My Desk is a Mess by Karen Shughart

This is the stage when I’m writing a mystery that if you visited my office, you’d gasp in horror. I’m usually very organized, but at this stage, my desk is a mess.

On the right are the first two books in my Edmund DeCleryk Cozy series, Murder in the Museum and Murder in the Cemetery. I use them as a reference for book three, Murder at Freedom Hill, because there are recurring characters: a newborn baby in the last book can’t be in elementary school two years later.

A thesaurus, usually on a shelf, claims space on my left. I’m forever scrambling to find synonyms for words I tend to overuse. It’s a weighty tome but a necessary tool, although the good news is that I recently had an aha! moment when I realized that with a couple of keystrokes and the click of the mouse, hello Google, goodbye Roget’s.  How easy is that?

That thesaurus, by the way, was published in 1962. My Webster’s dictionary in 1982. If you think that dates me, it does, think about how many words there are now that none of us who were alive 50 years ago could have imagined: truthiness; snowflake (not the one that falls from the sky); bestie; twerk. Not that I’d ever include those words in my books, none of my main characters is young enough to use them. Wait a minute, did I say 50 years? Has it really taken me that long to follow my bliss?

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

But I digress.  Piles of paper surround me: bills I’ve received from vendors who still, after all these years, won’t send them electronically but that I, a modern woman, have  paid online; recipes I printed from The New York Times when I could have simply opened my phone or computer when preparing them; print-outs of outdated passwords; a receipt for our dog’s latest checkup; a flyer from the local carwash announcing its wash and wax specials.

I don’t like wasting paper. “Waste not, want not” –phrase origin 1576 or 1772 — depending on your source, is my motto. I write notes to myself on the blank sides to advance the story line, a timeline I never follow, names of new characters to remember, thoughts and ideas that come to me at 3 a.m., questions I have about historical details that are always part of the backstory and the reason for the murder.

There’s a system here, a method to my madness, and it works for me. Once I make sure my historical facts are mostly correct, change the timeline yet again, check for inconsistencies, discard ideas I had at 3 a.m. — what was I thinking — I cross the items off the list, rip the paper into shreds, and toss it into the recycling bin. Then the cycle begins again. Until I reach the point when the manuscript is sent off to my publisher, my desk will remain a mess.

Ideas Knocking at My Creative Self

There are times, like now, when I wish my creative self would take a vacation. However, I also don’t really want all of my creative self to go away. After all, I need that part of my brain to help me write books.

It’s the part of my brain that comes up with story ideas that could take a rest. While going through the final edits on my newly released Gabriel Hawke book, Churlish Badger, I came up with the premise for the next two books in that series. Which is awesome because that means I will have two more books in that series. 😉 The bad part is I’m so excited about them, it’s hard to concentrate on the Spotted Pony Casino book, House Edge, I’m writing now. Sigh.

I can never seem to write as fast as my ideas hit. An idea can come out of nowhere in seconds, but a book takes a good month to prepare and research, then another three (without interruptions) to write. That means, I have about two more months of finishing House Edge, to do the research for the next Hawke book and start writing it in February, if all goes as planned.

When it is written, then I’ll start on book 3 in the Spotted Pony Casino Mysteries, Double Down, which I started the premise for it in House Edge, which made me want to start on that book…. Yes, it is a never ending cycle for me. I get excited about the next book in a series, then have to wait to write it because, (oh, now why did I decided to write two series at once?) I have to write the next book in the other series.

I’m sure there are other writers out there nodding their heads. Yes, we understand, there are those of us who can’t work on one series at a time. Heaven forbid, we should get bored of that series and not want to write the next book. So we juggle, two, or three, or more series at once to keep the monotony of writing about the same characters all the time from becoming tedious.

As Churlish Badger publishes and House Edge is being written, I have three more books churning in the back of my mind. This is how I have spent most of my writing career. Always writing with two to three books on the back screen of my brain, fading in and out, as I dissect the new characters, plot, and setting. And I do the research for the next book while I’m writing another. If only I could plug into my brain and have it all pour out onto a computer screen.

Churlish Badger

Book 8 in the Gabriel Hawke Novels

An abandoned vehicle…

A missing man…

Oregon State Trooper Gabriel Hawke discovers an abandoned vehicle at a trailhead while checking hunters.

The owner of the vehicle never arrived at his destination. As Hawke follows leads, he learns the man was in the process of selling his farm over the objections of his wife who said he would only sell over her dead body.

Continuing to dig for clues, Hawke turns up two bodies buried on the farm. Who killed the two and why keeps Hawke circling for answers, backing the killer into a corner.

Buy link:  https://books2read.com/u/mZZx2l

Not Just a Pretty Face

I’ve been taking online workshops through the International Thrillerfest Online school. While a couple of topics are ones I’ve attended workshops on before, each presenter has their own unique spin they bring to it. Which means, I have picked up a few new tricks and things to try.

The first one was a workshop by Adam Hamdy on Pacing. While I had learned about most of what he talked about before, it was his discussion on how he went from a pantser (someone who just starts writing with no idea where they are headed) to someone who does plot out the book in a basic way. Not an outline or thorough scene by scene . He writes the tag line then expands that a bit, then expands that a bit more, until he has 5-7 lines for each chapter with the action or external plot of the story and maybe some of the internal plot that will play out.

I decided to try this for the latest book I’m working on. I’ve always known my beginning, a couple of plot points in the middle, and my end, but when he said by taking the time to do this step speeded up his writing process, I thought it was worth a try. And the last book I had so many interruptions, I’d repeated myself in several places- which was discovered by a beta reader.

It took me two days to discover what my book was about, write up my suspect list, and write the 5-7 sentences per chapter. This is just the investigation, or external plot, that will be brought up in each chapter. After starting the book, I added in a new secondary character who will help add more dimensions to my main character and also add more internal conflict in House Edge, book 2 in the Spotted Pony Casino Mysteries.

And you were wondering where the title of this post came from… A bonus workshop we received dealt with what mystery/suspense/thriller readers look for in a book cover. I found the information insightful. So much so, I sent an email to my cover designer to redesign the first three covers in the Spotted Pony Casino Mystery series. I have Poker Face published and available to the public but it is the first book. I decided it was best to get it and the next two I’d had made to get a consistency in the series from the beginning.

Here are the books I had made before the workshop:

These aren’t bad and convey a bit of the story. However, the survey taken by a marketing firm who works with all the big publishers and some of the larger writing organizations said that mystery/suspense/thriller readers don’t care if the image on the cover is anything like what’s in the book. They read the title first. They want a title that catches their imagination and is a play on words. Check- my titles do that. They don’t like people/faces on the books. They don’t mind shadowy figures and prefer covers that look like a puzzle. They want to see creepy, mysterious, or action depicted on the covers. And they prefer a description of the type of book: Mystery, Thriller, True Crime, Action Adventure, Suspense not A Novel.

And these are the new covers:

Simpler images, in-the-face title, and the word Mystery is easier to see than in the logo that sweetened the look of the books. These covers also leave more to the imagination.

I’m glad I had this workshop now and not a year from now when the fourth book would be coming out.

And I’m thankful I went with simple covers on the Gabriel Hawke books and I have a play on words for the titles.

It might be just a book cover, but it is the face of the book I want to draw readers into. So while pretty is nice, I want a cover that exudes mystery, intrigue, and a reader can’t pass without at least taking a peek inside.

What do you think of the change of cover?

The Paths through the Forest

A storm is brewing out my windows, clouds dense with rain hang heavy over the hills. You can feel the damp in your bones, in the air you breathe, and the chill that falls at your feet. Depending on your perspective, the promise of a deep drenching rain either fills you with trepidation or joy. Joy for me…always.

Weather has been part of my being since I was a child, thanks to my father, who flew through it all. And though I spent my time in the Navy in weather, I never once dreamed of taking that path in my life. But my broad brush with it has enriched me and my writing. I look at the sky, read the signs, and assess how what I see will affect my world, real or imaginary. In my stories, rocks, dirt, and slush roil down hillsides, a dry roadway on a frosty night hides a bridge slick with black ice, and the ocean sucks life from the beaches depositing its victims with the tide.

I have an affinity for the muddy side!

Like all of us, I’ve stared down many forks in the road and chosen a path through the forest of opportunity, fear, and hope lying undefined before me. I reinvented myself time and again to succeed in male-dominated businesses. I bucked trends, bosses, been on bucking horses, driven sixty-thousand miles a year back and forth over two states in a station wagon filled with educational assessments, flown hundreds of thousands of miles in the same quest, set up on demand scoring facilities nationwide, and my husband wants me to add, ridden an elephant.

My point is this . . . one of the great joys of writing is the ability it presents to follow anew the paths not taken. Each plot is an opportunity to ask what if I had become an anthropologist, a minister, a professor of English literature, a Naval aviator, or taken the bigtime NY advertising agency job when it was offered. Maybe I should have apprenticed at Vogue like my great aunt wanted or started at the bottom at National Geographic and worked my way up? What if I had purchased the family farm and lived that dream?

How different would my life have been if I had grown up in the town we were born in, married my high school sweetheart, and lived there still. Who would I be? I know I would be mad as a hatter and ready for the brick sanitarium with barred windows that once overlooked a sharply manicured lawn in the town I consider home. I can imagine being that person, bound to a town, a husband, a job, children, and family. How does that me react to the current me when we meet head-on in a plot?

Each path we don’t take informs and colors us as much as the one we did. The curiosity that drove us toward that choice lingers inside us. What we learned before we turned away still piques our curiosity and benefits our knowledge base. Writing is our opportunity to find out through our characters what might have been. Of course, as ladies of mystery, we spice it all up with a dead body or two, a conspiracy, a disappearance, or perhaps just the evil that stalks the dark of night. Boo!

I chose to leave the Navy when the life of one of my division members was destroyed by an unethical decision, supported by the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and three fearful men. What if I had chosen to stay in? I’ll never know. But the incident and my resulting decision rode my shoulder as I drafted the final book of the Cooper Quartet, my series about a military family in the Vietnam Era. Don’t Tell will be released November 11 and is already a Reedsy Must Read, noting, “This author is an expert at action-packed intrigue and mystery.” And just in, from Booklife, “In this military milieu, Church—a Vietnam-era Navy veteran herself—does a remarkable job of keeping multiple plotlines running with clarity and power. Church spins a lively tale where motives are unclear in a vividly realized hothouse naval environment. The engaging characters and their detailed histories make this a satisfying capstone to a wide-ranging epic.”

Don’t Tell will be available November 11 on Amazon as an ebook, paperback, or in hardcover. In the meantime here is a link to the Booklife Review: https://booklife.com/project/don-t-tell-59592

The Illusive Word

Early on in my writing, I would have times when I’d be writing along and…nothing. I knew what I wanted to say but I couldn’t find the word I wanted. That was before I was writing on a computer. I would pull out my dictionary and look up a word similar to what I wanted. And hopefully by process of elimination, the right word would reveal itself.

After attending my first RWA (Romance Writers of America) conference, I learned that every writer needs a dictionary( which I had), a thesaurus, The Chicago Manual of Style, and the book Goals, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon. I went home and found those books at my local bookstore and they have been on my shelf. I even purchased a newer version of The Chicago Manual of Style this year.

my shelf of reference books

As you can tell by the ratty cover on the thesaurus, I have used it a lot. Even when I look up a word through Word Docs, I will end up going to the book. I sort through word after word, until I come up with the one that makes the sentence show what I want.

My falling apart thesaurus

There are days it feels like I stop my momentum more than I write. On those days my brain doesn’t spit out the words I want and I hunt and hunt. Then there are days I don’t touch any of the books as my fingers fly over the keys moving my story along with the precise words I need to convey the scene.

I know I will be going back and editing the story and could just put in what I want to say in parenthesis and move on. But my brain won’t let me. I have to have the exact word or I can’t move on with the story. Although there have been a couple of times when the right word couldn’t be conjured up with all my reference books. Then I do put down what I want to say in parenthesis and come back to it when I do the edits, hoping the brain is more engaged that day.

I think the need to have the “perfect” word is a curse to writers. I’m sure I’m not the only one who can use up writing time hunting down the illusive word that is on the tip of my fingers but can’t quite manifest in my mind.

For me, this is a second behind editing as the hardest and most dreaded part of writing for me. How about other writers? Do you also struggle at times to find the right word? Readers, have you ever read something and thought, “this word would have been a better choice?”