After publishing the first four Anita Ray mysteries, my publisher ended its mystery line. For many writers the transition to being a hybrid author was easy, but for me it was fraught with frustrations. I moved on to writing another series based in the US and not South India, and limited my work on the India series to putting the first three books into trade paperbacks. That’s about to change.

The fifth Anita Ray has been sitting on my desk (almost literally) for over a year while I focus on other stories (short and novel length), but the time has come. In Sita’s Shadow continues the story of Anita and her Auntie Meena and their hotel guests, who arrive as a large tour (large for Hotel Delite) and take over the little converted home.

Anita Ray and her aunt have a small group of devoted followers who occasionally ask me about the next book. I reply as any ambivalent writer might, mentioning a work in progress, other demands, and lots of mumbling. But the time has come and my ambivalence is once again being challenged.

I am not Indian. My love affair with Asia, and India in particular, began when I was young, a preteen, and continued through high school, college, and into graduate school. I was fortunate enough to live there for a year in 1976 and again in 1981-1982, while writing my dissertation and later doing research. With a PhD in Sanskrit and Indian studies, I’m always eager to learn ore. I’ve returned for monthlong visits almost every year since 1999, but that stopped in 2014 for family medical reasons. 

In the advancing twenty-first century, writers are less likely to tell a story through the mind and heart of a character outside their own personal history and ethnic experience. This is unfortunate because the imagination opens doors—it doesn’t close them—to our understanding of the human experience, and the more we stretch ourselves, the more we grow and the more we have to share with others. When I’m reading a well-written and well-thought-out mystery, I never think about who the author is in relation to the cultural identity of the protagonist or any other character in the story. The story is all that matters to me.

By this spring Anita Ray will once again be chasing down a murderer at Hotel Delite (really, it’s a wonder they still have any business at all, considering the body count) and coping with Auntie Meena’s anxieties over her niece’s unmarried state and shameful obsession with murder. 

As the TV announcer used to say, Stay tuned. There’s more to come.

Writing as Discovery

by Janis Patterson

Want to start a lively ‘discussion’ among writers? All you have to do is say something about how ‘plotting’ or ‘pantsing’ is superior. It doesn’t make any difference which; both have their outspoken and extremely vocal adherents. Just make sure you can hold your ground or you have a direct path to an exit. Both sides have passionate adherents.

For those who aren’t familiar with the terms (if there are any of you left out there!) ‘plotting’ is basically an outline, yes, like you used to make in elementary school, but adapted toward a book. Whether it’s the old Roman numeral/Arabic numeral/alphanumeric letter – i.e., bullet point type of outline – or a paragraph style, the outline is a detailed road map of every twist and turn in your story. ‘Pantsing’ is taken from the old phrase ‘seat of your pants,’ meaning you just write and see what happens.

In general, pantsers tend to do more re-writing than plotters, but plotters spend more time on pre-writing work.

I am an avowed pantser. Sort of. My personal system is sort of like a suspension bridge. I know where the story begins. I know where the story will pretty much end – but that has been known to change. I know a couple of plot points in between, though they can be shifted a bit during writing. Then all that’s left is to spin the webwork of the story between them. Does my story change while I’m writing? Yes, it can and has, and I think that’s a good thing, because that means the story is growing organically and being true to itself and – more importantly – to its characters.

Plotters vary from those who put down only a few plot points and notes to those who put in every raise of the hero’s eyebrow and every shrug of the heroine’s shoulders. They also do lots of pre-plotting work, making character sheets, location maps and doing interviews with their characters. I once saw a character worksheet that was at least 5 pages long and included such things as the character’s favorite flavor of JellO and their maternal grandmother’s maiden name. Personally, I’ve had close friends for decades and I don’t know that much about them!

Always willing to improve my craft, I once took a much touted ten-box plotting course that was supposed to be almost magical in creating a book’s structure. A stubborn person, I finished it even though I knew from the second or third lesson that it wasn’t for me. After all, I had paid for it and believe in getting my money’s worth.

Basically you put every turning point and every reaction into one of the ten boxes. An outline, just minus the Roman and Arabic numerals. Using this system I plotted a pretty good romantic suspense novel about Egypt, antiquities smuggling, trust issues, terrorism and a dirty bomb thrown in for good measure.

It will never be written, at least not by me. By the time the last box was filled in I was so bored with the whole idea I never wanted to see it again. Believe me, it shows in the final product when the writer is bored with the project. No matter how good the writer is, the book is lifeless and mechanical.

Don’t think this is a vote either for or against plotting or pantsing. It’s one of those things to which there is no one ‘right’ answer for everyone. The writer has to decide for himself what works for him. And perhaps it is the reader who is the ultimate judge, though most don’t have the slightest idea of the writer’s process. They just know if they like the book or not.

So what do I do? I get an idea for an opening situation, I sit down and I start to write. If the idea is sound, if the story is a good one, the characters just take over and I become more scribe than writer. Do I have to go back and do some re-writing when the plot changes direction? Occasionally, but it only makes the story stronger. Sometimes it surprises me what comes up on the screen as I write, and to my mind that is a good thing. Remember, someone – I don’t remember who – said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, and a wonderful holiday season!

The Natural World in Crime Fiction

Many of the books I enjoy include some aspect of the natural world. An obvious recent example is The Witch Elm by Tana French, which revolves around an old tree in a yard where the main characters played as children and one returns as an adult to recover from an assault. Then there’s my own Below the Tree Line, which is set on a farm in rural Central Massachusetts. Now that I’m writing about a suburban setting, I’m taking a look at my neighborhood for scenes or aspects of nature to include in a traditional mystery. It’s not going as expected.

My first choice was to talk about apple trees, since we have one. However, it hasn’t produced a real crop in a few years, and right now looks like it’s dying. It might work if the book were entitled “Death of an Apple Orchard,” since the tree looks more like a sculpture than something that might have ever produced fruit. Scratch that idea.

The ornamental trees in this area seem to have developed a disease that kills off their leaves, so for the last two years they have looked like they too are dying. No one seems concerned enough to take them down, so we’ll have to wait and see what the future holds.

To this I can add all the invasive species that have killed off our native species, thereby depriving other plants, birds, and animals of expected sustenance. Our own backyard is being overtaken by bittersweet, bamboo, rose of Sharon, and lots more. I’m not sure it’s even possible to get rid of the invasives now. It may be too late. Nature as evil invader. Not my idea of the setting for a cozy.

The other obvious choice for drawing nature into a tale is birds. I love birds, love watching them flit among the shrubs picking up a meal—bugs or seeds—and jabbering at each other. Cardinals are of course always welcomed, along with goldfinches, northern flickers, and egrets, even crows. But the winged creatures I most often see are not nearly as attractive, or as much of a pleasure to watch. Turkeys.

Turkeys are everywhere now.

Last year a flock made its way slowly down our street, passing from yard to yard in search of edibles. When they encountered a fence they headed out to the street. A driver trying to park made the mistake of honking at one of them. This is received as a direct insult, and the turkeys responded accordingly. Two of them attacked the car, pecking and jabbering at it. Not satisfied with this display of temper, they headed out into the street, bringing two lanes of traffic to a halt. This was so disruptive that a neighbor entered the fray shooing away the turkeys to the other side of the road, allowing traffic to flow again. But the turkeys weren’t done yet. They reentered traffic, once again tying it up, until bored, they wandered away, down the center of the road.

Once when a turkey was behaving appropriately, I snapped a pic of it. The click of my iPhone startled the bird and he looked up, scanning the area for whatever creature had threatened him. I moved on.

These feather characters won’t work as background detail for a story, though they might serve as a motive for murder.

Notice I began looking for an apple tree but mine was not attractive, and then moved on to other aspects of nature that were less than serene or beautiful. The cozy mystery needs the apple tree in blossom, but a thriller or suspense story needs the scaly fruit tree. Nature offers us both (and a lot in between) and as writers we choose aspects of the natural world to signal theme, tone, mood. I plan to get those diseased decorative trees into a story very soon. The turkeys are more likely to find their way into a humorous story, perhaps fleeing a homeowner determined to get rid of them. I’ll enjoy writing that one. And then I’ll talk about the rabbits that are now everywhere.

Dabble, Scribbler, & A Dash of Ampersand

Hi, Ladies of Mystery bloggers, LoM readers, and the general public! Has it been another month already? Good grief! Two more to go before we hit Level 12 of Jumanji how this dumpster fire of a year’s turned out to be. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I can’t wait to put 2020 in my rear windshield.

So . . . as the title indicaes, I’ve found some Easter egg writing-related goodies to keep my untreated ADHD mind happy as my imagination marinates on WIPs. These are fairly inexpensive and lots of fun if you’re bored of your typical writing routine, or are in the market of shaking up your writing arsenal. In either case, I hope you’ll have as much fun as I’m having.

DABBLE


Dabble is a monthly subscription writing platform and a fantastic alternative to Scrivner or Microsoft Word if these software programs aren’t optional. This platform’s more user-friendly for the visually impaired or needing low vision assistance than Scrivner is, and has its own cloud service to store only your WIPs. Unlike Reedsy Editor, Dabble is laid out as Word is. But unlike Reedsy Editor, more font selections are available on Dabble, users can switch the screen to dark mode when writing during the day, and Dabble’s left side menu offers sections to organize scenes, world-building artifacts, a place to blueprint your plot, a built-in dictionary and spell-check, a trash bin to cut what isn’t working, and a progress and goal tracker for daily word counts and days spent on your project. It reminds me of digital 4×6 tacked, corkboarded note cards to keep your story on task. Depending on which best fits your pocketbook for a monthly or annual package, you’ll have access to live-time support assistance if you aren’t tech savvy to ough some of this service’s features. I happened to find Dabble during 2019’s NaNoWriMo when the company offered a discount for completing the month-long marathon. I’m especially impressed with the tech team making this platform possible, and especially love the CS’s team’s patience with my seemingly endless questions of the platform’s bells and whistles, levelheadedness, and courteousness. On a deeper personal note, with what’s been recently disocvered about the Chinese virus, I’m thrilled to use a service or two with zero political skin in the game on the world’s stage. I’m especially happy both Reedsy Editor and Dabble make it possible to end my monthly dimes going into that nasty MS Word creator’s unethical, worldly pockets.

SCRIBBLER

Thrown over my social feed’s news and ads transom, Scribber is a monthly box subscription created by two authors with seventeen published books between them. Created by writers for writers, the Scribbler service has a private social group for support and advice, offers critiques from scenes to full MSs (pricing reflecting), and sells other writer merch. Each box comes with goodies like a Writer Passport deep-diving a specific craft area (pacing, setting, tension, humor, and so on.); a book by the author the passport’s based on; and a pamphlet called Publishing Process Inside Look! also authored by month’s featured novelist. My September box had Opium & Absinthe by Lydia Kang in the goodies–which opened one drawback in this service: The purchaser doesn’t get to select the box’s title book. Past boxes, unless you’re part of the social group’s sister book club to find previous titles, aren’t accessible unless you contact support for this information. Although I found the writer tchotchkes a trememdous help–one’s a yellow “Eureka!” lightbulb stress ball squeezie-thingy with “Bust Writers Block!” printed on its side, and super-adorable—the book itself after reading a few pages in, not so much. It’s in 3rd POV set in 1899 about a possible homicide under the cover of a vampire attack and a possible connection with Jack the Ripper. This subgenre is out of my preferential and craft wheelhouse; I don’t do vampires, zombies, werewolves, Satanic worship, demons, Godzillas, anything involving dark magic and worse. If that makes me a shitty writer for not reading this stuff someone else slaved over, so be it–but I do congratulate them in getting it done (#IAintSorry #GetOverIt). Sidenote: if any LoM ladies are interested in my September tale, inbox me this week only for details. Otherwise it’ll just be donated to a new forever home like my August title was.



Overall, both products look to be the hands-on tools needed for my craft. Both services are set up to cancel at any time (before your next charge hits, that is). The box exposes you to an author happy you’re reading his story and sweet swag getting you jazzed for the next box or inspired to write on. They even hold a monthly contest on a Scribbler postcard based on the theme to win a prize. Dabble is the Little Engine That Could as a writing software program. Both companies are open for future changes, product implements, and offer stellar CS. That’s rare in this otherwise brutally lonely and huckster-happy industry, so research these gems and kick the tires whenever you have a moment before taking the plunge.

&

No, you read right. This heading’s an ampersand. It’s intentional. Got your attention, though, like a good headline should do.

She’s real gone, you’re telling yourself. Old news, says I, but that dun bother me none–we both know darn well you secretly love it. **smirk**

Okay . . . back to our story.

This particular symbol of the English languange charaters has an interesting history. If you’re old enough to remember when you learned the alphabet, you recited “and per se and”–& this said as such–after Z. In time, and per se and merged into the word ampersand you know today. While on the topic of mashing words together from a string of them said either too fast, said or accented incorrectly, misheard, or misused, ampersand became part of the mondergreen crowd. Explains why you thought the mondergreen, “You are caught up in me” from the chorus of Elton John’s “Daniel” is really “You were older than me.”

Ampersand, the & symbol, originally combined the capital letters of E and T. When everyone way back when wrote in gorgeous penmanship, E and T, especially next to one another in cursive, sure looked an awful lot like the &. Over time, and with differeing fonts, the two merged to become the punctuation we know.

And of course, what would our peek into the writing life be without this symbol helping others used to replace foul language? Cartoonists and comic strip artists from the 1920s to as late as the 1970s, while syndicated with national and global newspaper chains, had to find a workaround to express salty language without overtly using it. Hello, &%*$#@! Ingenuity! Excelsior! Rather than be cited for cultural impropriety, or tired of just plain getting the business over such use, comic strip and editorial cartoonists used these to skirt, and maybe flaut a little, censorship rules. So for you cozy mystery creators where sewer talk isn’t allowed, this #%*&$@! is perfect to show over tell–zing!–the preferred stronger word(s). Think of it as a visual version of cartoon starbursts, comets, squiggles and whorls when one of the Looney Tunes cast actually sees–as does JERSEY DOGS narrator Casper McGuinness–after getting his noodle clonked for doing something stupid. This could be a delightful change for your readers no other cozy writers are doing, much to your surprise.

Another lovely reading ride comes to a close. I’d wish you an early Happy Halloween, but with the spooktacular clusterf*ck this year’s been, you hardly need my OK to get your Jolly Rancher, candy corn, & dark chocolate Snickers bites freak on like it’s Donkey Knng. Now let me git before I share what next month’s punctuation cornucopia’ll be–the almighty asterick that turned a Roger Maris record into Babe Ruth’s baseball side chick.

Nope–I’ve a fantastic post in store you may enjoy more, but it ain’t that. Gotcha again. **smirk**

& with that, God’s will, and your faithful readership . . . until next month, my friends.

~ Missye

The Great Printer War

by Janis Patterson

Normally I am very soft-spoken. Normally I am temperate in my language. Normally… but nothing about this situation has been normal, not even my language.

Years ago I bought an inexpensive little b&w laser printer – nothing fancy, as at the time I did very little printing. Most of my work and documents etc. were done on-line. A printer was a luxury, so I got a cheap one. It came with a decent-sized cartridge and I got almost two years of printing before the cartridge expired. I bought another; it was more expensive by a few dollars, but…

Another year or so and another cartridge, for a few dollars more… (sounds like a title, doesn’t it?) and as I still did very little printing I went ahead and paid.

Until last week, when the current cartridge ran out and to my horror I found that the cartridge (which is fairly small) cost almost twice what I originally paid for the printer itself! To my mind that is just wrong, especially since lately I am printing so much more than before!

Well, on our last two trips to the computer store to get things The Husband needed I had been looking around and fell in love with one of the Epson ink-tank color printers. It is supposed to do everything – copy, print, scan… the whole nine yards. And while Epson makes three versions of this kind of printer (with escalating features and prices) I decided I could afford the least expensive. I mean, it’s an investment, isn’t it? My cheap old one was a number of years old, so who knows how much longer it would last, and even if it did the cost of three cartridges would almost pay for the new printer plus a year’s supply of ink… and just think of the colorful things I could do – holiday letters, birthday greetings, handouts for my ladies’ club… You agree, don’t you? Well, please do even if you don’t, because I did it and I need validation. So I bought the printer.

Except I didn’t. The computer store didn’t have one, just their mock-up floor model. Same thing with the office supply store where we’ve shopped for years. Both offered to have one delivered to me, but could give no idea of when. So, muttering angrily, I went online. Amazon could get me one in just six weeks. The on-line version of our computer store felt sure they could get one to me in just five weeks. The printer’s manufacturer was out of them in their store, and had no idea when they’d get more!

Finally, my muttering growing into a full growl, I checked online at a national we-sell-everything store and found they could get me one in two and a half weeks. Knowing when I was licked, I jumped on it and sent them my money.

Mirable dictu! Three days later they said they could get one delivered to my front door in two days. I was delirious with joy. Until the thing arrived. I unpacked it, removing all the tape and packing materials (some of which were in the oddest places!) and put it on my desk. Then the unholy circus of installation began.

I am not a computer person. I am a writer. I put words down one after another. I speak several languages with wide variations of fluency, but computer-tech stuff flummoxes me, especially when it is written by someone who is not only a computer genius, but to whom English is obviously no more than a third or fourth language. Translating what the manual (manual? a two-sided cheat sheet that came with the machine) said into sensible English took longer than unpacking the thing. Even when the directions were fairly clear, there were no indications if you should be doing whatever was the next step on  your computer or on the printer screen. AAAAUGH!

Fortunately the loading of the ink reservoirs (something I had feared because I am a klutz) was easy as pie. Priming the print heads was automatic, and topping off the tanks with the remaining ink as easy as the first filling.

Then came the bad part. I had to download programs and sync with my wifi, and that is when both computer and printer turned against me. I finally gave up trying to connect the devil device with the wifi and went with my standby plug USB cord. Then I had to make the computer recognize that there was a new printer attached, something it most definitely did not want to do. The instructions were of no help, not even telling me on which machine each action had to be performed.

By now I was in full swear mode, turning the air blue with such fluency it was a wonder that my mother’s ghost did not come back to wash my mouth out with soap. The Husband, who is equally or even more than a techno-naif than I, stood by and very wisely did not say a thing.

After about twenty minutes of following vague instructions down rabbit holes and clicking on all sorts of improbable things, the new printer shook itself with a growly groan and began to spit out perfectly printed test sheets.

Why? How? What had I done? I have no idea. I would swear that I had done the same thing at least three times before, but nothing had happened until that minute. Maybe the cyber-gods had taken pity on me; I don’t know and really don’t care as long as the (several expletives deleted) thing works!

In these days where even the smallest home computer seemingly can do everything but the dinner dishes, why do we have to go through these trials? Why can’t everything be set where when you get a new piece of hardware you just plug it into the wall socket, then plug it into the computer and presto! everything works. Seems like I remember something from years ago called Plug ‘N’ Play. What a wonderful concept! All the owner should have to do is put in the proper plugs (even I can do that!) and the two machines start to talk to each other and then start to work. Does such a wonderful idea still exist in the real world? It should. It really should.