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.

 

 

 

A new year, a new look

By Sally Carpenter

 Happy New Year and welcome to 2018! I hope this will be a happy and fulfilling year for everyone. May readers find many new authors to enjoy. May writers publish a bounty of good stories.

Many use this time of year for fresh starts. As for me, a near disaster led to a good change.

A couple of months ago, the hosting service of my blog (which I will refer to by its initials GD) send an email that they were moving my website to a new server. I hadn’t checked on my blog in a long time, so I went there to add a new post. To my horror, all I saw was a blank page with an error message!! GD had apparently lost my site.

GD doesn’t offer a toll-free number for tech support, so the first time I called I would have to pay for a minimum 60-minute wait; I hung up. After two live chat sessions, GD still hadn’t fixed the problem and seemed clueless that my site was even gone.

I contacted the web designer who had built the site. She came through and not only recovered the site but updated the code, made a backup, and added new security. She discovered my site had been hacked years ago; GD should have alerted me about that.

Since my designer was already working on the site, I took the opportunity for a revamp. Much had transpired since I opened the site and what I had no longer suited my needs.

The site was established as a Sandy Fairfax fan page in hopes that it would become a place for readers to interact with the character. However, that never materialized. And people were confused and thinking that Sandy Fairfax was my name.

In the beginning I only had one book, so I ran the book covers in a sidebar. But as I published more works, the sidebar became cumbersome and the page looked cluttered.

I failed to keep up with the blog, so opening the home page with months-old posts was not a good idea.

My bio was outdated as well. I had a new series ready to start; how would that fit in with the Sandy Fairfax theme?

In the site remodeling, I moved the focus off Sandy and onto me. I took his name off the header and put in mine. My headshot was moved off the sidebar and onto the header.

The sidebar was eliminated and the book covers were arranged in neat rows by series and anthologies. Readers can easily see all my works.

The blog was moved to a back page. I freshened my bio. A new page was added to introduce my upcoming series. The “email contact” page was removed, since nobody was using it. I just put an email address on the home page for people to use.

The basic retro-look of the old site remained with the same fonts and header styles. That aspect didn’t need an overhaul. I like the bright, vivid colors; many mystery writers’ websites are dark and gritty. The hearts-and-notes background stayed because that design was already on my business cards and bookmarks.

Even though the site is now about me and not my original character, I kept the domain name http://sandyfairfaxauthor.com because that addy is on my cards, bookmarks, numerous blog posts and other places. Besides, I’m still Sandy’s author; I’m just adding other characters along the way.

I like the new look. I’m amazed at how I started with one book and now have eight covers on my site.

If you have a website or blog, has your site changed as you’ve grown as an author?

BTW, in a month or two my contract runs out with GD and my designer and I will move the site to a new hosting service.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The long and the ‘shorts’ of it all

By Sally Carpenter

A short story anthology is like a box of chocolate—you never know what you’re going to get.

Like all small presses, Cozy Cat Press doesn’t have a big advertising budget, so publisher Patricia Rockwell is always looking for new ways to promote her authors. One year the authors joined together to write a group mystery, “Chasing the Codex” (I wrote chapter 3). Another year CCP published a cookbook.

This year Patricia wanted to release an anthology to showcase the writers. Instead of paying for one author, the reader gets 25 different voices to sample.

Submissions to the anthology were voluntary. Some writers had other commitments and some chose not to take part.

The anthology doesn’t have a theme because that proved too limiting. Some authors wanted to use an old story they had sitting in a drawer. Others wanted to write about their CCP series characters. Others wanted to pen something different than their books. In all, an eclectic mix.

This year I’ve been working on a novel to launch a new series, so it was fun to revisit Sandy Fairfax, the star of four books of his own. He has such a distinct personality that I jumped back into his voice with no effort.

The story takes place on a children’s TV show, an idea that sounded fun but not meaty enough to stretch into a 200-page novel. Besides, I’d already written two books set on a studio lot, so I wasn’t interested in rehashing that idea for another book. So the kids’ show was a simple concept suited for a short story.

In late spring/early summer this year I wrote “The Puzzling Puppet Show Caper.” My books follow chronologically, so this story immediately follows book four. I wanted to reuse a character from book two, but in reviewing that book I discovered the character couldn’t make a comeback. I created a new character to take its place. I’d forgotten how book two ended, so it’s always good to reread ones books now and again.

I manage to sneak in a recurring character, Sandy’s agent, who appears in all four books, and his girlfriend, who arrives in book two. Short stories have no room for subplots, so none of Sandy’s family members show up.

The time frame is shorter. The novels cover one to two weeks. The short story is set in one day.

Like the books, Sandy involves himself in a murder investigation and gets caught in a “death trap” at the end. He’s been in more cliffhangers than the Perils of Pauline.

Enough about me. I ordered the book because I’m eager to read how the other authors put a story together.

The other authors in the anthology are Amy Beck Arkawy, Allen B. Boyer, C.F. Carter, Linda Crowder, Glen Ebisch, Bart J. Gilbertson, Helen Grochmal, Lorrie Holmgren, Bret Jones, Mary Koppel, Elizabeth Lanham, Owen Magruder, Jane O’Brien, Joyce Oroz, David Pauwels, Emma Pivato, Joe and Pam Reese, Megan Rivers, Patricia Rockwell, Rita Gard Seedorf, Rae Sanders and Annie Irvin, Lane Stone, Margaret Verhoef and Carmen Will.

The print version is a larger size than the regular CCP paperbacks in order to accommodate all the stories—340 pages!

So if you’re looking for a tasty story this holiday season for yourself or as a gift, dip into the “Coy Cat Shorts” smorgasbord.

 

Meeting Peter Graves

by Sally Carpenter

Over the years I’ve met celebrities at book signings, concerts and appearances. Some stars have been quite charming; others apparently wanted me to go away. One particular appearance comes in mind regarding my WIP set in 1967.

In 1967 the entertainment world was spy crazy. Imitating the success of the new James Bond films came the spy parodies “Our Man Flint,” “In Like Flint,” “The Silencers” and “Murderer’s Row.” Television was chock-a-block spies with “The Man From UNCLE,” “The Girl From UNCLE,” “Get Smart,” “The Avengers” “The Wild, Wild West” (secret agents in the Old West) and “Mission: Impossible.”

As a kid I didn’t understand “MI” when it first aired, although I had a crush on Peter Graves. Years later when watching the shows in syndication I became a devout fan. In fact, my WIP works the “MI” show into the story as homage.

On a Friday in 2009, I glanced through the weekend entertainment section of the newspaper and saw that the next day Peter Graves was scheduled to receive an award at the Ojai Film Festival. The event would start with a screening of the film “Airplane!” with Graves in a hilarious comic performance, followed by comments from Graves and an audience Q&A.

Ojai was about an hour or so drive from my town and the festival was open to the public. Why not go, I thought. I thought up an interesting question for the Q&A and pulled out my book “The Mission: Impossible Dossier,” about the making of the TV show, for him to autograph.

Ojai is one of those places you can’t get there from here. To go by freeway meant dealing with heavy traffic, so I opted for the back roads route. What looked like an easy path on the map became navigating up and down steep hills with winding streets and hairpin turns. I was too busy watching the road to enjoy the rural scenery.

Ojai has basically one main street, so finding the location wasn’t difficult. The event would take place inside a drab school auditorium. Hardly the sort of dazzling venue fit for a star of Graves’ caliber. I stood in the long line, waiting for the doors to open. Some people were talking to the man ahead of me. I didn’t pay any attention to him.

Inside the auditorium I took a front row seat on the right hand side on the old-fashioned wooden bleacher-type chairs. The emcee said the festival’s custom was to ask the honoree to select their favorite piece of work to screen. Graves had picked “Airplane!” An interesting choice.

After the movie, Graves came out front along with Robert Hayes, another “Airplane!” star. Also joining them was the man who stood in line in front of me—Rossie Harris, who played Joey in the movie (the kid in the cockpit) and now all grown up. Now I wish I’d gotten his autograph.

Unfortunately, Graves was no longer the handsome leading man. He looked ill, was quite thin and used a cane for walking/standing. His voice quavered a little and at one point he seemed to forget what he was saying. But for the most part his mind was still sharp and his speech lucid.

When the Q&A started, I raised my hand. I mentioned that Peter smoked a lot of “MI.” Was that just for the character or did he smoke in real life? (Martin Landau, Barbara Bain and Greg Morris also smoked on the show).

Graves replied in a strong voice, quote, “I smoked for forty years and enjoyed every puff!” He went on to say he was forced to quit smoking after a skiing accident that resulted in his jaws being wired shut for several weeks. The doctor gave him a set of wire cutters so he could remove the wires in case he needed to throw up (TMI).

The program ended and the audience was leaving. Graves and his entourage headed for the exit. I was sitting between him and the door. I ran up to him and said, “May I have your autograph?”

He said, “I came empty handed,” meaning he had nothing to sign for me.

I held out the book and a pen. He seemed surprise. “Oh, you have the book!” I set the book on the stage (we were on the ground floor) so he’d had a firm surface for writing. He took the pen and signed the page I had opened. I thanked him and he left the building. I don’t know if he was annoyed at me—I was the only one in the crowd that had accosted him—but I was over the moon.

Graves died six months later.

What I’ve learned from meeting celebrities is to always be gracious to a fan. As a published author I haven’t had many opportunities to meet readers, and I’ll never be as famous as Graves, but when I’m “on stage” I strive to be pleasant and accommodating. Once at a writers convention a reader interrupted me while I was eating to sign my book. I was so thrilled that someone actually wanted my autograph that I didn’t mind at all.

But don’t bother me in the ladies’ room.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Retro-dressing my characters

By Sally Carpenter

One of the challenges of writers of historical mysteries is clothing their characters. As fashions change continually, authors must carefully research their time period for accuracy.

My new cozy is set in 1967, a period that should be easy to clothe, right? When I was growing up in the ‘60s I wasn’t interested in fashion. My mother sewed all my clothes and I didn’t buy my own clothing until college. My memory of what people wore at the time is vague and limited.

So I consulted books and learned about Mary Quant and the groovy, hip styles. However, my book is set in the rural Midwest—similar to where I grew up—and the hot fashions of the New York runway never made it west. Growing up, I didn’t see anyone on the streets wearing love beads or Nehru jackets or batik prints or even miniskirts. The ordinary Jane Doe didn’t dress like Emma Peel.

What to do? I found a terrific book titled “Fashionable Clothing from the Sears Catalogs mid 1960s.” That’s right, the book contains full-color illustrations of the merchandise sold in the mail-order catalogs. It’s a wealth of information of what the common person wore as they shopped at Sears, not high-end boutiques.

Women’s clothes of the ‘60s were less restrictive than the ‘50s. Gone were the girdles and mounds of petticoats holding up poodle skirts. Pantyhose replaced nylon stockings for a practical reason. Individual stockings required garter belts to hold them up, but the stocking clips could be seen under miniskirts. Pantyhose provided a seamless visual line as well as some modesty if the skirt flipped up.

But some ‘50s holdovers remained into the ‘60s. The catalogue book has several pages of women’s hats, and when ladies put on a hat, they wore gloves as well. Jackie Kennedy made the pillbox hat a must-have at the time. So I will occasionally put my 26-year-old heroine in a hat because it looks far out and while she’s tough, she isn’t a total tomboy.

The Sears book has no miniskirts! The dresses and skirts hit the knee or just below. A black “dance” dress is shorter, with the hem only about two inches above the knee “to allow movement.” Miniskirts were not practical for everyday women working in offices, stores or schoolrooms.

The book also has far more dresses than pants for women. Women in white- and pink-collar jobs generally wore dresses and seldom  pantsuits on a night out. I had to rethink my character’s wardrobe. I’m putting her in more dresses than I anticipated, but that’s OK. She looks groovy in skirts. And she’s in pants for the “action” scenes that require running and climbing.

I found no women’s jeans in the catalog book, although I did spot a denim jacket and skirt outfit. Women’s dungarees (jeans) had been around in the ‘50s, but only for casual wear or factory/farm work. In the ‘50s and early ‘60s jeans were associated with biker gangs, hoods and rowdy rock bands. Only by mid ‘60s did jeans gain popularity. In fact, faded and patched jeans were stylish.

The few shoes in the book are mostly flats, a surprise as I thought most women in dresses wore heels. Flat heels permit more movement and are less painful for the feet. However, the pencil skirts of the time prevented women from taking long strides and forced them to move their hips more when walking.

Watching TV shows and movies of the era is a another great way to do research. One can see not only what women wore but also how they moved in the slim skirts and short hems. One of my heroine’s dresses is based on an outfit Barbara Feldon wore in “Get Smart.”

In the ‘60s, not everyone jumped on the fashion bandwagon. The older generation, i.e., my parents, continued to wear older styles. Few women in my hometown wore pants in public. My mother only put on pants once in her adult life and I thought they looked weird on her.

I’m writing from my experience. No doubt many older women of the ‘60s embraced pants and other hip styles—just not in my neighborhood.

Of course my cozy has hippies. They dressed differently from the “square” townsfolk to express their individually and distain for the “establishment.” The Sears book didn’t have hippie clothes–no surprise there–but I found examples in other books. Surprisingly, hippies shopped at war surplus stores. This seems odd considering their opposition to the war, but perhaps the reason was that the merchandise sold cheap.

Men’s fashions haven’t changed much over the years. The suit-and-tie has remained standard wear forever, although the ‘70s put a spin on that with the huge lapels, wild pastel colors and paisley shirts. The men in my book mostly wear regular shirts and pants except for the occasional denim overalls (this is farm country after all) and suspenders. And maybe a couple of bellbottoms.

In looking through the Sears book, I was struck at the beauty of the clothes. The models look feminine but not girlish, pretty yet confident, stylish but not too dated. Modern women’s clothing has a drab “unisex” look that I dislike. I’d love to wear some of the fashions in the Sears book. Let’s go retro!

 

 

 

Cold War ethics

My WIP is a cold war cozy, a somewhat traditional cozy mystery with spies. The setting is 1967, the peak of the spy craze on TV and in the movies.

One of my favorite shows from this era is “Mission: Impossible.” I love the series for the top-notch writing, complex plots and logical structure. But on re-watching the show, I’m dismayed at some of the distressing ethical values.

Members of the IM Force, for unclear reasons, are not allowed to directly assassinate the villains (which would make for short and dull episodes). However, they can lie, cheat and steal as well as deceive, trick, con and manipulate other people into doing the killing for them. How is this better than simply doing the dirty deed themselves?

The end justifies the means. Trampling on emotions is acceptable as long as it brings about the desired results. In the first-season episode “The Short Tail Spy,” Cinnamon Carter carries on a lengthy romance with the mark, even spending the night with him. Does she really fall in love with him or is it all an act? We never really know how Cinnamon feels about the affair. But if she does have feelings for him, she never lets her emotions compromise the mission. Like an actress, she can conjure up fake emotions to serve her purpose.

In another episode, the IM Force is leaving the building at the end of the episode and they hear a gunshot. When someone asks who was killed, Jim Phelps replies rather coldly, “Does it matter?” A rather callous attitude, but necessary in this business.

Bruce Geller, the series creator, stated that he wanted the characters to be “ciphers,” completing the mission with no emotion or revealing their own personality. In a few episodes, we catch tantalizing glimpses of the team members joking and interacting with each other (in a seventh-season episode, Barney and Jim briefly enjoy a friendly game of tennis on a day off). But the agents, for the most part, remain pawns in the spy game. We see the agents portray every type of character expect themselves, yet sealing off their own emotions doesn’t appear to cause mental health issues.

And they are expendable. The government will deny their existence in the event the agents are caught or killed. So they are on their own. How can the agents remain loyal to a government that needs them but wants nothing to do with them?

The missions work because the villains have no ethics. The missions/cons work because the baddies are ruthless, greedy, egotistical. lusty and cruel. A con game only works on a mark that wants to be conned.

Yet “MI” has some positive aspects. Compared to most spy shows of the time, the body count is low. In the first season, the team members engaged in some gunplay, but soon that was phased out.

The team members had an extraordinarily high moral sense. They lied and conned only evil individuals and not for personal gain. They felt a need to rid the world of drugs, dictators, nuclear bombs in the wrong hands, corruption and brutality.

They never defected to the other side or were never tempted by the money or power. They never took bribes or betrayed another team member (unless it was part of the mission). If a team member was captured, the others made sure he/she was rescued.

They were willing to put their lives in danger for—what? Not for fame or fortune. They received no public recognition for their service. Due to secrecy they probably had few friends outside the agency. Their only reward was a personal satisfaction for bringing about justice in a wicked world.

My WIP looks at the ethical nature of the spy game. A spy agency recruits my heroine, a civilian, to help with a case. At one point, a spy tells the heroine she will have to kill the enemy. The heroine is shocked—murder goes against her beliefs and morality. In another situation, she must do something she feels isn’t right or else risk blowing her cover. This being a cozy, everything works out to a happy ending, but it’s interesting to explore how she reacts to these situations without compromising her own ethics.