Calling All Mystery Readers!

We mystery fans love the fascinating detectives or the thrill of the chase or the baffling puzzle or a glimpse inside the mind of the criminal.  Sometimes it’s the interesting setting or profession or other new information to learn about that pulls us into the mystery.    

Some of us are mystery writers, too, but for now I want to think like a reader.  Readers know what they like and dislike, and they are the best judge of story structure.  

I’ve been pondering some questions that the writer part of my brain says “No!  Don’t go there!”  But since these questions are best answered by mystery readers, I’m posing them here to you in the form of a brief yes or no quiz.  

Does it bother you if:

 1.  A subplot isn’t resolved until a later book in the series?  

(a) no, as long as the main plot is resolved.  

(b) yes, I want to know right now how all subplots resolve. 

(c) yes, and furthermore, I’m throwing the book against the wall for such a major violation.  

 2.  The villain gets justice, but not by the hands of the protagonist?  

(a) no, I don’t care how it happens, as long as the villain gets justice.  

(b) yes, it’s just not right otherwise.  After all, it’s the protagonist’s story.  

(c) yes, and furthermore, I will never read another book by this author ever again.  

 3.  Characters are introduced who don’t have a big role in this book but are on deck for the next book?  

(a) no, because interesting characters can make the book richer.

(b) yes, I don’t want to slog through a cast of extra characters just to make the story feel real.  

(c) yes, and furthermore, I’m putting the book down because it’s way too tedious to keep track of everyone.  

 4.  The main character has a lot of baggage and reveals secrets little by little?  

(a) no, as long as the secrets are revealed by the end of the book.  

(b) yes, I want to know everything as soon as possible.  

(c) yes, and furthermore, I no longer care about any stupid secrets.  

 5.  There are occasional passages of narration, where time passes and the events of the story are told rather than dramatized?  

(a) no, because otherwise the book would be about three times as long.  

(b) yes, because I want to see everything played out in detail.  

(c) yes, and furthermore, I am so bored by narration that I’m tossing the book.  

Thanks for playing along!  It’s helpful for all writers to know readers’ thoughts on these issues, and I look forward to your answers/thoughts in the comments.   


Block that Writer’s Block!

One of the fun things about writing is seeing how every writer has a different process.  There are so many ways to write a book, and each of them is the right way.  

But sometimes the book doesn’t cooperate, and the writer “gets stuck.”  Words dry up, and we stare at a blank page (or screen) while we think this is the stupidest story ever created on the face of the earth.  Many of us suddenly experience an urge to clean our ovens.  

We call this “writer’s block.”  

Sadly, many writers just give up at this point, and the world loses another potentially wonderful story.  Because who knows?  Maybe it really would have been, if only we’d finished the story.  

Writers all have different methods for overcoming writer’s block.  Some examples include:  

  1. Brainstorming with trusted readers
  2. Switching to another project
  3. Taking a writer’s retreat
  4. Interviewing the character (why are you being so stubborn?)
  5. Typing a letter to yourself, explaining why you don’t want to write this book
  6. Taking a day off
  7. Spending some time researching
  8. Trying a different writing venue or using a different writing tool 
  9. Tricking yourself with a reward method 
  10. Sending the problem to your subconscious, which will eventually return with an answer

Fine and good, but what happens when the stuck writer has a deadline?  And panic sets in?!?  You don’t have time to take any time off or to trick your subconscious, or…  What then?  

  • First of all, take a deep breath.  
  • Then, bite off one chunk of the elephant at a time.  Do the math to figure out how big the daily chunk will have to be.  
  • Consider this quote, which I keep taped to my computer:  “If this were real, with what the character knows, with what he/she is capable of, what could he/she do next?”  
  • To get to the end (you do know your end, right?) make a list of the information the characters need to learn in order to reach that end.  Possible scenes generate from such lists.  
  • Rent a room somewhere, free of distractions, and stay there until the book is done.  A writer friend of mine always swore by this.  
  • And never give up, because magic tends to happen under deadline.  There’s nothing like a deadline to motivate us to finish.  

Are you a deadline person?  Do you have another method to overcome whatever block tries to stop you?  

On Hobbies

I have a hobby, and it is painting.   

Last week I attended another painting workshop in the picturesque mountain setting of Estes Park, Colorado.  The master artist who led the workshop reminded me once again about all the similarities between painting and writing.  

  • First, we paint for the joy of painting.  
  • We choose a subject to paint that speaks to us.  
  • We have to ask ourselves “what is it about this subject that we love and want to express?”  

Writers, does this sound familiar?  

I’d spent days pouring over photos of potential subjects to paint.  I wanted to paint all of them, but which one should I start with?  Inexplicably, I kept returning to one photo–it wasn’t easy with its rocks and water, but it kept surfacing to the top of my pile.  

It’s the same in writing:  I have more ideas than I can ever possibly write.  I end up choosing the ones that won’t let me alone.  

Once I settled on my subject to paint, I set up my blank canvas, laid out my tools,  and…stared at the blank page–I mean, the blank canvas.  Oh good grief, what in the world was I thinking?!?  Who was I to think that I could possibly paint such a lovely scene and do it justice?  I didn’t have the skill set.  I was a fraud.  It was just a fluke that I’d ever painted anything before.  I couldn’t possibly do it again, and I had no idea where to start.  Which paints should I use?  What details should I include?  

Yep, it’s the same in writing.  

The similarities go on and on, and it’s probably similar for all right-brain activities.  But there’s one very big difference for me:  

Painting is a hobby.  Writing is not a hobby.  

I’m a writer who likes to paint in my free time.  The key is “free time.”  Writing time, on the other hand, is necessary time that is carved into my clock and schedule, ahead of everything else.  Painting time is a reward for whenever I can squeeze it in.  Having a hobby gives me something to look forward to, but it’s a challenge to keep it under control!  

What’s your hobby?   Would it take over your life, if you let it?    

Sick-Room Cat

Scout, here.  


Posting for Sue, who’s sacked out on the couch with flu.  You may remember me as the cat she described as her “personal writer’s helper” in one of her earlier blog posts–give me a break.  I only do what I gotta do.  Like that bit about waking her up every morning at 4:30 on the dot?  It’s for her own good, y’know.  She’s got a new book to write and can’t waste her time wallowing around in bed.  

So, this morning I knew we were in trouble when she didn’t respond to my gentle taps upon her forehead.  

I finally managed to roll her out of bed, but instead of heading to her desk, she headed to…the couch!  Who’s complaining?  I get to curl up beside her, but it comes with a price:  listening to her feverish mumblings.  They range from failing word count for her cabin at Camp NaNoWriMo to where does her story REALLY begin?  

She’s supposed to start with the inciting incident, but it’s hard to recognize when there are so many riveting incidents in the backstory.  And then she moans about the backstory being so complicated that no reader will understand the inciting incident without knowing the backstory first.  One of her writing coaches suggested that if you have to have too many flashbacks, maybe you haven’t started your book early enough.  

So, if I’m to live up to my title of “personal writer’s helper” I’m passing the ball to you readers.  Any suggestions?  Or is this something that should be referred to Peggy Pixel? 

The Mystery of Dickens

Back in my indomitable youth, I had the dream of reading all of Charles Dickens’ works.  I even bought the collected set to prepare for my journey.


I’ve since given up on that goal, but the dream still lingers.  My family humors me, following me to various Dickens sights around London, like the house where he lived, which has been turned into a museum:

Sometimes I even get to read one of my beautiful volumes.  Right now, it’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  And it’s so much more than just a mystery!

Dickens is known for many things, but writing a mystery is not one of them.  Mysteries were gaining in popularity during Dickens’ later years, and in 1868 his friend, Wilkie Collins, had just published The Moonstone, considered to be the first detective novel.  Dickens decided to try his hand at mysteries, too.  He started his mystery serially, as was his custom.  He used cliffhangers to break his monthly installments, and his fans, as usual, couldn’t wait for the next one to arrive.

But then he died.  It was 1870, and he was in the middle of writing a mystery!

I can’t help but wonder if he was a plotter or a pantser?  Did he have the ending in mind when he started to write the book?

My book club, who also patiently humors me, agreed to read this book with me, and I’ve suggested we “finish” the book for him.  By following the trail of clues and subplots, it should be simple, right?


Here’s just some of the morass of my questions so far:

  1. Is there a connection between opium and Rosebud, aka “Pussy”?
  2. How did Mrs. Sapsea (whose husband is the “biggest jackass” in Cloisterham) die?
  3. Why does Jasper want to apprentice stone cutting with Durdles?
  4. Why does the “hideous small boy” throw stones at Durdles?
  5. Is it significant that Septimus Crisparkle wears reading glasses and his mother does not?
  6. Does Neville have more of a reason than Rosebud to fling wine in Drood’s face?
  7. Why does Mr. Grewgious work in a building labeled J.P.T. 1747?
  8. Will the ghost in the crypt return?
  9. Does the “haggard woman’s” prophecy suggest that Jasper is guilty of…of what, exactly?
  10. So, what does happen to Edwin Drood?

And one more:  where did Dickens ever come up with these wonderful names??

Help!  Any solutions?

Murder by Moose

I’m very pleased to announce my latest release, Murder by Moose:

Murder by Moose-eBookretailers

For this release, I’ve joined the Seven Sinister Sisters (along with our own Becky Clark) for a blog tour, and last week the 7 visited Mysteristas.  And now it’s official!  The Moose is finally here!

Murder by Moose is the fourth book in the Nell Letterly series.  This book takes Nell up into the mountains for a self-defense retreat during leaf season (which is also hunting season).  Of course she finds a body!  Moose trampled?  Or something much worse…?

When I wrote the first draft of my first Nell book some years ago, I wanted to tell the story of how Nell, a suburban, menopausal single mom of a teenage daughter, comes to teach karate in Boulder, Colorado. I never expected to do a series.  But at the end of that book, I found that there were still a lot of issues I hadn’t addressed–issues that tell the larger story surrounding Nell–and I suddenly found that I was writing a series.

One of the first questions a series has to figure out is how much time should pass overall?  A mystery bookseller once gave me some advice that made me decide to keep this series short–maybe only 6 or 7 books.  I figured that two or three months between each book would be about right for what I wanted to do.

The first book takes place in March, the second in May, and the third in August.  When I started to plan the fourth book, I already knew it was going to have to take place sometime in the fall.  In Colorado that means a high country setting with golden aspen leaves, hunters, and…moose!

I had such a fun time writing this.  But now I have to figure out:  where should I take Nell next?  There will probably be a turkey dinner…and a body…and…?

A Writer’s Helper

When the weather outside is nasty…

Here’s what it looks like inside:


Scout was rescued from cold, wet streets in Oregon 12 years ago, and she still can’t quite warm up.

You might think she’s just a lazy fat cat, but you’d be wrong.  Scout has very important tasks in my house.  She’s my own personal writer’s helper.

  • She wakes me up at 4:30 every morning with a gentle tap of her paw on my forehead, reminding me that it’s time to get up.
  • Mission accomplished, she makes herself scarce with a pre-dawn nap.  There’s no chance of interruptions now, so I can get to work.
  • But ah!  The dangers of a sedentary job!  She reminds me to get up and stretch every once in a while.  Might as well feed her while I’m at it.
  • As the day wears on and other family members are up and about, she guards my reading chair by the fire, securing it so that no one else can use it.
  • Then, when it’s time, she warms my lap while I ponder issues regarding my work in progress.

A cat’s day is never done.

It’s like that for writers, too.

As Scout and I sit in front of a cozy fire while a storm rages outside, I am pondering my WIP.  Peg started me thinking about this last week when she described her writing process.  While I do consider myself a pantser, I have to know the world of my story in great detail before I can jump into the first draft.  It’s a discovery process, not an outline.   That’s where I am now, becoming acquainted with the world of my new book.

One of the points to consider is the outer story vs the inner story.

In mysteries, the outer story is usually the crime.  It’s like the storm raging outside my window.  The inner story is how that crime impacts the heroine of my WIP.  I think of this as her heart (or, the cozy hearth).  The inner story is what the book is really about.  The crime sets things in motion.  There will be a lot of obstacles that try to keep her from solving the crime, but in the end, her inner story gives her the skills and necessary strength to overcome the outer story.

And all this noodling comes with help from a cat!  Who knew?

Do you have a furry helper, too?