Ants in the Tequila by Heather Haven

I lead a very small life. I get up in the morning, have coffee, stumble around, and try to wake up. I kiss my husband and pet the cat, or maybe the reverse. I can’t always remember. Most days, I sit down and write. Unfortunately, sometimes I have an appointment, errand, or chore that has been relegated to the morning, which is never my idea, but you can’t always control the world. I would rather sit down and write in the morning. Hence, mornings are predictably boring, followed by afternoons and evenings of…well…nothing much.

It’s possible my saving grace as a writer is my vivid and unpredictable imagination. I never know where my mind is going to go, taking me and my five senses along. If I witness something or hear a conversation between people or even animals, I am likely to concoct an entire scenario around that. No, I am not a dog, cat, or horse whisperer. It’s not just the words I pay attention to, anyway, but the emotions behind them. Plainly put, the world and its inhabitants are grist for my mill even though I have no mill and I’m not completely sure what a grist is. But I do love the phrase. And the sentiment.

Regarding the ants in the tequila, it was not about calling Orkin or Terminix. Our condo is ground level, in the midst of many gardens. I am surrounded by all sorts of living creatures that do not bother to knock and wait to be asked in. I am used to uninvited guests. However, I have never encountered ants in any of our booze before, let alone the tequila. Yet there they were, floating around, dead drunk, not a suicide note to be found. My writer’s mind clicked in. Where to go with this?

My instinct said this incident might be an article, blog, or flash fiction. It wasn’t novel material. For where was the story? And characterizations? Would I make one of the floaters my protagonist? Would I name him Harry? Or, as the ratio of female to male ants in a typical colony is three to one, Henrietta, Frieda, or Penelope? A lonely guy/gal, having left the nest, out on the town, only to find a pool of tequila too irresistible to ignore? No, no. No novel here.

In the meantime, we threw the bottle of nearly full tequila out, ants and all. Never mind that alcohol is a natural antiseptic, purifying anything it touches. I read that’s how the early Romans made such headway in Europe. The legions traveled on their stomachs, with a canteen of watered down wine by their sides to drink, as opposed to the local water. No local water, no dysentery. An inebriated, but hale and hearty group of marauders. That’s the Romans.

But back to my tequila and those marauding ants. My margarita days were at an end. I didn’t care if all the bacteria had been killed by the alcohol. Do not talk logic to me now, oh mighty Caesar. The sight of those small beasties drifting face down in the Don Julio, happy though they may have been at the end, did me in. I moved on to rum. Then I pondered on how to write about this incident.

Which is how the tale came to be right here, right now. All is grist for the mill, donchaknow, even though I’m still not completely sure what a grist is.

How Some Characters Come Alive by Heather Haven

Sometimes a character will pop into my head just waiting to serve me. But I have to be honest. In reality, they have been stored in my mind, coming from an incident I may have seen while crossing a street, waiting in the supermarket line, or sitting in a restaurant. Speaking of restaurants, I remember years ago sitting in a large Chinese restaurant with my mother. As with most large, single rooms filled with people, the din was almost ear-splitting. But for one brief moment – you know how that goes – everyone stopped talking except for one lone couple. In the silence of that large room, we heard a woman’s voice ring out loud and clear. “It’s not the eggroll, Harry. It’s the past six years.” A titter ran through the room, then outright laughter. The hub-bub picked up again, but it was a moment I never forgot. The unexpected. The funny. The one or two words that spark an entire scenario.

That’s why it’s good to get out. You never know what you’ll see or hear. The out-of-the-blue inspiration for my imagination, the thing that gives me liftoff, could be anyone. It could be YOU. Never trust a writer.

As I writer, I tend to eavesdrop on life. I spy with my little eye. That sort of thing. But I don’t want any real details. I’m not a reporter. I am a fiction writer. I don’t want to know the couple I find so fascinating at the nearby table are not calling it quits after 15 years of marriage but are discussing a movie they saw. Or that the old duffer sitting at a table for one studying the menu again and again wasn’t thrown out of his house by his louse of a son but is merely waiting for someone, forgot to bring his reading glasses, and can’t see a word.

As I listen to them or see them oh, so briefly, I am creating a whole new world. I am adding to and subtracting from their traits, their virtues, their flaws. They have no idea they will be a major or minor part of my current story. Or my future story. They will become whoever and whatever I want them to be. It doesn’t matter who they really are, now they are mine. Bent to my will. I am their new creator. Oh, the power of it.

It’s good to be queen.

I’m Not Going to Name Names…But by Heather Haven

My ongoing deal with a major American subscription streaming service and production company fell through recently. No names but X marks the spot. Anyway, the second book of the Alvarez Series, A Wedding To Die For, had reached the development stage with them. That meant they paid a scriptwriter or writers (not me) to create a screenplay of my book. It also meant they gave me, the creator of the original story, a little more money. Thank you!

Now the X company is in trouble and all new projects are either on hold or cancelled. I don’t know which category my book falls into, but it’s possible it is a zombie i.e., dead but still walking around, maybe even drooling. A similar thing happened to me four years ago. A Wedding to Die For was with another American subscription blah blah, where mark marks the spot, and it fell through because…because.

I will be my own therapist for the moment. How do I feel about this? Disappointed but a little proud. Only 1 out of 1000 projects ever make it to the completion stage. The odds were never in my favor. And the same scenario has happened to some of my pals, writers I know and respect. I am a member of a club. Maybe a wannabe club, but I think it’s better to be a wannabe than a never was.

People often ask me how I found these production houses willing to speculate on making my book(s) into a tv series or movie. Sad to say, I didn’t have a thing to do with it. I don’t have an agent to push my work onto an unsuspecting production house. But producers are always cruising the internet in search of potential projects. If it strikes their fancy, you just might get an email or a phone call. Being the whole deal of reaching the final stage is akin to trapping lightning in a bottle, they are often willing to take a chance on even lesser known writers, such as me.

My lesson in all of this was and is to keep my best work out there, clean, neat, and professional. None of this “oh, heck, it’s good enough” stuff. And not because I am trying to get it done in another medium. Another no-names-named item: I learned the sister of a very famous comedian read one of my books, really liked it, and told him about it. On a personal note, I’ve loved and respected the brother’s work, which includes his own production house, for decades. The fact he was told about my book made me giddy. Mini-crush, donchaknow.

Did he read it? I have no idea. But he could have. And still might. My point is, you never, never know who is going to land on one of your books, maybe only to read the blurb. But that might be enough to rev up some interest. If they do nothing but buy the book, you’re already ahead of the game.

So that’s my story. But make no mistake, I’m still a little disappointed it all fell through. And the name’s Heather.

The Immortality of a Cat by Heather Haven

Tugger, the real cat

Years ago, when I began writing the Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries, I knew I wanted to include my cat, Rum Tum Tugger, because I adored him so. At the time, I didn’t know about the plethora of cat mysteries out there. But, of course, when I started writing back in the early 90s, there may not have been so many. Nonetheless, I can’t believe how stupid or unread I was. But at the time, I was only familiar with Lillian Jackson Braun’s cat series, The Cat Who…. Lillian Jackson Braun wrote about two Siamese cats owned (if anyone can own a cat) by a middle-aged, burly ex-reporter of the male persuasion. I never for one minute thought a cat being in a mystery series was a common thing. As I say, stupid! In a way, I’m glad I didn’t know there were so many mystery books with cats. I might not have included Tugger (and now Baba, as well) in the stories and I think they add a lot.

Several screenwriters I know have mentioned that when they write an anti-hero kind of story, they have to make sure the anti-hero Saves The Cat. Danny Glover and Mel Gibson did just that in their first Lethal Weapon movie, where they pulled a cat out of building right before it was blown to smithereens. If you think about it, it’s done all the time. It’s even talked about in an article written by the Coen Brother’s character, Llewyn Davis, in the Guardian, if you care to read it. As he says, once you recognize the formula, you see it everywhere, from Sigourney Weaver in Alien to Marlon Brando in the opening scene of The Godfather.

Tugger on the book covers

But that’s not why I did it. I wanted to have fun with my own cat, Tugger. I wanted to have him be a part of my writing experience. Now that he’s gone, having him in the stories even means more to me. For a few brief moments he’s alive again, running, jumping and leaping, getting into all sort of mischief, and being just as loved. For a short time, I can almost hear him purr and smell his powder-puff fur (he was the most fastidious and cleanest cat I ever met). People ask me if I will ever stop writing the Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries. The answer is a resounding no, if for no other reason than Tugger is alive again, if only in my mind and heart.

Creating a Protagonist by Heather Haven

When I was creating the protagonist for my Alvarez Family Murder Mystery Series, Lee Alvarez, I made some pretty radical decisions. Mainly, I knew what I didn’t want. I didn’t want to have someone who was snarky, who didn’t get along with anybody, especially her family, and only had one black skirt tucked away in the back of her closet. I wanted her to be a more outgoing, positive person. Also, I wanted a definite ethnicity. Lee’s mother, a Palo Alto blueblood, fell in love with and married a Mexican immigrant. Thus their children, Lee, and her brother, Richard, are Mexican-American. I am Italian-American. Many of us are a blend. It’s the great American way and I love it.

I particularly wanted to have a central character that was identifiable but different, off-kilter, and likable. Lee Alvarez isn’t your typical protagonist. Yes, she’s in her mid-thirties and once divorced. But she’s now remarried to a handsome, retired Navy SEAL, because I am from the school of thought that believes a woman CAN have it all. At least, in my books. Lee’s smart, talented, and loves dancing, handbags, and a good joke. She knows her own worth but has her moments of self-doubts. They seem to hit her when least expected, often like they hit the rest of us. Every day, as she chases down a suspect, she strives to be a B&BP (bigger and better person), knowing full-well nobody’s perfect. Except maybe her mother, Lila Hamilton-Alvarez, who’s never had a bad hair day in her life. And try living in that designer-clad woman’s shadow.

Lee reads Dashiell Hammett detective stories and watches old black and white movies on TV while searching the web. She loves peanuts and a good, classic martini i.e., gin, vermouth, orange bitters and 3 olives served icy cold, straight up, please. I’ve created a real, today kind of PI, California-honed, who’s educated but has her moments of stupidity. I can absolutely relate to her.

Much to her mother’s horror, Lee likes to shop at consignment stores and wear sweat clothes around the house. She also has a bit of a crush on the late Humphrey Bogart because you may be dead, but you can still be great in Lee’s book. Her character traits are unique, her relationships with her family quirky, but real and, I hope, well-crafted. After all, a murder mystery should be a well-written novel that just happens to have a dead body or two in it done in by an unknown assailant.

Developing the plot is different for me. I have no idea where that will come from. For instance, the second book of the Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries, A Wedding to Die For, came about after reading a story – so bazaar I could hardly believe it was true – in National Geographic. Sixty-plus members of an Egyptian Family were arrested for pilfering from a lesser known Egyptian king’s tomb and had been doing so for generations!

This extended family would take one article, sell it on the black market, and spread the wealth among themselves, leading to better education and opportunities. After several decades, many of them came into positions of importance, in museums and customs, thereby ensuring even greater success. They were caught after years of staying below the radar, when one of them got greedy and substituted a fake for a real antiquity in a museum at which he was the assistant curator. It blew the whole thing wide open. I was mesmerized by this story! I transferred this renegade family to Mexico, threw in a wedding gone awry, a falsely accused groom from the States, and was off and away! It was a lot of fun.

But at the heart of all the stories is my protagonist and her familial relationships. They are all in all. And thankfully, most of my readers like to see what’s going on between Lee and her kith and kin. They like the fact that nobody is deliberately mean, that they try to do right by one other, and they genuinely enjoy being in their own company. I like that, too. Let’s face it. Life’s too short for all this harboring of ill will. Even in fiction.