Guest Blogger~ Sally Carpenter

Christmas can be murder

By Sally Carpenter

Only ten weeks until Christmas!

In my mind, it’s never too early to break out the holly and tune up the carols. I’m a Christmas junkie. I cry when I pack away the decorations each year and count down the days when I can put them up again. I’ve toyed with the idea of leaving them up year-round. That would save me the bother of hauling them out of storage each year and unpacking.

Readers of cozy mysteries love Christmas. I’m not sure why, but there’s something about the holiday season that brings out the larceny. Maybe it’s the juxtaposing of a cheery time of goodwill against murder, or the thought of strangling that annoying neighbor with a strand of colored lights. Most cozy series have at least one Christmas-themed mystery. I finally wrote my contribution to the genre: The Notorious Noel Caper.

As you can tell by the title, it’s part of my Sandy Fairfax Teen Idol series—book five, in fact. I’m astounded that I’ve made it this far in my writing. I have two cozies in my other series—the Psychedelic Spy—for a total of seven books. Many authors have a greater backlist, but I’ll celebrate my output. My first novel was published ten years ago (2011), so that’s almost one book a year. Not bad for a part-time author holding down a day job. Also, many writers stop after one or two books, so I’m thrilled with my longevity.

My Christmas mystery has a twist—it’s set in Southern California, where snow is something you won’t see unless you watch a Hallmark movie or drive (with chains on the tires) up the mountains to the ski resorts. In SoCal, Christmas means sand at the beach, and “cold” weather is 55 degrees. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who have commented about the thick, quilted coat I brought with me when I moved from the Midwest. A “winter coat” here is really a hoodie zipped up.

My book is the only Christmas cozy ever written with surfing Santas. When I was writing the third draft, I saw a newspaper article about the real surfing Santas. That sounded so cool I added them in the story. Every year some surfers dress up in red-and-white wetsuits, put on fake beards and Santa hats, and surf off the coast. No agenda except to put a smile on faces as people watch them shoot the waves. My book cover has a surfing Santa. In chapter 15, Sandy is involved in a surfing Santa event and, like everything Sandy does, ends in near disaster.

The story is set at the Santa’s Magic theme park, based off a poplar (and fictious) movie franchise. SoCal is home to a number of theme parks. Santa’s Magic was inspired by the real-life Santa Claus Land (now called Holiday World), which opened in Santa Claus, Indiana, in 1946, making it the world’s oldest theme park (Disneyland debuted in 1955). My Psychedelic Spy series also has a Christmas theme park, but I made sure the two parks had different rides and attractions.

Sandy is the emcee of the Miss North Pole pageant, inspired by the fact that teen idol Donny Osmond has been involved with both the Miss Universe and Miss USA events. But things get sticky when Sandy’s girlfriend, Cinnamon, is jealous of him spending time around the beautiful contestants. Sandy and Cinnamon are sorting out their relationship that’s been growing over four books.

And the mystery? Well, this time I have three bodies. I had asked members of a cozy readers Facebook group how they felt about multiple murders in a book. Their answers scared me. One said, “The more the merrier!” Since cozy murders take place off the page, three bodies are not as ruthless as it sounds. All of the bodies turn up at the Santa’s Magic park, substituting ho-ho-homicide for holiday cheer.

Christmas cozies remind us of the darkness that lurks in human hearts. In scripture, after the joyful nativity the Holy Family fled into another country to escape an evil ruler who then killed hundreds of babies. Christmas Day may mean sorrow to families who can’t afford gifts or those who face empty dinner table chairs that once held loved ones who have passed away. For some, Christmas may be just another day of living in a sidewalk tent. But cozies also bring us a happy ending: the crook is caught and community order is restored. And what will happened between Sandy and Cinnamon? That too may be a happy ending as well.  

It’s Christmastime in Tinsel Town, and there’s plenty of ho-ho-homicide at the soon-to-open Santa’s Magic theme park, where bodies are dropping like snowflakes. Former pop star Sandy Fairfax has a killer job—he’s the emcee for the televised Miss North Pole beauty contest–er, scholarship pageant. But will the beautiful contestants make his girlfriend jealous? Or will she join him in his sleuthing? The deadly Christmas season begins at a celebrity bowling tournament when a pinsetter plops down a body instead of the pins. Throw in surfing Santas, a seductive executive’s wife, a sleazy tabloid editor, an egotistical movie rival and a gift-wrapped death trap, and it’s the most wonderful time of the year.

Print link:   https://www.amazon.com/Notorious-Noel-Caper-Fairfax-Mystery/dp/1952579317

ebook link:  https://www.amazon.com/Notorious-Caper-Sandy-Fairfax-Mysteries-ebook/dp/B09CN1W7V1

As my Christmas gift to readers, I’m giving away a free story to those who sign up for my mailing list. Sandy Fairfax starred in a hit 1970s TV show, Buddy Brave Boy Sleuth. You can get a free Buddy Brave adventure, “The Medieval Malice Caper,” at http://sandyfairfaxauthor.com; scroll to the bottom of the page for the button.

Sally Carpenter is a native Hoosier who now lives in Southern California. Besides writing seven cozies, all published by Cozy Cat Press, she has stories in three anthologies and penned chapter three of the group mystery Chasing the Codex. She works at a community newspaper where she also writes the Roots of Faith column. This year she welcomed a new rescue cat into her home.   

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sally.carpenter.54

Guest Blogger – Sally Carpenter

New Books For Strange Times

I’d like to thank Paty Jager and the ladies of mystery for allowing me a guest post. It’s been a while since I was a regular contributor on this blog, and much has happened in the meantime.

 The pandemic has not affect me as much as others. Fortunately I work an essential job (newspaper), so I’m still commuting to my day job. Many of my fellow employees are working from home, so those of us who are still in the office have plenty of space to move around safely.

As a writer, I’m at home much of the time anyway, and I’ve put the time to good use. I reorganized files and did some rearranging to make my home more comfortable. Little changes, but effective.

And I’ve gone gun ho on the writing.

I hadn’t written a Sandy Fairfax mystery in several years, so I reread the older books to get up to speed on the character. I found grammatical and continuity errors as well as more cuss words than necessary. Ouch! How embarrassing. With permission of my publisher, I took the opportunity to edit the older books. I’m fixing the mistakes, cleaning up the language, and reworking awkward passages for a better read. With Print On Demand technology, all new print and ebooks purchased going forward will have the changes. So far “The Sinister Sitcom Caper” is finalized. “The Cunning Cruise Ship Caper” and “The Quirky Quiz Show Caper” should both be ready in a month or two.

Once all the old books are corrected, I can focus on the next Sandy book. The working title is “The Cryptic Christmas Caper.” Sandy is the emcee of the Miss North Pole Pageant, where the contestants are dropping like snowflakes.

I launched a new book in June, the second in my Psychedelic Spy retro-cozy series set in 1967. “Hippie Haven Homicide” follows the further adventures of actress Noelle McNabb as she works with a super secret spy organization, SIAMESE (Special Intelligence Apparatus for Midwest Enemy Surveillance and Espionage). This time her cat, Ceebee, is part of the action.

In the 1960s, the CIA had a project called Acoustic Kitty. The plan was to implant a cat with a microphone, using its tail to hold a wire for transmission. The cat would wander around parks and embassies where spies met to talk. Nobody would notice a stray cat. The real-life project went nowhere, but the idea was too good to pass up.

So I made Ceebee the acoustic cat. The microphone is inside a metal collar around the cat’s neck. Noelle and agent Destiny King are inside a nearby van, listening in. As you might imagine, felines are a bit unpredictable, even spy cats.

While SIAMESE is chasing an enemy agent, a busload of counterculture hippies invade Noelle’s staid town of Yuletide, Indiana. This plot point was inspired by the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, better known as the Hare Krishnas, the orange-robed devotees who were hung out around airports and large cities to chant and pass out brochures on their beliefs. The 1960s saw an explosion of new spiritual ideas: Vatican II, the Jesus People, contemporary Christian music, Transcendental Meditation, communes and ISCKON.

My sect is SPARK: Spiritually Pure And Radiant Kin. Their guru is the Wise One, an elderly leader who rarely appears in public. First Sage handles the day-to-day operations of the sect. He also rigorously guards the members from “contamination of the material world.” The cult members clash with the police chief and residents of Yuletide. The situation worsens when one of the SPARK members is found dead. The police chief calls it a drug overdose. Noelle has her suspicions and investigates on her own with the help of a newspaper reporter, Trevor Spellman.

Noelle uses her acting skills to go undercover to both find a spy and solve a murder. Meanwhile, she babysits her siblings, works with an anxious bride-to-be who’s buying clothes for the bridal party, and digs out secrets in the McNabb family tree. All in a day’s work for a cozy sleuth.

So happy reads to all. If you want to stay abreast of my writing projects, follow me at facebook.com.Sally.Carpenter.54, or my website at sandyfairfax.com, or email scwriter@earthlink.net.

Sally Carpenter is native Hoosier living in southern California. She has a master’s degree in theater and a creative writing award from Indiana State University.

She also has a Master of Divinity and a black belt in tae kwon do.

She’s written six books for Cozy Cat Press: four in the Sandy Fairfax Teen Idol series (including 2012 Eureka! Award nominee The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper) and two books in the Psychedelic Spy retro-series.

She’s contributed short stories to three anthologies and penned chapter three of the CCP group mystery Chasing the Codex.

To atone for killing characters on paper, she writes the Roots of Faith column for the Acorn Newspapers (theacornonline.com).

Keep moving forward

For me, the hardest part of writing a book is getting starting. Thinking about cranking out over 50,000 golden words of terrific prose is daunting. There’s the fear of “How can I top my last book?” and “Can I come up with an original idea?”

The trick is to break down the novel to pieces. Start with one word, then two, then three . . . Work on one chapter at a time before worrying about the next.

I start with an outline. I tried writing one book as “pantster” and by page 50, I was in trouble. The story didn’t interest me and, I’m sure, would bore the reader as well. I threw out of what I’d written and started over—with an outline.

The outline is flexible. I add to it and shift elements around as I progress. But, like a road trip, I have a destination in mind and can plan the most direct route with a minute of delays. As a “pantster,” I’d be taking too many scenic detours and ending up miles away from my goal.

An advantage of outline is that once that’s in place, the actual writing is easy. With an outline, I don’t have to think hard about what should be in the scene. Once I start writing, it begins to flow and gets easier. When I start building the characters and watching how the scene plays out and adding comic bits, I’m motivated to keep going. Like swimming, the initial plunge into the pool takes the most effort.

I’ve heard the phrase that a writer needs to “show up at the page.” That is, the author must sit, pick up the pen or turn on the computer, and actually write. Simply thinking or talking about writing, or saying “it’s all in my head,” or going to endless meetings or conferences or classes without writing will never produce a book.

The first months of this year, for me, had many distractions, including house repairs and cat health and working on a big teaching project. Now that’s all out of the way—for now—and I have no more excuses. I finally picked up the clipboard (my first drafts are in longhand) and began the second book in the Psychedelic Spy retro-cozy series. After all, one can’t have a series with only one book.

The first night I only wrote four pages. But that’s four more pages than I had the night before. If an author only composes one page a day, by the end of the year she’ll have a 365-page novel.

Now that I’ve started one project, I’m ending another. This is my last regular post on Ladies of Mystery. I’ve enjoyed being part of the blog, but my writing time is limited. Along with my day job and housework, I also write a newspaper column and contribute to my parish. I need more time to focus on my books. After the new book is finished I want to write another Sandy Fairfax book along with a non-mystery novel that’s been kicking around in my head for years. So many ideas, so little time.

I hope to return periodically to LOM with guest posts whenever I have a new book to share. In the meantime, you can keep in touch with me on Facebook or contact me at sallyc@earthlink.net. Stay tuned . . .

Acquired tastes

By Sally Carpenter

Why do people like different types of literature?

Writers have been wrestling with that question since the first authors tried to earn a living with their work. Why are some books best sellers and other titles flounder? If I knew the answer to that, I’d have some moneymaking books on the shelves myself.

Some books managed to stand the test of time, such as the Sherlock olmes tales that were a rave hit when Arthur Conan Doyle penned them—people went into mourning when he tried to kill off his character. The stories, set in a distant time and written in a rather cumbersome style, are still popular today. Yet the sensational private eye stories from the American pulp magazine era are dismissed as period pieces. Why is that?

I read that our tastes are “imprinted” at an early age. Often the music, books and pop culture we grew up with are the preferences we keep our whole lives. This can change, of course. As we mature we stop reading children’s books and move on to adult literature. Young adults—in conscious rebellion or unconsciously—want a culture distinct from their parents’. Often people raised in a small, closed community find their tastes broaden when exposed to other cultures.

But I think the imprinted theory is mostly true. Devout fans read a certain author in their youth, and they kept that taste their entire life. Just for fun, I’m on a Facebook closed group for fans of the Columbo TV show. Someone asked why we love the program. Many said it reminded them of growing up in a home where the family gathered at the TV to watch the show together on Sunday night. Others like the ‘70s culture of the show—the music, clothes, and mannerisms. Columbo brings back fond memories of past times. Reading a favorite author takes us to a time and location that brings us joy.

I know of authors who are noir fans. They love watching the old noir movies and their writing is a tribute to that genre. I wonder how writers find joy in writing such dark, gritty work. It’s a fascinating world of dark alleys, hideaways, shady deals, colorful characters, beautiful seductive female and a good guy who often behaves in a bad way to get the job done. The noir authors I know are nice, quiet, law-biding people. Maybe the noir world provides “nice” people a safe outlet to imagine themselves as a fist-punching, hard-drinking, womanizing private dick with a seedy office and seedier clientele.

I know an author who hates cozies because of the murder of a close family member—she “finds nothing funny in murder.” So her books are dark and grim. Fans of such stories perhaps like finding justice in the darkness.

When cozy readers are asked about their faves, they often say they enjoy the sense of family found in such books and watching how the characters change and interrelate over the course of a series. Cozy fans also like the escapism of spending time in a fantasy, small-town setting.

I recently decided to challenge my tastes a little. One of my cozy series is a 1960s spy caper. I joined a Facebook group for fans of spy books and films. I asked what books I should read as a newbie and received over 10 responses. Fans love to share their knowledge! From what I‘ve seen of the group so far, they mostly prefer the Cold War, harder-edged tales. My books may be too “cozy” for them, but hey, maybe I’ll broaden their tastes a little.

What are you tastes in reading and how did it come about?

It Couldn’t Happen Here

By Sally Carpenter

For this post I’m going to forgo fiction for true crime.

Every week, it seems, another city is ravaged by a mass shooting. It’s easy from the security of ones own home to say, “How tragic, but it could never happen here.”

Until it does.

Thousand Oaks, Calif., is a large city about 10 or so miles south of where I live. It’s considered one of the safety cities of its size in the U.S. But on the night of Nov. 7, 2018, T.O. became another sad statistic.

An armed ex-Marine walked into the Borderline Bar and Grill during the monthly College Night when many young adults were relaxing and dancing to live country music. Within minutes, 12 people were shot dead—including a police office who lived in my town—and others wounded. The killer then turned his gun on himself and committed suicide.

Three months later, I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. I don’t know any of the people present at the bar that night and I wasn’t there, so I can only image the terror as the survivors fled for their lives or helped others to safety. The survivors will no doubt be dealing with raw emotions for the rest of their lives. And the grief of the victims’ families seem unthinkable.

The police have determined no motive for the slaying. A few theories have been suggested, including PTSD, but questions remain: Of all the bars in T.O. that night, why that one? Why that night? What triggered the act? What did the madman hope to accomplish through killing strangers?

The bar remains closed out of respect for the victims, but another local music venue has stepped in to host a weekly Borderline Country Music Night, so the former house bands can continue to perform and the Borderline regulars can still gather in solidarity.

The rest of the community has shown amazing support. A foundation set up a special fund with the monies going directly to the victims’ families. Many groups and individuals have held fundraisers. A jeweler created unique necklaces with the profits going to the special fund. A printer created “T.O. Strong” T-shirts and has been working nonstop for weeks to fulfill orders.

REO Speedwagon was already scheduled for a local January concert, so the band (several of the musicians live in the area) decided to donate the ticket sales to the special fund. Due to audience demand, a second concert was added.

Another benefit concert was held in the large Civic Arts Plaza with a slew of well-known country singers along with Arnold Schwarzenegger as the emcee.

A small church of about 35 members held a special collection for the special fund that resulted in its largest Sunday offering to date. The local megachurch, Calvary Community, opened its doors to host several funerals for the victims, even those who were not church members.

An artist drew pencil sketches of the victims and donated the portraits to the families.  Another artist created a large wall banner with life-size color drawings of the fallen.

I work at a community newspaper, and besides carrying the news coverage, the paper is also running profiles of each victim. The reporter said the families have been happy to talk about their loved one and share their memories with the world.

I don’t have a neat way to wrap up this post, as real life is often messy and many crimes are never solved or resolved, as the pain lingers on long after the police report is filed.

Perhaps that is why we write mysteries. As authors, we have control over good and evil. Writers can punish the wicked and bring them to the justice that often seems lacking in reality. Authors can delve into minds and find the motive. Writers can tie up loose ends and leave readers with the satisfaction that, at least in our story, all will turn out right for the good guys.

Note: in your comments, please do not discuss gun control, mental illness, politics, police efforts or similar subjects. This post is not the place to debate such topics.