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!)

Why I wrote: Blessed are the Dead

This is part I of a three-part series on why I wrote my debut mystery, Blessed are the Dead.

I’m one of those cliché writers who have wanted to write a book since I was 10. Sometimes you are just lucky enough to find your passion at a young age. However, I was distracted from that passion, for, oh, about 30 years. That’s because I had to get a “real job.” I found one that combined my love of writing with a steady paycheck – journalism.

For about 15 years of my life, my passion was journalism, specifically crime reporting for newspapers. When I wasn’t writing about crime for the newspaper, I was at home reading the people who have done it best: Tom Wolfe (The New Journalism), Truman Capote, and Edna Buchanan, (Pulitzer-prize winning former Miami Herald police reporter).

Then I had kids. A reporter friend of mine told me that I was the kind of person who put so much passion into what I did, she could see I had to give up reporting when I became a mother.

She was right.

But it was also the juxtaposition of covering the seedy side of life and then coming home to pure innocence in the form of a baby. It wasn’t working. Not to mention that if a murder took place at 5:59 p.m. when I was scheduled to be off work at 6 p.m., I still had to cover it.

So, for several years I focused on being the mother of two youngsters under age two.  It took everything out of me. I had no idea how intense parenting would be. A good friend of mine wrote a nonfiction crime book while her little ones were young and I am still in awe of her. Her book was based on one of the most horrific crimes our newspaper had ever covered. Although I had lived through the gruesome, gritty details of the case when it ran in our newspaper, after her book was published I had to read it in spurts. That’s because the story it told was so terribly disturbing. (And yet so well written!)

Meanwhile, when I left the newspaper, I had carted along a giant cardboard box with file folders and notes about a story I wanted to write one day. It was about my dealings with a serial killer —  a true life monster — who claimed to me that he had kidnapped and killed little girls. I figured some day I would have the energy to write a nonfiction book about it.

Then one day, my youngest started kindergarten. I signed up for a writing class on the novel at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. My youngest was only gone from the house for two and a half hours, but I devoted that time to writing. To my surprise, what I began writing was fiction, not nonfiction. I found what I really wanted to do was write a novel — fiction not fact— inspired by this haunting serial killer.

A few months later, I had completed my first draft of a novel about an Italian-American police reporter and her dealings with a serial killer. Now, the real work would begin.

Stay tuned next month for Part Two. This originally ran at

Interview: Deb Donahue

Please welcome Deb Donahue, author of Chasing Nightmares.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?

It starts out with me waking up not sleepy, which means it starts the night before by getting a full night’s rest! My beautiful small dog Sophie likes to lay her head on my tummy when she can tell I’m stirring and nuzzles my hand with her nose. She is so soft and silky I love running my fingers through her fur. When I ask her if I should get up, she gets all excited andchasingnightmares starts to nibble my fingers to encourage me to sit up and put my glasses on. Next comes a strong cup of coffee using my espresso maker, with a healthy dollop of Cinnabon-flavored coffee creamer while I watch Good Morning America. After breakfast the best work day is when the sun is shining bright through my office window, brightening my spirits. On a perfect day, I finish work feeling happy and satisfied with what I have written and eager to get back to work the next morning. My best evenings are the lazy ones, where I can sit in the recliner with Sophie in my lap and a cup of tea on the end table while I watch one of my favorite television shows.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
Pasta with meat sauce is my weakness. My father was half Italian and I can remember the wonderful smells in his grandmother’s kitchen when I was really little. I make a wonderful meat sauce using Italian sausage and hamburger and add a little red wine at the end like she used to. I could eat this every meal for a week and not get tired of it!

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
Gordon Rogers, the drama teacher and later principal at my high school. After I graduated, I went to talk to him about my dream to be a writer and his encouragement is probably the only reason I was brave enough to reach for the stars.

Madeleine L’Engle, who was so adept at creating worlds and characters that I wanted to emulate her, even though I don’t write or even usually even read, the same genre as her Wrinkle in Time books.

Edward Stratemeyer, although I didn’t realize this until very recently. I found out he is the founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate which came up with the idea for The Hardy Boys, Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew mysteries. Those books, particularly the first two series, filled my childhood with a sense of wonder and excitement and began my love of mysteries.

Do you listen to music when you write?
Usually not. If I am deep in my head creating words, catchy lyrics take me out of the zone. I prefer music with no lyrics or a song I know so well I don’t really “listen” to it anymore.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
A Hershey’s bar with almonds. Because it’s sweet and smooth but with “bumps” you can chew on a while.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
When I went on a vacation a while ago to Colorado, I was struck by how many old mine shafts dotted the mountains. I thought what a great place to hide some bodies!

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
I have a tendency to write females as the heroine, more often saving the hero, rather than the other way around. Also, I think we all have shadows in our selves—insecurities, fears, etc.—and I like to write about facing those dark bits and finding ways to deal with them, rather than pretend they don’t exist.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?Anne’s abandonment as a child and having to be raised in foster homes has led to a lack of self-confidence, but it also gave her an understanding of how much it would mean to have someone in your life who does take care of you and love you unconditionally. Since she never had that, she goes out of her way to try to be that to people she cares about.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
1) The daughter in the movie Mommy Dearest. Although most of Anne’s terrors are internal–her phobic fear of the dark–Charles is just as crazy as the mother in that story. 2) Meg Murray in A Wrinkle in Time because Anne has the same determination and propensity to love, and 3) Oliver Twist because she is an orphan who has to deal as best she can with misfortune after misfortune as she searches for happiness.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Madeleine L’Engle, Dorothy Dunnett (marvelous historical novelist but also wrote a mystery series), Lawrence Block, and Sara Paretsky.

What’s next for you?
I am finishing up a cozy mystery titled A Bull by the Horns which I hope will be the first of a series. It’s about a working farm in the Midwest U.S. that has been turned into an art colony. When one of the residents ends up murdered, the rest of the guests are at the top of the suspect list. There are various farm animals who populate the grounds and complicate the plot, and the main character has a farmer husband who is also a part-time deputy in the small town near them.


Deb Donahue knows all about country living in the Midwest.  She spent her early married years tending a huge garden and preserving the contents to keep them through winter.  She and her husband raised and butchered their own beef, pork and chicken which she then prepared using delicious recipes from her Grandmother’s cookbooks. Her first son was born in the heat of summer, when the strawberries were ripe and needed picking.  Her youngest arrived during the worst blizzard in years; during the drive to the hospital her husband had to watch the line of fence posts to make sure they remained on the road. Living in the country was never boring because she had books to keep her company.  Romances and mysteries by authors like Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart and Dorothy Dunnett.  Is it any wonder that these are the themes she chose to write about when she finally decided to fulfill her childhood passion for writing?

Twitter: @CoffmanCozies

Almost Cut My Hair

Our theme this month is “Almost,” which is appropriate for February since it’s almost spring, but not really. Many of us are still covered in snow. So I thought a list might cheer us up.

  1. Almost cut my hair. Remember that one?
  2. Almost Human. Do you like this show?
  3. This almost fits—but not quite.
  4. I almost said what I was thinking—but thank God my lips refused to open.
  5. I’m almost finished—said the writer to her editor.
  6. I almost married him.
  7. We’re almost there—said the driver to the kid in the back seat.
  8. I was almost published by one of the Big Six—no wait, Five.
  9. Almost is never enough. Another song.
  10. Almost got hit driving home.
  11. This post almost made me laugh.

Got more additions?

Sometimes I Almost Write

I’ve just surfaced after a long period of “almost” writing.  It was a stark, depressing time where I felt an aversion to the very act of writing—the very activity that I define myself by. It was horrible. Despite having three books published, I felt like a fraud.

Writing is hard. For a while I wondered if I had just lost the drive, the willingness to put the hard work in. But although I often used that “You’ve gotten lazy” mantra to beat myself up, it didn’t seem to be entirely true.

I decided to look at the symptoms in order to follow them backwards and see if I could find the root. After several weeks and by keeping a journal of a minute-by-minute history of my activities, it became apparent that busywork—almost writing as I call it—was sucking the life out of me.

For me, almost writing starts with social media.  The First Commandment for authors is Thou Shalt Do Social Media, and this is true for both indie and traditionally published authors.  In fact, ideally, it’s supposed to be put in place years before we publish. Build a platform. Nurture a fan base. Connect with readers. Above all, spread the word! So when I take a few minutes to visit on FaceBookTwitterLinkedInPinterestGoogle+GoodreadsShelfariLibraryThing, then I’m promoting my writing. Right? Maybe.

And then, there are writer communities. Every morning I check several blogs, list servs, and forums to take the pulse of the publishing world.  I have to stay current! And I have truly learned such invaluable information that I couldn’t imagine being where I am now without these communities. But beware. They are addictive. Kboards is probably my favorite “drug of choice” because I can count on its members for up-to-the-minute news as well as intelligent discussions on craft, marketing, and publishing as well as emotional support.

There’s my face-to-face critique group, too. Five of us have been meeting every other week for years. We exchange a chapter of our current works in progress each time. I love this group. They keep my writing honest and my motivation to grow strong. There is no way I’d have published without their hand-holding and encouragement every step of the way.

The worst time-suck culprits—and the ones with the least amount of value—is the compulsive checking of KDP sales reports and my books’ current rankings that I indulge in. Out. Of Control.

‘Nuff said.

All of these—with the possible exception of the last—are good things. They really are part of platform building or, as I like to think of it, reader connection. Publishing today seems to be in a state of constant churn. Staying on top of the flood of information could be a full time job.

But it’s not writing. None of that is. It’s almost writing. And all of them combined didn’t just time-suck; they passion-sucked.

I’m not going to stop almost writing, but I am going to re-prioritize real writing. I spent $10 on a software program called Freedom, which allows me to block the internet for however long I choose to set the timer. It’s a bit of a hokey fix, because I have to be the one to turn it on in the first place, but it has been invaluable to me. After the first 45 minute session I felt like Mel Gibson wearing blue face paint and mooning the English troops on the other side of the field. Thank God, no one was in the office with me.

And it felt like freedom. I had a chunk of time… just for writing. For that thing I love. To develop that person I want to be. I’d forgotten it was fun. I’d forgotten that sometimes when I sink in that world it feels like the book is opening up for me in the same way reading does. Only better.  It’s magical.

I feel like a writer again. Heaven.   

Living in the Almost

Reading is a brave thing to do.  We must sally forth into the unknown imaginative world.  We must suspend our disbelief.  We must agree to follow the rules of the text.  We often end up living in a space of almost understanding.

I want to take a moment to honor the almost.  We tend to race past this; it’s not always comfortable to entertain uncertainty.  But before the analysis phase is the inarticulated-response phase, where we’ve had an experience but haven’t tried to put language to it yet. (A good comparison might be the point when you walk out of a movie and someone asks, “What did you think?”  Maybe you hesitate to reply because you are still sorting through the aftereffects of image and sound, the meanderings of plot, the power of elicited emotions, etc.) There’s something lovely about being immersed in the ambiguities of the artistic experience, about not having to categorize everything.  Yet the opportunity to remain there, pondering, is often elusive.  We humans tend to reach for order and closure.

Sometimes the piece of art itself encourages this sense of in-between-ness. Take, for example, “This is a Photograph of Me” by the amazing Margaret Atwood.  At first, it simply seems to describe a blurry photograph of a lake scene. But then we are informed that the picture “was taken / the day after I drowned,” and we are invited to look more closely for the speaker beneath the surface of the lake. Suddenly what seems to be a flat photograph takes on complex depth and raises multiple questions. It’s a fascinating and haunting poem: we are never given all the answers, but we do know the voice has something to tell us about seeing differently. It makes us actively engage.

And now for the connection to our topic of choice around here: that same sense of almost understanding is the desired mode when we read mysteries.  We want to sustain that place of suspension.  Yes, we expect a solution to be offered eventually, of course, but upfront?  No thanks. We want to know something has been done, but not why or by whom. Throughout the rest of the text, we want the chance to piece things together, entertain various scenarios, puzzle things out…almost seeing the solution (but not quite, or our fun is over). We choose to “dwell in possibility.”*

*Hat tip to Emily Dickinson for writing that perfect phrase, even though you definitely were not talking about mysteries.