Guest Post: Mikkilynn Olmsted

Sweeping Out for the New Year

Walter Mitty and I could’ve been soul mates. Like Mitty, I routinely day dream about change, but when change is necessary, I resist. There are lists of reasons why I might resist something new, something different. A lot of the reasons are fear of failure.

No surprise that as January ends, my New Year resolutions are starting to wane. Why did I make them anyway, I grumble. My old routines invite me back to hit the snooze button, order take-out, and watch cable reality TV marathons. No amount of self-help advice can reverse the downshift because the responsibility to reset my day to day life relies with me.

The same is true for my writing practice.

My practice hasn’t staled; in fact, it feels cozy, familiar . . . cramped. Cozy is fine for long winter nights and weekend mornings. Not so much for creative invention. The same type of characters get into the same type of trouble and, how amazing, decide the same conclusions. All this repetition has my characters day dreaming of living better, more dynamic lives – without me, since I’m the one writing them into their same old, same old lives.

Several times a year, I clean out my writing practice – what’s working, what’s getting in the way, what could be better. Since I teach, these days of reflection tend to follow the academic calendar. I dust my office. Rearrange furniture. Buy a new writing notebook, or swap out the toys surrounding my keyboard. I wash my coffee cup. I compile all the notes and stickies of scribbles. I inventory my writing schedule. I’m not at a point in my life where half days (or whole!) are devoted to writing, but I am able to rethink when I can write the most with the least distraction. I also consider what I haven’t tried.  I’m a morning writer, so I’ll try to compose in the afternoon. Maybe I’ll write to a new type of music, like jazz instead of classical. Write outdoors. I scrub the writing process raw to basic elements: discipline to write, an open imagination, and a writing tool or two. Sometimes, this process of renewal leaves me feeling as energized as late Spring, knowing I’ve hung everything out to air. But not always. Not the days I want to lounge in holey pajamas and blanket my writing with tattered half-thoughts I meant to get to last year.

Again, I pull out the dust mop.

Out from under mental stacks of doubt and procrastination, without dust bunnies of routine, my writing revives. I write scenes differently at dawn than I do at dusk, most obviously because the shadows shift, the air smells fresh or crisp. I may meet a character who lives in a place and time that depends upon a particular rhythm of life very unlike mine. I’m glad to meet this character.

Very glad to be presentable.

***

Mikkilynn Olmsted writes prose and poetry. At the moment, above her writing desk is a postcard of the rolling hills of San Francisco Bay and a news photo of an Australian koala as reminders to be open to the environments she (and her characters) inhabit. Her writing often reflects the places she’s lived, including Puerto Rico, Kentucky,  Nevada, and Colorado, where she teaches writing at MSU Denver. Her blog morethanoneroom.wordpress.com debuts in February. 

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Real Memories, Fake Setting

I’ve spent the past several days in my old hometown, the place where my Style & Error series is kind of set. Kind of, because the town has changed so much since I lived here: highways have been moved, businesses have come and go, restaurants have closed permanently, and my parents have moved to an unfamiliar part.

The memories I have about Reading, Pennsylvania, mostly Exeter Township, are faint and attached to memories of high school, of dating, driving, hanging out with friends. I think about shopping at the Reading Station (no longer there), miniature golfing at Schell’s on Perkiomen Avenue (no longer called Schell’s), turning onto 47th street at Fegley’s (nope) and having dinner at the Seafood Shanty by Boscov’s east (nix).

That’s not to say that everything has changed. V&S sandwich shop is still there, as is Brother Bruno’s Pizza. Two of my favorite pretzel outlets, Tom Sturgis and Unique Splitz, both maintain substantial pretzel meccas for peeps like me. Boscov’s is still Boscov’s. (Did you Boscov today? I did!).

When I grew up in Reading, I was discovering who I was. My friends and I went from kids who hung out together at the pool to teenagers who borrowed our parent’s cars and went to movies. My first dates were in Reading. My first kisses were in Reading. I went out of state for college but moved back, an adult version of myself. Even though I found a FT  job, at the end of each day, I drove back to my parent’s house, where I lived until finding my own place. I was caught between being an adult and being a kid.

That’s where Samantha Kidd was born, and it’s why she lives where she lives.

Because so much of my own town had changed, I decided to go with my own version of Reading. I renamed it Ribbon, Pennsylvania. In the Style & Error books I nod and wink at locations that I remember fondly and occasionally reverse time and reopen a business that has long since been gone. And since I’ve made it a town where a fashionista relocates after her career as buyer in New York, I’ve glammified things a bit. (Hey, it’s my party and I’ll glam if I want to).

I’m curious about other peoples’ processes: have you set your stories in a place where you live/d? Have you stayed true to the town as it is? Or have you falsified the town enough that you made it fictional?

Interview and Giveaway: Jess Lourey

Please welcome Jess Lourey, author of the Murder-by-Month series.

Special note: Jess has graciously offered to give two lucky readers a copy of January Thaw. Just leave a comment below today to enter. Winner will be selected at random and notified via email.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
I love this question! I’m a big believer in the power of visualization, and I’ve been so busy the last three months that I haven’t stoJanuary Thawpped to look around. So hmmm…a perfect day begins with me getting up before my family and cooking a delicious breakfast for them. Then, they go off to work or school, and I work out, walk the dog, meditate, and then write 3000 words. Every one of them comes easy because this is my perfect day, right? I follow that with a nap, some reading, and crossing busywork off my to-do list before I start making homemade soup and bread for supper. Everyone comes home, they eat my food and know how much I love them, and we talk about our day, laugh lots, and play games together.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
I WISH I had a signature fragrance. I continue to look for the perfect scent. I’m 43, so if I don’t figure it out soon, it’s going to default to that dusty powder scent my grandma always had (sigh. I miss her). If anyone has recommendations for something sort of sandalwoody and citrusy, not sweet or alcohol-smelling, let me know! In answer to the rest in order: bracelets (love ‘em!), dark jewel tones, “sher,” and anything so-spicy-it-tastes-like-poison.

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
Rex Veeder, my overworked, underpaid creative writing professor who took many, many hours out of his busy life to help me hear the rhythm of a story. My friend Christine Hollermann who makes daily, conscious decisions to live a happy life, and succeeds nearly every day. Neil Gaiman, who writes the story he hears rather than the story people want him to write.

Do you listen to music when you write?
I try to, because it sounds so cool when the author can tell you the soundtrack to her book. Truth is, though, I usually write in silence. There’s so much going on in my head that music usually distracts.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
It would be dark chocolate with nuts because that’s my favorite. Wait!!! I take that back. It’d be white chocolate with raisins so that I wouldn’t just sit in a corner and eat it all day.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
I had a contract to write January Thaw, the ninth in my series. When looking for ideas, my cousin Andrea said, “What about a Zamboni driving across the ice and discovering a corpse frozen in the lake?” These kinds of ideas seem normal when you live in winter six months of the year. I also knew I wanted my protagonist, Mira James, to continue to grow and tackle some of her darker demons. Those two combined ideas resulted in January Thaw.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
Secrets. I always go back to secrets.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
Mira James is an optimist who is always waiting for the other shoe to drop, a grad-school dropout and the daughter of an alcoholic who died in a car accident when he was driving drunk. Although the series is funny, it’s grounded in her evolution as a person, someone who is trying to do the best she can with what information she has. She is very much three steps forward, two steps back.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
Tina Fey, Kinsey Millhone (Sue Grafton’s protagonist), and Sandra Bullock.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
The beauty of the mystery community is that this dream is usually a reality. Everyone is so friendly! So, this weekend, I’ll be having dinner with Hank Phillippi Ryan, Reed Farrel Coleman, Linda Joffe Hull, Charlaine Harris, and Clare O’Donohue. How cool is that? If Catriona MacPherson could join us, I’d be set.

What’s next for you?
I’m working on February Fever, the 10th in the Murder by Month mysteries. Think Murder on the Orient Express meets Stephanie Plum. Also, I’m completing revisions on two manuscripts for my agent: The Catalain Book of Secrets (magical realism, along the lines of Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic) and Madmen: The Toadhouse Trilogy, Book One (middle grade fantasy, about two kids who can travel into classic literature). Hopefully, all three will be available spring of 2015. You can find out more at my website, www.jesslourey.com, and by visiting me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/jess.lourey. All are welcome!

Thank you for having me! This has been a fun interview.

***

Jess Lourey is the author of the Lefty-nominated Murder-by-Month mysteries set in Battle Lake, Minnesota, and featuring amateur sleuth, Mira James. Jess has been teaching writing and sociology at the college level since 1998. Publisher’s Weekly says January Thaw, her latest, “successfully combines humor, an intriguing mystery, and quirky smalltown characters!”

When not raising her wonderful kids, teaching, or writing, you can find her gardening, traveling, and navigating the niceties and meanities of small-town life. She is a member of Sisters in Crime and The Loft (Minneapolis), and serves on the national board of Mystery Writers of America. She also teaches creative writing workshops all over the country.

Interview: Michael Nethercott

Please welcome Michael Nethercott, author of The Séance Society, the first book in a new series.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
Well, seeing as I’m answering this on a snowy New England afternoon, I’d say that any day where I don’t have to ice-rake our roof sounds delightful. As a writer, I value a day where I’ve carved out a sturdy three or four pages—that then hold up toSeance Society the next morning’s rereading.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
A color: Green. I’m very into my Irish roots and find myself gravitating towards emerald hues. On more than one occasion I’ve been berated by my kids for wearing solid green.

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
In terms of my writing, I’d have to say Agatha Christie, who I read a ton of as a kid and who taught me the love of a twisty whodunit. She’s definitely the spiritual godmother of my own mystery writing. Then there’s John Steinbeck, whose solid storytelling really spoke to me. For a third choice, I’ll go with whoever edited that volume of Best Loved Poems that I hauled around throughout my boyhood.

Do you listen to music when you write?
I usually prefer quiet when I’m at the keyboard. If I do toss on any tunes, then it’s generally something instrumental, probably classical. On the other hand, when I write at a coffee shop, I’m at the whim of whatever the on-duty barista puts on—hopefully not Metallica.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
Dark chocolate, 85% cocoa. Yeah, dark, mysterious, ghostly chocolate—to fit with the spooky atmosphere of my novel, The Séance Society. When murder intrudes on a group of ghost seekers, my detective duo is drawn into a murder investigation involving the “Spectricator,” a machine designed to communicate with the dead. There’s certainly a good dose of humor in the tale, but there’s plenty of shadow, as well. Dark, chocolaty shadow…

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
Growing up in my big, sprawling Irish-American extended family, I heard many (presumably) true accounts of spirits, prophetic dreams, and other supernatural doings. When I was choosing the theme of my first novel, the otherworldly just seemed a natural fit. I should say that The Séance Society is a “fair” whodunit in that the culprit is revealed to be a flesh-and-blood human—not a spook. So, I wouldn’t label my story as a straight supernatural mystery; more like a mystery with supernatural aspects.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
Ghosts—both the vaporous ones and the ones that linger in any human life. And history—how various lives overlap with the culture and events of their times.

Tell us about your main characters’ psyche or personality. What led them to be the persons they are today?
In The Séance Society, set in the mid-1950’s, I have two protagonists—a pair of detectives who work together as team. Mr. O’Nelligan is an Irish-born widower in his early sixties living in the small town of Thetford, Connecticut. His past professions including train conductor, schoolteacher, bricklayer, door-to-door salesman and actor. Also, in his youth, he fought in his homeland as a rebel, though he prefers not to dwell on that period. He is a devotee of classic literature and quotes Shakespeare and William Butler Yeats freely. Mr. O’Nelligan could be described as witty, analytical, pragmatic, warm, compassionate and scholarly. He’s very high-minded and sees each case he embarks upon as a knightly quest. He fits the “amateur sleuth” designation, although he is, in fact, assisting an actual private eye, Lee Plunkett, a young man who has reluctantly inherited his father’s agency. Though Lee is the one with the official investigator’s license, he is, in a sense, actually the “Watson” of the duo, as well as the narrator. Though quick-witted, brave, and insightful in ways, Lee can be cynical and unsure of himself as a detective. He’s struggling to be more than his father’s son (and he has a spunky fiancée who helps him in this.) The unlikely pair of O’Nelligan and Plunkett forge a bond to take on matters of murder and mystery.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
Mr. O’Nelligan: Poirot, Holmes, and the archetypal father-confessor.
Lee Plunkett: Watson, Archie Goodwin, and good ol’ Charlie Brown.

If you could host an author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
Start with Dame Agatha and William Butler Yeats. Next, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin (‘cause I have a little literary crush on her.) And then Shakespeare (to grill him on whether he was indeed the one-and-only author of all those plays.) Oh, and Lincoln. (He wrote the Gettysburg Address—does that count?) And, lastly, maybe Hemingway… but I’d keep him away from the booze. Wouldn’t want any fistfights at the table.

What’s next for you?
The second book of my O’Nelligan/Plunkett series will be out this coming autumn and is titled The Haunting Ballad. It takes place in the spring of 1957, and Mr. O’Nelligan and Lee Plunkett, the detective team from The Séance Society, are summoned to Greenwich Village to investigate the death of a controversial songcatcher (folk song collector.) The trail leads the pair to a colorful group of suspects including an eccentric Beat coffee house owner, a family of Irish balladeers (who may be IRA), a bluesy ex-con, a hundred-and-five-year-old Civil War drummer boy, and a self-proclaimed “ghost chanter” who sings songs that she receives from the dead. To complicate matters, there’s a handsome, smooth-talking young folk singer who Lee’s fiancée Audrey is enthralled by. And somewhere in the Bohemian swirl of the Village, a killer waits…

***

Michael Nethercott is the author of new mystery series set in the 1950s. A traditional whodunit with supernatural undercurrents, his debut novel The Séance Society is published by St Martin’s Press (Minotaur/Thomas Dunne.) Nethercott has won The Black Orchid Novella Award (for traditional mysteries), the Vermont Playwrights Award, the Nor’easter Play Writing Contest, the Vermont Writers’ Award, and the Clauder Competition (Best Vermont Play.) He has also been a Shamus Award finalist. His tales of mystery and the supernatural have appeared in numerous periodicals and anthologies including Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Best Crime and Mystery Stories of the Year, Thin Ice: Crime Stories by New England Writers, Crimestalkers Casebook, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He lives with his family in Vermont.

Website: www.michaelnethercott.com/
Facebook: www.facebook.com/MichaelNethercottAuthor

That First Sentence. That First Page.

I just taught my first day in a brand new semester, and I feel somewhat disoriented and disheveled, a bit anxious. I drive to work at a new time, the sun glinting off the horizon. I wander the hallway in search of 299A, which does not appear in the list of possible rooms on the maps to the building. That’s exciting. Perhaps I’ll be teaching in an alternate universe this period. I do find it after all and search the faces of new students, wondering how this semester will turn out.

But the beginning of a novel is supposed to create the opposite feeling. The beginning is supposed to pull the reader in, get them hooked and curious. It’s supposed to orient them to your world and characters, but not give away too much too quickly.

That first sentence is supposed to hook that literary agent into signing you up as the next genius or blockbuster writer. It’s supposed to sell the editor, who will sell it to her publishing house, who will take out all the stops and roll out a huge marketing campaign to sell your brilliant book which of course lives up to that first sentence, so then you can make millions and retire to write in your dream house in that dream setting.

No pressure, really.

Once I went to a workshop where an editor read your first page and commented.

Turns out I still had a lot to learn.

The first line I remembered off the top of my head was Charles Dickens:  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” (It doesn’t stop there.) Sometimes good first lines break punctuation rules.

Or Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” a line I quote to students to illustrate the obscurity of the modernists.

I don’t really have an absolute favorite. There are so many good ones.

From Ms. Harris:  “I knew my brother would turn into a panther before he did.” Or “’Caucasian vampires should never wear white,’ the television announcer intoned.”

From Hugh Howey:  “The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children do.”

From Craig Johnson:  “I wanna know what Katrina Walks Nice did to get kicked out of a joint like this for sixty-one days.”

This website lists their 100 best first lines. Melville tops the list with “Call me Ishmael.”

There used to be a worst first sentence contest that I would read out to my students, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Edward George Bulwer-Lytton wrote what is widely considered the worst first sentence ever, “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” (With such a long name, you know he had to write a long sentence.)

And yet this same sentence appears as number 22 on the best first lines website. Go figure.

What’s your worst revising experience with a first sentence or first page? Or your worst rejection or editor/agent response?

What’s your favorite first sentence? Favorite worst first line?

Community-An Aspect of Setting or Character?

As we all know, setting is an essential element of story-telling. In fact, in Chris Roerden’s “Don’t Murder Your Mystery” she notes that “[w]e humans have a primal need to orient ourselves in our surroundings. Studies have shown that rats that are kept in entirely undifferentiated surroundings become psychotic in a matter of days.1 Unfortunately (for me and my readers), I am not as skilled with descriptions of setting as I would like to be.

My series, The Letty Whittaker 12 Step Mysteries, takes place in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin—a beautiful scenic town that was chosen in 1997 by Time magazine as one of America’s top ten small towns. It’s a pretty place. There are authors who would certainly do justice to its charm and unique north-midwestern style. I’d love to be able to bring a setting to life the way William Kent Krueger does for Minnesota’s Iron Range.2

However, one aspect of setting that I find comes more naturally to my writing style is that of community. When I was pondering what to write for this post, it occurred to me that much of my book is based on the communities that Letty is immersed in. All of us—unless we’re living in a remote Montana cabin proofreading our manifesto—are a part of some community, usually several—family, neighborhoods, work, church, friendship circles, special interest groups such as writers’ organizations, or political affiliations. The list is endless. Heck,  even blogs, if we are regular contributors or commentators, are a community.

There is an obvious connection between communities and settings. Setting descriptions are a way of orienting the reader to the character’s world. Unless the character is working in a vacuum, her communities are going to come into play when describing her life and the external surroundings.

For instance, Letty is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous—a fairly insular group—and one of the “hooks” in my series is to open the world of AA to the curious. In fact, each book is thematically structured on one or two of AA’s 12 Steps. I wanted readers who haven’t “sat around the tables” to feel what it’s like to walk into a (typically) shabby old building where everybody knows your deepest secrets and it feels as though you’ve just come home even though the coffee is atrocious and the person sitting next to you has disgusting B.O.3 I also wanted readers who have been to AA to say, “Yeah, that’s what it’s like.” Needless to say, AA is highly significant to my story. As Roerden points out, “In some fiction, setting plays a role as significant as that of a character.” It was in this context that I then considered community as a technique for developing character.

After all, the communities our characters belong to tell readers a great deal about them. Is your character a reluctant member, forced to participate in a community because it’s a necessary evil? Harry Bosch of Michael Connelly’s thriller series comes to mind. He’d much rather be on his own but the guy’s gotta make a living. Lee Child went even further with Jack Reacher. Or perhaps your character is a hearty enthusiast, someone whose personality makes him or her a “joiner”? Something like Claire O’Donohue’s Someday Quilts series where the quilters group solves murders in between stitches. Where our characters feel at home is highly descriptive and is as much a part of his or her personality as how he dresses or what sports she follows.

Another aspect of character development is the need to bring alive the characters and relationships within the community that our characters interact with. After all, a community is empty of meaning without people.4 As writers, we’ll have to examine how those personalities fit into the whole of the community, and what relationships with them says about the main characters. Communities provide oodles of secondary or tertiary characters that add depth and “flavor” to our story.

But there is a larger consideration than the individual members.

When we’re speaking about communities we aren’t referring merely to individuals—isolated and distinct—but to the unique entity that is born when its members identify with each other and decide to belong to the entity. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” to steal from Aristotle. We could argue “greater than,” but let’s not quibble. My point is that the whole is separate from its parts.

What’s amazing to me (and to community psychologists) 5 is that this “whole” can essentially become a new, distinct character. As such, a community has a personality, if you will, and therefore requires as much thought as any other character. Communities have certain norms, mores, belief systems, etc. that its members either adhere to or rebel against and that either invite or exclude non-members from entering. A community can put pressures on a character, can become an obstacle as in bureaucracies, the source of a threat, or, of course, a vast network of support and affection.

In my WIP,Letty has infiltrated an Armageddon-style cult in order to rescue a friend’s daughter who has disappeared in their midst. Part of what Letty is up against is the disconcerting reality of balancing the feelings she has for some of the individuals against her fears of them as members of a complex and potentially dangerous community.

I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on the importance of community in their writing or reading.

1 I made that up.

2 Of course if I could do that it would negate the whole premise of this posting, wouldn’t it?

3 Well, maybe not with that much clarity.

4 Or sheep, if you’re Leonie Swan. Have you read “Three Bags Full”? Loved it!

Yes, there are such things. Why don’t you trust me?

Work-in-progress

Find Your People

Recently, I glanced at some old journals and was surprised to see that I’d jotted down the basic premise of my first novel several times over the years. Clearly, I wanted to do it–I kept saying “write a novel about X.” So why did it take me fifteen years to begin?  I suspect it was because I didn’t have a creative writing community.

Sometimes, the most difficult thing about beginning a new project is feeling alone and/or uncertain about your efforts. If you are just starting to write novels seriously, you may not know about the wonderful opportunities out there for you: thanks to the magic of the interwebs, you can connect with people all over the world in a matter of minutes.

1. Find an organization devoted to your genre.  There are groups for mystery writers, romance writers, sci-fi writers, fantasy writers, children’s book writers, etc.  Just do internet searches to find what you are interested in. Check out their websites, get a sense of the vibe there, and join the ones that seem to fit your style.

(For mystery, I suggest Sisters in Crime and the subgroup, Guppies.  All kinds of benefits are associated with membership, including discussion groups, regular newsletters, online classes, critique opportunities, not to mention an instant community with the authors you are probably reading already!)

There are also general writer-based groups (not dependent on genre) online, of course.

Also check out the local groups in your area that offer activities. (For example, in Colorado, we have Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and Pikes Peak Writers, which have annual conferences as well as other events and classes.)

Here’s a useful list of writer associations.

2. Join NaNoWriMo. Once you sign up for that, you will begin to receive motivational emails and information on how to connect with the gazillion other people engaged in the business of writing.  And take the leap…give National Novel Writing Month and Camp NaNoWriMo a try.   You’ll be surprised at how exhilarating it is to be racing the clock with a whole tribe of writers doing the exact same thing.

3. Look for events to attend, both virtually and IRL. From one-day free workshops to week-long conferences, online seminars to ongoing critique groups, there are a wide range of things happening in the writerly world.  Attending them can give you a real boost in terms of knowledge, confidence, and community.

4. Follow authors you admire on Twitter or Facebook.  See what they reference in terms of resources–chances are, they’re plugged into some kind of community from which you might benefit.

5. Read blogs by writers, editors, agents, and publishers–and participate in the conversations.   (You are always welcome here, of course.  We love when people talk to us.)

6. Be like the illustrious Inklings and the Detection Club: start your own group (although it’s hard to imagine, they were earnest newbies too at some point).

No matter what, don’t be shy.  Jump in.  You’ll be amazed at how much a sense of community can motivate and sustain you.

(Writers, what else would you suggest?  How did you find Your People?)