An Explosion of Ideas

As the weather warms up (and dries up!) here in the northeast, the resulting pollen count is a beast. Everything is yellow-cars, puddles, furniture (even inside), and grass. However, watching the gardens fluff up with new shoots and buds, realizing that suddenly I can’t see my neighbors yard because the trees have leafed out, and spotting those bird species that are only around in the summer makes the sniffling and sneezing worth it (mostly).

In my last few blogs, I’ve been writing about the crazy that is my life, really most people’s lives, and the renewal of my writers’ group. We had another meeting this weekend and there were a few takeaways that I wanted to share.

  1. The importance of accountability. One of our members has really taken our discussion about commitment to heart, and has stepped into role of accountability maven. She’s set some expectations for us, and I so appreciate her willingness to do so; it makes me want to share that burden, partly by arriving to our meetings prepared and partly by also holding myself and others accountable. It’s exciting to feel that shared energy and responsibility!
  2. Energy and creativity beget energy and creativity. (Disclaimer: I’ve done no research and gathered no data on this; it’s purely my conclusion.)

Driving to Saturday’s meeting was rejuvenating for me, because for the first time in months ideas were bubbling and bouncing and tumbling around in my mind. I hadn’t realized how much I missed that feeling and experience! The more the ideas came to me, the more my excitement grew and the more ideas bubbled up. The feeling was similar to when you get a solid 8 – 10 hours of sleep and awake refreshed and ready to go. Happily, I’m revisiting that place where I’m slightly annoyed that I can’t just drop everything and WRITE because there are so many ideas ready to explode out of me. (Picture joyful child clapping hands and giggling with glee. That’s exactly how I feel right now.)

What’s next? We’ve made a commitment to attend our next meeting, new writing in hand. There’s a plan for our meetings for the rest of the summer, and even some proposed group writing time, too. We’re taking the time to celebrate success, whether that’s new writing, completed editing, or pursuing an agent. All milestones represent success!

My plan for the summer to is to let my ideas explode out and onto the page; all while enjoying gorgeous weather, the beauty of summer gardens, and the camaraderie of my amazing fellow writers.


Guest Post: Susan Van Kirk

Please welcome Susan Van Kirk, author of A Death at Tippitt Pond, talking about change…and how it isn’t always as exciting (in a positive way) as we think it is.

The Power of Change

I retired from a long teaching career in 2011, and I find myself without enough hours in the day to follow my interests. I’m excited that Encircle Publications is launching my sixth mystery on June 15. However, this enthusiasm with new interests is not true of everyone. Recently, I had a conversation with a friend who was retiring, and I could hear the anxiety in her voice as she told me she had no idea what she was going to do.

That conversation, as well as my newest book launch, caused me to think about a story I taught years ago in my high school classes. It was a short story by Anne Tyler published in The New Yorker in 1977, and it had a strange title: “Average Waves in Unprotected Waters.”

The title came from a brief scene the adult protagonist remembers from her childhood on the East Coast. Her father loved the sea, and his entire life and career revolved around it. He tried to teach his young daughter to body surf in the ocean. She simply stood still and let the waves—only average waves—slam into her. Not adapting or meeting the waves head-on actually described her personality. The story returns to the present day when the reader sees how much of the woman’s life has been dictated by her outlook. One life change led to others, and rather than meet those events head-on, she is stuck in a life where the waves crash over her. When the story ends, it is apparent she will continue to be an unhappy spectator in her own world.

That conversation and memory of Tyler’s story made me think about the way we weigh and evaluate issues in our own lives. Adapting to change is a theme discussed by countless writers. Marriages end, children move away, jobs change or disappear, grandchildren are born, parents pass away, and retirement looms. Some of these events we decide, and others are thrust upon us. How we fail to adapt is a concern of writers and readers alike.

In my new mystery, A Death at Tippitt Pond, we meet a woman, Beth Russell, whose life has not gone the way she thought it would. Fortunately for her, she learned early to rely on herself. Still, she is an anxious woman. A terrifying event was thrust upon her years earlier when she worked in New York City shortly after graduating from college. It made her less trusting of other human beings. Her mother was an anxious parent, almost to the point of paranoia.

Now, Beth receives a plane ticket and bed-and-breakfast reservation to go to a small, Midwest town called Sweet Iron and talk to a lawyer she has never met. He thinks she might be the only surviving member of a wealthy family with a tragic past. How can that be? She had two parents who loved her and raised her in upstate New York. She knows no one in Illinois, let alone a family she’s never met.

Beth is a historical researcher and genealogist, and her curiosity moves her to check this story out. What happens next is beyond her wildest imagination. Secrets from the past collide, producing a dangerous situation.

My point in these literary contemplations is that despite our anxiety and insecurities, taking carefully calculated chances rather than letting life wash over us, leads on to both self-confidence and fulfillment. Beth Russell, my fictional character, takes a chance and flies to Illinois to explore this crazy story. I decided late in life to write mysteries, and I’m so glad I did. Unlike the character in Tyler’s story, both of us took chances. I’ve loved my “retirement job;” in Beth’s case, you’ll have to read the book!

What do you think? Take chances or stay safe?


Susan Van Kirk was educated at Knox College and the University of Illinois. Three May Keep a Secret, her first mystery novel about the small town of Endurance, was published in 2014 by Five Star Publishing/Cengage. The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney, is an e-book novella available on Amazon.  Marry in Haste and Death Takes No Bribes are also available from Amazon in Kindle and paper formats. A Death at Tippitt Pond, a Sweet Iron Mystery, will be out June 15, 2019 from Encircle Publications. You can read about her books at

Milli Vanilli Sequelae: A Cynical Approach to Art


In 1990, the rock music industry was scandalized with the revelation that Germany’s answer to Michael Jackson, Milli Vanilli, was a farce. Jackson, the African-American pop icon was on the top of his game at the time. His Thriller album was a huge hit in the early 80’s, and in 1987, he followed it up with the mega-hit Bad.

The year after Bad was released, Milli Vanilli released their debut, All or Nothing at All. In 1989, their single “Girl You Know It’s True” hit the charts. Also in 1989, they won the Grammy for Best New Artist.

And then the record skipped a beat. Literally. They were performing an MTV live concert when their soundtrack skipped over and over again, including their vocals. Fab and Rob were not what they seemed.

As it turns out, the act was the creation of a German record producer, Frank Farian. While rumors swirled over the lip-synch mishap, he admitted that Fab and Rob had not sung on their albums – instead he had used studio musicians to lay those tracks. Apparently, he had hired the duo as front men because of their Jackson-like dance steps. Lawsuits galore were filed under the United States consumer protection laws against their label. Comeback attempts ended in failure. The Grammy was revoked.


Fast forward to 2008: the English version of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was published sparking the female-centric psychological thriller subgenre and it’s still going strong. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins soon followed Dragon Tattoo. Just this year, The Liar’s Girl by Catherine Ryan Howard was nominated for an Edgar.

On January 29, 2019, Publishers Weekly announced the birth of a new suspense imprint: Scarlet, a joint venture between Pegasus Books and Otto Penzler, owner of Mysterious Press. One of the publishers was quoted as saying: “Psychological suspense that features complex women is one of the most dynamic categories in popular fiction right now, so the time is right for an imprint dedicated to this genre.”

All well and good. Or is it?

Recently a rumor began circulating that the two books set for release by Scarlet in 2020 would not be written by women – instead the authors were men posing as women. On June 3, 2019, author Lisa Brackmann tweeted Pegasus asking if these rumors were true. And this is what happened:

Pegasus tweeted back that one of their new authors, Stephanie Buelens, was indeed a real human being. A twitter account was opened in her name, apparently to prove it. Then on June 6, Slate posted an article in which the reporter affirmed that there was a real Stephanie Buelens. She knew it because Stephanie had called her speaking with a heavy French accent laced with Poirot-esque idiom-slaughters and flourishing the frequent Voila! This interview hardly constitutes proof beyond a reasonable doubt: even if there is a real woman with that name, it doesn’t prove she wrote a book.

Interestingly, in that conversation, the woman calling herself Stephanie claimed she had just opened a Facebook account. There isn’t one as of this writing. She also admitted she didn’t know who was operating her newly-opened Twitter account, speculating it was her publisher. She claimed that she co-wrote An Inconvenient Woman with an established male author, who she needed because of her difficulties with the language, and that he wished to keep his involvement secret so as not to damage his brand.

However, the Slate article confirmed that the second Scarlet book to be published, You Will Never Know, will be authored by a man writing under the fictitious female name, Sophia Prentiss. Again, this male author wishes to hide his identity to preserve his brand.

Note: not even the titles selected by Scarlet are original. An Inconvenient Woman was the title of a 1990 Dominick Dunne thriller. And, You’ll Never Know Dear, a psychological thriller by Hallie Ephron, a huge success, was nominated for an Edgar in 2018, just twelve months before the Scarlet imprint announcement.

To be fair, there are many fine male authors writing female characters and female protagonists, and the reverse is true too: many fine female authors write male characters including male protagonists. But these authors don’t hide their gender.

Why would they? What is the point of trying to deceive the crime fiction readership (predominately female) about the gender of their authors? Could it be that the male publishers and their male authors, like Frank Farian before it, are merely trying to cash in on the hot new ticket, espousing the view that the “psychological suspense that features complex women” is an exploitable market trend.

Or, could it be that the publishers believe that women don’t want to read about the female experience as told by a man? It kind of smacks of mansplaining, doesn’t it?





A Garden Full of Stories

One of my writing teachers always looked forward to spring and summer because she couldn’t wait to work in her garden.  That’s where she would plot her books and figure out whodunnit.  

I gotta admit, I enjoy my garden more with a glass of wine than a trowel.  

But the work has to be done.  And finally the snow is beginning to melt here in Colorado.    How is it that weeds are the first thing that pop out after the snow?  It’s time to re-acquaint myself with my garden.  If my mentor weeded and plotted, then I can too, right?  Maybe I can figure out how to transition into the second act of my Work In Progress while I weed.  

But that’s not how it works for me.  

Instead of inspiring me with solutions or new stories, my plants remind me of the stories they keep.   For instance:  

  • The rose bed is the final resting place of our beloved pet ferret, the one that Nell’s ferret is modeled after.   
  • There’s another volunteer sunflower, which is a leftover from the year of my daughter’s wedding.  That’s when I planted a forest of sunflowers to match the gay and festive air.  
  • Will the madonna lily bloom this year?  It was my dad’s favorite flower and I rescued a clump of them from his garden after he passed.
  • Gosh, the irises are beautiful this year!  They were a gift from a painter friend of mine.  Maybe we can plein air again soon…
  • How has the little blue spruce, another volunteer, managed to survive another winter after the sewer repair team stomped on it that year of the flood…?  

And so on.  

With all of the stories already in my garden, how can I figure out that transition my WIP needs?  I’m confident that the back of my mind is working on the problem, even while I’m distracted by the plants’ stories.  Hopefully in the next day or two, the solution will magically sprout, and then it will flow through my fingertips at the keyboard.  Maybe weeding really does help me plot.  

Do you plot while you garden, or do your plants remind you of their stories?  

Reading, writing, and laughing

It’s summer time, time for reading, rime for relaxing and time for fun. In that spirit, I am sharing my favorite comics that feature books and authors. After all, sometimes we all just need to laugh.

Still working the day job
Know the importance of the cover
Does anyone have some extra reading glasses?
Write what you know
Remember the plot details

Go to lots of book signings
Start on the next book

Now, share your funniest author joke or story

and let us know what YOU have planned for the summer.

Guest Post: Kelly Brakenhoff

Say hello to Kelly Brakenhoff, author of Death by Dissertation, telling us something every writer knows, but we always have to remember.

Taking One Step at a Time

This was my face some weeks ago at 7:30 p.m. the night before I was set to run in an “Early Bird 10K Race.”

Because it dawned on me then, that I’d have to wake up by 5:00 a.m. to eat and drive 45 miles down the road in order to arrive at the starting gate at 6:45 a.m. sharp. Now, I am NOT a morning person. Somewhere between registering for the race and my training runs, I had failed to recognize obvious logic. The reason the race was called “The Early Bird” was because people wake up at a totally unrealistic hour to attend.

Even worse, after setting out my clothes, food, and shoes, I picked up the race packet and read the parking details. It was only then I noticed these words. (See photo, right)

Imagine my horror. I hadn’t trained for a 10-mile race. I’d barely trained for a 10K, which is just over 6 miles. While it was super tempting to put away my gear and back out of the race, I also knew it would be my only Spring running event. Between an April debut book launch, May graduations, and my daughter’s June wedding, it’s pretty chaotic around here. I faced one of those moments where I had to decide how badly I wanted something, and how much suffering I was willing to endure to get it.

I’m sure you’ve faced a similar decision before. There’s no clear right or wrong answer. You just choose one path and stick with it. I chose to go for it.

I decided to think of the race as two 5-mile runs. I didn’t try to break any records. I just wanted to avoid being carted off in an ambulance. After 5 miles I felt pretty good, but forced myself to stop, rest, and eat a granola bar. Then, I ran a second 5 miles. And you know what? I didn’t die.

What does this story have to do with writing? I dreamed of publishing a book for almost as long as I can remember. However, I never really paid attention to the fine print. I just wanted to write a book. It took me more than four years of writing, re-writing, and self-doubt.

Publishing Death by Dissertation checked an important item off my bucket list. I’ve now embarked on the steep learning curve that is publishing and marketing. My years of preparation were extensive, but until you lace up your shoes and run the race, you don’t know what you’ll face out there.

Today I’m celebrating that I’ve made it this far. Even if I meet unexpected bumps in the path, I know how to break things off into manageable chunks and take it step by step. Writing an 80,000 word first draft 1,657 words at a time took me more than a month of sweat and tears. It wasn’t pretty, but as Jodi Picoult says, “You can’t edit a blank page.”

I hope you’ll remember that approach the next time you have an overwhelming goal that you think you can’t finish. Doing hard things takes faith and a bit of recklessness. What’s the worst that can happen? You miss the deadline, take longer to reach the goal, or you have to walk part of the way. So what? At least you got off the couch and moved in a direction.

Go for it. Break your goal into small increments, and before you know it, you’ll be crossing the finish line, too. And I can promise you, to the finisher goes the mimosa!!


Kelly Brakenhoff is an American Sign Language interpreter, scone baker, half-marathon runner, chocolate lover, Hufflepuff, wife & mom, dog petter, Husker fan. Death by Dissertation (April, 2019) is her first novel.

What I learned writing historical mystery…

How many of you write historical mysteries? I love reading them—Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody, Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs, Rhys Bowen’s Georgiana Rannoch. Recently, I decided to try writing one. I’m pleased to say, I’ve just finished the second (of what I’m sure will be many!) draft. What have I learned by writing historical fiction?


Historical Details Shape Plot and Setting

First, I love the fact that the details of history can help shape not only my plot but also the everyday lives of my protagonists. It’s like having a cheat-sheet. The challenge, of course, is getting it right. And, not just being accurate, but finding the right balance between historical details and story. History can play so many roles in the novel, from those spicy tidbits sprinkled throughout the text, to the rich tapestry of everyday life that forms the background or setting for your story.

drawing 19th C.jpg

Historical Research is Fun

Second, as a nerdy academic, I love doing the research! It’s so fun to look through old newspaper advertisements, or to use William Brohaugh’s English Through the Ages, Etymonline, or an old Baudeker’s guidebook. Of course, the Internet is a vast source of information about everything from the food and clothes of an era to the political events that shaped it. It’s amazing where you can find helpful information, especially stuff to help you paint a vivid picture of the details. First hand accounts in documentaries, autobiographies, and nonfiction, are great resources too.

Anachronisms are Tricky

Third, even the dreaded anachronism can be fascinating. What words and gadgets existed and when? Anachronisms are things or words used in the wrong time period, either because they didn’t exist yet, or because they were already out of use. There’s also the issue of region or place. Words used here might not be used there, even in the same time period. For example, in the US we say “cafeteria” and in England they say “canteen.” And on top of that, some words or things might feel out of place, even if they aren’t. Even though it would be fair game to use a phrase like “hang out” in a 19thCentury novel, it might make your reader stop and question its accuracy. So, you need to use words that not only are right, but also sound like they’re right. And, worse, sometimes words sound right, but aren’t. Here’s where a good editor comes in.

Facts versus Truth

It might sound like writing historical fiction is full of landmines and pitfalls, but those same challenges and obstacles can become a great help in fashioning a believable and engaging story. And, while emotions and reactions are also period and place dependent, a good historical novel adds the fleshy truth of experience to the bare bones of historical fact. A great historical novel makes people, places, and the past come alive.

How about you? What are you favorite historical novels? What do you look for in an historical mystery? Do you have any tips for writing one?



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