Research Can Kill Ya by Heather Haven

Every writer knows one of the major components of writing a book is the research. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, you don’t throw the reader out of the story with misinformation or untruths. I love doing a little research as I go along. I don’t have to do much as a rule and when I do, it’s usually within sections. But in my latest book, The Drop Dead Temple of Doom, the 8th book of the Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries, I wound up not knowing one single thing about the subject. Make that subjects.

You know how it is. You get a bee in your bonnet about a story and you’re gung-ho to do it. I wanted to base one of the characters in my latest Alvarez adventure on my best friend’s daughter. This young woman is the closest thing to an Indiana Jones I’ve ever met. She traipses around the jungle fighting off jaguars, leeches, and malaria all in an effort to help preserve the history of ancient Mayan civilizations. And she’s quite a looker. If you were shooting the movie of her life, you’d cast her in the role of herself. In addition, the plight of what is happening in Guatemala with the loggers, poachers, and the disappearance of habitat for thousands of endangered species just cried out to be told, albeit as a cozy mystery with a controlled happy ending.

But here was my lack of control. I didn’t know anything about ancient Mayan Civilizations. Or the Guatemalan jungle. Or the world of archaeology. So my research took the tenor of my college days. You know, where you blow off a particular class all semester then suddenly learn on Friday there’s going to be a final midterm on Monday, and you have yet to crack a book. I only did that once, but the 48 hours of sleepless nights cramming facts and figures into my noggin that I knew I was going to forget once the test was over is still etched upon my soul. And here I was decades later, doing the same thing. Cram, cram, cram. Write, write, write. Forget, forget, forget. Yup, college days.

In the beginning I found I was barely doing any writing, I was merely researching. But I had to. If I didn’t, I would stop mid-sentence and ask myself basic things such as, “How does it rain in the jungle with a tree canopy overhead? (The water slides down trees, leaves, and branches to the floor of the jungle and becomes mud. Wear waterproof boots.) Do they really have foot-long caterpillars? (Yes, and they biteth like an adder and stingeth like a serpent.) What is the pre-classic period of the Maya? (1800-900 B.C. Please don’t ask me about the other periods, because I can barely retain this one.) At an archaeological site, what is a Project or Dig Director? (The head honcho in charge of everything from accounting to mixing limestone.) And so on and so forth.

And it isn’t over yet. I still don’t know a thing about the world of black market orchids, because I haven’t gotten to that part of the story yet. But I’m only in month seven. Give me a chance.

The New Nancy Drew… Really? by Heather Haven

Like a lot of mystery writers, I tend to read and view tons of other mysteries, just to see what’s happening and to learn a thing or two. Call it the tools of the trade. Recently, I stumbled across yet another new television series based on the world famous Nancy Drew Series by Carolyn Keene. And there the resemblance ends. I don’t mean to be rude…well, yes, I do… but this is soooooo not Nancy Drew. At least, not the Nancy Drew I grew up with.

As everyone knows, the Nancy Drew of the past is a spirited young woman who lives with her widowed father, Carson Drew, a lawyer, and their trusted housekeeper, Hannah Gruen. These three, despite the generation gap, have a warm and loving relationship. Nancy’s two best friends, George and Bess, as well as her quasi-boyfriend, Ned Nickerson, solve crimes warm and fuzzy. Nancy is a young lady who is strong and self-reliant, with a feel-good crew to back her up. That’s the gal detective I know.

Enter Nancy Drew 2020-21, where these kids look around 26 and act a bad 40. The opening scene of the new television series has her sitting astride her convicted felon boyfriend, Nick, whose real name is Ned Nickerson. They are having sex. Excuse me? After the shock of that, we move onto George. She is supposedly Nancy’s best friend. This George is a belligerent young woman who has just ended the affair she started at 17 years old with a 30-something married man. By the way, she does not like Nancy. They never got along.

Then Bess Marvin shows up. She ‘s in love with a woman posing as a chauffeur who is actually a policewoman. Bess is also a rich family’s poor cousin, literally, but is dying to be a part of this obviously questionable clan. Marvin skeletons are in every closet but they take Bess into the family on the proviso she rat on her new girlfriend. She does.

And these are the lighthearted parts.

Let’s get heavier. Carson Drew, Nancy’s father-knows-best dad, is a dysfunctional man involved in the town’s evil doings and has been for decades. If there’s a murder or dead body, odds are Carson Drew had something to do with it. Just when you hope you might be able to root for him it turns out he’s not Nancy’s real father, but has lied to her about her parentage every step of the way. Add in the paranormal, seances, and some supernatural thing called the Aglaeca, and this storyline gets darker with every episode.

As a writer, I can see how the scriptwriters sought out any idea the protagonist, Nancy Drew, would find challenging. Then they threw it into the story and doubled-down on it. She is betrayed by her father, her lovers, and her friends continually. Even her roadster does her dirty. But to be fair, Nancy may be tortured every step of the way but so is everyone else. They only pause long enough to find a new lover, change partners, or have a séance. Then its off on the next soul-ripping escapade. There is no joy in River Heights, which by the way, has been relocated to Horseshoe Bay… because.

But here’s the kicker. Even though this new series is NOTHING like any Nancy Drew book I’ve ever read, the producers put into the credits the phrase “Based on the Nancy Drew Series by Carolyn Keene.” That started me thinking. What would I do if the producers take the Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries, currently under option, and make them into a television series nothing like the books? They have already told me if the projects goes, the movies will be a little different. But what is a “little?” And will I care? Can I do anything about it if I did care? The answer to that question is a resounding no. I signed certain rights away to see my stories come alive in another media. And I would probably do it again.

But this may be why Sue Grafton said she would never sell the television or movie rights to her books, I’m thinking. It comes down to the written word versus other media forms. The iconic Nancy Drew series is decades old and has been loved for generations. But that makes it vulnerable. Or is it so endeared by all of us, we don’t give a hoot what anyone tries to do to it? We know the truth. And the truth will set us free.

There’s another truth. Once you put your work out there, out there it is. An offshoot of Jane Austen’s Emma turned into the movie Clueless came off charming. But it might not have. The movie based on Janet Evanovich’s book, One for the Money, was a real dud. And nothing like the book. But the end result is rarely up to the author, alive or dead. You are completely at the mercy of a whole other entity. Maybe the Aglaeca. It’s no wonder so many of us writers have a reputation for drinking. I get it now. Pass the vodka.

A Newsletter: To Have Or Have Not by Heather Haven

The decision to have a newsletter was not an easy one for me. I didn’t come to it naturally. At first, I resented spending the time and moola sending out something I wasn’t sure anyone was going to open, let alone read. My webmistress really pushed me to do it, saying any writer worth his or her salt had one. I like salt, so I relented.

Three years ago, she began to build one. And it was an immediate disaster. The first model used SSL, I believe. If I don’t have the right name for this, it’s because I’ve blocked it out. The bad taste of it stays with me. The newsletter, itself, wasn’t actually written by me, but used info pulled from blogs I was steadily writing at the time. It was supposed to be effortless, even going out to a designated email list at a pre-designated time.

It didn’t work. Sometimes it would go out but without any information attached. Just a banner with an image of me and Tugger the Cat would show up in their emails. Other times, it would go out containing bits and pieces of Gobbledygook, not one straight word. But most of the time, it didn’t go out at all. Meanwhile, I was paying for all of this through the schnozzola.

After three months of this nonsense, I started writing them in real time. Then I was in real trouble. I had no idea what to say. Just buy my books sounded a little too blatant. And for whatever reason, I couldn’t be amusing or witty in these newsletters I was writing to a bunch of strangers. Neither informative nor entertaining, the newsletters laid there like a lump. My readership dropped off significantly. It wasn’t unusual for me to lose five to ten people a month. I was desperate.

I was ready to abandon the whole idea of a newsletter and save myself 35 bucks a month in the deal. I happened to mention my decision to Julie Smith, who not only is my publicist, but a fantastic writer, herself. She was totally against the idea of not doing a newsletter, claiming this was the only way to reach out and truly get to know your readers. Hmmmm. You mean, a newsletter is something more than just buy my books?

I should also mention, in the meantime I had been reading other newsletters, from writers like Camille Minichino and Cindy Brown. These are authors whose work I not only admire, but who have newsletters I found myself reading from top to bottom. I discovered something amazing. They not only engaged the reader but wrote about stuff they were interested in. And it had an intimacy about it, like writing to a penpal.

Armed with the idea of getting to know my readers, I became more chatty in my newsletter and even asked questions. I started receiving emails back from them filled with tidbits about their own lives. I came to know many as more than names. I learned some of their stories. They became not just readers but friends. Not only did the email list stop declining, more names were added.

And they are all really neat people. I like them. I’m happy to write to them, to share something from my life, a joke, an anecdote, or even a book I recently discovered they might be interested in reading. Sometimes I mention my own books, but not often. I also found out, incidentally, most of them do buy my books, but not because I hawk them about it, but because my style fits into their reading pleasure.

This writing a newsletter is so win-win.

Words, Words, Words by Heather Haven

Being a writer and author of 14 books and counting, I like to think I know a thing or two about words. However, I am constantly reminded that such is not always the case. I am reminded of this often by my hubby who is a walking dictionary. Truly. I’ve never known the man not to know the meaning of a word in the 41 years we’ve been together. He and Daniel Webster have a lot in common, only hubby is cuter. Sometimes when I run across a word I’ve never seen before and often don’t even know how to pronounce, I will look it up, get the meaning, and then turn to hubby with a quiz. If he doesn’t know the exact meaning immediately, he knows the roundabout. You know, a glimmer of it, enough to use it in a sentence and not make a total jackass of himself. This is where I hee-haw.

The other day I wrote to my doctor asking if it was okay to use melatonin on the rare occasion when I can’t sleep. I have sleep apnea, use a CPAP, and try to be very careful not to impinge my breathing at night. I got a message back from her that dumbfounded me: Answering your question:
Melatonin is not contraindicated with sleep apnea. Having said this is very important to treat sleep apnea with CPAP machine.
Please let me know if you need anything else I will try my best to help!

Okay. I had never seen the word contraindicated before and had no idea what it meant. In fact, I pronounced it con – train- (as in choo-choo train) -di-cated. I was at a loss and turned to hubby. He knew the word, pronounced it correctly, but wanted us to look it up to be sure he had it right. After all, my health was at stake here. So we did. Here’s what I found online:

con·tra·in·di·cate/ˌkäntrəˈindəˌkāt/verbMEDICINEpast tense: contraindicated; past participle: contraindicated (of a condition or circumstance) suggest or indicate that (a particular technique or drug) should not be used in the case in question. “surgery may also be contraindicated for more general reasons of increased operative risk”

I still had no idea whether I could use melatonin with my sleep apnea or not. Hubby was a little flummoxed, as well. So I called my heart sister, who was a medical assistant. I had to read her the message twice, especially the phrase Melatonin is not contraindicated with sleep apnea. Apparently, it was the double negative in the sentence that was confusing, at least once you knew what the word meant. Not contraindicated meant it was okay to use.

This was another reminder to me to watch how how I phrase things. The doctor could have said, Yes, melatonin is fine, Toots, and be sure to use your CPAP. I don’t think we even needed contraindicated in the sentence although now that I know the word I simply love it. Besides, broadening your horizons means learning a new word here and there. And using them. As a wordsmith, I should know that. It’s my bread and butter. But sometimes things that are contraindicated are counterintuitive.

The Man Who Waits by Heather Haven

Other than changing my social doings, Covid19 has done little harm to my professional or artistic life. I’m still writing, when I’m not fretting over who’s going to be the next president of the United States. My books are still selling. Instead of sitting in Bay Area traffic trying to get from point A to point B, I now Zoom from my office with my writing pals and organizations. The gas gauge of my car is grateful and so is my back.

This is not true for hubby. He is an entertainer, a singer, and musician. He needs an audience, as does every other performer out there. Working steadily since his teens, he’d been singing with the same rock and roll band nights and weekends for nearly 17 years. He’d built up a thriving business during the day entertaining the inhabitants of assisted living homes throughout the Bay Area. What was a career for him, money coming in, a purpose for getting up in the morning, crashed and burned early last March.

But you can’t keep a good man down. And tough times like these, more often than not, show the true mettle of a person. Instead of sulking and feeling sorry for himself — which would have been my route — he is perfecting his piano playing by taking lessons on the internet. He’s learning lyrics to new songs. When he can, he performs with other artists via Zoom. But those are rare days. What he does daily is practice to become an even better musician. And he was pretty danged good in the first place.

Eventually, the vaccine will be available to one and all. Eventually, opera houses and theaters will resume. We will start going back to nightclubs and other venues. Maybe even take a cruise again. But this November and December, we will celebrate the holidays by ourselves. We will be grateful. Not for what we don’t have but for what we do have. That would be our health, our home, each other, and enough money to squeak by on. These are things many others do not have.

But it is what it is. And meanwhile, he waits.

Happy holidays to you and yours. And remember, the heart cannot be separated from those we love. So Zoom your love this holiday season and stay safe. There is a future before us.