On Reviewing

Like most writers, I read widely and not only in my favorite mystery genres, and post reviews of most of what I read. I read lots of nonfiction as well as fiction, but I only hesitate when it comes to reviewing crime fiction. For many years I happily reviewed for the Drood Review of Mystery, edited by Jim Huang, as well as for Publishers Weekly and Mystery Scene. I thought a lot about what to say and how to say it, what to omit and what to emphasize.

An editor I did freelance work for back in the 1980s explained how she approached each manuscript. In general, she said, it takes a lot of work to complete a book that is worthy of publication. No matter how many readers may dislike it after it’s published, that level of quality is still there. She remembered that when she ushered it through the publication process and sent it out for review. Her perspective held very good advice.

I think of her often now when I read a mystery novel that doesn’t work for me. For whatever reason I dislike it, I try to temper my view with the broader understanding that an editor and others in the publishing house saw something worthwhile in it, and were willing to back it financially. This doesn’t mean that I overlook anything that is offensive or stupid or very poorly done. It does mean that I think twice before I eviscerate a book.

Some readers reading this will rise up from their chairs in outrage, to tell me I’m failing as a reviewer because I’m not giving the reader my honest opinion. There is some—only some—truth in that. My honest opinion is not worth more than anyone else’s, but the person who has a blog or a newspaper or magazine column has far more influence than the ordinary reader, and I take that into consideration. This does not mean that I withhold an opinion on the tropes that I’m sick of—young female assaulted and murdered by demented male—or that I give a rating of five to a book that will never have enough substance in it to rate a five only because I know the writer. I know I’m in the minority on this one.

I’m thinking about all this now because I’m increasingly aware that some forms of crime fiction are susceptible to ideas and behaviors that are offensive to most women. The genre is by definition conservative, designed to depict the breakdown of social norms that are restored in some measure by a significant figure, male or female. This isn’t always the happy ending but it is a restoration of some form of stability. When a writer explores this limitation, I find a lot to praise. This is what I look for in my reading—something that challenges both the form and the reader, something for my mind to grapple with, and a story told in a way that will broaden the reader. These are the stories that will get the highest rating, the ones I’ll remember and tell others about. 

What do you look for in a mystery?

Five Things . . .

. . . in no particular order of importance and strictly reflective of what’s annoying me about my writing right now, with the full knowledge that we all have annoying habits and weaknesses that we continually battle to overcome. This writing thing is hard, even if 50% of it is applying the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair.

Describe bit players as they occur. I tend to drib and drab out character descriptions for secondary/tertiary characters, hair here, nose there, expecting the other characters’ reaction to the person to provide the details. It takes so little time to write a description – Mary had bright friendly eyes that tipped up at the ends and a broad happy smile. Now whenever Mary appears, the reader sees Mary. How hard is that?


Develop a reusable one paragraph backstory for each central character to use the first or second time the character appears in any book in a series. I do fine with the main characters but could do a better job with the supporting cast, especially in Wanee, my small town with its rotating cast of supporting characters. The reader should be able to associate a face, walk, demeanor and history with a name – always. Having just read the latest James R. Benn, I’ll use him as an example. Benn uses the same description for Kaz in every book, but it works, both as a reminder to those who have read the other books in the series and for readers new to Billy Boyle.


Pick better titles. I’m rotten at this. Rotten. Rotten. Rotten. The world is convinced one of my books is about vampires, another about a horse, and another an entry into a series on using technology. Okay, I didn’t research the titles, I didn’t write to a title, the titles sprang from the text, except the two books named after places, Booth Island and Perfidia (yes, I am aware it is a famous, famous song, my characters dance to it in Barbados, and, yes, James Elroy has a book by that name). I’m just lucky I didn’t name it Pirates of the Caribbean. I need to do all the things I didn’t, and I need reviewers to tell me I’m crazy when I am.


Have patience with the process. My first draft is a detailed synopsis, like 70 – 80,000 words of detail, many of which don’t belong. The second draft (reworked a bazillion times) is tighter and usually the draft I send to my Remarkable (if you don’t have one get one) for a detailed read, edit, and rewrite. While reading, I forget that I’m working on a draft and get discouraged wondering what clown produced the sloppy book with the gaping holes in the plot. Patience, my dear. Patience, read carefully, edit carefully, fill holes and it will come together. Then do it all over again.

Don’t use surnames for characters that end in s such as Jones – it just makes plurals and apostrophes a nightmare. I know it, but I keep doing it. Then I just plow ahead through the draft, soon I have a sloppy mix of s, es, ‘s, s’ and es’ soup that defies copyediting.


Quit clipping sentences in fight scenes. They end up reading like someone announcing a prize fight. I write them as I envision them, my eyes closed, my fingers in high gear, and I guess in staccato bursts. Not only do the scenes end up choppy – they are exhausting. Maybe that’s a good thing, like being in a prize fight. Hmmm?

Well – back at it!

Back to Normal for Mystery Writers—Mostly.

The big mystery cons are ready and waiting for writers and fans to enjoy mingling, meeting authors and readers, and enjoying being together.

I have wonderful memories of the Bouchercons and Left Coast Crimes I attended over the years. Sometimes going to one of these events was like attending a family reunion. Often I was greeted with a big hug by someone I’d met the year before, and we’d have a wonderful time chatting.

There were also several smaller mystery conferences I attended that are no longer happening. My favorite was Mayhem in the Midlands, which happened in Omaha. I met so many wonderful people there, fans and authors. It’s where I first met Wm. Kent Krueger and his wife. And it’s where my husband and Kent vied for the best actor at the mystery dinner and play. Sometimes Kent won, and other times it was my hubby.

Once Kent’s wife and my husband were on a panel with Jan Burke’s husband and another spouse I don’t recall right now. The moderator asked great questions, and it was a hilarious panel.

My husband and I had a wonderful time hanging out with the most interesting people, and also traveling to many places in the U.S. we’d have never visited if it had been for these mystery events.

Now, hubby and I no longer fly, and I am only planning on attending one writing conference, the one put on by the Public Safety Writers Association in Las Vegas. (My daughter will drive me there.) This conference is small, attended by many still active and retired persons in all different types of law enforcement and other fields of public safety who are writing or aspiring to write, and mystery writers. The speakers and panels are a mixture of writing and publishing, and law enforcement information. Four publishers are expected to attend. https://policewriter.com/

What was once my normal, attending many mystery cons during the year, is no longer possible for several reasons, but I encourage those of you who can. And my advice to those of you who attend one or more event, don’t merely hang out with those you know, reach out and talk to everyone. Yes, I always did and shared some wonderful conversations and meals with interesting people for all parts of the country. You might become friends with a reader who will become one of your biggest fans.

Marilyn who also writes as F. M. Meredith

The latest and last book in the Rocky Bluff P.D. mystery series if Reversal of Fortune. And I’ve received lots of help for this series from folks I’ve met through the Public Safety Writers of America.

Guest Blogger ~ Joanna Fitzpatrick

When Do You Know You’re Going to Write Not Just One Mystery But a Series?

My first foray into writing mysteries was when I sat cross-legged around a Brownies’ campfire and told scary stories between bites of melting marshmellows. I held the girls’ attention with tales of monsters putting hairy arms through car windows and grabbing the bare necks of young girls cowering in the backseats. I loved adding details that made the other Brownies squirm.

Then as Virginia Woolf famously said, “life interrupted.”  My dream of being a writer was put on the back burner where it simmered for many years. The next opportunity to become a writer did not happen until, at age fifty, the record company I worked for was sold and I invested my windfall in my first love‑‑Literature.

After achieving a bachelor’s degree at SUNY, I was accepted at Sarah Lawrence College where I earned an MFA in creative writing. My thesis was a memoir on growing up as a Hollywood hippie. 

My first published book was a historical novel based on the life of the short story writer Katherine Mansfield.  My second novel The Drummer’s Widow was a contemporary novel about an older woman reinventing her life after her husband’s sudden death. I thought my third novel would be another genre. Or maybe return to that widow’s story in New York.

This was my state of mind when my husband and I moved to a mountaintop ranch in northern California for creative peace and quiet. The ranch’s tack room was converted into my writing studio. But I had severe writers’ block and I couldn’t find the nerve to begin another novel.

Then, remembering my writing teachers always telling me to write what I read, I signed up for an online mystery class at Stanford.

My great aunt Ada Belle came down from the heavens and offered her career as a painter for inspiration. In the 1920s, she’d lived in a women’s artist colony in our local town, Carmel-by-the-Sea. My research into this historical village opened a rich vein to explore as a storyteller. Characters started showing up in my studio and we worked together to plot a mystery. The Artist Colony became my third novel.

And now it’s published and I’m back to that dreaded moment when you’re between books and wondering if you really have the stamina to write another knowing how steep the metaphorical mountain is to climb before you reach the top and say “The End”. Or maybe not the end if I write a sequel, but is it too late to do that?

I’ve been told by those in the mystery-writing trade that if you’re going to write a sequel then you should know that before you start the first book. But recently I was speaking to a well-respected writing coach who said, “There are no rules other than write what you want to write as it is you who will have to devote a massive amount of time to get the job done.”

“Stop procrastinating!” added my amateur sleuth Sarah Cunningham. She is dying to step out from the written pages of The Artist Colony to solve a new mystery.

With this literary encouragement, I started making scenes in a small medieval village in southern France where I spend my summers. How marvelous to stroll on its cobblestone streets accompanied by my characters; sleuth Sarah, her Irish companion Rosie, and the ever popular dog-tective Albert. There are many unlit narrow streets where murder and mystery beckons me.

Ah yes, I can feel my heart quicken with suspenseful plots and spicy characters. I guess it’s time to get to work on that sequel.


I’d love to hear from other mystery writers as to when they decided to write a series? From the beginning or, like me, after you finished one mystery and you and your readers missed your characters so much that you brought them back to life again. And a question to mystery readers? Do you want to know before you start a mystery whether there are going to be sequels? And will it influence your decision to read the mystery if it’s a one-off rather than a series?

In Joanna FitzPatrick’s gripping new novel, set in 1924, Sarah Cunningham, a young Modernist painter, arrives in Carmel-by-the-Sea from Paris to bury her estranged older sister, Ada Belle. En route, she is horrified to learn that Ada Belle’s suspicious death is a suicide. But why kill herself? Ada Belle’s reputation was growing: her plein air paintings regularly sold out, and she was about to show her portraits for the first time, which would have catapulted her career.

Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Artist-Colony-Novel-Joanna-FitzPatrick/dp/1647421691

Barnes & Noble https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-artist-colony-joanna-fitzpatrick/1138488960?ean=9781647421694

Bookshop.org https://bookshop.org/books/the-artist-colony/9781647421694

Bookbub: https://www.bookbub.com/books/the-artist-colony-by-joanna-fitzpatrick

JOANNA FITZPATRICK was raised in Hollywood. She started her writing habit by applying her orange fountain pen and a wild imagination to screenplays, which led her early on to produce the film White Lilacs and Pink Champagne. Accepted at Sarah Lawrence College, she wrote her MFA thesis Sha La La: Live for Today about her life as a Hollywood hippie. Her more recent work includes two novels, Katherine Mansfield, Bronze Winner of the 2021 Independent Publisher Book Award (IPPY) in Historical Fiction, and The Drummer’s WidowThe Artist Colony, Gold Winner of the 2022 Independent Publisher Book Award (IPPY) in Mystery, is her third book. Presently, FitzPatrick divides her time between a cottage by the sea in Pacific Grove, California and a hameau in rural southern France where she begins all her book projects. 

Author website: www.joannafitzpatrick.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/JoannaFitzPatrickauthor
Twitter: https://twitter.com/Fitzpatrick_jo
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/joannafitzpatrick.author/

The Pull and the Pain of Creative Passion

A few days ago, I went to the Van Gogh Immersive Experience, which is an amazing traveling exposition of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings and life history that brings the artist’s paintings to life with sound and video. I watched crabs crawl out of picture frames and across walls, rivers splash off the canvasses, and spirals of stars roll across the night sky, just to name a few special effects. The show is a testament to technological wizardry as well as to art, and I am still awed by the creativity involved to put it together.

Appreciating the beauty and creativity of the show as well as reading about Van Gogh’s short life and his obsession for making art has me thinking about creative passions and how they affect those of us who have them—writers, artists, and musicians, for the most part. Van Gogh made more than 2000 sketches and paintings before he shot himself at age 37, but he was only able to sell only one painting in his lifetime and lived in poverty, supported by his brother. Van Gogh felt compelled to paint, but his work was unappreciated by those around him.

I won’t pretend that I am capable of that level of passion for writing, but I do understand both the pull and the pain of possessing a creative mind. Like so many writers, I’ve often been asked how much money my books earn or how many copies have sold, and like the majority of authors, I don’t make a living solely from my books. When I am not with writers, I’ve learned not to complain about the difficulty of marketing books or the frustration of smoothly knitting together a complex plot. Some of my family members have compared writing to banging one’s head against a brick wall, and some have suggested that my life would be easier if I would just quit writing.

But just like Vincent van Gogh couldn’t stop painting, I don’t think I can stop writing. I don’t know who I am if not a writer. To pay the bills, I’ve had a lot of jobs, but being a former technical writer or a private investigator doesn’t feel like enough of an identity for me. When I hear an especially clever comment from a friend, watch a hummingbird pluck fluff from a cattail for its nest, or feel the icy surprise of sleet on my face while hiking in the mountains, I want to capture that moment in writing. I occasionally make art, too—watercolors and acrylics—and I’m forever trying to capture a prism of sunlight on water or the texture of peeling tree bark in brush strokes, if not in words. My brain is often away on a solitary adventure instead of inventorying the groceries in my refrigerator.

The problem with being a creative person is that our passions are often dismissed as unimportant hobbies. Too many people are willing to pay more for a cup of Starbuck’s coffee than for a book.

So, Vincent, I get you. I’m sorry you didn’t live to see the appreciation that the world has today for your passion. Millions of us understand that a creative mind is both a blessing and a curse. Rest in peace, and thank you for being you.