Mind Games and Murder

by Janis Patterson

I wonder if all mystery writers are irretrievably warped?

I spent last week at the Novelists’ Inc. (NINC) conference in St. Pete Beach, Florida. It was held at the luxurious TradeWinds resort, a place of which dreams are made. The weather was good – a little rain, a lot of wind, but mostly warm and sunny. The resort amenities are incredible – this is our fourth time here and I still haven’t been able to do all the ‘resorty’ things I want to, such as going down the big slide and doing the paddle boats on the carefully maintained artificial creek or sing at karaoke night. (I’m not lazy – it’s just the conference is so intense and it’s so wonderful to be able just to sit and talk with other writers.)

The resort is perfection, and the staff works hard to keep it that way. (And I’m positive none of my dire imaginings have ever happened there in reality – it is a lovely place in every sense of the word.) I mean, even the brick walks are swept several times a day to keep the beach sand off. Everywhere you look there are staff members in their trademark blue and yellow Hawaiian style shirts going around making things perfect, just like little elves. The restaurants and bars are great and to get up early in the morning and watch from our balcony as the day is born to the music of the surf is heavenly.

So why are my thoughts swamped with murder and mayhem? You’d think I would just be enjoying the conference and my friends and the beauty, but no – so  far I’ve hatched a bunch of plots that involve poisoning, stabbing, international intrigue and smuggling, all located in this consciously perfect setting.

Violence and crime are terrible no matter where they occur, but it seems they are worse in places of such beauty and perfection, and therefore more alluring to the mystery writer. The vast number of employees, each in their yellow and blue Hawaiian shirts, are an invitation to a villainous outsider outsider to use the uniform as camouflage. After all, with the exception of our chambermaid, I don’t think I’ve seen the same employee twice.

Am I the only one who looks at the minutiae of life through such a murderous lens? In an arboretum full of beautiful plants I am drawn to the poisonous ones. In an art museum I find myself thinking not of the beautiful paintings, but of what a wonderful place it would be to hide a body. A shopping mall? Just too full of murderous opportunities to list.

People often ask me where I get my ideas – or, worse, offer to sell me theirs. Getting the ideas is not the problem; most of the creative people I know have many more than they can ever use. The problem is deciding which idea to use – and it takes a bunch that fit together seamlessly to make a good book. The bad part is that you can only fit so many widely different murders into one book!

Worst of all, when you are surrounded by such beauty and comfort and perfection the urge to indulge in a little villainous mayhem is far too much to resist. I think I’ve decided on smuggling… or maybe jealousy… or perhaps a disputed inheritance… as the inciting incident. Check with me next  year and we’ll see how the story turned out!

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Holiday Reads or Not? by Paty Jager

paty shadow (1)I’m not one of those people who has to buy every romance or mystery book that deals with a holiday. In fact, over the 50+ years that I’ve been a reader,  I’ve had one Nora Roberts set of romance books that were Christmas books that I read every year in December, but I didn’t read any other Christmas books. Then a friend wrote a Thanksgiving novella. I pull that out and read it in November. But that’s about it for reading holiday themed books.

And yet, I seem to write a lot of holiday themed books. In my romance books I’ve written three Christmas Stories, a 4th of July, New Year’s, Halloween, and Valentine story.

In my mysteries, I’ve now written a Christmas and a Halloween story. Last November I put out Yuletide Slaying with Sheba the pony-sized mutt as the character who discovered the dead body.

And this month, going with the theme of an animal finding the body in the holiday stories, Lewis, Crazy Lil’s orange cat, finds the body in Haunting Corpse, book 9 of my Shandra Higheagle Mystery series.

I found while planning this book, I didn’t really think about the holiday. My mind was focused on the murder and who could have done it. The Halloween party was merely used as a means to gather information for Shandra and Ryan and the reader. But I had fun writing the party, the costumes, and the conversations.

Do you find as a reader that you like to read between the lines of the conversation and character’s actions, to try and discover the murderer? Or do you just let yourself go with the flow of the story and be surprised at the end?  Writer’s do you try to make your characters’ conversations relevant to giving clues or do you just write what comes to mind and drop a hint here or there?

Here is the blurb and cover of my newest Shandra Higheagle Mystery.

Haunting Corpse 5x8Desertion…Wrath…Murder

A runaway bride, murder, and arson has Shandra Higheagle sleuthing again. Sorting through the debris of her best friend’s childhood, Shandra believes she must solve the murder before her friend becomes the next victim.

Stumbling upon a dead body, Detective Ryan Greer is determined to bring the killer to justice before Shandra becomes too entangled in her friend’s dysfunctional past. He hopes he’s not too late. Her deceased grandmother has already visited her dreams, putting Shandra in the middle of his investigation and danger.

Universal Link – https://www.books2read.com/u/3J0ZWX




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Retro-dressing my characters

By Sally Carpenter

One of the challenges of writers of historical mysteries is clothing their characters. As fashions change continually, authors must carefully research their time period for accuracy.

My new cozy is set in 1967, a period that should be easy to clothe, right? When I was growing up in the ‘60s I wasn’t interested in fashion. My mother sewed all my clothes and I didn’t buy my own clothing until college. My memory of what people wore at the time is vague and limited.

So I consulted books and learned about Mary Quant and the groovy, hip styles. However, my book is set in the rural Midwest—similar to where I grew up—and the hot fashions of the New York runway never made it west. Growing up, I didn’t see anyone on the streets wearing love beads or Nehru jackets or batik prints or even miniskirts. The ordinary Jane Doe didn’t dress like Emma Peel.

What to do? I found a terrific book titled “Fashionable Clothing from the Sears Catalogs mid 1960s.” That’s right, the book contains full-color illustrations of the merchandise sold in the mail-order catalogs. It’s a wealth of information of what the common person wore as they shopped at Sears, not high-end boutiques.

Women’s clothes of the ‘60s were less restrictive than the ‘50s. Gone were the girdles and mounds of petticoats holding up poodle skirts. Pantyhose replaced nylon stockings for a practical reason. Individual stockings required garter belts to hold them up, but the stocking clips could be seen under miniskirts. Pantyhose provided a seamless visual line as well as some modesty if the skirt flipped up.

But some ‘50s holdovers remained into the ‘60s. The catalogue book has several pages of women’s hats, and when ladies put on a hat, they wore gloves as well. Jackie Kennedy made the pillbox hat a must-have at the time. So I will occasionally put my 26-year-old heroine in a hat because it looks far out and while she’s tough, she isn’t a total tomboy.

The Sears book has no miniskirts! The dresses and skirts hit the knee or just below. A black “dance” dress is shorter, with the hem only about two inches above the knee “to allow movement.” Miniskirts were not practical for everyday women working in offices, stores or schoolrooms.

The book also has far more dresses than pants for women. Women in white- and pink-collar jobs generally wore dresses and seldom  pantsuits on a night out. I had to rethink my character’s wardrobe. I’m putting her in more dresses than I anticipated, but that’s OK. She looks groovy in skirts. And she’s in pants for the “action” scenes that require running and climbing.

I found no women’s jeans in the catalog book, although I did spot a denim jacket and skirt outfit. Women’s dungarees (jeans) had been around in the ‘50s, but only for casual wear or factory/farm work. In the ‘50s and early ‘60s jeans were associated with biker gangs, hoods and rowdy rock bands. Only by mid ‘60s did jeans gain popularity. In fact, faded and patched jeans were stylish.

The few shoes in the book are mostly flats, a surprise as I thought most women in dresses wore heels. Flat heels permit more movement and are less painful for the feet. However, the pencil skirts of the time prevented women from taking long strides and forced them to move their hips more when walking.

Watching TV shows and movies of the era is a another great way to do research. One can see not only what women wore but also how they moved in the slim skirts and short hems. One of my heroine’s dresses is based on an outfit Barbara Feldon wore in “Get Smart.”

In the ‘60s, not everyone jumped on the fashion bandwagon. The older generation, i.e., my parents, continued to wear older styles. Few women in my hometown wore pants in public. My mother only put on pants once in her adult life and I thought they looked weird on her.

I’m writing from my experience. No doubt many older women of the ‘60s embraced pants and other hip styles—just not in my neighborhood.

Of course my cozy has hippies. They dressed differently from the “square” townsfolk to express their individually and distain for the “establishment.” The Sears book didn’t have hippie clothes–no surprise there–but I found examples in other books. Surprisingly, hippies shopped at war surplus stores. This seems odd considering their opposition to the war, but perhaps the reason was that the merchandise sold cheap.

Men’s fashions haven’t changed much over the years. The suit-and-tie has remained standard wear forever, although the ‘70s put a spin on that with the huge lapels, wild pastel colors and paisley shirts. The men in my book mostly wear regular shirts and pants except for the occasional denim overalls (this is farm country after all) and suspenders. And maybe a couple of bellbottoms.

In looking through the Sears book, I was struck at the beauty of the clothes. The models look feminine but not girlish, pretty yet confident, stylish but not too dated. Modern women’s clothing has a drab “unisex” look that I dislike. I’d love to wear some of the fashions in the Sears book. Let’s go retro!




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Openings, Closings, Cliff Hangers, Hooks, and Dribbles

In early drafts, I fall into a habit of beginning and ending chapters in similar ways. Because of this, one of the stages I’ve added to my revision routine is the focused examination of chapter-opening and chapter-closing paragraphs to make sure they are not only effective but varied.


A chapter has to start with a sense of purpose and direction, or a reader will be confused or lose interest, and it’s not just the writer’s goal for the scene that matters—it’s the character’s. Furthermore, it has to be a goal the reader will care about, a goal that arouses empathy, curiosity, suspense, or dread. Although some chapters can begin effectively with an overt statement of a character’s goal, it would be tedious if they all did. How many other ways can I indicate that goal?

  • It can be forced on the protagonist by another’s character’s goal, either in conflict or through teamwork. (But not too often, or the lead character can seem passive and reactive.)
  • Some goals are made so obvious by the action that opens the chapter that they need not be stated directly.
  • Occasionally, a chapter can open with a sequel or reaction scene relating to the previous chapter, a paragraph or two of the character’s inner work which leads to a decision that becomes the goal.
  • Minor goals can set a character in motion only to be swept aside by a more urgent goal.
  • There’s immediate energy in a goal stated in conversation or implied by the subtext of the dialogue.

Though I won’t keep listing them, I’m sure you can think of other variations on this essential feature of the chapter (and scene) openings.


If a chapter ends with a nice, tight feeling of closure, the reader can easily put down the book. I doubt any of us has ever read a chapter ending like that in a mystery. At least, I hope not. The last lines have to keep the momentum going. I’m not a fan of the “if only she had known what was coming next” sort of hook. It’s possible to use to it sparingly in the first person, or in a truly omniscient point of view where there is a narrator’s voice, but not in close third person, which is the only point of view I use. Sometimes I want to create that portentous feeling, though.

To do so, I can end with a character having a sense of something bad about to happen, and if I do it once or twice in the book—probably once—that’s enough. Another way to get the hint of forthcoming doom or disaster is a chapter with a happy ending to that’s too good to last, or a character turning down a task that he’ll eventually have to face. There’s also the classic cliff-hanger that leaves a character on the precipice of a life-changing decision or a dangerous confrontation, but it can’t be overused without losing its power. Sometimes the hook can be as simple as going through a door, if the reader wants to know what will happen on the other side.

I took a class in which we were cautioned not to let our scenes dribble—not to keep going after they have ended—and it’s good advice, but once in a while I’ve seen some excellent writers do this at the end of a chapter. There is a page-turning plot event at the end, but it’s followed by a few humorous lines of dialogue that add depth to the characters and their relationships without smothering the impact of the “real” ending. It’s a dribble, but it’s a skilled dribble, used judiciously like a dribble of hot sauce that’s only good in small quantities.

For this post, I studied how one of my favorite writers, Tony Hillerman, began and ended chapters, examining his Sacred Clowns. The chapter openings vary from setting a scene and introducing characters along with their goals to dialogue lines that jump into the next stage of the plot, and from inner reflections to moments that progress the romantic subplots. The goals are clear but sometimes implied, not always stated in narration or dialogue. His endings range from surprises to warnings to humorous dialogue following up a more serious event (the well-crafted dribble). One chapter ends with a character’s recognition of an important pattern in the mystery plot, another with an informant’s hint that he can help, and another with a comic setback in a romantic subplot. There are endings where the characters are stumped or struggling, but he never uses an outright cliffhanger in this book. Once in a while, he even ends with character getting what he wants—for the moment.

There’s some wonderful symmetry in Hillerman’s chapter structures. One begins with Joe Leaphorn dealing with paperwork and ends with Jim Chee dealing with paperwork, paperwork to be exchanged with each other. It’s humorous and insightful, tells much about their working relationship, and it moves the plot. Another chapter ends with someone warning Jim Chee that a certain investigation is none of his business, while the following one begins with a different character giving Chee the same caution. The book is a page-turner, without the author doing anything clichéd to make the reader turn the page.

One of my go-to writing books is Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure, and I expect many of my fellow writers are familiar with it. Bickham’s basic scene structure advice is: goal, conflict, disaster. He gives creative ways to work with that structure, including starting in the middle of the conflict and then revealing the goal later, ending short of a full disaster, and more.

Can you share any other “tricks of the trade” for keeping readers up at night?

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Off and Running


Well, maybe not running–but I have certainly begun the promotion for my latest book, A Cold Death, with as much spirit and energy as possible.

Me at Branches and Books

This is my first book signing for the new book at Branches Books and Gifts in Oakhurst. Long  drive but one of my favorite towns. Lots of pluses, got to lunch and visit with an old friend, then after the signing, went to dinner with grandson, his wife and great grandson. Though I didn’t sell a ton of books, did sell some to people who like mystery series.


I’m also in the middle of a blog tour–it hasn’t gone smoothly, hosts forgot to put my post up–not sure why they wait until the day and don’t schedule it–but I’ve had many great comments and the book is beginning to receive reviews.

My next event is planned at Stafford’s Chocolates, yes, it’s a store that sells handmade delicious chocolates, only 17 miles from home. I’ll let you know how that goes, but if all else fails, I can eat chocolate. The store is excited to be hosting me–so that’s a plus.

Also attending a the Great Valley Bookfest on October 14th in Manteca–also a long drive, but well worth it. The people come to it planning to buy books.

While all this has been going on, I’ve also taken the rights back for some of my books and new editions have appeared on Amazon.

This is a book truly from my heart-not exactly a mystery, though there are some mysterious elements–but it is based on something that happened in our family.

The Astral Gift latest

This one is a mystery–the first one I wrote and published. It has been re-edited–it is about child abuse, astral projection, murder, and a touch of romance.


So you can see, though I’m not really running, I feel like I have been. I’ve also been learning new things along the way.

What new places have any of you tried for book signings? Anyone else experiencing new challenges along the way?

Being an author is certainly not for sissies!


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I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries lately, perhaps to unstick myself from where I am stuck in my own book. I read to find the solutions other writers have come up with in their books. When the soluton is revealed and I find out who the murderer is or why the murderer did what he or she did, is it satisfactory? Does it leave me with a feeling that although I was mystified, I am now satisfied by the answer. Those mysteries are a pleasure.

Sometimes, though, I think that the writer doesn’t play fair or comes up with a solution that doesn’t make sense. The solution may be a great surprise, but it leaves the reader feeling cheated.

Sometimes writers do the “Hercule Poirot” ending where the detective or amateur sleuth gathers all the suspects together and accuses each character in turn of committing the murder, lays out the reasons why they did so, and then exonerates each one until he gets to the real murderer. That was good for Agatha Christie, who may have been the first to use it, but it get tedious when it continues to be used. Perhaps everyone has a reason to kill the victim, but not everyone is capable of murder or has a reason serious enough to kill.

That’s an other thing: the reason to kill must be serious. The killer must not only be capable of murder but must also have a really good reason to do so. Revenge for a terrible injury or protecting an important secret or shielding a loved one,. yes. Revenge for a social slight or insult, no. Revenge must be for something really serious.

I like an ending where the sleuth suddenly realizes who the murderer must be and pursues him or her to a satisfying climax, preferably with a chase or confrontation scene. That’s only my preference, of course. Obviously, not all mysteries should be alike. I’ve read many satisfactory mysteries where the murderer is known by the reader from the start, but the story is about the pursuit of the murderer by the sleuth or the sleuth’s realization of who the murderer must be. Or even, although this isn’t my favorite, a story told from the murder’s point of view as he or she escapes from the detective. In that kind of mystery, I find myself rooting for the murderer, and that’s kind of uncomfortable.

Anyway, the sticking point in the novel I am currently writing, the problem which is driving me to read one mystery after another in an attempt to forget my problem or, with luck, solve it, is the discovery early on of a safe deposit full of very expensive jewelry. The novel is the third in my Burgess Beach, Florida, series, featuring detective Andi Battaglia and her partner, Greg Lamont. It’s called REASONS TO DISAPPEAR, and the story concerns their captain, the man who ran the Burgess Beach Police Department, a real stickler for rules and regulations, who has disappeared, taking with him a lot of the city”s money and leaving behind the safety deposit full of jewelry. Is it solen? If so, from whom? By whom? How did the captain get hold of it? Why didn’t he take it with him when he left? What, if anything, does it mean?

I am inclined to trust my writing subconscious, which often causes me to put something in as I’m writing that I’m not sure I know the meaning of. This safe deposit box full of jewelry may be one of those things. Who does it belong to? Was it stolen? How did it get to the Captain’;s safe deposit box? Why is the Las Vegas mob interested in the jewelry? I hope my subconscious knows the answer and will reveal it to me soon.

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You’re Not Alone!


I had the pleasure this weekend of participating in a mystery celebration at the Tredyffrin library in Strafford, Pennsylvania. The event was in honor of the 30th anniversary of the Sisters in Crime, a fabulous mystery writers and readers group. I spend a lot of time writing, reading, reading about writing, blogging, following blogs… you get the picture. But there is nothing quite like meeting with fellow mystery writers and mystery lovers.


Sharing a table with mystery writers Matty Dalrymple and Lisa Regan

Sisters in Crime was founded by Sara Paretsky and a group of women in 1986. It now has 3600 members in 50 chapters world-wide and offers networking, advice and support to mystery writers. Members are authors, readers, publishers, agents, booksellers and librarians, all bound by an affection for the mystery genre. The mission of the Sisters in Crime is to promote the ongoing advancement, recognition and professional development of women crime writers.


If you’re a mystery fan, I can’t recommend the Sisters in Crime enough. I’m a member of two different chapters.

Here in my local area (near Philadelphia), I attend the monthly meetings of the Delaware Valley Chapter. I’ve met some incredible writers through this group as well as some fun mystery fans who I love to share stories with.

_Guppy logo copy

I’m also a member of an online chapter of the Sisters in Crime, the Guppies. Originally created as the “Great Unpublished” (hence, Guppies), the group now includes not only unpublished writers but a few rock star writers as well. It offers a chance to virtually chat with fellow writers, to swap manuscripts, to take online courses, to share information and ideas.

Thanks to my involvement in these groups, I’ve participated in writers conferences, book signings, lectures, and more.


Reading from A Blind Eye

If you are a writer, an aspiring writer, or just a huge fan of mysteries, check out the Sisters in Crime! I’m sure there’s a chapter near you. And if the nearest chapter is farther than you want to drive, boot up the computer and check out the Guppies.

Writing can sometimes seem like a lonely pursuit, or at least something you do alone. But thanks to groups like the Sisters of Crime, I always have someone to support me, to keep me motivated and inspired.

Learn more about Jane Gorman and her books at janegorman.com


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