Collecting—Erasers and Revision

My family says I’m a packrat.  If you saw my bulging shelves, drawers, and closets, you might agree.  But really, all that stuff is necessary:  all the books, the fabric and yarn, the family keepsakes, the trophies of milestones.  And yes, even my eraser collection.

I started collecting erasers back in junior high, when I lived in Brazil.  In those days, in that place, we didn’t shop self-service in a giant office supply store.  Instead, there was a narrow, street-front shop, no wider than a glass counter and a space for the customer to stand.  You told the clerk what you wanted, and the clerk pulled out the item from behind the glass counter.

All I needed was one eraser, but they came in different sizes and shapes and colors and textures.  The clerk pulled them all out for me and waited for my decision as I inspected each one.  I was enchanted.  Who knew if I would need to erase pen or pencil?  Maybe the green would erase cleaner than the brick-colored one.  Or the white one?  What if the nubby, gummy one worked the best of all?  How could I only take one home with me?

Well, I didn’t.  I took a whole pencil box full of erasers home with me that day because I couldn’t decide which was the right one.

It’s like that in writing.  Decisions can be hard, especially in revision.  How do you know which characters, which subplots, which scenes are necessary, and which aren’t?  How do you –erase– cut out your darlings?

My first draft of Murder in the Dojo was almost 100,000 words long.  It’s an amateur sleuth mystery, and that kind of traditional mystery typically runs much shorter.  But I was getting to know my sleuth as I wrote that draft, and I threw everything in, including the kitchen sink.  My first rewrite only ended up growing longer.

Despairing, I figuratively got out my eraser collection.  But I loved all of my secondary characters and all of my subplots and some of those clever scenes.  How could I possibly part with any of them?  I came up with 5 easy steps to help me with those hard decisions about revision:

  1. Identify the central mystery:  whodunnit, whydunnit, and howdunnit.
  2. Who are the 5 most important possible suspects, and how are they connected to the central mystery?
  3. How does my sleuth become entangled in the central mystery?  (i.e., motivation)
  4. What mistakes does the villain make that reveal him/her to my sleuth?  (i.e., plot:  what are the clues that the sleuth tracks throughout the story?)
  5. How is justice served?

Once I identified those 5 areas, it became a lot easier to see that everything else just had to go.  I eventually got my book down to 60,000 words.  (And no, the trimmed scenes didn’t make it into the second book.)

Murder with Altitude, the second in the series, is coming out next month!


A See-Saw of a Post

Part the First:

This is not about collecting.  It’s about reluctantly letting go.

Our Mysterista sister Kristi Belcamino is leaving the blog.

Kristi has been with us from the beginning and will be very much missed.  But, of course, we wish her the very best! She has two new books out (Blessed Are the Dead and Blessed Are The Meek) with more on the way.

Keep up with Kristi’s activities over at her author blog:


Part the Second:
We have a guest blogger for the next two months!

Sarah Fox is a cozy mystery writer represented by Jessica Faust of BookEnds. When not writing mysteries or working as a legal writer, Sarah is often reading her way through a stack of cozies or spending time outdoors with her English Springer Spaniel. She is covering for Mysterista Sarah Henning during the months of September and October.

Please join us in welcoming Sarah Fox!


Collecting: Children

My final post of August won’t be about writing.


Rather, it’s about why I won’t be writing for a bit.

Because I am “collecting” something, as the theme goes: A new baby.

I’m due with a baby girl in September. She’ll pair nicely, I’m sure, with my rather spunky five-year-old boy.

And because babies can be really unhelpful most of the time in letting a mama know A. When they’ll be appearing and B. How much work they’ll be from the get-go, I’ve asked another Sarah to take my place for September and October.

The fantastic Sarah L. Fox will be subbing for me, and you’re going to love her!

She’s a Canadian cozy mystery writer and all-around great human being. I’ve had the luck of reading many of her words and I can tell you that they’re beautiful, poignant and perfect for those of you who like to curl up with a mug of tea, a blanket, and a fun mystery starring an amateur sleuth.

I really hope you enjoy Sarah’s posts for the next few weeks. It’s such a special treat for all of us that she’s visiting.

Oh, and, yes, I’ll let you all know when the newest piece is added to my collection.

Interview: Marilyn Larew

Please welcome Marilyn Larew, author of The Spider Catchers.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
My idea of a perfect day would be nothing interrupting my writing time (doctors appointments have been big recently), barbecued chicken for dinner, anSpider cover 1d a good book to finish off the day.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
My signature color is navy blue. My signature word apparently is “apparently.” I have to go through every manuscript and take it out dozens of times.

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are inspirations for the mean streets Lee must sometimes walk down and Eric Ambler for the international intrigue she deals with.

Do you listen to music when you write?
No. I’ve tried, but I don’t really listen, so I don’t bother anymore.

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

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
I wanted my protagonist to be a strong woman with some connection to the CIA. I wanted my plot to deal with current issues, so I fell back on what I know. My dissertation was on money and banking, and I taught a course in the history of terrorism before I retired. The funding of terrorism, which includes drug smuggling and human trafficking, attracted my attention as an important theme. I put all these interests together in the plot of The Spider Catchers.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
My protagonist, Lee Carruthers, regularly works against gun and drug smugglers, human traffickers, and terrorists. None of these criminal endeavors can be wiped out. They are eternal Hydras, but Lee can occasionally cut off the head of one of the snakes.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
Lee is the third generation of her family to work in intelligence. Her grandmother ran a safe house and escape route in Paris for OSS during World War II, and her father sold counterfeit piastres on the Hong Kong black market during the last days of the Vietnamese war to finance Agency projects. She has a masters degree in Islamic Culture from Yale. By the time we meet her, she’s tired of Islamic culture, tired of wearing black suits and covering her hair and trying to be invisible in a man’s world. She is not the invisible type. She’s seen too much and done too much, so she’s cynical and a bit world-weary, but underneath it all she still believes.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
I’m finding this question hard to answer. Strong female protagonists are relatively new on the thriller scene. As you see, all the writers who influenced me. Lee is probably the lineal descendent of Emma Peel of the TV series The Avengers, always ready to take action. She also has a lot of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher, the Melbourne flapper, in her. Phryne has a clear-eyed view of the rot that lies under the surface of modern society.

If you could host an author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
Jane Austen must come first. Although I suspect in her day she sat quietly watching the human comedy, I think her dinner table conversation would be delightful. John Buchan must be another guest. His work shows all the prejudices of his time, but Greenmantle is a superb World War I adventure tale. I’d like to seat Eric Ambler next to him and watch the sparks fly. Robert van Gulik’s Judge Dee series led me to a lifelong interest in Chinese history. His famous collection of Chinese erotica would be an interesting topic of conversation. Perhaps I’ll seat him next to Jane Austen. Finally, Charles Todd (the Inspector Rutledge series), a unique mother-son collaboration, whose portrayal of the effects of World War I on British society, will also be an interesting contrast to the work of John Buchan. This seems to me to be an interesting combination of nationalities and time periods. I don’t think it would be much trouble to keep the conversational ball rolling. Besides I’d like to meet each of them.

What’s next for you?

I’m in the process of revising the second book in the Lee Carruthers series, Dead in Dubai, which I hope to bring out late this year or early next year. It takes me to the fabulous Emirate of Dubai, which I hope my readers will find as fascinating as I do.


Marilynn Larew was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and after a living in a number of places, including the Philippines and Japan, she finally settled in southern Pennsylvania, where she and her husband live in an 150 year old farmhouse. She has taught courses about the Vietnamese War and terrorism at the University of Maryland and travelled extensively in Europe and Asia. She likes to write about places she has been or places she would like to go. She has published non-fiction about local history, Vietnamese history, and terrorism. The Spider Catchers is her first novel.

Collecting characters

We’ve talked a lot about the things we collect here this month (who knew we collected so much?). Recently, I realized, that as a writer, I collect something else.

I collect characters.

This realization came through Facebook exchange on my author page. I posted about my new project, a story that makes use of a new set of characters. In the post, I said, “I hope Jim and Sally don’t get too jealous and stop talking to me.” Because that would be kind of bad (and yes, if you’re a writer, you totally get the concept of imaginary people talking to you and you understand it completely; if you aren’t a writer, I would like to take this opportunity to say I am okay, and you don’t need to call the guys with padded rooms and jackets that snap in the back).

A reader responded, “New characters? Isn’t it getting a little crowded in there?” My head, she meant.

Well, yes.

See, I share head space with a lot of people, as I write two different series and now this third book (which, hey, might become a series – I’ve been told they are series-worthy characters). I am currently offering room and board to the following:

  • Jaycee/Lyla, Stu, Roger, and Starla, the crew of the Hero’s Sword series;
  • Jim, Sally and their friends (such as deputy coroner Tom Burns) from The Laurel Highlands Mysteries;
  • Jackson and Max, the characters for the new book.

That’s a lot of people. Thankfully, they don’t eat much.

People ask me, how do you keep them all straight? Honestly, it’s not that hard. They all have different voices. Jaycee, as a 13-year old girl, talks much differently than Sally, a professional woman in her early 30s. Jim, my Pennsylvania State Trooper, sounds a lot different from Jackson, my Niagara Falls homicide detective.

They have different stories and different ways of telling their stories. So it’s fairly easy to keep them straight. That’s not the problem.

The problem is when all of them want to talk at the same time.

Some writers can work multiple projects at a time. Me, not so much. My attention gets fractured. I can’t give each person the care and dedication that he/she deserves. Their voices get muddled and it’s harder to hear them. Although, when one of them has something to say, well, he or she can get pretty loud.

It makes me sound a little schizophrenic, really, that I’ve got all these voices in my head. But I do. And I love all them like dear friends. I’ll never turn them off with my wardrobe, or my language, or my bad habits – because my habits are their habits. They are not only friends, but each of them reflects a facet of my personality.

Yes, the collection can get a little scattered and frenetic at times. They’re a hard bunch to keep up with. But honestly? I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Collections Define Characters

When I moved from Texas to California, I voluntarily downsized from a 2400-square foot house to a 1-bedroom apartment. I donated a lot to charity, but as someone with the collector gene, there were amassed collections that I wasn’t willing to part with. I remember talking to a friend about this when I moved, and he said he had done the same thing, putting what didin’t fit in his apartment into a storage locker. Years later when he took the time to dig through what he’d placed in storage, he thought, “Why am I holding on to this stuff?”

Lately I’ve been going through closets and asking the same question. What I’ve realized is that we project parts of ourselves into those collections. The fact that we’ve taken the time to assemble a set of Trixie Beldens, a tub filled with Batman Action figures, a folder of Beverly Hills, 90210 magazines, a closet of Barbies says something about us. And even when the collections are not on display, they help us define who we are to ourselves.

For a time, after moving, I felt unattached to any place. While I loved California, it was not my home. Being surrounded by my collections gave me comfort and helped to ground me. They tethered to my past, which reminded me of the person I’d once been.

All of this makes me think of character. When we write a book, we invent a set of characters. It’s easy to drop them into the story because that’s when we need them, but in order to make them more real, they need to have their own histories, even if it’s a generally defined sketch of the person they’d once been, before we needed them on our stage. Maybe it’s a line in passing: they collect colored glass bottles. Ritualistically, they finish a bottle of water, clean it out, remove the label, set it on a rack to dry, and then display. Or maybe their colored glass collection is pre-war and they scour thrift shops and flea markets in search of it. Maybe they only collect yellow glass bottles, which are less common. They will pull one from a public trash can if they spy it, bag it and take it home to clean and add to their wall. Each example of behavior tells us something about this character, though maybe the only thing that goes onto the page is that someone notices the shelf of glass bottles in their residence.

And imagine if a murder weapon is found to be a glass bottle! Oh, the possibilities.

Collecting can infuse a character with quirks that help to define him or her, just like they do for us. As I find myself parting with some of my own collections, I turn to my manuscripts to capture them for posterity. Because when a character collects Batman action figures, it takes up much less space.

P.S. 74 days until Suede to Rest!

Interview: A.R. Simmons

Please welcome A.R. Simmons, author of the Richard Carter novels.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
It begins with sunshine and nothing alarming on the news, includes a ColdFuryB1a1smCaprese pizza with my life partner and best friend followed by a road trip in the Ozarks, and concludes with moonlight, honeysuckle-scented air, and the calls of whippoorwills all entering the bedroom window.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
Yes, a phrase: “There but for fortune . . .”

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
Miguel de Cervantes (inventor of the novel), Mark Twain, (invented the American novel), and Helen Morris (a wonderful lady from New Zealand who made my writing bleed).

Do you listen to music when you write?
My best writing time is very early when the rest of the house is asleep, so not then. When alone, however, I listen to singer/songwriters on Sirius radio.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
It would be dark chocolate flavored with hot chiles, because Cold Fury is all about burning obsession verging on shared insanity.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
Greek mythology, DSM-IV, and the FBI’s Crime Classification Manual.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
Obsession, jealousy, and sociopathology.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
Richard Carter explains himself by saying that war changes people, and never for the better. He is a former Marine who suffers PTSD, something he doesn’t believe in. Instead, he sees himself as the perpetrator of an atrocity, although what he did was the result of chance, not choice. No matter. He cannot forgive himself. Without his wife, Jill, he would be irretrievably lost. He saved her life, but she continually saves his. Despite this, he is not a gloomy individual. He copes by doing what he can as deputy to make the world a safer and better place (as corny as that may be).

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
Wow! Let’s go at this both ways, from a personality viewpoint and then from a physical appearance viewpoint. This is going to sound weird. Like Abraham Lincoln, he carries heavy sadness, but is outwardly good-natured and jovial. He has great compassion for the poor, the old, and the weak, perhaps like I imagine Jacob Riis, the author of the photo expose, How the Other Half Lives. Let’s throw in a fictional lawman from the old west of TV, Marshall Matt Dillon of Gun Smoke fame.

If you could host an author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
Okay. Three men and three women. Mark Twain, M. M. Kaye, Isaac Asimov, Agatha Christie, Kurt Vonnegut, and Mary Shelley.

What’s next for you?
Another Richard Carter novel, The Daughter.


A.R. Simmons was born in Chicago, but grew up in the Missouri Ozarks. He attended a one-room school through the eighth grade. Before college, he was a carpenter and a factory worker and then entered the Army and serving in the Far East. His military experience provided an invaluable opportunity to see a world far different from his own. Perhaps even more importantly, it allowed him to become acquainted with his country. The racial, ethnic, and cultural makeup of his squad was varied. This diversity changed forever his concept of “American.” The GI Bill financed his college career (BA and MA degrees in history). He is the author of the Richard Carter novels set in his native Ozarks.

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