Fireworks on Book Launch Day

By Kristi Belcamino
 
A few weeks ago, I became a published author. I have worked for years to get to this point, and yet, when I woke up on the morning of June 10th, 2014, there were no fireworks.
 
But, of course, I didn’t expect any.
 
I know very little, but enough to know not to have high expectations that my whole world would change because I FINALLY had a book out in the big wide world. Even though there were no fireworks, I’ve had some amazing moments that I’ll share:
 
* My husband, who is ruthlessly supportive of my writing career, called our two girls into our bedroom when I awoke and said, “Look at your mama. Does she look any different? Now she’s a published author.”
 
* My husband bought me a dozen red roses.
 
* I got a call from a famous mystery writer to congratulate me and make me laugh about his launch day expectations and how they ended with him crying in a corner at a restaurant. Love this guy. (He also told me “Remember, people you don’t even know will now have your book in their hands!” WOOHOO!)
 
* My writing buddy, Sam, who has a book coming out in December (YAY SAM!) had me and the kids over for amazing scones and super good coffee. (The BEST type of playdate on the planet.)
 
*The reviews that popped up on Amazon blew me away. (They continue to do so!) As my famous mystery writer friend had said would happen: People I DON’T EVEN KNOW are reading and loving my book!!!!!
 
*A woman from high school paid me the best possible compliment I could have ever received as a debut author and it had nothing to do with my book. She told me that she was buying my book because I was kind to her in high school (when other JERKS weren’t) and that 20 years later she wanted people to know I was a good person and that something I didn’t realize I had done made a difference. I cried reading that. A lot.
 
So, there were no fireworks upon becoming a debut author, but there were small, beautiful moments that I will cherish forever.

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Interview: Anna Castle

Please welcome Anna Castle, author of the Francis Bacon Mystery Series.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
I wake up with my book in my head and have one of those golden mornings when the story just flows from my brain through my fingertips. I laugh, I cry, Icastle_murder_by_misrule do the dialog out loud. I get my quota done by lunchtime, after which, because it must not be summer in Texas, I take the dog for a long walk in a woodland glade which has magically appeared in my urban core neighborhood. I come home and have a fragrant bubble bath. While I’m deciding what to have for supper, Viggo Mortensen drops by with a picnic feast he has prepared with his own manly hands. You don’t need to hear the rest.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
Do people really have these things? I mean people with two names, not like Charo or Liberace? I guess my accessory would be a pad of small sticky notes for tagging library books; color, earth tones, for the anonymity; fragrance, microwave popcorn, because snacks are important; phrase, “No, that’s not how it was,” because I can be a little pedantic at times.

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
How about an anecdote? I was working at an Austin software startup in the early 90’s. One morning one of my fellow workers told us he had written a mystery novel. I was stunned; we were all working 70 hours a week. He got up at 5:00 to write, he said. He sold that book a few years later and went on to a brilliant career as a thriller writer. His name? Jeff Abbott. That was when I learned that you just had to start writing, whenever and however you could. You don’t wait until all the stars align and everything is perfect. Although I did wait until I got a steady job in a university library. 40 hours a week, no emergencies — you have time for a whole ‘nother thing.

Do you listen to music when you write?
Never for the first draft or language editing. I need to hear the words in my head. Classical radio for copy-editing and formatting; Elizabethan chamber music for plotting. Mostly, I like silence with splashes of bird song and the odd woof.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
A handmade truffle, smooth and dark on the outside, and inside, full of nuts.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
I love living in the sixteenth century in my head. It was time of rising prosperity (except for the poor, of course) and expanding horizons. People knew they were living in a great age; they expected to find ever greater marvels around every turn. I wanted a famous historical figure for my protagonist because that seemed to be a selling point. I stumbled onto Francis Bacon and knew at once I had found my guy. There are surviving letters from 1586 suggesting that he got into some unrecorded trouble at that time, just the sort of thing we mystery writers look for. I chose Christmas and the season Misrule for the fun of disruption of normal life. Also, I had been in London twice at that time of year, so I could imagine the weather reasonably well.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
I love people with big dreams — aspiring minds, in Christopher Marlowe’s apt phrase. All my characters want something worth striving for and that dream animates their every decision. Francis Bacon wants to revamp all of science and education in order to usher in a new era. Thomas Clarady wants to be a gentleman and be treated with respect. Even my villains are working towards something they desire greatly. Everyone is very busy outside the plot of the immediate story.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led him to be the person he is today?
Bacon’s history is real, so the trick there is doling it out in non-boring doses. Thomas Clarady was invented as a foil for Bacon. Francis is a genius, intellectually gifted, but socially awkward. Tom, therefore, is a charmer, a people person, good at reading expressions and moods. Francis is a squirrely little geek; Tom is a handsome man of action. They’re both strivers, of course. Francis was born into the upper crust, as stable as any environment could be in that era. His future was laid plain before his feet until his father died suddenly, leaving Francis with no sustaining properties at the tender age of 18. It took him decades to recover from that bad start. Tom’s father is an adventurer. His childhood was full of ups and downs, which makes him very adaptable. Francis always knew his mind and spoke it, even if it risked the Queen’s wrath. He worked on the same central themes throughout his life. Tom is malleable; he likes to try things on and meet new people. He can get carried away by the next new thing.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
Well, Bacon is Bacon. He comes ready-mixed. Maybe he’s a mash-up of Aristotle, William Blackstone, and Elton John? Thomas Clarady comes from somewhere in the intersection of Archie Goodwin, Marcus Didio Falco, and Tom Jones. (Fielding’s character, not the singer. Although I do adore the singer as well.)

If you could host an author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
I’d mix historians with the people they wrote about. Francis Bacon and Lisa Jardine; Christopher Marlowe and Charles Nicholl; Violet Wilson and Penelope, Lady Rich. Except those three Elizabethans would not get along very well. I’d love to get Bacon, Marlowe, Elizabeth, Shakespeare, and Ralegh together to discuss their posthumous reputations. Let’s add Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury, to get another woman in the group. We could watch some BBC historical dramas together. Popcorn would be a delightful novelty for all of them, except maybe Ralegh.

What’s next for you?
Book 2, Death by Disputation, goes to my editor, Jennifer Quinlan at Historical Editorial, in August, then I want to write a Francis Bacon short story. September will be a plot-a-thon — the most fun part of the whole writing process — for book 3. Then I want to take a break from this series and edit one of the other books I’ve got loitering about, waiting for a turn. I don’t know which one yet, so I won’t say. More writing, that’s the main thing. Bring it on!

—————————————
Anna Castle lives in Austin, Texas, where she writes the Francis Bacon Mystery Series, among other things. The first book in the series, Murder by Misrule, has been chosen as a Kirkus Indie Book of the Month for July. Learn more on Anna’s website [www.annacastle.com] or look for her on Facebook [https://www.facebook.com/anna.castle.104]

The Writing Life—Using a Pen Name or Not

Some writing experts say your name as a writer is your brand. Readers come to expect a certain kind of book from you. They expect me to write paranormal mysteries. They expect Diane Vallere to write cozies and love fashion.

These writing experts say that if you’re to going to write something really different to use a pen name. So if I’m going to write say contemporary women’s fiction, they think I should do it under a pen name.

Hugh Howey just recently blogged about how marvelous it is to be an indie writer. He said he had an idea for a story, wrote it, edited it, and put it up on the e-sites—all in one day. He said being indie allows him to write anything he wants—in any genre. He doesn’t use a different name to write in a different genre. He’s, after all, Hugh Howey, best-selling author of Wool. Readers want to read the next thing Hugh Howey wrote, and they don’t much seem to care what genre it is.

On the other hand, best-selling billionaire (or is it millionaire now?) J.K. Rowling uses the pen name Robert Galbraith to write her detective series. Why? Well, we can be sure she’s not using a male name to gain readers, but maybe she first used initials to gain more clout in the publishing world. Maybe she did it for the same reason Doris Lessing put out two novels under a pen name—to see how her writing would be received minus the fame. There is a certain pleasure in voyeurism—watching to see what people say about your work from the safe distance of a pseudonym. If readers find your work, that is.

The advantage to keeping the same name is that the more books you write using it, the more you’ll pop up in the search engines. And then there’s the mysterious algorithms on Amazon and other places that somehow magically catapult your titles to the top after you’ve reached some certain number. (Yeah, I don’t quite understand it.) Perhaps it’s worth it to keep the same name.

What do you think? To pen name or not to pen name—that is the question.

 

Choosing the Right Project–what’s right for YOU?

As part of my Writing Life, I often ponder the following question:  how do I know which project to write about?  I am usually bombarded with snippets of ideas or “what if’s” or unusual situations that could blossom into a wonderful range of possible projects.  It’s not always easy for me to recognize from that mess of tidbits what is the right idea.  How do I know if an idea is worthy of the amount of time I’m going to spend writing about it?  

 

When I ask these questions of more established writers, I usually get some variation of the following advice:

 

  1. Go with the idea that you are most passionate about.  This is the idea that won’t leave you alone.  You find yourself waking up in the middle of the night, thinking about it, getting up to jot down a few notes.  
  2. Put away all your ideas, walk away from them for a week or two, and then pull them out again.  Often times, your ideas will weed themselves out when you puzzle over why you ever thought it was a good idea in the first place.  
  3. Throw away the first three ideas, because they’re the obvious ones, and go with the fourth idea.  

 

That’s what I did when I chose to write about Nell Letterly, my martial artist amateur sleuth.  My fourth idea turned into Nell, a menopausal single mom of a teenager.  

 

Years ago, one of my critique partners–Dolores Johnson, author of the Mandy Dyer dry cleaner’s series–kept suggesting that I write about a martial artist amateur sleuth.  Dolores had been a journalist specializing in the dry cleaning trade, and she turned her insider information into her wonderful, humorous series.  At the time, I was training in the martial arts while writing adventure science fiction.  Dolores advised–as many writers do–to write what you know about.  Well, I have never journeyed on a spaceship (although I would dearly love to!) but I did rack up many hours in the dojo.  

 

I decided to give it a try.  I wanted my sleuth to be an instructor.  Most of the instructors I knew were young hotshots, late teens, early twenties, with energy to burn.  So I started writing about a young twenty-something woman martial artist.  After a chapter or two, I ran out of what to write about her.  I just couldn’t get into that character’s head.  She was nothing like me, and I couldn’t understand where she was coming from.  When I came up with a middle-aged mom who was more like me–dedicated and hard working, but not exactly gifted athletically–her character leapt off the page.  

 

Now, Nell won’t let me alone.  She makes me write about her.  I think she’s become a more original character because she also has something of me in her.  You can’t go wrong with a project that chooses you!  

 

What’s in a Name: World Cup Edition

Like many other Americans, I’ve been passively watching the World Cup for the past week. And by “passively,” I mean I’ve had it on in the background while cooking, watching the U.S. team’s games, and sort of paying attention when there’s a news story about what’s going on there. I’m a life-long sports lover and my kid plays soccer, so you know, it’s interesting enough for me, even if I’m not a diehard fan or anything.

Sometime during the past few days, an old newspaper friend of mind mentioned a story she’d like to see would be on the announcers and how they learn to pronounce such ethnically diverse names in preparation for the World Cup. It’s a good question. Those announcers know big picture about soccer better than almost anyone in the world, but that doesn’t automatically mean they know off-hand how to say the last name of some bench-rider from every qualifying country.

This got the writerly part of me thinking about names. Specifically, last names.

Because I write crime fiction, usually with a detective protagonist, I tend to have my characters call each other by their last names quite a bit. It’s natural and normal and makes things more accurate, in my opinion.

But this also means I need last names that work easily over and over again. Ones that are different from each other, but not so unusual that it stops the reader or makes them constantly wonder how the name is pronounced.

And even though it sounds strange, I find venues like the World Cup a perfect chance to find diverse names to use at a later date. I also love using other sporting events — the NCAA Tournament, the Super Bowl, all the tennis majors, etc. — for this purpose. If I hear a name I like, I write it down, and keep it in mind for later. I realize that some people like to use cemeteries or riff off favorite characters in books or movies as inspiration for character names as well, but somehow, sporting events always get me.

How do you choose names for your characters?

Interview: Steve Shrott

Please welcome Steve Shrott, author of Audition for Death and other works.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
A perfect day is one in which I wake up and receive lots of applause. That doesn’t happen very often, and mostly I have to applaud myself. (My dog won’t dbookcover5o it no matter how much kibble I give him.) Seriously, I think a perfect day is where the writing is really flowing. I particularly enjoy it if I can work in several different areas such as short stories, a novel and maybe a screenplay. I like variety. Part of the perfect day would include reading a book that really hooks me.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
My favorite phrase is probably–have fun every day. No matter how many things I have to do, I try to make sure I have at least a bit of fun. I think it’s important for balance in our lives. Of course fun can be different for different people. For me, a lot of my fun comes from writing.

My favorite meal is brunch at an expensive restaurant for which someone else is paying.

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
Dave Barry (Writes funny novels)
Dai Vernon (Created magical illusions)
Johnathon Kellerman (Bestselling mystery writer)
All of the above gentlemen expanded my creativity in different ways.

Do you listen to music when you write?
No. But lately I have been thinking of trying it when I write noir fiction. I think playing “moody” music would help get me into the proper frame of mind to write that type of material.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
My book would be one of those milk chocolates that starts melting in your mouth as soon as you pop it in. The reason is, that my books are meant to be fun right from the start, they go fast, and at the end, you want another one.

Of course whether the chocolate-book were dark, light, or plaid, I would eat it.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
For most of my life, I’ve been involved in the entertainment field one way or another, and I have experienced a lot of interesting situations. So I thought a mystery based on actors and acting would be amusing. Just to give you an example, many years ago, I worked in a theatre group. We did children’s shows in the morning and, at lunch, murder mysteries. The same actors appeared in both. We had one scene in one of the mysteries where a mobster was going to shoot the man who had stolen his money.

Another actor was supposed to come in, just at that moment, wearing a policeman’s outfit. However, the actor had had a few too many drinks, and instead came out dressed as a character from the children’s show—a red butterfly. He had wings, and antennae. This did not fit into the murder mystery very well. The mobster shot at him, uttering the line, “Damn insects.” This woke butterfly-man up as to what he had done, and he pretended to fly offstage.

So you can see why I wanted to write a story about actors.

What themes do you regularly (re) visit in your writing?
I visit many themes because I tend to write in different genres. My humorous fiction is generally about how circumstances are sometimes against us, but if we persevere we can overcome them, and have happy endings. Although, not always the endings we expect. I also deal with themes of sanity vs insanity, and how people are often not who we think they are.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person she is today?
My main character is an actor obsessed with his career. He always hopes that one day he will be famous—even though right now most of his roles are dead bodies. He is vain, and desperately wants to keep his looks up for future roles, and also for the ladies. He’s become the person he is today because he spent a lot time ruining his career with his enormous ego and drinking. He managed to stop drinking and has become a nicer person, although his ego is still intact. But now he’s in the difficult situation of being a little older, and still attempting to get somewhere in the acting profession.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
Fletch, from the movie (and book) Fletch, because he’s a wisecracker trying to solve a mystery
Sheldon, on The Big Bang Theory because he’s a self-obsessed character who doesn’t see himself as the rest of the world sees him.
Alfie from the movie What’s it All About Alfie?, because he likes the ladies.

If you could host an author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
Johnathon Kellerman
Dave Barry
Hemmingway
Raymond Chandler
Stephen King
Phillip K Dick
And maybe Doctor Phil, (also a writer,) so he could analyze us and tell us why we got into this crazy profession.
I chose the above list of writers to give the dinner party a lot of variety.

What’s next for you?
Right now I’m editing my novel about a dentist who decides he needs some excitement in his life, and becomes a part-time P.I. I’m also writing lots of short stories in different genres, as well as screenplays. I am continuing to teach my writing courses at Savvy Writers, and Romance Writers of America, on adding humor to novels, and how to write a page turning book. I’m also doing talks for various associations. In my spare time I nap.

Thanks a lot for the interview. I enjoyed it!

***

Steve Shrott is an award-winning writer whose mystery short stories have been published in numerous print magazines and e-zines. His work has appeared in ten anthologies—two from Sisters-in-Crime (The Whole She-Bang, and Fishnets.) He was also a winner in The Joe Konrath Short Story Contest. As well, he teaches on-line courses for Savvy Writers and The Romance Writers of America. His comedy material has been used by well-known performers of stage and screen and he has written a book on how to create humor. Some of his jokes are in The Smithsonian Institute.

Website: www.steveshrottwriter.weebly.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/#!/steve.shrott.9

The Writing Life: Finding Motivation

Motivation comes in a couple of flavors. One is the motivation to write. I mean, you could binge watch the entire seventh season of Dr. Who, read a book, or slog through yet another round of revisions on that novel. Sometimes, especially when you’re hot and tired, writerly motivation is hard to come by.

But that’s not what this post is about. I’m talking about a different kind of motivation.

What motivates your characters?

Deep characters, the kind that really connect with readers, do things for reasons. They don’t wander aimlessly through life, performing random actions for no discernible reason. This is something that’s kept me, as a reader, from truly connecting to Jack Reacher. I have no idea why he does what he does.

In my early writing career, this is something I didn’t quite understand. Isn’t general curiosity or a desire to make things right enough of a motivation for someone to investigate a murder? Well, not really. This was brought home to me when I attended a workshop on writing those crucial first fifty pages of a mystery. I was (bravely) answering the workshop leader’s questions until she got to the kicker: “So what? Why would she do this?”

And I couldn’t answer.

At the time, I thought it was horribly unfair. I cried. I wanted to quit writing. How dare this woman criticize my character’s motivation. Couldn’t she see that my character was A Good Person who was Curious and Wanted to Help a Friend? Wasn’t that good enough?

After another friend talked me off the ledge, and I learned a bit more about the craft and writing mysteries in particular, I learned something: No, it really wasn’t good enough.

I continued to struggle with this. I put the manuscript away. I couldn’t quite come up with a motivation for an amateur sleuth that didn’t sound horribly cheesy. I’d never get this. Perhaps I was writing the wrong genre.

Then, in the fall of 2011, I hit on a story idea using a police officer as a protagonist. Yes! This made sense. I loved the character, people loved the story. Yes, learning I was writing police procedural was a bit intimidating (all those facts and details to get right), but suddenly, the major stumbling block was gone. I had character motivation.

He’s a cop. Investigating crime, and murder, is his job. I didn’t have to come up with creative motivation. Problem solved. With four short stories on the market, one on the way, and a novel in the works for The Laurel Highland Mysteries, I’ve found a groove.

I recently remarked to a published writing friend that it felt like a bit of a cheat. She disagreed. “It’s a convention of the genre. He does other things, right? There’s your creative motivations.”

And the lightbulb went on. Of course, his motivation for his other life decisions come out of his core values – which is what drove him to law enforcement in the first place. But it turns out that “sense of duty” and “loyalty” and “dedication to truth and justice” are motivation for lots of things. All valid, all easily (and logically) supported.

Maybe that’s why I relate to procedurals, both as a writer and a reader, easier than cozies. The motivation is clear. I don’t have to think, “Why on earth would Miss Marple even get involved in this?” It’s like trying to imagine myself investigating a murder. I wouldn’t – I’d call the police. My brain just can’t wrap itself around the concept of how to believably get a civilian as a murder investigator (other writers can and it’s one of the things that I  admire about cozy authors – that ability to make me believe random civilian would get involved in murder).

As a writer, you constantly need to be asking yourself this question: So what? Why would he/she do that? Not just for your protagonist. Don’t forget the bad guy. The mustache-twirling, “evil for the sake of it” bad guy is clichéd. Something’s motivating your antagonist? What is it? How does he see himself as the hero of his own story?

We all do things for reasons. We all have motivations. And to write really compelling characters, on both sides of the law, writers must answer that question – So what? Why?

Because when we answer that, we create characters, and stories, that connect with readers. And that’s really what it’s all about.

So tell me: where do you find motivation for your characters – and who are the characters that sell their motivation to you as a reader?