My Characters Won’t Behave!

I recently watched the delightful holiday movie, The Man Who Invented Christmas. Charles Dickens, played by Dan Stevens, is irked by poor sales figures on two recent books. He’s got family issues, financial stress, and this leads to writer’s block.

He needs money, so he must write another book. When his publishers pass on his idea for a Christmas novel, he vows to publish it himself. Sound familiar? Yes, it does these days.

Trouble is, Dickens doesn’t have an idea—yet. It creeps into his head, fostered by his habit of writing down interesting names and collecting words and phrases. Then he searches for an appropriate name for his main character which, as any writer knows, must have the right sound and personify the character.

Scrooge—if ever there was a perfect name for a character, that’s it. Dickens speaks the name and quicker than you can say “Bah, humbug!” Ebenezer appears, grumpily played by Christopher Plummer.

He’s not happy. He’s not cooperating either. Neither are the other characters who show up to plague Dickens. Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig, Marley’s Ghost—they’re upset that Dickens plans to kill off Tiny Tim and they won’t shut up. As for Scrooge, he’s nasty and on target when he lobs his opinions and observations at Dickens.

All the writers among you, raise your virtual hand if this has ever happened to you.

It does to me, despite the fact that I say, “Wait a minute, you’re not real. I made you up. How dare you have a mind of your own.”

In Till the Old Men Die, I was sure that one character was responsible for the deaths of two murder victims. Then another character jumped up and down, hands waving, and said, “No, I did it!”

Then there are the characters who are supposed to be walk-ons, there to further the plot of one particular book. However, not content with being one-offs, they start showing up in other plots. I have a character from an earlier Jeri Howard book, Water Signs, who appears in The Devil Close Behind and my new book, The Things We Keep. Another character who had a brief role in Jeri’s case Witness to Evil wound up as the protagonist of my suspense novel What You Wish For. And there’s Tidsy, in Death Rides the Zephyr, the first in the Jill McLeod California Zephyr series. She’s in two books out of the next three and may wind up with her own novel.

Ah, well. Follow where the characters lead. I’ve discovered that if I try to make them do things they don’t want to do, I wind up wandering through the writer’s block maze.

The character who now exhibits a mind of her own is Jeri Howard, the protagonist of my long-running private eye series. After The Devil Close Behind was published, I thought it might be time to close the book on Jeri. After all, 13 books is a good long run. At the time I didn’t have an idea for #14.

Then it began to creep into my head, shoving aside the historical novel I’d just started and elbowing its way to the front of the line. A house in Alameda that looked neglected, one I saw in the neighborhood near the Saturday farmers market. It wasn’t abandoned, though. Someone was living there.

The writer in me began asking questions. Especially, what if? What if there was an old Navy footlocker hidden in that house? What if Jeri opened it, and found human bones? Of course, Jeri is going to find out whose bones and what happened to those people.

Find out in The Things We Keep, which will be published in March 2023.

Guest Blogger ~ Claudia Riess

 The Freedoms and Constraints of Genre

     I love art, mystery and romance and wanted to explore all three.  The notion of “genre” was secondary.  For efficiency my present genre’s been labeled “mystery,” but more accurately, it’s “hybrid.” 

     What sparked Stolen Light, the first book in what was to become my art mystery series, was an offhand remark by my brother, an art historian, about the possibility of unearthing a presentation drawing or cartoon fragment of Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina.  The idea instantly conjoined with a conversation I’d had many years prior with a Vassar College mate, who spoke of her father’s sugar plantation having been confiscated during the Cuban Revolution. (To me, the daughter of an English professor, whose worldly possessions had never crossed the borders of Brooklyn, New York, this was a collision of societal classes never before experienced first-hand.  The memory would remain intact.)  Without losing a beat, I reconfigured events, made the plantation owner an art enthusiast whose art collection is looted during the turmoil of 1958, in an incident shrouded in mystery that would resurface six decades later.  My protagonists, Erika Shawn, a young art magazine editor, and Harrison Wheatley, a more seasoned art history professor, would come into being a few hours later, when I was sitting in front of my computer, staring at a blinking cursor on an otherwise blank screen.  Erika and Harrison, I decided, would would find themselves thrown together in both an academic sleuthing adventure that turns deadly, as well as a burgeoning romance with hazards of its own.

     What pressed me into writing False Light, the second book in the series, and whose plot pivots around the notorious forger, Eric Hebborn (Born to Trouble, a memoir, 1991), is two-fold.  I was now hooked on tackling exploits in the art world, where man’s most sublime aspirations conflict with his basest (a great amalgam for fiction!), and also Erika and Harrison were insisting I allow them to get on with their lives.

     The third book in the series, Knight Light, would focus on the recovery of art seized during Germany’s occupation of Paris, and the fourth and most recent, To Kingdom Come, on the repatriation of art looted from Africa during the late nineteenth century.

     Working in a hybrid medium, where the protagonists are amateur sleuths helping solve crimes, often gruesome, in the art world, and also engaged in a dynamic romantic relationship, can be challenging.  One way I deal with the balancing act is seeing that the principal driving force is the mystery and sticking to it.  To prevent the plot from stalling, I make sure that Erika and Harrison’s personal conflicts have a bearing on their crime-solving.  In one instance, say, Erika goes off on a risky mission on the sly, despite Harrison’s adamant opposition.  Her decision and his reaction play an integral part in how the mystery evolves.

     Something I have to be on guard about is digressing too long on intimate encounters or personal-issue-centered dialogue.  Both can break the forward motion of the central plot.  I have a tendency to get swept into the emotional drama at hand, and it’s only later, when I’m reading through the section where the interlude occurs, that I realize the main thread’s been lost.  Luckily, most of the time all it takes to resolve the problem is a bit of pruning.  On occasion, though, it requires the interlude’s excision.  This can be painful, but sometimes cutting a manuscript—and a writer’s ego—down to size can be a constructive experience.   

Amateur sleuths, Erika Shawn-Wheatley, art magazine editor, and Harrison Wheatley, art history professor, attend a Zoom meeting of individuals from around the globe whose common goal is to expedite the return of African art looted during the colonial era.  Olivia Chatham, a math instructor at London University, has just begun speaking about her recent find, a journal penned by her great-granduncle, Andrew Barrett, active member of the Royal Army Medical Service during England’s 1897 “punitive expedition” launched against the Kingdom of Benin. 

Olivia is about to disclose what she hopes the sleuthing duo will bring to light, when the proceedings are disrupted by an unusual movement in one of the squares on the grid.  Frozen disbelief erupts into a frenzy of calls for help as the group, including the victim, watch in horror the enactment of a murder videotaped in real time.

It will not be the only murder or act of brutality Erika and Harrison encounter in their two-pronged effort to hunt down the source of violence and unearth a cache of African treasures alluded to in Barrett’s journal.

Much of the action takes place in London, scene of the crimes and quest for redemption.

Buy links: https://www.amazon.com/Kingdom-Come-Art-History-Mystery-ebook/dp/B09Z1KFNB4

https://www.levelbestbooks.us/

 Claudia Riess, award-winning author of seven novels, is a Vassar graduate who has worked in the editorial departments of The New Yorker and Holt, Rinehart and Winston, and has edited several art monographs.

                       http://claudiariessbooks.com

                       http://twitter.com/ClaudiaRiess

                       http://www.facebook.com/ClaudiaRiessBooks

When Research Just Isn’t Working by Heather Haven

Most of us pride ourselves on getting facts and figures right in our novels. And in order to do that we must do research. I come tooth to jowl with that all the time because no matter how much I try to convince my husband I know everything, I don’t. So, whether the story takes place today or yesteryear, I have to do a certain amount of research.

I love doing research most of the time. But truth be told, I have found historical research can come with a few problems, due to time and distance. And information isn’t always readily available. But tough togas. I need to keep at it. Accurate information grounds the reader. Inaccurate info can throw them out of the story. The kiss of death for any writer.

I don’t write this because readers chastised me for getting something wrong. Hmmmm. Well, okay, yes I am, and they did. Frankly, being told you’re a ninny just once is enough. I remember the incident well. I’d written a sentence in the Persephone Cole Vintage Mysteries, where I state the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade took place in 1942.

Wrong. I got emails, some not so nice, telling me the parade had been canceled due to the United States’ entrance into WWII. I was ashamed and chagrined. In this case, I was worse than a ninny. I should have made sure I got that fact right. Lesson learned.

Currently, I am writing Hotshot Shamus, the 4th book of the Persephone Cole Vintage Mysteries. The series takes place in New York City during WWII. Percy Cole is one of the City’s first female private detectives. At 5’11” and a full-figured gal, Percy is physically bigger than many men of that era. Between that and her brains, she’s quite comfortable living in a man’s world. I love writing about her but sometimes, finding out about the world around her is hard. After all, there was a war on. And living three thousand miles away in sunny California these days doesn’t help. I can’t just hop on a bus.

In Hotshot Shamus, much of the action revolves around the Cloisters, a museum completed in 1938. While living in Manhattan, I visited the Cloisters often, but small details have escaped me. I do know it’s a gorgeous museum dedicated solely to Medieval art and owned by the Metropolitan Museum on 5th Avenue. Unlike the Met, though, the Cloisters is in the middle of nowhere, way up in Manhattan’s Fort Tryon Park. Even today the Cloisters doesn’t see the number of visitors it should. In its salad days, it saw even fewer. Probably because the United States had been drawn into yet another world war right after the depression. Life was scary and hard. Most people simply didn’t have the mindset or the luxury of a visit to a museum.

How does this tie in with my historical research? What all of this means is not a lot was written up on the Cloisters during that time. I can get large details, but things such as was there a gift shop, not so much. I have to count on the cooperation of the Met, which they are willing to give. In fact, I recently found out from one of their return calls that they discovered the room that is currently the gift shop was a cloakroom back then. So, the gift shop as a crime scene is out and a chapel is in.

But I have more questions. How big is the Unicorn Tapestry Room? Was the cafeteria opened for Mother’s Day in 1943? Did it even exist then? Which rooms open onto the gardens? The list goes on and on. Once again, the Met is trying to be helpful with this, but even their knowledge of that time has its limitations.

Does that give me carte blanche? Does that mean I can write whatever I want? Not on your tintype. Someone out there has a book, pamphlet, story, or journal about the Cloisters. They may even know someone who trod the grounds of the Cloisters during WWII. Maybe they trod the grounds themselves. But you can bet whoever they are if they read my book and I have made false statements, they will have a fit and tell me off. So, if I can’t verify something, it’s out.

And that’s only as it should be. But man, sometimes research is tough!

Guest Blogger ~ Heather Weidner

With a Little Help from Some Friends

Heather Weidner, Author of the Jules Keene Glamping Mysteries and the Mermaid Bay Christmas Shoppe Mysteries

I am extremely grateful for all the authors who have shared their ideas, advice, and successes with me through the years. Writing is mostly a solitary process, so it’s nice to know that you’re not alone and that others have experienced what you’re going through. Here are some tidbits that I’ve picked up through the years that have helped me improve my craft and to stay focused.

When I’m working on a new novel, I plot out a simple outline. I learned from Donna Andrews to color-code the different kinds of action in your outline, so you can see it over the course of the book. For example, I mark all romantic elements with pink, humorous items are orange, clues are green, etc. It helps create a visual as you write, and it shows you where you’re missing elements or when you’ve overloaded the story.

I learned from Mary Burton to keep a running list of over-used words. Add to it as you write, and then at the end of each revision cycle, search your document and remove the culprits. She also calls your first draft the “sloppy copy.” Typing “the end” doesn’t mean you’re finished. It’s the beginning of the revision cycle.

I learned from the late Kathy Mix to keep a list of character names for each book. Her rule was to name each character with a different letter of the alphabet. If she already had a Krissy, then she couldn’t have another character whose first name started with a “K.” I build a chart of characters for each book and note where the characters appear. I also create a list of key locations. I enter all the important facts, so I can keep track of the details.

Mary Miley gave me some great advice about honing dialogue. She recommends cutting out the unnecessary pleasantries and chitchat that don’t move your story forward.

Elaine Viets said to know your genre and who is publishing in it. Do your research and know the conventions before you query agents or publishers.

Lynda Bishop recommends that authors keep a timeline for each book to make sure all events are in order and make sense. This helps with pacing. This helps me keep the days straight (so the character doesn’t have lunch two times in the same day).

Tina Glasneck suggests that authors create a calendar for each book launch. Mine starts three months before the launch and runs three months after. Plan all events, interviews, blogs, and media campaigns. Make sure that you track the details.

Jane Friedman tells writers that their platform grows from their body of work. An author’s website and blog should be at the center of all of your marketing.

Frances Aylor and Alan Orloff gave me the best advice for writing. Butt glue (Frances) or BICFOK (Alan). They’re essentially the same. If you want to be a writer, put your Butt in the Chair and Fingers on the Keyboard.

Hollywood has come to Fern Valley, and the one stoplight town may never be the same. Everyone wants to get in on the act.

The crew from the wildly popular, fan favorite, Fatal Impressions, takes over Jules Keene’s glamping resort, and they bring a lot of offscreen drama and baggage that doesn’t include the scads of costumes, props, and crowds that descend on the bucolic resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Added security, hundreds of calls from hopeful extras, and some demanding divas keep Jules’s team hopping.

When the show’s prickly head writer ends up dead under the L. Frank Baum tiny house in what looks like a staged murder scene with a kitschy homage to the Wizard of Oz, Jules has to figure out who would want the writer dead. Then while they are still reeling from the first murder, the popular publicist gets lost after a long night at the local honky-tonk and winds up strangled. Jules needs to solve both crimes before filming is canceled, and her business is ruined.

Book Links

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1685122000

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0BHLSYBZ9?ref_=pe_3052080_276849420

Barnes and Noble: Film Crews and Rendezvous: A Jules Keene Glamping Mystery by Heather Weidner, Paperback | Barnes & Noble® (barnesandnoble.com)

BookBub: Film Crews and Rendezvous: A Jules Keene Glamping Mystery by Heather Weidner – BookBub

Books a Million: film crews and rendezvous : : Booksamillion.com

Bookshop.org: https://bookshop.org/shop/heatherweidner

Fantastic Fiction: Film Crews and Rendezvous (Jules Keene Glamping Mystery, book 2) by Heather Weidner (fantasticfiction.com)

Goodreads: Film Crews and Rendezvous by Heather Weidner | Goodreads

Kobo: Film Crews and Rendezvous eBook by Heather Weidner – EPUB | Rakuten Kobo United States

Scribd: Film Crews and Rendezvous by Heather Weidner – Ebook | Scribd

Through the years, Heather Weidner has been a cop’s kid, technical writer, editor, college professor, software tester, and IT manager. She writes the Jules Keene Glamping Mysteries, the Mermaid Bay Christmas Shoppe Mysteries, and the Delanie Fitzgerald Mysteries.

Her short stories appear in the Virginia is for Mysteries series, 50 Shades of Cabernet, Deadly Southern Charm, and Murder by the Glass, and her novellas appear in The Mutt Mysteries series.

Originally from Virginia Beach, Heather has been a mystery fan since Scooby-Doo and Nancy Drew. She lives in Central Virginia with her husband and a pair of Jack Russell terriers.

Social Media Links

Website and Blog: http://www.heatherweidner.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/HeatherWeidner1

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/HeatherWeidnerAuthor

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/heather_mystery_writer/

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/8121854.Heather_Weidner

Amazon Authors: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00HOYR0MQ

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/HeatherBWeidner/

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/heather-weidner-0064b233?trk=hp-identity-name

BookBub: https://www.bookbub.com/authors/heather-weidner-d6430278-c5c9-4b10-b911-340828fc7003

TikTok: https://www.tiktok.com/@heather_weidner_author?lang=en

Research for a Setting

In fiction I like a strong sense of place, where the environment has shaped people and their problems. Before I begin a story, I want to have a clear idea of the real place where I’m locating my characters. I may change the name, add buildings and roads, but I begin with something real.

For the stories set in central Massachusetts, I chose the town and surrounding area where my family lived for many years. This was a farm community that had once had an industrial base at the end of the nineteenth century. The mills, small compared to some in other area cities and towns, were small, and the empty brick buildings prone to decay, as well as fires. The village where my family lived is at the northern end of the town. I know the community fairly well, since I visited my family often, but I wanted a better sense of its history, the kind that comes from having grown up there. I listened to people’s stories, looked over historical maps, but the absolute best resource was something I came across by accident.

In 1923, the local Reunion Association authorized the publication of a history of the town, which appeared either in 1924 or soon thereafter, in a sturdy cloth-bound book. The history is interesting, but more interesting from my perspective are the notes. Someone took pen in hand and added names and comments on several of the homes and what happened to them. She (and I think it was a woman) added a few historical notes as well. There was apparently a toll on the road through the hamlet, and she’s marked that page and added dates.

Several buildings marked and annotated are no longer there, but the notes give me a good idea of what kind of tiny hamlet it was—more than homes and a church. The shoemaker’s shop is gone, but I know where it was, and the post office and store are also gone. A chapel was replaced by a library, and a small school disappeared. Not included in the book is the last business in town, a second-hand bookstore that closed down probably in the 1990s. The house is noted in the book, and I visited the bookstore, but now it is only a home.

The former bookstore was also the toll house. According to the writer, “The position of toll-taker was not free from danger, as some persons denied the right of the corporation to tax persons for the use of the highways and at times insisted on passing the barrier without payment of the customary toll. This led to bodily encounters which sometimes ended with the shedding of blood.”

The history is not without its odd characters. “Uncle” Calvin Mayo “insisted that Tully mountain was at one time located where the Lily pond now is, but that some great force of nature took it from there, turned it over and gave it its present location.” The note in the margin says “Can you beat this?” Another story concerns an old cannon that was hauled up a mountain to help the miners, and brought a quick end to their work and part of the mountain.

This little book is giving me more than I had expected. First is the history, some of which is obscure; second is the tone of the writer, Mrs. Ward, who graduated from the Salem Normal School and taught in Lynn, MA. And third is the writer or writers who added details on when a house was auctioned, and who lived in it more recently. One writer made several more personal notes, such as “We lived on this road.”

I’m not sure how much of this history will make it into the next Felicity O’Brien book, but it’s already giving me ideas for a few more stories. It also has me thinking about writing an historical mystery—with lots of humor.