Cleaning out the cobwebs

By Sally Carpenter

One of my at-home projects for long holiday weekends is to sweep and mop the floors. This may not sound like much, but to me it’s an ordeal. It involves chasing the cats outside and then picking everything off the floor and stacking them on either the bed or sofa, leaving me no place to sit down until the floors dry.

Of course the day after the mopping, rain came and my cats trod over the clean floor with little wet paws. All the work for nothing!

But this attitude toward mopping doesn’t mean I’m a slob. I’m actually a neatnick. Every object has its place and must be put there. My writing space is not strewn with papers or books. Papers are filed away and books are in neat piles or on shelves. When I need something, I know exactly where to find it.

 The down side is that I get cranky if things are misplaced. I love Christmas decorations, but I’m not happy until every item is hung or put out and the packing bins are put away.

My desk at the office is the same way; clear save for some framed cat photos and mementos. Papers are in the hanging folders in the drawer. Even the items on my bulletin board are hung in a methodical fashion.

What has this to do with writing? Some say house cleaning is a procrastination to keep from writing, but for me, I can’t concentrate when my house—or life—is a mess. Sometimes I’ll even stop working just to take care of the stack of dirty dishes in the sink.

I need a clear space so I can think clearly. If I’m distracted by financial or personal issues, I can’t be creative.

Two years I cut down on my writing obligations because I was getting distracted. My mind was in a jumble, hopping from one thing to do to the next and as a result accomplishing little—certainly not as far as writing the next book.

 Also, my mysteries are crafted in an orderly manner. The structure is solid and builds to a logical conclusion. My tidy house reflects my state of mind.

If I’m facing writer’s block or can’t get motivated to write, it’s often a sign that I need to slow down, rest and get focused. I need to put aside the other “to dos,” stop playing computer solitaire (the writer’s bane), sit down with my pen and clipboard, and start writing. That’s how this post was written.

And hanging up the colorful Christmas decorations helps as well.

What do you do to clear out the mental cobwebs?

 

Posted in mystery, Sally Carpenter | 10 Comments

Guest: Maggie King

Why Do I Write Mysteries? The short answer: I love reading them. The long answer is much, well, longer!

Like many young girls I was a huge fan of Nancy Drew and the Dana Girls. I’ll never forget the day my mother brought home The Hidden Staircase after a trip to the P.M. Bookshop in Plainfield, New Jersey. My friends and I started swapping tales of those intrepid girl detectives like mad. We loved the puzzles and the adventures. My parents were great role models for mystery reading with the stacks of Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner paperbacks atop their nightstands.

In sixth grade I started writing my own girl detective mystery and read installments to my friends while walking home from school. They enjoyed my creative efforts. I wish I still had those stories, for posterity.

By high school I had drifted away from writing and reading mysteries, finding an outlet for my considerable adolescent angst in poetry and journal entries. The journal entries (as well as the angst) continued throughout my life but it wasn’t until the nineties that I took up mystery writing again.

I joined my first mystery book group in Santa Clarita, California in 1993. I’d been devouring anything by Agatha Christie for years but there was a whole world of other mystery authors out there and I was ready to dive in. The women in the group were lovely—almost too lovely. I hadn’t yet started my writing career but I knew I was on my way when the what-if scenarios came to me unbidden—

What if these women weren’t really so nice?

What if this was all for show and they harbored secrets, agendas, hatreds?

But it wasn’t until 1996 when I moved to Virginia and took a creative writing course at the University of Virginia that I started writing in earnest. I didn’t forget those nice women—or were they?—from the Santa Clarita book group. I gave them backstories and they became the story prototypes for Murder at the Book Group.

Like many mystery writers, I have a strong need to see justice done and set the world right. Mysteries are the perfect vehicle for that. Mysteries are about relationships—relationships that have gone awry. I’m fascinated by family dynamics and how memories of my own family experiences have popped up throughout my life, sometimes in good ways and sometimes in disconcerting ways. Love and obsession intrigue me to no end, as does sin and how we’re impacted by it.

My short stories are morally ambiguous and I sometimes explore vigilante justice. I’m a law-abiding citizen, but sometimes I wonder if justice is better served outside the boundaries of the law. That’s why I write. It keeps me out of prison and my victim(s) safe. And I can create interesting characters I’d never want to know off the page.

It’s unlikely that I’ll ever solve a mystery—and I have no desire to—but my sleuths can do anything. Just like Nancy Drew. Nancy Drew was intrepid, talented, bright, and flawless (Okay, she was a bit uppity at times, especially in the early stories). My characters, like most modern day sleuths, are flawed but I get to pick and choose their flaws and their virtues.

To circle back to the original question, “Why Do I Write Mysteries?”

Because I love reading them.

And I love writing them.

Blurb for Murder at the Moonshine Inn:

murder-at-the-moonshine-inn-cover-lowWHEN HIGH-POWERED EXECUTIVE Roxanne Howard dies in a pool of blood outside the Moonshine Inn, Richmond, Virginia’s premiere redneck bar, the victim’s sister enlists Hazel Rose to ferret out the killer. At first Hazel balks—she’s a romance writer, not a detective. But Brad Jones, Rox’s husband, is the prime suspect. He’s also Hazel’s cousin, and Hazel believes in doing anything to help family. Never mind that Brad won’t give her the time of day—he’s still family.

Hazel recruits her book group members to help with the investigation. It’s not long before they discover any number of people who feel that a world without Rox Howard is just fine with them: Brad’s son believes that Rox and Brad were behind his mother’s death; Rox’s former young lover holds Rox responsible for a tragedy in his family; and one of Rox’s employees filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against her. The killer could be an angry regular from the Moonshine Inn—or just about anyone who ever crossed paths with the willful and manipulative Rox.

When a second murder ups the ante Hazel must find out who is behind the killings. And fast. Or she may be victim #3.

 Buy link: http://amzn.to/2dtozWa

maggie-king-author-photo-72Maggie King is the author of the Hazel Rose Book Group mysteries, including the recently-released Murder at the Moonshine Inn. She contributed the stories “A Not So Genteel Murder” and “Reunion at Shockoe Slip” to the Virginia is for Mysteries anthologies.

Maggie is a member of Sisters in Crime, James River Writers, and the American Association of University Women. She has worked as a software developer, retail sales manager, and customer service supervisor. Maggie graduated from Elizabeth Seton College and earned a B.S. degree in Business Administration from Rochester Institute of Technology. She has called New Jersey, Massachusetts, and California home. These days she lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband, Glen, and cats, Morris and Olive. She enjoys reading, walking, movies, traveling, theatre, and museums.

Website: http://www.maggieking.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MaggieKingAuthor

Twitter: https://twitter.com/MaggieKingAuthr

 

Posted in Guest Blogger, mystery | Tagged , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Everyone’s a Killer

By JL Simpson

IMG_1610A bit of a dramatic title. Of course it’s not true but you’d never guess it if you were currently living at my house. Nervous Ninnies have taken over the building.

As if life isn’t complicated enough we decided to flog our house and move to Cairns in the tropical part of Australia, 5 days drive away. (I’m excited, my mop of hair not so much)

Anyway, before you move such a huge distance it’s important to downsize as much as possible to minimize the cost of the removal. This would be simple for most people but I live with a hoarder. Mr S loves to keep stuff, ‘that might be useful one day’. So, having convinced him to part with some of his treasure trove, we advertised the items online.

Aussies have a website called Gumtree where you can buy and sell stuff and it is full of interesting people. You advertise something for $100 and someone will offer you $20 and want it delivered. The percentage of lowballers and oddballs is very high so you do need to be careful and keep your wits about you or you get ripped off. However, it could be worse than selling something for half of what it’s worth. Some people online are not what they appear to be. (Shocking revelation, I know!) After a week of emails, texts and calls from lots of people who appear to have no social skills at all Mr S got really spooked. It didn’t help that our neighbor told him a horror story about someone spraying graffiti on their house after they refused to sell something. Now he won’t give out our address. Instead he meets people in public places or in other streets.

He is worried about them coming back and doing bad things to us if they are not happy with their purchases. However, in his quest to protect us all he is in danger of making himself look very guilty.The whole thing reminds me of an adventure I had years ago where I sold a car and the man who bought it could only meet me at 2 Am in the main street of a small town. I drove up and parked. Mr S parked next to me. I got out and the purchaser gave me a wad of dollar bills, I handed over the keys. I sped off with Mr S in his car. The purchaser drove the car he’d bought off me in the opposite direction, closely followed by the friend who had driven him to the hand over point. Talk about things looking dodgy, even more so when you know the town had a reputation for drug deals.

Anyway, so what is with the title? I do wonder if being a mystery author, or being married to a mystery author, makes you see crimes and potential crimes where none exist.

Tell me, do mystery readers have the same problem?

www.jlsimpson.com

 

Posted in JL Simpson, mystery | 4 Comments

Old Age–Not Always a Bad Thing

But sometimes it is, when you forget that you’re supposed to write a post. Which is exactly what I did. I’m supposed to have something new up on the 4th Monday of the month and I forgot. I’ll try to make up for it now.

The good thing about old age–at least in my case–I’ve had the opportunity to see much of my writing in print.And on the personal side, I’m still here to enjoy my children, grand kids, great-grands, and great-great grands. Another great grand is due in January, and a great-great in the spring.

I have many, many great memories, and many of them are connected to writing. When I was younger and enjoyed airplane travel, hubby I attended many mystery cons all over the U.S. We visited many states we’d never had gone to otherwise. We fell in love with Omaha, Nebraska, enjoyed Milwaukee and Madison Wisconsin, had a blast in Chicago during a big snow storm, and so many more great places.

One big highlight was being asked to be an instructor at the Maui Writers Retreat, which meant a wonderful trip to Hawaii. Hubby went along, and while I worked, he enjoyed the sights.

We made so many writer and reader friends along the way, and when we’d go from one place to another, it was like a reunion.

These days, I still do events, but only those that are closer to home.

And yes, I’m still writing mysteries–that’s something I can do without leaving home.

I’m working on a new Rocky Bluff P.D. mystery, and nearly finished. After that I will start the rewriting.

My latest Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery is getting great reviews. Here’s the latest:

4 Stars Falling in love with Tempe!

“This is book 15 of the series, but the only one that I have read. I picked it up and could follow it without having to read the 14 that came before it. However, I may want to start the series when I can, just because there was something about Tempe that I loved. If there are more to come after this, I will also read them. I’m a sucker for a good series, and to have one this long says how well the writer loves her characters. This story holds the readers attention and is very suspenseful. I love that it takes place in a small town, as the town is almost a character of its own. Well written, perfectly flowing story!” –Amy’s Bookshelf Reviews

See you next time, and I’m putting it on the calendar right now, so I don’t forget.

Marilyn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lessons from Outside My Genre, or, How Reading History Informs Writing Mystery

My book-related gratitude this year is for my book club. One of many things I love about Amber in tree finalbeing in this club is the diversity of genres we explore. I’ll always read mysteries, but I need to go outside my genre. It challenges me to learn new information and do more critical thinking. Reading other genres also makes me a better writer.

For October’s read, we chose Ron Chernow’s extensive biography of George Washington, an 800-plus- page book. We had to postpone our discussion into November so we could finish it. Many times, we select a book that one or two members decide not to finish or that someone feels no need to have completed before we meet. This book was different. We all wanted to read every page before we talked about it. What makes this enormous volume so compelling? After all, we know the plot—the main character’s career, who he marries, who won the war, and of course, who won that first presidential election.washington_1772

I’ve tried to identify the features of this biography that could provide lessons for any story-teller and which make it a page-turner above and beyond the question that keeps a lot readers going in fiction—“how will it end?”

Friendships make great stories. It’s easy to think the strongest drama is in romantic love, but in some lives it isn’t. George and Martha Washington’s marriage was long, affectionate, stable and free of scandal. His friends provided more drama—not that he liked drama, but a reader does. Alexander Hamilton was a powerful, valuable and difficult friend, a needed ally but not an easy one. Lafayette was loyal and affectionate, almost like a son to Washington. The contrast between his emotional, open personality and the reserved Washington makes the reader care about both of them and understand their rapport. A story about friendships could be filled with enough variety that no romantic drama is needed: Friends who support the main character and friends who undermine or disappoint him; friends who fail in their struggles; friends who challenge and refine his character and ideas. Washington had all of these.

Enemies make great stories, too, of course, if they are well-developed characters. Washington’s colleagues who wanted to supplant him in the army provide some lively incidents. The way he let these ambitious fellow generals destroy themselves without his taking any action against them is amazing. He could foresee how his enemies might trip themselves up and then wait and let them do it. Once in a while, however, he failed to read character well. Benedict Arnold and his wife Peggy are fascinating, more so than any British general. Betrayed trust makes a more complex story than frank, constant opposition. (Historical fiction writers: There’s potential for a novel in Peggy Arnold.) Do you know if Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were Washington’s friends or enemies? Did he know? Read the book and find out. It gets complicated.

Unexpected characteristics are engaging: Imagine a president who hopes he’ll only be needed for two years and can then resign. (Obviously, he didn’t get his wish.) Washington described being elected in dismal terms. In a letter to his friend and trusted general Henry Knox, he said this of being elected president: “…movement to the chair of government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of execution.” Martha dreaded being first lady, too, and felt like a prisoner in that role. The aversion this couple had to being famous and powerful is a trait that contrasts with our common expectations of people in politics.

Secondary characters can be compelling—and reveal a lot about the main character. Washington’s mixed feelings about slavery show in his relationships with his slaves, refusing to permanently separate married couples or to break up families. His personal attendant, William Lee, who went through the war with him, married a free black woman in Philadelphia and asked that she be brought to Virginia when Washington returned home. He didn’t like Lee’s wife and yet he did as Lee asked. (What a complicated life this couple must have had when she arrived. Lee is another figure would make an intriguing central character for a historical novel. My book club told me I have to write it. I think someone else should.) In many ways, Washington treated Lee like a valued employee, but he owned him. He showed solicitude about all of his slaves’ health and family relationships, but they still were slaves and he expected them to work as if they were being paid for the labor. The inconsistency in his behavior reveals what he felt inside. It took him his whole life, literally, to resolve his inner conflict about slavery.

Washington’s attitude toward women was positive. He found them better company than men socially. A dinner party was disappointing if it was lacking ladies. He admired female historians and poets, and never seemed to think them inferior to male writers, and he conversed with intellectual women like Elizabeth Powel as his equals. The idea that women might vote never came up, of course, no matter what political insights Mrs. Powel could give him. And, as a man of his times, he advised a headstrong niece that she should learn to submit her will more to her husband’s.

Family conflicts create empathy. Who would imagine that a great leader had a whiny, you-never-take-care-of-poor-me mother? Think of the Dwayne-and-Mom sketches on Prairie Home Companion and take them back to the 18th Century, and you have an idea what it was like for our first president to deal with Mary Washington.

Flaws and failures are important. If the main character doesn’t have pain and weakness, there’s no interest. No matter how strong someone is, that person has troubles—family, health, finances, all of the above—and sometimes makes major blunders. A character who can hold a reader’s attention usually has more virtues than flaws, but the balance can be close to fifty-fifty, if the flaws are traits readers can identify with and are paired with the opposite virtue, or are its shadow side. Washington tried to keep his temper but he couldn’t always. He tried to be honest, but he could tell a lie, even though he preferred not to. His respect and admiration for women was a virtue, but it was a blind spot that let Peggy Arnold get away. His generosity was a good trait, though he often spent money he couldn’t spare, being short of funds due to crop failures and because he shopped, redecorated and remodeled far more than he reasonably should have. This didn’t stop him from paying for the college education of various young relatives and other deserving young men, and entertaining every stranger who dropped by Mt. Vernon. It would be hard to like a character who only spent too much on his home décor, but when his extravagance is extended to paying tuition also, the reader’s feelings lean in his favor. Some of the provisions made in his will say even more about his character, but to reveal them would be a spoiler.

I opened the first page already knowing how the main character lived and died, but all of the features above kept me turning the pages.

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Going Somewhere Beautiful

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I love going to beautiful places. After all, who doesn’t? Leaving your life and worries behind to visit somewhere romantic or cozy or exciting. And while I love traveling, that’s not the only way to get carried off.

I recently watched the Netflix show, The Crown (yes, I binge-watched it). I loved it! A little history, a little romance, and a lot of monarchy and aristocracy. Once I was hooked, the available episodes were not enough to quench my taste for the royal. So I went right to my books.crown

Nothing transports me quite like reading. Watching a TV show or movie is fun, no doubt, but reading really gets into my head. Instead of sitting passively while someone else’s imagination creates landscapes and characters, I put my own imagination to work when I read, imagining what the characters look like, what their stately homes look like, how their fancy gowns feel or elegant dinners taste.

I worked my way through three mysteries, each set in England or dealing with the aristocracy. I’m not sated yet, so we’ll see what the next week brings.

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The greatest joy in reading, for me, is being transported. And I usually like to go somewhere beautiful. Which may make it seem strange that I enjoy mysteries. I do choose my stories carefully. Not for me the gruesome details of a serial killer or the torturous death of a child. I find that, in their own ways, mysteries can be beautiful, and not only when they’re located in a beautiful setting (though that helps!).

I agree with the sentiment, expressed by many before me, that crime fiction is good to read because the problem gets solved in the end. The killer is caught. Justice is served. Like in a classic western, the men in the white hats win.

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Things get solved. The world is right with itself. And we, the readers, get some time away from home.

I’m curious, what are your favorite “transporting” books?

Adam-Kaminski-Mystery-Series

The Adam Kaminski Mystery Series by Jane Gorman is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iBooks and other retailers.

Follow Jane Gorman on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

 

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Canine Takeover by Paty Jager

sheba-canstockphoto18381057I’m sure you’ve heard actors say not to work with children and animals, you’ll get upstaged every time.

That’s what happened when I decided to make a secondary character from the Shandra Higheagle Mystery series a main player in the Christmas mystery, Yuletide Slaying.

I was excited when I came up with the idea to make Shandra Higheagle’s big mutt the character that finds the body in the Christmas mystery. I and many of my fans have fallen in love with the big, goofy Newfoundland/ Border Collie cross dog. She’s as quirky as a dog can get. With her large size she should be a great guard dog, but alas, her Border Collie timidness keeps her from being ferocious. Instead, she rolls onto her back in a submissive gesture when meeting people. She’s scared of loud noises, and prefers to hide behind Shandra than take on any confrontation.

Knowing all this about her dog, it’s a bit disconcerting for Shandra when Sheba bolts out of the parade line after a vintage car backfires and drags a sleigh filled with presents for foster children down a side street and disappears. Not only does she fear for her dog, she is worried what Detective Ryan Greer’s mother will think when the sleigh doesn’t arrive at the Christmas carnival.

To Shandra’s relief, Sheba steps out of an alley with the sleigh in tow. But there is a dead man in the sleigh. And she soon discovers, Sheba witnessed the attack because she has a stab wound.

Will the killer be out to finish off the big goofy dog? Will Sheba run when she sees the killer or will her Newfoundland protection instincts kick in?

This was a fun book to write with the focus on the beginning and end on Sheba. She has become one of my favorite secondary characters in this series along with Crazy Lil and Maxwell Treat.

Have you read a mystery where an animal was an integral part o the story line? What was the animal and the book?

Right now you can pre-order Yuletide Slaying for a special price. $.99!

Book 7 of the Shandra Higheagle mystery series

Yuletide Slaying

yuletide-slaying-5x8Family, Revenge, Murder

When Shandra Higheagle’s dog brings her a dead body in a sleigh full of presents, her world is turned upside down. The man is a John Doe and within twenty-four hours another body is found.

Detective Ryan Greer receives a call that has them both looking over their shoulders. A vengeful brother of a gang member who died in a gang war is out for Ryan’s blood. Shandra’s dreams and Ryan’s fellow officers may not be enough to keep them alive to share Christmas.

Pre-Order Links:

Amazon / Nook / Apple / Kobo

Paty Jager is an award-winning author of 25+ novels and over a dozen novellas and short stories of murder mystery, western historical romance, and action adventure. She has a RomCon Reader’s Choice Award, received the EPPIE Award, and a Paranormal Lorie Award. Her mystery, Double Duplicity, was a finalist in the Chanticleer Mayhem and Mystery Award and a runner-up in the RONE  Mystery Award.  This is what Mysteries Etc says about her Shandra Higheagle mystery series: “Mystery, romance, small town, and Native American heritage combine to make a compelling read.”

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photo source: Canstock.com

Posted in mystery, Paty Jager | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments