P.G. Wodehouse and Me by Heather Haven

I was about nineteen years old when I read my first P.G. Wodehouse book. I will never forget it. It was called Right ho, Jeeves and it opened up a new world for me. Until that time, I hadn’t realized books could be funny, were meant to be funny, that their only job was to make you laugh instead of cry. And through it all, the books were well-written, worth reading for their entertainment value alone.

Right Ho, Jeeves started me down a long path of P.G. Wodehouse books that took me years and years to read. This is because he wrote over ninety of them. This is also because I would go back and reread certain ones, especially the Bertie Wooster and Jeeves collection, again and again.

Even though he was writing about the mores of the 1930’s upper English class, his style, his wit, his ability to evoke hilarious images, make outlandish situations seem almost real, heavily influenced my own writing. He was my hero, my idol, someone I aspired to becoming: a writer whose words alone could make you forget your troubles.

Then one day I found out he apparently had been a Nazi sympathizer. Or maybe his wife was and he went along with it. It was never made clear how it started with him, what drew him in. But I was crushed. Everything good and noble I thought he was came crashing down. My hero not only had feet of clay, he stood for everything I considered to be cruel and evil.

I stopped reading P.G. Wodehouse. And as I look back, on some level my world was the lesser for it. His writing had given me a sense of frivolity, a carefree and colorful look at the lighter aspects of life. But I was done with him. Sometimes you can’t get past things.

Recently, a friend of mine was moving and needed to clear out her book collection. She had a huge stash of Wodehouse books. She knew I write mostly funny novels and asked me if I wanted them. I found myself saying yes. In fact, yes, yes, yes.

It wasn’t just that we were in the middle of a pandemic and my life was closed off and scary. It was more that as I entered old age, I had to admit that while he was seriously flawed in his private life, he was still a mighty fine writer. A writer whose words I’d been missing. Somewhere through the years, maybe I even forgave him. Or maybe I’m working on it. Because as much as I laugh, it’s now tinged with a certain amount of sadness. Sadness that the world is not always what it seems. Sadness that sometimes those we admire are not always worthy of it.

Zooming with Heather Haven

Heather cartoon-smallest copy

If anyone had said to me six-months ago a large part of being an author in today’s world would be virtual, I would have laughed in his or her face. So much for reading the future. Before the pandemic, I did my share of in-the-flesh panel discussions, book signings, writers’ meetings, board meetings i.e., the basic tools of the trade. They were enough of a trial. Back in the day, the Bay Area traffic was so bad it would take hours to travel anywhere that wasn’t your local filling station. But here I am, forced into the unlikely reality of Zoom.Zoom

First off, I had no idea how to Zoom. What do you mean, I need a camera? And a mic? Am I going to have to push a bunch of buttons? But soon I realized it was time to come kicking and screaming into 2020. This old Poodle needed to learn a few new tricks. Bow-wow.

So I took a free Zoom online class offered to those like me to learn the rudiments. For the next forty minutes, we rushed through everything that makes Zoom a gift to the virtual world. I watched the clicking of the teacher’s mouse going from here to there and back again while trying to remember what went where. After my class, I asked my heart sister to let me practice on her with a Zoom meeting. She was the ideal person because whatever I did or didn’t do, she would be all-forgiving. I managed to set up the Zoom meeting and it went great. Was this one-on-one Zoom stuff really this easy to do?

Not quite.

To attain a more professional look, I needed an interesting backdrop behind me instead of the basket of laundry sitting on the dining room table waiting to be folded. Or hubby walking by in nothing but his boxers, grateful as I was for him at least wearing those. Then I remembered my class. The look of a real background could be solved by using a virtual one. Virtuality saves the day?

Not quite.

IMG_3460Unfortunately, one has to have a fairly new computer to support this enhancement. I don’t. But wait! I could buy a green screen plus its stand to place behind me. Then a multitude of backgrounds could be superimposed on the green screen.  Once I got that, they said, I could virtually be wherever I wanted to be: the Roman Coliseum, Waikiki beach, or even outer space (which seemed pretty good at the time). Problem solved?

Not quite.

Bela LugosiThe lighting has to be just so, they warned, or you will look like Bela Lugosi. Or in my case, his mom. And the virtual background on its little green backdrop won’t work so well, either. It shouldn’t have too much or too little light, but something just right. Goldilocks aside, now I’m a lighting director?

Not on your tintype.

This all seemed a little too sophisticated for me, so I axed the virtual background thing. But after a bit more research, I did buy a ring light on a mini-tripod that sits behind the laptop. I have to admit, the lighting does smooth out some of the wrinkles in my face…ah…dress.

I’m still looking for that perfect writerly background. I’ve been prowling around the house, laptop and ring light in tow. The only acceptable background I’ve found so far is the bookcase in the bedroom directly across from the bed.  So I set the laptop and ring light on a box on top of the bed because I’ve learned the camera needs to be elevated. This is so my double chins don’t show as much. One hopes. Then I brought in a chair and sat down between the bed and the bookcase trying to look writerly. Not so comfortable and the cat was totally confused. Just who did I think I was dumping all this junk on her bed and interrupting her mid-afternoon nap?

Okay, so I’m still trying to work out the bugs of this new media stuff. I am beginning to appreciate the idea of the green screen. But I am really beginning to appreciate the idea of radio.

 

Trying to Combine Two Stories Into One by Heather Haven

When I began writing Casting Call for a Corpse, my latest cozy mystery revolving around the Alvarez Family, I wanted to combine the ongoing characters from the series with a few characters from a play I penned some time ago. I also wanted to add a Scottish character in honor of my heart sister, who was adopted at birth and recently found her Scottish birth family. An homage, doncha know.

Frankly, I wasn’t sure if I could make it work. Some nights I lost sleep over whether or not I could pull this into anything readable. However, I really loved the characters from the play, in particular the internationally acclaimed actress, her loyal assistant, the Hispanic housekeeper, and a has-been writer who burned bright in his youth but had done little since. Putting Lee Alvarez, the protagonist of the Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries, and the actress together was easy. Close in age, I found making them friends from way-back-when in New York City added reality and depth to my tale. Also lots of humor! The other characters were a little tougher to place but ultimately, I managed to do it.

As for the storyline, itself, that was different. I was never too sure if ‘this’ was too much or ‘that’ was enough. So I took the throw-all-the-spaghetti-on-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach. Not quite my style. I usually know the first chapter, where I want to go, and how I want the story to end. This time I had no idea of any of it. I was a panster to the nth degree.

Surprisingly, while writing the novel this method was freeing. If I had a thought, it was in. I’d deal with the validity of it later. I wound up with some not-so-nice Russian businessmen, a trendy restaurant, threatening letters, jewel thieves, secret tunnels, and even a Christmas tree farm. I mean, why not? Then I added an inside take on life backstage in the theater, which was a large part of my existence in my salad days. I still had sleepless nights, but at least I had written pages to show for them.

Months later, when I finished the final draft, I went back in and took out extraneous plots, substories, and innuendos that didn’t work or were confusing. By that time, I actually had a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Hallelujah! When I handed the book off to my editors and Beta readers, I waited with the proverbial bated breath to see if the novel worked. It did. In fact, my content editor, one tough cookie, said it was the tightest of all the Alvarez books. Did that mean if I knew a storyline may not work from the very first word on the page to the very last, it made me a better novelist?

I’m thinking no. Each story is unique and different. When I start a new novel it’s almost like writing the first one. So far I’ve written thirteen novels, numerous novellas, and dozens of short stories. Not one of them has been easy or formulaic. True, I’ve developed a few tricks along the way. I believe I know what doesn’t work. But what definitively works? You got me.

In a way, I love that part. It never gets boring, this writing stuff.

What to Write, What to Write, What to write? by Heather Haven

Heather cartoon-smallest copyThey say A Day Without Writing is Like a Day Without Sunshine. Unless ‘they’ don’t. Maybe nobody else says that but me. I know I’ve been paraphrasing something or other for so long, I can’t even remember what the original phrase is. A Day Without Wine is a Day Too Sober?

Hmmm. Maybe not.

In any event, for the past few days, I have CCFAC-SMdone very little writing. July 1st saw the preorder status for Casting Call for a Corpse, which debuts August 1st, and I am at loose ends. I know I want to start another book as soon as possible, but which series do I choose?  I am at a loss as to what that book should be. I was thinking to start Spring Thaw, Book 2 of the Snow Lake Romantic Suspense Novels. But then, Percy Cole is calling me to write The Mother’s Day Murders, Book 4 of the Persephone Cole Vintage Mysteries.  Then, of course, I could write Book 3, Divorce Can Be Murder of the Love Can Be Murder Mystery Novellas. And let’s not forget….wait. I just forgot.

Oh, yes! I could start Book 8 of the Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries, titleless at the moment. But let’s face it, Book 7, Casting Call blah blah, hasn’t even gotten off the assembly line yet. What to write? What to do?

So here’s what I’ve done. Or am doing. I’m sending out a survey in my next newsletter asking my readers which series they like the best, from which series they’d like to have the next book. On a lot of levels, the question is presumptuous. I am assuming that these people will take the time to respond, care enough to respond, or even read my work in the first place. Then I add to the presumption by asking if they will be reading more of my work.

But what they hey. This is my 14th novel and sometimes I wish I had my nerve in my teeth. If you can’t throw out a little presumption at my age, when can you?

You know what this all stems from? Or rather, from which all this stems? Loose ends. This is the most useless time to be a writer that I know. That’s because, as I’ve stated, A Day Without Writing is Like a Day Without Sunshine.

Writing A Cozy Is Not As Warm And Fuzzy As It Sounds by Heather Haven

Several nights ago I finished Casting Call for a Corpse, Book 7 of the Alvarez Family Heather cartoon-smallest copyMurder Mysteries, labeled a fun detective cozy. Fun or not, I actually didn’t finish it. My little pea-brain just likes to think I did.  What really is finished is the initial creative stage. I immediately emailed this ha-ha magnificent work of literature off to the content editor. She will return it several weeks from now noting a bazillion errors, mistakes, misquotes, and/or things that made no sense or didn’t work for her. I will sob for a while, and then will make the corrections or clarifications. I will then send it off to the line editor, who will also find a bazillion things wrong, such as grammar, language, syntax, names, dates, you know, that sort of stuff.  Sobbing, I will do the corrections and pretend that I knew ‘whom’ went there instead of ‘who’ but I was so busy being creative, doncha know, it got by me. And Paris? So in France. Did I write Spain? Whoops. After that, the manuscript will go to the Beta readers. Repeat any and all of the above.

Meanwhile,  I will need to come up with an elevator pitch condensing an 86 thousand-word story into under 25 words. Then I will write several back cover blurbs in varying lengths. But whether the blub is 2 sentences, 2 paragraphs, or 10, it has to be so exciting and pithy, it just makes anyone who picks up that book want to buy it. What is saving my sanity is I no longer have to do the publicity for this little gem. I am paying someone else to do that. Which is good. Because I will be too busy sobbing and being fed up. I will have had it with the stupid story, the stupid book, the stupid series, not to mention the stupid writing process. But soon, as follows the night the day, it will be up and running. And so will I.

I will be running on to my next novel, Spring Thaw, Book 2 of the Snow Lake Romantic Suspense Novels. And I can’t wait to get started!

 

 

On Being a Writer by Heather Haven

Heather cartoon-smallest copyThere are a lot of bonuses to being a writer. Take today. Without leaving my office, I got to go on an early morning car chase on Highway 92, a scenic route over the coastal mountains of California. Highway 92 leads to a lot of nifty places, such as the Pacific Ocean and a darling little town called Half Moon Bay. True, the car chase may have only been in my mind, but it was pretty exciting. And a total relief, especially with what’s going on in the world now.

Following my protagonist and her hubby, I wound up at a Christmas tree farm. There I got to watch among other things, these two charmers sabotage the getaway helicopter of the villains. They were outnumbered and it was a close call, of course, but things were set right in the end.  As I tagged along with them, the sun came up on a glorious day in a glorious part of the world. I said to myself, I said, “Self, this is the joy of writing a cozy. You know what’s going to happen, when it’s going to happen, and there’s going to be a happy ending, because it’s all up to you.” Self was happy.

On top of that, I got to do research. I love doing research. I learned things, such as different fuels for a helicopter (there are two kinds, depending on the engine), if the windshield can be penetrated by a bullet (yes), and how the rotating blades taking the copter up, up, and away actually do it (too detailed to go into). Today my life was in the building, maintenance, and aerodynamics of a helicopter on a Christmas tree farm near Half Moon Bay and little else.

Of course, I would have to come back to reality now and then to feed the cat, hubby, make the bed, disinfect anything that came into the house, go for a brief walk, and make dinner. But still, parts of my day were absolutely marvelous. I may be a crazy writer, but I LOVE what I do for a living. Even when I don’t make much of a living at it. Money comes and goes. Sometimes I sail along, sometimes I’m dashed to the rocks.

But then, I never became a writer because of the moola. It’s the lure of things like car chases over Highway 92, foiling the bad guy, and winning the day at a Christmas tree farm. You just can’t get jobs like that every day, no matter what the pay.

 

I’ve been rebranded. Ouch! By Heather Haven

I have been self-publishing (or call me an independent publisher) for nearly a decade. It’s a lot of work, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am in control of me. I am my own destiny. But time marches on and what worked in 2011 doesn’t necessarily work in 2020. Destiny has taken a nosedive.

So I’m starting anew. My first book of the Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries was published out of Canada in 2011. I wound up having three books of the series published by their house before I left. I had no quarrel nor falling out with them. It’s just that they moved their attention and time on to the next author in line and my books seemed to just languish in the queue. So in late 2012 I took my books back and decided to self-publish exclusively on Amazon. I now have four series going, a stand-alone, and an anthology published. But the Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries has always been my biggest seller and accounts for over 95% of my sales. In the beginning, I made good money just being on Amazon. I used to say that while I might not be able to buy a yacht, I could certainly buy a sailboat with my earnings. I can’t say that anymore. At this point, I don’t think I could even buy a dinghy. Used. That leaks.

My ebook numbers started falling in 2016. In 2017 I took everything out of Amazon’s KDP (where I also made about 1/3 of my monthly income lending the books out and being paid page by page) and published them on Barnes and Noble, Kobo, etc. They did even worse! A year later in 2018, I brought them back to Amazon where they did slightly better but never as well as they had from 2012 – 2016. It was a continual decrease in sales. I had to face it. Something was wrong. Or was it? Had my time come and gone? I was in a panic.

About four months ago a fellow author, who writes two mystery series, told me about a marketing person who helped her increase sales dramatically. This person only handles books of a very specific nature. It has to be a series of four books or more, only ebooks, and sold exclusively on Amazon. Sounded right up my alley.

I hired that person and she is currently doing a new marketing approach for the Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries from top to bottom, including new book covers. It has not been cheap. But in order to make $$$, you have to spend $$$. Right? Right.

Revamping, redoing, rethinking, and reassessing has been my middle name for a couple of months. Everything is lined up, ready to go, and we will be starting a new marketing campaign exclusively on Amazon starting February 16th. The Alvarez Family is now a “fun detective cozy”  instead of a humorous mystery, with new keywords to draw in readers, hopefully. And the new covers are completely, COMPLETELY different than before, as are the blurbs. As, frankly, is everything.

So am I in a slump? Is this revitalization? Or am I a has-been? Stay tuned because I haven’t got a clue. Meanwhile, check out the new covers on my website at www.heatherhavenstories.com.

 

 

Revamping My Covers by Heather Haven

I never realized that a book cover was a lot like a hairdo. They need to be updated every now and then. Frankly, I love my covers, especially for the Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries. They’re familiar. They’re comfortable. Whoops! Maybe when you start saying stuff like that it’s time for a redo. Sigh.

Let’s face it. A good, eye-catching cover is what helps sell a book, big time. Times change. What worked in the early 2000s may not work now. So here I am, deciding what I should do. Should I continue to do the covers myself or should I job them out? Has competition gotten so keen, I need to have a real professional do them for me? Although, I thought I was a professional. But am I a real, dyed-in-the-wool professional CA who can compete in today’s market? Okay. So there I got me. I’m not.

What I am is a professional writer who has enough on her plate and needs to job certain things out. Like my covers. Truth be told, I really would like more time for writing. For playing with my cat. For having lunch with my friends. For canoodling with my husband.

So, for the moment, The Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries covers are having a do-over. And not by me.

Topsy and the Apple Pie by Heather Haven

Judy Garland used to sing the song, “I Was Born In A Trunk At The Princess Theatre.” I often sing “I Was Born ON A Trunk At Ringling Brothers Circus.” My parents met and married at Ringling Brothers during the early forties. She started out as a First of May, he an elephant handler. Her professional name was Jerull Deane. His was Whitey Haven.

Within a couple of years, Mom worked her way up to a specialty act with the elephants. My father worked his way up to being an elephant trainer. They both loved working with these large but sweet-natured animals.

My mother used to say one of the reasons she fell in love with my father was because he didn’t use the eye hook, or let any of his men use them, either. He was kind and loving to his charges, and she adored the man all the more for it. Topsy was one of the elephants Mom worked with and she liked to tell stories about her beloved pachyderm.

As a married couple, they had a little more privacy than other people, and lived in a small trailer on the backlot next to the animals. One of her favorite stories was about the time she took up baking. She would bake a fruit pie – apple, peach, berry, depending on what you could get right after the war – and put them on the windowsill in front of a partially opened window to cool. But pies kept disappearing, not all the time but most of the time. She couldn’t figure out who was stealing them. Also, Mom was running out of pie tins. They cost a lot of money and there were only so many of them, as rationing was still ongoing.

So she set up a watch. She baked an apple pie, put it in the window to cool and waited out of sight. About half an hour later, a grey trunk slowly appeared in the window sniffing the air. Once it located the pie, it pushed the small window open entirely, reached in, and pulled out huge chunks of pie, disappearing out the window with them. After most of the pie was gone, the trunk sucked on the metal of the pie tin, and pulled it out of the window, too.

Mom appeared at the window and looked down at the thief. She recognized Topsy right away. Pie tin on the ground, Topsy was slurping on the remnants like she was a vacuum cleaner. When the elephant had finished the last crumb, she picked up the empty tin and turned to a nearby trashcan.  Mom had had enough.

“Topsy,” she yelled from inside the small window. “Don’t you dare throw that tin in the trash!”

The elephant froze in place then slowly turned around to face her performing partner in the ring, pie tin dangling from her trunk.

“You bring that here right now,” Mom demanded.

The elephant slowly crept toward the sound of her partner’s voice.

“Did you steal that pie?”

Topsy lowered her head.

“You did, didn’t you?”

Topsy nodded once, pie tin scraping on the ground.

“You give me that pie tin. You hear me? Right now.”

Mom reached her hand out the small window. Topsy raised the tin up for Mom to take.

“You’re a bad, girl,” Mom said eye level with Topsy’s face. Topsy reached her trunk into the window and stroked Mom’s cheek with the finger at the tip end of her trunk.

Mom laughed, took the grey trunk in her hand, and kissed it lightly on the tip, a tip that smelled of cinnamon and baked apples.

“No, you’re not,” she crooned. “You’re a very good girl and you’re my baby doll.”

Even though her ‘baby doll’ weighed in at 5.5 tons, every now and then Mom would bake an extra fruit pie for Topsy. Especially apple. Topsy loved apple. But Mom stopped cooling any of them on the windowsill after that.

I’ve always been taken with the stories of my mother’s life in the circus, especially during its golden age. As a mystery writer, her stories prompted me to write a noir mystery, Murder under the Big Top, using my perception of her during that time as my muse. I even used a photo of her on top of Topsy as the book cover. I lost Mom in 2014. I’m proud to say Murder under the Big Top won the IPPY Silver for Best Mystery/thriller that same year and right around Mother’s Day.

I like to think Mom was looking down on me then, smiling. Maybe Topsy was, too!

 

Dashiell Hammett and Me by Heather Haven

“The cheaper the crook the gaudier the patter.” This line was uttered by Humphrey Bogart, when he played Sam Spade in the movie Maltese Falcon. This classic was written by my hero, Dashiell Hammett. Even at seventeen years old, when I read that particular line in the book of the same title, I knew Hammett was a brilliant writer. It’s hard to miss something like that.

Mr. Hammett was a big influence on me becoming a crime writer, albeit not quite as hard-boiled. I’m more like a two-minute egg. But I recently learned that if there isn’t a dead body, I’m not interested in reading someone else’s book or writing one of my own.

My latest novel, Christmas Trifle, which came out a few days ago, started out as pure romance. Good golly, Miss Molly. What was I thinking? Ultimately, I found what the story needed was a good, old-fashioned murder, not more kisses. More foreboding, not more hugs. So it was only natural I turned Christmas Trifle into a romantic suspense novel.

And why not? Dashiell Hammett created the iconic Nick and Nora Charles. He put these two lovebirds in a novel called The Thin Man. Also made into a film, it was followed by a succession of sequels, all written by him. Not only were these murder mysteries wildly popular, they were wildly romantic. He may have even invented the modern day romantic suspense. So I felt him egging me on, no pun intended, to do what I do best.

Consequently, Christmas Trifle now contains a corpse or two. Actually, three. The story still has the same charming, but recently divorced chefs, but these two find their way back to each other over a dead body rather than a dead soufflé.

My kinda story.

Dashiell Hammett once wrote, “If you have a story that seems worth telling, and you think you can tell it worthily, then the thing for you to do is to tell it, regardless of whether it has to do with sex, sailors or mounted policemen.”

My kinda guy.