The Research Monster – or – Down the Rabbit Hole

by Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson

Hello, my name is Janis Susan and I am a research geek.

I have always believed that historical accuracy in our fiction is of paramount importance – equal to that of a good story, in fact, and the further back in time we go the more important it becomes. Why? Because it is sad but true that a lot of readers get most of their knowledge of history through fiction and as writers we have the responsibility to make sure that the history in our books is as correct as we can make it. And by correct, I mean as it really was, warts, unpopular language and beliefs, politically incorrect (according to current standards) behavior and all. A lot of what happened in the past is unacceptable in today’s climate, but that doesn’t matter… it’s the past! As someone said, they do things differently there.

There are those who say that close adherence to history doesn’t matter, that only the story is important. I say that’s dishonest and lazy. It’s just as easy – as if writing anything were easy – to make a story historically accurate as it is to slap something together and call it historical. If an author is going to disregard history then he/she should at least be honest and call it alternative fiction.

I remember a mystery I read a couple of years ago that sent my blood pressure soaring. It wasn’t a bad story – the characters were fleshed out, the clues were there, the descriptions of physical objects and places were fairly good (if a little on the loose side, but hey – if they weren’t enough to set a history geek like me screaming, they were pretty much okay) and the mystery itself was involving and well-resolved. What sent me over the edge was that while the storyline was acceptable, the main characters dashed impossibly quickly back and forth over the Atlantic to Europe chasing clues. You see, the story was set in the mid-1920s, and transatlantic air passenger flights didn’t begin until 1938-1939 (depending on the parameters of different research sites) so there is no way the characters in this book could have zipped back and forth across the Atlantic – after all, Lindbergh didn’t make his history-making solo transatlantic flight until 1927.

The first sort-of-real transatlantic flight was indeed made in May, 1919, in a seaplane called the NC4. However, because it had no reliable navigation equipment, the plane would fly at night shooting their position from the stars. Then in the day, they would land on the water and sleep, and take off again when the stars came out. They were also followed by a Navy warship of some kind in case they crashed. As a side note, I have seen this plane in the Naval Aviation Museum (fascinating – do go if you can!) in Pensacola. It is huge! I mean, really really huge, so big you can’t get a picture of the entire thing in one shot. It is also so incredibly flimsy that I marvel any man would risk his life by flying in it.

Back to the discrepancies in this book – the first passenger transatlantic flights were Zeppelins, flying from Germany to New York, and they took four days. Commercial heavier-than-air transatlantic flight didn’t begin until 1938-1939 (again depending on the parameters of different research sites) so there is no way the characters in this book could have gone back and forth across the Atlantic in mere hours like they were on some modern jet.

See what I mean? Looking up one little fact like the date commercial transatlantic flights began and off I go down the rabbit hole of research.

Another example – some time ago I was judging a Regency romance contest. One of the entries was okay – fairly decent writing, good-ish story… nothing to rave about, but okay. Until the hero reached into the pocket of his Bath-cloth coat and pulled out a fountain pen to sign something. Wow! Talk about hitting a wall! FYI – fountain pens were not invented until 1827, when a very primitive one using a goose-quill nib was patented in France, or if you prefer, the modern steel-nibbed version which was patented in 1884. (See – I’ve spent the last 20 minutes or so reading about the history of fountain pens – never knew they could be so fascinating!) In either case, though, there is no way our Regency hero could have used one!

I gave the book the average scores it deserved on plot, writing, etc., but in the ‘anything else’ category I gave her a zero on period accuracy (I would have given her a minus score, but there was no way to do it) and explained why in a kindly tone. Wow! I got a letter back from her so hot that the flaming pixels almost burned through the screen, demanding to know why I had marked her down for ‘such a little thing.’ “After all,” she screeched, “it’s an old-fashioned pen – who will know the difference?” Ticked, I replied back “Anyone with a brain and the slightest knowledge of history.”

It is unfortunate that far too many readers learn about history from our books instead of academic sources and for that reason alone we need to be as accurate as possible. There are eras about which we have to extrapolate from scant knowledge – the Ice Age, for example, or third century sub-Saharan Africa – but in most historical ages (especially the popular ones like Ancient Egypt or Regency England or medieval Europe) there are lots of research materials to choose from and explore. It is part of our responsibility as writers to do so. Again, far too many readers get a great deal of their knowledge of history from fiction, and we can and should never forget that those who do not remember history – good, bad and indifferent – are condemned to repeat it.

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What’s in a Title? by Paty Jager

Do you pick a book by the title? Do you want the title to tell you the genre of the story or what the story will be about? How about a mystery? Do you want the title to be a clue to the mystery?

These are all questions I’ve asked myself as I picked the title for the first book of my new mystery series coming out in 2019. I thought I had the perfect title… I loved it! Thought it was the essence of the story, more or less. Until I finished the book and read through it again. I felt like the title was lacking.

I loved the title. I used it as part of my trajectory in the story, or so I thought.

I sent the book to a beta reader. When he finished reading and sent me back his thoughts on the story, I told him the new title that popped into my head after I’d sent the manuscript off to him. What did he think? He said the new title fit the story better without me even explaining why I picked it.

BooYah! I now have a new title- Murder of Ravens: A Gabriel Hawke Novel.


Because my character is a game warden I want to have animals in all the titles. I have four more story ideas penciled out and went through my list of animal names I compiled from Native American Myths and Legends books and hope my titles will fit the books I write. If they don’t, I’ll be changing them as I did with the first book.

Another clever, I think, item to this new series, is whatever animal is in the title will be somewhere on the book cover. In some cases the size of the animal may make it a good contest to have readers find the animal. 😉

So as I asked in the beginning- Do you pick a book by the title? Do you want the title to tell you the genre of the story or what the story will be about? How about a mystery? Do you want the title to be a clue to the mystery?

Posted in mystery, Paty Jager | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Guest Blogger- Christoph Burmeister

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The Poetic Murderer, and me — How the Book Came to Be

Fear will learn to fear you.

Last winter I got the news: Lionel Ross wanted to publish my first novel. I was overjoyed and humbled beyond my ability to express myself. Then gradually I gained an understanding of what was happening. Engaging style. Humorous. Smiles. An unreliable narrator reveals himself as a lyrical mastermind known as … Of course! The book was scheduled to appear in January 2018. January came like a dream, and marvellous as it may seem, soon I held a copy of The Poetic Murderer in my hands.

I was a shy child with a “vivid imagination,” as my grandmother Liesel used to say. Then I was an anxious teenager who didn’t write at all because of a lack of confidence. In my late twenties, I moved to Copenhagen, where I was awarded a master’s degree in Environmental Economics and Natural Resource Management (A title that is killer like a whale to the attention.) Unsatisfied with the job prospects I attended the Creative Writing School at Cambridge University, where my passion for drawing stories from my imagination re-emerged. I was hooked. I decided that I wanted to write a book. Back then, my professor complimented the energy in my writing, but also suggested that I should write in my mother tongue German as it would be too far a stretch for me to write a novel in English. Challenge accepted!

I started with an image — a young, enigmatic, and successful detective, having to solve a mystical murder case on a quest of a dream and fulfilment of his own destiny, and that idea wouldn’t leave me alone. I wrote the first manuscript in a flash. After six weeks I was ready, and contacted my friend from Cambridge, who wanted to become an editor. I was very positive and awaited her response. Everything changed when she replied. The manuscript was full of inconsistencies, mistakes, and bizarre phrases. But nothing that couldn’t be fixed. I’m human. Humans make mistakes.

I worked on the story obsessively. I’d been a person who enjoyed to achieve his goals with ease, offhandedly. When the novel took over for the first time in my life I had the feeling that I was properly challenged really. I purchased a small notebook and scribbled notes like a maniac, no matter where I was. If I thought of something while cycling, I’d jump off as soon as the traffic permitted it, and put it to paper. It became second nature to me. It felt so real.

From the crazy rush at the beginning, soon my literary journey turned into a devoted drafting of each chapter, and then I’d send each revised version of the manuscript to my friend in England, whose opinion I feared and wait for her response. While all this editing was going on, I continued filling notebooks and drawing the story before the inner eye. I wrote far more than I ever did before. I also discovered that style is a continuous distillation. How can I be me? Honestly expressing myself. No lies. That became the bottom line of all my endeavours. The book slowly took shape, however, due to my inexperience, a fear of failure attended me and intensified.

The detective character was what kept me hooked. He’s my hero, mysterious, funny, impulsive, vulnerable, dreamy, and in love with his laissez-faire lifestyle. When Detective 00 Hansen has to deal with his disturbingly poetic case, much hate from the police force, and that his wife left him, he questions everything. A period of doubt studied me too, especially when friends and family had hard times understanding my yet fictitious ambitions. But I wouldn’t give up.

I worked on the novel through the year, and when I was sure I’d gotten the manuscript into shape, I contacted agents and publishers, and eventually was chosen as one among many talented writers. High times!

Well, that is what I would call a miracle, one that a shy child with a “vivid imagination,” wouldn’t have dreamt of or an honoured professor at Cambridge University wouldn’t have predicted.

Now will anyone buy the book, unravel the deeper meaning of it, smile when I’m acquainting them with a funny line, and feel inspired to follow their own dreams?

That remains to be seen. At least The Poetic Murderer made my own dream become true.

And as you shall see, fear will learn to fear you too.

FINAL COVER (1)The Poetic Murderer

“Fear will learn to fear you.”

If you liked Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist, you will love The Poetic Murderer.

Detective 00 Hansen is an enigmatic dreamer in the streets of Copenhagen, riding a fast antelope, and living a slow life (not always to the delight of his wife)…

In The Poetic Murderer, Hansen and Don Cindy’s first mystery, the duo are informed by Denmark’s Queen Marmalade II and Prince Sandwich about an unimaginable murder at the supermarket. The body is marked by violence and the murder weapon an unhygienic rainbow trout.

The police are baffled by the mysterious poem at the crime scene. But when Detective 00 Hansen applies his vivid imagination to the problem he uncovers a tragic tale of unrequited love and ruthless ambition… Will he stop the poetic murderer on the quest of a dream and fulfilment of his own destiny?

An unaesthetic fear of the unknown haunts us, namely the unforeseen. A fear that shapes our lives. No human can unlearn to fear; we all have to learn how to deal with it. By picking up this novel, the reader travels a new route and learns to lead a fearless life by trusting in the own reality.

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Christoph colChristoph Burmeister was born on the 16 April 1987 in Bad Oldesloe on the river Trave. That’s why he originally wanted to become a clown.
On school days he dreamed wholeheartedly. University was no hindrance to him; it was his hobby. He would carefully fashion his appearance as an eager student.
After graduation, the money bell rang, and he started working for a shipping company as a treasury manager. One day he took a glimpse into the mirror and did not recognise himself, so he left home and moved to Copenhagen.
All of a sudden: Hygge!
2015—Creative Writing at the University of Cambridge, then Improv theatre. Now his first novel: The Poetic Murderer.
Christoph likes Jazz and his simplistic life-style resonates with mystery and beauty. His right hand is the instrument of his daily writing practise.

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Summer sun and mutating ideas!

JordainaHey folks. What’s new with you?

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but here in the UK, we’re suffering through a heatwave. (I’m English—gotta talk about the weather! I went to Nashville a few years ago now (we can talk about my Nashville adventures another time) and mentioned the weather to someone, like “It’s warm today”. They replied with, “Yeah, it is.” And that was it. Back home, that’s at least twenty minutes worth of conversation, right there. Or maybe he just didn’t like me … ).

And, yes, I did say, “suffering”! It’s lovely to see the sun, but shoot! I wouldn’t mind a bit of cloud as well. Maybe even a breeze. (I’m complaining about this now, next time week speak I’ll be whining about the rain!)

Anyway, with it being England, summers are unpredictable which sucks because whenever I can, I love to write outside. Maybe it’s because it’s rare to have days when it’s warm enough to do this. I feel like when I write inside my ideas are contained. They’re trapped in the room with me, and they can’t mutate into much better ideas because there isn’t space and then they suffocate each other, and I have to go downstairs to get a chocolate bar and a cup of tea.

giphy-4But when I write outside? I imagine my ideas multiplying and changing and growing limitlessly. I want to say they dance around on the breeze, like Julia Andrews in The Sound of Music but, in reality, I think it’s probably more like what happens to that alien in Evolution when they hit it with napalm. Only my ideas are much prettier. Maybe.

My point is being outside makes me feel more creative. Or imaginative. Maybe it’s because there’s more going on outside so there are more stimuli. For example, I love watching the planes fly over and wonder where the passengers are going. Are they going on holiday? Coming back? Did they find a holiday romance? Are they moving away and starting a new life? Are they leaving a new life and coming back to their old one because the new one didn’t work out? Are they on their first leg of an around the world adventure? Are they coming back from an around the world adventure wholly changed? What are their plans now?

I’m pretty sure everyone thinks about this when they see planes. Or maybe they wave their fist at the plane, super annoyed that they’re not on that plane, going on holiday. (I’ve been there. I briefly worked in a retail store in the departures area of an airport. It killed me! Killed me. I had to go through security every day as if I were going on holiday … but I was just going to work. Gut-wrenchingly depressing.)

To get back on track, even when it rains, I’m outside. I might be huddled under my garden umbrella, clinging onto my hot-water bottle as I type, but I’m outside. I thought about investing in a fancy summer house, but it still has that “inside” feel to it.

lisa-in-coffee-shopI know people who write in coffee shops, but I just can’t be doing with all that noise and commotion. And, oh my days, there would be so many conversations to eavesdrop on I’d never get anything done!

Is there anywhere you love to write? Anywhere that fills you full of inspiration? Add a comment and let me know!

Until next time …

Jordaina 🙂

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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.

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Guest Blogger- C.T. Collier

New Voices in Academic Mysteries

by C.T. Collier

Sipped_ coverEven before I joined the ranks of college faculty, I loved a good academic mystery—one with a professor solving a murder, whether it happened on campus or on vacation. Now that I write academic mysteries (The Penningtons Investigate) I’m loving the fresh voices among the ladies of mystery whose sleuths are professors. Here are just a few.

An environmental educator and researcher, Charlene D’Avanzo’s debut Cold Blood Hot Sea throws the reader into the contentious field of marine research. Sleuth Dr. Mara Tusconi is a smart resourceful warm-hearted scholar at the Maine Oceanographic Institution, where eager students and ambitious colleagues surround her. Every twist of D’Avanzo’s page-turner reveals more about research methods, the young scholars in training who will carry the work forward, and the sabotage that undermines experiments.

Lori Rader-Day’s academic mystery, The Black Hour, is a dark gritty look at the power differential between professors and students that sometimes has deadly consequences. The story highlights the fascinating ways both professors and students confront, ignore, or rationalize blatantly unethical behavior.

Drawing on an academic career in psychology, Lesley A. Diehl brings humor to the campus scene in her sleuth, psychology professor Laura Murphy. In Failure is Fatal, Laura’s study of sexual harassment on campus is compromised when a student is murdered and a detailed written description of the murder is among the surveys submitted days before the murder occurred. Besides her intelligence and dogged determination, Laura uses her unique ability to tick people off on her way to finding the killer.

There’s still more humor in Alexia Gordon’s debut mystery, Murder in G Major. Sleuth Gethsemane Brown, an award-winning musician, is challenged with shaping up a school orchestra in time to win back a coveted trophy. At the same time, the ghost of a famous musician who expects her to find out who murdered him haunts her house. Gethsemane uses gumption, moxie, spunk, and many belts of bourbon to save the day.

Author and music professor Carolyn Marie Wilkins pens another music-themed academic mystery in Melody for Murder. Protagonist Bertie Bigelow is a music professor at a community college in Chicago’s South Side, where she walks easily between the poverty of her students’ world and the glitz of charity galas among the nearby African American community.

Cynthia Kuhn has a fresh take on tenure, the bane of every young professor’s existence. Kuhn’s sleuth, English professor Lila Maclean, is just starting her academic career and dealing with all the challenges of being single in a new town and a new job. Lila’s crafty department chair continually manipulates her into extra work by dangling the carrot of tenure in front of her or cracking the whip of tenure behind her. Those extras propel Lila into murderous complications that demonstrate her investigative skills, ingenuity, and charm.

Whether your taste runs to thrillers or cozies, these lady authors of academic mysteries are sure to please. I hope you’ll share your thoughts in a comment.


Meet the Penningtons: Lyssa, Ph.D. Economics, and her husband “the handsome Brit” Kyle, Ph.D. Computer Science. When their clever minds ask questions, clever killers can’t hide.

After a rough semester, Professor Lyssa Pennington just wants to post her grades and join her husband, Kyle, in Cornwall for Christmas. First, though, she’s expected to host an elegant dinner for Emile Duval, the soon-to-be Chair of Languages at Tompkins College.

Too bad no one told Lyssa murder is on the menu. And, by the way, Emile Duval is an imposter.

Who is he really? And who wanted him dead? Without those answers, the Penningtons can kiss Christmas in Cornwall goodbye.

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Kate-B'ville 7-6-17C.T. Collier was born to solve logic puzzles, wear tweed, and drink Earl Grey tea. Her professional experience in cutthroat high tech and backstabbing higher education gave her endless opportunity to study intrigue. Add to that her longtime love of mysteries, and it’s no wonder she writes academic mysteries (The Penningtons Investigate) that draw inspiration from traditional whodunits.



Facebook: kate.collier.315

Twitter: @TompkinsFalls


Posted in Guest Blogger, mystery | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Call Me Inaccessible

Cell phones are so convenient in real life life and so inconvenient in fiction when you want to strand a city girl on an unlit road in the desert on a cold winter night. So inconvenient when you want characters to be inaccessible to each other. Unless you set your stories far enough in the past, people can be reached and can call for help. Normally, I work the hyper-connected nature of life into my plots, but once in a while I need to cut off my characters’ communication. How can I do it without over-using the obvious and without too much of a deus ex machina effect?

Battery running out? I’ve used it a total of twice, in different books and with different characters, and I think that’s about as many times as I should use it.

Phone lost or stolen? In Snake Face, I have a stalker take her victim’s phone. In Death Omen, I have two children hide an adult’s phone so he won’t receive a call that would get them in trouble.  I think I’ve hit my lost-or-stolen maximum.

Phone turned off while driving?  One of my ongoing characters does this. He doesn’t trust himself to handle any distractions. I leave mine on and ignore it until I can pull over, but I see plenty of people talking on phones or even texting while they drive. They don’t make any effort to be safe. The National Safety Council and the Scientific American both say that hands-free devices are no safer than hand-held phones, but it’s not uncommon to believe that hands-free systems must be safe since they’re often built into new cars. If we’re writing realistically, not idealistically, that means driving isn’t an obstacle for a lot of folks. They can be reached by phone, even with a short delay for the safety nuts like me.

Phone off for sleeping? Maybe. But some people take their phones to bed with them.

No signal? I’m about to use that for the first time. In traveling all over the country, I’ve seldom been in a place with no signal, but when I was doing research for my work in progress set partially in the ghost town of Chloride, New Mexico, one of the many unexpected facts I learned was that there’s no cell phone reception in town or within a ten-mile radius. It makes sense. The town is in a canyon. But it hadn’t occurred to me to use my phone any of the times I’d been there. The museum owner told me about the cell signal problem when I asked about internet service. I’d expected there might not be any, but Chloride stays in touch with the world through DSL internet—and landline-only phone access. (In case you’re wondering: ghost towns aren’t always uninhabited. They are ghosts of their former selves. Fourteen people live in this one.) I’d wanted to have a character get stuck on a country road outside Chloride at night, unable to make a call, and I’m so glad it’s realistic. I’ll be able to set it up as an established fact of life there well in advance.

Have you used up your quota of no-signal events? How about something strange?

Recently, I tried to make a cell phone call to a local business and got the message: “This call cannot be completed as dialed.” I checked the number in the phone book, called again, and got the same message. I looked up the business online. It was still open, with the same number listed. Weird. My bill was paid and my phone was working. I didn’t get bad reception or no reception, and when I tried calling friends, I got the same message. Naturally, I researched this phenomenon. For most people who experience it, it’s an ongoing (though unexplained) problem in a specific place. I was calling from my apartment, where the phone has worked well for a year. Could there have been too much cell phone traffic? In Truth or Consequences? June is the off-season, when it’s too hot for tourists to come to the hot springs. Some locals who can manage it leave town, too. Who could be making all those calls? If I want this mysterious problem to occur in a book, it had better be a frequent one and not pop up out of the blue when I need it. It hasn’t happened to me again, and that’s just too random for fiction. Fiction has to be more believable than the chance events of real life.

Another option for making people hard to reach is to cast low-tech characters. For my other work in progress (yes, I have two in progress in the same series), this works well for my protagonist’s former in-laws. I know people who don’t have cell phones, and some who don’t even use e-mail. One of my yoga students accidentally left her phone turned off for three weeks and didn’t notice. Not everyone who has the technology is particularly attached to it.

Any other ideas? Have you needed to cut off your characters’ phone access and found a creative way to do it?

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