To Tell the Truth

imagesI read fiction, and I would guess that most  of you mysteristas both read and write fiction. I just do not read much “true crime. I want my “fiction” to belief-like, with characters so “real” that I might see them in the grocery store. I certainly want dialogue that is realistic for any person in a similar situation.

However, as far as reading what really happens in “real life,” that pretty much stops for me with the daily newspaper. Of course, even with the newspaper, I hypothesize about the incidents, and I sometimes wonder if that “accident” really was an accident or something more sinister.

news1 - CopyThere seems to be an abundance of true crime in TV-land, and not just on the nightly news. Streaming services, national networks, and local independent stations have series after series “exposing the truth behind” some unsolved crime or criminal prosecution, and pleading with viewers to be on the lookout for a suspect on the loose wanted for a horrible act. Even while surrounded by “true crime” I somehow have not read much in the true crime category.

I was reminded of why I had not read much “true crime” when I went on vacation last summer. I was looking for something to read on the plane, and I saw a “true crime” book set in my vacation destination. It promised a wrongly convicted defendant, an in-depth search for the killer, celebrity connections, political corruption, and a giant cover-up. “Wow! How interesting,” I thought. Well, not so much.

The author documented the search for all those things all right, but the book was about the tedious (and mind-numbing) search through records, folders, files, and papers. The characters, the innocent and the guilty, were one-dimensional and really an afterthought. There could certainly be no accusations of making things up just to make the book interesting!

I can understand how difficult it must be to write “true crime” because an author cannot make anything up to create suspense or intrigue. Besides, if the “crime” is high profile enough to merit a book, the readers already know who did it, so there goers the suspense angle.

I recently heard an author of “true crime” speak about her books. Reading one of her “true crime” books gave me a new totally perspective. The book was compelling and thrilling. The dialogue certainly was realistic, and the characters were diverse and interesting. It was wonderful to read. Now I have a bunch of her other books on my list to read. Perhaps the writers of “true crime” that I previously read were just not good writers – of anything.

Now, I have a question for you. As authors of crime fiction, do you ever write “true crime?” Why or why not? If you do, how is the writing process different? What are the guesschallenges?  (Besides not being able to make stuff up.) How do you move the story along when readers know the ending? How do you keep it from becoming just another “National Enquirer” type story? Enquiring minds want to know!

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Guest Mysterista: Paula Matter

The request was pretty routine: would it be possible to get debut author Paula Matter in as a guest at Mysteristas? Our schedule was pretty tight around her release date, July 8. But then we met Paula at Malice Domestic and it was decided.

We had to find a way to get her in.

Paula is delightful and funny, and her debut from Midnight Ink, Last Call, set at a VFW post bar is sure to entertain. We offered Paula the opportunity to be a “Mysterista for a Day” and we each asked a different question. She was brave enough to accept.

So without further ado…

Mia: What was it like for you when you received The Call (that your book had sold)?

Cover Last CallPM: It was an email that stated she (Terri from Midnight Ink) needed some info so she could bring the manuscript to the weekly acquisitions meeting. My reply: “Wait, what? You liked it?” and I promptly sent the info she’d asked for. A few days later, I was offered the contract.

Becky: What kind of research did you have to do for this book?

PM: Mainly names for characters. I didn’t want any of my former VFW patrons to be able to see themselves in Last Call. And they won’t because they’re all a great group of people. Mostly.

Kait: What was different about this book that made the difference? How did you know it was “right”?

PM: Maggie Lewis, my protagonist. Also, writing in first person POV, I think. Maggie and I hit it off immediately. She was a somewhat minor character in another novel I’d written several years ago. Beta readers commented how much they liked her, so I decided to give her a larger role.

Liz: The age old question: plotter or pantser?

PM: Definitely plotter. Big time. I need to know the beginning and the ending, and work my way through the middle. I’ll know some of the middle, but not all of it when I get started.

Peg: How long does it take you to write your first draft, and what’s your revision process like?

PM: Years. Agonizing. Seriously? I’m a slow writer and I revise as I go. That’s how I’ve always written my short stories. I’ve learned I need to change that process with novel writing. Must. Get. Faster. Any tips for me? I’m looking at you, Becky Clark.

Sue: How important is setting in your book?

PMLast Call takes place in a very small fictional town in north Florida. I wanted to show a different side of what people imagine Florida to be. North DeSoto is far from beaches and attractions. Being from Miami, but living for many years in north Florida, I wanted readers to see the differences.

Barbara/Katie: As an author, do you read reviews? Critically or for fun? Do you look for comments on any key topics in reviews? What reflections or comments would you like reviewers to include in impartial reviews? (Of course other than I LOVED THE BOOK!!!!!!)

PM: I’m a debut author, so this is the first time I’ve had reviews to read. Reading reviews has become an obsession. OBSESSION. Like checking Goodreads and NetGalley several times a day. And these are for the ARCs. I can’t imagine much time I’ll be checking sites once the book’s released. Yikes! One reviewer was responsible for one little addition during the editing process, so very helpful. I have been loving the comments about Maggie’s development, how she changes. I especially loved this from Publishers Weekly: “That she also has to reevaluate herself and her capabilities adds depth to her character.” PW totally gets Maggie.

Thank you, Mysteristas, for inviting me to your fabulous blog. Answering your questions was challenging and lots of fun!

*****

Author photoPaula Matter (rhymes with otter) is the author of the Maggie Lewis mysteries which take place in a small town in North Florida. Paula’s short crime fiction stories have been published in USA and German anthologies. After losing her job as a catering server, Paula decided instead of getting yet another job as a waitress/bartender/activities director/etc., she’d tackle her mystery novel again.

Originally from Miami, FL, Paula kept moving north until she settled in north central Pennsylvania. A proud mom of one son, she lives with her husband The Saint, and worthy-not-spoiled rescue dog in a valley surrounded by beautiful mountains.

 

Interview: May Cobb

Please welcome May Cobb, author of Big Woods!

Do you listen to music when you write? 

Usually, I don’t. But since my novel, Big Woods, is set in the ‘80s, I listened to all my favorites during that time: Depeche Mode, INXS, Duran Duran, Siouxsie and the Banshees, R.E.M., Front 242, The Cure, Nine Inch Nails, and of course, the soundtrack to the film, Xanadu.

Which books/authors inspired or influenced you the most?

During the actual writing of Big Woods I read and re-read the following three novels: Amanda Eyre Ward’s The Same Sky, for its gorgeous prose and intricate, dual-narrative structure which I tried to borrow heavily from for my novel, Paula Hawkins, Girl on A Train, because it’s hands-down one of my favorite thrillers and her deft gift for propulsion, and finally, Mary Helen Specht’s Migratory Animals, for its dreamy yet crisp prose and vibrant characters.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?

Living: Ruth Ware, A.J. Finn, Tana French, C.J. Tudor, Paula Hawkins, and (deceased) Wilkie Collins. I’d wager that each of these authors would be a blast to have a cocktail with and after I plied them without enough booze, I’d try and pry their writing secrets from them.

What’s next for you?

I’m finishing up a nonfiction project that’s been in the works for twenty years and that my novel interrupted.  It’s the story of the legendary jazz musician, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who was a multi-instrumentalist who was best known for playing three saxophones at the same time. I first heard his music in college and became obsessed with it and spent the next several years traveling around, collecting stories about him.

*****

big woodsWhen her sister disappears, the only clue Leah has is a cryptic message: Underground. By thewoods.

It ’s 1989 in the sleepy town of Longview, Texas,when ten-­‐year-­‐old Lucy disappears.  Her parents,  the police, and the community all brace for the  worst,  assuming her body will soon be found in Big Woods.Just l ike the other unsolvedkidnappings.

But  then Lucy’s  fourteen-­year-­old sister,  Leah, starts having dreams about Lucy —dreams that reveal startling clues as to what happened. Leah begins her own investigation, and soon she meets a reclusive widow who may hold the key to finding Lucy. . . if only she can find the courage to come forward.

Delving into the paranoia surrounding satanic cults in the 1980s, Big Woods is an emotionally wrought, propulsive thriller about the enormity of grief, the magical bond between sisters, and a small town’s dark secrets.

*****

cobbMay Cobb is a novelist and freelance writer based in Austin, Texas.

BIG WOODS was selected as the Winner in the 2015 Writer’s League of Texas Manuscript Contest, and the pitch to BIG WOODS was selected as the Winner for the 2016 NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza.

May earned her M.A. in Literature from San Francisco State University and has spent the past several years researching and writing a book about the late jazz great, Rahsaan Roland Kirk (forthcoming).

Her essays and interviews have appeared in The Washington Post, The Rumpus, Edible Austin, and Austin Monthly.

You can learn more about May by visiting her website: www.maycobb.com

 

Low Down Dirty Vote

A couple of months ago, I received an email about a new short story anthology. Low Down Dirty Vote was a collection of stories centered around the theme of voter fraud (how topical, right?). Proceeds from sale benefited the ACLU. The collection was edited by Mysti Berry and featured a forward from the Legal Director of ACLU Nebraska. It sounded…intriguing.

Then I saw the list of authors and I thought, “I have to get my hands on this.”

Luckily, I was able to do so…and even more lucky to get contributor and Mysterista friend Catriona McPherson agree to answer a few questions.

LM: How did you get involved with this anthology? What about the project attracted you?

CP: Mysti Berry got in touch and told me about it. My first thought – as I was still reading the email and before I knew what the collection was about – was that I’d love to work with Mysti on whatever she was doing. Then when I read the theme “voter suppression” my heart soared. Very often the theme of a collection is either just a hook or it’s something you’ve thought about a lot or even written about before. This was completely new to me and caused a such an efflorescence of ideas I felt like a mushroom farm. Also, you know, the ACLU and the protection of democracy. That didn’t hurt.

LM: We all know your novels, from Dandy Gilver, to Lexy Campbell, to the stand-alones. Have you done a lot of short fiction? What do you see as the biggest challenges and/or differences between writing novels and short stories?

CP: Hardly any. I’ve written over twenty novels but only thirteen short stories. Nine of these are published (or in the works) and, of the other four, two were apprentice pieces (they stink) and two were written up after collaborative workshops to give back to the students as a takeaway from the class. One of these I did overnight! That’s the thing I love about short stories. The first draft can be written in a splurge. My favourite place to do the first draft of a short story is a long flight. Coast to coast and then over to Scotland gives me two 6+ hour bouts of writing. I enjoy being able to hold a whole idea in my attention at once. Writing a novel makes you let go of the beginning so long before you can glimpse the end. It’s not a comfortable process for me. Also, I write the Dandy Gilver novels in first person, but the “World of Gilverton” shorts let me inhabit secondary characters. It’s a lot of fun. Maybe if I write enough of them I can have an anthology one day. But I’d need to crack on because I’ve got three so far.

LDDV-coverLM: The theme of this collection is very topical given the current political climate in the US. Coming from Scotland, do you think the theme resonates as strongly in non-US markets?

CP: I can’t speak for anywhere except the UK really – maybe just Scotland – but I know that people over there who’re interested in politics at all want to understand what’s happening over here. Also the Brexit surprise was similar enough to the Trump surprise to have British people paying closer than usual attention. I’m not sure how much people understand exactly what the ACLU is but everyone understands what voter suppression is, right? It’s still hard to wrap my head around the fact that there are sentient people who try prevent democracy from functioning. Do they think we can’t see what they’re doing? Or that we can’t work out why? You know when babies cover their eyes and believe themselves to be invisible . . . ? One of the weirdest conversations I’ve had about this collection was with someone who evidently couldn’t tell the difference between wanting to register people who’d vote for you and wanting disenfranchise people who’d vote for the other team.

LM: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about the project?

CP: I particularly love the way that so many wildly different stories have come out of what looks like such a narrow theme. (There’s that mushroom farm again.) Kris Calvin is a friend of mine and she shared a worry that her story would have echoes in other contributions. To test the hypothesis, she told me what her starting point was and I went away to try to come up with the most on the nose interpretation I could. It was nothing like Kris’s wonderful story, of course! Thats my favourite thing about being part of a themed anthology: when you get to see what the other authors came up with and marvel at the diversity of our imaginations.

*****

About Low Down Dirty Vote

This anthology of short crime fiction raises funds to help the ACLU fight voter suppression. Authors: Kris Calvin, Alison Catharine, Ray Daniel, David Hagerty, Mariah Klein, Derek Marsh, Jr., Catriona McPherson, Camille Minichino, Ann Parker, Travis Richardson, and James W. Ziskin.

Stories are set from Edinburgh to the San Francisco Bay Area and points in between. Some are ripped from 21st-century headlines, others explore the challenges of women voting for the first time in Wyoming during the 19th century.

Each writer has challenged themselves to experiment with form, point of view, or voice. Low Down Dirty Vote is a fabulous collection of stories from award-winning writers and brand new voices. Sales receipts go to the ACLU Foundation to help fight voter suppression.

This volume features a foreward by Amy A. Miller, Legal Director of ACLU Nebraska, and is edited by Mysti Berry.

The Siren Song of Summer

It takes all my discipline to do my work during these lazy summer days.

Everything conspires against me. The distinctive perfume from the petunias and the cedar chips, heated by the afternoon sun. Culinary delights from the neighbors’ barbecues wafting across my yard at all times of the day and night. Above my head in the sweet-smelling linden tree, the drone of the bees industriously flitting from flower to flower. The chittering and scolding of the squirrels. The shadows of the butterflies and goldfinches floating and teasing across the patio stones. The snap of Nala’s jaws when a “sky raisin” tantalizes her by flying too close.

leaves above me

All I want to do is be outside with Nala, enjoying a cold drink and the flora and fauna of my yard. Except the deer. They’re jerks who eat my flowers and don’t flush, but that’s a story for another, crankier day.

deer poop

I’ve just recently figured out how to be on my patio with my laptop, where and when there’s no glare, but optimum shade resides. My beautiful patio is only a few years old, you see, when we threw scads of money at an ugly problem and transitioned to something lovely. I told my husband yesterday it was the best thing we’ve ever spent money on. Sorry, kids.

Nala pulls me outside but I still have work that needs to get done. She loves being out there in all kinds of weather, but she has canine lupus which means she’s supposed to stay out of the sun. The patio is half in the shade as I write this at 2:15 in the afternoon and she positions herself in the shade or the dappled light near me. That isn’t always the case, however. When I’m not out there with her, more often than not she lays right in the sun, no matter how hot it might be.

Therefore, I don’t feel I can leave her to her own devices outside. The other problem is that I usually work upstairs. I know — because this has happened forty-leven gazillion times in the five years since we’ve had her — that the minute I get upstairs, she will want to come in. It comes in handy when I need to get my steps in, but it really wrecks my writing mojo.

So, I’ve made some tweaks to my schedule so that I know I’ll get everything done, regardless of the siren song of the yard. I’m at my desk by about 9:00 every morning. I set my timer for one hour and write nonstop. At the end of that hour, I record my word count, stretch, give Nala (and who am I kidding — myself) a treat. Then I set my timer for another hour. At the end of that time, I record my word count again, print out my pages for the day, and email the day’s work to myself. I eat lunch, Nala gets her “lunchtime cookie,” then I spend an hour with my email accounts (yes, setting the timer again).

When I close the lid to my laptop, no matter how stealthy I am or where she is in the house, Nala comes running up behind me, dancing with excitement, because she knows what comes next.

Outside!

I pour myself a glass of something cold, grab my computer, and head to my zero-gravity chair. Because it’s generally at least breezy, if not downright windy out there, I can’t do any work that requires notes. So I’ve learned to title word docs with blog topics I need to pursue and leave them on my computer desktop. And pursue them I do.

Like this one.

While I wrote this, Nala spent time sniffing the wind, regally surveying her kingdom, sorting out a squirrel on the fence, and arranging herself in front of, behind, and next to me. For no reason I can discern, she rotates her comfy spot.

nala on patio

It makes me wonder what I do that is perfectly reasonable and logical to me, but that would cause any onlooker to scratch their head and mutter, “Weirdo.” Probably lots more than I suspect.

In our time outside, Nala also very delicately, with her tiny front teeth, stripped single blades of ornamental grass. At least until I asked her to please refrain.

And now she’s off to remind the squirrel who’s boss.

Nala on step

It’s her, by the way. She’s the boss. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Do you have a place outside you love? Do you write out there? Read? The one thing our yard doesn’t have anymore is a good place for a hammock. But that’s probably good. Can’t quite picture how I’d get any work done in a hammock!

Oh … I almost forgot this was Independence Day! (That’s what happens when you work at home.) Got any big plans? We’ll go to a neighbor’s house with a nice view of our big town fireworks show. (Yes, she invited us. Pfft.) We’re having a horrendous fire season here in Colorado already, so I hope not to hear those annoying and dangerous fireworks going off all over the neighborhood. At least Nala isn’t scared of them.

Happy Birthday USA

Tomorrow the USA will turn 242. To help her celebrate, I thought it would be fun if we shared our memories of our favorite 4 of Julys.

As a child growing up in a small town, we celebrated big time. Parades, town-sponsored cookouts, fireworks, picnics on a strategically placed hill where we could watch the fireworks not only in our small town but from New York City and several neighboring towns. In those days the sky was painted not with the delicate bursts of pastels that swept overhead like so many mares tails, but with exuberant booms and starbursts that flew ever higher and reached for the moon. I’m not sure why, but the evening always ended with a sleepy ride home on Dad’s shoulder. Only a child could fall asleep in all that noise.

Wonderful as those childhood memories are, my very favorite 4th of July was July 4, 1976. My husband and I had moved back to New Jersey. We lived right across Hudson from New York City and we were able to see the parade of the tall ships and watch the fireworks. It was a magnificent way to celebrate the Bicentennial!

What are your memories of the 4th of July?

Interview: Ellen Byerrum

Please give a warm welcome to, and take a few moments to get to know, Ellen Byerrum, author of the Crime of Fashion mysteries!

Which books/authors inspired or influenced you the most?

It would be wonderful to say I read all the classics, beginning with all the cherished children’s books. I would like to sound literary and erudite. However, my family never really believed in children’s books. There was very little evidence of them. Most likely, they couldn’t afford them and thought children’s literature was unimportant. I envied the stacks of colorful books my friends owned. But we had a large bookcase stocked with books that my grandfather had purchased decades before and they had their own charms.

If I wanted to read something, my father would shout, “Read Tom Sawyer!” Well, Tom was okay, but the books I loved were from my grandfather’s vintage stash. They may not have been “the classics” but they were fun: tales of fast-talking, snappy-writing reporters, who plied their trade during the no-holds-barred Twenties and Thirties. They had style and they were hilarious. They could break your heart. My favorite tales of journalism include Gaily, Gaily by Ben Hecht, and Timberline by Gene Fowler. I loved Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht, who wrote The Front Page. For the big screen, the play was renamed His Girl Friday and star reporter Hildy Johnson was transformed from a man to a woman, with Rosalind Russell in the lead. I loved books and plays and movies where the women took action. I will never forget Russell running after and tackling a source. In high heels!

I also liked Nancy Drew, when I could borrow my friends’ copies. And from Grandpa’s collection, I enjoyed Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, with woodcut illustrations. So there were a few classics in the mix.

Tell us about your main character.

Lacey Smithsonian is a reporter (surprise!) who covers fashion and solves crimes with fashion clues. She has an eye for nuance and style and even though she’s on the fashion beat, she longs to be taken seriously. Lacey is loyal to her friends, dedicated to her job, and she has a great vintage wardrobe. The wardrobe is courtesy of her great-aunt Mimi, from whom she has inherited a trunk full of patterns, fabrics, pictures, magazines, and the occasional mystery.

Originally from Colorado, Lacey never felt at home in the West, so she’d moved to Washington, D.C., to be on the East Coast. She often finds herself in trouble because she needs to know the end of the story, no matter what dangers that may hold. She finds that Crimes of Fashion are serious and often deadly, and very real. Lacey has studied for and received her Virginia private investigator’s registration, which may come in handy in future books. I called on my background as a reporter in Washington to aid in writing her story. (However, I covered the government, not fashion.)

Tell us a bit about your new book.

2008745529My latest and the eleventh book in my screwball noir Crime of Fashion Mysteries is The Masque of the Red Dress, which combines Washington, D.C., fashion, theatre, and spies.

Seeking inspiration for her Crimes of Fashion column, Lacey Smithsonian attends the D.C. theatre world’s annual garage sale, but things at the prop-and-costume bazaar don’t go quite according to script — all because of one tantalizing, ruffled, ruby-red frock from a Russian émigré theatre. It was famously worn in a production of The Masque of the Red Death by the actress who played Death – and who died on closing night.

Under the crimson costume’s spell, Lacey’s fellow reporter LaToya Crawford practically comes to blows with another woman over buying the dress. But LaToya suffers a bad case of buyer’s remorse and shoves it into Lacey’s hands for safekeeping. Can Lacey (with her so-called ExtraFashionary Perception) divine whether the dress is safe to wear?

Assaults, burglary and murder follow it wherever it goes. This is one garnet-hued garment with secrets and someone wants it enough to kill for it. Lacey’s conspiracy-crazed friend Brooke Barton is convinced that because the theatre is Russian, spies must be afoot. The theatre is a world of illusion, and spycraft and stagecraft have much in common. Shadows and deceptions lead Lacey and the red dress into a macabre dance with an assassin – and a masquerade with death.

What made you interested in writing this particular story? 

Before I wrote mystery novels I was a playwright, and I found myself missing the theatre world. This book allowed me to revisit the theatre and the sorts of people I met there, including the comically anguished playwright, the demanding director, the diva actress, the underappreciated stage hands. At the same time, it seemed like the theatre would be the perfect place for a spy to hide in plain sight, particularly at the present time in Washington. These are dangerous days. After all, the Spy Museum points out that one in every six people in D.C. is a spy.

As I contemplate the next Crime of Fashion mystery, I’m not sure I’m through with some of the new characters. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a couple of them showed up again.

What’s next for you?

One of the frustrations of thinking about the future is having so many things you want to do, and too many projects to write. However, after finishing my last Lacey Smithsonian book, I feel the pull of the theatre: I am working on a new play. The cross-pollination of writing in different disciplines strengthens your skills. At least that’s what I tell myself.

I am also beginning work on a novel that is a sort of “prequel” to the Crime of Fashion Mysteries. This novel features Lacey’s great aunt Mimi Smith, when she was a young woman working in D.C. during World War II. This is a mystery set on the homefront. Mimi works at the Office of Price Administration (OPA), which governs rationing and investigates fraud and black market goods. Mimi befriends a woman named Kitty who works at various jobs, including a war-time brothel in Alexandria, Virginia. Kitty knows the job is dangerous but doesn’t have much time to think about it before she turns up dead. Mimi becomes involved and seeks to find out what happened because, against the backdrop of World War, no one seems to care about one unfortunate woman or why she was murdered.

The prequel is tentatively titled The Brief Luminous Flight of the Firefly.

*****

EllenByerrum021ret clear cropped 2Ellen Byerrum is a novelist, a playwright, a former Washington, D.C. journalist, and a graduate of private investigation school in Virginia. Her screwball noir Crime of Fashion Mysteries feature Lacey Smithsonian, a reluctant fashion reporter in Washington, D.C., “The City That Fashion Forgot.” Lacey solves crimes with fashion clues while stylishly decked out in vintage togs. Two of the COF novels, Killer Hair and Hostile Makeover, were filmed for the Lifetime Movie Network.

The Woman in the Dollhouse is Byerrum’s first suspense thriller. She has also penned a middle-grade mystery, The Children Didn’t See Anything, the first of a planned series starring a set of precocious 12-year-old twins.

Under her playwriting pen name, Eliot Byerrum, she has published two plays with Samuel French, A Christmas Cactus and Gumshoe Rendezvous, which have received numerous productions.

You can find Ellen Byerrum on her website at www.ellenbyerrum.com.

She is also on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/EllenByerrum

And on Twitter at  https://twitter.com/EllenByerrum