Magic Happens

I was planning to write my post today, reporting on the fabulous time I would have had at Left Coast Crime.  And in a way, this still is about that.  I want to tell you a little tale about magic.  Because for me, the fun of writing is all about magic.  

Hubby and I went a day early to San Diego, having originally planned a mini vacation.  We walked around Old Town that day before LCC, almost carefree of the weight of the world.  Since I’ve been on a mission for several years to find the right flower pot to replace a favorite of mine that had broken some time ago, we headed into one of the shops.  You know that moment when you see something that you can’t possibly walk away from?  Here’s what came home with me:  

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I was looking for a flower pot, not a horse.  I certainly wasn’t planning on buying him, and I have no idea why I did–except now I think that maybe it was magic.  

Because as I’ve looked at him, I’ve been reminded of the horse who made an unexpected appearance in my Work-In-Progress.  It’s a fantasy with a mystery in it.  I’m entering the editing phase of that WIP, and I knew I had to do something about the unexpected horse, either cut that scene or make something of it that would fit with the rest of the book.  I know that to make the scene work, the protagonist has to make a connection to the horse, maybe through a treat.  

So I consulted a friend who is a horse expert, and she said that horses love peppermint.  

Seriously???  

My protagonist’s nickname just happens to be “Peppermint.”  And now I know what I have to do with that scene with the horse.  

Writing is magic.  Is it for you, too?  

Left Coast Crime

Today I’m on my way to beautiful San Diego for this year’s LCC–color me excited!  There is always a special energy that comes alive with a convention, and I always come away from them feeling so inspired.  We can always use a little inspiration and levity, especially in worrisome times like today.    

My very first LCC was right here in my hometown … ahem, let’s just call it many years ago…  I was pre-published then, and the organizers asked my SinC Sisters and me to be in charge of the hospitality room.  We had no idea that the famous writers we loved to read would just come in and sit down and chat with us for hours on end.  We were like sponges, learning from all the writers, since we had to “work,” instead of attending panels.  

This year, I am scheduled on a panel on Saturday at 1:30, discussing “Heroes with a Twist:  Unusual Crime Fighters” along with the awesome John Edward Mullen, Stephen W. Buehler, Tammy Kaehler, and Mike Orenduff.  

I hope you’ll drop by and say hello.  In the comments, please tell us where we can find YOU!  

Beach Books & Airplane Books

I just walked in the door from a lovely vacation to the Caribbean where I feasted my eyes on some of the loveliest scenery in the world, such as this: 

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This is Bathsheba Beach in Barbados.  It’s not a swimming beach on account of strong Atlantic currents.  The swimming beaches are on the Caribbean side of the island, but I love this one for its wild beauty.  I can SO picture myself lounging there in a beach chair with a book!  

There’s nothing I love better than losing myself in a “beach book.”  Wikipedia doesn’t offer a definition of this kind of book, but I have my own:  First, there doesn’t have to be a beach (although that’s a nice bonus!)  It’s a fun book that I can get lost in for hours at a time.  It sweeps me away, and I don’t want the story ever to end.  But at the same time I can set the book aside for a while to enjoy a swim or a walk or dining with loved ones.  It’s easy to come back to a beach book the next day and fall into it all over again.  

For me, it doesn’t matter what genre it is, because a beach book is all about characters.  They’re people I’ve gotten to know, and they feel as real and familiar as my loved ones around me.  Setting is especially important for me–I don’t mean long passages of description, but sensory detail that makes me feel as if I’m really there.  The book is so much more delicious when it’s set in a place where I want to be.  

On the other hand, an airplane book has a different kind of magic for me.  It only needs to keep me entertained, without getting too squirrelly, for a set number of hours.  I don’t have to fall into the book (although that’s always nice!)  Ideally, I want to finish the book by the end of the flight, because if I don’t, I might never return to it.  I usually want a book with a lot of action to pull me along, where I don’t have to savor each sentence.  It’s a book full of twists, and the pages practically turn themselves.  

I would love to find a book that blends these two types:  a book to fall into with great characters, and yet it’s full of action and twists.  Any suggestions?  

The Battle of the Bedtime Book

Most of my casual, “bonus” reading gets pushed to bedtime, after the priorities of daytime demands are done.  Bedtime reading sessions last an unpredictable amount of time before my brain simply shuts down.  There doesn’t seem to be any way that I can delay shut-down, not even with the Best Book Ever.  

Does this sound familiar?  

The last bedtime book I read had a beautiful setting, an interesting sleuth whom I cared about, heart-warming relationships, and an intriguing mystery.  All this kept me happily turning pages, even though this particular book was especially troublesome and extra slow-going.  

Every night, I had to re-read, to figure out who the new character was or to understand the new plot point.  It would’ve been much more rewarding to read this book straight through, instead of having to go backwards 5 pages for each new page forward.  

I suspect I’m not alone, reading certain books in this way.  

I was curious to find out if there was any special reason why I struggled extra hard with such an interesting book.  So I took a closer look and found 3 main issues:  

  1. viewpoint characters–I counted 16, and this was just about all the characters in the book, including minor characters.  Conspicuously absent were the viewpoints of 2 important characters (until the end).  One of them was the villain, and the other a secret character whose undercover activity helped explain one of the mysteries.  
  2. subplots–I counted 12, grouped together into 4 main mysteries, and there were 3 bodies.  To be honest, I was never sure which one was the main mystery, and which were subplots.  
  3. transitions–by the time the sleuth followed up on clues, I’d forgotten their significance and needed a reminder.  I tried flipping back through pages, but I couldn’t find the reference.  

I don’t mean to sound critical of this particular book, because I really enjoyed it.  I am just trying to understand why some books are more of a struggle for me at bedtime.  Is it my fault for being too tired to read?  Probably.  But for readers who don’t have the luxury of reading books straight through (like me!), there just might be something I can do as a writer to help the story flow more easily.  

Would these 3 points also overwhelm you in a book at bedtime?  

Sluggish Sunrise

I’m a morning person, so I like to write in the early hours, preferably when the household is still asleep.  All is dark outside and quiet within.  My Work in Progress magically flows.  I am writing “into the dark” in more ways than one!  Each dark morning, I have time to write until the first hint of daylight shows through the window.  That’s when the reality of day gets in the way of my fiction.  

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After the winter solstice we start gaining daylight, so when I returned to my desk after the holidays I expected the sun to start coming up earlier.  I would lose a little bit of writing time each morning.  But…it didn’t happen.  Had I not had enough coffee in those dark hours?  I checked again the following morning, but still, the sun didn’t rise any earlier.  

So I did some digging, and okay, this is probably more than you ever wanted to know about the lengthening day, but isn’t it a pretty sunrise? 

What I found out was that the sun doesn’t start coming up earlier until January 9th!  (at least at my house at 40 degrees latitude)  The days do get longer after the solstice, but the difference comes at sunset.  Sunset gets later by a minute each day, until January 19th, when it jumps to two minutes later per day.  Then it carries on at a minute per day until January 30th, when it jumps two minutes again.  

Meanwhile, sunrise is more sluggish.  It stays the same until January 9th, when it finally pops a minute earlier.  Then it stays the same for 5 days, coming out a minute earlier on the 14th.  After that, it starts accelerating, coming earlier by a minute every 1-3 days.  

Can the groundhog be far behind?  Even though it’ll mean less writing time in the dark for me, I can’t wait! How about you? 

Freshly Starting

Champagne makes a great toast, but what I love the most about the New Year is the chance for a fresh start.  It’s more than just resolutions (I’ve already broken mine–have you?)  For me, the excitement is in the new beginning.  It’s a second chance, a time to ask myself “what am I going to focus on this year?”  

That’s pretty good, but THIS New Year is extra exciting because:  

  1. There’s a new decimal in our year, and
  2. It’s a leap year, so we get a Bonus Day to do all the things we love to do!!!

There’s something very exciting about a list of fresh starts.  Even though the list contains the same concepts year after year, each New Year I have a chance to start afresh all over again:  

road map–my writing goals for the year help me compose a new road map toward those goals.  Last year I got pretty close, but this year I get to start all over again, planning a new course.  Maybe this one will be the charm!  

calendar–even though I always rely on my very familiar and comfortable format for tracking writing, I love visiting the stores and choosing which calendar will match my fresh start of the year.  This year I want to study lights and darks (in both writing and art), so I picked a Thomas Kincade calendar.  

new shiny–the next, new writing project presents a new skill set to learn, and the excitement of the challenge lures me to my desk in spite of January’s cold, dark mornings.  It’s the same in art, as I’m branching out to a brand new type of subject that is totally opposite from anything I’ve ever painted before.  

new reading plan–cleaning out the storage locker, I’m finding boxes of books I forgot I owned.  I’m going to focus on reading some oldie but goodies in the year ahead.  It’s so easy to get distracted, caught up in new stories!  

Do you have a new shiny or fresh start to focus on this year?  

Wrapping Up

Between shopping sprints, baking, and gift-wrap frenzy, I’m also thinking about the end of my Work In Progress.  It’s not a mystery, so without a crime to be solved, a villain to catch, justice to be served and order restored, how do I know it’s the end?  

Well, it is a little tougher to recognize without those handy mystery elements.  This WIP is a fantasy adventure novel, and theoretically the adventures could just keep piling on.  But no matter the genre, all endings have certain things in common:  

  1. The story has to have resolution.  (check) 
  2. Characters have to grow.  (check) 
  3. Goals have to be reached.  (check)
  4. Loose ends have to be tied.  (well…almost…)

But my favorite?  

5.  The end of the year makes a great deadline for ending a book, which is mainly how I know this one is almost done.  

Seriously.  Finishing the WIP along with the year just feels…tidy.  It’s a great way to clear my desk before taking a break for holiday partying.  After that, I’ll sharpen my pencils for a brand-new project at the first of next year.  After many months of this old WIP, I can’t wait for the New Shiny!  

But, Trouble always lurks, trying to undermine my careful plans.  For many months I’ve been feeding questions to my subconscious about all those loose ends.  Why are they there?  Why is character x doing this and that?  Why is character y even in this book?  What does it all mean?  Not being a plotter, I just can’t conjure the answers until my subconscious decides to spit back the answers.  

With the days on the calendar dwindling to the end of the year, and still with no answers in sight to tie up everything, I’ve been working myself into a sweat.  Then, thankfully last month, eureka!  The answers came in a blazing flash.  Nothing like waiting to the last moment, right?  It’s going to be tight, with only a couple more weeks to work them in, but at least I’m finally on my way to the end.  

Do you also like to finish projects along with the end of the year?    

No Time? No Sweat!

November is my busiest month:  

  • Usually, I commit to writing a novel, along with my buddies at National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).  
  • And there’s the annual fall cleanup, getting the house and garden in order for the long winter months ahead.  
  • The TBR stack grows dangerously high as I make my bookish gift selections. 
  • Plus, shopping frenzy and gift-making are well under way, since my overseas packages need to be mailed before Thanksgiving.  

Yikes!  That’s today!!!  

Whether early or late, Thanksgiving always arrives at my house like a freight train.  

Because…

  • My novel still isn’t done.  
  • That early hard freeze in October froze the leaves on the trees, putting off their raking. Yesterday’s 2 feet of snow didn’t help.  
  • I’m 3 books behind on my GoodReads reading challenge,
  • and the packages still need another gift or 2 before they’re ready to ship.  

Does this sound familiar?  

How can I possibly devote hours to thawing, trussing, and basting a turkey?  

Not to mention umpteen side dishes and desserts?

And did I mention unpacking and washing my grandmother’s fine bone china, both before AND after?  

Every pot will be used in the kitchen, and heck, I might as well just remodel.  

 

Hold on!  *pausing to take a deep breath*  Thanksgiving is a day to give thanks, not have a stroke.  

So, this year Hubby and I will enjoy the shortcut approach:  turkey roast, instant stuffing, frozen vegetables, a deli pie, and a bouquet of mums to make the everyday, dishwasher-safe dishes look almost as festive as grandma’s.  For us, Thanksgiving is less about the food than it is about thankfulness for having our family, whether or not we can all physically be together to dine on this one special day.   

Special because among other reasons, it’s a welcome relief in the midst of a whirlwind of madness.  It gives all of us a well-needed time to pause.  And reflect.  And give our thanks and love in all of love’s variety.  

How do you prepare a feast like this?  Do you take any shortcuts?  

The Last Policeman

My mystery book club recently read The Last Policeman, by Ben H. Winters.  The first of a trilogy, it’s about a newly promoted detective who stays on the job, even though his colleagues are bailing because everyone is going to die in 6 months when an asteroid hits earth.  

Besides being a fabulous book, it raises some interesting questions.  Some of the members of book club asked why we had chosen a science fiction book.  But is it?  Its premise sounds science-fiction-y, given the looming apocalypse, and Locus, the trade magazine of the science fiction community, had featured several articles about the book.  I was intrigued, since I love science fiction and also write it under another name.  

But this book is more about the investigation into a suspicious death, with the added layers of characters responding to their difficult situation.  And the book won the Edgar Award in 2013 for best paperback original.  This prestigious award is presented by Mystery Writers of America.  So, if professional mystery writers say it’s a mystery, then it’s a mystery.  Case closed.  

But it’s also science fiction.  

I am reminded of another time when an author I know wrote a science fiction mystery and hoped to see it marketed as a mystery.  The book ended up being shelved with science fiction, probably because the author was already established as a science fiction writer.  Any genre can also contain a mystery (and imo, a mystery makes any book better!), but science fiction seems to trump mystery when it comes to cross-genre.   

So I couldn’t wait to find out what my book club of seasoned mystery readers would think of this book.  Several of them had been skeptical at first and wouldn’t have chosen to read it, if not for book club.  As it turned out, all but one loved it.  They focused on the investigation of the case, and the way it unfolded fit their expectations, leaving them satisfied.  Not bad at all, I’d say! 

What do you say?  Do you mind other genre elements in your mysteries?  

Indian Summer

We call it Indian Summer.  Eastern Europeans call it Granny Summer.  Southernmost South Americans call it Little Summer.  

Whatever you call it, it’s officially here in Colorado.  We’ve had our first killing freeze, the tomatoes are done, and now the days are turning warm again.  The air is crisp and clear, and the sky is that intense, electric shade of blue against aspen gold.  It’s the quiet lull, a peaceful interlude of fake summer before the storms of winter hit…maybe as soon as tomorrow.  

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Why do I mention this?  

As a mystery author, I’m always seeking the right weather setting to match the tone of my books.  “‘Twas a dark and stormy night” is a cliche for a good reason.  What better setting than the dark combined with a storm for the tense climax of a mystery story?  There are countless mysteries where some form of a storm threatens in the background as the plot intensifies.  We try to avoid cliches in our books, but really, there’s nothing better than a good old storm.  Tension just doesn’t read the same for a bright and sunny day.  

Unless it’s Indian (or Granny) Summer.  Because…

  1. Looks are deceiving.  
  2. Chill is in the air.  
  3. We know the Big Storm is coming soon.  

What do you think?  Could Indian Summer work as setting for the climax of a mystery?  What other good, suspenseful weather-related settings do you use or you’ve read about?