my normal seat.

In high school, I was the wallflower at dances—on the rare occasion that I even attended. No one asked me to dance. I was the last one picked for sports.

Well, you get the idea.

The first big step out of my shyness shell came when I joined 4-H. I thought it was simply a way to learn more about horses since I’d recently gotten my first pony. But my club’s leaders had other plans. As in most clubs, finding people to take offices was a challenge. Reluctantly, I was cast into that pool and eventually found myself in the role of vice-president. VPs never have to do much, I reassured myself.

Unless the president is absent. And our president was absent a lot. At least, that’s how I remember it.

Standing up in front of the other kids and leading a meeting was the hardest thing I’d ever done up to that point. But even at the time, I realized it was a defining moment in my life. I could be in a leadership role and not die of embarrassment. Who knew???

A few decades later, I found myself in front of a room, as a yoga teacher. Another defining moment. One of my teaching instructors gave me some words of wisdom that still stick with me. Even if the class doesn’t flow and you forget what you’re supposed to be saying, remind yourself afterward that no one has died. Besides, if I could stand in front of strangers doing downward facing dog in yoga pants, speaking in front of a group of readers while wearing normal clothes should be a piece of cake!

In truth, I still get nervous, sometimes more than others. Don’t even ask me about sitting on a panel with Louise Penny at last year’s Malice Domestic! Sheer. Terror. But I did it. I drew from those moments as an awkward teen in 4-H.

Fair Game is partly set at the county fair and pays homage to my 4-H friends and leaders who encouraged me to come out of my shell and who continue to support me all these years later at local book talks.

And, yes, I still sometimes have to remind myself that while I stuttered and babbled a bit, in the end, no one has died. Except for a few characters in the book. It is a murder mystery after all.

*****

Paramedic Zoe Chambers hoped a week at the Monongahela County Fair, showing her horse and manning the ambulance, would provide a much-needed diversion from recent events that continue to haunt her. An old friend, a bossy nemesis, and a teenage crush from her 4-H days fail to offer the distraction she had in mind. But ever the caregiver, she soon bonds with a troubled teen and a grieving father.

Back in Vance Township, a missing woman turns up dead, leading Police Chief Pete Adams into a journey through her mysterious final hours. With each new clue, the tragic circumstances of her death grow increasingly muddied.

A cryptic phone call leads Pete to join Zoe for an evening at the fairgrounds where the annual school bus demolition derby concludes with a gruesome discovery and a new case that may or may not be connected to the first. Pete’s quest for the motive behind two homicides—and Zoe’s stubborn determination to reunite a family—thrust them both onto a collision course with a violent and desperate felon.

*****

Annette Dashofy is the USA Today best-selling author of the Zoe Chambers mystery series about a paramedic and deputy coroner in rural Pennsylvania’s tight-knit Vance Township. A lifelong resident of Washington County (PA), Annette has garnered four Agatha Award nominations including Best Contemporary Novel of 2018 for Cry Wolf. She’s a member of International Thriller Writers, the Pittsburgh Chapter of Sisters in Crime, and is on the board of directors of Pennwriters. Fair Game (May 2019) is the eighth in her series.

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Breaking the writing rut

Or How a dog changed my writing routine.

Back in March, I wrote about how I’d fallen into something of a rut when it came to my writing. I received a lot of great suggestions on how to break out and fiddled around with them. Nothing really felt right. Then, we got this guy:

Koda, our retired-racer

Well, we got Koda on March 3 and I wrote my post on March 21, but you get the idea.

My mornings start a bit earlier now. Koda gets me up between 5:30 and 6:00. A dog’s gotta eat and potty, you know. Sometimes, he lets me sleep until 7:00, but only on weekends. I’d be too awake to lounge in bed, so what was I gonna do?

Apparently, the answer was write.

Writers are encouraged to identify their “most productive” times of day and use those for writing. Mine had always been midday to early afternoon. Morning person I am not. I didn’t think my brain would fire properly that early in the morning and I read in awe of people who said, “Oh, I get up at four to write for an hour!”

Me, I slept. But I digress.

Turns out, my “most productive time” was midday because I needed it to be that way. I wrote two and a half novels over three years on my lunch break at work. I dutifully carried my MacBook to the office, commandeered a table in the cafe at noon, ate my lunch, and wrote my words. Sometimes I stayed at my desk. But I wrote. Always.

Then, oh I’d say late summer of 2017, my working arrangements changed. I started working from home full-time. The midday thing still worked and it was great because now I could even crank the tunes if I needed stimulation.

In November 2017, that changed. Family circumstances meant my brother-in-law was living with us so someone was around all the time. I felt my energy sagging, but I powered through it. But by the end of the year, wow, things were tough.

Now, I’m an introvert. I need alone time to recharge my batteries. And I realized that trying to write with another person around all the time was killing me creatively, even if that other person was mostly silent (well, he didn’t talk much at least).

But when I got up to take care of Koda and I pulled out my laptop, something clicked. The words flowed again. The story popped. And I realized it was because everybody was either gone or sleeping. The Hubby and The Boy were off to work and school, respectively. The Girl was at college – and even when she got home, she was asleep. My brother-in-law sleeps late. The house was peaceful, quiet. I could drink my tea, eat my yogurt and granola, and wordsmith to my heart’s content.

(Koda was awake, but he’s a considerate guy. He left me alone.)

I realized that midday writing time worked for me because that was all the time I had. When the kids were younger, I was busy getting them up, dressed, and off to school. At night, I was making dinner and taking them to whatever activity they had that night. My situation had changed, but I had not adjusted my routine. My lack of output should have told me things were different, that I was missing something.

No, it took adopting a 70-pound dog to tell me that. Hey, I never said I was quick on the uptake.

May I help you with anything?

So what about you? Has life ever delivered you a wake-up call (furry or otherwise) that it’s time to make a change?

A fireside chat with Mark Pryor

Books are cheap vacations. I find this especially true of books that take me to places I’m unlikely to visit. Say…Paris. I won’t say I’ll never go there, but it’s probably not going to happen any time soon.

Fortunately, there are books like Mark Pryor’s delightful Hugo Marston series, books that draw such a lovely picture of a place, that I feel (almost) as if I’m there.

I was able to chat with Mark to talk about the latest Hugo book, The Book Artist. Side note: If you’ve missed the previous books in this wonderful series, well, you might want to take time to fix that. Just saying.

LM: I loved the reference to the conversation with James Ziskin about authors feeling like frauds. Did you actually have this conversation with Jim? Where do you fall on the “fraud feeling” as an author?

MP: I’m sure we have had that talk, yes. I think pretty much every author, at some point or another, feels that way — whether they dare speak up is another matter! But it’s a frequent topic of discussion among authors, in my experience, in person and online. I think we try to reassure each other as best we can, but that doesn’t always work!

For me, the feeling of being a fraud has diminished overall, after ten novels I’m no longer afraid to tell people I’m a writer. Brave, eh?! Now, that said, after I hit about 20k words into a new book, it comes rushing back and I wonder if I’m capable of putting together a story that won’t scream “Fraud!” when it’s done. I’m there now, as it happens, so send help….

LM: DNA plays a part of this book and I think you handled it very cleverly (I don’t think that’s a spoiler, is it?). With the preeminence of DNA testing (all the home kits) and how much TV and movies play up DNA, do you think it’s put pressure on crime fiction authors to address it, especially those of us who write law enforcement protagonists? How do you think DNA – or any technology, really – fits into crime fiction writing?

MP: DNA is like cell phone tracking/mapping, I do think it has to be addressed these days, yes. Now, the way I did it in The Book Artist was an intentional poke in the eye, though, and that comes out of my day job as a prosecutor. You see, thanks to TV and film, there seems to be a too-pervasive sense that DNA is the be-all and end-all of crime solving. Got your DNA from the scene? Then you’re done for! But not so, by any means. That’s what I wanted to show in the book, the nuance behind using that kind of evidence and the fact that good old-fashioned sleuthing can be it’s equal.

It’s better in this instance. I think writers feel a similar pressure with cell phones, it’s so hard for a character to be stuck somewhere or get chased and make it seem genuinely scary – just call for help! I read somewhere that readers are going to have to get used to (and get over) the drained battery/lack of coverage trope, because there are only so many ways a writer can separate a character from his or her functioning cell phone. But to ignore DNA and cell phones isn’t an option, I don’t think, because readers are very smart and very attentive and they will notice, and point out, such investigative gaps (as they should).

LM: I’m fascinated by the concept of using books as sculpture material. Did you see this somewhere or make it up? If you made it up, where’d the concept come from?

MP: Actually, it came from my wonderful agent, Ann Collette. She saw it somewhere online, and emailed me, suggested I take a look at it. And that was a rabbit hole I went down for a while…. But isn’t it great? There are some remarkable pieces out there, and it’s lovely to know that discarded books aren’t being pulped but turned into works of art instead. I couldn’t not write about!

LM: Hugo and Claudia continue their relationship dance in this book, although it seems to me that Hugo is moving in a definite direction, and they have a “pattern” it seems. Hugo and Tom is another relationship that appears to have found a “groove.” How important are these relationships to you as a writer in maintaining the series?

MP: Great question, because I think they are crucial. They are also, as it happens, excruciatingly hard. I mean, my relationship with friends is pretty much set in stone at this point, but for novels that kind of stasis doesn’t work well. The reader expects to see ups and downs, to see changes and growth. That’s why I think (hope) Hugo and Claudia are appealing as a couple, because you never quite know which way things will go. I also enjoy inverting the trope of Hero Gets the Girl, by making this girl play hard to get such that Hugo has to constantly chase her. I’m often asked whether they will end up together and the truth is, I simply don’t know! It’ll be fun to find out right along with the reader.  Similarly with his best friend Tom, there’s an element of unpredictability. That’s more to do with Tom’s character, of course, than his friendship with Hugo, and you’re right that there’s a theme running through their relationship: Hugo is the sensible big brother, Tom is the wayward little brother. But like a real family, we know when push comes to shove they will be there for each other. And that lets me put one of them in jeopardy and force the other to act.

LM: What’s next for Hugo?

MP: He will be attending a Bastille Day party at a lovely chateau in Paris, when a member of the host’s family goes missing under very odd circumstances. He will also be involved in a hair-raising encounter in the Jardin des Tuileries that will change him, and many of those around him, for good. More than that, I dare not say…

A writing rut

Like Peg, this is a hard blog for me to write.

I’m stuck.

No, not like “stuck on a plot point.” I mean…stuck in a land of low motivation. This is unlike me, because I’ve always had a pretty solid routine. I wrote my first two books working only one hour a day, my lunch hour at the day-job. That was my time and I had to use it wisely. I had to time for writer’s block.

Now, however, I work from home. I get up much earlier (gotta feed the new dog and let him out), start work earlier, and end my business day earlier. That has added almost three hours to my available time. So I’m uber-productive, right?

Not so much.

Oh, all the stuff that HAS to get done is getting done. The manuscript for Heaven Has No Rage went off to the publisher right on time. I’ve kept pace with the editing. I’m working on a final polish (last chance to make meaningful changes) as I type. I turned in my back cover copy/acknowledgements/dedication/updated bio.

It’s the next book I’m having trouble with. Actually, it would be the fourth book. What my friend Bruce Robert Coffin termed “a book on spec.” Something I don’t have a contract for, but I’m writing anyway because a) I want to and b) it’ll put me in a good place professionally if I can say, “Why yes, yes I do have ideas for more books. Glad you asked.”

I’ve written about 25,000 words and I thought it was going well. Then total stoppage. I realized I was trying to slavishly follow my loose outline instead of writing more organically, like I ususally do. Every day was, “Oh, don’t forget that,” or “Have I intrdocued X early enough so it’s not a cheat?” and “Oops, I totally forgot about this other thing.” It was bogging me down. So I closed the outline and just started to write.

That bought me another 10,000 words. But once again…total stoppage. Even my tried-and-true tricks aren’t working.

Sigh.

Maybe it’s the winter doldrums. Maybe I need to find a different project to work on. I can’t use reading as an excuse any longer. My Goodreads Challege goal for this year is 30 books and I’ve already read 26 of them. I need to get writing.

And I will. The sun is starting to shine. The birds are chirping. The weather is warming. Maybe I need to decamp to a coffee shop for a while.

Something.

Tell me, Mysteristas, what do you do when you’re well and truly stuck on a project?

Early spring you say?

A month ago, a certain rodent up in Punxsutawney predicted an early spring. Many people rejoiced.

Then, it seemed like said rodent might have been right. The sun was shining. The birds were singing. I’ve even seen people post pictures of flowers growing.

And then, this morning, this happened.

From the front porch
Out the back door

I’m not sure about the rest of you, but this doesn’t look like an “early spring” to me. This looks like an April Fool’s joke a month early.

I’m going back to bed.

What about you, readers? What does this so-called “early spring” look like in your part of the world?

A fireside chat with Lissa Redmond

I first became aware of Lissa Redmond when my dad sent me a text: “Do you know this author? She’s from Buffalo.” Lissa previously worked in the Cold Case unit of the Buffalo Police Department. We connected over social media (I’m originally from Hamburg, a suburb of Buffalo). We met at Bouchercon (I think) last year and hit it off.

But here’s the “wow, it really IS a small world” thing. A few weeks ago, I got a private message from her on Facebook. “I didn’t know you were from Hamburg!” Turns out, we went to the same high school – a few years apart (I think we figured out she was a senior when I was a sophomore), but we did in fact know a couple of the same people.

Buffalo is not a mid-sized city, it is a large room.

I read Lissa’s first book, A Cold Day in Hell, and when her publicist contacted me about an interview, I jumped. So let’s get to know Lissa!

Tell us about your main character.

Lauren Riley, personality wise, is almost the complete opposite of me. Even though we share a couple things in common—daughters, love of coffee, and being a cold case homicide detective—she definitely has a worse track record with men, is much more shy, and a lot tougher than me. She tries to get by without having to depend on anyone, not realizing how much balance her partner, Shane Reese, brings to her life. Now that her daughters are both away at college, she’s throwing herself into her work. Whether she attracts trouble, or working cold cases does, she and Reese always seem to find themselves up to their necks in danger.

Tell us a bit about your new book.

The Murder Book picks up the story about a year after A Cold Day in Hell ends. Lauren and Reese have had a long day at work. It’s late on a Friday night and Reese packs up and leaves while Lauren is finishing up some paperwork. Hearing the door open while she’s typing, Lauren thinks it’s Reese. She’s viciously attacked from behind, stabbed and left for dead. Before passing out she sees a pair of city-issue police boots and the person wearing them carrying out her Murder Book, which is the handwritten log of all the city’s cold cases. Reese returns for his hat just in time to save her life. Together, they have to work backwards to unravel the crime before the would-be killer finishes what he started.

How did you get started writing?

I think a lot of people assume I’m a cop who became a writer, but in reality, I was a writer who became a cop. I can’t remember a time in my life where I didn’t want to become a writer. After I got on the job in 1993, I still managed to squeeze in a page here and a paragraph there. It wasn’t until I retired in 2015 that I was able to devote the time to polish up the manuscript I’d literally been working on for years. I think the key is to never give up on your dreams and never stop trying to hone your craft.

What is your favorite/least favorite thing about the writing process?

I hate editing. Mostly because I have a comma problem. Sometimes I throw in too many, other times I’ll see my page is completely devoid of them. Between you and me, I sneak into my fifteen-year-old daughter’s bedroom and pull out her punctuation and grammar book when no one’s looking.

What’s next for you?

I just finished writing a standalone with new characters and a unique setting, dealing with undercover work. I really like my new protagonist, who is very different from Lauren Riley. She’s younger and still eager about police work, despite the obstacles she’s had to endure in her short career. I could see me wanting to continue her story in future books.

*****

About The Murder Book

Cold case detective Lauren Riley wakes up in the hospital certain of two things: she was stabbed and left for dead . . . and the person who did it was a cop.

After being brutally stabbed at her desk late one night, Lauren Riley works her way backwards through the haze to piece together who attacked her and why. A mysterious phone message forces her to enlist the help of a retired lieutenant to track down a witness who is desperate not to be found. As she digs into the Buffalo Police Department’s hidden past she uncovers a terrible secret, one a fellow officer would kill to protect.

*****

About Lissa

Lissa Marie Redmond was born in Buffalo and grew up in a compact little neighborhood south of the city called Woodlawn, squashed between the massive Bethlehem Steel plant and Ford Stamping plant. Growing up she rode her bike, played on the shores of Lake Erie and never dreamed she’d someday be a cop.

During her days at the University of Buffalo, Redmond took the exam to be a city of Buffalo police officer and got the job. At the age of 22, they gave her a gun, a badge, a bulletproof vest, and put her on patrol. Twenty-two years, a detective’s badge, a fellow detective husband and two kids later, she retired to pursue a “normal” life.

Instead, she decided to become a writer.

Redmond lives in Buffalo with her husband and kids, writing about the things that keep her up at night, staring at the ceiling in the dark and asking herself, “What If?” She is a proud member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and Murder on Ice.

‘Tis the season

One of the important facets of setting, or so say readers, is season. How many times have to read a book and felt the steam of the summer, the cool crispness of autumn, the bone-chilling cold of the winter, or the sweet breeze of spring?

The challenge for authors is that we often have to write in opposite seasons. Our schedule may say that winter book is due in the middle of summer. We may have to conjure the suffocating humidity and heat of summer when icicles are hanging off the roof.

With my upcoming Heaven Has No Rage I got lucky.

I write fast. Last winter, I was way ahead of schedule. Revisions were underway on Root of All Evil during February, so I was looking at pictures and trying to remind myself of those October days, where southwestern Pennsylvania can go from seventy to fifty in the span of twelve hours. I looked at pictures of brilliant fall foliage, remembering the rustle and scritch of fall leaves and the dry scents that hang in the air – while snow drifted silently outside my window and the thermometer taunted me with single-digit temperatures.

These are moments when imagination is very, very important.

At the same time, I was drafting Heaven. Here’s where my luck came in. Heaven is set firmly in the winter, right in the middle of those bone-chilling days. I didn’t have to imagine the cold, the way it seeps into your bones, how it looks in headlights, or the delicious warmth of a wood fire. I was living it.

Now in the normal course of events, this would mean I’d be revising in July, while sweat dripped down my back. But my luck is still in play. The manuscript is due to my publisher in February. This means I’m revising right now, while the scene outside my window looks like this:

And this:

Once again, I don’t need to imagine that chill in the air. I’m living it. And hopefully this means when you pick up the book this August, you’ll feel it too. At least, you will if I’ve done my job.

Of course, next year’s book, Broken Trust, will be back in early summer and I’ll be revising in the winter again. Better stock up on those summer photographs for reference.

Readers, do you like reading books set in opposite seasons (for example, winter books in summer)?