Parodies and pastiches

By Sally Carpenter

The theater in my town recently screened “Galaxy Quest” as part of the Friday night retro-film series. It’s one of my favorite movies. Trekkies consider it the seventh best Star Trek film because it’s a spot-on parody of the fan universe spawned by the Trek franchise.

Parodies abound in literature and cinema. If a movie becomes popular, a parody is bound to follow. “Star Wars” led to “Space Balls.” James Bond begat “Our Man Flint,” “The Ambushers,” “Get Smart” and Austin Powers. TV soap operas inspired the movie “Soapdish.”

The dictionary defines parody as “a literary or musical work in which the style of an author or work is closely imitated for comic effect or in ridicule,” and also, “a feeble, ridiculous imitation.”

Parodies work best with attention to detail and a deep knowledge of the original subject matter. A successful parody is full of in-jokes that only the most committed fans get (such as in “Galaxy Quest” when Alexander says to Jason, “I see you managed to get your shirt off,” a reference to Capt. Kirk’s frequent and gratuitous tearing of his uniform).

I enjoy a good parody. It’s like being part of an in-group that understands the jokes and allusions that outsiders miss. A good parody will stand on its own, but is more worthwhile for those who know the original subject.

Parody differs from pastiche, which the dictionary says is “a literary, artistic, musical or architectural work that imitates the style of a previous work.” A pastiche does not poke fun, but rather, pays homage to the original.

Over the years the Sherlock Holmes stories have spawned countless imitations from fans. The pastiches attempt to add additional cases for the great detective to solve. These stories stay true to Doyle’s literary style and format. Often the pastiches use other characters besides Holmes as the protagonist, such as the Mary Russell series by Laurie R. King and the Amelia Watson stories of Michael Mallory.

I can read a Holmes pastiche if it bends the canon a little, but not if it beaks it. Some authors go so far off track that the book is Holmes in name only. He’s even traveled in time and outer space!

The arrogant and aloof resident of 221B is also ripe for parody. My favorite parody is “Schlock Homes: the Complete Bagel Street Saga” by Robert L. Fish in which the detective’s keen observations always lead to the wrong conclusions. The stories are also full of word play and puns, which I love.

Hard-boiled private eyes like Sam Spade and Mike Hammer were imitated to death in B-movies and pulp fiction magazines. The stories were not so much homage as a means to cash in on a hot topic without violating copyright laws.

Sometimes beginning writers will pen pastiches as a way to learn the craft while their own style/voice develops. Some write parodies for amusement (as Fish did with Schlock Homes) or to poke fun at pretensions.

I love a good parody, but eventually I always go back to the original. With pastiches, I feel that an author should eventually create her own characters. Hundred of other detectives exist beyond Holmes and Spade and they deserve to have their stories told too.

What are your favorite parodies and pastiches in film and books?

A groovy new book

By Sally Carpenter

Flower_Power_Fatality_jpg (1)

My new retro-cozy, “Flower Power Fatality,” seems like it’s taken forever to write. I estimate the actual writing time at about 1.5 years but it’s been on my mind for much longer.

The idea originated a number of years ago at a fundraising concert at my parish. A group of ‘60s rockers were performing and I thought a cozy set in the 1960s was a pretty far out idea. I only know of one other mystery series in the ‘60s so the field seemed ripe for exploiting.

I considered a series with a college student as a protagonist (campus unrest was a big topic in the era), one book for each year of school. However, high-achieving students are too busy with classes, homework and extra-curricular activities to have time for sleuthing (except for the Hardy Boys who always seem to be on a school holiday). Writing scenes about someone sitting in lecture classes all day didn’t interest me either (my apologies to those of you who write school mysteries).

I didn’t want to write about a rock musician, because I already had a musician in my Sandy Fairfax series. Hippies are interesting characters, but they make poor sleuths. They don’t want to deal with the cops and frankly, some of them are too strung out much of the time to be of use.

One of my writer acquaintances is a Doris Day fan, so I started watching Doris Day movies. The idea clicked with “The Glass Bottom Boat.” Doris plays a civilian who unwitting gets mixed up with spies. Aha!

The 1960s was the height of the Cold War between the U.S. and Russia, with nuclear annihilation of both countries only a button-push away. Everyone knew about CIA and KGB spies, no matter how hard they tried to keep their activities a secret. Mad Magazine made light of this conflict in the wordless “Spy vs. Spy” cartoons.

The spy genre was popular entertainment in the 1960s, kicked off, of course by the James Bond craze. Soon Bond found himself parodied in the Derek Flint and Matt Helm films and in the 1967 “Casino Royale.”

Spies took over TV as well with such shows as “I Spy,” “The Man From UNCLE,” “Mission: Impossible” and “Get Smart.” One could argue “Batman” followed suit as well, with its many bat-gadgets, droll sense of humor and over-the-top presentation like the Bond movies.

“UNCLE” episodes featured a new “innocent” (guest star) each week, a civilian recruited by the agency to help the spies with the mission, much like the protagonist in my book, an actress who stumbles upon a murder and missing microdots.

But I couldn’t start writing right away. I wanted to crank out another Sandy Fairfax book, so I put the new idea on the back burner. Then I researched a big presentation for my parish. Then I wrote a short story for the “Cozy Cats Shorts” anthology (2017). And along the way I was still writing my monthly Ladies of Mystery post and my newspaper column.

At long last I put everything aside to work on the new idea.

Sometimes letting an idea simmer makes it tastier. I used the time to research my setting and the 1960s in general. Being a kid at the time, much of what was going on went right over my head. I also had to check on every product and piece of music mentioned in the book to make sure it was time-appropriate.

And the book has a pet cat. Well, that one was easy to research. I just looked in my yard.

An ‘ideal’ article

By Sally Carpenter

 Some years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Jeffrey Scott, the most prolific writer of TV animation, with over 600 produced scripts to his credit, and all-around nice person.

 In his book, “How to Write for Animation,” which has good advice for any writer, he talks about ideas.

 “There are an infinitive of ideas,” he writes. “All of us are inherently creative.”

 Scott makes a good point that we tend to over think creativity, which is often presented as some mystical, awesome force that only affects a few highly gifted individuals.

Or else we try to analyze creativity as science by probing the workings of the brain or studying the effects of environment or family life to determine the elements that lead to artistry, as if recreating Michelangelo’s studio will produce another Sistine Chapel painting.

Julia Cameron, author of “The Artist’s Way” books, agrees that everyone is born with creativity, only we get “blocked” by criticism, discouragement and rejection. Cameron’s books present exercises that help the reader to “unblock” and let the creativity flow.

While I’m not as prolific of a writer as Scott, from my experience I agree with his observation that the best way to break though a “block” is to write: “Good, bad or indifferent,” he says.

Some writers try to “summon the muse” through complicated rituals before they start working: brew a certain type of coffee, do yoga, take a walk, do writing prompts, meditate, wait until inspiration hits (which could be a very long holding pattern). But sometimes these rituals instead lead to writer’s procrastination, simply postponing time spent writing.

In my day job at a community newspaper, some of my tasks are writing headlines and photo captions. I can’t sit and wait for inspiration to hit. The paper is on deadline and the boss won’t pay for overtime. So I learned how to work quick and dirty, coming up with ideas on the fly.

 I’m not sure where I heard this, but the best way to reach the muse is to “show up at the page” (or the keyboard). In other words, start writing. An author can’t edit or polish a story until words are on the page.

When I was a kid, I had tons of story ideas. Unfortunately, at that age I lacked the discipline to write it all down; I just daydreamed. Even though the stories were childish, a writer must start somewhere. A runner can’t finish a marathon unless she first masters those first wobbly steps as an infant.

 Cameron suggests that artists begin each day with “morning pages,” three pages of free-form longhand (not typing or texting), just writing whatever comes to mind. The concept is to keep the pen moving even if the words are gibberish, to clear out the mental “junk” that blocks an artist, and to activate the richness of the subconscious. Soon gems will appear among the scribbling.

 I recently started writing a short story that I planned to include in the reprint edition of my first book. I wrote some pages, and then had to leave it for other projects. In the meantime, another story idea occurred and I decided to move ahead the second idea.

Did I waste my time with the first story? Of course not. I may use the first idea in a later book. Even if I never finish the story, it’s possible I might not have been open to receiving the second idea had my mind not been “primed” with the first.

For me, a good way to prime the pump is research, no doubt a holdover from grad school. I love to read and learn new things. For my new short story, I got some great ideas by reading a book on the subject.

Writers get ideas from the news, movies, TV, trips, family and friends, and their own experiences. My book “The Sinister Sitcom Caper” was inspired by my work at Paramount Studios.

Scott suggests that one way to general ideas is to pick an object in the room—such as a table, phone, bookcase—and generate stories from it. I see my record albums. I can use a record disc as a Frisbee, float it down a river, use it as a serving tray, hear secret messages if I play it backward, roll it like a hoop, wear it on my head, use it as a shield, hide behind it and peer though the hole—the possibilities are endless.

 If you write it, the ideas will come.






















Music to my ears

­By Sally Carpenter

I got the idea of using chapter headers in my books from Steve Hockensmith. His “Holmes on the Range” books have cute headers that hint at the chapter content. I use headers in my books so I can keep track of the action in each chapter. Just using chapter numbers doesn’t jog my memory. And it’s fun looking for titles to match the story.

I began using chapter headers with my Sandy Fairfax Teen Idols series. Since Sandy was a musician, it made sense to use song titles for the heds. “The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper,” of course, used only Beatles songs (group and solo) for the headers. “The Cunning Cruise Ship Caper” had all Elvis songs for no particular reason. The other two books used a mix of artists and decades.

 My new series, The Psychedelic Spy Mysteries, is set in 1967, so all of the songs are from the 1960s. One title, “Searchin’,” was released by The Coasters in 1957, but a soon-to-be very famous group re-recorded it for its audition tape for Decca Records in 1962, so it worked.

Nearly all of these songs are in my personal record/CD/tape collection, which gives you a hint as to my personal tastes. The recording of “Runaway” that I have is from a Micky Dolenz live concert CD. His sister Coco sings the song (she has a great voice too).

See if you can match the original artists with the songs! Hint: some musicians are used more than once. And how many of these songs do you still remember?

Chapter 1: Baby the Rain Must Fall

2: This Boy

3: What Goes On

4: Dr. Robert

5: Your Mother Should Know

6: Little Children

7: Secret Agent Man

8: Pictures of Matchstick Men

9: Strawberry Girl

10: Incense and Peppermints

11: Ask Me Why

12: Magical Mystery Tour

13: Everybody’s Talkin’

14: What’s New, Pussycat

15: Runaway

16: Surprise, Surprise

17: Writer in the Sun

18: Tell Me That Isn’t True

19: Tombstone Blues

20: I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You

21: On a Carousel

22: You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)

23: It’s a Gas

24: Fun, Fun, Fun

25: Where Were You When I Needed You

26: Searchin’

27: All Together Now

28: Black Magic Woman

29: Trip, Stumble and Fall


Chapter 1: Glenn Yarbrough

2: The Beatles

3: Beatles again

4: Fab Four

5: That group from Liverpool

6: Billy J. Kramer

7: Johnny Rivers

8: Status Quo

9: Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart

10: Strawberry Alarm Clock

11: John, Paul, George and Ringo

12: Ditto

13: Harry Nilsson

14: Tom Jones

15: Del Shannon

16: Rolling Stones

17: Donovan

18: Bob Dylan

19: Bob Dylan

20: The Bee Gees

21: Moody Blues

22: The Beatles (a rarity not found on the “official” albums)

23: Alfred E. Newman (released onto the world by Mad Magazine)

24: Beach Boys

25: Grass Roots

26: You can hear this one on the first Beatles “Anthology” album

27: One last time for the Fabs

28: Fleetwood Mac

29: The Mamas and The Papas


Let’s talk about the weather


By Sally Carpenter

Many writers swear by Elmore Leonard’s list of “10 rules for good writing” as definitive guidelines that must be followed at all times. Rule one is “Never open a book with weather.”

Ooops, I broke that rule in my WIP.

I don’t begin with a weather report per se, but the climate does have an impact on the story. Chapter one opens with an actress, the protagonist, performing in an outdoor theater in the rain. The guests watching can’t enjoy the show because they’re cold and wet. The actors on stage must overcome their own personal discomfort to do their best, as “the show must go on.”

The reader feels empathy for the protag working in such miserable conditions while admiring her professionalism and dedication in putting on a good play despite the obstacles.

 Throughout the book we have rain and drizzle off and on as well as a few dry days. Chapter one ends in a thunderstorm in which a dying stranger shows up at the heroine’s front door. OK, using a storm during a scene of high conflict is a bit of a cliché, but in this case it seems to works.

 One of the classic conflicts in literature is “humans vs. nature.” Starting a story with bad weather can be a good thing. A tornado triggers the action in one of the most beloved stories and movies of all times, “The Wizard of Oz.” Having lived most of my life in the Midwest, just the threat of a tornado was enough to get me quaking.

 My guess is what Leonard was really trying to say was not to start a story with lengthy descriptions of the environment, or waxing lyrical with passages that fail to engage the reader’s interest, such as “With rays of brilliant light, the sun was heating the soft ground, recently moisted with a light rain, while fluffy clouds skipped along through the azure blue sky.”

 Of course there’s the favorite opening gambit of “It was a dark and stormy night.”

 Good weather, though, can be used as a way to surprise the reader. “As the lovers were merrily strolling through the field, with a gentle wind kissing their cheeks and the sunshine warming their bare arms, they stumbled over a rotting corpse.”

 Using weather in a story helps to make it authentic. Many TV shows and movies seem to take place in a biosphere where the weather is always 72 degrees, rain and snow never fall and natural disasters never occur. Can anyone remember the Brady Bunch dressing for inclement weather?

 However, an episode of “WKRP in Cincinnati” did have a tornado blow out a window in the studio and injure one of the characters (those tornadoes are everywhere!).

 Likewise, many cozies are set in a “perfect” world with fantastic mild weather year round. Even Southern California gets rain and chilly temperatures! Granted, the entire grounding of a cozy is a fantasy—an amateur sleuth solving a crime that the police cannot break—yet the lack of any deviation in the weather makes the suspension of disbelief even harder.

 Some cozies set in Minnesota do have snow, although I wonder how many include the unpleasant aftermath of slush: partially melted snow that’s dirty and sticky. And how many of these characters try to drive cars sliding around on icy roads or put out their backs while shoveling out their driveways?

 Some New England cozies are set in the cooler days of autumn with the colorful foliage, but do the protagonists take time away from their sleuthing to rake leaves or clean debris out the gutters?

 Writing a cozy doesn’t require the services of a meteorologist, but the author can add some flavor and realism to the story with a touch of weather.

 Please share if you know of any mysteries in which bad weather plays a role in the story.




Finding the right formula

By Sally Carpenter

Some people have accused cozy mysteries, and other genre fiction, of “formulaic.”

What’s wrong with that?

Humans are creatures of habits. We have our rituals and traditions that help us enjoy life and make sense of it. And nearly all writing follows a “formula” of some kind.

Routines give structure to the day and free us from having to plan every moment so we can engage our energies in other pursuits. Many people eat the same breakfast or lunch foods every day. We drive the same route to work and have a pattern to our work days.

Some always shop on the same day of the week, use the gym the same time each day, watch a movie every Saturday night, visit their parents every Friday or attend certain festivals or concerts every year. And that glass of wine in the evening or snack at bedtime provides a means to relax after a busy day.

Thanksgiving Day isn’t complete without the same foods each year. Other holidays, such as Valentine’s Day, Christmas and Fourth of July, have their own traditions. Even if we gave a loved one a card or we lit a sparkler last year, we have to do it again this year.

Kids love habits. They may have a bedtime ritual of tucking in and story time before falling asleep. They have a favorite toy (before they become addicted to technology). They have songs and stories they like to hear repeatedly. Adults too have their guilty pleasure movies and books.

Sports have their rituals: playing the national anthem, the starting tip-off or punt, halftime entertainment, cheerleaders, wearing the “lucky” shirt or hat, seventh-inning stretch, Dodger dogs and the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies.

When life is confusing or threatening, people of faith find comfort in rituals that have stood the test of time.

Some authors build their schedules around the same writers’ conferences each year. Some authors can’t start writing until they do certain tasks or have special snacks on hand or play specific music.

If humans are so dependent on habits, our writing likewise needs structure. Some types of literary prose may ramble and simply express a feeling or word picture, but commercial fiction needs a solid blueprint.

Mainstream movies adhere to a three-act structure in which each act begins on a certain page of the script. The film’s climax—the point of no return or when the hero is at rock bottom with no means of escape—is generally 20 minutes before the end. Once a writer learns this structure, it’s easy to spot the “act breaks” in a film.

Most stories, particularly epics, follow the “hero’s journey” or “hero’s quest” formula: the hero is called to the quest, faces tests, meets helpers, reaches a “moment of death” (the climax), overcomes this final obstacle to “new life” and receives rewards. Even Nancy Drew mysteries follow this format.

Formula is what makes genres unique. Romances must have two persons attracted to each other. Mysteries require a puzzle or crime to solve. Science fiction must have alternative worlds or a “what if” speculation. Thrillers must have fast paced action and a powerful villain. A reader picking up a genre book expects certain elements and feels cheated if those requirements are not met.

Great variety is possible within the genre conventions. Cozies are no longer limited to a divorced woman leaving a big city to inherit a small town shop and fall in love with the police chief. Cozies now include male protagonists, large city settings and heroines who don’t work in a mom-and-pop store. Some cozies have a slightly harder edge and deal with social, environmental or animal abuse issues.

The only real “formula” to cozies is an amateur sleuth, interesting and likeable principal characters (usually family members of the protagonist), justice is served and no graphic sex, violence, profanity or violence to children or animals.

And in reading a cozy, the best formula of all is to curl up in a comfy chair with a blanket, a cup of hot tea or cocoa, a blazing fireplace and rain outside.

What are some of your habits or traditions?



Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, Indiana

by Sally Carpenter

In finding a setting for my new series, I wanted to use a small town, as is typical in most cozies. But I didn’t want a generic town or the same city as every other cozy. What could I do that was unique enough to stand out?

 I recalled a town I’d visited as a kid: Santa Claus, Indiana. Being a Christmas junkie myself, it just made sense to model my fictitious cozy town after this one.

 The tiny burg of about 1,000 residents sits among the rolling, wooded hills of south central Indiana, just a few miles north of the Ohio River, the state’s southern border. The town was settled as early as 1846.

 According to local legend, in 1852 the good townsfolk were gathered around a potbelly stove after the Christmas Eve service to try and pick a name for their burg. A wind blew open the church door and revealed a charming scene of falling snowflakes and the sound of sleigh bells. The children ran to the door shouting, “Santa Claus!”

Industrialist Louis J. Koch, who had retired from his business in the nearby big city of Evansville, decided to take advantage of the town’s name. He set up the world’s first theme park—even older than Disneyland. Santa Claus Land opened its gates in 1946.

The park had wooden roller coasters, kiddie rides, live reindeer, a doll museum, artists making glassware, magic and puppet shows, performing animals (this was long before PETA), the Christmas Room restaurant, and a live, year-round Santa Claus, played for many years by Jim Yellig.

Over the years the theme park expanded into the current Holiday World and Splashin’ Safari water park. The park added sections related to other holidays: Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and a non-scary Halloween. Despite the growth, the park is still owned and operated by the Koch family, giving it a non-commercial, hometown appeal.

But the Christmas spirit doesn’t stop with the park. A giant Santa Claus statue stands at the town’s border. The streets have such names as Elf Lane, Fir Tree Circle, Jingle Bell Lane, Madonna Drive, Mistletoe Drive, Ornament Circle and Rudolph Lane.

The local Catholic parish is, of course, St. Nicolas Church.

Each year the town post office receives thousands of letters addressed to Santa. Many people send their Christmas cards through the post office just to receive a special postmark.

As a kid, I was familiar the town, about an hour’s drive from my home, because of the Santa Claus Campground where I attended the summer church camp (the camp is still in operation today with the same buildings). One year, mom picked me up at the end of camp and we visited Santa Claus Land. Unfortunately, we didn’t take any photos nd I don’t remember much about the park.

For my book I recreated my own theme park, the Country Christmas Family Fun Park, where my heroine performs in one of the musical shows. I’ve borrowed a few features from the real Santa Claus Land, but also added new elements of my own. I also had a blast thinking up such establishments for the town as the North Pole Café (a restaurant) and Lollipop Lanes bowling alley.

Many years ago I met a man named Noel. He was born on Dec. 25. I though that was a great name, so naturally I named my heroine Noelle, using the French spelling that I think looks more feminine.

I’m hoping readers will find Yuletide, Indiana as much fun to visit as the real-life Santa Claus, Ind.