Mystery Writers Should Listen to S-Town.

Recently, I gave into pressure from everyone I know and watched S-Town, a podcast from the producers of Serial. By “everyone I know” I mean a bunch of people online who I’ve never met. Nobody I actually know has watched S-Town. That’s neither here nor there, just an observation about my fractured existence. Let me tell you, though, S-Town was just as good as “everyone” told me it would be. S-Town was essentially an excellent mystery novel, the kind of thing that should be enjoyed in an armchair with a tumbler of bourbon, maybe even a cigar. Even the prose was beautiful. Every now and then, Brian Reed would say something that I wish I could highlight, the kind of phrase I might produce after a few drafts. He just said it, though. Poetry came out of his mouth. I guess that’s why he’s on the radio.

Anyways, S-Town is a great mystery. It probably doesn’t hit every beat on Save the Cat, but who does? I for one don’t care that much about the damn cat. S-Town is a true literary mystery. It hits the important beats.

For example, the hook: a guy, John McLemore, called into NPR from Shit Town, Alabama to report a murder. In a leisurely southern drawl, he described his rose garden and then revealed that the Shit Town authorities swept a murder under the rug. The culprit: racism. John Grisham anyone!? The alleged murderer was the heir apparent to Triple K lumber. Don’t you just wish you made that up!? I mean, as an author. It’s deplorable as an actual business name.

Here come a couple of spoilers. They’re big ones, but they come early, both in episode 2, maybe 3. S-Town isn’t one of those books you flip through just to see how it ends. Even if I’ve spoiled it, it’s still worth listening to the whole thing. It’s all about the journey.

So the radio host, Brian Reed, goes down to Alabama and investigates the Triple K murder. Turns out, dun dun dun, plot twist #1, there was no murder.

The story isn’t over, though. Before the end of the next episode, someone else dies. During the remaining episodes, Reed investigates the death of the man who called into the show to report the murder, John McLemore.

It’s not exactly a murder investigation. It’s an investigation of John McElmore’s character, which proves to be a worthwhile pursuit, as he was a very interesting man. Brian Reed interviews people John knew from various periods of John’s unexpected life. He was someone worth hearing about–complicated yet relatable, brilliant. He’s the kind of character writers strive to create.

By the end of the podcast, Brian Reed solves the puzzle of John’s death, at least it seems. It’s a real man’s story, but at the same time it’s the kind of ending that a mystery writer would hope to come up with–surprising, clever, and right in front of everyone’s eyes the whole time. This is contrast to Serial, the other podcast “everyone I know” listened to. I loved Serial, but Sarah Koenig could not provide a satisfying resolution because the story she was investigating didn’t have one.

Anyways, I’d highly recommend S-Town, especially to mystery writers. Real life or no, it’s an example of how character can and should drive plot.

Bad Decisions Make the Best Jokes

Right now, my sense of humor is flickering like a dying light bulb in a scary basement. Ironically, I’m a little tired from writing funny books, not to mention the kids never sleep and my husband has been out of town. Right now it’s 11 pm and instead of sleeping I’m writing and listening to a cat puke. I’m just going to hope I don’t step on that in the morning. Even so, it’s mostly the funny books that have me beat. I’m currently in the final round of edits for a summer camp romance novel. I sent in a proposal to write the book last year (book for hire kind of thing). The publisher picked me to write it because of my light and funny voice and my amusing plot idea. Let me tell you, writing this light, funny romp has been absolute torture. The first draft I sent in was too funny and quirky. There wasn’t enough romance (bad considering it was supposed to be a romance).  I pretty much rewrote the book. The next draft was better, but I was still light on romance. Clearly, I’m not a very romantic person. I’m still tweaking things. There are some funny parts left, but I’m getting pretty surgical with these jokes. I cut most of them. This funny book is dead serious business. I can’t wait to take a nap when I turn it in. I think my sense of humor will come back after a few nights of good sleep.

I’ve been watching a lot of stand-up comedy lately. I’m too tired to watch anything with a story I have to follow at the end of the day. The funniest comics basically make fun of themselves. It’s all anecdotes about trips to the doctor’s office, bad dates, insecurity. This avoids the problem of meanness in comedy. If you’re making fun of yourself, it’s not mean and most people will relate. Although, I have to say, I’m sick of hearing about how slutty Amy Schumer is. Who cares!

My favorite funny mystery writer is Lisa Lutz. I love The Spellman series! I also love Heads You Lose. If you haven’t read it, it’s almost like a manual on how to write a mystery because it contains notes from the authors, Lisa Lutz and David Hayward, at the end of each chapter. They’re jokes, but I found them useful. I still need to read The Passengers, which is “a dead serious thriller (with a funny bone)” according the New York Times Book Review.

You know that quote, “Bad decisions make the best stories.” That pretty much sums up humor for me. Comedy and regret go together like Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson (I leave it to you to decide which is which).  My first book was certainly a study on some of my own bad decisions, not to mention societal bad decisions. (Reviewers who called it fluff–they had no clue how much personal struggle went into that book!)

Anyways, if the foundation of humor is spinning bad decisions into comic gold, it’s the one career that can legitimately be built on poor judgment. Well, I guess any career in the arts. If you fail–you can write a country song, tell some jokes, paint a picture–your imagination is the limit. I’d call it a silver lining, except that implies it might be worth money. It’s just a lining.

Onto the Next Mistake!

As long as you haven’t murdered anyone or sent out your manuscript too early, then there’s not too much you should redo in life (unless you’re Keenan Powell who clearly missed at least twelve opportunities to become a billionaire).

Dwelling on failures will drive a person to crippling self doubt and copious amounts of junk food. For instance, student loans. This month’s theme, “What I wish I’d known,” made me think of the $40,000 in interest I’ve paid on a degree I don’t use. Let’s not mention that again. It’s almost as disturbing to consider all those those manuscripts I sent out too early. I remember the first query I sent. I was getting breakfast ready for the kids and making coffee. Suddenly, I was all like: Does this querying thing even work? Will NYC people even respond to me? Why am I spending every spare minute writing this book? Who am I and what is the point of life on earth? So, I sent a query to a big fancy literary agent. Within ten minutes she asked to see the full manuscript. Oops. The manuscript in question was filled with comment bubbles, 10,000 words too long, and generally sucked. It also started with a dream sequence, a wake-up, and looking in the mirror. Strangely, that part was in the sample I sent her, so maybe people don’t hate that stuff as much as they say they do?

I clearly could have done a billion things better, at least ten things yesterday. For instance, when my husband offered to watch the kids so I could work, I should have said yes. I wish I could go back in time and redo that one, especially now that the kids are home sick today. Anyways, you can’t spend your whole life second guessing yourself, particularly with writing. Who doesn’t have a book that could have been amazing if only we were a little smarter, better, and knew the vampire genre was already dead.

Speaking of literary trends–being too late or too early to a trend must be on most writer’s “If I’d only known” list. Personally, I’m late to everything. I’m currently working on a ghost book only to find that “ghosts are out.” I think technology and social media is at fault for some of this. Just a guess, but it seems like trends emerge and die at pretty much the same pace that Apple introduces iPhones. What can you do? Unless you happen to start the next trend, you just have to write the best book you can and hope that someone wants to read it. Although, I don’t recommend trying to resuscitate a dead genre.  Just write a good book and don’t give up.

Everyone has something they should have known. The key is to avoid becoming that old lady telling everyone who comes over for coffee about her one missed chance, as if it was the only chance. Just keep making mistakes. As Winston Churchill said, “Success is stumbling from one failure to the next with no loss of enthusiasm.” If nothing else, that quote validates my current approach to life and writing, so I’m going with it.

Keeping the Love Alive

Valentine’s found my husband and I sitting on the couch in the throws of the stomach flu. My husband was sipping 7-Up. I was still puking about every half hour. The whole room smelled. It wasn’t too bad, though. In between my pukes, we watched The Nice Guys, a movie with Ryan Gosling and some guy who wasn’t Ryan Gosling–I forget.

At one point my husband looked over and said, “This is nice. We haven’t watched a movie together in a while.” He was right. For once, the kids were actually in bed (it took the stomach flu to incapacitate all three at once) and neither of us had a laptop out. The whole thing struck me funny, especially because I write romance. My actual life is mostly about puke.

In a book, romance can never leave the initial passionate phase of the relationship, at least if you want  people to buy the thing. The author has to constantly think of ways to keep the romantic tension alive. It’s much harder than being in a real relationship where you can just give up. Romantic tension mostly arises by keeping characters apart through obstacles of one kind or another. The minute the author lets the characters settle into a happily ever after–poof!–the tension is gone and the story is over. Characters can’t relax until the bitter end.

In the case of a series or a television show, the author or screenwriters have to keep romantic tension alive for years, an almost impossible feat–ask anyone who’s been married for more than two years. Basically, they have to artificially suspend the relationship in a phase that might last a couple of months in real life, if you’re lucky. I have yet another sick kid, so I’m not going to go on too long today. Instead, I’m going to list some romances that never quit (mostly because they never really get started). I haven’t had coffee yet, so I’m definitely going to miss a few!


  • I can’t even remember how many books are in the Stephanie Plum series, funny because numbers are in the names, but there are a lot. Janet Evanovich kept Stephanie’s romance fresh throughout.
  • Charlaine Harris is a master. Sookie Stackhouse and her “should I pick the vampire or the werewolf?” dilemma puts Twilight to shame.
  • Kate already mentioned Lowcountry Boil, but that is a good one.
  • When I was a kid, I remember watching Moonlighting. My mom was in love with that show. Pretty sure it qualifies.
  • More recently, Castle did an amazing job of keeping the tension alive.

Hope you all are all staying healthy! Anything to add to the list?





A Month of New Beginnings

Beginnings seemed like such an easy jumping-off point for a blog post. I was all like, “I’ll whip that right up” and then … nothing. It’s like someone stole my brain this month. Because my brain is unaccounted for, I’m going to make a list of all my new beginnings this month. Maybe I’ll arrive at a higher truth from examining my January calendar.

The ladder the hedgehog is climbing is probably the only higher truth I’ll find. You’ll probably notice that my calendar has no entries. I just found it today, January 22nd. It was lost under some mail. Somehow, I made it until now with notes to myself on paper scraps.


Here are my beginnings, in no order of importance. Who knows what’s going to be important in the end anyway?

1. On Friday, we inaugurated a new president. On Saturday, I marched along with hundreds of thousands of others around the world. That’s a crash-bang beginning, if I’ve ever seen one.


2. My biz partner, Cristina, and I are still in the first year of our new editorial services business, which I love. In January, we read more manuscripts than I ever could have imagined, which is exciting.

3. I started going to the gym again for the first time since my baby was born. He’s almost three, so it’s about time. The YMCA has two hours of free daycare every day. I will be abusing these services to complete the YA mystery I started last fall or edit. Of interest to mystery fans, I attend the same gym as William Kent Krueger. (I should put that in my bio!) We also write at the same coffee shops. Today, I took my kids out for ice cream after school and there he was. He didn’t even look up from Cork O’Connor (I assume) while they squabbled. And no, I’m not stalking him. We just do all of the same things apparently. I mean, that’s what all writers do–find space to write and then try to make up for all those of hours of sitting with twenty minutes on an elliptical machine. Incidentally, I’m listening to Season 2 of Serial on the elliptical. Every time I listen to an episode, I think I should add more complications and nuance to my plots. Plot complications that grow organically from character are so satisfying–so much harder to resolve, though, as season 1 of Serial proved.

4. I started a new revision of my own manuscript. I hope to be done with this draft in a month. (I said that last month, too, but I’m on track this time, hopefully.)

5. Unfortunately, 2-4 have pretty much killed my reading time. My TBR pile is the same as it was in October. I bought all the books I want to read for my family as Christmas presents. My dad has a copy of Joe Ide’s I.Q. I hope to steal over spring break or some lazy weekend this summer.

Blog posts are supposed to be about 500 words, so I’ll stop cataloguing my beginnings here. No higher truths yet, but there you have it. How is January shaping up for you writing and reading-wise?

Atmosphere So Pungent It Smells


Mostly, I’m a nice person, a good citizen and all of that. At least, I try to be. I’m the kind of person who will patiently walk out to the compost bin at 10 p.m. in the dead of winter to compost all of that salad I never manage to eat. Yesterday, though, I went into a Pet Shop and bought a cat. In the liberal bubble in which I live, I might as well admit to second degree homicide or a serious drug addiction. Or both. I know I should have adopted a cat, but whatever. I bought a cat. I’m going to own it.

The Pet Shop, called simply Pet Shop, is right across from Barnes & Noble, which I use as an office a few times a week. I often bring my daughter when I write. We pet cats after. Yada yada yada. Now we have a cat.

The mall that contains the Pet Shop is a building of airport hangar proportions with an empty spot in its soul where TJ Maxx used to be. Except during the holidays or William Kent Krueger signings, it’s mostly empty. The Pet Shop itself is a nasty little hole of a place filled with people of every color, religion, and walk of life, drawn together by their love of fluffy white dogs. When I think about it that way, it’s sort of beautiful, almost sounds like a church.

Mary already talked about the difference between atmosphere and setting this month, but this Pet Shop isn’t just a generic pet shop. Its atmosphere is so strong you can smell it. It clings to your clothes when you leave and makes you wonder about who you really are as a person—Will I abandon my values to pet a fluffy dog? For me, the answer seems to be yes. Anyway, this leads me to my point. (Thank God I thought of one!) A book’s atmosphere has to match its story. Obvious, but that’s all I’ve got today.

Every time I walk into the Pet Shop, I imagine so many stories, mostly crime. There are probably few YA romances in there, too.

  • The posters advertising pet loans are almost a story by themselves. Most of the people in that shop are one French bulldog away from bankruptcy, me included. Add in a pet store owner/loan shark, a divorce, a murder, and you’ve got a gritty crime novel infused with the scent of unwashed dog.
  • What if the owner bribed a USDA inspector to ignore the decomposing hedgehog in the small animal section? That has Carl Hiassen written all over it, which reminds me—I need to read Razor Girl.

At any rate, I don’t think people would steer clear of the puppies if they had to stand over a chalk outline. I’m not sure if I added anything to our monthly discussion about atmosphere, but there you have it. Here’s a picture of the new kitten.


Anyone have book recommends for the Thanksgiving holiday?

Life and Writing, According to Plan

Normally, I write at my kitchen table. Not today, though. I am currently sitting in a smoking minivan outside an O’Reilly Auto Parts in Finlayson, Minnesota. We made an unscheduled stop after a bad smell and the aforementioned smoke. According to the menfolk, the van is leaking radiator fluid. Instead of offering my opinion about the car, I’m thinking about writing. Writing … road trip gone wrong … basically the same thing, right?  Anyone who’s written a book knows that the plot often starts leaking radiator fluid about one hundred pages in.

While there is always a tension between planning ahead and unplanned car trouble, some types of books probably require a firmer hand on the wheel. For example, a work of grand deception. When I say grand deception, I’m thinking of one of those books that leaves you gobsmacked at the end because the reality the author immersed you in turns out to be false. You aren’t just surprised about the killer, but the entire world the author created. When this works, the resolution is shocking. There is probably a German word to describe this experience. In the movie world, think The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense. Gone Girl is a the most recent grand deception that rocked the literary world. God, I’m sick of talking about Gone Girl, but there it is again. It was a pretty good deception. The Westing Game also comes to mind, but it’s been so long since I’ve read it, I might be misremembering. I need to reread that one.

Car update: So the men have emerged from O’Reilly with a bottle of Stop Leak liquid aluminum, but decided not to use it after reading the directions. It would take too long, I guess. All seven of us are now on the road again—did I mention four kids are in the car? Also, there’s bumper-to-bumper traffic. So many things could go wrong. We’re definitely in Act II, the part where the chaos accelerates.

Unlike my real life, an author hoping to pull off a grand deception has to be in control of things. To create a false reality, while hiding the true reality in plain sight, everything has to be working in concert: plot, narration, character development, theme, and clever clues. If the deception isn’t built into the book on every level, it won’t work.

I don’t know if a detailed outline is required, but I imagine an author has to have a strong vision at the outset. Without an overarching vision, I imagine the thing would turn into a herky jerky mess, broken down on the side of I-35 southbound. Incidentally, I’m not there yet, at least literally. We are forty-five minutes from our final destination, St. Paul, Minnesota, and the van hasn’t produced any more smoke. As for my current writing project, I’m only seventy-five pages in. Plenty of time to break down still.

Can you think of any novels of the type I’m describing? Maybe there is a name for this sub-genre… Grand deception sounds a little stilted. The cool kids probably call it something else. If there’s a name, enlighten me.