Interview: Kevin Michaels

Please welcome Kevin Michaels, author of Still Black Remains

What’s your idea of a perfect day?

Cover - SBRI don’t want to lose my tough guy cred, but the best parts of my day begin and end with me spending significant time with the woman who I’m deeply in love with….
I share a desk with my wife, Helen – actually it’s a large, over-sized old country table that we repurposed as a desk so we can sit across from each other while we work. I write every day. I need that kind of discipline, and even if much of what I write changes or gets thrown away, I am constantly working …staring at a blank page is working in my world if I can justify it as part of the creative process.

‘A perfect day of writing would have a lot of similarities to surfing – some times when you’re surfing you find that perfect wave and take it to shore – the combination of the sun, the waves, and the ride gives you an incredible rush. In writing, we all want that day where the characters take on a life of their own, the dialogue and action flow effortlessly, and the momentum carries the story past the outline into a new and exciting direction that is totally unexpected but better than you might have imagined.
At the end of the day there’s nothing better than sharing a glass or two of wine and sitting on the deck, watching the sun set.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase/expression, or meal?

No signature accessories, colors,meals, or fragrances…although phrases and expressions are a different story. Much of my conversation tends revolve around excessive cursing (sometimes I get on a roll and sound like Samuel L Jackson). Hang out with me long enough and much of the conversation will sound like the dialogue from “Still Black Remains”……

Which books/authors inspired or influenced you the most?

Crime fiction writers like Elmore Leonard, Robert Parker, Michael Connelly, Lawrence Block, and Wallace Stroby have had and continue to have the biggest influence on my writing. Each of them have that sparse, clean economy of words. Their descriptions are vivid and powerful, and they don’t use a lot of words to create images that are impactful (the same way Hemingway and Mailer did years ago). No list would be complete without some of my other favorites like Sam Shepherd, Stephen King, James Ellroy, Pete Dexter, and Don Winslow.

The book that made a difference was Prince of Tides. There’s a certain beauty in the writing of Pat Conroy that is awe-inspiring – there is a certain flow to the way he weaves his way through stories incredible images with everything he ever wrote. Prince of Tides and South of Broad both took away my breath – not only the beauty of his words, but the grace and style of the imagery in everything he wrote. There are times when you sit back as a writer, admire what someone else has written, and just say, “Damn….I wish I could write like that”.

I also think Bruce Springsteen is a great story teller – and if Bob Dylan can win a Nobel for his body of work, you have to recognize the talent in the stories Springsteen writes. There is tremendous feeling in his songs about everyday life (the pain, sorrow, heart break as well as what it means to get up every day, get dressed, go to work, and provide for your family – even at the cost of your dreams). When I was younger I loved Kerouac for his sense of adventure and Jack London.

Do you listen to music when you write?

I don’t work in complete silence –it’s impossible because of the variety of dogs, cats, children, and neighborhood distractions around me – but as I start to get deeper into revisions and rewrites I’m able to block them out. Music helps through all stages – everything I write tends to have its own soundtrack, even if it’s only in my head. I’ll choose music that it is appropriate to the story – artists and songs that would fill the worlds my characters live and work in. While I was writing Still Black Remains, I immersed myself in music by Notorious BIG, Ice –T, and Killer Mike, although every once in a while I snuck in a song or two from Bruce Springsteen just to break it up a little.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?

Still Black Remains would most likely be dark chocolate – probably Ghirardelli Intense Dark because it has a rich, deep flavor and a little bit of a kick.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?

I originally wanted to write a simple crime story about life in a gritty, violent neighborhood where violence is justified as being “part of the game”. One that explored the dynamic of a black street gang fighting against an older entrenched Mafia gang, but I quickly realized there was a whole dynamic of urban life in the inner cities that I wanted to explore, the same way David Simon did in “The Wire”. I wanted to tell the story from the POV of one character who grew up in the Skulls. How his life had evolved. What being part of a gang meant, and how it impacted his life.

One of the most powerful books I ever read was Dawn by Elie Wiesel. In the book, Elisha, the protagonist, lost his family in the concentration camps and in the aftermath of WWII joins the armed struggle for the foundation of a Jewish state, hoping to be part of the creation of a new homeland. At the same time finds comfort and trust, as well as a sense of family, in his friends. Everything changes when he is ordered to shoot a British hostage. Elisha survived the terror of Nazi concentration camps only to be ordered to become an executioner himself. Dawn addresses how someone can be haunted and ultimately changed by trauma; it looks at the philosophical questions of when killing becomes murder and exactly how murder (or the possibility of being a murderer) changes a person.

I liked that question of “does the end justify the means,” even it involves the death of someone else. Twist faces a number of morality issues in the story. His conflict is more personal than his gang’s conflict – it’s about using Michael Valentine’s kidnapping to get Malik back, or at least find out information about where he’s being held. What’s at stake for Twist is his soul – he’s forced to wrestle with the question of whether or not he can pull the trigger to kill Valentine and if he does, live with those consequences the same way Elisha struggled with being the executioner.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?

My intention when I started Still Black Remains was to write about the struggle of a different generation trying to realize the American Dream against all odds, and through any means possible. The characters have learned that hard work by itself will never help them achieve what they want – they have to work outside the system to get what they want. The inner city landscape where they live is filled with desperation, anger, and a sense of futility and in many cases violence is both the solution to problems and the result of problems. Actions – no matter what’s involved or who gets hurt – are justified as being “part of the game”. That’s a common theme in much of my writing.

New Jersey is a tremendous source of inspiration in my writing and shows up as a setting quite often – the state has a landscape filled with a wide variety of people, backgrounds, life styles, and cultures mixed together. Living in the shadows of New York and Philadelphia gives most of us who grew up in New Jersey a little bit of an “attitude,” and that’s the kind of characteristic that sneaks into my characters’ actions and my stories. Life in the New Jersey neighborhood where Still Black Remains takes place is equally gritty, violent, and harsh. There was no way to soften the writing without losing the legitimacy of the story – New Jersey is as much a part of the book as the plot and characters.

Tell us about your main character.

Twist was born in an inner city. He grew up in a gang culture with brothers who were involved in the Skulls, and part of his early development was selling drugs as a corner boy. But he’s smarter than the others and has dreams of getting out of the “game” and becoming a businessman. He’s insightful enough to see that his future on the street is limited, and there are only two career paths – either dead or in jail. More than anything, he wants normalcy which is something he has never known his entire life. In a world where actions happen without deep thought or much personal reflection, he is more thoughtful and less reactionary than the guys in the Skulls. He takes things more personally which is both a strength and a weakness (unlike Bone and Cuba- his two contemporaries, he is unable to be cold and distanced).

I think Twist is smart, compassionate, and purposeful — he cares deeply for Malik, and wanted him to stay out of the Skulls and find a better life than the one he could have had in the Skulls. He recognizes Malik’s strengths and tried looking out for him, and Malik’s kidnapping is personal for Twist. Finding Malik (or at least learning what happened to him) drives him and is the undercurrent in his relationship with Michael Valentine. He cares for Maria too, but he can’t show her the kind of love she expects because he’s focused on Malik. The fact that Twist is engaged in some pretty heinous criminal behavior doesn’t make him a bad person – he has some qualities that readers will find heroic and hopefully have them rooting for him.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?

In keeping with the mystery theme, I’d want:
Elmore Leonard
Lawrence Block
Robert B Parker
Raymond Chandler
Donald Westlake
And Norman Mailer ….not because he really writes mystery, but having him there would definitely keep the energy level high, although he might wind up throwing a punch or two…..

What’s next for you?

I have two other novels in the pipeline – the first that I’m finishing is one entitled All Those Yesterdays which is about domestic violence crossing three generations of a family. Domestic violence is a subject that I’ve actively written about over the past few years, and this book allows me to not only explore the topic in detail but to feature a strong female character at the heart of the story. In my other books I haven’t had the opportunity to do that, and it’s been exciting creating that kind of character will giving voice to an epidemic that affects individuals in every community, regardless of age, economic status, sexual orientation, gender, race, religion, or nationality. The second is tentatively entitled A Steady Rain and falls within the more traditional crime fiction category (“Breaking Bad” meets “Justified” with a touch of Winter’s Bone and A Simple Plan).

I also run a community based organization called Story Tellers that develops literacy through the art of writing. We started a few years ago in Asbury Park, New Jersey and within the past eighteen months have expanded into Georgia. Using reading, group exercises, and one on one mentoring, Story Tellers provides under-served teenagers and young adults the opportunity to write their own stories which can inspire them to discover the strength and power of their own voices. The goal of the program is to develop literacy, self-expression, and self-esteem.

Synopsis: Still Black Remains is an original work of fiction. It tells the story of Twist, one of the leaders of an inner city gang named the Skulls, and the architect of his gang’s decision to kidnap a mafia soldier in a last-ditch attempt to end a violent turf war. The war started when the Skulls tried taking a bigger piece of the drug business in their Newark, New Jersey neighborhood from the organized crime family who had once been their partners. Like most great ideas, the plan doesn’t turn out as expected. Negotiations between the gangs deteriorate, words fail, the violence escalates, and the only recourse left is the inevitable execution of the hostage. Chosen to be the one to execute the prisoner, the story covers Twist’s ability to pull the trigger, the consequences of that action, and his internal struggle. As the volatile situation grows more explosive by the hour, the lines between right and wrong blur; resolution comes with a price and Twist has to decide if pulling the trigger will get him what he wants, and if he can live with that cost.

*****

Kevin MichaelsKevin Michaels is the author of the critically acclaimed debut novel LOST EXIT, as well as two entries in the FIGHT CARD BOOKS series: Hard Road and Can’t Miss Contender. He also released a collection of short stories entitled Nine in the Morning. His short stories and flash fiction have also appeared in a number of magazines and indie zines, and in 2011 he was nominated for two separate Pushcart Prize awards for his short stories. Other shorts have been included in the anthologies for Six Sentences (volumes II and III) and Actiion: Puls Pounding Tales (2).

In April 2017 his latest novel Still Black Remains will be published by Literary Wanderlust LLC.

He has also published a number non-fiction articles and stories in print publications ranging from the NYTimes.com and the Life/Style section of The Boston Globe to The Bergen News and Press Journal and raged in print at places like the triCity News, NY Daily News, and The Press.

He is the Founder and Creative Director of Story Tellers which is a community-based organization that develops and promotes literacy through writing. Story Tellers provides under-served teenagers, young adults, and women from distressed situations the opportunity to discover the strength and power of their own voices (self-empowerment through self-expression).

Originally from New Jersey, he carries the attitude, edginess, and love of all things Bruce Springsteen common in his home state, although he left the Garden State to live and work in the foothills of the Appalachians (Georgia) with his wife, Helen and an assortment of children and pets.

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Agatha Best First Novel Nominees

We are so tickled to host all of the nominees for this year’s Agatha Award for Best First Novel today on Mysteristas – including Mysterista emerita Cynthia Kuhn. Take it away, ladies!

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What book inspired you to start writing mysteries?

Marla Cooper, author of Terror in Taffeta (Minotaur Books)

Count me in for Nancy Drew! I used to read them and re-read them to the point where I could practically recite the plots. While Nancy Drew was definitely an early influence, I wasn’t reading them thinking, “Someday I’m going to be a mystery author.” That came a lot later. In fact, I never really saw myself writing a novel until I read Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin. I loved his use of dialogue, his fast-paced plots, and the sheer amount of fun he seemed to be having. As for what steered me to mysteries specifically? I’d have to thank Jerrilyn Farmer and Laura Levine for that. Both of them are former TV writers who write humorous mysteries, and when I read their books, I got that little tickle in the back of my brain that said, “This!”

Alexia Gordon, author of Murder in G Major (Henery Press)

I’ll have to credit two sleuths instead of one book: Nancy Drew and Hercule Poirot. I devoured their series as a kid. Nancy Drew was a girl not much older than me at the time who was brave and smart and outwitted older, stronger criminals. Poirot was dapper and eccentric and the smartest guy in the room. As a teen I discovered Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. I have to give them credit, too. I loved hanging out in the New York brownstone with Nero, Archie, Fritz, Theodore, and the orchids. I never could solve the case before the big genius, or even before Archie, but I tried. And I loved trying so much, I knew someday I wanted to create my own puzzles for a sleuth to solve.

Cynthia Kuhn, author of The Semester of Our Discontent (Henery Press)

Officially, Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew were the initial inspiration. They are the first mysteries I read, and I fell wholeheartedly in love with the genre. But it was Death in a Tenured Position by Amanda Cross (Dr. Carolyn G. Heilbrun) that introduced me to academic mystery and inspired me to begin thinking about writing my own mystery set at a college. Before I read that book in grad school, my mystery-writing plans were sort of like yes, someday (insert vague wave to indicate Down The Road); afterwards, I couldn’t wait to start writing one at the earliest possible moment. That’s how much of an effect it had. A little gentle satire that speaks to the environment in which you have been immersed for a long time is a powerful thing!

Nadine Nettmann, author of Decanting a Murder (Midnight Ink)

I grew up reading Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five series and loved every single one I could get my hands on. I dreamt of exploring the English countryside and solving mysteries along the way with Julian, Dick, Anne, George (Georgina) and her dog, Timmy. If I had to pinpoint my love of the genre, I would say it began there. I also enjoyed Encyclopedia Brown and The Westing Game, but when I started reading Daphne du Maurier novels, I was swept away by the language, setting, and intrigue. I knew I wanted to create worlds full of questions and suspense, but where there was always an answer.

Renee Patrick (Rosemarie and Vince Keenan), author of Design for Dying (Forge)

VINCE: If we’re truly being honest, I have to reach deep into my childhood and pick any of the Three Investigators books, like The Mystery of the Screaming Clock. They were Hardy Boys books for kids who appreciated well-plotted mysteries. I loved them for two reasons. One of the titular trio specialized in library research, a job I felt I could do. And at the end of each adventure they’d go onto a movie lot and explain how they solved the case to Alfred Hitchcock, nurturing my love of show business.

ROSEMARIE: Even when I was in pigtails, my favorite books were mysteries. The ones I loved best were about a crime-solving family of five siblings: The Happy Hollisters. I had five brothers and sisters myself, and I’d picture us following a trail of clues to Ryskind’s candy store or Flushing Meadow Park. It wasn’t a big leap from imagining myself in those stories to writing my own.

*****

Marla Cooper is the author of Terror in Taffeta, an Agatha and Lefty nominee for Best First Mystery and book one in the Kelsey McKenna Destination Wedding Mysteries. Her second book, Dying on the Vine, is set in the California wine country and comes out April 4. As a freelance writer, Marla has written all sorts of things, from advertising copy to travel guidebooks to the occasional haiku, and it was while ghostwriting a guide to destination weddings that she found inspiration for her series. Originally hailing from Texas, Marla lives in Oakland, California, with her husband and her polydactyl tuxedo cat. Learn more at www.marla-cooper.com.

Alexia Gordon has been a writer since childhood. She continued writing through college but put literary endeavors on hold to finish medical school and Family Medicine residency training. Medical career established, she returned to writing fiction. She completed SMU’s Writer’s Path program in Dallas, Texas. Henery Press published her first novel, Murder in G Major, book one of the Gethsemane Brown mysteries, in September 2016. Book two, Death in D Minor, premiers July 2017. A member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and the Writers’ League of Texas, she listens to classical music, drinks whiskey, and blogs at www.missdemeanors.com. AlexiaGordon.net

Cynthia Kuhn writes the Lila Maclean Academic Mystery series, which includes The Semester of Our Discontent and The Art of Vanishing. She teaches English in Denver and serves as president of Sisters in Crime-Colorado. For more information, please visit cynthiakuhn.net.

Nadine Nettmann, a Certified Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers, is always on the lookout for great wines and the stories behind them. She has visited wine regions around the world, from France to Chile to South Africa, but chose Napa Valley as the setting for her debut novel, Decanting a Murder. The next book in the Sommelier Mystery Series, Uncorking a Lie, releases in May 2017. Chapters are paired with wine recommendations. NadineNettmann.com

Renee Patrick is the pseudonym of married authors Rosemarie and Vince Keenan. Rosemarie is a research administrator and a poet. Vince is a screenwriter and a journalist. Both native New Yorkers, they currently live in Seattle, Washington.

Guest Post: Wendy Tyson

Welcome back Mysteristas friend Wendy Tyson, author of the Greenhouse Mysteries and the Allison Campbell Mysteries.

Lighten Up

BitterHarvest frontThe mention of this month’s theme caused me a moment of panic. You see, I don’t write books that would be characterized as humorous mysteries. If you pick up a novel from the Allison Campbell Mystery Series or the Greenhouse Mystery Series, you’re probably not expecting the kind of belly-aching laughter you might get from reading authors like Janet Evanovich or Chris Ewan or Gretchen Archer. My novels, especially the Allison Campbell books, are more suspense than comedy. But what I’ve come to realize over time is that while crime is, well, crime (and what’s funny about that?), crime fiction provides the perfect backdrop for humor.

Let’s face it, humor serves many masters. It can be an end in itself, of course. But within the context of a mystery it can also help to alleviate tension, create relatable characters (who isn’t attracted to a strong sense of humor?), denote character, highlight or create conflict, and show the relationship between characters. Think about Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley series. While you won’t find them listed on many Humorous Mysteries lists, Detective Barbara Havers’ often fumbling relationship with life is quite funny, as are the interactions between Barbara and her boss, the Oxford-educated, aristocratic Inspector Lynley.

While my mysteries may not elicit guffaws, humor is woven throughout. It’s in the banter between Megan and her veterinarian boyfriend, Dr. Denver Finn. It’s in Bibi’s often ironic proclamations about life. It’s embedded within new-farmer Megan’s internal and external conflicts—conflicts that affect her decisions and her relationships with others. (There is something funny about a woman arguing with a goat.) And it’s in the antics of Winsome’s quirky townsfolk. Same for the Allison Campbell Series. Simply the notion of an image consultant solving crimes in the upscale Philadelphia Main Line is amusing, and Allison doesn’t take herself too seriously. Despite often dangerous situations and dark issues, Allison maintains a sense of humor about who she is and what she does—and therefore so does the reader.

I saw somewhere that the television show Malcolm in the Middle relied on music rather than canned laughter to denote the funny parts. Upbeat songs served to lighten the mood, signaling the humorous portions of the story line. Thankfully with books readers don’t need a signal. In fact, humor is often the signal that things are about to change. Whether it’s an out rightly funny slapstick scene, elements of dark humor, or simply witty dialogue that reflects the absurdity of everyday life, crime fiction is often loaded with laughs.

It turns out solving crimes can be downright funny.

*****

Wendy tyson picWendy Tyson’s background in law and psychology has provided inspiration for her mysteries and thrillers. Originally from the Philadelphia area, Wendy has returned to her roots and lives there again on a micro-farm with her husband, three sons, and three dogs. Wendy’s short fiction has appeared in literary journals, and she’s a contributing editor and columnist for The Big Thrill and The Thrill Begins, International Thriller Writers’ online magazines. Wendy is the author of the Allison Campbell Mystery Series and the Greenhouse Mystery Series. Her latest Greenhouse novel, Bitter Harvest, was released March 7, 2017.

Interview: Carolyn Mulford

Welcome Carolyn Mulford, author of Show Me the Sinister Snowman (what a title!).

What’s your idea of a perfect day?

perf6.000x9.000.inddThe day would begin with a simple breakfast on a terrace with a view of mountains. I grew up in northern Missouri’s rolling hills and returned to them ten years ago, but I taught at 8,000 feet in Ethiopia, edited a magazine a few hours from the Austrian Alps, and hiked parts of the Appalachian Trail while writing a travel book. Mountains delight the eye, refresh the spirit, and convey strength and serenity.

Then, with a cup of rich coffee in hand, I’d read a good newspaper—the paper edition. I crave unbiased, in-depth reporting, and I relish coming across unanticipated headlines. News articles also spark plot ideas, including contemporary rustling in Show Me the Deadly Deer.

Morning is prime writing time. I get a major charge from starting a new book, stumbling through unknown territory toward the right path for the story. The accelerated action at the end speeds up my fingers. In between, I get a big kick out of writing scenes in which humor diverts readers’ attention from important clues.

In the evening, I’ll eat a nice dinner with a friend and go to a play or concert.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase/expression, or meal?

No, but when I give a book talk, I wear clothes that match the cover’s colors. When I attend a three-day conference, I plan outfits with the dominant colors on my book’s cover. For Show Me the Gold, I augmented basic black with a gold long-sleeved blouse, a short-sleeved yellow blouse, and a yellow jacket. Wearing the same color scheme each day helps people remember who you are.

Which books/authors inspired or influenced you the most?

Many books have made deep impressions over decades of varied reading. My most lasting treasure is Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. The teacher in my one-room school read it to us chapter by chapter to quiet us after lunch when I was in first grade. It was funny and scary and totally engrossing. I read it for myself in fifth grade, eighth grade, twelfth grade, college, and at least three times since then. Each time I read a different book because I understand more. Twain’s characters and plots have multiple layers, and his humor softens strong social commentary. I was particularly aware of layers as I wrote Thunder Beneath My Feet, a middle grade/YA novel that takes place during the devastating New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812.

When I began the transition from nonfiction to fiction, I read mysteries for guidance. Among my numerous guides have been Elizabeth Peters (well-drawn characters, appealing humor, excellent pacing), Sara Paretsky (research on serious societal problems enhances rather than burdens the story, compelling minor characters, strong sense of place), and Nevada Barr (outstanding descriptions of nature and action scenes that raise blood pressure).

Do you listen to music when you write?

Only if it’s related to what I’m writing, as when my protagonist plays Mozart on the piano to help her analyze her findings. In the first book, Show Me the Murder, she plays classic country in a bar while undercover. In my new book, Show Me the Sinister Snowman, people trapped by a blizzard entertain themselves by singing Gilbert & Sullivan songs.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?

Dark chocolate with a touch of marmalade because it’s a Missouri twist on the traditional British locked-room mystery.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?

Three factors came together. First, in each book I link the plot or a subplot to a societal problem. In Show Me the Sinister Snowman, that’s the danger and practical considerations of escaping from an abusive husband. I’ve been concerned about that since I wrote magazine articles about it more than 30 years ago. Second, I move the characters along in their lives, and it was time for the retiring sheriff to try to realize her dream of running for Congress. Third, I liked the challenge of trapping my ongoing characters in an isolated mansion with several suspects inside and a known killer outside.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?

Almost all mysteries describe the pursuit of justice, whether it be legal or moral. My characters deal with the friction between investigating by the book and using whatever works. Another theme is the dynamics of relationships under stress, particularly that of three women who grew up together, trod very different roads for thirty years, and have reunited as each faces a personal crisis.

Tell us about your main character.

Phoenix Smith, a wounded former CIA covert operative, returns to her hometown in northern Missouri to recuperate and relax with a lifelong friend, civic leader Annalynn Carr Keyser. Her husband just died violently, and she begs Phoenix to help discover the truth about his death (Show Me the Murder). A caring friend, the tough ex-spy adapts her tradecraft, including illegal procedures, to investigate this and other murders with law-abiding Annalynn, a melodramatic singer, and a K-9 dropout called Achilles.

Phoenix willingly, and skillfully, shoots to kill. She also protects innocents threatened by the bad guys or by the law.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.

I’ll let a Library Journal reviewer answer that for me: “This character-driven series will intrigue fans of female PIs such as Sharon McCone, Kinsey Millhone, or Joanna Brady.”

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?

Let’s split it between past and present. The ghosts: Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Agatha Christie. I’m not sure how they would get along, so I’d invite three of my favorite contemporary writers with pleasant dispositions: Margaret Maron, William Kent Krueger, and Carolyn Hart.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a series featuring a freelancer trying to escape writing tweets and blogs and build a career as a crime reporter. I also plan to write some short stories/novellas featuring Phoenix Smith and friends, including her dog, Achilles.

*****

Carolyn Mulford set out to be a writer shortly after learning to read in a one-room school in Missouri. She postponed her writing career to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Dessie, Ethiopia. That experience fostered a fascination with other cultures that led her to work as a nonfiction writer and editor on four continents. She moved from nonfiction to fiction and from Washington, D.C., to Columbia, Missouri, in 2007, the year her first published novel, The Feedsack Dress, came out. Show Me the Sinister Snowman is her seventh novel and twelfth book. To contact her and read her blogs and the first chapters of her novels, go to http://carolynmulford.com. You also can follow her on Facebook and Goodreads.

Guest Post: Edith Maxwell

Welcome back longtime Mysteristas friend, Edith Maxwell (aka Maddie Day)!

If Only I’d Known…

Called to JusticeWow, what a topic. Here I am, coming out with two books in a ten-day span. Two books by two versions of me from two publishers. What was I thinking? And how did it happen? Well, let’s break that down.

How it happened: I had the Local Foods Mysteries with Kensington Publishing. It was coming up for renewal a couple of years ago. My agent wanted to get “something else in the pipeline” in case the contract wasn’t extended. Thus was born the Country Store Mysteries, with my same editor at Kensington – and he wanted it to be written under a pseudonym. Then I felt driven to write the Quaker Midwife Mysteries and we sold Delivering the Truth (written as Edith Maxwell) in a three-book deal to Midnight Ink. Then Local Foods was extended for two more books, so I suddenly became one of those obnoxious three-books-a-year authors.

When the GritsCoverAll good so far. Except … Maddie Day’s series comes out every nine or ten months. The Quaker Midwife series releases once a year. On April 8, to be exact. So not only do the due dates bump up against each other sometimes, this year so do the release dates. I’ve written a couple dozen guest blog posts and answered myriad interview questions. Each post has to be unique. I have two launch parties planned, and a half dozen local appearances in April, with a trip to Malice Domestic in Bethesda rounding out the end of the month. And it’s all on top of being Sisters in Crime New England president planning our SINC 30th anniversary celebration, which took place – you guessed it, last Saturday.

If I’d known what a zoo it would be to be me right now (not to mention two or three weeks from now), would I have rejected one of those contracts? Uh, no. Why not? Because I’m living my dream, writing mystery fiction full time.

If I’d known what a big job it is to be the chapter prez of one of SINC’s biggest chapters, would I have declined the offer? No way. Two of my fellow Wicked Cozy Authors were the penultimate and antepenultimate presidents, so I knew well what the job entailed, and I volunteered to give back to this fabulous organization.

If I’d known what a juggling act having two author names is, would I have (again) turned down the Country Store contract? Heck no. And it’s not that bad. (Yes, snickering can be heard coming from the vicinity of the den in my house.) After all, neither publisher said I couldn’t link the names, and I do (it’s all on edithmaxwell.com, hint hint).

And if I’d known what a delight it is to hear from readers in either (or both) series, addressed to either (or both) names, maybe I would have jumped in a long time ago!

Readers, do you ever take on extra work despite knowing it might cause stress and overload? How do you cope with one too many commitments?

When the Grits Hit the Fan: Despite the bitter winter in South Lick, Indiana, business is still hot at Robbie Jordan’s Country Store restaurant. But when another murder rattles the small town, can Robbie defrost the motives of a cold-blooded killer? Robbie and her friend Lou go snowshoeing and find a contentious academic frozen under the ice. Police suspect Lou might have killed him after their public tiff in Pans ‘N Pancakes the night before. To prove her friend’s innocence, Robbie absorbs local gossip about the professor’s past and develops her own thesis on the homicide—even if that means stirring up terrible danger for herself along the way.

Called to Justice: Quaker midwife Rose Carroll is enjoying the 1888 Independence Day evening fireworks with her beau when a teenaged Quaker mill girl is found shot dead. After a former slave and fellow Quaker is accused of the murder, Rose delves into the crime, convinced of the man’s innocence. An ill-mannered mill manager, an Irish immigrant, and the victim’s young boyfriend come under suspicion even as Rose’s future with her handsome doctor suitor becomes unsure. Rose continues to deliver babies and listen to secrets, finally figuring out one criminal―only to be threatened by the murderer, with three lives at stake. Can she rescue herself, a baby, and her elderly midwifery teacher in time?

*****

maddiedayNational best-selling author Maddie Day writes the Country Store Mysteries and the Cozy Capers Book Group Mysteries. As Edith Maxwell she is a 2017 double Agatha Award nominee for her historical mystery Delivering the Truth and her short story, “The Mayor and the Midwife.” Maxwell writes the Quaker Midwife Mysteries and the Local Foods Mysteries. Her award-winning short crime fiction has appeared in many juried anthologies, and she is honored to serve as President of Sisters in Crime New England.

A fourth-generation Californian and former tech writer, farmer, and doula, Maxwell now writes, cooks, gardens, and wastes time as a Facebook addict north of Boston with her beau and three cats. She blogs at WickedCozyAuthors.com, Killer Characters, and with the Midnight Ink authors. Find her at www.edithmaxwell.com and elsewhere.

Guest Post: 50 Shades of Cabernet Authors

We are so excited to welcome the authors of the new anthology 50 shades of Cabernet to the blog today. This anthology includes some short fiction superstars and all of the stories center around wine – something quite dear to us writer types. Check out the bottom of the post for places to buy the book.

50 shades of cabernet coverA year ago, a group of eighteen authors came together with the idea of writing a book of mystery short stories involving cabernet. Readers love mysteries and readers love wine, so we reasoned that the combination should be a winner. The anthology was named 50 Shades of Cabernet. It was published earlier this month by Koehler Books, which describes the book as “the perfect ‘flight’ of stories that range from the light-bodied puzzles to sparkling cozy mysteries to darker, heavier tales of deceit and murder. While cabernet is the featured wine, this anthology will appeal to connoisseurs of all varietals—in both wine preference and mystery style.”

Today six of the authors in the anthology are here to share some insights about their writing and their 50 Shades of Cabernet stories. Specifically: Readers love realism, so authors are often told to write what they know so they’ll get the details right. But how does that work when you write about crime? Especially … murder?

“Life is a Cabernet” by Jayne Ormerod

I write cozy mysteries, the ones where all the “icky” stuff happens off stage. So I don’t have to have stumbled across a dead body floating face down in the Chesapeake Bay in order to “write what I know.”

I write about amateur sleuths, so I don’t have to have a forensic background or even a police detective’s crime scene procedural manual in order to “write what I know.”
I write in first person from the amateur sleuth’s point of view, and she is never the villain, so I’ve never had to sprinkle poison or pull the trigger in order to “write what I know.”

One day I realized I DID need to know about guns so I could write about them with a modicum of authority. I asked a friend to take me to his gun club. There I learned how the cold steel of a pistol felt in my hands (the power is scary!) I learned how a gun kicks back (almost knocking me off my feet.) I studied what the air smelled/tasted like right after the explosion (metallic and smoky). I took notes on how loud the crack of the bullet exiting the chamber was, even while wearing protective hearing ear muffs (it rumbled in my chest). And I observed the stance of a practiced marksman (my instructor) compared to someone who’d picked up a gun and didn’t know what to do with it (me).

Now I can write what I know when it comes to guns. Small ones, anyway. For the record, I do follow the “write what you know” advice in my 50 Shades of Cabernet story “Life is a Cabernet” because I do play Mahjongg (the real Chinese tile game, not the tile matching game on most computers) and I do enjoy an occasional (some might say frequent) glass of cabernet. I hope my experience in all of these areas shows in the story. Cheers!

“Wine, Women, and Wrong” by Maggie King

For the record, I’m not a killer.

Okay, I am a killer. I kill people on the page.

Writers frequently hear this advice: Write what you know. But mystery writers lack firsthand experience in killing techniques—most of us, anyway. We may know the impulse to kill, but stop short of the act itself.

That’s where research comes into play.

In “Wine, Women, and Wrong,” my contribution to 50 Shades of Cabernet, a wine merchant is stabbed at a wine-tasting fundraiser in Richmond, Virginia. The victim survives, but Tommy Bradshaw, an amateur detective wannabe, figures the stabber had murderous intentions.

One of the requirements the anthology editors issued was to write a light-hearted story. I write cozy mysteries, but edgy ones. A light-hearted story involving murder did not appeal to me. But the editors said murder was optional. And so I settled on an attempted murder for “Wine, Women, and Wrong.”

Since cozy mysteries (amateur sleuth, no graphic sex or violence) skimp on forensic detail, the crime itself required a minimum of research. I took advantage of the fact that the average person doesn’t know anatomy or forensics well.

On Google I learned that an abdominal wound, as long as the knife misses an artery, may not produce death. I viewed diagrams of the digestive system. Even though I was intentionally vague and inaccurate with terms like “stomach” and “abdomen,” I felt it best to know the actual placements.

Here is an excerpt of a conversation that showcases the fruits of my research:

“But wouldn’t the person have had blood on herself. Or himself?”

“Not according to my neighbor whose son is an ER nurse. He says if a knife is stabbed deep into the abdomen and not removed that there will probably be little blood spatter. More likely blood will just drip. And Adele said it was in that man’s abdomen.”

Tommy recalled Camille saying Adele saw the knife in Paul’s stomach, not his abdomen. But many people didn’t know the difference and thought their stomach sat much lower than it in fact did.

I hope you enjoy “Wine, Women, and Wrong” and the other stories penned by the talented authors who contributed to 50 Shades of Cabernet.

“Par for the Course” by Heather Weidner

In my 50 Shades of Cabernet story, “Par for the Course,” Mona McKinley Scarborough, the family matriarch, doesn’t take no for an answer. When she’s not successful at convincing her granddaughter, Amanda, to make the right choice—to join the family’s Virginia winery—she plans a day of golf as a chance to draw them closer together. Their chat reveals some deadly secrets, and they learn that the grape may not fall far from the vine. The story focuses on the dynamics among the different generations within a wealthy family, and wine plays a key role as one of the central businesses in their vast portfolio.

I grew up in Virginia, and I write what and where I know. And it also helped that I had an interesting childhood. My father served on the Virginia Beach Police force for over forty-six years. One of my first jobs as a child was to pick up the shell casings on the range after he finished practicing. In the early ’70s, I helped melt down my old crayons to make practice bullets for his SPOT (Special Police Operations Team). And playing hide and seek after dark with night vision goggles is the coolest thing. My self-defense training started in kindergarten. And I always had the coolest parent at career day. Everybody wanted to know how fast he drove and if he ever shot anyone. For my first grade class, he arranged for the police helicopter to land in the field next to my school. Talk about making an entrance!

So, while I don’t have first-hand experience with solving murders or tracking down clues, my dad, the retired police captain, does. He is my best law enforcement resource when I want to know procedures, or how big of a hole a certain caliber bullet would make, or what a meth lab smells like. Though my childhood wasn’t normal as a cop’s kid, I wouldn’t trade any of the experiences or memories. And some of them find their way into my stories and novels.

“Home Tour Havoc” by Rosemary Shomaker

Mystery fiction’s “puzzle” aspect appeals to me, so in writing, I set up a situation and begin to walk through the setting, knowing only broadly what the crime, secret, or mystery will be. Physical surroundings and characters’ movements, meetings, and conversations provide the canvas for my stories and give me, the puzzle maker, my tools.

The setting for “Home Tour Havoc,” the Home Builders Ballyhoo at Harmony Glade, springs from my many home showcase and garden tour visits, and I’m secure in how I portray the home and event details in the story. When it came to “knowing” specifics about violence, I was less sure. My own assaultive history is thin.

In my story, Janet Ebersole confronts perceived rival Martha Drury in a laundry room, and violence ensues. The characters’ uncertainty, curiosity, jealousy, rage, vindictiveness are emotions I’ve felt and observed in others, so the feelings spurring violence felt sound, but I had to combine my experience with Internet research to rehearse several possible physical sequences as options for the scene, checking each character’s positions and motions. Did I write what I knew? I did, but it wasn’t enough. I had to validate scene details by using other sources. Even now, I’m hoping I mentioned the laundry room’s cement floor for various reasons. If not, I’ll lean on readers’ unconscious acceptance of a laundry room cement floor.

Similarly, when sleuth Olivia Morris discovers a dead body in “Home Tour Havoc,” I used medical books in my home and the Internet to research dead body specifics to validate details in the body discovery scene. Again, write what you know? I have limited experience with dead bodies. I’ve found great writing resources, however, that help us writers “write it right.”

So, I think “write what you know” for mystery writers translates to: Be authentic in your ideas. Build on those mental impressions. Trust your creativity. Your brain generates your story uniquely. Knowing your characters and setting sets the stage for your story’s success. Knowing your craft will guide your validation of details.

“Name Your Poison” by Maria Hudgins

I love to learn about poisons. I work a good lethal dose into my stories as often as I can. When I was traveling in Egypt I was so excited to find a strychnine tree. They don’t grow here. The next day, I found a castor bean plant and couldn’t believe my luck! Ricin, one of the most potent poisons known, comes from castor beans. Of course I couldn’t bring any of the pods or beans back with me because bringing plant products into the U.S.A. is a real no-no.

I have a dozen or more books on poisons and I read them for fun as well as for plot ideas. One of my favorites is Assorted Nasties by David Harber. It not only tells you about the deadliest poisons, it tells you how to make them yourself! I would never do that of course

In Death of a Lovable Geek I used Amanita phalloides, also known as the Death Cap mushroom. In Scorpion House, it was nicotine. In Death in an Ivory Tower, saxitoxin from contaminated oysters did the trick.

Poisons in mysteries have the advantage of being neater than guns, knives or baseball bats. The killer doesn’t have to be present to succeed, and a sweet little old lady can do it as easily as a big, strong man.

My 50 Shades of Cabernet story, “Name Your Poison,” involves murder by cyanide. Cyanide is an ideal poison in that it acts quickly, often within seconds and, after a brief period, leaves little trace. Famously, it smells like bitter almonds and turns the blood of the victim a bright (temporary) red.

I’m going to Japan in a couple of months. Should I order the fugu?

“Whose Wine Is It Anyway?” by Barb Goffman

Here’s a dirty little secret for you. When I agreed to write a crime story involving wine for 50 Shades of Cabernet, I didn’t even know what cabernet was. Sure, I knew it was some kind of wine, but that was it.

No worries. Part of being a writer is being a researcher, and I set out to research cabernet. I scoured the Internet, reading wine websites, wine blogs, even newspaper stories involving wine. I hoped my muse would be awakened by one of these articles, and I’d come up with a great story idea.

When I read about a hotel in Japan that fills its hot tubs with red wine, I thought, how fun! Surely I can produce a story from that. But my muse said no.

Then I read about wine festivals and wine conventions, and I thought, that sounds like a great place to commit murder. Alas, my muse said no again.

As you may be figuring out, my muse can be pretty picky.

Then I read about how some people can be fatally allergic to the sulfites in red wine, including cabernet sauvignon. Ding! Ding! Ding! My muse was pleased.

So I delved into the research. I learned about how the allergic reaction can occur, how it can be avoided and treated and … how it can be caused. Once I knew these key details, I was able to come up with a plot that made use of my newfound knowledge. Bwah ha ha!

The result is “Whose Wine Is It Anyway?,” in which big-shot attorney Douglas McPherson only drinks organic red wine because he’s allergic to the sulfites in the regular kind. For years, his secretary, Myra, has kept his allergy a secret from everyone because Douglas thinks if anyone knew of his “weakness,” it would hurt his ability to win cases. But now Myra is about to retire, and she’s annoyed with Douglas because he’s hired a bimbo to replace her (amongst other things). So Myra decides that it’s now or never to teach Douglas to care more about people than appearances. And she uses his wine allergy to do it. Will Myra’s scheme work? Will Douglas survive? Read “Whose Wine Is It Anyway?” to find out.

*****

50 Shades of Cabernet is available in hardcover, trade paperback, and e-format. You can find it at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and independent bookstores. To learn more about the book and its authors, visit https://www.50shadesofcabernet.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/50ShadesofCabernet/.

Interview: Marilyn Larew

Please welcome Marilyn Larew, author of Aftermath.

 Aftermath_webWhat’s your idea of a perfect day?

Being on a long, lonely beach with only seagulls for company, under a high blue sky with a few fluffy clouds, walking through ripples as the tide goes out, and finding some seashells. That would be a very good day

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase/expression, or meal?

I make a pretty good spaghetti sauce with meat and barbecued chicken.

Which books/authors inspired or influenced you the most?

Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique is the book that has influenced me the most in my life. As for the authors who inspired my writing, that varies with what I’m writing and what I’m reading. I’m reading Margaret Fraser’s Dame Frevisse series right now and looking at how she uses conflict. I’ve looked at Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series to stretch my “nice” to a little bit “naughty.” I like Michael Pearce’s Mamur Zapt series for the way he treats westerners in the Muslim world.

Do you listen to music when you write?

I tried to listen to music while I was writing once, but I found that I wasn’t paying any attention to it, or if I paid attention to the music I wasn’t paying attention to my writing, so I stopped.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?

Aftermath takes place in Baltimore, so the chocolate must be Rheb’s, a Baltimore institution for many years. And it would be chocolate with sea salt, because Anne is a bit salty.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?

Aftermath is one of my drawer books. A number of years ago I was stung by a yellow jacket and hauled off to the hospital in an ambulance. I found the ambulance experience very interesting, and I decided to write a book featuring an EMT and an ambulance. Then I had to fill out plots and subplots. I had just finished teaching a History of the Vietnamese war course, and I wanted to write something about the results of the war, so I added Glenn Rowlandson, a Special Forces veteran who has gone missing. Because I thought it needed something personal, I included a case about a former client who is trying to kill Annie. About 50% of the way through, I stopped writing and put the manuscript in a drawer. Actually, not really a drawer. I just put the file away. I had a dim vision of where the book had to go, but I couldn’t figure out how to write it. After my latest Lee Carruthers book, I turned back to Aftermath, and, with the help of Lourdes Venard, my fabulous editor, I took some things out and put some things in and finally was able to write the conclusion, which takes place in Laos.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?

Lee Carruthers has a degree in Islamic studies and is a specialist in criminal money, so the themes I visit with her are money laundering, Islamic society, and terrorists. For Annie, I’m writing in the 1980s, in the wake of the Vietnamese war, and it’s the results of that war in Baltimore that I write about.

Tell us about your main character.

Ann Carter – Annie – is a private investigator working in Baltimore in the 1980s. She’s divorced and has a daughter, Elizabeth, a lawyer with the Federal District Attorney’s office in Baltimore. Her relationship with Elizabeth is always tenuous, because Elizabeth doesn’t like Annie’s job. The job has made Annie a little hard on the outside, because you can’t work as a PI any other way, but it takes its toll on her. She also has a perverse streak in her. In high school she took mechanical drawing instead of home ec, and she passed it, barely, and learned to cook later, but not very well. She has a tendency to do things because people tell her she can’t.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.

I think Annie regards Sam Spade as a role model. She mentions him several times in the course of the book. She has Mrs. Peel’s aggressiveness, if not her grace. And she has Bess Crawford’s intelligence, skill, and sturdy good sense.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?

Dashiell Hammett, Margaret Frazer, Ross MacDonald, Dorothy Sayers, Georges Simenon, and Agatha Christie.

What’s next for you?

I’m returning to the third Lee Carruthers story, which takes place in Hong Kong during the democracy demonstrations. It was shoved aside when Aftermath came out of the drawer.

 

*****

Marilyn_Larew 3Marilynn Larew is a retired historian who taught for many years in the University System of Maryland. Besides American history, she taught the history of the Vietnamese war and the history of terrorism, topics she uses in her writing. She lives in southern Pennsylvania in a 200-year-old brick farmhouse with her husband Karl, also a historian and author. She has also written The Spider Catchers and Dead in Dubai. She belongs to the Sisters in Crime, the Guppies, and the Chinese Military History Society.

www.marilynnlarew.com
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@marilynn_larew