Interview: Michael Marshall

Please welcome Michael Marshall, author of We Are Here and other novels.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
Waking up with my wife and son in a nice, urban hotel room on the first day of a trip to some big, vibrant city, in autumn… having an early coffee at a sidewalk café watching the world go by and plotting how to spend the morning, though probaMarshall_WeAreHereMyste#3ACbly ending up just walking the streets… then being magically transported to some rugged miles-from-anywhere wilderness for the afternoon, for more walking and talking, with drinks and dinner — and maybe a few games of pool — in some wood-paneled local dive before retiring to sleep in a cozy log cabin in a snowy forest. With a couple of cats on the bed. And a nice cup of tea.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
I’m seldom seen without my iPhone, doubtless smell of cigarettes, and possibly say “Interesting…” a little too often. Doesn’t make me sound like a captivating combination, I know. But I have cash on me.

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
Nicholas Royle, whose work and encouragement first got me sending short stories out; Stephen King, who made me realize the kind of engagement with the reader that I aspire to; and Kingsley Amis, who showed that everything in human life — however grim or annoying or frankly tedious — can be food for amusement, and that every single word is worth choosing carefully.

Do you listen to music when you write?
Very seldom. I find music picks at my ears, making it impossible to do anything except sit and listen to it. Once in a while I do find it helpful, however — usually when fighting through some particularly knotty section — and will put some Bach on, or perhaps a Hans Zimmer movie soundtrack, or one song with exactly the right atmosphere, on endless repeat.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
An After Eight. This is a distinctively English chocolate, and I guess the nearest functional US equivalent would be a Junior Mint, though they’re different both in form and how they’re perceived. After Eights are very flat and thin and square and are seen as something of a treat. They have a rippled dark chocolate outside (the noir and suspense elements), with a bitterness that is in strong contrast to the velvety mint fondant interior (the all-important threads of human emotion, and warmth). There are more boutique and expensive versions of this combination — but I don’t want to write exclusive, highbrow fiction: I like books that are accessible to everyone.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
A lot of songs and books are written about love. That’s understandable. It’s a big thing, and often sculpts people’s lives. But friendship may be even more important, and the way in which it threads through our lives — and the impact of its loss upon how we feel about the world and our selves — is just as critical. The conceits in We Are Here seemed to give me a new way of looking at these ideas, of concretizing the role of friendship in our lives.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
The importance of love, and friendship, and family, and our pasts — and what happens to us, sometimes years later, when darkness arrives in these areas, and how we may hope to recover and rebuild our worlds when that has happened.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
We Are Here is an ensemble piece — there are a few ‘main’ characters, their stories interweaving — but I suppose the protagonist is a man called John Henderson. He’s now living in a tiny apartment in New York, working as a waiter, and in a new relationship with a tough young woman called Kristina. Though We Are Here is a standalone novel, John previously featured in a book of mine called Bad Things, in which his past as both a lawyer and special forces agent are covered, along with the break-up of his marriage after the death of his young son in very mysterious circumstances. John is a strong, forceful man, with a sense of humor. He’s made some pretty big mistakes in his life, however, and knows all about the darkness threaded through the world, and through human nature.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
I’ve thought about this long and hard, and actually find it impossible. I spent nine months writing his story and he seems very real to me, as a character in his own right rather than amalgam of other people.

If you could host an author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, P. G. Wodehouse, Douglas Adams, Kingsley Amis, and Stephen Jones. I don’t want to even think about the hangover that would ensue, but it’d be fun getting there.

What’s next for you?
Right now I’m in the middle of a new novel, set around the town where we now live — Santa Cruz, in Northern California — and co-writing a movie adaptation of a previous novel of mine, Killer Move. I’m also assisting BBC America with the television series adaption of my novel The Intruders.

***

Michael Marshall was born in England but spent his early years in the United States, South Africa, and Australia. After spending twenty-five years in London, he recently moved to Santa Cruz, California, with his wife and son. His previous novel, The Intruders, is about to go into production as a BBC America series.

Website: www.michaelmarshallsmith.com

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Guest Post: Lev Raphael

Dissing Mysteries

No, this is not a blog about people who think mysteries are trash and not worth reading because they’re nothing more than “escape reading.”  The latter charge has always amused me, because I’m not alone in thinking that all reading is a form of escape, whether it’s Murder at the Vicarage or Madame Bovary.

This blog is about people who don’t respect the genre they’re ostensibly working in.  Years ago when my Nick Hoffman amateur sleuth series was just getting started, Woody Allen did a profoundly misguided film called Manhattan Murder Mystery.  It was slapdash and sloppy, and missing a crucial piece: there was no discernible reason for the amateur sleuth to get involved in investigating the murder.  Yes, there were some funny lines along the way, but the movie was hollow at its core because it didn’t make sense.  It’s one thing for cops, PIs and other professionals to investigate a murder, but the motive for someone untrained has to be believable; leaving that key element out as if it doesn’t matter shows a lack of respect for the genre–and its fans.  To me, the film was tossed off with an anyone-can-write-a-mystery attitude.

I just tried watching a film called Columbus Circle about a wealthy, mysterious agoraphobic living in an exclusive Midtown building whose neighbor is murdered.  The new, classy-looking neighbors who take over the dead woman’s apartment suddenly have a trailer trash brawl out in the hallway and as soon as it happened, I thought 1) they’re faking it 2) they’re doing this to lure the shut-in out of her privacy 3) they’re somehow after her money.  All of that proved to be true within minutes.  Worse still, the new woman neighbor badgered the wealthy agoraphobic into walking down the hallway and there was absolutely no reason why her intended victim should have succumbed to the pressure. So not only was the psychology bogus, the writers didn’t respect the thriller genre enough to make it remotely believable or suspenseful, and I see this on film and on TV way too often.

A more recent case in point is the hugely popular Benedict Cumberpatch love fest, aka Sherlock.  It’s gained viewers each season as it’s become less coherent and extravagantly devoted to special effects demonstrating the processes of Sherlock’s thinking.

The show started out as fiendishly clever in the first season, everything you’d hope for in a brand new take on Watson and Holmes.  The show even wittily played with the homoerotic nature of their bromance, not just as seen by outsiders like their landlady and a restaurant owner.  The leads themselves discussed it, Sherlock with aplomb, Watson with annoyance.  Most amusing.

But the special effects that were entertaining in Season One seem to have run amok and at times they not only upstage the story–such as it is–but the inimitable Cumberpatch himself. One fan told me that he enjoyed the FX because they were a fine demonstration of the chaos in Holmes’s mind.  This strikes me as a basic misunderstanding of Holmes’s character: his mind is anything but chaotic.  It’s brilliantly organized and makes connections we ordinary mortals can’t.  Between the effects and the frantic editing, I’ve had to replay some scenes to follow them.  It’s one thing when there’s explosively fast editing in a Jason Bourne movie, but that’s out of place in Sherlock because his internal processes should be a marvel, not stupefying.

There’s also much less actual story in the show than there used to, and that’s been very puzzling to me.  The answer came when I happened to see the show’s writers happily confide in an interview that for them, Sherlock was not going to be about him “solving a crime ever week.”  Seriously?  What’s the point, then?  Why try breathing new life into a character with so many lives in books and in film and then totally subvert his genius?  Holmes is a brilliant detective.  With a level of insight that’s uncanny, he observes, deduces, and detects, either in the field or just sitting in his armchair.  But the writers are apparently bored by all that, and prefer playing with toys instead.  Their attitude shows contempt for the genre they’re in.  Why not make him a plumber or an astronaut?

Elementary with Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu is a true mystery, even as it offers viewers  an even bolder take on Holmes.  That’s not immediately obvious because it’s not as flashy.  Elementary doesn’t just make Holmes a recovering addict, it turns Watson into a woman and his “sober companion”–at least when the show debuted.  There’s no show-offy camera work or FX here, but plenty of substance, and crimes are consistently solved, not ignored.  Sometimes the motive in a crime might seem weak, or the suspect obvious, but perfection on a weekly basis isn’t really achievable.  Nonetheless, the show is a real mystery that respects the source material but gives it plenty of smart contemporary twists.  Elementary never loses sight of who Sherlock is and why he’s held our imagination for over a century.  Best of all, by making Watson a woman, it’s opened up the Sherlock story in a whole new way–just as Laurie L. King’s wonderful series breathed its own new life into the Sherlock legend.

Lucy Liu’s Watson is a strong, complex, fascinating woman.  Part of the joy of this show has been watching her develop from a sober companion into an amateur detective and Sherlock’s partner in crime-solving,  Just as enjoyable is the fact that her relationship with Sherlock does not feel stereotypical.  You don’t sense the writers taking the clichéd tack of pushing a male and female lead together because what else can happen between them?  I’m actually surprised at how many mystery fans I know who haven’t ever given Elementary a try, even the ones who are tired of Sherlock for many of the same reasons I am.

Do I love crime fiction, mystery films and TV?  Absolutely.  That’s one reason I was thrilled years ago when the Detroit Free Press expanded my brief and made me their crime fiction reviewer, a spot I held for about a decade. And I admire writers who value the genre, so I’m sorry when people cash in on it–or try–without really understanding its essence.

***

Lev Raphael is the author of seven Nick Hoffman mysteries set in the crazy world of academia, as well as seventeen other books in genres from memoir to Jane Austen mashup. His books have been translated into nearly a dozen languages, some of which he can’t recognize. But he has been able to do readings in German when he’s done book tours in Germany, thanks to a good tutor. Lev has been writing since he was in second grade and currently is a guest teacher of fiction writing, crime fiction, and Jewish-American Literature at Michigan State University. That university’s Library purchased his current and future literary papers for its Special Archives, carting off 93 boxes of all sorts of materials related to his long career. His attic is now navigable again.

For more about Lev’s books, check out his web site:http://www.levraphael.com.

Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/LevRaphael

Read his book blogs at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lev-raphael/

Interview: Shannon Baker

Please welcome Shannon Baker, author of the Nora Abbott Mystery Series.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
I can think of lots of perfect day scenarios but if I had to pick just one, it would be hiking in the Grand Canyon with my best guy. We’d wake to the sunrise over the Colorado River and spend the day in the sunshine, exploring the trails. Right now, as I write this, I’m stuck in rural Nebraska and it’s not even going to hit above freezing today. So thank you for bringingbrokentrust home the point of just how far from my perfect day I actually have strayed!

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
I am so generic! I have no signature anything. Apparently, I have an anti-signature color, though. A few weeks ago when I visited my daughter she nearly didn’t recognize me as I walked down the concourse. I was wearing a pink sweater. My ex (her father) hooked up with a woman whose signature color is pink. My daughter didn’t think I’d ever be caught in that color. Huh. No bimbo can tell me what I can or can’t wear!

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
Helen Hooven Santmyer. She wrote And Ladies of the Club, which I read in the 80’s. I loved the book and thought that someday I’d like to write a sweeping story like that. Then I figured if I was ever going to get to the point that I could, I’d better start working on it. I probably won’t ever write something that ambitious, but it did make me start writing.

Mari Sandoz. She came from the same area where I lived for 20 years, the Nebraska Sandhills. She overcame such obstacles and failure to achieve such success with her writing.

An Economics professor at the University of Nebraska, Dr. Petr. I got married and moved to the Nebraska Sandhills before I graduated in business. As I was filing papers to complete my classes via independent study and correspondence (this was way before online classes) he stopped me in the hall. He gave me a mini-lecture about making sure I finished school and not giving up on finding something meaningful to do with my education that it made me feel guilty if I even thought about not getting my degree. I didn’t use my degree for nearly 20 years but it made the difference in me getting a job when I really needed one and that completely changed the direction of my life for the better.

Do you listen to music when you write?
Again, I’m super boring here. No music. I can write in coffee shops and cafes, I can write outside, I can write in libraries and airports. But I get distracted by music. I want to sing and dance.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
Probably 60% cocoa, because it’s not terribly dark but not sweet, either. It’s medium boil, according to my publisher. I’d add a few chopped almonds, because Nora’s mother is nutty, and I’d throw in some toffee, because her love interest, Cole, is sweet but they clash a little. There would be a mystery ingredient that you couldn’t identify to include the whole mystical Hopi element.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
When I first moved to Flagstaff several years ago, the community was in an uproar over making snow on the sacred peaks outside of town. Good for business, bad for Native religion. Since I accidently got a job at The Grand Canyon Trust, an environmental non-profit, I added that strange experience. I mashed it all together and came up with Nora Abbott, who owns a ski resort in Flagstaff in book one, Tainted Mountain, and in book two, Broken Trust, moves to Boulder, CO and accidently hires on with a corrupt non-profit.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
It seems that no matter what my books are about, there is usually some kind of mother issue going on. And there’s usually some character arc dealing with strengthening independence and learning to know yourself. Why do you ask?

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
Nora is an overachiever. She grew up in Boulder and while her mother married rich men and cruised through the whole affluent scene, Nora developed a more serious view of the world and became an environmentalist. She’s always taken care of her mother and everyone around her. In Broken Trust, Nora is trying to learn how to take care of herself. But she’s connected to the Hopi tribe in an unexpected way and they aren’t willing to leave her alone.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
There’s an Ally McBeal element to Nora, where she’s dramatic and prone to wild bursts of imagination. She’s got a little bit of Hillary Clinton, where she can compartmentalize trauma and get the job done. And she’s got just a touch of Rachel Carson, who wrote Silent Spring and started a whole environmental movement.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
I came to the mystery world pretty late. I thought I’d written a stand-alone thriller and when my editor offered me a contract for a mystery she asked, “Is this a series?” I only hesitated a second before saying, “Yes?” So I started reading mysteries. So my guest list is slanted to contemporary writers.  Jessica Lourey, Catriona McPherson, Craig Johnson. Not only are they terrific writers, they are so fun and funny they’d keep the table lively. William Kent Krueger, because he’s, hands-down, the nicest writer in the world. (And he’s a terrific author.) Harlan Coben, because he’s so unbelievably good and he’s also generous and kind. Hank Phillipi Ryan, because she’s so fabulous it would add a real shine to the gathering.

What’s next for you?
Broken Trust will hit the shelves in March 2014 and in March 2015, Tattered Legacy will follow. Tainted Mountain is set in Flagstaff, Broken Trust takes place in Boulder, CO, and Tattered Legacy takes Nora to Moab, UT. All books deal with Hopi mysticism, environmental issues, relationships and, of course, murder. I am working on a new series set in rural Nebraska with a reluctant woman sheriff.

Thanks, gang, for hosting me. Your questions were certainly not ordinary and made me think. Ouch.

***

Shannon Baker writes the Nora Abbott Mystery Series, a fast-paced mix of murder, environmental issues and Hopi Indians published by Midnight Ink. Tainted Mountain, the first in the series is set in Flagstaff, AZ and is a New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards finalist. Broken Trust, due March 2014, takes place in Boulder, CO. A lover of western landscapes, Baker can often be found backpacking, skiing, kayaking, cycling, or just playing lizard in the desert.  She is on the board of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and a member of SinC and MWA. Visit Shannon at www.Shannon-Baker.com.

On “Almost” and Completion

One of my favorite books of the past two years (and many other people’s favorite as well) is THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. I’m assuming most everyone reading this has read it or is familiar with John Green’s tail of two lovestruck teens who meet at a cancer support group.

More than anything else, there’s an overwhelming sense when reading the book not only of love but of what happens when someone is staring down the possibility of an unfinished life.

Which is terrifying.

It’s terrifying watching two teens struggle with the idea that they could go before they get to do everything. And it’s a point that’s driven home even more by protagonist Hazel’s favorite (fake) book that’s left completely unfinished. The words just stop in the middle of a sentence. It’s isn’t almost finished. It’s incomplete.

Hazel and her beloved Gus travel to The Netherlands to track down the author of the novel to find the elusive author and find out what happens.

But the author—and the characters—know that this isn’t how life works. If something is left unfinished, almost done, you may never get answers.

When talking about books, the idea of a story/manuscript/series having an “unfinished life” isn’t obviously as terrifying as when this happens in real life (or in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS). But it’s still disappointing.

As discussed in my last post, I have a complicated relationship with “almost.” I’ve spent my whole life doing things rather than almost doing things. But when it comes to books, there is some lack of control over completion.

Sure, as you may have ascertained, I’m one to finish the manuscripts I start. I don’t have any abandoned almost-book half-naked in a drawer.

However, the idea of the unfinished is different all together when it comes to publishing. For awhile, trilogies reigned, buffered by their popularity in YA. But recently, there’s been a pull back.

I know a few under-contract authors with big, six-figure deals, who have been told the three books they had planned will actually only be two. Or maybe only one book sells at a time when the author has been hoping for a series since birthing the characters from his/her brain.

This is a different feeling of almost.

I write my books as standalones that could continue to a series—something I’d love to do and have planned, but it won’t kill me to “finish” the tale because I don’t set it up like that. At this point in my career, I just want those characters to live, whether it be in one book or three. I think most writers understand this feeling, no matter the stage.

But as a reader, what can be done by a canceled series or unfinished plotline? It’s not the same (truly or metaphorically) of an unfinished life, but really now, what would our literary world have been like if J.K. Rowling had never been allowed to write all seven HARRY POTTER books?

Or if THE HUNGER GAMES was stopped on book two?

Or (more plausibly) if George R.R. Martin is never able to complete the GAME OF THRONES series, leaving us to wonder about the fate of our favorite characters and Westeros? I’ve read that the producers of the TV show related to the books know how the story ends, but what if we never get the book version of the end?

Yes, almost is a scary place in the literary world. As a reader, what would you do if you found out your favorite series just cut off, left unfinished, for one reason or another?

Interview: Nancy Lynn Jarvis

Please welcome Nancy Lynn Jarvis, author of the Regan McHenry Real Estate mysteries.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
It starts with cold left-over Chinese food and a cup of tea eaten while watching a sunrise over Monterey Bay on a crisp November day. At that time of year there’s enough moisture and clouds in the air that the sky is streaked red, orange, violet and amber.

Next, I’d chethe murder houseck Kindle sales and discover there have been many overnight, possibly with one in France or Italy because selling a book in either country would be such fun. I’d spend the day writing using only a light outline so my characters could tell me what to type and writing would be an adventure, almost like reading a book. Later in the day, I’d hear from another writer I’ve met on some form of social media telling me about a five star review they received or some other good news.

As the sun starts to set, I’d be sharing a glass of wine with my husband when the phone rings. Clint Eastwood would be on the line saying he read “Mags and the AARP Gang” and thinks it would make a great little movie. He’d like to play Harvey, the character who does Clint Eastwood impersonations, if that would be okay.

After my husband picks me up off the floor, I’d spend the rest of the day calling people I love to tell them what a great day it’s been.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?

I wear red more often than any other color, especially on 49ers game days, but other than that, no.

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
1. Agatha Christie who made me love a good mystery.
2. Charlotte Bridges. She was a friend who always wanted to see her name in print. She wrote every day but never finished anything because she was constantly distracted by those who tried to “improve” what she wrote. She died of a brain tumor and is the reason I published my first book. It was hurriedly published with a dedication to her in it so she could have her final wish before she died.
3. Tony Hillerman whose Navajo policemen on the Big Reservation tracking bad guys without forgetting to take in an approaching snow storm inspired me to set my Regan McHenry mysteries in worlds I knew well. Santa Cruz became my Big Reservation, and the world of real estate became my Navajo culture equivalent.

Do you listen to music when you write?
No. No. No. I want absolute quiet when I write.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
It would be dark and spicy like a Godiva Aztec Spice truffle. The Murder House is a darker mystery than most of the others I’ve written and what causes the house in the book to be haunted — if it is — is the spicy lives its former inhabitants lived.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
I found the picture of the young woman I used on the book cover and was immediately drawn to her. She seemed to have dark secrets and great sadness in her. She also was so pale she seemed ghostly. I wanted her to be part of my next mystery. Then, as a writer of real estate mysteries, I thought it would be fun to think about how to disclose the presence of a ghost in a house, considering as many people believe in them as don’t.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?

My stories seem to revolve around honor and how that affects my characters’ core values and behavior, even if some of the characters hold values not widely shared.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
Regan is of Irish decent and proud of it. She grew up in San Francisco in a family filled with Irish cops. She married too young and had two sons who are essentially grown at this point. When she was on her own after her first marriage ended, she began working as a Realtor and finished college with a degree in behavior science. She’s detail oriented and prides herself on listening and hearing things others might miss; she also great at reading people…at least most of the time. She’s tenacious, smart, a tad pushy, and a terrible liar. She’s also caring and most importantly curious, which may be a kind way of saying nosey.

Regan has earned her success and done well financially, but the most significant thing she’s done is picked Tom for her second husband. He’s tall, handsome, and has incredibly blue eyes that still stop her heart even after several years of marriage. He’s also as logical as she is intuitive and as deliberative as she is impulsive.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
Regan is primarily Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, although a much younger version of her. I also see a touch of Julia Childs in her because she’s a bit of a foodie and slightly awkward occasionally, and I think she has a bit of the romantic and impractical Mary Queen of Scots in her, although she probably sees herself as more of a Queen Elizabeth I.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
Three dead: Agatha Christie, Tony Hillerman, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to talk classic mystery writing. Two live and well known: Sue Grafton and Laurie King to find out how they did so well; and a friend and fellow writer I’ve never met live, Yolanda Renee, whose work I admire and who, like me, would get a kick out of talking to the others. I’m sure we’d both take copious notes.

What’s next for you?

For some reason, I got it in my head that I’d like to write a book set in the 1880s west. I discovered the Harvey Girls, women recruited from the eastern United States to work as waitresses in Harvey restaurants and hotels along the Santa Fe Railroad lines, and thought it would be fun to see how a young woman fleeing Boston before she could be forced into an unwanted marriage might cope in the completely new environment of the old west.

***

Nancy Lynn Jarvis finally acknowledged she’s having too much fun writing to ever sell another house and let her license lapse in May of 2013, after her twenty-fifth anniversary in real estate. After earning a BA in behavioral science from San Jose State University, she worked in the advertising department of the San Jose Mercury News. A move to Santa Cruz meant a new job as a librarian and later a stint as the business manager for Shakespeare Santa Cruz at UCSC. She invites you to take a peek into the real estate world through the stories that form the backdrop of her Regan McHenry mysteries. Real estate details and ideas come from Nancy’s own experiences.

(A special note from Nancy Lynn Jarvis: Tomorrow is my birthday. As a child we used to get it off because it is George Washington’s birthday; now we celebrate President’s Day and I’m not special. To cheer me up for that loss of status, please say stop by and say, “Hi.”)

Buy autographed and inscribed books at http://www.goodreadmysteries.com and pick up a free recipe for Regan’s Mysterious Chocolate Chip Cookies while they are at the site.

Amazon author page: http://www.amazon.com/Nancy-Lynn-Jarvis/e/B002CWX7IQ/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1389224027&sr=1-2-ent

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ReganMcHenryRealEstateMysteries?ref=ts

Remembering the time I almost…

We all have an “almost” story.

Sometimes, it’s the thing you almost did, but didn’t. And sometimes it’s the other way around (have I lost you yet?). Either way, getting to “almost” and going beyond can make a powerful difference in your life’s path.

My own “almost” moment, at least my most recent one, happened in 2011. I was unemployed, let go from a company where I’d been for twelve and a half years. I had two kids, a mortgage, two car payments, and all the associated bills. Scared? You bet. I had to find a new job.

Except my husband said, “Take the summer off. You know, finish that novel (the one I’d been working on for ten years at that point). See where it goes.”

So I took the summer off. I finished the first draft of the novel. But now what? Then I saw a piece in the local paper about this national organization called Sisters in Crime, and how a local mystery bookstore had a connection. So I went down to talk to the owner. “There’s a meeting here on Sunday,” she said. “Come on down.”

On Sunday, I parked and stood on the sidewalk. This is stupid, I thought. These women have probably been writing for years. How can I seriously think I belong in this league? I almost got back in the car and went home. But something in me said, “Why not?” so I went inside.

Three-ish years later, I’m the secretary of the local SinC chapter. I’ve submitted three short stories that were accepted for publication, including one in our chapter anthology that was released in December 2013. I helped put together the anthology. I’ve met some really fantastic people, and learned a metric ton about writing and publishing.

Most importantly, I learned I didn’t suck. I did belong in the same league as the rest of those women. Yeah, there’s more to learn – there’s always more to learn – but I found a writing tribe of “sisters” to learn with. Had I gotten back into my car that August afternoon, I would have missed it. I almost did.

But perhaps that’s the true power of “almost.”

Almost Over Before It’s Begun

I’m currently writing the third of three books in the Material Witness mystery series, a fabric-themed cozy series. Interestingly, the first book won’t be out until 3 months after the third book has been turned in. While I’ve written other series characters in the past, I’ve never approached a book as if I was writing the last of the books with those characters. And maybe I’m not. This is a 3-book contract, but if readers enjoy the characters as much as I do, they might be asked back to the party. And if not, that’s okay too, because these characters get three whole books to tell a story. Which brings me to the three-book story arc.

It’s an interesting challenge for a writer. A first book in a series is an introduction to a set of characters. In the case of a cozy, it’s also an introduction to a setting—a critical part of the series. I chose to make up a town that was geographically based on a real town. But as I wrote that first book, I added characters that I’d like to see again, and interestingly enough, they became a part of book two and are now becoming a part of book three. New characters come and go, but exploring the secrets at the core of the town that has become my cozy version of Peyton Place has been a lot of fun! If in book one the character is displaced and learns Something Big about herself, then in book two she’s moving forward with this new knowledge, in this new life, and getting established. Book three has to up the ante, but also wrap up any loose ends that were introduced in the first two books.

It is a strange thought to have in the back of my mind that this book might be the last book that these characters are in. (not discounting the fact that I could continue the series on my own, but for the purposes of this post, I’m thinking about the 3-books). It’s not a sad thought. It’s an analytical thought, one that helps me determine what a character might say or how they might act in a specific situation. How much of my hand do I show? If I give away all of the secrets of the town in books 1, 2, and 3, what happens if there’s a book four? And if I don’t give away enough, will people want to keep reading about them?

I read somewhere (I think it was Janet Evanovich’s HOW I WRITE: Secrets of a Bestselling Author) to never hold anything back for the next book, and that advice has served me well. I think, as writers, we have to trust that the ideas will be there when we need them, for the next book, and for the one after that. We also have to know that some characters are best in a stand-alone and others can support dozens of books. For me and my set of characters I’m currently working with, I’m happy they’re going to get their place in the sun (come November 2014!)