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.

So You Wanna Write Funny? by Heather Haven

In my far-off youth and for as long as I can remember, lurked inside me the heart of a comedy writer. I wanted nothing more than to be writing funny quips for people, like Woody Allen did for Sid Caesar on Your Show of Shows, back in the fifties. I wasn’t around then, but I’ve seen most of the kinescopes interviews with Allen and Caesar and was mesmerized. Just to make it clear, I wasn’t nearly as impressed by Allen’s foré into his own comedy shows, record albums, movies and even less impressed with his romantic encounters. What got me where I lived was him writing words for performers that made an audience laugh. I couldn’t imagine a greater existence.

One of my very first jobs as a writer in New York City was for No Soap Radio. As the name implies, we wrote funny ads and commercials for radio, had a ball and got paid a weekly salary! Does it get any better than that? Of course, the weekly stipend was so little I often had to decide if I would pay my rent or the phone bill, but by golly, I was a comedy writer. It was a short-lived chapter of my life, maybe a little more than a year, but the things I learned from that group of comedy writers have held fast for the rest of my writing life.

The art of comedy is serious business and you’d better know your business. You’d better know timing, delivery, and what the funny words are. By funny words – and most people don’t think about this – these are words that automatically cause people to smile or chortle. For instance:

Orange? Not so funny. Kumquat. Funny.

Move? Not so funny. Jiggle. Funnier.

Glasses? Not so funny. Spectacles. Funny. Or maybe more funny. Testicles? Whoa. Never mind. But in comedy, expect the unexpected. It often gets a laugh.

But back to words, if you don’t have the words in the right order, with the right rhythm and cadence, it’s probably not going to work. I’ve known comics to work on a one-line joke for weeks until they get it right.

Speaking of comics, have you noticed they often talk in violent or military terms? “I slaughtered ‘em last night” “Man, that audience was murder” “Go out and kill ‘em, pal,” phrases like that. There’s a reason for it. If you don’t get that laugh, you might as well be dead. Comics are very serious about their laughs.

Same with authors who write a funny mystery series. That corpse better be laughing when he hits the ground. Otherwise, I don’t sleep so good at night.

Learning from Streaming by Heather Haven

With Covid looming everywhere, many are staying closer to home than usual. But maybe, as this is year 3 of Covid, that’s the norm. For most of us streaming is the new pastime, whether it be music, movies, documentaries, television specials or series. These days nearly everything can be streamed.

With streaming, as with anything else, you have the good, the bad, and the noteworthy. One of the things I discovered early on with the good and noteworthy is the ability to move things along. The writers or editors know how to insert necessary information without weighing the final product down. Seasoned screenwriters, in particular, have this knack. As a writer, I have found streaming to be a learning situation.

Regarding fiction, I love pilots. The promise of what’s to come unfolds before us in 30, 60, or 90 minutes. Characterizations, backstories, wants, goals, and conflicts are thrown out to the viewer in an orderly manner. Successful screenwriters usually know what to spill right up front and when to hold it back. I try to learn from that. But as I pound at my keyboard, there’s no producer reminding me of the production costs for each scene. I often have the luxury of forgetting. I don’t think the reader does, though. I think they approach each book wanting the same economy of delivery. And I have to say, when I do write in a similar way, the novel does turn out a little better. So hats of to screenwriters.

Except I have a bone to pick with some of these guys, especially the ones writing a continuing series. Take the The Glades, my latest binge-watched series. The Glades aired from 2010 to 2013, but only recently came to my attention (I am often a day late and a dollar short). Putting aside it is a tongue-in-cheek crime drama, it takes place in southern Florida, my home turf. Frankly, I miss the sunshine state, the humidity, palm trees, even the alligators. I can live without Palmetto bugs, but then, nobody’s perfect. The locale (Ft. Lauderdale) and the mystery sucked me in hour after hour. And it didn’t hurt to have a cute Australian actor playing a smartass American cop with no social skills, whatever, who recently moves from a northern big city to a small Florida town. This cutie instantly antagonizes every person he runs into but gets the job done like nobody else can. The lone wolf. Of course, he becomes less of a loner as time goes by. I became very fond of him, the surrounding characters, and even the fake town of Palm Glade, itself. There were 4 seasons, each season ending with a cliffhanger. From the writers’ point of view, it’s a guarantee the viewer will be back to see what happens at the start of the new season.

This is nothing new. It’s done all the time. It was done in 1933 with a 12-part serial called The Perils of Pauline. However, the screenwriters knew when it was going to be over, and tied the final episode up with a happy, pert little bow. Not so with The Glades. And here, if someone plans on watching the series, is where you should STOP READING.

Imagine my surprise when the last episode of the last season ended with my cute Australian actor getting shot and killed on his way to his own wedding. He makes a pitstop to throw rose petals around the new home he’s bought as a surprise for his new bride. And there he is shot dead, mid-throw. And here I am, devoted to my finally-got-his-act-together-starting-a-new-life hero and he’s shot in the back and chest with a bride and his family waiting for him at the church. I was shocked, devastated, almost dropped my bowl of popcorn. This is not how I wanted the series to end. It wasn’t very tongue-in-cheek, it came out of nowhere, and just hung there, seriously wanting.

Now maybe the writers had thought season 5 was coming up. Cliffhanger, donchaknow. Or maybe the actor wanted out of his contract and this was his punishment. You can never come back no matter what, dude, because you be dead. But I felt like I was the one being punished. Then I remembered a home truth for most of us writing lighter-weight mysteries and suspense, no matter what the media. You want to surprise your reader/viewer, not shock them. You want to have them say, ‘aha!’ not ‘what the hey?’ At the end of it all, the reader/view should feel satisfied. So here was another good reminder for me of what not to do.

But I will move on to another story, other characters, and other conflicts because I love streaming.

To Seek an Award or Not by Heather Haven

Most writers are pretty opinionated on the subject of soliciting awards. Some believe that entering a contest, often paying a fee, is buying the award. I personally, don’t believe that is true. Hundreds of books are often entered into a contest. Sometimes larger contests have thousands of entrants. Many from all over the world. If your book can win out over those odds, I say good for you.

For some authors, being nominated by their peers is the only way to go. Sometimes that happens, sometimes it doesn’t. The nomination of a book by members of an organization or those attending a conference is lovely. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it is, as I say, lovely. Sometimes the public nominates a particular book. In a way, it’s a popularity contest, but so what? If you have fans, if you have a following, and they want to acknowledge your book, that’s wonderful.

I have garnered a few awards over the years and I think they all add to the mix. For me, it’s a form of publicity and advertising.. Between good reviews and awards, I believe it helps a reader who may not be familiar with my work, to be willing to take a chance on buying one of my books. That’s all in all. Buy my book and read it.

If i am going to enter a contest, I try to be very circumspect. I like to know, first off, that it has merit. I take a little time, look through the credentials and past winners. Often awards are not a money making proposition for those running the contest. They have to hire readers and/or judges to read all the entries. They have to have some kind of technical or data driven system in place to handle the entries. It all takes time and money.

I recently won another award. I am deeply honored. The Drop-Dead Temple of Doom was the 2021 BIBA® Mystery/Cozy Mystery Winner! I get lots of publicity, stickers to put on my books, and received a beautiful crystal award. They even spelled my name right. I just love it.